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

 

My Girl

The first moment she looked in my eyes my breath caught. I knew it in that moment of stark gravity. She was extraordinary.  Her newborn soul seemed so much bigger than mine and I admit, I was intimidated.  I looked back into her gaze and felt overwhelmed.  How could I do a good enough job for her?  How could I presume to be her mother?  I’d been talking to a growing baby girl in my tummy for nine months, but this baby wasn’t her.  She had been like a little animated doll in my mind, a sweet, quiet thing who jiggled to the music during school assemblies.  My class would look across and watch my tummy jumping, I would pat it and smile.  Settle, little one.  I felt like I knew her as she grew inside me.  And then she was born.  I don’t really know how to explain how enormous the reality of her unique self was to me.  She wasn’t the baby I’d been talking to, the longed for baby of my imagination.  She was entirely herself. Complete and shockingly present. She seemed to be prematurely wise, appraising her new mum.  Staring me down.  It wasn’t exactly as I imagined it would be.  I was terribly afraid.  I whispered her name, she opened her mouth
and wailed.

For the first six months of her life, Bee screamed.  My nappy bag was always packed full of anxious mummy remedies for every possible difficulty we might encounter.  But none of them stopped the crying.  She wanted to be upright, but she didn’t want to be held.  Her back would arch away from me and her mouth open in a pained, sustained scream. The only way we could comfort her was to perch her against one of us in a body sling and rock, rock, rock. Pat, pat, pat. Eventually, when we had exhausted all the possible parenting strategies and failed, we took her to a paediatrician and discovered she had something called silent reflux. I wish we had gone sooner.  Soothed by baby gaviscon, Bee began to sleep.  And so did we.  Our angry banshee became her true, sweet self.  And there she was, that baby I had imagined, a sweet, quiet wee girl. We set up a routine and everything started to calm down.  We exhaled. We began to get to know her. She began to smile.

Little Bee showed us very early that she loved animals.  She adopted snails and worms and repatriated them to new garden homes, resplendent with flower petal decorations and twiggy installations.  Ebony cat was her most loved baby. She loved the sandpit, hated loud noises.  She ate anything we ever offered, but particularly loved the methodical joy of eating blueberries or peas, one by one, tweezered from her high chair tray between thumb and finger, each one popped into her mouth with perfect precision.  Eyes wide as they burst between her teeny pearly teeth.  She was an observer.  A cautious participant.  Quiet and solemn and curious. She loved story time with her Granny and sat, warm in her lap, reaching for the next book in the basket, “More?”  The answer was always yes.  She craved the small fluffy bunnies of the petting zoos and crooned to the white rhinos and the wild cats of the big zoo.  She met her first pony at a farm festival when she was four.  From that moment, she was smitten.

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Little Bee’s best friend was a sweet little fella called Ced. They made block towers, took naps and played dough together.  Went to the same creche, baby gym and preschool.  They held hands and pushed each other around in the pedal car, shared raisins between hot little hands.  We had season passes for the Zoo and that is where we often went, walking around and stopping for neatly arranged finger foods snacks (the first-time-mother-factor!) and brightly coloured drink bottles.  Here they are, having a side by side nap when we were on holidays together in Fiji.  Aw.

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I look at my Bee now, lying on her tummy in front of the fire.  She was always off the scale on the baby height charts and she still towers over most of her friends at the age of nine. Her long frame stretches across the carpet.  These days she’s all growing pains and making gains.  She organises herself and takes pride in being responsible.  She comes out with surprising one liners and spontaneous sweetnesses.  Horse obsessed, she’s taken it upon herself to educate us about every breed and colouring of the equine spectrum. And she rides like she was born for the saddle, flying over jumps that make my heart lurch. Falling onto the neck of Beau with unbridled affection at any opportunity.  Her muscles are strong and supple and her ponytail dances beneath her helmet and down her long back. She takes my breath away, my girl.

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But more than all these wonders about who she is, are the things she does that most girls her age wouldn’t have the heart to do.  Bee is an expert assessor; she gauges my need for a cup of tea like she has a sixth sense.  She offers to bring snacks and feeds the cat.  She does her jobs without ever complaining.  And just yesterday morning, as I hung my head over the toilet bowl and retched, her hand reached in with a hair tie.  “Here, Mum” she murmured “You can keep your hair back with this”.  Her hand, warm against my back.  Her heart reaching in to mine.  Then, a glass of water; my eyes filled.  “Thank you, sweet heart” I whispered to her.  How can I ever show her how much gratitude fills my thoughts?  Not just for all the small ways that she brings me comfort and support, or for the compassion she shows so far beyond her years.  For her willingness to help. But for loving me so unconditionally. All those years ago, she appraised me with those wise eyes, she saw my fear and my insecurities and accepted me as hers, anyway.  She reminds me every day that the best of who I am is invested in a shining beautiful person. A girl who makes me proud to be related to her, proud by association, touched by the wonder of being her Mum.

Love you, my girl.  

If your teenage years should temporarily kidnap your true self, I’ll pay the ransom.
I’ll wrap you up in my arms and even while you protest, I’ll tell you that I love you.
I’ll look you right in your young ancient eyes and remind you: you accepted me.  We made an agreement, you and me, the day you were born.
I’m here, I’m your Mum. And no matter what may come;
no matter where you are, no matter where I am, my heart is with your heart.

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