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-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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It’s hard to think about…and harder to act perhaps

It’s hard to think about the fact that so many people in the world are in difficult, if not dangerous situations right this moment. It’s hard to think about people who have fled persecution and harm and are now locked away in detention by us, the lucky country people. It’s hard to think about the thousands of families grieving and distressed after senseless attacks of terrorism across the globe. It’s hard to think about individuals and families who have been effected by illness and death in the past year. It’s hard to think about children, women and men who have been frightened and abused by people whom they trusted. It’s hard to think about people waking up on Christmas morning after sleeping rough under a bridge or in a shopping mall doorway. It’s hard to think about kids who wake up to ‘no’ presents from Santa because they live in poverty.

Now I don’t want to be the ‘Christmas grouch’ or a ‘wet blanket’ but I just can’t ignore the state of our world anymore, even for Christmas. And yes, I intend to celebrate Christmas but not without a hefty awareness of the above issues and consideration about what I, we, our government can or should be doing. After all, we can’t hide from these serious issues because sooner or later the very same circumstances might arrive on our doorstep and effect our families and loved ones, if that isn’t already the case for some of us. To look after our future and the futures of our kids and their kids, I think that I / we have to act with good will and stand  against inequality, poor government decisions and intolerable world conditions that threaten the rights of the disadvantaged, small minorities and our broader communities.

Yep, difficult stuff is hard to think about…and harder to act against but I think the time is here…

Christmas tree

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Rosalie Ham and ‘The Dressmaker’

the-dressmakerToday I saw the film ‘The Dressmaker’ and I loved it. Quite a few years ago I read Rosalie Ham’s book ‘The Dressmaker’ and I loved that too. So I couldn’t wait to see this depiction on the big screen. Of course, the characters were wonderful and played to amazing perfection by a brilliant cast and the costumes and clothing were stunning. The quirky small town of Dungatar captured the essence of many other small Australian towns only with a good dose of extreme imagination thrown in to create an edgy atmosphere. Nothing detracted from the central story line and that’s what I loved about this film, the book had the same impact when I read it.

At a library talk a couple of years ago, I asked  Rosalie Ham how she had developed her sense of humour that almost borders on bizarre? She responded by talking about the observations she made as a kid living in country towns. Well I can relate to that, growing up in a small country town does result in knowing stories that are passed along from family to family or group to group. They may be true, have some truth, fabricated or  completely untrue.  It also occurs to me that humorous and tragic stories get their fair share of repeating and therefore often suffer the most from differing versions and judgements. Country towns are good at this, hence they provide wonderful material for story writing.

I remember when I first read ‘The Dressmaker’, some of my friends loved it but some quite disliked it. I suspect that the disliking may have been the bizarre edge that required a tolerance of the author ‘stretching the envelope’ just a bit. Maybe the movie has the advantage of a visual medium that utilises the bizarre bit by taking the best of the book and playing with the wonderful colourful characterisations.

However, a pleasing aspect of this film for me, was to witness the exciting success of a writer who took her experiences from country Australia and weaved them into a fascinating if not quirky first novel. Seems to me, for a writer it must be the ultimate compliment to have your novel turned into film. Excited for Rosalie Ham, a wonderful Australian writer.

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