Picnic at Hanging Rock, novel by Joan Lindsay, film by Peter Weir

October 19, 2021 at 12:30 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Historical fiction)

  Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian film released in 1975. I don’t know exactly when I first saw it, although I suspect it was not long after that release date. I do know that ever since that initial viewing, it has haunted me. That this is the case for many others who have seen it, I feel sure.

Set in Australia in the year 1900, this is the story of a group of adolescent girls who attend Appleyard College, a live-in prep school of sorts. It’s an elite institution – or at least, one with pretensions to such a distinction. It is presided over by the eponymous Mrs Appleyard, a classic battle-axe type, played convincingly by Rachel Roberts.

As the film begins, we learn that the girls, along with a young French teacher and their math tutor, are being treated to a special outing: a picnic at the foothills of a striking geological formation known as Hanging Rock. They are excited and eager; they apparently have very few occasions like  this to look forward to and enjoy.

The chief substance of the film concerns what happens at Hanging Rock. If you are thinking that it cannot be good, you’re quite right. I will only say at this point that it may the strangest, most evocative tale I’ve ever seen on screen.

In the Wall Street Journal last month, author David Bell recommended the book, written by Joan Lindsay, on which the movie is  based (The title is the same.):

This Australian novel has been overshadowed somewhat by its 1975 movie adaptation—a classic directed by Peter Weir—but it deserves better. On the surface it’s a mystery story, set in 1900, about a group of students at a girls’ boarding school who disappear in a remote area of Australia. But affixing the label “mystery” to this tale is inadequate preparation for its complexities.

I immediately downloaded the book – $8.99 on Amazon Kindle. (The local library does not own it; no surprise there.) To be concise, it was not just good. It was terrific. The writing was wonderful. Lindsay spins her narrative with a light, ironic touch that seemed, to me, exactly right for the material. This kind of storytelling, the subtle deploying of a particular tone that enhances the reading experience, is a mark of mastery of the craft of novel writing, a quality I find sadly lacking in much contemporary fiction.

Here, the girls and their two chaperone/ teachers get their first glimpse of Hanging Rock. Irony has receded, replaced by a vivid sense of wonder (Edith is one of the pupils, normally a rather whiny chatterbox.):

The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated  with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.This splendid spectacle, as if by prearrangement between Heave and the Headmistress of Appleyard College, was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep southern facade the play of light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, other grooved and fluted by prehistoric wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.

  Peter Weir was  given this book by an Australian TV personality whom he  barely knew. She’d seen an earlier film of his and thought he could make an even better one from this novel. In his own words, in an interview:

I read it from cover to cover, was gripped by it and  the  fact that there was an unsolved mystery. And I was burning with it, I mean it was just like electricity through my body.

What a great description of the way in which inspiration can grab an artist and not let go until it is fulfilled. It helped, probably, that he was in his early thirties at the time – “…to be young was very heaven!” as Wordsworth says.

Several aspects of the film need to be pointed out. First, the cinematography by Russell Boyd is outstanding. Boyd won the BAFTA Award for this achievement. (BAFTA is the acronym for The British Academy of Film and Television Arts.) Never having been to Australia, I was spellbound by the beauty and strangeness of the place.

It needs to be pointed out that Hanging Rock is a real place; it’s some fifty miles north of Melbourne:

This huge geological formation looms above all the actors in this drama. It is sinister, implacable. It is witness to the truth of what happened that day in 1900.

The acting was excellent, plus I feel like I have to mention the meticulous re-creation of life in the 1900s as it was then lived Down Under. The costumes make a major contribution to this effect. The girls especially, in their white muslin dresses…

The soundtrack was likewise a careful assemblage of original music composed by Bruce Smeaton, Gheorghe Zamfir playing ethereal melodies on his pan flute, and short classical selections from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Over and over, we hear the adagio movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” This music is, to me, almost unbearably poignant, surely one of the most beautiful and evocative works in the classical repertoire. And here I can’t resist placing my favorite video performance. It features the legendary Maurizio Pollini, with his son Daniele Pollini conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. The adagio begins at 21:00, but do yourself the favor of listening to the entire piece, and seeing, at the conclusion, father and son together acknowledging the applause.

For the interview with Peter Weir, click here.

For the insightful and informative BAFTA commentary on the  film, click here.

The film has an alternate ending, which did not make the final cut. I wish it had. Watch the film first, then watch this clip, and see what you think.

Happily, our local library owns several copies of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s also available on HBO Max and Amazon. You’ll want to try your local library first, though, as those latter two options are somewhat costly.

Reading the novel and then revisiting the film has been a very gratifying experience. And am I still haunted? Oh, yes…










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‘I loved the cold because it always made me more conscious of my animal self….’ – Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron

October 17, 2021 at 3:43 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Mike Bowditch, Game Warden Investigator for the state of Maine, has been tasked with reopening a case of death by drowning. Eben Chamberlain’s death had been ruled an accident, but his daughter-in-law Mariette isn’t buying that judgment. Wealthy, powerful, and forceful, Mariette believes Eben’s death was deliberately brought about. Murder, in other words – a murder that the Warden’s Service was either too lazy or too incompetent to thoroughly investigate.

The deeper Mike  delves into this case, the greater the danger that looms. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the progress of the investigation and a harrowing predicament in which Mike finds himself: His truck has veered off the road and plunged into the Androscoggin River (an actual river in Maine, by the way – else, who could make up such a name?) He manages to extricate himself from the fast-filling vehicle, thinking himself lucky. Little does he know  the worst of this ordeal is yet to come.

At first I was not sure that the structure of the novel was a successful device. I had some trouble keeping track of the timeline. (The investigation chapters are narrated in the past tense; the survival chapters, in the present tense.) But gradually the narrative began to tighten; it began to work. And I have to say that the chapters describing Mike’s desperate efforts to stay alive are among the most gripping I’ve ever read.

In summary, Paul Doiron has written one humdinger of a novel. It kept me turning the pages at a great rate, an experience I’ve had with surprisingly few recent mysteries. At the same time, the characters are vivid and authentic, if not always likeable. (I prefer interesting to likeable anyway.)

It’s always a pleasure to begin a series at the beginning and watch the main characters grow and mature in subsequent entries. (The first title in the Mike Bowditch series is The Poacher’s Son, which I read and liked when it came out in 2010.) Dead by Dawn, the twelfth entry, is the best yet, in my opinion. It combines the elements of a thriller with those of a more literary work, with great character delineation and vivid descriptions of the beautiful (and sometimes treacherous) Maine landscape.

And the excellent writing is informed with a keen sense of history:

For much of my youth, I had suffered under  the delusion of having been born  too late. I was a displaced person from the era of the Voyageurs who had set out across the Great Lakes in bateaux in search of furs; I was a temporal fugitive from the age of  the Klondike Gold Rush when men literally bet their lives against nature with more than riches on the line. Sometimes I still succumbed to this mode of thinking. An overfondness for nostalgia was the crack running down  the middle of my character.

I await with happy anticipation the next Mike Bowditch adventure. Thank you, Paul Doiron, for this outstanding series.

Paul Doiron


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A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg

October 16, 2021 at 10:56 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

Jonathan Meiburg has written an unusual book – part travelogue, part nature study, part literary exegesis, and all very intriguing.

The titular remarkable creature is the caracara. This bird is closely related to the falcon species, but differs from it in several ways. Caracaras spend a great deal more time on the ground than the average raptor, walking  from place to place, being both idle and curious. They have a large repertoire of food preferences, i.e. they’ll eat almost anything. They interact with humans by grabbing anything they can whenever they can. It is monkey-like behavior. My favorite story- from among many with which Meiburg regales us – has to do with a tennis game in which caracaras would stroll onto the court to retrieve errant tennis balls.

I daydream about keeping a striated caracara in my apartment. It would be the world’s most exasperating roommate, but watching it build a nest of shredded T-shirts, LP jackets, and guitar strings in my bookshelf might be worth it. I can imagine it standing on my kitchen counter in the morning, tearing into a box of cereal with its beak or cracking an egg with a blow from its clenched foot, then stashing a piece of toast under my chair while I boil water for coffee. After breakfast, it might become absorbed in a dirty sock or a roll of paper towels while I try to figure out where it’s hidden my keys.

There are several subspecies of caracara. Here are two:

Crested Caracara


Striated Caracara, feeding on carrion, something they have no hesitation about doing

Jonathan Meiburg sought out this feathered creature in some fairly exotic locales. Caracaras are native to  the Falkland Islands; in addition, they can be found in the South American country of Guyana, where Meiburg had some fascinating, not to say harrowing, adventures.

All the while his writing is penetrating and beautiful. Here he describes doing research on Steeple Jason, one of the islands in the Falkland complex:

It was typical field science grunt work—tough, dull, and faintly absurd—but it had its moments. Steeple Jason’s twin peaks give it the stark beauty its Homeric name suggests, and on clear days the cold air streaming in on the southwest wind was so pure that a veil seemed to lift from the world. Giant petrels wheeled above the island’s central ridge, and crowds of gentoo penguins emerged from the surf to bask in the sun at its slender neck. Most of the penguins milled and snoozed in a loose colony near their landing beach, but a few followed an obscure yearning and climbed the ridge to gaze at the sea from above.

As you can easily see, this author has an admirable empathy with the creatures of the air and sea. His passion for nature is inspiring. As often as he can, he brings in the life and works of W.H. Hudson, who grew up on the Pampas of Argentina and shared this same passion.

The trees above us trembled and groaned, and I remembered Hudson’s description of a private forest near London called Savernake, where he loved to sit among giant copper beeches and listen to the wind in their branches—an experience, he wrote, “worth going far to seek.” That is a mysterious voice which the forest has: it speaks to us, and somehow the life it expresses seems nearer, more intimate, than that of the sea. Doubtless because we are ourselves terrestrial and woodland in our origin; also because the sound is infinitely more varied as well as more human in character. There are sighings and moanings, and wails and shrieks, and wind-blown murmurings, like the distant confused talking of a vast multitude.

Hudson is obviously a writer worth getting to know. I remember when I was a girl my mother handing me his novel Green Mansions, telling me she thought I’d like it. I did – in fact, I loved it. But I’ve not read anything by him since, and I was unaware of the scope and  beauty of his nonfiction writings. So this is a bonus gift from the author of A Most Remarkable Creature. 

William Henry Hudson 1841-1922

It turns out that Jonathan Meiburg has a band called Shearwater. I certainly admire his versatility! On the band’s website you will find several sound files.

The caracara is indeed a most  remarkable creature, and this is a most remarkable  book. Highly recommended, especially if you care about the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants.




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‘a man who burned like an acetylene torch / from one end to the other of his life.’

October 8, 2021 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books)

When I heard that a new biography of D.H. Lawrence had just come out, I knew that I had to read it. Whence this certainty? The reasons were two-fold:

First, I wrote my master’s thesis on D.H. Lawrence; specifically, on The Rainbow. I wrote an eighty-page analysis of the novel, and when I handed my first draft to my thesis advisor, he drily informed me  that it would not do in the form that I had placed it. I would have to start over and do it right. That was the sum of his advice to me. Not, as you can well imagine, a pleasant experience. (I can say no more about that thesis at present because I cannot find it.)

Second, when Ron and I were traveling in New Mexico some years ago, I pleaded with him to take me to D.H. Lawrence’s ranch in Taos, still, I was informed, preserved as it was when he was battling Frieda there in the 1920s. (He battled her everywhere.) We were driving a rental that was no great shakes even on paved surfaces when we found ourselves on a dirt track heading in what was supposedly the direction of the edifice we sought. Soon the dirt turned to mud, the result of a recent runoff of snow melt in the mountains. The mud was soon hub cap high. This was before the era of cell phones. I’m not sure what we would’ve done if we’d become stuck. We nearly did. We were able to reverse course and head back to our hotel. Staff there seemed vaguely bemused by our harrowing tale of escape. This, they said with a shrug, is New Mexico.

At any rate, all this has nothing to do with Burning Man, which I enjoyed tremendously. I remembered that Lawrence, bitterly resentful of his working class origins, carried his smoldering anger with him everywhere he went. After a brief stint as a school teacher, he ran off with Frieda von Richthoven, wife of Ernest Weekley, a professor of modern languages – his own former teacher – and mother of their three children. The purpose of this new union seemed to be take every opportunity to tear each other to pieces. In fairness, Lawrence honed this skill on numerous other friends and acquaintances in the course of his restless, turbulent life.

(It seemed to me  that a more accurate subtitle for this book would have been “The Trials of Anyone Forced To Interact with D.H. Lawrence.”)

Having been early and unceremoniously kicked out of England – the penalty for having a German wife during wartime – Lawrence proceeded to roam the earth, ostensibly searching for peace, but in reality fomenting conflict just about everywhere he went. And writing – always writing….

In Lawrence’s fiction, which is filled with the packing of bags and the slamming of doors, waves of wrath tend to overwhelm those of love. Leaving  home became his great subject, in some ways his only subject. After Lawrence left his father’s house, he made it  a policy never to have a home of his own; he perched instead on the highest possible branch of the highest possible tree.

In Movements in European History, a volume undertaken  as a school textbook, he wrote:

…earthquakes should be predictable. Yet no one can predict them. The most remarkable of these earthquakes was the Renaissance, which ‘offered to man visions, beautiful adventures, marvellous thoughts, as if his soul were ‘set free into all the air and space and splendour of free, pure thought and deep understanding. In the Middle Ages, ‘man was alive but blind and voracious. In the fourteenth an fifteenth centuries, however, he awoke. The human spirit was then like a butterfly which bursts from the chrysalis into the air. A whole new world lies about it.’

Frances Wilson says of the short story “The Prussian Officer” that it is “…one of the finest short stories in the language.” So I read it. Like so much of Lawrence’s writing, fiction and nonfiction alike, it contains descriptive passages that are purely poetic:

When at last he turned, looking down the long bare grove whose flat bend was already filling dark, he saw the mountains in a wonder-light, not far away, and radiant. Behind the soft grey ridge of the nearest range the further mountains stood golden and pale grey, the snow all radiant like pure, soft gold. So still, gleaming in the  sky, fashioned pure out of the ore of the sky, they shone in their silence.

And yet, this is a  harrowing tale, so much so that I had to keep putting it down. In the course of the narrative, the tension that develops between the orderly and his Captain, whom he must serve as a slave serves his master, becomes well nigh unbearable.

Such is the power of Lawrence’s writing.

Lawrence’s reputation took a nose dive in the sixties, when it was attacked by feminists who found his attitude toward women despicable. I can see the argument, but that is only part of the extremely complicated puzzle that constitutes both Lawrence’s art and his nature. He may at this time be making a comeback. We shall see. This biography would be instrumental in that development

Meanwhile, it  seems to many critics, and to me also, that the novels are the least admirable of his literary output. I should turn rather to the short stories, the essays, and the poetry. There’s an excellent collection put out by New York Review Books called The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays, edited and with an introduction by Geoff Dyer, a noted scholar of Lawrence’s works.

The title of this post is from a poem by Tony Hoagland simply entitled “Lawrence.”

David Herbert Lawrence: September 11, 1885-March 2, 1930







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