THESE TWO HANDS by Renee

Way back in the early 1980s, when in our early 20s, my brother had his first job at Playmarket NZ which managed/nurtured/supported/assessed playwrights and their works in NZ. I remember him talking one day about a new playwright, an elderly lesbian lady with only one name - Renee. It helps to remember when you are not yet 25, everyone over 30 is old, so Renee who would have been early 50s, older even than our parents, was pretty old. What an intrigue!

Naturally I was intrigued when she published her memoir a couple of years ago, and bought it. Intriguing it certainly is, written in 87 patchwork quilt pieces, 1 for every year lived so far:  an allegory of course for the enormous variety, layers and events of a life of what is now 90 years.

What a delicious treat this has been to read. It broadly follows a chronological line, beginning with her birth in Napier in 1929. Her father disappears when she is 4, she later finds out he killed himself a long way from home. She had to leave school at 12, being the oldest child, wondering at the time if she would ever get to learn everything she wanted. Such a great spirit this woman has, her zest for life and living shining through - beginning to write when her children were young, involving herself in local repertory theatre, getting her degree, becoming a teacher then a playwright, discovering herself. Her 'patches' are not all memoirs: interspersed with examples from her plays, her poetry and her musings on life. I really liked this, more than I thought I would. The woman is a treasure and at 90 is still out there giving life her all. 

CROSSINGS by Alex Landragin

There are two types of readers in the world: those who like their stories told page by page, so that you always know where you are up to, or those who like the idea of taking a risk and reading a book in a quite different way -  you get to the end of a chapter, and told to go either forwards or backwards to read the next piece of the story. Of course you never then know where exactly you are up to! Once you start, it is probably difficult to go back to reading the book in the conventional way - so quite a risk.... Like most on-line reviewers of this,  I chose to read the jumping around version, and once I got used to it, enjoyed it very much. What a story too!

In the present day,  a Parisian bookbinder is given a manuscript containing three stories, each quite different and unusual. The first is a letter written by the poet Charles Baudelaire to a young girl; the second is a romance set in Paris in 1940 as the Germans are stamping at the gates of Paris, and the third is really quite strange - the story of a woman from a Pacific Island community in pre-European times. Together these three quite separate stories tell the tale of two lost souls through 150 years and 7 lifetimes.

It really is quite strange, but also compelling, rich, descriptive and lovely to read. It could be a gimmick this moving backwards and forwards following the tale, but it never really feels like that mainly due to the uniqueness of the story, the characters, and the magic - you need to suspend disbelief somewhat. It is made more intriguing with real historical figures  featuring as characters - Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Duval, and they don't have minor roles either.  Give this a go, your patience will be rewarded.


THE BODY LIES by Jo Baker

Here is yet another novel about a woman making her way in the world on her own terms as much as she can, but still falling victim to a nutter who wants to claim her for his own. Oh, and then murder her. Nice. Why, oh why are women still portrayed and written about as victims, through no fault at all of their own, subject to the most ghastly fates. Over it really.

Nevertheless, this is very well written, the tension and unease slowly brewing. There are no red herrings, or twists in the tale; the reader finds out fairly early on who the trouble is going to be. What makes this novel stand out is how the woman, whose name we never know, uses her wits and her intuition to try and  beat him at his own game. You might not necessarily approve of her methods, but she is giving it a go, and doing all she can to not be a victim.

Our chief character lives in London with her teacher husband, and 3 year old son. The book opens with her being sexually assaulted while pregnant. There is definitely some post trauma here, and despite her best efforts it continues to haunt her. In an attempt to move on, she is successful in applying for a professor ship in creative writing at a university a few hours from London, which she accepts, much to the puzzlement and annoyance of her husband. But this is something she needs to do. Her creative writing students are an odd bunch, including Nick, who is a quite damaged young man, producing some very uneasy and alarming writing. Nick is also a clever and manipulative young man, and it doesn't take long before our professor has fallen into his web.

This is a psychological thriller, a game of minds and keeping one step ahead of your enemy. There is sexual assault in the book, quite graphic in one place, but not gratuitous. I liked this, but didn't love it, mainly due to the subject matter, which in some ways is more of the same. Although deftly done. 

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett

Sublime, beautiful writing - how does a writer do this? And tell a good story at the same time. This is a bit of a modern day fairy tale, complete with orphaned children, a step mother, step sisters, kind older women, and a huge rambling landmark of a house at the centre of it all.

The story is told through the eyes of Danny Conroy, firstly as a child living in the Dutch house with his parents and older sister Maeve. The Dutch house is a thing of beauty, originally built for a wealthy Dutch family, then purchased by Danny's dad Cyril sometime after WWII. Mother Elna never settles in the house, and then one day she is gone. Danny is only 4 so has little memory of his mother. It is Maeve who suffers the worst with the absence of her mother, especially when Cyril brings home Andrea. Danny narrates this time in his family's life without truly understanding what is going on, as one would expect. Things worsen after Cyril dies, the brother and sister effectively on their own. Danny is now in late teens, and Maeve mid-late twenties.

Maeve unwittingly takes on the role of protector and carer of Danny, and together the two of them muddle through life. What keeps them bonded for eternity is the house, the centre point of their relationship with each other and with the rest of the world. Their infrequent visits to their home street sees much conversation and processing taking place in the car across the road from the house, still a landmark in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The narrative of the story travels through the years finishing when Danny is in his forties, and I am guessing late 1980s. The only political indicators we have during the course of the story is that Danny is at college during the Vietnam War, and the manages to avoid the draft because he is doing a medical degree, reluctantly as it turns out, but it keeps him alive.

The lives of all the characters are remarkably ordinary, and yet the writing almost lends a magic glow or cast to their lives and who they are. I guess if you are telling a fairy tale or its modern equivalent, a little bit of etherealness is never going to go amiss. I mean, look at that cover! Maeve, all of 10 years old, sitting there having her portrait done so it can take its place with the other portraits in the house. This book was an absolute dream to read, I didn't want it to end, I just wanted to keep enjoying Ann Patchett's beautiful and understated writing.

MYTHOS by Stephen Fry

What was the last book you read that made you laugh out loud? This one will do it for you, the outrageous and gifted wordsmith Stephen Fry seamlessly weaving ancient story telling with modern commentary, a bit of naughtiness and some great word play. I loved it. We all know at least one Greek myth, many of our words derive from Ancient Greek and the stories of the gods,  as do many facets of our lives and how we live them. The collection in this book are only a handful of the thousands of myths and stories that have arisen out of Ancient Greece as a way of explaining the world. All societies and cultures have a creation story - here is the Greek one in all its violence, bizarreness, and strangeness giving us such characters as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Poseidon and many others. The fun really starts when the human being is created, and interaction begins between the two. These gods sure knew how to have fun with us mortals! I loved the way the gods moved freely with the mortals, giving new meaning to the word interbreeding, but also producing a race of wonder people. I bet every single Greek person now lays claim to be descended from a god, but which one do you want to be descended from!

The stories are simply wonderful to read. Stephen Fry relates every single story to some facet of our modern day life or recent history. We are all aware of narcissism - read the story of Narcissus; Pandora's box of course is another one we all know about addressing temptation, disobedience.  I loved the story of how wine was made, such an important discovery that Zeus made Dionysus a god, putting a few noses out of joint at Mt Olympus. Fry makes the gods human in their behaviour, their petty jealousies, their desires. And they are so violent - punishment is dished out with horrible frequency for mad misdemeanours, obviously as examples to us mere mortals to behave ourselves otherwise we too could meet a similar fate.

Now I have Heroes on my radar - where he tells the stories of Jason, Oedipus, Theseus, Heracles and many others, again apparently in that easy, modern day relevant way. Maybe these books will lead to a revival of classics in the education system, because they are all such ripping, exciting, and informative rides. 

CONFESSION WITH BLUE HORSES by Sophie Hardach

So hard to believe that it is 30 years ago since the breaking down of the wall that divided the city of Berlin - east vs west, communism vs democracy, freedom vs oppression. It took a while but it is really only in recent years that the stories are beginning to come out. Terrible stories of betrayal, torture, imprisonment, people disappearing, families destroyed, life lived in fear, any individual thought or action subject to intense scrutiny.

It is the 80s, and the Valentin family, living in a small flat on the east side of the wall, are quite fortunate compared to many others.  Parents Regine and Jochen have good jobs as writers, and with their three children Ella, Tobi and baby Heiko live in the shadow of the wall. The time comes though when Regine and Jochen have to leave, plans are made, but in the process of escape things go terribly wrong. Regine is imprisoned, the two older children remain in the care of their grandmother, and no one knows what has happened to Heiko or Jochen. Twenty years later, Ella and Tobi are living in London, now grown up and getting on with life. Ella has never really adjusted to life following the escape attempt and its consequences - too many unanswered questions, including who betrayed them. One day she receives a packet in the mail from the new owner of the flat she and Tobi lived in when they first arrived in London. It contains notebooks from the time their mother was in prison, and it sets Ella on the trail of trying to solve the mysteries of their childhood. And at the centre of it all is a painting of three blue horses.

Her search takes her to a Stasi archive in Berlin, where she meets a young American intern Aaron whose job it is to painstakingly put together all the files that the Stasi shredded, for whatever reason, keeping the shreddings. Together they embark on what would seem to be the impossible and hopeless task of locating the Valentin family files.

Ella is the main narrator of the story - a naive, silly and funny child of ten. As an adult in her early thirties she is alone, tired, lacking in direction or ambition. Too much in her past to resolve for her to be able to focus on a future. Aaron is also a narrator, carefully and diligently trying to put together the appalling life stories he is uncovering, the pointlessness of it when no one is around to read them. Until Ella turns up, giving him that motivation he needs.

This is such a well told story, so sad, heart breaking really. Yet out of all that pain, good things happen. Ella finds out what happened to her family, putting a number of ghosts to rest, in the process finding some peace and giving her the drive to go and make something of her life.

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

Read This. An ordinary woman who is also a most extraordinary woman. Ordinary because she has the same values and morals as most of the rest of us, ordinary because she wants the best for her children and her family, ordinary because she wants to be fulfilled in her relationships and her work. Extraordinary because of the opportunities she found she had and what she did with them and her determination to be the best person she could be, extraordinary because of the unusual and not very ordinary man she married, and most of all extraordinary because of what she has done with those chances, the difference she (and her husband) have made to the face of the US,  to women, children, people of colour and diversity not just in the US, but everywhere. Down to earth, relatable, open and frank about her marriage, her family, the impossible working mother balance; radiating positivity and energy, fighting her own internal demons as well as the public ones. And a great story teller. Truly an immersive and uplifting reading experience.