Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: True North: A Memoir by Jill Ker Conway

At first I was disappointed that this book didn't take place in Australia.  Ms. Conway's  first memoir, The Road from Coorain, is one of the truly classic, essentials of Australian literature and takes us from Jill's childhood growing up on a station (ranch) in the bush (outback), to her move to Sydney and her struggles in the 1950s to get the education she so desperately craves. I knew this book started with her heading to Boston for graduate school, but I didn't realize she's only return to Australia once, 8 years later, to show the country to her husband. Alas.

But an interesting thing is that I still learned a lot about Australia, reading this book. Because Ms. Conway is constantly comparing America to Australia, we learn about Australia by default. She starts by being quite surprised at how nice Americans are (not just Americans, but a New York cabdriver no less!) and then is impressed by our quick decisiveness, and how America is more openminded than Australia (although it is still the '60s.) The rigid gender lines she tired of fighting in Sydney are already starting to loosen in Boston, although they still chafed (one woman friend won an award for the best dissertation in the English department. Three of her male colleagues were asked to stay on at Harvard as instructors but she was not.)  Also in Australia, a high premium is put on being proper and polite - to the extent that if one is smart, one does everything possible to hide that so as to not make anyone else uncomfortable. But in America, where we all are constantly striving to better ourselves, no one is ashamed of their intellect. She can never quite wrap her mind around our "pursuit of happiness," and I was very amused by how she found buildings in Boston "so old" (only an Australian could get away with that description!)

Then she moves to Canada with her husband (his home country) and gets tenure at the University of Toronto. The second half of this book is very, very much about academia, and not even in the David Lodge/Richard Russo sort of way , but about sexual discrimination, the petty jealousy of professors with lesser enrollments, and the responsibilities that come with being appointed the first female Vice-President at the school. Having grown up practically on a college campus with a professor for a father, it all rang very true, but none of that is terribly interesting except to the people directly involved. So the second half of the book bogged down a bit.  At the very end it gets interesting again as she's offered the job of President of Smith College and has to decide if she'll take it (you already know the answer if you read even the briefest bio of the author.) But meanwhile there's a lot of talk of meetings, graduate students, and whether they have to leave Canada to get a good education. Oh, and how winters in Canada really aren't that bad (I didn't believe her.)

Ms. Conway has a very interesting style in which the entire book is passive and she tells, not shows, us everything. It's written in the opposite styles of what everyone recommends today, but it works for her. The parts where more was going on were certainly more interesting, I think proving that passivity isn't the way to go, but it was fascinating to see that in the hands of a master writer, even the most basic rules of writing can be tossed out the window. I did enjoy the book but it had its flaws and I think people less interested in academia would have a harder go at it.

I acquired this book around ten years ago in New York, but I don't remember how. From the yellow color of the pages, I suspect I bought it used but I truly don't know.

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