Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reading By Moonlight

My Short Review Of
Reading by Moonlight: how books saved a life
A memoir by Brenda Walker, published by Hamish Hamilton
When a woman goes into hospital for cancer surgery, she packs necessities, and usually something that is dear to her. Brenda Walker has spent a lifetime reading, and her treasured object was a book. Throughout the five stages of the treatment – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction and survival – she is never without reading matter. In her case the books are mostly classics such as the works of Dickens, Dante, Tolstoy, Patrick White. They speak to her, sustain and console her, bring light in the terrible darkness, and give shape and meaning to the experiences she must undergo.
The books occupy a vital space in her life alongside the spaces necessarily occupied by professionals, family members and dear kind friends. The writer says that if she had to nominate ‘the single person” she was staying alive for it would be her son. And she also expresses her profound love for and gratitude towards her mother who at least five times made the journey from New South Wales to Western Australia to look after her.
This memoir is very moving and also instructive, frankly guiding readers through the terrors of disease and treatment, and fear of dying, while exploring with them the joys of immersion in the gift of great literature.
This book, while facing dark truths and examining deep loneliness, is luminous with a quiet joy. It tells how stories hold the promise of more stories to come, and of another dawn. It stands beside Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and also Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” as one of those books you will take to your heart, and will not easily forget.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Footpath Library

Published in The Age - 13 March 2010

On a hot February evening we drove into a narrow street behind the Town Hall in Fitzroy. High above us along the ridge on the slate roof of a ancient bluestone church were strung, at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, seventeen seagulls, facing east, their backs to the setting sun. They were waiting for pickings. Down below, a crowd was gathering around two white Vinnies vans, one van giving away sandwiches the other dispensing free soup, coffee and cordial. I was with the people in the red car behind the vans, the car with a boot full of books. We would stop here for half an hour, offering free books to homeless and disadvantaged people.
While people surged forward to the vans, we put down a rug on the pavement and placed on it rows of books and magazines. A Chinese grandfather brought over his folding chair and gathered up some of the Chinese books for himself, smiling broadly, sipping coffee from a polystyrene cup. One man, disappointed that there was no dictionary on the rug, ordered one for next week. The books are free to take away, like the food. This is the Footpath Library, an initiative of the Lauriston Girls’ School Community Service Program.
Every Sunday night two members of the school staff follow the Vinnies vans which make six stops at key locations around inner Melbourne. Books are collected from members of the school community, and are stored in the school library – nine shelves where the books, in excellent condition, are stacked three deep. My journey began at the school library. As a book-lover I was dazed by the sight of the tightly packed spines on the shelves – Minette Walters, Gabrielle Lord, Ruth Rendell, Dean Koontz, Sydney Sheldon. There’s also a huge collection of biography and non-fiction, which is the most popular category with clients of the Footpath Library. And several shelves of books in Chinese. A regular contributor to the supply is Bayside Library Services; one large donation of books came from the State Library of Victoria. We put eight shopping bags of already selected books into the boot of the car in preparation for the night’s work.
The Footpath Library began when a Sydney woman, Sarah Garnett, was working as a volunteer, serving meals to homeless and disadvantaged people, and started bringing along books for distribution. This small gesture has developed in other cities to become part of the services on which homeless and disadvantaged people rely for sustenance and comfort. Joan Hammonds, the librarian at Lauriston, is the force behind the Melbourne Footpath Library, which has been operating for two years.
My journey continued in North Melbourne where the two Vinnies vans were stocking up. The six regular volunteers, led by long-timers, Norm and Manfred, wore fluorescent orange vests with the blue logo on the back. The 1,500 sandwiches are made from donated bread, with fillings such as tuna, ham, cheese, vegemite. Our first stop was on the edge of a North Melbourne park, and as we drew up a dozen or so clients drifted into view, some with their dogs, making first for the food and coffee, then over to the striped rug where we had placed the books from one of the shopping bags in the boot. This is not a grand operation – the rug is small and displays maybe fifteen books. Joan is quite familiar with the clientele at each stop, and so each bag is filled with things designed to interest them. Magazines such as New Scientist and National Geographic were popular here. There was some discussion over the merits of a book on war by Winston Churchill.
The books lie on the rug, face up, shiny coloured invitations to other worlds. The light is beginning to fade, the empty polystyrene cups are beginning to blow and bowl along the road. A few books have gone. Pack up the vans, the car, drive off. The clients linger by the wire fence to the park, but when I look back, they have dissolved into the pink dusk.
The drive to the Fitzroy Town Hall takes us past the Zoo, the dry parklands where birds are twittering loudly, round College Crescent. The towers of the university halls of residence speak not only of learning and books but also of warmth and community and home. We concentrate on being simply practical, not sentimental, with our car full of books, but there is a temptation to philosophize as we sail along past the have-a-lots on our way to the have-no-muches.
After the Fitzroy Town Hall we head for Hanover House in Southbank. The lights in St Patrick’s glow amber in the twilight as we zip past on our way to a street behind Crown Casino. Again it is easy to wonder about the distinctions, this time between the pulse and glitter of Crown and the quiet dignified gathering of people, two of them in wheelchairs, standing in the pool of light outside the crisis accommodation of Hanover House. We spread out our wares on the red and grey rug. A woman pounces with delight on Boris Starling’s thriller Vodka, provoking mirth among the company. She takes a couple of other things, and I talk her into taking Kay Cottee’s First Lady. Again the New Scientist and National Geographic are winners.
Next stop is a narrow lane where we park behind buildings, and a few people appear out of the shadows to get their meal and talk among themselves. This lot is not interested in books. But then we get to Flinders Street Station, and like children waiting for the circus, the people are sitting in a long line on the ledge of the stone foundations. One of the regulars is a woman “Annette” who says she has so many books in her room that her landlady has warned her not to bring back any more. Nothing daunted, she picks up a Ruth Rendell, but puts it back saying she already has it. She is thrilled with the autobiography of Barrie Humphries. I think she took about six books to add to her overflowing collection. Two novels by Iain Banks – severe black and white covers – attract the attention of two young men, but then they put them back. This is a busy gathering with a considerable feeling of camaraderie. It feels less isolated, more part of its surroundings, than the other stops. Annette spies a history of the Boy Scouts and gleefully carries it off.
Last stop a street by the Victoria Market where there are just a few people in need of soup and sandwiches, a magazine, a thriller and some conversation. All over until next Sunday.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

REVIEW from Boomerang Books

For those who enjoy reading to indulge in the pleasure of beautiful writing then Carmel Bird’s latest novel might be just what you are after. Child of the Twilight is a deceptively complex work with great depth of both characterisation and theme. On one level the story is of love and loss, yet woven through this are the weighty themes of belief, fate and deception. Central to the story’s narrative is the theft of the religious icon named the Bambinello, stolen from a Rome monastery.
Throughout the novel the concepts of birth and origin play an important part in the lives of the characters as they contend with their individual loss, search for identity or quest to unravel the mystery of the missing statue. As the story unfolds, readers are challenged by the notion of faith and led to question the ideas we live by as the story delves into the labyrinth of real and imagined beliefs. The writing is contemporary and engaging, yet manages to sustain medieval overtones drawing close connections to myth and folklore, while exploring the deeper issues of loss and the unknown. This is a carefully constructed work with a compelling storyline that keeps you guessing right until the final pages.

Creativity and the Bambinello

A key idea that informs my fiction is that of creativity, creativity in the forms of writing, painting, and biology. This idea has led me to contemplate images of the Madonna and child, focusing sometimes on the black virgin. The black virgin has a strong presence in my 2010 novel Child of the Twilight, as has the image of the baby Jesus.
In the 1987 story “The Woodpecker Toy Fact” there is a toymaker named Jack Frost. The narrator of the story recalls her childhood perception of him and his work. “At Christmas he used to make wooden peepshows of the crib. You closed one eye and looked through the hole in the box. Inside, in an unearthly light, were first the shepherds, then the animals, and further back the baby like a sugar mouse in his mother’s arms. The angels were in the far distance, wings sharp like the wings of swallows.” The narrator makes up a lie, telling people Jack Frost told her he made the original of the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague, but nobody takes any notice of her.
At the end of Child of the Twilight a wedding takes place in the church at Woodpecker Point where there is a statue of the Infant of Prague, and there is also a fresco of a black virgin that is a portrait of an indigenous Tasmanian woman. This novel examines the issue of human fertility, presenting to the reader some babies who are the result of accidental couplings, some who are the result of IVF or ART, where science meets biology, and some who are the result of miracles outside science and beyond biology (notably the birth of Jesus).
The images of the black virgin that are venerated in churches, principally in Mediterranean countries, are signifiers of the fertility of Mary, and are frequently found where ancient fertility cults flourished in pagan times. The statues themselves are often the self-same statues that once were venerated as the black goddess. This dark aspect of Mary is deeply attractive to women in particular, and is acknowledged at a visceral as well as a spiritual level.
The statues themselves frequently come with stories of miraculous appearances in streams or caves, and are associated with water, the giver of life. The black virgin presides over birth and motherhood, and church hierarchy and patriarchy have over the centuries attempted to suppress devotion to her, fearful and suspicious of her pagan origins, and probably her dark female arts. You will find her steadily going about her business in such places as Montserrat and Saragossa as well as hundreds of less famous centres. She is good for tourism too.
In Child of the Twilight two are characters who collect facsimiles of the many statues of the black virgin, and one of these characters becomes involved in the search for a miraculous statue of the baby Jesus that has gone missing from a church in Rome. He was fashioned in the fifteenth century by a Franciscan, in the manner of Pinocchio, from a piece of olive wood grown in the garden of Gethsemane and was called the Bambinello. He was painted by angels, lost at sea, and ended up in a glass case in the church of Santa Maria in Araceoli, until he was stolen in 1994.
The role this image plays in the fertility of the characters in the novel brings together the miraculous, the scientific, and the biological, as well as locating the interest in the world of art, not to mention crime as well.
I have written at length on the subject of creativity in connection with the written word (Writing the Story of Your Life; Dear Writer; Not Now Jack) In my fiction I can also trace this preoccupation, specifically via the imagery of the mother and child, in Christian iconography, as well as in the frequent emphasis on the mother, and the child, in my the stories.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q&A With Candice Capp - National Library Bookshop

Carmel Bird explores faith, loss and the theft of an icon in her new work Child of the Twilight (February, Fourth Estate). Here she answers questions from National Library of Australia bookshop manager Candice Cappe.

Q The issue of art theft is important in Child of the Twilight, in particular the theft of a religious icon which resembles the infant Jesus—based on a real incident. How much of your work is inspired by real-life events?

A When I heard about the disappearance of the statue from the Roman church I knew I had to write about it. I knew in my heart that this was something I wished to explore in a novel. There is a thread that runs through my work—an interest in, focus on, the centrality of the child, which is of course also central to the Christian faith. This focus in my fiction sometimes leads to disappearing children (as in novel The Bluebird CafĂ©), and the fact that this was a stolen miracle-working statue of the infant Christ seemed fascinating to me. I perceived a metaphorical dimension to the disappearance. It came at a time when women appear to be having trouble conceiving, and are able to take advantage of medical procedures such as IVF, and I wished to explore some of the implications of such interventions. There were two real-life matters inspiring me—the statue and IVF. Bringing the two together was absorbing work. The statue is wooden, like the statue of Pinocchio, and stories of the making of children from substances other than human material (flowers, snow) appealed to my imagination.

Q The themes of faith and loss are central throughout the book, almost asking readers to question the beliefs that we live by. Did you set out to pose the questions about myth and belief in this book and do you think faith becomes more important once we have experienced loss?

A It sounds rather routine to say this, but the process is more or less: 1) the inspiration 2) the situation 3) the characters 4) the development of the plot. All these come together at the one time, in the writing, and develop alongside each other. As the work is constructed, the images and ideas work their way along as well. The whole exercise seems to bloom, all its elements opening out simultaneously in the process of the work. I can see, as I read the finished novel, that questions of belief of various kinds are being posed. However I did not set out to pose them. The range of responses people have to tragedy and loss is fascinating and important, and I have explored some of these responses.

A With regard to faith and loss—it does seem (in life) that people frequently seek a religious support in the face of loss, even when there has been little apparent faith beforehand. Religious faith can appear to bring comfort when comfort proves elusive. This novel does not aim to provide clear answers to the great questions of suffering and faith, however it cannot but pose them.

Q The book is narrated in the first person through the eyes of a young woman, Sydney Kent, and the tone is contemporary in style and voice, yet some of the themes and characters have an almost medieval appearance. How important is the idea of mystical legend and folklore in your work?

A Sydney is an American girl who is the product of an IVF procedure whereby all her genetic material originated outside her family. All details and records have been destroyed so that Sydney will never know who she really is. She is in fact a modern mystery, and has developed an interest in ancient fertility mysteries. The wisdom embedded in legend and myth and folklore seems to me to be apposite to the mysteries that will perhaps (or perhaps not) forever surround creation. The medieval flavour of parts of the text foregrounds for the modern reader some of the ancient poetic solutions to modern scientific problems (such as infertility).

Q Your writing appears imaginatively woven together with beautiful descriptive language, which makes me wonder if writing is as much a visual process as an intellectual one for you?

A My work is visual and musical—I work with the images that will bring forward the ideas, and with the rhythms of the language. Within this novel there are many key references to works of art, both genuine and false—these references are an important part of the visual canvas of the text.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The novel was launched by Ian Britain
in February 2010

Ian: "These days I give a new novel I may pick up about twenty minutes to get me hooked. I give it up after that if I’m not confident of two things: that it’s going to be about everything, and that I’m going to find myself coming into it. ‘My idea of a writer,’ says Susan Sontag, is ‘someone interested in everything.’

Carmel Bird’s new novel is not just about everything but is set in everyone’s favourite places and written in every manner and mode. There’s birth, death, sex, religion, art, food, fashion, war, family, schooldays, technology, magic, innocence, crime, love, pain and the whole damned thing. There’s Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Rome, Venice, Paris, Barcelona, Portugal, Mexico, Gethsemane and Woodpecker Point. And it’s all wrapped up in a style that, with brilliant, knowing playfulness, makes Gothic and Grand Guignol seem colloquial, normal, everyday, while lending a sublimity to clichĂ©, a transcendence to bathos.

My favourite character, lethally portrayed, is a headmistress, Dr Silver, who’s a Mrs Malaprop of platitudes. ‘Medieval legend or soap?’ the narrator asks at one point. We get the best of both worlds here, as Dr Silver might answer. But it’s true. Where in this fantastic confection could I possibly find myself? As it turns out, in several strands of the plot, and in various aspects of nearly all the characters, even minor ones. The action centres around the hunt for a missing religious statue, and celebrates the ‘thrill of getting control of an object that should be out of your reach’.

Only a few weeks before I came to read this book I was involved in a hunt, not for a sacred object, but a very profane one – the missing diaries of a notorious artist whose biography I’m writing. These had been missing for nearly 65 years. Through extraordinary luck I turned them up in the most unlikely place.

Carmel Bird’s novel not only captures the thrill of the chase, the fanatical urge, the mad hope that I came to feel so keenly but also the inordinate sense of miracle when the grail is actually located. But this is only one of multitudinous connections I found with my own life, career, sensibility. ‘I am drawn to secret autobiography expressed in code,’ says the narrator at another point. Any other reader, I’m convinced, will find his or her own autobiography here too.

It’s spooky, but this book knows you better than you’ll ever know this book. That’s part of its enduring mystery, both in the sense of a deeply spiritual drama and the curliest crime fiction. Thus does it combine in one the two genres of which Carmel has long been a recognised master. Rush out to buy it and be spooked."