Book Review: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

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A guest post today, from my gorgeous eleven year old daughter Charlie, a competent but reluctant reader who is also “the most faboulousisitst in the world.”*

When the book arrived in the post I thought that it was just my mum hassling me to read more. But that night when I opened the book to start reading it I actually enjoyed it.

The first page was about a mathematician named Ada Lovelace, and I was hooked right away. I think my mum was very surprised when it took less than a week for me to finish the book (that’s really fast for me).

I think that the best books always have a hard cover and a ribbon: this one does. In this book each page is about a different woman, eg: ballerinas, suffragettes, architects, pirates, warriors, singers, etc. some people died in 1458 B.C and some are still alive to this day.

My two favorite pages in the book  would have to be page 78 – Jacquotte Delahaye a pirate who was one of the most feared pirates of the Caribbean. My second favorite is on page 150 – Misty Copeland, a ballerina.

I really enjoyed this book.

 

*Or so says Charlie!

Hilary Mantel talks about history, facts and fictions

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Hilary Mantel, a novelist rightly famous for twice winning the Man Booker prize with her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, yesterday gave the first of her three BBC Reith Lectures.

In the first lecture (published here in this weekend’s The Guardian), Mantel explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction.

You should really go and read the whole thing.

Now.

But if you still need prompting, try this excerpt…

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Or this one

The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement.

What are you waiting for? Click here for the whole delicious thing.

Update: I do apologise! It seems I posted the same excerpt twice, instead of two different excerpts. The second one is now different from the first. Doh!

My Writing Day

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Her name is Winter. She’s a Scottish Deerhound. Yes, she’s very tall. Saves bending over to give her pats – she’s already at just the right height.

One day a week. That’s all I have for my own writing. And when I say ‘day’ I don’t mean a whole day, I mean a school day, between about 9:30 and 3:00pm.

Also minus the school holidays. And minus time spent hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. I’m now very good at Tetris.

My routine, on my writing day, is to take the dog for a walk after I’ve dropped the kids at school. Apart from the many therapeutic benefits of the forest, I use the time to decide exactly what it is that I plan to work on that day. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I don’t decide before I sit down at my desk, then I invariably fritter my time away hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. Did I mention that I’m very good at Tetris?

You’d think it would be easy to decide, each day, what to work on next. Maybe it is, if you have the privilege of working on the same thing for multiple days in a row. But when it’s been a week, or more, since I last looked at the manuscript, I find it valuable to be very clear about the task at hand. It’s not at all simply a matter of writing about ‘what happened next’. If only!

Maybe, for example, I want to Read the rest of this entry

Done! For now at least…

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With apologies to those who already know, via Facebook and Twitter – I sent the draft manuscript to my editor at Text Publishing late last week.

Very happy.

Subsequently spent a relaxing weekend in the garden, and celebrating Mother’s Day with my gorgeous kids.

No deadlines, no pressure – bliss.

Next steps? The editor edits the manuscript, sends it back covered in comments and I go back to working on it. And in the meantime I keep following up and trying to source all the images I need.

And yes, the champagne was delicious.

How to finish a manuscript

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Young Woman Writing a Letter (detail), from a poster for Encre Marquet by Eugene Grasset, 1892. Image courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Well, by not spending time writing blog posts, obviously.

The manuscript must go to the publisher (for editing) in about week, so the last little while has been just a teensy bit frantic.

I kind of finished working on the text a few weeks ago, and since then I have:

  • drawn up a Macarthur family tree (thank you PowerPoint),
  • included a list of NSW Governors from 1788-1855 (eg, in Elizabeth Macarthur’s lifetime),
  • written an epilogue in which I discuss Elizabeth Macarthur’s legacy and her importance to Australia’s historical view of itself (including very brief biographies for each of her children and grandchildren – a sort of ‘what happened next’, if you like), and
  • tidied up and made consistent all the footnotes (now endnotes) and the bibliography.

I’ve also been sourcing images. Naively, I learned upon signing with the publisher that all the images (including copyright permissions, if relevant) have to be sourced and, where necessary, paid for by me. Much daunted, I duly compiled a very long list of all the images I’d quite like to include and then discovered that some institutions are likely to charge me as much as $150 per image. My image list quickly became shorter! Others charge $45.  And still others, like the State Library of NSW, charge nothing for digitised images that are out of copyright. Guess where most of my images will be sourced from…

For those of you who enjoy meaningless statistics, the draft manuscript currently has:

  • 22 chapters
  • 257 pages
  • 121,791 words
  • 842 endnotes
  • 119 works/sources listed in the bibliography
  • and a partridge in a pear tree (not really)

And of course, now that I’ve stepped back from the text, I keep thinking of things to add to it. My haphazard To Do list reads roughly as follows:

  • acknowledgements
  • psychiatrist’s opinion of John Macarthur’s being bipolar (done)
  • rum rebellion – more depth
  • Elizabeth Farm renovation, add letter from EM to her son. ‘The important improvements your dear father mentions’, Elizabeth explained in a letter to Edward, ‘are little other than delusions.’ (done)
  • ‘Quarrels’ chapter – fix it.
  • Banks of Parramatta River – no mangroves! (done)
  • ending, add EM’s comments about collecting sea shells at Bude and her comments re memories of Bridgerule.

Then all I need do is step back and look at the manuscript as a whole and completely revise and … who am I kidding? As a long time promoter of the saying that finished is better than perfect, perhaps I should start practicing what I preach. And I don’t quite have the chutzpah to imagine that I’ll ever achieve ‘perfect’ anyway, so best get the jolly thing off the editor to see what she thinks of it all.

 

Book Review: ‘Death by Dim Sim’ by Sarah Vincent

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Every day at about 3pm Sarah Vincent would get up from her desk at work and haul her 122kg body across the car park to the food van across the way.

Every day she would order three dim sims (or four or five) and eat them.

And every day as she lumbered back to her desk she would sneer inwardly as she passed the smokers huddled outside the hospital where she worked, with their hospital gowns, and intravenous drips, and missing limbs – all desperate for their nicotine fix.

Then one momentous day, as I passed them wrapped in smug self-righteousness … I realised I was just like them. If they were doing ‘death by cigarette’, then surely I was doing ‘death by dim sim’. The only real difference between them and me was that I wasn’t wearing pyjamas … So I stopped eating dims sims and biscuits and ice-creams and all the other foods I knew were bad for me and began to eat fresh wholesome food in moderation and to exercise regularly…  Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t.

Instead Sarah did what she’d done since she first developed a weight problem at thirteen.  She went on a crash diet. Another time she bought a $500 gym membership, only to attend twice. That’s $250 per visit. She put on the fridge a photo of herself in her underwear. She joined Weight Watchers. She studied mindfulness. She attended a 6am boot run by a South African army sergeant who told her she disgusted him. Hypnotherapy. Overeaters Anonymous. Still no weight loss.  And then her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Sarah Vincent’s memoir is alternately hilarious and poignant. Spoiler alert – her husband lives and she loses 40kgs – but the real story is in Sarah’s journey from there to here.

I read this book all in one go and enjoyed every minute of it. The memoir part is the first half, the second half is science (of weight loss), recipes, and weight loss tips. All written in Sarah’s clear-eyed, page-turning prose. Reading it is like having a cuppa with a warm and sympathetic friend, one who is always up for a laugh. The book isn’t about preaching, it’s about saying this worked for me and maybe you might like to try it.

Sarah Vincent is a friend of mine, one of my fellow Hardcopy participants. And maybe I wouldn’t have read this book if I hadn’t known Sarah, because self-help memoirs really aren’t my bag. But I’m very glad I did read it, because regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not Death by Dim Sim is an excellent, beautifully written memoir that deserves a wide audience.

Want to know more?

Here’s a copy of the blurb on the back of the book.

And here is Sarah Vincent’s website.

Book Review: Hippy Days, Arabian Nights by Katherine Boland

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Have you ever sat uneasily next to a talkative stranger at a function, only to find yourself mesmerised by their life story? Amazed by the crazy things they’ve done, dubious at their poor choices, and wincing a little when they shared a little too much intimate information?

Katherine Boland’s memoir is just such a rollicking ride. And I have the feeling she’s never going to look back on her life and wonder if she should have chosen the road less travelled – she’s followed her heart rather than her head every time.

After a childhood spent in England, Spain and rural Australia, Boland and her farmer’s son boyfriend dropped out of uni and followed their hippy dreams instead. They washed up in southern New South Wales, living a frugal alternative lifestyle replete with mudbricks and mung beans. This section of the memoir was the strongest, for me.

Boland and her boyfriend (now husband – a seemingly un-hippy-like decision that the memoir remains silent about) live on their own property, in an area that is soon populated with similar peace and cannabis loving souls. Boland loves her life on the bush block near Bega but doesn’t step back from describing the difficulties: the distance from hospital; living quarters riddled with mould; and the endless backbreaking chores necessary in the absence of electricity and running water.  And those other peace-loving souls are, it seems, just as subject to the darkness of family violence and abuse as the rest of the population.

When a bushfire ends Boland’s 27-year marriage in an entirely unpredictable way, she retreats to the city and reinvents herself as an artist. She rapidly wins a number of scholarships and residencies, including one which takes her to Egypt. There she falls headlong and heedless into a loving relationship with her Egyptian translator – a handsome young man more than 25 years her junior. This second section of the memoir was weaker, for me, but perhaps only because I couldn’t help wanting to take Boland aside and shake her.  What the hell was she thinking?

Well, in the beginning at least it is abundantly clear what she was thinking (and feeling, and touching, and… you get the picture) and jolly good luck to her, I say. But to maintain a long distance relationship with a young Egyptian man in the face of fierce opposition from his family, and in the ever dawning awareness of the huge cultural gulf between them (not least about their respective attitudes about women’s rights and behaviours) was to my mind a step to far. But then what would I know?

Hippy Days, Arabian Nights was a fun read, only slightly marred by the overuse of adjectives and a the under-use of a proofreader. Boland’s gutsy, funny and headlong approach to life makes for a fascinating memoir.