2020 in Books: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Well, I’ve covered my Top 5’s for 2020 in music and on screen, and now it’s time for my alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, to take centre stage and reveal Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.

I don’t normally keep track of how many books I read, but for some bizarre reason utterly unknown to me I did in 2020 – and, despite home schooling and remote working, somehow found time to escape into more than 60 books. They ranged from non-fiction to biography to literary fiction to fantasy, read either on the page or on an iPad using the Libby app (which I think is brilliant).

Along the way I read some stuff I definitely won’t pick up again but which served its purpose during the darker times of the year just gone, but I also uncovered some genuine gems which, without further ado, make up Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.

Phosphorescence: on Awe, Wonder and Things that Sustain You when the World Goes Dark by Julia Baird (2019)

I actually kicked off 2020 by reading Julia Baird’s masterful biography of Queen Victoria (which, if that sort of thing is your jam, I highly recommend). But it was this gorgeously ornamented hardback volume, which I will refer to simply as Phosphorescence for short, which took my breath away. In it, Julia Baird has delivered what I view as the best kind of writing: thoughts and ephemera so beautifully expressed and interwoven that you want to start reading the book again as soon as you have finished it.

In preparation for writing this post I was flicking back through Phosphorescence trying to find a specific passage which stuck in my memory – it was a description of sunrise on the East Coast of Australia, which compared (if I recall it correctly) the suddenness of the sun’s appearance over the rim of the Pacific to a lit match being dropped into petrol.

I couldn’t find the precise quote I was looking for…but as I leafed through the pages of this wonderful book, it reminded me of all the amazing things Baird talks about: not only phosphorescence, but storm chasing, and the Overview Effect, and forest bathing, and so many other glorious things. And in the process, I found another, completely different passage, which probably sums up even better what I love about this book:

If we accept flowering by its nature is a fleeting occurrence, then we are more likely to recognise each blossom as a triumph.  And if we accept impermanence, we are far more likely to live in the present, to relish the beauty in front of us, and the almost infinite possibilities contained in every hour, or every single breath.

Enough said, yes?

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

Turning now to fiction, I could not fail to include Bernadine Evaristo’s prize winning Girl, Woman, Other, which deservedly took out the Booker in 2019.  The intersecting stories and perspectives in this book stayed with me for a long time. Reading this novel might be described as the literary equivalent of looking into one of those glass faced clocks you can see the inner workings of – all the wheels and cogs are separate but still necessarily connected, which I loved. I also appreciated the diverse perspectives were overwhelmingly female, and the characters’ experiences – both good and bad – eminently familiar to female readers. Girl, Woman, Other is well worth your time and money, and I highly recommend it.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (2019)

Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are “fading gangsters from Cork City”, sitting in the port of Algeciras, looking for Maurice’s missing daughter, Dilly. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day, but because it is packed full of reminiscences of their time drug running in Spain and the various ups and downs of their lives in Ireland, it feels like it takes in decades.

Kevin Barry’s ability to capture the nuances of speech of the various characters in the book –particularly of the two main protagonists – stayed with me for long after I’d finished it. This novel definitely has a streak of darkness at its heart, made lighter by comedic turns and the banter between two old and very battered mates.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)

The Thrifty Fictionista has come late to the Curtis Sittenfeld party, not having read American Wife or Sisterland or any of Sittenfeld’s other novels. And yet, the premise of this book – what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? – had me hooked from the start. By necessity, the first part of the novel deals with Sittenfeld’s imagining of the romance between university students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, but midway through the book they part: and when Hillary refuses Bill’s proposal of marriage, a very different version of “history” ensues.

To date I have resisted the urge to go googling down various rabbit holes on the interwebs in an effort to determine whether the very much still living Hillary Rodham Clinton has read this fictionalised account of her life as it might have been and how she has reacted to it, partly because it reminds me a bit too much of Barack Obama adding Fleabag to his list of favourite television series for the year some time back (which raised at least several eyebrows given what Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character was doing while she watched a video of him making a speech). At least, after American Wife, one can only assume Hillary Clinton can chat to Laura Bush about what must be a truly singular experience.

I’m not going to say any more about this one for fear of spoiling the ending, but I can tell you it is well worth a read.

M Train by Patty Smith (2015)

It’s only fair and fitting, I suspect, that I bookend this Top 5 of 2020 with a biographical meandering far more similar in tone to Phosphorescence than the fiction writing I’ve included as the meat in the sandwich, so to speak.

When my aunt lent me her copy of M Train it took me a while to get into it – I suspect I was on a massive fiction bender (no doubt plowing through a massive fantasy series by Sarah J Maas or someone similar), and after reading a chapter or two I found Patti Smith wasn’t what I was after at the time.  When I picked it up again later, however, I devoured the remainder in a single sitting and absolutely loved it. Smith, who is perhaps better known as a singer-songwriter and poet, has – unsurprisingly – a lyrical ability to express emotion and to bring her interior life into the light…such as this passage when Patti visits a friend in Morocco who is close to the end of his life:

Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.

—Paul, I have to go. I will come back and see you.

He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine.

Ahhh….I don’t think there’s a better way to end the main part of this post than with such beautiful, poignant words.

The Thrifty Fictionista’s Highly Commended Books of 2020 are, as ever, a mixed bag of goodies:

  • All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (2020) – how I love anything this man writes! A truly unique Australian voice with an abundance of humanity;
  • The Erratics by Vicky Laveau-Harvie (2017) – a tyrannical mother, a traumatised father, an extraordinary memoir;
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020) – a mystery, some giggles and a few keenly observed words of wisdom;
  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (2011) – short stories that pack a real punch;
  • Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty (2020) – a self-help book, but notable because it’s the first I’ve read based on a Vedic perspective;
  • Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (2019) – a fascinating autobiography from Barack Obama’s UN Ambassador to the United Nations; and
  • Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (2015) – one of the most engrossing and interesting memoirs I have ever read.

Thanks so much for checking out my Top 5s for 2020!

Here’s to 2021 being a very different year, in only good ways.  I am looking forward to delving into a whole trove of excting new volumes and engrossing experiences, all between the pages of books.

Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve read something awesome, or subscribe to receive new posts directly to your inbox using the Follow button.

Until next time, mind yourselves.

BJx

The Delights of Spring

SPRING! The word itself is a delight, and I happen to think Southern Hemisphere Spring is particularly magical.

I haven’t written about my quest for the delightful since midwinter, and have been more preoccupied by the progress of the pandemic and by The Professor’s dementia that I would like to be, so the delights of spring have been a welcome and much needed distraction.

Springtime, here in old Sydneytown, begins at the same time as the final school term of the year and the onset of Eastern Daylight Saving Time. While seasonally spring may be about new beginnings, for Sydneysiders it signals the beginning of the year’s denouement, when we start enjoying warmer weather and longer, increasingly golden evenings.

The end of the year is in sight, and I suspect many of us are keen to see the back of 2020. What a year! Though, on reflection, I could never in my wildest imaginings have known what a strange and eventful year this would be to take note of the delightful I encounter in the everyday — if I only look for it and recognise it for what it is.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the things I have found most delightful this Spring:

Spring Flowers and Fresh Herbs

For Christmas some years ago, The Bloke and the kids decided to present me with a raised garden bed. After it was assembled in the back yard, the following month they arranged a delivery for my birthday: several cubic metres of top quality soil. Not the sort of thing you can easily gift wrap, but greatly appreciated and loved ever since…until this year.

This year I had such great intentions, during lockdown in particular, of getting outside and fixing up the yard. My raised garden bed was looking decidedly bedraggled, particularly since a bunch of baby tomatoes (and other less desirable plant species) had decided to self-seed and subsequently launched a bid for world domination.

Humble new beginnings…it looks much better now…

Finally, a few weeks ago, I found a moment to show those baby tomatoes and assorted weeds who was boss. I removed the netting that had been possum-proofing the garden bed since forever, and I ripped everything out.

YASSSSS!

What a breathtakingly cathartic experience — and one I can highly recommend as a delight! But was what was even more delightful was replanting the raised bed with loads of spring flowers and verdant herbs, and watching each plant blossom and grow. I have relished being able to use herbs straight from the back yard when I cook, and have enjoyed the surprise of seeing colours emerge and change as different flowers bloom.

My Octopus Teacher

I think just about everyone I know who has seen this film has raved about it, but for me the true delight came in watching it with my children. The cinematography — particularly the underwater sequences — is utterly breathtaking, and they were both captivated.

Witnessing the bond between man and octopus was astonishing, especially since (as coastal dwellers) we’ve had to drum it into our kids never to touch any octopus they find in case it’s of the blue-ringed variety. The beautiful but highly poisonous Hapalochlaena is a regular visitor to tidal rockpools near our house, and a single blue-ringed octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 people in minutes, so seeing a human interacting with an octopus in such a carefree manner was quite extraordinary — even if it did come with a deadly serious and timely “don’t try this near home” reminder for the kids.

What I found most delightful about the movie was that it immersed me in a world completely different from the one I inhabit, offering me a window into what it’s like to live below, rather than above, the ocean surface. Clearly Craig Foster has some crazy free diving skills — but it’s his talent with an underwater camera that filled me with wonder and awe.

Free Books

Now this is a delight I would welcome at ANY time, but was one I was extra grateful to receive just before the school holidays. A while back I received an email from a large book retailer, offering me advance copies of a couple of new books. I clicked on the link, not thinking I’d end up with anything in return, and was utterly amazed when a package turned up on my doorstep a couple of weeks later with proof copies of two novels for me to read. Needless to say I’ve already devoured them both, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more of those email gems hitting my inbox!

The Light

There is something about the quality of the light at this time of year that makes my soul sing. I think I summed it up best when I wrote this post five years ago…though reading all my references to Jazz Festivals and NRL Grand Finals makes me realise just how precious delights are in these crazy times.

So that’s it for now folks — just a few of the gems I’ve noticed as Sydneytown greets the Spring. I’d love to hear what is delightful in your part of the world at this time of year…

À bientôt, BJx

2019 in Books

At last…the third and final instalment in my Top Five’s for 2019 has arrived — books, beautiful books!

2019 was always going to be a tough year in books for me, because 2018 was the year when Boy Swallows Universe usurped Dirt Music as my favourite book of all time.

So this year, instead of seeking out works of fiction that might make me change my mind yet again (because — as we now know Patrick Melrose would say — that’s what a mind is for, after all), I opted for to throw some non-fiction in with my usual reading escapes…and was more than pleasantly surprised.

I also read a few classics of English literature, one of which begins this, my humble list:

1. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs DMrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It’s one the great opening lines in literature, and somehow evokes the quiet control Virginia Woolf exercises over each and every character in this slim and beautiful novel. I’ve long been interested in Woolf, and am so pleased I found time to read this novel this year.

Taking place over the course of a single day, Woolf takes the reader back and forward in time, from one character’s perspective to another, making us privy to their innermost thoughts about that day and its events, and of the other characters. Only in books do we have this power: to know the internal dialogue and register the emotional barometer of another (albeit fictional) person.

It is staggering to me that Woolf managed to deal with themes such as religion and secularism, mental health, sexuality and feminism in the space of so few pages. This is stream of consciousness writing at its finest, and is as relevant today as it would have been on the June day in 1923 it describes.

2. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

TCThe subtitle of this brilliant piece of non-fiction is “One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster”, but not even these words begin to sum up Sandra Pankhurst and her astonishing progression from abused child, to husband and father, to drag queen and sex reassignment patient, to sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife…the list goes on.

I had heard rumours and rumblings about this book for a couple of years. Not surprisingly, given the quality of Krasnostein’s writing, it has won a whole swag of awards, but I was honestly unprepared for the impact it would have on me. It was not that I was reading about someone who cleans up crime scenes, horders’ houses, and squalor so sordid it is almost possible to smell it coming off the page, it was the emotional wallop of Pankhurst’s own life story, interleaved with chapters about her clients and the tenderness — yes, tenderness — with which she deals with them.

Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

SARAH KRASNOSTEIN

Krasonstein’s treatment of the slippery nature of memory and truth is masterful, and her frank admissions about the issues and memories her interactions with Pankhurst and her clients raise for her are, to my mind, courageous. It is impossible to read this book — and I could not put it down once I began — without having your breath taken away.

This is also a book that will  leave you thinking, hard, about things you never expected to, for a very long time.

3. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

DJ6Whoa…we need to head back to Fictionland after that one, hey?

Well, what better way to do that than with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six? Weirdly, upon reflection, this book also deals with memory and truth as much as The Trauma Cleaner does, though in a fictional setting. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the book poses as an oral history trying to get to the bottom of a rock’n’roll puzzle — what made Daisy Jones and the Six, one of the decade’s most successful bands, split up straight after playing the final concert of their tour in 1979?

The writing style reminded me of Lizzy Goodman’s brilliant non-fiction work Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a huge tome chronicling the rise of bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem and The National. Being fiction, however, Daisy Jones and the Six lets you invest yourself in the characters, allows the reader to take sides without fear of any recrimination, and to enjoy the twist that comes towards the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

4. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

CofGI was not expecting to include this book in my Top Five for the year, but have done so because it proved to be a rollicking good read and, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction Elizabeth Gilbert has produced in years. Unlike The Signature of All Things, which I found to be overwhelmingly populated by caricatures, City of Girls bursts at the seams with the colourful characters encountered by Vivian Morris from the time she moves to Manhattan as a nineteen year old after being kicked out of college.

Gilbert vividly recreates the theare and showgirl scene in New York City in the 1940s, and the novel is as much a love story to the city as it is the story of Vivian navigating her way through life and love, to recount it as a ninety-five year old narrator. This book is a great escape, not to mention a fascinating examination of how important it is to be free to be yourself.

5. How To Raise Successful People by Esther Wojcicki (2019)

SPI bought this book after hearing Esther Wojcicki interviewed on a podcast and read it cover to cover in an afternoon. Wojcicki draws on her experiences raising three highly successful children (all women who have risen to the top of typically male-dominated professions) and teaching generations of Media Arts students at Palo Alto High School, and also reflects on how her childhood informed the choices she made as a parent.

It’s partly a parenting manifesto, partly a practical advice manual, and a lot of what Wojcicki has to say makes a great deal of sense to me. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this was definitely a book that gave me much to think about — not to mention implement in my life — this year.

Honourable Mentions this year go two other non-fiction titles, Drusilla Modjeska’s beautiful and evocative memoir Second Half First and to Melinda Gates’ highly thought-provoking book about empowering women, The Moment of Lift.

On the fiction front, Max Porter’s novella Grief is a Thing With Feathers very nearly made my Top Five for its emotional bravery and poetic brilliance. I am yet to read Lanny but hope to get my hands on a copy in 2020. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and will admit to spending a week devouring the entire Cormoran Strike series, penned by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), with something akin to glee. I was a late-comer to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and loved it, and am looking forward to reading her next book, The Starless Sea, this year.

So that’s all folks! I read a whole lot of other books during the year that were also noteworthy and interesting, but these were the ones that made the cut for 2019.

That said, I have just trawled my local library for a substantial summer reading stash and have kicked off with the Julia Baird’s so-far brilliant biography of Queen Victoria…it may well make my 2020 list!

If you have enjoyed this post from Blue Jai Creative and would like every new musing from the Daydream Believer delieved straight to your inbox, feel free to click on the Follow button at the top right of the page. Thanks for reading! BJx

 

 

 

If Only I Was Barack Obama…

future

Clearly the former POTUS follows my humble blog and can’t wait for MY Best of 2019 Lists….

Barack Obama tweeted his best books of 2019 today.

Because he is Barack Obama (and even though we live a considerable distance across the Pacific, don’t we wish we were still seeing a whole lot more of him), he simply put up a list of what he thought were his best reads of the year. No doubt book sales will hit stratospheric heights momentarily…

Now, as any of you follow this blog with any semblance of regularity may know, this is the time of year when I, also, typically put fingers to keys and let you know what my favourite books, songs and viewings were of the year. And while I cannot even begin to pretend to operate in the same league as Barack Obama (I suspect it sufficient, at this point, that we reside on the same planet), those of you who follow this blog already know that this year had not entirely gone to plan. That said, previous years did not exactly go to plan, but sometimes we need to learn lessons more than once to make them really sink in…

So far, December 2019 has brought us the end of the school year, more Christmas parties than we care to mention, a special outing to Cirque du Soleil (magnificent and something we would highly recommended were it not for the fact that we saw their final Sydney show of Kurios), and a godawful lingering case of the flu — which has now metamorphosized into equally lingering head colds that require us to take a family sized box of tissues wherever we go, even if it is only to the beach less than one kilometre from our front door.

Meh.

And so…yes, I know, I’m running late on all these posts and won’t get them done in the next day and a half before New Year’s…I will be letting you know what my Best Of 2019’s were in — yes, you guessed it…

2020!

Because good things come to those who wait.

hey

Happy New Year, y’all!

And I have lists. You know I do…lists of my final top 5’s and shortlists and even thematic lists (though they may not make the final cut — you’ll just have to wait and see).

With every best wish and several tenterhooks to hang off,

Blue Jai x

 

 

Harry Potter and the End of an Era

HP 5It was always going to happen.

Always.

Two nights ago, the girls and I had three chapters plus the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows left to read. Last night, we simply couldn’t stop — could anyone have stopped, I ask you? — and I kept reading aloud, and drinking peppermint tea, and reading aloud some more until the book was finished.

And now, quite understandably, we are feeling a little bereft.

It seems like only a month or so ago that we started reading Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, embarking on our J K Rowling odyssey. In reality, it was several years ago, and we even had a considerable hiatus between books four and five to allow our (very visual and emotionally sensitive) Miss Malaprop to be sufficiently old enough to cope with the content without having nightmares.

There have been so many laughs along the way, as well as tears, as Harry Potter and his friends have woven themselves in the fabric of our existence. Whenever any of us has to read something less interesting or onerous, we trick ourselves into persevering by inserting the words “Harry Potter and the… before the title. Recent examples of works made far more palatable by this process have been Harry Potter and the Land Tax Exemption for Land Used and Occupied Primarily for Low Cost Accommodation, and Harry Potter and the Effects of a One Year Development Programme for Recently Graduated Veterinary Professionals on Personal and Job Resources, and the truly inspiring Harry Potter and the Australian Privacy Principles.

See? Every so much more fascinating once you add in a dose of Harry. A little magic goes a long way in such cases.

But a little magic helps us get through life every day, doesn’t it?

HP2Both my children have the words Nox and Lumos on their bedroom light switches. Both have Hogwarts robes, Gryffindor for Marvel Girl and Slytherin for her sister, in their wardrobes. All three of us have our wands, which chose us (of course) at Ollivanders, and mine (since I am a Ravenclaw) sits beside my laptop, ready for use at any time. I even have my Hogwarts letter, apparently redirected many times over until it finally arrived, courtesy of a dear friend and a then much smaller “owl” who flew it to my doorstep on my 40th birthday.

All of these things are treasured.

The world is not a smaller place now that we have finished reading the books. Rather, each of our universes has expanded to include the realms of possibility, of imagination, and of magic. We are all more conscious, every day, of the saving power of love.

And it was hard last night, really hard, not to tear up when reading the final portion of the seventh and final book in the series to my children, particularly when I read these words:

Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.

How fortunate are we, to have the benefit of these so-called children’s tales, and to know their power really is beyond the reach of any magic.

HP1And so we will embark on new adventures, in search of new tales, perhaps with Sparrowhawk as he wends his way from the Isle of Gont towards becoming an Archmage, or with Zaphod Beeblebrox tripping through the galaxy, or perhaps we will stay closer to home, roaming the streets of colonial Sydneytown with Beattie Bow, or dancing in the Anzac Deli with Mareka Nikakis.

Yet I know, deep down, that in years to come my children will more than likely read the Harry Potter books to their children, and will love them just as much then as they do now.

After all this time?

Always.

 

(Head)room of One’s Own

Virginia 1Last year I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, and I find myself still pondering her words today. Although it was first published in 1929, so much of what Woolf wrote rings true ninety years later: it is a feminist manifesto, delivered gently yet powerfully, bringing the place of women in literature and society into laser-sharp focus.

I’ve mulled Woolf’s words over. I’ve disappeared down various rabbitholes as her words and life have cropped up in other books I have read, most notably in Drusilla Modjeska’s beautifully written memoir Second Half First. I’ve read more of Woolf’s own works, including the brilliantly conceived and executed Mrs Dalloway. I’m planning on re-reading The Waves and To The Lighthouse, volumes I have not delved into since my university days.

And yet, despite all this investigation, I am still struggling with Woolf’s central premise in A Room of One’s Own:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I firmly believe Woolf’s statement to be true.

But what, I wonder, would she make of women’s lives in the twenty first century?  Ninety years after the publication of A Room of One’s Own, many things have improved for women in the western world.  Our access to education has improved, along with our employment prospects and our control of our own lives and bodies.

What I think women in the western world have lost control of, however, is our minds.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I would love to embrace this idea as a true representation of my self and my life, to punch my fist skyward and proclaim that my mind is entirely my own, that my freedom is guaranteed because I am not shackled by cerebral restrictions.

But I can’t.

Not quite.

I may have money I earn myself and a place to write (even if it is not an actual room), but do I have space in my own head?

There is just so much…stuff…to remember in any given day.

Remember to schedule a dental appointment. Drop off the dry cleaning. Pick up forgotten ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Replace a child’s gluestick for school. Sign permission slips for an excursions. Meet a work deadline. Return the library books on time. Change the bedclothes. Find light blue cardboard for a child’s project (no, not dark blue or royal blue or navy blue). Collect that undelivered parcel from the post office. Arrange a playdate before netball training and remember to buy oranges for the game. Pay the gas bill. Replace yet another gluestick (what, do they eat them or something?). Phone the electrician to get the laundry light fitting replaced. Feed the fish. And the cat. And the family. Buy a present for an upcoming birthday party. And a card. Take out the garbage and know which bin needs to be curbside on which day. Update the credit card expiration date on — wait, what was the password for that account again?

Virginia 2Our lives are so full, and are lived at such a relentless pace. We bandy around words and phrases like “mindfulness” and “mental load”, but do we ever have time to stop — let alone to imagine?

How can we write fiction if we have no headroom to allow the stories to form? How can ideas flow and characters develop and whole realms emerge from such cluttered minds?

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I know my own fiction writing is informed, in part, by the life I lead — regardless of whether I am writing a children’s picture book, a longer story for older children, or working on the young adult novel I have been aiming to finish for some years.

Much of the time, however, my fictional projects lie immobile, suspended in that spider’s web as I attend to the myriad minutiae of everyday life that encroach upon it from all four corners. And more often than not, my own innate need to create is ignored in favour of other, far more basic needs — not just of my own — and it is not until I sense my fictional worlds are hanging by a single thread that I make time to write.

Virginia 3Even so, I remain hopeful.

I would rather snatch a moment here and there to write a paragraph, to edit a word or two, or to scribble down a new idea than to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the nearest river.

I am learning, slowly, to prioritise my fiction writing, even if it is — by definition — not real.

Because it is real to me, and gives my life deeper meaning.

And despite her own untimely end (which I may comprehend, but cannot ever condone), I think Virginia Woolf knew exactly what it was like not to have room in her head. Even so, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — I believe she would have continued to encourage women generally, and writers particularly, had she lived to see our present day and age, just as she did in her lifetime.

Money is one thing, I think she would tell us.

But the room of one’s own — that sacred space needs to exist in your mind as well as in your world.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

 

Tempus Fugit

tempus 2

Time flies, as any wag will tell you, when you’re having fun.

But here in Sydney, as our glorious summer holidays are drawing all too swiftly to a close, my mind has turned to Virgil’s original words, written in his Georgics centuries ago.

Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.

Fast flies meanwhile the irreparable hour, as point to point our charmed round we trace.

VIRGIL trans. Rhoades

We have had a fortunate summer, sun-filled and surf-drenched, with barefoot days and balmy nights.

And while the clocks sometimes seemed to slow during the past six weeks, time — inescapable, irretrievable time — has slipped steadily, stealthily by.

tempus 1I mean it’s there, if I look for it.  I know I could find snippets of it between the pages of the dozen novels I’ve read since Christmas, or catch a glimpse or two between beach towels flapping in the breeze on the washing line. There’s probably a drop or two left in a wineglass on a windowsill somewhere, and a few morsels thrown in with the leftover salads in the fridge. I will no doubt discover a few more bits in with the various brightly coloured cards and plastic pieces of board games we’ve played during the heat of the day, or find some slipped into the pocket of one of my kids’ shorts with a couple of movie ticket stubs.

But now, at the end of my favourite month of the year, there is only a day or two left before school resumes for my girls — a new start for one, a familar return for the other — and I will admit feeling slightly nostalgic and a little bereft. The irreparable hour has well and truly flown, and I am reminded of my favourite childhood picture book, Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, about another summer, spent by another family comprising, as ours does, of a mother, father and two sisters, far away in Maine.

I know this feeling is universal and, ironically, timeless: Virgil wrote about it in the first century and McCloskey was still picking up the theme in the twentieth.

But I also know that there will be a certain heaviness in my heart and a lag in my step when we wend our way from point to point on our own charmed round this evening…down to the beach for one last swim as a family, and back home again for a BBQ and a quiet glass of wine.

That charmed round isn’t going anywhere — and I am well aware we are beyond lucky to live where we do — but it’s never quite the same once school has started again, and the long summer days have lost their laziness, and a perhaps a little of their loveliness.

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder — for wondering, for instance, where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

ROBERT McCLOSKEY

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Home…

2018: The Year in Books

OK folks…it’s that time of year when I present my top fives for 2018.

Today it’s books! So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books for 2018:

1. Boy Swallows Universe (2018) by Trent Dalton

Boy swallows universeYour end is a dead blue wren…

For me, it’s as unforgettable a first line as any of the great first lines in literary history: Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Lolita. I’ve already written a tiny bit about this book, which has become my new Favourite Book of All Time. Really. It’s a rollicking good read and exceptionally well written, with the added (and almost unbelievable) bonus of being based on real events from Trent Dalton’s childhood. There is something inherently Australian about this debut novel: Dalton captures the heat and humidity of living on the outskirts of Brisbane, and all that simmers beneath.

If you’ve read it already, I can highly recommend his Conversation with Richard Fidler about writing the novel. If you haven’t read it, I’m not going to say any more…other than to say I, quite obviously, recommend you get your hand on a copy of this and — hopefully — enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoThis sprawling family saga had me captivated from the start. Set in Korea and Japan in the early decades of last century, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is packed full of detail and emotion. Depicting a way of life and period of history I knew little about, I was swept up in the story of Sunja and her descendants. I found Lee’s treatment of the strange limbo occupied by the Koreans who moved to Japan, even after several generations, interesting and moving.

If you’re after a read that will deposit you in a foreign land and make you feel like you can’t leave until you know what’s happened to all the main characters, this is the book for you.

3. Danger Music (2017) by Eddie Ayres

danger musicThis autobiographical tale of teaching cello to children in wartorn Afghanistan follows Ayres’ earlier book, Cadence, which was written while he was still known as Emma Ayres, the hugely popular host of ABC Classic FM’s Breakfast program (and a particular family favourite of ours).

Ayres’ story of self-discovery, set admist the chaos of Kabul and the challenges of teaching children who deal every day with the twin threats of violence and loss, is a painfully but beautifully honest account of his transition to becoming the man he always was inside. The playlist at the end of the book is an added bonus for any music lover, but this book has something for everyone.

4. Bridge of Clay (2018) by Markus Zusak

bridge of clayOh, how long we all have waited for this book?! Not nearly as long as Zusak himself who, after the phenomenal success of The Book Thief, wrote and rewrote Bridge of Clay for years until he finally reached a point where he could release into our hands.

I was conscious, at different points of reading this brilliant novel, that each and every word was precisely chosen and placed…but that in no way detracted from the tale and my emotional investment in it. This was a book I tried to read slowly, to savour the writing, the characters, the whole shebang — but partway through I gave in and finished the rest of the book in one go, unable to resist the pull of the plot. This is a superbly crafted novel that is well worth your time, and one I spent days thinking about after I’d finished it.

5. Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama

becomingBecoming was always going to be a global blockbuster: Michelle Obama is someone many of us admire want to know more about. Here, in her own words, is Obama’s story of her upbringing, her education, her marriage, and her time in the public eye as First Lady of the United States.

It’s forthright. It’s interesting. It’s well-written. And as soon as I finished it, I was more than happy to pass it on to my elder daughter, who (despite being in primary school) devoured it as quickly as I did and enjoyed it just as much. If you’re after an autobiography to read this summer, not to mention a reminder of a time when the highest offices of one of our most powerful allies were not reduced to chaos and trivialising tweets, this is well worth a look.

Honourable mentions this year go to Ian’ McEwan’s Solar (2010), which may well be the most darkly humourous novel I have ever read, and Muhsin Al-Ramli’s haunting and heartbreaking book The President’s Gardens (originally published in Arabic in 2012) which, like Pachinko, took me to a place in time I have had little experience with but for which I now have a much deeper appreciation.

I also thorougly enjoyed Ailsa Piper’s travelogue Sinning Across Spain (2017), Helen Russell’s occasionally hilarious The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (2016) and delighted in Stephen Fry’s Mythos (2018), his elegant and downright funny retelling of the Greek Myths.

So there you have it! Hopefully there is something for everyone here…I’d love to know what you think and what you’ve read this year, so get in touch via the comments if you think I’ve missed one of your standout books for 2018.

It’s summer here, and that means time for books!

2017 in Review: Closing the Book

As another year draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve read, seen and heard this year that have affected me in some way — whether by inspiring me, giving me pause, prompting entirely unsolicited dance moves or in-shower solos, or making me think, laugh, cry or even cringe.

So with that in mind, I’ve come up with a bunch of personal Top Fives of 2017, with a few honourable mentions thrown in. Feel free to comment on them, or to share your own favourites — especially if you’d think I’d like them!

Today, I’m starting with books. I have decided that this category is open to any book written at any time, not just in 2017. I simply had to have read them during the past year. That said, I thought it was appropriate to include their year of publication, so I’ve arranged them chronologically. I’m not going to give away plot details or critique them fully — just know if they’ve made this list, I think they’re tops.

BLUE JAI’S BEST BOOKS OF 2017

  1. 2017 Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987).  This book was loaned to me by The Professor, and I’m still not certain whether that simple fact made reading it a more poignant experience — not least because the plot centres on the interactions between two academics and their wives. The writing is beautiful, evocative, and reminiscent without becoming nostalgic, and Stegner’s control of the narrative is masterful.  This book stayed with me for a long time after I’d read it, and made me feel like I’d spent a summer or two in Vermont.
  2. 2017 American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001). What a rollicking good read! Normally I read housebrick sized books on my Kindle, but this one I lugged to and from Fiji and am so glad I did. The story of Shadow and Gaiman’s depiction of the battle between Old Gods and New in America is (literally) fantastic, eccentric and kept this Thrifty Fictionista happily engrossed in my holiday read. I even came back and downoaded Norse Mythology, because I wanted more Gaiman goodness.
  3. 2017 H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014). I’m not sure I’ve read any other book quite like this one — and while the subject matter (the author’s way of dealing with her grief following the death of her father) is not easy, Macdonald’s brutally honest emotional journey aligns more perfectly that I ever expected with a wealth of arcane knowledge of falconry and the life of T H White. I never anticipated I would find such subjects remotely interesting, but this book proved me entirely wrong.
  4. 2017 Our soulsOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015). Oh…this story. Published posthumously, Haruf’s tale begins with an unusual proposition and ends up being an absolute joy to read. It’s bittersweet too, it’s true, but — in my view — ultimately uplifting. Like most purists, I suspect the book is better than the movie version, despite fact the film starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Read the book first. Please. (You know it’s the right thing to do.)
  5. 2017 Life to ComeThe Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (2017). Winning this year’s Miles Franklin award, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this book: the characters are eminently recognisable, particularly to Sydneysiders, but I did not warm to any of them. That said, there wasn’t a single other book I read all year that had my head wriggling like a tin of worms for so many weeks after I’d put it down. Oh — and the writing is seriously, utterly brilliant.

Honourable mentions go also to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which I agree remains as relevant today as it did when first published; Island Home, Tim Winton’s beautifully written (as always) love letter to the Australian landscape and his passionate call to arms to protect it; and finally, The Dry, by Jane Harper, which is one of the best and most atmospheric thrillers I have read in an age.

Coming soon: Blue Jai’s Best Viewing and Listening of 2017…

Insanity…Uncovered

covered-ombre-linen

Ombre linen covers, anyone? Perhaps not me…

Here in this Great Southern Land — which, over the weekend turned into the Great Scorched Land when the fifteen hottest places ON THE PLANET were all on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard — our children have started a new school year.

Two weeks ago, all our gorgeous little munchkins trouped dutifully off for another year of educational learning and fun at primary and high schools around the country. For the record, it was not much cooler then: last Sunday night was the first time Sydney’s temperature dipped below 20˚C since January 20th. Seriously. That’s 23 days and nights of temperatures above 20˚C and, believe me, it got hideously hot during the day…

I mean, a lot happened in those twenty-three days. America, apparently, got itself a brand new President. Those crazy cats in North Korea tested another missile. Beyoncé took to Instagram sporting a veil to announce she’s having twins (though I should point out she was also wearing mismatched underwear, which as all mothers know is a dead giveaway that you’re already raising children). Over on Twitter, the hashtag #ShePersisted was born. In the Amazon, a butterfly flapped its wings.  (Disclaimer: this last event may not have been deemed newsworthy but I’m reasonably sure it did occur…though I’ll leave it up to you to decide which of the aforementioned events, if any, are connected.)

But anyway, it wasn’t the heat or any of that other stuff that caused me to lose my mind, people.

No, it was far more simple than that:

covered

Yes, yes…I get the general principle. It’s the execution I struggle with.

I TOTALLY LOST MY SANITY COVERING MY CHILDRENS’ SCHOOL BOOKS IN CLEAR PLASTIC ADHESIVE.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about…I can sense you all nodding sagely and feeling my pain, because I suspect that you, too, have experienced it.

Here in Australia clear plastic adhesive is commonly called “Contact”, though I’m no longer sure whether this is because Contact is the brand name used by the major manufacturer of the diabolical stuff, or because contact with your children is likely to be limited by whatever they’re currently calling the government department that deals with emotional abuse after you’ve finished screaming expletives and threatening violence covering all their school books.

I mean, I try. I really do.

Most things about being a mother of primary school aged kids I think I’m reasonably good at. My children generally turn up at school wearing the right uniform and carrying the correct equipment. Including their nutritious lunch and recess and fruit break and water bottle.

Every day.

But covering school books in Contact?

I’m utterly woeful. Completely hopeless. Borderline dreadful.

And, to make matters worse, my darling cherubs spent a considerable amount of their first few days back at school carefully colouring in beautiful cover pages for their school books, which they dutifully glued to the front of their workbooks. Paper cover pages, you understand.  Some of them, in the interests of being environmentally and economically responsible, had paper covers on BOTH sides of the book so it could be used for two subjects. (Those ones are my favourite. No, really they are). At any rate, they were really quite lovely, until…

…well, until I totally bungled covering one of the books and, when trying to remove the plastic adhesive from the cover, ripped one of my kids’ ornately decorated cover page in two.  (This, to be honest, may actually have happened more than once).

I’m so sorry, I whispered.

covered-more-likely

All those nifty Pinterest “how to” videos on book covering? I suspect this tome would be just as helpful…

My younger daughter looked down at the mess I had made, aghast and uncharacteristically silent.

The older one — who has now had her books butchered by her mother for the fourth consecutive year — was a bit more supportive: she sighed (quite philosophically, I thought), shrugged, and said: Well, Mum, you did your best.

Which I did.  Really, I did.

And I promised them that next year, Next Year, would be different. Because next year, I am going to be PREPARED.

Yes, my friends!

Next year, I’m going to study all those lovely Pinterest tutorials that do their utmost to appraise you of the tried and tested tips and tricks for book covering — and look! Oh, will you just look at their darling photographs of the seventeen new and exciting ways you can cover your books: decoupage covers, coloured duct tape covers, ombre linen covers, crocheted covers.

(What the…are these people actually serious?!)

Next year, I am going to source the highest quality clear plastic adhesive money can buy for covering my childrens’ school books, and I am going to unroll said adhesive (probably down the entire length of my house) and weigh it down for a week or three so it does not spontaneously and sadistically re-roll itself during said covering process.

(Because that won’t inconvenience a soul, will it?)

covered-tequila-mug

Ah yes…the tequila cup I ordered for Christmas, in preparation for “Book Covering Season”…

Next year, I am going to make a quiet trip to the family doctor and get a prescription for beta-blockers (and/or whatever else he’s prepared to give me), followed by a stop at the nearest bottle shop for some tequila (or any other clear, water-like substitute, with which to wash those tablets down).

(Ahhh…now this might actually happen…)

In the meantime, I’m going to sit in a dark, quiet corner, hyperventilating into a brown paper bag while I count up to 1,349,265 (or maybe 1,349, 266) and wondering just how Beyoncé would go covering books for her soon to be three children in plastic adhesive…particularly if she’s still wearing mismatched underwear and a veil…