MY LIFE ON THE ROAD by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, glorious feminism goddess, now in her eighties, was in NZ in May for the Auckland Writers' Festival. I didn't get to go to her session - it was one of the first ones completely sold out, but I did read the review of the session. The review itself oozes adoration of this woman, and is an inspiring read in itself, I so wish I had been there.
Quite literally her whole life has been in the orbit of the women's rights movement, with a grandmother being a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, amongst other achievements. Gloria's own observations of the way her mentally ill mother was treated by the male dominated health system and working environment of the 1940s and 1950s shaped her early feminist views, paving her future path. She is, quite simply, an amazing woman.

I actually knew very little about her prior to reading this book, only that she was a feminist icon, that she had founded Ms magazine, and if you wanted an opinion on anything to do with feminism, equal pay, abortion, same sex relationships, civil rights, womens' rights and health issues, then Ms Steinem was a great starting point. This book covers all those topics and a whole heap  more, but not written at all in a know-it-all fashion, in fact quite humbly and modestly, her main mission being to educate, enlighten, and to bring about social justice.  You can tell she is angry about these injustices, but I also think she has become resigned to the way our society is structured, controlled and managed by, essentially men.  Although she does have more than few things to say about how women have been brainwashed into not being 100% supportive of other women. She cites the negative reactions to Hilary Clinton when she and Barak Obama were both fighting for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and how women abortion picketers would turn up for an abortion, then later in the day be back out on the picket line.  Ms Steinem has been actively involved in every election campaign in the US since 1972. What would she make of the current electioneering going on at the moment? Unfortunately this book was already published.

I would guess that she never really had much time to give reflection to her life during her years of her most prolific activity. Now that she is older, and maybe has had time to think back on her life, this is where this book has come from. She looks at her life as being almost like that of a nomad,  of no fixed abode, always moving on and moving around, putting her immense talents where they are most needed. She takes the reader back to her childhood, to her life on the road with her parents until they separated when she was about ten. The family lived in a trailer, her father being a travelling antiques dealer. Her mother, it would seem, was an incredibly talented woman, a writer and journalist, who gave all that up when she became a mother. Mental illness eventually resulted in her parents separating, Gloria and her older sister living with their mother, and giving her her first insight into the unequal treatment of women, particularly working women, in society at the that time - 1940s/19050s.

Her path as an activist really began following a two year scholarship trip to India in the late 1960s, which opened her eyes hugely to injustice, and Ghandi's use of peaceful means to achieve results. Once back in America her quest for equality for women, Indian Americans, and African Americans truly began.  This book meanders back and forth through the years from the early 1970s to the present day, full of her tales on the road dealing with issues relating to these groups. She speaks to everyone she meets, recording their conversations, their stories, and using them to illustrate her causes - taxi drivers, nurses and doctors in abortion clinics, air hostesses, teachers, mums, campaign workers, politicians.  She has a special affinity for the American Indians, living on reservations for long periods of time, learning their cultural heritage, advocating for greater recognition of their traditions and ways of achieving results. Very, very enlightening.

We owe a lot to her, she battled extremely hard, under attack herself many times as she fought her cause - too pretty, too smart, too outspoken, too polarising - hardly surprising she was on the road all the time, maybe too scared to put down roots anywhere in case she was hounded down by all those people she managed to upset and annoy! The reviewer who attended the session referred to at the beginning of this review said about Gloria - 'You are the grandmother of my brain', and that pretty much sums this incredible woman up. Read it, give thanks and be humbled. Then give it to your daughters, because they carry the mantle of feminism into the future.


My new favourite author, whom I have never heard of till recently. And yet he is a prolific writer of historical spy novels, having written fourteen in his Night Soldiers series since 1988, of which this one is number thirteen.  This is not flippant, airplane type reading, but more along the lines of Graeme Greene and John Le Carre - carefully plotted, very atmospheric, interesting ever changing relationships between the characters. I love spy/espionage/thriller novels, and when there is a historical framework as there is with the Night Soldiers series, I am in heaven. Most of this series is set in Europe and Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1944, with many of the characters appearing and reappearing throughout the series.

This particular story centres around the Spanish Civil War, at the beginning of 1938. Fascism is taking over Europe with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and of course Franco on his way to smashing the Republicans. Cristian Ferrar is a Spanish emigre, living in Paris, his family living in a small town northwest of Paris. He is a brilliant lawyer, working for a top flight international law firm that also has offices in New York. He moves easily between the very different worlds of Paris, New York and his Spanish birthright, the epitome of the perfect European gentleman. He should have been a diplomat. His intelligence, his charm, his smoothness and above all his despair at what is going on in Spain lead him into the murky world of arms running to deliver arms and machinery to the south of Spain. Defeat is imminent, but they aren't going down without a fight.

There are a number of sub plots going on too, with the law firm representing many Spanish emigres, dispossessed by what is happening in Spain. This is in addition to Ferrar navigating his way around his unnerving new world, always alert to whether his compatriots are spies themselves or not. Which of course keeps the reader riveted to the pages all the way to the end. It's only 250 pages, and yet the writing is so concise and elegant, the words so carefully chosen, it is just so good. My latest author to stalk....


I was asked to review this book by the author, a Canadian living and writing in Taumarunui, a small town in the middle of the North Island. A town perhaps not unlike Te Kauhanga, the fictional town in this novel. This is the author's second novel. I actually had a choice of any of the three novels he has published. I chose this one because of the interesting and diverse sounding characters in it. I was not disappointed.

One of the suburbs of this town is Taumata, climbing the slopes of a hill, of which the centre is an enormous tree, absolutely huge tree. Legend has that this tree is one of the legs of Tane Mahuta, Maori God of the forests, and it has a special place in the life of the town and the people who live there. The locals call the tree Taumata, it is the icon of the town, revered, a place of peace and quiet, the site of the town's  playground. It has been there, quite simply, for ever.

The characters who live close to Taumata are who this book is about, their interactions with each other and with the tree and its park. Montreal Perec is Canadian, from Nova Scotia and has lived in the house nicknamed the Lighthouse for thirty years. He goes for a walk around the town the same day every year; the rest of the time he remains in his house. He is a cartographer and is convinced he has at his fingertips the last resting place for a huge treasure that disappeared from his Nova Scotia ancestors. His only human relationship is an on line one, with a fellow treasure hunter who goes by the name of BloodyLegend45.  Then there is Sharon, who works in the local council office. She is admired and desired by many, but is a secret hoarder who lives in absolute squalor. This sad state of affairs relates back to her employment as an archivist. Stanley is the third main character in this story. He has an obsession with straight lines that rules the way he lives his life. He even walks through properties to maintain his straight line progress rather than walking around the street corner, He is constantly falling in and out of love with various attractive women living in the town, and slowly finds his barriers falling away as a result.

All of these characters have space and how they live in it, how it affects their souls at the core of their  hearts and souls. As we know space is an ever moving continuum, as it is in this story, as the characters find themselves constantly challenged by the events and people in their daily lives. With the tree at their centre.

I found myself quite engaged by the quirkiness of the characters, and how they manage what is going on around them.  There is great writing here, very enjoyable and fun to read. I think the writer really enjoyed writing large sections of this. His characters are well developed, real sounding people, even if a bit odd. But I did find some of the story line a little far fetched, as my very unimaginative mind set does not do fantasy/surreal/supernatural too well. So I really did not fully get sections in the latter third of the book with the strange appearance and subsequent disappearance of a homeless man; the cartographer finally losing the plot completely, and varying degrees of chaos taking place in the town.

However, despite the oddness that permeates many New Zealand novels, I did quite like it. Small town New Zealand - there is something very familiar and comfortable in reading about communities most of us have either lived in or have close ties to.


This is an edited review of that done for LandfallOnLine, the online arm of Landfall magazine, champions of NZ literature since 1947.  Thank you for the opportunity.

The author, Linda Olsson, Swedish by birth, has lived outside Sweden since 1986, and in New Zealand since 1990. Her first novel, Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, was very favorably received and made some good circuits in the book club scene. She has published two other novels since, with this latest being published in Swedish back in 2014.  

There are many devoted fans of Linda Olsson. Based on reviews I have read of her other books, this latest novel will be keenly read and enjoyed by those who like her writing, her themes of love, loss, memories, hope and moving forward. The writing is very beautiful, lyrical, gentle, slightly hypnotic even. Set in Stockholm from late winter to August, there is almost an ethereal quality to the writing, casting a sort of magic light over the city, where anything may be possible. Nothing in the writing seems forced, there is a natural flow to how conversations evolve, how stories are told through the dialogue, how relationships develop through the characters’ responses and reactions to each other. Sentences are short and uncomplicated, as are the chapters. It is easy to read, easy to put down and easy to pick up again.  

The cover on the original Swedish edition features a blackbird, in a room, sitting on a hand. Compare it to the cover of this latest edition with its orange silhouette of what could be any garden bird against a slightly clashing green background. A blackbird in a room? Perched and chirping on a hand? And yet this illustrates much more effectively what the novel is about than the orange/green/generic bird cover. Because the blackbird is central to the story, not only in its capacity as a songbird, but also as an analogy and personification of the main character Elisabeth. And perhaps for the author, being Swedish herself, a symbol of her homeland, her own memories, what she has left behind in leaving Sweden, and her personal identity. 

The blackbird is actually Sweden's national bird, becoming so back in 1962 following a nationwide vote. This choice was reaffirmed only last year in another vote, just to make sure that the blackbird still reigned supreme fifty plus years later, well ahead of its main rival the magpie. Oh, if only national referendums could be so easy....    Like most creatures, the blackbird hides away during the colder months, reappearing in the spring with 'its beautiful. Sad and soothing at the same time'.  

The speaker of those words is Otto, a widower in his late sixties, who lives in an apartment building in Stockholm. Otto is a retired bookseller; he was married to Eva who has recently died. His is not an unsatisfactory life but there is a perceptive sadness to his existence, which seems a little pointless now that he no longer has his shop or a companion to share his life and the wonderful meals he cooks. He does have a lot of books though which he shares with Elias, a young man who lives in an apartment on the floor below. Elias is a very gifted artist who works as a cartoonist/graphic novel illustrator. He is severely dyslexic, seeing his world through pictures and images, but does enjoy being read to by Otto, and being Otto's weekly dinner guest. Their Tuesday night dinners are the highlight of Otto’s week. These two have a deep friendship, possibly on a par with an uncle-nephew relationship, mutually respectful and affectionate.

Elisabeth is a very sad and lonely woman, very depressed, although the reader does not find out the reasons for her deep unhappiness until the last quarter of the novel. It is January when she moves into the building. Silent, reclusive, alone, eating her way through packet soups, surrounded by unpacked boxes, haunted in her dreams by the Woman in Green, bills piling up. Life is bleak for Elisabeth.  There is nothing at this stage to tell us of who she is, where she has come from, why she is in such a poor emotional and physical state. The book begins in March, spring just starting to rise, the days getting just a little less dark. Her contact with the outside world is forced upon her by a chance, but unspoken encounter with Elias through the letter box in her apartment door, Elias 'posting' mail for her inadvertently delivered to him.  A book exchange follows which then brings Otto into the triangle as the reader of the book gifted to Elias by Elisabeth. Now that a pattern of obligation has been set up, Elisabeth finds herself forced into continuing this intangible and invisible contact for a few more book exchanges. Until the day the paths of these three people cross quite suddenly and unexpectedly when Elias is the victim of a homophobic attack.

As spring becomes summer, the days grow warmer and longer, so too does the friendship between these three. Otto feeds them, they share books, music, friendship. The walls Elisabeth has built around herself very slowly and gently start to fall away. She removes the paper wad that was silencing her door bell, she opens her unpacked moving boxes, bit by bit takes things out of them, she starts to care for her appearance, she lets Otto do some shopping for her, finally she ventures outside into the sunlight with him. And the blackbird returns to Otto’s window.

From his first contact with Elisabeth through the letter box in her door, Elias has been strangely captivated by her. Unable to use words to express himself, Elias has started drawing a blackbird. He has no idea where this is going, but is strangely drawn to this new arrival in the building who reminds him of a blackbird. 
This bird that Elias is compelled to draw is clearly an analogy for Elisabeth - injured, defenseless, delicate and weak, sometimes looking as if it is barely alive. And this becomes the driving force of the book - the half dead/half alive bird constantly lingering at the fringes of the story and of the friendships between Elisabeth, Otto and Elias. 

However, there is a fourth character in this story – the Woman in Green. She lives in Elisabeth’s mind, has done off and on since childhood, and with Elisabeth in her despairing state has taken up permanent residence. The Woman in Green does not like Elisabeth’s new friends, her increasing happiness, her finding the sunlight again. Elisabeth is clearly frightened of this presence in her, and finds herself constantly being drawn back to her inner darkness and despair. 

This constant push/pull between the Woman in Green and the blackbird as the symbol of new life, joy, lightness and happiness is at the very core of the novel, as they fight for Elisabeth’s essence. The ending, when it comes, is very ambiguous. How it is interpreted may well depend on the mindset of the reader at the time. How strange to think, that maybe when the book is reread at some future time, the ending may be seen differently.

I have enjoyed this novel more than I expected to, despite finding Elisabeth irritating and not fully believing in her character. The extremes in her new found happiness versus her intense sadness and hopelessness, and her quick switches between these two extremes just did not sit right. There did not seem to be enough shades of grey in her emotional range. But as I have not suffered with depression, it may well be that people do have such very different public and private faces. I guess we all do to a certain extent. Even though the main character is Elisabeth, I actually found Otto the most well rounded and developed character. Aside from being intensely likeable, he is the most motivated to make a change, is very self-aware, and very intuitive in his relationships with Elias and Elisabeth. I liked him a lot. As I suspect, will all those Linda Olsson fans who will enjoy this latest release immensely.