Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Midnight Watch by David Dyer

Inspiration rating 10/10
This book inspired me to either join or create a book club, because of how I came to find it.

This book was referred to me by a complete stranger at one of my favourite bookstores "Riverbend Books" in Balmoral, Brisbane.  Whilst I was collecting a handful of books to buy, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was in the Riverbend book club (*jealous*).  She told me how the book club runs and I was so inspired.  So of course I asked her what her favourite book of the year was and without hesitation she told me "Midnight Watch".  I asked why and she explained that the backstory to the characters had motivated her to investigate their psychological conditions in more detail.  After just finishing the book, I can see what she means.  I guess every story has a backstory and that is where fiction and fact become blurred and the grey areas of real life become visible.  Why we do what we do fascinates me and this is a story of three people who make some decisions, which have drastic consequences.

The book follows two parallel stories; one of John Steadman (fictitious), a Boston American reporter who looks for the stories of the faceless bodies of those who have died, and the second story is that of the First Officer Captain Lord and Second Officer Herbert Stone who are responsible for the California.  The California is the ship closest to the Titanic (just 30 miles away) on the fateful evening of 15 April 1912.  What you discover through reading the book is that 1500 souls could have been saved if the two officers from the California had put their personal grievances aside and acted professionally...through reading the book you discover why they did what they did.

This book is superbly researched by David Dyer, who worked as a lawyer at the London legal practice (whose parent firm represented the Titanic's owners in 1912).  He also worked as a cadet, then ship's officer on merchant ships and now teaches English literature in Sydney.  This eclectic combination of skills shines through in his writing making it altogether believable and intense.

There are a number of complex issues raised through this book.  The most striking is the need for instant news (even in 1912) and what this loses in relation to the real stories of people.  The strained relations of the British-Americans also lies constantly beneath the story.  This was also a time of the suffragette movement and the coming of a world war and this is also woven into the fabric of the novel.  But most of all, this is a story of loyalty and truth and Dyer cleverly interweaves Coleridge's slimy creatures of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Captain Ahab and Starbuck’s loyal relationship in Moby-Dick

We get a sense of the two main characters aboard the ship, in the following quote: "He (Stone) wanted the captain to sense his unwavering, upright presence, to hear his silent protest.  His letter was not weak.  It was not disloyal.  It was true." p.95

Excerpt from pages 44-5
The Chief officer moved his flags quickly - 'What is the matter?' - and again Groves called the reply. 'Titanic sank here 2:20 a.m.'
Six hours ago, thought Stone.  During the midnight watch.
The signalling from the Carpathia continued. 'We have picked up all her boats and survivors.'
There was a pause.  Stone looked at the signalling officer on the Carpathia through his binoculars.  He was holding both flags straight up, the left at a slight angle, indicating that he was about to signal numbers.  Stone knew they would be his numbers - his and his captain's.  Captain Lord was, he knew, like him, waiting for them.  Once they came they would be theirs forever.  
The sun grew taller and more intense as it climbed the sky.  It poured such a torrent of white light onto the bridge that it seemed to wash the colour from things.  There was no subtlety of shading; the scene appeared to Stone at a uniform saturation, like an overexposed photograph.  Even the black pitch between the planks at Stone's feet glistened as if wet with light.  Under the black rim of his cap, Captain Lord was squinting.  Stone thought of Moby-Dick.  'Oh, my Captain!  my Captain!' he said to himself.  'Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters!'
At last the numbers came. 'One,' he heard Groves call.  Then, 'Five.'
Fifteen? Could it be only fifteen?
Groves called, 'Zero.'
One hundred and fifty, then.
Raising his hand to shield his eyes, Stone waited for the signal that numbers were to follow, but instead the officer held his arms perfectly still - one flag pointing straight up, and the other pointing down and to the right.  It was unmistakable, and the bright image of it burned itself into Stone's mind.  It was another zero, and Groves called it, calmly, firmly.  And then the letters l-o-s-t.
Captain Lord spoke.  'Was the zero signalled twice, Mr Groves?'
'Yes Captain. He repeated it.'
'Very well.'
The light bore down on Herbert Stone.  He thought, for some reason, of his first day at sea, and the narrow, stinking pump room into which he had been sent to clean the bilges, and the caustic sludge that had scolded his hands.  He wished he were there again now.  At least it had been dark; there was not this burning unforgiving light.  He took a step backwards, looking for some shade.  There was none - not even the flimsy bridge awning cast shadow.  Light filled every corner.
On the starboard bridge wing he saw the captain standing alone, erect and still, pulling his cap tighter on his head, lest it be blown off by the wind.  'I told him,' Stone whispered to himself.  'I told him.'

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Grace Beside Me by Sue McPherson

Inspiration rating: 8/10
This book has inspired me to think about my career as a non linear process, but more as a collection of skills to draw on to invent a new direction.

Recently I was in Bris-vegas catching up with family and came across a gorgeous community bookshop in Annerley.  Amongst the shelves i found a table dedicated to Australian indigenous authors.  On it was this wonderful little gem of a book called, 'Grace Beside Me', by Sue McPherson.  This sweet little semi-autobiographical fictional narrative is honest and Australian to the core.  It celebrates the simple pleasures in life and that awkward yet significant stage of life when you are seeking your identity as you say goodbye to childhood and open your world to adulthood in all its complexities.  It does not try to be anything except honest and real.  Although the excerpt I have drawn on is quite lovely, the story touches on some very painful and real issues that affect the author as an indigenous girl.  It is done through the eyes of Fuzzy Mac who whilst living in her peaceful and beautiful environment, all is not perfect and her family history eventually catches up with her when she comes of age. 

Here's a little excerpt.

Nan sits in her favourite chair in the living room content on knitting while watching the telly or listening to ABC radio.  When it gets really cold Nan sits in the kitchen in front of Maud, our slow combustion stove, with the oven door open so more hot air is pushed out to help her warm her and Puss, who loves it when Nan knits.  She will happily sit on Nan's lap slowly kneading the wool with her paws and purring.  Walking into our house on a cold day makes me happy, the smells of home baking, the warmth and having family close is a sweet kind of wonderful." p. 162.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

I am David by Anne Holm

This is a classic that I have wanted to read for a while and once I started it was all over in a weekend because i just couldn't put it down!
David is such a likeable character who is just so grateful for life, after he escapes a concentration camp.  His life is definitely not simple once he escapes and he is constantly looking over his shoulder for 'them', which makes an interesting reflection on society and how we view those who we fear.
The story also has a great twist at the end that is worth staying the distance.

To give you a sense of his life, here is an excerpt of how much we take for granted and yet how unprivileged his life is...
Yes, it was going to be interesting to see what a house looked like!  And he thought of all the words he would now be able to use.  He knew many words he had never used because he was afraid that, not knowing the things they referred to, he might use them wrongly and show his ignorance.  Besides, he would have felt silly saying words without really knowing what they meant.  Sheets.  Imagine sleeping every night in a soft bed like that where you did not feel cold... and between soft white sheets where you knew everything around you was perfectly clean!

David's significant other is a man called Johannes, who reminds me of my grandfather in how he thinks and speaks.  He inspires something grand to be proud of without being a grand person.  It is one of those difficult to describe qualities that just makes you want to be more like that person, without fully understanding why.  Here's his advice to David...
But Johannes had said, "Politeness is something you owe other people, because when you show a little courtesy, everything becomes easier and better.  But first and foremost it is something you owe yourself.  You are David.  And if you never allow other people to influence what you're really like, then you've something no one can take from you - not even they.  Never mind what others are like - you must still be David.  Do you understand what I mean?"
p. 121

'I am David' is a short and thoroughly enjoyable book, but be warned, once you pick it up, you will want to stay with David for the journey.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Australia's Second Chance by George Megalogenis

Inspiration rating: 9/10
This book has inspired me to have faith in the humanity of our country to overcome our racial prejudice and welcome many cultures into our society

Finally a book that celebrates our multiculturalism!  With all the political rhetoric about asylum seekers, this book is a refreshing perspective of our real culture in Australia and how much our nation has thrived through immigration.
Megalogenis does not include indigenous Australian heritage, but instead spans the history of Australia (post colonialisation) making reference to the 'impact on the 'locals' in the early chapters.  It is also a nice change to see the reference to the Chinese culture in Australia, which runs quite deeply through our history.  I would love to see an equivalent book marking the indigenous multiculturalism in Australia acknowledging the diverse language groups and the external influx to the composition of our indigeneity. 
This book has a particular focus on the economic impact of migration and I believe the author does this deliberately, to give the book a central focus.  But in doing so, it does miss important details of the social impacts of the changes at each stage.
This book is easy to read yet does not compromise on facts: he has the evidence to back up his claims.  There are wall-to-wall statistics, humbling anecdotal stories and cringe-worthy references to our past mistakes.  But overall, Megalogenis leaves the reader with a strong sense of hope for social change in Australia, appealing to our financial greed to open our borders and enable us to embrace our multiculturalism, especially with our Asian neighbours.  Let's face it we have more in common with Asia than we do of the motherland...

Except from the book (p.196-7)
Sidney had a knack for riding out the global busts.  In 1921, he anticipated the post-war slump in import prices and threw a 'million pound master sale' to clear his old stock.  He lost half his fortune but was able to restock with cheaper imports and trade back into profitability.
His strategy to cope with the Great Depression elevated him to national legend.  In 1930, Sidney shouted Christmas lunch for ten thousand unemployed people and gave each child a present.  He undertook an expensive reconstruction of his Bourke Street store in 1931 to provide jobs and boost confidence.  'All staff, himself included - except for those affected by a wages board - endured a 20% pay-cut for eighteen months, so that no employee need be retrenched', historian Anthea Hyslop wrote. 
He urged the business community to promote jobs, and to donate funds to public works programs, saying, 'It is a responsibility of capital to provide work.  If it fails to do this it fails to justify itself.'  The Myer method in the Great Depression was the digger's own Gallipoli: self sacrifice and good humour.
A friend once advised him, 'You spendthrift - you are wearing yourself out.  You will soon have nothing left to give.'  Sidney replied, 'He gets most who gives most.'
He died suddenly in 1934, at the age of fifty-six, leaving behind a business of 5300 employees and 10% of his fortune donated to a trust, to assist 'the community in which I made my fortune'.  More than 100 000 mourners lined the city streets to observe the funeral procession and 25 000 people attended his funeral at Box Hill cemetery.
The young Robert Menzies, who was both Sidney's friend and his local member of parliament, wrote in 1936 that Myer was a true Australian pioneer.  'He rose from being an obscure alien peddler to being one of the great merchant princes of Australia.'
The Myer brothers were an anomaly in Australia.  They had fled the nineteenth-century Russian pogroms against the Jews when many of their countrymen had already settled in the United States.  If they had delayed their migration until federation, the dictation test might have denied them entry.
(I believe these are the stories we should be telling our children about Australia's history.) 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara

Inspiration rating 10/10
This book has inspired me to realise that when we do not accept compliments, it affects those who love us.

This is the sort of book that you prepare yourself for, because you know you will be held emotionally hostage for a number of days until you finish reading (because once you start, it is very difficult to stop) and at 720 pages, it is not something you can skim through.

It focuses on the most important thing in life: relationships.
Hanya is very deliberate in the way she captures this, by creating a small close-knit number of people who are focused around a single tragic and beautiful character named Jude.  The writing is clever because it brings you into the group with the nuanced gestures and explains the significance of the simple inanimate objects, to the story of a person’s life.  For example, the secret non-verbal vocabulary of scratching your ear at a party so that your friend knows to come and rescue you from a terrible conversation (so no-one else knows).  Like a professional she leaves little treasures along the way to be discovered in the closing pages with heartbreaking sadness.  Throughout the book Hanya talks around the subject, giving the reader intelligence to know what is going on, but not throwing it into your face. 

The book was not without its frustrations for me.  I found the character's resistance to professional help (for people who clearly needed it) really irritating, but then again I think this is a reflection of how much the group rely on each other.

I have always admired people who can keep friendships from their early years and this group is all those kinds of people. Although it is unspoken, they all truly know and love each other.  This genuine sincerity is what makes each of the characters so appealing.  For example, Malcolm the architect knows that Jude feels clean when a space is filled with light and JB, the artist, knows the exact colour of Jude's hair in the sunlight.  Imagine knowing someone that intimately for almost your whole life...

Sample of the text: (p. 437)
But to Jude, he wasn't an actor: he was a friend, and that identity supplanted everything else.  It was a role he had inhabited for so long that it had become, indelibly, who he was.  To Jude, he was no more primarily an actor than Jude was primarily a lawyer - it was never the first or second or third way that either of them would describe each other.  It was Jude who had remembered who he had been before he had made a life pretending to be other people: someone with a brother, someone so impressive and beguiling.  He knew other actors who didn't want anyone to remember them as they'd been, as someone so determined to be someone else, but he wasn't that person.  He wanted to be reminded of who he was; he wanted to be around someone for whom his career would never be the most interesting thing about him.