Monday, 12 January 2015

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ January 2015

I have had great pleasure reading Robert Dessaix’s latest book.

It is a memoir called What Days Are For and is a delightful blend of erudition and plain forthright opinions on love, infatuation, travel, religion, spirituality, friendship and literature. Of course. On a visit to Sydney, to watch the preparations for his new play, Robert suffered a heart attack in Oxford Street. Fortunately he was rescued but then became “an interesting patient” as he defeated death, despite being allergic to his medication.

I’m hoping you have already read his much earlier memoir A Mother’s Disgrace about his childhood as a much-loved adopted child of older parents who encouraged his unusual obsessions, such as inventing his own country and language and learning the Russian language. If not, do read it as it will add to your enjoyment. It is totally enjoyable to hear Robert’s voice again.

You might also like to read the little travel book, a biography of Hobart, in the series issued by NewSouth Books. This is written by Robert’s indispensable partner Peter Timms and is a mix of history and description about the city where they live.

I read a most interesting book called The Map Thief which is about a rather ambitious American with the grand name of E. Forbes Smiley III who became rich and famous as a dealer in antique maps. Antique maps are valued not only for their beauty and their history and even for their practical uses but also for their rarity. Their value can be enormous and they can be irreplaceable so of course there is a special sub-culture of collectors. A very special coterie I think. Unfortunately E. Forbes Smiley III succumbed to the thrill of stealing maps from libraries and universities.

The book includes fascinating historical details about maps and a fascinating account of his fall from grace. He did eventually spend time in prison but many librarians felt it was not enough punishment for the heinous crime of stealing cultural heritage. If you do happen to be a map connoisseur there is great information in here as well as extensive historical detail about early maps from Ptolemy through Mercator to modern times. Remember a similar story about an obsessive collector in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief which was on the bestseller list a few years ago?

After reading The Map Thief I was attracted to a new series for middle readers called The Mapmaker Chronicles by A. L. Tait. The first book in the series is called Race to the End of the World wherein a farm boy is included in the crew of a vessel seeking to find the edge of the world. Why? Because he has a fantastic memory. I’m starting granddaughter Elise on this.

Historian Clare Wright’s book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka has won several prizes and been short-listed for more. And rightly so. It is a terrific book which tells a great deal more about society in 1850’s Australia than just the Eureka Stockade story which is, nonetheless, described with great verve. It is such a pleasure to read history when the author’s voice comes through so strongly. Fascinating to read the population of Ballarat was more than 30,000 and forty five percent was women and children.

Adventurous young females migrating to Australia, tired of leading submissive lives in England suddenly found themselves much in demand as partners for hardworking men digging for gold. A big improvement on being a scullery maid, despite having to live in tents in the rain! Even better educated women were happy to brave the hardships rather than conform to society’s rules.

The community of Ballarat was well served with women taking leading roles such as theatre manager, poet or editor of the local paper. It’s a dramatic story often told with humour and because diaries, letters and petitions are quoted there is a good sense of the temper of the times. I really enjoyed it. Also recommended is a new edition of a Melbourne University Press publication of Claire Wright’s Ph.D. thesis called Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans. Now published in paperback by Text Publishing it is a fascinating story of one of the few avenues for women to succeed in business. It’s on my list.

I’ve just read a review of Colonial Duchesses: The Migration of Irish Women to New South Wales Before the Great Famine by Elizabeth Rushen. It is a study of the schemes that brought free, single women to the colony during the 1830’s. How were they chosen, how were they treated, how did they find work? The Government would support them for three months. No more. Lots of fascinating stories about these adventurous, young women who were, of course, both industrious and virtuous! Later on the schemes catered for families but right then brave young women were better value! I’m sure I’ll enjoy this. It will add to the stories in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

There has been a lot of talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty five years ago. Have you read Anna Funder’s brilliant book Stasiland? If not, put it on your list. She was researching this in Berlin and because she was young, and beautiful, and from Australia many of the men she interviewed assumed her book would never be published. So... they told her the most amazing, confidential things about the East German Secret Police. Naturally, her book was published and won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction that year. Not to be missed.

The great P D James, grande dame of crime, died in November, aged 94. She brought a great deal of pleasure to many readers, all of whom loved her. Peter Milne rang to remind me that when P D James visited Abbey’s years ago so many people turned up we had to decide to invest in a sound system for future author visits and when P D came again a few years later we booked out the Bowler's Club down the road. It was the biggest roll up for any author.

The nearest was Janet Evanovich whose books feature the feisty female bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. Evanovich had, unbeknown to us, mentioned on radio that she would be at Abbey’s on Saturday and had been featured in a women’s magazine. More than 300 people turned up. We had expected about 100! So checkout the P D James titles and make sure you have read them all. The ones featuring Adam Dalgleish are the most popular.

Do you have bushwalking friends? If so, there is a wonderful present for them. This is Seven Walks: Cape Leeuwin to Bundeena by Tom Carment and with photographs by Michael Wee. Artist Tom Carment’s delightful drawings are very much in vogue these days and his writing is fresh and perceptive. It is a beautiful book that has been racing out of the shop.

Really exciting news is that New Yorker Magazine not only ran a long essay in October 'Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower' but in the December edition James Wood put her fifth novel In Certain Circles at the top of his list of favourite books of 2014. He still thinks The Watch Tower is her finest and describes her as a brilliant, austere writer. Text Publishing have done a great job of promoting this great Australian writer.

Keep well,


Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers