from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Books that sustain us OR keep us exploring.

Richard Flanagan’s lastest novel

December 14. The year is almost past. We have survived so far. For those who love books, the reading life has been an activity that has helped us get through the worst times. The Economist magazine agrees. In their business section of the edition, ‘The World in 2021’ I was pleased to see an article, ‘Books bounce Back’. Book buying – print and digital has increased. We cannot be sure that books have been read, but they have been bought!

‘The year 2020 is on track to be one of the best for print books in America since 2004.’

eBooks and audio book sales have recorded double digit growth and print books sales increased by 7%. 2021 is also forecast to be another positive year for book sellers. And it’s not just Amazon that has benefitted: a newish online bookseller which routes sales to independent bookstores is doing well.  

https://bookshop.org/

I often wish I had kept a running list of the books that I read each year. Because I forget. Maybe that is why I don’t like to give away the books that fill our bookcases.

I usually have at least a couple of books on the go. The mind can do that! At the moment I am reading The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, (due out in the UK in January 2021) a fascinating, dark, imaginative novel by Richard Flanagan, (he of the Booker Prize, Winner 2014 with the Narrow Road to the Deep North).

Interesting title. Some of you, unlike me, will be ultra-aware and recognise it as a quote from a poem by English poet, John Clare (1793-1864). Ignorant, that I am, I did not know about John Clare until David Vincent (also a writer in this group of bloggers) introduced me to him. It’s a very sad, very beautiful poem written when Clare was bereft of love and hope (as some are during these times).

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43948/i-am

‘Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is a strange novel for strange times. It is set in Tasmania during the 2019 summer where 3 siblings gather around the bedside of their dying mother while Australia burns. Ignore the darkness and read it. It will take you away to wonder at many things: of hope in the face of disaster, of our threatened natural world, of vanishing wildlife, of the nature of kindness and of family dynamics around a dying parent.

‘Is translating experience into words any achievement at all? Or is it just the cause of all our unhappiness?’ (Flanagan) All writers might ask this. What is there left to write in this new world?

I too am a writer: attempting through imagination translated into words to create a believable story. I feel what Flanagan has done is to take us into the Covid-19 future of an unravelling world. He uses magical realism and the disturbing ‘vanishings’ of The Living Sea to place us in that world.

It is worth listening to the excellent podcast of Richard Flanagan talking to Richard Fiedler (another author and an excellent interviewer) on ABC’s Conversations. Even if you don’t see yourself getting this book, do listen to this podcast. Amongst other things, It will take you away to a distant lighthouse island; to the idea of Tasmania being a Jewish safe zone during the 2nd WW; to the dying rainforest of the SW of Tasmania, to the politics of denial.

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/richard-flanagan-living-sea-of-waking-dreams/12715504

How lucky we are as readers to have such resources at our fingertips.

This part-poem from Mervyn Peake comes from one of his Gormenghast books (Titus Groan). The poem may not be about books, instead it is about loneliness, imagination and exploring ideas. And, of course, it keeps us exploring and paying attention to things that are vanishing.

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/linger-now-with-me-thou-beauty/

Will thou come with me, and linger?
And discourse with me of those
Secret things the mystic finger
Points to, but will not disclose?
When I’m all alone, my glory
Always fades, because I find
Being lonely drives the splendour
Of my vision from my mind.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Musings. I sleep between an owl and a snake

June 25. I sleep between an owl and a snake.  

I’ve chosen to do so for years. I also always have books at my bedside. Reading, as all writers know, is doing a workout, attending a seminar, and participating in a workshop all in one. I’m not racist in my reading choices either. I read modern and classic literature of all genres and ethnicities, they each have theirs quirks and joys.

The Russians become entangled in minutiae and veer from the central theme of the story, the Indians are wordy, with a great love for the polysyllabic, the Africans use proverbs with a profound weariness, the Scandinavians insist on grinding mundanity into the reader till we feel their melancholia, the Australians work hard at appearing unassuming, all achievements must be quiet. The Brits think for a scene to be more interesting it requires sex. Who doesn’t love a good sex scene – but theirs are mostly raw, grimy, slimy.  

I read them all, studying their styles – but I am resolutely steeped in the Greek classics. The philosophers are my saints. Their works are my Bibles. Diogenes the Cynic of Sinope is my current entertainment. His writings have not survived but it’s the way he lived that has me chuckling to myself at odd times during the day. Every time I buy chicken to cook for dinner, I must suppress my laughter. It causes me to recall how Plato declared to the world man is a featherless biped. Diogenes showed up at The Academy at Plato’s next lecture with a plucked chicken, held it up for all to see and said, “Behold, I give you – man!”

The philosophers’ works don’t need to be read all at once, indeed I prefer them taken in morsels not main courses. You never finish reading them, you re-read them for all your days. Yet there are novels I can’t finish. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is one. I’ve started it five times. It might have won her the Booker Prize yet to me it’s like a trip to a monastery. The arrival is as good as it gets. The outlook is appreciated but once relics are seen and the story of martyrdom has been recited by a sullen monk all I want to do is leave. …. Except one time when I went with a group of friends to see the monastery of St Ephraim. 

St Ephraim had been tortured then hung by Turks. Saint Ephraim is a healing saint, so many of my group went into the chapel to light candles and pray for the health of themselves or their loved ones. I stayed outside to stroll around the garden. Monastery gardens are gorgeous. I was admiring their stunning roses when I saw a young man on all fours on the stony ground. He was clearly suffering, dusty, sweating and chanting an incessant prayer as he crawled his way to the chapel. To witness such humility causes humility to pour into you. His emotions bounced around the searing stone walls of the monastery courtyard and right into us.  

A pilgrim making a tama

I’ve heard many a story of a pilgrim making a tama, a vow of personal sacrifice in exchange for the improvement in health of a loved one. The most common tama is to make the journey from their home to the monastery of the saint to make offerings and prayers – on hands and knees. Who knows where this young man lived or for whom he was carrying out tama, a parent, a sibling, his child?

We parted to give him free passage and offered words of encouragement for his pilgrimage. When one of the more elderly women present called out to him, “My blessings dear boy, the saint will hear your prayers,” his face, set hard in determination, crumpled and he began to sob – but he didn’t stop crawling. We shared his relief when he reached the entryway of the chapel and the shade embraced and drew him in. 

A sacred silence enveloped us all afterwards, the type where a supressed thought can reverberate through your mind until it’s all you hear. My thought was, if a young man can endure such pain and suffering why can’t I finish reading a book in the comfort of my home? I’ve always believed if a book was too tough to read just don’t read it, but this was Margaret Atwood, the world’s favourite literary darling. I mean, I like her, I think she’s terrific, but maybe I just don’t like the way she writes? I think I shouldn’t have watched her in a few interviews. Her voice is flat, no warmth, no inflections. When I read her words I hear her flat voice reading them back to me. I’m being too harsh, I must be, everybody loves her, yet nothing changes the fact, for me, The Blind Assassin is a dull read and certainly not the first time a prestigious prize has been bestowed upon a boring book not all that well written. I’m still trying to digest how Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer. I decide to try to get to know Atwood. I read some interviews. 

She’s into astrology. I’m not, but, just for her, I read my stars for the day. 

“To increase your creative powers, try to sleep with either an owl or a snake nearby.” 

I look to my right and to my left. I have both an owl and a snake. 

I bought the owl of Athena because it’s the symbol of wisdom.  

I bought the snake for the cup of Hygeia, the pharmacist daughter of Asclepius god of healing. Snakes were considered a symbol of eternity by the ancient Greeks because they could shed their skin. It’s only since modern times Greeks began to view the snake with revulsion. 

I keep my keys in it. 

So, according to my stars, my creativity is in full force because of the owl and the snake.  

Life in Greece right now is dominated by two things, Covid-19 and Turkey. We call Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, a snake. Every single day Turkey commits some provocation, from promising to send drilling vessels into our waters to drill our gas and oil reserves to gloating in his parliament how he believes Rhodes, Chios and Crete should belong to Turkey and he is going to take them, to sending fighter jets into Greek airspace to disturb the flight paths of our own domestic carriers, to Turkish coast guards spinning their craft around the boats of Greek fishermen until they capsize. And I haven’t even mentioned the illegal immigrants. France, Italy, Egypt and Israel are telling him to back off. Russia doesn’t want to know, and the USA has Trump who holds hands with Erdogan. To think he is just to my left, across the sea. 

But the symbol of Athens is the owl. The Greek government wisely says, “We do not seek war,” to which they add, “But we do not fear battle.”

I sleep between an owl and a snake.