Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009

I've been avoiding writing this post, but if I'm going to do it today is the day.

Bad stuff first. Feel free to skip ahead to the good stuff.

2009 hasn't been the easiest year for our family. It seems to me like it began on the 7th February, with the Black Saturday fires, though before then there was blissy post-Christmas camping in Mildura and the rest of January, a lot of which we spent in shopping centres escaping the fierce heat. And a week before the fires Frederique, my first baby, started school, though I guess the two will always be tangled up in each other. The fires came within two kilometers of our house before the wind changed, driving the fires back up to Kinglake. Neighbours who were home watched flames approaching on the surrounding hills, listened to the explosions of gas bottles and - horrifyingly loud - the petrol station in Kinglake. Twelve people in our town died, 38 from Kinglake up the road. Friends lost their homes, and in the aftermath we watched marriages deteriorate and our school community shrink as people moved away. The fires weren't extinguished until mid-March. For a month we were on alert, exhausted, grieving our old ignorance as every time the mercury climbed or the winds picked up we evacuated. And all the time knowing 'we are the lucky ones' - our house was spared, and we weren't home on the day.

In March I had a not very serious car accident, though all car accidents feel serious, don't they? And it was serious enough to almost write the car off. The accident was to affect me as a driver most of the year, and I am only just getting my nerve back. I still won't drive on the Hurstbridge road.

In May my sister, Kylie, had her baby at 27 weeks gestation, weighing less than 2 pounds, in a Northern English hospital, and her world began to fragment around her. We tried to get the fare together so I could go over and be with her, but it was impossible. Distances grow and shrink, I've always found, never before this year has England seemed so impossibly far away. (Happily, Joseph and Kylie are both thriving).

In June our town suffered another devastating blow. Helicopters circled, bringing back horrible memories of the fires, and Martin and I scoured the bush around our house - on a cruelly lovely winter's day, the sunlight streaming through the trees - for a three year old boy who had wandered from home. It shocks me now to say 'three' because he was the same age as Una, they had done a few dancing classes together, and we knew his mum to say hello to. Una is now four, and yet he will always be three. The look on Martin's face when he came back from his last shift has never left me. The little boy drowned in a dam. I picked up Fred from school that day, and mothers stood around, their faces white, for all of us, it was all our children that day. I broke the news to Fred, knowing it would be around the school yard. She wanted to know, distressed: did they dry him after they found him? This solicitous response, the tiny mother in her was also affected. After this I must admit I was hit by silence. I didn't feel I could blog about it - it wasn't my story to tell. And yet it was the only story I had to tell. I am not a negative person, not sad, or depressive by nature, for all that I am contemplative and reflective (pensive, Merri Andrews called me in Year Twelve). And yet sadness has entered me this year.

In October Martin's father lost his long battle with cancer. Not two weeks later, my half-sister died shockingly off Legionnaire's disease.

Our local school, which we love, is affected by a drop in numbers - mostly because there simply aren't a lot of kids in this area (there are a lot of very longstanding residents, whose own kids have grown up). We are wondering if it will be the right school for Una, there is only one prep kid next year, and Una may also be in a class of one. Even with blended classes, I worry that she will be socially isolated. If you secretly have a child in St Andrews, you will never find a better prep teacher than Erica, who won an award for her innovative teaching methods, AND WE HAVE BETTER NAPLAN RESULTS THAN THE OTHER SCHOOLS IN THE AREA (they aren't allowed to advertise this fact, but surely I am permitted to spread it around as a big ole [true] rumour). And the school community is lovely, and so open to new ideas.

In November Martin went from being a student to being unemployed. Even though there's no real difference financially for us, for some reason this has been an enormous source of stress, as the bills rocked in and the present buying season assaulted us.

So that's the bad shit.

The good stuff is:

We nearly lost Miles last summer. The fact that we had so many more months with him is a blessing, and I am always thankful for it. In that time he seemed more peaceful in himself, happy to live for every day. His funeral was a joyous affair: a tribute to a man who lived a good life, and made lasting friendships, and parented with love.

I taught all year at Melbourne Uni and took great pleasure in it. It's a great way to keep learning and to challenge my own knowledge and assumptions about the writing process and the inherent value of the act. And I met some great students, who have a lot to contribute to the literary community in Australia. I also did some fantastic high school workshops, and heard some great writing (the best thing is when the teacher says with genuine surprise, 'Student X never writes anything'). One highlight was a weeklong workshop at the SLV with kids who love writing so much they wanted to do it in their holidays, they were so switched on and enthusiastic. Another was going back to Bendigo Catholic College with Kate. But all the schools were fascinating and young people everywhere delight me.

In July Little Bird came out. I am so proud of this book. It's got exactly the right mood to it, and the right structure. It's the first of my books that has a structure like it (all my other books are structured identically - ssh.) And I remember last year Miles asking when it would be out, and the expression on his face when he said 'that's ages away.' He lived to see it and the book is dedicated to him and Catheryn (and to my own Nanna, Ada May).

Writing Dear Swoosie with Kate was FUN. And it's a really great book, it's happy and light and funny but not insubstantial, it pokes reverent fun at vampire YA books and flashes back to the 80s (a la Romy and Michelle which I watched as research - yay!), and most of all it feels like we're putting a nice thing out there in the world. It was a fun bonus too - conecived in March finished by early July - because I thought I wasn't going to have a book in 2010 at all. And Kate and I discovered we work beautifully together and have plans for at least five more books (some of which are Swoosie sequels and may be written purely and solely for Susannah Chambers, editor extraordinaire).

All year I have been rewriting Only Ever Always, three incarnations it's had so far and considering it's so short (about 33ooo words) it's the hardest book I've written. Hopefully it's worth it. Just quietly, I think it might be. Most of you won't be reading it till 2011 which seems an age away. I finished the latest draft on Thursday and feel it is achingly close. Which means...I can start writing something new! Entering perfect platonic ideal book stage! One of my favourites.

Josie and the Michael Street Kids being shortlisted for the Children's Peace Literature Award, nearly two years after publication, was a lovely unexpected surprise.

In July I had my first short story for adults published in The Big Issue. This was exciting enough in itself. So I was thrilled when it was picked up by Delia Falconer for Black Inc's Best Australian Stories 2009.
2009 was the year of Twitter for me (I joined Oct 2008). Although dangerous in its power to distract, I love Twitter, I have always liked having friends living inside my computer and it doesn't feel quite to powerfully addictive as other online communities I've been apart of. It's comfortable. It's fun. Okay, it can be addictive. But it's easy to back off from. And also, there's lots of smart funny interesting clever successful people on there, so it can't be so bad if they want to hang out there too.

All this year I have missed Zoe, who has been my BFF since we were five. I was going to put this in the sad section, but I am putting it here because in missing her, and feeling missed by her, I think we have recognised for the first time in ages just how much we love each other. (I have a little tear writing that). My girls adore her boy Jethro with a passionate sense of ownership, and we talk about Zoe and Dan and Jethro nearly every day. And I think about them EVERY day. Jethro has gone from being a baby this year to being a great big strapping toddler. Watching him and Una play together in the Hobart Botanical Gardens this year filled my heart with joy - our kids playing together, our childhoods repeated in some small way in them. That's the stuff.


Martin has had some exciting offers for 2010. They are difficult things to grasp, jobs that have barely been invented yet, but there is great potential for him to find something intellectually challenging and family friendly.

2009 was also the year of the iPhone. I know it sounds horribly consumerist of me but I cannot tell you how much pleasure my iPhone gives me. I love taking spontaneous photos and video. I like being able to check my emails on the train. I LOVE having an ipod in my phone, music has been the thing that's cured my driving anxiety (yeah, turns out listening to constant play by play of the bushfires on 774 - bless their cotton socks - was probably contributing to my sense of fragility). It may sound strange to say this at my newly franked age of 35, but this is the year I feel like I've become an adult. Not just because of the things we've faced, the consequences of our grown up decisions to buy a house in a bushfire region, or the very adult pain of losing a parent and sibling, but also because I've reclaimed my own space as an adult. The iPhone symbolises this a little to me. But not just that. I've been finding new music to listen to. I've been reading more challenging literature. I've been thinking outside our domestic daily routines. Perhaps all this comes from having Fred start school, I no longer feel like my days are entirely devoted to the immediate and pressing needs of my children.

In that light, I've joined a new writing group. I really like those people.

And of course nearly every day friends and family - old and new - made me smile and laugh, despite the litany of disasters and sorrows above. And really it hasn't been such a bad year. I've loved to the very fullness of my being this year, loved through hardship and loss, loved through frustration and self doubt. I've branched myself out in love, loved people far away, overcome distances with nothing but love. Mostly I am happy.

And if I was happy ALL the time, admit it, you'd loathe me.

Things to look forward to in 2010
Two weeks camping in Tassie in January
Meeting my new nephew Joseph
Jethro's number two birthday party
Dear Swoosie coming out, I can't wait for people to read it!
Writing another book with Kate
Starting a new writing project for myself
Doing more schools, teaching at Melbourne Uni
Martin getting a job, something he loves that says 'so there' to the me that cried when he didn't get the job 7 minutes down the road
Hopefully having some money to do some stuff to the house and pay off some debts
A year of stability for the girls, with school and creche not changing
Fred turning seven (*faints*), Una turning five (*faints*)
Una getting ready for school
And who knows what else? The mystery of it.

And in 2009
New Year's eve with good friends just down the road

Happy New Year everyone. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dear Swoosie

Kate reveals something of our first meeting here.
Swoosie is in the shops January 4th.
It is the best fun I ever had writing a book.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Martin's early Christmas present for Fred


Martin built a new website for Fred. You can go play with it here - the links are all age-appropriate websites for Fred (who is six). I'm sure she wouldn't mind if your six year old uses it too!

Guest post



Una and the big tickle monster
Once there was a monster. He was the meanest thing. Every person ran away. One day a girl called Una went to the cave where the monster lived! The monster ran after Una... and they lived happily ever after .
by Fred. -->

Saturday, December 19, 2009

School Days

First Day
Even the recent past has the pallor of innocence to it. This photo was taken at the beginning of the year, on Freddy's first day of school. Not even a week later I published a post entitled We're Safe.

Friday was Fred's last day. She has finished prep with a report to be proud of. And we are proud of her. Not because of what she's achieved - a bit ahead here, straggling a bit there - but because she works really hard and she's genuinely passionate about learning. When it comes to school she's got her own groove going on, she digs maths and science as well as reading - in fact ask her what she's most looking forward to next year and she'll say 'harder maths'. She's curious and engaged and I honestly believe the teachers find her a delight and a pleasure and a challenge.

As do I.
Last day

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lovely Bones - review

SPOILER - nothing is spoiled here if you've read the book, but there is a plot point revealed in this review that you may not want to know about.

I thought I had reviewed The Lovely Bones when I read it a couple of years ago on here, but I merely mentioned I was reading it. I am not surprised, I don't often review books on here because as an editor I nearly always end up doing a full structural report, and find it hard to hold back from dissecting the ending, which isn't a very fun style of review to read unless you have read the book yourself, and want to get down and dirty.

Martin and I organised a rare night out with my mother-in-law babysitting, with no real plans, but perhaps a cheap and cheerful meal somewhere. But that very day I received an invitation to attend a free preview screening of The Lovely Bones, which is what you might call impeccable timing. So we headed into the city, shared a bowl of Gyu Ramen at Chocolate Buddha and walked down to Crown, a place that never fails to alarm me, and goes into psycho overdrive at Christmas time. But it was nice being at the movies, and sort of exciting handing over our phones at the beginning (though Martin fretted), and I enjoyed sitting in the cinema with other engaged movie-goers around me.

Anyway, onto my review.

Overall I have to say I was disappointed. The book bothered me, but it was compelling and beautifully written and had a strong sense of character. It was a difficult and challenging cartography of desire - the body in extremis - and about finding a way towards healthy sexuality. Lovely Bones the movie was about fathers and daughters to me, and as such a denial of sexuality. Missing was Sebold's strong, emotive analysis of the intimacies between women - mother, grandmother, sister, friend - and the fluid boundaries that separate the female experience when it comes to the lived history of the body.

The movie had immediate visual appeal. Anyone who's been loving Mad Men or Life on Mars will appreciate the brown 1973-ness of it all, gleaming with a sort of hyperreal Howard Arkley mode of seeing: suburbia as kitsch container of wabi-sabi beauty (okay, I get the mishmash there). The family life was sketched together nicely enough at the beginning, though I found Mark Wahlberg's portrayal of the father baffling at the start of the film (later I thought his performance outstanding) - he seemed almost sleazy. I settled into watch, hoping the grisly bit we all knew was coming would get over and done with quickly so I could enjoy the unfolding of the emotional arc of the story. But it was not to be. It was a bit like Titanic where an hour in you want to stand up and shout 'Sink the ship!' only in this case it's 'murder the nice little girl!' The scene leading up to the murder is excruciating in its tension, and I could feel my flight or fight (flee! flee!) instincts kicking in, it was almost impossible to stay in my chair. And then everything speeds up tremendously, so in the end a lot happens offstage - so there isn't actually the spectacle of violence.

And therein lies the problem. Jackson (and perhaps Sebold) over-compensates for the bad with shiny shiny. It's all right that she's killed cause look! Heaven! Sisterhood of victims! We all get to be frozen in time as perfect little girls forever! Martin and I disagreed about the CGI, he thought it fairly well-employed and beautiful (though lacking in substance), I found it cheap and tacky. We both agreed that the strength of the movie was the family dealing with the aftermath, which was the strength of the novel too.

My biggest problem with this movie is the fact that Susie is portrayed as more tween than teen, even though she is 14. Heaven is a Victorian idealisation of girlhood, with all sexuality stripped away. There is no real sense of sexual desire or body ownership in the film (well exemplified by Susie imagining herself as fashion model on a magazine - she actually becomes 2-dimensional). It's like everyone - Peter Jackson, even the performers - are studiously looking the other way when it comes to female sexuality, even to the point that it's never made clear if there is a sexual dimension to the murder. I found the climactic scene of the book peculiar to say the least, but when you read it as the character of Sebold (a victim of an awful sexual assault crime herself) stepping out of the halfway threshold space to reclaim her own sexuality, it made sense. In the movie, where everything is so innocent, where there is no body, it is a weak unsatisfying climax (she breaches the laws of heaven and earth for a chaste kiss?). I don't know if this was a performance issue (Saoirse Ronan is delightful, in an awkward way); I think that it was probably something they were aware of from casting. The end result was entirely dysfunctional, as if the only response to the lecherous gaze of Mr Harvey is to avert our own eyes, is to refuse to see or acknowledge even the merest presence of sexuality.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Australian Bloggers:

Now that December is upon us, there's not much time left to submit to Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing 2009.

This will be the first issue of the anthology by Miscellaneous Press, which aims to prove that good blog writers come from all walks of life and that 'blogging produces strong and dynamic talent'.

Submit up to three blog posts you made between January 1st and December 31st.

This anthology is an important way of seeing what Australians blog about, and how Australia is looking at itself through the lens of new media. You might wonder why a printed book of something available free online is necessary. Well, it's an act of curatorship, of capturing the temporary in another form. That's why I submitted anyway. And it might reach a new audience, if blogging for you is a way of finding an audience.

(I don't know what blogging is for me. An act of curatorship I suppose, of capturing the temporary.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Raspberry Swirl

This time last year we went raspberry picking in Kinglake and came away determined it would be a Christmas tradition.
In February massive fires raged through Kinglake and many properties - and lives - were lost. We were relieved to discover that the raspberry farm was operating and drove up today to pick. It was the first time Fred had been up that way since the fires, which came within 2km of our house. The bush is regenerating, as it does, and in Kinglake there was a green fur on many of the trees and a wonderful understorey of ferns.
The cafe we went to last year, after the picking, is gone, but showing signs of rebuilding. As we drove past we noticed that some of the lovely gardens had survived, flourishing in all the spring and early summer rain we've been having.
It was a typical family outing, Fred got carsick (but not in technicolour luckily), I had an anxiety attack on the winding mountain road. looking down at the skeletons of burnt trees, Martin got cross with us all for doubting his safe driving, and a dog stole Una's sandwich when we arrived - and Una ran, screaming and crying, which only excited the dog more. Certainly memorable, in that way that outings are, which is to say they blend in together, and become a sort of composite memory.
We came away with just over a kilogram of raspberries for about $16. Excellent value. Some are in the freezer, waiting to be turned into a raspberry and lemongrass trifle. Some are in the fridge for snacking. And some are sitting cooling on top of the stove, nestling on an almond frangipane and folded in a buttery pastry, which signifies a rupture in mine and Martin's lowcarb eating plan.
But you know. It's raspberries.
Recipe for Raspberry Galette
This recipe is cobbled together from a few different sources. I actually made a smaller tart and used half the amount of pastry and frangipane, and plan to make a second tart tomorrow to take in for Fred's teachers' morning tea, so have put the rest of the pastry and frangipane in the fridge to assemble the pie tomorrow.

Pastry:

1.5 cups plain flour
125g butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/4 cup (about 1 lemon's worth) lemon juice
Preheat oven to 180ÂșC.
Place flour and butter and icing sugar in bowl and process (or do what I did and rub in softened butter with your hands). Add the lemon juice gradually and keep processing or mixing with your hands until pastry comes together easily. I didn't need all the juice.
Roll the dough into a circle on a piece of baking paper and put in the fridge. Mine ended up quite thin because of our diet, but I think it would be great to be thick and generous with it too, it's a very buttery biscuity pastry, with a strong lemon flavour. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Frangipane
60g butter
75g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
1 egg yolk
A tsp of vanilla essence (or you could use something else, like brandy or cointreau)
Cream butter and sugar, then add almonds and egg yolk and mix or process well.
Spread on centre of pastry.

Raspberries
Toss in icing sugar if desired. Then tumble them into the centre of the tart. Quantities depend on what you've got, but probably a punnet would be enough for a smallish tart. You could adapt this recipe for most fruits and you don't really need the frangipane, but, hey, I like it.
Fold the edges of the pie pastry towards the centre. It should look rustic. Some might say messy.
Bake in mod oven for 30-35 minutes.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Falling from Grace

In other Christmas news, Fred came up to me the other day when Una was at the other end of the room and hissed 'Just tell me quickly, is Santa real or is it just parents?'
I said 'what do you think?'
She said: 'Santa?' (doubtfully). I raised my eyebrows in a way that I hoped was non-commital.
She said, 'Just tell me.'
We went down to the bedroom. And it emerged, that yes, Santa was parents. And she was cool with that, really. She'd figured as much, probably ages ago.

And then - tragic that I am - I went and looked myself in the bathroom and cried for about 20 minutes. I don't know why it affected me so much. And I'm okay about it now. But it was like, all of a sudden, some of the magic of Christmas, the magic that you wait so long to return after your own fall from grace, so you can experience it through your children, was sucked away again. It was like I fell all over again (though I honestly have no memory of the transition from belief to non-belief). Honesty was always my policy, but also it was convenient for us for Fred to know the truth, that we can't afford big presents this year - we'd said as much only earlier that day, how it would be a relief when it was all out in the open. 'Did I sell out Fred's childhood,' I asked Martin, 'for our convenience?' No, no. Of course we didn't. She asked. She wanted to know the truth*.

Don't tell Una, we said. You mustn't tell Una. And she hasn't.
But she did come home from school and say to me mystified, 'I tried to tell some of the other kids at school and they wouldn't believe me!'
Oh my god. We clutch her and plead - we're doing some serious facetalking now: 'Don't tell ANYONE. It's not for you to tell.'
'But they wouldn't believe me!' And I can tell she's tried - really tried - to convince them. I'm gutted that it's our kid who's the whistle blower. Me! How could this happen?

Strangely enough we still managed to get Fred to sit with Santa.
I wonder if it will be the last time? She was very shy, and obviously felt like a bit of a dill. Not so Una, she told Santa all about the walking talking blinking pony she wants and the doll who can really ride it and really hold on all by itself and say anything Una wants it to say. We didn't get an official shot this year, Martin's card wouldn't scan when it came time to pay. Luckily Martin had got a few snapshots with the phone. And this photo is much more natural than the pose they called for - seriously, let the kids talk to Santa for thirty seconds before getting them to switch on the fake smiles for the camera!

*I am a little ashamed to tell you that a few days later when she asked about the tooth fairy as I was looking at her teeth (quick Mum, come downstairs for a minute), I looked her in the eye and said 'Oh no, the tooth fairy's real.' I just couldn't face that fall too, not before she's even lost a single tooth.

Our Favourites and Our Bests 2: Quick and Dirty

Some quick ideas for Christmas presents.

1. We don't have a doll's house. We did have my old one from childhood, but it began to fall apart - sob. We really had no room for it anyway. But we do have lots of dolls house furniture, some from ikea and some very sweet wooden stuff that we picked up from a garage sale. You don't need to have a dolls house to love the furniture, there's the floor, or you can temporarily clear a space on a bookshelf, or use a shoebox. Lots of little toys you already have will probably fit on it - Polly Pocket, teeny tiny knitted toys like these ones from Little Cotton Rabbits...

2. Drawing stuff. Well, der. But my kids start every day with drawings at the dinner table. One of our favourite things are watercolour pencils. Also black lead (graphite) pencils and plain white paper. And the other day after watching this video (below) we got out the pastels and Fred and Una both produced some lovely lovely drawings.

3. Mia is great. Una and Fred both spend a lot of their computer time playing free games online - mostly at Poisson Rouge and Boowa and Kwala. But we bought Mia's Language Adventure a while ago (then lost it then recently found it again) and it's ace! It's a bit more involved than a lot of the online games, and Una really enjoys it. We'll get the science one too sometime.

4. Board games. Our kids love Uno.

5. CDs and DVDs. Our biggest hits with the girls this year have been Mamma Mia (be prepared to answer questions about 3 daddies) and the Jimmies (and stuff the kids, this is MY favourite song at the moment):

Music-wise, both the girls are listening to the Jimmies, Ralph's World, Abba, Hannah Montana and, on constant repeat at bedtime, Down to the River to Pray from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Their favourite collective song is the Rolling Stones song Wild Horses as covered by Iron and Wine.

6. I asked on Twitter the other day if anyone had perfume samples and got a lightning fast response from the lovely Gabrielle Wang. So they will be going into Fred's stocking. Una will be getting a packet of bandaids in hers. And we'll probably get both girls a new toothbrush. What? New toothbrush is a big event in this house!