authors, book reviews, Books, Christmas, Life

An almost Christmas sampler: Books of 2017

If you are like me, you read. A lot. Constantly. You have books going at home, on your phone when caught (horror!) without a paper book. Books at work, for work. Articles saved to devour, later. Fiction and non-fiction, for study, for self, for work, for the liturgical year, for intellectual and personal improvement, for escape, for story telling, for philosophy and theology wrapped in narrative,  for book club. Bits and bobs of books floating in your head, because you read a line or a page and move on.

But some books stand out. You remember them, not necessarily because they were good or bad but because something touched that frozen sea within you.

These are some of the  (many) books I read in 2017:

The Dry by Jane Harper: Australian outback. Drought. And an almost colourless main character, detective Aaron Falk. I think it is often hard for a woman author to write a male, and for a male to write a woman. I think Aaron Falk is a simplistic character in a complex story, simply because it was easier for Harper to write a male that way. The story intrigues, however, in spite of  this, and in spite of the author’s obsession with weight – every character is a few kilos over ‘ideal weight’ or thin and at ‘ideal weight’. Can we describe characters without weight? It would be interesting to try. Nevertheless, the book intrigued me enough to make me read Harper’s second novel Force of Nature. I think she grew into her writing in this novel. It tries less ostentatiously to be Australian; it just is. A mystery with a good twist, set in the Australian bush.

The Strike series by Robert Galbraith (yes, the pen-name of J. K. Rowling): I wanted to see what Rowling was like, post Hary Potter.  I wanted to read what has been described as good, old-fashioned detective novels. I think you get hints that this book was written by Rowling – the detail of the world and the curiousity of the characters, for example. I was surprised, however, by the sexist description of women – those pert. high breasts... It may be that Rowling felt this was expected in a detective novel, ostensibly written by a man, with a male detective as the focal point. But what an opportunity missed, to write of women without describing breasts or legs or sexually pleasing looks? Overall, I liked the novels. I enjoyed the plots and the literary inclusions. I am a bit worried that book four, however, will feel compelled to weave romance into the plot. I don’t read detective stories for romance. Actually, I don’t read romance. I guess that says something about me. Good or bad.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: I tried to avoid this book. I hate the celebration of quirky characters that you know, like Ove from A Man Called Ove (a book I read this year by Fredrik Backman, for book club), have hearts of gold under problem exteriors,  in the narrative, but who, in real life, would be bloody annoying. And harsh. And mean. I think, too, that, in contrast to what these novels write, we are more than our pasts and our childhood, even our difficult childhoods (ask me how I know). But I stray. I gave in to this novel, it kept following me everywhere. And though the story and characters were a little contrived, I think Honeyman ( like Backman) is a good storyteller. And I love stories. The stories of who we are and why we are. The stories of different people, communities,  and experiences. The stories of  being human. While I gave this book away ( I keep less and less of my books) I loved it. In the end. Though I saw the ‘mother’ twist coming a mile off…..

download       The Scandal by Frederik Backman (published in the U.S. as Beartown): I mentioned  Swedish writer Backman above. I loved this book. ( You are surprised to hear me say I loved a book, right? After my commentary above. But I did like the books above. Truly. It was just a qualified like). Backman can write characters. He forms plot. He shows us different viewpoints. He tells a really good story ( I cried in Britt-Marie was Here, and smiled in My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologies). A topical story, of a community that struggles , of women and violence, of small town life as it is and not as we wish to see it through rose coloured glasses. Yes, I’ve lived in small, struggling towns.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin : This mught just be my favourite book of the year. Written from several different perspectives it is laugh out loud funny. It is Jewish humour as only someone who grew up in an American Jewish family could write. Yet, the humour reflects an edge, an important story  – why is that when women have affairs with married men, with  a married U.S. Senator in this case , why is it that the women are called sluts and whores and are slut-shamed? Even by other women; by other women who stand up as feminists but still blame the ‘mistress’. Indeed. This issue is so topical, and Zevin tells the story with humour and different voices. A really good read.

God is No Thing by Rupert Shortt : A non-fiction book of essays. Philisophical discussion of God. Theological discussion on scriptural interpretation and the effect of culture and context. Yet easy to pick up, and put down; read one essay at a time if you like. I’m keeping this book.

I Could Do Anything , If Only I Knew What It Was by Barbara Sher: While this is a self-help book, a positivist breezy book, it does contain nuggets of good common sense, even life-changing nuggets of ideas and concepts. It helped me recognise that I am not a careerist, pursuing one career, but a scanner, scanning and experiencing many different things, in  my life  and in my profession and work. And that is okay. I just need to keep reminding myself of that fact (and I need to earn more….). In a rut, both professionally and personally? Read this book. In sections. Not all at once. It is too much positivism to stomach all at once.

Finally, above all, remember why it is that we who are readers read. It just may be because:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” – Ernest Hemingway

authors, Books, childhood, compassion, family, Life, Unschooling

Divergent…and other stories

“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.” …

This quote, from the novel Divergent, highlights why some of what I read is Young Adult fiction.

I read for truth. Truth and hope. Divergent_(book)_by_Veronica_Roth_US_Hardcover_2011

Young adult novels, regardless of genre, reflect the virtue of hope. They are not afraid to honestly portray hope as a human desire. The worlds of YA novels are not tainted by unnervng, unforgiving, unending cyncicism. For, while cynicism, exists, as in Quicksilver by R. J. Anderson, the cynicism of  a girl who is different and who learns to mistrust others, there also exists a parallel of hope . Maybe things can be different. Maybe “… two people who care deeply about something bigger than each other,……drawn together by a shared commitment to that common ideal or goal” can describe both friendship – and love.

It is this hope that marks the call to action one encounters in YA fiction. YA fiction has a strong voice. It is often written in first person. It bends genres – think of Eleanor and Park – romance fiction but also realistic fiction, with some humour and the marks of pop culture. The novel, of despair tinged with hope and love, with a celebration of  different, is also, in its way, a coming of age and school story , with overtones of philosphical fiction (What does it mean to be us? What  is love? Who and what are we?).

Young adult fiction forms and informs the reader (And for those of us who are no longer young adults, it reminds us of this formation and youth).

Who can forget the strength, resilience and search for roots in Dicey, from Homecoming and Dicey’s Song?

Or the advice given to Opal, in Because of Winn Dixie, to hold those we love loosely, in the palms of our hands.

Young adult fiction encourages new writers. The writing is often superb. Articulate voices craft these stories. They invite us into the narrative, into the minds and souls of the characters. We become a different person after immersion in the lives of others.

We remember. And we look to the future.

We, like the young adults for whom YA fiction is written, begin to understand more of our complex world and more of the complexity of others.

YA fiction pushes us towards positive change.

authors, Books, Careers, Goals, Life, life hacks, self-help

Self-help yourself

IMG_20170905_122356In Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget wonders why her parents and their generation seem to have it all together. She wonders why they don’t seem to suffer the angst and worry of herself and her friends. Maybe, she ponders, maybe this happens because they didn’t and don’t read self-help books. Indeed, she questions whether the fact the she and her friends constant reading of self-help books is a “sort of, arrogant individualism which imagines each new generation can somehow create the world afresh.”

Bridget (book Bridget, lesser so movie Bridget) spends copious amounts of time referencing self-help books. Especially  when dealing with her own love life, or in helping her friends dissect their own romantic entanglements.

Are self-help books the problem, as Bridget questions in whatever current angst she is found? Or do self-help books actually, er, help?

There is no definitive research to show that these books help or hinder. Indeed, as Oran Canfield, son of Jack Canfield (the Chicken  Soup for…author) notes, there is often an alarmingly big difference between the public and private lives of self help gurus. They tell us how to get it all together, when they themselves don’t have it all together.

“I never had any faith in any of that self-help shit,” Oran has been reported as saying.

But what about personal experience? Have self help books improved your life – or mine, for that matter?

I cringe when I say it (in case admitting to reading self help books is akin to sneaking chocolate from a child) but, yes, self help books have been my aide and guide throughout my life. Yes, so many of them say the same things in repetition. Yes, so many of the advice seems superficial.  Yes, few of the authors have credentials or even experience enough to write the self-help, self-improvement book.

But sifting through some self help manuals has allowed me to pinpoint what it is exactly that is good in my life. Sorting through visualisations and mantras has given me a sixth sense for bullshit – and a sixth sense about when something, however outlandish, might work. (Who knew that Cheryl Stayed changing the script given to her as a woman, her “I am brave, I am safe, I am strong” affirmation, would remind me of my courage and power and allay my fears?).

Self-help books led me to philosophy.  To Aristotle’s idea of the science of happiness

To the mean between two excesses – you know, that balance that we all talk about.

Self- help, it seems, stretches back to ancient times.

We become reflexive people. We are inspired to make better choices. We take positive action. We think about the big questions in life.

And we learn more about ourselves and others.

What self-help books have helped you?


authors, Books, compassion, family, Life, life hacks

I read because.

I am sitting in a bookshop after work. In the bookshop cafe. Drinking tea. Writing. Reading.

I like to read. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction. But in either form I enjoy the description of ideas and people. Reading challenges my mental paradigms, and helps me gather new ones, new thoughts, new ideas, perhaps layered upon and blended with the old.

Reading can be both public and private. Indeed, it has been said that reading, especially reading fiction, encourages empathy  – that it is a kind of empathic technology.

I don’t know if that is particularly true but I do know of the power of narrative transportation. Indeed, research been shown that millennials who were immersed in the Harry Potter narratives have been influenced in terms of empathy for the outsider. This has, apparently also affected their votes.

Now that is pretty powerful. As Neil Gaiman said: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented”.

Reading thus becomes a conversation. Reading together can draw us together, as individuals and families and communities. Barack Obama, on meeting author Marilynne Robinson, commented: “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you”.

I think reading, and reading aloud as a family, has encouraged us to see new and different viewpoints. To question and to think.

And, most of all, I think reading has been a pleasure in my life, both reading on my own and reading aloud to children. The stories have woven threads of pleasant memories.




authors, Books, childhood, family

Your favourite author at age 11?

I remember when I was eleven. For a time, we lived with my grandparents in a three bedroom apartment. It was a year when I only attended one school (a milestone in my sixth grade year, in comparison to the four different school of the previous year). I moved to a new school (yet again) at the start of the year. And, in the wide school library, I discovered the author E. L. Konigsburg1048816

The first book I read by Konigsburg was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elisabeth. Yes, it inspired me to start a ‘witches club’ for, like Jennifer, I was new to the school and area and wanted to make my mark, knowing I would not fit in easily.  Then I discovered From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. A book I have savoured. A book that continues to inspire my love for museums (and my occasional wish to run away!).  A book I have shared with many children, my own and others, that still inspires each generation.

What did I like about these books and this author?

I liked the honesty about the little things in life. The details. The conversations.

I liked how Konigsburg weaved stories of growth amid the realisation of adventure in the every day…and in the everydayness of the stories. Konigsburg had the  ability to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary,

I enjoyed (enjoy) her descriptions. Plain. Unadorned. But never simplistic.

I appreciated, and do so even more today, her use of phrasing. A word here, a word there, clusters of text that made me catch my breath and know, inside, that my own story had been articulated.

The characters’ lives, in each of those two books, suggested normalcy. And normalcy was a perfume for me as a child, in my own mixed-up, muddled-up life.

The stories of Elisabeth, and Jennifer, and Claudia and Jamie, whispered to me that, maybe, one day, I could write too. I already scribbled stories and novellas in the back of my old school exercise books. Konigsburg’s writing encouraged me to believe that I, too, could write stories like her. Stories of childhood and life.

E. L. Konigsburg, like Cynthia Voigt, wrote of children and for children, with raw, compassionate honesty. With terse but haunting descriptions. Of plots and characters that echo life with that hint of more.

Because “Having words and explanations for things is too modern..” ( ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’).

What was one of your favourite childhood novels?download





Books, Catholicism, Life, politics, refugees, Women

What should we read, right now?

9781408855706_309035.jpegDolores Umbridge: I am sorry, dear, but to question my practices is to question the Ministry, and by extension, the Minister himself. I am a tolerant woman, but the one thing I will not stand for is disloyalty. 
Minerva McGonagall: Disloyalty? 
Dolores Umbridge: Things at Hogwarts are far worse than I feared. 

If I were homeschooling now, in this age of fear of immigrants, of wishing to publish (weekly) crimes of ‘aliens’, of the rippling effects of such decisions across the world, I would re-read the Harry Potter books with my children. Heck, I’ll probably re-read them now myself, anyway.

J.K. Rowling got it right. The Ministry of Magic and Dolores Umbridge are perfect characterisations of swift, reactionary, dare I say populist policies delivered under the guise of protection. So that when others criticise the policies and actions, these others are criticised as simply being ‘others’, as being ‘disloyal’, as anti-ministry (anti-government) rebel rousers.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, in particular, demonstrates the creeping effect of policies and culture that choose to focus on what appears to be good, or even on what is actually good, while ignoring that which is also bad in the regime. Indeed, the swift action in trying people who are against the Ministry of Magic, of picking targets for fear and hate, allows the Ministry to create a culture of fear with misinformation.

Harry Potter: But if I keep popping in and out of the Ministry, won’t it look like I approve of what they’re doing? 

Rufus Scrimgeour: It would give everyone a boost to think that- 

Harry Potter: No, sorry. I don’t think that will work. I don’t like some of the things the Ministry are doing. Locking up Stan Shunpike, for one. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I would not expect you to understand. These are dangerous times. You are sixteen years old- 

Harry Potter: Dumbledore’s a lot older than sixteen, and he doesn’t think Stan should be locked up either. You’re making Stan a scapegoat, just like you’re trying to make me a mascot! Later. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I see. You prefer – like your hero Dumbledore – to disassociate yourself from the Ministry. 

Harry Potter: I don’t want to be used. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: Some would say it’s your duty to be used by the Ministry! 

Harry Potter: Yeah, and others might say it’s your duty to check people actually are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison! You’re doing what Barty Crouch did. You never get it right, you people, do you?! Either we’ve got Fudge, pretending everything’s lovely while people get murdered under their noses, or we’ve got you, putting the wrong people in prison and pretending you’ve got the Chosen One working for you!

The parallels with the current immigration crisis and subsequent vetos on immigration and dislike targeted towards groups of people, as though a few speak for the many, is evident.

And J. K. Rowling again got it right. Because the novels offer hope. Hope in the actions of those concerned for truth, compassion and mercy. Hope that we, too, like Harry and his friends, can make a positive difference in the narrative of fear. To fight for mercy, to be merciful, again and again.

[Harry thinks to himself] …’how they had talked about fighting a losing battle, and that it was important to fight, and to fight again, and to keep fighting, to keep evil at bay, though never quite eradicated.’

We can take positive action, in both small and big ways. Read, write, share information. Pray. Volunteer. Donate. Discuss. Take political action even. Look carefully at how we treat others and for whom we vote.

Remembering the dignity and respect that should be offered to all of humanity, even when it may be difficult or inconvenient or have an economic cost. For not everything can be counted in economic terms. Not everything is political. Most everything involves humanity, and remembering that people, you, me, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, not objects but people, are affected and are involved.

So that we keep on working for that which is good for all. There is no turning back once we realise the good.

You’ve said to us once before that there was a time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we? (Hermione, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’).


A learning habit?

One thing we homeschoolers and unschoolers are often asked is ‘How do you teach your kids?’… Or, ‘Are you a teacher?’

What I have found it that it matters less what and how or if we teach.

What matters more is that we develop a learning habit and a learning environment. A habit where we peg activities onto other activities rather than a mad rush through the day .A habit that reinforces that which we know is most important – books, free time, family time, discussion, time outdoors.

A habit of reading and talking together. Sharing books and thoughts.

I have often felt that it is this learning habit, some rhythm in our days or week, with lots of reading and talking that has ‘made’ our education. People ask how it is that my sons do well at undergraduate and postgraduate study. I think it is because they have developed that learning habit, borne out of rhythm, experience, passion, and love.

It was gratifying to read of the importance of these factors (habit and reading) in a book called ‘The Learning Habit’. Yes, it is written to help parents and children with school homework and with establishing patterns of learning for school and college success. Yes, there are issues I have with the book concerning screen time and bedtime (but I also acknowledge that these issues are more important for families with children at school then they are for unschoolers).

However, it was encouraging to note the studies, experiences and anecdotes that describe the positive effect on children of ‘a learning habit’, namely a routine or rhythm in their life (not necessarily every day) and a value placed on reading and reading aloud and family time.

Almost a recipe for unschooling.learning habit