“Out on the islands that poke their rocky shores above the waters of Penobscot Bay, you can watch the time of the world go by, from minute to minute, hour to hour, from day to day . . .”
These are the opening lines of the Thrifty Fictionista’s favourite picture book, one I have loved since I was a child: Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Telling the story of a girl and her younger sister spending their summer holidays on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, it follows them as they explore the natural world around them. They swim, they sail, they laze in the sun — they even survive a hurricane that blows in one night.
I still love everything about that book: the beauty of the painted illustrations, the cadence of the sentences, every last carefully chosen word. I often wished, when I was little, that I could go on holidays just like the girls in the book, even though I lived on the other side of the world from Maine.
Like the girls in the book, I spent a lot of time on boats when I was a kid. My grandfather, who had served in the navy, was never one to be without some kind of seafaring craft, so my brother and I enjoyed time on a succession of yachts, one of which had sailed the Sydney to Hobart race multiple times, and later on an old Halvorsen cruiser. The sights, sounds and smells of moorings and marinas still make me happy.
What reminded me of Time of Wonder most recently, however, was something equally nostalgic, but completely unexpected. I was watching M*A*S*H with my kids (having got them hooked on that golden oldie after they had watched so many episodes of Brooklyn 99 I thought I was going to scream), and we came to the part of Series 5 when Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan gets engaged to Lt Colonel Donald Penobscott — and at the first mention of his name, there I was: right back in the middle of Penobscot Bay, exploring the Time of Wonder island and all its natural wonders.
At the moment, all I would like to do is dive between the pages of my old, battered copy of Time of Wonder and relive it all once again. Or even the shiny new copy I got for my own kids when they were old enough to read it.
But, since we’re in the process of building our house, that dear old book is somewhere in storage, along with many other treasured possessions of the paged variety. It has been hard not having my book “friends” around for the past nine or ten months, but now that build is drawing to close up stage I am itching to get my fingers on volumes I have wished for while living here in our tiny rental.
The Thrifty Fictionista could not do with out ALL her books, however — so old favourites and new have found their way up the 49 steps to our front door. Anna Karenina is here, rubbing shoulders with Lolita and Dorian Gray, and even The Once and Future King. There are books by authors whose writing I can’t live without: Helen Garner, Trent Dalton, Ed Ayres, Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Anne Lamott. And there are cookbooks, of course, too, thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson, Poh Ling Yeow and Annabel Crabb.
Before too long, however, it will be time for us to pack these few books that did wend their way up all those stairs into boxes and take them to our new house. In Time of Wonder the girl is a little bit sad about the place she’s leaving, a little bit glad about the place she’s going to. The Thrifty Fictionista, on the other hand, is a little bit impatient to get out of the place I’m leaving, and tremendously excited about the place I’m going to — not least because it will have a library.
There will be space for books, space to watch endless re-runs of M*A*S*H, space to cook and space to dream, and even space to wonder where hummingbirds go in a hurricane.
Not with herself, nor with anyone else currently living, but with Thomas Hardy — who died almost 100 years ago.
Why? I hear you ask.
The answer is simple: I have just finished reading Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the whole book made me fed up and furious.
I never even planned to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but it turned up in one of those brilliant bargain boxes of books the Thrifty Ficionista falls prey to every now and then, this time a Young Adult collection purchased for my elder daughter. I nabbed Tess before she got hold of it, thinking it would be an entertaining read — which, for the most part, it was — but I was not prepared for how angry the novel would make me.
Especially the ending.
Without spoiling the story (or its ending) for anyone who has not yet read it, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a novel exposing the sexual hypocrisy, entrenched misogyny, and overbearing patriarchy of the period in which it was written. Even though the book was first published in 1891, many of the themes and abhorrent behaviours depicted in it remain all too relevant today — and this realisation was a substantial contributor to the Thrifty Fictionista’s current crankiness.
I’m now faced with a dilemma: do I give the book back to my (early teenaged) daughter to read or not? Would she find some of the characters’ conduct as offensive as I did? Would she dismiss the behaviour I found so repellent as simply being fusty and of its time, or would she also recognise it — repackaged and more than likely digitised and/or broadcast — in her own experiences of the current century?
I can only imagine, given she has been raised by me, that my daughter would respond to Tess of the D’Urbervilles in a similar fashion to the Thrifty Fictionista. But does she really need to read a fictional account of how lousy things were for women back in the day? Or am I better off giving her books like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own or Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, which may give her the headspace and the tools to forge her own way as a woman in the world?
You see, getting cranky is a good thing.
It might make the Thrifty Fictionista uncomfortable, but it also makes her think.
About what’s important. About what influences — fictional, historical or otherwise — I want my daughters to be exposed to. Even about the possible effects of reading the works of a novelist whose female characters generally appear to be subject to fates they can neither change nor challenge.
Honestly, I want my kids to get cranky if they read books like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
But — more significantly — I want them to focus on becoming the incredible human beings, and not being circumscribed by history or sex or gender or labels of any kind.
Most importantly, I want my daughters to understand life as Glennon Doyle describes it:
I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming. If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths. My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.
So: thank you, Thomas Hardy.
The Thrifty Fictionista read your book and is cranky.
But she’s also a whole lot clearer on what she wants for herself and for her children.
In which the Thrify Fictionista abandons her usual carefully considered annual Top 5 posts and crams all her thoughts about the things she has read, watched and listened to during 2021into one hot mess of a post entirely appropriate for the year that was…
Folks, I am so grateful for the gift of literacy. To be able to read — and hence escape between the pages of a book — is one of my life’s true delights, a pleasure that has only been heightened by being part of a protracted historical event. So, as of now, I’m putting on my positive pants and dismissing any further mentions of that pesky Pandemic in this post, and presenting to you in an order as yet unknown to me with the things I loved most this year. Books, TV shows, movies, songs and various bits of ephemera that caught my attention, held it, and made me feel. Because FEELING is what it’s all about, my friends.
I’m going to kick things off by recommending Craig Silvey’s book Honeybee, which just so happened to be the first book I read in 2021. It’s brilliant. So much so, I wondered whether I would read anything as good for the rest of the year (spoiler alert — I did, so please read on). Honeybee made me laugh, cry, shake my fist in both rage and triumph. I absolutely loved it, and reckon you should get a copy for yourself. Pronto.
Another summer holiday read I thoroughly enjoyed was Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. In addition to having a cracking storyline following the main protagonist, Kerry Salter, and generations of her First Nations family, this story is dramatic and darkly comic. I may have found it even more engaging because the country where the tale is set (despite focusing on a fictional town called Durrongo) reminded me strongly of a part of northern NSW where I spent a lot of summers during my childhood.
Shortly after reading these, I got stuck into watching Narcos on Netflix. I was very late to the party, I know, but after watching Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian I was keen to see what he could do without a helmet on and was not disappointed. Wagner Moura did a brilliant job of portraying Pablo Escobar and (being a non-Spanish speaker) I was not troubled by the fact that he apparently wasn’t so great at nailing the Medellín accent. Watching Narcos was an edge-of-your-seat ride combining politics, risky and highly illegal business, insurgents, excess and corruption, ever-present danger, families and cartels, the Colombian jungle, and a few blokes who were trying to stop the whole cocaine trade in its tracks, and I loved it.
By the time Lockdown rolled around again (I think it was the third one for us — the one that went for 17 weeks?), our whole family was looking for something to escape into, and when we weren’t snort-laughing watching back episodes of Travel Guides, which we also watched to take in scenery of anywhere but our own backyard, we got right into The Mysterious Benedict Society on Disney Plus. This was a show the entire family enjoyed, and the fact that a new episode dropped only once a week gave Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop a taste of what life was like for The Bloke and I when we were kids in the days before streaming services. We’re all looking forward to Season Two!
Speaking of second seasons, we also used up quite a few tissues earlier in the year watching Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds on ABC iView, which also prompted Marvel Girl to develop an app for older Australians with some of her classmates for a Praxis project at school. The entire family loved the show and The Bloke and I were really proud when Marvel Girl and her mates took out the top gong for the project it inspired.
During lockdown I also embarked up on a Couch to 5km project that was curtailed only by us having to pack up and move house, but heading out on a run gave me the opportunity to listen to tunes. Not surprisingly, the music I’ve been listening to this year has been far more gentle than I would normally go for. I got into things like:
Running Red Lights by the Avalanches, Rivers Cuomo, Pink Siifu
Balenciaga by New West
Strange Girl by Laura Marling
Smile by Valerie June
Move by Flight Facilities, DRAMA
I also delved back into some oldies but goodies like The Wallflowers’ One Headlight, Funkadelic’s Can You Get to That and U2’s I Will Follow. Troubled times call for familiar favourites.
On the reading front, I got through those seventeen long weeks with the help of Hilary Mantel and hertruly remarkable trilogy of Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies (both of which I re-read) and The Mirror and the Light. I am in awe of Mantel’s writing: sometimes her words were so beautifully, perfectly chosen that I would have to mark my place in whichever of the gorgeous hardbacks I was currently reading with the jewel-toned ribbon bound into the cover and simply close my eyes. Then I would go back and read the passage again and sigh (often quite audibly), and would then find myself hoping that one day I, too, will be able to write so succintly, so eloquently, so precisely, and also to elicit such feeling. Because — as I said earlier — it’s all about the FEELING, folks.
I had a similar reaction to reading Ed Ayres’ book Whole Notes, which is truly and utterly a MUST READ for any music lover. Unusually for me, I have embarked upon a second reading of this volume, which is part “call to instruments” and part memoir of becoming a trans man aged 50 (better late than never, as Ed says). Same goes for the brilliant Trent Dalton’s book Love Stories — but as any regular readers of this blog will know, the Thrifty Fictionista is a massive fan of Dalton’s work and it did not come as a surprise to me that I found myself wanting to stretch Love Stories out for as looooooong as I could, trying to make it last — it was that good.
What else did I enjoy this year? I binged all three seasons of Medici on SBS On Demand and found myself going down various Florentine themed rabbitholes on the interwebs for quite some time afterwards. Filmwise, I got a bit of a kick out of the 2020 movie Rose Island (or, in the original Italian, L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose), and I also enjoyed Hugh Grant in The Gentlemen.
The Bloke and I decided it was high time we introduced the kids to Daniel Craig’s Bond movies, and so far we’ve watched Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. I suspect Spectre will be on the menu soon (if my offspring are not devouring more episodes of Gilmore Girls, which they have recently discovered and have many questions about — including what a video store was — thereby making The Bloke and I feel somewhat antiquated, if not ancient). We also made the kids watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which looks massively dated but the jokes still hold up, for the most part. I tried to get them into watching Lupin (which I loved) but it only piqued the interest of the Paris-loving Marvel Girl, and failed to grab Miss Malaprop. That said, we all thoroughly enjoyed Hawkeye.
There are a couple of other things I don’t think I could have got through 2021 without — like watching episodies of 30 Rock on Stan, because sometimes all you really need is 20 minutes of madness and mayhem from Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to lift your spirits. In a year where internet shopping has taken on a life of its own, I am still eyeing off a T shirt reading “Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks” in honour of Jenna Maroney’s alma mater, but I ended up settling for a 3 pack of Silent Theory T shirts instead (the Lucy style is great and the quality is top notch, in case you’re asking). Another internet purchase I loved? A drink bottle from Target that has the hours of the day printed down the side so I know where my water intake should be up to when. But I digress…
What else? What else did the Thrifty Fictionista love? Well, towards the end of the year I got right into reading Dave Grohl’s book The Storyteller, which inspired our New Year’s Eve feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken and French Champagne. And I finished up the year reading Hannah Kent’s Devotion, Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock and Anne Enright’s Actress — all of which were great, and made for a solid finish to a rather troublesome year.
And so, friends, here endeth the Thrifty Fictionista’s cultural ramblings through the year that was. I would love to hear what you watched, listened to and read during the past year than made it more bearable for you and yours. I hope you find some solace or joy in what I enjoyed.
Well, folks, it seems we Sydneysiders are in it for the long haul.
In addition to being subject to stay at home orders for over six weeks, many of us have also been home schooling our children for the past four. It’s challenging, frustrating and (around 11am each day) occasionally frightening: ain’t gonna lie about that part.
But it’s also incredible, really, how when you start focusing on things for which you’re grateful, you start to notice them more.
Since I wrote my last piece, the Thrifty Fictionista has remembered or noticed a bunch of other things that have made her genuinely happy lately. I’m sharing them in the hopes that if you’re locked down like me, you might discover there are things, however small, that make this strange existence of ours that little bit more bearable.
Here are a few more things that have brought me joy since this current state of affairs landed us at home for the foreseeable future:
I am still pinching myself that when I booked tickets to a performance Hamilton for Marvel Girl’s birthday I chose a date at the beginning of June 2021. Had I selected a date a month later — closer to her actual birthday — we would not have been able to go.
BUT WE DID GO! And we had the best time, and bought ALL the merch, and enjoyed every single minute of the show. Seeing live theatre for the first time in aaaaaages was a blast, and sharing it with my completely Hamilton obsessed elder daughter was completely and utterly brilliant.
Something I really appreciated and did not expect also happened: hearing some of Lin-Maunel Miranda’s lines being delivered by indigenous voices, particularly by Innawonga and Yindjibarndi man Shaka Cook (who played Hercules Mulligan and James Madison), brought the words a whole new resonance. It was great.
It’s winter in Sydney, so we’ve stopped wearing thongs for now and switched to ugg boots instead.
And they rock.
No further explanation required, methinks.
(Picture added for the benefit of those who are slow on the uptake).
Jason, Jason, Jason…what are you, stupid?! Don’t you know who Jimmy Rees is?
Between his “Meanwhile in Australia…” updates, hysterically funny interactions between Jason and “the Guy Who Decides”, and his takeoffs of Botox obsessed ladies from Brighton desperately seeking Pfiiiiiiiizer shots between their yogalaaaaaates classes, Jimmy Rees has brought belly laughs and some much needed hilarity to our household during Lockdown. He’s also known around our place as the artist formerly known as Jimmy Giggle…with apologies to Prince.
You know what to do, folks: pop him in your favourite search engine, sit back and be entertained.
Five stars out of five, Jimmy.
Christmas in July
Supporting local restaurants and businesses has become a priority for many of us during Lockdown. When we finally get out of this mess, we want to be able to rock up to the places we know and love, get a good feed and enjoy the company of people we haven’t seen except via Zoom for the past…forever long?!
So when we figured out that not only were we spending both the kids’ birthdays plus our wedding anniversary in Lockdown, we splashed out on a Christmas in July feast from the fancy restaruant where The Bloke and I got married fifteen years ago. Three courses, all insanely delicious, picked up from the restaurant and finished off in our oven at home…it was glorious.
The unexpected upside of the entire experience was that our children got to eat top notch nosh in the comfort of our home, knowing they could try a whole pile of new things and still get a snack from the fridge if what we had ordered was not to their taste. Needless to say, they loved every mouthful and are now clamouring to be allowed to come with us next time we actually get to do a spot of fine dining.
Best of the Rest
There are other things that have made me unexpectedly happy or grateful during the past couple of weeks, and here they are in random order:
Finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
Watching Patty Mills captaining the bronze medal-winning Boomers.
Devouring everything Olympic, generally.
Getting a huge box of fresh fruit and vegetables delivered to my doorstep.
Walking in the sunshine.
A truly heartwarming text exchange with my niece on her birthday.
Hugs from the people I’m sharing these crazy days and same four walls with.
Anyway, whoever and wherever you are, in Lockdown or roaming freely, I do hope that you’re able to find something to enjoy or feel grateful for today. Not in a Pollyanna-ish way, but in a genuine, YEAH — THAT’S GOOD, kind of way.
Feel free to share it in the comments if you want: who knows, maybe it will brighten someone else’s day.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write when most of the people you know are experiencing exactly the same thing as you are. For me it’s the same four walls, the same family members, the same walk to the surf club and back — just to check the entire Pacific Ocean hasn’t mysteriously disappeared overnight.
The Bloke, knowing full well that I am generally the family member who jollies everyone else along, deadpanned that I should embrace gratitude during Lockdown.
Then again, he has a point, and I do know I am indeed fortunate.
I am fully vaccinated, and The Bloke not far behind me (though the kids are yet to have a vaccine approved for them).
I am gainfully employed (though my work is being frequently interrupted by helping my children with home schooling).
I am happily married (though my anniversary present to The Bloke this year was booking in his second Pfizer shot).
You see the recurring theme, I’m sure — especially if you have a child in Year 5 and have been working through number patterns and algebra problems with them.
Yes, but —
For every upside, it seems there is an inevitable downside.
I’m trying to go back to the things I have learned from tapping away at the keys in this, my little patch of cyberspace. I’m looking for moments of delight. I’m attempting to put into practice the Divine Qualities I began exploring at the beginning of this year. That said, I also freely admit I have uncharacteristically shelved my project to continue looking into them throughout 2021: if past Lockdown experiences taught me anything, it’s that it’s OK to let go of things if it they are adding pressure to my existence rather than relieving it.
As a family, we’re trying to do things together that make us laugh — like watching old episodes of Travel Guides, which not only lets us explore the world from the comfort or our armchairs, but also has us simultaneously giggling and cringing at the antics of the various participants. For example, we watched the South African episode last night, and while we were in hysterics at some of the commentary during the safari portion of the show, we were downright mystified that some of the travel guides had never heard of Nelson Mandela?
There it is again. Yes, but —
You see my dilemma?
I suspect I am not alone in this predicament, and that many parents across the Northern Beaches, across Sydney, and across Australia are, too.
So taking The Bloke’s advice to heart this time, I have challenged myself to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of the things that I am purely grateful for — no ifs, no buts, no strings attached.
Baked potatoes and pumpkin. Baked lasagne. Baked apple and rhubarb crumble. Baked anything, really.
A reliable internet connection, Netflix and Spotify.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy (specifically) and fiction (generally).
Piping hot tea, coffee and showers.
Words, and being able to read them, speak them, write them and wield them.
I suppose, given that in a few weeks it will be fifteen years since we tied the knot, I should add The Bloke to the list too — if only so I can publicly proclaim that I do take his advice from time to time. (Pun deliberate, and Dad-joke worthy.)
I knew surrendering to the doona on Sunday afternoon was a mistake. Naturally, every last one of the weather gods took note of my devil may care attitude to the sunny weather they had provided, and proceeded to drench the Northern Beaches in several of days of rain. Admittedly, there was a splash of variety to said rain: it was either steady and incessant, or squally and hitting when you least expected it, but the fact remains that it was still rain. On the one occasion I actually left the house (for 2 of the 4 allowable reasons under the current stay at home orders), I even drove through pouring rain in bright sunlight…which is a seriously weird experience even when one is not in Lockdown.
Anyway, after a shaky start (replete with yelling from all sides), both of my children appear to have adapted to this new regime reasonably well — which is rather a relief, given The Bloke and I are both working from home in finance-related jobs and Lockdown has conincided with EOFY. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have been keeping each other admirably entertained, including boisterous exercise sessions outside and plenty of creative pursuits inside, and have sometimes even remembering to clean up after themselves. Needless to say, I have issued an open invitation to all family members to empty the dishwasher whenever they find it full of shiny, clean crockery and cutlery, but sadly so far only The Bloke has taken me up on this salacious offer. OK…it’s not even remotely salacious, it’s just flipping necessary…
Miss Malaprop and I have indulged in a spot of Lockdown Baking — no, not sourdough — which is hardly surprising as we are both rather fond of bunging things in the oven and being able to eat them in the not too distant future. Spotting a claw of increasingly blackened bananas darkening the kitchen fruit bowl, we made Banana Bread. Not just ANY garden variety banana bread, but Yotam Ottolenghi’s Banana Bread featuring roasted pecans, if you don’t mind, which is why this particular baked offering requires the use of Capitals…so la dee dah..
Recalling her recent online shopping for new jeans, the Thrifty Fictionista has resolved not to bake too much during Lockdown, lest she find herself unable to fit into said jeans, which are yet to wend their way to my doorstop. That has not, however, stopped her from ummm… well, from ordering…a few, no…a largish pile, let’s see… shall we say “several other” things online? They’ve all been necessary purchases, of course, like a lovely tartan woollen blanket. And an iPad case. And two sweatshirts. And the Nespresso pods that are due to arrive this afternoon. You cannot seriously expect me to endure Lockdown with coffee, can you?! Besides, it’s not like I’m rushing to the nearest supermarket to panic buy toilet paper…
So far, despite adding many things to cart when I probably should have said, nay shouted at the top of my lungs: “NO! Begone, tempting online shopping demons of the Interwebs!“, the Thrifty Fictionista is rather proud of herself for not purchasing any more books — with the (exceedingly) permissible exception of some small tomes she sent to New Zealand for a friend’s upcoming birthday. Resisting the seductive siren song of Booktopia and the Book Grocer and all those other sublime online book retailers has not been easy, but I am pleased to announce that managed to apply myself and diligently finished the Nureyev biography (which I struggled to complete, simply because I knew it would have to end inevitably with his demise and that’s not the cheeriest subject matter to confront while unable to freely leave your house for the foreseeable future).
Next, however, the Thrifty Fictionista took her own advice and cracked open the very beautiful (hardbacked and bookmark ribboned) Hilary Mantel box set I had been waiting to devour. Quite honestly, I am relishing every single moment I am spending with Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England.
Right from the opening line of Wolf Hall, the first book, I was entranced all over again:
So now get up…
It’s not such a bad suggestion, and one I probably should have heeded last Sunday instead of allowing the doona to welcome me as its own.
So now get up…
It really did remind me that Lockdown doesn’t have to be all bad. It doesn’t have to mean forgetting to shower on a regular basis, or spending days in your pj’s because you can’t be bothered getting dressed, or lamenting the fact that you can’t do anything.
Because there’s always something to do, somewhere, if you’re willing to look for it.
Lockdown Day 1, and the Thrifty Fictionista has once again taken to her bed.
Not because I’m sick, not because I’m occasionally inclined towards melodrama, but because it’s vaguely cold out — meaning it’s fine and sunny and not the slightest bit windy, but the temperature has dipped below 20 degrees Celcius, which is regarded quite decidedly as ugg boot weather in my part of the Antipodes. We’re not wimps, really we’re not…
Besides, now that Greater Sydney has been placed into Lockdown (again) there is literally no chance anyone is going to come knocking on our door, so there’s nothing to stop me from typing away on my trusty laptop under the cover of my delightfully warm doona. The Bloke and the kids are down the other end of the house, and given we are going to be trapped together for the next thirteen days none of them is feeling the need to interrupt me (yet). I even have a hot cup of peppermint tea on my bedside table, though that did require me to give one of my two TBR piles a bit of a shove so it would fit. TBR, for the uninitiated, stands for “To Be Read”, which is both a sacred and dreadful practice of stacking large quantities of books you plan to read on your bedside table, the precipitous nature of which may or may not impede your spouse’s ability to successfully procure clothing from their side of the wardrobe.
At the top of the nearer TBR pile is a biography of Rudolf Nureyev I dived into after writing my last post, the reading of which I have been interspersing with bellyflops into romance novels of dubious quality (not usually a genre I pay the slightest bit of attention to, but every now and then my brain craves a book that is the mental equivalent of chewing gum).
In my defence, my brain probably does deserve a bit of a break. A large chunk of my morning (in between moaning about being in Lockdown again) was spent rescheduling the holiday we had planned to take next week, cancelling the cat sitter, and working out how to make my elder daughter’s 13th birthday next week feel less like she’s spending in Long Bay Jail?
Apologies — am just back from a spot of online shopping; I had to throw out my favourite pair of blue jeans the other day due to the development of a hole in an unmentionable place, and since I can’t go to the Mall or anywhere else for the next two weeks, needs must. I suspect this digression may also enlighten you, dear reader, to the state of my mind at the moment and why I am resorting to reading trashy romances. It’s like a tin of worms in there, folks. Or maybe a bag of fleas?
Anyhooooo….the Thrifty Fictionista, currently warm and toasty but evidently sporting the attention span of a gnat, has now finally recalled the real reason she began tapping away at her keyboard on this fine, sunny, slightly cold but doona-covered afternoon: if you’re boxed in, the best solution is a box set.
YASS QUEEN! It worked for me last time we were in Lockdown (or was it the time before that?), when I cracked through an enormous box set of Sarah J Maas fantasy novels, tomes weighty enough to anchor the QE2 in Sydney Harbour…were it not for the fact that we have closed our international borders indefinitely and the mere sighting of a cruise ship off the coast is likely to send most Sydneysiders into a panic faster than you can say “Ruby Princess”…
This time the box set I have chosen is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. I suspect I’ve already read the first two (the ones that both won the Booker Prize) a long time ago, and the third one — well, it’s as gigantic as the others, and I am looking forward to reading all three. At its best, historical fiction is immersive, and what better time than Lockdown to lose yourself in another time and (hopefully not plague-ridden) place?
And we’re not really all expected to clean our houses from top to bottom all over again are we?
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 – whatif 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.
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
Crossing 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.
American 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.
H 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.
Our 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.)
The 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…
I would MUCH rather be on an adventure than have the flu.
So, it finally happened. I thought, when I got laryngitis a couple of weeks ago (much to the eternal — or perhaps infernal — amusement of my children), that I had done my time with lurgies great and small this Winter. Or Spring. Or whatever the damn season is, given that the temperature rocketed up to 34°C two days ago before plunging back to a wild and windswept 12°C.
Unfortunately, my own temperature has been vacillating just as unpredictably: influenza has me in its evil grip, and the Thrifty Fictionista has taken to her bed. Still, rather than railing against the indignity of barely having the energy to get out of said bed, or boring you with my symptoms, I have managed to haul myself upright for a minute or two so I can tell you what has been keeping me sane for the past three days.
Books, books and more books. And even though recently I have been reading things like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which I freely admit I could not read in bed as I found that a bit too disturbing), and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (which I highly recommend — both as a read and a concept), and Jane Harper’s The Dry (which is as fine a debut novel as you’ll ever read as well as providing an unflinchingly accurate depiction of life in small outback Australian towns), I have — as usual — a confession.
I do wish I had a coat like Kell’s…
The Thrifty Fictionista can’t read such things when she is sick.
No, when I am sick, I need magic.
And so, the past few days have I reached for my Kindle (which, with its amazing capacity to deliver whole books into my waiting hands without leaving my bed, seems like magic itself) and buried myself in V E Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy.
On Wednesday, I re-read A Darker Shade of Magic, because it had been quite some time since I had dipped into the world of Red London. Or Grey London or White London, for that matter. And given the flu made me feel like I was already well on my way to Black London, I found myself wishing for a coat like Kell’s — you know, the one that you can turn inside out and every time it’s a different coat — and for the ability to wield Antari blood magic.
As Hasari…I wanted to whisper.
Oh, for a working spell, not days stuck malingering in bed.
But the flu had other ideas, so I kept on reading and followed the thief, Lila Bard (you just have to love a girl who would like to be a pirate, don’t you?), and the magician Kell on their adventures through the various Londons, saving cities and rescuing (or was it resurrecting?) princes.
On Thursday, I started reading A Gathering of Shadows, and was gratified to discover that it was considerably longer than the first book, as the damn flu showed no signs of abating even when hit with hard core antibiotics and a decent-sized helping of The Bloke’s best Spaghetti Bolognese. I love that Lila did wind up becoming a pirate — ahem, I mean a Privateer — and thoroughly enjoyed meeting her Captain, Alucard Emery, and I relished the magic and mayhem of the Essen Tasch tournament.
And now it is Friday, and I have just downloaded the third book, A Conjuring of Light, hoping that it will bring me just that: light relief from being stuck in this bed. Still.
So, without further ado, I am going to get on with it, not least because I need to lie down again…but also because I am grateful for the escape. For the distraction. For the adventure.