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

 

 

 

The Year of the Odd Sock

sock 3

Expectation…

As 2019 draws to a close, I’ve been looking back on the past twelve months and trying — as I tend to do in this little patch of cyberspace — to make sense of it all. Like all years, there have been moments of achievement and moments of challenge, but if I’m totally honest there’s one thing that symbolises 2019 for me: the Odd Sock.

I’m an organised person, which is both a gift and a curse to those who live with me. For the vast majority of my life, socks of all kinds have been carefully kept in pairs. Some of my friends have been known to tease me for hanging socks with their pairs on the clothes line.  Needless to say, those same friends find it endlessly amusing that I have designated rows on the clothes line for each family member so I can sort the laundry as I fold it into the washing basket, which quite obviously enables me to get the family’s laundry sorted much faster than they can mutter things like “anally retentive”.

Now, I would normally be completely comfortable with being an object of house-keeping ridicule were it not for the awful fact that I currently have an entire drawer full of odd socks in my house.

sock 2

…and Reality.

Never have I ever been beset with such a proliferation of single socks! Some are sports socks, some are ankle socks, most are white socks, and none of them are my socks. And yet, there they are…more than a dozen of them, a collection that would liberate a small army of house elves from servitude were they to discover them.

My sense of order is somewhat offended by the presence of an entire tribe of single socks residing in a drawer usually reserved for stationery and postage stamps, but after my initial dismay wore off, I have to admit a part of me is quietly relieved.

For some odd reason, at some point during this year the sight all the odd socks reminded me of a quote from Melinda Gates’ powerful book The Moment of Lift:

I suspect most of us, at one time or another, say “I quit”. And we often find that “quitting” is just a painful step on the way to a deeper commitment.

This year has thrown a bunch of changes and logistical challenges at me, and I’ve had to find ways to adapt and adjust. I’ve had to let some of my (probably too high) self-imposed standards slip a little, and find new ways of caring for myself so I can care for my family. I’ve had to encourage my kids to step up and do things for themselves, which has had the flow on effect of them becoming increasingly self-confident and self-sufficient.

I’ve also had to let the odd socks stay single.

At the end of the day — and the end of the year, for that matter — I am at peace with the odd socks in my life. I can laugh at the irony of so many socks being unpaired, despite my desire to “keep it together” on every personal and professional front. I am content to embrace the odd sock as a symbol of my deeper commitment to my family and myself, and to know that the way we measure success — in happiness and time spent together — is what works best for us.

And if an odd sock is the worst thing I have to put up with in life, then life must be pretty darn good.

Blessings for the holiday season,

Blue Jai x

sock 1

…and finally, Peace.

 

 

 

 

Breaking Up Is Too Hard To Do

2014

2014: Tropical Vibes Christmas in hot pink, tangerine and gold.

I’m a happily married woman — let me state that, straight up, seeing as though the title of this post clearly implies otherwise.  The Bloke and I have muddled along together for the better part of two decades, and we’re planning to do so for a lot longer yet.

But there are two other men, other than The Bloke, who have made me the happily married woman I am today. Two men who, like my dear husband, have seen me at my best and my worst.  Two men who have witnessed me lose it with my kids more times than I would like to admit, but who have also seen those same children grow to be the beautiful, self-sufficient and (mostly) polite creatures they are today. Two men who have have seen my house look like a tornado has just swept through or like a sparkling jewel where everything is clean and in its ever-so-right place.

2015

2015: Traditional Christmas in red and forest green.

And now, dear friends, (sob….choke…splutter) the time has come for these two men to leave me.

These two men — architects of my continued happiness and transformers of my humble home — are, of course, are my Cleaners.

(Apologies if my tears have actually permeated cyberspace and are pouring through whatever screen you are reading this on…)

To be fair, The Cleaners and I have broken up before. There were a few weeks here, sometimes a few months, when they were too busy, or needed a break, or whatever it was — but this time, this time, it’s for real.

(Extended wail….)

Don’t get me wrong.

2016

2016: Nordic Christmas and the first appearance of the Angel Shazza.

I know in my heart the time has come for The Cleaners to move on. Truly.

Just as they have witnessed my kids growing up (OK…and me…they had to see me doing a whole pile of that growing up business, too), I’ve seen them transform, too.

I’ve watched them grow up, get real (other) jobs, ride rocking rollercoasters of relationships, come out, get promoted, break up (luckily that one wasn’t for real), reunite, get clearer and clearer on what they want in life, get promoted again (and again), and go back to studying. I’ve seen them do difficult things, like navigate visa restrictions in the era before marriage equality, and bury parents and loved ones, and do so with grace and courage.  I’ve seen them succeed in becoming amazing, well-rounded, successful and brilliant young men.

2017

2017: Tiny “We’re Going to Fiji” tree in rainbow ombre to celebrate Marriage Equality

And I guess that’s where we come to the heart of the matter: they are not The Cleaners any more.

They’re truly awesome human beings, one of whom is even more obsessed with Christmas (specifically: themed decorating) than I am.

Seriously — we begin discussing possible colour schemes in October and send each other slow-motion video reveals of our fully decorated trees…and let’s not even get into our long-standing debate over real versus artifical…

And that is why this post is adorned with the trees of the past five Christmases in all their radiant glory, under which there has always been a gift for each of them, and there always will be.

Because they’re not The Cleaners any more. They’re part of the family.

2018

2018: Thrice-decorated (because it fell) gigantic tree in orange, turquoise, silver and lime.

Waking Late and Winter Walks

two

We shall not cease from exploration…

We’ve had the best time.

Nothing makes me happier than hearing my children say these words — particularly when we’ve just spent the school holidays, in their entirety, at home.

I mean, we have left the house every now and then, because good old Sydneytown has turned on a run of truly spectacular winter days. It’s wonderfully warm in the sun, and even though it’s been windy the skies have been mostly clear of clouds. Staring skyward has been like looking up at a shimmering swathe of pale blue silk, stretching high into the heavens.

But the best bit has been the freedom. 

For me, there is nothing more liberating than turning off all the alarms on my phone, knowing that we are — blissfully — not bound by routine for two whole weeks.

Being winter, we have slept in, relishing being able to get up with the sun at seven rather than scurrying out of bed in the dark.  Even better, there have been days when we have stayed snug beneath our bedcovers, reading books or revelling in the very real pleasure of not having to be anywhere at a specific time.

We have enjoyed other simple things, too. We have walked in the winter sun, sometimes with a destination in mind and other times just because we can. We have watched Captain Marvel and endless episodes of The Adventures of Merlin, reminding ourselves that magic should be part of everyday life. We have planted flowers to brighten the back yard. We have played board games and card games while sipping hot chocolate and even hotter coffee. We have baked more muffins than it’s sensible for humans to consume.

From time to time I have marvelled at my children’s creativity, partciularly when they took it upon themselves to transform a large cardboard box into a Viking longboat in the back yard. I have smiled to myself in wry amusement when they protested having to scrub paint out of their pants when their artistic endeavours haven’t gone entirely to plan. I have admired their generosity when they have gone through old books and clothes and toys and worked out what they wanted to pass on to other kids.

And in the evenings, when the winter darkness falls so fast, we have heated our home by making stews and coming up with new spice blends to season homemade chicken nuggets, all while listening to Miles Davis and other jazz greats, or The Bad Plus working their own kind of wonder with instrumental versions of long-beloved songs like No Woman, No Cry. I’ve probably drunk more wine than I meant to, stirring pots on the stovetop and peeling sweet potatoes and parsnips to bake, not because the kids are driving me crazy, but because I am relaxed and happy — and because these are my holidays, too.

We’ve had the best time.

And I have, too.

beach

…and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

 

 

Rescued

noI have been saying NO to my children for a very long time.

Despite my best efforts to be a mother who phrases things positively, explaining what I want them to do rather than what I would like them to stop doing, there has been one small, though significant thing I have been saying no to repeatedly — pretty much ever since they learned how to walk and talk.

No, we are NOT getting a pet.

No, not a cat.

No, not a dog either. 

No, not even a fish.

No. 

And it’s not like I haven’t had good reasons for saying no. In fact, both my girls can quote you, chapter and verse, the many and detailed reasons I have provided to them over the past nine years (since our last pet passed on) why we would not be getting a replacement four legged friend any time soon.

There have even been occasions — usually when they have been particularly persistent in their pestering for a pet of their own — when I felt tempted to start spounting the lines from Labyrinth Sarah uses to defeat the Goblin King.  Go on, I would think to myself, try me: “My will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great…YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME!

But the thing is, as it turned out that one small creature DID have power over me.

During the Easter holidays, I softened my hardline just a smidge: I finally relented and informed the girls that they would be allowed to get a small tank and some fish. They would need to be in charge of cleaning the aquarium, feeding and caring for their new finned friends. They also needed to work out how much everything would cost and stick to a budget when making their initial purchases — gravel, tank decorations, the fish themselves, the works.

And then, while we were at the pet store, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop just happened to venture down to the far end of the shop to a couple of cages containing animals who were up for adoption. They might even have “borrowed” my phone to take pictures of said creatures…or, more accurately, of one in particular.

We went home, set up the tank, washed the gravel, positioned all the plants and the hula hut decoration, got the filter and lights going and and began treating the water so it was ready for fish.

Later that night, once the kids were in bed, I found a series of photographs on my phone. They weren’t great pictures, because many of them had the bars of a cage featuring prominently in the foreground. But beyond the bars was a small, furry feline with tabby/tortishell markings, spectacular whiskers, beautiful eyes and an elegant tail that resembled a plume.

She was one year old. Desexed, microchipped, vaccinated. And she was a stray.

Next morning, I woke up well before the kids.  Without even meaning to, or realising what I was doing, I picked up my phone off my bedside table and began scrolling through the images of the small, furry creature who was most definitely not a fish.

The Bloke rolled over, wondering what on earth had possessed me to start checking my phone at 5:00am.

Ah, he said. I thought this might happen.  I saw her too.

IMG_0305

So, as it turns out, we returned to the pet store that day and came home not with fish, but with a small and ever so delightful cat we have named Tauriel.

And since we got her — or since I said YES — I have made some interesting discoveries.

I have yelled less. We have all been calmer, and made an effort to get along with each other better. We have tried to make Tauriel feel at home, and she was rewarded us with her madcap toy mouse-capades and her speed scampering up and down the hallway, with purrs and playful bites and with the joy only an animal can bring.

The many and varied reasons why we should not have got a four-legged friend remain, and will continue to do so, but after eight or nine years of saying NO, Tauriel appeared at precisely the right time for me to change my formerly made-up mind.

A rescue cat, is Tauriel. And even though we may have rescued her from an uncertain future, I suspect we all feel she has rescued us, too, and that we are as lucky to have her as she is to have us.

And the fish? Well…we finally got them too — and Tauriel takes great delight in watching Mahalo, Taco, Nacho and Mrs Norris swimming around in their tank. So do we.

IMG_0322

 

 

Touching Clouds

little things“Fog,” my then three-year-old daughter explained very earnestly to me as we walked along together one day, “is a cloud you can touch.”

It’s one of the many interesting things my younger child has informed me of over the years, but I remember it particularly well because I made a note of it on my iPhone, along with the date she said it.  Every now and then, when I needed to remember to smile, I would look back at that little note and it would lift my spirits.

And if I really needed to feel better, I would listen to a voice recording I had made of her watching the film version of The Gruffalo for the first time. That audio clip captured her little girl giggle, descending into breathlessness as she laughed so hard that no sound came out.

I am feeling rather nostalgic as I write this, because those two things are gone now: my iPhone died unexpectedly last month, and while I had backed up all my photos (thank the Old Gods and the New), I had neglected to include my notes or audio files in that all-important process.

not thingsAnd so, I am left now with just the memory of those things, and of all the times they made me smile.

I am reminded, time and again, that it is these little things…tiny fragments of memory, snippets of conversation, moments in time…that are not the littlest things in our lives at all, but the biggest. And those things, it turns out, are not things at all.

That, my friends, is my little thought for the day.

And my wish is that you, during your travels through life, may also find a cloud you can touch, and know it for what it really is.

 

Rainy Days

Labyrinth 2

Are you ready for the holidays?

It’s finally raining here in Sydneytown, and — rumour has it — they’re even getting some of the good stuff out west where they need it most.  Not enough to break this godawful drought just yet, but all rain is good rain when there hasn’t been any for a long while.

The other thing that eventually turned up was the school holidays, which I was looking forward to beyond measure. Third term was long and full — too full, perhaps — so the combination of rain and lazy days off school has proved, so far, to be a good one.

And yet, only a week or so before the holidays began, several things occurred that filled me with dreadful trepidation rather than joyful anticipation…

The first clear sign I had that something was amiss was when I found a teaspoon in the washing machine.

No, not the dishwasher, but the washing machine.

Yep.  A metal teaspoon in the washing machine, under a load of wet clothes.

How it got there remains a mystery to us all. Various suspects (generally of the smaller two legged variety) were questioned, but answered with blank, wide-eyed stares, shrugged shoulders and mumbled responses along the lines of nope, nup, no idea, or at best, a vague: “What teaspoon?”

Labyrinth 5

What the heck are my kids up to?!

My second tipoff was the Painting Incident, which took place on the (appallingly scheduled) staff development day which gave the kids a Friday off in the second last week of school. I was on a writing deadline and had lined up an interview I was unable to postpone early that afternoon.

“No problem!” responded my (unnaturally cheerful) children.  “We will paint on canvas outside, so we don’t make a mess of the house and it’s quieter for you.”

How lovely, I remember thinking.  How understanding and considerate…what lovely little human beings.

Needless to say, the Painting Incident did not end well.

I was on the landline, recording the interview on my iPhone, and was quite unable to chastise those so-called lovely little human beings when they traipsed into the kitchen a mere ten minutes into the conversation and began rummaging through the junk drawer for various containers of goodness knows what. The artworks were now, apparently, being transformed into mixed media pieces, and all I could do was gently wave my hands at my progeny and keep my focus fixed on my interviewee.

OK…OK…it was more like whole arm windmilling motions combined with aggressive finger pointing towards the back door, all while glaring at my offending offspring and clearly mouthing the words GET OUT.

Labyrinth 4

I may also have said this – both bits.

Twenty minutes later, interview complete, I ventured outside to survey the…artworks. To be fair, they had created some quite respectable pieces: palm trees silhouetted against a sunset, tropical islands, starry skies with actual glitter to make them more sparkly.

That, I think, was also the moment when I noticed there was an entire galaxy of glitter spread across the patio, some of it mixed in with paint in a truly alarming variety of shades. The plastic mat I had intended to protect the patio tiles was bunched up against the BBQ, and more paint was coagulating in approximately fifteen separate paint brushes. Used wet wipes were wafting around the back yard, along with the now empty packet from whence they came.

I turned back towards the house to get more wet wipes, found that one of my dear children had trodden blue footprints on the back doormat and across the living room rug, and then proceeded to discover that there were no spare wet wipes either.

What? I always have a spare packet, because…

(Well, I think by now it’s pretty obvious why I always have a spare packet of wet wipes. Some days I think I should just give up and call the house Gotham.)

Labyrinth 3

Some of this experimenting is quite perplexing.

I then remembered where I had last seen a large quantity of wet wipes, which also — naturally — reminded me of the third clue I had received indicating we were all in need of a holiday: there had been a large, curiously yellow coloured wodge of wet wipes (I believe that is the correct technical term) in the bathroom bin several days before.

Sigh.

A Science Experiment (unoffical and most definitely unsanctioned) had been conducted in the bathroom a couple of days earlier, which had involved my younger child liberating a bottle of bright yellow food colouring from the top of the pantry and attempting to make slime.  She had, to her credit, attempted to clean up the ensuing mess (hence the wodge).  However….the pale blue bathmat began to turn an unusual shade of green when wet feet were placed upon it (more food colouring on the floor, methinks?) and the toilet seat still sports a rather large yellow spot no cleaning product has yet managed to shift.

Not surprisingly, she has not yet confessed to the other indgredients with which she attempted to concoct her slime conduct her Science Experiment — which is, upon reflection, probably for the best.

Labyrinth 6

I told you the spandex was bad.

And so I am welcoming the Rainy Days these holidays, and we are filling our spring break with baking and jigsaw puzzles and long periods lounging around reading books or watching movies. The girls have marathonned their way through the extended cut of the second Lord of the Rings film and have moved on to watching Labyrinth.  I rejoice that they are are old enough to enjoy these things, and will definitely take their veneration of David Bowie (even when wearing spandex pants) as a parenting win.

Let it rain, let it pour, I say — from here to the end of the Western Plains.

As I write, the wind is currently whipping the rain against the windowpanes, so washing clothes is out of the question.

At least I won’t find any teaspoons in the washing machine today.