Tag Archives: books

Just breathe for a second

There have been lots of highs and lows. Lots of intensity and exhaustion, just few moments to stop and rest.

Here are some of the fleeting moments so far in 2017, when there was peace and I took a photo. I am both excited and anxious about my prospects for peace in the immediate future.


Bushwalking and sketching at Mokoroa Falls.


Friday mornings at Cafe Ella.


That 40 degree day when we jumped in the car, drove to Wombara and spent the whole day on the beach.


Taking time out to read Ali Smith.


Sufjan announces the release of Planetarium and we listen to Saturn on repeat.


Discovering Quarrantine Reserve – just up the road from our home.


Chasing the sunrise on Easter Monday.

David Malouf: Remembering Babylon

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I read this a while ago, but I am still haunted by this fictional journal entry, from a fictional Anglican minister, in a fictional white settlement in 1840s’s Queensland:

We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have bought with us and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already. I think of our early settlers, starving on those shores in the midst of  plenty they did not recognise, in a blessed mature of flesh, fowl, fruit that was all around them and which they could not, with their English eyes, perceive, since the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls out sensitivity to other forms, even the most obvious.

We must run our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there. Is it not strange, this history of ours, in which explorers, men on the track of the unknown, fall dry mouthed and exhausted in country where natives, moving just ahead of them, or behind, or a mile to one side, are living, as they have done of centuries, off the land? Is there not a kind of refractory pride in it, an insistence that if the land will not present itself to us in terms that we know, we would rather die than take it as it is?

For there is a truth here and it is this: that no continent lies outside God’s bounty and his intention to provide for his children. He is a gardener and everything he makes is a garden. This place too will one day, I believe, yield its fruits to us and to the great banquet at which we are the guests, the common feast; as the Americas brought corn and tomatoes and sweet peppers, and rhubarb and the potato, that bitter root of the high Andes that women, over long years, by experiment and crossbreeding, have leached of its poison and made palatable, to be the food of millions. (There is a lily-root here that the women know how to boil and make edible.)

The children of this land were made for it, as it was for them, and is to them a rich habitation, teeming with milk and honey – even if much of its richness is still hidden; but then so was the milk and honey of the Promised Land, which was neither milk, in fact, nor honey, and the land itself to all appearance parched and without promise. We must humble ourselves and learn from them. The time will come when we too will be sustained not only by wheat and lamb and bottled cucumbers, but by what the land itself produces, tasting at last the earthy sweetness of it, allowing it to feed our flesh with its minerals and underground secrets so that what spreads in us is an intimate understanding of what it truly is, with all that is unknowable in it made familiar within…

…The theodolite offers only one way of moving into the continent and apprehending the scope and contours of it. Did we not, long ago, did not our distant ancestors, bring in out of the great plains where they wandered, out of mere wilderness, the old coarse grasses that lapped the bellies of their horses, and, separating the grains and nursing them to plumpness, learning how to mill and grind and make daily bread, and how to tend the wild vine till its fruit yielded wine, create settled places where men and women sit at tables among neighbours, in a daily sacrament which is the image of the Lord’s greater one? All this can be done again. This is what is intended by our coming here: to make this place too part of the world’s garden, but by changing ourselves rather than it and adding thus to the richness and variety of things.

How I wish that this character were true, and that his hopes for his new home had come true.

 

Jackie French: Nanberry

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The sky grew grey, then pink, and a too-bright blue. Yagali had vanished. He struggled to sit up. Why did his body feel like a jellyfish? He peered around frantically, looking for her. Had she run into the bush to find the others, or tried to swim out to cool her body? But even her footprints had been eaten by the waves.

‘Gumna?’ he cried to his grandfather. ‘Wianga?’ he called to his mother. But they only muttered, their eyes blank, their minds lost in the land of fever.

An 8 year old Cadigal boy, Nanberry, is on the brink of death by small pox, when he is discovered by Surgeon White in 1789. In an unprecedented move for his time, Surgeon White adopts Nanberry – not as a servant – but as his son.

Nanberry: Black Brother White is the story of this family during the early years of the colony. After Surgeon White adopts Nanberry he takes a convict mistress, Rachel Turner, who bears him a second son, Andrew White. The two brothers grow up in limbo. Nanberry hovers between his Cadigal and settler families, uncertain whether he will ever be initiated as a Cadigal man. Andrew must be separated from his mother and his convict connections when he is sent to England for a civilised education.

Like many of Jackie French’s other young adult novels, this one is based heavily on historical records: Nanberry, Surgeon White, Rachel, Andrew and (spoilers!) Rachel’s husband Thomas Moore – were all real people. They lived in incredibly difficult times, yet they have all left real and lasting legacies in Australian society. Rachel was one of the earliest women in English legal history to be defended in court against a charge. In Australia, Rachel helped found orphanages, schools and the Bank of NSW (currently Westpac); and her husband helped construct some of the earliest church buildings and founded Moore Theological College(!).

However, despite all these happy outcomes, Nanberry is a tragic read in the light of over 200 years of colonised history. This book is written for young people but Jackie French does not hide the violence of the colony, particularly for indigneous people and for female convicts. Nanberry himself faces terrible trauma and dislocation. And although he negotiates these circumstances with incredible courage and poise, although his story ends nobly, it is hard to take pleasure in it knowing the suffering of countless indigenous people in the generations to follow him. Similarly Rachel’s story turns out for the  better, but it opens up a window into the suffering and abuse of hundreds of other women who were sent to Australia the early days of the colony.

An educational read, a gripping read, but a sobering one. It sounds like it was a sobering book to write for Jackie French too.

Colin Meloy: Wildwood

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. In fact, if she were to list her worries right then and there as she sat spellbound on the park bench and watcher her little brother, Mac, carried aloft in the talons of these five black crows, puzzling out just how this feat was being done would likely come in dead last…

And so opens the adventure of Wildwood: the story of Prue and Curtis on an incredible adventure to the Impassable Wilderness. It’s a kind of Narnian story: two kids stumbling into a magical place, where animals talk and take you flying, where things look quaint at first and then you discover there is an evil queen, and there is a battle to end all battles – will good triumph over evil? – and then (no spoilers) the story ends. It was a great read.

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This book was on the Premier’s Reading list for children in years 5-6, so I’m not sure I am the target audience. But I had to read this book because it was written by Colin Meloy, the frontman of the Decemberists, and illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, who is responsible for all of the Decemberists’ artwork. I love this band. One of the distcint things about them is the way their songs tell epic stories from all times and places. They sing vivid and imaginative songs about star-crossed lovers in fighting gangssoldiers in Iraq,  David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, guerrilla wars, the arrival of a Spanish princess, the Japanese legend of the Crane Wife. They reached stunning highs with the saga of the Mariner’s Revenge, and then followed that up with The Hazards of Love: an entire album telling a tragic fairy-tale story of two lovers thwarted by an evil queen.

So obvs Colin Meloy has an incredibly vivid imagination, and a creative way with words.

Given the expectations I had, Wildwood did not disappoint. It was like reading a Decemberists‘ song, it was vibrant and exciting and it opened another window into the creative mind of Colin Meloy. And Carson Ellis’ illustrations were simply beautiful. There is no other word for them. They were perfect.

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Wildwood is the first of three novels, but, as much as I enjoyed it, I think I will leave it at this one. I loved to have one of my favourite musicians as the guide for this adventure, but I think one adventure with Colin Meloy is enough. Maybe next time I will read something higher up the Premier’s Reading Challenge list!

 

Ali Smith: ‘How to be Both’

Confession: I read this book because I liked the photo on the cover. I’m not even sure how to explain this book, so first up, maybe you’d like to check out this review over at the Guardian.

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How to be both is all about confused binaries and there are only two chapters: two chapters one. And Ali Smith printed half her books with one chapter first and the other half with the other. If I had bought this book at Better Read than Dead I would have started the story with George, a grieving (female) teenager from Cambridge. But I decided to borrow it from Five Dock library, so instead I started the story with Francescho , the ghost of an Italian Renaissance painter (and female – it took me 1.5 reads to work that out!). My decision to borrow the same book meant a different story!! What!?

I am a sucker for re-imagined stories about artists, I like the way they open a window to reinterpret real-life art or music in a different way. And I loved the way Ali Smith kept muddling my brain around with the two halves of the story, and the confusion between those binary categories – mostly around male/female, but also past/future, joy/grief, life/death, tangible/imagined.

But then even more, I loved reading about two different people and their worlds. It took me straight into 14th century Italy and suburban Cambridge. Thanks Ali Smith.

Finally, I loved this gem of a quote: about how a close relationship opens up profound communication and new meanings. It’s written about two friends, about love, but I read it and felt like Ali Smith was trying to describe what it meant for me to find and connect with and love fellow Christians.

It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things – as old as these songs, even as old as Latin itself – a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it? … Their classic status? She nods. That’s it. Whatever is happening makes them new but lets them be old both at once.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ is a tragic story about a Gloria and Anthony, who meet and marry in Edwardian America (is there such a thing? I mean, I know Edward wasn’t an American monarch… Let’s call it ‘America-in-the-1910s’). The pair are wealthy, leisurely, self obsessed and the centre of the New York social scene.

Scott has written the story in three parts, taking us first through Gloria and Anthony’s courtship, then their marriage and then their… let’s call it… ‘settling-down’. I expected a clear tragic arc through the parts: things looking up in the first part, realities of life hitting in the second and then a plunge down into darkness in the third. But it was a little more nuanced than that. Which, of course, made it all the more tragic to read.

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Knowing also about the incredibly difficult relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald also made it a tragic read. My impulse at every moment was to read this story as autobiographical, and even though the plot doesn’t line up neatly with the events of their lives, I would bet all the money that Scott used events and truths about their own relationship to create these two incredibly self-destructive characters.

The book was long and sometimes hard work to get through, but whenever I felt like giving up I would stumble across beautifully poetic passages. The quote I remember clearest was Anthony discovering ‘privilege’ through his military service – an interesting take on it from a rich white man:

The world was divided primarily into those two classifications.

It occurred to him that all strongly accentuated classes, such as the military, divided men into two kinds: their own kind — and those without. To the clergyman there were clergy and laity, to the Catholic there were Catholics and non-Catholics, to the negro there were blacks and whites, to the prisoner there were the imprisoned and the free, and to the sick man there were the sick and the well… So, without thinking of it once in his lifetime, he had been a civilian, a layman, a non-Catholic, a Gentile, white, free, and well…

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ made me thankful for contemporary mental health care. And also for the good support Matt and I have had through our marriage, all the marriage courses we have done to help us communicate well and not be mean to each other. Ugh – it was painful to read about so many little quirks in their relationship escalating into poisonous habits. But still worth it for those beautiful passages embedded throughout. I’m glad I persevered to the end.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer: ‘The Princess of the Chalet School’

I am being honest about what I’m reading here: the next book in the pile was a lightweight paperback for very young readers, originally published in 1927, set in a Swiss boarding school run by a bunch of devoted Catholics, and the third installment in a series of sixty-two similar novels. Wow. It was exactly like what you are imagining. My friend lent me this book promising a very light and wholesome read – and a window into her childhood. She devoured these as a kid while the rest of us were reading our way through Goosebumps  and The Babysitter’s Club.

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Yeah. There isn’t much to say about this book, except that is was definitely very sweet and wholesome and light and easy to read. There was a kidnapping (spoilers), but my friend assures me that this is a standard plot device for the author: there is either a kidnapping, a natural disaster or a student lost in the Alps in any given book in this series.

The one exceptional thing about this book was, like A Vicarage Family, the Chalet School reminded me of what it felt like to be a child who is mocked, patronised or unfairly treated by a regular adult – not an evil adult, just an adult who is not very thoughtful. It was a good reminder of how kids can see the world, and a reminder to not be a jerk to young people.