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I believe language has power.

Reading about writing. This $2 Saturday morning op-shop find is aIMG_20170928_171739 welcome companion while I’m struggling through the first draft of my novel. Op-shoppers can’t be choosers, so I’ve had to skip Volume One and jump right into the years 1934-1939, where Anaïs finds herself in France on the edge of the Spanish Civil War. In 2017 I’m in Australia, reading in my morning Twitter feed about Trump declaring war on North Korea, and more Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar. And when Anaïs writes about buying a newspaper and reading of “Massacres. Blood. Tortures. Cruelty. Fanaticism” I can’t help but feel that even though eighty years have passed the only thing that has really changed is the media’s medium.

I cling to the world made by the artists because the other is full of horror, and I can see no remedy for it.

Anaïs doesn’t believe in politics. “Art has been my only religion,” she writes. But she isn’t simply trying to escape reality, or to pretend we live in a perfect world. Anaïs is no Romantic. On the contrary, she writes that romanticism is a form of neurosis:

It stems from the same source, a hunger for perfection, an obsession with living out what one has imagined.

Despair, Anaïs muses, occurs when the search for perfection, for a universal meaning, fails:

There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.

Art, for Anaïs, is the giving of this personal meaning, the writing of our own individual novels. Art does not hide reality, but transforms it, illuminates it. And it is hard work – an ongoing, active process that requires daily practice:

The assaults of reality are more and more violent. It becomes more and more difficult to maintain an individually beautiful or integrated world. I have to kill one dragon a day, to maintain my small world from destruction.

Hope is hard. And happiness, Anaïs writes, is “precarious and dangerous … because of what is happening around me. I am always tightrope dancing.” There are times when she feels overwhelmed, “when all I have lived … comes up in my throat, drowns me.” But she survives, finds the good in life, through writing:

I live in a period of dissolution and disintegration … I thought I too would dissolve. But my diary seems to keep me whole.

Reading Anaïs – a writer who is perhaps more well known for her journals than her fiction – is a timely reminder of the power of language. It might not change the world, or even influence political policy, but it can – on an individual level – shape our experience and keep us alive. “I keep on writing in the diary,” Anaïs admits, “a writing which is not writing but breathing.”

Writing keeps alive in us the instinct – possibly naive but admirable in its doggedness – to keep going in the face of an often awful world. An instinct that combines our biological drive to survive with our capacity to create. “Our need to dream,” Anaïs writes, “in the middle of ugliness and a monstrous reality.” Reading these journals has renewed my motivation to write, both creatively and in my own diary. This little op-shop treasure has rescued me, in part, from the despair that can come from too much time to think:

Introspection is a devouring monster. You have to feed it with much material, much experience, many people, many places, many loves, many creations, and then it ceases feeding on you.

So thank you, Anaïs, for helping to feed my introspection. Hopefully this post will go some way towards feeding someone else’s.

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IMG_20170725_160931The last few weeks have, to say the least, been frustrating. Without going into detail, I’m stuck in limbo waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn. The result is a lot of free time, and a lot of restless anxiety. Unable to concentrate on a novel, I decided to re-read this book by Alain de Botton. I was hopeful, as Epicurus was, that philosophy might help “drive away the suffering of the mind.”

I first read The Consolations of Philosophy about five years ago, when I was living in South Korea. My little-black-book-of-quotes is full of wisdom from this volume, and I have drawn consolation from it over the intervening years. De Botton’s explanation of Seneca’s philosophy, for example – “We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them” – has been enormously helpful in dealing with my diabetes diagnosis. Coming back to it now, I’ve found reassurance in the way the ideas in this book help create perspective. It’s grounding to re-think the basics of existence every now and then, particularly when existence isn’t going exactly to plan. Here are some of the main ideas that have helped me navigate my thinking:

  • Frustration and stress are products of “dangerously optimistic notions” of reality

There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy (Schopenhauer)

Basically, we need to lower our expectations of the world around us. When we expect things to work out, and then they don’t, the result is anger, frustration, stress, anxiety. The less we expect, the less we are disappointed. It sounds a bit depressing, but it’s more about being realistic than pessimistic. The world is not here to make us happy. Nature is indifferent to whether we suffer or don’t. Further, suffering is a natural and inevitable part of life. Believing that any suffering we face is unfair or unnatural only increases the pain we feel.

  • Friends are important

He became himself on the page as he had been himself in the company of his friend (De Botton on Montaigne)

Both Epicurus and Montaigne specifically mention friendship as being a vital part of a good life. This is pretty obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Friends give us a chance to be ourselves, they reaffirm our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by sharing and understanding – rather than judging – them. I’m very grateful for all the wonderful friends I have, and I need to spend more time appreciating (and enjoying) these relationships.

  • Nature is important

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. (Einstein)

Schopenhauer turned to the natural sciences in order to better understand human behaviour; Montaigne was interested in investigating and writing about his natural bodily functions; Nietzsche was a big fan of plant metaphors and – for a brief time – became a gardener. When human thinking gets too convoluted and confusing, taking some time out to consider how nature gets things done can bring a lot of clarity.

  • Art is important

[A]rt and philosophy help us … to turn pain into knowledge (De Botton on Schopenhauer)

For Epicurus, art is the antidote to advertising. Art shows us what we truly need (friendship, thought, freedom) stripped of all the crap advertising tells us we need (the latest iPhone, a fancy notebook, a new car). Art also, like friendship, reflects our experiences and helps us understand and cope with pain and suffering. A poet creates a story about a specific character that deals with universal themes, which we in turn – as readers – can relate back to our own individual experiences.

  • Simplicity is important

We are richer than we think, each one of us. (Montaigne)

It is possible to over-think things. It is also possible to over-write, and over-educate. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is value in our own experiences, and in how we process and use those experiences. As humans we are intelligent, but we are also often impulsive and foolish. As Montaigne notes, “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.” Don’t just write about the complicated, universal stuff. Write about the specific, the individual. Write about the small and sometimes embarrassing details of what it’s like to be human. And don’t use big fancy words to do it.

  • Difficulty is important

[I]n the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. (De Botton on Nietzsche)

Not only should we expect life to be difficult, we should be thankful for those difficulties. It is through pain and suffering that we are given the chance to grow, to learn, to become better. Every time we are faced with something hard, we should look at it as a challenge. As an opportunity to become stronger, more compassionate, smarter, or – perhaps in my particular case – more patient. De Botton puts it beautifully when he writes: “We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.”

I’ve read this book before. I’ve heard and thought about all of these ideas numerous times. But it is always useful and enlightening to come back to them again, to review them in a new context. Re-reading de Botton hasn’t solved my problem, but it has helped me accept and deal with it. I’m still waiting, but I’m waiting a little less anxiously.

Since I finished uni last month I’ve been on a bit of a reading spree. My book binge is thanks – in large part – to Text Publishing, who generously provided me with a wonderful selection of middle grade and young adult fiction. This post is an attempt to capture the joyful, heartbreaking and happily-strange experience of reading for kids and young adults.

IMG_20170625_082919I started with last year’s Text Prize winner – Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian (in the form of an uncorrected proof). Thanks to my six-month-old puppy the spine of this book is now its own beautiful mess, but this didn’t stop me finding a place for it on my bookshelf. Beautiful Mess is a novel that treats IMG_20170625_082952teenage readers as young adults – its characters are flawed, there is no happily-ever-after ending … And yet there is hope. Beautiful Mess is funny, engaging and overwhelmingly honest. This is a novel capable of rekindling a love of reading; a friend recently emailed me to say that the sixteen-year-old she had given Beautiful Mess to had previously lost interest in reading, but now loves it again. What writer could ask for a better review than that?

 

IMG_20170625_155816Goodbye Stranger by American author Rebecca Stead sits somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. I was drawn in by the characters and the story almost immediately. Reading a book like this (especially in winter) is like getting into a warm bath – cosy and totally immersive. I loved the little details of this novel – Bridge and her cat ears, Sherm’s unsent letters – and how they wound themselves into a larger message about the meaning of life. Goodbye Stranger also tackles some difficult issues – such as relationships and social media – in ways that reveal the complex motivations behind teenage behaviour.

Iris and the Tiger (Leanne Hall) and Elizabeth and Zenobia (Jessica Miller) seem IMG_20170625_082903geared towards younger readers, though the ideas in both of these novels are complex. What struck me most about these two books was the element of surrealism running through them. Iris and the Tiger is based around surrealism in art, and suggests – through the protagonist’s encounters with a number of unreal and unusual creatures – that art (and life) is all about perception. Elizabeth and Zenobia – a dark tale of grief and ghosts – creates an atmosphere that is increasingly strange, fantastic, and creepy.

IMG_20170625_082829I also read a couple of young adult novels from the Text Classics collection. Hills End by Ivan Southall was first published in 1962, and feels like a darker and more complex Enid Blyton story. A post-disaster survival tale that skips easily between perspectives to reveal the insecurities of each character, Hills End avoids the traditional adults-to-the-rescue ending. I can’t believe I have never encountered this novel before now. Likewise I for Isobel by Amy Witting, IMG_20170625_082817the first novel for young adults I’ve ever read that is written in an almost stream of consciousness style. This book is internal to the point of feeling claustrophobic at times, but beautifully written. And very dark. Like Beautiful Mess, I for Isobel doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to theme, starting with the trauma of being born to a mother who doesn’t (can’t?) love her children. I found a lot to like about this book, and it definitely warrants a re-read.

IMG_20170625_082759I finished with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s novel The War That Saved My Life, set during World War II in London and rural England. I absolutely loved this book. From the very beginning I was right there beside Ada and Jamie as they are evacuated from London before the city is bombed. Again, this is a book for kids that doesn’t shy away from difficult experiences and emotions. Like I for Isobel, Ada is processing the trauma of a mother who doesn’t love her; who is actively cruel. This novel presents Ada’s emotional upheaval realistically, and with no easy explanations. As readers we ride the waves of fear and despair and uncertainty along with Ada. The War That Saved My Life presents so many questions for young (and old) readers, and would be a great book to read and discuss with a class.

I’m really impressed with Text for publishing books for young readers that are so different – books that don’t talk down to kids and teenagers, books that offer up ideas and characters that are complex. The kinds of books that kids can both enjoy and be inspired by. I’m excited to recommend these novels to young adults I know, and to incorporate them into my teaching. And – of course – I’m excited to read more books like these. I’m proud to be a grown adult who loves reading middle grade and YA fiction. A good book is a good book, and these are some of the best I’ve read in a long time.

Just a quick post in the midst of furiously finishing uni assignments to announce some exciting news …

My very first novel – The Peacock Detectives – has been shortlisted for The Text Prize

&

will be published by Text Publishing!

The Peacock Detectives is a novel for middle-grade readers (roughly ages 8 to 12) about a young girl searching for two peacocks that disappear from the holiday flats next door. Ostensibly a mystery, The Peacock Detectives is really about family, grief and coping with mental illness.

I first started working on The Peacocks in 2012 while I was living in Asia. Huge thanks to the dedicated members of Seoul Writers Workshop and Phnom Penh Writers Workshop for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Thanks also to all those family members, students and friends (and children of friends!) who read drafts and shared their thoughts.

And of course thank you to Text! I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to work with this wonderful publisher.

Finally, congratulations to the other three shortlistees – Adam Cece, Sharon Kernot and Brendan Lawley. I’m looking forward to meeting you all in May and reading your work!

Okay, excited post over. Resuming assignments … now.

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peacock artwork by Emma Manning

When I was in high school I thought themes were mysterious secrets locked inside novels, short stories, poems. Discovering them was like solving a cryptic crossword clue – finding a word to fit the boxes but never being exactly sure of the connection between the answer and the question. For a while I relied on teachers or Google to reveal the themes of a novel to me. It has taken probably ten years to wrap my head around what I really mean when I talk about themes – and it has taken teaching ‘theme’ to finally allow me to articulate it.

So. Articulate away then, Carly. What’s a theme?

Theme

  • A theme is a big idea in a novel (or short story, film, poem, play etc).

  • It is a big idea that recurs throughout a novel. Not just once or twice.

  • It is a big idea in the sense that it is broad and abstract: something universal (experienced by everyone) and yet subjective (experienced differently by everyone).

  • It is a big idea in the sense that everyone would – if they had to draw the idea – create a slightly different picture.

  • Some examples of big ideas (i.e. themes) are: love, identity, death.

  • It is a big idea PLUS the author’s interpretation/opinion of that idea. For example: love PLUS/+ takes many different forms and changes over time.

  • A novel is itself a specific example of a theme. A novel is a picture of the big idea. One person’s (the author’s) drawing of what this idea is about.

  • Novels have themes (big, over-arching ideas) and characters, narrative, setting (small, specific examples of themes).

  • Themes are found by looking at these examples (characters, narrative etc) and thinking about what keeps coming up. What are the characters preoccupied with, for example? In Burial Rites, why are there so many mentions of ravens? What sort of theme (big idea) might this be an example of?

Another way of thinking about – and figuring out – theme is to look at plot structure. I like to think about plot as a mountain shape – the story begins at the bottom of the mountain, a problem starts the climb, rising action is the climb, the climax sits at the top, and falling action is the descent. However, when a story comes back down its mountain it doesn’t end up at exactly the same level as it did when it began. This is because, although things go back to normal for the protagonist, it is a new normal. Something has changed – permanently – because of the story, because of the journey she or he has taken.

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In order to decide on the major theme of a novel it is sometimes useful to think about the following equation:

what has changed for the protagonist

+

why

=

theme

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I first read Burial Rites last year, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was very different to what I was expecting. I think, because Hannah Kent is an Australian author, I was imagining something set in the bush, the outback, the Aussie suburbs. Needless to say, 1820s Iceland was a surprise.

20170326_152622I liked Burial Rites after the first read. I thought the story was interesting, well-paced; I thought the writing was beautiful and crisp. I liked it, but I was not really invested in it. I felt like there was more to it, and that it warranted a second read. I wasn’t, however, planning to read it again. There are so many books on my shelf that haven’t had a first read. In a perfect world, I would love to read every book twice. There is something so different about a second read, but I just don’t have time.

Burial Rites is a Year 12 text, and I happen to be tutoring a few Year 12 students. So it was out of necessity, rather than choice, that I came to read Burial Rites a second time. And after the second read things really started to seep into me. So much so that by the end – knowing exactly how it would end – I was moved almost to tears.

The second read of a novel is where theme really starts to come into focus. Because you know the story you can concentrate on the details – on the description, the characters, the repeated moments, the structure of the narrative. You can highlight and scribble notes in the margins, and begin to see the symbolic shape of the novel rather than just its events.

One of the big ideas that recurs throughout Burial Rites – that starts to become clear during a second read – is identity. The very structure of the novel – told in third person from a number of different points of view – hints at this. So does the main character’s – Agnes – need to tell her story, to let people know who she is, to confirm her own identity.

Identity is a universal idea. Everyone has an identity, and everyone attempts to understand the identities of people around them. It is also a specific, subjective idea. Everyone thinks differently about how to define themselves and those around them. Do we understand identity by looking at physical appearance, by listening to what people say about themselves, or what others say about them?

Trying to understand what Hannah Kent thinks about the theme of identity (her opinion or the value she places on it) is a little trickier. To find out, we can look at how she presents the journeys of her main characters. How they are changed through the course of the story, and what this says about who they are.

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Let’s focus on Agnes. How is she different by the end of the novel to the beginning? Most obviously, she is alive at the beginning and dead at the end. Her physical state has changed. But what about her mental state?

Burial Rites is – in a very large sense – the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she is going to die. She is preparing for death, getting ready. At the beginning of the novel she is not ready to die. At the end – though she is still terrified of her execution – something has changed. She has made some peace, she has found people who support her, who don’t believe she deserves to die. She has gone from being alone in her death, to being with others.

Why? What was it that changed these circumstances for Agnes?

I would argue that it was the fact that she was able to tell her own story. To show people who she was through action (her hard work on the farm, her care for others) but also through her own words.

So – what has changed? Agnes is accepted, supported, has her identity confirmed by others.

+

Why? Because she was allowed to demonstrate her identity through words and actions.

=

Theme: True identity is discovered through being given the freedom to express ourselves through how we tell our own stories, and through what we do.

Of course, all this is open to interpretation. There is no fixed rule about how to find themes in texts – this post is an illustration of my own personal approach, of an approach that works for me. As long as you can support your own thematic opinions with evidence from the text, anything you say is valid.

Some people feel that by analysing novels we destroy them, draining all the pleasure out of a good story by picking away too closely at the details. For me, however, looking closely at a text (reading it again, highlighting, note-taking, discussing, thinking) adds another layer to my experience that is so much richer. I like analysing novels for the same reason I write about them here on this blog – because it gets me to think deeper, and in thinking deeper I inevitably find something that surprises, inspires or simply changes my ideas. This is a process that I find both enjoyable and important to the way I grow as a person, the way I interact with the world. Searching for meaning in a novel like Burial Rites adds another thread of meaning to my own life. It’s a search that enriches, engrosses, and lasts a lifetime.

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s latest novel – The Good People – was published in 2016.

My car is full of 90s mix-tapes. Driving in Australia has become an exercise in nostalgia: Rage Against the Machine, Spice Girls, Take That, the Scatman. Each song carries with it a high school memory: a party, a friendship, a boy, a fight. It is a strange form of time travel.

It’s been eight years since I’ve lived in Australia. Eight years since I’ve had a fixed Aussie address, tax file number, bank account. Coming back toimg_20161214_182114 Australia from Southeast Asia creates a kind of reverse culture shock. We are surprised when cars slow down for us at pedestrian crossings, shocked by the seemingly exorbitant price of mangos, and confused by the workings of local government. It’s a tricky transition, but an exciting one. There is the thrill of fresh air, of bird song, of having a backyard that borders the bush. And, of course, there is the joy that comes with reuniting with family and friends.

We’ve moved back to my home town, where my parents still live. We are renting the house across the street from where I grew up, and earlier this year I did a teaching placement at my old high school. In a way it’s like slipping into a parallel universe – the same place, but a very different life. The same birds (kookaburras, king parrots, currawongs), the same trees (gums, pines, wattles), the same mammals and reptiles (kangaroos, possums, blue-tongues). But instead of walking to school I’m driving; instead of studying for SACs and exams I’m teaching for them. I pay rent and bills and (try to) remember to put petrol in the car. Suddenly I’m living a ‘grown-up’ existence in a place where I was always a kid. Needless to say, it’s taking some getting used to.

We moved here for a number of reasons. We moved in such a hurry because university said I had to. Since February I’ve been studying a Master of Teaching (basically a one-year diploma with an extra six months of research tacked on the end). I could write an entire post on this course – on how it’s taken over my life, on the disconnection between theory and practice, on the wonderfully hard-working teachers I’ve met on placement. But, to be honest, I need a break from all-things-uni. Perhaps when it’s all done in mid-2017 I’ll be able to write about the experience with some objectivity.

As busy as it’s been, working as a pre-service English teacher has allowed me to dive back into reading. In the last year – for my teaching placements – I’ve read: Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein and 20160429_125519Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson (Year 7); Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden (Year 8); Deadly Unna by Phillip Gwynne, Parvana by Deborah Ellis, Private Peaceful by Michael Murpurgo, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein (Year 9); The Secret River by Kate Grenville, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do, 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose and First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung (Year 10); Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Turning by Tim Winton, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Year 11); The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (Year 12).

Somehow I also managed to read quite a few non-school books, mostly thanks to the local library. To be honest, I stopped keeping track after a while, but the ones I did write down included The Tiger’s Wife by Tea O’Breht, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, After the Flood by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to Oryx and Crake), Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2016, it would be Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. A novel by an Australian author, set in Iceland in 1829. A little slow moving at times, but very atmospheric. Lovely descriptions of weather and the landscape. There is a compelling mystery at the heart of the story that kept me up late. In many ways, Burial Rites feels simple – a very readable novel about a crime committed, about relationships and place. However, there is a lot left to the imagination, too. The powerlessness of individuals in the face of the law, the relationship between Iceland and Denmark, the impact of religion. This is a novel that cries out to be re-read.

When uni became too much I retreated to my hard drive, and watched Sleeping Sickness (2011, director Ulrich Kohler), Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong), Sound of My Voice (2011, Zal Batmanglij), Narcos (TV series, 2015-, created by Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro), Through the Forest (2005, Jean-Paul Civeyrac), Vinyan (2008, Fabrice Du Welz), The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Steven Soderbergh), They Might Be Giants (1971, Anthony Harvey), London to Brighton (2006, Paul Andrew Williams), Mingri Tianya (2003, Yu Lik-wai), West of Memphis (documentary, 2012, Amy J. Berg), Dark House (2014, Victor Salva), The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers), Hunger (1966, Henning Carlsen), Post Mortem (2010, Pablo Larrain), The State I Am In (2000, Christian Petzold), Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977, Richard Brooks), Ravanche (2008, Gotz Spielmann), Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), The Last of England (1988, Derek Jarman), Girls’ Night Out (1998, Im Sang-soo), Old Boy (2003, Park Chan-wook), Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) and Snowtown (2011, Justin Kurzel).

A number of films stood out for me this year (The Witch, Old Boy, Miss Bala, Vinyan, Sound of My Voice, Secret Sunshine, Snowtown). The film that had the biggest impact on me, however, was Blind Mountain (2007), directed by Li Yang. Set in China in the early 90s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Li does a good job of showcasing the pressures that result in such a horrific situation. This is the kind of film that could create conversation and potentially instigate a shift in thinking. Potentially. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

Now it’s December, and life has finally afforded me some good weather and free time. I’m using it to sit outside, look for platypuses, write, and generally comes to terms with where I am.

So far, so good.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year. Scraps & Fragments will be back in 2017 – see you then!

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Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide. Her most recent novel, The Good People, was published in 2016.

Li Yang is a Chinese director and writer. His first film – Blind Shaft – was released in 2003.

On my first ever trip to Canada I got off the plane in Vancouver – in a dopey, what-day-is-it Valium-haze – and was greeted by a tank of drifting jellyfish. I hadn’t even left the airport and already I knew I was going to like it here.20151216_111352

We flew to Canada from Cambodia last December. The country was a flurry of snow and Christmas lights, and family. In just over a month we ate the biggest piece of apple pie I’ve ever seen in a Vancouver diner, hiked through snow (in snow-shoes) in the Pacific Ranges, and browsed Munro’s Books in Victoria. And somehow – awake in the wee hours of the morning on jet lag and too much Tim Hortons – I managed to watch around 12 films/TV shows and read at least 10 books. Yeah. It was a pretty good Christmas.

Pemberton

20151220_104112A few hours’ drive from Vancouver is the small town of Pemberton – home to bears, the second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want To Believe), and a lot of snow. In Pemberton I woke up at midnight to see a snowplow clearing the street. In Pemberton I hiked to a glacial lake where a Whisky Jack bird landed on my hand. And in Pemberton I read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I bought this novel months before reading it, at the little bookshop in Kampot, along with a collection of Lahiri’s short stories. I found it hard to get into at first, but then I finished it quickly. Like many of Lahiri’s short stories, The Lowland is a novel that moves between20151218_115941 India and the United States. It spans generations of characters, and time is non-linear (in this sense it reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Unlike Roy’s novel, however, I found it hard to connect with characters in The Lowland – there are perhaps too many different perspectives, interspersed with a lot of politics. There aren’t many narrative surprises in The Lowland, but the writing is beautiful – wonderful use of metaphor, vivid descriptions of place, the smells of food, the heat. A strange book to read in the midst of a snow storm, but a good one.

Victoria

We spent Christmas in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. Victoria is a playground for squirrels, raccoons and deer (and sometimes, consequently, cougars). There seems to be beautiful, rocky shoreline in walking distance of almost everywhere – the perfect place to sit with a takeaway coffee and contemplate life (or spot seals and 20151221_113647bald eagles). In Victoria I was introduced to hockey, candied salmon, and drive-through Tim Hortons. I was also (re-)introduced to that most excellent Christmas tradition of endless amounts of reading (and film-watching) time.

In Victoria – mostly while on the couch with a heated blanket – I read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, The Gathering by Anne Enright, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. My Boxing Day book – a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s parents – was Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

This novel was like nothing I’ve read before. Nora Webster is a quiet, character-driven book. At first I was expecting events to thread themselves into a story. Instead, the novel explores all the mundane, everyday moments that help (and don’t help) Nora deal with the grief of losing her husband. It is an almost stream of consciousness style of writing, Virginia Woolf-esque, although the language is less flowery, the prose crisper and simpler. It is very well written. In the background is the larger story of Ireland and the ways in which it comes to terms with its own grief. Even though the plot is not ‘traditional’ there is a sense of resolution towards the end – a climax that is without fanfare but that is real and satisfying. There is something very gentle yet intensely beautiful about this novel. I finished it in just a few days.img_3405

In-between books I explored the (seemingly endless) contents of my hard drive, and watched Brand New Life (2009, director Ounie Lecomte), The Fall (2013-, TV series, created by Allan Cubitt), A Hanging Offense (2003, director Guillaume Nicloux), Claire Dolan (1998, director Lodge Kerrigan), Dogtooth (2009, director Yorgos Lanthimos), Innocence (2004, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic), Kill List (2011, director Ben Wheatley),
Margaret
(2011, director Kenneth Lonergan) and Nenette and Boni (1996, director Claire Denis). The film that has stayed with me the longest, however, was The Lobster (2015, director Yorgos Lanthimos).

Perhaps not quite as strange as Dogtooth, The Lobster is still wonderfully weird and completely compelling. The premise – a dystopian future where people without partners are corralled together in a hotel and forced to find true love or be transformed into an animal of their choice – is both imaginative fantasy and insightful social commentary. Visually it is beautiful and surreal – random animals walk by in the background, a flamingo here, a camel there. It sounds fantastic – the music in the first slow motion hunting scene is magical, and there is something strangely stilted about the way actors speak their dialogue that works really well. The Lobster is weird, thoughtful, shocking and lovely. The kind of film that makes me want to watch more films. Highly recommended.

Pitt Meadows

On the outskirts of Vancouver is Pitt Meadows – a suburb that feels more like a small rural town, home to berry farms, mountains, forests, red picture-book barns, and my boyfriend’s brother and his family. In Pitt Meadows we went for long walks, learned all there is to know about baby zombie alien lizards, and – unfortunately – had a run-in with 20160114_140817some black ice. Miraculously everyone was fine, but after a family trip to the emergency room we spent the rest of our visit indoors, where the kids watched Minions and I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

A family epic, over 500 pages long, Middlesex starts in Greece in the 1920s and ends in Berlin in the early 80s. Middlesex is the story of the passing down of a genetic trait that leads to the narrator, Calliope, (later Cal). A first person novel that is also omniscient in style – reporting the thoughts and actions of people the narrator couldn’t possibly know. I’m in awe of the expanse of this novel – of the amount of history and historical detail it encompasses. It did take a while to get into, but by about two-thirds of the way through – when the story finally reaches Cal – I was addicted. I liked the narrative voice, but at times I felt like passages were too wordy. The family history probably didn’t need to be quite so detailed, but at the same time I did appreciate the breadth and depth of this novel. Middlesex completely envelopes the reader for days. A wonderful, overwhelming read.

Vancouver

The highlight of our Vancouver visit was definitely The X-Files forest (a.k.a. the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve), but we did manage to see some other sights. Rabid 20160117_131927raccoons and beaver dams in Stanley Park (no actual beavers), Emily Carr paintings at
the art gallery, and some frighteningly large seagulls. We ate Nanaimo bars on Granville Island and about twelve different types of eggs Benedict in Kitsilano. I also raided my boyfriend’s sister’s bookshelf, and discovered a classic Canadian dystopian novel – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Told from the point of view of a narrator known as Snowman, Oryx and Crake tells the story of a destroyed Earth and a new species – Crake’s children. The novel skips between Snowman in the present – hunting for food in dilapidated shopping malls – and his memories of the past. I liked the world Atwood has conjured in this book – so vivid, recognisable enough to be plausible, different enough to be fascinating. Intriguing exploration of gene splicing and the creation of new species’, as well as consideration of the role of art and the influence of advertising. I wanted a bit more to happen at the end, but I did have to finish it quickly before getting on the ferry to head back to Victoria (and then to Cambodia a few days later). I’m not usually a fan of science-fiction/fantasy writing, but for some reason Margaret Atwood really draws me in.20151220_135805

We ended up staying longer in Canada than we had originally planned. For a number of reasons, but largely because it was so good to be with family. Our time in Canada was a catalyst, I think, for the making of decisions that eventually led us to leave Cambodia for
Australia. I’m at a point in my life when a Christmas spent on the couch with a pile of books is preferable to travel; when New Year’s Eve at home with family and Chinese takeaway is better than bar-hopping and drinking ’til sunrise. Canada came along at just the right time. And from here – in the heat of Australian December – I’m looking forward to our next rainy Vancouver adventure.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author born in London. She currently lives in New York.

Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer and essayist. Nora Webster is his eighth novel.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek film director and screenwriter. His next film – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – is due for release in 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer. He is perhaps best known for his novel The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film in 1999. Middlesex was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author. In addition to Oryx and Crake, her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.