CHANGING THE WEATHER

These past days have been so hot that I’ve been spending most of my time – when not actually at work –  sitting close to the air conditioner and reading. In an attempt to cheer myself up and change the weather, at least internally, I re-read three of my favourite English children’s books, each of them magical and beloved and beautiful –  The Midnight Folk, Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Children of Green Knowe. An exercise in nostalgia, yes – but how wonderful to be transported to the snowy winters and cool summers of English children’s literature when it’s 45 degrees outside and 35 in the front of the house.

My first encounter with Tom’s Midnight Garden was as a BBC radio serial. This is another cooling thought; the ABC played these children’s serials early on a Sunday morning and Dad used to bring the transistor radio in to me so that I could listen to it in bed. Then, as often as not, we’d go for a walk together on the beach which was just through our back gate. My memory paints a Port Phillip Bay that was always  calm and flat, with sandbanks exposed, a few early boats out on the water, a few early walkers like us. When we got home, Dad made what he called ‘baconized egg’ (scrambled eggs with chopped, fried bacon bits) for the two of us; the rest of the family missed out, this treat was only for early risers.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of the celebrated treasures of children’s literature – still in print – there’s a gorgeous Folio Society edition – and I’ve just seen the new graphic novel.  The writing is so beautiful and perfect and intelligent and sensitive – the ‘time-shift’ is so well handled – here, I’d better just quote!
This is the section where Tom has found himself in the hall of the old house where his aunt and uncle’s flat is. It’s mysteriously gone back in time, to a room filled with stuffed animals, umbrella stands,  paintings, rugs,  fishing rods, peacock feathers, chairs and other furniture.

…Tom became aware of something going on furtively and silently about him. He looked around sharply, and caught the hall in the act of emptying itself of furniture and rugs and pictures. They were not positively going, perhaps, but rather failing to be there. The Gothic barometer, for instance, was there, before he turned to look at the red fox: when he turned back, the barometer was still there, but it had the appearance of something 0nly sketched against the wall, and the wall was visible through it; meanwhile the fox had slunk into nothingness, and all the other creatures were going with him; and turning back again swiftly to the barometer, Tom found that gone already.

And here’s Tom’s first experience of the garden.

There is a time, between night and day, when landscapes sleep. Only the earliest riser sees that hour; or the all-night traveller, letting up the blind of his railway carriage window, will look out on a rushing landscape of stillness, in which the trees and bushes and plants stand immobile and breathless in sleep – wrapped in sleep, as the traveller himself wrapped his body in his great-coat or his rug the night before.
This grey, still hour before morning was the time in which Tom walked into his garden. He had come down the stairs and along the hall to the garden door at midnight: but when he opened that door and stepped out into the garden, the time was much later. All night – moonlit or swathed in darkness – the garden had stayed awake; now, after that night-long vigil, it had dozed off.
The green of the garden was greyed over with dew; indeed, all its colours were gone until the touch of sunrise. The air was still, and the tree-shapes crouched down upon themselves. One bird spoke; and there was a movement when an awkward parcel of feathers dislodged itself from the tall fir-tree at the corner of the lawn, seemed for a second to fall and then at once was swept up and along, outspread, on a wind that never blew, to another farther tree: an owl. It wore the ruffled, dazed appearance of one who has been up all night.

This is gorgeous, gorgeous writing; mysterious, poignant, subtle…I could go on. And I wonder – which wondering isn’t to bag current children’s writers, editors and publishers, because I have been part of  the industry – whether the book would find a taker in today’s market. It’s slow. There is a lot of description. It’s a thoughtful rather than an action-packed book. Time and memory and loss and change – the big themes of the book – are perhaps not what we’d think of as child-like concerns.  The ‘climax’ – if you could call it that – is moving, but muted.
I think back to the writing of my three recent children’s books, all of which were set in the 1870s, and my wonderful editor’s reminders to always think of my (child) audience and not to get bogged down, to keep things moving, to watch my language. Long, difficult, challenging, archaic or even just old-fashioned words and phrases were all carefully considered and examined. Sometimes they could stay – but often there had to be a substitution or a re-formulation or an explanation. I’m not saying this was wrong, for it  added to the readability of the novels, and very rarely did it seem worthwhile to dig my heels in.
I wonder, did I struggle with ‘difficult’ language as a child reader? If I did, I don’t remember it. I seem to have been able to have worked things out from context, or skipped over what I didn’t understand. After all, as a child, there’s so much in the adult word that you don’t understand, anyway. Are today’s child readers different to those of my generation? Yes and no, is probably the answer.  So much (technology is the obvious thing) has changed, but perhaps some things – like curiosity and a sense of wonder – will never alter. I hope not.
Or perhaps by the time I am 95, like my beloved neighbour Margaret, I will probably be thinking, like her, that I just don’t recognise this world any more.

 

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X-RAY SPECS

Where do writers learn their best moves? They learn them from a technique I call X-ray reading. They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do. But in their reading, they see something more. It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.
This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us. Through a form of reverse engineering, a good phrase used by scholar Steven Pinker, they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page – effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany and pain. These working parts are then stored in the writers toolshed with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics and that big box – rhetoric.
from the Introduction to The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark: Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2016

Many years ago, when I regularly taught creative writing in community settings, I used to tell my students that the most important thing to do, if you wanted to write, was to read. All the time. Widely. Fiction, non-fiction, old, new, literature, genre, popular, for adults and teenagers and children. Perhaps I talked vaguely about how it was through reading that I began writing. I would have told them that reading was the way I learned about the shape of sentences and paragraphs, and how to create characters and scenes, and when was the best time for a surprise, an argument, a chase or a nice cup of tea. I learned what kind of books and writing I enjoyed, and worked out how to write that kind of book for myself. I always included excerpts from books to read and critique, but I really didn’t know how to show them, systematically, how to decode a piece of prose in a useful, instructive way. Nevertheless, some got it – and I think that they would have, anyway, without me.

But some didn’t at all. I wish I’d had this book to recommend, because it’s terrific. Texts spanning millennia – from Homer’s Iliad through to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch –  are not only lovingly investigated, but the obliging Clark also ends each chapter with a helpful list of ‘writing lessons’. And I loved the appendix, “Great Sentences from Famous Authors”. Apparently in 2014 the editors of The American Scholar selected “ten best sentences” from literature. I have no idea how you could choose ten, but it made me think about choosing a few “best sentences” from my current reading.

Dack’s Auto Court was on the edge of the city, in a rather rundown suburb named Ocean View. The twelve or fifteen cottages of the court lay on the flat top of a bluff, below the highway and above the sea. They were made of concrete block and painted an unnatural green. Three or four cars, none of them recent models, were parked on the muddy gravel.
The rain had let up and fresh yellow light slanted in from a hole in the west, as if to provide a special revelation of the ugliness of Dack’s Auto Court. Above the hutch marked ‘Office’ a single ragged palm tree leaned against the light. I parked beside it and went in. A hand-painted card taped to the counter instructed me to ‘Ring for Proprietor’. I punched the hand-bell beside it. It didn’t work.

The excerpt is from The Far Side of the Dollar by Ross MacDonald (Allison & Busby, London, 1988) and the narrator is the weary, cynical California private investigator Lew Archer. My X-Ray specs are still L-plated, but what I notice are the first couple of  flat, matter of fact, factual sentences locating the auto court. We’ve got the natural elements of the scene, the bluff and the sea in competition with the built environment of highway, city, suburb. Archer’s jaundiced view of the place begins to come out in the details chosen for us when he describes the building and its surrounds – the concrete blocks are an ‘unnatural’ green (and yet green is the most natural colour one can think of); the cars are old; the gravel is muddy.  A ray of light comes from the clouds, but there are no angel voices, no saints, no visions; instead, a ‘special revelation of ugliness’ comes from above. I laughed out loud at that. There’s only one palm tree, and it’s leaning and ragged; the hand-lettered notice is unprofessional and shabby. And to top it all off, the bell doesn’t work! Dack’s Auto Court is cheap, ugly, unloved – and, since this is a crime novel, the perfect setting for failure, despair and murder.

 

 

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SUMMER READING

Hot weather goes on. Attention span slides. Summer reading continues. A delightfully slack day in front of the air conditioner, and I’m nearly finished Liane Moriarty’s latest, Nine Perfect Strangers. Once again I marvel at the clever way she creates a suspenseful, must-know-what-happened bestseller. Nine strangers find themselves together in the Australian country at Tranquillum House for a 10-day well-being retreat. The different characters are introduced, their problems and issues artfully revealed, the tension builds –  I have a feeling the whole thing is about to go off like firecrackers. Really, this is perfect popular fiction (and that’s not a disguised insult) because it’s not mindless forgettable fluff. Within her page-turner she introduces themes that are contemporary, dark and difficult, she makes you think, and all with a light touch.

I am chipping away, on and off, at last year’s Booker Prize winner, Milkman. When I say ‘chipping away’, this is not because it’s tedious or difficult. Or even too depressing (my problem with many of the 2018 book group titles) even though the heroine is trapped and seemingly powerless in a paranoid, dangerous and claustrophobic Belfast during the sectarian and political violence of the 1970s.
No, it’s more because the language. Or do I mean the style? It’s the voice. (It’s so often the voice!) The interior monologue of the unnamed narrator is dense, thick, full, unstopping, unstoppable, absurd, unpredictable, tragic, hilarious and sometimes just really, really weird. ‘Batty’, was the word one reviewer used. For me, at any rate, this kind of writing takes time. Also – and believe me, this is significant for the amount of time it takes to read a novel – there are no paragraphs, no line breaks, no indents for dialogue. A bit like G W Sebald. Lots of words and nowhere to hide.

“You ask peculiar questions, daughter,’ ma replied. ‘Not as peculiar as those posed by wee sisters,’ I said, ‘and you answer them as if they were normal questions,’ meaning their latest at breakfast. ‘Mammy,’ they’d said, ‘mought it happen that if you were a female and excessively sporty and this thing called menstruation stopped inside you because you were excessively sporty’ – wee sisters had recently discovered menstruation in a book, not yet through personal experience – ‘then you stopped being excessively sporty and your menstruation returned, would that mean you’d have an extra time of menstruation to make up for the gap of not having had it when you should have had it only you couldn’t because your sportiness was blocking the production of your follicle-stimulating hormone, also blocking your luteininising hormone from instructing your oestrogen to stimulate the uterine….

And it goes on. I was laughing out loud at their imagined eldritch little voices. And then, a few pages later, moved at the narrator’s reflections on her dead father’s depression. And a few pages before, astonished at the scene in the evening French class, experienced by the students as threateningly subversive, where the teacher points out to her class that the sky is not blue.

 

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CUCKOO’S CALLING

I’m obviously very much behind in my reading, because I until Friday I hadn’t read the first of Robert Galbraith’s (AKA J K Rowling) crime novels while right now the fourth, Lethal White, is selling like hot cakes. Or, more accurately selling like a best-seller.

I read The Cuckoo’s Calling quickly, over a couple of days of hot weather. (I find crime novels and hot weather go well together). Cormoran Strike is a perfectly respectable detective hero, with his complicated backstory and slightly tattered-around-the-edges nobility. Sidekick Robin is set up to mature into something more. Everything about it, from plot to the cast of characters – including some hilariously horrid society ladies –  to the varying London locales, works well. The resolution is neat, but not too neat, and doesn’t rely on the trick of having some  character suddenly zoomed from the periphery into the centre of things.  It was what I’d call a good read.

I skip read most of the sequel, The Silkworm, yesterday and then turned to the last page to find out who did it. Perhaps the crime was a bit too perverse. Perhaps the change in the weather – a cool change swept through the state on Friday evening  – diminished my appetite for crime. Sometimes it’s great to binge read the same author, and sometimes it’s not. I’ve got the next one – Career of Evil –  ready and waiting, but might wait until the temperature rises. it’s not as if I don’t have plenty to read. A new collection of essays, Call Them By Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Milkman by Anna Burns.

While I’m on the subject of detective fiction – I’m a big Tana French fan and if I wrote crime, I’d love to be able to write that kind. But her latest, The Wych Elm, disappointingly didn’t gel for me. While in her Dublin Murder Squad series, particularly The Likeness and In the Woods, the slower pace and what you might call ‘psychological’ approach led me deeply, satisfyingly into the novel, this one just seemed under-edited. Too long, too much detail. And I hate saying this, but too slow. I hope she returns to the force for her next one.

 

 

 

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HAPPY NEW YEAR OF READING

In the past, at the end of the year, it’s been fun to count how many books I read, and in what genres, and to note the balance of male to female and Australian to overseas writers, and which books I’d read before, and which were new releases… All that kind of stuff.

This year, I began the list, and then just gave up. I know I read some wonderful books, and wrote about some of them on this blog, but just at the minute I can’t remember their names. End-of-year exhaustion, hot weather, old age..?

So here are the last books for 2018, which fall neatly into a number of categories. An English children’s book, an American collection of essays, an award-winning Australian first novel, a Booker long-listed novel by a young Irish writer.

A.F. Harrold’s The Afterwards – with illustrations by Emily Gravett – is an unsettling book about death and what comes next. December (Ember) and her friend Happiness (Ness) are inseparable – until Ness dies in a freak playground accident. Dark and disturbing echoes from mythology as Ember goes into “the afterwards” to try to bring her Ness back from that grey and dreary place. Should she sacrifice her own life for her friend? It is actually quite scary…and reminded me of one of the traumas of my own childhood, which was an episode of The Twilight Zone where a little girl rolls out of bed through the wall into a grey, dreary, endless in-between place. The stuff of nightmares. I’m not sure what a 9-10 year old would really make of this. I must ask one!

Janet Malcolm is a brilliant American journalist and writer of intimidating (or terrifying) intelligence and wit. Never mind that. But I found Forty-one False Starts: Essays in artists and writers, with a foreword by another pretty scary writer, Helen Garner, un-put-downable. The piece I enjoyed most, A Girl of the Zeitgeist, is a profile of Ingrid Sischy, the editor of the magazine ArtForum. I knew nothing about most of the art world characters – artists, critics, writers, dealers – but it was all fascinating, witty, sharp, funny and awfully clever. My brain did hurt after I finished it, but that’s probably a sign that it did me good.

Rooney’s Normal People tells of the on-again off-again and often tortured relationship between intellectual loner and misfit Marianne and popular, sporty Connell. They’re intelligent and ambitious young people who’ve grown up together in a provincial Irish town. His mother is her family’s cleaner, and they come to share an intimate but secret friendship/love affair while they’re at high school. They break up, go on to university in Dublin, and somehow their roles reverse. And reverse again. Beautifully written, it captures with heart-breaking exactitude what it’s like to be young, longing for love and acceptance, trying to find your place in the world.
I read some of the reviews on Goodreads, and was surprised (but not really) to find that some readers understood it as an over-hyped YA romance. It’s not. Romantic, I mean. It’s sharp social commentary. Political.  Intellectual. Here’s a brief quote:

He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw her hands up and said: Not politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer was a good person, and even if his book was really insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated in some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he’d been taking for a new story and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything. p 222-3

I read this obsessively, finished it in a day and a night. Sally Rooney is only in her 20’s, so I imagine she’ll only get better and better.

 

And finally…I haven’t quite finished The Trapeze Act by Libby Angel (who just happens to be another Castlemaine writer) but I will include it anyway, as my last book for 2018. It’s hard to describe but it might help if I tell you that the writer is also a poet. Loretta, the narrator, spends her childhood surveying and surviving her family.

I come from a long line of warriors and explorers. My ancestors rode elephants and conquered deserts and skies. Some of them, like my mother, could fly.
Even if we are not awake to them, our forebears possess us. Generations exist in our blood as if we had swallowed them. Loretta Maartje Lord: this is who I am and why I have come. My name is an incantation, a summons to the dead, and I am their torchbearer, the executor of their triumphs and grievances. p 4

Mother is a flamboyant trapeze artiste and exotic dancer, sprung from a long line of circus performers, whose eccentricity bleeds into madness; brother Kingston is a homicidal maniac-in-training; father Gilbert is a high profile criminal lawyer and philanderer. And her great grandfather, whose journals are excerpted in the novel, was a delusional explorer who hoped to find elephants in the red centre of Australia. Sharp, poetic, often very funny, it sometimes reads like a fable, and sometimes like a scary account of parenting gone terribly, terribly wrong. I’ll keep reading.

And hopefully, I’ll keep on and on reading in 2019. There’s already a quite a collection by my bed. Recently, a customer referred to her unread books as “the pile of shame”. And another customer said, no, don’t think of it that way. Just consider how much pleasure you have ahead of you.
I agree completely.

 

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MERRY JOLLY HAPPY HOLLY GOOD WISHES TO ALL

Last year, I sent Christmas wishes with a cocky in a plum tree. I didn’t get around to anything original this year, and instead from a cache of rather musty-smelling art postcards from the 1960s, found sufficient madonnas and child for everyone. Even less original was my greeting, which was borrowed from a Canadian friend.
He sent us a very funny home-made Christmas card which wished us a holly, jolly time of turning, reflection and indulgence.  Thank you, Dave – and as Christmas was the day before last, I acknowledge that my good wishes are not only borrowed, they’re late.

As usual, the end of the year has caught me by surprise – how can this be? – and of course, it’s not surprising at all because the sun keeps rising and setting, day after day.
Which is a good thing.
And now that the jolly holly is over, there’s that lovely holiday time in between for lazing and reading. Lots of reading. Over the past week it’s been completely random – That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist by my favourite Buddhist Jewish grandmother, Sylvia Boorstein, a 1930’s romance that belonged to my grandmother, and vegetarian cook books. So much for my plan to read more strategically, more thoughtfully, and from my list of important new authors.
Fireworks and end-of-year sales and resolutions aside, Happy New Year. Continuing the lack-of-originality theme, from a Buddhist loving-kindness meditation that I like, I quote:

May all beings be well and happy
May they be safe from harm
May they be held in compassion
May their suffering be eased
May they be at peace.

And that means you.

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RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR

I’m not sure when or where or even why I scribbled this down. In the King James Version of the bible, Hebrews 13:2 reads:
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
On the other hand, the revised New International Version is this:
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

To me, that tin ear for language is so starved of poetry and beauty, it’s almost beyond understanding. You just have to read the KJV passage out loud, and follow with the other. But, as my husband pointed out, the revisers were all about understanding for the people who were going to be put off by archaic words or grammar.

I am now raving (in a good way) about RisingTideFallingStar, but to tell you the truth, I was initially put off by Philip Hoare’s wild and prodigal way with language when I first bought this book last year. It was a bit the same with H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald. Too many words! Too intense! And I certainly changed my mind there.

 

On our Canadian adventure, we spent a lot of time by the ocean; the Pacific on the West Coast, the Atlantic on the East. The photograph below was taken on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. One of our friends reminded me of an earlier visit, when he and I had travelled from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, and the huge behemoth of a car ferry was accompanied by leaping dolphins. It was sheer delight, which I’d forgotten, and then remembered. I realised with a thud of disappointment that I’d just had that ritual burning, and the 1991 Canada journal had gone into the flames. Damn.
This digression is just a way of saying that my appetite for reading about oceans was aroused, I remembered buying the book and not liking it, and thought it might be time to try again.


And oh, wow. It made me remember being a child of around ten, discovering that I could write poetry, and the feeling of feasting greedily on words. Like a bee in a field of flowers, I was giddy and dizzy and reeling with sweetness. Not that Hoare’s writing is particularly sweet. It’s actually pretty strange, some of it – I can imagine there are people who’d even find it repellent. I’m thinking of his descriptions of examining animal corpses, for instance (this is something I do, too – they’re interesting). When he finds a dead female dolphin and pokes his finger inside her genital opening to see if she’s pregnant, it was almost a step too far even for me.

This is a book about himself, and the ocean.  Also, whales, dolphins, birds, England and New England, shores, tides, storms, the planet, the past, the present, swimming, danger, Moby Dick, Sylvia Plath, the English Romantic poet Shelley,  The Tempest, David Bowie, Virginia Woolf… This is a very partial list. There’s so much more. Here’s a taste:

And when a family of Sowerby’s beaked whales appears in the early morning off those black shores, their strange dark shapes moving silently through the water, their subtle blows and antediluvian beaks breaking the calm surface to announce their presence: or when Risso’s dolphins leap and spy-hop, so impossibly marked and scratched that they appear almost entirely white, like cetacean ghosts, in the way that all whales are ghosts; or when a sperm whale  appears out of the same sea, her body uniquely shaded in grey, a pale band around her belly splintering into shards towards he flukes like avant-garde haute couture and leaving me gasping behind my perspex mask – don’t all these cetaceans, whose names seem to belong to humans, signal their own stories,their own sense of themselves, rising to adore their own gods?
I had no idea. In the ocean, this is happening, all the time, as it always did.

Rising TideFallingStar by Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate, 2017 $29.95

 

 

 

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THE ART OF THE LIST

I am a bit of a sucker for:
(a) Stationery, especially journals. I buy a lot of beautiful journals.
(b) Resolutions, especially those starting at the beginning of a month, a season or – best of all – the year.
(c) Self help books that aren’t American – I’ve found the Japanese ones, like The Courage to be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi, especially interesting.

These all came together in L’arte de la Liste by Dominique Loreau. Yes, obviously she’s French, but she’s lived in Japan since the 1970s, and so this book is much influenced by Japanese ideas. Though the cover promises that you can simplify and organise, it’s not a how-to in any narrow sense. It really is about enriching one’s life rather than bullet points and binders with ten tabs and ruthless efficiency.

I have re-purposed a lovely, flowery but totally failed “Write Two Pages Every Single Day for a Month” journal (I managed three non-consecutive days!) and it’s now “A List a Day for a Month” lovely flowery journal. A list just has to have more than one item on it. That’s all!

My list for today is TEN REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL.
They’re in no particular order.

1. Victorian voters have rejected the Liberal Party. Maybe the whole lot of them will have a good, hard look at themselves. Or maybe not.
2. School children have gone on strike and taken their concerns about climate change to state and federal parliament
3.  200 of the striking school children came from my town, Castlemaine.
4. Gorgeous little silver eyes are hopping around the the tree outside my window.
5. My husband had a crack at making hummus for the first time, and it was delicious.
6. There are bright pink, pale pink, red, scarlet and red-and-white geraniums all in flower in the front garden.
7. My glasses weren’t lost, after all.
8. My son assisted a group called Democracy in Colour , which is a movement of people of colour and allies working together to tackle structural racism during the state elections.
9. One customer has bought six copies of my book to give to friends, and sent me a beautiful card telling me why.
10. And  – sorry to keep banging on about politics – I was able to vote without fear, harassment or intimidation, unlike far too much of the world; there was no voter suppression or totally outrageous gerrymandering as in the USA; the election was on a Saturday, but if I hadn’t been able to get to the polling booth, I could have voted by post: I voted at my local school, and there was a sausage sizzle. If I didn’t want to vote, but also didn’t want to cop a fine, I could have drawn a picture or left it blank. How lucky are we.

 

 

 

 

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THE ME, WITHOUT

A rainy day. I headed to the cafe, meaning to hole up with a pot of tea, a toasted sandwich and a book for the whole lunch hour. The book I grabbed from the pile of review copies was The Me, Without by Jacqueline Raposo.
Raposo was a “middling successful” New York food writer and podcast host. She had creative work she loved, her own apartment, supportive family, and a beautiful dog. But in 2016, she was also single, struggling with chronic illness and broke.
The Me, Without (due for release in January 2019) is her record of an experiment, over the course of a year, in which she removed things from her life – for set periods –  to see if she could become happier. Her ‘challenges’ were no social media: no shopping: no sugar: no holiday gifting: no negative thought: no waste: no hustle: and no habit. It’s a mixture of memoir, psychology, neurology, history and literature.

As soon as I started reading, I decided I was going to hate this book. I pre-judged Raposo as a whiny, entitled, neurotic New Yorker. And really, does the world need any more self-help books? But actually, once I got over my prejudice, I really enjoyed it. She’s engaging and funny and brutally honest about herself. She caught Lyme disease as a 12-year-old, and the toll on her health has been heartbreaking but she doesn’t paint herself as a victim. It is what it is.
 The Me, Without has made me think about the time I lose doing things from habit. I like to think I’m pretty frugal and sensible and green, but when I think about it, there’s lots of stuff I consume unthinkingly. I could do so much better!  I now have some very expensive cloth-and-beeswax substitutes for cling-wrap and a mission to reduce not just our rubbish, but our recycling as much as I can.

Moreover, I have set myself my own little set of challenges. I feel I should apologise, because the first one is not very…well, not very challenging, actually. It’s this: until Christmas, I’m not going to switch the TV on and watch random shows or surf channels any more. If I want to watch TV, I will look up the TV guide and choose something.  Or not.
And mostly, it’s been not. Instead, I’ve been reading.  Who would have thought?

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THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS

On the plane to Vancouver recently, I watched about half of a movie called Book Club. It starred Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton. They played a group of  rich, attractive, over-60 American women, friends for many years, who lived in gorgeous homes and dressed very nicely (especially Ms Fonda), and liked to drink wine in long-stemmed glasses while they talked about books. The latest book?  50 Shades of Grey.  If you’d like to see a film about  mature sexuality and love, this isn’t it. The quartet of excellent actors were badly let down by the script. I know it was meant to be a comedy, but couldn’t the writers come up with anything better? The “she spiked her husband’s drink with Viagra” routine was just awful. In fact, I thought the whole film was terrible – stupid and insulting – but perhaps I don’t have a sense of humour. The best thing about it is 80- year old Jane Fonda’s simply amazing state of preservation.

I am also member of a book club. It’s a Council of Adult Education group. We get to browse a book list and mark our suggestions, then nine times a  year a crate of books is delivered to our coordinator. We pick them up, read them and, on rotation, host a meeting in our homes, with cheese and crackers, wine, a cake. The other members are all women, all over 50, all busy being interesting and skilled and clever people, working as nurses, teachers, administrators, social workers, garden designers. Professionals, in other words. And as partners or wives, mothers, carers, homemakers.

We’re not besties, though I’ve known some of the women for more than 20 years, but we do talk together  – or it seems to me, anyway – quite openly about our lives, our struggles, our failures and our successes. We certainly don’t look like Jane, Mary, Candice and Diane, but that’s because it’s not a movie and we are real. As someone from the world of books and literature, a writer and bookseller, I look like an asset to the group – on paper at least – but I don’t think I am. The other women are shrewd and intelligent readers. They’re able to analyse the books in ways that don’t occur to me.  Their comments and opinions are thoughtful. I often come away thinking that I’m a lazy reader, for I seem to read acceptingly, just allowing the novels (we seem to only read fiction) to wash over me. Or perhaps I’m just plain lazy.

Too often this year, I haven’t finished the set book. In a couple of cases, I barely even started. Nine books! It shouldn’t be that hard. So I am pleased to report that for the first time this year, I have finished my book group novel ahead of time. We’ve had a series of books I’ve found depressing, and this one – The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle – looked like more of the same. But – lucky last! –  I couldn’t put it down. I am still thinking about it. It’s the voice. It’s so often the voice.

The book starts with the doorbell. A young Guard, come to tell Paula bad news.
“It clicked inside me when I opened the door and saw the Guard. It was his face that told me before I was ready to know it. He wasn’t looking for Charlo; it wasn’t the usual. He was scared and there was something he had to tell me. I felt sorry for the poor young fella, sent in to do the dirty work. the other wasters were out in the car, too lazy and too cute to come in and tell me themselves. I asked him in for a cup of tea. He sat in the kitchen with his cat still on him. He told me all about his family.”

The narrator, Paula Spencer, is a 39-year-old Dublin house-cleaner. She’s got three children at home and one estranged from her. Her husband, Charlo, has abused her for 17 years and recently she kicked him out. Now he’s dead, and her thoughts flash back to her first meeting with him and their marriage. Back to her childhood, too; her family life and school. When she leaves puberty and goes to secondary school, she’s put in a stream for academic failures. The teachers don’t bother. A basically happy and confident little girl is suddenly and shockingly convinced that she’s a failure. “It was a fright, finding out that I was stupid.”
What’s more, the gender assumptions in her world are brutal.
“Where I grew up – and probably everywhere else – you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. You didn’t have to do anything to be a slut. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk: if you had clean hair; if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara.

The scenes of violent abuse are chilling. “I went to the doctor: whack. He followed me. There’s nothing wrong with you; what’s your problem? Whack. And I loved him when he didn’t do it. I loved him with all my heart. He was so kind. He just lost his temper sometimes. He loved me. He bought me things. He bought me clothes. Why didn’t I wear them? Whack.
She hides her injuries, she blames herself – and yet, somewhere inside, she wonders why the doctors and nurses she sees so often in Casualty don’t ask the right questions, the ones that will free her to tell what’s really happened, so that she and her children will be rescued and never have to face Charlo again.

If this sounds grim, it is, but Doyle is so skillful a writer. His Paula is vulnerable and flawed, and yet a survivor. And what’s more, a brave and loving woman, and not at all stupid.

 

 

 

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