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.

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.

Genre | The Biography

Rather than post about a specific book, I thought I’d post about a genre – the biography.

I really enjoy reading biographies – particularly about people from history. I also find historical biographies tend to be more authentic and less self-indulgent than an autobiography or a biography of a living person. It’s as though the living person needs to somehow be immortalised into fabulousness prior to their physical departure from earth. It’s really the pinnacle of hubris.

What irritates me about most biographies though is the seemingly laborious formula they all seem to follow. The narrative follows the same chronological structure – childhood, relationship with parents/ sibling, high school, after school, THEN the interesting thing that I want to read about. It’s a curious idiosyncrasy of the genre that all biographies seem to include the sunny/ cloudy/ rainy day that the protagonists was born rather than head directly to the interesting anecdotes!

Having said that, I think the biography is sometimes belittled for not being a true form of history and I believe it absolutely has its place in public and micro history. These intimate portraits are very, readable and sometimes a lot of fun!

Biographies I enjoyed include
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman – highly readable and extensively researched book about the life of a member of fashionable society, an influential hostess and a member of the Whig party. Adored by those around her, her husband falls in love with her best friend and abandons her emotionally and then physically. Fascinating insight into the powerlessness of women a relatively short time ago. Oh, and she’s related to the late Princess Diana!

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – this book was researched and written with Jobs’ permission but it holds no punches. Gritty and raw, Jobs gave Isaacson permission to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Made me want to sort out my wifi and sync all my digital tools (I did).

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir –Weir is the master of the historical biography. Well-researched and highly readable.

The Consolation of Joe Cinque by Helen Garner – I wrote about my intellection crush on Helen Garner here. This is part biography, part true crime. Made me really question our legal system.

Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley – I borrowed this from my mother’s book shelf when I was 13 and was hooked.

Open by Andre Agassi – honest, self-deprecating and some jaw-opening OMG moments.

Still Me by Christopher Reeve – Superman and a super man. Tissues are essential.

Biographies I did not enjoy that much
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – I wrote about it (here) but it felt way to sanitised to be authentic.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran – the premise is interesting but the writing style is irritating. Actually, the same applies to HHhH by Laurent Binet.

Biographies on my ‘to read’ spreadsheet
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Bonkers: My Life in Laughs by Jennifer Saunders
Living History by Hilary Rodham Clinton
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn

Can you suggest any biographies that should be added to my list?