JANUARY READING: All That I Am by Anna Funder

ALL THAT I AM by Anna Funder

I laboured two thirds of the way through this, thought longingly of all the dozens of unread books strewn around the house, and then firmly shut it. Not known for being a person who gives up on anything, let alone a book with plenty of praise on the covers, so feeling ever so slightly guilty, I did a bit of on-line googling. To my surprise, there are many readers who have felt pretty much the same as me, and what's more, that I should continue reading. Which I did. And yes, it did pick up not long after the point at which I had stopped. Thank goodness for that.

But...the last third certainly does not get away from the, as one online reviewer put it "worthy but a bit turgid", tone of the whole book.

It is 1930s Europe. Fascism is steadily spreading its evil footprint across the continent, nowhere more strongly than in Germany, with England doing its utmost to appease and mollify the unstoppable rise of Hitler and his cohorts. Since the late 1920s a small group of activists, some Jewish, some not, with a socialist bent rather than communist, have been trying to educate the German public of what Hitler's intentions are, but of course the public are generally blind to that. Hitler's coming to power in 1933 basically forces these individuals into exile - mainly to England, but also France, Switzerland and USA. Those that end up in London are Dora Fabian, probably the leader of the group, her on-off lover the famous left wing playwright Ernst Toller, her cousin Ruth and Ruth's husband Hans. These were all real people, as were a number of other characters in the story, but some names and events in the story are different from those in real life.

The story is narrated in alternate chapters by Ruth, now an elderly lady living alone in present day Sydney, and Ernst Toller who, in May 1939, is telling his story to his secretary in a hotel room in New York City. Anything involving Hitler, activists and  Jews, is never going to end happily, and naturally it does not in this story, or in real life for that matter.

This is a great story, but apart from the last third, really never gets going as a piece of story telling. It takes a while for the story to get going, and this is probably due to all the background history that the reader needs to understand 1930s Germany. The constant jumping around between a sick elderly lady reminiscing in 21st century Sydney; a depressed, broke, middle-aged dreamer in pre-war New York; and the action taking place in the 1920s-mid 1930s, plus all those German names, takes a bit of thinking to keep track of. As a result, I never really felt engaged with any of the characters and felt quite removed from the action, almost as if I was reading this story through some sort of transparent screen.

Before becoming a writer, the Australian born author was an international lawyer, working in the areas of human rights, constitutional law and treaty rights. I have been reading her blog, some of her writings and she comes across as a woman with roaring fire in her belly for the many injustices that go on in the world. She writes with well-reasoned logic and great purpose and she does that too in this novel. But I wonder if something has been lost in keeping true to the facts and the message that she wishes to convey. Apart from the last third, the book reads more like a text than a novel. But none of this detracts from the importance of the subject matter, and that is was not only the Jews who were extensively persecuted and interned in concentration and labour camps. There are many people of great courage who sacrificed much during this appalling time in modern history, and it is important that authors like Anna Funder ensure their stories are told.

JANUARY READING: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce


Harold Fry, the most ordinary of ordinary men. Early sixties, very recently retired, in a loveless marriage full of regrets and bitterness, Harold is merely existing rather than living. Every day is the same and there appears to be nothing to look forward to or a variation in the daily routine. He is probably typical of many men, and women for that matter, who get to a certain stage in life and seem to either forget how to live, run out of steam, or are so stuck in a rut they can't see any way out.

One day, just like any other, a most surprising letter arrives for Harold from a former work colleague, Queenie. Queenie is terminally ill, in a hospice some 600 miles from where Harold lives. It is not until the end of the book that the reader learns of the significance of the relationship between the two, which perhaps makes his actions at the beginning of the story rather surprising. Harold promptly replies to Queenie and determined for it to be in that day's post, proceeds to walk to the nearest post box to post it. And he simply keeps walking, deciding after a chance encounter with a young girl in a burger bar, that such a letter needs to be delivered in person, that Queenie needs to remain alive until he can deliver his message, and so he keeps going, and going and going.

Now 600 miles at even 7 miles a day is still 85 days of walking! Clad in only boat shoes, a light waterproof, and no cell phone, somehow, against all sorts of odds Harold walks 600 miles. And there are plenty of odds. Initially Harold is quite incapable of looking after himself, and so is forced to rely, unexpectedly, on the kindness of others he meets along the way. Gradually his resilience builds, both physically and mentally, and he becomes quite adept at meeting the challenges his long walk throws up. Once that happens he finds himself with plenty of time and space to reflect on his life, contemplate his mistakes, his regrets, his marriage, his efforts at being a parent, Queenie herself, and his relationships with the people he meets on his journey. Until, by the end of the book, the Harold at the start has evolved into a completely different Harold. As has his wife Maureen, left at home alone, who also undergoes her own life reflections process.

And does he make it to see Queenie? Not telling...

This is such an inspiring story, with all sorts of issues being covered, not necessarily exclusive to people approaching old age - retirement, grief, changes to long term intimate relationships, apologies that need to be made, terminal illness, depression, physical decline - but  certainly very prevalent from perhaps 60 years old onwards. Not being of that age yet, but seeing how many older people do get to live in rut, reading this book has made me more determined that I will not let it happen to me.

DECEMBER READING: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

THE GREAT GATSBY by F Scott Fitzgerald

 Not being American, I never studied this book in high school. Which was probably just as well. Because like the vast of majority of the classics of English language literature, such a book is way beyond the comprehension of the twentieth or twenty first century teenager. And so, a complete waste of a good book.  After only a brief look at reviews of this novel on Good Reads or Amazon it is glaringly obvious that readers either passionately adore it or hate it with a frightening fervour - and for most it was compulsory school reading.  Now take a look at the trailer for the Baz Luhrmann film due to be released in May of this year. It brings the novel to life in such a way that no high school English teacher could ever have done! And perhaps nowadays that is how we perceive a 'Classic' novel such as this. Filmed five times previously only shows how truly timeless the novel is, and how each generation tweaks it for current relevance.

This novel is so timeless it has been compared to a Greek tragedy with its classic love triangle - Gatsby, Daisy and Tom; secondary but essential characters who tip the balance into madness - George and Myrtle Wilson; and the Chorus - Nick Carraway who is a distant cousin of Daisy and becomes Gatsby's neighbour for the summer. Into this mix are thrown and stirred the greed, ambition and hedonism of the very rich in 1920s America. And above all perhaps boredom - these people have so little point to their lives, are so self absorbed, and have so little purpose that it is no wonder trouble results. Be careful what you wish for...

There is little point in doing a plot summary as the story is so well known and the plot is so accessible via the Net. But you don't read a book just for the plot. At just 190 pages, this is a short 'Classic' read, written with such vividness you can feel the heat of the New York summer, the cool lushness of Long Island, the despair in Gatsby's heart, the emptiness in Daisy. With the doorstops that nowadays pass for 'Classic' novels, it is a true joy to read something written with such finesse and restraint. It may not be rewarding reading for a teenager but for an adult, most definitely.