Thursday, December 29, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Many of you have, no doubt, read the extract from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that made so many people so hot under the collar. In it, Chua detailed what appeared to be her absolutely brutal methods for driving her children to technical excellence in school and music. Like so much we read in the newspaper, the extract was designed to polarise and it did so perfectly. It created an absolute furore, a wealth of free publicity which led to mega sales of the book. I certainly found Chua's article appalling; however, I recently sat down and read her book, wherein I discovered a more complex story.

Battle Hymn opens with Chua's claim that she, and all good Chinese (read: strict immigrant) mothers, know how to raise their children properly. They are dominant and controlling, and commit themselves utterly to driving their children to excellence. Growing up, Chua's two daughters had no play dates, no sleepovers, no school camps, no television, and no extracurricular activities except music. Thus they had plenty of time to work hard, get perfect grades, and master an instrument. Satisfaction, claims Chua, is to be found in mastery of something, and mastery doesn't come easily. So her daughters practiced their musical instruments for more than an hour every day, and three to five hours if a performance was looming; and when they were unwilling to rehearse Chua stood over them screaming, threatening to destroy their soft toys and even withholding food and water until they had completed their practice.

This is pretty much where the article stopped and, of course, it was ghastly. We were left with the picture of a psychotic mother brutally dominating her children as they attempted to master the instruments of her choice. This is not an entirely inaccurate impression, but it omits the good humour, the self-deprecating tone, and the way Chua's methods fell to pieces with her second daughter, which are all detailed in the book.

Daughter one, Sophia, was willing to get with the program. She went along with the rules and the practice, and calmly excelled at everything. Lulu, however, was different. Lulu just said no. The battles grew more and more heated until, despite her natural gifts, years of accomplishment and a love of playing, Lulu flat out refused to pick up the violin. The book details how mother and daughter interacted and how Chua eventually admitted defeat, allowing Lulu, at thirteen, to make some of her own choices about how to spend her time. Lulu now sets much of her own agenda and, shock horror, wastes time playing tennis.

Chua relates her ambitions and her methods as well as her rages at Lulu and where she went wrong, and freely admits the things they missed when both of them obstinately refused to give way. The girls continued to practice when travelling with the family; and there were times when the whole family missed one thing or another because Lulu refused to practice and Chua refused to leave the hotel until the practice had been completed. At one level, this is crazy; at another, I have some sympathy for Chua – unlike so many of us with our children, at least she stood her ground.

Battle Hymn is more than a parenting story, however. It is also the classic immigrant tale. The daughter of migrants, Chua had limited opportunities and was determined to be successful in a measurable way. Now that she has made good, Chua is absolutely determined that her own children will have every opportunity made available to them. Utterly predictably, her oldest child has taken up the mantle and excels, while the second child has adapted to the dominant culture and rebels against the strict cultural mores of her mother.

The book is also about family and Chua writes simply and well about her parents and their shift from China to America; the illness and death of Florence, Chua's mother-in-law; and the terrible leukaemia of Katrin, Chua's sister.

Overall, the book is candid, moving and very funny, and Chua has a nice self-deprecating tone. She is an odd mix of extremely sharp and charmingly naive, brutal and fragile, and I found myself loving to loathe her.

On a more personal level, Chua's book raises serious questions for me as a parent. While I will never be the sort of mother who will stand over her children for hours of music practice or drive them all over creation to see particular teachers, I often wonder whether I don't demand enough from or for them. I'm not sure how to balance the needs of childhood – for play, daydreaming and exploration, which my kids excel at – with the fact that they don't seem to be learning as much as I would hope.

At home, my husband and I have focussed on relational demands: respect, obedience, graciousness and kindness; but I wonder if we should be demanding more intellectually. One of our daughters is constantly bored at school; the school fails to stretch her academically. A parent like Chua would be in there, devising curricula and making it happen, while I sit at home, fretting and naively trusting that the school will actually do what it promises. I don't want to compensate for the school's lack by filling my daughter's hours at home with academic challenges – surely that is what the hours at school are for – but I am afraid of her becoming lazy and stupid just through sheer lack of exercising her thinking muscles.

And yet, like most concerns I have for my children, these issues are really about me. Chua writes that letting most kids follow their passion leads to ten hours a day on Facebook as they lack the discipline to become really good at what they love; they need parents to provide the drive. In fact, she goes on, most people really suck at what they love because they are too lazy to practice enough to become good.

Her comment stings. I was bored out of my skull for most of my schooling and doodled around at home, and now I'm an adult who is often not quite sure what I'm doing or why. Were I slightly different or had I more drive, I would have written books or be working on a newspaper or doing something else professional rather than sweeping the floor, wiping snotty noses and making notes on a blog from time to time. In Chua's eyes, I am certainly an underachiever, but I don't know where her drive comes from or how to get it.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that people with great drive are always settled in themselves, or even kind. And there's the nub – what is success? Chua is very focused on measurable success: learning things quickly; being top of the class; earning the praise of well-regarded people; having a prestigious career at a famous institution. But the kind of success Chua dreams of often comes at great cost. Chua's daughters had a nanny (Mandarin speaking so that they would grow up bilingual, of course); and Chua details the many years that she and the girls lived in one city and her husband in another as their careers took them in different geographical directions. Meanwhile, Chua spent her girls' childhoods racing from work to school to home to music lessons and back to work again, desperate to fill every minute with useful activity, which is the sort of behaviour I associate with a certain emptiness in oneself. I can't imagine running on that sort of treadmill, or paying that sort of price, to gain the conventional markers of success. What is life if it is not about raising one's own infants, or spending evenings with one's own husband, or just sitting listening to the silence?

As for the hours her daughters spent practicing their instruments when others would be throwing snowballs or hanging out with their girlfriends – it's hard to know what really matters in this life. It might be rather thrilling to be a musical virtuoso; it might be rather satisfying to be sought after by prestigious institutions; but then again, I have had most of my life-giving experiences when I'm just doing nothing. Reading Chua's book raises the all-important question, what does it mean to live life to the fullest? Is it to cram every moment full of work and family, or is there more? Battle Hymn doesn't claim to answer these questions; in fact, it ends with these questions, and the answers, of course, differ from person to person and shift and change for an individual over time.

As for my parenting style, I can't dismiss Chua's methods all-out. I know far too many kids who seem to spend their lives in front of a screen, and have so little real attention paid to their gifts, interests and development that it is hard to imagine them growing into anything much other than consumers. There is merit in a strict, disciplined and intentional upbringing; and it is great for kids to become so good at something that they are brimming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Chua tells a story in which she tore up the birthday cards her daughters had made her. They had been slapped together in five minutes, and she rejected the lack of care they had put into the cards, demanding more from her daughters. The bloggerati was horrified, yet I think Chua was right. We constantly praise our kids for drivel, but it hardly encourages them to stretch out and discover what they are capable of; instead, it tells them that a lazy mediocrity is just fine. And perhaps such a mediocrity is enough in a society in which a major university has plastered billboards with slogans of 'Relax' and 'It's all good' – but it hardly encourages excellence.

As a parent myself of daughters who sometimes make beautiful things and other times churn out horrible slop, I found myself cheering Chua – and when the next piece of crap came my way, I gently raised an eyebrow. I asked whether it was really the best my kid could do, and talked about how presentation and effort communicate a great deal about love and care or lack thereof. I didn't yell and tear the piece up, but it disappeared and something decent took its place.

Chua's methods and goals are extreme; but if they give our parenting a nudge, so that we kindly and gently ask our children to do a little better, then we might just be surprised at what our kids are capable of; and our kids might have the privilege, too, of being delighted by their own strengths and abilities.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent List 2011

Preparations for Christmas are upon us. Sadly, most preparation rituals do not seem to have much to do with the coming of a bearded prophet who recalled to us the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. Instead, we are bombarded with tinny carols, silly plastic evergreen wreaths strung from the light poles as the Australian summer begins to sizzle, and exhortations to buy buy buy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about developing some small non-commercial rituals for Christmas with my kids; and, as I am story crazy, they of course involved a pile of picture books. So then I put together a list of some of the books we will read during the four weeks leading up to Christmas; you can read the list here.

However, many of the books on the list are out of print and hard to get. Meanwhile, since then I have found lots more wonderful stories, so I have drawn up a new list, adding the new stories and letting go of some of the old.

These are not Santa stories. Nor are most of them explicitly Christmassy, let alone Christian. Instead, they are stories which honour and celebrate hope, joy, generosity, gratitude, sacrifice, community and love. In particular, several focus on welcoming the stranger into our midst, which has always been a central calling to both Jewish and Christian peoples and would seem particularly appropriate as some of us, at least, prepare to welcome in the form of a baby the most strange and wonderful human the world has ever seen – and a refugee, to boot.


In the Small, Small Night

So let’s start with that. Jane Kurtz has written a lovely book about immigrant children, In the Small, Small Night. Kofi and Abena have recently arrived in America, but Kofi is so worried that he will forget his family in Ghana that he cannot fall asleep. So his sister Abena, recalling the village storyteller so far away, recounts two traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. As Kofi listens to the stories, he 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. What is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in the stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

The Arrival

Sean Tan’s The Arrival charts the journey of another immigrant. This book without words is for all ages, as the story is told through hundreds of eerie sepia-toned illustrations. The Arrival will raise all sorts of questions about why people flee and resettle, questions which may be extended to the Advent stories or to the refugees in our midst.

Nail Soup

Nail Soup is a retelling of a traditional folk tale which reminds us to welcome in the stranger. 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 share, demonstrating that a little hospitality leads to a rich bounty for all.

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde

Welcoming in the refugee and the traveller is all well and good, but we are also to care for the poor in our midst. In The Happy Prince, Jane Ray retells Oscar Wilde's tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has – its ruby eyes, its gold leaf – to the city’s poor via an obliging swallow. Ray’s richly detailed illustrations add greatly to the story.

The Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quiltmaker's Gift is similarly themed, as a fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable king yearns for the one thing he cannot have: a patchwork quilt from the famed quiltmaker, who gives her quilts only to the poor. The quiltmaker tells the king that she will only make him a quilt once he has given everything away, and he gradually learns that joy is found not in material objects, but in self-sacrifice and caring for others. The detailed illustrations, which include dozens of quilt squares themed to the story, are absorbing.

The Mousehole Cat

Thinking of self-sacrifice recalls The Mousehole Cat, a tale from Cornwall. When winter storms close the harbour and bring a Cornish fishing village to the brink of starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser find a way out and brave the wind and the waves to catch fish for the town, knowing that there is a good chance that they will never return.

Amelia Ellicott's Garden

Old Tom reasons that there is nobody left to grieve for him; it frees him to risk his life to feed others. In Amelia Ellicott's Garden, a more passive older person feels abandoned by Time. Amelia struggles to maintain her beautiful garden and longingly remembers when she had people to share it with. It is not until a great windstorm blows her garden, her chickens and even Amelia over the fence that she discovers the host of neighbours – from all over the world – living in the flats next door who long to share the garden, and their lives, with her.

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten

Getting to know one’s neighbour, the first step to love, also features in Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten. In this lovely book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and her fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a good neighbour, too. He lives next door to an old people’s home and 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.

Hop Little Hare

Margaret Wild’s Hop Little Hare is a simple story, also showing the love between the generations. It is not until Little Hare spies sheep nibbling at a curative boffle bush, which will ease his grandfather’s rheumatism, that he feels sufficiently motivated to hop!

Now One Foot, Now the Other

A more complex gift giving between young and old features in the classic, Now One Foot, Now the Other. 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.

Love You Forever

Love handed down between the generations is also found in Love You Forever, by Robert Munch, which he wrote in homage to his two children who were stillborn. In this story, a mother sings a special song to her son as he moves through the life stages; and as she ages and nears the end of her life, her son takes up the mantle and begins to sing it to his daughter.

A Child's Garden

Of course, we are called to love not just our family, our neighbour, the poor, the traveller, or the refugee; we are called to love our enemy, too. A Child's Garden tells of hope in oppressive circumstances. A boy tends a vine which throws out seeds on either side of a high barbed wire fence; the next season, vines grow on both sides of the fence and intertwine, symbolising hope for a future peace.

For All Creatures

The story of the vine recalls, too, that we are to love the earth and everything in it. For All Creatures uses gliding alliterative language to describe and celebrate all manner of things that creep and crawl, run and jump, slither and slide upon the earth. ‘For spirals, shells and slowness, smallness and shyness, and for scribbled silver secrets, we are thankful.’

Owl Moon

This celebration of the natural world is also seen in Owl Moon, in which a young girl goes out late one night with her father to see an owl. Owl Moon is a hauntingly beautiful children’s book, drenched in awe. A good book to read quietly late at night, just before bedtime.


In Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, like so many of her books, we are shown one way to be partners in the creation: and outside our very own back window! Like The Arrival, it is told entirely in pictures, making it a book that people of all abilities can pore over.

The Nativity

Let’s finish with two books about Christmas. The first is a lively rendition of The Nativity by Julie Vivas. Drawing from the gospel writer Luke’s account, she illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; the naked newborn, hands outstretched, is still attached to the umbilical cord; 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 and real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, rather than a skinny medieval nymph.

Wombat Divine

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. At last, Emu finds him the perfect role and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Zoo in You

“Years ago, I decided to pay attention to God’s feathered friends as one metaphor for God’s presence, and in doing so, I have discovered this: that the Holy Spirit is heard in the kookaburra, who laughs at our pretensions and wrestles with the snake;... she’s found in the white-faced heron on our neighbour’s roof; she’s recalled by little finches at my grandfather’s funeral. When I'm soulsick and sinking, she calls out my name; of Cornish ancestry, I hear her in the language of my heart, which leaps at the crying of the gulls.”

Yep, another piece is being published, this time in The Zoo in You, a book exploring the animal imagery of faith. If you can cope with a bit of God in your reading, you should love this book. Each reflection is grouped with a prayer and a poem by Cameron Semmens, and is illustrated by Hamish McWilliam. My reflection can be found in Hope with a Cockatiel.

The Zoo in You is now available for pre-order for $19.95 plus postage here. Orders will be shipped from 2 December, and should arrive in good time for Christmas.

If the God stuff's not your thing, no matter – just wait 'til the next book!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

'Hi, I'm Fred.' Really? Well, I'm Alison, and I have a wicked temper and slightly depressive tendencies; I'm allergic to this, that and the other; and I have a weird and pathological fear of looking beautiful, thus the extremely short hair, the lack of makeup and jewellery, and a wardrobe almost completely devoid of skirts.

Fred is edging towards the exit by now, as well he should be: such an opening is hardly the path to a little light conversation, let alone the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. And yet it is common. I certainly have been guilty at times of identifying myself primarily by my weaknesses: Little Miss Asthma, Lady Mother Dying, The Homesick Chick. But now I prefer my primary identification to be something other than my neediness, so I prefer my vulnerabilities to be largely invisible in social contexts. I prefer it to be mostly invisible in others, too.

One thing I like to be invisible about is allergies (except, obviously, in this post). Before we talk more, we need to clean up what allergies are. The word 'allergy' is often used carelessly; I hear people say that are allergic to wheat, meaning that they get a bit windy when they eat a sandwich. What they suffer is an intolerance; this is not the same as an allergy.

Bundling allergies in with intolerances risks linking them with food fads and Hollywood diets; and this, I reckon, is part of what leads people to think that allergies are kind of funny, certainly annoying, even imaginary. Yet if people don't take them seriously, and then have anything to do with the food we eat, people with allergies get more than a bit of wind; they get a full blown reaction as their immune system goes berserk trying to rid their body of the allergen. I'm allergic to a few things, and by allergic I mean that I react to eating them by wheezing, vomiting, and, occasionally, going into anaphylactic shock.

Of course, trying to act nonchalant as a young teenager when everyone else is stuffing their face with prawn crackers – and I grew up with a crowd of south east Asians – is not easy. I have vivid memories of eating those crackers in full knowledge that they would make me sick, but hoping so much that this time it would be okay. I just wanted to fit in, but of course the dry mouth, thick tongue, itchy throat and major stomach cramps hardly helped with that little project.

As a young adult, one birthday was particularly memorable: someone bought me a Drambuie, a hitherto untried drink. I took one sip, and felt that telltale tickle – the beginnings of anaphylaxis – at the back of my throat. But I didn't want to mention it, or be rude. So I took another sip and, of course, immediately started hawking and coughing and spluttering as my throat closed up and I could no longer breathe. Not cool, Alison.

Many allergy sufferers could tell similar stories of risking their health if not their life for the sake of trying to appear normal; and I am sure many allergy sufferers would have made the same decision as me time and again, of not using or even carrying the dreaded EpiPen and risking the hubbub, the nausea and the trip to the emergency room that follows. Instead we try to flush out our systems with water and Benadryl, and hope for the best.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and interest that I picked up Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, a memoir about living with allergies. I was afraid it might be an annoying whingeathon by someone who identifies herself primarily as 'Allergy Girl', but I was pleasantly surprised.

Sandra Beasley is allergic to many things, making it very difficult to navigate eating out in any context in a culture where eating out is the norm. But to my great relief she opens with the statement that "those with food allergies aren't victims. We're people who – for better or worse – experience the world in a slightly different way", and that attitude carries, more or less, through the book.

Beasley mixes up personal anecdote with social observations and a great deal of information. I learned how the body forms an allergic reaction; why a friend's son had a second, stronger, reaction to peanut oil hours after his first reaction; why the American food landscape is so infested by soy; how food labelling laws are the result of allergy lobbyists; and what it's like to be an allergic mother to children who are allergic to different things. She dispels some of the myths surrounding the current explosion in allergies, and uses her experience as an entry point to explore many aspects of American food culture. Much of what she says is interesting, and she is up front with how her personal agenda is sometimes rattled by what she learns.

Beasley asks some particularly good questions about ritual, especially communion. Communion is the high point of the Christian religious service and involves, in one way or another, the sharing of bread and wine. At my church, we have wine and water available (the latter for those who are allergic to grapes and for recovering alcoholics); and wheat bread with a rye embellishment (the rye is for those who are allergic to wheat). Many congregations have similar practices. But some, notably those Catholics who follow the explicit directives issued by Ratzinger, are forbidden from using any alternative to the Papal-sanctioned wheaten wafers, thus excluding many congregants from communion.

She is not a churchgoer, but she raises important questions about the nature and purpose of ritual, asking "Is it inclusiveness that makes rituals valuable? Or is it maintaining the ritual's integrity that matters, even if that leaves someone out?" She writes about being the child who never got a birthday cupcake when they were handed out at school, and being the young adult who could never accept a slice of wedding cake, or shake hands with or kiss anyone who had, and how painful those exclusions were.

In the same way, it is intensely painful for Christians to be excluded from communion, and Beasley's observations on communion and church policies are helpful for the general reader. (I will add that it is clear to me if not the Holy Father that, since the greatest commandment is to love, what the communion wafers are made of doesn't matter one iota; what matters is welcoming people in.)

She also asks good questions about the current hysteria surrounding keeping children safe. Is it really necessary, she asks, for entire schools to go nut free? Surely children must learn to manage their food allergies and use a little common sense. She cites idiotic news stories, such as the evacuation of a school bus because a peanut was rolling around on the floor (apparently a threat, even though no one was planning to pick it up and eat it), and asks whether it really takes a whole village to protect a child from a peanut.

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is sensible, thought provoking, and also darkly funny in its tales of anaphylaxis at the most inconvenient times. One thinks of people with allergies as being so terribly, terribly earnest, but Beasley has a refreshingly self-mocking stance.

The book wobbles a little as it navigates between personal anecdote and more general information – I would have preferred the information to be less bound up in Beasley's personal experience – but overall it is a good read. What I found especially valuable was the normalisation of my experience: stories of anaphylaxis and its aftermath; and stories of not managing one's allergies well because of peer pressure and the desire to join in.

More than anything, however, I valued Beasley's stance that our weaknesses – whether allergies or, and I'm extrapolating here, other health and wellbeing problems – are only one part of our lives, and they are far from the most interesting part; nor do they warrant special attention. They need be mentioned only when necessary and can otherwise stay in the background. Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is a call to understand the particular problem of allergies, then move on.

As Beasley writes, "Not every page is meant to tell your story. You are not the focal point of every canvas. This town is busy... My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe. We have more important things to worry about. Don't kill the birthday girl. The gifts are wrapped and the piƱata waiting. We have a party to get to." Hear, hear.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing Avoidance Techniques, or What I thought about last Thursday

In Bed with the Boss (Mills & Boon Special Releases)

Did you know there is an entire Medical Romance series within the Mills & Boone cadre? I have stopped drinking for a few months, and since I feel like an idiot sitting for hours in my usual writing space – a bar – with only a mineral water to justify my presence, I have had to resort to the local library. And in our busy library full of chatty people, the quietest corner is tucked into the romance section.

I must admit that Doctor Delicious, a large print medical M&B romance, caught my eye. So did The French Doctor's Midwife Bride, an elliptical title that leaves me longing to know more. The Surgeon's Pregnancy Surprise was surprising, indeed, for who if not a doctor knows how babies are made – but then, I suppose we all forget things from time to time.

Up until now I have been fairly happy as a WOLGER*, and indeed the house is being painted and the plumber has just fixed our hot water service. Looking at these titles, however, makes me wonder if I am missing something?

Would I have more fun as The Sheik's Blackmailed Mistress or as The Sheik's Wayward Wife? Or would the desert sand irritate my buttocks? Perhaps being At the Greek Tycoon's Bidding might be more comfortable; a yacht with clean linen sounds nice.

I'm probably too leathery to pass as The Millionaire Tycoon's English Rose, but I might enjoy being Pleasured in the Billionaire's Bed or, more submissively, Bedded at the Billionaire's Convenience. Yet the latter title has an off-putting lack of alliteration; Bedded at the Billionaire's Behest would have worked better for me.

It's certainly a bit late to be The Desert King's Virgin Bride; to be honest, I'd have to say that I'm more The Lusty Lawyer's Lovely Lay type.

But wait! It seems I have lived a M&B romance. For on spinning the rack I see The Boss and His Secretary, nestled right next to Accepting the Boss's Proposal. And many years ago, I did.

Though come to think of it, I proposed to him. I'll have to write my own book. How does The Secretary's Saucy Suggestion sound?

*Wife of lawyer getting excited about renovations.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zero History, and other style notes

Zero History

I am lolling on the couch in my favourite denim, a heavy right hand twill, but not, I'm afraid, selvedge. Nor is it slubby, unlike my partner's long sleeve t-shirt, an irresistibly slubby item.

I know all about slubby thanks to William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, which has as its major (ahem) thread the search for the maker of a secret brand of jeans, Gabriel Hounds – and no doubt like every other slightly obsessive William Gibson fan, I now find myself googling slubby denim and wondering where I can get me a pair of those mythical Hounds.

Which is fascinating. I am not one of those women who usually spends a great deal of time thinking about clothes. I have my uniform – black or blue jeans; black or blue scoop neck top with or without subtle horizontal stripes; grey or blue jacket; coordinating scarves and sleevies for chillier days – which I almost always wear. These clothes are rarely from the high street or the mall; instead, I buy them second hand, fair trade, or from local makers. I'm hardly the stereotypical fashionista.

Yet I do have fantastically strong opinions about what I will and will not wear. I hate it when clothes fall apart or stretch out of shape; and I loathe the way garment makers are so often treated as slave labour, rather than as skilled workers. Too, I must admit that when my clothes are well made and suit me, I feel good; and when they aren't and don't, I feel self-effacing and grumpy.

So I spend time searching out clothes that are sturdy and timeless; and when I can't find or afford them – which is usually – I look for quality second hand. Then, of course, I often give up and head to the mall; but I dream of finding clothes which are made to last.

In his magnificent book Local Wonders, Ted Kooser writes about the experience of putting on a shirt his mother made for him when he was 14. Sixty years later, it still fits and still has wear in it, unimaginable to this child of the throwaway generation. It is, however, imaginable to the maker of Hounds, who is fascinated by the clothes that once were commonplace in America: 20 oz selvedge denim, and shirts and jackets so sturdy that they endured for decades; these are the clothes she is re-inventing.

Zero History is about the power of this secret brand, which has as its only advertisement the quality of each garment. It is also about the hunger of an advertising agency to find the genius behind such a simple yet powerful marketing tool; and the way even this brand is taken on board, in the end, by the fashion mavens. Concurrent themes include the way US military style has so deeply informed street wear; the phenomenon of pop up shops; and the cross over between the worlds of music, art and fashion. Just to keep it all ticking along, there are also eccentric private hotels, a few high speed chases, corruption in high places, and a performance art skydiver.

William Gibson's last three novels have investigated in one way or another the influence of branding on our lives and the infiltration of the military on general society, and while Zero History is perhaps not quite up to Pattern Recognition, the first of the three, it is still a thought provoking read and a terrific romp.

I must say, too, that it gave me quite a fillip when one of the characters revealed that he had bought his Hounds at the Rose Street Market in Fitzroy; I have bought a heap of clothing, bags and notebooks there over the years. Nice to know that one of my locals gets a mention in a novel set in London, although it gave me a jolt to realise I may be very slightly cooler than I thought.

On another fashion note, I had a weird moment this week. Having just read Zero History, I was trying to work out why some outfits make me feel terrific a la Hounds and others make me slope around. I was thinking, too, about how I almost always wear the uniform mentioned above, and so I found myself flipping through Secrets of Style at my cousin's house, To my astonishment, I discovered that the editors of In Style magazine think a uniform is good, and that it is better to have a few quality items in one's wardrobe than a mountain of ordinary clothes. They also recommend buying up big when an item suits one well, and I puffed up in pride at the thought of my three identical t-shirts and three identical black singlets sitting in the wardrobe.

The main difference between their wardrobe and mine appears to be sticky fingers and budget. Thus I wear not cashmere turtlenecks, but wool; not tailored pants, but denim; and not low heels, but amusing flat shoes. But it was an odd moment when I realised the editors of a style magazine were on the same track as William Gibson and his imaginary maker of Hounds, and me.

It was especially surprising given the astonishing waste of an industry which has as its focus the generation of desire, which leads to our insatiable and destructive hunger for the new. But once I recovered from my astonishment, and my general embarrassment at reading a style guide, I must admit Secrets of Style was very helpful, not least for giving me permission to stick to my grey, black and blue wardrobe of things which are not particularly fashionable. It was full of good tips, too, on which cuts suit which features, and what to look for when buying clothes (fabric, shape, length, stitching, seam width, and more).

Spring is here, and if you're like me you'll have just discovered you have about three things to wear. My modest tips, diffidently proffered given the lamentable state of my own wardrobe, are to read Zero History and have a think about fashion (anyway, it's great fun); flick through the style guide, which will help you send all the clothes that make you feel awful to the op shop, and understand which clothes may suit you; scroll through the ethical shopping guide I put together here; then forgive yourself for anything you have to buy new from a sweatshop reliant chain store. Just buy the best quality you can afford, so you only have to buy it once.

And look out for something slubby.

The New Secrets of Style: The Complete Guide to Dressing Your Best Every Day Pattern Recognition Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

This piece appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 111 (Winter 2011). The Spring edition is out now, with my reflection on praying into the night.


Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

Every Friday, I spend a few hours reading with kids at a local school. I listen to each child read their reader, and then I offer them a choice: they can go back to the classroom activity, or they can have a story read to them, which they choose from the books I bring in. Mostly, they want to listen to a story; and mostly, they choose a little book by Robert Munsch, called Mortimer.

Mortimer can’t sleep, so instead he sings loudly (‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’) and drives his family crazy. Person after person comes upstairs to tell Mortimer to be quiet, but as soon as they reach the bottom of the stairs he starts singing again. Eventually, the family becomes so agitated that they start yelling at each other; and while Mortimer waits for someone else to come up, he falls fast asleep.

As you can imagine, it is a very loud book. I have to sing Mortimer’s song four times; and mimic the sound of lots of people coming upstairs and shouting at him; and evoke the noise of Mortimer’s mother and father and seventeen brothers and sisters and even the police yelling downstairs – this book is a riot.

Meanwhile the listening child sits, spellbound; sings Mortimer’s song along with me; and almost invariably gets the giggles.

I read Mortimer aloud fifteen to twenty times each week; and at times I find myself wanting to rush. They’ve all heard it before, many times. There are very few volunteers and lots of kids, and I would like to read with every child every week – but I can’t. I find myself thinking that if we hurry this story or read less of the reader or maybe even give up reading stories but focus on the readers instead, then I’ll get to one more, and one more, and one more, child.

Yet the whole point is to give these kids, mostly refugees with very few books at home, the opportunity to wallow in stories just as my own children have wallowed. We can’t do that in a rush.

So I work hard to breathe deep; to sit on the class list so it doesn’t catch my eye; to read fast when the story begs to be read fast; to read slow when the story begs to be drawn out; to make room for quiet spaces and expectant pauses; and to look at the face of each child and etch it onto my heart.

One Friday, I was reading Mortimer for perhaps the seventeenth time, as always achingly aware of the kids I wouldn’t get to and wrestling with the impulse to race. I glanced at Mohammed, listening with rapt attention, and I suddenly realised that we were on God’s time.

Between two words, I dropped into that great yawning space, that vast universe where there is more than enough time for love however long it takes; and in this spinning dizzying sense of the infinite I was surrounded by a great rumble of belly laughter, a deep chuckling, love wiping its eyes in hilarity at the story of Mortimer and at all the little boys and girls who drive their parents crazy, and at all the crazy adults who think that love can be scheduled or rushed.

And then I was back at school, where I found myself sitting on the carpet singing ‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’ and beside me Mohammed was now singing, his face aglow, and I started to hoot and he got the giggles and a classmate joined in and another picked up the thread of song, and surrounding us all were the floating filaments, the echoes of heavenly laughter.

(The boy’s name has been changed. Robert Munsch has a fantastic website where you can look at his books and listen to stories; Mortimer is here.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011



What if a society were deeply aware of the sacred? How then would they live? How would they make decisions, how would they tend their households, how would they wield power?

It is difficult for us to imagine, for our society has almost wholly obliterated the recognition of the numinous, or the spiritual, from everyday life. Even those of us who work very hard to recognise the holiness of life often have to research and work on our own rituals and awareness, and must consciously remind ourselves over and over again to approach life as a sacred experience if our approach is not to fade away. It is not a common understanding of the nature of being; instead, it is something that a few of us struggle to do, largely without shared rites or rituals, and largely alone.

Yet this is a blip in human history. Most societies never separated the numinous from the everyday; they were one and the same, and life wasn't possible without the acknowledgement of the sacred. But without reading an anthropological text, it is difficult for us to get a feel for what such an approach to life feels like.

As an Anglo-Australian, this is a particular problem. As I understand it, the indigenous societies that modern Australia has swallowed up understood for the most part how to switch between the now and spiritual time, seeing life as a great confluence of daily and mythic existence. It is one of the great shames of modern Australia that we have not learned from the elders how to approach the land, the people and indeed all existence with a sacramental awareness; instead, we are more likely to learn about it from European sources.

As indeed, here. In her recent novel Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin has captured such a society. The story is set among the highly religious ancient Latins, well before the founding of Rome, and is the shadow side of The Aeneid: Lavinia is Aeneas's third wife, mentioned only briefly in Vergil's great poem and never given voice – until now.

Le Guin has imagined a full life for Lavinia, before, during and after her marriage to Aeneas. She is the daughter of the king of the Latins, and as such manages the king's household, both practically and in religious observances. She doesn't just go through the motions, however; Le Guin has depicted a highly pious creature who understands that she must do the right thing no matter its cost. Of marriageable age, she consults her family oracle, and while in the sacred place learns that she must marry a foreigner; other omens show that she will found a great city, although in doing so, she brings war to her people.

As a woman who understands that the pious person has no choice but to do what is right, she holds out against a host of suitors and her mother's demands until Aeneas the Trojan arrives.

Le Guin writes convincingly about a woman who knows the meaning of awe. Lavinia lives in constant awareness of the holiness of everyday life. All aspects of life are ordained with rites and rituals, observances to the powers which make life possible. Lavinia tends the hearth, the sacred fire; gathers salt from the father river Tiber; keeps the storehouses according to religious ritual; and understands that everything – from trees to field boundaries, from salt to spelt, from war to peace, from agriculture to every domestic act, are part of the great and sacred web of life.

Le Guin writes masterfully, too, of Lavinia's mountaintop experiences in the woods. Rituals at the site of the family oracle are both precise and mundane: prayers, a sacrifice, silence, and sleep. Much of the strength lies in what Le Guin chooses to leave out. There is awe; that is enough.

The reader is drawn into these experiences so that one emerges thinking, Why don't we give thanks for our store cupboards? Why don't we give thanks every time we are warmed by fire or given a cup of water or wine? Why don't we notice the spirits of the trees, the boundaries of woods and fields, the presence of our forefathers – and what sort of society would we be if we held all acts to be holy?


Like all Le Guin's books, Lavinia is not necessarily easy to finish. It doesn't charge towards a great heroic denouement, but this is deliberate. Many years ago the author put together a brilliant collection of essays in which she explained that she was trying to write as a woman, despite having learned to read and write in a man's world, particularly in the academy.

How, Le Guin wondered, does one write of the daily grinding of meal, the kids playing in the river, the sun coming up, the sun going down; how does one write without a hero dominating the narrative arc; how, perhaps, does one even dispense with the narrative arc altogether? It is a challenge she has set herself over decades; and in Lavinia, despite largely following the last six books of The Aeneid, she has shown herself up to the challenge.

Lavinia is a woman's narrative. It is not a story about getting married, although that is part of it. Nor does it end with any of the standard items: death, or babies, or a return home, although they are also part of it. Instead, Le Guin has charted a woman's life through the domestic tasks and religious observances that shape a woman's life. Large events still happen, of course, but they are seen through a woman's eyes: the competing of suitors, and how the silent king's daughter perceives their striving; the coming of war, and how a king's daughter observes the action from a high tower and tends the wounded. Yet the cleaning out of the store cupboards at the appointed time with the right prayers is as important to her as anything else, for without the blessings of the household powers, found in cupboards, meal, salt, and fire, all life would grind to a halt.

For readers who have grown up with the classic heroic narrative and its surging towards a great denouement, such an approach can make Le Guin's books difficult to finish. What, after all, is the point of reading a few more pages of how life goes on? And yet this is how life is for many of us: no great rush towards glory, just a steady keeping on keeping on. Le Guin writes beautifully of that keeping on as Lavinia matures from an intelligent young woman in full bloom, through the wisdom and power of middle age, into the dreaming of late old age. She finishes on a breathtaking vision of past and future woven together.

Lavinia is a stunning book, thought provoking, gracious, and graceful. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Composing a Life

Composing a Life

I was sitting at one end of the kitchen table reading Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, which investigates how women trace threads of meaning through their frequently interrupted lives. In one of those weird art-meets-life moments, I was halfway through the chapter which looks at how a woman is always mummy when the kids are sick, no matter her employment, and must drop what she is doing to attend, when my two year old, sitting at the other end of the table, announced that she had inserted a bead up her nose.

You can tell this is my third child, because instead of screaming and calling emergency services, I calmly inserted a bookmark, put my book down, and sent for my fabulous neighbour, a retired nurse. We then spent 45 minutes on my kitchen floor with a torch, a rolled up towel to prop my kid's head back, white pepper to induce sneezing, a lubricated straw to create suction, and – don't try this at home – a 100 year old crochet hook to flick the bead out the last millimetre. Then my lovely neighbour went back across the road, cheerful as ever; I threw together dinner; and life went on. So much for reading.

But after the kids were in bed, I went back to the book (in fact, I retrieved it from the shelf above the bin where my husband had placed it in superstitious horror when I had recounted to him the synchronicity of the book and the bead); and I finished it.

Composing a Life should be most thought-provoking. It addresses how women find meaning in the midst of lives constantly interrupted and redirected by the demands of relationship change, career shifts and children. Bateson's premise is that, for all the apparent discontinuities – a move for a spouse's employment, long term leave to raise children, a time of rediscovery and retraining – there are threads of continuity that can be traced through all the elements of one's life, and it is in these threads that we find meaning.

She argues, too, that this way of understanding our lives, which has historically been a woman's skill as it is women who usually adapt or put things on hold when family circumstances change, is helpful for men, too, now that the single career trajectory is all but extinct.

The premise is good, but the rest of the book is a disappointment. Bateson has crafted her book around the stories of five women; herself, and four friends. They are all professionals, and the book has an incredible aura of privilege. Bateson is not writing about ordinary people's lives here. These extraordinary women profiled are all upper middle class with enviable careers, yet Bateson writes as if their levels of achievement are unremarkable. One is a college president; one is a high-achieving medico; one is a brilliant engineer and technofreak with business nous; one is a writer and pioneering academic; and one is a working artist.

The author explicitly protests (too much?) that they are not superwomen, but if they are not, then I don't know who is. None of them has just a job. Instead, each of them has a profession which is their consuming passion; Bateson herself apparently thinks nothing of working a ten or twelve hour day even with a young child at home. These women are also all wealthy, whether by birth or by professional remuneration; if nothing else, most of them maintain, or have maintained, two residences. For example, when Bateson needs to write she moves to a separate apartment for several months, away from the distractions of husband and daughter. It is very hard to relate this existence to my world!

Of these lives, Bateson writes that they (we) can't have it all. Yet these women maintain significant relationships, successful careers, solid incomes, incredible social freedoms and all but one have children. It may not be French champagne and caviar every evening, but it is certainly far more than most people in this world. This seeming unawareness of their quality of life grates, especially in a book which spends a great deal of time investigating one woman's work with the homeless.

We may not be able to have it all (hah!); but we can, according to Bateson, have more. She argues that just as more sex rarely exhausts one's sexual drive, but instead leads to even more sex, so too more work which is creative and satisfying leads not to exhaustion, but to even more productivity. That, apparently, is how her subjects have all done so much. Sex and hard work.

At some level, this has been my experience, too. I had sex; I got pregnant; and I am certainly far more productive now that I have three children than I was before: I get through mountains of housework, and also find myself pouring energy into volunteer work, writing and all sorts of other activities.

But that's not what Bateson means, of course. She's writing out of a position of far more than full time work. For her sake, I'm glad she and her friends feel so spritely after 70, 80 and 90 hour weeks on top of family commitments; but the people I know who work such hours in their beloved and chosen professions aren't like this at all. They're just plain tired. For that matter, I grew up with a mother who worked like Bateson, and she was so exhausted that life was a train wreck. Bateson does acknowledge that there is a cost to all this endeavour, but she never really details what this might be. One of Bateson's subjects left her three sons, the youngest still at high school, in one city so she could pursue a professional opportunity in another. I don't judge the decision, but I do wonder what the cost was, exactly, for that family. For myself, the cost of having a driven mother seemed to be that we screamed at each other for about a decade. Then she died. She had multiple sclerosis, which is one of those weird diseases not uncommon among highly stressed professionals. Was this the price she, and we, had to pay for her professional endeavours? I really don't know.

There are other problems with the book, not least that the author uses it to let off steam about a difficult workplace situation which is so clearly about personalities that it is largely irrelevant. However, it is enough to say that all of these problems with the book are a great pity, because what Bateson says should be thought-provoking. We do need models of meaning-making that are far more encompassing of life in its richness and variety than a career trajectory. Yet Composing a Life fails to live up to its promise. Bateson ultimately identifies each person with their professional skills rather than their personal qualities, in the end tracing only how 'a writer' or 'a dancer' continues to be so when the writing or dancing are put on the back burner by life's other demands.

It would have been a far more interesting book had Bateson widened her scope so that, on the one hand, she investigated a range of individuals across the social spectrum; and on the other, she separated meaning making from the professional calling which is the hallmark of the upper middle class.

As for my own meaning making, well, the bead episode was a reminder that most of the time I am a mother; sometimes, I write. And for now, that is enough for me.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Taste of River Water

The Taste of River Water

I have just savoured the most moving book of poems, The Taste of River Water, by Cate Kennedy. Kennedy writes with gentle and accessible voice about the most mundane events: a joyride, a locust plague, a country woman coming second in a photography competition. Each poem feels like a story, a glimpse of another life seen through kind eyes.

Kennedy has a remarkable ability to notice the small things: the humility of a mother listening to her adult children talk, the largely invisible acts of grace which dot family life, the effect of a painting on a young girl. She uses no poetic mumbo-jumbo, no fancy frills, just clear plain words telling the story, usually in blank verse.

The risk of blank verse is that it can, at times, read like little more than a thoughtful paragraph broken up into a poem shape; and one or two of her poems do seem to fall into that trap. Usually, however, she manages more than that, much more, so that words and rhythm work together to great effect. I particularly loved 'Binaries', which highlights the resonances between binary notation and a knitting pattern – and a mother who shakes her head at her clever kids who understand the former.

Kennedy occasionally uses a more formal structure. In her poem 'Love and work', which addresses the inevitability of grief, the words are complemented by the structure of the poem. The metre and rhyme scheme work together to convey a sense of inevitability and inescapability even as the words remind us just how unavoidable the work of grief is. It is a masterful use of form.

I usually flick back and forth through books of poetry, reading here and there, then filling in the gaps; but Section II of this book deserves reading in order. Although each poem may be read alone, together the poems tell the story of a journey – from the loss of a baby, the desolation of grief, the difficulty of conception, and the experience of birth. Kennedy's plain language keeps this story unsentimental as she charts the ravages of grief, brittleness between marriage partners, and the stillness of joy. Small phrases are echoed between the poems, weaving the section into a quietly magnificent whole.

What really makes Kennedy's poems luminescent, however, more than her observance of small things or her careful crafting of language, is her recognition of the sacred in the everyday. A lost ring becomes a blessing; an apparently empty room holds an unexpected gift; laying a brick path becomes an exercise in daily forgiveness, and the reader is reminded that thankfulness, forgiveness and grace are woven into the smallest of things. I read a poem a day, to draw out the pleasure of this slender book, and found myself moved, stirred, and ultimately restored. The Taste of River Water is a gift to all who read it; and this reader, for one, is filled with gratitude.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Imagine a little island off the coast of Nagasaki crowded with warehouses, and inhabited by a dozen Dutchmen and their Japanese spies. It is connected to the mainland by a tiny bridge, which for the most part only the Japanese can use; the Europeans need special permission. On the other side, the sea gate is open for just a short time each year.

The island was Dejima. For the hundreds of years that Japan was almost entirely closed to the world – entering or leaving was a capital crime – Dejima was the solitary trading port. The Dutch had an exclusive license to trade, and they maintained a base on Dejima of staff and warehouses, trading with Japan and providing a small window to Europe. With the exception of licensed traders, translators and scholars, no one else was allowed onto or off the island.

This is the fascinating world in which David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is set. Jacob is an honest clerk, come to weed out the corruption that is rife on Dejima while working for a boss who is not as straightforward as he seems. At first glance, the story appears to be about Jacob's time on Dejima and his relationships there: with the lovely Orito, the Japanese midwife studying Western anatomy at the hospital; with a translator, Ogawa; and with his fellow employees of the Dutch East India Company.

However, as the book gathers pace we spend time with Orito and Ogawa on the mainland, where Orito is required to work as midwife to the sisters of a sinister shrine; with Penhaligon, the captain of a British man-of-war sent to capture or destroy this window into Japanese trade; and with Shiroyama, the magistrate in Nagasaki caught out by historical events. Ultimately, the novel turns out to be far larger, accompanying a cast of characters as they grapple with culture, duty, vocation and faith in different ways, and as they make and interpret their moral choices.

On Dejima, Jacob's home, all activity was observed and reported; spies were everywhere. All interactions were limited and observed; accidental meetings were rare. Dutch-Japanese conversation was filtered through none-too-skilled translators who were forbidden to study abroad; they learned the language piecemeal from whatever the Dutchmen living on Dejima were prepared to teach them. The Dutch, on the other hand, were forbidden from learning Japanese. These limitations on the story – limitations of coincidence, conversation and time unobserved – are terrific hurdles to a novelist; nevertheless, Mitchell manages to weave a riveting story out of short meetings, awkward conversations, and layers of meanings in every utterance.

Mitchell uses several techniques to convey the stiltedness of life on Dejima. For one, all conversations are rendered in a deliberately awkward way: almost every phrase is split in two, thus '"The Doctor's disbelief," [Doctor] Marinus peers at the label on the Rhenish "is a natural reaction to vainglorious piffle."' I found this technique hard going, at times, almost squinting to skip the central bit of each phrase; but it gives a sense of conversations translated, clarified and filtered between the participants. Too, the book is written in the present tense. This is always an awkward tense for fiction; it's certainly more difficult for the reader, pushing one away rather than drawing one in. Like the conversational style, however, it reflects the awkwardness of every situation on Dejima, and is therefore perhaps a deliberate mechanism to enhance that feeling.

The novel is split into three sections. Within each section, Mitchell uses what he calls different narrative hats. In the first, apart from a brief story about Orito, we see the world through Jacob's eyes; in the second, Orito and Ogawa tell the story; and in the third, we hear from Jacob, Penhaligon and Shiroyama. This gives a fascinating shift of perspectives from west to east and back again. The increasing number of narrative voices in each section also gives the story impetus, moving from the slow transition of Jacob onto the island to the whirling narrative at the end.

Readers of Mitchell's other books will already be familiar with his extraordinary ability to portray wildly varying characters, and he succeeds again here. The different voices think and speak in ways that feel true. Orito speaks in platitudes and with very few pronouns, as was proper for a Japanese woman. The translators are fascinating in their Japanese rendering of Dutch phrases, interpreted to please all masters; and Jacob, the lonely, homesick and honest clerk staying just this side of priggishness, is sympathetically drawn.

However, for all this cleverness I think these narrative devices make this book less enjoyable than some of Mitchell's others. The shifts between voices made me feel mildly abandoned, at times, as the story moved to another character; and the sheer number of voices felt less chorus and more cacophony. For example, we have a lone chapter told through the eyes of a slave, which, while interesting, adds nothing much to the thrust of the narrative. Too, the use of the present tense and the breaking up of the conversations, while stylistically admirable, ultimately intrude into the telling of a rollicking tale. The book feels one rewrite short of Mitchell's usual mastery, with some breathtakingly clunky phrasing that really grates.

Yet it also contains some absolutely wonderful pieces of writing, such as Magistrate Shiroyama's meditation as he waits to carry out a judgment with devastating consequences:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on white-washed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells...' , a prose poem which continues for a page and a half and ends in a 'puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

Overall, Mitchell inhabits and conveys east and west in a captivating way; and gives the reader a powerful sense of another time and place through the eyes of characters from widely differing backgrounds while raising important questions about how people make moral decisions. I may have reservations about the stylistic devices, but every book by Mitchell is good. Thousand Autumns is thought provoking, deeply absorbing, and ultimately very moving.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How Little Lori Visited Times Square

How Little Lori Visited Times Square

Some books are ridiculous, unnecessary and perfect. Little Lori wants to visit Times Square. He hops on every form of public transport: bus, train, taxi, helicopter, horse and cart and more; and ends up in all manner of places: South Ferry, Queens, Staten Island, Central Park, and finally Macy's. Yet sadly, by the end of the day, he still hasn't managed to visit Times Square.

After such a long and frustrating journey, Little Lori sits on the sidewalk and howls with disappointment. Then a large talking turtle appears and they................................ have............................ a.................................... conversation; the turtle offers to give Little Lori a ride to Times Square.

The text is spare and amusing; the illustrations delightful. Little Lori's great tantrum outside Macy's is beautifully depicted, page after page of a raging, sobbing, snuffling child while the turtle slowly speaks. I could go into a long over-interpretive ramble about how the story touches on the mysteries of the city to a child; the thrilling adventure of travelling alone; the thwarted longings of most children; the need to slow down to get where you're going...

Instead, I will say only that this is a story for children and adults alike. My two, five and seven year olds all love it; I love it; and we borrow it from the library time and again just to see grandpa guffaw as he reads it aloud. If you like New York, or Maurice Sendak, or jokes for adults, or stories for kids, or public transport, or interesting billboards, you will like this book; our family loves all these things; thus How Little Lori Visited Times Square is considered to be, quite simply, perfect.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Summer Book

The Summer Book

Some places have a special quality, where time stands still and entire worlds are encapsulated in the smallest thing. My friend's block, a few fields tucked into the forest and looking out across a valley into trees, is one such place. An island in the Gulf of Finland is, perhaps, another.

I have just emerged from the most beautiful novel, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. It charts the relationship between Grandmother and her young granddaughter, Sophia, in the months they spend together every year on a small island in the aforementioned gulf. Nothing much happens – they catch fish, swim, nap, talk about death, tell stories, listen to the wind, and watch the boats go by – and yet in these little things we glimpse the universe.

Small details are beautifully observed: the sounds you can hear in a tent at night; the pounding of an old woman's heart after a walk; the way potatoes grow on a sea-wracked island; and Grandmother and Sophia are complex fully drawn characters.

The two are very similar. Both are strong, independent, wilful, abrupt; both are wise and loving, compassionate and kind. The author draws out the similarities and resonances between the very young and the very old: Grandmother is old enough to play and be childlike, even childish, at times: she can be petulant, disobedient and fickle; while Sophia is engaged in the very important work of growing up, facing her fears and powerful emotions with wisdom and maturity.

Sophia is that rare thing in fiction, the perfectly drawn child. While often delightful, she is a complete human being with the full complement of emotions, expressed with the rawness of the young. She swings from thoughtfulness to selfishness in an instant, and is often terribly rude. Jansson perfectly captures the vagaries and intensities of a child's moods, where anger, fear and hatred are powerful forces that threaten to overwhelm her at times; she has to use all her wisdom, and the cunning of her grandmother, to meet them head on. A while ago I wrote about a book about a real child, Dibs, and the way he used story to understand his fears and put them into place. In The Summer Book Sophia, too, uses story to grapple with her fears, and it is very moving.

Like Sophia, Grandmother can be thoughtless, even selfish, at times; but with the experience of age she can see what she is doing, pause, reflect, and – when she can be bothered, of course – find a way to heal the hurt. The relationship between Sophia and Grandmother is necessarily intense, even as they maintain their fierce independence and seek solitude on their little island.

The scarcity of novels which focus on the very young and the very old, let alone the female, would make The Summer Book precious in any event; but given how beautifully, how perfectly, and with what great good humour, it is done, this book is essential reading. Sophia and Grandmother are drawn with vim and vigour, wit and wisdom; the result is austere, gentle and wise, an entire world overflowing from a tiny island in the sea.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Boggart, and The Boggart and the Monster

The Boggart The Boggart and the Monster

Susan Cooper is perhaps best known for The Dark is Rising Sequence, a beautiful series of novels which draw heavily on Arthurian mythology and the Celtic landscape – and which are so terrifying that I was an older teenager before I was brave enough to read them all!

However, she has also written a number of terrific books for younger children, and it is to two of these that I turn now. In The Boggart, Cooper draws from the myth of the shape-shifting, mostly invisible, mischievous spirit that belongs to a house. Old Devon MacDevon dies, leaving his tumbledown Castle Keep – located on an island in a Scottish loch – inhabited only by the boggart. His Canadian relatives, the Volniks, inherit. They have full lives in Canada and cannot move to rural Scotland; instead they visit and arrange for the sale of the castle; when they leave, they inadvertently take the boggart with them.

The boggart is miserable in Canada. Unnoticed, lonely, and suffering terribly from culture shock, he does everything he can to get the family's attention: he smashes things; he eats all the ice cream; he wreaks havoc with traffic lights; he gets into the controls of the theatre where Mr Volnik works and produces the most magical theatre lighting ever seen. With the help of a Scottish friend, the Volnik children, Emily and Jessup, eventually work out what is going on and find a way to send the boggart home.

In the sequel, The Boggart and the Monster, Emily and Jessup return to holiday at Castle Keep with family friend and new owner, Mr Maconochie. While on a trip from Castle Keep to Loch Ness, to which the boggart has invited himself, they realise that the Loch Ness monster needs their help. A lazy boggart who has spent so long in one particular shape that she can't remember how to change, Nessie is about to be discovered by a scientific crew. With the assistance of Castle Keep's boggart and the children, however, she manages to shape-shift and find a safe new home.

The stories are charming. The boggart is a trickster, and the games he gets up to are highly amusing – especially as so few know of his existence. People are flummoxed when the cup they thought was half-full is suddenly empty; objects disappear; strange noises wake them in the night. He turns into a seal and taunts the seals of the loch; he turns into a gull and soars into the sky. The imagery of flying is particularly exhilarating.

However, the real gift lies in the sense of place and belonging that runs through the stories like a golden thread. Emily and Jessup are Canadian, of mixed ancestry; but they feel right at home in Scotland. At some level, they belong there, or at least big parts of them do. In one scene, a seal hauls itself up from the loch to gaze into Emily's eyes; and in that infinite moment there is deep communication and belonging.

Meanwhile the boggart is miserable in Canada, and his longing for home fills the air with an aching sadness that affects even those unaware of his presence.

On the boggart's return home (and we are moving across novels now), he has to grieve the loss of Devon MacDevon, his companion for many decades; and establish himself with a new owner who doesn't know of his existence. Cooper writes of the boggart's grieving beautifully. In one scene, in wordless sorrow, the boggart keens the funeral lament, and mimics the sounds of the funeral march with its rolling carts and tramping feet, that accompanied the death of an earlier MacDevon. As a creature of pure spirit and pure emotion, with very few words, at moments of high gratitude he may lay a small cool invisible hand on a human's cheek just for an instant.

Like a young child, the boggart slips between extremes of sorrow and joy; and so the text is, for the child reader, emotionally manageable. Cooper balances strong feelings with humour and playfulness, and the result is a brace of stories which are by turns sad, entrancing and hilarious.

Personally, I resonate with the theme of belonging to and longing for a landscape. I am a Cornishwoman whose people have lived in Australia for 160 years. I visited Cornwall for the first time last year, and felt a powerful resonance; I felt, for the first time in my life, deeply at home. The light, the landscape, the architecture, the way people chatted in the shops: I belonged in a deep and immediate way. And yet, like the Volniks, my home and my more recent family history is in another place that is also called home.

Now when my longing for Cornwall threatens to overwhelm me, like a child I go back to Cooper's books – The Dark is Rising Sequence, The Boggart books – and immerse myself in the Celtic landscape of grey stone buildings and dark waters and the ever-present calling of the gulls, and wonder about that distant place that is both stranger and friend, intimately familiar and deeply known, which landscape is knit into my bones.

(For an earlier post on the relationship between stories and my interior landscape, written before I visited Cornwall, click here.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paper Bag Princess / Mortimer / Love You Forever

The Paper Bag Princess Mortimer Love You Forever

I'm a great fan of Robert Munsch's picture books, which is a good thing since I am required to read one or two or three or four of them most days. Munsch uses key phrases over and over in his books, making them rhythmical and enjoyable to read aloud; and he often writes with the voice of a child, which is alternately hilarious and terribly moving.

The Paper Bag Princess is a feminist fairy story. A princess wearing only a paper bag rescues her prince from a terrible dragon, only to be told her clothes are revolting and her hair is a mess. She tells the prince where to go, calls off the wedding and says,' You are a bum!', which occasions hilarious laughter in my family (sadly, in the expurgated version at our local library, she calls him a toad, not nearly as naughty or funny).

Mortimer is a little boy who sings loudly when he is supposed to be going to sleep. It drives his family crazy, even his seventeen brothers and sisters – so much so that they call in the police. The police lecture him, then go downstairs; Mortimer starts singing again; and the noise sends everyone berserk. While they're all yelling at each other, Mortimer finally falls asleep.

In Love You Forever, a mother sings the same song to her son every night, 'I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, My baby you'll be.'. As the boy ages, the mother takes more and more ludicrous steps to sing the song – such as boarding a bus in the middle of the night, letting herself into her son's apartment and singing over his bed – which are heart-warmingly ridiculous.

Near the end, she calls her son to say 'You'd better come and see me because I am really old and sick.' Her son comes, and she tries to sing '[b]ut she was too old and sick to finish the song', and he has to sing to her, instead. And then he goes home and sings to his own little baby, and every time I read it – which is most days – I choke up.

I find Love You Forever especially poignant because both my mother and my mother-in-law died before we had children, and I often feel that our kids missed out on the special experience of a grandmother's love. This book reminds me that whether or not they are living, our parents give us gifts – a special song, a prayer, a handful of stories, an ability – and it is up to us to recognise these gifts and pass them on. It also suggests that love endures, even after the death of the loved one; in fact, Munsch wrote the story in memoriam to his two still-born children.

PS – Munsch has a fabulous website here, where, among other things, you can listen to and download mp3 files of him telling a heap of his stories with sound effects! The Paper Bag Princess is here; Mortimer is here; Love You Forever is here.

PPS – Paul Mitchell recently wrote a very moving piece about the prayer he has given his daughter here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

'The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning...'. Thus begins Tuck Everlasting, a beautifully written book for older children which addresses the serious matters of life and death, loyalty and property, in the most thoughtful way.

The story centres on young Winnie, confined to a hot and dusty garden at the height of summer. Between one thing and another, she slips out the gate and into the woods owned by her family, and there stumbles upon a boy, Jesse Tuck, drinking at a spring. It transpires that the spring gives the drinker eternal life, and although the boy appears to be in his late teens he has lived for more than a hundred years. Winnie soon meets the rest of the Tuck family, and together they explore the pros and cons of eternal life versus the normal realities of living, maturing and dying.

Matters are complicated by a manipulative stranger who wants to market the water and make his fortune. When disaster strikes, Winnie has to decide whether to capitulate to the powers that be, or to defend the Tucks and keep them, and their secret, safe.

While there are elements of the story that I am not entirely comfortable with – a kidnapping and an act of violence justified by the need to keep the secret – overall the book is stunning. The author explores difficult questions with a deft touch, lightly dancing in and out of the issues in such a way that the reader never feels mired.

The writing shimmers and glides, and is rich in metaphor. No doubt violating every rule of children's books, which usually plunge straight into the action, Tuck Everlasting begins with a slow elegant description of the longest, hottest week of summer; then moves on to describe the road outside young Winnie's house.

This road was, from one direction, trodden out by cows, and the author describes its gentle meandering timelessness suggestive of 'slow chewing and thoughtful contemplation of the infinite'; this is the direction from which the Tucks appear. On the other side of the woods, the road belongs to people and runs efficiently from A to B; it is from this direction that the rapacious stranger appears. The book is full of such imagery which adds greatly to its depth.

The story is told from Winnie's perspective, and conveys the dreamy world that children inhabit. Most adults are shadowy background figures and the road, the woods and a toad are more real to young Winnie. Into this private world erupt the Tucks. Wise and innocent, thoughtful and silly, they are childlike and treat Winnie as an equal; for these qualities, they earn her loyalty and trust.

This latter quality is reflective of the author's tone. She trusts her readers with complex ideas, and ends with a bittersweet epilogue which brings the themes to their natural conclusion.

Intelligent dreamy children will drink up the story in all its rich fullness; intelligent dreamy adults will wallow in its language and metaphors. It is a book to read slowly, to oneself or aloud, savouring every crafted sentence and idea. Although written for children, it is one of those classics which adults too will enjoy, one which people of all ages will carry with them in word and image for many years after reading.