Book reviews

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The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The Tree of Man by Patrick White is so good that I’m afraid of not being able to do justice to it in this review. I’m desperate to convince other people they should read this book and don’t think I can do any better than the quote on the back cover of the copy I read from the New York Times Book Review from when this novel was first published, in 1955:

A timeless work of art from which no essential element of life has been omitted.

Superficially, The Tree of Man is a story of the lives of an Australian couple who settle a remote property and bring up a family.

After the death of his parents, Stan Parker went to live on a property near Sydney which he had inherited, clearing the land and building a shack before finding a wife to share his life.

As a young couple Stan and Amy were happy, taking pleasure in each other and their lives, which were made up of repetitive days upon days of farm chores and conversation which barely skimmed the surface of their deepest thoughts. Their quiet lives were rarely interrupted, but when it was, it was by a big event, such as a flood where Stan and other men from the area assisted stranded neighbours, or war, or the birth of their two children, Ray and Thelma.

When they reached middle age, Stan and Amy seemed to lose the connection they had when they were younger, realising they never truly understood each other and that they probably never would, although both continued to desire this understanding their whole life. Their children grew up and left home, going on to disappoint them in all of the ways that children do and leaving Amy wondering aloud to Stan if perhaps together they weren’t a good match to breed. In old age, the city had expanded out to their farm and they were both still trying to understand life, death and god, although not religion. The last chapter absolutely floored me, with Stan and Amy’s grandson deciding to write a poem about life before deciding the subject was too big for him.

The Tree of Life reminded me of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin’s painting The Pioneers. Made up of three panels, it shows a selector and his family starting out on their land, the second panel showing that over time they have become established before ending with the city having come to them and a death. I would love to know if this painting, which I occasionally go and look at in the National Gallery of Victoria during my lunch time, influenced Patrick White’s story. I think there is a quote from the book with the painting in the gallery, so it seems possible.

Each appearance of Amy’s friend and neighbour, Mrs O’Dowd, was a source of amusement due to the trouble she brought on herself wherever she went. In the early days she almost got herself and Amy ‘jobbed’ after insulting a group of young men, another time the two of them were chased around and around the O’Dowd’s dirty, falling down hovel by Mr O’Dowd who was trying to shoot them while he was shickered. I’ve never heard the word ‘shickered’ before, but it makes me laugh and I don’t even drink. Later, it come out that Mrs O’Dowd wasn’t really a ‘Mrs’. Somehow Amy wasn’t as shocked as I was.

Despite the simplicity of their lives, Stan and Amy lived a life full of every emotion that every person feels. They experienced hope and sorrow, jealousy and lust, hurt and hopelessness, joy and acceptance, confusion and apathy. They hide their feelings from each other and from themselves, with rare moments of understanding and seeing into each other.

The everyday life part of the story made me feel nostalgic for my family stories from my grandparents times, clearing the land which would become the family farm, day in and day out doing manual chores, feeling affection for their cows and eating what they could grow themselves, helping their neighbours and being helped themselves in times of need, battling natural disasters and building a family, the men going off to war while the women carried on at home, later seeing their children grow up to make their own way in the world and being left behind eventually to continue their own lives, becoming grandparents, growing old and selling off or leaving the farm, watching old friends die, until their own time had come.

Patrick White is a huge name in Australian writing. He won the inaugural Miles Franklin award and loads of other writing prizes including the Nobel Prize for Literature before taking himself out of the running for further prizes, in order, as he said, to give younger, less established authors a chance to win. He took a public stance in controversial Australian issues of his time, including opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and becoming ‘antiroyalist’ after the 1975 constitutional crisis. He was also quoted as saying that he would be embarrassed to be held up to the world as an Australian writer, when he felt as if he was at heart a “cosmopolitan Londoner”. I don’t think the ‘cultural cringe’ which Australian artists felt in the 1950s through to around about the 1980s is a thing anymore, but it was a popular mindset at that time. Later, White opposed uranium mining and spoke publicly to call for the destruction of nuclear weapons.

The Tree of Man has a level of detail which I’ve rarely come across in a novel. The writing is beautiful and I read some of it aloud to myself (not on the train) just for the pleasure of hearing how the words went together. I could almost turn back to the first page and re-read this book again, but there are plenty of other books he has written too, and I’m torn. The Tree of Life is going to be a difficult book to beat for my book of the century (if I live that long).

The Tree of Man was book seven for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg

The Little Virtues is a collection of essays by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, written between 1944 and 1960. I bought my copy from one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops, Hill of Content, because I liked the cover.

The Little Virtues was the stand-out essay in the collection for me, inspiring but also unrealistic. It suggests that as parents, we should teach our children the great virtues instead of the little ones. In opposition to what we presently do, the author wants our children to learn to be generous instead of thrifty, courageous instead of cautious, truthful instead of shrewd and to value learning and knowing things instead of seeking success so they can follow their life vocation fearlessly. All very well in words, but in real life? We do our best. I think I would prefer my children to have a roof over their heads and to enjoy their vocation in their spare time if they can’t make a living from it.

Winter in the Abruzzi was a nostalgic look at a time in the author’s life when she had her husband and children at her side while living in exile during World War Two. Learning about her husband’s death in a Roman prison several months after they left Abruzzi, in a simple, unemotional sentence towards the end of the essay gave me a physical jolt.

Worn-out Shoes could have been maudlin, but the story of the author living as a widow apart from her children and talking with her friend about what kind of shoes they wish they could have if they could afford them is full of an almost black humour. I particularly liked the author’s certainty that when she is able to return to her children she will need to resist the temptation to let her life go to pieces.

Portrait of a Friend is about the life and death of a family friend, an unnamed famous poet and writer who suicided alone, “like a stranger in the city to which he belonged.” This essay made me uneasy as the subject was complicated and the friendship often unsatisfying on both sides, but as a testament to a character it was fascinating to read.

My Vocation tells of the author’s vocation, which is of course, writing. She wrote poems as a child and a novel called Molly and Dolly which was a humorous detective story, then stories which frightened her and lines that brought tears to her own eyes. By the age of 17, she wrote a story which once finished, left her feeling happier about it than she had anything in her life before. Later, when she had children, she missed writing desperately, unable to balance their needs with her own. She writes that her vocation brings her in very little money and that it is always necessary for her to earn her living in other ways. Incredible.

The emotions that this author describes and evokes in the reader in this set of essays are timeless. Her subjects are interesting even when they are ordinary. Her writing style is simple, as if she is talking to the reader directly. I’d like to read some fiction by Natalia Ginzburg if I can find it.

Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist

I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Graeme Simsion. I enjoyed The Rosie Project, was bored by The Rosie Effect and irritated by the main character’s middle-aged self-indulgence in The Best of Adam Sharp. Happily for me, I found Two Steps Forward to be a joyful, inspiring read, a romance mixed with a travelogue.

The story follows Zoe and Martin as they walk the Camino Way from Cluny in France to Santiago in Spain. Zoe has been recently widowed and didn’t know the walk existed until she arrived in Cluny from America to visit a friend for comfort, while Martin, an Englishman who has recently divorced, builds a cart with the intention of making his fortune from the sale of the design after he completes his journey towing the cart.

Zoe and Martin’s chapters are told alternately. Their paths cross regularly as they walk and their friendship eventually grew into a romance, although both had emotional baggage as well as a physical struggles to deal with along their way. Zoe needed to face up to her husband’s death and the loss of her own identity during their marriage, and Martin, the end of his marriage and his ability to meet the emotional needs of his teenage daughter.

Other characters include a German engineering student who romances his way along the Camino Way, a group of Brazilian women who party (and taxi) their way to Santiago, hostile hosts, kind strangers and loads of other walkers.

My only grizzle about the story is that Zoe’s emotional balance after being a widow for only three weeks seemed unrealistic to me, but the parts of the story which deal with the walk itself are fascinating. In real life, the journey from Clunes to Santiago is approximately 2000 kilometres and takes about three months to walk. The afterword says that the authors, who are married (to each other) actually walked the Camino Way twice together.

I enjoyed learning about the history of the walk, a pilgrimage which is several centuries old, also about the logistics of the journey, including the approximate distances between towns, how pilgrims feed themselves along the way, where they sleep and the financial cost of making the journey. A film called The Way was referenced several times in the story, and I’ll probably watch it sometime soon to get a more visual idea of the scenery.

Obviously, I’m thinking of learning French and Spanish, and have begun walking around the block to get into training with the intention of making my own trek one day. There will be blisters…

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith combines the story of the disappearance of American author Barbara Newhall Follett with Laura Smith’s own story of wanting both freedom and her marriage. The story of Barbara Newhall Follett is fascinating and left me searching for more information about her writings, life and disappearance. Laura Smith’s own story is interesting too, but is also a reminder of what can go wrong when a person acts on their discontent. I also felt as if the author was less than honest about the reasons for her actions in this memoir.

The story of Barbara Newhall Follett was new to me. Born in 1914, Barbara was a child prodigy who published her first novel at the age of 11, then, with her parent’s blessing, enlisted to work as a boat hand at the age of 15 where she travelled to the south China seas. Later Barbara became one of the first women to hike the Appalachian Trail. She married the man she hiked with, but later, when they had settled in to a more ordinary life, he fell in love with someone else. She disappeared soon after, at the age of 25.

Barbara Newhall Follett’s story was made more interesting because of the parallels between her own disappearance and plot of the book she wrote as a child, The House Without Windows, where the main character’s greatest wish was to live a life unrestrained by the people who loved her.

Laura Smith’s own story is of a woman who doubts if marriage is for her, but goes ahead and does it anyway. In the early days of their marriage she and her husband lived abroad, enjoying exotic adventures in far off countries in place of the smothering affection of their friends and family in their lives in America, but things become more complicated when they returned to America and seeking adventure, decided to try an open marriage.

Up until this point the author had constantly stressed how happy her marriage was and how content she and her husband were in each other’s company, which made me wonder why, if this were the case, that they would want to complicate things. Their subsequent romantic and sexual experiments with other partners turned out about as well as you would have expected, regardless of the author stressing that her perceived loss of freedom within her marriage was what was making her unhappy. It really irked me that she did not acknowledge they risked their marriage because of a self-created discontent. Perhaps she herself did not recognise this.

I don’t think the similarities with the author’s memoirs were strong enough to have combined them with the life and disappearance of Barbara Newhall Follett, however I’m glad to have read this book because Barbara Newhall Follett is an extraordinary subject. If I can find any of her fiction I’ll be very glad to read it.

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas is a collection of ten short stories and two novellas by Lionel Shriver. Each of these stories have a theme of ownership of some type or other.

The first novella is The Standing Chandelier and is the story of Weston and Jillian who met and became friends at university. For a while they were lovers of the ‘friends with benefits’ type, but by their forties were friends who played tennis and talked about the big things in life several times a week. Jillian and Weston may have continued their friendship forever except that Weston met and fell in love with a woman who hated Jillian, who is the type of person who is either loved or hated by other people with no middle ground. Oblivious, Jillian poured her heart and soul into making a chandelier for Weston and his bride as a wedding present.

Domestic Terrorism is a story that will strike fear into every parent’s heart, that of an adult child who will not leave home. Some people (childless people perhaps) might find this story funny, but I was terrified.

Luckily, The Royal Male was much more my style. The story is an amusing romance between a thieving postman and a woman whose letter to an old flame he has intercepted. I also enjoyed Negative Equity, the story of a couple who had fallen out of love but couldn’t afford to sell their home and go their separate ways.

Kilifi Creek is a more thought-provoking story which told of a young American traveller in Kenya, thoughtlessly free-loading her way through life, when she almost drowned. Later, another accident made her realise that eventually she would run out of luck and opportunities.

Vermin made me feel nostalgic for a more carefree time in my own life, when paying the bills, housework and roof leaks didn’t much matter. This story told of a young couple whose bohemian lifestyle was lost after they became home-owners.

The Subletter was the final novella of the collection. Sara, an American, had been living in Ireland for 11 years in a crappy apartment, enmeshed in Irish politics and the rights and wrongs of the Troubles. On an impulse, Sara decided to sublet her apartment and move to Thailand, but was unable to give any of these up when it looked as if her new tenant was taking over Sara’s life in Ireland where she had left off.

Lionel Shriver’s writing is always good, but her work can be bleak and often leaves me feeling uneasy. I enjoyed this collection of short stories and their humour, black or otherwise, the unexpected romances and the evocations of nostalgia.

Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Songs of the Humpback Whale was best-selling author Jodi Picoult’s first book.I feel disloyal for criticising an author whose later work I’ve enjoyed, but the story was messy with far too much going on and the storylines were unoriginal and dated. The actual story-telling showed promise, though.

The main story follows Jane and her 15-year old daughter Rebecca as they drive across the USA to seek refuge with Jane’s brother after Jane leaves her husband Oliver, a world famous scientist who studies humpback whales. Jane and Rebecca have always been second to Oliver’s career, and when he tells her that he won’t be around on Rebecca’s birthday because of a work commitment, Jane hits him. Terrified of her own anger, she leaves with Rebecca, who already had their bags packed.

After an eventful road trip directed by Jane’s brother Joley, Jane and Rebecca arrive in Massachusetts at the apple orchard where Joley works to spend five tumultuous days. Jane spends the first three days quarrelling with Joley’s 25-year old boss, Sam, before they realise they are in love, while Rebecca fell instantly in love with Hadley, who is also 25-year old and works at the orchard. Oliver, who prides himself on being able to track humpback whales in the vast ocean, realised he couldn’t live without Jane and set off to track her and Rebecca across the country.

The story constantly jumps around in time, going back and forward between the five main characters and far too many events, including a terrible plane crash which Rebecca survived as a small child, Jane and Joley’s traumatic, abused childhood and Joley’s weird obsession with Jane.

Jane is a frustrating character. She is emotionally immature and drifts through life without taking responsibility for her actions, alternating between giving her daughter too much responsibility and smothering her.

I’ve enjoyed other Jodi Picoult books, some of which have made me laugh and cry, but Songs of the Humpback Whale is probably only for the true fans, or those who are interested in seeing how a well-known and respected writer’s work has evolved.

Five Plays by Anton Chekhov

I spun Anton Chekhov’s Five Plays for The Classics Club’s most recent spin from a selection of twenty books which scared me. Five Plays was number one on my list because of my fear of not understanding the plays – Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, and possibly this affected my reading because I didn’t enjoy any of these plays.

The plots of each were similar in that they were about people who were in love with the wrong person, generally unhappy and bored with their lives. Most of the characters were lazy, fickle and irritatingly melodramatic. Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters all finished with one particularly unhappy character attempting to shoot themselves or someone else.

Ivanov. Ivanov and Sarah were married, but after five years he became infatuated with their neighbour’s daughter. After Sarah became sick and died, the doctor nagged Ivanov about ignoring Sarah’s needs until Ivanov got the guilts and shot himself. When I finished this I immediately wished that Ivanov had done it on the first page to have saved me the reading time.

The Seagull. Constantine wanted to be a famous playwright, but his mother, Irina, a famous actress, didn’t rate his work. Neither did her lover, who was a famous writer or anyone else in the play. All of the characters were in love with the wrong person. Constantine shot a seagull for the woman he loved, and later he shot himself. As per Ivanov, I wish he’d done it sooner. Each of this play’s characters were bored with their stupid, pointless lives and so was I. If anyone ever presented me with a seagull they had shot I’d arrange to have them locked up.

Uncle Vanya. Uncle Vanya was in love with Helen, who is married to Uncle Vanya’s former brother-in-law, Alexander. Their household also included Uncle Vanya’s mother (Alexander’s former mother-in-law), Alexander’s daughter Sonya from his first marriage and a swag of household servants. Sonya was in love with the doctor, but the doctor was in love with Helen, who was young and beautiful. Uncle Vanya tried to shoot Alexander and missed, so stole drugs from the doctor with the intention of killing himself, except the doctor begged Uncle Vanya to shoot himself in the forest instead of taking his drugs so he (the doctor) wouldn’t have to fill out any paperwork about his death. (I sympathised here with the doctor, nobody likes doing paperwork). All of the characters in Uncle Vanya were also bored stupid with themselves.

The highpoint for me from Uncle Vanya was the doctor’s environmental stance. Unlike anyone else in the story who was unhappy about something, he acted on his worries in a more practical way than just shooting himself or someone else. The doctor’s concern that recent forest destruction was affecting animals, rivers and flora led him to make passionate speeches which the other characters ignored, but also to replant forests on his own land.

Three Sisters. A story of three sisters, their brother, plus various husbands, wives and the sister’s friends from the military, who were stationed in their small Russian town. This story had the usual mess of unhappy characters who were dissatisfied with their lot in life, along with husbands and wives in love with other people. Unsurprisingly, one of the characters was killed at the end of the play, however I don’t know if the character was shot or died in another way, because this time the death was the result of a duel and the action happened off stage.

The following excerpt from Three Sisters is typical of a Chekhov character’s pity party for themselves:

Irina (trying to console herself). Oh, I’m so miserable. I can’t, I won’t, I will not work. I’ve had enough. I used to be at the post office and now I work for the town council, and I loathe and despise everything they give me to do. I’m twenty-three, I’ve been working all this time and my brain’s shrivelled up. I’ve grown thin and ugly and old and I’ve nothing to show for it, nothing, no satisfaction of any kind, while time passes by and I feel I’m losing touch with everything fine and genuine in life. It’s like sinking down, down into a bottomless pit. I’m desperate. Why am I still alive, why haven’t I done away with myself? I don’t know.

See what I mean? Irina is 23 and sick of herself. 23! I feel like smacking her.

The Cherry Orchard. Mrs Ranevsky owned an estate with a cherry orchard which was to be sold to cover her debts, which affected the lifestyles of her family members, servants and the local community. Mrs Ranevsky was a silly, middle-aged woman who foolishly fell in love with a young man who only wanted her money. What little money she had left she gave away, even though she couldn’t afford to feed her servants. A neighbour, a former serf, advised Mrs Ranevsky to cut the trees down and build summer cottages, but she wouldn’t, and in the end he bought the property and the play ended with the sound of the cherry trees being cut down. For Mrs Ranevsky’s loyal and forgotten servants, I felt this play was more of a tragedy, but at least no one got shot. I also felt sad about the loss of the cherry orchard, but in terms of business, at least somebody (the former serf) had a clue.

This play is supposed to be a comedy, but I didn’t think it was funny. On the plus side, though, nobody shot themselves or anyone else, although one character threated to…

Yepikhodov. I’m a cultured sort of person and read all kinds of remarkable books, but I just can’t get a line on what it is I’m really after. Shall I go on living or shall I shoot myself, I mean? But anyway, I always carry a revolver. Here is it. (Shows them his revolver).

I cannot express how glad I am to have finished these plays. Had they not been a Classics Club spin, I probably would have stopped reading after Ivanov. I’ve come away from these plays feeling as if Chekhov was reflecting his world back at his audience, then the Russian people from this time and place were the most melodramatic, despairing and unhappiest people on earth.

I do recognise that my reading of Five Plays would be enhanced by a better knowledge of Russia during this time. The foreword suggests that these plays represent the country being on the edge of the enormous change that occurred soon after. No doubt I would also gain from watching the plays performed, but I can’t see that happening…

Five Plays was book six for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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