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.