2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge

I must warn you that I have failed all previous reading challenges.
But Australian author Claire Corbett challenged me point-blank to take up the incredible 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and how could I say no. Besides, it offers the perfect opportunity to get to some of those fascinating books on my "Must Read" pile.
I have, with characteristic mis-guided optimism, chosen to attempt the "Franklin-tastic" level - Read 10 and review at least four books.
So here is my list for the year. From the top:

In Search of Angels by Janise Beaumont
Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
I Came to Say Goodbye by Caroline Overington
Abandoned by Geesche Jacobsen
Conspiracy 365: January, February & March (That's 3 books!) by Gabrielle Lord
The Raven's Heart by Jesse Blackadder
Animal People by Charlotte Wood
Running Backwards Over Sand by Stephanie Dowrick
When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Eakin
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
Knuckled by Fiona Wright
Reading By Moonlight by Brenda Walker
Small Indiscretions by Felicity Castagna
Smoke in the Room by Emily Maguire
Beyond White Guilt by Sarah Maddison

ABC Local Radio's Guide to Australian Birdsong

It's incredible how evocative birdsong can be. While listening to this wonderful CD set I was frequently thrown back in my imagination to a specific time and place. I suppose that so many of the events of our lives are accompanied, knowingly or not, by birdsong. Birds create the soundtrack to our lives, and unless we are bird-spotting nerds, we are probably not too aware of it. But on some more unconscious level we are obviously deeply affected by the sounds of birds, and these primordial songs are etched deep into our memories.
The 3 CD ABC Local Radio's Guide to Australian Birdsong was a gift from someone who, the moment they saw it, knew that I was the only person they could ever imagine enjoying it. And I will confess that I am something of a closet bird nerd. I can stop and look at rainbow lorikeets for hours, and when I was a youngster one of my very f avourite books was the mammoth blue Reader's Digest Complete Book of Autralian Birds, an item I imagine graced many an Australian family library in the 1980s.
I grew up in tropical North Queensland, and so on certain parts of this CD I was transported back to my childhood, hearing the very particular calls of birds in the wet tropics. At times I longed to be there for real, actually outside hearing these creatures sing.
Strange as it may seem, ever since I have received it I have had this CD set on high rotation. And a word of warning - playing it brings lots and lots of birds into your garden. Or perhaps I was just more sensitive to their presence and sound? At any rate, I felt that listening to this CD improved my surroundings immeasurably.
Perfect for ironing, cleaning and even meditating, if the idea of playing natural sounds doesn't freak you out too much (and my partner screams every time I pop on my "ocean waves" CDs), the ABC Local Radio's Guide to Australian Birdsong makes perfect ambient sound. Each CD covers a different part of Australia, along with an excellent and informative booklet describing each of the birds and their behaviours, appearance and habitat.
This is one for nature-lovers, people who like birdwatching and anyone planning a holiday in the Australian bush.
I love it.

Angel in the Rubble - Genelle Guzman-McMillan - Underneath the Towers of the World Trade Center

Genelle Guzman-McMillan was the last person to be pulled out alive from the rubble that was the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York City, the place we now know as Ground Zero. Trapped in a concrete mausoleum hidden under multiple layers of destroyed building materials some two or three storeys high, her head and legged squeezed perilously between pieces of debris, she lay there slowly dying for 27 hours, until she felt a man take her hand and tell her that everything was going to be allright. Incredibly relieved, she spoke to this gentle man called Paul until the rescuers pulled away the concrete and steel and finally freed her.
The only trouble is that there was no Paul - there was no-one holding her hand for hours and providing her with comfort and reassurance. Genelle had just had a spiritual experience, and in this touching book she attempts to come to terms with it.

I am easily affected by emotional stories, and Angel in the Rubble was no different, leaving me terrified, exalted and ultimately inspired by the tale of the incredible feats that human beings are capable of enduring. What's different here, of course, is that Guzman-McMillan (an illegal immigrant from Barbados at the time of the attack) says that human endurance had nothing to do with it. She says that she was saved by God, purely and simply, an that this random, seemingly impossible, rescue was the message she needed to stop wasting her life and to go on and become the best and most loving person she was capable of being.

Now, I can hear the sceptics moaning and rolling their eyes already, but I would also bluntly point out that until you've spent 27 hours being slowly crushed by concrete blocks, perhaps you should refrain from pouring scorn on someone who has. I believe that extraordinary experiences do imbue a kind of wisdom on someone, no matter how humble their origins or education. And Guzman-McMillan makes no special claimes to wisdom or even spirituality. She still works a clerical job at the Port Authority, the office she was in when the Towers collapsed. But her experience changed her in an absolutely fundamental way. She became a woman of deep and unmoveable faith, convinced of the truth of her supernatural experience.

As well as being an incredible page-turner, Angel in the Rubble is quite constantly inspiring. Guzman-McMillan believes quite simply that she was saved through the power of prayer, and that it was this power that allowed her to be here today, telling her story and living her transformation. Her brush with death re-focused her life, allowing her to live for others instead of concentrating solely on her own pleasures and pettiness.

And it serves as a fascinating testament to the deep torments of survivior guilt. This isn't a glib "Jesus saved me" text. Guzman-McMillan writes candidly about the mental and spiritual conflicts she experiences as a humble and unimportant person who survived when thousands of others perished. She writes:

"...the toughest challenge I dealt with was the question that the psychiatrist never posed, one that was mentally bogging me down more and more with each passing day:
Why me?"

Angel in the Rubble is really her attempt to answer that simple but incredibly profound question. And more than that, it hopefully inspires the reader to ask the same question of themselves: in the face of suffering, torment and misfortune, why have I been allowed this incredible privilege of being alive? And what am I doing with it?

Don't read this book if you're cynical, or if God-language bothers you. But if you are looking to be inspired, if you can expand your mind to include someone else's possibilities, and if you really feel as though you ought to be doing more with your life, then this is the book for you.

A beautiful read.

The Dark Wet - Jess Huon

This book of connected short stories takes place in the most seemingly impossible combination of places: the suburbs of Melbourne and the steamy holy city of Varanasi. But Jess Huon somehow manages to make the two places seem like twin cities, filled as they are with the dark heat of longing and the furious frustrations of identities unformed, and passions unresolved.

Jess Huon is a new voice, and judging by this beautifully intense little book I think she is one we will come to know more and more. The twin passions of sex and religion are here in their starkness; the androgynous and sexually confused Australian teenager balanced by the twirling, chanting and genderless devotees of Krishna at a dusty Indian temple. And Isabelle, the heroine of the stories, with her own struggles with gender and identity, is torn between the outlaw freedom of a sexual rebel and the conformist comforts of footy boys and scholastic success. She finds her escape in yoga, in Buddhism and in the not-so-sublimated sexual longing for a guru, taking a brief respite at a Christian ashram in the Indian jungle. It is here that The Leopard Story, by far the masterpiece of the collection, is set. Huon manages to capture with elegant simplicty the perverse ironies of warring religious loyalties, the farce of Asian Christians at odds with Western converts to Eastern religions, each side warring with fierce conviction and contempt for the familiar realities of an unloved home. And sex is still there too, lingering in the shadows like the story's eponymous leopard, in the shape of longing for a dangerous and glamorous young pastor, himself a refugee from Western excess.

Jess Huon's India was, to me, a more intriguing place than her Melbourne. In describing Melbourne the stories have a literary familiarity, an obsession with suburban Australian space that is obsessively charted in Australian fiction. But in India Huon, like her character Isabelle, and like a thousand young Western backpackers, is thrust into the unknown, and in her case the result is luminous. And it is honest - Alex has no great understanding of the place she is in. It serves as an exotic and necessarily removed backdrop to her own psycho-sexual obsession and, for a moment, her physical failings.

And finally, but so importantly , there is religion, a thing rarely encountered in modern Australian fiction. Isabelle is dazzled by a world of temples and smells, of flowers offered and crushed, and of Hindu and Buddhist deities subtly but powerfully different. At times Huon is a travel writer as much as a writer of fiction, and I was thrilled by her ability to describe the places her characters inhabit, or at least drift through:

"Men, in the most beautiful silk saris, dancing, praying, reciting poetry within the temple grounds, faces glowing like the mangoes the women sold outside, along with garlands of flowers."

So many of us have visited India, or long to visit. The Dark Wet is one of the most sophisticated and thoughtful engagements with that country that I have read in a very long time, and Jess Huon's elegant writing is filled with promise. I will be watching for her with interest.

The Dark Wet by Jess Huon is published by Giramondo.

The Books That Inspired Me in 2011 - The Best Stories I Read

I read a lot of books. How I read so much is a mystery to me, when I consider the schedule I keep.
Books are my life, and my work and I try to read for at least an hour or two every day - often it is more. I review books, I read books for my academic work, I read for personal improvement and I read for pleasure.
My friend Stephanie Dowrick recently asked me to put together a list of books that have most inspired me this year. It helps that I keep a notebook in which I record all the books I read, the date finished, and a brief note about what I thought of them. So here goes:

1. E.M. Forster: A New Life by Wendy Moffat - As well as being sexy, pacy and beautifully written, Moffat's controversial new life of Forster inspired me. It reminded me that we can lead full and productive lives almost to the point of death. And the well-read person really needs to be familiar with Forster's extraordinary life.

2. You Can Create An Exceptional Life by Louise Hay & Cheryl Richardson - This little book far exceeded any expectations I had of it. A collection of conversations between Louise Hay, the grande dame of American self-help and Cheryl Richardson, the great populariser of the concept of life coaching. Simple, beautifully constructed and quite life-changing, this is wisdom and advice squeezed down to its very essence. It also provides lots of interesting autobiographical information about the incredible Louise Hay, who is now 85.

3. From Entrepreneur to Infopreneur by Stephanie Chandler - Quite simply, this book is essential for any writer, content producer, artist or creative. It sets out how to make money from your knowledge, and the exciting world of possibilities for knowledge-based entrepreneurs. Probably the most useful and life-changing book I've read this year. Several incredible ideas on every page.

4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield - It took me a long time to get around to this book, but once I did, it blew my mind. This is Pressfield's manifesto for living life as a writer or artist. There is no such thing as writer's block. Do the work, every day - or else your life is a lie. Tough love from a genius.

5. Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin - Maupin's elegant, wonderfully-crafted and involving novels are really modern-day masterpieces masquerading as popular gay novels. Maupin riffs elegantly on ageing, coping with being sick and the changing definitions of queer. And this book is almost impossible to stop reading once you have begun.

Monday Blogcrawl

Blog posts to do, dissertations to write, books to review. Who would have thought it's this delicious to be busy and wanted? Here's something to distract you:

Stephanie Dowrick at Shearer's on Norton - Feb. 8, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick, author of the legendary inspirational classic Intimacy and Solitude, has just released a fascinating new book called Everyday Kindness, and one of the rare opportunities to hear her speak about it is coming up early next year.
Stephanie will be speaking at Shearer's Bookshop on Norton St. in Leichhardt, Sydney. It's a great venue, and I was just there last year listening to Stephanie talk about her previous book, Seeking the Sacred. Tickets are strictly limited, so I recommend you call up and book them ASAP.

Stephanie Dowrick at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8 February 2012

Bestselling author Stephanie Dowrick is returning to Shearer's! We've hosted several events with Stephanie in the past and they are always hugely popular. Her new book, Everyday Kindness, takes kindness as its inspiration and theme. Through this, she makes a calmer, happier and more rewarding life immediately possible. At home, work and in the wider world, there are countless opportunities when a moment of consideration or kindness - given or received- will transform your day. Whether it is a hard time to be endured, or a wonderful time to be shared and celebrated, it's our willingness to think well of ourselves and act kindly towards others that makes all the difference.

Entry $10
Entry for Frequent Shopper Members $7

Everyday Kindness will be available at $5 off the RRP on the night.

Bookings are essential for this event. You can purchase your tickets in store, or by calling Shearer's on (02) 9572 7766

At Shearer's Bookshop, 99 Norton St, Leichhardt.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:

"Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it a fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life."
~ p.2, "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" by Benjamin Franklin

Stephanie Dowrick Talks About the Presence of Kindness

Stephanie Dowrick is one of Australia's bestselling writers, and she has just published her latest book, Everyday Kindness. In it she explores the importance of kindness in our lives, and how healing the practice of kindness can be, not just when extended to others, but to ourselves as well.

Kindness makes an extraordinary difference to the quality of our lives, and this book of brief chapters, each exploring a different aspect of kindness, teaches us how we can offer uplifiting responses to the people and situations we encounter.

This is Stephanie's third book in three years, the final product of a period of extraordinary productivity.

In this book Stephanie writes about how kindness, far from being an indicator of weakness, is in fact a signifier of great strength of personality.

Are the messages we give out intrinsically uplifting?

We need to return to the idea of developing strength of character, says Stephanie, and we need to make an effort to bring goodwill to our encounters with others. She writes a lot about food in Everyday Kindness, and the difficulty of dealing with the conflicting messages of a consumer society which tries to tell us that the only nourishment we need is that served up to us on a plate. We need to return to our essential kindness, for it is kindness that "brings us lasting experiences of happiness."

She identifies a particular stream of unkindness in our culture based around the assessment of our own bodies. We are conflicted about food, and we are also umindful of mental and spiritual food, "the food that we put in our minds and chew over."

And along with expressing kindness, Stephanie reminds us to make ourselves available to receiving the kindness of others, for this is the essence of grace.

During her talk at the Stanton Library this week, Stephanie described herself as "a very frustrated fiction writer," and her impulse towards storytelling is expressed in her books through the true stories she tells about people and their own experiences of being kind.

Stephanie Dowrick's Suggestions for bringing more pleasure into the lives of others:

1. Provide new ideas and inspiration to our networks - be seen as an active and positive force for good among our friends and family.

2. Resist the culture of dissatisfaction- we are encouraged to whinge and moan, and are proud of our ability to complain and criticise. Avoid the impulse to bitch, and be counter-cultural in your happiness and appreciation.

3. Love our bodies as we age - models get younger and thinner, and to measure ourselves against this false standard is foolish and, at heart, unkind. We should cherish our health, our mobility and our own unique beauty at every age, and our culture needs to value the elderly more. Stephanie describes herself as "an advocate of very positive ageing."

4. Cultivate an open mind - this allows us to be fresh to each new day, and to expand our intellectual and cultural repertoire. We become so obsessed with our own small world that we forget to cultivate curiosity and respect for the lives and works of others.

5. Appreciate what others do - this includes those closest to us. How often do we take our partners our our parents' acts of kindness for granted? If we could be more alert to the great richness that surrounds us, we could be more grateful for the kindness that is constantly being extended towards us, and which is all-too-easy to overlooked.

We need to appreciate our own lives more, and recognise that what we have and who we already are constitute a miraculous and precious gift.

I only received my copy of Everyday Kindness today, but having heard Stephanie speak so passionately about its ideas I look forward to reading it and sharing some of its insights with you all.

Walter Mason & Stephanie Dowrick at Chatswood Library


David Marr's new book is an exploration of social panics and their deleterious effects on Australian politics and culture.
It's a fascinating premise for a book, and when I went to hear Marr speak at the Stanton Library this week he explained it all so beautifully. He said that he realised he'd been writing about panics all of his life, in one way or another.
Panics, he said are like thunderstorms. They are dramatic and thrilling (except for the victims) but they soon disappear, and the emotion they evoked is quickly forgotten. But while they are happening they can seem to be the only panic we have ever experienced.
Marr's book looks at the wreckage panics leave behind. He identifies the Whitlam dismissal in 1975 as the first great social panic that he was a part of. He describes the feeling amongst the media and the people at the time that this was a dire and dangerous situation that needed to be acted upon now - the government had to go at once. No-one at the time paused to question the morality of, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected government. But with the benefit of hindsight most see it as having been a disgraceful situation, and the actions of the time basically indefensible.
Marr's private-schoolboy charm and mature good looks worked a treat on his largely elderly North Sydney audience, though a few flinched when he dropped the F-Bomb, not once but three times! A daring choice. But I think he wanted to shock us into realising that panics are real and shocking in themselves, though they have become such an intrinsic part of Australian political life.
So if you feel like some serious reading on your summer holidays, I think that David Marr's Panic might be worth a look. It covers many of the recent panics that leave so many of us embarrassed about the state of our culture: the Henson panic, for example, and the abominable laws that grew up during the terrorism panic (which hasn't really finished yet, I would suggest).
And the book ends with an extended examination on that most abiding of modern panics in Australia - our fear of boats arriving on our shores. For that alone the book is worth a careful reading.

Walking St. Declan's Way

St. Declan is new to me.

Until I'd read Rosamund Burton's lovely book about her pilgrimage through Ireland, Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers I hadn't heard of the great Irish saint.

But St. Declan is a revered figure in Ireland, one of that country's four pre-Patrician saints. These are the legendary Saints who are meant to have spread Christianity and established monasteries before St. Patrick, the man more usually credited with Christianising Ireland.
St. Declan was actually more or less a contemporary of St. Patrick, and the two men visited one another. He was a direct descendant of one of the ancient kings of Ireland.
Recently I was at Balmain library listening to Rosamund Burton speak about her journey along St. Declan's Way, Ireland's own pilgrimage path, and their overgrown answer to the Santiago de Campostela.

Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers
is an account of this pilgrimage, and it is a unique and quite enchanting view of rural Ireland and the eccentric characters that live there.

St. Declan's Way has been a pilgrimage route for centuries, and it was originally the road that linked the monasteries that he had established.
Rosamund walked it in 2008, during Ireland's wettest summer in 150 years.

Now, I'm not much of a walker, but I am very interested in the idea of pilgrimage, and have conceived a desire to walk along this little-known pilgrim's path before it gets famous.
Anyone want to join me?

In the Company of Rilke - Stephanie Dowrick

With Stephanie Dowrick having released a brand new book (Everyday Kindness, published this month by Allen & Unwin), it might seem odd that I am blogging about her Rilke book, which was released in Australia in 2009.

But I have my reasons. The book has just been published in America, and I think it will find a very interested audience there.
It is a complex and deeply thoughtful book, having begun its life as a doctoral dissertation. In the Company of Rilke represents a lifelong engagement with that sensitive but sometimes difficult poet. And it reads like the intellectual but spiritually-infused relationship that it is. In many ways it is more challenging than Dowrick's other books, but it rewards a careful reading. It speaks to anyone who is interested in poetry, in the expressions of human love and in the reflective possibilities of reading and writing. My own reading of the book was slow and even painstaking - it was, for me, more of an exercise in lectio divina than in the more standard consumption of text. It is in many ways a masterpiece, and will be remembered and referred to for a very long time.
Blogging about the book recently, Stephanie Dowrick wrote:

"Despite my academic training in literature and spirituality, my training as a psychotherapist, and now decades of experience as a writer of fiction and non-fiction – plus those earlier years as an innovative publisher – I took on this study of Rilke with something resembling innocence. Yet, as I write this, I realise that’s been my experience writing each of my books that I value most. Innocence and an eagerness to know more open the way for inspiration to rise – or fall – to a potent place within our own “poet’s mind”."

In the book, Dowrick treats Rilke as an intensely mystical figure, whose writing expressed a transcendent approach to life, love and the ideas of art and vocation.
Until I'd read In the Company of Rilke I'd never really read the poet, but it has caused me to investigate his work and develop something of my own obsession with him. If you want to challenge yourself and delve more deeply into the meditative possibilities of art,writing and poetry, then I can't recommend this book highly enough.
And my friends and readers in America should rush out and grab a copy now, and sample some of the very best (and most eloquent) Australian scholarship.

In the Company of Rilke is published in the USA by Tarcher
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