Ten Books That Changed Me with Penelope Hanley


Ten Books That Changed Me with Penelope Hanley

What a delight to be invited to list ten books that changed me. It’s difficult to narrow them down to only ten, but how interesting to try.

My mother taught me to read when I was four. We were living in the remote east Gippsland bush and she was teaching correspondence school to the older two and to have three kids sitting at the kitchen table doing schoolwork was easier to manage than teaching two plus keeping an eye on a four year old not sitting there.

Once I’d mastered my John and Betty book, which was very quickly, I was off! I fell in love with Martin Rattler by R. M. Ballantyne. It starts off with ‘Martin Rattler was a very bad boy.’ Here was a boy who was just like me! And he sails across the ocean and has fascinating adventures in the jungles of Brazil. When I grew up I had fascinating adventures overseas too (though not quite in the Brazilian jungles, or not yet!).

Then there was a book that us kids devoured on weekends – The Seven Wonders of the World. I’d look at the pictures of the Pyramids and promise myself that I’d go to Egypt and climb them one day. Another book had pictures of Stonehenge, and when I was old enough I went there and in those days they were unfenced and unguarded, and I was able to lie on a horizontal stone just like Tess of the Durbervilles did.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery was a favourite childhood book, set in Novia Scotia, about an orphan called Anne sent to live with a middle-aged brother and sister who had wanted a boy to help them run the farm. Anne wins them over and adapts to her new life. She is imaginative and energetic and fun. Classmate Gilbert Blythe has a crush on her but because of his ineptitude in showing it (by teasing) and because of her temper and pride they don’t get together for years.

Then there’s Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for its larger-than-life characters and its unforgettable setting in Yorkshire, the farmhouse with its flagstone floor and the vast moor where Cathy and Heathcliff play all day as children. The original Gothic romance grips the imagination from the start with its convoluted plot of multi-generational characters. There’s behaviour that we’d call abuse now, which was shocking at the time – it’s shocking now! But the depiction of the alienated, misunderstood Heathcliff endures in the mind long after finishing the book. I had a friend who would read it once a year!

I must include Margaret Heffernon’s A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn’t everything and how we do better. See her wonderful TED talks – so uplifting. I was cheered to learn the extent of alternatives to the competitive, cut-throat neo-liberal ideology that I thought governed everything now. According to Heffernan alternative workplaces employ over a billion people. All over the world significant numbers of people and businesses are finding creative, cooperative ways to work together. They are proven to be far better off, even financially, than the stressed out workers in toxic workplaces where winning at all costs is the only thing that matters. This is an important book, engagingly written, and showing us a better way to organise society, a better way to live, one that makes ordinary people happier and one that sustains our living planet.

This might sound like cheating but it deserves inclusion because it did change me. Inspiring Australians: The first 50 years of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is a book I was commissioned to write. I’d initially thought that Winston Churchill was a boring, aristocratic military figure, conservative and stuffy. My research revealed a bright, witty man who loved animals and people, food and wine, and who painted prolifically. Another reason he became dear to my heart was for his railing against the verbosity of the Civil Service. And who could not warm to a man with his sense of humour? His definition of tact: ‘the ability to tell someone to go to Hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.’ So I’ll include my 2015 book because it introduced me to this wonderful man and also to the Churchill Fellows, in fields from fire-fighting to health, from the arts to zoos, who do amazing work to improve the lives of ordinary people. Almost all the Fellows told me that their Fellowship gave them confidence, a feeling of legitimacy in working at what they were passionate about. In the course of writing the book about these generous, gifted people, their confidence rubbed off on me.

John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay. This slim book explains clearly and simply how money works and how it has become such a tool of power. It’s important to understand how it works because we should be aware of the ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, and as he puts it in a New Yorker article (14 August 2014) ‘a world where everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are.’

Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose. This wonderful book is about discovering your creativity and maintaining it. She writes in an easy, accessible style with passion and common sense about a ‘revolutionary programme for doing all that you love’. ‘Isolation is the dream killer, not your attitude,’ she writes, advocating doing what you love, since the ‘things that fascinate you exist because of some talent you were born with. You have eyes to see what many people miss. That’s how talent affects all of us. And you owe it to all of us to use your talents.’ (p. 43). Some of her book titles sound a bit New-Agey but her approach is practical and down to earth. She knows that to get anything done, we need structure. Arm yourself with Refuse to Choose and a calendar, a ‘day book’ she recommends, and sticky notes, and you’re in business! More info. on this uplifting, spirited woman: www.barbarasher.com

Sarah Key’s The Body in Action has to be included. She writes clearly about what goes wrong with our bodies and why, and how to fix them with simple exercises that really work. I couldn’t be dancing the Argentine tango like I do without her knee exercises! Sarah Key is a physiotherapist working in Sydney. She’s been the physiotherapist to the Royal Family and once walked barefoot on Prince Charles’ back!

Cathleeen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. I did not want this novel to end. It is funny and trenchant, suspenseful and wise in its exploration of love and loss. She is like a contemporary Jane Austen living in New York. Her novels are pitch-perfect, witty explorations of relationships and the dynamics of family life. She also wrote The Love Letter, (‘a comic tale of lust and language’ as a critic described it) and after reading that, I wanted to read all her novels. Happily for me, I still have a few to go plus she keeps writing new ones. See www.cathleenschine.com

After reading these books you don’t feel alone – you feel as if you’ve made a new friend. From my first days of reading a book myself to now, books have made a huge positive difference to my life. I’m a bibliomaniac and love sharing that mania with anyone who will listen! Thank you for the opportunity to share my ten with a simpatico audience!


After She Left
Penelope Hanley

Three women. Three generations. One city.

When young Irish artist Deirdre O’Mara emigrates from the remote Blasket Islands to Sydney’s The Rocks in the 1920s, she makes an indelible mark on conservative society with her surrealist art and bohemian ways. Just after the Second World War, Deirdre leaves for Europe to be with her lover – leaving behind her estranged daughter and a family secret.

Years later, Deirdre’s granddaughter Keira is determined to discover the secret and her mother, Maureen, clinging to her own fears of the past and a desire to change her future, fights to stop her.

When the three women’s lives intersect amidst the emerging women’s liberation movement and political tension in 1970s Sydney, what price will be paid for the deceptions of the past?

A compelling and mysterious story of hidden identities, forbidden love and the power of feminism, set in bohemian art scene of twentieth-century Sydney.

Ventura Press

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