April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

One of the hardest things in life is seeing someone you care about go through adversity or struggle. It’s innately humane to want to absorb the pain for ourselves and protect our loved one from the slings and arrows of sickness and trauma. While the afflicted one is unquestionably single-minded in their immediate battle, those of us who are mere accessories to the pain are left to contend with helplessness, confused agony and what sometimes feels like incompetent love.

I have thought for many years that April Fool’s Day is Bryce Courtenay’s greatest work. Don’t get me wrong, I thought The Power of One was sublime. But April Fool’s Day is a gift of such raw and honest poignancy, that I have read and reread this epic memoir more times than I can count. I used to own a very much loved and reread copy of this tome but sadly had to let it go. Like the book’s thematic exploration, my pre-loved physical copy became as transient as the life the text celebrates. But very recently, and perhaps given the ongoing health sitch of one of my cherished friends, I downloaded a digital version so I can once again be absorbed by its message of gratitude and great love. Because April Fool’s Day is as life-affirming as it is incredibly, incredibly morose.

Courtenay’s profound bio is a tribute to the much-too-short life of his dear son Damon. Damon, a haemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in late 1983, aged 17. The early 1980s was the very genesis of the AIDS epidemic. Damon’s haemophilia made him endure painful and protracted bouts of unrelenting restrictions and, through bad luck and circumstance, would give birth to the even more capricious and mercurial HIV/ AIDS diagnosis. While medicine, education and (lord hopes) bigotry have progressed in extraordinary bounds since Damon’s diagnosis, Courtenay’s tale of filial love is as timeless as it is boundless.

As titanic as Courtenay’s devotion is to his son, April Fool’s Day reveals more than just an examination of fatherly love. Staunchly holding ground in the wings is the irrepressible Celeste. Devoted, constant and unwavering in her care of her beloved, Celeste’s omnipresence in the last six years of Damon’s life demonstrates the very best of loyalty and faith that I have ever seen. More than anyone, Celeste had borne witness to Damon’s deterioration as his body betrayed his determined spirit. Her battlements against Damon’s illness were the quadrella of humour, energy, determination and love. Pure and absolute love for what would be a temporary union. As Courtenay so eloquently articulated, she was not prepared to let Death into Damon’s room and would fight it back again and again. Damian died on 1 April 1991.

Courtenay starts his epic chronicle with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid IV – all at once the warmth fell away and the life passed into the moving air. It stings my eyes every time I read it.

Oh sweet and kind Celeste, wherever you are. I hope only good things have come to you.

The Things That Matter by Nate Berkus

Growing up, one of the advantages to be being home sick was lying on the couch watching Oprah. I’m pretty sure there may have been the occasional feigned illness in order to soak the teachings of my childhood guru.

Oprah taught me how to my ‘best self’, the power of a great book club and ‘aha moment’ became so inextricably entrenched in my vernacular, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t used it.

Oprah also introduced the world to Nate Berkus. Nate was the sunshine-filled interior designer, who remodeled unsuspecting viewers’ homes with his special hybrid of simplicity, warmth and flair. It also didn’t hurt that he was incredibly charming and easy on the eye.

The Oprah Winfrey show may be long gone but my girlhood guru is still a-teachin’ and a-preachin’. About 18 months ago I stumbled upon a different Oprah-TV-inception. Here, she was interviewing her former regular design expert, Nate.

Nate has a book! Nate has a story to tell. Nate is a-teachin’ and a-preachin’.

For me, the most successful interiors in the world are put together by people who surround themselves with objects that bring them joy. Amen Nate. Amen.

Recently my living arrangements changed significantly. I had two hours to pack my things that matter and rebuild in a different location. The treatise of Nate Berkus rang heavily in my ear: what mattered, what could I leave, what couldn’t I live without? To be honest, I’m not quite sure I got the balance quite right. In the trauma of the situation I managed to take 24 rolls of toilet paper, two jars of turmeric but I left a much-treasured book awarded to me as a school prize, a book of poetry a dear friend gave me on my eighteenth birthday and my much-worn but very loved ballet slippers.

But it’s all just stuff, right?

Hmm, yes and no. I believe there is a reason why we nest; why renovation TV shows and interior magazines are so successful. Because beyond the mayhem of the everyday and the pressure of muddling through, we all like to come home to a few pieces of joy that give meaning to our lives. For me, right now, it’s treasured photos and postcards from art exhibitions I’ve visited. It’s also an old timber IKEA table that I restored and painted. No matter where I end up or how successful I become (please, please), I think I will always have this fabulously flawed four-legged friend. She was a nightmare to restore but the end of the journey was so incredibly satisfying, I don’t think I could ever leaver her. Because to me, it is a thing that matters. It represents my struggles to build my new life and the (looooong) process it took to attempt make it shiny and new.

And really, that’s what matters.

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

I am often drawn to the eccentric and interesting. Nothing gives me more pleasure than people-watching: I imagine the lives and loves of those in front of me with the barest of clues. There is a local woman who has given me years of fascination and I’ve often thought about her story. Who is she? What is the story of her life? She travails the streets of my neighbourhood encumbered by no less than 10 suitcases at any given moment in time. The suitcases are always carefully housed in supermarket trolleys and she protectively guards them, her most treasured possessions, as she toils through the hours and days that make up her daily life. Always well-groomed with neatly combed hair and perfectly polished shoes, I often wonder where she goes at night. Does she have a home? Is she loved? Is she happy?

WHAT’S IN THE BLOODY SUITCASES?

One day she sat at the bus stop surrounded by her life’s luggage, devouring an innocuous piece of snow-white bread with butter the colour of sunflowers. Her utensil: a fork. It was glorious, resplendent with the most George Costanza and that Snickers Bar overtones. Chuckling away to herself with not a care in the world, she consumed her meal with great gusto. Other days I have seen her wildly irrational, shouting incomprehensibly. She is particularly protective of her suitcases and on those days I smile and nod, but carry on so as not to be hit by her random verbal spray. Bless you, Lady of Luggage, whoever you are.

It seems that the eccentric and interesting are not confined by nationality, generations… or suitcases! The Lady in the Van is the exquisite true story of the feisty Miss Shepherd who for 15 years housed herself and her van on the front yard of author Alan Bennett’s home. She is every bit as deliciously interesting as my Lady of Luggage and Bennett writes with great fondness (if at times exasperation) of his unintended tenant.

This book has been recently turned into a film with Maggie Smith, who I think would do the irreverent Miss Shepard much justice. But do yourself a favour and pick up this little yarn. Its brevity conceals a magnificent charm that is a reader’s absolute delight.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

“Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen.”

Like most 16 years old young women on the brink of adulthood, I was easily influenced and incredibly introspective. Naïve, yet on the brink of knowing everything, I yearned to have it all, know it all and be fulfilled by it all. I was a voracious reader (I still am) and frequently disappeared into the world of fiction, forever changed by the worlds introduced to me by Shakespeare, Austen, Mitford, Christie and *cough* whoever wrote Sweet Valley High.

At about this time I met someone who was soon to become a dear friend. In reality, she is more like a big (wiser) sister. I can tell her anything and everything and she certainly knows where all the bodies are buried. My friend-come-sister L is also a voracious reader and in this period in both our lives we traded shared experiences of reading – anything from Anna Karenina to The Thoughts of Nanushka. I look back and cringe how desperate I was to acquire experiences of romance and love.

L introduced me to The Lover. There are no words to describe this exquisite collection of beautifully formed words. For me it was the perfect book. It may not be so perfect to me now and yet it still makes me weep. Set in colonial Vietnam, it has everything: forbidden romance; the subjugation of colonialsation and race; gender disparities and mental illness. For such a trés petite novel, it contains a mighty tour de force.

In many ways Duras’ prose is like the syncopated rhythm of jazz. Sometimes it is elegant and sometimes it is discombobulated. But at all times, this autobiographical novel is enrapturing and I read it time and time again to be seduced by the lover within.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I once had a lecturer say to me that when you study a Masters, you read of lot of everything but you really complete anything. She was right. Due to the constraints of time it becomes incredibly difficult impossible to read much of anything beyond assigned coursework and research material. And even then, some pages are ‘skimmed’ rather than absorbed. Which is why I selected the treatise of a dying neurosurgeon as my ‘off-duty’ text (!?!).

I’m so pleased I did. The brevity of this memoir should not be conflated with its importance because this text is truly inspirational. A doctor, a healer and an admirer of the great poetic works of the ages, Dr Kalanithi writes with a grace and poise that sits alongside some of the best writers of the ages.

The memoir has been clinically divided into two parts: before and after diagnosis. The ‘before’ is mercifully succinct. Kalanithi skips over the inane tales of childhood that are so formulaic in biography and are so tedious to read, I am not sure why they are included time after time. The second part is his diagnosis: his ability to cope or otherwise and the realisation that the life he had planned for himself and his family is not to be.

This is a beautifully constructed memoir and reads like an exquisite novel. Kalanithi’s interest in arts and philosophy permeates each page, even when he is describing the most technical of medical details. This memoir had me at the title but did not disappoint as I traversed its inspirational pages.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I am not one for new year’s resolutions. Throughout the year I try to be better, smarter and you know, just totally awesome. I understand the notion of 1 January being a lamppost to guide change but it’s never really been my schtick. This year rather than pledge to be fitter and healthier (no one likes a skinny sober b*tch anyway), I decided I wanted to be funnier. Wittier. Sharper. Acerbic. Over the Christmas break there was dearth entertainment on the silver screen and so I started watching British panel shows. On YouTube. The clever sarcasm of David Mitchell and Richard Aoyarde, the witty repertoire of James Corden and Michael McIntyre graced my iPad and I was inspired by my Oprah-spired Aha moment: “I want to do that too”.

As sure as tinsel is removed by January, being funny is hard. Really hard. I’ve nailed drama queen over the last decade or so but comical candour is proving somewhat harder to master. So I need inspiration. And so I decided I needed Tina.

I wasn’t a massive 30 Rock fan although I have watched most episodes. Where Fey really sprang to my attention was that VP wannabe impersonation. Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin defined the US 2008 election campaign to such an extent that people to this day believe that Palin said “I can see Russia from my house”. She didn’t. But Fey’s depiction so entered the zeitgeist that the conflation between reality and fiction has infiltrated popular culture and urban legend. And she includes the original script including rewrites which is brilliant.

Bossypants is good but not great. It wasn’t super-laugh-out-loud funny which made me nervous. Being funny is hard. REALLY hard. I think I was expecting to be in tears of laughter through every page. I wasn’t. But it was incredibly insightful. Her father seems like an incredible man; a man who has earned the respect of the rich, powerful and influential by his very presence.

Fey talks about her career journey in a way that is inspiring. She is a doer. A worker. While her talent is unquestionable (the letters to trolls on the Internet are gold), her success is no mistake. Fey is a sharp, clever and funny lady. And a feminist. She wants to do better by being better. That, if anything, should not only be my new year’s resolution but my mantra for the other 364 days of the year.

 

The House by The Lake by Thomas Harding

I have been going through an odd reading phase recently. I cannot seem to settle into a book and have started and not completed several. Those on my incomplete list include: Lost and Found by Brooke Davis; Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff (now a movie!). These novels all sit at varying stages of completion in my eReader or on my beside table. I was enjoying them all for the most part and I will finish them eventually. I just cannot get into a groove with these tomes and so they remain suspended in purgatory for now until I can release them from their dormant slumber.

The other day I walked passed my local bookshop (an all too regular occurrence) and a book with an innocuous cover and an innocuous title jumped out at me for an inexplicable reason. I didn’t even read the blurb at the back and went home to download it immediately. I have been bunkered down ever since. My seemingly dehydrated mind has absorbed this this book like the nourishment it has been wanting. This text is glorious.

As a former and current student of history (currently at Masters level), my devotion and adulation of history is well known and well documented. But I can suffer from familiarity fatigue – once I have intimate knowledge of a subject matter it is difficult to be excited unless there is a different angle or new evidence. Or both.

The House by The Lake is both. It reveals the history of Germany through, as the title suggests, a modest house by a lake a few kilometres outside Berlin. The intimacy of this approach combined with familiarity of German history makes for incredibly compelling reading. I have a keen interest in German history, particularly the interwar years of the Weimar Republic. From Eric Hobsbawn to Peter Gay; from Richard Vinen to Richard Bessel, if they wrote about Germany throughout the interwar years I have most likely read it and very likely written about it. There is not much new for me to uncover. Until now.

This history is personal. Part memoir, part historical investigation, Thomas Harding shares the story of his family’s connection to a (now) derelict cottage in Grosse Glienicke, a village 15 kilometres west of downtown Berlin. The lives of the various inhabitants unfold and reveal themselves through time. It is such a unique perspective, I defy anyone to read this book and not absolutely love it. Not unlike Anna Funder’s (also brilliant) Stasiland, this is a modern take on some known themes. Gripping, intriguing, melancholic in parts, this is simply a damn good yarn.