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.

No one has the right to live without being shocked

Philip Pullman has published a new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (review by Rowan Williams).

Predictably, people are offended.  But in this clip, Pullman has a marvellous, measured response.*


Questioner: Mr Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say.

Philip Pullman: Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their lives without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it, and if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things. But there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.


*I was unable to embed the clip, possibly because it is on Philip Pullman’s publisher’s Youtube channel
*I typed up the transcript myself. I’m sorry if there are any mistakes in it.

A weekend with Jane

We spent the weekend engaged with Jane Austen.

My lovely mother has been staying with us, but coming from cool Taranaki, she is not accustomed to hot Adelaide days. On Saturday, it was 37 degrees, and windy, so we retreated indoors. I had various chores to get done, as did Mr Strange Land, but the strangelings begged to watch Pride and Prejudice. (They have such good taste!) Mum and the girls settled down on the sofas, and watched it all. I managed to catch most of the highlights, including that scene, and eventually gave up pretending to do any housework, and sat down with them for all of the last episode. The girls were entranced, but the Misses Eight think that there ought to be a sequel.

On Sunday, Mum and I went to a concert in the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Jane Austen’s Music II. It was delightful. Soprano Gillian Dooley has put together a programme of songs from Jane Austen’s music books, the manuscripts and books held at Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton. Some of the songs are well known, but others are the comic and parlour songs of the day. All are songs that Jane Austen herself would have played.

Gillian Dooley has a pretty voice, and an affectionate approach to the songs. As she sang, I could imagine Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood, and the happy Misses Musgrove singing just such songs.

The songs were interspersed with readings from Austen’s works, and some solo piano pieces, played by accompanist Fiona McCauley. I thought she was excellent. She played unobtrusively, supporting Gillian Dooley beautifully, except for some songs where there was real interaction between piano and singer, and in those songs her playfulness and delight in playing come to the fore. It was a very effective partnership.

As I watched Pride and Prejudice on Saturday, I was struck by the forced emptiness of the Bennet women’s lives. They had so little to do, except for the busy-work of pressing flowers and embroidering and going for walks in the countryside. One of the few duties that young ladies were expected to fulfill was that of providing music, to while away the long evening hours in polite society. This concert gave me a better understanding of just what that music might have sounded like.

And it was very enjoyable. I love Jane Austen’s books, and I love singing; this was an ideal combination for me. Gillian Dooley and Fiona McCauley are presenting the programme again at this year’s Jane Austen Festival in Canberra (15 – 19 April). I’m not trekking over to Canberra for the festival (that’s just a step too far, literally and metaphorically for me), but if I were, I would happily listen to this concert again.