Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dibs in Search of Self

Dibs in Search of Self: Personality Development in Play Therapy

A year or two back, one of my daughters was obsessed with playing 'grandma'. Both of her grandmothers had died before she was born, and she was acutely aware of the deficit in her life. So day after day, for months on end, she'd announce me that I was grandma and ask me to tie a scarf on my head; then she'd provide the script: 'Now you say, 'hello darling, would you like some cake?'', and I'd dutifully parrot the words, holding a plate, while she worked out her next move. That play was incredibly important as she processed a grief she couldn't otherwise articulate, and I thought of it recently as I re-acquainted myself with Dibs.

I first read the story of Dibs while I was in high school, and he touched my heart. While he never quite left me, it's only this year that I found my own copy of the book. It was wonderful to re-read it now I'm an adult with her own young children.

Dibs was an almost wholly uncommunicative little boy. He did not play with other children in his pre-school; he would not communicate with his teachers or his parents except by way of tantrums. He refused to do anything for himself; he sat passively under tables or on the outskirts of the group, ignoring everything that went on; he did not speak. Some, including his parents, feared he was intellectually impaired; others suspected he was intellectual capable, but stuck in an emotional quagmire.

So Dibs was sent to play therapy. The book is the non-fiction account of his time there, drawn directly from transcripts and the observations of his play therapist, Virginia Axline. Dibs visited the play room weekly, and at each visit teased out a little more of emotions which suffocated him. As he became relaxed in the room, his imaginary world unfolded: he buried a father doll, locked up the mother and sister doll, and developed a great imaginary city in which he acted out his experiences, worked out how he felt about them, and developed his sense of self.

While Dibs worked, the therapist sat with him quietly reflecting back to Dibs his comments in a non-committal way. This makes the book a little stilted at times: 'I did it!' said Dibs. 'You did it,' remarked the therapist. It looks rather idiotic when transcribed; and yet it is clearly liberating and affirming for the young boy to have his comments and actions noticed but not judged.

The book suffers a little from over-explanation. When Dibs buries the father doll, it is pretty clear what is going on; we really don't need the symbolism explained. But this stylistic quibble aside, it's a tremendously moving experience to travel with Dibs as he slowly names his grief and rage; decides who he is and what he can do; and finds ways to transcend and even transform the family structures that have led to his emotional asphyxiation.

As a teenager, I found Dibs captivating. In the safety of the playroom, he revealed himself to be a very capable, articulate and resourceful boy; I only wished I could understand myself so well! Now I'm a parent, I'm still captivated; but I also found the book enlightening as I think about how I parent. While I'm not my children's therapist, the book makes it clear that there are modes of interaction that are more or less helpful in a child's self-development.

For one thing, it was good to realise that the simple reflection of a child's comment is often enough. I have noticed that many of my daughters' statements seek no further questioning or clarification from me; a comment such as 'I did it!' only needs me to reflect back, 'you did it yourself, huh?' for my child to nod with a satisfied smile, and move on to something else. Nothing more is required; in fact, further commentary is often brushed off as intrusive or unnecessary. But sometimes I feel a little silly merely reflecting back what my child says; it is helpful to see how empowering it was for Dibs, and to realise that my instinct to reflect here is good.

For another, the story affirms the time young children spend in free play – a rarity in this over-structured era. What may look like mucking about or daydreaming to us is actually their work. Watching Dibs use play to understand and forgive his family and work out his role within it helps me notice how much my own children inhabit a rich imaginative world in which they go about much serious work every day. It also makes clear just how imperative this play is for a child to develop a means to understand the world around them and develop a strong sense of self within that world. Kids need simple toys (sand, boxes, blocks, dolls, cars, trees, tea sets: things that reflect, or can be made to reflect, the world they inhabit), as well as opportunities to use paint, play with water and make a mess, in order to do their work. The simpler these toys are, the more their imaginations can use them. As parents, we have a responsibility to enable that work by providing the tools and, just as important, the time and space for it to happen.

Given the opportunity simply to be: that is, given the chance to work out what they want to do and how they want to go about it, then, like Dibs, our children will develop a profound sense of self, and find surprising solutions to the difficulties they are presented with.

Such a child is an absolute delight to be around. Even more, such a child becomes a powerful agent in the world: as we see in Dibs, and as I have observed in my own household, they can challenge adult behaviours and revolutionise family, even community, dynamics. And while living with an empowered child may be somewhat uncomfortable at times, overall I have found that providing the space for a child to become deeply grounded, and sharing my life with such a child, is one of the great privileges of parenthood.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oliver’s Travels

Oliver's Travels

Question: What does a lover of books and word games do when she's stuck on the crossword and too tired to read? Answer: Watch an episode of Oliver's Travels , available on DVD.

After being made redundant from his job as a university lecturer, Oliver, a man obsessed by trivia, jokes and the mighty anagram, and a two-time question setter for Mastermind, decides to go on a journey to meet his favourite cryptic crossword compiler, Aristotle, with whom he has corresponded for years.

Soon after setting out, he encounters an intelligent and feisty policewoman, WPC Diane Priest. She does him a favour, and in return he offers to solve any outstanding local mysteries. She suggests that of the farmer found floating face down in the river. Oliver, a great lateral thinker, comes up with a plausible if outrageous explanation, and he and Diane stumble into a web of murder and corruption, aided by the clues they find planted in newspaper crossword puzzles.

As their joint quests – solving the mystery and finding Aristotle – take them north, they pass through a stunning landscape and meet a host of fascinating characters: an insecure and officious university chancellor and his 'wife Norma' (anagram: Fire Woman); an oracular maintenance man; a tramp who claims to remember the Restoration dramatist, George Farquhar, 'in his little coracle'; the jazz-loving 13th Baron ('Dizzy blew in here!') Kite and his insignificant other, Sara ('but I'm his bimbo, really'); a stonemason who fondly remembers Jimmy James, Hutton Conyers and Bretton Woods; a knock kneed pigeon toed geologist; an elfin computer hacker; a motel owner who talks with his ghosts; and, of course, the sinister Mr Baxter who follows them wherever they go.

Like all good journeys, the joy is in the travel: the people they meet, the stories they share, the jokes they tell. Oliver's favourite joke is about frogs; his second favourite, about the horse that liked to sit on eggs; and his third, about a man walking in the forest, naked except for a bowler hat. He tells the latter when posing as a lay preacher to a small evangelical Scottish sect.

Absolutely incorrigible and utterly defensive, Oliver uses his quick wit to keep people away. Diane, his chosen and predestined companion (thanks to an anagram of 'Diane not Priest'), sneaks in through the chinks to become an energetic, passionate and grounding counterpart.

For all the jokes, overt and otherwise, the series is bittersweet. It is tinged with the sadness that often accompanies middle age. Oliver and Diane are both affected by marriage breakdown; minor characters have experienced grief, failure, and other losses. While the characters reflect on religion, class and inheritance, the series as a whole is about paying homage: to the past, to one's family, to one's gods (in Oliver's case, Beethoven, Lester Young, George Farquhar and Aristotle), and to each other.

This is television by, for and about intelligent, mature, good-humoured people. Like a good joke, it can be relished again and again. This particular intelligent, mature, good-humoured person likes to watch it late in the evening with a cup of tea, and the thought of some Chocolate Digestives.

(Oliver's Travels was written by Alan Plater. It features Alan Bates as Oliver, Sinéad Cusack as Diane, Bill Paterson as Mr Baxter, and a host of wonderful supporting actors too numerous to mention.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dead Man’s Chest

Dead Man's Chest: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

The kids are asleep, and my husband's out at a work function. In the supreme effort of getting three tired kids, two who have been sick, into bed on time by myself for the second night in a row I skipped the enforced clean up, and now dozens of tiny slips of cut up paper litter the back room rug; the lounge room floor is dotted with pieces of a marble run, a dolly pram and a heap of blocks. Books are stacked in a teetering pile next to the Big Green Chair, and the kitchen table – my writing desk – has a jungle jigsaw and a kid's code book at the other end. As for the mysterious fever which affected my daughters last night and today, well, it broke; but now I ain't feeling too hot. So I'm sitting here in trackie dacks and singlet, mysterious viral aches in my elbows and backbone, fingers pruny from the washing up: not exactly the height of glamour.

It could be depressing. Actually, it is a little depressing. Fortunately, there are means of escape. Tonight I am playing old jazz, sipping a glass of port and reflecting on Kerry Greenwood's most recent offering, Dead Man's Chest. It's the latest in a series of novels set in the roaring twenties in and around Melbourne. Her heroine is the racy Phryne (rhymes with shiny) Fisher: ferociously intelligent, terribly glamorous, deliciously sensual, fabulously wealthy, and drop dead gorgeous.

Phryne is a Lady Detective with a pearl handled gun and a penchant for danger. This time, the story begins as Phryne, her maid Dot and her adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth decamp to the seaside town of Queenscliff for a holiday. They arrive at their accommodation to find the housekeepers missing and the house mysteriously empty. Meanwhile a pigtail snipper is terrorizing the young women of the town; a fisher boy needs a household and a purpose; and three spoiled toffs must be sorted out. Phryne gets to the heart of everything, unravelling mystery upon mystery, with her usual aplomb.

The book is packed with interesting characters: Irish fisherfolk, surrealists, nasty crooks, a film crew and a delightfully awful genteel neighbour, Mrs Mason. Phryne observes all with her insouciant eye.

As we can expect from Greenwood, Dead Man's Chest is a deliciously light confection, packed with loyal servants, good cooking, designer dresses, dangerous episodes, terrific metaphors and even, this time, buried treasure. It's escape, pure and simple... hallelujah!

You can read more about the Phryne Fisher novels here.

Cocaine Blues

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Arabel and Mortimer

Arabel's Raven (Arabel and Mortimer) Arabel and Mortimer

Most chapter books for young girls are dross. They are churned off a production line, following a set formula and featuring fairies, or magic ponies or kittens. The asinine heroines become ecstatic over clothes and sparkles; they have a minor adventure which reconciles them with a jealous peer; and at the end, everyone's wearing pink. All in all, these books make me sick. Excuse me while I go puke in the corner.

But there are antidotes to this nauseating drivel. One of our favourites are the Arabel and Mortimer stories by Joan Aiken. Arabel is four and lives in Rumbury Town, an ancient suburb of London. One day, Arabel's father, a taxi driver, finds a bedraggled black bird in the road. He brings the bird home to be nursed; Arabel falls in love, and christens the raven Mortimer.

Mortimer is no end of trouble. Like all ravens, he's endlessly inquisitive and perpetually destructive. He's forever slipping away for a quiet bit of investigation, which usually involves his strong beak and some expensive piece of equipment. In Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur (found in Arabel and Mortimer, and also published separately), Mortimer wreaks havoc on Arabel's mother's sewing machine and the vile pink dress she is making for Arabel, then hurls a banana across the room where it is messily impaled on the bristles of a broom. Arabel and Mortimer are sent out of the house in disgrace to play at the park across the road, where they meet up with Arabel's friends: Sandy, a unicycle-riding teenage boy, and Mr Walpole, the groundsman. While they chat, Mortimer seizes the opportunity to hijack the council ride-on mower and terrorise the other park goers, mow swathes out of the daffodil beds, and send the mower plunging into a building excavation site.

At the bottom of the pit lies a mysterious round stone table. The mower smashes it to smithereens. Mortimer flutters out carrying a priceless ancient sword which had been stuck in the table... and then manages to destroy it also, to the shock and distress of the investigating scholar and the curious crowd. Adults will enjoy the mythical allusions; children will relish the destructive chaos.

In other stories, Mortimer shuts down the London Underground, destroys a radio tower, and generally drives everyone except Arabel mad. The stories are wildly inventive, and, to children at least, laugh-out-loud fun. Mortimer is fascinating; and Arabel is absolutely charming. She is a quiet bookish child who loves to skateboard, and gets into all sorts of scrapes thanks to him.

The books are also enjoyable for adults coopted into reading aloud. In The Mystery of Mr Jones's Disappearing Taxi, now sadly out of print, books featured include the Complete Oxford Dictionary, Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Mrs Beeton's Household Management; Freud and Cosi Fan Tutti also rate a mention. In a nice allusion to Poe's Raven, except for 'Kaark' the only word Mortimer says is 'Nevermore'.

Aiken fills her text with puns and spoonerisms, which some children get and others may glide over. An adult reading aloud may choose to stop and elucidate, or may choose simply to read with no interruptions. All the stories – and there are about fifteen of them – are rippers and can be read on several levels.

Although Aiken writes for children, she is not afraid to use metaphors and other sophisticated techniques to tell her story. The result is a text which is not only very lively and great fun, but paves the way to other writers; a four to ten year old child reading Joan Aiken and the like won't be afraid to tackle other playful intelligent writers – say Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens – in later years.

And from books like these, real books written not for a corporate production line but because a story burned to be told, our children will be equipped for the big questions, and the mingled sorrows and joys of adulthood. Kaark.

PS The first book is Arabel's Raven.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Advent List (reprise)

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
Last year I wrote an Advent list: the books my family will especially enjoy during December. In case you missed it, here it is again!

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

A few years ago, I was dining with a group which included a clearly exhausted woman; she was nodding off at the table. I asked her why she was so tired. 'Oh,' she said, 'by the time I got home from work yesterday, cooked dinner, fed everyone, put the kids to bed, did the dishes, vacuumed, tidied, did a load of washing, put it through the dryer and ironed my husband's shirts, it was 3am.' Needless to say, while she was ironing his shirts, he was sound asleep, recharging for the next day at his busy job - her frantic juggle of paid employment, childcare and housework notwithstanding.

His excuse – and hers – was that his job was very demanding. It was. It was also possible for him to slip out and grab a coffee in the morning, eat lunch in a cafe, share a joke with adults in the staffroom while fixing himself a cup of tea, and go pee anytime without a child tugging at his leg. His work began and ended at fixed times, and he could read the paper on the train on the way home. Such freedom is unimaginable to those caring for young children.

It would be easy to make fun of this woman ironing at 3am – how could she let herself be such a doormat? – but her story is common. I have certainly heard it enough times from all sorts of women. The woman whose husband looks after the kids so she can go out occasionally; she returns to water in the bath, nappies on the floor, dishes in the sink and a total pigsty because he doesn't perceive cleaning up to be part of the care. The women who tell me their husbands are great at looking after the baby – after they run the bath and set out the towel and the clean clothes and go fetch him, he'll bathe the baby; then the women clean up. The many women who have reeled in shock when they realised my husband was changing a nappy off his own bat; I hadn't even asked him.

I recently thought of this state of affairs as I read Susan Maushart's Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women. Maushart's observations, drawing from great swathes of sociological data, are simple: despite the gender revolutions that have taken place over the last few decades, most men still do vastly less around the home – physically and emotionally – than their wives, even when their wives work full-time. Women still do the bulk of cleaning, cooking and housework; the bulk of planning household tasks and social activities; and the bulk of the emotional work which glues the family together and makes men feel good about themselves. Worse, men defend their lack of participation by trivialising the work of the household; and women defend their men by infantilizing their husbands and living in denial.

Maushart argues that unless men and woman find ways to share the load more evenly, there is little incentive for many women to enter into marriage or to remain married. This certainly rings true in our society, where the divorce rate is high and the majority of divorces are initiated by women. In the words of one exasperated friend, 'I have three kids at home. One of them is in his late forties and he won't cook, clean or even chuck his damn socks into the washing basket. I don't know why I bother!'.

Yet despite our acceptance as a culture of no-fault divorce, Maushart reminds us that it is not so straightforward. Her survey of decades of research shows that, except in cases of abuse, divorce is rotten for kids. Like it or not, sociologists have found that an emotionally arid father is better than no father at all; a brittle empty marriage better than no marriage at all – for kids, at least. In what is a radical statement from a divorced feminist socially liberal researcher, she reminds us that marriage is primarily about children, not adults; and she calls for a renegotiation of marriage which recognises the priorities of children, equips men to become co-caretakers of the household, and encourages women to allow their husbands more room in the house, so to speak.

This work will be hard, yet she points out that marriage is hard: research shows that the rewards of marriage tend to be experienced in the first couple of years, then after fifteen or so years. In between, it's a slog. She suggest that if we can get our heads around this, then we will have a better chance of staying married – shocking stuff in an age of instant gratification.

Women might be able to manage this by demanding both less and more from our husbands. That is, Maushart suggests it is unreasonable for us to expect our marriage partner to fulfil every need (lover, parent of our children, breadwinner, best friend, confidante – the latter roles should be served by our friends, and breadwinning may be better shared); yet we might demand more physical contributions to the household.

For their part, she suggests men should take responsibility for some of the business of running a home: not just cooking, but shopping beforehand and cleaning up afterwards; not just putting clothes in the machine, but hanging them out, bringing them in, folding them up and putting them away; in other words, not just helping, but taking ownership of the jobs. Research across the English-speaking world shows that the average husband adds five hours' extra housework each week which is picked up by their wives; Maushart rather warmly suggests that men could instead become net contributors to the labour of running a household and raising children, rather than net beneficiaries.

As I have come to expect from her, Maushart is passionately engaged and engaging. While not every observation she makes about marriage and male-female relationships rings true for me personally, she is certainly making acute observations about the general state of affairs. Time and again I found myself nodding in agreement, recognising elements of my own marriage or that of friends.

One small observation – that the time men spend with their children tends to be fun while the time women spend with their children tends to be functional or disciplinary – brought me to tears; this is certainly the case in our household, where my partner, a very present, responsible and proactive member of the household (he washes children's hair, buys milk and changes nappies and never has to be asked or praised), is always the one who gets to have fun with the kids. I'm too busy peeling vegetables or loading the washing machine.

Wifework is full of such insights, uncomfortable but true. Maushart articulates many of these rough spots in marriage, and it's helpful to have them named. The book is a terrific conversation starter; I would recommend it for every couple with children. It provides a starting point for a couple to critique their relationship, and encourages a thoughtful examination of gender roles. It may even lead to a new form of marriage, where running a household and caring for children are understood to be the work of all householders, male and female; and where men take seriously the emotional and sexual needs of their wives.

And if, in the renegotiation, men find themselves with a more important role in their children's lives and living with much happier wives – then what more could they want? Change might involve a difficult and somewhat painful process of trial and error, but the long-term rewards will be abundant, indeed.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Blizzard Voices

The Blizzard Voices

Everyone I love who has died has been cremated. The coffin disappeared with a mechanical whoosh, or a discreet curtain covered it up, and that's the last we saw of it. It's cold, clinical, institutional, fake, and it's not enough for me. I want to watch dirt cover the coffin and know that it's done. I want a place to visit, a place to sit and chat and cry and think.

So my husband and I will be buried. We will sink into the soil and turn into good earth. We will be in a place where our children can hold a picnic, and listen to the trees, and breathe goodbye over and again. In my fantasy world, I will be buried at a friend's block, quiet, unremarked, ignored for the most part, but a good place for a picnic; a place where the wind sings and a rainbow is often to be seen spanning the valley. In reality, we're visiting country cemeteries and seeing what's available.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to The Blizzard Voices. I find most poetry to be unutterably omphaloskeptical (I have always wanted to use that word in a sentence) and excruciatingly tedious.

And then there's Ted Kooser. Kooser is a poet who uses the cool spare language of the Great Plains. He is the poet for people who like stories, and other people. His language is clear, strong and wiry; and he tells the most wonderful tales.

The Blizzard Voices is a collection of poems about the terrible storm which struck the Plains in the late nineteenth century. Teachers and students were trapped in schoolhouses with limited fuel and food. Farmhands perished in the fields, unable to find their way home. Fathers sheltered under upturned wagons with their livestock, and lost hands and feet to the cold. Mothers sat anxiously at home waiting for their husbands and children to return: from school, from the neighbour's house, even from the barn just yards away.

Kooser collected the stories from those who remembered, and from old diaries and other reports. He shaped the material into a series of short poems, each speaking in a different voice to relate an image, a snippet, or an experience. Together, the poems form a chorus, and provide a sense of the many faces of the blizzard: finding a loved one dead in a snowdrift, and the methodical calm of a plainsman in dealing with it; the surprising experience of discovering turkeys days later, buried by the snow but alive and well; the quiet devastation of a young teacher who lost her way and held three young charges close as they died in the night; the sight of a man who lost arms and legs to frostbite being loaded onto a train; the line of sunflowers which led a teacher and her children to safety.

Reading the book, I felt I was sitting at the feet of a grandmother or a great-uncle, listening as they told stories by the fire. It is a deeply nourishing set of poems, tied to a particular time and place, but drawing the reader into a collective history, and giving the reader a sense that the history is part of our shared story.

As in his book Local Wonders, Kooser finishes the collection with a deeply moving piece which is a benediction of sorts; here, a blessing on those who died. He writes that the names of those buried unremarked and unremembered in the corners of fields are still carried on the wind. And I'm back to where I began. Two lifetimes and half a world away, I think of those lines whenever the wind blows, and hope that I too can one day be buried in a field somewhere, remembered for a few years, then left to the song of swaying grasses, and the ever changing crooning of the wind.

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

(You can read more about Kooser's book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps here.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry

I loved the The Time Traveler's Wife, so I immediately sought out Niffenegger's next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. Don't make the same mistake; it's awful. The characters are tedious; some of the plotline is so obvious I wanted to scream, and the rest is so bizarrely idiotic that I was gobsmacked. The writing clunks and drags, full of clichés and inane comments; I wonder if an editor even saw it? I finished it only out of pride; I had it listed as 'what I'm reading' and thought I'd better see it through.

To summarise, Her Fearful Symmetry is a twee ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London (cliché alert!). Yet it doesn't feel at all like London, but instead like Disney London aka Ye Olde London Towne. The characters are stereotypical Londoners, all white: the bookseller with a stuffed animal in her study; the frail but impressive grande dame who oversees the volunteers at the cemetery; the slightly ineffectual academic; the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter. They all live in magnificent spacious flats near the cemetery, because, as you know, second hand booksellers, crossword compilers and PhD students make so much money. Oh please.

Into their midst arrive bland American twins, insipid, tedious, vapid and boring. They have inherited one of the flats from their aunt, who now haunts it. The story appears to be about their struggle to separate identities, just as their mother and aunt, also identical twins, struggled to separate theirs. With the aid of the ghostly aunty, her former lover and a Ouija board, the weaker twin embarks on a plainly disastrous attempt to draw away from the other; of course, she can't just move out of the flat and get on with her life like a halfway normal person. That would be too straightforward, and the reader would miss out on her riding on a raven over London's tourist hotspots.

The only character to provide a glimmer of interest is the OCD-afflicted crossword compiler, Martin; yet even this character is hard to swallow. Being a paranoid obsessive, he agrees to take 'vitamins' (aka Anafranil) administered by a stranger (aka the bossier twin), just because she says he should; he shows dramatic healing as a result. Such behaviour beggars belief.

The book is a total bomb. I can't quite believe that the author of The Time Traveler's Wife wrote it; I find myself wondering whether this ghost story was ghost written in some clever little game played on readers everywhere? Ghost written or not, don't waste your time. It's awful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Time Traveller’s Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

I don't have great reserves of patience for speculative fiction. Yet I have just read, in two sittings, a rollicking good novel in which one of the main characters is a time traveller. In The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry has a genetic disorder which shoots him out of current time and into another without warning, leaving a pile of clothes behind him. He arrives at the alternate time with not a stitch on. He must immediately commandeer clothing and a wallet to keep himself warm, fed and safe until he is jolted back to his own time.

Clare, on the other hand, lives in one time. Henry is shot in and out of her time; at some stage, they meet in current time, and marry.

This is all rather ridiculous, of course. And yet the marvel of this book is that the relationship between Henry and Clare is so gripping, so energetic and passionate and sad, that I was happy to suspend belief and enjoy the story – and what a story it is. This is a great love story, the story of a man and woman who love each other in any time zone, at every stage of development; and it is a story of loss, as the man disappears reluctantly and reappears sometime later, often dishevelled, bloody, bruised and sickened by the time travel and the consequences of arriving suddenly in a dark alleyway behind a nightclub (or wherever) with no clothes on.

In Niffenegger's relaxed version of time travel, there is no rupture in the space-time continuum when Henry meets an earlier self. Instead he borrows some clothes, has a conversation, or sleeps with a differently aged version of his wife. The time travel is treated matter-of-factly: despite some benefits (playing the stock market), overall it's inconvenient and stressful and takes a heavy toll on the characters.

The story alternates between Henry's and Clare's voice, and events are scrambled out of order, reflecting the way Henry is jolted between times. He meets Clare for the first time when he is 28, and she is 20; and yet an older Henry has been meeting Clare regularly since she was six, having been shot repeatedly into the field at the back of her house while she was a child.

For all the flipping around time, over the course of the novel the characters progress and mature, each shaping the other and helping the other to grow into adulthood. The time travelling makes it more interesting, in that it is an older Henry who spends so much time with the child Clare, helps her with her schoolwork, and watches her grow; and it is the adult Clare who shapes Henry into the gentle and patient man who is good for and kind to the young Clare.

Yet the time travel does not feel like a gimmick; instead, it feels like an accurate portrayal of a good marriage. We all encounter the five year old, the sixteen year old, the forty year old in our partner at different times; and express these many versions of ourselves to our partner. A terrible week, and the child comes out, and together we help the child grow up – or perhaps just enjoy the child's playfulness; at other times, the mature adult emerges, giving us insight into who we can become. Niffenegger's concept works in part because it makes concrete what we experience metaphorically.

Henry's genetic disorder make it difficult for them to have children; and the author writes with honesty and insight into the trauma of repeated miscarriage, and Clare's desperate longing to have a baby at almost any cost. While the story raises interesting questions about genetic mutations – should they be subjected to gene therapy, encouraged to die out, or allowed to turn into something new and interesting? – the philosophical ideas never overwhelm the storytelling, or the real grief of the character unable to keep a baby. Each miscarriage is real; as in life, it's bloody and painful and devastating. Several women I know have been in the awful situation of losing a foetus, and holding the impossibly tiny body in their hands. Clare's experience is drawn in all this messiness, and the telling of these episodes, so rarely spoken of in our culture, is a gift.

Sorrow haunts them. Because of the time travel, Henry and Clare know the approximate date of Henry's death. The frustration and anger as they near the end is well written. After Henry's death, Clare does callous things in her grief which are just awful and yet make perfect sense. She is not a paragon of virtue, and I like her for this.

Some characters feel clichéd – the bitchy black lesbian friend, Henry's now-suicidal former partner –; and I'd have to say everyone's a bit too cool for me. Despite this, the story is enormously readable and a real gift. It led me to reflect on my own relationship: like Henry and Clare, my husband and I have lives which feel utterly intertwined, even as we have separate interests and commitments; and like them, we have matured together and with each other's help. To be reminded of this, and of how much I love my husband, I am grateful. The Time Traveler's Wife is a terrific read, and a relationship tonic to boot. Read it.

PS - Yes, I'm told there is a film. Don't care, won't see it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Baby’s Own Adventure

A Lion in the Night (Picture Puffin S.)

I could tell you all about A Lion in the Night by Pamela Allen. But let my daughter, who is almost two, do it instead:


"Baby crying. Baby in cot."

"Wake up!" to the queen, "Oook! Lion taking baby!"

"Puppy! Helmet! Hat! Crown! Bikle! [bicycle]" as the great chase, featuring queen, king, admiral, captain, general, sergeant and little dog begins.

"Moon!" as they race through the forest.

"Boat!" as they chase over the sea.

"Where bikle?" as it's squashed against the sergeant on the boat. "Where puppy?"

The Lion stops. Her face is quiet, bursting with expectation as Mummy and the Lion say GrrrrrrRRRAAAAAAH... [chuckle chuckle] then "GraaaaaahHhhhh!"

"king castle dirr rascal" as the Lion taunts the chasers, then invites them in for...

"befast" [breakfast], then "nana, toast, bottle, egg, strawbees"...

"Bye-bye Lion! Lion in cot! My cot!" and she closes the book and toddles off to her bedroom to take a look.


Now if that isn't a recommendation for a book for a two year old, I don't know what is.

And thanks to Nuradin, who read it to her first.

Stories for all the lovely people*

Fire on the Mountain In the Small, Small Night I Love My Hair

About this time last year I found myself hunting down books for young African refugees. Now it's time to do it again. I'm looking for books for all the lovely people in the class, and I'm delighted to report that I have found a few more excellent titles to add to last year's list.

Fire on the Mountain, by Jane Kurtz and EB Lewis, is a re-telling of a traditional Ethiopian tale. Alemayu is a young cowherd. Circumstances force him to become the servant of a boastful rich man who claims to be the only one able to spend a night on the cold mountain with nothing but a shemma for warmth. But Alemayu has done so many times. The rich man forces him to prove it, but when he finds out Alemayu stayed warm by looking at someone's fire on another mountain, denies him his reward. So Alemayu's sister cooks up a great feast for the rich man. As he sits and enjoys the cooking smells wafting in from another room, the rich man is served... nothing. 'What kind of person thinks that smells of food can fill a man's stomach?' demands the rich man. 'The same kind of person who believes that looking at a fire can keep a boy warm,' answers the sister. Check mate!

Fire on the Mountain is gently illustrated in the soft muted colours of the desert. The characters are beautifully depicted, especially Alemayu and his sister; and I very much hope some of the Ethiopian kids in the class recognise the story and enjoy this re-telling. But I must admit I am looking forward to reading this with one particular boy for another reason. The rich man's feast features injera, the Ethiopian bread; and this boy has a passion for it. When I first asked this boy if he ate injera, he was so astonished that I knew about injera that he actually fell over backwards. I look forward to seeing his reaction when he finds injera mentioned in a book!

Jane Kurtz also wrote In the Small, Small Night (illustrated by Rachel Isadora). It's the story of two refugee children trying to get to sleep; but Kofi is afraid that he will forget his family in Ghana now that he is in America. So his sister Abena, remembering the village storyteller, recounts traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. Between their stories and the conversation, Kofi is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness; yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. But what is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in those stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

One small difference is the hair! The girls in my class and I wonder at each other's. 'Why you cut it like a boy?' they demand when my hair is freshly cropped; but they like to stroke it all the same, and play with my daughter's bunches, admiring its softness. I adore their hair right back, whether it's braided down their backs, or plaited in wild directions, or tipped with beads. Thus I was delighted to find the book I Love My Hair, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and also illustrated by EB Lewis, a celebration of African hair. In this story, a little girl is having her hair done. As her mother combs and tugs, the little girl's eyes fill with tears. So her mother stops, and tells her stories about her beautiful hair: it can be woven like yarn into a 'puffy little bun'; it can be parted into rows and planted with braids like a garden; it can cloud around her head like the world; it can stick out in ponytails like wings. And the little girl, thinking of all these things, imagines she can fly.

The illustrations dreamily illustrate the metaphors for the girl's hair; and the image of the girl sitting between her mother's thighs having her hair combed is so intimate, you can feel the weight of the bodies leaning into each other. A wonderful book.

*which is what I call the kids as a group, and what they now call their class to me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Waiting for Mummy

Waiting for Mummy

When I was a child, my mother worked. She was a minister, and juggled working from home with working from a church office; we kids juggled playing at home with cooling our heels in the church hall. During the week, she made phone calls while stirring pasta sauce, held meetings in the lounge room, and ran around frantically Getting Things Done. But Sundays were the worst. While other kids fooled around and went out for lunch, we hung around after church while she had just one more, and one more, and one more conversation. If we had the temerity to stand near her or, god forbid, tug her skirt, we'd be resolutely ignored; then later we'd have The Conversation about how this was mummy's work and we had to let her be. All very well, but my sister and I were stuck there too, just waiting, waiting for mummy.

A more gentle sort of waiting is encapsulated in the beautifully understated book, Waiting for Mummy by Tae-Jun Lee and Dong-Sung Kim. In this story, a little boy waits at a tram stop, 'nose flaming red', for the tram which will bring his mother home. As tram after tram goes by with no mummy, the boy exchanges a few words with each driver, leans on a pole, drags a stick along the ground, or just squats. The resolution, when it comes, is wordless and requires the reader to examine closely a picture of a town blanketed in falling snow; this restraint lends the story great strength.

The illustrations are exquisite. They remind me of the gentler forms of manga, or perhaps the rich imagery in Miyazaki's brilliant film, Spirited Away: trams swoop dreamily out of the sky, the sea, and the trees. Just as I saw the world as a child, here the landscape looms in mysterious form and reality is far richer and more layered than adults comprehend. Trams and adults and steps are enormous, snow falls out of a yellow sky, and a little boy's hands go red with cold. In the background are soft images of a traditional Korean town: many-storied shops, men hauling goods on bicycles, and women with baskets on their heads.

My sister bought the book for us to read, but as I, like my mother, juggle other commitments along with child-rearing, my children find no small resonance with the story. After all, they too wait for mummy, and no doubt will do so until they are mummies themselves.

Waiting for Mummy is a pearl, but especially for the child whose mother works out of the home. It gives dignity and beauty to the experience of waiting – and reminds the parent just how patient our children can be.

> Tae-Jun Lee and Dong-Sung Kim Waiting for Mummy (Elwood, Vic: Wilkins Farago, 2006).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Consider the Camellia

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I was a pissy little teenager. Smart and judgemental and oh so knowing, I am forever grateful to the various loving adults who took me under their wing and showed me how large the world is, and how wonderful it is to be alive.

Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery* took me right back to those miserable self-righteous days. The story is written in two voices. The first, Renée (meaning 'reborn'), is that of the testy old concierge in an exclusive apartment building. To all appearances, Renée is a thick-witted peasant, but closer scrutiny reveals a cunning autodidact who hides her knowledge and insight behind the veneer of fluffy slippers and soggy cooking smells so that she can read and think in solitude.

The second is that of a very bright young resident of the building, Paloma. Disillusioned by the facades presented by those around her, and sickened by the trappings of wealth, Paloma has decided to commit suicide to draw attention to their bloated lives. She chooses a date to die, and decides to keep two journals in the meantime in which she will observe beauty and see if she can find something to live for.

The tale is very simple, very predictable: the two lives intersect through the gentle machinations of a third resident, the characters blossom, and we have a moment of ineffable beauty. In between, we are invited to reflect on philosophy, academia, grammar, art, social distinctions, Japanese aesthetics, the nature of time, the camellia's exquisite beauty, and what lies beneath through the observations and acerbic comments of these two characters.

Reviewers have raved about the author's lightness of touch, but phenomenology is phenomenology. The deftest of hands cannot leaven it enough for me; sections of the book are heavy going. These aside, the rest of the book is so gentle and so funny that I found myself alternately weeping and laughing out loud in public places.**

Paloma's diary in particular felt painfully, if hilariously, familiar. Like Paloma, I too was outraged by the injustice in the world, and sure that I was the only one to see it. I loathed my parents, thinking I saw right through them – and I am so glad that I lived long enough to begin to love and understand them again. Barbery realises the voice of a bright young teenager to perfection, just as she captures the spirit of a free-thinking and terribly private concierge.

My only quibble is the ending. The book starts very slowly, but gathers pace so that the ending is upon the reader shockingly fast – and it is so predictable, and so French! The last few pages made me feel Anglo through and through. But enough said. Read it yourself, and laugh, and weep. Then go for a walk, and find a camellia.

> Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog trans. by Alison Anderson (Europa: New York, 2008).

*Thanks, Brenda, for the recommendation!

**I usually read at the pub, far from the cares of three young children and an eternally gritty floor that could really use yet another vacuum. So there I was, sitting by myself at the smallest table which just happens to be on the edge of the stage, that is to say, in full view of the rest of the rapidly filling pub, reading and weeping and wiping my eyes on the enormous cloth napkin that came with my dinner. I know how ridiculous I must have looked – thank goodness that I'm getting to an age where it bothers me not one whit. Truth be told, I'm rather proud of it. I always thought I might like to grow up to be an eccentric; at times it feels like I'm well on the way. Cheers!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The contradictions of colonialism

The Secret River

Finally, finally I have read The Secret River – one of those 'must read' books on the bookshelf. It's the tale of one William Thornhill, a waterman on the Thames, who is caught stealing and sent to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. After gaining his pardon, Thornhill moves out of Sydney and appropriates a stretch of land along the Hawksburn River, where turns his hand to farming.

What makes the story so interesting is its focus on the encounters between Thornhill and traditional owners of the land, a story not often told in Australian literature. From the outset, it is clear that violence is in the offing, and reading the book is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Secret River is beautifully written, dreamy even, especially in the passages about the river and the landscape. And yet, recalling the recent spat between Peter Carey and Bryce Courtenay on the nature of a good book, the characters are not immediate, even the story is not immediate in the way a good story, a Dickens perhaps, would be. For all its beauty, I felt as if I were reading through a veil and the book, once finished, made little impression on me. The characters have already departed.

Overall, I found it a somewhat frustrating book. The book focuses on Thornhill's thoughts and feelings; we are told constantly what is going on in his head. I wanted to shout the elementary writer's mandate: Show, don't tell! – don't tell me what he thinks, show me the actions that result from his thinking. Yet for all this thought, Thornhill's actions are largely unaffected, even contradicted, by his thoughts.

In the most striking example, Thornhill's household is woken one night by the sounds of a corroborree. Thornhill sneaks over to the indigenous camp to see what is happening. As he watches, he believes he is seeing a war dance, but as the night wears on he realises it is liturgy, and an old man dancing is a 'book'. Thornhill realises too that everyone, except himself, can read the story being told. Yet despite these revelations, which one would expect to assuage his overwhelming fears of imminent attack, he leaves to protect his household.

I would find the scene more plausible had he perceived only a war-dance (and so his defensive preparations would have made sense); or, if he indeed had the insight that he was observing liturgy, that his fears dissipated. I find it hard to swallow that a character has such profound insight, yet is not affected by it.

In another example, Thornhill observes that in the way the indigenous live, all are 'gentry'. All have time to spare every day for socializing, playing, and meaning-making activities. Despite this realisation, this word 'gentry' coming to his mind, he continues to refer to them as savages and treats them accordingly.

I have not read enough history to know whether Thornhill's observations truly reflect those found in old diaries and other records; but I experienced a strong sense of anachronism. An uneducated Thames waterman, living in a strange and hostile terrain, suffocating on fear and feeling threatened every time he heard a branch break saw a corroborree and thought of the Anglican Christmas service? Oh please. In other places, despite his deliberate choice to remain apart from the local tribe, he has insights into the way they claim and farm the land, and have a spiritual connection with it. These insights seem extraordinary, if not completely implausible, for the average Englishman of the time.

Oddly enough, despite the suspension of belief required to read this book, I would still recommend it. My family is Cornish, and left Cornwall in the hungry forties, as they called it. They came to mine, stretch out and breathe, and I can't pretend that the land they worked was empty. I am sure there is blood on our hands, just as there is on so many hands, and it is through books like this that we gain insights into our ancestors and begin to accept responsibility for our history.

As the great-great-great-grandchild of colonists, I can absolutely understand Thornhill's desperate desire for land at any cost – this is his one chance out of grim poverty, his one chance to have children grow straight and tall. It doesn't make his violent actions acceptable, and I don't condone them; but I can't infinitely condemn him either. Like my ancestors, he was born into hunger and a precarious existence; he was sent to Australia; and the philosophers of the time disputed and largely denied the full humanity of indigenous people. Not only that, but the English government ordered the settlers to take all necessary steps to subdue the native population and appropriate the land.

For Thornhill or my ancestors to question the philosophers and the clergymen, for them to perceive indigenous people as fully human and having powerful claims on the land, would be radically farsighted; for them to disobey the King and relinquish appropriated land back to the original inhabitants, unthinkable. Even two hundred years later, many Australians still deny that indigenous Australians have a special claim on the land and bitterly resent any suggestions that sacred sites, at the least, might be returned to the traditional owners.

Perhaps the contradictions between Thornhill's observations and actions are deliberate on the part of the writer. However, they seem to say more about the contradictions we might feel now as the descendents of colonists. From our position of power, we have the emotional space to acknowledge that a corroboree may be a form of liturgy, or that an indigenous person may have a different way of belonging to land – after all, these acknowledgements cost us nothing. But the violence has been done; we have the land; and, at least in Victoria, there is no one much left to take it back. Even more, we are so removed from the violence that we can almost pretend it never happened. Thus, like Thornhill, we can simultaneously make our interesting anthropological observations even as we reap the rich rewards of colonialism.

> Kate Grenville The Secret River (Melbourne: Text, 2005).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The fascination of road kill

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

I lived in the United States as a teenager, and I have since found its politics fascinating, although the fascination is akin to that fascination one feels towards road kill – one can't stop looking at it – or perhaps even a poisonous snake.

In my first week in DC, I was physically nauseated by the sights. Here in the capital city of the richest country in the world, homeless guys slept over air vents and used the traffic circles as extremely public toilets even as the limousines and cavalcades rolled by. People stank, really stank, and held out crumpled paper cups for spare change. Meanwhile, women wore fur to dine at the elite members-only clubs that dotted Washington; I know, because I was invited to some of those lunches and was always underdressed.

Later, I joined a volunteer organisation which delivered groceries to the needy each month. I visited rat infested apartments that stank of gangrene and rot and talked with residents who were always so gracious, so grateful, despite nephews killed in shoot outs and feet amputated thanks to diabetes. Me, I would have been screaming at anyone who came near me to get me out of this nightmare.

I couldn't believe – I still can't believe – that such a rich country could so obviously fail to look after so many of its citizens. I never got over the sense that here was a very poor country, even if it was the richest country in the world; that many people were startlingly ignorant, frequently misinformed and completely lacking in critical skills, yet were also stridently opinionated – often on subjects that lead to war; that there were clear divisions of education and class, although it claimed to be a classless society; that despite the separation of church and state, fundamentalists of all stripes were doing everything they could to infiltrate the state and inflict their own mores onto everyone else; and that despite rallying calls for freedom and democracy, there was very little of either here.

And I never got over the sense that all this was obscene in what was supposed to be the most privileged country on earth, a country moreover that prided itself on being God's gift to the world. As soon as I came of age (well, 17), I moved out of home and fled back to Australia with a renewed fondness for its more egalitarian secular state.*

Of course, how I felt about the US was rarely coherent; it was all muddled up with being a miserable and lonely displaced teenager with an acute case of homesickness. I felt sick with guilt just for being middle class, when all around flowed oceans of poverty. As I walked past women huddled in blankets on the sidewalk near work, church or museums – all downtown – I felt deeply ashamed of my wealth and my escape across the river to the relative safety of my home in Arlington. I was churned up with pity and confusion and frustration, and I was scared. The gap between haves and have-nots was more than unsettling; it was sickening, it was frightening, and I was just a young teenage girl trying to understand where on earth I had wound up.

I only wish that Joe Bageant had written Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War back then – it explains so much, and would have been my essential guidebook in navigating this strange and violent country.

Bageant describes himself as a working poor redneck. He left his hometown to study and work as a writer and editor, but returned years later to live. He found that in the decades he had been away, the people of his town had tumbled down the economic scale; the opportunities for which he had scrabbled (especially college) were now completely out of reach of his demographic. He also realised that this was the demographic which had propelled George W Bush to victory and would again, even although Republican policies had so corroded their community. Bageant goes on to investigate how and why this demographic supports the Republican party, and how the wealthy keeps it struggling – and keeps it Republican – in order to maintain a privileged lifestyle.

The result is that access to education, health care and a living wage are becoming the domain of the elite, and everyone else is being left behind. For many Americans, the only possible access to these once foundational aspects of the commonweal is through military service – what he describes as 'economic conscription' – and even then it rarely comes through.

Bageant suggests that this is a class war – and yet, he claims, most poor Americans are unable to interpret their situation in this light because they lack the insight and skills to reflect on their situation. Bageant is scathing about American education. Many do not finish high school, and even those that do often lack critical thinking skills. Something like one quarter of Americans are functionally illiterate: they may be able to read a sentence, but they cannot follow the thread of an idea through five paragraphs. Such a population is unable to critique their political leaders; for that matter, it is barely able to distinguish between political statements, news programs, entertainment and advertising.

The lack of critical skills is compounded by the brutality of life for the working poor. Wages are so low, and working conditions so insecure, that many work two jobs just to make ends meet; even so, one or two unforeseen medical bills can send a household spiralling into debt, even bankruptcy. In addition, in the competition for extra shifts or just to stay employed, the working poor are usually pitted against one another in their workplaces. In this climate, they lack the time, energy, education and culture to reflect on their situation, and from there to organise themselves and others into a movement for change.

He suggests, too, that the sedative powers of television and sport have rendered the population even more passive. The average American spends a third of his or her waking life in front of the box, where conservative agendas are rampant and a sound bite is valued more highly than a complex thought.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, and Bageant's book at times veers into places where I am not entirely comfortable. For example, I am not sure how intentional the subjugation of the working class has been, or whether it is a more incidental, if not unimportant, flow-on from an economic system which prioritises corporations over people. However, his insights dovetail so closely with my own observations that I find most of his claims very convincing.

And overall, the book is fascinating. As one who was born in a small poor town but went away for many years, Bageant writes about his people with a lively insider / outsider perspective. He uses rich and fruity language, telling many stories along the way, that make it a terrific read.

Deer Hunting was written before Obama was elected, yet my sense is that Bageant would be no less scathing about the current situation. After all, the problems that Bageant names are deep-rooted and require a complete restructure of society: a wresting away of power from corporations, and a revolutionary investment in education and healthcare. No modern politician appears to have the guts to challenge, really challenge, the corporate state, nor, for that matter, the grab for power by Christian fundamentalists.

I gather Bageant is not currently hopeful as, according to his blog, he has escaped the hellhole that is America and is living in Mexico where he lies around feeling depressed and drinking heavily, emerging only to post the occasional rant. As I am writing this at my local pub, listening to sad songs with a beer close at hand, I feel some sense of affinity.

*Of course, Australia's track record, particularly regarding our indigenous population, is not great either – but it certainly felt better to me back then!

> Joe Bageant Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (North Carlton, VIC: Scribe, 2007)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chocolate, no, make that pistachio

What Women Want Next

Even now, I still have no idea what I really want; I even struggle to pick a flavour of gelato. There are days when I love being married, and days when I long for solitude; days when I enjoy being home with my children, and days when it feels like a prison sentence; days when I know what to do, and days when I haven't a clue. Most weeks, I just do what needs to be done, and aim for a little reflection and gratitude. After all, by virtue of birth, education and marriage I have power, money and choices that would make most women in the world ecstatic; I suspect most of the frustrations I have about my life result from too much choice. The grass is always greener.

From this little muddle, I looked forward to reading Susan Maushart's book What Women Want Next. If I don't know what I want, does she?

Of course, Maushart's answer is not, and cannot be, straightforward. Despite the myriad opportunities available to them, Maushart points out that many women do not feel fulfilled – in fact, they tend to feel more guilty than anything. She goes on to draw from a wealth of sociological studies to investigate why, looking at work, parenting, homemaking, partnership and old age.

Maushart starts from the assumption that, post the revolution, life is what we make of it. For example, she argues, we can work if we so choose; any absence of women in the professional fields says more about how women make choices than about the options open to them. Maushart notes studies that show that many high-achieving women drop out, either to have children or to pursue more holistic lives; and as women have less of a tendency to grant work an all-encompassing role in their lives, their career paths are not limited by external factors, but are self-limiting.

In theory and in law, Maushart's initial assumption may be correct. In practice, however, many workplaces play out differently. More than one of my friends has been sidelined at work, explicitly told that they will probably have kids so the firm won't invest in their future. This is illegal, but it is difficult to prove or prosecute – and who wants to take on one's employer on such an issue? It just leaves one working in a hostile workplace, vulnerable to the next wave of redundancies. More subtly, the lack of job sharing or permanent part time positions at management levels means many women with children never advance far beyond entry level roles as they are committed to collecting their children from school and meeting other family responsibilities. I'm not convinced that our options are as open as Maushart states; many workplaces are structurally hostile to primary caregivers (and they're usually women) whether in overt or more subtle ways.

So I disagree with her initial assumption. Despite this, I do concede that we have significantly more choices than women of two generations ago, and I accept her claim that much of the responsibility for our happiness now rests on our choices.

This revolutionary freedom of choice is wonderful; yet Maushart suggests that it is perhaps an impediment to a sense of fulfilment. Like me, at home with kids for years now and wondering if I should instead be working, while many of my working friends no doubt wonder if they should spend more time at home with their kids, many of us find decision making difficult. With this in mind, Maushart suggests that one thing we want may be the wisdom to make our decisions well and the courage to live them out fully.

Maushart's investigation into what women want focuses on happiness. This raises a deeper question for me: is happiness so important? There are times at the gym when a great sense of wellbeing descends and I feel intensely happy, even although I am bored out of my skull. At other times, I may write something difficult and good, something that makes me weep or rage or both, that leaves me feel empty, fragile and vulnerable. I can't say writing it makes me happy, but it invests my life with meaning in a way that dumbbell flies never will. Of course, I keep going to the gym to get the endorphin kick – but I can get along without it. I'm not sure I could live without putting words on a page. I even wonder, feeling terribly subversive, if it's possible that happiness is just a teensy-weensy little bit er... boring?

Maushart doesn't investigate this, and although she does touch on our desire to infuse our lives with meaning, it's in light of its contribution to happiness. Yet I'm not convinced that a sense of meaning always contributes to a sense of happiness. Many people make meaningful life choices knowing they will be painful and difficult. Ministers of religion and artists are often cases in point; people holding fast to difficult relationships, another. I find myself wondering how important happiness really is, and whether other, deeper, values drive our lives.

However, I am a reasonably happy person (even if bored at the gym, driven crazy by my children, and forever consumed by doubt about my choices) so perhaps I underestimate the pall of an unhappy life, or the effect on overall wellbeing that meaning-making gives me. Then again, Maushart writes that dancing, exercise, volunteer work and religious participation are major indicators of happiness for a woman; I do three of them, so perhaps that accounts for my mostly even keel.

While I certainly don't agree with all of Maushart's conclusions, or even her premises, What Women Want Next is funny, feisty, informative, confessional and engaging. Maushart intersperses questions of women's liberation with stories of her daughter, age six, dressed in a bridal gown vacuuming the front hallway, and discussions about sex with jokes about blow jobs and notes on her own sex life; and she is never averse to a wry one-liner (a section on how to negotiate housework and relationships ends with, "Of course, I am single."). As I have come to expect from Maushart, What Women Want Next is a pleasure to read, and provides much food for thought, not least the revelation that sociology can be sexy!

> Susan Maushart What Women Want Next (Melbourne: Text, 2005).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The heroic Hausfrau

The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated

Years ago, when my six-year-old was not quite two, my husband stubbed his toe. Being a mild-mannered bloke, he shouted "ouch" and hopped around a little. And my angelic-looking daughter hopped beside him yelling, "Fuckit! Fuckit! Fuckit!". "That's an interesting word," he said, deadpan. "Who says that?". My disloyal daughter beamed at him and drawled, "Mama!".

Naturally, I was in disgrace – and since then, I have drastically cleaned up my act. But it's one of those stories that live on, told over dessert when the kids have gone to bed. It's also one of those stories that, even as it makes me laugh, embarrasses me somewhat, along with the time I stepped in a turd deposited by one of my children; the time I realised the baby had head lice nesting under the cradle cap; the time we all had worms, and so on.

So it was with enormous pleasure that I recently read Nicole Chaison's The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated. It's an autobiographical work recounting her experience as mother, shaped around the classic hero's tale. Chapters address A.D. (After Dilation), the LabOrinth, The Fourteen Labors of the Hausfrau, Tales, Atonement, Resurrection and so on. My favourite labour was 'Home Renovation, or How It Came to Be that I Sat in Cat Diarrhoea' – I laughed so hard I cried.

Chaison's labours feel all too familiar: cleaning maggots out of a car seat, dealing with head lice, accidentally letting kids see an R-rated movie and wincing as they practice the expletives, and realising one is tragically and forever unhip. She describes her self-medication regime – coffee all day, wine all evening – and writes openly about things many of us keep under wraps: she drinks too much, she had head lice, she screams at her husband when he suggests they get a cleaner, her libido has been MIA for years, PMS turns her into a psychotic bitch from hell, and her pelvic floor has never recovered from childbirth: whenever she coughs she wets herself. Chortling away, I read out great chunks to my husband, no doubt terribly annoying as he was reading the very sombre In Cold Blood at the time.

Yet it's not all fun and games. Chaison also reflects on the frustrations and humiliations of motherhood. She is humble enough to let her children teach her, such as whether an eight year old needs a note in his lunchbox saying I Love You!, and she writes achingly about the small crucifixions she experiences as she endures the cutting pain of self-knowledge. Small children, after all, are the masters of slicing through illusions and leaving us laid bare.

Like a true hero's journey, moving through the labours and stages reflects her journey to self-knowledge. Chaison comes to realise not only that she is a writer, but that she has already written a book: her journal, which forms the foundation of The Passion. And like any true hero, she has a guide: her beloved grandmother, Grammy Mil, who gives her three gifts: the journal, a quote, and a destination.

Each page of the book has a cartoon panel down the side. I am not a great fan of the current cartoon fad, and these are pretty rough. Despite this, I have to say that they add to the book; they embellish and extend the text. If you skip the cartoons, you miss the punch lines – and her husband's suggestions for a male parenting magazine which really made my partner laugh.

It's not often that a book makes me guffaw with laughter, or wipe away a heartfelt tear. But this one did. It's a book for people in the thick of it; adults without children would be appalled. Witty and confessional and outrageous and wry, it reminds me that I am not alone. Others live this messy life with kids, and also find it good.

> Nicole Chaison The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated (New York: Villard, 2009).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Think you ought to run the country?

The theologian Karl Barth advised Christians to carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That is all very well, but for years my city's two newspapers have vied to pack in the most celebrity gossip and I'm not sure that's what he meant. One cannot turn a page without being confronted with images from Fashion Week, or a quote from the latest vacuous stick insect who hasn't eaten a sandwich since 1993. For a while I told myself just to ignore those articles and concentrate on the real news. But like a dog fascinated by its own vomit, again and again I found myself reading celebrity drivel. I was fascinated and appalled at their doings, and horrified that their excesses and fad diets and inane comments ever made it into print, let alone into something calling itself a broadsheet.

Some years ago, we became so sick of the fluff and the paucity of other news that we cancelled the paper. We went online, but in between articles found ourselves being barraged by flashing ads featuring busty women and shiny cars (many on the website of what purports to be Melbourne's serious newspaper). So we soon gave up on that, too, and looked for another option. We took out a trial subscription to The Guardian Weekly (first four editions free!) and never looked back.

Having just worked my way through the eight editions that were delivered while we were away, I feel the need to rave. There is a whole world out there! Every edition has news and reviews from all over the world: Africa, Asia, South and Central America, Europe, as well as the more usual sources of news, the US and the Middle East. Although the paper has an understandably British bias, it features lengthy articles from areas often overlooked by slimmer papers. One recent edition alone included news from Bangladesh, the Congo, Costa Rica, Iceland and Finland. As well as more traditional news stories, the paper regularly reports on the myriad challenges facing the developing world.

The Guardian Weekly has reported on issues in Australia which barely made it into Australian papers, including a case which was placed under a super-injunction. I find it fascinating (and horrifying) that we initially heard about it in an overseas newspaper. The paper also broke the story of Trafigura's dumping of toxic waste on Ivory Coast, despite that case also being placed under a super-injunction and a related question from Parliamentary Question Time being suppressed. Although the paper was initially prevented from running the story, when details were released to Twitter and Wikileaks the cover blew off.

Its editorial stance is staunch left, somewhat progressive and deeply middle class. I find this comforting in a world where many press organs are far-right to the point of compromise. While I certainly do not hold with all its editorial opinions, the paper regularly challenges me to consider my own stance on an issue.

Each edition includes extracts from and reviews of up and coming books, plays, music, movies and exhibitions; reviews are often long and thoughtful.

On a lighter note, the paper is not above ending a piece with a small joke or wry comment, making it not only informative but a delight to read. The Diversions pages include the famous Notes and Queries, where readers pose and answer pressing questions such as 'Why does one scratch the side of one's head when one is confused?' and 'Why do men's and women's clothing button on opposite sides?', as well as a set of dastardly puzzles and word games. The cryptic crossword is always a killer.

I am one of those people who think I ought to run the country; at least, I have a jolly good idea of what the government should be doing, and isn't. Funnily enough, many years ago in Yes, Prime Minister, Jim Hacker observed that The Guardian is read by exactly those people; and it, or at least its international weekly digest, is certainly the paper for me. And best of all, apart from a few of the more publicity-seeking artists and their shows, celebrities don't get a look in.


From Yes, Prime Minister

Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it already is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Life in Abundance

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

I am an Australian wandering the world for a couple of months, chivvied out of my house by my travel-loving husband. A few weeks ago, in Glasgow, I found a tiny second hand bookshop in an alleyway off a nondescript side street. While my six- and three-year-olds chatted to the owner and played with the resident cats, I negotiated the poky aisles. It was one of those stores with books shelved to the ceiling, books stacked 30 high in front of the shelves, and books stacked 20 high in front of the stacks in front of the shelves. I spent most of the time saying 'excuse me' to the other customers as we squeezed past each other, arching over stacks and bending our bodies around one another like a literary form of twister.

The shop was intriguing. And in one teetering pile, a slim purple book caught my eye. I slid it out, opened it up, began to read, and immediately experienced that electrical jolt you get when you pick up the exact book you need, the book you know you will read time and again until you die.

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives), by Ted Kooser, is an account of daily life in rural Nebraska. It is not a linear telling, nor a story as such, but instead a collection of observations and memories grouped by season. I mean no disrespect when I say that it reads like an unusually beautiful blog, the posts lovingly crafted. Individually, each piece stands alone, whether a paragraph or three pages, and provides much to reflect on. Together, the pieces create an intimate portrait of place, person and community.

The notes are suffused with gentle humour and tinged with sadness. This is the writing of a man aware of his mortality and our frailty, who yet sees that life is good. He uses the stories of fields and families, small towns and tools, to create something strong and good. The writing drew me in so that I, too, smelled the wild plums in the hedgerow and saw the beer cans nestled in the undergrowth; lay in his son's tree house and listened to the breeze rustle the branches; sat on his outdoor toilet in the early morning watching the sunrise; experienced the theatre of a garage sale; sniffed the cloves from his mother's ancient can; and longed to see a fox. And I too felt frustration at the louts spraying herbicide, the school board which closes the schools and busses the kids for miles, the farmer who dumps insecticide into the water in his irrigation well. Kooser takes the reader on a ramble through his observations and memories such that, by the benediction – the only way to describe the final piece – I felt I had come to know him.

Local Wonders has taken its place on my mental shelf of all time favourites, along with works by Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Marilynne Robinson and Robert Farrar Capon – all writers who cherish the mundane. Like these authors, Kooser has written a book about the everyday, to read slowly and savour, to dip into again and again, to draw nourishment from.

My life's thesis is this: if we could learn to see and cherish the gifts of the daily – the sight of a spider web as we walk down the street, the thread of song that comes to mind as we wash dishes, a baby's smile – then we would have a means to counter the gnawing insatiable appetite for more which dominates our culture: more clothes, more food, more sex, more experience, more power, more money, more thrills. This book invites the reader to step back, take a breath, and look around. By reading such a book, and learning to paying attention to our own lives, we might discover a deep and joyful truth: that all of us have not only enough, but riches and life in abundance.

> Ted Kooser Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives) (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).