HOW TO FAIL

I’ve been failing rather a lot lately. Or so I tell myself, in that nasty scolding tone that all-too-often characterises my internal dialogue. And that voice is especially loud when it comes to my writing. I’m not meeting goals, not applying myself, not disciplined enough, not planning properly, not proactive in trying to build or maintain a brand, a profile… You get the picture.
It doesn’t actually help when I remind myself of just how productive I can be. From 1987 to 1997, I had 8 children’s books published. And from 2004, another 5 published, with a further 2 novels unpublished. Between those two very active periods, however, there were 7 years of little creative writing and no publishing. (I must add that they were years during which I had a baby and completed a post-graduate diploma in children’s literature and moved our family to help my parents age in their own home. Busy? Very!)
For the past 15 years I haven’t had a break from major writing projects. When, at the end of 2017, the children’s book I’d been working on for a couple of years didn’t come off (I’ve tried to use another word for ‘failure’!) I thought that a break of six months…or even a year…would do me good. Then I could re-launch. But, disappointingly, none of the three projects I’ve been working on have taken off. Thus the hectoring tone of my self talk. Just get over yourself, and get on with it, woman!
Am I a failure? Have I failed? No, of course not – and yes, absolutely. My Verity Sparks books did unexpectedly well…but the final book is now out of print, so I guess that’s the end of Verity. My adult novel How Bright Are All Things Here didn’t sell well at all – but I love the story and the character of Bliss; I’m so glad that I wrote it. My two unpublished books were a colossal waste of time and energy, but I learned an enormous amount from writing them.
Perhaps I’m due for a break. Perhaps I should give myself a break, too, from my own self-imposed expectations? After reading How to Fail, I think – not perhaps – definitely.
How to Fail by Elizabeth Day is a lovely, funny, wise reminder that things go wrong all the time. She takes a range of ‘failures’ – from the heart-tearing loss of her dream to have a child, to the laugh-out-loud attempt to live like Gwyneth Paltrow for a week – and shows us that without failure, none of us would learn, grow or thrive.

 

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STAYING

“…just because you love something you cannot make it stay.”

Jessie Cole grew up in idyllic circumstances. A secure and happy childhood in a small town in northern New South Wales. Loving, relaxed, hippie-ish parents. A family home set in acres of rainforest garden she was free to explore. Carefree days spent with her younger brother, playing and exploring, swimming in the waterhole, observing animals and insects, attuned to the natural world. Cole writes compellingly of this childhood realm, in a way that tugged at my heart. I was reminded of my own growing-up days by the beach at Chelsea, and our house and garden that was a sanctuary and a kingdom.

But from the first pages of Staying, the reader is aware of tragedy that blights this perfect existence and slices her life apart. First her older step-sister commits suicide. Then her father, a psychologist, unravels. He becomes another person, abusive and unpredictable. When he also takes his life, the grief, shock and trauma take years for the remaining family to absorb and heal.

All of which sounds heavy – and it is – but this is also a tender story of loss and healing and home.

Staying by Jessie Cole, Text 2018, $32.99

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VARIETY

An old saying – “variety is the spice of life”. This week’s reading has been varied, all right.
First, Jay Griffith’s Tristimania, an amazing memoir of manic depression (her preferred term) which is prose that reads like poetry – and Gerard Manley Hopkins at that.
I read it at speed – which is probably  fitting for a book about mania – and now I want to read it again, but slowly, in order to savour the language. Griffith took notes at the height of her mania, and at one point wrote a suite of poems which she’s added at the back of the memoir. It’s the first time I’ve felt I could understand the seductive appeal of the manic side of bipolar – dancing on a precipice doesn’t start to describe it. A beautiful and disturbing and oddly uplifting book.

Then The Grit in the Pearl by Lyndsy Spence, a biography of the truly appalling Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. She was born Margaret Whigham, daughter of a Scottish millionaire and his society wife, and as a young woman in the early 1930s, achieved fame in the news papers and gossip columns as a beauty and sought-after debutante. Her coming out party cost an incredible 40,000 pounds. I thought the book might stray into Mitford territory, but this poor little rich girl was both clueless and dull. Speaking of her lavish 1933 wedding, she later wrote, “It was the darkest moment of the Depression…but I think they felt our wedding had brought a flash of colour into a grey world.” No, she wasn’t joking . Even in early childhood, she had absolutely no sense of humour, and perhaps that’s why I couldn’t warm to her, even with her her  tragedies and heartbreaks. And they were many, including miscarriages, stillbirths, failed marriages, personal betrayal and in 1963 a remarkable and scandalous court case involving erotic Polaroids. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone who seemed to think that money solves everything.

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say.
This is delightful, moving, perceptive, funny and sweet middle-grade fiction. It really deserves to be in the running for the CBCA award – and it is. Carly Nugent, a regional Victorian debut author, must be rightfully very proud and excited.

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BEYOND THE STUDIO

The Castlemaine State Festival has been and gone for weeks now, but the open-air exhibition of portraits is still in place. The show, “Beyond the Studio”, was the work of MAPgroup – Many Australian Photographers. MAPgroup is an association of around 40 photographers who are committed to producing independent documentary photography.  The group says that, “Through our photographs, we tell stories that might not otherwise be told by the mainstream media.”

Late last year, the project organisers contacted lots of Castlemaine and district people involved in the arts – sittings were arranged in January – technical stuff happened – and then in the week before the festival in late March, large portrait posters were stuck up around town. Writers on our walls included some stellar locals, like Alex Miller, Cate Kennedy, Carmel Bird and Robyn Annear. There’s no false modesty when I say that I am definitely not as sparkly, so I feel rather special to have been included. I was photographed by the excellent and very patient Mike Reed. When he finally got me to relax, we ended up with this lovely happy photo. (Take a look at his site for his urban landscapes, too.)

Initially I found it rather challenging to walk down the lane past the chemist to the post office and see my very large face up there but I’m over it now. Perhaps I’ll even miss me when I’m finally torn down.

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THE LIBRARY OF ICE

Today – Good Friday –  was one of those perfect “Indian summer” days. Warm and sunny, calm, blue sky, golden light. Perfect? Perhaps too perfect. The season usually turns around Easter. Autumn stops being late late-summer, becomes early winter. Colder weather arrives with the colouring leaves, the shorter days and longer nights. Mornings bring heavy dew, mist, the odd frost. Nights need doonas and the flannelette sheets. Autumn rains stimulate mushrooms and all the various tribes of fungi to spring into life.
But not yet, and it’s the 19th April, a late Easter this year. It hasn’t rained properly for a couple of months, and it’s so dry that some of the normally drought-proof plants in my garden – wormwood, geraniums, succulents – have died. There are no weeds. Some of the garden beds are actually dusty and water from the hose pools on top because the soil has become water repellent. Climate change? Hell, no.

Anyway, a good time to read The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, the result of a seven-year quest by British artist, printmaker, writer and poet Nancy Campbell. She explores the frozen world in Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica, observing, talking and listening to the people, researching in libraries and museums and the landscape.
She looks for ice in science, history, literature, culture and art in places like the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Ilulissat Kunstmueum, Greenland. She talks to curlers in Scotland, archeologists in Switzerland and the Tyrol,  experts in 17th and 18th ice-house construction in the great country houses of England. She combines all this with memoir and reportage and nature writing in a dazzling and beautiful book.

 

 

 

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE

Instructions for a Heatwave was my second book group title for the year. And hooray for me! I’d actually finished  it. (Last year, I was a constant fail but I have started well with two out of two books read on time.)
At our meeting last night, along with the wine and cheese and delicious cake, this novel started a great discussion about families. The question, always, is ‘how well we know the ones closest to us?’
Not very well at all, in this novel. It’s set during the UK drought of 1976 (thus the title). The Riordan family are thrown into panicked disarray when Robert, recently retired from his job in a bank, walks out one morning to get a paper and doesn’t return.
Adult children Aoife, Monica and Michael Francis gather to support their mother, Gretta. Secrets are revealed, lies exposed, sibling relationships and marriages unravel and knit together again. This was a good book for discussion, with believable characters – not all likeable, but all understandable – and told with humour and a great eye for detail. I read it quickly, enjoyed the multiple viewpoints, appreciated the clever storytelling.
For me, though, it didn’t pack the devastating emotional punch of another O’Farrell novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I picked up in the Op Shop recently. I’m still somewhat haunted by the story, which must be based on real events, and shows how – even in the early part of the 20th century – a non-conforming young woman could be just popped into an “institution” – madhouse – and remain there for most of her life.  A friend, researching family history, has recently uncovered a similar sad story from Sydney in the 1920s. Her relative apparently spent a lot of time “in canvas” because of disruptive behaviour… Chilling, to realise that this means in a strait-jacket.
I’m going to have to keep my eye out for more Maggie O’Farrell.

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BRAIN BUGS

I’ve got a bit of a thing at present for popular science dealing with the brain. And there are lots of good titles around, too. Brain Bugs is an informative, fascinating but in the end, depressing book because it demonstrates how the brain that evolved for human animals thousands of years ago is hopelessly unsuited for the world we live in in. Sadly, the ‘flaws’ in our thinking that Buonomano exposes explain presidents like Trump and Erdogan, they explain our refugee policy, they explain climate change, they explain Brexit…

…our brain bugs range from the innocuous to those that have dramatic effects on our lives. The associative architecture of the brain contributes to false memories, and the ease with which politicians and companies manipulate our behavior and beliefs. Our feeble numerical skills and distorted sense of time contribute to our propensity to make ill-advised personal financial decisions, and to poor health and environmental policies. Our innate propensity to fear those different from us clouds our judgement and influences not only who we vote for but whether we go to war. Our seemingly inherent predisposition to engage in supernatural beliefs often overrides the more rationally inclined parts of the brain, sometimes with tragic results.

Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano, Norton NY, 2011

 

 

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RIPPING YARN

Being a creature of habit, when I’m at work I have lunch in the same cafe most days. It’s a small(ish) town – around 7,000 people, I believe – and so you get to know the people who serve you. Like the lovely Davina. She’ll occasionally lend me a book, and they’re often not the kind of book I normally read (which is a good thing as it expands my horizons). Recently she handed over a Martin Cruz Smith thriller set in Venice during WW2 and a rather insipid historical romance.
But the wild card was an unexpected and unexpectedly riveting ripping yarn called Exploration Fawcett. The cover says it all. Intrepid explorer, geographer and cartographer Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett first set off in the early 1900s for South America. Before and after WWI, he worked and travelled in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil mapping and delineating borders, but he always wanted to mount his own expedition in search of a fabled ‘lost city’ in the jungles of Brazil.
I could have hated this book, for with all of the imperial arrogance of his era, Fawcett never questioned the project of “exploration for exploitation” – be it minerals, timber, or rubber – in these vast but already inhabited territories. His idee fixe was that somewhere, hidden in the jungle, he would discover the remains of a lost civilization belonging to a superior, lighter- or even white-skinned race – the eugenicist theory fashionable in his day being that the more highly evolved peoples have paler skin.
Yet for all this, he was unusual in being not only fascinated by but sympathetic to the indigenous peoples he met during his travels. He not only sought to communicate with them; he was patient, courteous and actually thought there was something he could learn from these so-called “savages”. A constant theme is his shock and disgust at the behaviour of Europeans – miners, rubber tappers, ranchers and settlers – and their brutal treatment of enslaved workers, the massacres of forest tribes, the wanton cruelty and destruction of culture, language, ways of life.

Exploration Fawcett reads a bit like one of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns –  Across the Andes by Frog. Percy Fawcett was a true obsessive – utterly mad actually – with demented stiff-upper-lip fortitude and courage that ignored heat and cold and illness and injury in his pursuit of his quest. When I put the book down to go to sleep at night my mind was a National Geographic extravaganza of swamps, jungles, mountain passes, deserts, lakes and rivers, with strangling vines and cacti and thorn bushes and giant trees, swarming with rattlers and enormous anacondas and a multitude of other snakes, as well as monkeys, panthers, parrots, condors, alligators, piranhas, not to mention ticks and ants and stinging insects galore. And indignant tribes, armed with bows and arrows against guns and disease.

The book was edited, with a prologue and epilogue by his son, Brian Fawcett. Percy Fawcett died in the Matto Gross of Brazil in 1925 – or that’s what we must assume, for he simply disappeared into the jungle, along with his eldest son and another young man. The bodies were never found.
I found myself thinking about his wife and remaining son and daughter. Percy died in his mid-fifties; he’d only ever spent ten years with his wife. He took their son – a young man in his early twenties – with him on the final fatal trip. And his son’s friend, too.
The dedication reads:

The lot of the one left behind is ever the harder.
Because of that – because she as my partner in everything shared with me the burden of the work recorded in these pages – this book is dedicated to my wife
“CHEEKY”.

I wonder what Cheeky actually thought about it all. Perhaps there’s a novel in it…

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BAD BLOOD

Book group starts in ten days time – but the CAE was slow sending out the boxes –  and I only picked this up on Thursday. I finished yesterday!
This is an amazing feat, since all of last year I struggled to get through almost everything. And I didn’t read Bad Blood quickly for any other reason than that I was absolutely loving it.
And – further boast here – I chose it, as well. This is the first non-fiction title I’ve read with my book group.
We usually read novels, and last year’s – all well reviewed, or  shortlisted for major awards –  were unremittingly grim. (Though I must add that one of the potentially grimmest of them all – The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle –  turned out to be a revelation, much enjoyed, and bizarrely funny at times).
I chose Lorna Sage’s memoir not only because I felt like a change from fiction, but because it ticked so many boxes in my personal checklist. Post-war Britain (actually, Wales) in all its pinched, mean austerity: small village, with beautifully described farm and countryside and cast of characters: gloomy vicarage, philandering vicar: a family that is gothic in its madness and dysfunction and destructiveness: a young girl struggling against society and family and fate and school (with the exception of a few heroic, helpful female teachers) to be her real, clever self. And she succeeds. Yes, it’s non-fiction, but to me it reads like a novel. In the best possible way.

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RAIN IN SUMMER

I like reading poetry, but don’t do it enough. It’s very concentrated reading. Sometimes, hard work. Over the years, I’ve found that anthologies work best for me and I’ve picked up many of them from various Opportunity Shops. Some were school texts, complete with pencilled notes in the margins; some elegant collections suitable as gifts; there’s one book of ‘modern’ poetry that ends in the 1930’s.
But I actually bought this one at the bookshop. It had such a pretty dustjacket that I couldn’t resist.
It’s intended for children, but there’s an interesting and eclectic selection; for instance, some of the ‘war poems’ of Wilfrid Owen and Rupert Brooke, an excerpt from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Refugee Blues’ by W H Auden, along with some Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman and “All You Need is Love” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  As I skipped through at home, I did find myself wishing that the editor had sought out a few more female poets – my rough count has only 77 out of 365.
I really like the idea of one poem a day – so very achievable! –  so I planned to read my poem before bed each night. However, since the editor, Allie Esiri, has chosen poems for the northern hemisphere, some of them don’t read well for this part of the world.  While I panted in the February heat, it was strange to read Spellbound by Emily Bronte.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow
And the storm is fast descending
And yet I cannot go.

And on February 6th, A Riddle by Jonathan Swift.

I’m bright as an angel and light as a feather
But heavy, and dark, when you squeeze me together…

The answer to the riddle is snow.

So I thought I’d do the clever thing, and try July instead. And found Rain in Summer by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow (1807 -1882) was wildly popular in the United States in his day; he wrote Hiawatha and The Ride of Paul Revere and Evangeline. Though I can’t imagine his rather plodding rhymes would be read by many people today, this one was perfect. Especially since yesterday I got soaked to the skin (not that I’m complaining) and my newly clipped little dog looked most bedraggled walking home from  town in wonderful, heavy, steady rain.

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!

It goes on:

In the country, on every side
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome the rain!

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