Thursday, January 24, 2013

By The Book, by Ramona Koval

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Ramona Koval’s memoir about life, work and literature doesn't disappoint. Koval discusses personal obsessions, how literature has shaped her life, and what it’s like to grow up with parents who survived the Holocaust.  

Ramona Koval needs little introduction. From 1995 to 2011 she was the much-loved presenter for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show and Books and Writing. During that time she interviewed some of the biggest names in literature.

A memoir centred around the love of books and reading risks being affected or precious. You worry that there may be endless name dropping or tiresome hymns to Proust. Thankfully Koval knows the exact right mix of memoir, literary commentary and plain storytelling to create something entirely her own. By The Book speaks of personal obsessions, traumatic family history and literature as a way of life. Koval as a broadcast journalist was always refreshingly breezy and devoid of pretentiousness. On the page her style is warm and candid.

Much of By The Book centres on Koval’s parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. The marriage was not emotionally close, with both parents sleeping in separate beds. The Nazis and the fate of European Jewry were never discussed at home, as it caused too much upset. Koval picked up her love of books from her mother, who she describes as the quiet woman on the couch – always silently reading. “Mama” would read books and then pass them onto her daughter. It seems that Mrs Koval had quite interesting tastes, and she did not prevent her daughter from reading what others thought of as unsuitable for the young Ramona.

Koval went on to study science, got married, had children, and then dropped out of science. A teacher suggested she take up journalism. She never looked back, although continued on with her love of science as an autodidact by reading favourite authors on the subject.

For fans of Ramona’s Radio National book shows, this memoir will surely be a treat. But for those who know little of her work, By The Book has much to recommend it.

As a bookseller, I was especially pleased by the following observation. When working as a journalist, Koval had avoided bookshops as they reminded her of work – having to plough through piles of books to be reviewed and their authors interviewed. No longer working in literary journalism, book stores are a treat again:

“Now I can love book stores again, and I see their managers as curators not just of what will sell but also of what they think fine and good to read”

That’s what I like to think too.

By The Book, by Ramona Koval. Published by Text Publishing. ISBN: 9781922079060  RRP: $29.99