THE IDEA OF PERFECTION by Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection CoverKate Grenville is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I know she’s probably already on a lot of people’s ‘fav author lists’, but it’s only recently that I’ve had the time to read her work. Her writing is captivating in its ability to convey a rich sense of place, depth of characters, and produce a realistic storyline.

The Idea of Perfection is set in the small New South Wales rural town of Karakarook; a town that is slowly dying. But some of the town residents are attempting a last desperate bid at saving their town – they want to save Bent Bridge, certain that it can become a tourist drawcard, and set up a historical museum. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer who knows all you’d ever want to know about bridges but is socially awkward, middle-aged, divorced, and not on the right side of good looking. He’s been hired to demolish the Bent Bridge and replace it with something more modern, safe and droll in appearance. Harley Savage is an expert in folk artefacts and patchwork quilts and has been asked by the Karakarook historical society to come and appraise the their town artefacts and hopefully put them on the tourist map. She’s tall, broad shouldered, abrasive in nature, and not a what you would call good looking, yet has worked her way through three husbands. Douglas and Harley have their work cut out for them and their clear objectives in work and life soon become clouded as they are drawn into the town’s slow, country life atmosphere, and each other’s company.

There are a couple of things that I really loved about this book: the characters and the small town setting. (I seem to have a growing affection for stories set in small Australian towns that can effectively convey the sense of life in those towns.) This novel is proof that a story doesn’t have to be set in the city, amongst all the buzz and action, for it to be engaging.

What I admired in particular with this novel is that both Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman are plain, unattractive – physically and in temperament, people. Their personalities are flawed, in fact all of the characters are flawed. Gone are the good looking, pretty people that feature in many novels. Instead these characters are real, in some ways more real that you want them to be. I rejoiced in this change of format; it was fresh and made for stimulating reading.

The other thing I enjoyed are the descriptions of not just life in a small rural town, but the descriptions of the town itself. Kate Grenville goes to great lengths to slow the pace, to draw the reader into the town and what it’s like to view it from an outsider’s perspective, through the eyes of main characters, but also what it’s like to live there, from the point of view of the locals.

Grenville has also managed to weave in a thread of humour throughout The Idea of Perfection that is subtle but so very rewarding.

There is a wonderfully amusing scene at the local store where Harley attempts to buy a bucket but the shop keeper says he’s out of stock. Harley points to the range of buckets on display in the store window but the shop keeper shakes his head – if he sells one of those then his customers won’t know the full range of colours available. A heated conversation ensues, and despite her best attempts at logic, Harley leaves the store empty handed. Meanwhile, Douglas, out looking at the Bent Bridge, decides to go for a walk, and finds himself in a paddock with a herd of cows, or is it bulls? he’s not really sure – some of them have horns, and he tries to fend off a charging bull by waving around a piece of a tree branch.

In another scene, Douglas is reminiscing about his father, Douglas Cheeseman, the first, who was a war hero. The first Douglas Cheeseman was the pilot of a plane, the Lancaster, which caught fire while flying over France. The pin was stuck in the fire extinguisher, and no one could get it out. The first Douglas Cheeseman stayed at the controls so that the crew could parachute to safety; he died a hero. While Douglas Cheeseman, the second, admires his heroic father, and lives in his shadow, he has his own private and guilt-ridden thoughts about the event.

“It was a thought that had to be suppressed every time it tried to surface: that the men in the Lancaster had not needed courage so much as someone with a bit of mechanical expertise. Someone who understood jammed pins.

An engineer, for example.”

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I won’t. You get the picture: it’s a great book, and a jolly good read. Add it to your reading list for 2016.

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My copy of The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (Picador 2000 edition)

ISBN: 0330362062

Awards: Winner of the 2001 Orange Prize for fiction

Author website: Kate Grenville – The Idea of Perfection

Readers Notes: http://kategrenville.com/the_idea_of_perfection_readers_notes

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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum

SelfishShallowSelfAbsorbedIt was the title of this book, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, that piqued my interest, along with the tagline in a review by the Huffington Post that touted the book as being confrontational, on purpose.

This book, a collection of essays, written by both female and male writers, tackles the sticky subject of women choosing to remain childless. There is an unspoken stigma, a taboo attached to women who elect to forego the path of motherhood. Women who say no to procreation are often vilified, while men who do the same are generally viewed as incorrigible bachelors.

Meghan Daum, editor of the collection, put together Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed with the aim of “lift[ing] the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living on large piles of disposable income”.

The essays contained within this collection are written with tenderness, care, humour and a deep sense of careful reflection and consideration for choices made. There is an openness, honesty and candour in the essays, and as the reader we are granted access to the intensely personal and intimate sections of the authors’ lives. Not all of the authors suffered traumatic childhoods, but many did, and they write unflinchingly about their experiences, and the impact this had on their decisions in life. I believe it takes great courage to open yourself in a public platform such as this, to expose an unhappy childhood populated with traumatic memories, parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t love you, and still be able to find love in your life, to want to pass on love to others, just not through having children.

Childhood trauma is not the only reason why these women chose not to have children. Several tried to have children but circumstances intervened – either by miscarriage or abortion, and this enabled them to realise that they were attempting to fulfil someone else’s dreams or desires. Some of the women (and men) simply did not feel the pull to procreate. The ticking biological clock did not kick in, the overwhelming desire to have a baby did not materialise.

One thing that is abundantly clear through all of the essays is that these authors have thought long and hard about whether or not to have children. They have agonised over the decision, looked at it from all viewpoints and taken into consideration their own financial stability, their ability to provide for a child, their own personal nature and ability to offer nurturing 24/7, their emotional states, and the ways in which they contribute to society and other children. There is a deep understanding of what it takes, of the commitment that is required, to raise children. Additionally, there is the honouring of the self, of having the strength to stand by convictions that they know are right for them and their lives.

None of these essays reflect the desire to pass on having children in favour of living the high life of luxury. There is praise for the fortitude of those people who do choose to have children and acknowledgement that it is a difficult, tedious, time consuming and rewarding commitment.

Some of the honest insights offered by the authors include:

Sigrid Nunez, in her essay, The Most Important Thing, discusses her traumatic childhood and its impact on her (p.93).

“I remember that when the time came to think seriously about whether or not to have children, the same idea occurred to me: the crucial thing would be to make sure that they not be afraid of their mother. It was a goal I believed I could achieve. But there was something else. As a child, I never felt safe. Every singe day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe?”

Danielle Henderson discusses her own unhappy childhood and reflects upon the judgement cast at her by others who are less concerned with her reasons for remaining childless and more occupied by their own opinions about it, in Save Yourself (p.147 – 148).

“Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone things they have the right to discuss my body and my choices, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right over and ask me about it… As bothered as I am by having to defend my decision, I’m more incensed that people think they have the right to ask. That’s because to ask me why I don’t have children is really to ask me to unpack my complicated history with parenting, or to try to explain something I’ve felt since I found out where babies come from… I admire women who look at the rigors of parenting and decide they’re just not cut out for it, or just don’t want to try, and I wish that we had more conversations about childlessness that didn’t force us to approach them from such a defensive place.”

Geoff Dyer conveys a delightful, wicked sense of British humour in his essay, Over and Out (p.187-188).

“It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them. Actually, even that doesn’t go far enough. In the park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand…

I may be immune to but I am not unaware of—how could I be?—the immense, unrelenting pressure to have children. To be middle-aged and childless is to elicit one of two responses. The first: pity because you are unable to have kids. This is fine by me. I’m always on the lookout for pity, will accept it from anyone or, if no one’s around, from myself. I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife and I are asked of we have kids, one of us will reply, ‘No, we’ve not been blessed with children.’ We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses… The second: horror because by choosing not to have children, you are declining full membership to the human race. By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles.”

Tim Kreider, in The End Of The Line, is candid and open about his perspective on parenting (p.250).

“Parents may frequently look back with envy on the irresponsible, self-indulgent lives of the childless, but I for one have never felt any reciprocal envy of their anxious and harried existence—noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shreiky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought. In an essay, I once describe being a parent as like belonging to a cult, ‘living in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, subject to the whim of a capricious and demented master,’ which a surprising number of parents told me they loved.”

Many of the stories resonated with me, probably because I am one of those women who decided not to have children and as has such have felt the wrath of others for making such a ‘selfish’ decision. When I was 35, my husband and I stayed with my in-laws after returning from three years spent living overseas. Whenever I was within earshot, my mother-in-law took to announcing to an otherwise empty room that “women who don’t have children are selfish and self-obsessed”. This contempt was repeated in dinner conversations centred around a couple that my parents-in-law had gone sailing with, and the woman in question was scathingly torn to shreds, determined as ‘selfish and self-obsessed’ due to her childless state. What my mother-in-law and most others who cast judgement my way neglected to was ask was why I, along with my husband, had made this decision. Like many of the authors in this book, I come from a family that lacked a loving, supportive environment, and fear and a lack of safety were dominant. Like Danielle Henderson, I too have a ‘complicated history with parenting’ that cannot be casually explained in a superficial conversation. It doesn’t mean I don’t like children, it simply means that I have intensely personal and valid reasons for not having children.

I admire and respect the essays in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. They are heartfelt, there are moments of lightness, and all are richly rewarding to read. I agree wholeheartedly with Daum’s statement that ‘It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption—and realise that nobody has the monopoly on selfishness’.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum (Picador 2015)

ISBN 978 1250 052940 (ebook)

AN UNQUIET MIND by Kay Redfield Jamison

AnUnquietMindAn Unquiet Mind provides a unique and no-holds barred insight into the euphoria that can escalate to terror, combined with the deep, dark depths of despair that bipolar sufferers experience on a regular basis.

This brilliant autobiography, written by Kay Redfield Jamison, delves into the dark and oft misunderstood world of bipolar disorder, once know as manic-depression*. Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry, has worked extensively in clinical practice with people who suffer from mood disorders, and was for many years a director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, which was a large teaching and research facility. She also suffers from severe bipolar episodes. All of these elements put her in the unique position of being able to write about bipolar disorder from both a clinical perspective and personal experience.

Jamison describes bipolar disorder as:

“an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.” (p.6)

Jamison recounts her early experiences with bipolar as a teenager, and then moves on to her college years where the illness progresses to much stronger episodes with more increasingly dire consequences. As she frantically attempts to keep up with her university course load studying medicine, and then post-graduate studies, her life is torn apart by manic episodes followed by soul-destroying bouts of depression that last months and even years.

Jamison writes with candour and brutal honesty about her manic-depressive episodes, her denial to admit that the mood disorder is destructive and dangerous not only to herself but others around her, and her long, slow path to healing and sanity. After many years of denial, and one particularly psychotic manic episode, she finally agrees to take medication: lithium. The use of lithium was still in its infancy, had only been approved for clinical use four years earlier, and as such she is reluctant to take the medication, concerned about side effects, and long term use. She points out that treating mood disorders requires not just medications but also psychiatric treatment, which focuses on “developmental issues, personality structure, conflict and emotional and unconscious thought”.

Bipolar disorder is a deceptive illness in that the manic highs bring about periods of intense activity and creativity; there is a wondrous and intoxicating rush of elated emotions, and the seductive nature of having gifted insights to problems. It is these elements that people with bipolar are reluctant to part with, as the rush is ecstatic. However, the shift from ecstasy to psychotic is dangerous and uncontrollable, after which sufferers are often plunged into black, despairing depression. It is an illness that kills thousands of creative and imaginative people each year.

Jamieson writes with clarity about the highs and lows, the confusion and despair, and madness that she experienced:

“When you’re high, it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find brighter ones… Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced is irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow… now… you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of your mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness creates its own reality… It goes on and on, and finally others’ recollections of your behavior – your bizarre, frenetic, aimless behaviors… All those incredible feelings to sort through… Which of my feelings are real? Which of the me’s is me? The wild, impulsive, chaotic, energetic, and crazy one? Or the shy, withdrawn, desperate, suicidal, doomed, and tired one?” (p.64-67)

She discusses her own struggles and the great lengths to which she would go to avoid dealing with her illness, often injecting humour into a serious subject. One example of this is when she realises in graduate school that she has a serious problem and needs either psychiatric help or needs to buy a horse. She explains her decision this way:

“Since almost everyone I knew was seeing a psychiatrist, and since I had an absolute belief that I should be able to handle my own problems, I naturally bought a horse. Not just any horse, but an unrelentingly stubborn and blindingly neurotic one, a sort of equine Woody Allen, but without the entertainment value.” (p.54)

She had created romantic notions of being best friends with this horse, of the horse running happily up to her in search of a carrot or sugar cube. The reality proved somewhat different:

“What I got instead was a wildly anxious, frequently lame, and not terribly bright creature who was terrified of snakes, people, lizards, dogs, and other horses – in short terrified of anything he might reasonable be expected to encounter in life – thus causing him to rear up on his hind legs and bolt madly about in completely random directions.” (p.55)

An Unquiet Mind is filled with reflections, chaotic events, the negative impacts of not being willing to accept that she needed medication, and even when she did take medication the resulting the episodes of despair and destruction that ensued every time she went off her meds, seeking the thrill and rush of the inspiring ‘high’ episodes. The book also combines scientific and clinical analysis of mood disorders. These medical approaches add balance and credibility to Jamison’s story and highlight the conflicts that she faced when trying to act in a medical capacity, how the mania and depression severely impacted upon her study, her work and personal life, and yet those same things informed her work, gave her insights into bipolar disorder, and inspired her to dedicate her life to understanding mood disorders and help others who also suffer from the illness.

The frankness of the writing, and Jamieson’s ability to include humour, and story telling techniques, made this an incredibly fascinating book to read. Her obvious pain and confusion, her distress and frustration are palpable. A singularly compelling read, and by the end of it I had a renewed sense of respect for people who suffer from bipolar disorder and the minefield of problems that they need to navigate every day.

 

* Jamison preferred the term manic-depression as she felt that it more adequately described the illness a she experienced it.

 

An Unquiet Mind: A memoir of Moods and Madness (Picador 2011) – eBook.      ISBN 9781447204040 EPUB                                                                                          First published in 1995 as a Borzoi Book by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. in New York.

MATESHIP WITH BIRDS by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with BirdsCoverMateship with Birds focuses on the lives of dairy farmer Harry, and his neighbour, single mother Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Set in countryside Victoria, in the 1950s, the book subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) explores themes of desire, courtship and sex against a backdrop populated with Australian iconic birds.

Harry has long been single, his wife having left him for another man, and he fills his days with tending to his dairy cows, who have endearing names such as Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Big Joyce and Pauline, to name but a few, and distinct personalities to match. The cows have a presence all of their own and I love this scene (below). It is filled with power and movement, and brings an every day moment in the dairy to the fore:

“On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks.” (p.4)

Harry also has an affinity for bird watching, in particular the kookaburra family that has taken up residence, and his binoculars are never far from hand; Harry observes the kookaburra family’s interactions with regularity and affection. Carrie Tiffany brings birds to the forefront in this book and they offer a charming and delightful segue throughout the narrative, giving a voice to Australian birds that we know well but are generally relegated to the periphery of human life. In some sections the life of birds is just as dramatic as the lives of the main characters. The birds are not only seen but also heard, their partnerships are vibrantly alive, and losses are keenly felt. Carrie brings into focus the large space that birds fill through songs, colour and plumage, and their battle to survive nature and machine.

“A honey eater,

tongue drunk

on nectar,

sleeps it off

beneath a flowering gum.

Until Dad, perched above,

notices the jerky

intoxicated cycling of its twiggy legs.

That’s dinner sorted.”  (p.90-91)

One underlying theme is the rhythm of farm life, its solidity and receptiveness, but we are also exposed to the harsh realities, experienced through moments of violence, and the peculiarities of country life. Sex, life and death are explored through the discerning eyes of adults and the curious eyes of children.

Harry has come to care deeply for his neighbour Betty and her two children but his gentle, shy nature sees him dance about the object of his affection without openly declaring his feelings. Betty wrestles with her own feelings for Harry but rather than voice them, she indulges in fantasies of desire. As Michael approaches sexual maturity, Harry, taking on the role of surrogate father, decides to offer advice on the act of sex. A man of few words, Harry makes some clumsy attempts at explaining sex to young Michael and resorts to writing letters, using farming anecdotes and scientific analogies as his rationale. For example, in one letter to Michael, Harry covers the topic of kissing:

“The male and female kissing equipment – mouth, tongue, mechanisms of salivation – are strikingly similar, excepting scale.” (p.169)

For all of his well-meaning attempts, Harry tends to see the female body in more mechanical terms, and neglects to advise Michael of the emotional aspects, the importance of love, and this could be indicative of how men viewed women and relationships in the 1950s.

Mateship with Birds is composed of a series of narratives, moments in time, poems (that Harry writes in the columns of an old ledger), and letters. The pace is unhurried but not slow, and for me it was akin to strolling along a country road, where everything on the horizon is visible but then a bird, a cow or person comes into sharp focus and my attention is fully engaged, watching, listening, before moving on. There is beauty in the everyday but also recognition of the banal and Carrie Tiffany manages to convey these elements without overly romanticising country life.

“[Harry] leans against the Waratah, one hand resting on the strip of Axminster glued to the tank, the other cooling around the beer. The net curtains are drawn across the long window in the front sitting room; they hang a foot or so short of the floor. A few dead flies lie behind the glass and further in he can see three pairs of slippers, the mottled flesh rising out them like puddings.” (p.196)

Mateship with Birds shows country and farming life through a different lens, one that is at times both gentle and cruel, comedic and peculiar, practical and romantic. The story unfolds through a multitude of different heartbeats and a reveals a tenderness that will stay with you. A truly delightful book.

Carrie Tiffany is an award-winning author and her second novel, Mateship with Birds, was the winner of both The Stella Prize (2103), and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (2013), and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2013).

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador 2012)

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Foxing with fiction

Mr Fox by Helen OYEYEMI

Mr Fox is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Original in its concept, playful and witty in its presentation, this book breaks tradition and dares the reader to follow on its zig-zag path the relationship of St John Fox (much alive author) and Mary Foxe (his very much imaginary muse).

St John Fox has a penchant for killing off his leading ladies in inventively gruesome ways. Mary Foxe labels him a serial killer and demands that he change his ways or else she’ll leave him. Thus begins a literary adventure that bounces, rolls and strolls through a variety of scenarios, characters and plots as Mary and St John tackle each other, dare each other, fall in love with each other. Enter the very real Mrs Daphne Fox, who is not prepared to give up her man to an imaginary woman, no matter how seductive, without a fight.

Oyeyemi is a talented wordsmith who dares to break the rules with brilliant results. This latest novel was inspired by the folklore tale of Bluebeard – a fierce and formidable nobleman who violently murders his wives –  and references to him can been seen woven through the delightful fabric of this book. Oyeyemi takes traditional storytelling and turns it on its head.

Helen Oyeyemi is also the author of White is for Witching, which won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award (a book that I highly recommend) as well as titles The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House.

Mr Fox is published by Picador www.picador.com