“Women of Letters” curated by Marieke Hardy & Michaela McGuire (2011)
This can’t just be a review. There’s a story to go with this book – bear with me while I tell it.
Every year, as we Christmas shop, my love and I will always spot things we fancy for ourselves. “Here, my love, pop this in the Christmas stocking, please.” We end up, on Christmas morning, totally pointlessly unwrapping things we know, we knew, we needn’t have wrapped. This year, on our first foray into gift purchases for loved ones, after selecting calendars for ourselves and swapping bags post-checkout, we stopped for a coffee and had a conversation. “What if we say we can only buy surprises?” I boldly suggested. “Um, can you at least give me hints?” the sweetheart replied. “Well, no, that would sort of ruin it, really.”
And so we set out, on a mission to not point anything out, not even a subtle wink directed towards the latest Peter Brock book or pretty blouse was permitted. A couple of weeks later, Mum asked me for a particular book, and the next day, Luke saw it for sale and phoned me. “I bought the book your Mum wants. But don’t look at the bank account, I bought a couple of other things too.”
On Christmas Eve, late, very late, when we were exchanging gifts, I looked at the 3 book-shaped parcels labelled with Toy Story gift tags with some trepidation. We’ve been together 11 and a half years and he’s never chosen a book for me… me, the lady with 124 books on the ‘waiting to be read’ shelf. What courage this had taken, what determination to not only meet the surprise expectations, but launch bravely into the scariest world of surprises possible. The first parcel I unwrapped was the first book I reviewed this year “Worse Things Happen at Sea” – yippee, well chosen, husband! This second gift, “Women of Letters” was even more wonderful. Unbeknown to Luke, it is the same book I had purchased for Mickey. I’d read a review, I’d been intrigued, I wanted it for myself, so I bought it for someone else. And now, well now here it was, in my hands. My own copy. I was absolutely delighted.
So, Christmas surprises? An absolute success. My third book was “After Words” by Paul Keating (which I will read and review soon). My husband makes me smile wider every day. And what surprises did I get for him, I hear you wondering? Remote control Lightning McQueen, Batman board shorts and tickets to see Tim Rogers. Yep, I made him smile too.
You’ve been waiting patiently while I told my tale, so now I better get on with reviewing “Women of Letters”.
This is a book purporting, on its cover, to be ‘reviving the lost art of letter writing.’ That’s a bit of a fib, probably. It’s actually a book of little snapshots of autobiography – or memoirs – the only thing that makes them letters is that they start with Dear so-and-so and end with the person’s signature.
The book I thought I had bought for Mickey and the book I ended up reading myself are probably pretty different. I thought it was going to be a collection of letters celebrating the art of letter-writing. It is a book of letters, but a lot of the contributors are far more focused on celebrating themselves and their own utter brilliance than really engaging with the actual art of letter-writing. I also didn’t realise that the letters were originally written to be read out loud at performances. Performance poetry is painful enough, but performance letters??? Well, the comedians were probably good at it – stand up with the script permitted.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed a lot of the letters in the collection, and I particularly liked thinking about what sort of letter I would write for some of the sections. For example, there are letters written to ‘my first pin up’ (I’d have to write that to Shaun Cassidy); ‘to my twelve-year-old self’ (oh, the things I would say); ‘the best present I ever received’ (a toe-ring – it’s a long story); ‘my ghosts’ (someone I used to know); and ‘my turning point’ (delivering house keys to the uni bar changed my life).
The letters that had the most impact were: Jennifer Byrne’s letter, which was not her own, but which made me cry; Alice Pung’s letter to her Dad, which is horrifying and heart-breaking, but beautifully loving; Lisa Miller’s gut-wrenching letter to a person who won’t speak to her any more, which reminded me of a friend I once had and the strange feeling of never knowing why you weren’t good enough to be kept as a friend; and Helen Garner’s magnificent collection of tiny little snippets of letters of thanks and apology that make you ache to know more.
In the chapter entitled Men of Letters, I was particularly moved by: Paul Kelly’s effort to offer an alternative perspective of Othello; Eddie Perfect’s beautifully normal and familiar love letter to his wife; and Tim Rogers’ letter of love, regret and struggle.
I skipped a couple of letters. The one to Sarah Jessica Parker (who I think looks like a horse, but who Julian described as the woman with a face like a foot, which is so much more apt) and both of the letters by Noni (me, me, me) Hazlehurst, which went on and on and on and I just didn’t care.
I’m not sure Mickey will like it. Perhaps I’ll suggest that she just dips in and out, reading the letters by the people she knows. It’s not the book I thought it was, but it was a wonderful gift and I have enjoyed reading it. Do I recommend it? This one is a ‘borrow it, don’t buy it’ recommendation, I think.