The Choke by Sophie Laguna

This story left me breathless. It raised to the surface, every last rescue trait in my being. If only someone would intervene and stop the raging abuse. But no one does. And yet, amongst the harshness of the setting with the ‘chooks’ in the backyard, there were some tender moments. Set on the Sophie Laguna photoMurray River, the background contributes to the rawness and richness of the book.

Laguna, has a unique way of holding the narrative without succumbing to soften the edges. In fact, it’s the sharpness of the story-telling that illuminates the reality of the life of Justine, a young girl who is being raised by her grandfather. A man with his own living hell in the form of war neurosis. Justine fights for survival at home, at school and within the family. If there are cracks to fall through, Justine manages to fall into them all. Her life is disturbing, achingly sad and yet at times, tinged with a sense of wavering strength.

The story of Justine is in my head, I don’t think I’ll forget her for a long time. Sophie Laguna is a brilliant writer and The Choke is one amazing book.

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‘All Fall Down’…A brave write

9781926428253I’ve just finished reading Cassandra Austin’s novel ‘All Fall Down’. I bought this book out of curiosity and a love of all things ‘outback’. I was also hooked by Rosalie Ham’s (author of ‘The Dressmaker’) quote on the front cover of the book saying ‘Austin writes a captivating story, surprising and intriguing, in prose that’s spare but vivid.’  And she sure was on the money.

Set in a fictional Australian outback town called Mululuk, not far from Coober Pedy, the story revolves around a young girl who comes from Sydney to stay with her uncle, the local priest. The town’s bridge has just collapsed in strange circumstances. Locals respond by offering various and bizarre notions of understanding for the collapse. Re-opening of a new bridge is under threat and the priest does his best to lead the town folk with sensibility.

Characters in this book are unique, feisty and larger than life. Austin takes on a brave write. She stretches the envelope wide open and leaves the reader dangling for air on many occasions. A story written with suspense, honesty and a harsh sense of outback reality. Quirky things happen along the way that keep the reader guessing where the plot is heading and it moves along a hefty pace. A dusty, clever book.

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When a problem can’t be solved

20160111_211148I guess it’s true to say that most of us have had setbacks and difficulties in our life. There is no doubt that some problems are larger and more impactful than others. Mostly, difficulties and tricky situations work themselves through. Sooner or later we are able to move on, often wounded, wary or sometimes wiser for the experience.

But, what happens when a problem or a situation can’t be solved or resolved and has to be managed or endured, sometimes for a lifetime? I’m talking about the impact of severe trauma such as the  death of a child, disability in all its forms, the fracturing of a relationship with a sibling or a child, illness that is unrelenting and life threatening or disenfranchised grief and loss that can’t be talked about or revealed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues recently. Some individuals and families are called on to endure and accept situations that require management for a lifetime and probably for some, beyond their capacity to do so. Some families require enormous resources and strength in order to support family members with special needs and ongoing illness.

When dealing with the grief of a lost child or indeed the disability of a family member and the loss of future dreams, some people can feel very alone. Especially, if there  is little hope that things will improve or change. This is where acceptance comes to the fore. Acceptance  is a very hard process to swallow because it can mean the end of hope or desire. Something has happened or is a particular way which means it isn’t going to be resolved, different or normal (whatever that means).

Acceptance comes at a mighty cost and a fair amount of pain for most people. On the other hand acceptance can sometimes bring relief and even a weird sort of calm. When a problem can’t be solved or changed (in the way we want) it has to be somehow, no doubt reluctantly, acknowledged. Acceptance, I suspect can bring about a new way of seeing a situation and a way of coping that is less depleting. However, it never replaces or wipes away the original trauma, grief, loss, sorrow or isolation. That remains in a managed space and is part of our life story.

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‘Lion’ A long way home…a story that lingers

Today, I saw the much publicised film ‘Lion.’ Based on a true story, the film delivers credibility and impact, certainly did for me anyway. You know when a book or film lingers in your thoughts well after you leave the theatre or put down the book?  Well, that’s what this story has been like for me. It’s a sad story, so take a tissue or two.9780143786504

The story overflows with disconnection, attachment and trauma issues. A young child (old enough to have some memories of his prior life in India) is brought to Australia, adopted by loving new parents and grows to adulthood to be a warm and charming individual. Except, his need to connect and to find his past family niggles and torments him until he searches his way back to his Indian village and family.

I believe, attachment is our most primary psychological need, especially early attachment. To have this attachment severed or altered in a way that removes cultural and biological connection is very tricky. In the film these issues are managed well and the story highlights tragedy and endurance from all perspectives. The adoptive parents, the adopted boy, and then finally his family in India.

There are many ways to view this story. So many emotions to be stirred. Regardless of how you feel about inter-country adoption or how you feel about adoption in general, this film and story is devastating, sad, hopeful and beautiful.

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And so this is Christmas…again!

calm-christmasEach year I promise myself to avoid the hype, ignore the tinsel and eat and drink less. However, if I’m to be really honest here, I mostly allow myself to be caught up in the froth, bubble and frantic pace that accompanies the festive season. What is it about Christmas that triggers anxiety and hype in many of us? I envy you if you read this and wonder what I’m talking about. If this happens to be you, stop reading this, go read a book or go for a jog…oh, how I admire you!

I do know some people who have an extraordinary capacity to carry on as normal. They go to work as usual, never hit the shops, continue and pursue hobbies, never interrupt their exercise regimes and basically stay clam and sane. Don’t they have the Christmas gene that causes mind clutter and present worry? How do people like this get out of twenty-five Christmas drink occasions crammed into ten days? How is it that some people shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing for Christmas’?

Well, this year I’ve tried. Actually, I’ve tried very hard to reduce the fuss, although I have to confess I’m already about to make my fourth batch of shortbread! But there are some things that are simply silly, we don’t have to see everyone we know before Christmas just to wish them a happy Christmas. We don’t have to send Christmas cards to people just because they have been on our Christmas card list for thirty years. Will the sky fall in if we slack off just a bit and breathe slowly and actually reach the twenty-fifth of December in a state of calm rather than hyped agitation?

So, with one week to go, I’m on a mission. I’m going to explore my calm gene (I hope I have one!). I’m going to play beautiful music (as I bake the rest of the shortbread!), I’ll let the week look after itself (well mostly!) and breathe, long and deep, in and out…in and out…in and out…until it’s Boxing Day!

Happy (calm) Christmas everyone.

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Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

contentRecently, I read this gripping and jagged book by Peggy Frew. Originally I loved the name of the book, it sort of intrigued me but when I started to turn the pages it clearly became the characters that engaged me from the very beginning. It is Peggy Frew’s second novel, her first was the ‘House of Sticks’ in 2010.

The story follows the lives of Ishtar and her daughter Silver. Ishtar a young mother, clearly struggles but strives, sometimes with success and sometimes not, to raise her daughter in a rural hippie environment.  There is a strong focus on women and a compelling and sometimes agonising look into the developmental life of Silver who is often faced with circumstances where risk and deprivation lurk close to home.

This book is structurally fascinating. It moves from present to past in a  way that allows the reader to appreciate the life journey that Ishtar is thrust into. In my view, the book cleverly exposes the psychological underpinnings of the story in order to emphasise the impact of how early trauma and lack of support plays out in some people’s lives.

I was thrilled to hear that Peggy Frew was awarded the 2016 ‘Barbara Jefferis Award’, presented biennially by the Australian Society of Authors, for ‘Hope Farm’. The prize according to ‘Australian Author’ magazine is awarded to ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way and empowers the status of women and girls in society’.

‘Hope Farm’ was also short listed for the Stella Prize 2016.

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Our Souls At Night

our-souls-at-night-book-coverI’ve just read a beautiful book, in fact seven of my friends from my book-group also read it. It’s one of those books that linger on in the mind well after the last page has been turned. There is so much to take from the book and many questions to ask. We had a lively and meaningful discussion about the dilemmas faced by the characters and in particular, what can occur in families when older people step outside the prescribed community rules or  the comfort zones of those around them.

It’s a book about a widow and a widower, the widow’s grand-son and a dog. Its set in a fictional American country town called Holt. The two main characters develop a delightful but risky relationship by meeting each night at the widow’s house. Not wanting to spoil this touching and sensitive story, I won’t elaborate further on the actual plot.  The book does however, by nature of the story, raise issues of ageing, relationships, regrets, disappointments, parenting, grand-parenting and social expectations. This is a powerful but gentle book written by a seventy-year old author in the year of his impending death. Haruf tells a simple but complex story of loss, love, compassion, loneliness, wisdom and becoming old.

In my opinion the late Kent Haruf represented the human condition with incredible accuracy. His ability to put into words the need for connection and freedom from the hackles of societies’ judgement is a breath of fresh air.

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Big space outside my little space

I always love it when I spend time in another place with other people, especially if they live very different lives. This week-end was one of those times. I spent the week-end on a farming property in rural Victoria. Gum trees, green paddocks courtesy of recent and generous rain falls, canola and wheat crops, sheep and new lambs and Australian landscape as far as the eye can view.

Feeling like a real ‘townie’ in my smart leather boots instead of well-worn R M Williams, I bounced over paddocks and down muddy lanes with our friends and hosts whilst touring the property. ewe-and-lambsWe chased an arrant ewe and its’ very new twin lambs who were outside their home paddock, walked along a creek with strong running water, took a spin around a near-by lake in an open-roof sports car (not mine one of the farm owners), drank red wine and watched the sun set over the distant paddocks.

One can be forgiven for forgetting the bigger, tougher issues in life when dropped in idyllic and picturesque country side such as the one I was in for the past couple of days. Space and plenty of it can feel so relaxing and stimulating at the same time. It somehow changes the brains responses to everyday things. I found myself thinking how delightful it would be to live in a rural setting where the norms are different and the pace of life seems to resemble a gentle orchestra playing on a soft summers night.

The orchestra faded as we journeyed down the highway toward home. By the time we turned our mud-splattered car into our house in town I was making plans in my head about how to wash the mud off. Inside the door the answering machine is beeping, a friend needs me to ring her, the house is cold and we have to unpack the overnight bags. A disinterested discussion about what to eat for dinner and then a dash to catch the news at seven o’clock.

You see, it doesn’t take long for the magic to disappear. Once the space changes the normal routine rules. The rooms in our house seemed pokey and I missed the grand view of the paddocks for as long as it took to unpack my overnight bag. I did love being outside my own space and seeing and enjoying the best and fun side of rural life for a short time.

But, I know I’ve been there in the best of times, it’s not year round perfection and farmers have hard times. The space is always there but the seasons change everything. During long hot summers when the crops are harvested and the sun dries the lush green carpets to a crackling brown, the snakes come up from the near-dry lake and the garden so naturally beautiful in winter becomes lifeless and needy. It’s hot, airless and the worry for rain begins all over again.

Still, the time spent in a ‘big space’ was wonderful. It was fun, nurturing and I’m grateful that it’s out there when I have a need to escape my ‘little space’ from time to time.

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Sexism, alive and well

Yesterday was one of those days. A day that pierced the wall of false contentment and well-being. It started like any other day, listening to the ABC, going to the gym, attending to a few chores and putting off overdue work on a novel I’ve been working on for far too long.

My awakening came in the form of a washing repair man. Large and jolly and on time for a promised ‘later in the morning’ house call. Efficient and competent he fixed the ailing washer in no time and presented me with the account. I decided to pay him on the spot and went searching for my wallet. It was during this time that my husband appeared from his study.

‘All finished’ he asked the tradesman.

‘Yep, that’ll keep her off your back mate.’ My husband looked a bit uncomfortable and I chose to ignore the remark. I then asked my husband if he had smaller notes as I didn’t have the correct amount. He reached for his wallet on the bench and the tradesman grinned at him.

‘You’ll never get that back from her mate.’ The repairman chuckled.  I then handed him the money.

‘Good girl.’ he said and grinned.

I haven’t heard this language for a long time. And yet the guy wasn’t rude and he wasn’t unpleasant, he obviously liked a joke but he didn’t have a clue about the impact of his  sexist language and how that might have felt for me. Now, I’m not shy of standing up for myself and being assertive when I have to be but what was the point, this man obviously had no idea.

The washing machine was back in action. The day raced by and before we knew it we were settled in watching Q and A for what is usually informative, entertaining and sometimes controversial television viewing. Then the unravelling began. An audience member asked a question regarding domestic violence. He used his own very sad and sensitive story relating to his own sister being murdered in very recent times, to highlight the serious and horrendous issues relating to gender issues and family violence. The young man also asked if the recent events of a male sporting panel headed up by prominent businessman and sporting club identity on television, may have negated attitudes toward women.

One of the panelists, a Melbourne veteran radio broadcaster responded, in my view, in a very insensitive manner. He ignored the basis of the question and focused on supporting his male counter-parts and described the incident as having been blown out of proportion. He claimed it was just a ‘bunch of blokes’ joking. It was clearly obvious that he ‘didn’t get it’ and moved to defending his mates. I thought it was disgraceful, so did many in the audience. The young man whose sister was murdered and who has raised the question held his head in his hand.

It was then that a female panelist, who happened to be a feminist newspaper journalist took him to task. She articulated the values that drive language and behaviour that demean women and give rise to aggressive and violent behaviour. She made her point with strength and conviction backed up by knowledge and intellect, she also took some time to deliver her message, she would not be silenced. He, the broadcaster then turned to her and accused her of ‘being hysterical’!

‘Hysteria’ is to my knowledge, a historically oppressive term used  for women who spoke out, stood up for their rights and objected to the dis-empowerment of their times. Some women were institutionalised and locked up under the term of being deemed ‘hysterical’. A very demeaning and silencing phrase.

There was obvious shock and belief in the studio and I suspect in homes around the nation, well especially of decent, thinking and informed people.

I remember thinking at the time, ‘this is 2016, I can’t believe what I’m hearing.’ But, you know, I can sort of believe it at some level. I’m not sorry to say that I mainly mix with people who have a reasonable understanding of sexist issues so I when I’m confronted with blatant language and behaviour that I thought was outdated I’m taken aback somewhat. So what is it that drives men to continue this unpopular and destructive behaviour?

In my view sometimes its ignorance, other times arrogance as well and there’s no prize for guessing the categories of the examples I give above. Entitlement plays a big role in this and underpins attitudes that have existed for centuries. But nevertheless its the combination of ignorance, arrogance and entitlement that perpetuates sexist and demeaning behaviour toward women. No, it is not okay, it’s dumb, it’s offensive and it’s dangerous and maintains and drives gender values that lead to violence and dis-empowerment of women.

It is 2016 but I’m not sure how far we have come.


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Finding the time we need

Over the years I don’t think I’ve been very good at appreciating or perhaps valuing time to do the smaller things in life that matter. Most of us I guess, have commitments and responsibilities that gobble up precious hours. I know I have but paid work occupied a very large part of my being for a long time.

I was reminded yesterday of how precious time is. We picked and prepared olives for curing. This is the first time our tree has had enough olives to make it worth while. As we slit each individual olive I thought how in times past when I was working in full-time employment, I would have considered this task a time-consuming chore. Today however, I took pleasure in handling the fruit and listening to background music whilst contemplating a process that was new to us. With the olives in their jars and the water added we stood back pleased and content with the achievement. For the next four days we have to change the water before the brine and oil stage. Having the time to do this feels like a gift.

Recently, whilst in discussion with friends I was reminded how difficult it can be to remain fit and heathy whilst working full-time. I recall a time when I was also working full-time and had back problems. I was driving long distances between organisational offices and then sitting in meetings which exacerbated my difficulty. Around that time I remember hearing on the radio, an interview with a man who actually left work to get well and healthy. I recall thinking how desperate he must have felt to have actually resigned his work to reclaim his health. This is a common story and I continue to hear the same words echoed by many. In fact quite a while ago I made the same decision. I resigned my full-time job, took a few months off and took my exercise and health regime in hand before reviewing future work and life balance options.

Work can be all-consuming. It can also be a wonderful experience, stimulating and personally rewarding but if we ignore the need for the other aspects of our life, eventually something gives. How do we find or make time for all the aspects of our lives? We all have different responsibilities and yet I hear the same theme being repeated daily. Not enough time, stressed and unwell…on it goes.

I also notice this theme being played out with a group of women, mostly workers, at a book group I attend. It’s a common occurrence at each monthly meeting, that sometimes up to half of the group will not have read the book or maybe not actually have finished it. This isn’t due to any level of disinterest, slackness or lack of literary ability, no it seems most of the members work and live extremely busy lives and they actually don’t get the time to read the book.

Finding the time I need has taken me a very long time to work out, not sure I have it right yet but it sure feels wonderful on this beautiful autumn day to have options. Of course using  precious time is always a challenge. I’m trying. I think about the value of doing the simple things amongst the more complex activities. I have had to learn that being in the moment and paying attention to smaller but meaningful tasks is life enriching. As I write this I wonder if it’s just an ageing process thing that allows us to value all components of our lives rather than just the super challenging bits that consume us. More about this at a later date I suspect…

But right now I’m off to change the water in the olive jars!

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