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

 

 

 

bullet journal, Christmas, Goals, Life, life hacks, new year, New Year resolutions, planning, religion, self-help

Twelfth night

“I say there is no darkness but ignorance.” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night).

As Twelfth Night is upon us, as we prepare for the Epiphany and the ‘coming’ of the Wise Men, it is good to consider wisdom as an antidote to ignorance.

Traditionally, on Twelfth Night one put away their Christmas tree – or risk bad luck for the rest of the year.

Twelfth Night and remembering the Magi seem to me to be good moments to pause. Gone is the flurry of Christmas, the festivity of New Years, the lazy hedonism of early January in summer (or winter, if you do not live in the Southern hemisphere!). Often we are back at work, dusting off our goals and plans for 2018.

Twelfth Night affords us time to reflect on these goals and dreams. What is it, really, that we want 2018 to bring? And how will that look, in our every day lives?

I like to think in terms of ‘more of‘ and ‘less of‘.

Things I want to do more of, and things I want to do less of.

No pressure but wisdom drawn from reflecting on the year that was, and life thus far. As Pope John Paul II noted: ‘Who does not feel the need for a “star” to guide him on his earthly journey? Individuals and nations both feel the need’. 

We look for the star, the wisdom to make right choices in our life in this new year.

The wisdom highlights virtue and reflection. Taking time each week to reflect in faith, and hope, and love. What is it that I want to do more of? What is it that I want to do less of?

And writing these down or noting them in an app or on your phone. Though writing down such goals has been shown to be most effective.

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My current bujo planner.

Followed by reflection. What can I do this week to make this more of and less of a reality? How did it go last week? What are the hihglights of the week, the things I am grateful for, and what will that look like next week?

Stephen Covey called this sharpening the saw. Whether it is undertaken on a weekly or  fortnightly or quarterly basis, Twelfth Night is a good time to begin.

To take a step with reflection. That way lies wisdom. Who knows where, in the end, this step to reflect may take you in 2018?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (The Lord of the Rings)

 

 

 

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, 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, 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.

 

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.