Have you read…? Any of these!

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Oh dear! I do have some catch up to do! It is a LONG time since a book review popped up here but I promise you, I HAVE been reading! Just haven’t got to WRITING about what I’ve been reading. So. Here we go. A quick run down of what’s been sitting next to my bed and beside my couch!

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

For any non-Australian readers, Magda Szubanksi is one of our most beloved comic actors and has been a fairly constant presence on our TV screens since the late 1980s. Maybe think of Dawn French or Melissa McCarthy. Her autobiography, Reckoning, is a beautifully written, fascinating, illuminating, touching insight into her life and the life of her family.  Born in Liverpool to a Scottish mother and Polish father, her story of her identity spans the globe and reaches back into history as she tells of her father’s life as an assassin with the Polish resistance during World War 2. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about how difficult it must be to fit together the picture of the father who is now part of suburban Melbourne with the Polish youth living half a world away, in another time, killing Germans in cold blood. As she says in the first line of the book

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

Alongside this aspect of her life, she also details the struggle she went through in being able to be open about her sexuality (she was very young when she realised she was gay); how it affected her sense of where she belonged and how it led to battles with food, weight and depression. And, of course, she details her life in theatre, television and film. A wonderful book about an incredibly complex life.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.

How can you not be captured by this opening line? And such lyrical writing continues throughout the novel. The Paper House tells the story of Heather and Dave as they face the unbearable sadness of a stillbirth, how they each negotiate their grief and the support they receive from Heather’s sister and distant father. For Heather, the loss of her child triggers, understandably, a deterioration in her mental health. As we witness this, we are also introduced, through flashback, to the tragic mental health battles of Heather’s own mother and how this affected their family as Heather was growing up. Spargo-Ryan also introduces us to Heather and Dave’s neighbours, Sylvia, and Ashok. As the three households interact, our eyes are opened to Sylvia’s own grief over the loss of her husband and how she and Ashok fill a hole in each other’s lives.

I loved the writing in this book. It was truly beautiful. My only niggle came from the nature of the mental health conditions suffered by Heather and her mother. I think this is more my own fault rather than Spargo-Ryan’s. Before I started reading, my preconception about the nature of Heather’s mental health battle was that it would be in the nature of depression and/or anxiety which I was interested in seeing explored but, whilst Spargo-Ryan deliberately chose not to name the condition, it seemed to be more a type of psychsosis. Heather’s mother’s condition, by contrast, appeared to me to be bipolar in nature. Related, yes, in that they are both mental illnesses but I think I would have preferred it if they had been the same; a genetic link. I’m trying to let go of this little niggle, because it is such a beautifully written book, but it’s still there, just below the surface!

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The Strays won the Stella Prize in 2015 for first time novelist Emily Bitto. Set in Melbourne in the 1930s, it is narrated by the adult Lily and is a recollection of the time she spent living with famed artist, Evan Trentham, his wife, Helena, their daughters and the various others artists (‘the strays’) who came to live with them. As a young girl on her first day at a new school Lily becomes friends with middle daughter, Eva. After school plays become sleepovers, weekends and then, when Lily’s father suffers a workplace injury, she lives, for a time, with the Trenthams permanently. Lily adores the free spirit of the home which is in sharp contrast to her own conservative home life. The dark side to the free spirit is an undeniable amount of self absorption by the Trentham parents and the artists. There is the desire for fame, acknowledgement, satiation of lust, and along the way, it is Eva and her sisters, and Lily, who get caught up and spat out by the behaviours of the adults in their lives.

This is yet another excellent novel by a female Australian writer. I have read so many recently! The characters and the setting are well realised, and Bitto has clearly been inspired by the lives of Sunday and John Reed in creating the Trenthams. We observe that whilst, in their art making, the artists may be great observers of their physical world, their own feelings and desires, in life, they do not observe the feelings of others or the damage that their actions are creating.

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

Another prize winner. This time, The Miles Franklin Award for 2015. Wow! I adored this book but I’m hesitant to say too much because I don’t want to give away spoilers. The story revolves around a young boy, Jimmy Flick. Jimmy’s condition is not named but I think it is reasonable to assume that he is autistic. He is obsessed with machinery and how things work and this is the way he attempts to make sense of the way people are behaving, including himself. Jimmy lives with his mum and dad and older brother, Robby.  Jimmy’s mum is the only person who is able to cope with his behaviour. His father finds it an enormous strain, and when combined with the work pressures and a fondness for drink, the home environment, despite the affection Jimmy’ parents have for one another, becomes a dangerous one. When tragedy comes to the home, Jimmy needs to learn how to navigate the world on his own.

The writing of Jimmy’s voice is stunning. I loved him and he tugged at all my maternal heartstrings. I loved his politeness and enthusiasm

Yes, Mr Ashworth. Yes, yes, I will. It’s ham, Mr Ashworth. It’s ham and pickle.

and his observations of his behaviour and others

I did what he said. I sucked oxygen through my mouth and down into my air passage until every cell got a portion. Oxygen was the glue, binding me together.

Like gravy and chips, my Dad had magnetic powers.  Mum had no defences for him.  He got in underneath. He was like a slice; she couldn’t give him up.

Really, I could pretty much quote the whole book! A highly recommended read.

 

Five good things to do in winter

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It is chilly-billy in Melbourne at the moment. Yes it is. The sky has been fluctuating between a threatening shade of dark grey and bursts of blue, and the wind is a-blowing. Am I cracking the sads? Not really because I think there are some pretty nice things to do on cold and blustery days!

Make bolognese Comfort food! I loved it when I was a little and I could smell onions sweating in the pan on the old St George stove. I’m sure my mum sweated onions for a multitude of dishes but I’ve always associated that aroma with bolognese. Now that I’m the one making it, I appreciate the ability to make double quantity and whack half in the freezer for the night I don’t want to cook, and that everyone in the fam likes it. There is some debate over the ratio of sauce to pasta. The females in the house favour more spaghetti, the men, more sauce. What do you like?

Wear tights So much warmer than jeans or pants, right? I think they can add a touch of colour, fun and quirkiness to a grey winter’s day. I’m probably a bit more conservative in the tights wearing department so I tend to go for something along these lines but these are beautiful. The only bum note about tights – what’s with the weird itchiness that sometimes appears out of nowhere on the back of the thighs? Is it the tights? Is it the chair? Is it just me?

Knit or crochet a blanket/scarf It’s about warmth on multiple levels. As it grows, it warms your legs and your hands as you’re click-clacking or hooking away, you end up with a lovely, warming finished product from your hours of labour, and if you’ve made it as a gift for a friend or charity, it warms the cockles of your heart to present it to someone else. Wins all round I say! There are lots of lovely patterns on Ravelry and Love Knitting or you could be creative and make up your own pattern. And before you can make your woolly project, you need to visit the wool shop which is niceness in itself!

Binge watch Pride and Prejudice When this came out 20 years ago (eek!), I remember hearing a radio host saying she watched the whole six hours in one go and I scoffed ‘as if you’d do that!’. Yep, that’ll teach me! I loved it when it came out and I love it still. I was pregnant when it was shown on Sunday nights on the ABC and I had ‘Eliza’ pegged as a name for my possible girl baby. I scratched it because I was convinced that everyone else would be as enamoured with ‘Miss Eliza Bennet’ as I was and that school playgrounds would be filled with Elizas! Turned out not to be the case, and also turned out to be a boy so I had no need to worry! But all these years later, he doesn’t mind a bit of P&P and my girl (not named ‘Eliza’!) loves it too! And because my mother told me you can watch TV as long as you are doing something else, I can binge as long as I’m making that scarf or blanket!

Go for a walk I remember reading an article about playtime in Finnish schools and a teacher declaring that the weather is never too cold, it is simply that you are wearing the wrong clothes. So pop on the hat, scarf, gloves and coat and pound the pavement. It will get the blood flowing and warm you up. And surely having done a bit of exercise it’s then perfectly okay to sit down in front of telly with a bowl of bolognese or some making?

What are your winter tips? Do you have an excellent slow cooked meal? Bingeworthy telly? A favourite way to keep warm?

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Taking Stock: July ’16 -The Holiday Edition!

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Yes, I do feel a tiny bit bad! Here I am, away on holiday and writing a blog post. It’s a time when I could be stepping away from the internet and engaging fully in ‘the real world’! But aren’t holidays also the perfect time to take stock, to reflect upon what’s working/not working in life/what to be thankful for? And this has been that sort of holiday – sitting in the one spot, eating, reading, walking, thinking. Bliss! Plus, I wanted to share this cute little creation I spotted on the beach today!

Eating: ice cream from Shakes. The family tends to gravitate to the trusty old chocolate but for me, it’s macadamia, burnt toffee, panna cotta or tiramisu

Drinking: mojitos, wine, tea, coffee

Cooking: burgers for dinner. For me, holiday cooking is about things shoved in bread – burgers, sausages in bread, burritos if I’m feeling fancy!

Hearing: a cacophony of birds singing

Looking: at the tree frog that has taken up residence on the kitchen louvres

Watching: Line of Duty series 3. I feel like I need to go back to the beginning to see how all the pieces of the puzzle are fitting together!

Enjoying: walks on the beach, no commitments, not having to get in the car

Wondering: how I can incorporate more ‘holiday’ into the ‘everyday’. Can I carve out time each day to practise writing, to notice the little things? Do you ever wonder that too?

Absorbing: all the warmth I can before heading back to chilly Melbourne! I don’t mind cold days but it is nice to have a week’s respite!

Wearing: skirt, singlet

Feeling: a gentle breeze on my skin

Reading: lots! Just finished The Paper House, dipping in and out of Everywhere I Look and just started on The Eye of the Sheep which I picked up second hand at the local bookshop

Wishing: I didn’t have to pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s return home!

Marvelling: at the fact that our big kids still seem happy to come away with us on holiday!

What are you up to? Are you having a holiday at the moment? Is it away or at home?  Maybe you have one coming up? Do you use your holidays to take stock or to be a bit of an adventurer? ‘Taking Stock’ posts are the brainchild of crafty lady Pip Licolne. Maybe you could have a go too?

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The Sketchbook Project update!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about taking part in The Sketchbook Project. So. Have I been brave enough to put pen/pencil/paint to paper! Indeedy, I have! Here’s how it’s coming along!

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I’m pleased with how it’s coming along so far. It’s been really nice taking time creating an image rather than just banging out a quick sketch ‘to keep the eye in’. And it’s made me think about trying out different mediums. Maybe they won’t all make their way into the sketchbook but it will be fun playing!

The pages aren’t very thick so I avoided watercolour at first but then had the light bulb moment – my dimmer switch was on way too long! – that I could paint on watercolour paper and simply stick it into the sketchbook! My theme is Long Stories, Short so I’ve decided to use one page for words that tell the story of my picture. There’s not really a link between each page, other than they are little snapshots of a scene or thought that has stoked my imagination.

Do you have a favourite pic? I’d love to hear what you think!

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Taking Stock: June ’16

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Don’t these Japanese windflowers look pretty? I’m loving opening my front door to find these blooms waving their pretty little heads at me. They provide a lovely bit of cheer on a grey, wintry day. Halfway through the year, and with the days becoming ever shorter, outdoor delights are harder to find and we need to look for them indoors. Personally, I quite like snuggling down inside, slurping soup and listening to rain pattering on the roof. Here’s where I’m at the moment.

Making: a start on my sketchbook for The Sketchbook Project. You can read about that here.

Reading: Reckoning by Magda Szubanski. I’m really enjoying her memoir. Much to take out of it about our search for our identity.

Watching: Hugh Laurie in both Veep and The Night Manager. Chuckling at him in the first and a bit wary of him in the second!

Cooking: lamb saag. Yum on a winter’s night! I use this recipe from Gourmet Girlfriend but add a bit more meat for my protein loving man and boy. And I use baby spinach instead of the kale.

Eating: my mum’s fruitcake baked for us at my man’s request. What a gem she is!

Drinking: English breakfast tea. Lots of mugs!

Listening: to Bowraville. If you enjoyed the first season of Serial, you will enjoy this. It investigates the murders 25 years ago of three aboriginal youngsters over a five month period from the one street. Aside from the murders, it is an interesting commentary on race relations in Australia.

Enjoying: watching this Carpool Karaoke. Lin, Audra, Jesse, Jane and James having a singalong is pretty ace!

Looking: forward to the school holidays

Coveting: this dress. I think it would be a perfect trans seasonal frock but how much can I afford to spend?

Feeling: pleased with myself for pulling lots of weeds out of my back garden this morning before the rain came down.

Wondering: if I can make it to see this movie this week.

Waiting: for my wool order to arrive so I can start making this cowl

How are you going as you head towards to mid-winter? Or are you looking forward to long mid-summer days? Maybe you want to take stock too?

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Being creatively brave!

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When the little yellow envelope arrived in the letterbox yesterday, I felt super excited. Finally, it had arrived from Brooklyn, my little sketchbook for The Sketchbook Project! Yay! Have you heard of this art project? It started ten years ago and is run out of the Brooklyn Art Library. People from all around the world have filled sketchbooks with their creative work, be it sketches, printing, painting, collage or words, which are then housed at the library (or mobile library for touring purposes). The books can also be viewed through the online catalogue and are searchable by artist name, theme and tags.

I tore open the envelope, read through the instructions, jumped on the iPad and registered my little book. There’s a list of themes to choose from but you are free to come up with your own too. I decided upon ‘Long stories, short’. I turned the front cover and stroked the paper of the first page. I love the feel of fresh clean paper. Is that weird? I turned the next page and the next. Thirty two blank sheets of paper to fill! That’s right. Thirty…two…blank…sheets…of …paper…to …fill. The fear, the trepidation started to set in. Those pristine sheets of paper looked so pretty in their unadorned state. Oh yes, they would look beautiful filled with colour and lines and images, but mine? Who am I kidding? I’m not an artist! Shani is an artist, not you! Her book was GORGEOUS because she knows what she’s doing. You have NO IDEA! Gah! Imposter syndrome, here you are! So…I had to give myself a little bit of a telling off, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, ‘there are no mistakes’, all that sort of stuff, you know.

Anyhoo, my excitement is starting to bubble back up a little now. Tomorrow, I’m going to head to the library and scour the children’s section for some picture books for illustration reference and inspiration. I’m trawling through my instagram and loving looking at the work of some of my favourite illustrators, such as Rebecca GreenMarianna Marx and Lauren Merrick. I have a few ideas for a couple of pages and have done some practice sketches. There is loads of time to complete the book (February 2017 is the final date for submission) so I don’t have to try and squeeze it into my daily routine. I will have time to think and explore, and, hopefully, the images that are in my head will be reflected on the page. But in the end, they will be what they will be, and they will be something, which is better than being nothing! I’ll share some of what I come up with with you. And if you haven’t seen me post anything, give me a kick up the bum to make sure I do!

Have you ever had to fight the ‘imposter syndrome’? Been creatively brave? Or do you think creativity and bravery go hand-in-hand?

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Redemption complete!

Hey! How you going? We have been plod-plod-plodding along here. Heads have been buried in schoolwork and work commitments but this weekend feels like we have released the pressure valve a tiny bit. So I thought I’d quickly pop back into blog land to share my successful baking of a batch of Anzacs after my hubris resulted in a bit of a failed effort. I wrote about that here.

Ta-da!

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This is what you get when you bake with two hands and measure your ingredients properly! Round, risen, lightly golden, and crunchy! Perfect with a cup of tea or to pop in a school lunch. Oats make them healthy, right? For any non-Ausdie or Kiwi readers, I’ve popped the recipe below.

How about you? Have you ever come undone due to a bit of culinary arrogance? Had to eat humble pie rather than your intended creation?

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Anzacs

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup plain flour

1 cup caster sugar

3/4 cup dedicated coconut

125g butter

2 tablespoons golden syrup

1/2 teaspoon bicarb soda

2 tablespoons boiling water

Heat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Mix all the dry ingredients. Melt the butter with golden syrup. Combine the bicarb and boiling water and tip into the warm melty butter and syrup combo. Watch it fizz. Pour that into the dry ingredients and mix. I use a soup spoon to the squish the mixture into a nice cookie shape and then pop them onto a lined baking sheet and into the oven for 20 mins, swapping trays halfway through. Easy peasy!