“There is no friend as loyal as a book”
— Ernest Hemingway, American writer
Meet the Author: Rebecca Mead
Rebecca Mead was growing up in a coastal English town when she first read George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.
Through her twenties and thirties, as she moved away from home to study at University and then left England to pursue a career in journalism in America, Rebecca read Middlemarch many times, always finding new and richer meaning as she matured.
Rebecca has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. Since 1997, she has been a staff writer at the prestigious weekly magazine The New Yorker. It was after writing a story and then a book about the wedding industry in America (horrifying, apparently) that Rebecca thought long and hard about what sort of book she would enjoy investing her time in next.
Her thoughts returned to Eliot and after beginning its life as an essay for The New Yorker, Rebecca’s memoir The Road to Middlemarch is now a fully formed book.
Rebecca Mead joined The Hoopla for three quick questions.
As a child, which book(s) did you read time and again?
The first author I really loved was, I confess, Enid Blyton, the prolific mid-century writer of children’s books. The Secret Seven volumes inspired me to initiate countless secret clubs, with meetings conducted in garden sheds and passwords required for entry; and the Mallory Towers boarding-school series made me long for such alien and enticing possessions as a trunk and a tuck-box. I also adored Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Edwardian novelist: I loved The Secret Garden, with its intriguing, unlikeable heroine, Mary and the magical, Pan-like Dickon; as well as the almost equally compelling A Little Princess. (Although I remember being outraged, and strangely ashamed, when I learned that the poor scullery maid, Becky, had the same name as me. Of course I wished to be Sara, the princess-in-exile character.)
Another beloved book was What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge, which so vividly depicts the frustrations and longings of an unconventional, imaginative girl. That book was first published in 1872, the same year that George Eliot’s Middlemarch appeared, and when I look at it now I am struck by a similarity of theme: Katy “planned to do a great many wonderful things, and in the end did none of them, but something quite different—something she didn’t like at all at first, but which, on the whole, was a great deal better than any of the doings she had dreamed about.”
If you could invite any author (living or dead) or fictional character to dinner, who would you choose and why?
Of course my dinner guest would be George Eliot! She often wasn’t invited to dinners: her extra-marital cohabitation rendered her too scandalous for polite company (though her partner, George Henry Lewes, was more than tolerated at all sorts of dinner tables). So it would be gratifying to be able to issue an invitation—and hope that it would be accepted. Those who knew Eliot said that she was a wonderful listener: one friend described how when she was talking to anyone, “she strove to elicit his best, and generally disclosed to him something in himself of which he was not aware.” So much as I would like the chance to ask Eliot about her own life and thoughts, I would almost prefer to seat her among my other guests and listen to her asking questions of them—to observe for myself the instincts and the methods of a genius of observation.
Can you tell us a little about your new book and the inspiration behind it?
I first read Middlemarch when I was seventeen, and I’ve read it every five years or so since, my emotional response evolving with each revisiting. When I was an anxious, aspiring teenager, it seemed to be all about the anxieties and aspirations of youth. In my twenties, stumbling through misbegotten love affairs, I reflected on what it told me about the meaning of love and marriage. In my thirties, as I experienced ups and downs in establishing my career as a writer, the novel seemed to offer cautionary insight into how one might or might not achieve one’s ambitions. By the time I was forty, conscious of the doors of youth closing behind me, the book seemed to offer a melancholy insight into the resignations of middle age.
It was then that I decided to go back to Middlemarch once more, but to engage with it in a new way; and the result is The Road to Middlemarch. My book is an exploration of what many critics consider to be greatest novel in the English language, and an examination of its author: In it, I go to the places George Eliot lived, I learn about the people she loved, and I try to understand better how she came to write this masterpiece. But writing The Road to Middlemarch was also a way of reckoning with the life I had lived so far: of looking at the choices I had made, the paths I had taken, and considering the alternative lives I had left unlived. It was a way of trying to understand how any great book can work its way into a readers’ consciousness, and influence a reader’s life—until we are not quite sure what we would be without it.
In the Literary News
How exciting that Australia has not one but two new literary awards. Announced by Readings bookstore’s Managing Director Mark Rubbo this week, the Readings New Australian Writing Award will support Australian writers who have had published their first or that oh-so-difficult second novel.
The shortlist for the inaugural prize will be announced in October 2014 and winner of the Award will be announced in November 2014. Prize money for the 2014 winner will be $4000.
And because books for children struggle for recognition, even though they are critical in developing a child’s love of reading, Readings are also offering a prize recognising and celebrating books that “families love reading together, or that children read under the covers with a torch late into the night because they can’t bear to put it down.”
The Readings Children’s Book Prize aims to raise the profile of debut and on-the-rise Australian authors that make an important contribution to the rich variety of Australian Children’s Literature. The shortlist for this year’s prize will be announced at the Children’s Literary Festival on Sunday 23 March and the winner, announced in July, will also receive prize money of $4000.
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Massachusetts 1842: No longer able to tolerate the attentions of her drunken abusive father, fifteen year old Polly Kimball sets fire to the family home with her father drunk and asleep in his bed whilst she escapes with her mother May and young brother Ben.
May drives them to the Shaker settlement—The City of Hope—where she hands over care for her two children to the sisters whilst she tries to find a way to hold onto the family farm.
For children who have known nothing but horror and deprivation, the Shaker community is as strange as it is comforting. Here Polly shares a room with a girl her own age called Charity who has been a Shaker since she was left as a foundling on their hearth. At her first Sabbath Meeting, Polly is overcome and sees the angels that always came to her in her times of despair and the Shaker community believe they have a Visionist in their midst. The Shakers, especially Charity, believe Polly has been sent as a sign of Purity from the Mother. Elder Sister Agnes, who keeps a weather eye on the outside world, is not so sure. Many people, including the Shakers, want the valuable Kimball farm and will lie, cheat and connive to make it theirs. Searching for May and the children are three men, not all whom have their best welfare at heart. Polly and Ben’s safety under the protection of the Shakers is questionable.
Author Rachel Urquhart grew up in converted Shaker meetinghouse brought by her grandfather in the 1930s. Despite this, she claims she knew only three things about the Shakers before she began researching this novel—“they forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture and they shook.”
What attracted Urquhart was the revival of the Shaker movement in the mid 1800s when a number of teenage girls experienced religious hallucinations. The Shakers called them Visionists and Urquhart’s novel, The Visionist is a fascinating historical novel set in the midst of this revival. Through the eyes of the wonderful, brave Polly Kimball the fascinating rituals and contradictions of the Shaker world are revealed. Be that as it may, murder and thievery form the backbone of this compelling tale that proves that all evil needs to flourish is for good men and women to stand idly by.
On My Bedside Table
In 1974, renowned immunologist Doctor Norton Perina wins a Noble Prize for Medicine after his discovery of Selene syndrome—a syndrome that retards physical but not mental aging in people.
His discovery came about after his fortuitous inclusion as a newly graduated doctor on an expedition organised by the charismatic and aptly named anthropologist Paul Tallent back in 1950. Travelling to the fictional island of U’ivu, part of a remote archipelago of Micronesian Islands a thousand miles east of Tahiti, Perina discovers that the people have contracted this syndrome after eating the flesh of a rare turtle. Driven by ambition and the desire to impress Tallent, who he describes as “a mirror of human perfection against which I can only catalogue my deficiencies” Perina smuggles the flesh of one of these rare turtles back to the States in order to conduct the research that will make him famous.
All Perina’s work is undone when years later he is found guilty of the sexual abuse of one of the more than forty children he has brought back with him from his various expeditions to U’ivu and he is imprisoned for the crime. From gaol, at the behest from his former lab assistant and only remaining ally Dr Ron Kubodera, the now 71 year old Perina writes his memoirs. Here is a document, heavily and amusingly annotated by the self-styled best friend Kubodera that serves as a monument to Perina’s hubris. Reminiscent of the brilliance of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, The People in the Trees is a disturbing reimagining of the real life events that saw Dr D. Carleton Gajdusek imprisoned for sexually abusing many of his adopted islander children. Perina is a chilling narrator of this horrifying tale of scientific and Western excess and this novel is an extraordinary debut by American writer Hanya Yanagihara.
Long term fans will be delighted with Isabel Allende’s latest offering, Ripper—a crime novel no less!
Indiana Jackson is a gorgeous statuesque blond who practices holistic healing and conducts an affair with the rich Alan, who she refuses to take seriously, and a friendship with his rival for her affections, the battle-scarred Navy SEAL Ryan. Indiana’s ex husband Bob is the Deputy Chief of Homicide for the San Francisco Police Department and their fourteen year old daughter Amanda, who is borderline genius, is an amateur sleuth.
Amanda runs a team of like-minds via the web in a game she calls Ripper. Using her retired grandfather as their conduit into the adult world, Amanda and her team decide to investigate a string of seemingly disconnected murders with bizarre signatures occurring across San Francisco. Soon they know more than the police do but the fun dissipates when Indiana disappears. No longer a game, Amanda must find her mother before she too becomes another victim of the serial killer. Isabel Allende is a writer of such astonishing gifts. Ripper proves that she can turn her hand to any literary style. Great read.
Booktopia’s All Loved Up
Booktopia turns ten years old this week—unbelievable. Not only did it start as an online business when frankly the term online business was often a synonym for “fail” but it has battled giants such as Amazon and survived to go on to become Australia’s Favourite Bookstore and one of the few bookstores that truly does service a nation—no matter where you live. Happy 10th Birthday Booktopia!
We have decided to designate February to the Month of Lerve here on The Bookshelf. Want to say “I Love You”— say it with a book!
Here are Booktopia’s suggestions to get us in the mood for romance:
- Elianne by Judy Nunn BUY THE BOOK
- The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion BUY THE BOOK
- Bellagrand by Paullina Simons BUY THE BOOK
- Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope BUY THE BOOK
- First Love by James Patterson BUY THE BOOK
February promises to be a month of great reading—no matter what your literary tastes. So many great books, so little time! What have you been reading lately? Whether you hated it or loved it—leave a comment in the thread below and share your views.
Until next week! Mx
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*Meredith Jaffé is a writer, avid reader and The Hoopla’s books editor. Her reviews have been featured in the NSW Writers’ Centre 366 Days of Writing and in 2013 she was a member of the expert panel that selects the longlist for the Australian Book Industry Awards. When she is avoiding work, she cooks, plays Scrabble online or occasionally updates her Facebook page.