Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree has been attracting my attention for several months now, however it took its recent longlisting for this year's Stella Prize to finally make me pick it up. I'm nothing but a Stella groupie!

The cover alone might have been enticement enough (a collage of three of Azar's art works), but the promise of a mystical, magical tour through the horrors of revolutionary Iran, 'using the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling', was the final prompt I needed to make this my first book to read from this year's prize.

Magical realism can be a problem for many readers I know. I'm happy to embrace some forms of magic realism more than others. I especially like those that draw fairy tales, fables and myths into our modern real-world setting. (FYI: I'm not so keen on the type of magic realism that brings in a lot of deliberately disorientating layers and details. I like my magical realism to still make sense somehow!)

Azar's use of magic realism did that and more. It's quite a skill to weave a story that allows your somewhat sceptical reader to accept the existence of ghosts, jinns and mermaids. But Azar did it for me - I was with her from the start, on that level at least.

However, it did take me a while to get going. It may have been a translation thing or it may have been a slightly different approach to sentence structure. Many of the books I gravitate towards lately are ones with concise, short sentences. So maybe it was simply my lack of practice in reading longer, flowing, complex sentences. Whatever it was, I found the start of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree choppy and erratic.

It wasn't until the special circumstances of our narrator were revealed at the beginning of chapter 5 that I was hooked. Suddenly the 'playful, poetic and deeply melancholy' Alice Pung quote on the back cover came to life.

I dropped into a dreamy, almost trance-like state every time I picked up the book. Jinns and groves of trees haunted my own dreams as fleeting childhood memories of news items about the 1979 Revolution were triggered by events in the story. It was angry, it was heart-rending, it was glorious, mesmerising and confronting.

Azar has given us a classic story of good and evil. Her words are fluid as is her approach to time and truth. Belonging, love and loss are the major themes while the search for solace is the main concern for her characters. Given the horrific events that occurred during the Iranian Revolution, it is easy to understand why and how an author would choose to wrap these unreal events up in mythology. When the real world you live in suddenly gets turned on it's head, sometimes the only response is imagination and the only hope is magic.

I, for one, hope with all my heart, that this story gets shortlisted for the Stella - it deserves to get as much attention as possible.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Wonder Down Under by Nina Brochmann & Ellen Stokken Dahl

No, The Wonder Down Under is not a travel guide about Australia. It's full title is The Wonder Down Under: A User's Guide to the Vagina. And it was utterly fascinating and illuminating from start to finish.

Nina Brochmann & Ellen Stokken Dahl are medical students (probably fully fledged doctors by now) from Oslo who worked in the area of sexual health. They quickly realised that there were myths and misconceptions about pretty much every area of female genitalia and health. Their subsequent research revealed that they also had some of their own misconceptions to bust.

As a 50 year old woman, long interested and curious about her body, I have read widely on this topic over the years. Yet I learnt so much from this book, my head is still spinning!

My only disappointment is that Brochmann & Dahl stopped before peri-menopause. Trying to find accurate, up-to-date, easy to read information about this stage of female life is very challenging. Perhaps they will revise the next edition with a chapter or two on this long ignored, hidden side of female health?

So, what DID I learn?

I learnt that the female egg does not sit passively waiting inside the fallopian tube for the winning male sperm to come along. Just like with sperm, there are thousands of eggs released each month that compete to be the final contender for impregnation. It is usually the sperm left waiting at the mouth of the fallopian tube for the mature egg to make her grand appearance.

The clitoris is not a 'little button' but is in fact the same size as a penis, except it extends internally in the shape of a wishbone. The clitoris is but the tip of the iceberg! The infamous g-spot is most likely the internal extension of the clitoris being stimulated during vaginal sex.

Only about 15% of women have 'spontaneous' desire or a wish to have sex NOW. Many females experience 'responsive' desire instead which is dependant on touch.
one in three women has a responsive form of sexual desire. At the opposite end of the scale, there are the 15% who have the 'classic' spontaneous form of sexual desire, in which you feel desire for sex out of the blue. All the other women are somewhere in between the two. Now and then, they fancy having sex without quite understanding why, whereas other times, sex sounds like a bit of drag until they feel their body responding and their head slowly joins the party. Only a small group of around 5% lacks any desire for sex, whether spontaneous or responsive.

I also learnt that the hymen is an elastic ring or fold of skin rather than a mucus membrane, which they go on to discuss very thoroughly in the Youtube clip below.

This is a fabulous book for teens and young women everywhere. Along with all the facts and figures, they discuss hair removal, periods, pain, contraceptive options, sexually transmitted diseases, masturbation, sex and pregnancy. The book is practical, empowering and fun. Popular science at it's very, very best.

Regardless of your age or gender, you will learn something you didn't know before by the end of this book.

The Wonder Down Under will be published by Yellow Kite Books via Hachette in Australia on International Women's Day 2018. It's translated into English by Lucy Moffatt.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Just Saying - ARC's and DNF's

I've been thinking about what, if any, difference it has made to my reading habits working in an Indie bookshop.

Before I was a bookseller, I knew nothing about ARC's (advanced reading copies). Each and every book that I purchased was a precious thing, new or used. I would spend hours browsing, to-ing and fro-ing about which book/s to read next. The local library was my testing ground for new authors and recommendations and book borrows from friends supplemented my own growing library of favourites. Word of mouth and synchronicity was my was usual approach to finding new books.

If I bought a book, I read it through, regardless. DNF (did not finish) was not an option. I finished every book I started (eventually).

However since working in a bookshop the whole wide wonderful world of ARC's and gratis reads has opened up to me. Suddenly my shelves (cupboards, under the bed and bedside chair) were overflowing with options that I hadn't had to pay for.

Many times, this process revealed amazing new authors and stories that I might never have picked up otherwise. And that is, of course why publishing companies release ARC's. Word of mouth and personal recommendations are still one of the biggest ways to get a book 'out there'.

But I've also had lots of duds. And for the first time ever, I've failed to finish books that I started. Personally this has been a struggle. So much time, money, energy and effort has gone into putting this particular book in front of me, I feel obliged to finish it. Perhaps it's just a slow start, maybe I'm not in the right mood to appreciate it, perhaps the amazing, insightful ending is worth the hard slog to get there?

For years, I ploughed through books that weren't working for me. Until a colleague, who had been in the book industry a lot longer than me, told me to stop. Her view was that no book was ever going to suit every reader. And that is was actually my bookseller's duty to only read books that interested me so that I could happily, faithfully and genuinely recommend them to our customers. My sense of relief was immense!

However, I've finessed this idea somewhat over time.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to not finish a book. The DNF's may not be my cup of tea, but by reading a few early chapters, I get the gist of the book and get a feel for which kind of reader I could recommend the book to. Also, by working out why I didn't like a book, I can honestly let readers know what my concerns were and they can chose whether or not it is something that is a problem for them too.

I'm definitely reading more widely since being a bookseller, especially contemporary, debut authors across all genres and age groups. These are the authors who the publishers are usually keen to get 'out there' via ARC's. Creating a buzz around a new book before it hits the shops, is good for everyone long as it's genuine.

I've broadened the range and type of book that I would normally have read, but my basic criteria has remained the same. The book has to grab my attention, I have to feel impatient to pick it up again each day and it has to create a world for me to fall into or give me characters to love and hate and live with through their trials and tribulations.

The glut of ARC's that can swamp the back office of a bookshop sometimes feels like a cheapening of the reading process though. All those books that I'm only half-interested in, waiting to be opened, read and loved, can feel like clutter rather than something worthy of my attention.

Abandoning books at the 50 page mark has also become my thing. If it hasn't grabbed me or convinced me by page 50, then hasta la vista baby! Life's too short to read a boring book. It's not as if I don't have something else to fall back onto.

Does reading a book you haven't paid for and don't have to return change your reading experience? Does it enhance and expand your reading? Or does it lower your expectations?

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

Basically I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I knew that Kaur was an Instapoet success with millions of followers which had spawned two books of poetry and invitations to numerous writer's festivals around the world. I knew she appealed to young people and that she was single-handedly turning them onto poetry. Our languishing poetry section at work was actually getting a work out for the first time in a long time, thanks to the requests for her two books.

I also knew that there was some debate about whether or not Kaur actually wrote poetry or not.

I am not a poetry expert in any way shape or form. I have enjoyed some poets and their works over the years because they move me or their elegant use of language blows my mind or the describe something familiar in such a new and novel way that I see something old and known in a completely different way. And I can see how Kaur's work would and could do this for many, many people.

She speaks simple truths, aphorisims even, about being female. Kaur explores relationships, love, sex and belonging. Her work often delves into darker themes of abuse, self-abuse, break-ups, depression, loss, grief, the beauty myth, difference, the immigrant experience and racism.

There is nothing difficult about her writing style, although her lack of capitals does my head in (showing my age I know!) Most of the pieces are like the one above. Brief pieces of advice illustrated by Kaur - a perfect Instagram post - that reaches and touches her target audience.

In The Sun and Her Flowers, Kaur has a few longer pieces that could be called observational poetry. Thankfully, I'm past a lot of the angst that Kaur writes about, but her words brought much of it racing back. All that insecurity, indecision and apprehension mixed with wild hope and bittersweet moments. False starts and wrong turns and so much time wasted worrying abut stuff that you can't change.

A part of me wishes I could go back and tell my younger self and all these young women that this is just a phase of life that passes. It feels like forever, but it's not. It feels like for keeps, but it's not.

But I don't, I can't, because everyone has to work that out for themselves in their own way.

Reading the words of someone who is in the middle of all that, helps me see the journey of my own life and makes me grateful to be long past all that. Middle age is not without it's own angst, but it's tempered by experience, maturity and growth. What seemed so important at twenty or thirty is no longer of concern at fifty. Other things take over. I'm sure my seventy year old self will smile wryly at the worries of my fifty year old self one day.

That's how it goes.

And that's what was missing from this collection of poems and aphorisms for me. A sense of future. A sense of perspective. The big picture. Reflection.

Kaur gives us a snapshot of a moment, a detail of now. Her voice is authentic, accepting and lyrical. I can see the appeal. And she's turning a generation onto the idea of poetry, nothing wrong in that at all.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

My TBR pile is out of control and this year I endeavour to make a dint on it.

I've been going gang-busters so far. The year long #LesMisReadalong counts as one book (although I acquired a second edition of Les Mis so that I could compare translations, so it also counts as a fail!)

I've read two of my Iris Murdoch books in the huge a Murdoch-a-month #IMreadalong with two more to be read in 2019 (May and September). But again, I'm in the process of acquiring a 5th Murdoch...2 steps forward, 1 step back!

84 Charing Cross Road is my first read from my Personal Challenge as voted by you, my devoted readers :-)

Given the number of books on my TBR pile, for 84 Charing Cross Road to receive FIVE votes was extraordinary, so I went into this book with very HIGH hopes.

My first surprise was that it's an epistolary story and my second surprise was that my edition actually contains two stories. The second one is titled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and it takes up the bulk of the 230 pages.

I read 84 Charing Cross Road in two reading sessions. The back cover describes it as 'delightfully reticent love affair', but I never felt like I was reading a love story, unless you count the love of books as a love affair.

The relationship between Helene and Frank and between Helene and many of Frank's colleagues and also his wife, Nora are all about friendship and shared interests.

It's 1949 and Helene is a New Yorker desperate to find copies of her favourite books that aren't 'expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and Noble's grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.' Frank is the buyer at Marks & Co antiquarian book-sellers, charged with responding to her letters and tracking down her book requests.

He begins by signing off with his initials, then Frank Doel and eventually (after 8 years) just Frank.

Helene is extraordinarily generous. When she discovers via British neighbours that Londoners are still struggling under strict post-war rationing, she sends food hampers. This sparks off a flurry of letters from the other staff of Marks & Co who simply have to thank her for her thoughtfulness.

Daily lives and individual personalities are gradually revealed, letter by letter. It made me sad for the lost art of letter writing. The depth of feeling and character development that evolved with time was so gorgeous and done without the use of one single emoticon!


It's also sad because Frank suddenly dies and Marks & Co eventually closes before Helene has a chance to visit England. Twenty years of correspondence finished just like that. Helene obviously still had some contact with Nora and her daughters, but without the shared interest of books and Frank, the relationship may have waned. Helene's decision to write a book changed all that. With Nora's permission 84 Charing Cross Road was born and a way finally opened up for Helene to visit London.

Which brings us to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

It is now 1971 and Helene is jetting off to England for the very first time. The Duchess is written more as a diary story and takes us, chronologically, through her extended visit.

I responded to Helene's mix of excitement and apprehension about finally seeing all the sights of England that she had dreamed about for so long. Her high expectations were met and confounded in equal measure. But this second story lacked the warmth or heart of the first. Helene herself explained some of the difference,
Not till I got home did it dawn on me that they and I had completely reversed roles. Coming abroad, where nobody knew them, Eddie and Isabel had rid themselves of a lot of social inhibitions. Coming abroad, where nobody knows me, I've acquired a whole set of inhibitions I never had at home.

The letters in 84 Charing Cross Road are so appealing, charming and funny, in large part thanks to Helene's BIG personality that jumps and bounces off every page.

The Duchess was a lovely way to round off the story and for anyone who has had the experience of turning up in London for the first time after a lifetime of reading books set there, it will resonate strongly.

A BIG thank you to Jean, Mary R, Jillian, Jennifer & JoAnn for the voting recomendation. It was a beauty!

I now plan to hunt down a copy of the movie and hope to one day see a stage production.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Les Mis Birthday Check In

I'm 50 this weekend! Yes, really!

What better way to celebrate than with a fellow February birthday bedfellow (Victor Hugo will be 216 on the 26th Feb after all).

I knew I couldn't maintain the very impressive participation rate that I began the #LesMisReadalong with, although I did think at the time, that it might last a little longer than two weeks!

Last time we spoke we were slow reading our way through Book 1 - An Upright Man.
Let's catch up:
  • It's 1815
  • Monseigneur Bienvenu is a very good man
  • Jean Valjean not so much
  • Life in France for the poor & uneducated is very hard indeed 
  • Jean Valjean steals the silverware
  • Monseigneur Bienvenu is a very, very good man despite no longer having any silverware OR candlesticks to his name
  • Two years pass
  • Hello Paris!
  • Four lads and their girls frolic in the springtime
  • Fantine has a baby girl, Cosette
  • That scoundrel, Tholomyes deserts them
  • Fantine leaves Cosette (in what probably amounts to the worse decision ever made in the entire course of history) with the Thenardier's
  • Cosette sweeps the pavement
  • The locals call her the Lark, l'Alouette

This made me think of the French song that I learnt as a little girl Alouette. I found this rather funky version of the song....and quickly realised that it's not the sweet, happy song I thought it was!

Bird dismemberment 101 - who knew?
But now it suddenly seems even more applicable to Cosette's story.

We are now 42 days into the #LesMisReadalong which brings us to Vol 1 Book 5, which Denny translates as DEGRADATION and Rose calls THE DESCENT.
  • Montreuil-sur-mer is a changed town, suddenly propserous
  • But where is Fantine?
  • A stranger, saves the Captain's children from a fire
  • Who is this Pere Madeleine?
  • A captain of industry
  • Says NO to being Mayor
  • Refuses royal honours
  • In 1820 changes his mind
'A good mayor is a useful person. How can you hold back when you have the chance to do good?'

  • Could this be a reformed Jean Valjean?
  • Vol 1 Book 5 Chapter 3 - Sums deposited with Laffitte
  • YES
  • 2 candlesticks on the mantelpiece 

Things I've learnt so far?

The translators often chose rather different words and phrases that created subtle differences in meaning and understanding. I suspect these findings will evolve into a much more comprehensive post at some point.

Twitter is a great forum for readalongs! Forget the hate and fake news and trolls. The #LesMisReadalong page is a fabulous source of fun, fellowship and information. Social media at it's very best.

How are you travelling so far?

Week 2 Catch Up
Week 1 First Impressions

Friday, 9 February 2018

Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch

Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch was her second book published in 1956. However, there is evidence that it was the first book she actually penned, according to Patricia Duncker, who wrote the Introduction in my edition.

Either way, Flight From the Enchanter is an assured piece of of writing by an emerging writer. But what does it all mean?

I found myself asking the same question when I finished Under the Net last month. It would seem that Murdoch preferred to write set pieces loosely linked together with apparent randomness and bizarre coincidences. These set pieces were often gorgeous pieces of writing. I will never forget Annette swinging from the chandelier as she leaves formal education to embark on the School of Life! Or, Annette again making an international call 'opening out telescopically, section after section.'

What did Annette actually learn though? Let alone any of the other characters.

Annette learnt about the lure of fascination and sexual politics when they made an appearance in her syllabus. But the lesson learnt, or the answer to the muddle, seemed to be found in running back to mummy and daddy.

Rosa allowed herself to become enmeshed in a sexual power play and a weird kind of cold war comic menace with the Polish brothers, Jan and Stefan.

John got caught up in office politics and an early wave of feminist action. He had no idea whatsoever how to act around women of any age.  The only reason someone as inept and as pathetic as he was had 'achieved' as much as he had was thanks to the old boys club mentality.

Peter suffered from translator blues. He worried about individual words and meanings and headed off on tangents. He was another ineffectual man bumbling along looking for a saviour.

Nina was an outsider open to manipulation and to being forgotten.

Mischa seemed to be the power base or the saviour that everyone else gravitated towards. He was mysterious and romantic with his Continental connections and obscene wealth.

But I think that Calvin was the real power behind the throne. He manipulated everyone, including Mischa. The real menace emanated from his machinations. Was he being guided by Mischa? Probably, but I suspect he also took matters into his own hands, to get what he wanted. And he definitely didn't want Mischa and Rosa together again.

One thing all these rather odd characters all had in common was their inability to act responsibly and decisively. They drifted and wafted and let themselves be manipulated. All except, Calvin Blick.

What did we learn? What did all these characters learn?

I'm really not sure, but it was a fascinating journey anyway.

More reviews for FFTE can be found with Liz @Adventures in Reading.

Under the Net

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

My Journey with Grace

GRACE was my ONE word of 2017. I have been watching Sheila's journey with her one word for the past five years with admiration and awe. But I never felt the need to join in. I had my own journey with significant words over the years, but the idea of choosing a new one each year didn't really fit my way.

Until last year.

It suddenly felt right to explore the possibility of a new word. Change was in the air. The The time was ripe. And GRACE was the chosen one.

The challenge of finding, accepting and allowing GRACE into my life has been much harder than I ever thought a word could or would ever be.

Every time I caught myself acting UNGRACIOUSLY, I would try to meditate my way back into a more peaceful, compassionate frame of mind. But it felt like a constant struggle.

Halfway through the year, I thought that paying attention to how GRACE manifested itself it the books that I read might help me to see it in my own life. So I made notes of quotes like the ones below.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry - Cora's letter

I live in a state of disgrace....Of course I've always been in disgrace with Frankie....And however kindly you write, I often feel I might fall from grace with you.

It is grace, again! he thought: Grace abounding to the chief of sinners

The Return of the King by J R R Tolkien - Aragorn to Eowyn

"for I walked in this land ere you were born to grace it".

Denethor to Faramir
Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen
She possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy and grace.

Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance

But even that felt unhelpful.

The battle to find GRACE, be GRACE, feel GRACE and share GRACE continued. And now, as I reflect on a year that was meant to embody GRACE, I feel like a failure. I feel that my year of GRACE has done nothing but show me how little GRACE I actually have.

GRACE mocked me all year.

There was nothing amazing or sweet about it.

I knew that 2017 would be the beginning of a time of change, but the changes that ended up arriving where not the ones that I expected (or wanted). Curiously, I handled the unexpected ones with far more GRACE than the ones I had planned for.

Perhaps GRACE wasn't the right word, or maybe it needs more time to work its magic? It was like I was punching above my weight all year; I was unable to make any headway with it. It felt like a brick wall, not a way forward. It was a hindrance, more than a help.

When I spotted this list poem by Marilyn the other day, it struck a chord.

Certainly, my 2017 ended up being a year of loss. It wasn't planned; I guess you could call it a surprise, but not a very pleasant one. My attempts to act with GRACE were not what I had in mind. Mistakes were made. Not being in control freaks me out, so perhaps all the loss and change that occurred during 2017 was part of my struggle in learning to let go GRACEFULLY (or not)!

On reflection, I can see that 2017 had lots of moments of honouring, generosity, adventure, serendipity, humour and kindness. Thanks to Mr Books, there was once again, an abundance of love and understanding.

But I was also prickily capable of nit-picking, impatience, distraction, moodiness and frustration. If anyone knows how to ask a teenager GRACEFULLY for the fifth time to do their chores or how to encourage a stuck-in-a-rut technophobe colleague to work to a more efficient, independent schedule, I'd be pleased to hear about it!

I think the religious connotations of GRACE were a factor in my year-long struggle. When trying to find discussions on GRACE it usually led to the GRACE of god. I am a non-believer - choosing GRACE as my word will not change that. Amazing GRACE may be my one and only favourite hymn but it's the pentatonic scale that moves me.

I wanted to engage in GRACE in a more secular way and I started to resent how the word GRACE had become so religious. Yet another example of my lack of GRACIOUSNESS!

In year's gone by, my one word has given me power, strength and a sense of purpose. But GRACE left me floundering.

I've spent some time recently trying to find secular, poetic or philosophical approaches to GRACE. I've littered this post with a few of them. However it was the Buddhist quote below that resonated most deeply as I realised that it was, in fact, LETTING GO that I had been engaging with all this time after all.

I've been learning to LET GO (sometimes GRACEFULLY; sometimes kicking and screaming) ever since the death of my good friend back in 2003 and, along with my life word, HOPE, LETTING GO is the other biggie that has been guiding me, influencing me and comforting me throughout this journey we call life (the back story for all of this can be found in the link at the top of the post).

It has taken a year of struggling with the wrong word, to finally lead me to the perfect one for me at this point of my journey.

I can now, very GRACEFULLY, and with relief, LET GO of GRACE. Her purpose, perhaps, was to lead me to the right word(s).

LETTING GO is the challenge that I've been embracing and practising for years. It is now time to do so consciously and with purpose.

Sheila @Book Journey is the facilitator of One Word Resolutions. I'm sure she won't mind that my word has taken a while to germinate and evolve.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

#6degrees February

#6degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Oftentimes I haven't read the starting book for this meme, but I can assure you that I only play the next 6 books with ones I have actually read. 
If I've read the book during this blogging life, then I include my review, otherwise, you just have to take my word for it!

This month the starting book is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sauders.
Are you game?

Old image alert - Kate @Books Are My Favourite & Best now hosts #6Degrees but this is a good refresh of the rules.

I've been rather distracted and all over the place these past few months.
November & December flew by in a blur of grief and busyness.
I sat down to write a January #6degrees post but inspiration failed me completely.

I'm hoping that February will turn things around.

1. It's my birthday month
2. I'm turning 50
3. It's my party & I'll cry if I want to
4. I'm enjoying my first w/e at home for ages
5. A lovely cool change blew in to Sydney during the week
6. I've had my first Saturday morning sleep-in this year
7. Lincoln in the Bardo was one of my favourite books of 2017

So where to next?
Lincoln in the Bardo was a courageous choice for the Man Booker Prize judges.
Many people are still struggling with the whole international (i.e. American) nature of the prize now.
And Lincoln in the Bardo was not, and is not, a conventional book.
It's structure and format frustrates and annoys many readers.
I however loved it from start to finish.

I had the same response to an earlier Booker winner that played around with structure and format, that many readers also failed to warm to... The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

One of the things I loved about it was Catton's ability to evoke such a strong sense of place.
It would be easy to now jump to Tim Winton as being another writer who has that amazing ability to write about place with such power, but I'm going to take a step to the right and pick Robert Drewe instead. His memoir styled story, Shark Net, struck a huge chord with me, even though I did not grow in WA in the 1960's!

Madeleine St John's The Women in Black is about a young girl coming of age in Sydney during the late 1950's. Even though I did not grow up in Sydney during this time, I did visit Sydney a lot in the 70's. Sydney in the 70's was obviously not that different to Sydney in the 50's - I recognised pretty much everything that St John mentioned.

Reading stories that reflect your own life and your own experiences are important.
Perhaps readers in England, Europe and the US don't feel this as strongly, but it took quite some time for Australians to feel comfortable with their fellow Australians telling stories to and about us.
I could write post after post on the Cultural Cringe that infected our artistic life for so long.
My childhood was spent reading about children living in England and Northern America in particular. The first story that I remember reading, that was set in Australia, occurred during my teen years when I discovered Pastures of the Blue Crane by H. F. Brinsmead in my school library.

Reading a book that was set in an area that I knew so well was such a powerful validation of identity. It was the first time that I was consciously aware of a sense of belonging and pride for this country that I was born into. 
Pastures of the Blue Crane also was my first introduction to an Indigenous perspective in literature.
Since that time, I have read many more stories and texts by indigenous authors.
The most recent was Dark Emu Black Seeds by Bruce Pascoe.

Lots of important ideas and issues were raised and discussed by Pascoe in this book, but one that continues to play through my mind is the idea of 'to the victor goes the spoils.'
History is so often written by the 'winners' - those that hold the power and all the resources.
Stories from the perspective of minority groups and the less powerful are forgotten, discounted or ignored completely.
In an attempt to address this imbalance one my current non-fiction reads is Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor.

From a story about ghosts and letting go, we journeyed through sense of place and belonging, to a history populated with the ghosts of inglorious misdeeds. 
The trick, it would seem, after learning how to let go, is to move forward.

Which leads us to March #6degrees where our starting book will be The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

World Read Aloud Day

Today is World Read Aloud Day

Lit World aims to:

Value the child’s own story.
Value our community-based partners.
Value reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing as powerful tools.
Value equity of access.

Grab your favourite picture book and toddler and #readaloud.
Maybe a family #readaloud session after dinner?
Try a poem - most are made to #readaloud.
Facetime your favourite person and share some special #readaloud time together.
#readaloud the next chapter in your book to your partner before going to bed.
Youtube or vlog your #readaloud experience.

Just #readaloud

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Hello Gen Z: Engaging the Generation of Post-Millennials by Claire Madden

I picked up Hello Gen Z because I was feeling rather confused. Who exactly are these Millennials we keep hearing about eating up all the smashed avocado? And whatever happened to Gen Y?

Until I read this book, I thought that Millennials were those born from 2000 on, except I don't know very many teenagers eating smashed avocado!

Claire Madden is a social researcher and demographer and she clarified the various generations very neatly in the list below.

Builders - pre 1945
Baby Boomers - 1946 to 1964
Gen X - 1965 to 1979
Gen Y (aka Millennials) - 1980 to 1994
Gen Z - 1995 to 2009
Gen Alpha - 2010 to 2024
Gen Beta - 2025 to 2039 (although this name is subject to change if a major event occurs in their early years like it did for the Boomers).

Mr Books and I are two Gen X-er's living with two Gen Z's. I was curious to read what a social researcher thought about the impact of new technology and social media on this cohort of teenagers.

The fascinating thing that struck me straight away though, was that (minus the new technology and social media stuff) I could have been reading about the teenage world of Gen X-er's in the 1980's as we battled our Builder parents who wanted to mend, fix and save everything!

Gen Z's are just as unrealistic, idealistic and hopefully insecure about their future adult lives as we were 30 years ago. The specifics of what they live with and deal with are different to what we had to manage, just as the 1980's was a different world from that in which the Builder's grew up in. But grow up you do. Some of that lovely idealism gets lost along the way as you find a way to live a worthwhile, purpose-filled life. You adapt, adjust and change.

Things I learnt:

  • Gen Y (Millennials) tend to be the children of Boomers.
  • Gen Z make up nearly a quarter of the world's population.
  • Average age for an Australian to buy their first home is still 32.
  • "rather than memorising the content 'just in case' they may need it in the future, it is about being able to access it 'just in time'. "
  • How to use the word 'lit' ironically in a sentence!
  • KIPPERS - Kids in Parents Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings.
  • Belfies - butt selfies - apparently it's a thing.

Things that annoyed me:
  • "Gen Z are looking for leaders who are real, authentic, relational and genuine." Aren't we all?
  • "there is often still a significant disconnect between how we are attempting to teach this generation, and how they are learning." This was a battle cry by educators 30 years ago during MY uni days - it's obviously an ongoing, evolving debate that hasn't just affected Gen Z. Perhaps its simply an unavoidable disconnect that happens whenever an older generation attempts to educate a younger group?

Things that saddened me:
  • "older generations 'get to experience the world. They know how and when to stop and actually look up and see what is happening around them.' Sophie (b.2000)"
  • 1 in 5 children and adolescents in Australia are affected by mental health and anxiety disorder issues.
  • "There is a longing for authentic relationships and belonging, yet on the whole, they seem to have underdeveloped face to face communication skills and confidence which would help facilitate depth of relationships and belonging."

Things that give me hope:
  • Heavy drinking rates are stable for Gen Y but "Gen Z appear to be getting the message...with nearly 60% refusing alcohol altogether."
  • Gen Z's feel that "their parents were a primary source of support and play a key role in helping them grow, learn and face the world."

Thursday, 25 January 2018

My Summer Reading Plans #2

Picture books have been part of my life since I started training as a preschool teacher 30 years ago. My more recent book industry career change still allows me to enjoy picture books. My teaching experience gave me an educational child-focused lens through which to view these books, but I've had to learn to see picture books through other lenses as a book buyer in an Indy bookshop. The lens of a parent, grandparent, child, family friend and librarian to name just a few.

When I first view a picture book, my first thought is still 'could I read this aloud to a group of children'? 'What is it's theme, educational or artistic value?' After a decade it is still hard to lose those teaching instincts!

As a bookseller, I've now learnt to also think about, 'would a parent enjoy reading this over and over again at bedtime'? 'would the child in question ask for this book to be read over and over again'? 'does this book have the grandparent awww factor'? 'does this book have themes, humour, aesthetics that will appeal to a modern young reader'? 'is the price reasonable'? 'is the author famous or well-known?' 'is there a gimmick that will attract media attention?' 'are the publishers putting lots of money & effort into marketing this book?' "is there a TV show or app that ties in with the book?' 'will this book sell even though I don't particularly like it myself?'

I often get to see beautiful, really special, unique picture books, but by the end, when I have to ask myself 'who will actually buy this book'? I leave them with the rep, un-ordered. Sad but true. No bookshop can stock every single book ever published. Choices have to made that consider local demographics, past sales, recent requests and current trends. Even those big warehousing online sites don't stock every single book in one place, especially now that there are print-on-demand and self-published titles flourishing in the same space.

Australian picture books do very well in my area of the world. Below is a small sample of what's on offer right now.

Little Dog and the Summer Holiday by Corinne Fenton

I'm a bit of a fan of Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher and the delightful dog stories. They tap into my nostalgia gene, even though I never experienced a summer holiday like they one they have depicted, I wanted to. 
'The long, lazy days of summer holidays waited like parcels in a lucky dip.'Exactly! Even when I was teaching, the beginning of the summer holidays stretched out endlessly ahead of me full of promise and anticipation. 
This time little dog is going on a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney with his family in a caravan. It's a gentle journey story with stops at the border, Gundagai before eventually crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge to go to Bondi Beach!! Hmmmmmm. 
So the geography of Sydney may have been changed a little to suit the story!
However, it's Cowcher's lovely, lovely watercolour illustrations that really make this story special. I love her colour palette especially the penultimate illustration from Pretty Sally looking back into Melbourne.

A gentle, meandering story, perfect for long, lazy summer's days.

 A Bag and a Bird by Pamela Allen

Iconic Pamela Allen and iconic Sydney, but not quite as satisfying as Alexander's Outing.
Young John from Kirribilli learns about the dangers of plastic bags to local wildlife when his lunch bag is picked up by the wind and caught by an ibis. It's not always possible to feel sympathetic towards those rubbish scavenging birds, but watching it flounder in the water as the bag filled up with water was upsetting (and could prove to be distressing to younger readers). 
Alexander's Outing had a stronger problem solving element to it, whereas this story is more about the environmental message. They could almost be companion stories, given the similar setting and style.
The map of Sydney Harbour on the end papers helps to show John's journey.

Wolfie by Deborah Abela

Deb Abela is more well-known for her fabulous junior fiction titles. As far as I know, Wolfie is her first foray into picture book territory, but it's a beauty!
Much like the wolf in Aaron Blabey's The Bad Guys, Wolfie just wants to be seen as good, kind and brave. He's tired of the bad boy image and the bad press. He wants to feature in a story where he gets to be the hero.
But the old stories and perceptions keep getting in his way.
Told with comedic delight, Abela's Wolfie is complemented by Connah Brecon's fun illustrations and naughty sense of humour.
Perfect for the 4+ reader and lovers of fractured fairytales of any age.

The Pink Hat by Andrew Joyner

Joyner is an Australian author and illustrator who has hit the mark with this lovely story about a pink hat and feminism. 
The black, white & pink illustrations take us on a fun journey as the pink hat warms toes, gets chased by cats and dogs, gets stuck in a tree, squeezed by a baby until it finds a safe home with a young girl...about to head off on a very special march. 
This is a picture book for younger readers, so there's not a lot of detail about why pink hats were a thing for International Day Women's March in 2017.
However as a former preschool teacher, part of what can be done with a seemingly simple story is to use it as a way into an adult-led discussion on the bigger topics and themes that are touched on by the author, in a way that's age appropriate for your audience.

My Summer Reading Plans #1 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

My Summer Reading Plans #1

The best laid plans and all that jazz.

This summer has been a bit of bummer when it comes to reading. Normally I love the lazy summer days as a great excuse to devour books by the bucket load - by the pool, on the beach or relaxing under the fan or air-con. But so far this summer, I've only had one whole day to do just that.

Life has continued it's hectic pace, with no let up in sight for the time being. *sigh*

My chapter a day #LesMisReadalong has been perfect and easy to fit into this new world order. But I miss finishing a book.

So I've been reading and reviewing various picture books on Goodreads to help me feel like I'm making progress (and to help me sound knowledgeable at work!)

Since I have no book reviews on the horizon (and no likelihood of a book review in the near future), I thought a picture book update was in order to keep these pages active.

My biggest find over Christmas, was the latest Rory the Dinosaur book. I fell head over heels in love with Rory and his dad and quickly hunted down the two earlier Rory books by Liz Climo.

Rory the Dinosaur Needs a Christmas Tree
I had resisted the charms of Rory and his dad - the simple drawings on the covers did not draw me in - but there was something about the joyful look on Rory's face as he was being tossed in the air by his Santa hat wearing dad that warmed the cockles of my heart this Christmas. 
So I opened the book. 
Oh, oh, oh, what an utter delight I found inside! 
How Climo manages to convey sooooo much emotion with little dot eyes is beyond me, but I'm completely heartbroken for Rory who realises he has to make do this Christmas without a Christmas tree. He and his devoted dad do everything they can to make it happen, but it doesn't work. The look on Rory's face as he goes to bed gazing at the spot in the loungeroom (with longing) where the tree should be just breaks my heart every single time I read the book (yes, I have read it multiple times this past month!)
Oh, oh, oh, but Rory's dad!!!
He wins the best dad in the whole wide world award for how he solves the problem.
It's a delightful laugh out loud, hug the book to your chest moment. You then immediately want to share the book with as many people as possible, to share the joy of Christmas with as many people as possible.
I am a doubter no longer.

Rory The Dinosaur: Me and My Dad
I'm now an official FAN of Rory and his marvellous dad. 
My love affair started with the more recent Christmas book, which to my mind, is the best of the three books, but this, the original story, is pretty fabulous too, I'm just not sure I can completely condone such helicopter parenting!

Rory The Dinosaur Wants a Pet 
It's hard not to love Rory and his dad.

Their simple lives, so delicately drawn by Climo, are genuinely touching and heartwarming but Rory comes across as being a little bit too simple in this story about finding a pet.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry at Rory's solution to the pet problem. Perhaps his dad's helicoptering parenting style (as seen in the first book) isn't allowing Rory to make good choices for himself?
The solution is clever and tragic at the same time. 
Making do, compromise and acceptance are all good traits to develop, but some better decision making skills might help Rory achieve his goals 
I know, I know, it's a picture book for kids, right?
But I'm weirdly that invested in Rory and his dad, that I want things to turn out okay for both of them. I sincerely hope Climo is writing and illustrating book four as we speak!

Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers

A great way to start the new year! 
It's hard not to be seduced by the special whimsy and charm of Oliver Jeffers but now that he's a dad, the aww factor has multiplied to the nth degree.

Here We Are is a love letter to his new born babe, showing him his own particular place is this big wide, wonderful world. Jeffers trademark humour and quirkiness abounds at every point and his illustrations provide the adult reader just as much pleasure as the younger readers.

Jeffers fans will also recognise several of his regular characters making cameo appearances. 
I can see this gorgeous picture book being given to many a newborn/new parent.
A classic in the making.

Australian picture books will feature in the next update post later this week.

What do you do when life gets in the way of your usual reading pattern?

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii by Robert Harris is my first bookclub read for 2018. 

I confess that Robert Harris is not a usual go-to author for me, although I've said that without ever having read any of his books before. I figured Pompeii would be okay as I'm always interested in anything Ancient Greek or Ancient Roman and Pompeii in particular has always fascinated me.

I visited Pompeii in 1991 on my grand European tour. It was an incredibly hot day which made it a little difficult to enjoy the sights and sites properly. But it left an impression on me that has lasted all these years.

Given that we all know what happened in Pompeii over those fateful few days in August 79 A.D. how could an author create enough tension or doubt to keep the reader guessing and turning pages?

By focusing on the role of the new aquarius for the Aqua Augusta, Harris achieves a great deal of suspense and believability in how someone might have actually survived the explosion. Knowing what happened also reminds us, the reader, of how futile and inconsequential our daily squabbles and conceits are in the face of complete annihilation. As aediles manoeuvered between power plays and slaves planned for the day they would be freed, as locals haggled for food in the markets and celebrated a public holiday, Vesuvius had even bigger plans that trumped anything and everything else. All of those schemes and hopes and dreams ended, leaving barely a trace behind. Human beings reminded once again, that our time here is brief and fragile and can be brought to an abrupt end by forces outside our control with barely a moments notice.

Lesson learnt?
By all means make plans for your future and dream about the things you'd like to do and be, but enjoy life NOW, act NOW and be the best you can be right NOW. Love where you are, who you are and the people you're with right NOW. All you really have is right NOW. Everything else once was or might be one day. All that stuff is fleeting and even as I write this, hundreds of moments of NOW have slipped by into my past, never to be retrieved again. The only person who cares about my NOW is me. So I might as well make it the best NOW that I can.

For me, right NOW, that's writing the best book post I can to reflect my reading experience with Pompeii.

The book wasn't necessarily the style of writing that I prefer, but the topic fired my imagination and prompted me to do some additional research - something that I LOVE to do. At times it felt like Harris stacked the story with as much of the information he had learnt about Pompeii as possible, but mostly Pompeii was an excellent yarn told by a storyteller who loves what he does.

My research found Pliny the Younger's letters about the eruption of Vesuvius as well as a recent article about the discovery of the charred and carbonised scrolls found in a library in Herculaneum - perhaps the same ones that Rectina was trying to save at the end of Harris' story.

In my search for the lost scrolls of Herculaneum, I discovered this interesting BBC documentary on the recent archaeological finds in the lesser known neighbour of Pompeii. If you have an hour to spare, I recommend taking a look; it complements the historical information included in Harris' novel beautifully. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

#LesMisReadalong Week 2 Chapters & Catch-ups

Week Two is still all about The Bishop.

I would hate to suggest that he was wearing out his welcome (see what I did there?) but I'm wondering when we might actually meet one of the BIG name characters I've heard about via literary osmosis over the years. (I think I'm the only #LesMisReadalong participant who hasn't read the book before OR seen the movie OR the musical. Everything is new and unknown to me.)

Below are some of the quotes from each chapter that caught my attention.

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 8 A Philosopher in His Cups:
The Comte: 

There is neither good nor evil but only growth.

The immortality of man is a daydream, a soothing promise which you may believe if you choose.

In the end, whatever you do, the grave is waiting.

The only thing to do is live.

The man who has nothing else has God.

God is for the masses.

What was Hugo's relationship with Marxism I wonder?

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 9 A Sister's Account of Her Brother:
Struggling to put aside my feminist lens as I read about 'two devoted women (who) subordinated their actions, their thoughts, even their timorous feminine instincts to his habits & purposes, without his needing to express them in words.'

And surely this was a ridiculous thing to say, even for it's time?
'that especial feminine genius which understands a man better than he understands himself.'

Although this attitude towards women is probably partly why Hugo was able to justify having so many extramarital affairs during his lifetime. 'They served him as the occasion required, and if the best obedience was to vanish from his sight they did so.'

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 10 The Bishop Confronted By a Strange Light:
The Comte___:
' is ruled by a tyrant whose name is Ignorance'

'Conscience is the amount of inner knowledge that we possess.'
'I voted for the overthrow of the tyrant - that is to say, for an end to the prostitution of women, the enslavement of men, the dark night of the child....I helped to bring about the downfall of prejudice & error.'

'The French Revolution was the anointing of humanity.'

The Comte also mentioned the case of Cartouche's brother being hanged by the armpits until dead as being as 'grievous' a crime as the 'innocent child martyred in the Temple for the crime of being the grandson of Louis XV'.

But who was Cartouche? And why was his younger brother hanged?

It turns out the Louis Dominique Garthausen, aka Bourguignon, aka Cartouche was the leader of a gang that terrorised Paris around 1719. He was eventually 'broken on the wheel' for his crimes in 1721.
For two widely different versions of Cartouche's life and crimes check out Executed Today and The Bandit of Paris
His brother's death sounded rather ghastly too. It was meant to be a non-fatal punishment/humiliation that involved being hanged under the armpits with the rope about his chest, for two hours. Unfortunately the weight of his body caused all the blood to run to his feet. He was cut down dead before the two hours time had passed.

It was a savage time indeed to be alive!

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 11 A Reservation:

A wealthy priest is a contradiction. A priest should be close to the poor.

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 12 The Loneliness of Monseigneur Bienvenu:

They confound the brilliance of the firmament with the star-shaped footprints of a duck in the mud.

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 13 What He Believed:

He believed as much as he could.

The Bishop's days overflowed with goodness of thought and word and action.

A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in - what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.

Vol 1 Book 1 Ch 14 What He Thought:

There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion.

But the REAL highlight about the end of Vol 1 Book 1 was a REAL life event. After being blogging buddies for about 7 years, Louise from A Strong Belief in Wicker and I finally met face to face.

It was an incredibly windy evening to be taking our copies of Les Mis on a ferry ride on Sydney Harbour, but we all survived intact! We enjoyed a fun evening talking books, blogging and life over a bottle of fine wine accompanied by some seriously delicious food (thank you Here's hoping it's the first of many such splendid catch-ups.

Louise has written a superb end of Vol 1 Book 1 wrap up post here.
Nick's Week One post about the Bishop is here, while his Week Two thoughts can be found here.

It's not too late to join in this magnificent readalong. Most of the chapters are only 2-3 pages long. Sixteen days in, I'm only up to page 82. If you've ever thought about reading this chunkster, but thought it was too overwhelming or too difficult, then think again. This slow, leisurely read is anything but overwhelming or difficult. It's very do-able and very enjoyable.