Books that Saved my Life by Michael McGirr

Books that Saved My Life : Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure - Michael McGirr

Books That Saved my Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure

By Michael McGirr, Published by Text, 2019, 320pps.

Reviewed by Moira McAlister, October 2020

I’ve read some books by Michael McGirr- Bypass, Things You Get for Free and always find his writing refreshing.  He is a well-respected reviewer of books, counting over a thousand book reviews to his name.  A former Jesuit of twenty years, seven of them as a priest, and now father of three, husband and teacher at St Kevin’s Jesuit school in Melbourne, McGirr is easy to read -deep, reflective, funny and perceptive.  This book is McGirr at his best.

There are forty titles covered here and each one is given five-six pages – enough to reach some depth, but not enough to become dull or boring.  This book could be considered a memoir, I guess; it is McGirr’s reflection, not only on the book, its contents, the beauty of its language, its authors life and personality, sometimes its prompts to writing, but also it is his reflection on his own life; where he was when he read the book, people whom he associates with the book, often the place or circumstance in which he bought or acquired the book. It is a book of friends; each one of the forty books has a place in his life with its own special memories. It is a very personal book, but at the same time McGirr invites the reader into this personal space.  McGirr, always the teacher, brings these books alive and his tantalizing treatment of each book had me wanting to read or reread every one of the forty -from Middlemarch to Herodotus.

There were many memorable moments in this book; McGirr’s description of Herman Melville’s boring job as a custom’s clerk in New York (p196), Mary Gilmore watching Auburn St in Goulburn and Oxford St in Sydney from a first floor window, ‘slightly above the sod, but not in the clouds’, (p 138) or Leo Tolstoy ‘at no time in his life would it have been much fun to know him.’ (p182). Or some other observations; ‘Literature offers an experience of a broader world; one we can learn from but not control.’(p4), ‘(Tim Winton’s) concern about the vacant moral centre of the community he is part of’ (p30), and my favourite; Orwell says ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.’(p146)

The problem with this book is that each essay is engrossing and can be read again and again, so it is vital to have your own copy. If you love a book you can ‘dip into’ repeatedly then it’s certainly worth the investment.

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

Reviewed by Moira McAlister September 2020

Gerald Murnane is a name that I have come across occasionally in my reading of reviews and commentaries on Australian literature, but I have never actually read anything he has written, so this is a first.

Border Districts is Murnane’s latest work and some say, his final and perhaps, autobiographical.  Born in Melbourne in 1939 and educated by the de la Salle Brothers, he studied for Priesthood in the late fifties, but left and began teaching in primary schools and in later life, universities. He married in 1966 and has three sons.  His wife died in 2009 and Murnane retired to Goroke, west of Horsham, on the S.A. -Victorian border, hence the name Border Districts.

But this book is not about place.  It seems that this book is typical of Murnane’s work- introspective stream of consciousness focusing on how the mind works, referring to his thoughts constantly.  The phrase ‘while I was writing the preceding paragraph’ is invariably followed by ‘I thought, I was reminded of, I imagined’ and then continues to describe the new thought that had entered his head. This leads to a reading ride that is at once smooth and bumpy. Smooth in that if the reader lets go and allows Murnane to control the flow, going from one thought to another like a river, it can be a pleasant, jolt-less experience- seeing where the thought leads- the reader is definitely a passenger.

If, on the other hand, the reader is keen to interact with the text- to question, to make predictions and connections- then the bumpiness comes. Perhaps readers need a warning before they start.  Then again, I learnt this in one reading, as obviously thousands of other readers did too, for he is very well regarded in the Australian (and increasingly International) literary scene. His style, I guess, is unique and so in picking up a Murnane to read, the reader puts aside any expectations of ‘fiction’ they hold and allows Murnane to lead.

And this is the real point of my review. It seems to me that this work defies generally held views on what makes good fiction. The story or plot is non-existent, the characters are flat, repressed, unnamed (the girl who was nearly a woman, the man who was once a boy), there is little in the way of setting in either time or place, no descriptions of any note, no use of language to admire.  In fact, I’m sure it could be argued that this is not fiction at all, but rather an essay or monologue or dissertation. But obviously the publishers disagree for they have labelled it fiction.

Throughout Border Districts are recurring images, especially the image of coloured glass –from the beginning in the church windows to the final two lines from the poet, Shelley. Another is the ‘return veranda’ where he (the protagonist or perhaps the author) read with his youngest aunt, another is ‘guard my eyes’ which came from a holy card in his teacher’s Missal.  Repressed, yes and maybe even, as the author of a New York Times review suggested ‘verging on creepy’.

Add to this mix the fact that Murnane has never left the state of Victoria.  His eighty-one years have been lived within a 500km boundary and it was only ten years ago that he left Melbourne.  Up until then, his entire life had been lived within that city.

This seems to me to add to the monastic style of his writing.  Not that I dislike that – I think that there are enough people interacting in our world and we need to hear from people who volunteer to withdraw and live on the fringes of society, who don’t need the trappings of materialism and who are able to describe an ‘inner’ life. 

But those hermits of ancient or modern times generally contribute something substantial to society.  Usually their introspection has a spiritual, academic or mathematical basis and their insights can be valuable to the majority who are caught up in the hurly-burly. 

I’m not sure that Murnane is in this group.  He is not writing from any defined stand-point, he has no message to assist an ailing world.  He simply records what he is thinking and what that thought reminded him of. Perhaps it could be called literary introspection, but I would ask, what’s the point? I would like to have a chat with a fan -someone who really appreciates him, so I would welcome responses from readers.

Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak

Bridge of  Clay by Marcus Zusak.  Comments by Moira McAlister August 2020

Much of Zusak’s writing is poetic with evocative images and some critics have slammed this book for overdoing it.  Mostly I loved the writing; his use of short sentences, powerful and unusual combinations to achieve an image.  The first half of the book seems more studied and careful than the second.

The book is long, 600 pages and often repetitive and confusing.  Frequently I put it down wishing it had had a good edit.  Much about horse racing could have been scrapped, especially in the second half.  But his images kept drawing me back.  Here are just some that I had noted.

p 18; this kitchen was a geography and climate all its own: overcast walls, parched floor, a coastline of dirty dishes stretching towards the sink.

p 86; a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers stood in the middle (of the table) like some comedy duo

p 345; he was a wasteland in a suit

The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchella:  Comments© by Moira McAlister July 2020

This is set in the Sydney suburb of Haberfield where I was born, so I was always going to read this book, apart from the fact that Marchetta is a well-known and accomplished author, her Looking for Alibrandi considered a modern classic.

Dalhousie Street is a major road in Haberfield and the PLACE is very present with many references that locals will be familiar with; Lamonica’s IGA, Papa’s, Zenetti’s, Ramsey St., Algie Park eyc.  The house itself, the main setting for the story, could be any one of a hundred or so that front Dalhousie Street.

The two main female characters are both strong and believable in their desire to maintain control of the property.  As the blurb says ‘Four lives. One house. And not enough room for everyone’s baggage.’ I particularly like the character Jimmy – flawed and disadvantaged, but optimistic and focused, we know he is going to win through in the end. He is a great match for Rosie.

The writing was beautiful in parts and Marchetta’s use of dialogue is superb.

Fled by Meg Keneally

Fled by Meg Keneally : Comments by Moira McAlister © July 2020

Based on the true story of Mary Bryant, Meg Keneally has done a great job with this novel- it is her first independent novel, though she has co-written four, with her father, Tom.

The story itself is full of action and adventure as the escaped convicts make their way to Coepang only to be recaptured, most of them (including Mary’s two children) dying of fever.  She is finally pardoned and lived out her years in her native Cornwall.

I like the fact that Meg Keneally says, in the author’s note, that the fictitious Jenny gave her the freedom to fill in the gaps in Mary’s life. She has entwined the fictitious with the facts where possible and produced a fast paced, easy to read novel, with short chapters and characters which are believable and evoke empathy.  Jenny herself is strong, and with Keneally’s telling, is multi-faceted; a soft and loving mother, fiercely independent, intelligent and brave.

Looking forward to reading her second novel The Wreck recently released.