Monday, August 31, 2015

'Hazel Green' by Odo Hirsch

2015 Reading Challenge, Week 35 - A trilogy.

I've fallen back on a well loved family trilogy of ours, which I've read aloud to the kids many times. It's always a pleasure to dig into again. There are actually four, but I've reviewed the first three for this challenge. I think it's one of the best kids' series I've come across, introducing both moral and mathematic concepts in a fun way which is integral to the storylines.  

Book 1 - Hazel Green

This is one of my favourite trilogies for kids by far. While they are kept entertained by the unpredictable goings-on, there's a great dose of healthy, adult-style humour to keep parents turning pages too.

There are two plot threads converging together in this first book.

For the first time in several years, children want to march in a special, huge parade celebrating the birth of a local legend. They are anxious to build the biggest, most impressive float to convince Mr Winkel, the antagonistic organiser, that they deserve their spot. It's a massive, built-to-scale replica of the Moodey Building, where they all live and the famous celebrity was born.

During their hard work, somebody walks past, glances at the plans and predicts that the tower will surely topple during the parade. It's Yakov Plonsk, the strange, new foreign boy who keeps himself aloof from the other kids, as they tease him and call him the Yak. Only Hazel Green has a niggling feeling that they shouldn't dismiss the Yak's predictions, as she knows he has a brilliant mathematical mind. But if she demands to know what he means, will she even understand his explanation, let alone have a chance of convincing the other kids that they need to avert a potential catastrophe?

Hazel has also been accused by her favourite baker, Mr Volio, of betraying him by leaking information about a new, delicious cake, to the rival bakery. It seems only the Yak will be able to help her prove her innocence and catch the real traitor. But she has to tread carefully with him and give him a good reason to believe that she genuinely wants to be his friend. He has had plenty of reasons to be sceptical in the past. The range of wonderful cakes and pastries Mr Volio makes always made us hungry enough to want to stock up on danishes and eclairs while reading the story.

This really set us up to want to get hold of the other books to find our what the impulsive Hazel and reflective Yakov have to solve next.

Book 2 - Something's Fishy, Hazel Green

In many ways, this is my family's favourite of the four Hazel Green novels. The tightly-woven plot is a perfect vehicle for the mixture of hilarity and sensitivity.

Hazel enjoys watching Mr Petrusca, the cheerful fishmonger, fatten up two enormous lobsters for a prized customer, Mr Trimbel. When a thief nicks off with the lobsters and leaves a note in code on their tank, poor Mr Petrusca is more devastated than anybody would expect. It sends him into a tailspin of such deep despair, his indignant friend Hazel is determined to track down the robber.

The first matter is cracking the code, and the only person who could possibly help is her bashful but freakishly clever friend Yakov, aka the Yak. Finding out how the strange and funny aspects of the storyline slot together is great fun. Not one scene in this book turns out to be wasted. The reason why Mr Petrusca initially chooses to do nothing about the letter is understandable and thought-provoking. The method Hazel and the Yak use to catch the thief had us in fits of laughter. That person's identity turns out to be as huge a surprise to readers as it was to the two children.

Once again, Hazel's determination to not accept the status quo but stand up for what she knows is right brings closure and relief. You just have to admire this girl's stubborn persistence.

Book 3 - Have Courage, Hazel Green

The theme of racial discrimination is handled with great sensitivity by author Odo Hirsch, although not necessarily as sensitively by Hazel herself! When she hears respected citizen Mr Davis shouting, 'I hate your type of people' at bashful, gentle caretaker, Mr Ezozian, she's deeply disturbed. Although she doesn't understand why Davis would feel so hostile towards an inoffensive man, she's determined to make the bully feel ashamed of himself. Her ways of going about it are as original and heavy-handed as you might expect from Hazel at this stage, and she drags in her friend, the reticent but equally passionate Yak, to help prove her point.

Characterisation, always excellent in these novels, is ramped up another notch in this book, really showing up the strengths and weaknesses of the main characters. I feel we get glimpses of the type of adults both Hazel and Yakov will become, and their conversations, always sparkling, are even more special. Total opposites on the surface, they share the similarity of being brilliant in their separate ways.

The delicious descriptions of food in Hazel Green novels are as tantalising as usual, this time through delicatessan owners, Mr and Mrs Frengel, who are planning to throw a huge goodwill feast for all residents of the Moodey Building. That's where part of the trouble lies.

5 stars 

Friday, August 28, 2015

When English speakers can't understand each other

When University finished last year, my then 19-year-old son wanted me to drop him off at a mate's place to relax. Some of his friends rent a house in town together, a perfect place for young bachelors, and my son's been known to stay with them for a fortnight at a time. The guys make no plans, but tend to take each day as it comes.

I asked him, "How long are you staying for this time. It'd be nice if you could give us a clue when you'll be back."

"One day," he said, with his head behind the fridge door.

I took that as a definite response, meaning just one day. I thought he'd only stay overnight and be back by tomorrow. I was surprised, but quite pleased. "Good. Thanks."

Half an hour later, we were parked in front of his mate's driveway, and I said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."

He blinked at me and started protesting. "No you won't. I told you, I haven't planned when I'll be back."

Then it dawned on me that he didn't mean those words, one day, the way I'd chosen to take them. He meant them in a vague, cheeky, "When you see me," sort of way.

How easily people can misunderstand each other, even when plain English is spoken clearly and not misheard. I've often thought such communication gaps are a bit of a joke, but this incident reminded me how easily they can happen. I've enjoyed similar misunderstandings when they happen in stories.

I remember reading 'Ramona the
Pest' to my children, about a little girl who was proudly starting school. Her teacher, Miss Binney, was assigning seats and said, 'Ramona, you can sit here for the present.' The young heroine was certain the teacher was promising her a gift-wrapped type of present if she remained seated, and it led to lots of mix-ups at recess time when her friends wanted her to come and play. 'No, if I stay here, Miss Binney's going to give me a present, and I can't wait to see what it is. She's taking a long time though.'

Another favourite character of mine was good old Amelia Bedelia, the weird maid who always took things literally. Her employer once asked her to draw the curtains at
noon, for example, and came home to find hot afternoon sunlight pouring in on her expensive fabric upholstery. It turned out Amelia had executed a perfect sketch of the open curtains and coloured it in. Several times, Amelia Bedelia only managed to keep her job because she was such a good cook.

Some historical misunderstandings have had far more serious repercussions. Jesus' disciples assumed that He was planning to inaugurate a different type of kingdom to the one He really meant. As we know, Judas decided to take matters in his own hands, when he got tired of waiting for the type of political coup he was expecting.

In 'Becoming a Prayer Warrior', author Elizabeth Alves tells a true anecdote of a young mother who complained that her baby's diaper/nappy rash wouldn't respond to treatment. Alves advised her to 'apply the word of God.' This young lady ripped pages out of her Bible to place in her baby's nappy whenever she changed it. The best part of the story is that it cured the rash. 

I wonder if misunderstandings happen more often than we may realise. As English is a crazy old language in many ways, I'm sure they do. Not only do some words have more than one meaning, but they are often fluid and not fixed, as we might expect. I'm often interested watching my kids and nephews communicate with my parents. One of the boys may make a statement such as, 'That's really sick!' and their grandparents believe that they are expressing criticism instead of admiration.
Here are some of my recent reading examples which I've enjoyed a lot. 

1) Like a Flower in Bloom, by Siri Mitchell.
Like a Flower in Bloom
The heroine, Charlotte Withersby, was relieved that no gentlemen wanted to marry her. However, she'd accidentally accepted several proposals at the same time, just because she didn't get the terminology they used when they popped the question. A hilarious read.

2) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

 The hero, Peter, is a missionary to aliens on another planet. The extra-terrestrials have learned some rudimentary English, but there is quite a mix-up when he wakes up one morning and tells the tribal chief that he is anxious to 'pass water.' 

3) The Greenfield Legacy by Meredith Resce, Amanda Deed, Rose Dee and Paula Vince

The Greenfield Legacy

I'm most fond of this one because I had a wonderful time having a go at composing these mix-ups myself. We four authors each wrote from the point of view of one of the four main characters. My character was young Brooke, one of the granddaughters of the matriarch, Mattie. Brooke was forever puzzling over the intended meanings of whatever people said to her, especially Aidan, the young man she was in love with. 'Did he mean it this way or that? Was that supposed to be an insult or a compliment? Am I supposed to respond or let that one pass?' Her mind was always ticking over and the confusion it caused her never ended.

(If you think our collaboration sounds interesting, you might also like to click here.)

I'd have to say that writing Brooke's part in the Greenfield Legacy is probably what helped me realise what a lot of scope there is for misunderstanding each other in English. As it's such a vast and rich language with a long, piecemeal history and speakers from many totally different backgrounds, I suppose it's no wonder. I have more funny examples in this article about waving cat syndrome, featuring times when I was the one who got confused.

Have my examples of this phenomenon sparked off any memories of your own? I'd be interested to hear them. That in itself may be another example. One man may ask, 'Have you heard the news?' and his friend will reply, 'Yes,' meaning that he's read it on Facebook or Reddit, and then the first man will wonder who told him. Where does it end?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

'Simply Tuesday' by Emily P Freeman


Our obsession with bigger and faster is spinning us out of control. We move through the week breathless and bustling, just trying to keep up while longing to slow down. But real life happens in the small moments, the kind we find on Tuesday, the most ordinary day of the week. Tuesday carries moments we want to hold onto--as well as ones we'd rather leave behind. It hold secrets we can't see in a hurry--secrets not just for our schedules but for our souls. It offers us a simple bench on which to sit, observe, and share our stories.
For those being pulled under by the strong current of expectation, comparison, and hurry, relief is found more in our small moments than in our fast movements. In "Simply Tuesday," Emily P. Freeman helps readers
- stop dreading small beginnings and embrace today's work
- find contentment in the now--even when the now is frustrating or discouraging
- replace competition with compassion
- learn to breathe in a breathless world
Jesus lived small moments well, slow moments fully, and all moments free. He lives with us still, on all our ordinary days, creating and redeeming the world both in us and through us, one small moment at a time. It's time to take back Tuesday, to release our obsession with building a life, and believe in the life Christ is building in us--every day.


I've enjoyed other books by this author. She has a way of thinking which is outside the box, turning worldly assumptions on their heads and showing that we often make problems where there shouldn't be any. I appreciate the sort of counsel which helps us celebrate where we are, instead of forever urging us to fix or change something. This book is all about embracing our smallness instead of deploring it by hungering for a bigger impact or reach.

We are conditioned to associate the term 'smallness' with being ignored, humiliated or unrecognised. Instead, Emily Freeman invites us to regard smallness as a blessing. Have you ever heard anyone refer to, 'the gift of obscurity'? I have, and never really got their point until reading this book. But who needs the deadlines, expectations and performance burn-out which so often goes with what we think we crave?

Will the fruit of the kingdom of God even look like success in the eyes of the world? Maybe not everyone is supposed to see much visible growth from our efforts in our lifetime. 'If you build it, they will come,' sounds like it might have been a sentiment from the Bible, but it isn't (ask the prophet Jeremiah). Freeman reminds us that the quote is, in fact, far more modern, from the movie, 'Field of Dreams.'

I was offered a new ways to think about the concept of praying for answers. So often, I've longed for clarity and definite guidance as a result of prayer, and felt disappointment when I've remained as foggy and undecided as before. It gives me a 'so much for that' type of feeling, and doesn't tempt me to pray more. This book suggests that maybe we're not even supposed to figure everything out. What if knowing that God has the birds-eye view of our lives is all we need? Maybe our obsession with building our lives into something we can figure out is just tiring. Being content with the fog is definitely a new challenge for someone like me, who loves a measure of control to gauge how things are going.

We are urged by the prophet Zechariah not to despise the day of small beginnings, and most of us assume an implication that a 'big ending' is on its way. That's not actually promised. Our endings may be small too, and we should be happy with that? Maybe being a 'blip' instead of a 'bang' is all part of the plan for an individual. But then the book challenges us further not to jump to the conclusion that what is considered small by the world is also considered small by heaven's measurement.

I felt refreshed, as I'd hoped. The overall takeaway is that a citizen of an invisible kingdom can refuse to take our behaviour cues from the visible world around us, that says to 'build, grow, measure up and rush to keep up.' It's sad that we feel we need permission to settle down to keep the pace with our small callings, but that is what this book offers.

As a bonus, I'm pleased to live in a part of the world where I can see the Milky Way clearly above me at night. So many big city dwellers in Emily Freeman's part of the world apparently can't.

5 stars

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

'Btooom!' by Junya Inoue

2015 Reading Challenge, Week 34 - A Graphic Novel.

For this part of the challenge, I knew I need look no further than my daughter's shelf. Btooom! is a Japanese Anime, and one among many which Emma (aged 16) loves. Well, if I was expecting something similar to the Archie and friends comics I enjoyed when I was young, I had a lot to learn. These graphic novels open from the back cover, for a start, and you must read the pages from right to left. Surprisingly, that didn't take as long to get used to as I expected. Once again, this is something I wouldn't have chosen to read on my own, but the challenge prompted me to broaden my horizons.


Ryouta Sakamoto is 22 and unemployed. To the rest of the world, he looks like an apathetic loner who sits in his room playing computer games. When his mother tries to help him find traditional work, he snaps at her to stop bothering him while he's online (which appears to be always) because he has important priorities which she cares nothing about. In the world of his role play game, Btooom! he is among the cream of the crop, and hopes to secure a job as a game tester with the creator's company, Tyrannos, Japan.

One day, he wakes up to find himself on a jungle island, and discovers that a number of people have been plucked out of their real lives, apparently to play Btooom! for real. Even though survival and self defense come into play, killing people for real is a more sober moral dilemma than simply playing the game online. Along with having to figure out the rules in real life, and the functions of the different explosives (aka Bims) Sakamoto has suspicions about who is behind the whole set-up. Naturally, he wants to escape from the twisted game world, but still has a lot to learn, which gradually unfolds. How did he and the others find themselves there in the first place? Who is the mysterious girl in the high school uniform who seems to possess a good amount of food supplies and Bims?

Even though I'm not the target audience, the graphic novels held my interest and I'm willing to find out what happens further on. The plot has obvious similarities to Hunger Games, but quite a bit of its own intrigue, making us want to get to the nitty gritty and find out who sent them there, how it was done, and what are the personal agendas of several people on the island. It's the sort of story which has room for a bit of character development as well as full-on action. Ryuota Sakamoto isn't the nicest person at the start, but the story has flashbacks to his personal history, which makes the lessons he learns about loyalty and who he can trust more meaningful.

I've only read the three which Emma owns at the moment, and if I want to read more, I have to go online, so I'm not sure how the story will end, although she tells me it's excellent.

My daughter, Emma, cos-playing as the lead female in Btooom! at AVCon recently, including a blonde wig.


Monday, August 17, 2015

'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 33 - A Classic Romance.
I decided to return to the one which I've considered my favourite since my teenage years. This includes all the dramatic movies I've collected. The earliest old black and white, with Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, was a dreadful joke. I haven't seen the most recent, with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, but will do some day.


Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine's father. After Mr Earnshaw's death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine's brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries. The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature. 

It's an improbable set-up, when you think about it. Would Nelly Dean really take the time to tell Mr Lockwood, a relative stranger, all the deepest, darkest secrets of his landlord? Would she be so free with the histories of the two families she'd been loyal to all her life, to amuse a city slicker who just breezed through? And  would he, in turn, decide to write them down? I'm not convinced, but it's definitely a good, dramatic way of gradually revealing flashbacks. And I really couldn't stand either Heathcliff or Cathy. They were savage, selfish brats who deserved each other. Yet I still wouldn't change my 5-star ranking, because this book taught me such a lot about fiction writing since I first read it as a teenager.

The setting, which was Emily Bronte's own environment, was perfect for the plot. The harsh, freezing Yorkshire moors matched the violence and excessive emotion of the story.

The plot itself had me analysing and daydreaming for a long time. It was so symmetrical and well planned, with each half of the book a mirror image of the other. I love how Bronte had the younger generation inadvertently beginning to re-enact the folly of their parents. And it was interesting how Heathcliff was the one who set these machinations in process, driven by his intense desire to avenge himself on the offspring of his dead enemies. Not a nice fellow.

I'm sure the second generation redeemed the story for me. The younger Catherine showed signs of being a pain in the neck like her mother, but didn't get so bad. And Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley's son, turned out to be more of a proper hero than Heathcliff, even though he was not the usual type we find. I was so interested in the budding romance between these two at the end that I didn't really care what happened to Heathcliff and Cathy.

After all the years since I first read it, I still find my thoughts wandering back to Wuthering Heights. I think part of the draw is to do with the author. Emily Bronte herself was so reclusive, wild and creative, it's easy to associate her with her story. I'm sure it will continue to intrigue readers for years to come.

5 stars.

This is me, walking up the steep, cobbled lane to the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth. I was 20 years old, and near freezing, although it was spring on the calendar. I was wearing so many layers of clothing I could hardly bend my arms, and still the chill penetrated. Whenever I stopped moving, my toes and fingers turned numb with cold. For Heathcliff and Catherine to run frolicking on the moors in their shirt sleeves, they must have had fantastic constitutions. 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Euphemisms: Do we have too many?

Not long ago, I wrote a post about the prevalence of cliches, and why writers are instructed to ruthlessly weed them out. I've been thinking about another form of speech, the euphemism, which flies under the radar but is possibly even more annoying.

A euphemism is a roundabout way of expressing something to soften the impact, because the most direct way may be considered too blunt or offensive. At first I assumed many euphemisms might have disappeared with the Victorian era. Those were the days when ladies' sensibilities were fashionably delicate, and even table and piano legs were covered for modesty. However, euphemisms are still flourishing, even in the twenty-first century. So much so that we might not even realise when we are using them. Here are some examples.

Euphemisms that are intended to soften the blow.
b) John is a bit long in the tooth to play football with the boys. (He's old.)
c) Peter is a bit light on top for that sort of hairdo. (He's bald.)
d) We decided to place Jimmy in the special class. (Whoever invented that euphemism surely didn't intend the word 'special' in the traditional sense of the word. When you think about it, that one is sort of condescending.)
e) The ladies of the night stand on that street corner. (Everyone but the children would know their occupation immediately.)
f) The soldiers were killed by friendly fire. (One of the most ironic and sad euphemisms of all, for bureaucratic botch-ups.)

Euphemisms that give rise to others
Bob is visually challenged. (In other words, he's blind, but short people may take it on board and jokingly refer to themselves as 'vertically challenged'.)

Euphemisms that are no longer recognised as such.
Eddie slept with Sue. (Okay, we all know what this really means.)
Mary is carrying a few extra kilos. (You mean she's fat.)
I'm afraid I had to let David go. (In other words, he was fired. The connotation of this euphemism makes it sound as if the employer is doing David a favour.)

Euphemisms that may be as hurtful or worse than the most direct expression.
Roger is just a couch potato. (The imagery is so ruthless, the word 'lazy' may be less insulting.)
The twins' grandma has lost her marbles. (Would the word 'dementia' be any unkinder?)
Richard got Tracy up the duff. (Isn't it far less insulting and coarse to simply say she's pregnant?)

Those euphemisms are closely connected to my favourite.

Euphemisms that have become so over-used, they now have euphemisms of their own.

The word 'toilet' is a prime example. In the olden days, polite people didn't want to say where they were headed, so they resorted to this euphemism. A 'toile' was an old-fashioned French word for a piece of cloth which ladies placed around their necks while they were getting ready for social events. As a kid, I didn't know this. Whenever I came across a sentence, such as, 'Josephine set off to do her toilet,' I'd think, 'Yuck, too much information. Why do we need to know that?' Then one day, it dawned on me that she was actually sitting at her dressing table with her wash cloth and make-up.

So it became a euphemism for the you-know-where (another euphemism), all tied in with cleanliness and grooming. But now what's happened? After decades of being over-used, the word has lost its edge. It's come to stand for what it really is. People now think of several different ways of saying it.

'Can you point me to the bathroom?' (Being an Aussie kid, I used to think, 'Yuck, who'd want to wash themselves in there?)  We hear it called the rest room, the John, the lavatory/lavvy, the loo, the dungeon, the dunny and the little boys'/girls' room.

The future of euphemisms

I can't help thinking that if cliches are menaces, euphemisms may be more so because they are more sneaky. They masquerade as something sensitive and good, yet carry the same tired old baggage as cliches. I can't help wondering whether people from foreign cultures who are trying to learn English get crazily mixed-up, trying to figure out whether or not our expressions are literal. (Is now the time to complain about his cold feet? He only needs to wear warm socks beneath his shoes when he walks up the aisle to marry her.)

However, euphemisms have ancient origins, and having been around for so long, are no doubt here to stay. Even Jesus used euphemisms. He told his disciples, 'Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go to wake him up.' Being a bit obtuse when it came to picking up on subtleties, they said, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well.' Just to make it crystal clear, in case we're slow like the disciples, the Bible tells us, 'Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.' Next, Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead.' It's not difficult to imagine Him rolling His eyes. (This incident takes place in John 11: 11-15.)

It all begs the question, if many euphemisms tend to be silly and pointless, is saying the real thing preferable? What do you think?


Monday, August 10, 2015

'Clara Morison' by Catherine Helen Spence


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 32 - A book that takes place in your hometown.
That's Mount Barker, in the Adelaide Hills, but apart from some of my own novels, it would be pretty hard to find a story set there specifically. I'm broadening the category and going for my city instead. I've lived in different parts of Adelaide in my past, and we still find reasons to commute down there frequently. These days, Mount Barker is considered more a suburb of Adelaide than a town in its own right, as it used to be, anyway.


Set in Adelaide in the early 1850s Clara Morison tells the story of a young educated woman who migrates to South Australia from Scotland kwowing very little of her new home. Clara finds work, battles illness, discovers relatives and slowly finds her place in the struggling colony. Her story, which reveals the fine details of colonial domestic life, is set against the turbulence of the gold fever when men and money streamed out of South Australia to the goldfields in the eastern colonies.
The problems of a new and vulnerable colonist and the atmosphere of public and private financial upheaval are successfully recreated by Spence, making Clara Morison by far the finest novel of colonial South Australia.

After the death of her father, Clara's uncle has no room for her. Her sister, Susan, may at least be useful as a family governess. Clara 'reads aloud with exquisite taste' and can tell you where to find information right down to the page number, but those skills are unmarketable. He comes up with the bright idea of sending her to South Australia, where he believes they're in no position to be choosy. 'Everybody who can do nothing at home is sent out as quite good enough for the colonies.'

It's not as easy to find employment as a lady's companion as they expected, and Clara has no choice but to accept the position of household servant with Mr and Mrs Bantam. In Adelaide, she comes across distant family previously unknown to her, and also falls in love.

The picture of Adelaide life in the colonial era is wonderful. Spence was a woman of the actual time period. This was published in 1854, so her impression of the new settlement is genuine, not written by some modern author who has studied history books and hazards a guess what it must have been like. The descriptions of fledgling businesses on familiar Adelaide streets made me feel as if I was right there. The impressions the characters have of the city layout, one-storey, non-thatched, bull-nosed verandah homes, dusty roads, and unusual flora and fauna would have surely been authentic. I was proud of how the characters show up as people with such a lot of energy and optimism, as my ancestors would have been among them.

Clearly, Spence expected everyone to sympathise with her main character, but I couldn't warm to her. Clara is quick to sum people up as inferior, coarse or vulgar, and spends a lot of time quietly looking down her nose. She's flattered when handsome Mr Reginald considers merry Miss Waterstone 'her companion merely, and not her friend.' Later, she judges him based on his choice of reading matter. 'I cannot read such trash as this. If he admires it, he has not such a fine taste as I expected from him.' (It's revealed a bit further on that the dime novel wasn't even his.) Here's my gripe. The story's villain, the aptly named Miss Withering, is shown up as a social snob, a definite no-no in the new colony. Yet Clara is an intellectual and literary snob, and we were supposed to love her! Talk about blind spots.

It's surprising to read how quick these colonial folk were to assess others neatly on the basis of first impressions and appearances. They'd throw around words like 'ugly' and 'dumb' without a thought. Clara thought the German people working at the Beauforts' were 'very stupid looking' and considered kind Mrs Handy 'a commonplace, talkative woman without any refinement or delicacy of feeling.'

My favourite part by far was the letters sent home from the boys on the goldfields. I liked the Elliot brothers and their friends, who seemed down-to-earth. Their experiences were really interesting, including their contact with Alexander Tolmer, our real-life police sergeant.

For fellow Aussies, it's interesting to see the good old, traditional rivalry between South Australia and Victoria already firmly in place. Several characters make sure to convince others that Adelaide is far superior to Melbourne, 'even though they look upon us with pity and consider us completely eclipsed.' After his experience on the goldfields, the character William Bell says, 'I have not met a South Australian who did not mean to return.'

Overall, I think every person who lives in Adelaide should read this, for the great detail about life in bygone times. Imagine the Torrens being the main source of the city's drinking water! I also had fun trying to picture a time when Adelaide was seen as a sort of women's settlement, because the men were all heading off to Victoria looking for gold. It's fairly upbeat and ends well for most main characters. Long after the book finishes, you imagine Clara and her like-minded hubby sitting by their fire, discussing other people's shortcomings and making snarky, personal remarks.   

Here I am in the city beside a statue of the author, Catherine Helen Spence, who was also known as The Grand Old Woman of Australia. As well as writing novels, she became an advocate for child welfare reform, and also became Australia's first female political candidate. She's someone we can be proud to claim in our Adelaide heritage. Although I'm not sure I would have lived up to her standards of merit if I'd known her, she did have a sense of humour. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Books that are hard to understand

I was excited to get hold of a celebrated book which many people have highly recommended over the years. I started reading with great anticipation, but a moment was enough to show me that it was going to be one of those difficult, wordy reads. The sentences twist and turn, and when you come to the end of a paragraph, you have to return to the beginning to remind yourself what you've just read. The subject matter was great, but my enjoyment had taken a nose dive. It wasn't the treat I expected.

It was a perfect example of why academic and intellectual books aren't my favourites. I often find that I don't completely grasp a chunk of text when I first read it. I need to mull over it a second time, and sometimes even a third. Then, even though it may be good and wise, I get tired of the effort because it makes the reading experience three times as long as it might have been. If it happens to be a dense work of fiction, all my hard work really tends to choke the flow of the story.

The lady who wrote the book I started has been hailed as 'a female Henry David Thoreau' in an article I read. That explains a lot, because I find Thoreau's work just the same. Even though I've had 'Walden' on my kindle for a few years, I've never managed to get right through it.

These types of books remind me of studying English at Uni years ago, when the course material was often so incomprehensible we needed special reference books to help unravel them. I had Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' or Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' open by one elbow, and an Elizabethan almanac by the other. 'I'm not actually dumb,' I'd tell myself. 'It's just that the English language has evolved so dramatically over the centuries between then and now.' But I'm afraid I can't make the same excuse when it comes to figuring out the writing of modern academics in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Here's a confession. I get a bit daunted when I proofread my son's essays. Logan is in his second year of a media degree at Adelaide Uni, the same place I went to at his age. His essays are full of the required long words and waffle, and he tends to let sentences linger on for the length of a paragraph. I have to figure out what he's even talking about so I can do my favour for him, which is to figure out where to place the punctuation. The question, 'Mum, how quickly can you proofread this essay?' might turn out to take the better part of an hour. He sometimes leaves his request until shortly before the cut-off time, usually midnight. One time he got an assignment submitted online with six seconds to spare! Still, I need to take the time to be thorough. I remind myself that he's been studying the subject matter and I haven't.

I wondered whether some subjects are so complex and profound that they can only be expressed in academic waffle. It's a sad thought. With this on my mind, the next book I picked up turned out to be a delightful read. It was chatty and conversational, yet the content was just as fresh and meaningful to me as the more famous book that let me down. It was pleasant to read without sacrificing it's deeper message. I thought of other books which fit the bill too, proving that it can be done. Great truths can be expressed simply, and in a way which appeals to the general population (like me).

I don't give up on those hard-to-understand books. I think trying to untwist meaning from verbose waffle might be good for the brain. However, they are never my first choice. It begs the question, since the easy-reading experience can also be wise and moving, why doesn't everyone use it?

A young woman in the colonial novel I'm reading agrees with me. Now, when I call it a colonial novel, it really was published in 1854. The novel itself is quite easy to understand for its time. It's 'Clara Morison' by Catherine Helen Spence, and the character is Miss Margaret Elliot, who was known around her parts as a bit of a bluestocking. Here's what she has to say.

'If what a man writes is not clear, he must either think indistinctly, which is a radical error, or mystify his clear thoughts by involving them in a complexity of words, which is a contemptible practice, merely followed to make people wonder what the meaning really is and fancy that as it is incomprehensible, it must needs be deep and wide.'

I think that's a good enough wrap-up.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

'Kale and Coffee' by Kevin Gianni

  “Four years ago, when I was something of a YouTube health celebrity, I was on top of the world [and] . . . the diet pyramid. I ate the cleanest, most nutritious diet on the planet (or so I thought). A raw-food vegan diet . . .  not only pure in its contents but also pure in its intention. With this type of diet, you eat straight from the earth, only as nature intended. I ate kale salad, raw nut butters, goji berries, raw chocolate, and dehydrated flax crackers. I drank green smoothies, green juice, wheatgrass, and hemp milk. I even tried a fruitarian diet . . . I thought about food from the moment I woke up until the second I fell asleep . . . I was an addict in search of the purest dope: raw, vegan, organic food . . . I was headed down a path of self-destruction. So it’s not surprising that, like any hardcore addict, I eventually hit rock bottom.”

     So begins the saga of health blogger Kevin Gianni and his wife, Annmarie, as they travel the world to learn as much as they can about health and nutrition.  Along the way they meet unlikely people in unlikely places as Kevin seeks an answer to his burning question:  What—and how much—should we eat?

     Gianni’s lighthearted debunking of the hype and nonsense surrounding much of the health and nutrition world today should be encouraging to anyone who’s ever tried a fad diet and failed. Kale and Coffee is packed with research—delivered in Gianni’s warm and humorous voice—but the aim throughout is to empower you to create the diet and lifestyle best suited to you alone.


Which diet and lifestyle will help us thrive? To me, it's like a jungle out there. There is so much conflicting information in the media. Not only are self-proclaimed experts always contradicting each other, but staple diets from the past are being given the old heave-ho. What are we supposed to do?

Kevin Gianni is a health blogger who made it his mission to ferret out the real deal on health and nutrition. His goal, as he states, was to 'find the people at the top of the misinformation chain and tie them up so they never confuse anyone again.' That made me curious enough to see how he would go. Hoping this book would clear everything up, here are some of the things I found interesting.

1) There is no one-fits-all human diet. We must all consider our own genetic lineage before we start messing around with other diets which suit people who have adapted to their cultures over thousands of years. Yet almost nobody alive in the western world today is a purebred human, coming from just one race. I'm a fourth or fifth generation Australian and already know I'm a mixture of Anglo Saxon, Germanic and probably others.

2) After just a few generations in a new place or with new habits, our genetic expression may change enough that our ideal diets needs to change too. That's the problem behind the philosophy of popular diets such as the Paleo. As we are actually worlds away from our paleolithic ancestors, it doesn't makes as much sense as it sounds to say that we should eat as they did. He visited animal breeders to help make this point, as changes can be observed over several generations of dogs or farm animals far quicker than with humans, yet the same thing happens.

3) Kevin Gianni tried some of the popular diets, including vegan and raw foods. Instead of filling him with energy and well-being, they mucked up his hormones and adrenal glands.

4) Many 21st century 'superfoods' which were unheard of a few decades ago (and we've all heard of many of them, think quinoa, chia, kale), are being pushed by those who market them, but the real indicator of health and longevity may be more about what we leave out of our diets rather than what we add in.

5) Many of us have been brainwashed into believing that exercise has to be hard and painful to be worthwhile. Over-training takes a serious toll on us, yet we all carry on. If our body is our planet, the way we approach fitness is like burning our precious fossil fuels. He believes that an ideal fat burning zone should be between 105 and 134 heartbeats per minute. That information actually changed how I ride my stationery bike. Instead of going flat out and pausing in the middle for a water and breath-catching break, I now easily go for a full half hour.

6) Emotional stress may mess with our health by stewing our organs in a cortisol broth. He urges us to consider stress a bigger threat to our health than french fries and fast food.

7) Technology may be changing the chemistry of our bodies. We are frequently rewarded by a dopamine fix when we see that people have liked or shared one of our social media posts, yet these feel-good chemicals aren't meant to be turned on continually and can harm us in excess.

8) He examines a lot of other interesting information too. For example, are sugar, carbs and gluten really the 'holy trinity' of disease that it's popular to think they are? He also looks at coffee, salt, alcohol and meat consumption. We need to read this with an awareness that all the information may not apply to us, depending on where we are from. For example, the Australian beef industry differs from the horrible situation he describes in which animals are fed bad stuff in small, enclosed spaces.  (He likens their diet to being forced to eat Twinkies out of your own toilet bowl. It fills me with compassion for the animals as well as convincing me of the benefits of free range produce.)

Overall, I'm not certain that Kevin Gianni's book did make things crystal clear, but it made it crystal clear why we can't expect them to.  It definitely inspired me to change a few things which I had no idea were an issue. It really gives us lots of food for thought about physical food in a very entertaining way.

Thanks to Hay House and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, August 3, 2015

'Climbing the Stairs' by Padma Venkatraman


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 31 - A book by an author with your same initials.
Here is a good example of a story I would never have come across on my own. I needed something to fit this category, and this young adult novel fit the bill. 
 A remarkable debut novel set in India that shows one girl's struggle for independence.

During World War II and the last days of British occupation in India, fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of attending college. But when her forward-thinking father is beaten senseless by the British police, she is forced to live with her grandfather's large traditional family, where the women live apart from the men and are meant to be married off as soon as possible.

Vidya's only refuge becomes her grandfather's upstairs library, which is forbidden to women. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house who relishes her intellectual curiosity. But when Vidya's brother decides to fight with the hated British against the Nazis, and when Raman proposes marriage too soon, Vidya must question all she has believed in.

Padma Venkatraman's debut novel poignantly shows a girl struggling to find her place in a mixedup world. Climbing the Stairs is a powerful story about love and loss set against a fascinating historical backdrop


Vidya is a teenage girl of Brahmin descent. At the start of the story, she lives with her family in suburban India. It is the early stages of World War 2, and people in their time and place were puzzled figuring out who they should support. Hitler was out of the question, but Indian citizens had been fighting for independence from British rule, so to them the Allies seemed the lesser of two evils.

At the age of 15, Vidya comes across as part adult and part child. She is very headstrong, with a habit of ignoring instructions she doesn't like and doing as she pleases. I was surprised to find her such a rule flouter in a society which kept a tight leash on their females and their youth. After a terrible accident, her family must move in with relatives in Bombay. The rigid caste system is matched by an equally harsh gender system, keeping males and females separate beneath the same roof. Only men are allowed to use the stairs, and must be served first at meals, by the women.

Some of the adult characters are incredibly nasty to the point of being unbelievable, but I'm sure they are sadly based on reality of those around in that time and place. It's not only Vidya's autocratic uncle and his wife, but the school teacher, Mrs Rao. What an unsympathetic and horrible piece of work!

Book lovers will appreciate how Vidya considered her grandfather's wonderful upstairs library her saviour. I used to say similar things about my own childhood regarding books, but it was one hundred times more the case for her. I love how she decided that Pride and Prejudice wasn't her style, at it focuses too much on people longing to get married, the one thing Vidya was most desperate to escape. She wanted to study at University, but the threat of a Hindu arranged marriage was ever looming. Horoscopes (horror scopes?) of young girls were sent to families with eligible sons, and soothsayers would pore over their charts to examine the positions of the planets on the days of their birth. In Vidya's position, I might have hated the thought of being married too. In spite of all that, there is a delicate little thread of romance running through this book.

The male members of Vidya's immediate family fascinated me most, especially when you consider them together. Her father and brother have the same heroic, altruistic spirit, but it leads them to make radically different decisions. Before his accident, the father, Venkat, was a freedom fighter who embraced non-violent protests, trying to help throw off the heavy yoke of the British. However, his son, Kitta, decides that non-violence may not always work when submitting to one evil man like Hitler means that thousands of innocents are cruelly murdered. I might have preferred a novel from Kitta's point of view even more than this one from Vidya's. Although the household turned from him in shame, I consider him the real hero. His thought processes, leading him to alienate his extended family by joining the British Indian Army, siding with a race he never really cared for, would have been a riveting read in first person.

4 stars