The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

a book review

 

image of The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs book cover

 

When I was seventeen, there was a Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I went there with my art class, and returned, time and again. It was a window into the world of my art text books. Here they were. I stood as close as I could to Brancusi’s, Calder’s, Dali’s, Moore’s and Mondrian’s. I breathed the air next to them like I might catch some ions of genius leaking from the very spirit of each work. I stood back and squinted at them, turned my head and observed them in their minutae. It seemed to me, a spotty gangly teenager in a distant antipodean gallery, that these foreign artists were the master race; their works a gift from the greatest muse of creative expression. The soul of life itself.

The Joyce Girl is Annabel Abbs’ inspired story of an Irish girl in the 1930’s. She lives in Paris, right in the midst of the bohemian art world of my Guggenheim heroes. A dancer, dreamer and artist, Lucia lives in a straightjacket world of obligation and overwhelm. She is the daughter of James Joyce, celebrated writer.  She is known historically as integral to the production of Joyce’s lengthy work, Finnegan’s Wake. She is caught in the undertow of her father’s work, sublimated by her roles as dependent daughter and co-dependent muse. Her own genius, obscured first by the narcissism of her father, despised by her mother and brother and later destroyed by the inept machinations of mental asylums, is explored first hand. She is finally given voice by the author Annabel Abbs in this novel. Heavily based in the facts of Lucia Joyce’s life, we see first hand the struggles of a troubled girl trying to make sense of herself.

“An ephemeral arch of colour, swaying and dissolving. Flashes of imprisoned light. Trembling loops of movement. A wind washed rainbow, my bands of colour shivering and melting. I crouched and twisted. Needles of rain, spiked and hard. I stretched and spread my fingers, soft rays of warm sunlight. I was a swathe of luminous colour. I was the gold-skinned weaver of the wind. Sun-spangled sovereign of the cosmos”  -Annabel Abbs ‘The Joyce Girl’

I loved many things about this book. But, oh, Abbs’ descriptive passages of dancing! She is expert in describing this artform with a keen sense of the visceral experience of dance. I realised that my legs and feet were flexing and moving as I read, and I do love a book that transcends the brain barrier.  I enjoyed Abbs’ turn of phrase; sometimes, I felt she was touched by a Joyce-ian way with words which added depth and relevance to the experience of reading this book. It was immersive.

I so loved the characterisations of some of the artists I had studied as a teenager. That world of Bohemian Paris, where artists came for freedom and connection, was painted with a vivid hand. I felt like I had stepped inside my Guggenheim exhibition. That I could walk alongside Alexander Calder and listen to him expound on shape, form and movement. It was transporting.  And when the time came to explore the deeper psyche of Lucia, Abb’s sensitive writing captured the child Lucia with care. It was emotionally difficult to read, but a necessary and bittersweet journey with Lucia through the dark travails of her mind.

Most of all, I loved that Abbs gave Lucia’s story an audience. I doubt that before reading this novel, I would have read Carol Loeb Schloss’ biography of Lucia Joyce’s life, To Dance in the Wake. But now, I will. Lucia is a woman of history, of art, of feminism, whose story should be told. Abbs’ story of Lucia; childhood trauma, repressed memory, subjugation, dysfunctional family relationships, unrequited love, unfulfilled ambition and incarceration… I am certain is an echo of the many women whose independence and freedom were stolen during times when mental institutions were dangerous places and Psychology a fledgling discipline.

My own Great Grandmother was institutionalised when her children were very small. Now we assume she had undiagnosed postnatal depression. But I wonder who she really was, and now there is no way of knowing. These stories should be told. These voices should be heard.

I recommend The Joyce Girl. Thank you Annabel Abbs for writing this important novel.  I will take it with me on my own metaphorical dance of independence and freedom.

 

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Lucia_Joyce_dancing_at_Bullier_Ball_-_Paris%2C_May_1929.jpg
Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Lucia_Joyce_dancing_at_Bullier_Ball_-_Paris%2C_May_1929.jpg

 

In Mortal Danger

We are all in mortal danger.  No exemptions, no alternatives, it doesn’t matter if you are sick or well, at some point it will happen to each one of us. Mortality is part of vitality; it’s just the part we studiously choose to ignore.

I’ve just put down a book that should be compulsory reading for every adult. And not just once, we should all re-read it every few years.  Have you read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande?  He is what is known as a physician-writer. It’s an entire genre!  Last year, I wrote briefly about something discussed in another physician writer’s book:  ‘One Doctor’. Brendan Reilly is another brilliant physician-writer who tackles the subject of the confounding American Medical System. Oh my, that was a great read too, so timely and thought provoking. Where are we going with our own medical system? I sincerely hope not to the same places… but there are some similarities.  Brendan Reilly’s book is a brilliant companion to Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’. I think those two authors would have great conversations!

Somehow seems unfair that people gifted in medical ‘brainage’* can also be gifted writers, I suppose it follows that Gawande and Reilly are good at sports and incredibly good looking too (!) but I haven’t seen them so I can’t confirm. Some people just get it all!

Atul (I feel we are on a first-name-basis now I have read the book) writes about a very uncomfortable subject.  I’ve written about it here, but my words were inadequate in comparison to his excellent (and detailed) discussion. It’s difficult to convey in a blog post a message he has delivered so beautifully in his book. I love his writing style; fluid, easy.  He’s a compelling storyteller.  It’s through the stories in this book that he gets us to honestly look at the elephant in the room.  We are mortal. We never want to look at that, we never want to engage with what it might mean about our lives. Somehow, our brains slip away from the realities all the time. But Atul forces us to look, to think, to examine what our own wishes are for the inevitable. Not just the inevitability of death, but of old age. His book is a crucially important guide to the subject of both and an important criticism of the directions of gerontology in traditional western medicine.

picture of the cover of Atul Gawande's book 'Being Mortal'
Atul Gawande :: Being Mortal

Have you ever heard parents ask children to promise not to put them in a home in their old age? Or seen people refuse to use of mobility aides, or even prolong the lives of their loved ones with unnecessary medical interventions for their own reasons? I have often. We see and hear examples of people grappling with issues around mortality every day, but we don’t really examine how it could be better. It is very difficult for any family to make decisions about end-of-life issues when they are emotionally distraught, far better to engage with them long before the inevitable, to remove the burden of big decisions. We can all do this by making our wishes clearly known. And I don’t just mean “if I am brain dead turn off the machine”. There are a lot of statistically more likely scenarios to consider. Atul knows this, because he’s been in that position with his own Father, as well as countless patients. I know this, because I was with my Mum when she was going through her final days.

The older we get, the more often mortality will come and slap us in the face, that of others and eventually our own. But have we considered the type of death we might prefer if the choice were ours? Have you ever heard of Advance Directives? Even more importantly, have you discussed the curliest of questions with your family?  Atul provides us with four thought provoking questions to guide our discussions. I won’t tell you what they are, because I want you to read that book.

When my Mum was about two weeks from her death, she was distressingly uncomfortable. An enormous tumour had enveloped her abdomen and was pressing on her diaphragm. She didn’t want morphine, but eventually asked for it; the pain was too extreme. Hospice care was compassionate and careful but also generous; they helped her with pain and anxiety, they talked with us, and with her. Food was still being brought to her, and desperate for sensation, taste, life, she would try to eat. “I’d love x, y or z” she would say wistfully “…or just something… juicy”. We would race to meet every whim. But there was nowhere for the food to go, the tumour had encompassed her stomach. And her gag reflex had stopped. She knew eating was pointless, she knew she had to vomit or endure more pain and nausea. She was too weak to help herself out of the predicament, so she asked me if I could stick my fingers down her throat to help her relieve the situation. I would have done anything she asked me to do. My precious, frail Mumma. I helped her to vomit in the way she had helped me do countless things when I was little. With love.

Soon, she chose to not eat anymore. The hospice nurse, marvelling in a later conversation with me, remarked on my mother’s tenacity for life. She mused, just as an aside, that patients who continue to drink water last longer than those who don’t.  It is obvious really, isn’t it?  But when you’re there in that room, watching your loved one facing death, deep in the desert, it doesn’t seem so.  It was revelatory that death by an aggressive cancer would not be swift, but a long and painful process. That death would eventually be by starvation, or dehydration. It seemed so grotesquely cruel.

Mum’s final days passed in the torturous way they do at the sharp end. She drifted in and out of fitful sleep, her breathing ragged. She could barely talk but would turn her eyes to the straw in her cup and when we held it to her lips, she would drink like she was traversing a desert with no reprieve. We swabbed her mouth out with special sponges when she could no longer produce saliva. We watched her suffer, limp with inability to do anything that could really help.

One morning, awake and waiting for the next shot of pain relief, she croaked

“-tell me why I can’t just die?”

I thought about hwat the nurse had said. But I was afraid, because I knew my Mum. I knew her steely determined side, I knew if she wanted to go, she would make it happen. I looked into her face, taut with pain.

I confess that watching her suffer was the most agonising experience of my life.

I confess I hoped that there might be an end to the horror, for her and for me. And I whispered:
“Mum, the nurse said it’s not possible to live without water.”

For a long time, I felt guilt about telling her that. But her eyes shone up at me. She couldn’t talk. But she refused any more water. By the next day, she had drifted off into a coma. That was her only way out. A desperate, dry, gasping and rasping before a quiet coma. And I will forever feel responsible for my part in how it played out.  Did it save her from more suffering? Possibly. Did she want to go? Absolutely. We were extending her suffering with all the love our hearts and hands could muster. “Another sip Mum… come on, water is so good for you”.

I wish this book had existed when my Mum was sick.  I wish her faith in God’s healing had left some room for us to talk about such things. I wish that she could have had less chemo, and more good days.  But of course, more than all of that I just wish she was still here.  It is a regret that I have that I had pushed her to fight, to try, to hang in there, all because my own fears about life without her were so all-encompassing.

Atul Gawande’s book would have been useful back then, but it is still incredibly useful right now. Mum’s death was my first proper shock into the reality that death finds us all, but being sick for six years forced me to think about it even more. We are ageing, and so are our remaining parents. There are things to consider, things to discuss. I think about my own children and know that I never want them to be in the position of feeling responsible, or guilty, for any aspect of my wishes. I want to take that burden off their shoulders.

Have you had the discussion?

PLEASE read this book, there is far more to it than you might think. It is uplifting, not depressing. It could change your life, and your loved one’s lives for the better.  One thing I know for sure, we are all in mortal danger, and apathy could steal from you the things that will matter the most to you.

It’s time to talk.

 

*I know, ‘brainage’ isn’t a word, but it should be.

Bookish

The first book I ever read was made by my Mum. It was a scrapbook she put together for my oldest siblings.  By the time it had passed into my treasured possession, the newsprint corners were soft and well-thumbed.  My favourite page was the page for ‘red’.  There was a lady in red, red flowers, red strawberries, a big red floppy hat. A collage of pictures cut from the pages of magazines and newspapers and annotated with her copperplate script.  I loved that book. I used to read it while I sat on the potty, or when I had flopped on my tummy on the lawn, or when I had escaped into a world of make-believe in our garden playhouse.

Mum told me that I was reading at age three, probably because I just wanted to be doing what the big kids were. We had a huge library of Arch Books (bible stories retold in rhyming verse for the children of churchgoers). I loved those books, the rhymes, the illustrations; especially the story of Esther. I read anything I could get my hands on, just as long as it wasn’t a library book. Enid Blyton, the Sugar Creek Gang, Pick-a-path novels, the Narnia series, Little House on the Prairie, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Apple Paperbacks and anything about Nuclear War and post-apocalyptic survival. I liked the ones about mutants, like Children of the Dust.  And then there were the Janette Oke range of Christian Romance novels, oh!  I wanted to fall in love with a tall silent rancher out in the Wild Western Frontier.  Griddle cakes, corn bread and snapping on a fresh apron “afore my man came home”, sounded so good!  My books were usually hand-me-downs and garage sale books …I loved every one of them, because I could keep them!

I had a bit of a phobia of book-borrowing when I was a kid.  When my teachers insisted I had to borrow books from the school library I would beg to be let off. There were tears. Of course I wanted to read the books, desperately, but borrowing them was upsetting. I knew I wouldn’t want to give them back and keeping them was against the rules. I overcame my phobic silliness in later years, but it is fair to say that I am a book buyer more than a borrower. I see it as a committed relationship. We belong to each other. Me and my books. These books of mine are all dear to me.  I love them. I collect them and keep them close.  One day, I am going to have a little room of my own that is lined with bookshelves. There will be a reading chair that is just for me. Large, overstuffed, wing backed and red. There will be a lap rug and cushions and a drawer full of chocolate treats. There will be a kind of heaven in that place that only exists in the company of books.

On those shelves, you would see some of the books I talk about in the following list. This list of prompts was given to me by the lovely Claire Barnier, fellow blogger.  You can read her Living Library List here And these books I list? These are some of my friends.  My bookish buddies. Some of the truest and most spectacular friends I know.

A book that changed your life
Mister God, This is Anna
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A book you were proud to read
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkein.  My Granny posted it from New Zealand the first year we were in Papua New Guinea.  It was a challenging read for me at eight, but I was determined to get through it! My big brother Shaun had read all of the Tolkein series and I wanted to impress him.  I’m not sure  if I managed to, but I remember thinking that Bilbo was a very brave Hobbit. And I wished Gandalf hadn’t kept disappearing! I still love epic children’s stories and love introducing these old favourites to my own kids.

A book that inspired you to try something different, or do something differently:
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  I working as an Aupair in Germany and had just done a little tour of Cambridge University. I was 19. I was utterly naive and deeply confused by independent life and the feminist feelings that were hammering in my head. Virginia Woolf was a suitably inspirational character, fighting the dons of ancient universities whose paths I had walked, awe-inspired and feeling intellectually tiny.  She wrote this book in 1929 and her courage and determination in the face of enormous odds blew my anitpodean mind. To me, this book was the beginning of understanding history and my infinitessimal place within it, as a woman. It was the context bringer for my feminism and a wonderful counter to all the Austen I had soaked myself in during Year 12, 3 unit English. I read this, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and returned from my OE a changed girl. A fierce girl.
I began to speak my mind and choose my own path. It was disastrous, at first! But the beginning, for me, of being my own person:

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

A book that surprised you
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is the only book that I have ever started, loved, and not finished. It bested me. There was a point in the book when something unravelled in me. I felt used by the author, toyed with, disrespected. I threw the book across the room and cried and cried and cried. It was terrible. I was devastated, I just could not endure. I knew that wherever that book went, it was going to be bad. I love Peter Carey’s writing. It was probably a fit of ridiculous histrionics, perhaps it was more to do with my own circumstances at the time, but I felt deeply betrayed.  I was afraid of where Carey was taking his characters, I wanted a different story. I wonder sometimes, if I will ever finish this book. Maybe I will return to it one day.  Not finishing a book is very out of character for me. It is in fact,

“an improbable idea tearing the membrane between dreams and life.”
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

For now, the one that got away sits on my shelf, alone in it’s unfinished state. I imagine it holds some notoriety among the others on the shelf.  Do they whisper? That book over there…

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A book that made you cry
Most good books make me cry. Either because they are sad, or because they are so well written that I despair of ever writing my own!   The first book I cried over was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (she also wrote The Secret Garden).  I have just finished reading the longform poem: Autobiography of a Margeurite. So cleverly written, so heart catching. So beautiful. It made me cry too.  Sometimes my hubster walks in to find me with my eyes swollen from crying. He knows after all these years not to worry, he’ll just ask “Good book?”

A book that required dedication
Cries Unheard by Gitta Sereny.
It’s the life story of one of Britain’s most notorious female child murderers, Mary Bell. It is really a book about the criminal mind. About how criminals aren’t just random occurences within the populace, but the result of systemic abuse and neglect.  Their behaviour part of a psychological picture it is so hard to look at. But we must. We must begin to address the ways we fail children in this society, and how we perpetuate the terror by creating monsters. This book is a call for responsible parenting. It’s always stayed with me and weighed heavily on my heart.  It required dedication because it is very hard to sit with stories that are not fiction but are so horrific they haunt your dreams. Real people’s stories can be so much more distressing than fiction. But I stuck with this story because I needed to. We all need to stick with these stories. To keep them forefront in our minds when we are caring for the next generation. To do better by our babies.

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A book you are grateful for
Blank books, journals, this wordpress draft page, my wordprocessing software.  Since I was tiny, writing has been the best way for me to navigate my head and find my way out of the maze in there.  I love to read books. And one day I will write them.  Like a few other things in my life, the process towards backing myself has been slow, but I’m on my way.  I am most grateful for the most recent book-in-my-head that is growing out of a new idea. It happened during a writing workshop I did recently with Pip (you can do it too, click here!). Ideas come at different times, but this one has me more excited than the others. I’m working on a plot structure and feeling a bit excited about this little baby book!  I am grateful that it has begun.

A book you read when you were half your current age
Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  This book was the beginning of my fascination with Chinese authored literature, particularly women’s stories. I was fascinated by China because my parents were living there and because I knew nothing about it. China was for me the most exotic, extraordinary, intriguing place.  I read this book overnight. It is the story of three generations of Chinese women and spans the cultural revolution. A powerful read and fascinating insight into the tumultuous modern history of China.

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A favourite book from childhood
The Anne of Green Gables series. I love me a strong heroine!  Anne was probably the beginning of my feminist ideas, not that I could articulate that then. I liked her rebelliousness and her intelligence. Although now there is so much in those books that makes me cringe (including the sappy Gilbert Blythe), but they were a huge part of my early reading bookishness. I loved everything about those books.  The smell of them, the laminated glossy green and white covers and the beautiful cover illustrations. I even wrote an ode to Anne’s white woman (her stillborn baby) in my adolescent grief.

A book that will always have a special place in your heart
Z for Zachariah.  I think I it was 1988 when I read this one; it’s the story of a girl in a post nuclear holocaust world.  She lives in a valley which is a tiny micro-climate, unspoilt by the devastation beyond, and she is utterly alone. I was captured by her story and by the emotional conflict the arrival of a stranger created. It stayed with me, that book. But it’s special place in my heart is because the first time I ever went out for dinner with the hubster, we talked about survivalist literature. We bonded over this book.  Looked each other in the eye and realised we would be together. So I will always feel affection towards this book!  I can’t wait til Zed is old enough to read it.

The best movie or TV series adapted from a book you have read
Little House on the Prairie!  John Landon. Is the theme song playing in your head, now!?

The worst movie or TV adaptation of a book you have read
The Bridges of Madison County.  No adaptation can top the reading of that book for me. It holds all sorts of special memories. I read it aloud from cover to cover, on a dinghy, drifting out on Lake Macquarie. When the light went, I finished it by torchlight. It was a special book experience and even Meryl Streep can’t top that.

A disappointing book
The Bible. Disappointing is too strong a word… I’ve read it cover to cover a few times but I still struggle with the idea that all of the Bible is the inspired word of God. I question so much about it. If He was commissioning people to write on his behalf, He might have ensured a bit more of a balanced approach for the women’s perspective, ya know? Something a bit more accessible for future generations of readers? The bible contains some extraordinary and important stories and is a records some beautiful words.  But I have always wanted more from it than I found within it.  I have also found the literal translation of some of it by Christians to be devisive and uphelpful.  It’s a cultural/contextual problem.  I considered studying theology so I could understand it better, but back when I was considering it, theology seemed a directionless career for a woman so I abandoned it.  Nonetheless, and not wishing to sound sacreligious, just honest, I have often wished I could understand the deeper meanings of the bible better than I do.

A book that makes you smile every time you see it
Mrs Millie’s Paintings was written and illustrated by a Matt Ottley, who like me, grew up in PNG.  That influence shows all through the illustrations.  But my favourite part is the double page spread where ancient Mrs Millie is skinny dipping and her backside is showing. I like it because subsequent publications of the book censored her bottom, cladding her in a bikini.  But I’ve got the original with Mrs Millie’s bum!  Ha!
It’s also a poignant story with an important message about creativity. I love it.

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A book that made you want to learn more
Half the Sky is a book written by journalists, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  In their many years writing for newspapers, they were struck most by the stories no one wanted. Stories about the plight of women across the globe. So they set out to write a book outlining the issues for women in our world. If you are interested, you can find it here. It’s a very important read.

A book or series you will never forget
Clan of Cavebear was something of a sex-ed series for me in my late teens. Perhaps caveman sex was a poor education, in hindsight. Some of those scenes are indelibly etched.

A book you would prefer to forget
I am such a fan of Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche’s work. I was swept up into Half of a Yellow Sun and no less captured by Purple Hibiscus, although darker and more difficult. So when Americanah came out I was really excited! But it is so different to her other work, somehow. I found myself wishing I hadn’t looked in on that American/African immigrant world, it felt like such a destruction of a culture I didn’t want amercianised. She raises important issues about race, culture and immigration, however. All topics close to my heart. It was beautifully written (I don’t think she could write badly if she tried to). It’s just that I’ve decided I really like her Nigerian based fiction much more than anything set in the States.  Maybe I’ll change my mind with her next novel.

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“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

What you are currently reading
Buy me the Sky by Xinran.  She wrote The Good Women of China, one of my all time favourites from my sino-collection.  So when I saw Buy Me the Sky (about the only-child generations of China) I knew it would be worth the read. It has already given me so much insight into the social dynamics and fallout from the One Child Policy.

A book you come back to read time and time again
I rarely read a book more than once. Do you?

Would you like to join me, reflecting on Claire’s Library List?
(copy and paste below…)
I’d love to see your list!
Or hear your thoughts on mine…!
Are you bookish too?

A book that changed your life
A book you were proud to read
A book that inspired you to try something different, or do something differently
A book that surprised you
A book that made you cry
A book you couldn’t live without
A book that required dedication
A book you are grateful for
A book you read when you were half your current age
A favourite book from childhood
A book that will always have a special place in your heart
The best movie or TV series adapted from a book you have read
The worst movie or TV adaptation of a book you have read
A disappointing book
A book that makes you smile every time you see it
A book that made you want to learn more
A book or series you will never forget
A book you would prefer to forget
A book you come back to read time and time again
What you are currently reading

 

Missing Persons

This is not my usual kind of topic.  But I felt compelled to write about it.  I hope you will read it, it matters.

don't forget about us

Missing Persons
When we first got satellite TV, I spent a disturbing night, up until late, watching a documentary on the Crime channel.  It caught my interest because I recognised the picture they flashed up of a girl I had seen on the news some weeks earlier.  I was deeply distressed when I watched the news report about her imprisonment in a room of the basement in her childhood home.  Nobody knew she was there apart from her kidnapper. It had disturbed me greatly.  So when I saw her face, my thumb paused on the button of the remote.

And I paused, too; I watched.  I sat, transfixed with horror as all the awful facts of her incarceration were laid out.  Then, other cases.  Another German girl.  Then, two more girls, held captive for years in a dugout in Russia.  And Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped and held in plain sight. The stories horrified me; the victims astounded me.  Such inner strength, such survival, against odds that must have seemed hopeless.

And it struck me as I watched, that this kind of documentary, this kind of channel, dedicated to the crimes people have committed… surely we should be concerned about this?  There it is, all laid out for the sociopaths and psychopaths of the world. All the information they could ever need?  A how-to-guide for abduction, kidnap, subjugation and torture.  A twenty-four-seven feast of human horrors.  And not just this kind of crime.  Every kind of crime. The TV is full of it.  Whodunnits, forensic science and murder shows, action thrillers, bounty hunters, drug lords, pimps and con-men. Why do we have these channels? I ask myself, why do I watch, when I do? I am so disturbed I have nightmares, but still, there are times when I watch.  It really concerns me.

Some of the people who watch, regularly feed their brains on this diet of destruction. If they are people with violent thoughts and desires, it must be like an endless drug supply of their favourite hit.  Until the 2D images are not enough.  Then what?  Why do we keep supplying this drug?

Then, just recently, another documentary flicked across my screen as I was scrolling.  This one about the three girls in Cleveland, held captive, tortured and all but destroyed, for ten years by Ariel Castro.  I watched the policemen talk about the case.  I heard the neighbours, exclaiming in disbelief. I saw footage of family candlelight vigils, the broken faces of mothers and fathers whose children were lost.  It honestly made me want to look away.  It’s hard to absorb the pain of that loss in the face of another mother. It is an unthinkable torture they endure, too.

Why do human beings do these things to each other?  Why are some people so hideously broken that they must break others?  Can the cycle ever end? Will no one stand up and call for less of this violent education on our screens, in our living rooms, one click of the remote away?  What happens to all those unsupervised, under-parented kids who watch this stuff? And what about the computer games, so hyper real your brain is tricked into responses similar to real life.  Environments where car theft, rape and criminal activity are the mainstays of the game? I don’t understand where it is all going, I don’t want to.   But it worries me sick.  Does it worry you?

I have read a couple of the books written by survivors of human slavery. Tonight I finished the second. Their stories are terrifying, heart wrenching, and also inspiring.  But I was struck by the similarity in both Jaycee Dugard and Michelle Knight’s stories.  For both of the perpetrators, a diet of extreme porn and crime channel television were significant interests.  Are we paying attention to these things?  Do we care?  Do we dare to say; not here?  As mothers, wives, women and ultimately, the nurturers of all the babies that enter this world, when do we say ‘enough of these images, these ideas, this sickness’?

Our missing persons numbers continue to grow.  From tiny little ones, childen, adolescents, young people.  Countless souls, unaccounted for.  How many are trapped and needing our vigilance.  Have you ever googled ‘missing persons’ in Google images?  It is overwhelmingly distressing. Do you know your neighbours?  Do you listen for disturbing sounds?  Do you ever call the police?  Do you share and circulate the pictures of missing people on Social Media, or do you look away?  Click away?  Try to pretend it isn’t happening?

I saw this little guy again on my newsfeed the other day: he’s still missing.  And I am ashamed to say that I clicked away.  After staying up tonight to finish reading Michelle Knight’s book about her kidnap ordeal, I resolved to stay up a little longer and write this. And to post his face here. He is only one of so many.  Let’s not look away from their faces anymore.

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Want more information about missing persons?

Go to the NZ Police Missing Persons facebook page.  Receive notifications and spread the word.  You can find it here.

Are you in Australia?  Here is the Australian Federal Police missing persons page

The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) is a global movement to promote the safety and well-being of children.

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and finally, some words from Michelle Knight herself.
“for now, the only kind of sense I can make out of everything that has happened is this: we all go through hard things.  We might wish we didn’t, but we do.  Even if I don’t understand my pain, I have got to turn it into some kind of purpose”

And she is.  Michelle is putting her life back together and helping other people and children who have been victimised.  Her story is horrific, but her attitude blows my mind. What an amazing survivor she is.

My heart goes out to all those still missing persons and their families.  May they all get the chance to be free again, just like Michelle.  And may we remember not to forget them as we go about our daily lives.

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These books are difficult reads. They make you want to look away. Reading them will make you stop, to cry. To catch your breath.  To shake in your boots. You may have nightmares or lose sleep.  They are terrifying tales and emotionally raw, real stories.  I certainly didn’t enjoy reading them, but I am glad that buying them will contribute to the income of these girls. And I hope that their stories will help us to do something about the welfare of our vulnerable, disenfranchised young women and children in society.

Elizabeth is Missing

Book Review

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Maud knows something is terribly wrong.  If she could just remember what it was…

Maud has Alzheimers. She has fragments of thoughts she knows are very important and she is trying to solve a mystery that feels as crucial to her as life itself. But no one will listen. Who would listen to someone who had a sketchy hold on reality?  Where has her friend Elizabeth disappeared to? What is the significance of the things she finds in her pockets?  Why is she always digging up the garden?  And why is she so angry?

This is the first novel from Emma Healey.  It is so cleverly written, there were times when I had to pause my reading and return to linger over the plot transitions, things of beauty, every one of them.  This attention to the construction of the novel pays off. It flows beautifully and, although the protagonist is lost in the maze of her own thoughts, the reader is not. Maud floats somewhere between memory and urgency, desperately seeking the connection between the two.

Maud’s brain, fighting the ravages of broken memory, tries to provide the connection for her.  As the mystery unfolds, it is easy to get attached to the subtextual struggle between mother and daughter.  The details and authenticity of their family relationships, the strength and the sadness.  Healey has drawn her characters and setting sensitively. There is also a good deal of nail biting tension.  This book is an intriguing read set in a context our society does not pay enough attention to. The care and concern for issues faced by the elderly.  Two weeks ago in New Zealand it was dementia awareness week.  All the ads on the radio and my reading of this book have given me much greater insight into the importance of community with regards to this issue.

I feel the need to watch out for the Mauds out there.  To help them stay safe.

There aren’t many similarities between Maud’s affliction and my own.  But I found myself relating to her.  She feels confused, misunderstood. She looks perfectly normal.   People’s expectations of her are based on the fact they can’t tell there is anything at all wrong with her.  I experience that disconnect myself. It’s not that I think people with Alzheimers, or any other health issue, should wear identifying signs on their foreheads.  No.  But I wish people didn’t assume so much based on appearances.  We, none of us, know the battles being fought beneath the surface. None of us know just how difficult ‘normality’ is to achieve for the other.  We are all fighting a battle of our own kind.  So be kind. Talk gently to the confused person. Take a breath and suspend judgement for the person taking their time at the till. The annoying things they do may not be on purpose.  They may no be the result of choice. Be warm, offer a smile, to the person beside you at the traffic lights, or behind you in the queue.

A Grandma I used to know once told me the secret to good relationships.

“Don’t look after yourself,” she said.  “If we all really look after each other, we don’t need to.  Look after each other, put each other first, give generously of your time and your self.  Leave your needs to each other.  And then, you will be happy”.  Nanna Fergs had an optimistic view of others.     It is counter to our current cultural shift toward nurturing ourselves first, others second.  And yet, in a perfect world, it would be lovely wouldn’t it?  Everyone looking out for everyone else.  Unselfish, outward kindness.  Careful, thoughtful responsibility towards others.  I think there is more need for community kindness, particularly towards our elderly.  They have contributed in their family roles, their working roles, their tax paying citizenship, they have deposited years of love into the community, one way or another.  Some more kindness in their direction would be a good way of looking after them in return.

It reminds me of a beautiful piece of writing that has been doing the rounds on Facebook.  Thought I would share it here today because it relates so beautifully:

“My dear girl, the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through. If when we talk, I repeat the same thing a thousand times, don’t interrupt to say: “You said the same thing a minute ago”… Just listen, please. Try to remember the times when you were little and I would read the same story night after night until you would fall asleep.
When I don’t want to take a bath, don’t be mad and don’t embarrass me. Remember when I had to run after you making excuses and trying to get you to take a shower when you were just a girl?
When you see how ignorant I am when it comes to new technology, give me the time to learn and don’t look at me that way … remember, honey, I patiently taught you how to do many things like eating appropriately, getting dressed, combing your hair and dealing with life’s issues every day… the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through.
If I occasionally lose track of what we’re talking about, give me the time to remember, and if I can’t, don’t be nervous, impatient or arrogant. Just know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you.
And when my old, tired legs don’t let me move as quickly as before, give me your hand the same way that I offered mine to you when you first walked. When those days come, don’t feel sad… just be with me, and understand me while I get to the end of my life with love. I’ll cherish and thank you for the gift of time and joy we shared. With a big smile and the huge love I’ve always had for you, I just want to say, I love you … my darling daughter.”
Original text in Spanish and photo by Guillermo Peña.
Translation to English by Sergio Cadena

If you like books that deal in the depth of family relationships, questions of identity and truth, this novel is a great read.  I really thought it a brilliant first novel. 🙂

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

I am a sucker for a beautiful book.  Creamy handcut pages, matt, art-print quality slip cover over the hardcover seriousness of a first print run.  And …a topic close to my heart. What a winning combination!

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Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes with fine detail and thoughtful delicacy about her darkest days battling an auto-immune variant of Dysautonomia, (Autoimmune Autonomic Ganglionopathy).  I discovered this book when an AAG sufferer mentioned it on a support group I belong to.  I was fascinated.  Of course, the snail analogy I knew was a good fit… but ‘the sound of a wild snail EATING?’….I was intrigued. I ordered it and I am so glad I did.  It is a beautiful little hardcover volume.  Physically perfect, laced with carefully chosen words, imbued with genuine feeling.  It’s a true story. It’s close to home for so many of us in the world of chronic illness.

One day, Elisabeth was an independent, educated person travelling through Italy.  The next she was struck down with a sickness that would change her life.  She didn’t have a name for it, she thought perhaps it was flu.  But then she was hit with paralysis and began to experience the autonomic dysfunction that would come to be her constant companion.  She became bedridden and all that her life had been was irrevocably changed.

But a chance visit from a friend, a pot-plant, and a little snail retrieved from the path was to change her life and focus once again.  Elisabeth began to take an interest in her new gastropod companion.  A snail may be an odd pet, but it was ideal for someone who could barely lift her head. She made careful observations and began to research whenever she could.  What she discovered, about snails and about her own slowly recovering self, is extraordinary.  This book is testament to her inner strength, to her sensitivity and intelligence, to her resilience. And to her ability to transcend the horrors of a debilitating illness and find beauty in the minute intricacies of the tiny world she inhabited.

Here is a sneak preview of some of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s words:

“When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions:  the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how.  The search is exhaustive, the answers, elusive.  Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness and intolerable loss”.  page 5

(regarding visitors) “I could also see that I was a reminder of all they feared:  chance, uncertainty, loss and the sharp edge of mortality.  Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health”  page 39

(on the snail’s ability to go dormant) “How wonderful it would be if we humans with illnesses could simply go dormant while the scientific world went about it’s snail-paced research, and wake only when new, safe medical treatments were available.  But why limit such an amazing ability to the ill? When a country faced famine, what if the entire population could go dormant to get through a hard time in a safe and peaceful way, until the next growing season came around?”

Sigh.  If only!  I recommend this book to anyone with AAG, autonomic dysfunction of any kind or any chronic debilitating illness.  It is an especially important read for the people of these communities and one of the few books written by a patient on the subject of autonomic dysfunction.  Don’t expect to find detailed descriptions of symptoms and treatments, this book is a study in analogy, a description of the journey of the human spirit.  It’s a good read and worth tracking down.

Here is where I found my copy:
The Book Depository (free delivery to NZ and Australia)

 

Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs

Book Review

This book was published by Penguin in 2005. It is the first novel from Linda Olsson, a New Zealand author of Swedish origin.  She uses both of her national “belongings” to stunning effect in this book of vivid description.

Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs by Linda Olsson

Linda Olsson wrote this book during a year of postgraduate study at the University of Auckland, under the much revered tutelage of Witi Ihimaera and Stephanie Johnson.

In the novel, her protagonist, Veronika, is an author who has retreated to the countryside of Sweden to write her second novel.  Veronika’s neighbour, the strange and reclusive Astrid, against all odds, becomes her friend.  The secrets and sadnesses they carry become the dialogue of their unlikely friendship.  Their kindnesses to one another forge a pathway for them both to return to a place of acceptance and love for themselves.

Bo Bergman ‘Sleepless’

Veronika, has run all the way from the hard light and treacherous coast of New Zealand.  Astrid is still running, from the terrors and loneliness of her youth.  Together, they walk the forests and fields of a gentle rural idyll in companionable silences; sharing only what is necessary, relieving each other of burdens as they come to know one another. Marking the passing of each season.  Their own growth follows the cycle of the natural world. Then, one full year after Veronika arrives, decisions for the future must be made. The shifting scene will change everything, for both women, forever.

This novel is a delicately woven tale of the strength of two women, solitary unique souls who have found love, experienced loss and lived, alone, on moments of memory until stumbling into a need of sustenance.  It is a tribute to the importance of community, of sharing.  Of feeling comfortable in the company of like-minded, non-judgemental souls.  I found Linda Olsson’s writing to be a warm and comfortable read; the wrapping around of soothing sounds.  Her style is itself a gentle song.

I liked her portrayal of women at different stages in their life, in this I felt she handled the subject of grief with deep understanding and respect.  Her description of summer-time country Sweden was evocative.  I felt I could see the quality of the light, the wildflowers, the little hillside hamlets and running rivers.  The words around the swimming in the lake made me feel like I too might float, for the first time, looking up into the great dome of blue.

I particularly loved the use of Swedish poetry throughout the book.  Poets like Karin Boye, Dan Andersson, Bo Bergmann, Edith Sodergran. I enjoyed reading them in Swedish and in English, sounding out the unfamiliar words; as the melody of the Swedish words seemed to hold just as much pleasure/ pain/ poignancy as the meaning.  Linda Olsson has woven them into her narrative with skill and artistry.

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This book is a beauty to look at.  I particularly loved the matt green of the inside covers, peeping out as I read.  But don’t judge the book only by it’s cover.  It is also a beauty to linger over the words.  I look forward to the author’s next foray into writing.  She has something special and I want to read more.

North of Normal

Book Review

Last time I was in my favourite bookshop, this book insisted on coming home with me.  The title intrigued me but the subtitle even more so.
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I didn’t have a wilderness childhood, but I could see that Cea and I already had a few things in common.  It looked like a memoir I wanted to read.  I do like a good memoir… I wasn’t disappointed.  A good book to me is always evidenced by how much I need to keep reading it.  If I am frustrated by the interruptions life imposes on my reading, it’s a good book.  If I have devoured it within days, it’s a good book.  Cea’s memoir of her unique, fascinating and disturbing childhood is definitely, a good book.  She writes well and her story is un-put-down-able.  I couldn’t get enough.

Years ago, back during my own left-of-centre childhood, my brother used to wear a T-shirt with
“ARE YOU NORMAL?” emblazoned across the front.  I loved that t-shirt.  We were missionary kids, we were nomadic, we were often the new kids at school: feeling ‘normal’ was out of the question.  I attended thirteen schools, so being different was the only normality I knew.
Small wonder the title of this book called to me.

I found a lot in there to relate to.  And some things that blew my mind.  Far out man.

Cea Sunrise Person belonged to a hippy family who followed their convictions out into the Yukon wilderness.  Their lives were unusual, their boundaries flexible.  Things that most people would consider strange, were part of daily normality for them.  Cea grew up living in a tipi, with no running water, electricity or modern conveniences.  She was the only child in a family of grown children and two grandparents.  Every summer, they hosted visitors who had come to learn their way of life. They lived without convention, wore clothes only when the weather made it necessary.  Drugs and free love were by products of their lifestyle.  For Cea, her early childhood was the only normal she knew.  When she was around 5 her mother embarked on a new relationship and they left their wilderness home.  By default, Cea was forced to live the life of a homeless wanderer.

Her journey through childhood and early adulthood is a tale of overcoming.  She is testament to the power of measured, thoughtful self-analysis… and courage.  Her victory over her circumstances and arrival in a place of wholeness and contentment is inspirational.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how she triumphed in spite of the difficulties life placed in her way.  It’s no ordinary “I overcame” story.
She’s no ordinary person.
She’s Cea Person, and I recommend her memoir.

And how is this for an opening paragraph:

I rolled over in bed, reaching for the warmth of my mother under the bearskin blanket.  She wrapped her arms around me, and I pulled Suzie doll into my chest so we were three spoons.  The birds were just starting to call.  Through the tipi poles above, I could see a patch of lightening sky.  Any moment now, our canvas walls would begin to turn from gray to orange.  It was the time of day I liked best, because it was the start of everything…

This song seems like the perfect accompaniment for this book.  It puts me in mind of all the idealistic hippies who looked for utopia and found something less.  And there is something in the sweetness of these two that puts me in mind of little Cea, lost in the wilderness of her family’s creation.  Here’s to all lost little girls, wherever they may be.  May they find their way.

Reading the Situation

 

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I love books.  I have loved books since I was a tiny child… I thank my mum for that.  She used to make up big scrapbooks for us, full of magazine cutouts and pictures she had drawn herself.  Each double page spread was about something.  RED or WHEELS or FOOD.  She had printed the words in large blue felt-pen copperplate.  My Mum had been a cartographer, back when maps were hand drawn.  Her handwriting was always something beautiful to behold. Somewhere, there is a picture from my toddler years of me, on the potty in front of the fire, ‘reading’ one of her books.  I made some scrapbooks for my own kids when they were tiny.  But the paper didn’t have that grainy newsprinty softness on the edges; the rusted staples and yellowed sticky tape repairs.  They just weren’t the same. Not even close to the first books of my memories, long gone now.

I was an early reader.  So eager to do anything my brothers and sisters could do, I was reading long before school.  Being the youngest of four I was always playing catch up!  I’m glad I was so motivated to learn to read, I clearly knew that reading was the doorway to magical places and it was worth getting there at pace.  Ever since I first cracked that door open and peeked inside, it has been a treat, a source of inspiration, an escape and a guilty pleasure. I still hide so I can just finish the last few pages… don’t you?  I love to read.

Beside my bed is a pile of books that are waiting for some love.  I feel the pressure of un-read books as though they are guests for whom I haven’t made a cuppa yet.  Have a seat!  I’ll just pop the kettle on… be there in a minute!  Or a week, or year… depending on what life throws my way.  And now, there are times when reading can be tricky.  I hate that. My eyes will stop working properly (this is a symptom of my Dysautonomia) and I will find it an enormous effort to focus.  I hate those times and get pretty stroppy about it.  When it is like that I can only manage a page at a time before I give up in a huff.  At those times I might listen to an audio book but it is never, ever the same as reading for myself.  I like the heft and fold of a book.  The smells of books.  The texture of the papers between my thumb and forefinger.

Hubster gave me a kindle last birthday.
He uses it quite a lot.

For me though, it is real books the whole way.  Real books on my bookshelf.  Books I can lend, books I can re-read.  Books I can arrange in various categories, remembering each like a relationship I had long ago.  Hello!  Remember that day? …we drove to that quiet carpark with a coffee and found a comfy spot in the sun. My feet out the window, your story in my hand, your words forming a voice inside my mind, heavy on my heart?  I know them all, these books of mine. They are my intimate companions.  My memory markers, my soul searching, my other-life-living.

Just recently, my hubster finished building us a new bookshelf.
Now, that is so much more incredible than a kindle …just saying! 
He’s so clever. And I have re-arranged our books into colour spectrum order (I blame pinterest).  I confess, it was a little strange at first… Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche next to hubster’s Lee Child.  But harmonious, warm and companionable, like marriage.  A bit of me, a bit of you, snuggling up together with the blues.  The new arrangement caused me to take hold of some books I hadn’t looked at in a while.  And then; the joy of a reunion in my head, beloved characters wandering around and chatting together.  My own literati, milling about in the reading room of my reminiscing.

I’ve been pondering this love of reading lately and I have decided I’d like to share my favourite reads right here, on this blog.  But not in ranked order; they have just randomly made their way here by catching my attention somehow. If they are here, it is because I love them.  These books are entities. They are the progeny of people I admire.  Unique and irreplaceable because they were born of writers I idolise; published by houses I respect and of course, because I chose them to be here on my shelf.  Special because they each have brought me such happiness, exquisite sadnesses, tender vicarious wordy wonders.  I collect them possessively. A stunning cover, a dedication that draws me in, a title that catches my breath, an introductory paragraph.  An ending that still tugs grief from my heart, long after it is finished.  The books on my virtual review shelf are simply there because I want to say something about them.  If you’ve never met them before, come.
You might like to make their acquaintance.

PS.  The link above, on the word ‘dedication’ will take you over to Pia’s page, called ‘These Woven Words’.  She has just written a beautiful piece on the art of book dedications.

Jon Musdin is Amasing

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Yesterday, Zed and I went on a pretty special date.  My little guy is pretty cool and I love having a chance to hang with him, just the two of us.  We had been looking forward to the Auckland Writer’s Festival because a very special person was going to be there.  Those of you who know us well, know that two of Zed’s many names are John and Marsden.  It’s no chancey co-inky-dink.

Way back in the heady days of dating, Zed’s big daddy and I bonded over John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, and other classics like Zed for Zachariah and Island of the Blue Dolphins (well, maybe less so the last but I had to include it here because to me it is so much a part of the teen survivalist genre!).  Those books were compelling because the writer’s gave their teenaged characters the credit for having half a brain.  And they’re adventurous.  John Marsden gets extra gold stars in my book because he’s not only a teacher who writes, but he also writes poetry.  Have you seen Prayer for the 21st Century?  I used to peddle it to schools back in Sydney when I drove the infamous Shearer’s Jungle Bus.  Ah, memories!

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So I’m a fan.  And I thought Zed would benefit from meeting the ‘other’ John Marsden.  He was so pumped about it, he did some quick exercises in the foyer before they opened the doors.

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Then he looked at his ticket.

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And wrote a bit in his spesh new notebook.  “I love writing!”  he tells me.  Which warms this Mummy’s heart like you wouldn’t believe.  Nevermind if he writes pages and pages of indecipherable, deeply convoluted Captain Zed exploits… he loves to write.  Long may that continue!   I thought what he wrote was even more spesh than his notebook.  Can you see it there at the top?
jon musdin is amaSing ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

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And then we went in.  John is a great speaker, easy, fluid and entertaining.  I was rapt.  Then Zed started tugging on my sleeve.  The MC had mentioned microphones up the front for question time.

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“I HAVE to ask a question!”  he hissed.  It was burning his brain.
“Go on then,” I whispered back.
And so it happened that Zed asked the venerable John Marsden a really good question in front of lots and lots of literary types, once we adjusted the height of the microphone.  And John Marsden didn’t even mind being asked where he gets his story ideas from (again)  because Zed was so earnest.  He says all our lives are full of stories, we tell them to each other all the time.  Sometimes someone’s story will spark a what if?  moment, and then, well, you’re away.

He also said that the best advice he could give a writer he borrowed from Bryce Courtenay.   Writers don’t need inspiration, he says, they need bum glue.  This is quite possibly the best advice you could give a six year old because it includes the word bum.
Yep.  Jon Musdin is amasing.
So is Zed, ’cause he remembered to go back to the microphone and say “Thank you”.

After the talk we lined up for the autograph.  I had my book and Zed had his notebook.  The line was long and my insides did a little sinking thing.  I don’t do queues well.  Standing for any length of time is torturous for me and results in all manner of autonomic oddities.  But sometimes you have to grit your teeth and make things happen.  I had forgotten on purpose the shooting stick cane I have that is for just these situations.  Because of my stupid pride.  So I had to suck it up.  We made it to the desk.  My heart rate was skyrocketing by then and not just from fan fervour!  I stammered through our moment with the man; my glasses fogged.  Zed, like a big grown up, spoke for both of us and John said he was delighted to meet the first ‘other’ John Marsden he’d ever met.  He signed our stuff and we staggered and skipped back to the car.

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I was such a proud mumma.  As good as John Marsden is, I think my Jon Musdin is amasing.
And that is all.  🙂