authors, book reviews, Books, Women

A book for Mother’s Day?

Inspired by Lisa’s post on books for Mother’s Day, I thought I’d write about one of my current reads. The main character is a mother and wife. Thus, it’s loose Mother’s Day connection.

At book club recently we discussed adult fairy tales. The patterns in the narrative. The occurrence of a magical event that transforms. The presence of a mentor or helper. The repetition in plot. The novel I write of below does not fit this genre and yet…there is a  thread of the repetition and mentor in all spy thrillers. Think John Le Carre here, for example.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland is both a domestic novel and a spy/espionage thriller. Written by a one-time CIA analyst herself, the book provides a strong sense of realism. The reader can imagine the day-to-day work of an analyst, the drab ordinariness of what often seems to be an exciting career in espionage to an outsider.

Viven, the  protagonist, is a CIA analyst who comes across a file of Russian agents. One of whom is her husband, the father of her four young children, the husband she loves and with whom she shares a life, worrying about children, schools, money, the mortgage.

What would you do? Much of the first part of the novel involves Viven asking herself that question, amid flashbacks to the first meeting with her husband, the moment they became engaged, the time they discussed having children. Each flashback provided me with the firm conviction that Matt, Vivien’s husband, is a manipulator and not to be trusted – but is he? Vivien herself seems unsure.

Written in first person active narrative, this thriller kept me interested. I admit that I am a fan of thrillers, and of espionage stories in particular. It is a Mother’s Day story with a difference. Not flowery or happy or breezy but an edge of your seat thriller. I kept thinking – What would I do? (The answer is turn him in, to be honest. Vivien’s deliberation and neediness just pains me. Her almost helplessness in the face of the threat that her husband poses is a flaw in the novel.)

Interestingly, the book’s film rights have been sold to Universal Pictures with Charlize Theron taking the role of Vivien. Should be interesting. A possible future Mother’s Day film?9780593079591.jpg

 

 

 

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, Travel

All roads lead to Austen?

Are you a Jane Austen fan? I am. And I have often wondered how the simple stories of villages and the fate of women can hold so many generations.

I think it comes down to style. Jane has a quiet satirical style. For her novels are not really romances (though Hollywood might disagree). Romances are  not enough to hold my attention. And, I think, the attention of generations. Instead, her novels tell of the raw  life of women – in her time, and in ours.

Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character……Here ……are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness. It has the permanent quality of literature. Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values. Virginia Woolf

Looking deeper into Austen’s novels has thus become a habit of mine. Her characterisation is, indeed, her genius. Her commentary on social mores and the lives of women are both humorous and full of depth. So, you can imagine my delight at finding a copy of  All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year Long Journey with Jane by Amy Smith at a local thrift shop. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane

Smith, a literature professor at a college in California, embarked on a sabbatical of travel through South America. I don’t know about you, but I love travel stories and travel diaries. During this year, Smith taught some classes to American exchange students, gave some lectures and talks on her travels, and on Jane Austen ( her special interest). Importantly,  however, for the book and for Austen fans (whom Smith calls ‘Jane-ites’) Amy Smith runs Jane Austen book club discussions in each of the six countries she visits.

Smith’s writing style, alas, is not as poetic or delightful as is the style of Jane Austen. Indeed, parts of Smith’s book seem simplistic and, well, a tad boring. Overall, however, I have enjoyed the book – for two main reasons.

The first is the description of Smith’s travels. I adore travel. I also adore armchair travel, reading about the travels of others . Having never visited South America, I became engaged in the descriptions of the six countries that Smith visited, their similarities and their differences, their culture, their food, their bookshops. For Smith, rather than imposing  the English Austen on her audiences, also engages in collegial book sharing. Each book club she visits makes suggestions for Smith on must-read novels and authors from that region. As a book-lover myself, the suggestions of new-to-me authors, against the backdrop of their culture, was an introduction to new reading and new paths of exploration.

The second reason why I enjoyed All Roads Lead to Austen, regardless of the somewhat prosaic writing style, is the discussion of how Jane Austen’s novels superseded culture and time. Each book group found something of value in Austen’s works. Each found connections with characters and conflict. Each book group, in each of the six South American countries,  found time to read a translation of an Austen classic in order to discover or re-discover the relationship between art and humanity, that relationship which marks human solidarity.

As one of the book club participants in Ecuador said, while reading and discussing Pride and Prejudice, “If you don’t fight for space in your life for art and conversation, so much will pass you by—for anybody, but especially for women, since we’re always taking care of others.” 

A feminist thought that Jane Austen echoed, in her life and in her work.

Books, Goals, Life, life hacks, self-help, Travel, Unschooling

The energy of travelling-to-a-place.

In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert notes that ‘Traveling-to-a-place energy and living-in-a-place energy are two fundamentally different energies’.

IMG_20170318_113106
That bullet journal thing.

On my monthly trips to Canberra (Australia’s capital city) , on the Greyhound bus or Murrays coach, I have noticed the ebbs in energy. The day starts with promise. On the bus at 8 or 9, depending on which coach service I use. Books, snacks,  a drink, laptop, phone, bullet journal, all accompany me. I am set for the day. The energy level is high, full of portent, for who knows what the day will bring?

My lunch time forage in Canberra is always at the National Gallery. Sometimes I find thirty minutes for art. Sometimes I spend twenty minutes in the gallery bookshop, amid books and journals and awe-inspiring merchandise. Always, I retreat to the coffee shop, with the view of trees and water and the intriguing, tasty menu. I eat. I think. I look. I rest. Before work and seminars.

I imagine that this feeling of thoughtful rest is what it would be like to live here, in Canberra. I imagine that I would visit the gallery regularly. I imagine a life of creativity.

I think imagine is the clear, cinnamon word here. For then I rush. To work. And to grab an uber  back to the bus station that evening (It has been said that you know a city  by its public transport. Or lack thereof. The paucity says something of Canberra, I think).  With dwindling energy for the three and a half hour bus trip home.

Canberra has become a monthly interlude of solitary reading and reflection. A joy.

Canberra has become a monthly sapper of energy, on the long bus trip home, often sitting in the dark.

In this way, Canberra for me  exemplifies the two energies of which Gilbert wrote. The energy of visiting and the energy of living. That contradiction we often feel in our lives, between doing and being, working and living.

Do we live our life in interludes or is there a seamlessness about our life and work and play and love? Can we grab life by its shirt collar, pull it towards us and enjoy, before it passes in energy drained?

Monthly trips to Canberra remind me that life should be grabbed at, lived in, loved in, experienced. It should reflect the creativity and reflection of both our interior and exterior selves.

We should reach out to life..before things snap us up, and tie us down. Before life decides for us how we should live.

We should decide for ourselves. With reflection and energy and others.

Our life then is never cut and dried. We reflect and make change. We enjoy the status quo but know that there is always another road. Another journey. Another adventure to explore.

And getting there, wherever there is, whatever our goals and duties are in life, is half the fun.

Enjoy.

 

 

Books, Careers, Goals, Life, life hacks, self-help, Travel, Unschooling, Women

Travel far enough. You will meet yourself.

(A paraphrase of a thought, from the novel Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell).

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21 gun salute, seen from the Melbourne War Memorial.

This year I have been to Melbourne twice. I love Melbourne, its theatre and cafes and lane ways . The VGA and Southbank. The museum. The little bars across the city.

I love its warmth in summer but remain ambivalent about its cold-to-me winters.

My recent trip allowed exploration of the wintry Botanic Gardens and War Memorial, followed by a leisurely trek down Brunswick St. in Fitzroy.

It’s those leisurely treks in travelling, those long escapades of wandering without specific intent, that allow us to find ourselves when we travel. Our day to day lives seem to prohibit such meandering but travel? Travel enlarges it, downright demands it.

And in that meandering we discover a little more about who we are and what we want and the life that we wish to live.

Climbing the trails of the Botanic Gardens, autumn coloured leaves scattering with each of my steps, arriving to eat a spicy Indo-Chinese inspired breakfast at Jardin Tan, gave me active pause.

Active pause? Yes, the meditation and reflection that accompanies walking or other physical exercise, and is stimulated by conversation with others over food and drink. Sparkling is best, you know, at breakfast.

I thought about my life and study. Where do I see myself in three years or five years?

Now, I never really plan the future, apart from superannuation. I like to go with the flow. I have a fear of goals. I think my life might collapse (and in the past I have had this creeping fear of life, that when things go good hey must immediately be followed  by bad).

I know now that life just is. It is not to be feared.

I know now that the future will come whether I dream of it or not. So better to add some future dreams to my mindful present.

This I discovered on my Melbourne meanderings. To an outsider I was eating and walking and attending a twenty-one gun salute for the Queen’s Birthday and ransacking bookshops and secondhand shops in Brunswick St. While eating frozen custard.

But inside I was scavenging thoughts and emotions. Fossicking to find the me that sometimes gets lost in the busyness of life.

I realise that it is too tempting to live two lives instead of one. Too necessary for me. I cannot give up one interest or life for the other. This is me. The scanner.

I think it’s just too tempting to have two lives rather than one. Some people think that too much travel begets infidelity: Separation and opportunity test the bonds of love. I think it’s more likely that people who hate to make choices to settle on one thing or another are attracted to travel. Travel doesn’t beget a double life. The appeal of the double life begets travel. Elizabeth Eaves, Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents.

 

Goals, Life, life hacks, speaking up, Travel, Unschooling, Women

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness….

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

This year has been a kind of a travelling year for me. To Virginia, in the U.S and far from my Sydney home, for a conference (and a meet-up with friends). To Melbourne. Twice so far. To Adelaide and to Canberra, many times each.

And, as Twain wrote in his book about travels {The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It) , travel allows you to see people, in all their humanness, in a different way. You see the architectural choices that differ from region to region. You participate in the natural landscape, both developed and undeveloped. Your sense of the seasons changes. The understanding of other places and ways to live grows.

I find that travel leaves me pleasantly haunted for light-drenched other worlds – the places I have visited and the home to which I return.

Take Virginia, for example. Not my first visit to the States but my first visit post the November election and results, and my first trip to a Southern-ish (southeastern) state. I flew from Sydney to LA; from LA to Charlotte, North Carolina; from Charlotte to Newport News, VA.

I would call Newport News a small city, a planned city. Somewhat reminiscent of my trips to Canberra (but that description will come later). Except for the chain stores and chain restaurants. Barnes & Noble. Chilli’s. Olive Garden. Red Lobster.

I walked. A lot. The almost-spring weather was colder than I am used to but burst into gloriously warming sunshine mid-day. I walked from the university to the Mariner’s Museum ( a 30 minute walk, whose length shocked my co-presenters and the lecturers from the university. ‘We use cars’ one told me. Indeed, the only other walkers I saw the whole week were fitness walkers , on specially designated nature and walking trails. displaying eerily beautiful lakes with forests of a kind you just don’t see in Australia. Deer even).

The history sold me. I uber-ed to a plantation home, one that had been used by the Confederates to shore up supplies and to shoot at Yankees from redoubts. I trailed along the famous area of the Monitor and Merrimac battle. Gracious, generous friends (I would say internet friends but we met that day in person and they are more than passerbys on social media) drove me to historic Williamsburg.  Living museums reenacting Colonial and Revolutionary-era life.

I was there, rooted in the smells and air and memories of   a part of America’s history.

I was there, talking to friendly strangers and taxi and uber drivers, of their lives, of the minimum wage, of health care and the military and opportunities and education costs.

We may differ in our understanding of government but there was no difference in our humanity. They were a friendly bunch, especially to weird Aussie women who travel alone and speak  fast and funny. I hope that we Australians are as friendly to those who travel here.

At the conference, I met people from Kenya, Cameroon, the Philippines, Ireland, Turkey, in addition to those from the States. I was the only Australian. Our sharing of stories of lives around the world highlighted for me, not our differences, but our similarities. We all longed for many of the same things, for meaning, connection, intention, ‘the good life’ (and what that  means was a discussion in itself. An unfinished discussion.).

In our diversity there also existed some homogeneity. There was open welcoming: “Come”, one said. “Come and stay with me in New York for a few days. Extend your trip.” But that will have to wait for another time. next conference, perhaps?

Because every time I travel I rekindle the urge to travel more. Big trips and small trips. Local and afar. My travel appetite is never satiated.

I lean forward to “the next crazy venture beneath the skies” (Jack Kerouac, On the Road).

virginia
Richard Lee Mansion, VA.

 

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.