Friday, December 30, 2011

Reading Recap

So I've actually kept a record of my reading this year thanks to Goodreads. It's the first time I've kept any sort of reading journal, though I have long envied the friends I have who have always done this. I should get Fred and Una onto it.

At the beginning of the year I blithely signed up for a reading challenge at Goodreads - 100 books in a year. I assumed I'd easily read that. But in August I realised there was no way I was going to make it. Rather than write the challenge off, I amended it to 50. So far I've read 48. I am almost finished two books (The Man in the Wooden Hat on audio and Amy Bloom's astonishing short story collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out) so can comfortably say I will achieve this.

Of those 50 books, some are audio, some I read on the Kindle and some I consumed the old fashion way. Some are novels I read aloud to the kids. Anyway, here's a best of:

Best Kindle
The Summer Without Men was the first book I read on the Kindle and it cemented my love for it. I think the Kindle is especially well suited to novellas. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a short memoir of illness, in which a bedridden woman becomes absorbed in recording the life of a wild snail who shares her sick room. Another short novel, The Golden Day, is Ursula Dubosarsky's latest, a very absorbing fiction which transcends traditional audience (which means it has been published as YA), an urban Sydney Picnic at Hanging Rock, well matched with The Secret River which I listened to later in the year. I also loved the chilling We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a Penguin modern classic by an author I hadn't heard of before, Shirley Jackson. Castle is one of those books that pre-empts modern YA. Her short story collection The Lottery is also on the Kindle and I've been dipping in and out of it all year.
Speaking of short fiction, I've been reading quite a lot this year as that's what I've been writing. Also on the Kindle I loved Making Babies by Anne Enright, short memoirs about parenthood. I love her as a writer and feel totally bonded to her as a parent. Also after reading a recommendation by Louise Swinn I read Karen Hitchcock's collection Little White Slips. Hitchcock is a doctor and according to the interwebs a triathlete. She writes beautifully and seeringly about people touching on many of the same subjects I am drawn to as a writer, so it was fascinating to read fiction by someone who was "same same but different" (ahem, I am not a triathlete. Have I ever mentioned that? I am not a doctor either.)

Best Audible
Audiobooks are situated somewhere between reading and having a long gossipy conversation with your best friend. Below in my "best of" is actually all the audiobooks I've listened to this year. I attempted others but am more likely to abandon books when listening than reading.
Abide With Me Sprawling, compassionate, heartbreaking.
Old Filth My afterlife consists of a giant library of books about everyone I ever met. Many of my family would be in books by Jane Gardam. Actually my dad knew her as a boy.
The Secret River Bill Wallis narrated Old Filth, so I came across this when searching the audible website by narrator. It was a book I'd always meant to read (having loved Lilian's Story). So it was a done deal. I struggled through the first part set in England which is impeccably researched but burdened with so much detail I couldn't make a picture in my head. But from the moment Wallis spoke the words Part Two I was hooked. Listening is relentless and unforgiving, and there were some difficult scenes I would have skimmed if I'd been reading.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Amazing layered non-fiction book that includes as part of its project a deep and intriguing reflection on the act of writing about people's lives.
The Marriage Plot This is a wonderfully put together book, very much driven by character. I found the material very identifiable, though I am probably 10 years younger than the characters. But it was a world and a collection of experiences I recognised. I had a few issues by the end of the novel particularly regarding Eugenides treatment of his main female protagonist, but it was a fun and absorbing listen and I felt invested in all the characters.
The Man in the Wooden Hat is a gift of a book, a sequel to Old Filth that dwells with his wife Betty.

Best Read-alouds
Superfudge and the Lotta books made the whole family laugh out loud. Martin would finish the dishes and sit in the lounge to listen. I love these books, structured around incident and encounter. A friend described the genre as "the family down the street" and I think it might be one of my favourites, especially for very young children.
The Hundred Dresses is a book that's been recommended on here a few times by American readers and when I came across it last year just before Christmas I decided to buy it for Una who had recently enjoyed The Worst Witch. She struggled to identify with The Hundred Dresses but Fred listened fascinated. And then they both incorporated the book into their imaginative play.
For Una's birthday, I decided to go back to the picture book, but still wanted an extended and engaging reading experience. I came across Millie Starts School at the wonderful Eltham Bookshop and knew this would appeal. It is a picture book in four chapters and conjures up the school experience beautifully. Jane Godwin is brilliant at capturing contemporary Australian childhood and those sorts of experiences to which we can all relate.
Cicada Summer This was almost a bit beyond Fred but she loved the idea of the timeslip, and because she knows Kate well, and has played often with Kate's oldest daughter Alice (who bears a lot of similarities to Anna in Cicada Summer), the book resonated for her, so next we tried
Charlotte Sometimes which was definitely more challenging and actually is structurally very odd. Fred adored it though and we will look out Penelope Farmer's other books about the Summers girls.

Best of the Rest
Gilgamesh I read this after the Meanjin Tournament of Books. It's a strange book, often book people talk about being "in safe hands", feeling the author knows where she is taking the reader. I never felt safe with Gilgamesh and I doubted the author's ability to satisfactorily end the book right up till the last paragraph, but by sleight of hand she did it. That feeling of not being safe actually makes the book an oddly tense read, not entirely comfortable, but I was completely entranced. This is more like a spell than a novel.
The Shattering is great YA. As is This is Shyness. These both might fit into the "supernatural romance" category that most YA seems to be tipping towards these days but both are SO MUCH MORE.
After listening to Abide With Me I read Strout's other two books Olive Kitteridge and Amy and Isabelle. I love the way she writes, the richness of characters interior lives and their interconnectedness, the sprawl of detail and the small town as stage for human drama. These are books you can read page by page, sometimes I would devour a 100 pages in a sitting, then it might take me a week to read ten more. She builds her stories sentence by sentence, each one is its own artwork.
Kinglake-350 is a retelling and examination of the 2009 bushfires but also a study of the Australian male. It got a little *too* blokey for me by the end, but I fully acknowledge that this is a book written to also appeal to people who don't regularly read. And it is extremely compulsive, and more than a little unsettling (as it should be).
In the last months of my pregnancy last year I read the Little Women books so sometime after Avery was born I picked up March. I was disappointed, the connection to Alcott's world to me is the most problematic element of March. But I was inspired to read Year of Wonders and I loved it. I even loved the epilogue that dismayed so many others.
The first book I read this year was The Children by Charlotte Wood, the sequel (or companion or whatever) Animal People came out this year and it's high on my to read list. Charlotte is active on Twitter which is to say she and I spend more time than we should talking about our respective dinners on the computer.

Out of the 50 books I read this year, 13 were by Australian women (well, strictly speaking Karen Healey is a New Zealander but she was living here when she wrote it) plus there were 2 anthologies in which Australian women are well represented. Only 4 books of the total fifty were by men (2 Australian). There is an Australian Women Writer's Reading Challenge for 2012. Considering my "to read" pile currently includes Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne (I'm about a third of the way in and relishing it), Gillian Mears The Foal's Bread, Grenville's Sarah Thornhill, Wood's Animal People and Maureen McCarthy's Careful What You Wish For and my most anticipated books for next year include the conclusion to Michelle Cooper's compelling trilogy The FitzOsborne's at War (rock on April - also the month the new Anne Tyler is being released), the next Shyness novel, Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts and Maureen McCarthy's newie inspired by her family connection to the Abbotsford convent I am almost there. But looking over the year's books I am beginning to think I might benefit from a few more Y chromosomes in my reading pile.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Changing Places

Our oldest daughter started school at The Local three years ago. It was a small school when we chose it. We shopped around because that’s what parents seem to these days, looking at three schools in the area. We were impressed by the big school 10 minutes drive away, charmed by the little (but not as little as The Local) school adjacent to Fred's kinder about 8 minutes drive away with its mix of new and old buildings. Both these schools are serviced by a bus that passes on the main road, five minutes walk from our house. But Fred loved The Local the best, and I favoured the idea of a local school, one we could walk to. When we chose it we thought there were about 85 kids, by the time Fred started there were 65.

Her class size, a combined prep/1/2, was fairly normal, about 25 kids total, with two teachers in the expansive double unit. It seemed in many ways an ideal set up. The extremely experienced prep teacher was kind and gentle. I have never in three years heard her raise her voice. The other teacher in the room was also experienced, but with a different style. They seemed to complement each other.

By the time Fred was in grade two, the numbers of the whole school had dropped dramatically to 37. Her grade of ten was down to eight. My other daughter, Una, started the school as one of only two preps, for the second year in a row. The art teacher had left, as had several other staff members. The school was down to three permanent teachers (all very senior), and there was no longer two teachers in Fred's classroom - it was her third year in a row with the same teacher.

The Local School offers many opportunities to students, inter-school sport where everyone gets a turn from grade 3 to 6 (sometimes combining with other smaller schools to make a team), a lovely music program, PE, and a larger than usual number of whole school excursions and incursions. There are discos and bush dances and this year the parents participated in a progressive dinner party. The whole school is performing The Wizard of Oz tomorrow night. The kids care for a small but productive vegetable garden. The students host assembly each week. The OSHC program is staffed by a dynamic and creative young woman.

In the winter terms the kids have Cubbyland: using found objects they make little houses in a gully of trees. They form tribes and beg, borrow and steal supplies (one year a talented boy sang for sticks). The cubbies are dismantled every Friday, new tribes form on Monday. The politics of Cubbyland are intricate and impossible for an outsider to really fathom, especially a grown up. The self governing works pretty well. It's kind of like Lord of the Flies, but, as the Principal once said to me, 'without the Piggy killing.'

We’ve had problems at the school, some of them resolved easily, even elegantly, and some not to our satisfaction. I am sure this is true of every parent at every school, but it can be hard not to take it personally in a school of 37 kids. Still, mostly our kids' experiences at The Local have been great. Fred particularly is devoted to the school.

I have to admit, it’s been a little demoralising to be part of a school that feels like it’s dying, that doesn’t have the support of the local community – so many parents travel out of the area for school. It’s a vicious cycle. The smaller the school gets, the less people are inclined to choose it for their own children. 'Our school is not very popular,' Una said to me out of the blue in the car a few weeks ago as we drove up the hill out of Warrandyte where - a long time ago, a whole year - she'd gone to creche. 'No,' I admitted. 'It's not very popular.' She sighed. 'I'd like to go to a popular school.' Una and I have had a conversation along these lines every few weeks since before she even started at The Local. In fact over three years ago, when I was looking at schools for Fred Una came with me. She walked out of the Big School and said, 'This is my school.'

When Avery was born last year a friend commented (on this blog I think) 'You’ll populate that tiny school yet.' Unfortunately she was wrong. In the last two weeks we have made the decision to move our children to the Big School ten minutes away.

So we are saying goodbye to our tiny school and it's a sad goodbye. I love the school. I love the staff: I respect them as educators; I like them as people. I feel invested in the other children and the idea that I won’t be there in 2015 to see Fred’s class graduate is a sad thought. Although I know my children are ready for the challenges of the big school, for a busy and vibrant program, and for a larger circle of friends, I do feel that I am taking something precious away from them as well.

Mostly though I am mourning for myself. I love the walk to school in the mornings. I like feeling a part of the place, the relationship I have with the teachers, the easy, casual vibe with the other parents. I’ll miss arriving early to pick up the kids and wandering the corridor with Avery. I’ll miss the relaxed school uniform, that I can send them in streetwear if we're behind in our laundry. I'll miss the way I can hold the whole school in my head, I'll miss knowing who they play with. I'll miss miniature army, and the way all the older kids are ascribed family titles "mother", "uncle", "aunt".

We told them on Saturday, after their Friday night school disco. We decided to tell them separately, so we took them out "Christmas shopping". I took Una. I pulled over by the side of the road, opposite the Big School. I told her to climb over into the front seat, I had something to tell her. She looked at me very seriously. I explained she was going to change schools, that she was going to go to a more popular school. Her face lit up, her eyes shone. Everything pleased her - the Italian and violin lessons

Martin told Fred. I couldn't, I was worried that if she cried I would cry, and it would send the wrong message. I've been crying a lot about it. For the week after we signed the forms and before we told them I'd been sick with anxiety over it. Every time Fred hugged me or just simply looked happy and at peace I felt like a traitor. And as I thought would happen Fred burst into tears. But almost immediately she was okay. She knew she would miss her school and her friends. Yet the idea of a big bustling population of kids was undeniably exciting, and her outlook now is positive.

The teachers who haven't taught Fred yet are sad to see her go, they've both been looking forward to having her in their classes. 'I just hope,' says the 5/6 teacher, 'that conventional school doesn't take away her spark.' What I don't say, but have discovered, is that there is more pressure to conform at a small school, perhaps not from the institution but certainly from the other kids. I think socially at least Fred will be able to be more herself. To some extent she'll be able to create the community she wants to be a part of, instead of being forced to fit in with the 5 other girls in her class, or risk being an outsider.

So far the other parents have been disappointed but understanding. The sick feeling is slowly subsiding. As my friend Jelly said, coming and going is part of school life, even (perhaps especially) at our small school.

Yesterday the girls did a practice at the Big School. We got there during the lunch hour and the girls went off to explore the playground. I tried to keep both of them in my sights, worried that they wouldn’t know what to do when the bell rang, and got a little panicked as Una chased a boy she knew from Kinder in one direction and Fred wandered off with two preps interrogating her in another direction.

Instead of a bell they played music to signal the return to classes. I found Una staring at three rubbish bins, oblivious to the sudden tide of kids heading back to the school buildings.

'There’s music coming out of that bin,' she told me.

I delivered Una to her teacher, a warm woman who lives out our way and used to be the library teacher – so I think we will like each other. She was expecting Una and greeted her by name. One of Fred’s prep groupies from the playground was in Una’s class and volunteered to take care of her.

I took Fred round to her room a small, slightly pokey portable - so different from the expanse of space at the Local. The kids were lined up outside and Fred recognised a girl from kinder who lives near us, who we see regularly at the library bus. Her new teacher is tall and smily and used to captain the Australian volleyball team. Apparently he asked the class if anyone knew what an acrostic is and Fred-the-poet stuck up her hand and explained it to the class. Her acrostic was:




Doesn’t like eggs.

I love that she chose Funny and Reading to describe herself.

As I write this I hear the Local School bell, signalling recess. I love that sound, it makes me think of my children, I can picture them dropping their pencils, running outside to play.

I know they’re going to be fine. I just hope I can say the same about me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The quiet of this blog

I feel I should write something.

Something about my days, how one falls into to another. How they seem to flick past, like cards expertly dealt in a game of chance. How each day travels with its own startling velocity, and I am a passenger of time, being travelled. How I don't mind it, the brisk pace, the whirlwind, the clear breathless days.

Time is a contradiction. Its relativity is relative: an eccentric uncle, a distant grandmother, the child of your cousin, strange intimacy, the intimacy of strangers.

I go to parties and it's nice to see people but I feel like I am pretending to be someone else. I feel like I'm pretending to be myself. I talk, I laugh, I drive home so tired that inky shadows begin to take shape at the corner of my vision and I have to pull over and rest my eyes.

I count up the words I've written this year, the stories I've completed, and I realise I've actually been quite productive, all things considered, though I feel like I haven't been working at all.

I think in novels but I don't write them. I dream in stories. But I'm not writing. Inside I blog, I journal, I diarise. I write nothing down.

It's left me, the compulsion. I am adrift from words. When I try to force them out, they sit on the page and go nowhere. Sentences clatter. There's no music.

So I read instead. I wait. I try not to panic. I'm not writing right now. I'm not righting write now. The days go on, the hours slip by with ease, and I'm comforted by that, because if the hours were eternal, I'd be lonely inside them without the words.