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Reading This Week – Love & Hunger – Thoughts on the Gift Of Food – Charlotte Wood

Every month I take part in the Book Club on ABC Mid North Coast, which means I have books selected for me to read. It’s like a literary lottery, you never know what you are going to get. You often find yourself reading books you wouldn’t normally choose for yourself.

This month we discussed Love and Hunger by Charlotte Wood. Given I’m not much of a foodie it probably isn’t one I would have ventured into without encouragement.

At first I was a little confused by the work, it combines essays on food,  recipes and tips for cooking. (Did you know you could freeze nuts? This could change my life, do you know how many packets of expensive nuts I have thrown out having only used a quarter of the packet?) I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a memoir or a cookbook. Flicking to the back jacket I read that along with being a celebrated author of fiction, (Animal People, The Children, The Submerged Cathedral) Charlotte is also a blogger, writing about her passion for food at How To Shuck An Oyster and I realised the book was reading to me like a blog. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, it was just moving between topics (all food related) in the way a blog morphs and merges with consistent themes appearing and disappearing. I began to enjoy the book more when I stopped trying to classify it in a traditional format and imagined it as a blog on the page.

The essays which resonated with me the most were Charlotte’s recollections of growing up in the 70’s and 80’s – devils on horseback anyone? The linking of food to the ebb and flow of life was also an emotive theme. A chapter on supplying meals to friends undergoing chemotherapy and the food at wakes reminded me of how food was once a means for showing care and love to friends and neighbours. Charlotte writes movingly of Jim, the bloke next door, who prepared a Christmas lunch with all the trimmings for her family while they were visiting her ill Father in hospital. Or the chest freezer delivered to their home full of casseroles, soups, pies and desserts all of which were restocked each week by the country town community during her Dad’s final illness.

I wondered if we still use food in this way? Funerals of my childhood were held at people’s homes, everyone came bearing a plate of food. Recent departures have usually been followed by a gathering at a club or function room, catering provided. In our busy lives have we lost the ability to give practical support to those around us with home-made food?

The link of food determining a particular time and place in our memory is one which this book had me thinking about. Particular food is forever linked in my mind with certain jobs and places – the cheesy ham pasta made by the little Italian lady at the food court under the AMP Centre where I was studying for my “Advanced Secretarial Diploma” – the country kid in the big city devouring this
Grandma’s comfort food, my introduction to Yum Cha in Sussex Street all grown up in my first radio job but “don’t give me any of the yucky stuff”, the paella from a café at Blues Point Road, the chicken pie from yet another café, this time in Port Macquarie (perhaps another comfort food for a woman returning to the work force after a ten-year hiatus).

Charlotte’s  essays are though provoking –  a distaste for offal signifying a fear of death – our inability to recognise hunger for we never allow our bodies to experience it juxtaposes with people dying on the other side of the world from lack of food.

A love of food is evident in every word of Love & Hunger and Charlotte encourages the reader to simplify and enjoy the art of cooking and the pleasure of sharing it with friends. Suzie, one of my fellow book clubbers, described the book as “warm and engaging”. Emma, the younger of the book clubbers spoke of how her Mum’s cooking has improved recently – as someone smack, bang in the middle of the endless “what’s for dinner” cycle I can imagine when children  are grown it might be easier to take the time to savour the experience of creating a meal. In the meantime, perhaps I can take some lessons from Charlotte’s philosophy and try to occasionally make a little more effort at the evening table – there’s a four-hour spaghetti bolognese that has me intrigued – I might give that a go on Sunday.

Reading This Week – Silent Fear by Katherine Howell

I love a good crime novel, mystery or thriller. The obsession began with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, moved through Agatha Christie and into Patricia Cornwell, PD James, Ruth Rendell. If I’m left to my own devices to choose a book to curl up with on a rainy day I wade straight into the murky world of corpses with secrets,  fascinating forensics and crafty characters with issues.

This week I read Silent Fear by Katherine Howell. It’s the fifth in a series of novels centred around Detective Ella Marconi. Set in Sydney the novel has a strong sense of place, with the descriptions of steaming hot summer days, suburban streets and familiar landmarks combining to create an authentic Australian experience.

Paramedic Holly Garland attends a call-out to a collapsed man in a park, only to discover her estranged brother is on the scene. When the suspected heat stroke/heart-attack victim turns out to be wearing a bullet wound Marconi is called in to investigate.

The opening of the novel is strong with Howell’s own experience as a Paramedic resonating through the descriptions of procedure and treatment. The mystery is set up early. Why is Holly so dismayed to see her brother? What is his relationship with the victim? Are the innocent bystanders really innocent? Who would want to shoot a bloke playing touch footy? What role will Holly’s past have on this case?

Garland goes on to be a fascinating and complex personality and one of Howell’s strengths is drawing characterisations with depth and relatable human flaws. Although, as a newcomer to this series, I felt at times Garland overshadowed the character of Detective Marconi and I was a little confused over just who the star of the book was supposed to be. This two-lead alternating point-of-view between the Detective and the Paramedic does, however, give an interesting alternative to the traditional crime novel formula.

The storyline features a pleasing array of red herrings, which get sorted out nicely. There is also a complex arrangement of sub-plots with associated characters which sometimes seemed a little unnecessary but left me wondering if these would perhaps be developed in future novels. Overall the plot kept me guessing for some time and engaged in enough twists and turns to remain interesting to the very end.

I  enjoyed Silent Fear for the strength of its lead female characters and the highly effective portrayal of time and place. I’m left with a keen interest in reading the earlier books in the series.

I read Silent Fear as part of  the Morning Show Book Club on ABC Mid North Coast Radio.

Reading this Week – Unbearable Lightness – A Story of Loss and Gain – Portia de Rossi

As the mother of two daughters Unbearable Lightness scares the hell out  of me.

Unbearable Lightness is an intense account of Portia de Rossi’s battle with anorexia and bulimia and it takes you deep into a dark place.

The book provides a rare and intimate look into the mind of a beautiful, intelligent girl who simply could not see what she was doing to her body as she  exercised like a maniac and counted calories to the point of near starvation. It weaves a tragic story of an overachieving child, struggling with the death of her father, confused about her sexuality and in a complex relationship with her mother.

Glamorous Hollywood becomes a lonely, lifeless place in de Rossi’s narrative. The struggles to maintain a perfect figure, the competitive nature of a top-rating TV show, the battle for attention on the red carpet – de Rossi documents it all with a compelling honesty.

This is an important book for many, many reasons. In the modern world, where looks are so highly prized our children are making themselves sick trying to achieve the unachievable, to have a glamorous, successful actress show the truth behind the make-up and designer gowns is a rare step forward.

By laying her life bare to show all the insecurities and fears de Rossi opens up a valuable dialogue for other sufferers and their families.

The issue of sexuality is another important feature of the book. As de Rossi’s struggles with identifying herself as gay, afraid of the consequences of coming out in a world where difference is not rewarded, her pain adds fuel to the demon of an eating disorder. Unable to control her sexuality she could control how many bites of food she allowed herself.

The most illuminating part of the book for me was the relationship between de Rossi and her mother. It was a lesson in just how much of impact our words and actions can have on our children. Although de Rossi acknowledges the pressure for success was “internal” and she certainly paints a picture of a very driven child, her mother’s reaction to less-than-perfect makes me more aware of my own actions in dealing with my children’s achievements.

“Like any other parent, my mother celebrated the A grades and the less-than-A grades she felt there was no need to tell anybody about. But not acknowledging the effort that ended in a less than perfect result impacted on me as a child. If I didn’t win, then we wouldn’t tell anyone that I had even competed, to save us the embarrassment of acknowledging that someone else was better. Keeping the secret made me think that losing was something to be ashamed of, and that unless I was sure I was going to be the champion, there was no point in trying. And there was certainly no point to just having fun.”

After hitting 37 kilograms and collapsing on a movie set de Rossi has to face her crisis and find a new way of coping with the world.

As we all know the actress successfully beats the illnesses and finds love and acceptance in her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres.

It’s the dream ending giving hope to those currently struggling and their desperate families trying to find a way through the nightmare of eating disorders.

This memoir is one gutsy move. To display such truth shows just how far de Rossi has come. I hope that she gets to live the “happy ever after” for the rest of her life.

Book supplied by the Hardie Grant Book Club.

The Hunger Games

Decision making is a constant feature of parenting. From conception onwards you are asked to make decisions that could impact on child.

Sad to say that doesn’t taper off as they become older. Up until three weeks ago I had never heard of The Hunger Games then a friend lent Hippie Child a copy of the book by Suzanne Collins. The pair tried to describe the storyline to me and began with something like “and 24 kids get sent to a forest and have to kill each, until only one is left alive, they are the winner”.

Deep breath, don’t overreact, ripping the book out of her hands and tearing it to shreds goes against all your views on censorship. Remind myself that I believe kids should be allowed to read what they choose as they become older and, as a parent, you should be prepared to discuss controversial topics they have been exposed to. Gotta love my theories.

Anyway, Hippie Child loved the book and returned it to her friend before I had a chance to read it.

Then I learn there’s a movie, and Hippie Child has a arranged to go with a group of friends. Now Princess Child is getting interested too. It’s rated M. That can’t be too bad can it? MA means it’s restricted to 15 and over but M still allows entry to younger kids.

More deep breathing, in fact a touch of hyper-ventilating as the storyline starts to get discussed, kids killing kids, it’s a hideous concept.

Hippie Child gives me a “talking to”. She does this on a regular basis. It began when she was 7 and in another one of my great “it seemed like a good idea at the time” decisions I placed her at a school which was troubled to say the least. Facing me down over breakfast one morning she informed me that I had to let her watch new TV shows. Why? I query. “Because I can’t talk to these kids, they watch shows I’ve never heard of and then spend half the morning talking about them I CAN’T JOIN IN”. We negotiated, I ended up agreeing to The Simpsons and Home and Away. Although she lost interest in the cartoon pretty quickly we would go on to spend many years of watching Home and Away together, and discussing death, homosexuality, teenage pregnancies, sex and every other soapie crisis the program makers could throw at us.

This time she tells me the book was great, the lead female character is brilliant and the killing is just one part of a very interesting storyline, she then goes on to remind me she is 15. So we agree she’s going. Then Princess Child wages the “if you let her go you have to let me go too” argument.  Now I decide it’s up to Hippie Child to determine if the movie is too graphic for her sister. Suddenly Princess Child becomes very nice toward her elder sister, “can I feed the dog for you?”.

Time.com presents the arguments for taking your kids, when psychology professor, Christopher Ferguson announces he will be taking his eight year old to the film, and against when film reviewer, Mary Pols declares she won’t be taking her young child.

On Saturday Hippie Child declares her sister should be OK, reckons the movie isn’t as good as the book, and experiences her first “it looked different in my head” book/movie disconnect.

So on Sunday I rock up to the movies with my 12 year old and Nana Shambles (who has loudly objected to the whole concept of the movie, particularly taking children too it, but is there because “she wants to be able to talk about it”).

Princess Child dislikes a few moments of the film but overall declares it was “great”. Me? Well I still find the concept abhorrent but I think the film is visually magnificent, I love the strong female lead, great to see the girl rescuing the bloke in this one, while the story raised discussion on issues such as dictatorships, the culture of reality TV, manipulation, stylization, morals and ethics.

I agree with Ferguson that a well adjusted, well loved child will not be turned into a violent killer by watching this work of fiction. But I would argue that eight is too young to be exposed to this concept particularly given the most disturbing part of the film was seeing the youngest combatants die.

Hippie Child tells me that although it’s a fantasy she could see it happening in real life, no I declare, people would never allow it, there would be uprisings, violence in the streets as parents fought to protect their children. But Mum, she patiently explains, the reason The Hunger Games were created by the Capitol was to control the people, it’s a punishment for having tried to fight once before. Then I suppose in the real world we had the Holocaust didn’t we?

Have you seen the Hunger Games? How do you go about deciding what is suitable viewing/reading for your children?

Reading This Week – Watercolours – Adrienne Ferreira

A gifted child, a quirky family, an inexperienced teacher, a mysterious death all jumbled together in a small, country town that’s the essence of Watercolours. This is the debut novel for Adrienne Ferreira and in it she creates an engaging story with a  group of likeable characters.

Watercolours is a gentle book which meanders through the everyday lives of it’s characters highlighting family and love along the way.

The highlight of the book for me is the strong sense of place created throughout the narrative with the river an additional character in the story. “One thing I’ve noticed is that up in the hills where I live, the Lewis is narrow and fast. It’s noisy where it rushes over the rocks, then it creeps along silently in pools like it’s sneaking up on someone. Down in town, where the land is flat, the river turns fat and slow and green. It ripples its long muscles as it winds its way around Morus in a big loop, as if it wants to squeeze the place and swallow it whole.”

The nuances of a rural river town are captured beautifully in this work and anyone who has ever spent time in a small community will recognise  the characters. The go-getting business man who leads the local Rotary Club, the busybody who interferes in the lives of others, the pragmatic neighbour who provides a casserole and friendly advice to the newcomer to town, the hippies up in the hills, for a country girl reading the book is like stepping back into my childhood.

While eleven-year-old Novi wants to fit in at school and in the community, his artistic talent and his eccentric family always leave him a little on the outer. New teacher Dom identifies Novi’s ability and goes about trying to find a way to support the child and his art.

Novi believes his Grandfather was murdered, although the rest of the town see the death as a drowning tragedy during the last big flood. When Novi’s drawings begin to gain a wider audience the mystery unravels.

Ferreira splits the narrative into a number of voices which gives different perspectives on the unfolding events and the past secrets. Love in various forms and chasing dreams are two of the themes which resonant throughout the book and add a poignant undertone to the story.

An enjoyable read.

Reading this Week – The Testimony – Halina Wagowska

As time passes The Holocaust of World War II moves further into the pages of history. The tragedies and atrocities are at risk of becoming facts, figures and statistics on a page taught to disinterested students who would rather be at the beach than in a stuffy classroom.

Eighty-one-year-old human rights activist Halina Wagowska counters this with her autobiography, The Testimony.

At ten years of age Halina lives the blissful innocence of a happy childhood with loving parents, she reflects on how those early years develop the resilience that will get her through the next five years enduring unimaginable horrors.

The Testimony is structured into snapshots where Halina deflects attention from herself by devoting each chapter to individuals who crossed her path. Stasia, the Gentile nanny so devoted she joins the family in the ghetto. Frieda, the intelligent scholar who urges survival will mean testifying to what they experienced for the rest of their lives. Sasha, the Russian soldier, who rescues the nearly-dead Halina and nurses her back to health providing her with the first kindness she had experienced for a long time.

There is a sense Halina has kept some of the horror she experienced to herself, although what she shares will cling to your thoughts for days afterwards. The image of a child responsible for carting bodies from the gas chambers to furnaces then lugging the buckets of ash and bone to the nearby swamp is haunting.

However, her youth also provides her with adaptability, a quickly growing sense of rat-cunning, and an ability to focus on the immediate. When the adults around her become overwhelmed by the big picture view of the situation Halina struggles to keep them alive.

Halina continues her story after the war ends and poignantly documents how peace did not necessarily bring joy. Alone and uneducated the teenager must create a new life for herself.

Arriving as an immigrant in Australia she works as a cleaner, studies and ultimately enjoys a career in pathology. The experiences of her formative years, and the influences of those she loved and lost, shape her commitment to human rights, working tirelessly for Aboriginal education, homeless students and bioethics.

The Testimony provides us with a valuable of record of the long-term impact of the Holocaust and a moving personal retrospective paying tribute to those who aren’t here to tell their stories.

Review originally written for the Hardie Grant Book Club.