Have you read…? The year to date in books

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book post so I think it’s time to do a quick round up of what has been sitting next to my bed, my couch, and shoved in my bag and carried around!

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The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits ‘Hygge’, that lovely concept of Danish cosiness, is hot right now, yes? And there are quite A LOT of books in the bookshops explaining to harried souls how they can incorporate hygge into their daily lives. This was the ‘how to hygge’ book that I received in my Christmas pile. It is a lovely looking book. The pics are muted and tranquil and they made me want to spend my days wandering through forests or sitting by candlelight with a mug of hot chocolate. And, to be honest, this is pretty much what the text said – over and over again! There was a lot of ‘hygge is stopping by at your neighbours and sharing a glass of wine on the verandah’,  ‘hygge is a basket of knitted slippers at your front door’, or ‘hygge is lighting a candle and eating breakfast together’. Now I am not averse to any of these suggestions, but I probably only need to hear the suggestion once, not once each chapter.  Reading the book made a long haul plane flight feel a bit more hygge-like, but I’m not sure if I’d been sitting on my couch at home that I would have continued reading it from cover to cover.

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North Fairly self-explanatory from the title what this one is about! The story of the wunderkind filmmaker Sophie’s life and death is told by those closest to her – her brother, ex-husband and lover, and those who were part of her working life – film subject, film reviewer and producer. As I read the novel, I was a little unsure how I felt about it. I wondered if I was learning more about the characters who had had relationships with Sophie, than I was about Sophie herself. The focus of their recollections seemed to be how THEY responded to Sophie, how she made THEM feel. But as I read on, I started thinking that in showing how they were affected by Sophie, they were painting a picture of her – a self-contained, distant young woman who was an observer of life (appropriate for a filmmaker!), who,  when she did become a participant, seemed driven by her own desires rather than the desire to share herself with others. For the most part, I found it difficult to warm to her, but Anna North has managed to infuse her with enough victimhood and trauma in her life for her to be seen as a psychologically isolated, tragic young woman. Not sure that I super enjoyed it, but the fact that I am still mulling it over weeks down the track shows it was an affecting read.

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The Dry by Jane Harper This was a goody! Set in the fictitious sunburnt Victorian town of Kiewarra, this thriller seeks to discover who was responsible for the murder of the Hadler family. Is it a murder-suicide, or is there a killer in the small town? Aaron Falk, a former local, now a member of the Federal Police, returns for the funeral of his old friend, Luke Hadler, and is persuaded by Luke’s father to assist in the investigation. Aaron’s return stirs up the town’s emotions surrounding the crircumstances of the death, years earlier, of Ellie Deacon, a friend of Aaron’s and Luke’s. Were they involved in her death? Had Luke killed her? Had Aaron? This novel had sufficient twists and turns to keep me wondering throughout as to what had taken place, and satisfyingly, kept me guessing until the end on both counts. Recommended!

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Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance And now for some non fiction! Hillbilly Elegy is part autobiography, part social commentary. JD Vance grew up in Kentucky, then Ohio before becoming a Marine and then graduating from Yale Law School. He spent much of his life living with his grandparents whilst his mother battled drug addiction and cycled through one failing relationship after another. Vance shines a light on what constitutes hillbilly culture – its genesis and how it has spread from the south to the Midwest as hillbillies have migrated in the search for work. Alongside his own story of what it was like to grow up in this culture, his time spent in the Marines, and at Yale, he describes the culture of a people who feel hardly done by through the decline blue collar jobs; who feel minorities have gained an advantage over them through Democrat presidencies. Being Australian, I have read this book as an outsider – I cannot judge how accurate his evaluation is. I have read some criticisms of the book; that Vance seems to be saying that because he has become successful, others could too if they’d only put in the work. I didn’t get that impression from the book. I saw it more as explaining why there was a disaffected group in US society ripe for the politics of Donald Trump. And throughout, for me, he was conscious of his good fortune in having a family who despite their violent tendencies, aggressive behaviour and addictions, valued education and knew that he could achieve. They knew he had the ability to choose a path in life, that he didn’t have to accept what was, and it is this that he feels needs to be role modelled for those growing up within the hillbilly culture. An interesting read to learn more about US society.

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Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty I’ve never read any Liane Moriarty before and with Big Little Lies hitting the small screen, I thought it was time to give her a go. I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of her others, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by this one. The story revolves around three couples, Erika and Oliver, Erika’s ‘best friend’ Clementine and her husband, Sam, and Erika’s neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. The three couples, plus the daughters of Clementine and Sam, and Vid and Tiffany, gather for a barbecue one afternoon at Vid and Tiffany’s. Early on we learn that something has taken place at the barbecue that shakes the relationship between the couples. The chapters flick between the day of the barbecue and the present where we are made aware of the strains in Erika and Clementine’s friendship, Erika’s mother’s hoarding, Clementine’s cello audition, and Vid and Tiffany’s attempts to maintain a relationship with Clementine and Sam in the wake of the barbecue. For me this was a page turner but only because there was such a heavy-handedness in writing about what had happened at the barbecue – along the lines of ‘if only we’d stayed home’, ‘if only we hadn’t agreed’ – that I was saying through gritted teeth ‘just get on with it!’. I’m not sure that I felt the fallout from the incident to be entirely warranted, and I didn’t warm to the characters sufficiently to be concerned with their stories once the incident had been revealed. As a holiday read, maybe it’s okay. I guess I’d say ‘proceed with caution’!

Have you been reading anything interesting this year? Have you read any of these? Should I try another Liane Moriarty?

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Taking Stock: September ’16

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Happy spring or happy fall, depending upon where you are! Have you felt a change in the weather? We haven’t experienced a lot of spring warmth here in Melbourne but the days are certainly getting that bit longer. I’ve been watching the shelves at my greengrocer’s for the appearance of summer fruit. Whilst I don’t hate the apple, banana or mandarin, they are a little pedestrian. Berries, stone fruit, mangoes…well, they are just a bit more enticing, don’t you think? But whilst the days have still been a little chill and rainy, this is how I’ve been passing the time.

Making: a skirt for a futuristic themed 18th my girl was invited to. Honestly, there have been so many costumes this year between 18ths and school dress up days!

Reading: The Turner House. I’ve been a bit unfocussed with my reading of late but I am enjoying it.

Watching: The Bachelorette. Love Georgia and LOVE the guys this year. How could you get rid of any of them? Oh well, maybe Rhys!

Smelling: peanut butter and choc chip cookies fresh out of the oven

Hearing: my girl humming as she studies for maths. It creates the illusion that she is enjoying it but I know the reality is different!

Cooking: pasta for boy before he heads out to work.

Drinking: instant coffee. Nothing fancy today.

Eating: maybe eggs for lunch?

Enjoying: sleeping a bit better the last few nights. No night sweats! Do you feel me menopausal pals? Far out! The continual search for the cool spot in bed!

Liking: that our kids are now bigger so that I can have the odd weekend away with my man without needing to organise babysitters. So much freedom!

Wanting: to get onto a new craft project just not sure what.

Pondering: Disgraced, the play my girl and I went to see last night. Lots of stuff in there about identity and prejudice and changing societies. A play for our times.

Hoping: the coming months will not be too stressful.

Wearing: sloppy clothes. Yoga pants, t-shirt and hoodie. Need to change out of that soon otherwise I’ll feel slothful all day.

Finding: myself stressing out too much.

Wondering: why I let myself get stressed out too much! Just let it go!

Opening: my laptop to write this!

Giggling: at Michelle shopping with Ellen

So that’s September! Have you been baking or making? Watching or reading? Taking Stock posts spring from the creative brain of Pip Licolne. Maybe you want to have a go too?

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Have you read…? The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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The Course of Love by Alain de Botton follows the lives of Kirsten and Rabih Khan. We journey with them from the time of their meeting as work associates, through their courtship, early years of marriage and then as the parents of babes who grow into teens. It explores the way we communicate in a marriage, how this can enhance – or harm – our relationship. It is about the changing nature of the relationship between spouses throughout the course of their marriage. It is about love – how it shapes us and what it demands of us. De Botton intersperses the narrative of Kirsten and Rabih’s lives with philosophical insights which at times explain their behaviour towards each other; at other times, they provide insight into how they could improve their communication. As I was reading the novel, I was constantly asking myself if it was a dissection of a marriage, an instruction manual, an explanation. In then end, it doesn’t matter what it is; what matters is that it is, at least for those of us who are married – or in a long term relationship – a thoroughly relatable, and salutary, story.

De Botton writes with the candour that has made him so successful at bringing philosophy to the wider population. He makes us think about what is happening in our relationship, in effect using Kirsten and Rabih as a case study. What is it that causes the little niggles between us? What is the best response to coping with any barbs that may spring from our partner’s mouth? Is it true that we should be honest with each other at all times? Is keeping secrets consistent with love? Is our perception of what makes a ‘happy marriage’ out of step with how marriage plays out in real life? This is articulately explained, towards the end of the novel, when he writes

By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory…we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life…we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.

The novel, and de Botton’s insights, provide a realistic portrayal of marriage. There are times of joy, drudgery, uncertainty of feelings but the marriage endures. I found it to be a novel of encouragement and hope – that if we accept ourselves and our partner as flawed, and that our relationship is not always going to be perfect, that we can make our marriage endure. A highly recommended read.

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Taking Stock: August ’16

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Hi there! How are you, lovely friends? Gosh, this month has whizzed by. Has it for you too? It’s had a little bit of everything for me. Some quite stressful days, some chill times, some ‘feeling a bit quiet and alone’ times (my man has been away with work for a couple of weeks but home soon!) So time to sit back and have a reflect on where I am at the moment now that August is drawing to a close – and to take time to admire these lovely hellebores in my garden!

Making: this cowl. A perfect ‘in front of the TV’ knit!

Noticing: my elbow is sore from too much knitting!

Cooking: scallops for dinner tonight – with some crispy bacon, lemon, parsley. Yum! My man’s not a fan, so whilst he’s away…

Drinking: green tea

Eating: leftover lasagne from last night. Love a leftover. You open the fridge and it’s like a little gift just waiting there to be consumed!

Reading: The Course of Love. As on old married woman, I’m really enjoying this. Lots to say about the ‘course of love’.

Waiting: for the final year of school for my girl to come to an end. What a slog it has been!

Knowing: that school will come to an end!

Looking: at the blossom that is appearing on the trees. So pretty!

Hearing: the gentle hum of the heating

Watching: Veep again for the laughs, Outlander for the drama and Children on the Frontline to keep everything in perspective

Wondering: why people can be so destructive towards each other

Remembering: who’s home for dinner each night! Where is the routine? Gah!

Feeling: a bit bad that I’ve slept really well whilst my man has been away. Love him to bits but a couple of weeks without snoring and heavy breathing has been quite nice!

Smelling: daphne on my morning walk

Thinking: about birthday presents for my man and my boy. What to buy???

Opening: my sketchbook most days

Enjoying: keeping up my drawing practice

So. There we go. That’s August! Have you had stressful days? Calm days? Do you need to take stock too?

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Is it busy…or just out of our control?

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Oh, hello there! How are you? Has been a little while since I popped in here. Much to my disappointment. I miss being able to write about what’s been going on. But, you know, as Emily said there’s other stuff that gets in the way sometimes.  I’m not going to resort to the ‘oh, I’ve been so busy!’ exclamation – or explanation.  It seems to me that some people choose to wear this statement as a badge of honour or to inflate their sense of self. Maybe that’s not the intention, but that’s the way I see it.  Perhaps I’m being too critical. When you have multiple people living in a home, with varying schedules, varying commitments and varying levels of dependency sometimes the days fill without you having any control over them. That’s the way it’s been here. Other people have been shaping my days, not me! And it made me feel a bit tired – and overwhelmed. At times like these, if I chance to read about the ‘slow’ movement, my eyes start to well. ‘Oh, yes, please!’ my little inner voice cries, but I’m not sure how to make that work with young adults in the family – their lives aren’t quite as subject to our management as when they were younger. And, you know, we rejoice when they have the enthusiasm to embrace the opportunities that are presented to them so…what to do?!

Anyhoo, the last few days, I’ve got to back to having a bit more input into my days so that has been welcome. This is what I’ve chosen to do. And perhaps I’ve been a little extra generous to myself too!

A day in the country I popped on the train and headed out of town to visit the lovely Emily. We had a trawl through an op shop and each picked up a few $3 vintage books. One of the op shop volunteers asked us if we wanted to have some soup because it was ‘free soup Tuesday’. That’s country manners for you! We declined as we had lunch booked at  Mill Rose Cottage– where we did have soup! A delicious mushroom, leek and thyme soup. Tummies filled, we wandered through the shop next door which is fabric heaven for any quilters- or keen sewers (hope you read that word correctly!) out there. The most stunning fabrics – and a Liberty room. We met a lady with two whole albums – like an old swap card album -of Liberty samples she has been putting together over the last few months. Stunning! I bought some gorgeously soft wool to make a cowl. Emily gave me a little travelling watercolour set which she had made for me. Aren’t I lucky?

Solo trip to the movies I took myself off to see Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan. I may have had a moment or two of noddy in the movie because, you know, still very tired (!) but I certainly saw enough to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Gorgeous costumes, gorgeous language and a truly ridiculous character in Sir James Martin played beautifully by Tom Bennett.

Coffee in the park A spring-like sunny day today so after my yoga class, I headed to the park with a coffee and my book for a little sustenance and read before the fruit and veggie shopping. It was lovely to feel the sun’s warmth and to feel the breeze freshen my spirits. So nice!

So! There we go! I knew last week that there was light at the end of the tunnel but nevertheless, sometimes you get a bit bogged down by it, don’t you? Or maybe you don’t? And what do you think of the whole ‘busy’ thing? Off to bake cookies for the fam now!

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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.

 

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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