Thursday, November 5, 2009

...and the books that were read in the meantime...

Here are some of the books I've read this year. I can't remember if there were others, but if they were, they were obviously highly forgettable.

Swimming, a beautiful, evocative novel set around the suburbs of Melbourne I know so well. The novel centres on one woman's journey through the experience of childlessness. There are many gut-wrenching scenes here, and the theme is sensitively and honestly explored. This first novel is capably handled by a talented and promising new writer, Enza Gandolfo.
At a writers' conference a couple of years ago, I heard one of the writers say she had put off reading any of La Vyrle Spencer's books because she thought her name was so awful. I confess I had the same impression. And how wrong we both were. After reading That Camden Summer, I have nothing but praise for Spencer. Though there is so much head-hopping in this book that it was sometimes difficult to know whose thoughts I was reading, it hardly got in the way. The story was wonderful, as were the characters. Un-put-downable.

Oh, dear. After hearing so many wonderful things about Isabel Allende, I must confess I will probably never read one of her books again. Allende's writing is masterly, there is no doubt of that, and though Daughter of Fortune told a story full of intrigue and promise, a rushed ending left far too many loose ends for my liking.The story of Laura Bush was a fascinating peek into the private life of a very public person. I thoroughly enjoyed American Wife, for its competent, smooth writing, but mostly for its voyeur quality.

What Scribbly Didn't Do

Scribbly started out this year with such promise, and then completely dashed all her hopes of being able to sustain a steady blogging stream.

It seemed so easy when there were holidays and loads of free time to commit to frequent posts that would continue throughout the year.

Here we are, in November, and the posts have not even been far and few in between. They have been non-existent.

A quick update on other activities might explain why Scribbly has been absent from this page:
  • Building project at home has been all but completed (only concrete paths and water tanks left to be poured/installed).

  • Work has been busy, but very, very rewarding this year, with much wonderful outcomes achieved. This is not in a writing field, but challenging and important nonetheless.

  • As always, life gets in the way. Children, husband, home and marvellous friends must be fitted in. It's imperative! I know this is not an excuse for not keeping up the blog, but it's a valid choice I make.

  • Any spare time is taken up with writing, which this year has taken a slightly different direction. More info to follow in future posts...!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What Scribbly Did...

... since the last post.

Oh, my. I have done it again, haven't I? Two and a half months without posting. Well, I've been a busy girl. First there's been the duty type stuff. That tends to creep in until there's not much room for other things. Then there's been the building project that is only weeks (fingers crossed) away from being finished. Kids are well and truly back at school and almost through second term. I've been re-assessing my writing goals with some very nice writing friends and rediscovering the joy (and sometimes the angst) of putting words together.

As I said, I've been fairly proactive with the writing, but I'm happy to say the reading hasn't been neglected either. Since my last post, I've been through a few fabulous books, and am now enjoying 'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga. This is the second book I've read about India, and funnily enough, both books won the Booker for their authors. I also believe - though I'm not sure - that both authors were first timers. What a way to explode onto the writing scene, hey?

But compared to 'The God of Small Things', this book is quite tongue-in-cheek and irreverent. Both books paint a picture of India as a fascinating, enigmatic, infuriating land of great disparity and mystery. For now, it's a place I prefer to read about.

While I was reading this book, I read from cover to cover, Denise Scott's hilarious autobiography. I also tried to read 'March', but it was from the library, and I took longer than the measly 3 weeks they allow you to borrow a book. I returned it and will borrow again when I've finished this one.

Oh, and I absolutely loved 'The Movie Girl'. I can imagine it being made into a movie. The heroine would probably be played by Miranda Kerr, and the leading man, well that could be, perhaps... oh, I don't know. Someone young and gorgeous like Chase Crawford. It was light-hearted, fun and well written. I was glued to the story throughout and I was impressed at how well the author managed to create a strong romantic conflict and high emotional stakes without the whole thing turning to mush. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and I look forward to reading more of Kate Lace's work.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What is conflict, anyway?

Yeah, what is it, really? Is it this?
Or rather something like this?

Perhaps this is more like it...

It seems simple. Lots of things do, when they're done well.

Good writers do it all the time, putting their characters at odds to create an inescapable conflict of motivation. The characters' goals may be the same or different, but in pursuing those goals, each will negate the other's chances of succeeding.

A few nights ago, I watched the old classic, 'Irma La Douce', with my family. What a great partnering of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. We thoroughly enjoyed it. As we watched, I was explaining to my husband how inescapable the conflict was.

Irma, a prostitute, falls in love with Nestor, an ex-policeman. Nestor replaces Irma's abusive pimp, and to show her gratitude, she sets about earning as much money as she can to dress him in the finest clothes and look after him in a way that will make her proud among the other prostitutes in the district.

Nestor is flattered, but his love for Irma makes him insanely jealous of her clients. He can't stand the thought of her with other men, so he invents an alter-ego, Lord X, who will engage Irma's services twice a week to do nothing more than play double-handed solitaire, paying her so much money she doesn't need to see other customers.

Problem is, to make a thousand Francs a week, Nestor works himself to the bone at the local produce markets and arrives home early each morning to fall into bed exhausted. Irma thinks he's losing interest in her. One day, after a quick change from Lord X to his real-life self, Nestor meets Irma in the local bar for a drink. She sees a lipstick mark on his cheek - the one she had placed on the Lord only a few minutes earlier - and accuses him of having another girl. She then announces that she has fallen in love with Lord X and plans to elope with him.

There seems nothing left for Nestor to do than to dispose of Lord X. But when Nestor throws Lord X's clothes and belongings in the Seine, noisily proclaiming his joy at being finally rid of the Lord, he is spotted by Irma's old pimp. The police are called and Nestor is arrested and subsequently convicted for the murder of Lord X.

I won't spoil the ending, as there are a few more complications before Irma and Nestor are happily reunited, but I thought this was a splendid example of inescapable emotional conflict. Irma's and Nestor's motivations for getting what they wanted were diametrically opposed. In the status quo, no resolution was possible. Thankfully, unfolding events provided the stimulus for character change, and that in turn enabled the protagonists to change events so that they could be - happily - together at the end.

There. Now wasn't that confusing?

Last night I drew Jennifer Crusie's conflict grid on a page and tried to nut out the conflict of my current characters. I haven't yet given up on them, as I think they've got potential. It was harder than I thought to get the conflict grid working so that each of their motivations prevented the other's goal from succeeding. I must have drawn that grid at least fifteen times before I hit on a workable conflict. But for this to happen, I had to change the story I'd originally planned to write. It was a difficult process that kept me up past midnight. It was worth it, however, as I feel more satisfied with the new plot than I have for a long time. What this means, though, is that I have to wipe everything I've written so far and start again. And I thought this writing caper was going to be easy...!!!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

State of flux

My current novel has ground to a halt.

Several weeks ago, I received yet another rejection from Harlequin for the manuscript I'd sent them most recently. Now I have no irons in the fire, and since the rejection letter was identical to the last, I think it's time to stop and take stock.

All sorts of questions are running through my head. Am I writing for the right publisher? Is my work more suited to a different line, or to another genre of writing altogether? Clearly, there is something about my writing that isn't working, so now is a good time to stop and consider what I'm doing.

Over the last few years, I've built up a bit of knowledge about how to structure a novel. My writing - hopefully - has improved. So what is it about it that's going to take it to the next level? I think this is a crucial consideration at this point, and the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced I need to be more strategic about what I write, how I write it, and to whom I pitch it.

When I think about my current novel, there are several elements that don't sit quite right with me. I have the emotional conflict worked out... I think. But is it as clear in my mind as it should be? Perhaps not enough to provide that clarity for the reader in a way that's going to make them want to turn the page.

Part of the problem could be that in trying to 'fit' into a certain genre - and Romance has been the genre of choice thus far - I am perhaps not able to express myself in the voice that comes most naturally to me. If this is in fact the case, then I might be sabotaging myself in a way that will always prevent an editor from seeing who I really am.

So I'm going to take some time to mull all these issues over and come up with a plan. I feel a great sense of affinity for romance, for the breadth of storylines available, which provide endless opportunities to explore character and emotion. If I'm totally honest, what attracts me the most to romance is being able to explore women's issues in great depth.

With this in mind, I'm going to analyse what I've done so far, see what possibilities lay ahead, and make a plan of attack. There will be setbacks along the journey, but I'm more than willing to persevere, since there's something inside me that urges me on. I don't know if Harlequin is the right fit for me, but I know there's something out there that is. It's my passionate and resolute aim to find it.

The Slap

Apologies for the long posting absence. And after such a valiant start, too! I knew this would happen as soon as work got going again.

I finished reading Christos Tsiolkas' 'The Slap' quite a while ago, and have been in a quandary about what to write. This is, after all, not a critic's blog, and I - as an aspiring writer - feel I don't have the credentials to give it a hiding. In particular, I don't want to be the kind of aspiring writer who likes to tear other writers' work to shreds. Everyone has their own individual voice, and their own message to convey, and thank God for that. Wouldn't it be boring otherwise? Still, I guess that as a reader - and a discerning one at that - I do have the right to voice an opinion.

First, I would like to commend Christos Tsiolkas on his strong and convincing voice. The novel reads easily, and is very graphic in its attempt at realism. A few of my friends have read it and we discussed it while it was still fresh in our minds. These friends are intelligent, well-read, professional women, and though each of us had a slightly different take on where the novel took us, we pretty much all agreed on one thing: how the book made us feel.

Tsiolkas' realism was a tad too brutal and ugly for me. Though I'd felt sympathy for almost all the characters in the beginning of the novel, as the story unfolded and each character was placed under the microscope, fatal character flaws were exposed, which made it difficult to find any redeeming qualities. Above all, I felt sort of dirty after reading this book. The language was unnecessarily foul. This observation isn't made because I'm a prude who's averse to swearing - quite the contrary. I think the odd, well-placed swear word can express emotions with great economy. I just don't think people generally swear as much as the characters in 'The Slap'. Bad language was used so often that it became redundant. Consequently, the impact was lost, and all that remained was a general feeling that the novel was coarse.

The sex scenes were mostly unpleasant too. Well-written and spare, but again, the sex was ugly except for one scene where one of the characters is being unfaithful to her husband. I couldn't help wishing she'd take off with him, seeing as her husband's regard for women seemed to border on misogyny.

Drug use among young people was another facet to this novel that I found disturbing. Again, I'm not naive on the subject. I know young - and old - people - do drugs. There's no shock factor there. However, I found the portrayal of young people just out of VCE, languishing in an empty, directionless world to be quite depressing.

For these reasons, I found it difficult to suspend disbelief while reading. The obnoxiousness of the characters and the grim situations in which they found themselves, continually pulled me out of the story. As such, 'The Slap' was hard to reconcile as a true depiction of contemporary suburban life in Melbourne. Though Tsiolkas' cast of characters spanned a wide range of cultural and socio-economic groups, they were all alike in one sense. The glaring disparity of their lives was bridged by a common sense of pessimism and wariness that drove each character to commit acts of destructive recklessness.

Tsiolkas has been commended for this work, and I agree it was a mildly compelling read. For me, what kept me going was more the level of my investment in the novel than pure joy of reading it. Like one of those slightly weird SBS movies that come on late at night and keep me glued to the screen because I'm too tired to get off the couch, turning the pages of 'The Slap' was a case of hanging on until the end in the hope of some kind of redemption. Sadly, that was not to be.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Postscript on The Prince Of Tides

I finished this sumptuous book while still on holiday down the beach. Picking it up and taking myself down to the sunroom for some unlimited reading time was more luxurious to me than a visit to a day spa. The mornings were chilly while away, and I'd get under the doona of the sofa bed and snuggle while Pat Conroy's evocative words transported me to a world far away, see-sawing between the lowlands of South Carolina and the stylish streetscape of Manhattan.

Since finishing the book, I've raved about it to anyone who'll care to listen. I've already passed it on, and I have two on the waiting list to read it. All for a book that cost me 50c at the school fete.

Quite simply, it was one of the best books I've ever read, and I did little analysing while I read. I was too busy being mesmerised by the rich prose. Never one for poetic descriptions of scenery, I found that Conroy's long passages on the sea islands of South Carolina never became tiresome. Infinitely fascinating would be a more fitting description. With a masterful stroke of his pen, he was able to convey in a depth rarely seen in many novels, the love Tom Wingo felt for his beloved island and surrounding coastline.

While I still had access to the computer, I posted a few 'Literary Gems' from the book. These were passages that entranced me with the beauty of words or by the deep insight into character or situations. Some novels are lucky to possess only one or two of these types of moments, but in the case of The Prince Of Tides, I could have picked out a passage of such brilliance every two or three pages - sometimes more. If I hadn't been computerless, I could well have kept on posting, and I'm sure by now I'd be up to 'Literary Gem # 159). But by the time I returned home, I was already into my next novel, which was a good thing, since posting the 'Literary Gems' was more intended to tease and entice than to spoil the experience for others.

I wish I hadn't seen the movie before reading the novel. Admittedly, it's been many years since I saw it, and that helped me to think more in terms of the story rather than the screen adaptation. As with many great novels, the book was far, far better than the film, since it concentrated in greater detail on the life of the Wingo family as the children were growing up. The entire point of the novel is the backstory, and Conroy houses the novel in the past more than the present. From memory, the film did the opposite. There is so much told about the family that couldn't be covered in a two hour film, and it's these events, so sensitively conveyed, that enrich the novel in a way that is beyond a film-maker's limitations.

Now I look forward to my friends reading it so we can discuss it. I wholeheartedly give this book 5 stars!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aaaaahhhhh, the summer...

Yes indeed, the Summer! Sometimes it was freezing and nasty like this, and other times it was blissfully perfect. Here are some images from my week away.
The amazing random penguin!?! Can you believe there were three of these little guys frolicking under the Rosebud pier for days? They had plenty of little fish to keep their pudgy bodies in perfectly rotund shape. Fascinating how the little critters can swim. Just as fast as fish, which makes sense if they're to have any hope of catching any.
Is this gorgeous, or what? Just about everywhere I turned to look was a vision of heaven. Photo opportunities were too many to take advantage of. And every magic vision was accompanied by that dread feeling of, it's-all-coming-to-an-end-far-too-soon-and-I'll-be-back-in-the-rat-race-before-I-know-it. Still, I tried not to focus on the finishing line in favour of letting my thirsty soul drink of the magnificence.
I jumped off this pier! Yes I did. For days, my kids had been doing it, and one day I thought I'd be brave enough to try it. Middle child urged me on, and so we walked right down to the end where it's deep so I could give it a go. I have to admit I chickened out at first and did a tame little jump off the lower platform. That got my courage going a bit, and a few other jumps followed. It's been literally decades since I did anything of the sort, and it was surprising how quickly I got back into the routine of taking a breath and expelling it as I hit the water. The taste of salt in my nostrils took me back to my childhood.

With my pride intact after a few jumps from the lower deck, I climbed to the top level once more. It still looked way too high, but then I told myself to stop thinking and just do it. And so I did. What I didn't know, was that my husband and remaining kids were watching from the beach. My oldest told me later that husband was doing a running commentary, a la Olympic diving event. I can't say I enjoyed the high dive terribly, except that actually going through with it held a certain spark of achievement.

The day of jumping off the pier was the very last day of our holiday. The water was as clear as glass, a tropical light blue close to shore, graduating out in increasingly dark ribbons. In the shallows, it was as tepid as bath water. We swam for the greater part of the day, and stayed on the beach for a pizza dinner. After that we swam again, soaking in the last sensations of another beautiful holiday reluctantly drawing to a close.

And now we're home. Yes indeed. The summer highs have sure hit with a ferocious vengeance here in Melbourne. For weeks, all my skimpy summer clothes stayed hung in the cupboard, until I wondered if I would get a chance to wear them at all this summer. Cardigans and polar fleeces had too good a workout all through spring right up until a few days ago. Now I can take out the halter-neck dresses and floaty fabrics, since our previously 'cool' summer has died in a fiery, mid-season climax.

The current heatwave of above 40 degree temperatures is out of the ordinary, and has tested all my previous contingency measures. I'm one who tends to boast about the coolness of my house. 'It doesn't get hot until the third above 30 day,' I tell anyone who'll care to listen. 'We only use our air conditioner once each summer, and only for about 20 minutes.' Boy oh boy! Yesterday (our first full day back from holidays) we only lasted until lunchtime, and today the air-con has been on for 20 min, off for 20 min because I'm trying not to use it too extravagantly. The television is on pretty much permanently due to the tennis, and Channel 7 is constantly driving fear into me by reporting on all the power outages throughout the city. Images of people throwing out the entire contents of their freezer are enough to make me want to brave the heatwave cold turkey... or rather, hot turkey.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #5

Now we come to characterisation.

Pat Conroy's incisive descriptions go beyond regular perception. When I first read this passage, I marvelled at how Conroy is able to convey an impression with his sharply intuitive turn of phrase. The way he describes Winthrop Ogletree and his funeral parlour, utterly captures the essence and mood of the character and the setting. I no longer have to imagine. I'm right there in the room alongside Ogletree, as though my senses belonged to the POV character, Tom Wingo.

'The undertaker, Winthrop Ogletree, was waiting in the foyer of the large, rambling Victorian house at the end of the Street of Tides where he practiced his trade. He was dressed in a dark suit and his hands were folded against his stomach in an attitude of enforced piety. He was tall and thin and had a complexion like goat cheese left on the table too long. The funeral parlor smelled like dead flowers and unanswered prayers. When he wished us a good day, his voice was reptilian and unctuous and you knew he was only truly comfortable in the presence of the dead. He looked as if he had died two or three times himself in order to appreciate better the subtleties of his vocation. Winthrop Ogletree had the face of an unlucky vampire who never received an adequate portion of blood.'

Occasional Literary Gem #4

Though I've had a busy weekend, returning from a stay-over at Indi's gorgeous beach retreat to the usual round of commitments, I'm still making my way pleasurably through Pat Conroy's amazing 'Prince Of Tides'.

The following passage is one of Tom Wingo's reminiscences, and at this stage of the novel, appears to serve no direct purpose other than to enrich the already kaleidoscopic setting. I don't imagine there will be a need to revisit Mr Fruit, however the brief appearance of this eccentric character adds another dimension to the already multi-textured setting of the novel.

'We came to the intersection of Baitery Road and the Street of Tides and to one of Colleton's two traffic lights. Out in the harbor, sailboats canted into the wind, their sails papery and overwhelmed with sunlight. A fifty-foot yacht made the turn in the river and signaled the bridge tender with four throaty barks of the horn. Mr. Fruit, sporting a baseball cap and white gloves, was directing traffic at the intersection. We waited for him to grant us permission to cross the street. It did not matter to Mr. Fruit if the light was red or green. Mr. Fruit relied on intuition and his own internal sense of balance and symmetry to get the traffic through his corner of the world.

Fantastic, bizarre, and vigilant, he was a tall, lanky black man of indeterminate age who seemed to consider the town of Colleton his personal responsibility. I don't know to this day if Mr. Fruit was retarded or deluded or some harmless sweet-faced lunatic given free rein to drift about his native town spreading the joy of an inarticulate gospel to his neighbors. I don't know his real name or who his family was or where he spent the night. I know he was indigenous and that no one questioned his right to direct the traffic on the Street of Tides.

There was a time when a new deputy tried to teach Mr. Fruit about the difference between a red and a green light, but Mr. Fruit had resisted all efforts to reorder what he had been doing perfectly well for many years. He not only monitored the comings and goings of the town, his presence softened the ingrained evil that flourished along the invisible margins of the town's consciousness. Any community can be judged in its humanity or corruption by how it manages to accommodate the Mr. Fruits of the world. Colleton simply adjusted itself to Mr. Fruit's harmonies and ordinations. He did whatever he felt was needed and he did it with style. "That's the southern way," my grandmother said. "That's the nice way."

"Hey, babe," he cried out when he saw us, and "Hey, babe," we cried back. He wore a silver whistle around his neck and a beatific, inerasable smile on his face. He tooted his whistle and waved his long arms in graceful exaggerated swoops. He pivoted and danced toward the lone approaching car, his left hand at a right angle to his bony wrist. The car stopped and Mr. Fruit motioned for us to cross the street, blowing on his whistle in perfect synchronization with my grandmother's footsteps. Mr. Fruit was born to direct traffic. He also led all parades in Colleton, no matter how solemn or festive the occasion. Those were his two functions in the life of the town and he performed them very well. My grandfather would always tell us that Mr. Fruit had done as well with what he had as any man my grandfather had ever met.'

Friday, January 16, 2009


Here it is, my new toaster. My old toaster is now in a plastic bag at the bottom of the pantry - just in case this new one goes bung and we need the old, trusty, still-in-good-working-order toaster to come to the rescue.

Why buy a new toaster when the old one still works? Aesthetics, pure and simple. The old one was twenty years old... yes, a wedding gift, and amazingly the only toaster we were given. It performed valiantly through all these years, never missing a beat and producing a mean slice of toast or crumpet every time. It was a daggy white one with not a stylish line in its uninspiring design.

Over the years its enamel had scratched, and one of the plastic sides had broken when dropped once. Still, it kept on working. Even when it used to be plugged inside the pantry (so I could conceal its ugliness) and one of the kids accidentally let a party balloon fall into it from a higher shelf while we were toasting. Ooohhh, the smell of burning rubber! Nevertheless, it shrugged off that indignity and carried on undaunted.

But the days when we had enough room inside the pantry to house a working toaster are long gone. There was a time when I would use the toaster on the kitchen bench, then store it in the pantry afterwards. It was a squish, but at least it was out of sight. Eventually, even that small space disappeared, and the task of clearing a new space to hide the toaster always seemed to be mine for the taking. Inevitably, the ugly toaster took up its permanent position on the kitchen bench, rightfully next to the ugly white plastic kettle. When that kettle thankfully died and I replaced it with a beautiful, shiny stainless steel model, I began to dream of an equally beautiful toaster to partner it. One that would be a visual asset to the kitchen, that would hold its place on the bench without causing shame. An object of beauty as well as flawless function.

So I guess this post is an ode to that old toaster, for I do feel a tad guilty in having shoved it aside. We lead such a consumerist way of life in our rich country, and my action today was the kind of thing I regularly shake my head at. Buying a new toaster when the old one still works was a wasteful act. How superficial, what a waste of resources, to want a toaster for its looks, not performance. My parents would never have done such a thing. Every appliance in their house is allowed to die a natural death before they replace it, and that's the way it should be.

And worse, I must confess that I didn't even check where the new toaster was made before making my purchase. For all I know, it's imported, and there were probably Australian-made ones on the shelf that I overlooked. Though if that was the case, they weren't nearly pretty enough.

Now for a few apologies: Sorry, old, still-working toaster. Sorry, world environment. Sorry, Australian economy. Sorry, Mum & Dad (who taught me not to waste).

Can't wait for tomorrow morning so I can try out the gorgeous new toaster.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #3

And another gem. This is the letter Tom Wingo, the narrator of the novel, keeps in his wallet. It was written to him years ago by his sister, the famous poet Savannah Wingo, after she watched him coach a game of football. In this scene, he is prompted to take the letter out and read it again. The letter is a well-used device, a beautiful illustration of the unshakeable love that binds these two characters together. I found it inspirational, and I guess it would perhaps be more so to anyone who had sons.

"Dear Coach,

I was thinking about what you can teach your boys, Tom. What language you can use for the love of boys driven by your voice across the grass you mowed yourself. When I saw you and your team win the first game, all the magic of sport came to me silver voiced, like whistles. There are no words to describe how beautiful you looked delivering urgent messages to quarterbacks, signalling for time-outs, pacing the green, unnaturally lit sidelines, loved by your sister for your unimaginable love of play, for the soft gauzy immensity of your love for all the boys and all the games of the world.

But there are some things only sisters can teach the coaches in their lives. Teach them this, Tom, and teach them very well: Teach them the quiet verbs of kindness, to live beyond themselves. Urge them toward excellence, drive them toward gentleness, pull them deep into yourself, pull them upward toward manhood, but softly like an angel arranging clouds, Let your spirit move through them softly, as your spirit moves through me.

I cried last night when I heard your voice above the crowd. I heard you cheering for the clumsy tackle, the slow-footed back, music of your sweet praise. But Tom, my brother, the lion, all golden and hurt: Teach them what you know the best. There is no poem and no letter that can pass your one ineffable gift to boys. I want them to take from you the knowledge of how to be the gentlest, the most perfect brother.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #2

I'm enjoying 'The Prince Of Tides' immensely. As I remarked earlier, what strikes me the most about Pat Conroy's writing is the beautiful way he puts words together. It's a difficult thing to achieve once or twice in a novel, but he seems to do it incredibly regularly. I have been impressed by this regularity several times already, and I haven't read the first 100 pages yet.

Here is gem #2:

"In mental hospitals, no matter how humanistic or enlightened, keys are the manifest credentials of power, the steel asterisks of freedom and mobility. The march of orderlies and nurses is accompanied by the alienating cacophony of singing keys striking against thighs, annotating the passage of the free. When you find yourself listening to their keys and owning none, you will come close to understanding the white terror of the soul that comes with being banished from all commerce with mankind."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Twilight - The Movie

If you haven't already seen Twilight - the Movie, here's the official trailer. Go on, you know you want to watch it. I certainly do.


Well, I did it. I read 'Twilight' by Stephenie Meyer.

For months, I've watched my teenage daughter be so obsessed with all the books in this series that it was something akin to a satanic possession - or should I say vampiric possession (is there such a word?). Every moment of her day - waking or sleeping - was immersed in the events and characters of these books. She read the first and was hooked immediately. The second, she purchased while holidaying on the Mornington Peninsula. As well as taking part in the usual activities with the rest of us - going for walks or to the beach - she finished the novel the same day. Which means she virtually devoured the thing.

As the date for release of the fourth book approached, she and a friend pre-ordered copies at a local bookshop. After much anticipation, the blessed day finally arrived. The two girls caught the bus to the bookshop as soon as school finished. It's an easy walk, but the bus would deliver them there faster so they could start reading all the sooner. They'd organised to have a sleepover that night so their reading wouldn't be interrupted. They read from the time they arrived home right through to dinner time, and then afterwards until the early hours of the morning.

The sleepover had turned into a read-a-thon. They gushed about the fourth book, more satisfied than ever with the product of Stephenie Meyer's inventive mind.

Then came the movie... The waiting, the obsessing, the ordering of special preview tickets. The gushing yet again afterwards about how GOOD it was, how they couldn't believe what a good job the film-makers had done, how true to the story, how amazing the special effects, how beautiful Bella, how handsome Edward... on and on and on and on. I won't give you all the details or this could turn into the fifth instalment of the Twilight series. Let's just say that 2008 was a very 'Twilight' sort of year.

And so I felt I had to read it.

In the beginning, I have to say that Edward left me - literally - cold. He is a vampire, after all. And though he's the nicest possible vampire you could meet, with impeccable manners, he still is a vampire. When he touches Bella, he feels cold. He doesn't breathe. His skin looks white. His heart doesn't beat. Not exactly the red-blooded tender Alpha male I go for. Not a Mr Darcy or Hugh Grant in sight.

By the middle of the book I was starting to feel a bit more sympathetic towards him - this is where his sad history is revealed, and by the end of the book I have to admit that I did love him.

What I found most interesting, however, was Stephenie Meyer's clever plotting. Textbook 'Jennifer-Crusie-4-Act-Structure', if you ask me. And it worked beautifully.

FIRST TURNING POINT : Bella realises Edward is a vampire and that she's in love with him (I'm not giving anything away here by quoting from this part of the book, since it was the promotional snippet used on the back cover). 'About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him - and I didn't know how dominant that part might be - that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.'

SECOND TURNING POINT - THE POINT OF NO RETURN: This is where everything changes for Bella and for Edward. He tells her everything about himself and his family, potentially threatening their well-guarded secret. Fully informed, Bella makes a conscious decision to accept Edward and continue the journey.

THIRD TURNING POINT - THE BLACK MOMENT: I won't reveal too much here, but it really is the blackest of moments. This part of the book was breathtaking, fast-paced, suspenseful, if a little predictable. For a teenage read, it would certainly have been exhilarating. I can now understand the frenzy the books have generated.

Now I'm being pestered to read the next books in the series, or to read Meyer's other book 'The Host'. I keep telling my teenager that I don't do fantasy, and that getting 'into' Bella and Edward's world was quite enough for me. I don't really fancy starting again with a different set of monsters.

I think something rather more everyday. A novel about dysfunctional families, suicide, broken marriages and child abuse is on the list. Enter 'The Prince Of Tides', waiting for me on the coffee table.

Occasional Literary Gem #1

Sometimes you can read a whole book and remain completely underwhelmed. Sometimes, the words on the page are so powerful that it's difficult not to be overcome.

I picked up an old copy of 'The Prince Of Tides' by Pat Conroy at my children's school fete for 50c recently. Being a Barbra Streisand fan, I couldn't pass it up. I haven't read the novel yet, though today, I skimmed the first page and was struck by the beautiful way Conroy puts words together. I read the following passage out loud to one of my daughters and it was difficult to keep the emotion out of my voice. By the expression on her face, I could tell she felt much the same way.

It is the second paragraph of the novel, narrated by the main character, Tom Wingo, the son of a South Carolina sea island shrimper.

"When I was ten I killed a bald eagle for pleasure, for the singularity of the act, despite the divine, exhilarating beauty of its solitary flight over schools of whiting. It was the only thing I had ever killed that I had never seen before. After my father beat me for breaking the law and for killing the last eagle in Colleton County, he made me build a fire, dress the bird, and eat its flesh as tears rolled down my face. Then he turned me in to Sheriff Benson, who locked me in a cell for over an hour. My father took the feathers and made a crude Indian headdress for me to wear to school. He believed in the expiation of sin. I wore the headdress for weeks, until it began to disintegrate feather by feather. Those feathers trailed me in the hallways of the school as though I were a molting, discredited angel.

'Never kill anything that's rare,' my father had said.

'I'm lucky I didn't kill an elephant,' I replied.

'You'd have had a mighty square meal if you had,' he answered.

My father did not permit crimes against the land. Though I have hunted
again, all eagles are safe from me."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Something So Simple

Yesterday, I did something very simple. I drove ten minutes to an Officeworks store, and I bought myself a lamp just like the one in the picture above. It cost $10. Seems unremarkable, doesn't it?

But in reality, this was an amazing thing for me, since I haven't had a lamp next to my bed for 20 years. 20 YEARS, that's right. I can hardly believe I did it, and now that I have light on my side of the bed I don't know why I didn't spend $10 and ten minutes of my time 20 years ago.

Visitors to this blog might be shaking their heads, wondering what would possess someone not to have a bedside light, but the reason is probably a common one: Procrastination.

You see, after we moved to our first house, I was planning to get a light once we got bedside tables, but there was always something else to buy instead, and the bedside tables - not necessities - always seemed to get pushed to the end of the list. After 10 years in the first house, we moved to a smaller house, and though there was room for bedside tables, it would have made for a more cramped space. So the arrangement we had was this: husband had a lamp on the floor that he would flick up to reflect against the white wardrobe doors when we were (or I was) reading. This worked fairly well, providing me with enough light to read, however it was annoying if he stopped reading first - or just wanted to sleep. Sometimes he would be unconsciously 'waiting' to turn off the light for me. Other times I would feel bad about waking him, and so I would walk around to his side of the bed to turn off the light before feeling my way back to my side.

If this was an okay arrangement, what was it in the end that made me change things, go out and do the outrageous thing of actually buying a lamp for myself? In the end, my body made the decision for me. My eyesight is fantastic, and I can read easily without glasses, but my eyes aren't what they used to be. I sometimes have to 'adjust' the distance between my eyes and the text by holding what I'm reading further away. I also struggle in poor light.

In the end, that was what did it. Reflected light from a white wardrobe just wasn't enough. Now I have my own light, and I'm in heaven.

As for the bedside tables...

An odd kind of synchronicity

Just a bit of trivia, but interesting nonetheless. Though my posting has been terribly slow the last few months, I noticed today that I clocked up exactly the same number of posts for the last two years. Amazing, since I wasn't keeping tabs on it. What does this mean???

Perhaps 34 posts a year is my natural output level (when I'm not pushing myself). If I stick to my intended target of posting at least once a week this year, I should increase my total by more than 50%!

There. Now I've bored everyone to tears, I'll have to come up with something more exciting for the next post... but don't count on it. If I'm to post more often, the posts might get more humdrum - or on the other hand, a la Seinfeld, they could yield some subtle revelations into my character.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Roll on 2009!

Happy New Year!!!

I know it's a cliche, but hasn't the year flown? So much has been achieved, but at what cost? 2008 for me was a year that had few quiet places. I read a wonderful book called 'The Dance of Anger', written by Harriet Lerner that I truly believed was written for me! It's a book that focuses on why women often feel angry. I only had to read the opening paragraph to understand something of the conflict my busy life thrusts upon me - or I thrust upon myself.

Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self - our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions - is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. (Lerner, 1985 p.1)

I took two important things from this book:

  • When seeking solutions, you can't change others. You can only change yourself.
  • The theory of 'underperforming' and 'overperforming'.

It seems that some of my frustration with other people in my family could be alleviated if I just allowed myself to 'underperform' a bit. This seems simple, and quite frankly, I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier, but when children are little and you have to do everything for them, it's easy to fall into the trap of continuing that behaviour well past the time when they're old enough to do things for themselves. Years pass quickly when you're busy, and often you're well into the next phase before you've realised it. Looking over my shoulder, I can now see I've let my big kids get into bad habits. Often, they do far too little, and I'm doing them a disservice by underestimating their maturity.

In today's child-indulgent times, we desperately want our children to always be happy, but we've forgotten that in order for that to happen (and always happy is neither desirable nor realistic for any normal person), children need to grow into adults who are independent and able. They must be able to appropriately relate to others in the workplace and in social circumstances. This requires co-operation, kindness, and self-reliance. A dash of humility certainly never goes astray.

By 'overperforming', I am robbing my children of the experiences they need to become functional adults. They need practice at this stuff now in order to save a lot of unnecessary angst as they negotiate the adult world in the future.

And so I am trying hard to 'underperform', though I have to say that 'letting go' isn't easy. The hardest part is accepting that things (household chores, cooking etc.) will get done, but not necessarily to my standards. I have to accept that everyone does things differently.

Last night I woke at 3am - a common thing while on holidays and the days don't tire me out the way they usually do during the working year - and I started thinking. I thought until first light, and by morning I had a few New Year's Resolutions that I thought I would have a crack at this year. Not that I think they're all possible, but I do believe it's important to write them down so at least the process is formalised. If I don't manage to achieve these goals, then I should probably do a bit more soul searching. That done, I can change my tactics and have another go the following year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • More time for reading
  • More time for writing, and this includes...
  • Blogging more regularly
  • More time to catch up with friends (I see a theme emerging, here)
  • Making a decision about the direction my work should take
  • Getting my 'paperwork' under control - I feel cluttered in my head otherwise
  • Relaxing, letting go, being kinder to myself and to my children
  • Remembering we're here for only a short time - how to make it count...!
  • Chasing my dreams
  • Trying something new
  • Being honest with myself - and letting others know of those choices

I know some of this sounds cryptic, but it's difficult to explain it without getting too personal. I'm sure if I read someone else's list I would interpret according to my own experience. The gift I will try to give myself this year is TIME.