Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Baroque Cycle

Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle The Confusion The System of the World
Ah, holidays. Time to claim a little space of one's own, and sink into a good book. We're about to go on a long trip, which takes me back to the last long trip we made. Five years ago, we spent a couple of months pottering around Italy. I was still so shocked at the constant presence of my first baby, then eight months old, and so desperate for time alone, that I would wake automatically most nights at midnight, walk on the cold tiles through to the small loungeroom, and lie on the couch reading until 3 or 4 am in the morning, lost in the story and revelling in the blessed peace. Then I'd take myself back to bed, sleep for a few more hours, and get up to face the day.

Question: What books could impel me to dispense with infinitely precious sleep and keep me awake until the wee small hours? Answer: Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

The Baroque Cycle consists of three enormous novels (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), or eight sub-books immersed within the whole, or almost 3,000 pages; in other words, a whole lot of reading. And the reading is thrilling.

The books chart the evolution of modern science through the antics of the Royal Society and the development of the calculus; the evolution of the modern money markets through German mines, London moneylenders, the development of futures markets, and the endemic tampering with coins; and the evolution of modern government through the power plays of the the rich and powerful. Incidentally, we read about the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and Christopher Wren's vision for a modern London; the Spanish Inquisition and slavery in the New World; Puritans and Barbary slave galleys; the many uses of the Tower of London; and the customs of mudlarks at Tyburn Cross.

It's an immense series, sprawling, endlessly fascinating, and hilariously funny. Stephenson is a natural storyteller with a terrific eye for character. The books are peopled with an enormous cast, real and imagined, yet each person is fully realised and developed. The linch pins are Half-cock Jack, the Vagabond hero, who creates mayhem and havoc wherever he goes; Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton's College roommate, who provides regular insights into the Royal Society and the vicious dispute between Newton and Leibniz over the development of the calculus, as well as engaging in political intrigue; and Eliza, rescued by Jack from the Ottoman harem during the siege of Vienna, but slowly ascending to grace the French Court at Versailles. Meanwhile, dozens of major European figures in science, politics and architecture make their appearances in all their glorious eccentricity.

Stephenson writes about everyday aspects of Baroque life well - the collection of human urine to make phosphorus; people dropping of the Plague in crowded markets; the elaborate negotiations required for every monetary exchange, as the coinage changed so often and was compromised so regularly that currency was always negotiable; the terrible impact of kidney stones; the rampaging Press Gang; the dogs, rats and feces that filled the London streets; the use of feathers and whalebones to induce vomiting and balance out one's humours; the power of the elite over all aspects of human life; the society of coffee houses; the effects of smallpox and French pox - that the reader gains a rich, almost visceral, sense of daily life so many years ago.

The books are an education. Ideas which I had previously had no understanding of or interest in, such as the buying and selling of futures, were clearly explained; even some of the machinations of politicians and royals became intelligible. Yet interwoven into this crash course in history, science and politics are characters so vile, events so dramatic and conversations so hysterically funny that the reader is completely engaged from beginning to end. It is worth setting aside a year, or some very long holidays, to read them. They are absorbing, nourishing, and enormously entertaining.

While we were in Tuscany, we had the first two books with us. The third was released in London during our holiday; a friend purchased it there and brought it with him. I had a week in Venice to read it before he took off home again. It was the perfect location, as the city evoked so much of the story. I remember days and nights in 'our' apartment, curled in an old armchair overlooking a canal, completely immersed and interrupted only by excursions to the Venetian islands, glances at the medieval buildings opposite, and meandering walks through narrow alleys to the fish market, cheese shop and Doge's Palace. Happy days.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The daily round

Quotidian Mysteries
Half a lifetime ago, long before I had any kids or had even met my husband, I picked up The Quotidian Mysteries, a slender book by Kathleen Norris. I was on an extended lazy holiday, and remember devouring the book in one gulp, along with a few too many coffees, deep in an armchair at a coffee shop as heavy rain pounded the footpath outside.

The book was a turning point. I had always thought of lives as measured by big projects: achievements, awards, titles, publications. And yet I was most of the way through a university course that I wasn't enjoying, working in administration which I never loved, and had no idea what to do next. According to my own ideals, my life was quickly becoming a failure or, at the very least, nothing to write home about.

Yet this little book suggested that every action, no matter how mundane or domestic, might have significance. Even the most repetitive tasks of running a household could be performed graciously, as the necessary and concrete acts which enable a household to function and bind its members together in love. We need to eat, to clean, to do the washing; this work is not mere drudgery to be escaped, but part of a daily ritual which includes work, play and worship. Even more, Norris suggested that we could perform these tasks attentively. We could watch for God's presence with us in even the most everyday tasks; we could perform them as an act of worship; we could use the mindlessness to achieve the meditative state into which God's voice might speak.

Housework and worship have much in common, she claims. They can both be tedious and boring, something to get through - and yet both affect us even when we perform them in the most perfunctory manner. They are both part of the daily round, particularly in monastic circles. And they both reflect serious commitment, the sort of commitment that one makes without understanding the depth of the promise. We have a baby without any concept of what is involved; we become Christian without understanding what will be required of us. Both work and worship, she argues, are about transformation, and transformation is only possible for humans in the daily round.

These ideas have stayed with me ever since, and sustained me through the neverending demands of parenting and housework. But after six years, I thought it was time to revisit the book, to take a refresher course so to speak.

What was interesting this time was to read it with three kids in the background, one still in nappies, toys all over the floor, laundry on the line waiting to be brought in and folded, dinner needing to be cooked - and knowing that Norris is childless.

Ah, those pre-child days. I could sit in an armchair and read a book in a gulp; we ate out for lunch and dinner most days; nobody dropped their breakfast cereal on the floor or rubbed it in their hair. I recall groaning at having to sweep the floor once a month. We're neat people, we ate out a lot, we had no pets; the only thing that happened to our floor was that it got a little dusty sometimes. And now... well, now I sweep the floor twice a day, sometimes more, and it's still usually crunchy underfoot. I do loads of washing every week, and fold washing every afternoon. My bathroom is putrid, especially since my three year old decided to clean the mirror with a soapy toothpasty sponge and I can't be bothered scrubbing it all off; and someone has managed to smear a little poo on the toilet pedestal. When I finish writing this, I'll go clean it.

The other night as I was tidying up prior to family coming over for dinner, someone emptied all the plastic containers onto the floor THREE TIMES in an hour, and dumped all the Duplo out too for good measure. In between picking up several hundred small plastic objects, I cooked dinner for nine. (Yes, I am a goddess.) I have a theory that if you can't tidy it up, you can't play with it, but it doesn't work with a highly inquisitive fifteen month old. She can reach high, and climbs to reach even higher, and she leaves a trail of scattered books and papers and pens and toys and clean nappies and shoes and colanders and leaves and raisins wherever she goes. And when she's not doing that, she's sitting, plump down on the kitchen step beaming at me, and I can hardly get cross at her for being a messy curious baby.

Anyway... let's just say that it's rather vexing to have a childless woman, WHOSE HUSBAND COOKS (yes, I shouted that), suggest that I find dignity in the daily round, and go on to comment that "young parents juggling child-rearing and making a living" should, "if they are wise... treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like." Well, if I wasn't completely and utterly exhausted two nights out of three - having prepared, served and cleaned away three meals and one or two snacks, much of which dropped onto the floor and some of which was subsequently stepped on - I probably wouldn't watch any television; but I am, and I do, and I'm unapologetic.

And yet, I have to admit that she's right, of course. I am infinitely happier and more refreshed when I spend quiet time just being quiet, or reading, writing or making something; and when I have the energy, I do just that.

And overall, I am still grateful for the book. Her words have rippled through the eleven years since I first read it, and have sustained me through the chaos of raising three young children thus far. Norris reminds me of my love of laundry, even if my laundry is a mountain compared to hers; I hang it on a line outside above the lavender bushes, and when I bring it in, the scent of lavender and sunlight thread through the house. And her insights into worship were part of my journey to a church congregation which focuses on liturgy, which has enriched my life immeasurably; I carry the words and songs of the liturgy with me in whatever I do.

Living attentively, and understanding the daily round as an act of loving service and an opportunity for reflection, is vitally important if those of us who perform it are not to go right out of our minds. This little book lends drudgery a little dignity, and even helps us find joy in it; it is a great gift. Those of us with young children might just have to be gracious enough not to snarl at the writer when she makes suggestions about parenting that grate.

> Kathleen Norris The Quotidian Mysteries. Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work'. 1998 Madaleva Lecture in Spirituality. (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow reader

A friend asked me the other day what I had been reading lately, and I was shocked to realise the answer: nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but close enough. A couple of throwaway mysteries, that's all. What happened to the person I used to be, forever lost in a story? Curled in a favourite chair, the light behind her shoulder, devouring book after book? Crowded into a tram on the way to work, grateful when it took longer so that she could get in a few extra pages? Reading over breakfast, at lunchtime, after dinner?

Well, she got busy, that's for sure. Three little kids, mountains of dishes and laundry, a couple of weekly volunteer jobs, and a meditative session at the gym every few days: that pretty much eliminated the bulk of my reading time.

Then my kids chat through every meal - if I'm reading, they just talk louder until I pay attention. And in the evenings, we have people over. When we don't, I'm so tired that my limbs ache - my typical day starts at 7, and finishes between 8 and 9, with a heap of kids and cleaning and food preparation in between. Don't get me wrong - I love being with my children, but the constant vigilance, discipline, negotiation and mediation, not to mention the neverending housework, can be incredibly draining. Plus my kids shriek more than I ever expected. Girls are very shrill.

I once heard of a woman who, for an hour after lunch every day, read with a face washer lying next to her. Her children were made to understand that if they came into the room their faces would be scrubbed clean. They very quickly learned to leave their mother alone.

But my children are too little to leave for any length of time. It takes only a minute's inattention for one of them to climb up something and fall off; otherwise, they squabble and screech and drive each other - and me - nuts. When they're resting, the housework beckons, as do the occasional blog and the other tasks I perform each week.

Despite this, I was sufficiently hooked on Patrick O'Brian's novels that I found ways to read them all this year. Twenty novels, devoured in chunks late at night, or nibbled away in paragraphs while standing at the coffee machine. But it took determination, planning, and stamina. I haven't come across anything since that has inspired me to squeeze my time so hard. And I feel such a sense of loss at the end of the series, as if close friends died suddenly, that I am reluctant to immerse myself in anything else for the time being.

In any case, with loss of time comes loss of browsing library shelves - ever tried doing that with automatic doors and a runaway toddler? Browsing online, even other blogs, doesn't come close. It's proving hard to find something to read.

So I'm happily dreaming of O'Brian's sailing ships and concerts in the captain's cabin, and every other story I carry with me until I stumble across something new: another book, another series, another writer which will inspire me to stay up late, or read by the coffee machine, or find other ways to get through a book. Any suggestions?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Advent list

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde Now One Foot, Now the Other Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten Nail Soup The Mousehole Cat The Nativity Wombat Divine
I love a good list. Elsewhere, I commented on developing rituals for Christmas; and I'm thinking that they will include a lot of good stories. So what follows is a dozen stories that my family will read aloud between December 1 and 24. Most of them are not Christmassy per se. Instead, they are about hope, joy, bravery, generosity, vocation, sacrifice, community, and love.

'The Singing Bus Queue' (Margaret Mahy, in The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories (London: JM Dent, 1982)) sings rain or shine in seven-part harmony. No matter how hard the town grumps try to silence them, they continue to warble joyfully. Eventually, they are imprisoned for creating a public disturbance - yet even there they sing so sweetly, in such high and pure tones that the prison crumbles. They walk out through the ruins to sing through the night with the moon and stars.

Continuing the singing theme, in 'Four Angels to my Bed' (Joan Aiken, in Past Eight O'Clock: Goodnight Stories (London: Puffin, 1990)) Little John sees four angels carved on wooden bedposts. As he falls asleep, the angels sing him a fugue, and he joins his voice in a new tune that dances with, through and around the heavenly music. Downstairs, his mother smiles at the sound of her little John Sebastian singing as she realises he has discovered his calling.

'Brother Ninian's Blot' is also about calling (Robin Klein, in Ratbags and Rascals (Ferntree Gully, Victoria: Houghton Mifflin Australia, 1989)). Brother Ninian, a messy medieval copyist, spills ink across a nearly completed piece of parchment. In his horror, he tries to disguise the blot with doodles of leaves, flowers, birds, butterflies, and even a jolly abbot. He becomes completely absorbed, and in his absorption creates something wonderful, beautiful and entirely new: the illustrated manuscript.

The illustrated manuscript recalls Jane Ray's lavish illustrations in The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde (London: Orchard, 1994). She retells Oscar Wilde's fairy tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has to the city's poor - its ruby eyes, its gold leaf - via an obliging swallow.

On the theme of gifts, in 'The Gift Giving' (Joan Aiken, in Up the Chimney Down and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)) a blind grandmother can, with the help of a special tune played by her adult son, Mark, see and describe gifts and vistas in rich language. When Mark dies, the gift fades until Mark's nephew and namesake and Mark's daughter together make a new pipe and work out the tune that recalls Grandmother's gift.

Tomie dePaola has also written about gift giving between young and old. In Now One Foot, Now the Other (New York: Puffin, 2005), Bob teaches his grandson to stack blocks, tell stories and walk. When Bob has a stroke, it is the little boy who patiently teaches his grandfather to stack blocks, tell stories and walk again, using the same loving words his grandfather once used with him.

In a similar vein, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge lives next door to an old people’s home. He is particular friends with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, who has four names, just like him. Miss Nancy has lost her memory, and Wilfrid Gordon sets out to find it for her (Mem Fox and Julie Vivas (Gosford, NSW: Scholastic, 1984)).

Thinking about neighbours recalls Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten (Bob Graham (London: Walker Books, 1992)). In this lovely book, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Other misers are persuaded to share in Nail Soup (Eric Maddern and Paul Hess, (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007). A traveller, denied all but the meanest of shelter and sustenance, convinces his host that he will make soup out of a nail. As the 'soup' bubbles away, the host is gradually persuaded to add ingredients that turn it into a generous meal they can eat together.

The Mousehole Cat is also about sharing food. When a Cornish fishing villages faces starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser brave the winter storms to catch fish for the town. On their safe return, the town celebrates with a feast of morgy-broth and stargazy pie (Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley (Aladdin, 1996)).

One of the most lively renditions of the Christmas story is by Julie Vivas (The Nativity (Gosford, NSW: Scholastic, 1986)). She illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; we see the newborn baby, hands outstretched, still attached to the umbilical cord; the shepherds loom, peering into the cot; and in the final scene, Mary pegs out nappies. In Vivas's interpretation, the Christmas story is not a far-off super-spiritual event, but something immediate, physical, real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, rather than resembling some medieval nymph.

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine (Mem Fox and Kerry Argent (Scholastic, 2009))? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. But Emu finds him the perfect role, and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

As are all these stories. Read, prepare, enjoy.

PS For out of print books, try here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Joy writ large

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Dakota: A Spiritual Geography Gilead The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library)
I review so many children's books because they are what I mostly read. I'd like to claim that it's only because I have so many children (three); and that, if I had my druthers, I'd be working my way through the world of serious adult fiction. But boy, would that be a lie. I've always read children's books, right through my teens and early twenties. I never stopped. And while several thousand adult books may have slipped in under my guard, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Am I suffering from arrested emotional development? Perhaps. Because quite simply, I find most adult books lacking. They may be beautiful or clever or funny, but, unlike so many children's books, they rarely achieve what I am looking for in a book. And what, you may well ask, is that?

As I ponder this question, I realise it's something quite simple. Fundamentally, I look for joy. I want to celebrate this funny old world, in all its beauty and ridiculousness. I want characters who are fully themselves, who are bursting out of their skins with being alive. I want to feel emboldened to stretch out and touch the edges of life, and find out just how far I can go. I hope that as I age I can become more fully me - not that crimped, cramped and watered down shadow who apologised her way through her late teens; not that angry, brittle and self-righteous young woman who thundered and wept through her early twenties - but someone bigger and more alive by far. And I trust that books will show me the way.

Paradoxically, it is children's books which so often invite me to be more adult. So many children's books leap with joy, tackle fear head-on, and positively crackle with life.

Having said this, I would now like to turn my attention to those precious adult books which do, in fact, crackle. Which stories leap off the page? Which writers inspire me to become more fully human? Which books are so steeped in wonder, that I catch my breath in awe? Where have I read joy writ large?

One of the more exuberant, energetic and honest books I have come across is the memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book opens as Gilbert's marriage is falling apart. We meet her on her bathroom floor, sobbing, and then, to her utter astonishment, praying for the first time. It marks the begining of a lifelong conversation with God. This new conversation slowly leads her to a different way of living, in which she learns to structure her life, not around other people's needs, but around that which brings her joy - which is pretty much to say, that which brings her closer to God. Gradually, she decides to go on a year's pilgrimage: to Italy, to eat well; to India, to pray well; and to Indonesia, where she learns to love again. Her pilgrimage is the subject of this book.

Gilbert uses a friendly conversational style. The prose is quick and enthusiastic, rather than refined. It sounds as if it were dictated in a tremendous rush, all the words falling on top of one another as each idea sparked off a host of associations. One feels like one is sitting at a dinner table with a fascinating and very talkative fellow diner, who is polishing off the wine and waving her glass around wildly as she talks. Part of the fun of the book is watching the glass, and waiting for the wine to slosh onto the tablecloth.

In equal parts hilarious, challenging, and deeply moving, Gilbert's memoir is filled with joy. And her intelligence, jauntiness and wit; her willingness to investigate and deprecate herself; and the discipline she undertakes to become closer to God, are utterly captivating.

A very different but also joyful memoir is Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris. In this more austere, yet gentle, book, Norris interweaves observations about life in a small town in North Dakota with her personal story. Norris is Dakotan by heritage, and, after a lifetime away, finds herself in her family's old town living in her grandmother's house. She brings the eyes of an outsider to her experience of a place that is part of her family history. Part economic and social history, part family biography, part prose-poetry, part prayer, Dakota is a unique geographical investigation.

Norris's primary commitments colour the book. She is married, and yet also an oblate in a Benedictine monastery. Her writing is suffused with the gentleness, patience, generosity and humility that ones sometimes sees arise out of hard and serious commitment: a difficult marriage profoundly affected by her husband's acute depression; the monastic disciplines of study and prayer.

She writes openly about her family, and the challenges of facing up to the demons of violence, suicide, and a corrosive fundamentalist faith. She recalls an aunt, single, pregnant and mentally ill, who committed suicide in her despair; Norris lays her good Protestant ghost to rest at last through Benedictine ritual practice.

Norris joyfully describes her twin loves: this Benedictine practice, and the landscape of the Plains. This is, at heart, a book about the labour of coming home, both to a place and to oneself. Reading Norris, one realises that one must claim one's place and work at it for it to become home. Norris has studied to understand the region's geography, history, people, and weather, and her own marriage, faith, family, and poetry. Her sense of home is hard-won.

Overall, Dakota is a beautiful, solemn book. By inviting us to explore one person's life and place, it implicitly invites us to investigate and learn to love our own place, that we too may find ourselves at home.

The theme of home recalls Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead is the fictional memoir of an older minister, Reverend John Ames, as he nears the end of his life. Ames married late, and has a very young son; the memoir is a letter to his son who is his joy and his delight. It takes the form of a love song from a man who spent his life living in and loving one tiny town on the Plains. Life was hard and lonely, and Ames admits to terrible failures of relationship. But life was also precious, cherished, and joyful.

The pattern of the story evokes an older man's thinking. He writes with equal love of the past and the present, of stories from long ago and of watching his son trying to catch a soap bubble. And he describes his theology in the hope that one day his son may learn to know him as an adult. Yet even as Ames tells his story, Jack Boughton, John Ames's namesake, returns to town. Boughton and Ames have a strained history, which began for Ames when he christened the baby Boughton with a sense of coldness. Yet events require Ames to take further steps into generosity, humility and forgiveness - and love.

This is a story about transformation: a flawed and ordinary man slowly matures under the combined disciplines of work and prayer. It's a story about love: of wives, of sons, of a town, of a landscape. And it's a story about home: coming home, claiming it, and growing into it.

On a lighter note, thinking about home puts me in mind of dinner. Being, as Nigella Lawson so delicately puts it, a naturally greedy person, I am always interested to read about food. After all, it is over dinner, glass of wine in hand, that I so often experience joy and a profound sense of thankfulness for life on earth. Elsewhere, I have reviewed Robert Farrar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb. In short, the book uses a single leg of lamb and the ways to cook it as an excuse to muse on many culinary and spiritual themes. Capon moves between blood sacrifice and peanut butter without turning a hair. As my tummy rumbles, I will only say here that this is the apex of culinary books: eccentric, wise and totally hilarious, full of joyful jokes and cheerfully ridiculous diversions, and regular generous toasts.

Joy is the underlying theme in all these books. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that they also share another thread. Although not all writers are Christian, all trust in, to use Gilbert's phrase, a 'Magnificent God' - a generous, abundant and glorious Other who is waiting, with arms stretched out towards us, to claim us and show us the way home. And maybe that's what I'm looking for, after all.

> Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library) (New York: Modern Library, 2002 (1969)); Elizabeth Gilbert Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything (New York: Penguin, 2006); Kathleen Norris Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Mariner, 2002); Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago, 2004 (2006)).

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Owl Moon
A few nights ago, my husband was working late. In the mad scramble to wash and feed and settle three young children by myself, I let everyone get too tired. My one year old fell over a few times and began to grizzle, so I popped her into the cot. Usually, she'd go straight to sleep, but this night she was overtired. So perversely she stood in her cot and shrieked. I tried to settle her again, and again, to no effect. But I couldn't see the point of having her up and crying, so I left her to scream.

And it was story time. And my five year old was in a snit. So there I was reading one of our all time favourite bedtime books, with the baby carrying on in the next room and the five year old flouncing and huffing all over the bed - and then the three year old accidentally elbowed me in the breast. Hard.

Between the crying and the huffing and the elbowing, I was so razzed up that I could feel my heart race. I wanted to slam the book shut and shout at everyone and storm off - and yet I couldn't settle the baby; I couldn't improve my five year old's mood; I couldn't make my three year old more gentle. So I took a deep breath and decided to let the story fix it.

We were reading Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. It tells of a little child who is taken out, late at night, by her father through the snow to look for a Great Horned Owl. They walk through the cold and the shadows in silence, until they come to a clearing in the woods. And there, as her father imitates the call of an owl, an owl hoots in reply and sweeps into the clearing. They watch the owl for 'one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes' before it flies away. And in silence, they walk home.

It is a simple story, written in the most elegant prose. A train whistle blows 'like a sad sad song'; otherwise 'it was as quiet as a dream'. The rhythm of the words demands the reader slow down and settle into the telling; it is not a story to race through. Yolen's use of metaphor brings the comfortingly familiar into the strangeness of being out at night - 'the snow... was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl' - such that the story successfully negotiates the fine line between fear and mystery. The child knows that strange things may 'hide behind black trees in the middle of the night' - but 'when you go owling, you have to be brave.' It alludes to managing fear and trusting a loved one without a whiff of didacticism.

The illustrations are spare and gentle. The eerieness of the woods is balanced by moonbeams shining through the trees and the safety of the father's presence.

Witness the power of story: at the end of the reading, my heart had stopped pounding and my five year old was snuggling close. In the next room, the baby had settled into a cross grizzle and was slowly winding down. And everyone was ready for sleep.

Owl Moon is a pleasure to read aloud. Further, it has the power to soothe a frazzled mum and settle a couple of fractious kids! As a bedtime book, it's hard to beat.

> Jane Yolen Owl Moon.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beautiful as pearls

The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (Puffin Books) The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers
If you've been reading this blog, by now you can probably guess what sort of child I was. Lost in a story. Nose stuck in a book, and rude to my mother when she called me to dinner - after all, she interrupted. Tucked away behind the shelves at the back of the school library during lunchtime. And always reading. Nothing ever felt as immediate or interesting or understandable as the life I lived in stories. Real life - negotiating my mother's moods, schoolyard politics and factions, pop culture - was bewildering. I never quite got the hang of it all. But books - now that's where I belonged.

And yet, trying to find a good book is hazardous for a child. You troll through the library, fingers running along the spines. A title catches your eye. You pull it out, and examine the cover, and read the blurb, the first page. And then, holding your breath, you plunge in.

If you're lucky, you'll find a good one. But so many kids' books are awful. Violent books, providing the material for terrifying nightmares. Sentimental books that stick and cloy. Dull books, devoid of interesting words or language play. Books completely lacking in humour or grace. You waded through an awful lot of muck before you found a gem. Yet given how much muck I waded through, I still missed lots of good books, even authors. It startles me. How could I, always on the alert for something interesting or funny or beautiful, have missed Alan Garner or Margaret Mahy as a child?

I stumbled across Margaret Mahy only this year. We were away at Easter, and my daughter needed something else to read. I picked up The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories for a dollar at a grotty book exchange, and we instantly fell in love. This intoxicating collection combines the suburban with the magical. All the stories are delightful, but two particularly stand out. 'The Midnight Story on Griffin Hill' tells the tale of a cross and alienated writer who ends up reading his stories to a midnight audience of griffins. The tears they weep as they listen roll down the hill and fill an old quarry, which becomes a swimming pool for his sons. 'The Singing Bus Queue' sings gloriously as they wait for their bus. Gradually, the whole town comes to listen, so the killjoys have them thrown into prison for creating a disturbance. There, at midnight, they begin to sing in separate cells a song so clear and high that the prison crumbles, and they walk out of the ruins to sing the night away with the whole city, the moon and the stars. These are stories I would want my children to internalise - I would want myself to internalise, in fact. Stories about ages past and suburban bathrooms; stories tinged with sorrow and beauty; stories about exuberant adventures and unfurling secrets; stories marked always by good humour and delight.

The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories, also by Mahy, is overall less moving but more action-packed. My three year old daughter loves the book, and carries it around the house with her. She is particularly attached to 'Don't Cut the Lawn', about a man who tries to mow but is continually stopped by mothers whose babies are nesting in the 'tussocks and tangles' of the long grass: a lark, a cat, a hare and a dragon. She also loves 'The Downhill Crocodile Whizz', about a small crocodile who lives at the top of a very long steep hill, and whose grandmother gives him rollerskates for his birthday. Of course, he straps them on and immediately whizzes down the hill, chased by a growing collection of dogs, children, an old man in a wheelchair, a big brass band in a bus, and the army before he rolls to a stop in the park at the bottom. It's cheerfully chaotic, just the thing for a young child.

The title of Mahy's book The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers is enough to make me laugh, even before one gets to the tale of three little boys, a peg-legged babysitter with an eyepatch, a hook and a bottle of rum, and the illicit party they hold for all the retired pirates in town. The story about pirates rumbustificating is paired with The Librarian and the Robbers, in which a calmly beautiful librarian, kidnapped by robbers, introduces them to the world of books before engineering her escape and inspiring them to mend their wicked ways. Both stories are joyfully ridiculous, beautifully written, and hilarious.

Mahy loves exuberant words and the way they can rumble and roll; she revels in alliteration and metaphor ("The forest sighed and swayed... and the sea murmured as if a crowd of people were turning over in their sleep" ('The Giant's Bath' in Chewing-Gum). Her writing is rhythmic and strong, and some of the more catchy phrases have passed into our household language. Like the Frisbee sisters, we now brush so that we can have "teeth as strong as tigers' teeth and as beautiful as pearls" ('The Chewing-Gum Rescue').

Her writing is strongest when she links the thrilling mainstays of childhood imagination - tree climbing, pirates, robbers and dragons - to everyday experience (brushing teeth, bus queues, bathrooms, grumpy neighbours). Unlike so many stories of adventure or mystical beasts, these stories aren't about 'somewhere else'. Instead, they suggest that a world of possibility awaits the reader in her very own street, bathtub or veggie patch.

The books are wonderful to read aloud. My three year old loves some of the stories, but it is my five year old who is really absorbed. And they will read and re-read these books for years to come. Children of twelve or so will still enjoy the many layers; and even I, at the ancient age of 34, often re-read a story or two before my bedtime with great delight. Mahy is a prolific writer, and you are sure to find some of her books in the Junior section of your local library.

> Margaret Mahy The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1982); The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1986); The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers (David R Godine, 2001 (1978)).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On marriage and morgy-broth

The Mousehole Cat
I recently asked friends to name a story, film, song, piece of music, meal or place which somehow evoked their relationship. I'm helping them prepare a ritual for marriage, so the question was not entirely out of the blue!

But it got me to thinking. Which story evokes my marriage with my husband? And has it changed? We've been together for over a decade; is it the same story as it was ten years ago?

As I pondered these questions, I found myself reflecting, again*, on The Mousehole Cat by by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. And I realise that it is our story so far.

For on the one hand, our marriage has felt like Mousehole: warm, safe, snug, and battered by storms. We partnered soon after my husband's first marriage ended, and his grief, rage and sense of betrayal swept through the air, lashing at us and those around us. Related conflict with friends and church thundered around. My mother, who had a galloping form of multiple sclerosis, moved quickly through paraplegia to quadriplegia to blindness to, shortly before our wedding, death, and the waves of grief almost washed us away. Early in my first pregnancy, his mother died; and soon after that our grandfathers. When I think back to those early years, I remember a black hole of rage and sorrow and loss, so that we almost foundered; yet we held fast. I cannot but think of the seawall, battered by the Great Storm Cat but keeping the worst of the winds and the seas at bay.

But our relationship is growing out of that deeply inward, protective stage. And yet I am still in the same story, because my husband reminds me of Old Tom. He's the sort of man who will put himself out to help others; the one who hands children food off his own plate, who will forfeit the last piece of cake or his own desires if it makes someone else happy. He gets up in the night with the crying baby. He has structured his work to direct resources into the deeply unpopular field of clergy abuse; he has structured his home life so he can spend good time with his children. He's decent, honest, an enabler; what the Yiddish might call a real mensch. I can imagine him, trapped by winter storms in a small town, giving away what food he has and, when that runs out, risking the sea to catch fish for all.

Like Old Tom's cat Mowzer, I can imagine getting into the boat with him, thinking, as usual, of my stomach and filled with hope for morgy-broth and stargazy pie. I can imagine sitting in the prow as he guides the boat, and singing to the Great Storm Cat, finding the words from deep within which placate the winds and the rain. I can imagine being scared, scoured by water and buffeted by the gale, but willing to risk my life in a boat with my husband. I can see him filling the nets, and turning the boat. And between his sailing and my singing, together, I imagine, we might steer through the storms and find our way home, guided by the candles that fill the windows of our town. Welcomed back, we would feast on morgy-broth and stargazy pie, and celebrate with everyone!

Partnership, sacrifice, songs, community. And stargazy pie. What else could a marriage need?

*For more about The Mousehole Cat, see the post below or click here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lichen and Running Water

Greenwitch The Mousehole Cat The Hollow Land A Few Fair Days
Is it possible to be born into the wrong landscape? I wonder. I was born in Melbourne. Both sides of my family have been in Australia for many generations. I grew up with high skies and eucalyptus trees, and know no other landscape well. Yet I have never really felt at ease here. Perhaps it's psychological, reflecting only a certain discomfort with my own skin. Or perhaps my soul has its roots in another land. Because whatever the cause, and try as I might, I cannot fall in love with thin dry forests and red dirt. I have read, and loved, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, that hypnotic mythical story set on a property studded with Australian trees. I devoured Tim Winton's Dirt Music, located in the West, and Delia Falconer's The Service of Clouds, set in the Blue Mountains. Foggy Highway, by Paul Kelly and the Stormwater Boys, is on repeat in our household as it tells the stories of Australia. I've lived in Melbourne and Perth and driven the thousands of miles between and around the two, drinking in the landscape. It is stunning, awe inspiring, humbling. But I do not rest easy here.

I just don't feel at home. Even in the depths of a Melbourne winter (which don't run that deep these days), I yearn for muddy puddles and endless days of thick rain. I hunger for green pasture, fence posts exuberant with lichen, and fields and folds flowing as far as the eye can see.

What is my interior landscape? Could it be genetically prescribed? My ancestors were miners and innkeepers from Cornwall and who knows where else. I haven't been there, but perhaps that landscape tallies with my own.

After all, whenever I read Greenwitch by Susan Cooper, I get a tingle of recognition. Greenwitch is the third of a sequence, The Dark is Rising. The series draws from myth and legend to tell of the endless struggle between Dark and the Light. In Greenwitch, based in a fishing village in Cornwall, the battle for good is aided by the even more powerful neutral force of the Earth. A young girl, Jane, participates in the village's annual spring ritual for good fishing and good harvest. The ritual involves the nocturnal making of the Greenwitch, which is tossed into the sea. Jane's pity for the Greenwitch, and her relationship with it, shapes the story and affects the eternal struggle. And the description of the houses, the village, the seawall, the sea - all so different to my own experience - feel deeply familiar. As I read, I sense the tang of salt and hear gulls in the distance; the sound of waves fills the air. The landscape, the stones, the village are like a dream I can't quite remember, something I love but have never known.

Another book set in a village in Cornwall has a similar effect. Every time I read The Mousehole Cat, by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley, I cry. This picture book is set in the town of Mousehole, pronounced Mowzel, so named because of the narrowness of the gap through which the fishing boats have to pass from the open sea into the harbour. It's based on an old Cornish legend about a time when winter storms were so bad that no boat could get through the gap to the fishing grounds. The village is slowly starving, so Old Tom, who has no living dependents, decides he must risk destruction in order to feed the town. His cat, Mowzer, sings to and soothes the Great Storm Cat as Old Tom steers his boat to the fishing grounds, and brings home enough fish for everyone. The language and the illustrations are complementary: each intricate, each adding richness and depth to the story. This is a book to read over and over again, and treasure. But beware: it may not be just the landscape that brings tears to my eyes. If you plan to read it aloud to a little one, be prepared for your voice to crack, and keep a box of tissues within easy reach.

I'm not just hooked on stories from Cornwall. Stories set in the north of England also grab me in the guts, so familiar do they feel. Many of us read Jane Gardam's Bilgewater or A Long Way from Verona at high school. Less well known, but absolutely wonderful, are two collections of her short stories. The Hollow Land, set in the Cumbrian fells, recounts the low-key adventures of Harry and Bell as they lock up the fell gate, explore an old mine, listen to ghost stories on a rainy night, find a frozen cataract, and spend time with various eccentric villagers. A Few Fair Days is set on the coast of north Yorkshire, and tells stories about young Lucy. Nothing much happens, but everything is important: a windy day, when mother airs out blankets and Lucy goes for an impromptu solitary wander; an empty house, which the village children commandeer for their elaborate games; a feisty aunt, frequently absent, who breaks all the rules; a house guest who wears a wig.

The stories are shaped by their respective landscapes. The Hollow Land is set on the fells, a land riddled with abandoned mines and studded with sheep. Just as the water runs secret paths, sometimes aboveground, but more often underground until the rains come, many of the stories are about things known to the locals, but unspoken and hidden from outsiders. On the other hand, A Few Fair Days is set in a cold and blustery country of stony slopes and sand dunes, heady with the smell of the sea. Houses are large and chilly, and time drags. Most of the action takes place away from home, in an abandoned house or down in the dunes; and many of the stories are about things uncovered, things which must be recognised for what they are. In this windy landscape, obfuscation and opacity are soon blown away.

In all her stories, which are gentle, funny and kind, Gardam displays her acute ear for dialogue: the offhand comments made by mothers to children, the two short phrases that convey a whole relationship. And she takes the reader back to childhood, when playing on a piece of defunct farm machinery takes a whole afternoon, and aunts loom large.

One day, I hope to visit England. There I suppose I will find that I am not English either, and like all children who have lived in various countries, and all children born to immigrants - however long ago -, I will have to resign myself to statelessness for my interior landscape at least. In the meantime, I continue to search out stories of lichen and running water, endless rain and grey skies, green fields dotted with sheep, dark seas and cobblestones, and noses that drip with cold.

> Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley The Mousehole Cat (Aladdin, 1996); Susan Cooper Greenwitch (Atheneum, 1974); Jane Gardam A Few Fair Days (New York: Greenwillow, 1988 (1971)); Jane Gardam The Hollow Land (London: Puffin, 1983 (1981)).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blind Speculation

I'm looking forward to reading glasses. I figure that way, I'd look less interruptable. Someone would burst into the room, gabbling away. I'd wait a second or two, and they'd pause. I'd slowly raise my eyes and peer myopically at them through the glass. If they kept talking, I'd tilt my head, slip my specs down my nose, and glare over the top. If they still didn't let up, and it was serious enough that I had to attend, then I'd take off my glasses with a martyred sigh, fold them carefully and put them away. And we'd all know that reading time had come to an end.

Those of us without glasses get so little ceremony. We don't get to pat our lapels or walk round the house looking for them. We don't get to find them with a sigh, and open the cute little box, nor unfold the arms and slide them on. There is no flag that we have now transitioned into Reading Time, apart from the book in our hands, and somehow it doesn't communicate enough. When we are interrupted, we get no time as we turn our attention to the immediate problem. We're expected to change our focus immediately, as if it instantly moving out of a book was possible. Glasses would give us a pause, a moment's grace, to return to the here and now.

Sadly, too, those of us without glasses never look as intellectual. Someone reading with a pair of specs on appears to be deconstructing a text. We look like we've flopped down with a novel.

But I figure most of us get to wear glasses as we age. I just have to wait my turn, and then I, too, can add a little transition ceremony and a mildly intellectual air to my reading. By then, however, the kids will have grown up. I'll be trying to find my glasses to read medicine labels, and cursing the day I wrote this post.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Becoming Clara Bebbs

Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries
As a child, I repeatedly borrowed Ratbags and Rascals from the library. It was a collection of unrelated short stories by Robin Klein: a clumsy monk accidentally blots a piece of parchment and turns it into a work of art; girls on school camp develop a Rube Goldbergian invention to try and stop a roommate from snoring; other girls scare themselves silly holding a seance at a sleepover; and so on. But I especially loved 'How Clara Bebbs put Strettle Street properly on the map'. Clara Bebbs, bored during her school holidays and fed up with her forgettable street, goes about making it interesting. She sticks silver stars to the pavement. She rigs up a trolley pulley so that no-one has to push their shopping up the hill. She builds a jungle, and a swimming pool, and an underground tunnel; organises swap meets and concerts and chariot races; and so on and so forth. To a child who grew up in nondescript streets in the suburbs, this was heady stuff.

Imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled across an adult book that was pretty much the same idea. Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, by David Engwicht, argues that streets have become dominated by traffic at the expense of public life. Children no longer play in the streets; people don't use the front rooms of their houses; our wisest neighbours sit indoors, away from the traffic, rather than outside dispensing wisdom. The result is a breakdown of community, of neighborhoods, of belonging.

The book goes on to suggest ways to challenge this. Simply put, Engwicht argues that traffic can be calmed, even diminished, through informal means. When people use the street for chatting or games or shelling peas; when neighbours walk or use public transport, rather than their cars; when banners and other mechanisms calm drivers as they slow to look, then drivers will choose other routes, or even other means, to travel. Instead of being solely for cars, the streets will be reclaimed as vibrant public space. Engwicht suggests setting up a 'walking bus' to school, building archways across a street, putting seating in a car space, and doing anything and everything that might entice people to move slowly, use their car less, stop for a chat, and use the street for human interaction. If we put ideas like these into practice, we will end up with more space for conversation and play, stronger bonds between neighbours, and, of course, safer streets for everybody.

This certainly resonates with my experience. In our street, those of us who walk or ride or use public transport are visible. So too are those of us who sit in our front gardens in the evening. We recognise each other, and chat a little. Other neighbours who drive everywhere are, quite literally, invisible to the street. The three houses next to me have rollerdoors at the back of their properties, and I never see the occupants. I wouldn't know them if they knocked on my door. Cars charge through our street, visibility is poor, and I won't let my five year old cross the road to a friendly neighbour's without me checking that it's safe to cross.

I'd love to know more neighbours, and strengthen the bonds with the others, but lack the gumption to go hammer on their doors. So last week, I took a small first step. My kids and I mapped out a chalk labyrinth on the footpath in front of our house. We chatted with a few people who wandered past, and left it there for people to puzzle out. Pity it was so rainy that it washed off the next day. But we will do it again, and again.

My fence is good for writing, as the graffiti taggers know, so I am thinking I might pose a few conundrums, or write a few quotes on it, in chalk. And we have a large street tree with nice horizontal branches on a decent sized 'traffic calming' square of land. I am trying to work out how to hang a tyre swing from the tree. My kids need a swing, and there are other invisible kids in the street who might emerge if there was reason to. A few lawn chairs near the swing, and we're halfway to a street party.

Feeding into these ideas is On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries, by Richard Reynolds. It's hard to tell whether Reynolds is deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Either way, the book is hilarious, delightful, thought-provoking. It recounts the guerilla gardening movement (private citizens gardening in public space without permission) and provides tactics and suggestions for action. The text is dotted with the language of revolution; gardeners are known by their first name and troop number only. As well as being amusing in its seriousness, it's full of good advice: how to choose a spot; how to minimise vandalism; how to recruit public support and other gardeners; how to win over city councils and the law. And it has helpful notes on plant selection, too.

My sister and I fantasize about dotting our suburb with walnuts, mulberries and other large, graceful, shady trees that will bear fruit. But between climate change and ongoing water restrictions, we can't see how we could nurture a sapling to a full grown adult. To do it properly, we'd need stakes, hessian, and council worker clothes, not to mention the saplings. And anyway, we're chicken.

Until I'm braver, I need to set my sights closer to home. Under our aforementioned street tree, our lovely council spread black plastic to suppress weeds, then dumped a thin layer of tanbark. Even lovelier neighbours regularly leave car tyres (reclaimed by us for potato towers), large chunks of concrete (been there for a year or two now), and all sorts of other rubbish. A council worker sprays the lot with roundup every few months to kill any weed that dares poke its head above the black plastic and tanbark. Yet a block down the street, another tree has been underplanted with daisies and geraniums. The spray-man leaves these, and it makes me wonder whether, if we planted densely enough, he might skip our little corner and spray somewhere else, instead.

Weaving the ideas from these books together, I imagine a little scented garden, a tyre swing, a pavement labyrinth, a few lawn chairs... perhaps, just perhaps, those neighbours hiding behind their curtains might be enticed to slip outside their front doors one warm summer evening. Someone might bring a bottle of wine; someone else, some biccies. And I'll have a moment where I have lost myself in the story, become Clara Bebbs, just for a little while. And Stewart Street, like Strettle Street, may too become interesting.

> Robin Klein Ratbags and Rascals (Ferntree Gully, Victoria: Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (1984); David Engwicht Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 1999); Richard Reynolds On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Just call me Elle

I'm having a supermodel moment. It's not that I'm suddenly tall, slender and toned. My hair is still cropped short, my eyes are still wrinkly around the edges, my skin is still tan only in odd patches. But these days, as recommended by Elle MacPherson, I'm pretty much reading only what I have written.

Here on the desk in front of me, not quite obscuring the monitor, is a pile of books waiting. There, on my bedhead, is another. They are studded with bookmarks, but only a few pages in. Week after week I took one book to the physio, clumsily holding it with my left hand and trying to turn the pages as my damaged right hand was zapped by a machine. Nowhere near finishing, after a while I took a different book in just so the physio had something new to ask about.

Because my life is all about 'or'. I have short times without children, and in them I can either read or write; read or exercise; read or talk with my husband or friends. And time and again, I am choosing to write, because I have a desperate need to express myself; choosing to exercise, because without a good run I get foully grumpy; choosing to chat, because I have family and friends who love to drop round. I am grateful for the time to write, the chance to run, the comfortable chats, and yet...

And yet. I haven't read a whole book for a month or two. Just a few pages here, a short poem there. Kids' books galore, of course. And the words I have written.

Just for an hour, just for a day, I would love to be free from the 'or'. I want a few 'and's in my life. I want to read AND write AND run AND talk with friends AND have time to sit in a cafe and look at people. I want a life of leisure, with a nanny AND a housekeeper AND a chauffeur AND a cook AND a gardener. I will sit in my spire, curled in a shabby old armchair, far far from the cries of children. I will pause between pages and gaze at the clouds, or muse on a spiderweb catching the sun. I will think Deep Thoughts, and idly scratch notes in a battered old notebook.

And then, with a shattering roar, my children erupt into my fantasy. The baby smells of poo. The three year old is hungry. Miss Five is huffing and puffing because life is so unfair. As I reach for the baby wipes, plan a sandwich, smooth a ferocious brow, I remember some of the wonderful books I have read. And instead of resenting how little I can read now, I find myself grateful that I carry such stories with me, constant companions through the extraordinary demands and storms and loneliness of motherhood.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So much... and so little

Oscar's Half Birthday So Much Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo Full, Full, Full of Love
Our house is full of books. We periodically shuffle things around to find ways of fitting them into the bookcases we have. We keep board books in a big tub, and picture books in Papa's old milk crate. Books teeter in piles on the dining table. They sit on our bedside tables, and are stacked on our bedhead. I find them shoved into the bathroom shelves by young readers forced to take baths. We have books of anecdotes in the toilet (where else?), recipe books in the kitchen, and random books piled on every surface. It drives me mad, it's such a mess - but it makes me feel comfortable, and tells me that I'm home.

Only three miles away is a primary school on a housing estate. I recently received a message forwarded from a teacher there. Of the kids in one class, only three had a single children's book at home. Those books were scribbled and torn. A kid in another class had brought in a book he found in a cereal packet so that it could be kept safe from his many siblings. Most of the kids are refugees; most come from the Horn of Africa. The teacher was appealing to book lovers to donate new books, so these kids could all take home a book or two for their very own.

Book person that I am, I cried and cried. And now I'm out a-hunting. What sort of books to buy? These kids are poor African refugees living in flats, probably separated from loved ones. And yet almost every children's picture book I have seen features happy white nuclear families living in the suburbs. Where are the black families? The single parent families? The families living in high rise estates? And I'm not talking about 'issues' books, just normal books that portray every day people living every day lives in flats, or with one parent, or in all sorts of households. People who are black, or Middle Eastern, or Asian. People like our neighbours. Because it seems to me that these kids need to see familiar faces, familiar spaces, represented in books if books are ever to become safe places and welcome friends.

Here's my list so far. It's short, so I'm very open to ideas! If you have any suggestions of other books, make a comment so I can find them too. I know amazon, and I'm not afraid to use it!

*Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham. Oscar is six months old! His mum (African heritage, cornrow hair) and his dad (dweeby white guy in birkies) and his sister decide to celebrate with a picnic. So they leave their highrise flat, go down the graffitied elevator, wander under the railway line and up to the local park. Locals join in the happy birthday song, including an elegant lady in hijab. Looks like my suburb!

*So Much by Trish Cooke. An Afro-Caribbean family gathers to celebrate Daddy's birthday. As they arrive, each member kisses or bounces or pinches or hugs the baby, because they all love him, "SO much!" Written with a Caribbean lilt, it's a delight to read aloud.

*Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria by Polly Alakija. Ayoka has to look after the goat while her Mama goes out. But the goat escapes and runs through a busy Nigerian market, stealing goods along the way. Ayoka searches the market looking for the goat, greeting stall holders and counting what has been taken. The illustrations are gorgeously rich, their patterning evoking African cloth. And the adult reader is especially entertained by the market signs: Mama Put Cool Spot, serving cow leg soup; or Midas, The Ultimate Barbing Zone. An old housemate of mine lived in Ghana for a year; the signs in the book remind me intensely of her photographs which adorned our dining room wall.

*Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester. Remember Little Black Sambo? Well, here it is reclaimed by one of the foremost African American story tellers of our time. It's set in the mythical country of Sam-Sam-Samara, where animals and people talk and are friends. The writing is in a Southern voice ("Ain't I fine?!" says Sam when he buys his new clothes), and Sam is wise to the tigers' goings on. Lester Pinkney's drawings are exquisite: trees have images patterned into their bark; tiny beetles are tucked into odd corners; faces are wrinkled and gentle and wise.

*Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke. An African American family gathers to enjoy Sunday lunch together.

Any other suggestions?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Remember everything

An American Childhood
What makes a good autobiography? Having recently read Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem, I have been thinking about this. Is it merely a collection of good stories, funny anecdotes, interesting yarns? Is it a mature reflection on the past? Or can a good autobiography offer something more?

Over the years, I have read and re-read An American Childhood, Annie Dillard's memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I read it first as a teenager living in the States, and delighted in the stories (particularly of her mother's jokes and antics), and in the flash of recognition of the world of privilege. I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, and from time to time glimpsed the world Dillard inhabited. Reading it again this week, I am delighted by her writing, her insight, and the way she can take the reader right back into the skin of a child.

Dillard grew up in the upper echelons of Pittsburgh society. Her playmates descended from the founders of American industry and banking; local streets were named after the families of her acquaintance. Hers was a world of private schools and servants, dancing school and country clubs. Families knew each other all their lives; it was expected that children would grow up and slip into a niche waiting for them. Much of her education appeared to be grooming to become a wife of old money.

And yet it was also a world of immense freedom. Dillard had the leisure and opportunity to investigate her world, riding further and further from her neighbourhood as she explored her city. She had access to books, microscopes, butterfly nets, drawing materials, everything she needed to feed her passion for knowledge. Whether it was collecting rocks, capturing insects or learning the rudiments of sleuthing, Dillard approached everything with intelligence and vim, and had the time to engage deeply and passionately with the world. Her parents gave her free reign in the library, and as well as the field guides she loved so well, Dillard devoured Hardy, Eliot and Dickens as a child.

Her memoir charts this privileged and joyful upbringing. She writes so vividly that we are taken alongside her as she explores the woods, is chased across the neighbourhood by an angry stranger, and pitches a baseball at a target in her garage. She clearly recalls the deep concentration of the child, the absorption in self-appointed tasks. Dillard writes with great good humour about her family, and we fall in love with them, just as we fall in love with that time and place, a time and place we have never known.

Yet what makes this book a masterpiece is not just the stories; Dillard also reflects more generally on the slow maturation of a child. She vividly recalls the way a child sees the world - her terrible fears, underlying assumptions, grandiose ambitions (to remember everything, to learn all the world's languages) - and in so doing, draws us back into the way we too saw the world once. She writes with insight and beauty about the dawning of consciousness, and describes the child's growing awareness of herself, and of time, history and society. And as she writes about the world as perceived by an intelligent, passionate, investigative child, we too are invited to see it with fresh eyes, young eyes, which are thrilled by almost everything.

> Annie Dillard An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Friday, May 8, 2009

A 'pissalis'

The Very Hungry Caterpillar In the Night Kitchen We're Going on a Bear Hunt Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten Grandpa and Thomas Too Loud Lily Owl Moon Moon in the Man Honey Sandwich Auction! Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo The King of Capri Clarice Bean, That's Me (Clarice Bean) I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato

Warning: I am a proud mother as well as a very frequently interrupted reader, and what follows is a soppy announcement: My 3 year old daughter 'read' me The Very Hungry Caterpillar today. I was idly enjoying it as she sighed, over and over again, And he was still hungry... And then my heart did a great big happy flip flop as she told me that he made a 'pissalis' (a chrysalis, to those of you unfamiliar with the pronunciation of a 3 year old).

It renewed my already flaming passion to fill my house with good books for kids, books which respect the reader and are packed full of interesting language. To hell with the thousands of inane kids' books, soggy, bland and boring. May they rot. Here's a list of some of my favourite picture story books, in no particular order. These books are graceful, funny, beautiful, intelligent, and a joy to read. We've read them all dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and we're not sick of them yet! Some of their phrases have become part of our family language; now if that's not a test of a book, then I don't know what is. If you haven't come across them, seek them out, then settle in with a young child for a leisurely afternoon.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak ('Milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we make cake and nothing's the matter.' Sung loudly while making Sunday morning pancakes.)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle ('and he was still hungry').
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen ('we're not scared...').
Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten by Bob Graham ('Catch, Mr Wintergarten!').
Grandpa and Thomas by Pamela Allen ('Swish, swash, swoosh, sings the sea.')
Too Loud Lily by Sofie Laguna ('Lily Hippo, not so loud!').
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen ('and I almost smiled, too').
Moon in the Man and Honey Sandwich by Elizabeth Honey (two collections of poems, mostly memorized by my kids by the time they were three).
Auction! by Tres Seymour ('a dollar, a dollah, who'll give me a dollah?')
Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester ('Ain't I fine?!').
The King of Capri by Jeannette Winterson ('and the fifth thing that the Wind did was to blow the mustaches off the nightwatchmen'.)
and for slightly older readers, Clarice Bean, That's Me (Clarice Bean) by Lauren Child ('Right now you are NOT the flavour of the month young lady.') (My kids repeat this and laugh themselves sick. They also love the Charlie and Lola stories, especially I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato).

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Buddha bless Father Government!

Unpolished Gem
When I think of the early eighties, I think of Cambodians. I was a child when the first wave of refugees moved into my suburb, and my parents cared passionately about their plight. So during the week we trailed my mother as she mediated at the old DSS, negotiating their pensions; kicked our feet as she lobbied the local member of parliament for better treatment of refugees; fooled around with kids in strange smelling dimly lit houses; and played hide and seek among old clothes and furniture at The Store, where my mother and her friends collected second hand goods to set up households for families fresh out of the hostel. On weekends, we got underfoot as my father moved people from hostels to housing commission flats, carrying battered sofas and wardrobes up narrow stinking concrete stairs.

I never thought too much about what these mostly quiet, gentle and loving people had gone through. Once, after I'd been particularly ratty, bored out of my brain while my mother painstakingly worked through some forms with a family, she told me that the family included an informally adopted orphan girl, my age, who had witnessed the murder of her entire biological family. And once, when I was idly admiring a Mambo t-shirt with skulls and crossbones (I was going through a pirate phase), she asked me how I could want to wear that when we knew so many people who had been to the Killing Fields, or who had been robbed or raped by pirates on their way to Australia. Unanswerable, really.

Mum was good at making me feel terrible, although she genuinely thought she was trying to educate me. I still resent that a bit! But I don't resent the people she worked with. The families I knew were extraordinarily gentle and generous despite their terrible experiences and poverty. They would visit with boxes of Cadbury's chocolates (some women worked in the chocolate factory), or with an exquisite jacket sewn especially for my mother by outworkers. One man gave my sister and me our first, thrilling, digital watches; he also turned up one Christmas Day with a black tarry ointment especially brewed for my sick father. ('Just put it on where it hurts, then rip it off,' we were instructed. My father, prostrate in bed, went white. He had the mumps.) For no reason other than that we were our parents' children, my sister and I were loved and treated as part of a big extended family.

So it was with great interest that I turned to Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem. Pung's parents were Chinese-Cambodian refugees; the book is a memoir of her childhood. Pung was born in Footscray and grew up in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. The story charts from before her birth through to university.

It is a funny little book. On the one hand, it is full of well-told stories from both before and after she was born. The reader is entertained by the loud exclamations of the women in Pung's family as they encounter the marvels of the West ('Wah!' at pedestrian crossings, 'Wah!' at escalators, 'Wah!' at the abundance of food at the supermarket, not to mention the fortnightly blessings of Father Government, which deposits money into the accounts of useless old people). We are drawn into the world of her elders: her mother's isolation in a new country; her grandmother's grief as children died or were taken away in Cambodia; her father's musings at the Footscray Market as her mother is giving birth. Pung writes compellingly about the rift between her and her mother, exacerbated as Pung's language and thinking shift further and further into English and they are no longer able to communicate freely. Her mother is virtually silenced at the family dinner table as most conversations move into English; she compensates for this by becoming louder and more abrasive everywhere else. And Pung can write. She crafts beautiful sentences, beautiful paragraphs which are vivid, illuminating and intelligent, a sheer joy to read.

On the other hand, at times it feels like we are being invited to laugh at, not with, these funny little refugees who think purple polyester is the ant's pants. While it is clear that Pung loves her family, and includes herself in the jokes, at times the writing makes me uncomfortable. It goes beyond irreverent to a place where I wonder how relaxed Pung really is about her heritage; how much can you laugh at your family before it looks like you are embarrassed by them? There is, at times, a slight lack of respect in the writing; some of the stories make me cringe. Pung's mother, desperately unhappy, looks for a spiritual cause, and I don't feel like laughing when she realises that it's because the family shrine is situated in a room below the ensuite toilet. Yes, it's funny; but what untold losses have refugees experienced? Of course grief will assail them at every turn, disturbing them by day and waking them in the night; laughing at Pung's mother's struggles to understand is not my first response.

The stories also shift uneasily between amusing anecdotes and devastating sadness. I am not sure which way the book is intended; a story about removing headlice jostles against a story about being an outworker, which runs into a story about the sudden death of a beloved young child. Which impression are we to be left with? The small annoyances of childhood: headlice and toilet accidents? Or the terrible grief suffered by those who have lost children? They are weighted equally. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the author, who was conceived in a refugee camp but born in Australia; as a child they may have felt equally important to her. Yet it rests uneasily with me.

The book moves from vivid stories about Pung's family and her childhood to her depression in late high school, and here the writing loses some of its strength. The shift feels abrupt, like something has been left out - perhaps the transition was a bit of a mystery to the writer too. But the contrast between the strong, clear writing in the first half of the book with the vague passages and long internal monologues of the second half is disappointing.

While one review describes Unpolished Gem as "virtuoso storytelling", I suggest it's more of a debut. Good stories told with vivacity are weakened by long meandering patches; the second half of the book needs a good edit. It reads like what it is: a book written by a young woman learning her craft in a country with a small editing budget. Yet Pung does have talent, and it will be interesting to see how it develops as she matures. I look forward to reading a more polished gem in a couple of decades.

> Alice Pung Unpolished Gem (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2006).