OCTOBER READING - The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter; What Was Lost; Let the Great World Spin; Nancy Wake; A Pound of Paper

A POUND OF PAPER by John Baxter

The dictionary very simply sums up a bibliophile as someone who likes reading and/or collecting books. But as any serious reader/book person will tell you, that word sums up so much more - mooching around in bookshops both old and new, finding 'finds' again old and new, stacking them on the shelf read or unread in a certain order peculiar to only you, or occasionally discarding. Then there are those who buy and sell books - old, new, rare, out of print, autographed, penned, dedicated, good or bad condition. John Baxter perfectly fits this entire bibliophile profile. And what a lucky bloke he is.

It would seem, from reading this memoir, that life in post-WWII Australia was a cultural desert and people who read books were a bit dodgy. Young John developed a passion for books and reading from a very young age and found himself continually frustrated at the lack of reading material in the small country town he grew up in. Maybe this lack gave birth to his relentless (obsessional) pursuit of books and collecting them as he grew older. I expect one could psychoanalyse his motives forever! Nevertheless John Baxter has written what is, overall, a most entertaining and interesting account of his life long love for books and some of the amusing and intrepid ways he has obtained them. Plus the weird and wonderful characters he meets along the way.

I had never heard of John Baxter till I started reading this book. So every page was a revelation. It transpires that he was what we would now call a bit of a nerd. He was heavily into science fiction stories and comics as a youngster, a passion that he has never really lost. But it was also the beginnings of his forays into collecting and writing. As a child he had a friend whose father had a garage literally full of science fiction comics, and young John would spend hours reading these things, which led to him joining a society of like minded people and starting to write stories himself for publication in sci-fi magazines. A career in writing beckoned, after the initial career in the railways bombed and he eventually found himself in London. There he found another passion - weekend street markets - specifically used-book stalls. Purely by chance one day he finds a rare copy of a children's book written by Graham Greene and from that point on he becomes what can only be termed as obsessed by Graham Greene and his writing. Plus this opens him up to the fascinating world of buying and selling used books and publications.

'Finding' books for himself and for others forms the bulk of the funny and at times sordid anecdotes that make up this book. He has all sorts of interesting encounters with authors, publishers, film makers, and collectors. A lot of these people I had never heard of, and most of the books/magazines/manuscripts he obtains are also completely foreign. But it is still overall an entertaining read. There are some chapters where he just simply drones on about his passions without actually telling the reader very much and the whole thing is all a bit self absorbed. But people often are with their obsessions. And he still manages to have an amazingly interesting life - living and working in London, visiting professor at a college in Virginia, working as a film writer in Australia on that modern day science fiction marvel Mad Max, LA to do more screen plays and books, and finally Paris. Now he lives in Paris, married to a French woman, surrounded by books, still collecting and selling and writing. How bad can all that be for the little boy from Sydney whose first book purchase at the age of 11 was 'The Poems of Rupert Brooke'. Even he seems slightly amazed about it all!

Take a look at the author link - if you never get into book collecting, which sounds marvelously tempting, you can always take a holiday in Paris.

NANCY WAKE by Peter Fitzsimons

On August 7 this year, one of the most amazing women of our times passed away at the grand old age of 98. Nancy Wake has been claimed by both New Zealand and Australia as one of their own - by New Zealand because she was of Maori descent, born there and retained close ties with her extended family; and by Australia because she lived there from early childhood, grew up there and lived for a period of time after the war there. But she could equally be considered French for her service to France during the war, and also British because her war service was under British command, and she lived much of her later life in England. Above all however, as becomes apparent almost from the beginning of this book, she was her own person with enormous courage, enormous self-belief and enormous determination.

Peter Fitzsimons is a highly respected journalist from Australia and has written what is probably considered the definitive account of Nancy's life. I very much like the fact that one of her fellow countrymen took it upon himself to tell her story. His style is light and easy to read, and gives plenty of background to what made her the person she became. For example he goes right back to the beginning, to her birth, when the Maori midwife noticed a 'thin veil of skin which covered the top part of the infant's head, known in English as a caul.' The midwife tells Nancy's mother that it 'means the baby will always be lucky. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, the gods will look after her'. And what an omen that turned out to be.

Nancy was a very feisty child, very independent and strong willed. Not easy characteristics for her mother to deal with but major shapers of the adult she was to become. By the time she ended up in Paris in the 1930s, still only in her mid-20s, as a correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, she already had quite a life story to tell. A trip to Vienna in 1935 with some other journalists, however, became the defining moment for how the rest of Nancy's life was to turn out. After witnessing the most horrific atrocities to the local Jewish population she developed a very deep seated hatred for the Nazis, Hitler and everything they stood for. Once the war started, and France was taken over by Germany Nancy set about doing everything she could to hinder Nazi activities in France, to such an extent she ended up on Hitler's most wanted list. She was, in a word, relentless. And that is all I will say about her war exploits here, because you need to read it for yourself to fully appreciate the person Nancy was. I couldn't possibly give her story justice by 'reviewing' it, and I wouldn't dream of trying.

There are many heroes and heroines during times of war, and we also know that many do not make it, dying under extreme torture, betrayal, deprivation and atrocious circumstances. Such stories need to be told, and told regularly. In our consumer and celebrity driven society there are very few heroes/heroines for our young people to look up to, to learn from and to follow the example of. This is one such person we would all be a little richer for knowing more about. If you click onto the Peter Fitzsimons' link it will take you to a radio interview about Nancy Wake.


On 7 August 1974 an incredible thing happened. A magical young man, a genius, some would say a freak of nature, walked a tightrope between the north and south towers of the recently opened World Trade Centre, 110 floors up. In light of what happened in 2001, there is an even more amazing photo in the book taken from street level of this ting wee human and his balancing pole, part way along his wire, and not that far above him a much larger plane going about its business. How poignant.

Tightrope man lives in his magical escapist world, continually perfecting his tricks, his techniques to micro-nth degrees. Meanwhile at street level, on this particular day, life is not quite so harmonious, together and carefree. Two Irish brothers, a mother-daughter pair of street walkers, a group of mothers united in their grief for their sons killed in Vietnam, a disillusioned city circuit judge, and a young woman artist are all loosely linked to each other in the events that enfold either side of this day. Thees people are all trying to lead good lives as best as they can, yet life seems to continually throw curve balls at them, making me think of that sad phrase that we all live lives of quiet desperation.

The other character in the story is New York City itself. Virtually bankrupt, crime and violence out of control, the justice system barely able to cope, the ugliness and squalor of living in the Bronx, contrasted with the wealth, starkness and civility of the Upper East Side, the city is the back bone to the story. It is the city, strangely enough, that provides the link and humanity between this diverse group of people. This is not the first book the author has written with New York City at its core. 'This Side of Brightness', another stunning piece of writing, is a story of the men who built the train tunnels underneath the Hudson River linking Manhatten and Brooklyn. It is hardly surprising that this Irish-born author now lives in New York.

This book has won a number of awards since it was published - the National Book Award 2009, 2010 Ambassador Book Award Winner, 2009 Prix Deauville, and Amazon.com's 'Book of the Year'. I am not at all surprised.

WHAT WAS LOST by Catherine O'Flynn

A second stunning book for this month. Again it is about childhood and the loss of innocence, and the loss of many other things too. The title is very ambiguous - is it the loss of a life and a childhood? The loss of a slower pace of life? The local High Street shop strip? The loss of friendship? The loss of hope? A meaningful fulfilled life? All these things are symptoms of many people's unhappiness in our modern urban world. In this novel Green Oaks shopping centre, big when it opened in 1984, humungous twenty years later, is the magnet which draws a wide variety of people - in this novel mainly sad and lonely, to it. Why is it that shopping is listed as the number one past time for many people? Reading this you would never want to set foot in one again. Green Oaks is symbolic of how shopping centres seem to suck the life blood out of communities and the people who frequent them.

Kate is ten years old, orphaned, and lives with her well-meaning and loving grandmother. Her life ambition is to become a detective and to this end she is busy being junior detective, training herself up for the big time when she is a grown up. Together with her trusty side-kick Mickey and her 'Top Secret' notebook she keeps an eye on the goings-on in her small community. She makes regular forays to her favourite place, the newly opened up Green Oaks shopping center where she is convinced that a major bank robbery will shortly be taking place. Her best friend is Adrian, the 22 year old son of the local news agent owner. They understand each other perfectly and in the absence of a father, he is probably the closest thing Kate has to a father figure. With all the magic that young children can create, Kate makes her own world that she is in control of. Then one day she simply disappears. Just like that.

Nearly twenty years later, the shopping center has become truly enormous, a monument to modern consumerism and the hold it has over its subjects. Adrian's younger sister, Lisa, works in a music store in the center. She hates it, but can't see any way out. She was only 12 when Kate disappeared and her brother was investigated for the disappearance. He himself disappeared shortly after and this has shadowed Lisa's life ever since. The other lost soul at Green Oaks is a security guard, Kurt, who has his own demons to deal with. One long lonely night, Kurt sees on the CCTV in a back corridor a small girl with a toy monkey and a notebook. Not long after in another back corridor, Lisa finds a toy monkey. These two lost souls develop an unlikely friendship as they investigate exactly what they have seen and what it could mean.

A thread of hope and rising above the odds runs through this story, with our innate need for companionship and tenderness making our lives better and way more meaningful. After reading this you will look at your local large scale impersonal shopping center in a brand new and not very positive light. Back to your local main street for those odds and ends from your locally owned small business. Now if we could just manage to lose the real estate offices on the main street and make more room for those owner-operators...


It is the 1970s in eastern Rhodesia. Eight year old Nyree lives with her younger sister Cia, her mother and grandfather on a remote farm. Her father, under compulsory conscription of white men, is away fighting the Terrs in the civil war. Nyree and her sister create a world of magic and imagination combining the best parts of their Catholic upbringing, fairy tales and African magic and ritual. It is marvellous reading what these two wee girls get up to and how they make the most mundane surroundings into something magic. Despite their dad being away for long periods of time the farm seems to function well enough under the care of their mother and cantankerous, racist, homophobic, ultra-Catholic grandfather. There are black employees who are part of the family and who the girls turn to as much as their own family. At all times however the threat of the Terrs hang over the farm. Into this mix, one summer, arrives their cousin, 14 year old Ronin - the 'bastard', an orphan whose grandfather Seamus is the black sheep of the family and brother of the girls' grandfather. What this boy's problem is is never really revealed but what becomes quickly apparent is that grandfather puts all of Seamus's sins, whatever they may be, onto the boy, creating a climate of fear, hate and loathing. As you may expect it ends badly.

This is a novel about the innocence of childhood, how as children we intuitively know that something is not quite right but, being children, of course, we don't know what that it is or how to fix it. The writing is beautiful, lyrical, magical and all the more heart rending because of this. Narrated in the first person by young Nyree takes us that much closer to her world and the brilliance of it. I loved it, just loved it, it made me want to be a child again so I could convince my younger sister that we will indeed grow wings just like fairies and fly away.