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

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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, 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, Careers, Goals, Life, life hacks, self-help, Women

It’s not your fault you don’t have what you want.

‘It’s my own fault’, we say. ‘I should have just picked myself up and moved along’.

We love to play the blame game. Blame ourselves for our choices or for our indeficiencies.

But you know what? Life is not a fault-playing game. Very few of us go out and think ‘I hope I mess up my life. I hope I make dumb decisions. I hope my life sucks.’

Nope. Instead, we did what we could with what we had and who and where we were.

We made decisions and life choices that we may make differently now, but that shows learning. Growth. Change. Maybe we wouldn’t be who we are today if we hadn’t learned from choices and experiences.

We were not deficient. We were trying in any way we could to reach out to life and others. Things happened. We didn’t get what we wanted. But, in the process, we learned. We became examples for others, for our children, for the world (even if it was an example of what-not-to-do and of how-to-extricate-yourself-from-a-bad-situation).

Bootcamp programmes often tell us that ‘You’re not trying hard enough’. Self-help memes note that ‘You don’t really want to change’. As though blaming the person (you) is good business . I’m here to tell you that it’s not.

It’s also not good self-care.

Because you know what? You do want change. But you can’t try without the fuel to try. I mean, a car can’t run without fuel. We don’t tell the car it is not trying hard enough to go. We give the car fuel, and regular tuneups. We give it oil and run it through a car wash. We give it a little care.

And that is what we need to give ourselves. The fuel and care. It is okay that we haven’t yet achieved what we thought we would achieve. It is okay that we haven’t yet got what we wanted. Yes, it is even okay that we still aren’t sure we know what it is that we want. We couldn’t run on empty.

We did what we could. Maybe we even emptied ourselves in that doing . We couldn’t then get what we dreamed of. That doesn’t make our dreams , or ourselves, worthless.

We just need to re-fuel.

Then make some changes. Work on the problem, and on the dream.

The changes you make will be as individual as you are. And, don’t worry, you don’t have to achieve it all to be or get what you want. You will continue to learn even if or when you fail. No blame.

To paraphrase author Barbara Sher, don’t let  yourself and others judge you. Anyone can judge. Judging is cheap.

Reflection and learning and growth and change, on the other hand, are of significant value.

Indeed, iIMG_20170409_093826t’s not your fault. It’s your chance.

 

 

Books, Careers, Catholicism, compassion, family, Goals, Life, religion, speaking up, Women

I am finally living a life which I am actively participating in, rather than merely enduring.

No, I didn’t write that title. I got the quote from this blog post. And I am not entirely living that life of participation rather than enduring. But.. I am working on it.

Do you often note themes in your reading? Right now, nearly everything I read seems to involve change – Mercenary Mum (it’s okay, sons, I am not running away to be a mercenary…), Healthy is the New Skinny , Pope Francis’ The Name of God is Mercy.

And other books.

I realise that in my life, since I was a teen, a young mum, a business owner, a teacher  -and in my work and study and careers -the motif of endurance has often been pushed – snap! in place – right into the forefront. But when I endure I forget to participate. I forget to be active in my life. I am reactive rather than generative.

The trouble with endurance is that, sometimes, when I am so busy enduring, my life slips by. I stay stuck. I seem unable to become unstuck.

Pope Francis, in ‘The Name of God is Mercy’ reminds us that  “The name of God is mercy. There are no situations we cannot get out of, we are not condemned to sink into quicksand.”

This, I think, is important to remember.

There are some people (and some organisations) that exist by feeding us an unrelenting diet of belief in our own inadequacy. You will never be quite right, they say. Do this, be more, try more, study more ( or buy this…and follow that..).

But, you know, this is my only  life. Now. As Pope Francis noted, there is mercy – for me, as well as for others.

What would this look like in practical terms? The idea of mercy and participation in the place of only endurance?

I think I can see some practical jolts, that shock and startle participation and change.

  • It’s okay to have free time. Really. This is hard for me as I like to get up, read my morning book, walk or do other exercise, work on to do lists and have-tos….but thIMG_20170503_180218.jpgen I never get to want-tos. I never allow myself to sit and drink tea and just relax. Showing mercy to ourselves and others might just start here. With some free time. Without the nagging sense of “I should be doing…”
  • You are okay. Don’t let yourself and others fuel any inadequacy. You don’t need to lose 5 kg or be the best-all-the-time or always be the mediator. You don’t always get to be ignored either. You can speak up. Your voice matters.
  • And, if you’re not okay , then do something about it. Now. Seek help. Now.  Read. Look at retraining or adding to your knowledge. Change jobs – have a variety of jobs, a portfolio of jobs rather than one main work. Seek counselling. Just do it.
  • Then, finally, look at this list and throw it away. You don’t need me to tell you how to participate in life. Heck, I don’t even need this list (though writing it is an awesome reminder for me). Just do something today that makes you participate rather than endure. Then do more tomorrow. Laugh. Flick your hair. Grab a coffee. Look up that course or job online. Become a bartender. Write a blog post. Make biscuits with your children. Go for a walk  – on a different route.

Because nobody can tell you how to participate in life. You have to do it. (Though mercy, love and support from others can help, right?)

 

 

 

 

 

Life, Unschooling

Learning and teaching

I learned lessons in my childhood, life lessons, lessons about who to be and how to be.

My sons learned these lessons, unconsciously, from me, as I lived my homeschooling life.

And they, in turn, taught me many things.

Families do that. We live together and in our everyday moments we teach and learn.

Is that magnified in a homeschooling family? I think it may be, because, you know,we spend more time together than most.

in my childhood, I learned not to be vulnerable. I learned to be resilient. I dealt with family difficulties by being perfect at school, that good girl who got good grades and never caused a fuss.

Some of these I unknowingly, I unwittingly, passed onto my sons. That resilience. That don’t make a fuss but just cope with it and move on. That strength.

Of course, the strength can mask the sorrow or pain. We are good at that in my family.

The force of strength and resilience is strong with us.

And that’s not a bad thing at all.

What have my children taught me, in turn?

To be vulnerable. To have a child is to become vulnerable, because you love and are in awe of creation.

Motherhood and homeschooling made me vulnerable. Vulnerable because of love. Vulnerable to criticism. I mean, by homeschooling or, God forbid but I freely admit it, unschooling, you naturally open yourself to observation, and sometimes, to criticism. I had to face my people pleasing Hermione nature … You can’t please everyone when you are unschooling.

I learned, from my kids, that the different path can be a good path. Even if it makes me vulnerable and different and, currently, earning less than I should have done had I worked and pursued my career. Instead of pursuing unschooling.

Learning and teaching are the stuff of life. We give who we are to our families , we learn and we teach, they learn and they teach.

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