The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

May 2020

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Like many of you I find myself spending a lot of time isolated, and I’ve been going through my bookshelves seeking out the books I go to when feeling down and anxious. These titles always a help to me in difficult times, and I thought I might share them with you. They are a mixed bag, but I’m hoping there will be something here that might appeal to you.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor is a slight book—only 96 pages—but he says a lot in those scant pages. The book tells the story of Fermor’s time in three monasteries, The Abbey of Saint Wandrille, a place of great art and learning, Solesmes, famous for the revival of Gregorian chants and at the monastery of La Grande Trappe, where monks take a vow of silence. Finally he visits the rock monasteries of Cappadocia—cut into the mountains and where the monks, the earliest Christian anchorites lived in complete isolation. More that a history or travel journal, Time is a meditation on silence and stillness for modern life. Fermor writes, ‘In the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long, solitary walks in the woods—-the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear........’. There is also an excellent introduction by Karen Armstrong in this altogether lovely book. And if you don’t know Fermor’s other writings, they are well worth seeking out.

‘Take my Camel, dear’, said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down on her return from High Mass. How could anyone not read a book that starts in such a wonderful way. The Towers of Trebizond is one of my favourite books. Aunt Dot (Dorothea Ffoulkes-Corbett), Laurie—her niece & our narrator—and an old priest with the wonderful name of Father Chantry-Pigg plus afore-mentioned camel, travel from Istanbul to Trebizond, to write a history of Turkey. Many adventures assail them along the way, culminating of the disappearance of Father Chantry-Pigg behind the iron curtain. How they find their way home and rejoin Laurie and Dr Halide, a feminist Turkish doctor who is interpreting for the travellers, is such a great story. There is so much in Trebizond—travel, history, religion the politics of the time—plus a smidgen of the autobiographical. Laurie, the narrator, is based on MacAuley. She never married, but was in love with a married man—he and the fictional Laurie meet in Turkey. This affair ends in tragedy in the book. There is a lot to say about Rose MacAuley. She was in some ways the first modern woman to make a living by her writing. She was a poet, biographer, novelists and essayist. I have read and loved all of her books.  Joanna Trollope calls The Towers of Trebizond ‘a book of a lifetime’—and I’m in total agreement—every time I read it I find something new to ponder on.

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is a delight. Sophie, six-years old, goes to spend the summer holidays with her grandmother—an elderly artist, on a remote island in the gulf of Finland. Strangers, at first, they gradually become close and learn to accept each others fears and misgivings—and a special kind of love grows between them. I loved this book, not only for Sophie and her grandmother, but for the island itself, with its rocks, windswept firs and wild seas. Jansson captured much of her own experience in this book. It is filled with laughter, wisdom, joy and small adventures. Wonderful.
My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell is another book that never fails to cheer me up. I think this is Durrell’s best book, and though some times its language is slightly dated, it still has so much going for it—it never loses it freshness and delight. It tells the story of the Durrell family on Corfu during the years 1935 to 1939, when they were forced to leave because of the war. The family consists of Larry, the eldest, Leslie, Margo, Gerald— and mother. The weather in London is appalling and the Durrell family are sitting around in misery, nursing blocked noses, wheezes and sneezes. Larry suddenly announces that he has had enough of the cold and darkness of winter in England and suggests they should all move to Corfu where he has a friend. So they sell up and move. Some of the stories in this book are laugh out loud, most of them are amusing—and they are all entertaining. Gerald, who is 10 at the time, runs wild on the island, finding its world of insects and animals too good to be true. This is the start of Durrell’s lifelong involvement with the natural world. Larry is a writer, who spends most of his time with the various eccentric characters he invites to stay. Leslie is an avid shooter and often scares the others by shooting at tin cans on a fence, while Margo is constantly on a diet, drifting about the house, trailing scarves behind her. And mother is happy to spend the day reading recipes and cooking meals using all the great produce Corfu offers. There is a 2005 BBC 90 minute film, starring Imelda Staunton as mother, which is worth watching, not so the awful 2016 ITV mess. Also high on my list of comfort books are Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Alice in Wonderland & Jane Eyre. 

Janice Wilder

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