SMALL ACTS

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I couldn’t see myself as one of those women – I thought that eating disorders only happen to women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid: it took me years to realise that the very opposite is true, that these diseases affect people, men and women both, who think too much and feel too keenly, who give too much of themselves to other people. I knew I wasn’t vain, I wasn’t selfish; but I have always felt vaguely, indeterminately sad, too vulnerable to being hurt, too empathetic and too open, too demanding and determined in the standards that I set for myself and my life.

from Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright; Giramondo, Sydney 2015.

I’m a bit squeamish about the memoir genre. Sometimes I feel a bit voyeuristic. Sometimes I wonder what the writer’s family or lovers or friends think about reading themselves on the page.
Sometimes, too, I wonder how people can bear for strangers to know so much about them. I wonder what this says about me.

It’s the exposure, I guess. Exposing the raw and ugly, the painful, the bodily and sexual and intimate. I don’t think it’s just inhibition (thought that’s possibly part of it). I genuinely feel queasy about readers – strangers – knowing very much about me, to the extent I’m even torn about the adult novel that’s currently in the works. In some ways I don’t actually want anyone to know the kinds of things I think about. But I want to write, I want to be published, and I want to be read – so that’s pretty silly, eh? I’ll get over it. And I know that one can understand writing about the deeply personal as a ‘taking back’ of power. You’re saying no to shame, to hiding and concealing, to feeling bad about who you are. Therapy, in a particularly public form? Maybe, but a young woman in my town has just published a zine about her recovery from chronic fatigue and depression; not only was I was moved by her courage in revealing her struggle, but by her hope that her story will help others in a similar situation.

Fiona Wright is a poet and critic. Her book of essays offers (as the back-cover blurb says) a number of different perspectives on her disease as well as the more straight-forward memoir sections. I enjoyed the literary, philosophical and historical diversions. But it was the personal that got to me. And because Wright is a poet, she can describe her illness in beautiful precise language, intense with detail, description, metaphor.

It’s background noise. A CD jammed on a track. A frog in a pot. A cork in a bottle. A secret world. A safety net. A parasite, a function, a friend.

But I confess that I too was guilty of thinking that an anorexic was one of those women, and after reading her book I feel sad, somewhat guilty, and full of fellow feeling. So many people (me included) have suffered, or are made to suffer –  like Wright –  for their vulnerability. So many people feel that it’s their own fault. They blame themselves, perhaps – thinking I’m too thin skinned, or not robust enough, or too sensitive, or weak, cowardly and pathetic. And it shows up in some way. Not necessarily as anorexia – me, I like food much too much not to eat –  but in some form of self-hatred or self-punishment or self-control. Depression or anxiety or just a low-level scourging of self for failure of some kind.

Is there a happy ending? Not so much. Recovery is a work in progress. The last words of the last essay are about walking through the grounds of her old university. the carillon bells are playing, and when she stops to listen, she’s overcome by a deep sadness for her past self, alone, lost and confused. Sadness for ‘the girl who had this hunger already within her, and for the woman who I’ve been, who I’ve become.’

 

 

 

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VERITY GOES TO THE UK

The Truth About Verity Sparks is being released in the UK any day now. Here’s a scan of the cover. You’ll notice (how could you not?) that both the cover and the title have been changed. Walker UK tell me that it’s a different market there. Alliteration is ‘in’; so are crisp silhouettes in cover design and (luckily) plucky girl detectives in bustles. I wasn’t too sure at first, but now I really like them both. What do you think?

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WRITERS IN BENDIGO

I spent most of yesterday at the Bendigo Writer’s Festival.

Out of a possible seven sessions, I attended four, and that was plenty. I think if I’d gone to  all seven, my head would have exploded. And I would have been very cranky from hunger, as well.
preview_Preview ‘Knowledge is Power’ was with Peter Doherty, a Nobel Laureate and scientist who talked about his book, The Knowledge Wars. He had a dry gravelly voice, a dry sense of humour, spoke excellent, good-natured good sense and was far removed from the boffin, egg-head, somewhere-on-the-spectrum science nerd of myth and stereotyple. For such a serious topic – the discussion was mainly around climate change – there was much laughter. He was in conversation with education researcher Bronwyn Hinz. She was young, vivacious and bubbly (in a good way), and they made a good pair. She added much to the event.

As did the obviously angry questioner at the end. Bristling with hostility, with a faux-humble preamble about an ordinary person like her questioning an eminent person like him, she bored in about what exact percentage of climate change is caused by human activities. Doherty’s answer was an example of how to do this stuff. When pressed, he gave her his own personal opinion – most! – but referred her, quietly and without fuss, to the science. Told her what to look at, and where to find it. Told her that it was the accepted science adopted internationally by goverments. Didn’t get cross. We all clapped.

Kim Mahood Cover Image‘An Affair of the Heart’, was with Kim Mahood, artist and writer, author of the award-winning Craft for a Dry Lake and now a new memoir, Position Doubtful. She grew up and has spent much time as an adult in remote areas of Western Australia.
What Mahood had to say about her art practice, her community projects involving maps, geography and Aboriginal understandings of place, her negotiations with people in the communities around their parts in her memoir was interesting and insightful but just missed giving me the sense of her passion for the place. Perhaps a stronger two-and-fro conversation would have opened my heart a bit more.

One session I queued up for – Stephanie Dowrick talking about her lifetime of spiritual inquiry –  was full, and I missed out. Which turned out to be a good thing, for I was ready for a bit of fun. And leafing though her books on sale in the festival bookshop, I realised I’d forgotten my near-allergy to the genre of spiritual and self-help writing in which the author uses the word ‘we’ (as in, “How we feel about our own self…”) as if we’re cosily in this together. When the author is actually telling me her version of how it is for me.

Instead, I was delighted by ‘A Big Voice’. Which was Robyn Archer –  the wonderful singer, performer, director of festivals, deputy chair of the Australia Council –  who talked ten to the dozen in conversation with David Lloyd. It was like listening to a dinner party conversation with a witty, generous, kind and lively guest – don’t stop! I kept thinking. The audience joined in spontaneous applause when she suggested that every Ministry should have a desk for the arts. The Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…

My last session had a Castlemaine connection as two of the authors live here. ‘Starting Over’ showcased three new-to-the-business authors talking to Scott Alterator about making a late start. Doug Falconer, who in a past life was drummer with Australian band Hunters and Collectors (and our neighbour), is in the throes of writing a novel. Sally Abbott, ex-journalist, now in public relations, who also lives in Castlemaine, won a prize for her unfinished manuscript Closing Down. She was given a contract by Hachette and is now in the process of editing. The other writer was Jerry Grayson, a much-decorated helicopter search-and-rescue pilot who’s published his first memoir Rescue Pilot:Cheating the Sea and is working on his second book about his experiences as a film pilot.

The two writers I’d wanted to see and hear – Helen Garner and Cheryl Strayed – had cancelled. I was disappointed. I’d just re-read Garner’s The Spare Room, as well as her new book, Everywhere I Look, was full of admiration for her sharp, clear vision and language; I wanted to hear her voice. And I’d been blown away by Wild. It was very bad luck for the two of them to cancel. (Confession: I wouldn’t have bought the pass if they hadn’t been on the bill.)

It was a long day of culture. I am all cultured out.

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STATION ELEVEN

xstation-eleven.jpg.pagespeed.ic.VHp9WVrWLZI had a rather intense day on Saturday. I had an acupuncture appointment in Melbourne, so I caught the train to Southern Cross station, and then a tram out to Preston. My mood might have been different if I’d been reading another book – but my novel for the day was Emily St John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. 

The action moves from the last days of civilization as we know it, to Year 20. That is, 20 years after the Georgia Flu has wiped out 99.9% of the planet’s population. I read the first few chapters, dreading what was to come. It’s going to end badly, I thought. I had in mind Cormac Mc Carthy’s The Road.  I was thinking of terrible violence, crazed feral killers, babies roasted on spits, hunger and desperation and despair.

But – is this a spoiler? –  Station Eleven was more hopeful and more enjoyable. For starters, it was only the people that died, not the animals, not the plants and trees and crops, and so by Year 20 there’s some sort of post-civilization civilization beginning to emerge. The book follows The Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians, as they move through the country around the Great Lakes, putting on  Shakespeare plays and giving concerts; it moves backward and forwards to the time just before the Flu; we meet characters then who survive into the now, and some who don’t, but whose lives carry forward into the future through art or memory or friendship.

Because the book put me in an odd frame of mind, my day travelling around Melbourne and the inner suburbs on public transport was quite (pun intended) trippy. I kept seeing and hearing more than usual. I asked myself, is the world is more vivid today? Or am I more receptive today? I had a few moments of odd wonder, where everything seemed beautiful – the wrappers and drink bottles and cans beside the train tracks; the weeds, unstoppable, sprouting through the gravel between the sleepers, the graffiti more like messages from some underworld or otherworld, than vandalism. Then what took me over was the usual appalled disbelief at the strange, mad, unhospitable world that we have made for ourselves to live in. In Station Eleven, the survivors look back to the technology of the day – the phones, the TVs, computers – as if these devices defined their lost world. I suppose they do. If you are younger than me – even in your 30s and 40s – it is all you have ever known. You haven’t known a world without mobiles, laptops, the Internet.

It seemed to me on Saturday in the city, that it’s quite a hostile world if you aren’t up to it, if you aren’t young and fit and resilient and well-off. I saw the homeless people in their sleeping bags and cardboard shelters, with their sad little signs; I saw a bearded, shoeless man at a tram stop, holding a half-empty 2-litre container of milk and a drunkenly raucous woman on the tram, talking and laughing without a break, while the other travellers tried to ignore her; a God-botherer with a microphone shouting angrily about sin in the Bourke Street Mall.

As I got off the tram and walked up to the clinic, I was thinking that this poor world is sinking under the weight of our sadness and stupidity. Thinking, as I often do, that we have made for ourselves a stupid world full of things we don’t need; we’re fuelled by compulsions that harm us, we believe any old bullshit that lures us in our greed and need and fear; we’re shitting in our own nest and before long, our lovely planet will become inhospitable not just to a sane or contented or happy human animal but to any human life, full stop.

And then I opened the gate, and the weeping cherry tree had blossoms on it, like pink stars, and I caught my breath as the two things smashed together – the hideous world and the beautiful world – as they do. As they always do.

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OUR HEROINE IS FEELING THE PRESSURE…

I was going through some old papers  ( quest for an orderly filing cabinet is endless, it seems) when I found this comic strip created by my husband from photos of my first ever book launch. I spent in the entire morning in bed, under the covers, feeling as if I was going to vomit from stage fright and nerves. And I did indeed warm to the task, dressed in the worst possible taste, and having a great time. Friends turned up dressed to the nines and the competition for the best child’s costume was won a by a little Isadora Duncan complete with sports car.

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WHAT I’VE BEEN READING…

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WINTER THINGS

A day of dramatic clouds, rain showers, shafts of bright sunlight, hail, wind, quiet lulls of no weather at all, vast rainbows and then more rain. The coldest day for four years. And the shortest day, too. Walking down into town in light rain, I noticed these winter things:

susan_497Drifts of dead leaves, some sludgy and half-decayed, some light and dark brown and a few a bright startling yellow.
Dead elm leaves speckled with little insect holes.

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Fungi still appearing but people seem to be unable to resist destroying them so there are the wrecked remains of great chunky chubby earthy outgrowths in mahogany brown and sulphurous yellow. But untouched, on a log, I saw a clutch of gorgeous little pearly parasols, poetic and Japanese.

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A few leaves hanging on to the trees.  As in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73…

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang…

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DAUGHTERS OF EVE

“DNA Nation”, a 3-part series on SBS TV, followed Ernie Dingo, Ian Thorpe and Julia Zmiro as, using DNA mapping of human populations, they discovered the paths taken by their ancestors out of Africa. Last weekend, I watched the last episode and was moved to tears as Ernie Dingo discovered that 40,000 years ago, and more than 1500 generations ago, his mother’s fore-mother was living by the Murchison River in WA. It’s where Ernie’s people come from – really come from.

It’s humbling, too, to think of those ancestors who made the first great sea crossing – from what is now Timor Leste – all those thousands of years ago. The map of human migration led the three travellers from our ancient origins in Tanzania to Arabia, Turkey, India, Khazakistan, Sardinia, Scotland and Timor Leste.  Showed how ridiculous any thought of racial purity (and thus, racism) really is.

eveI was chatting about the program to Ross, one of our lovely customers in the shop, and he loaned me a couple of books by Dr Brian Sykes, a world authority on DNA and human evolution. The Seven Daughters of Eve is the story of his research using mitochondrial DNA. This gene passes through the maternal line. Thus, only if Ernie Dingo has a sister, will his mother’s line, unbroken for forty thousands years (what an amazing thought that is!) continue.

What I particularly enjoyed about The Seven Daughters of Eve was Syke’s empathy and imagination (not always on display in science writing). He says that his kind of genetics puts the emphasis where it belongs – on individuals.

I am on a stage. Before me, in the dim light, all the people who have ever lived are lined up, rank on rank, stretching far into the distance. They make no sound that I can hear, but they are talking to each other. I have in my hand the thread that connects me to my ancestral mother way in the back. I pull on the thread and one woman’s face in every generation, feeling the tug, looks at me… These are my ancestors. I recognise my grandmother in the front row, but in the generations behind her the faces are unfamiliar to me. I look down the line… I want to ask them each in turn about their lives, their hopes and their disappointments, their joys and their sacrifices… I feel a strong connection. These are all my mothers who passed this precious messenger from one to another through a thousand births, a thousand screams, a thousand embraces of new-born babies. the thread becomes an umbilical cord.

The Seven Daughters of Eve by Brian Sykes, Corgi, London, 2002.

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FUNGI WEATHER

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The illustration by Rose Ellenby (note the skull and crossbones!) and cover art are from a King Penguin, Poisonous Fungi by John Ramsbottom, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1945.

And another fungi poem…

This is an excerpt from  Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath, first collected in The Colossus and Other Poems, William Heinemann, London, 1960.

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on

Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving…

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I thought I’d better write a fungi poem of my own…

FUNGI WEATHER

In this dry season

They still come.

Entombed warriors, they wait, massed, in readiness.

It’s their mission –

Rain or no rain,

when the days shorten,

they will rise.

Through ground hard as iron, stony, cracked, compacted

They heave up, giving birth  to themselves,

Crowning.

We see a shoulder, an elbow

Or a round white scalp.

 

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COSY

Our prolonged Indian Summer is over at last. It’s six o’clock; I’ve just come in from taking the dog for a walk around the block and my nose feels like it has frozen and may well snap off as it thaws. I was in Montreal in early spring many years ago; it was so cold that I did promise myself not to complain about our winters ever again. Well, I’m not complaining – I’m just noticing. At least we have a warm house. At least we have a house.

There’s something about wintry weather that makes me long for a good cosy, so that’s what I’ve been reading this past week. You may or may not know that the cosy is a sub-genre of crime fiction. If you think of Miss Marple, you’ll get the idea. Amateur sleuth, usually a woman, and the setting that works best is a small town or village or community. There are no mean streets, no jaded PI’s or alcoholic detectives, minimal sex and usually no graphic violence, there is still plenty of death.

cosyI’ve just been reading the Sarah Kelling mysteries by Charlotte McLeod. A quick stock-take of modus operandi gives us toxic mushrooms, poisoned cocktails, paint stripper, the deliberate withholding of heart medication, bludgeoning with blunt instrument (in one, it was a built-up shoe) or a sharp instrument ( an axe), car brakes that have been tampered with, a quick shove in the back which lands the victim under a train or over a balcony…
Motives are the usual – sex and money and reputation. None of which is very cosy at all, really.

The other point of difference with a cosy is that it can be humourous. Even laugh- out- loud funny.

 

 

The Sarah Kelling books are stuffed with gorgeously eccentric characters. Absurd Boston blue-bloods abound. Some of them are dotty and delightful – like Uncle Jem, an elderly reprobate who belongs to the Order of the Convivial Codfish. And some of them are snobbish and murderous, like Sarah’s blind and deaf mother-in-law.

bilbaoYou can have a spot of romance, too, and it doesn’t have to be tragic. Handsome art expert and investigator Max Bittersohn falls for the widowed Sarah and assists her to solve various thefts and murders; it’s not all smooth sailing, however – in The Bilbao Looking Glass, the anti-Semitism of the yacht club crowd comes to an ugly head as they decide she can’t possibly marry a Jew. Elderly cousins and uncles also find love; my favourite courtship is that of twitcher Cousin Brooks and the statuesque sixty-ish beauty Mrs Theonia Sorpende.

 

Charlotte Macleod also wrote as Ailsa Craig.

 

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