Category Archives: Books

The Little Pond in the Woods

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Why we write

The vast majority of the human race drifts without record from conception to extinction. Their lives go unrecorded, and it is only theology which might make us suppose that these individual lives have any previous or future existence, or indeed, during their palpable existence on earth, that they have any identifiable significance. For most, it is a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing; but, most significant of all, it is a tale which is not told. It is only by telling the tale that we create the illusion that there is a tale to tell. The rise of the rise of the novel in literature, which came with a great resurrection in the art of biography, a passion for journals, letter writing, personal confessions and memoirs, all of which happened shortly before or during the lifetime of Rousseau, gave to articulate beings the means of creating a shape, of holding onto words and moments which would otherwise be forgotten, of creating a barricade against death.

A. N. Wilson, Tolstoy, W. H. Norton and Co, 1988, pp. 88 – 89.



Cross posted

New Zealand Labour Day, 2010

Yesterday, Madame Grémont, the cleaning lady, brought Maman a bouquet of roses. … OK, I won’t go into the fact that Madame Grémont gives roses to Maman. They have the same relationship that all progressive middle-class women have with their cleaning ladies, although Maman thinks she really is the exception: a good old rose-coloured paternalistic relationship (we offer her coffee, pay her decently, never scold, pass on old clothes and broken furniture, and show an interest in her children, and in return she brings us roses and brown and beige crocheted bedspreads).

From The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Paris: Gallic, 2006 (trans. 2008).

From time to time when we have both been working full time, or near full time, we have employed cleaners, and we have always paid them decently, ensured they have paid tea breaks, asked them to do a springclean instead of a regular clean if we are going to be away (even if we don’t need the house cleaned, the cleaner still needs her wages), tried to treat them respectfully as people who are providing a much needed service for us. Plus I have always insisted that they not clean the toilets: we can clean up our own sh*t.

Even so, this paragraph from this excellent novel hit home. All the same, I wonder what the alternative is? Should I treat people who come into my home to clean with less respect than say, tradies who come in to fix taps and drains and electrical connections and the like?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is to remember that cleaners and other workers are entitled to the full protection of the law. The quality of their employment is not dependent on an employer’s fancies, but on the conditions that have been fought for by unions, and enshrined in law. And decent employers should comply with those conditions, not because they fear the might of the law, but because they are the minimally decent way to behave with respect to other human beings.

The slow reveal

Cross posted

If Tracey Crisp’s novel, Black Dust Dancing, is characterised by the pauses and little actions of everyday life, then Kate De Goldi’s novel, The 10pm Question, is all about the slow reveal. So much so, that to tell you about some of the key points of the novel is to spoil the process of revelation. So I shall be careful about what I say here: I will reveal some, but only the necessary, and leave some for you to read for yourself. Because you ought to read this novel.

The 10pm Question is seen through the eyes of Frankie, a 12 year old boy. His life seems normal, just the everyday activities of a boy and his family, even if overlaid by his anxiety. He has responsibilities, and he worries. Constantly. Mostly, he worries about his mother.

This is the point at which you should stop reading if you plan to read this book for yourself. At this point, I’m going to give a reveal. It doesn’t ruin the plot, but I can’t write about this book without revealing why Frankie worries about his mother.

Frankie’s Mum has a mental illness. It constrains her life, and affects every member of the family, in different ways. Not in frightening ways. But in ways that push Frankie and his sister and his brother, and Uncle George.

This is where Kate De Goldi writes about mental illness so well. As I read the novel, it took me some time to realise that Frankie’s mum, Francie, has a mental illness. Bit by bit I realised that something was not quite usual with Frankie’s world. I realised that his mum was not a standard mum, and then I realised that she had a mental illness, and only after quite some time did I work out the exact nature of her illness. It was like real life, when we first assume that someone we have just met is a standard issue person, and then we realise that something is a bit unusual, and then that the person may have a mental health problem, and then, possibly, work out a little about the nature of a problem. In real life, a person’s mental illness is often a slow reveal, to themselves, and to the people around them. Kate De Goldi has mirrored this slow reveal in the way she has written this novel.

De Goldi doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of mental illness, for the person who has it, and for the people around her or him. When Frankie finally flies to his great aunts (three women of large size and large personality), the eldest aunt doesn’t try to smooth over the problems, to pretend that they don’t exist.

“Oh Frankie,” she sighed. “Isn’t it hard?”

That’s one of the things I like about this book. It doesn’t try to pretend that illness is easy, that everyone can just take the pills and be happy. Kate de Goldi’s characters cope, but there are costs for each of them too. Above all, there are costs for Francie. She has found a way of living, a way of managing, a way of being… content, even if not happy per se. But there are costs. Fancie is no super-crip. She’s just an ordinary woman, who copes as best she can with the way her life has turned out.

I also like Frankie’s perspective. He seems to me to be a thorough-going twelve year old, full of plans and rituals and speculations. It was fun to see the world through a twelve-year-old’s eyes, to see things that he didn’t, and realise that he saw things that I simply could not perceive.

You should read this book. It’s entertaining, but it’s also thought-provoking. And it is instructive. Not in the sense of being didactic, or moralistic, at all. But in the sense of revealing aspects of the way that human beings can be, with sympathy, and without judgement.

Ms Twelve read this book too, and loved it. It’s well within the reach of a perceptive twelve year old, ‘though I suspect that she will find more in it if she reads it again when she is older.

Star the thirteenth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Tuesday 13 July without touching the demon drink is The Stellar Café, which is a blog written by Peter H. Reynolds, writer and illustrator and for want of a better word, inspirationalist.

(Description: Screen shot of The Stellar Café blog)

I was particularly taken with the post that happened to be at the top of the page when I first clicked through to The Stellar Café: Sparks in the Universe, which tells us what stars are. I found the metaphor very encouraging, especially for a blogger who has thoughts to share, but sometimes finds they have gone somewhere else before they make onto the screen.

Peter H. Reynolds is the author and illustrator of The Dot and ish, books which encourage people, especially children, “to be brave about expressing ourselves.” There’s a third book, The North Star, which is about quirky and unusual thinkers. I must hunt it out for the younger Miss Eight.

Many thanks to Ele, of HomePaddock, for suggesting this star to me. My star chart is becoming interactive! You can find more about Peter H. Reynolds and his work at his official homepage.