Book review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H. P. Wood

(cover image courtesy Sourcebooks)

 

The world we live in is not kind to outsiders.

For daring to look, act or be a thousand kinds of different, dissendents, deliberately, or usually not, to the sacred code of unspoken uniformity that governs the machinations of society, they are pilloried, mocked, discardeds wept aside and ignored.

In doing so, people, refered to in Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet,  H. P. Woods compulsively readable excursion into life in New York Coney Island in the early 1900s, as “Dozens” as in “Dime a …” think they are doing humanity, getting rid of anyone who might threaten, pollute or malign the established order of things.

But as you come to know the Unusuals who populate the many acts of Coney Island, giving fascinating oddity to the myriad acts that celebrate the divergences from orthodox humanity, you come to realise, and not for the first time if you’re even remotely aware that homo sapiens is not as closed or small a church as conservatives would have you believe, that we are all the richer for having people like Zeph, who lost his legs in a tractor accident, or Rosalind who refuses to subscribe to the limitations of the gender binary or Enzo, whose face is scarred markedly on one side, transgressing very limited notions of beauty.

Sure they’re different but ah what a marvellous difference it is, as the orthodoxy-bucking daughter of Turkish immigrants Nazan and English society girl adrift Kitty, both folded into the magical world of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet at an unloved and rarely visited end of Coney island come to discover.

Alas they are alone in their appreciation of the richness, variety and heartfelt community of the Unusuals, and as the Plague strikes New York, afflicting Dozens and Unusuals alike, the majority, particularly those in charge, turn their ire on the outsiders, the Others, blaming them for the health disaster unfolding in their midst.

“From Rosalind’s window, Kitty sees Unusuals drifting down the street in small groups. Holding hands, leaning on one another, heads low. It’s oddly comforting. With her entire family dead or presumed so, being a castaway in the ‘people’s playground’ is a bit like being a widow at a wedding. Now, she thinks, we can all be sad together. She dresses quickly and goes downstairs to join her fellow mourners … But when she walks in, she realises there is no we—there is she, and there is everybody else.” (P. 142)

It’s not, sadly enough, and if you have ever been marked as an outlier of any kind, you will be all too aware of how excoriating and alone it can feel, how every waking moment becomes a struggle, sometimes a violent one, to justify your place in the world.

You shouldn’t have to, of course, no one should and Woods does a brilliantly insightful job of how soul-destroying this can be, even within a strong community of likeminded souls around you, and how hard it can be for anyone outside that world to fully understand what it is like.

The masterstroke of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which is liberally peppered with sublimely poetic pieces of writing that will have you appreciating often how good writing can be, is that it doesn’t turn the events of the novel, where the Unusuals are literally fighting for their lives and their way of life on many fronts, into some sort of narrow, preachy polemic.

Instead Woods let’s the events of the story and the marvellously memorable characters who populate it, speak for themselves, helping us to see how these characters are as flawed and wonderful as the rest of us but in their own gloriously different way.

It’s clever, artful and mesmerisingly evocative writing that doesn’t twist itself into knots to make a point; rather it’s lets the points pour forth organically, rooted in a rich and appealing humanity that society at large would wholly benefit from embracing, especially now.

 

(cover image via Pauline Springs Books (c) sourcebooks)

 

The only regrettable part of the book is that is has to end.

It’s one of those rare novels that will have you missing it could go on forever, with Woods effortlessly bringing her characters to life over and over in such compelling ways that you can’t help but wish they could stay with you forever.

That opinion isn’t shared by the likes Senator Reynolds, who owns the Dreamland consortium, which owns much of Coney Island nor the thuggishly bureaucratic small minds behind the Orwellianly-named Committee for Public Safety, but it’s well nigh impossible to read any of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet without falling head over heels for P-Ray, Whitey, Zeph, Rosalind, Enzo and the Dozens who come into their orbit such as Spencer, Nazan and Kitty and find a wholly unexpected, and much-needed, home there.

The joy of these characters, whose trajectory looks dire at times with no guarantee, given the formidable forces arrayed against them, that they will triumph (although the narrative tends to suggest that they will and naturally you hope they do), is that they feel so real and wonderfully wrought.

There is a palpable realness to them and the hidden world of Coney Island they inhabit, that anchors some of the plot’s more fancifully-convenient moments (which, trust me, you won’t begrudge for a moment).

“‘No. No, no, no. Stop that. What happened to you and your mother was a crime. What happened to P-Ray and Enzo was a crime. All over the city, it’s not right. And think about this. Most of the people being treated this way, they have no voice. They’re dead by now, or they’re poor, or they look like Enzo, and no Dozen would ever believe them. But you. You have your fine education, you have your accent, you have this pretty face—or it would be,’ he says kindly, ‘if you stop snuffling. You can be their champion, Kitty. You can stand up and say, This is what’s happening, and I know because it happened to me.'” (P. 310)

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is that rare literary beast that is able to be both feelgood and grittily substantial.

There are happy endings sure but there is also considerable pain, loss, rejection and turmoil, and Woods willingness to fill her book with the grim realities of life on Coney Island, behind the magic and fantasy of its attractions, grants the book a powerful sense of life for the oppressed, marginalised and dispossessed.

It speaks to the power and solace to be found in shared community, of chosen families, of solidarity in the face of repeated onslaughts and it is does with a richness, compassion and realness that will have you captivated.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is as much as novel of the mind as the heart, a gripping, scintillating tale with much at stake that manages to celebrate humanity and memorable characters in amongst fast-moving action, a narrative feast written with insight and truthfulness and a deeply-held appreciation for the richness and diversity of those whom society treats too often, in a move that imperils its own good and that of the cast aside alike, as an unnecessary, and often threatening, afterthought.

Festively changing it up: The delightfully different tale of Santa’s Husband

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins publishers)

 

Right let’s just get it out there then shall we?

In Santa’s Husband, Daniel Kibblesmith’s delightful take on the person of Santa Claus who, you may recall, is a teeny-tiny bit central to modern celebrations of Christmas – for those of a religious persuasion, please note I’m not sidelining Jesus, simply stating the obvious – good old St Nick is black, gay and married to a sweet, supportive man named David.

The reason I’ve spelt that out straight off the bat is that (a) it’s pretty the book’s main premise and one Kibblesmith, with lovely illustrations by Ap Quach, executes quite nicely and (b) it’s far better to point out the tinsel-draped elephant in the room from the get-go.

That being said, you can imagine that shaking up everyone’s modern idea of Santa Claus, who is fictional by the way and a relatively recent phenomenon, sculpted every bit as much by commercial interests as age-old tales of a kindly but firm man who looks after the poor and downtrodden, is going to be controversial in certain circles.

And, of course, you would be right as this article in VICE, which talks with Kibblesmith about the book and the inevitable furor it engendered, illustrates all too well.

The thing is Santa Claus has always a malleable creation, ever since the fourth-century or so when Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra, inspired the idea of socially-idealistic figure, one so revered he gave rise  to Father Christmas, Sinterklaas and a host of other figures.

His biggest modern boost came courtesy of an 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and the work  of political cartoonist Thomas Nast who, apart from making difficult for the governing elites of nineteenth-century, pretty much came up with the image we now have of Santa Claus, one burnished even further by the likes of Coca-Cola in the twentieth-century.

 

(image courtesy Harper Collins publishers)

 

So Santa has never really been a fixed concept which is why Kibblesmith’s sweetly poetic take on the much-loved figure is as natural and normal as you can get.

Santa’s Husband is, in many ways, delightfully conventional.

In the book Santa is married, devoted to his husband who is equally devoted back, helping him cope with the many demands of his intensely seasonal job:

“Santa’s husband helps
Santa with all the
hard work that makes
Christmas happen.”

That means everything from checking lists of naughty and nice kids to feeding the reindeer and much more beside including impersonating his time-poor and geographically-challenged hubbie.

Sounds to me like a pretty caring, supportive partnership, one filled with commitment, love, caring and cosy nights in, and finally after too long a legal delay, a wedding where everyone who’s anyone festively pops in to wish the happy couple well.

The book even tackles the “rewriting history line of attack, making it clear, and they’re right given Santa’s history, that he’s been imagined “hundreds of different ways over the years!”

Sure there are lines about climate change and political correctness, but ultimately what makes Santa’s Husband such a gorgeous book for anyone to read, adult or child, is that reinforces the idea of Santa as a selfless, caring figure who gives up a lot to fulfill his life’s work and who wouldn’t be able to do it without his husband.

If Christmas means anything, it’s love and inclusion and Kibblesmith’s beautiful read has that in spades, reminding us all over again why the season really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Book review: The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

Imagine for a second that you were plonked down in the middle of a foreign country with limited language skills and only a passing familiarity with the culture after a lifetime spent hidden away from the outside world.

What would that feel like? How disorienting would it be? Would you sink, swim or hope that someone would come along to help you?

It’s an imperfect allusion at best, but this rather crudely-sketched example gives you some idea what it would be like to be Elvira Carr, a 27 year old woman with a “Condition” – possibly autism but it’s never really spelt out which for the purposes of this charming narrative is a good thing – who in the short course of a year finds herself living on her own after her mother has a stroke and ends up in a home, finds out there’s far more to her small family that she could ever have imagined, and has to adapt to far more changes than the status quo-upsetting averse animal lover cares to contemplate.

In The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elivra Carr, we come to understand how much of a wrench all these momentous change are for someone who’s life has been lived solely under the control of a domineering mother, Agnes, largely kept apart from the world after a number of “Incidents”, and unaware of a great many things including her family history, how to navigate the contrary, messy and downright hypocritical world of the Normal/Typicals, she terms them, and the possibilities awaiting as she steps, uncertainly, from her cocoon.

“There were lots of new things I had to do now: visiting Mother twice a day, using the bus, deciding what to eat, shopping without her list, doing the housework without supervision, being alert to Incidents, trying to show I was safe on my own. Managing it all sent me to bed in the daytime. In bed I listed all the different varieties of biscuits I knew, and their brands, and said them in alphabetical order but it didn’t always make me feel better.” (P. 21)

To cope with all this apple cart-upending change, a major upheaval for someone who craves routines, rules and repetition, and abhors the wild unpredictable shifts of conversation and social interaction generally, Elvira, comes up with her Seven Imperfect Rules, which lay out all the things you can and cannot say to other people, when you should say them and how.

Self-aware to the extent that she has trained herself to be, Elvira is all too cognisant of the fact that her propensity, even with these markers, gleaned from onsite searches – one major yardstick of her progress once she’s out from under her mother’s protective oppressiveness is how quickly she takes to Google’s many wonders – to make mistakes is considerable.

Hence the imperfect nature of her rules.

For the rest of us, those of us who choose to observe them anyway, things like “Rule 1: Being polite and respectful is always a good idea” and “Rule 4: You learn by making mistakes” are almost automatic; we just know that these are the unspoken rules by which society functions.

For Elvira, they are a learned experience, once filled with many pitfalls and errors, but also the chance to grow and develop as a person in ways that people like her neighbour Sylvia, her mother’s good friend and a stalwart of support after her mother’s stroke, believes she is more than capable of mastering.

Elvira of course has no choice but to master her rules and live by them; not simply because she is alone now and has to navigate life all by herself but because she is fearful that Social Services, who hang like an imaginary threat above her head all through the book – she fears Sylvia’s husband Trev or son Josh will call them; they see her, unfortunately, as a “retard” – will come a-calling and take away her independence.

 

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

 

The irony, of course, is that she didn’t particularly want her independence, and almost resents the loss of her comfortable, if stultifying, routine.

But once choice is taken from her and she comes to appreciate what a little freedom can give her such as friendships with Karen and Paul at Animal Arcadia, wildlife park where she volunteers – Elvira loves animals and David Attenborough documentaries, all of which she knows by heart – Brenda who runs the Pet Therapy sessions at her mother’s home and even Janice at her favourite Asda supermarket, Elvira blossoms and grows in heartwarming and life-affirming ways.

What saves the book from being a veritable twee-fest is the way Maynard throws in some dark and troubling aspects to Elvira’s awakening.

Yes there is an uplifting Pollyanna aspect to it all, but there are also some serious missteps too, some caused by Elvira’s misunderstanding of the vagaries of human interaction but others by life’s ability to throw curveballs that would throw the best of us, let alone someone for whom the unexpected is anathema. (One incident in particular is heartbreakingly confronting, making you realise that while Elvira is making great progress, she still has a way to go.)

“I had my volunteering, my friends at Asda and the Library, Paul, Karen too, Sylvia-next-door, and Roxanna, and in the evenings I had Coronation Street, Casualty, my David Attenborough DVDs and all my Mills & Boons. I had a full life. But, at this moment, I felt empty rather than full. Not just empty but … naked.” (PP. 287-288)

These complications to Elvira’s rule-led life, albeit a growing and haphazardly expanding one, give The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr a substance and narrative robustness that fill out the up-and-up feel of things in a way that feels authentic and earned.

Elvira’s life does get better and better but with plenty of bumps and scrapes along the way, some of them fairly substantial ones but as she discovers along the way, she is able to cope, she can handle life, and yes there are a plenty of times she just wants to hide under the duvet, and she does, but there are always plenty of others where she’s comes through with flying colours.

And even those times when she falls spectacularly fall on her face – not really; that is what she learns is a Figure of Speech or FOS and should not be taken literally – her “failures” say more about the hypocrisies, lies and inconsistencies of the Normal/Typical world than about her ability to work out how life works and respond accordingly.

The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr is a delight and a joy, and Maynard infuses the protagonist with some real, warts-and-all humanity to add to her purity of heart and approach, but it’s also very real, very true and enormously heartfelt, a reminder that sometimes not fitting in is a good thing and that while you can make peace with the “rules” around you, it’s also OK to just be yourself and maybe, just maybe, let the world fold itself around you instead.

Snuggle up and listen as David Tennant reads The Christmas Bear

David Tennant in full festive reading mode (image courtesy DavidTennant.com)

 

Quite frankly, such is my love and admiration for British acting wunderkind, David Tennant – he portrayed my favourite Doctor Who for a start plus he is, as you will no doubt have noticed, rather easy on the eye – that he could read a grocery list or the directions for heating up a TV dinner and I would sit in rapt, undivided attention.

Of course, how much better is it then if he were to read a Christmas story, his dulcet Scottish brogue wrapping itself more than amenably around some enchanting festive story, which is exactly what happened when David sat down to read The Christmas Bear by Ian Whybrow all the way back in 2009 as part of the CBeebies Bedtimes Stories on the BBC.

The segment, which is part of the bedtime hour on the childrens’ network, has been graced by all manner of well-read and beautifully articulate celebrities but surely none can top David Tennant’s yuletide effort (he’s been on a number of other times as well) which reminds as charmingly soothing now as it did eight years ago.

Given how busy Christmas can be, sitting back and listening to David Tennant regale you with a heartwarming tale of festive cheer is just what Santa Claus ordered and good for what ails you, young child, adult or all points in-between.

 

 

And here, as an added bonus, is David introducing his storytelling segment …

 

Book review: The Lustre of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

Walter Lavender Jr is a remarkable young man.

Gifted with a preternatural ability to locate missing objects in a dazzlingly wide variety of circumstances the length and breadth of New York City, he lives with his mother Lucy at a bakery where the pastries and desserts come alive with such sparkling vivacity that crowds flock to buy them, eat them and be nourished by the communal feel of this thoroughly unique store.

The magically real bakery is his great redoubt – a place of sanctuary for the 13 year old who, due to a motor speech disorder known as Childhood Apraxia of Speech, which means the thoughts in his head end up garbled when he tries to articulate them (it’s in the same class as stuttering) , is socially isolated and bullied, a world unto himself save for the fortifying closeness of his mother and the two bakery employees who are more like family, José and Flora.

He tells himself he is okay with this state of affairs, that it is the price he pays for being different to everyone around him.

But on one transformative day, when the book of seven brilliantly-coloured drawings given by a grateful customer in exchange for a selfless act of kindness by Lucy, that normally sits in the shop window, goes missing Walter sets out to find it, discovering as he does so that many of his assumptions about himself aren’t borne out by lessons he learns from coming into contact with a diverse array of people.

In many ways, as he meets everyone from an elderly Chinese-American widow with a fondness for Caravelle chocolate bars to a street person named Nico with a ready wit and a cheeky grin to a young school girl named Ruby who lives in a well-appointed apartment building to a grieving widower with a mission to complete, Walter comes to understand that he, as much as the objects he is so skilled at finding, needs to be found too, along with his real, not assumed, place in the world.

“During five years of finding, I have learned that everyone loses things, musicians and non-musicians alike – the elderly when they forget and the young when they don’t pay attention and the middle-aged when there are too many things to do. In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live, without needing to exchange so many words.” (P. 25)

His mission is impelled by an urgent need to save the bakery from closing down.

Without the book to sustain its life-giving magical aura, the crowds drift off, the baked goods Lucy creates with an almost supernatural genius and intuition loses their zest, and Walter’s world comes very close to disappearing forever.

If it sounds like there is a heady, intoxicating blend of magical realism at work in this absolutely delightful and deeply emotional insightful book, you would be right.

At every stage of the narrative, Keller, for whom The Lustre of Lost Things is her debut novel, infuses Walter’s achingly authentic search for connection and meaning with an effervescent buoyant super-realism that enchants and adds a gorgeous sheen to some very real, very confronting truisms.

It almost feels like a fairytale, and in a great many ways it is, with Walter’s ceaseless day-long quest taking him from one end of New York to the other, above and beyond ground, on foot and by subway in an attempt to recover the book and the precious seven drawings within, that seem to have scattered to the four winds, taking the fate of the shop, his mother Lucy, his made family and himself with it.

Everything hinges on Walter being successful, and regardless of whether the magic is real or simply a confidence emboldened by the book’s presence – I like to believe the former since Keller makes it all sound so beguilingly otherworldly and immersive – the key to keeping it alive is for Walter to go far beyond his self-imposed limits and see what truly lies out beyond the confines of the bakery, and within himself.

 

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House)

 

If it all sounds a little twee, it is anything but.

Keller grounds Walter at every stage in a grinding realism that, while accented and burnished by magical wonder, contains the kind of realities a 13 year old boy should never have to grapple with.

He longs for his father Walter Lavender Sr, to walk back in the door, feeling like he’s missing out on a host of life lessons that went to the bottom of the ocean when his father, an international pilot, went down with his plane in unexplained circumstances.

His journey teaches him that while he may have lost some things due to his father’s absence, that he is anything but alone in the world, and certainly not bereft of a great many valuable life lessons; even so, The Lustre of Lost Things is also quick to recognise that things are lost when people are lost and at no point does Keller lessen their emotional or physical impact with glib magical feyness.

It’s all very real, and Walter, keenly and almost painfully self-aware despite his appealingly buoyant tenacity, knows it all too well.

The joy in this extraordinarily uplifting yet immensely emotionally substantial book is the way Keller depicts anyone who has ever felt alone or lost in the world – every last person Walter meets has lost someone or something that defined or made them in some way, and that loss, coupled with decisions made in the wake, has come to profoundly shape their lives.

“I’d told myself that I was alone because I was different – I had a disorder, I nad no dad. Because of who I was, I would always be lonely, separated. I could not be any other way. But I have met the rat-couple and I am forced to see how I, like them, have chosen to give up and be alone, and to be content in a world of my own. This was not how I was meant to be; itw as how I had decided to be.

“At least they accpepted the reality of their choice and did not try to convince themselves otherwise. I wrapped myself in the warmth of the shop and I convinced myself that when I learned about people through their lost things, these temporary, one-sided reprieves meant that I was not actually alone.” (P. 169)

It is a realisation Walter comes to as his found family expands considerably, he is able to extend kindness, much like mother, and reportedly his father, before him to those people and the selflessness that led to the creation of the book and the rise and rise of the bakery’s success, is extended and perpetuated in touching and beautiful ways.

As a child who experienced incessant, souk-destroying bullying almost all my way through school, and felt cut off from the world as a result, Keller’s down-to-earth yet poetically-articulated thoughtful insights on the way we handle trauma, large or small, is reassuring or instructive.

It never minimises or dismisses the effects of life’s less kind moments, of its loss and regret, its pain and its suffering; on the contrary it acknowledges them front on and without any attempts to explain them away with a sweet Hallmark-ian loveliness (thought that is there is crucial and life-affirming ways that will warm your soul and life your spirit).

What this immeasurably beautiful, quirky and delightful book does do is take those unescapable realities of life and look at the fact that it is we who choose how they affect us, how they mold and break or make us; that’s not to say the responsibility solely falls to us, since it would place an unbearable burden on shoulder already weakened by a great many sad and terrible things.

Rather that we can take these lost and leached-away things and decide to counter them however it makes sense to us – in Walter’s case, it’s by slowly embracing his new expanded, socially-full reality – and in the process, find a great many things we lost and quite possibly, a great many new things besides.

 

 

Book review: In Every Moment We Are Alive by Tom Malmquist

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

When someone very close to you dies, it’s entirely natural for people to extend their condolences, to offer their love and support in any way they can and to be present with you in your emotionally-enervating moment of grief and loss.

It’s a brief bubble when loving arms envelop you and you are carried along, in ways big and small, through one of the very worst periods of your life.

But life moves on, as it must, and you are left to your own devices, grief seems to fall even harder upon you, reminding you over and over again of how much you have lost and how much lesser life will be without that person in it.

I found that last year when my beautiful father died, and Tom Malmquist, who tells the harrowing story of unexpectedly losing his partner of 10 years Karin to leukemia just as she gives birth prematurely to their daughter, and first child, Livia, recounts a similar emotionally-exhausting life lesson.

Reading at first like a novel, it becomes quickly apparent that Malmquist is relating events he lived through – there is an aching authenticity to the way he relates the maelstrom of fast-moving events that transformed a largely, though not unflawed, relationship, bright with happy future moments into one defined by loss, death, grief, and thankfully, the joy of holding your daughter in your arms.

“The electrical activity in Karin’s heart has stopped. Lillemor presses her hands over her ears and closes her eyes. Sven shakes his head a little and asks” What are you saying? Dad, Karin’s pulse is zero, says Måns. If Karin’s pulse is zero that would mean she’s dead, he says. It takes a few seconds before a groan is heard rising from his throat, and his head drops. Lillemor is trembling, saying something I can’t quite catch. Måns sinks onto the floor in front of them.” (P. 76)

Malmquist beautifully and touchingly, with a veracity borne of someone who has stood at the coalface of grief trying to work out how on earth he can ever climb up and over it, conveys what it is like to lose Karin, gain Livia, be caught in the immediate aftermath of losing his beloved partner and struggle to reemerge into what remains of your life.

One thing that immediately strikes you, quite apart from Malmquist’s admirably brutal honesty – at no point does he portray anything in his and Karin’s life as idyllic; they’re happy yes, but this is life in the relational trenches and the author never once gilds the lily with Disney-eque perfection or allusions to it – is the toll grief takes on your capacity to handle life, even weeks or months after the defining event.

This is no place for logic or rationale – yes you have to get on with things; there is no choice especially with a newborn but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or even remotely palatable.

Indeed, were it not for Malmquist’s mother and mother-in-law who spend nights at his home looking after Livia while he tries to sleep in haze of sleeping tablets and unbidden memories, it becomes apparent that the author wonders if he could have coped at all.

At one point he even talks to his father about getting committed but that recedes as he begins slowly but not without a thousand backward steps, common to anyone navigating a path through grief – it never really leaves you; you just find ways to deal with it better – reacquaint himself with the messily ordinary business of living.

 

Tom Malmquist (image courtesy Last Word Book Review)

 

That’s the key thing I think that you take away from In Every Moment We Are Still Alive.

Being enveloped by grief feels like someone stopping the hands of time; the world moves on around you, but you stay anchored in that one terrible moment, unable to move, think, feel beyond that bubble of time.

It’s horrible, terrible and a thousand other things beside, and while Malmquist doesn’t belabour the point – the book is refreshingly down to earth and real, with conversations, past and present events presented in an authentically-jumbled stream of consciousness that feels deeply real – you understand in so many ways what it is like to stay rooted to that one existential spot.

And how memories resurface at the oddest times, with grief percolating up all over again.

Take as an example the time that Malmquist is cleaning up around Karin’s writing desk – the two are both writers, a source of support and occasional friction, having met at university – and discovers two coffee stains on the woodwork.

“In what way are you feeling bad? I miss Karin. Of course you miss Karin, dear Tom … death is abstract, it can’t be rationally understood.” (P. 207)

At first he think he should clean them off, tidy everything off, an understandable instinct but he finds himself photographing them, wondering how she came to spill the coffee, what she was thinking and doing at the time.

He also brilliantly and movingly explores the no-man’s land that exists in the immediate afterwash of great loss, everything from the bureaucratic tangles that ensnare you – Karin dies so suddenly that there’s no time to officially nominate Malmquist as the father – to learning to looking after a newborn alone (or almost alone) to the simple act of getting up, dressed and facing the minutiae of day-to-day life.

Malmquist discusses with exquisite truthfulness and raw, unfiltered emotion – the punctuation of the chapters, such as they are, does not follow traditional norms with observations and dialogue tumbling, sometimes confusingly, into each other, mirroring how everything feels in grief’s disordered undertow – what it feels to have someone desperately important taken from you at the time someone infinitely new and precious is handed to you.

More than that, he helps anyone who has been fortunate not to experience grief’s raw, rough hand, what it means when someone they are comforting don’t react logically or “normally” to their ministrations; you can’t someone in Malmquist’s position, or mine last year, to handle life as they normally would because grief, in so many achingly awful ways, is as far from normal as you can possibly get.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive burrows deep down into your soul, real, true, dark and hopeful but above all, honest about how it feels to fall into the abyss-like rabbit hole of grief, and wonder if you’ll ever emerge again.

Book review: The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne

 

When you think about characters as beloved as Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore and the rest of the residents of the Hundred-Acre Wood, it’s easy to assume that everything to do with them must be equally as bucolic and paradisaical as they are.

After all, in the four books by A. A. Milne, they inhabit a world where love and acceptance reign, where mistakes can be made and recovered from, where problems arise but find a solution somewhere down the road, perhaps after a smackerel of honey.

It is, by any estimation, an idealised world, but in Christopher Milne’s account of what it was like to be Christopher Robin when Winnie the Pooh’s popularity went almost immediately ballistic in the 1920s – the books were published before 1924 and 1928 when Milne junior was four to eight years old – you come to realise that life removed from A. A. Milne’s imagination was not as perfect as it was in the books.

“There are two sorts of writer. There is the writer who is basically a reporter and there is the creative writer. The one draws on his experiences, the other on his dreams. My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction. He wrote about him instead.” (P. 36)

It wasn’t horrible either, but as Milne explains, the success of the books brought both unrelenting attention on a young boy who was happily content to spend his days exploring the Milne home in Sussex, Cotchford Farm, and a sense of being defined by the character of Christopher Robin, whom Milne admits, was partly him and partly his father’s distillation of the perfect son.

A son, it must be noted, with whom he was not overly familiar thanks to Christopher Robin’s nanny effectively assuming parenting duties during his childhood; it was only at age 9, when he went off to first day school then boarding school that father and son really got to know each other.

When they did, they got on extremely well, although as Milne admits, his father, a noted playwright and writer of short stories whose career came to be defined almost solely by Winnie the Pooh, this only really lasted until the time Christopher Robin turned 18, at which point he began to diverge away from his father once again.

To hear Milne tell it, and he writes in an easy, light and disarmingly honest way, the father-son dynamic came to be defined by Christopher Robin, in ways big and small with Milne the younger going from quite liking the attention he received as a child to wanting to distance himself from his fictional namesake as he grew into adulthood.

 

Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh (image via Mashable)

 

Not so different to most people, but then very few of us have had to grapple with fame at a age when we barely even know what it is; indeed as Milne admits, like any child, his world began and ended with his family and his home, and imagining anything beyond that such as Pooh’s stratospheric fame, was simply beyond anything he could conceive. (He was in many years one of the first modern child stars, a concept that has become commonplace today but which was in the 1920s, a relatively new development.)

Granted he was interviewed from time to time with some experiences being positive, others not so much – one was so bad, with his words twisted out of all recognition by a reporter, that it poisoned him against giving any kind of fuel to the Pooh bonfire of fame from that point on – but that was usually the extent of it, with his father the one left to grapple with a writing career overshadowed by one small part of it.

Christopher Milne does note though that he was, by and large, happy with his relationship with the fictional Christopher Robin save for a period in his late twenties when he was unable to find employment and came to resent the way his life remained tied to his childhood in a way most adults don’t experience. (His father, as noted, went through something similar, unable to escape Pooh’s considerable shadow.)

“My father’s heart remained buttoned up all through his life, and I wouldn’t want now to attempt to unbutton it, to write about things he never spoke about. All I hope to do is to catch some of the overflow that came bubbling out and get it on to the page before it runs to waste. No more than that.” (P. 103)

 The Enchanted Places is a delightful read, giving us alternately a recounting of how the various toys he was given as a child came to be come the characters in his father’s wildly-popular books, and what life was life for a child in the 1920s and 1930s, in the fallow period between the two great wars that came to define he and father’s lives.

There is a whimsy and fun to some chapters as a result but always, always, a clear demarcation between what we think life was like for him as Christopher Milne and Christopher Robin – he publishes a letter from one young fan who can’t imagine why you wouldn’t love every moment of being the inspiration for Pooh’s companion, demonstrating the divergence between fandom’s perception and reality – and a firm countering of any idea that life as Milne’s son, of the fame that came with it, must have been nothing but sunshine and roses.

Again, Milne is careful not to paint his life as something he had to endure, happily acknowledging that much of his life was as wonderful as you might imagine it to be.

But he was not, and could never be, Christopher Robin since he existed solely in his father’s imagination and then in the books we all love so much, and expecting the real Christopher Robin to be that person was simply never going to deliver anything but disappointment.

As pulling back of the curtains go, it’s hardly revelatory – even at his most honest, Milne is rarely nasty or bitter and always balanced – but The Enchanted Places provides a fascinating look at what it was like to grow up with Christopher Robin as your constant companion, an insight that could well prove quite illuminating when Goodbye Christopher Robin opens later this year.

 

Book review: The Last Days of Magic by Mark Tompkins

(cover art courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

There is an immersive sense of otherworldliness that must be present in any fantasy tale worth it’s magical salt, if we are to truly buy into its escapist narrative.

A sense that you are in a world completely and utterly not your own, and yet, and here lies the tricky balancing act, still very human and relatable.

Mark Tompkins manages to propel us far from the drab confines of the everyday with ease in The Last Days of Magic, which tells the story of the near-death of magic in Ireland in the 14th century at the hands of the combined forces of the English crown and the avaricious twisted forces of the Vatican instead on seeing itself as the One True Church.

Ireland at this time, or at least in Tompkins retelling of it (there’s a great deal of historical elasticity at play here to pleasing effect), is a place overflowing with Ardor, as magical energy is rather magically known, populated by mystical Celts, witches, liberal Christians in the form of the Irish Free Church, a democratic monarchy that elects its kings and queens, and a host of Nephilim such as faeries (Sidhe), mermaids (Fomorians), the product of “unholy” unions between humanity and angels or demons.

“As the black mass passed overhead, Liam knew he had been called, an enchanted call that told him he would soon be needed elsewhere. It may have come in the cry of the birds, or in the wind they rode upon, or in the leaves that rustled in their wake. Or perhaps from something else entirely. It was a moment of knowing for those like Liam who could still perceive. Even in Ireland many were forgetting how to–forgetting itself a force as powerful as any spell–but not those who carried the blood of the Sidhe.” (P. 29)

In contrast to the rest of Europe, which has long had since the Ardor squeezed out of it – although a powerful witches coven in the French Court and the Vatican’s heretic-hunting VRS League seem happy to use it for their own nefarious ends – Ireland is running amuck with it, with battles fought and won based on the magical power that each power can access and manifest.

The greatest power of them all is the Goddess Morrígna who, much like the Christian God who shares Irish belief systems with her,is a three part entity, one anchored in the Annan or Otherworld, the other two taking the form of red-headed female twins called Anya and Aisling, one a learned scholar, the other a warrior, but both, especially after they unite at age 14, as the protector of Ireland and her magical independence.

Together all these mystical beings and the people who treat them with due reverence make up a sprawling tapestry of life and belief in the Emerald Isle, a rich, powerful and varied panoply of belief that Tompkins brings to life with vivacious intensity, in the process reminding us how much we have lost in our rush to the perceived safety of monotheism, modernity and materialism.

 

Mark Tompkins (image courtesy official author website)

 

One thing that strikes you almost immediately as you tear into The Last Days of Magic – it makes for compulsive reading; perhaps the result of a spell, or more likely, Tompkins beautifully balanced writing which moves between momentous narrative, historical truth and emotional resonance with exquisite ease – is the way the book flows so easily between the epic grandeur of power and the endless battles for it, and intimate moments between characters.

Far more than epics like Game of Thrones, where most everyone is hellbent on the others’ destruction, The Last Days of Magic gives us all too-human characters and otherworldly beings who laugh, take joy in quiet moments and who fight, not for power necessarily, than the right to remain able to determine their own destinies.

It is this innate humanity, which suffuses every page of this marvellously engaging, endlessly escapist book – even when hideously naked realpolitik is at play, you feel somehow removed from our world, perhaps because magic is accorded a reality and truth rarely present in our blandly materialistic modern world – which gives this brilliantly-detailed book such a burning, engrossing readability.

“The blackness drew back across the mouth of the cave, boiled there. Semjâzâ spat out curses understood only by those present in the first days of the world, words that formed into black serpents, only to dissolve into fireflies as they crawled towards Aisling. In the same language, Aisling began to repeat Gabriel’s order to Uriel. Her index finger left a luminescent trail as she draw a complex symbol in the air.” (P. 166)

This is magic and fantasy sprung vividly to life, mixed with the the best and the worst of humanity, a tale that spins together the factual and the imagined, the mystical and the material to devastating narrative effect, that is also deeply real and human and immensely fascinating and alive.

That is Tompkins great gift with The Last Days of Magic.

He explores how intricate and richly-layered our world once was, presenting us with a tale of life lost, Ardor squandered and big, bold, expansive thinking and belief systems sacrificed to the small minds and hearts of people who like to play it safe above all things.

This sense of a great many things lost finds expression in the lives of a compelling cast of characters, many of whom act with noble intent, with some still at work even now, as the bookending chapters at the start and finish of this most enlivening of reads makes clear.

In fact, the more modern sections of the narrative, which are lamentably all too brief but impressively effective for their brevity, are salutary call to consider whether myth and magic, evoked in all their wonder, cruelty and variety by Tompkins’ superlative tale, are not so much lost to the world as just out of sight, simply awaiting enquiring minds to come along and find them anew.

Who knows what might happen then? One thing that is certain is that if magic finds its way overwhelming back into the world, and we can’t be present to see it all happen, you will want Tompkins capturing and chronicling it all, weaving together the fantastical and the tangible to beguiling effect.

 

Otherworld beckons but should you answer its siren call? (book trailer)

(image via EW © 2017 by The Jason Segel Company)

 

Who doesn’t want a holiday from reality?

Given all the hellish commuting and bills to pay, the threat of climate change and terrorism and endless repeats of Law and Order, it can be tempting to think that a world in which all your most delectable fantasies could be realised would be an appealing alternative?

Be careful what you wish for says Otherworld, the first in a planned YA trilogy by Jason Segel and New York Times best-selling author Kirsten Miller where as EW points out, the price for all that unfettered freedom might be more than you’re willing to pay:

“The series is set amid a frightening vision of the future in which there are no screens, no controls, no rules to obey — only a mandate for living your best life and indulging every desire. It’s an addictive fantasy where inhabitants — ‘players’ of the game, as they’re referred here — don’t realize that they’re being played.

“Segel and Miller, who previously penned the best-selling middle-grade series Nightmares!, have returned with a potent commentary on how much we’re willing to give up to the lure of technology. “We built Otherworld to liberate humankind,” a voice teases in the book’s ominous trailer. ‘Reality can no longer hold you back — in Otherworld, there are no limitations.'”

Maybe a few good old bits of limiting day-to-day banality may not be so bad after all.

Otherworld released 31 October.

  • You can hear Jason Segel read an excerpt from the book at Hypable.

 

Book review: The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

(cover art courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

 

Time is one of those concepts we like to think we have a handle on.

We know we can’t stop its progress, it goes by too fast (usually; although it can also go by far too slowly when we’re at the coalface of work or on a particularly boring weekend), there is far too little of it or not enough, and there are sayings, cliches and glib tropes aplenty to explain it, describe it, lament or encourage it.

But just like time itself, a complex subject that has consumed the minds, to varying degrees of success, of the likes of Kubler, Newton, and of course, Einstein himself to name but a few, our attempts to subjugate it with word and deed always amount to a fairly inconsequential drop in the ocean.

In John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents, a sprawling, imaginative book that explores the lives of one family, the Toulas/Tollivers, utterly enthralled to time’s myriad, often inexplicable facets, it becomes patently obvious how damn near impossible it is to even begin to understand how time ultimately works, let alone control it in any kind of way, let alone a meaningful one.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Toulas/Tollivers don’t try.

“It would prove to be a magical year for my great-uncle as well, but the magic in his case was black as pitch. His father had met his end in the form of a watch salesman’s Daimler, a death that was not without a certain gentle irony; Waldemar’s nemesis, by contrast, was neither a man nor a machine, but an idea. That idea’s name was special relativity, Mrs. Haven, and there was nothing gentle about it whatsoever. As obscure as it was–and as innocuous as its author appeared–it had the power to annihilate the world.” (P. 63)

Unfortunately, beginning with Ottokar in late nineteenth-century Moravia (now Czech Republic), who supposedly happens on a way to travel through time, thus controlling it to some degree, and ending up with his great-grandson Waldemar in twenty-first century New York City, the family ends up more cursed than blessed by their endeavours.

In fact, you could well argue that their attempts to uncover, explore and master Ottokar’s theorem, much of which was lost in a tragic accident that claimed his life, send them all mad, consumed by a notion that time can be controlled and corralled, when all evidence points to quite the opposite.

Even by the book’s deliciously obtuse ending (or is it the beginning?), you are not really sure whether the family has succeeded in mastering time, fallen victim to a crackpot, witchdoctor-y delusion or simply lost their minds, their century-long mania less triumphant than a dour, all-consuming descent into failure and oblivion.

Suffice to say, with his gloriously dense yet richly-accessible prose, Wray masterfully succeeds in crafting an engrossing, astonishingly original tale that ultimately is less about time (although it is clearly the main protagonist) than the way families become an all-consuming passion for their members, whether they wish to participate or not.

We might think we are striking out on our own, untrammeled by family history and untainted by its losses and gains, but we are all, one way or another, the product of everyone who has come before, and escape, though often attempted, from the weighty expectations of our familial past, is rarely successful.

 

 

The Lost Time Accidents is a book that manages to be intense and yet wryly accessible all at once.

While there is a great deal of portentous weight to much of its narrative, culminating in young Waldemar, named by his eccentric, drunk-the-family-Kool-Aid-till-the-jug-is-dry aunts, mourning a love affair with a married woman he can never have for a whole host of reasons, being trapped in a bubble, removed from the flow of time, there is also a great deal of accessible, emotional resonance throughout the book.

Not quite as much as you would think given the weight of family history pressing down on each of its members but enough for you to begin to understand what it’s like for Waldemar, named after a Nazi war criminal uncle by his twisted aunts, to grapple with a life not entirely his own.

In fact, Waldermar, like his father and his father before him, has been trapped for decades in a time trap of their own making; granted it doesn’t manifest as a the chronology-free bubble that the youngest Tolliver now inhabits, until well down the family line, but it has been there, in thought and obsession ever since Ottokar stepped off a street in pre-twentieth century Znojmo, Moravia.

That is finally ensares Waldemar in its clutches is almost fated, fated as he is with closing the family loop; what isn’t so certain is now that happens.

“More and more clearly, as he whittled and buffed, Orson came to see his novel as a paean to Reason. How he’d managed to be born into a family that approached science the way a witch doctor approaches medicine he had no idea, but he was resolved, more than ever, to go his own way.” (P. 312)

Have Ottokar’s insights into time finally proven themselves? Was the monstrously evil work of Waldemar, whose nightmarish experiments resulted in the deaths of thousands at Aschenwald camp, onto something real? Or was he, like his Children of the Corn-nieces Enzian and Gentian, fooled by a grand generations-long joke on their forebear’s part?

Honestly by the end of this ambitiously immersive book, you’re not really sure.

It’s possibly young Waldemar has gone completely mad, killing himself rather than continuing a family line of which he is a part very much against his will. Or maybe, and this is where The Lost Time Accidents is both zanily quirky and unnervingly, desperately emotionally, darkly mad, the family has succeeded in having their way with time, although at great personal and familial cost.

In the end, how you interpret the ending is not the point.

Far more important, and elucidated in ways poetic and sublime, weirdly mental and gloriously sane, but never less than enthralling, is the way a family’s obsession, its curse if you like, can shape and twist the lives of everyone in it, decades and generations down the track, and how despite our best efforts, we can be complicit in its tyrannical dynamics.

The Lost Time Accidents is a book that is both deeply emotionally-relatable while yet being chillingly removed, a clever undertaking that comes close to sinking under its own ambitious weight, but which ultimately is a tale of family and time, and how we are always captive to the past as we race through the present into the future, and quite possibly, if you believe the madness or otherwise of the family Toula/Tolliver, looping back onto ourselves for a familial eternity.

 

(cover art courtesy Allen & Unwin)