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By the Book: A Reader's Guide to Life

By Ramona Koval
Text, $29.99

BOOKS tell stories in more than one way. The volumes on our bookshelves express today's version of the self, while treasures of the past are lost or thrown away. Constructing a phantom bookshelf for myself, I count the books that pass the test of being remembered, many years on. Never mind the literary quality, they get a place on my memory shelf.

So Pride and Prejudice sits beside Norah of Billabong. A.A. Milne's Eeyore rubs up against Hamlet. The Victorian School Readers bring in Henry Lawson and the hobbits.

Ramona Koval's project is more ambitious than simply naming and describing her best-remembered books. By the Book: A Reader's Guide to Life is a quietly engaging memoir that finds its structure in the author's lifetime reading. The daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, Koval grew up in postwar Melbourne knowing little about her parents' experience. Her mother, Sara, was always reading, improving her English and escaping her life.

The books Sara gave to the young Ramona were a means of communication between mother and daughter. Some were ''messages in a bottle'', later seen as signals of the mother's longing to be understood. Others were guides to an uncertain world.

Ramona progressed from The Little Red Hen, when she was three, to Kafka's The Trial at 14.


Except for books about the war and the Holocaust, which were forbidden, Sara was astonishingly compliant in supplying whatever her daughter asked for. She sought out a copy of The Kama Sutra in a Melbourne bookshop because Ramona, then 12, had heard that it was interesting. In a culturally improbable moment only a Melburnian can fully appreciate, Sara read it on the way home on the North Balwyn tram before giving it to her daughter.

Kafka made a bridge between Ramona's world in Melbourne and her parents' past. The Trial was a means to understanding their helplessness in Hitler's Europe, and the lovelessness of their marriage.

When Soviet tanks trundled into Prague, Sara gave the teenage Ramona the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, followed by Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago. They never discussed the contents of these books. Looking back, Koval wonders if her mother offered them in silence because they were so close to the experience of the Nazi concentration camps.

The central image in By the Book is that of Sara, lying on a couch, always reading, and from time to time passing books to her daughter, always in silence. At 15, Ramona was given Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Was this a signal that Sara's life as wife and mother had lacked fulfilment, or that her daughter should plot a different course?

Simone de Beauvoir followed; and Mary McCarthy's The Group (banned in Australia in 1963) was left casually available on a shelf. Koval recounts the feminist lessons she failed to learn. With ''Reader, I married him'', she sums up an early, doomed relationship. The words are those of triumphant Jane Eyre, but the tone is wry.

Koval is reticent about the events of her life, and its settings are sketched in lightly. Her theme is the making of the self through the influence of reading. Yet this can only be understood in the light of the mother-daughter relationship. Close but withdrawn, watchful but detached, the mother remains an enigma but a powerful one. Nourishment by books - was that enough?

The Holocaust tragedy, seemingly hidden because of maternal protectiveness, needed to be understood. One incident, in which her father suddenly confronted Ramona with a book of Auschwitz photographs, was brutal and shocking; it did not enlighten her.

Koval's story does not stop with the books of childhood and adolescence. She traces later influences and discoveries of her own, recounts meetings and travels. Koval is known to countless Australians as the presenter of the ABC Book Show, a program sadly lost to us.

The later chapters of By the Book reveal the quality of mind that made her a brilliant interviewer, as much at home with scientists and travel writers as with novelists and poets. Interesting in themselves, they don't carry the emotional freight of the early chapters, in which the young Ramona tries to read her mother.

Brenda Niall's most recent book, True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack, is published by Text.