Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Have I told you lately that I like words? That I like books and people who write them (except James Joyce)? Back in May the folks at the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction launched a campaign (using the hashtag #ThisBook) to find the most influential books written by women. The top 20 list was announced yesterday and it's a beauty; a shining and strange collection of books. There aren't any really individual surprises on the list, but taken all together I feel the many ways that these stories and poems have woven their way into our lives. Eight of them have woven their way into mine.

The Color Purple in particular was a powerful book for me, read for the first few times when I was a similar age to Celie when she first started writing letters to God. It was hideously awful and so beautifully written - and it made me fall in love with the epistolary style. My That copy up there is completely falling apart after multiple reads and being passed back and forth between my stepmum and I (err, sorry J, will get that book back to you... um... sometime?). We've shared quite a few books, she and I - Walker, Margaret Atwood, Helene Hanff, E Annie Proulx, Janet Evanovich... mostly books by women. Mostly books we loved and talked about in conversations over the kitchen table, in front of the fire, watching over naked babies on blankets in the backyard, in the Kombi driving up the Pacific Highway. Except for that PD James P&P travesty, which we're never going to speak of again.

If you're hankering to listen to people talking about books, you can peruse a pile of videos at the ThisBook site, with lots of famous women talking about the books by women that have had the most impact on their lives. I really like Shami Chakrabarti's point about To Kill A Mockingbird, which came in in the No. 1 spot: "With human right under attack the world over, the enduring appeal of Harper Lee's great tale gives hope that justice and equality might yet triumph over prejudice."

The full top 20 is:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter - J.K.Rowling (although how this counts as one book, I'm not sure)
  5. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
  8. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
  10. I capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
  11. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  12. Beloved - Toni Morrison
  13. Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
  14. We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
  15. The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  16. Middlemarch - George Eliot
  17. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
  18. The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
  19. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
  20. The Women's Room - Marilyn French
What do you think of the list? Any favourites on there? What book written by a woman has had an impact on your life?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Things I wish I'd known before I had a child

I'm a little swamped at the moment by new babies and pregnant ladies and people asking when we're going to have another. To be honest, I'm still recovering from the first one, and I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to do it again. Pregnancy was relatively easy and enjoyable for me, despite my pelvis falling apart on me around the 25 week mark, some crazy intense night-time leg cramps and an aversion to salad. I'm not sure how well I'd handle doing it all again, though, with a toddler in tow. How would I cope not being able to lever myself down onto the couch and zonk out with an episode of Time Team after work? I looked forward to that couch time all day. 

In the spirit of all these babies and fertilised eggs and questions about number baby two, I'm looking back and offering up a list of all the things I wish I'd known about having kids before I committed to parenthood myself. Because being forewarned and forearmed might have made it all just that little bit easier.

Nothing is quite what you expect. Pretty much everything you read about signs, symptoms and labour will be slightly or completely different for you. My baby's first movements didn't feel like bubbles popping; I didn't feel a single braxton hicks; giving up my underwire bras was not a joyous moment.

Things can start leaking months before birth. And by things I mean just about everything that can, may.

There are more options for a baby's head/body position than just posterior and anterior. I should, of course, have realised this given I was supposedly born arm first. Dear Boy's not-so-little head was sideways. Awkward much.

There are no prizes for giving birth one way or another. Although I think this is usually said by women who've dealt with an intervention of some kind, the women who do it sans drugs or intervention don't have a clubhouse or secret society.

The aftermath of birth is beyond anything you imagined. The leaking fluids, the discomfort, the hormones, the fear of the first poo, the proportions of the maternity pads, the gratitude when a widwife offers you an icepack (or even a finger snapped off a medical glove filled with frozen water).

Labour and birth is the easy part (relatively speaking). I'd rather go through labour once a month for a year than live through the first three months of Dear Boy's life again. The rawness and turmoil of that time have left scars I don't think will ever fade. I wish I'd focused more on preparing for breastfeeding and coping in the first few months than I did on the birth. For months and months I prepared my mind and body for one marathon day of labouring. I didn't prepare it to keep running after that. 

Not breastfeeding is just as hard as breastfeeding. Pulling the pin on breastfeeding is both emotionally and physically painful. It still hurts.

Breastmilk is awesome but, ultimately, a happy, less stressed or coping mother is more important for a baby's wellbeing. Babies can thrive on formula; mothers can't thrive on pain, stress and anxiety. I wish I'd been brave enough to let go of it sooner rather than punishing myself as much as I did for my failure.

Babies don't need stuff. Love, adequate coverage and nutrition - the rest is all for your benefit, not theirs. Buying stuff won't solve most baby issues, although in your sleep-deprived haze you'll try just about anything to settle or soothe them. 

Nothing is a problem until it becomes a problem. Rock your baby to sleep; give them a dummy; co-sleep; sleep separately... it's all fine, until the baby becomes so heavy you can't rock it anymore; or they lose the dummy 20 times during the night and need your help to find it. If you're prepared to pay the piper, parent in whatever way you need to to survive and thrive. 

Each phase is the hardest and the best. In hindsight, I look back at the first few weeks of Dear Boy's life and wonder what the hell I was complaining about. He slept almost constantly, awake for only 15 minutes at a time before he conked again. At the time, it felt like a hellish fog of the unknown. In hindsight, we were incredibly lucky.

Just when you get a handle on this baby gig, it changes. They're finally sleeping well and then you get hit with a classic sleep regression; they're feeding great and then they go on a hunger strike; their favourite song sends them into hysterics; they poo with great regularity and then don't... for almost two weeks.

Forewarned is not always forearmed. Okay I lied. I don't actually think knowing any of these things would have made it any easier. Knowing all of it probably wouldn't have stopped me from barreling on in anyway - somethings you really don't know something until you experience it yourself. The big question is - does the experience stop you from doing it again?

What do you wish you'd known before you had kids? Did you go into parenthood blind or did you study up? 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Vezelay: A teenaged moment of clarity

Maybe it's the winter chill; maybe it's the busy, split-brain feeling from doing three jobs; maybe it's parenting a child that never stops talking; maybe it's the mounting piles of laundry and dishes. But I've found myself looking through my old travel photos. The really old ones, the ones I had to scan in from *gasp* printed photographs, the ones taken with a far from digital camera. I think I've been chasing some of that movement and light-heartedness and possibility I felt when I took these pictures.

I think I've been chasing the exact feeling I had in the photo above, a moment of clarity and calm. Instead of sitting for my trial HSC exams, I was off adventuring in France, meandering through the Louvre, climbing the steps of the Tour Eiffel and up to the Sacre Coeur, shivering in the half light of the Catacombs, creaking through the gilded rooms of the Palais de Versailles, wine tasting at the Nuit St Georges vineyard, breaking my fall with a hand on Monet's Water Lillies... you know... normal tourist stuff. I turned seventeen on the banks of the Seine, lingering over fresh baguettes with Swiss Army Knife cut wedges of cheese.

And on a freezing cold morning, not long after my birthday, we boarded a bus and drove through the frost-covered fields to Vezelay. The regions we passed through from Paris were spectacular. The vines had all been cropped to the trunks for the cold, and the bare earth sparkled with frost.

And then it was there, the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Mary Magdalen), a crown on a tiny hilltop town, rising above the flat plains. We hiked the curving path up around the mountain on foot, and the wind on that bared track was bitterly cold. And then after rounding the final line of trees, there it was, this strange church, with its mixture of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture. Around the doorways were arch after arch of saints and sinners.

We had a guided tour through the church, our guide one of the monks that live on the mountain along with a group of nuns. He was the most intriguing man I had ever met up to that point. He was softly spoken with a strangely accented English, so different from the French around us. He would talk about the history with a great passion but shyly, looking you in the eye briefly before turning his gaze back to his sandal and sock covered feet.

The Basilica (then an Abbey) was a preaching and marshaling point for the second and third crusades (around 1140-1190) and a pilgrimage destination in its own right with a claim to relics of Mary Mag. History upon history upon history. It was the 1946 Crusade for Peace really got me, held on the 800th anniversary of the Crusade of Bernard. Almost 40000 pilgrims came from across Europe, with a person from each nation bearing a cross made from the wood of their homeland. In the kerfuffle of 40000 folks, mostly on foot, Germany was forgotten or ignored and at the last moment German POWs still remaining in the area asked to participate. They came offering up a cross they'd made from the roof beams of a house burnt out by their compatriots, a symbol of reconciliation after a long and bloody war. Their cross with the word 'Allemagne' sits in a small niche behind the pulpit.

After midday, I snuck into the Basilica again, following the sounds of the monks and nuns singing for their service. Dressed all in white, they sung and it echoed around the near empty church. And leading up the aisle was a path of splashed light, a feature of the building's design and alignment with the sun making it a vessel of stone and light.

I didn't find God in their voices or their history or their light. But felt a Samuel L Jackson/Pulp Fiction moment of clarity where everything in the whole world was peace and quiet and beautiful. I think maybe that's the feeling I've been missing recently - that sense that all is right with the world. I've found it in the small moments, in the sigh of a sleeping toddler in the darkness of his bedroom, of a text message that makes me smile, in a job well done, in the solution to a knotty little problem, in the brief weight of Lovely Husband's hand on my head. But I'm missing that broader feeling that everything is okay with the world.

How have you been doing lately? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meatless Monday: Beetroot and apple soup with horseradish yoghurt

That photo doesn't really do justice to the pinky-purple visual delight of this soup. I admit, quite a lot of the food I make is ugly, just not really very photogenic at all. This beauty though is a feast for the visual sense as well. It's also easy-as.

It starts with roasting beetroot, and a little bit of Lady McBeth peeling and chopping. Wear gloves if you're likely to get all 'out, damn'd spot' about stained hands. If you're time pressed, it can start with one of those vacuum-sealed packs of pre-cooked beetroot, but that's a lot less literary minded, don't you think?

Apart from the roasting beetroot, the soup starts in the way of most soups, with a well-chopped mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot, sauteeing in a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stovetop.

When that's softened, I add two grated apples, skins and all because pffft, peeling off fruit and vegetable skins you can eat is not my scene. I used Granny Smiths, but any tart and non-floury variety will work.

Add the cooked and chopped beetroot (about 500g) and then a litre to 1.5 litres of vegetable stock, depending on how thick you want your soup. Drop in a big piece of star anise and then let simmer for 10-15 minutes.

While that's simmering away, mix together a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce (or your own fresh grated horseradish) with a few tablespoons of natural yoghurt. Set aside.

Fish out the anise, season with salt and pepper and then puree the soup in a blender or with a hand-held one, being very careful not to stain the white grout of your tiled splashback (oops).

Service with chopped chives if you have them or chopped baby spinach if you don't as well as a liberal dollop of the horseradish yoghurt.

If you're after a vegan and dairy free version, substitute the natural yoghurt with a non-dairy alternative or cut it altogether. If you do cut it go steady on the horseradish sauce and add to taste as the yoghurt helps to tone down the flavour and keep it out of your sinuses.

This one was toddler approved as long as he had handfuls of crusty bread to dip into it. But just be warned about the post-soup nappy surprise.

Have you tried a beetroot soup before? If you're interested in other kinds, check out Lila's Beeting Heart soup, which comes with chestnuts. Yum.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

We made biscuits, he and I.

These are the bikkies of my adolescence, the ones I made in a kitchen with a terracotta tile floor and pine-wood table. The ones I beat together from soft butter and sugar, with vanilla, an egg, flour, bicarb soda and choc chips; the ones from recipe book that falls open to this page; the ones that never turn out the same way twice - mine usually fat and dry and others flat and chewy. We made them, he and I.

We sat in front of the oven and sang songs while we waited for them to cook and then cool, him digging around the bowl with a wooden spoon and licking it clean. We ate two each and shared a cup of cold milk, passing it back and forth until he turned it upside down and the last drops fell onto the wooden floor.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Criminal Stories

"Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." - Robert McKee.

I came across these mugshots and blogged about them in 2011, back when my images were tiny and ugly and didn't do any justice to the stories in these photographs, to the stories behind their eyes. I'm recycling the photos here again because during a trip through my photo files, I scrolled through them, bam, bam, bam, and was struck by those eyes, those smirks, those clothes, all over again. There are a million new stories in them that I didn't see before.

I met, interviewed and ran into Peter Doyle over and over again during a two year period some time ago. My interest in him was his work as a crime novelist. His reason for being out and about was putting together an exhibition on Sydney criminals. He spoke often of the many surprising stories and photographic treasures he'd unearthed and we saw glimspses of mugshots on powerpoint. Then he showed up in a doco, Recipe for Murder (ABC TV), talking about the now familiar rat-poison crime spree, where a rat plague turned many down-trodden, angry women into husband killers.

Peter wrote an article for SCAN: Journal of Media Arts Culture back in 2005, which is the credited source for these photographs (although they're supplied courtesy of Historic Houses Trust NSW and NSW Police Service). They're the most amazing collection of photographs, not just as historical documents, loaded with intriguing stories, but as works of art, as a strange contradiction between the official photographs taken by NSW Police and the gorgeous lighting, the harsh settings and the almost lovingly flattering framing. Between 1912 and 1930, these 'Special Photographs' are an aberration of police photography, straying from the traditional mugshot style that Australian police had been taking from the 1870s. There is background and context, full body shots and self-posing. There is nothing formal about them. What did Alfred 'Tiny' Ladewig do, who was he, that the police were happy for him to slump in his chair, hands stuffed in his pockets, while they documented him?

These ladies are a wonderful story waiting to happen. As Doyle mentions in his article, it seems as though they've just popped by the cells for a visit before a trip into town. What a lark it seems to them. Compared to the women in the photo at the very top, Vera Crighton, they look like regulars, like sisters, like friends, like secret keepers and story tellers. C Hall, D Morgan and J Taylor walked after this photo was taken, with no charges recorded for them.

The people in these pictures are criminals and innocent bystanders, violent offenders and naive waifs. They demand attention and shrink from it. They are cocky and despairing, aggressive and ashamed. As Doyle puts it, they seem to "fully occupy the picture space, to powerfully declare itself in the medium, to ‘overwrite’ the frame."

Their stories overwrite the frame, leaking beyond it back into the streets of Sydney. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meatless Monday: For the love of a toasted sandwich

Vegetarian toasted sandwich options // Lilybett and Boy

I love me a toasted sandwich for two reasons:
  1. I am a bread and cheese fan - together, apart, whatever, I love those guys; 
  2. Dear Boy eats them - my fussy little thing will munch through a whole sandwich with cheese and veggies with no complaints or stalling or wandering off. Magic. 
Toasted sandwiches used to be our weekend fare when I was younger. My mama had this standard sandwich based around grated cheese and carrot and pepper, with whatever extra veg were at hand. And man, that cheese/carrot/pepper combo has stuck with me. It's one of those transporting flavours, slamming me right back into 9 or 11 or 13 years old.

My new standard for my boy is a grated cheese and carrot combination with finely shredded baby spinach. Two veggies, one incredibly green, and I feel he's getting an okay meal. I've branched out from the standard though and love, love, love playing around with different flavour combos for myself.

My recent combinations:
  • Cheese and pickles (either mustard pickles or finely sliced cornichon/gherkin)
  • Cheese and sliced pear
  • Cheese and leftover roast veg and pesto
  • Cheese and whatever antipasto-type goodies we have in jars in the fridge
  • Cheese and smashed kidney beans, avocado and salsa (I'm currently using Aldi's green salsa - yum)
  • Cheese and disco munch salad (essentially a rainbow of grated veg)
I use whatever I have on hand for greasing the outside, including margarine, butter, softened coconut oil, olive oil or an oil spray. If you have a non-stick pan or sandwich maker, though, you don't really need anything. I'm a firm believer in a toasted sandwich maker (unless you're making quesadillas). Nothing beats the weird shaped and molded sandwich. We have a cheapo one, but it's been with us for a few years. 

I've done a little hunting around and have found a few more meatless toasted sandwich options that I'd like to try:

Savoury (I'm counting these fruity options as savoury):
Are you a traditional cheese sandwich person or do you have a favourite flavour combination? Have you ever tried a sweet toasted sandwich? 


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