Thursday, April 18, 2013

Circling islands in this month's READING LIFE with Jane Goodall

Jane reading: portrait by Deirdra Drysdale
Writer, essayist and writing teacher Jane Goodall is your "Reading Life" host… our feature where we particularly welcome your experiences and engagement.  This month the lovely theme is "islands" and Jane's words and ideas are enhanced by exquisite photographs from photographer Nick Haeffner.  So much to enjoy. Let's hear from you!

Photo: Nick Haeffner

JANE: Thanks to everyone who participated in last month’s "Reading Life" conversation about a Reading Retreat. What a wish list! The books are chosen across such a wide spectrum. We have some fine novels, including the Australian classic For the Term of his Natural Life, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms,  Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow and (of course) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Universal Heart readers also love poetry: Yeats, Rilke and Judith Wright are amongst our favorites. Not surprisingly, our respondents have a strong commitment to reading as part of the life of the spirit. Susan includes the Old Testament in her list, commenting: ‘It may not be a trendy choice, but I would like to take the time to endeavour to understand the beauty and power of the parables and my own spirituality.’ Anita opts for a Sufi novel by Elif Shafak, and some Buddhist texts.

And as for where we should go… I am quite taken with Peta’s idea of retreating to a tree house. Did anyone ever do that as a child? Think of what it would add to the sense of adventure in any good story. It’s curious to me that so many writers and readers are drawn to perches somewhere just above the surface of the planet. Tasmanian writer Robert Dessaix has a study he refers to as ‘my tower’ and in his recent collection of essays, As I Was Saying, he speculates about others who write from a tower, including W.B.Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Rilke. By some strange coincidence, all three of these writers are nominated in your list of chosen books. An anonymous "Virginia Woolf fan" would retreat to somewhere near Sissinghurst castle, where Woolf had that legendary room of her own.

Photo: Nick Haeffner

    Another common thread that emerges is our attraction towards shorelines and islands. Sophie is drawn to the pristine sands of the Virgin Islands where, in an intriguing paradox, she would go to read three very challenging novels of conflict and suffering. Marie is off to Norfolk Island. Deirdra (the gifted painter who created the wonderful image of a reader at the head of our Reading Life page) has an attachment to Herm Island which she describes as ‘a tiny lump of land three miles away from Guernsey in the Channel Islands’ with no phones, television, cars, bikes… and just one tractor ploughing a familiar strip from the precarious ferry landing to the hotel.
    From here I go to this month’s theme:


We invite you to share your thoughts on any (or all) of these questions:

-    Why is there such a strong relationship between islands and writing? How have you experienced this?
-   Do you have a favorite writer who captures "landscape" for you in an especially moving way - or captures the idea of "escape"?
-   Do you have a favorite book that is set on an island, written on an island, or that imagines an island?
-    What does the idea or metaphor of the island do for you? Is it a place of escape, or confinement, or both? How does it release or confine your imaginary life?
-  Is there an island - real or imagined - that you long to visit but haven't yet?  What could happen there?

To inspire you, we are featuring three images by Adelaide-born photographer Nick Haeffner. These were taken on the Island of Skye, from the village of Elgol. Nick roams far and wide in his quest to capture the visual presence of a scene, venturing out at all hours. He is a hunter of atmospheres – and just happens to be my brother.

We are looking forward to hearing from you, and to growing this very particular Universal Heart conversation.

Photo: Nick Haeffner
Please keep your responses to fewer than 200 words. You can type them in the “Comments” box below. Easy to use either with a Google email address or using "Anonymous".  If “Anonymous”, you can put your name into the text box. You must bear with us and use "captcha" - which screens out spammers - but the trick there is to note there are TWO parts, with a space between. Or, if you prefer, you can email Jane at: theuniversalheartbookclub @  - close up spaces - making it clear whether you want your name used when we post your thoughts. (200 word max!) You can also purchase any books that inspire you via the bookstore links above right. 
Nick Haeffner's glorious photographs are copyright, 2011. We are immensely grateful to be able to show them here. Please contact him at


  1. I was immediately thinking about Janet Frame's memoir, the first volume was called "To the Is-land"! All three were published and filmed as An Angel at My Table. There is such poetry in those titles alone. Definitely worth seeking out.

  2. Skye was also the home of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, although few know his work or even his name, and a tiny few have read his work in its original language. If Sorley MacLean had not taken the decision in his early thirties to write only in his native language, Scots Gaelic, he would surely be known far and wide for his wonderful writing, engaged not only with the dramatic landscape of Skye and its history, but also with the great political events of his times, such as the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War - he described his own politics as “Free Presbyterian Marxist”. Thankfully, he provided English “transliterations” of his poems; he considered these of little value, but in fact they are considerable pieces of writing in themselves. MacLean spent most of his life as a schoolmaster, retiring after fifteen years as the Headmaster of Plockton High School. Those of you who watched Hamish Macbeth on television – remember “wee Jock”? – might be interested to know that the fictional town of Lochdhu was actually filmed in Plockton itself, just across the water from Skye itself. Peter

  3. Yes. I'm thinking of all those myths and stories about islands that belong to some other order of time, or where there is a special magic at work. Ursula le Guin captures this so powerfully in The Wizard of Earthsea.

  4. There's something about islands as places of otherness - and the sea that separates them from the mainland is like the thin veil that separates this world from the otherworld in Celtic spirituality. I've felt this strongly on Iona - making the short crossing from Mull takes one to another place, a place saturated with ancient spirituality, a place "out of this world". Something the same on Norfolk - its remoteness detaches one from current issues and takes one into a historical world of scenic beauty, of savage convict discipline, elegant Georgian buildings and the aspirations of the Bounty mutineers. There's something spiritually refreshing about stepping out of one's world into this other one. I'd like to visit Easter Island for the same reason. Remote, historic, mysterious, probably a sense of brooding power surrounding the statues.

    1. Sorry - forgot to identify myself in the above post - it's Marie here!

  5. Hello Jane and book club readers! Lloyd Jones from NZ (lots of islands!) is one of the very finest contemporary writers I believe. His MISTER PIP is incredibly good and perhaps someone would like to write a reader's review of it for this book club? It's about isolation, savagery, redemption of sorts. It's quite fearless in facing the breadth as well as the depth of what humans are capable of. Thanks for the chance to think about it and recommend it to others!
    Virginia C.

    1. Thanks Virginia,
      I don't know Lloyd Jones's work and am very pleased to be introduced. We'll certainly follow up. I have been thinking about howvisland stories are also associated with the more sinister dimensions of human life.
      And thanks for lovely comment on the photos - I will pass it on. Jane

  6. Another essential thought: Congrats to Nick Haeffner on these thrillingly beautiful photos! Like all the best photographs each one of them tells a story, not least of his patience and "eye". I hope we see more of his work on this blog?

  7. What about tropical islands? Sometimes these attract quite dark stories (The Island of Doctor Morrow), and close to home, some have terrible episodes in their histories. I have just finished reading Thea Astley's The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, set on Palm Island. She is such a fine writer, with so much humour and insight and poetry in her.

  8. These are some of the novels i have read set on islands
    Anne of Green Gables set on Prince Edward Island Canada. loved at 12 and still reading
    West Australian author M.L Stedman's Light Between Oceans - Moral dilemma
    Lots of the Enid Blyton adventure books were set on islands in contrast to the horrific Lord of the Flies by William Golding. hated this in year 11 English
    Islands by Aldous Huxley - loved at 13
    The Tempest by Shakespeare
    Treasure Island R L Stevenson
    The Mysterious Island Jules Verne
    Island of Doctor Moreau H G Wells
    Lost World: Jurassic Park M Crichton
    Ark Angel A Horowitz - youth fiction thriller
    Robinson Carusoe Daniel Defoe
    Count of Monte Cristo A Dumas
    Island of the Blue Dolphins
    To the Lighthouse V Woolfe
    My Family & Other Animals Gerard Durell - loved loved loved this as a ten year old
    Utopia Thomas More
    In the Time of Butterflies Julia Avareze
    Comedians Graham Greene
    Mr Pip Lloyd Jones
    i read so many of these books in my childhood and teens and wonder how they would read now if i was to revisit them.