Have you read…? This new Australian fiction

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Gosh, it’s been a while since a book post made it to the blog! The last one was focussed on some US titles so this time around – and thanks to my Melbourne Writers Festival book discount – I thought I’d go for some of our home grown authors!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose Set in New York, Heather Rose was awarded this year’s Stella Prize for her novel about art and love. Centred by the work of performance artist, Marina Ambromović and her work,  The Artist is Present which was staged in 2010 at MoMA, it tells the story of a number of visitors who come to the gallery to view her work, in addition to giving voice to Marina’s own thoughts about her work and her history. The gallery visitor whose storyline we are most concerned with is Arky Levin. Arky is a film composer and lives alone as his wife, who is ill, has requested he no longer see her. During one of his visits he strikes up a conversation with Jane Miller, an art teacher who is recently widowed, and is visiting from Georgia. Other gallery visitors with whom Arky and Jane cross paths are a doctoral student, a sometime-lover of Arky’s, and an art critic. We also hear the voice from the grave of Marina’s mother. Whilst the novel could be read through the lens of ‘what is art?’ given the quite confronting pieces of performance art Ambromović has created, for me, the novel was much more about love, grief and endurance. How could Arky endure the loss of his relationship with his wife whilst she was still living, still his wife? How could Jane come to terms with the loss of her husband and move on into a world with her own identity? How did Ambromović’s parents survive war and each other? How did Ambromović endure the demands her work placed upon her, physically, and the loss of her own relationship? I wanted to love this novel, and whilst it was beautifully written and the premise was interesting, it fell a little bit short of ‘five stars’ for me. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. I enjoyed Arky’s story, and Jane’s, but I didn’t feel a great deal of affection, or interest, in the storyline of the other characters. And if I can be a bit nit-picky, I had to remind myself on a few occasions that this book was set in New York, and the characters were American. If I think back to the session at the Melbourne Writers Festival where Hannah Kent and Tracy Chevalier spoke about how they set about writing in the voice of a place and time, for me, Rose fell short. There were references to streets in Harlem that don’t exist, Americans wouldn’t offer to give their ‘mobile’ phone number, talk about ‘shareholders’, or ‘primary’ school,  and Jane’s voice failed to sing with a southern twang. The book may have been set in New York, but I didn’t entirely feel like I was there. So, verdict? It was interesting, and well-written but I enjoyed previous Stella winners, The Natural Way of Things and The Strays more.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna This one I loved wholeheartedly! Nine-year-old Justine lives with her grandfather, a survivor of the Thai-Burma railway, on three acres near the banks of the Murray River. Her mother is no longer on the scene and her father comes and goes. Her two half-brothers live with their mother nearby. Justine has few allies in her life, and those she does have – her Aunty Rita, her friend, Michael, and a teacher, Miss Frost – lack permanence. As in her previous novel, The Eye of the Sheep, Laguna explores themes of violence, misogyny, and the innocence and incomprehension of the child. There is a lot happening in this novel, and Laguna captures beautifully how Justine, who is dyslexic, senses that there is more to her family’s life than she can understand. Justine says ,”I knew shadows of things; I could see the letters but I didn’t know the order. I stole a look at Dad’s face as he drove; it was a door that wouldn’t open.” Swirling in Justine’s shadows are the circumstances of her grandmother’s death and how it changed her father; the darkness of his behaviour and activities; the scars her pop carries with him from his time in the war; why her pop shuns her Aunty Rita for being “unnatural”; and the consequences of her association with a local family, the Worlleys, with whom her own family has fallen out. She desperately needs someone to care for her, and that someone is just not there. As her ignorance determined her fate, my heart ached for her, and as she learned to stand up for herself, I cheered for her. A highly recommended read.

Ache by Eliza Henry Jones I first came across Henry Jones’ s work in an article she wrote for The Sunday Age. I can’t recall what it was about but I remember I enjoyed her writing and so was keen to read this, her new novel. Bushfires have raged through the mountains where Annie grew up. At the time of the fires, Annie was visiting home with her daughter, Pip, and became ‘the face’ of the fires as a photograph of her and Pip felling the fires on horseback was plastered across the media. In addition, her beloved nana, Gladys, died in the fires, although not as a result of the fires but because she was crushed by a falling tree. Annie and Pip are both scarred by the fires, as are all members of the Quilly community, and in an effort to heal, Annie decides that she and Pip must return to the mountain from their suburban home. In doing so, Annie is faced with issues of belonging. Does she belong “to a place, or a person”, as her friend, Rose, articulates. Does she belong on the mountain, or with her husband, Tom, in their city home? Mother-daughter relationships are also explored as she returns to stay with her mother, Susan, who is almost Annie’s contemporary, having given birth to her at the age of fifteen, and as she reflects on the relationship she and her mother both had with Gladys, and Susan’s relationship with Pip. Henry Jones is a grief counsellor and so I trust her portrayals of the grief and trauma displayed by her characters. Aside from that, I wasn’t completely sold on this book. For me, I found the writing to be a little forced: the many references to “up the mountain’, “back on the mountain”, “down the mountain”; the “small circles” of city life compared with the “big circles’ of mountain life; broken people living in a “broken house”. I felt a little “yep, I get it!” I was also perplexed as to why Annie had left “the mountain” when it was clear that this was the environment she loved to live in, and, as a vet, work in? Yes, Tom was from “the flatlands” but how and why had they made the decision to settle there? Perhaps a little exploration of this would have added depth to the “belonging” theme. And, although it was eventually explained, I wasn’t convinced as to why the town displayed such animosity towards Annie? She was a local girl, after all, not a tree changer. I would like to read Henry Jones’s first novel, In the Quiet to see how it compares. If you’d like to read an interview with Henry Jones, pop over to Karen’s blog.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Taking Stock: September ’17

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I may be a crafty type and an arts lover but gee, I’m also a big footy fan and today is the AFL Grand Final! As a Hawks supporter I’ve been lucky enough to see plenty of premierships, but today it’s the rest of the family going through Grand Final anxiety! Thirty seven years since the Tigers last premiership – my man was there as a 14 year old! – and the first time my boy and girl have seen their team in a Grand Final! They’ve headed down to the Tigers’ home ground to watch on the live screen with thousands of other Tiges supporters. With the house to myself, and before the match hits the screen here, I’ll do a quick ‘Taking Stock’. Thanks Pip for the inspiration!

Watching: lots of footy preview shows!

Reading: Ache by Eliza Henry Jones and footy analyses

Cooking: pasta for dinner, I think

Eating: cheesymite scroll – because it’s yellow and black

Making: an arc-y weaving

Hearing: the washing machine beeping at the end of its cycle

Getting: over a cold

Feeling: butterflies in my tummy

Hoping: for a Tigers win, of course!

Looking: at my pile of ironing

Smelling: the lingering aroma of cheese toasties

Needing: to proof read my boy’s history research project

Wishing: that we weren’t switching to daylight savings this weekend. It’s too early for me!

Noticing: how nice and tidy my garden looks since the huge clean up I gave it yesterday

Enjoying: watching the little charges I work with developing their skills and imaginations

Thinking: it would be nice to have a holiday

Needing: a drink – tea or water will suffice. Feeling a little parched

Wearing: nothing with red or blue! Don’t want to appear to be in any supporting the Crows!

And that’s September! Hope yours has been a good one! GO TIGES!!!

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Melbourne Writers Festival

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Hey gang! How are you? I’ve just had an excellent week helping out at the Melbourne Writers Festival. How cool is my t-shirt and lanyard? Any fellow Melburnians, did you manage to get along? Are festivals your thing? I’ve been to the MWF the last few years and have heard some wonderfully entertaining and informative chats. When I saw the call for volunteers this year, I thought “why not?”

I had four shifts over the week. Two were full days with kids workshops in the morning and afternoon, one school group workshop, and the other was a session at my local library where Hannah Kent discussed her new book, The Good People. Gosh, she has a lovely speaking voice! It was interesting hearing her speak about her writing process – she writes from 7.30am to 2pm everyday, with defined breaks. She said she started this practice after she read that this was Sarah Waters’s writing routine. She figured that since Sarah was a writer of historical fiction maybe it would work for her too!

The workshops with the kids were great too. One of the nice things about these was that because they were small and pretty informal, we (me and my volunteer buddy for the day) had the chance to have a chat to the authors whilst we were wandering around and helping the kids with the activity.

My first session was with Asphyxia, author and illustrator of The Grimstones, a junior fiction series. She ran a creative art journalling workshop. She brought along some of her journals and, oh my, they were DIVINE! So inspiring! You can get a little taste of them here. The kids were totally focussed on creating their own journals. It was lovely seeing them working away so freely, without anyone judging their work and just embracing their creativity.

Ben McKenzie ran a games workshop based on Dungeons and Dragons. One session was for younger kids where they worked at creating their own story by themselves, or with their parents, and the second session was with older kids who worked in a group creating their game of rescuing their best friend from the monster they had created. Some of their ideas were very inventive.  They had to create an obstacle that needed to be overcome before they could save their friend. One boy’s obstacle was a ‘meme wall’ because encountering the memes would be so distracting it would be impassable!  I heard the same boy, with a big grin on his face, saying to his pal, “Do you think everyone here is a super geek?”!

One of my favourite authors is Maxine Beneba Clarke and I was lucky enough to score a place helping out at her workshop focussed around her new children’s book, The Patchwork Bike. She talked to the kids about how she came up with the idea for the book, how she thought about choosing her words, and how she chose the illustrator of the book, Van T Rudd. Van then helped the kids collage their own patchwork bike using cardboard, scraps of paper and textas. He chatted to the kids about how mistakes can be used to create different ideas and not to be scared of them.

Helping out with with these warmed the cockles of my heart! It was lovely to see the kids exploring their creativity with pens, paper, paints, pencils and words.  And they were all super engaged without a piece of technology in sight!

Alice Pung’s school workshop was at the Immigration Museum and centred around identity. Are you shaped by where you come from? It skewed a little more to the assumptions others make about you because of the way you look, or your ethnicity or religion. She shared stories with the kids about how she has received comments that indicate she is assumed to be a mail order bride when she’s been out with her Caucasian hubby (“How much did she cost?”), and how as a kid she didn’t understand what some boys meant when she was told to ‘go home’ because ‘home’ was the Melbourne suburb of Braybrook, and her house was only thirty metres away! The kids who were attending were from a variety of schools – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic – and they shared some of their stories too. Lots of gasps and laughs as they told their stories.

I think one of my favourite moments was at the free Hannah Kent library session. A lady barrelled in, breathless, “I’ve just flown in from Sydney and my friend told me this session was on. I don’t have a booking but she said I should try and see if there was a space free.” We assured her there was and that she didn’t need to pay any money and her voice raised excitedly in pitch, “It’s free! Oh my goodness! And there’s tea inside!”. She was a joy!

Everyone was so lovely at the festival – the staff, the volunteers and the  patrons (well, there was one grumpy one but think we managed to assuage her!). And the 10% off at the Readings pop up book shop was an added bonus – added The Choke and Ache to my reading pile! I’ll definitely be putting my hand up again next year!

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Taking Stock: July ’17

 

IMG_1290.JPGHey gang! This month, I’m taking stock in Hobart. My man and I have snuck away for a few days before he starts a new job. Gosh, Tassie is lovely. So much to see in such a little space! So whilst we’re kicking back and relaxing a bit, I thought I’d see what’s happening now that July is drawing to a close.

Making: not a lot at the moment. I’ve finished my latest weaving and have brought no supplies with me. I do have my sketchbook so maybe I’ll make time to do a sketch.

Reading: The Handmaid’s Tale. My friend, Isabel, invited me to join her book club and this is the current read. I saw the TV series so I’m interested to see how closely it follows the novel. I have to continually remind myself that it was written thirty or so years ago. Quite prescient.

Watching: whatever crime drama SBS on demand is recommending in my feed! The advantage of having had my man home for a few months means we have been enjoying sitting down and binging on some tv series. Latest two have been Cardinal and Valkyrien.

Cooking: nothing for the next few days. No cooking facilities in our accommodation so pouring muesli and dolloping some yogurt on top is as complex as it’s going to get.

Drinking: water at the moment, some wine with dinner, I imagine.

Listening: to A-ha and my man attempting to do the falsetto 😬

Smelling: the Aesop Geranium Leaf Body Balm that’s in our bathroom. Nice!

Wondering: how clean the kitchen will be when I get home.

Booking: tickets for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

Wearing: jeans, jumper, cosy socks.

Liking: being on holiday. And alfinding it a strange experience being away when it’s not school holidays. That hasn’t happened for fifteen years!

Hearing: a bird chirping.

Buying: a pack of ephemera from The Maker.

Hoping: my man enjoys his new job.

Wishing: I could be a fly on the wall and see how the kiddies look after themselves this week. It will be a bonding time for them!

Noticing: how pretty Hobart is. The Derwent, the mountains, the old sandstone buildings.

Loving: the comfy bed here.

Feeling: blessed to have a lovely man, two healthy kids. Nawh, a bit soppy! But ’tis true. There’ve been some tricky times over the last few years but I think everyone’s feeling pretty settled at the moment.

How’s your July?

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Tell me a story

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I’ve been thinking about stories a bit in the past few weeks. When I was little I loved reading stories that allowed me to escape my small, conscientious, timid life. I delighted in the rebellious escapades of the naughtiest girl in the school.  I marvelled at what it would be like to be as bold and adventurous as the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. Gosh, my mum wouldn’t let me play outside in our unfenced front garden, and I was only permitted to walk home from school via the side streets rather than along the main road (okay, it was the era of some strange child abductions but still…). My anxious, pimply, adolescent self longed to be one of the girls in the Sweet Dreams novels. Imagine being asked to ‘go steady’ and wear a letterman jacket! As a suburban Melbourne girl, I’m not quite sure I actually knew what that meant but it was clearly the pinnacle of teenage boy-girl relationships. Stories were for entertainment and escapism. True stories? Blah! So boring! Where was the fun in reading about other people’s lives? It all seemed way too earnest to my younger self. I did enough ‘learning’ at school. I didn’t need it when I snuggled down under my blankets at night or was wiling away the school holidays.

But, of course, as we add more years to our lives, our tastes can broaden and change. I still love reading novels and short stories for entertainment and escapism but I have come to appreciate the rewards of reading about the lives of others. A few weeks back, I went to the opening night of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Melanie Cheng, who was the winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, spoke to the audience and she had a great line about writers being the “personal trainers of empathy”. I loved that! It made me think about some of the writers whose stories I have been reading recently, not just in book form but also online, and how they have helped open my eyes and understanding of life experiences different from my own. I have thought about Magda and how societal attitudes contributed to the pain that tortured her as she sought to accept her sexuality, Maxine’s many encounters with racist attitudes in Australia, and why representation of diversity in the media is so important to Carly. I challenge anyone to read the personal stories in They Cannot Take the Sky or to listen to The Messenger podcast and not understand the damage the Australian government is inflicting upon asylum seekers (disclosure: I provide transcribing assistance to Behind the Wire). I have remembered the blog posts Sarah and Amanda have shared about anxiety and MS and how they have reflected experiences in my own life.

Reading – or listening – to the stories of other people’s lives is not about escapism. It is about staring life in the face. Sometimes that can be confronting. At other times, it can be comforting.

There have been times when I have wondered about blogging. What is the point of it all? What am I writing about? For what purpose? Perhaps you have felt that too. Maybe we should reassure ourselves that whenever we write, we are telling a story about part of our life. It is a way to connect with others – and even if that is only with one reader – in sharing our stories we are opening the door to understanding and empathy.

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Taking Stock: June ’17

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Here we are! Middle of the year! 2017 has so far been exciting, disappointing, relaxing, busy, liberating but on the whole MUCH more pleasant than 2016! Phew! So…drawing inspiration from Meet Me At Mikes, this is how the mid point of the year finds me.

Making: chocolate hedgehog slice, collages, a weaving. Busy hands!

Eating: chocolate hedgehog!

Drinking: peppermint tea

Cooking: lots of soup! Broccoli and zucchini, pumpkin, cauliflower. Excellent for lunches and for filling tummies that may be needing meals early, late, whenever!

Hearing: the radio in the background

Listening: to Trace after seeing Rachael Brown interviewed on The Project. We used to live in Thornbury so I have a clear picture of where these events took place. I hope the airing of the podcast will help solve the mystery of Maria’s brutal murder.

Reading: The Good People

Watching: Broadchurch season 3. Gosh, I love Olivia Colman! She’s in the Emma Thompson class for me. She always produces such authentic performances.

Wishing: the tradesmen we’ve had hanging around the house for the last few months would finally finish their jobs. They’re all lovely and I greatly appreciate their efforts to return our home to ship shape condition, but you know when you just want to have the house quiet and to yourself?

Wondering: lots of things! Why do I have so much milk left over this week? Why have so many apparently-sturdy teabags been spilling their contents whilst steeping in boiling water lately? How long will the queue for the Van Gogh exhibition  be today? Would I like Grantchester? Why is marriage equality still an issue in this country?

Pondering: a blog post that has been running around in my head but hasn’t made it to the page yet

Buying; wool for weaving – online and in person

Enjoying: a mid-week dinner and movie date with my man!

Pretending: we are back in New York! Cold weather, a visit to the NGV planned, and tickets to three shows in five days booked!

Looking: forward to seeing Kat Stewart in White Rabbit Red Rabbit tonight

Thinking: about ‘career’ plans

Knowing: I should go for a walk soon – and empty the rubbish bins…

Noticing: I’ve had less hot flushes lately. Happy dance!

Enjoying: going to a yoga class with my boy!

Bookmarking: lots of different colour palettes

Liking: cold weather and cosy scarves

Loving: these cakes. Oh my!

Is your year progressing nicely?

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Taking Stock: May ’17

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Brr! It is a chilly ol’ day in Melbourne! The sky is blue at the moment but the air is chill and there are predictions of hail later in the day. That’s okay by me because I can stay tucked up inside for the rest of the day. I am going to sit inside with my cup of tea, pop something to slow cook on the stove, and continue with a bit of crochet… and laundry duties! But before that, a ‘take stock’ of what has been a bit of an up and down month for us.

Making: this blanket. So many colours! I made up my own colour combo so it’s taken a few trips to the wool shop to pick up the colours that I think work together

Eating: left over cauliflower, potato, leek and bacon soup

Drinking: chilli hot chocolate. Love that hint of a spicy finish!

Cooking: beef casserole for dinner with math and peas

Listening; to Lindy West on This American Life and Nettie Wakefield on The Jealous Curator. Have you seen her gorgeous pencil drawings? You should check them out here

Watching: Masterchef – yep, sucked in again for another year! – and Thicker than Water

Smelling: a combo of the peanut butter and choc chip cookies I baked this morning and my boy’s pesto pasta

Hearing: keyboards clacking from all members of the family

Cringing: at the clip of Trump shoving the PM of Montenegro. It’s the smug look on his face and the jacket buttoning. Can’t stop myself from repeat viewing!

Waiting: to read an email from my parents. They’re on their first day of a four week trip to Canada.

Reading: Nine Parts of Desire and They Cannot Take the Sky

Loving: that my girl now has her licence! No more ferrying her to Pilates and singing lessons!

Worrying: that my girl now has her licence! Now my ears are pricked up waiting for two people to drive in the driveway!

Coveting: this coat

Knowing: my man is gong to get rained on when he goes out for a run

Laughing: at my thirty year school reunion. Thirty years! Can you believe that? I’m sure when I used to look at the photos of the old girls at the reunions in our school newsletter they looked SO OLD! Not like us groovy bunch.

Trying: to cut back on my food waste. Mushing up lots of vegies for soup, buying in smaller quantities, and putting together leftovers for lunches

Buying: tickets to this with Kat Stewart and this

Enjoying: a new volunteer role with Behind the Wire

Hoping; my man will find a less stressful job soon

Looking: forward to a long weekend away with my man

And that’s May almost done and dusted! How’s the last month been for you?

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