The detective and the priest: Leigh Sales’ tales of love, loss and hope

This story originally appeared here, on WAtoday. It’s a long read, but I poured my heart into writing this on Friday, so if you are interested, please grab a cup of tea and give it some time. 

If you’ve ever experienced traumatic grief, you will know a part of you will always be grieving, will never get over it, despite you managing to build a ‘new normal’.

But after some years passed, another part of you might have realised it taught you something, sparked a change.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded. Image: AP

Maybe something big and visible, a new mission. You’ve committed to making a difference in the world, and now you’re got the iron will to achieve it.

Maybe something more private. You’re more compassionate, more ‘present’, more appreciative of the small things.

Are you grateful for these changes? Of course you are.

Would you give them up in a heartbeat just to have that person you lost back? Just to hear their voice one more time, give them one more hug, even for one minute?

Of course you would.

It’s hard to acknowledge anything good could come from the worst thing that ever happened to you.

But just as grief is a universal human experience – as terrible as we sometimes are at talking about it – it might comfort you to know that this unexpected gift of growth is not an aberration.

“I don’t think many people have heard of post-traumatic growth, as it’s a relatively new field of study,” said Leigh Sales, who explores the concept in her new book, Any Ordinary Day.

“Most psychological research in the past has focused on the ways that awful life events impair normal function.

“Post-traumatic growth is the positive personal changes in outlook or attitude people can experience in the wake of something awful happening to them.

“Of course, nobody would ever want this, you’d rather not have the bad thing happen to you and not experience the changes!”

Sales, who appears this weekend at Perth’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas, said it was only 25-30 years ago some US researchers started to ask if, after a period of time, traumatised people might not just return to “normal” functioning but instead in some cases have “enhanced” functioning.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend. Image: Daniel Boud

“People sometimes used their awful personal experiences to affect positive change for society as a whole – for example, Walter Mikac, whose whole family was killed at Port Arthur, was a major voice in the gun reform campaign in Australia in the late 1990s,” she said.

“Rosie Batty turned her personal tragedy into a major national campaign for domestic violence awareness.

“[Now] extensive research, looking at people who’ve experienced all kind of cataclysmic life events, from facing breast cancer to dealing with a death in the family, shows that people do develop in positive ways from those experiences.”

Sales, best known for her work on ABC’s 7.30, herself lived a blessedly lucky life until one day, about to give birth to her second child, she suffered a uterine rupture – a rare and often catastrophic event that frequently kills the mother, baby or both.

They both survived, but Sales’ sense of trust in the world had been irrevocably damaged.

She began to dwell on luck and chance, on blindsides, fear and how people cope with loss. Not losses like the expected death of an elderly parent, but the ones that can instantly tear a life apart.

She had spent much of her career trying to avoid direct exposure to these events, she wrote. But her own life in 2014, plus the news stories she anchored afterwards, made her realise avoidance was pointless – like “trying to hide from life itself.”

In an effort to walk towards, not away from, such possibilities, to stare them in the face, she wrote Any Ordinary Day.

Sales interviewed people including Stuart Diver, the sole survivor of the Thredbo disaster, whose wife died beside him; Walter Mikac, whose family died at Port Arthur; and Louisa Hope, a sufferer of multiple sclerosis who was also a hostage in the Lindt Cafe siege.

She crunched the numbers on the actual odds of a person experiencing such happenings and examined the reasons we all tend to be far more afraid of being involved in, say, a terrorist attack, than a car crash (spoiler alert… the media plays a role).

She also spoke to “ordinary” people who had lived through events that never entered the national consciousness, but were nevertheless the stuff of nightmares, asking them and herself: How did you survive? And if it happens to me, how will I bear it?

The answers were unexpected and precious: stories of resilience, love and hope, such as that of Juliet Darling, the priest and the detective.

Juliet’s late partner Nick Waterlow had an adult son from a previous relationship who had paranoid schizophrenia and believed his family was plotting to destroy him.

One night at a dinner, Antony stabbed his sister and father to death. His sister’s daughter, a toddler, was also seriously injured.

Any Ordinary Day is Leigh Sales' third book.

Juliet had not gone to dinner. The news of her partner’s death was brought to her doorstep.

But so was something else: people whose actions illuminated the vital role other people can play for another’s recovery.

In the following days, while Juliet was rocked with shock and fear, Father Steve Sinn, who would oversee the funeral, and lead investigator Detective Graham Norris, made countless small and yet infinitely compassionate gestures.

Father Sinn’s first gesture on entering her home was to throw away a vase of dead flowers, without pausing for permission or directions.

At Nick’s funeral, with Antony still at large, Detective Norris slid up to her and murmured, ‘You don’t need to be afraid, you can’t see us but we’re everywhere’, freeing her to farewell her partner without having to glance over her shoulder.

“Often people reported to me that when something dreadful happened in their life, some of their friends disappeared because they didn’t know how to cope,” Sales said.

“It was a bit like being plonked into a foreign land … if you found people who could speak the language, they were like lifelines.

“In Juliet’s case, she had two people who came into her orbit who seemed to speak the language … both seemed to understand death and they didn’t seem rattled or fearful.

“Both acted as if they believed she’d cope, and so that made her feel more calm.”

Three years after Nick was murdered, Juliet’s son George, a healthy 26-year-old, died of sudden and unexplained heart failure while at work.

“She had such a rough trot and she was a lovely person,” Sales said.

“I found her, like everyone in the book, completely compelling and moving in describing what she’d been through and how much insight she had into it. And also her bravery in telling me about some of the worst things in her life because she wanted people to understand what it’s like and to know better how to help others.”

Juliet’s experiences forced her to re-evaluate the beliefs that had previously shaped her understanding of the world.

She had once believed that everything happened for a reason, for example.

And that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

She now dismissed that as a cliché; no, she believed, something so terrible could easily weaken you.

But she was now more attuned to kindness in the world around her.

And more compassionate towards people who struggled to know what to say or do in the face of loss.

“People can sometimes feel resistant to the idea that such a horrible thing has changed them in positive ways, because of course, the pain of what happened is so much more present than any sense that you’re a more compassionate or present person,” Sales said.

“As I said, nobody would want post-traumatic growth if they had a choice. You’d rather be a lesser person and not have the trauma.”

And of course, anyone would choose to take that trauma from a friend if they could.

But in the absence of such an ability, Sales remembers advice from Father Steve Sinn.

“[This] has stayed with me more than any other thing anyone I interviewed said to me,” she said.

“He said all you have to do is accompany. You don’t have to say the right thing, do the right thing or even have any idea what to do. You just have to be there.”

 

Disrupted: Festival of Ideas runs this weekend at the State Library of WA in Northbridge, with guest speakers Leigh Sales, Karl Kruszelnicki, Geoff Gallop, Tracy Westerman, Bri Lee and more.

All Disrupted events are free and all panels will be live-streamed and on the Perth Cultural Centre screen. 

Full program here

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Torn from two mothers: Perth MP’s 10-year labour brings stolen boy’s story to life

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

 

On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce Trevorrow’s father Joe was concerned about his baby son’s incessant crying. He knew little Bruce wasn’t well.

In bookstores now.

Joe was an Aboriginal man, who had no way of getting from his home in South Australia’s Coorong region to Adelaide Children’s hospital, a two-hour drive away. He walked in the blistering heat, cradling his feverish son, into the nearest town and pleaded for help. A relative of his wife agreed to drive Bruce to hospital, to the panicked father’s enormous relief.

That was the last time he ever saw his son.

Fifty years later, Bruce Trevorrow became the only member of the Stolen Generations ever to sue an Australian government for compensation – and win.

Tony Buti, now a member of the West Australian Parliament, was at that time a legal academic and expert on the Stolen Generations.

After reading the judgment on the Trevorrow case handed down in 2007, Dr Buti could not forget it.

“It was an incredibly beautifully constructed judgement; logical and at times poetic,” he said.

“I wanted to bring this story to life.”

Six years of interviewing and research followed, considerably slowed by the sheer volume of material and by his election to Parliament.

“I essentially did it over summer periods and weekends but I could never spend long stretches, because in this job there is always another commitment,” he said

“I considered giving up … but I felt an obligation to the people that I interviewed.

“I also knew this story should be given to a wider audience.”

Buti after a long road to publication.

Buti after a long road to publication. FREMANTLE PRESS

It took ten years to complete A Stolen Life, launched this month to a sell-out crowd just ahead of NAIDOC Week, an account of the ruining of a child that is all the more devastating for the careful precision of its language.

Joe and Thora’s home was a shack Joe had built himself. It was basic, with a swept dirt floor, but clean. ‘Native welfare’ officers had inspected, but not reported it unfit for children. They found no evidence of neglect. None of Bruce’s siblings were ever removed.

Yet on January 6 the hospital allowed a foster family to take the recovered baby ‘Brucey’ home without so much as a fostering licence.

The laws of the time stated that to remove a child from their family, there had to be either parental consent or a government order. Neither happened.

Bruce’s frantic mother, unable to get to the hospital, wrote multiple letters to authorities asking how Bruce was and when he could come home.

They responded that her baby was still not well enough. Thora only discovered the truth when it was far too late to reverse.

Bruce’s foster mother had her own mental health issues, which worsened when he grew older and began to display signs of emotional trauma.

“There was love there, but it was always a problematic relationship,” Buti said.

“She was having difficulty coping, he was being a difficult child and she would threaten to send him away so he felt this great sense of insecurity.”

When Bruce was around eight and his skin had noticeably darkened his older foster sister bluntly broke the news of his Aboriginal heritage, and the boy’s sense of rootlessness deepened.

He eventually met his birth mother Thora on his ninth birthday and soon afterwards authorities abruptly decided he would be better off – after all – back with her.

They told Bruce he was going to Thora’s for the school holidays and removed him from his foster mother without warning or allowing for goodbyes. The 10-year-old, with little experience with Aboriginal environments, who had not been emotionally prepared to leave his foster mother, was thrust back into an Aboriginal environment he had no knowledge of and taken to meet a host of strange relatives.

Bruce’s father had already died. He never bonded with his siblings or mother and adulthood brought full-blown psychological problems and alcoholism.

The adult Trevorrow was always able to work but he grew familiar with psychiatric hospitals and ended up in court repeatedly for hitting his wife. He never connected with his children.

When this lost soul walked into the office of Joanne Richardson, who was working at Adelaide’s then-equivalent of the Aboriginal Legal Service, he was her age but she couldn’t believe how much older he looked.

“He was a man who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. He didn’t exude warmth. He wasn’t an attractive person to be near,” Buti said.

“But when Bruce told her his story, she felt it needed to see the light of day.”

It took thirteen years for that day in court.

The ALS had few resources. Richardson carried a heavy load, dealing with civil matters, and had a couple of paralegals and another lawyer assisting her but was engaging barristers to help out. Every time she engaged a barrister, that barrister would then get promoted and leave.

Things turned a corner when Richardson’s persistence secured the now-famous Julian Burnside QC, whose initial reluctance to take on such an uncertain case turned into a burning determination to win after meeting Trevorrow and, like Richardson before him, being shocked by his appearance.

The trial went for 38 days. The state threw everything at it; no member of the Stolen Generations had yet successfully sued the state and they were worried about opening the floodgates. There were skilful advocates on both sides and keenly contested expert evidence.

Trevorrow, although he had difficulty communicating, was a good witness in the very truth of how he stood in court: as a broken man. The appearance of his siblings, who had had every success in life, underpinned his case. Their strong family upbringing and connection to culture meant they coped with their ups and downs in life, ending up with important leadership roles in the Aboriginal community. His older brother even lectured at Harvard.

This brother, Tom, told the court Bruce was very quiet, and “different”, from his first visits.

“He’d missed out on – how could I say – our way of life, because he was raised differently and we had to be aware sometimes when we talked, and we’d talk in our language,” he said.

“We’d talk about somebody, or we’d talk about something, that Bruce wasn’t familiar with … even sometimes our actions of what we do with our body language, our Ngarrindjeri ways.

Tom told the court later in life, Trevorrow would sit with family on his intermittent visits, and “tears would run down his cheeks in front of his eyes, he was hurting and didn’t want to show it … everybody knew of what happened to him and it wasn’t fair and we knew that the way he was carrying on is because he couldn’t fit in again, even though we tried helping him fit in, he couldn’t … it’s hard to put into words sometimes; it’s what we feel as blackfellas, as Ngarrindjeri, inside, what we sense about each other.”

It was hard, he said, to put into whitefella words.

“They belonged to a world that Bruce never belonged to,” Buti said.

“Bruce … was caught between two worlds, unsure of who he was, and without the security of a family that would allow him to forge his own identity.

“He was stolen and it just seemed so cruel.

“That they weren’t told what happened to him. That the state lied about it. That he never saw his father again. That he was not prepared to be stolen a second time. That he could not form a close relationship with his mother, or his siblings. That he could never reconnect with his Aboriginal world or the non-Aboriginal world. And perhaps most greatly that he could love or care for his own children.”

Justice Tom Gray awarded damages in respect of injuries and losses, unlawful removal and detention, misfeasance in public office and false imprisonment, totalling $525,000. Bruce Trevorrow died the following year, aged 51, months after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous apology.

A Stolen Life is in bookstores now.

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Review: Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay

Being a journalist up close to the political and media spin cycle, seeing oppositions become governments that fail to live up to our hopes as miserably as the predecessors who get voted out, while social and environmental problems only deepen, is endlessly disillusioning. I spend many days battling cynicism and weariness.

In particular, reporting on and reading about climate change, seeing David Attenborough’s Our Planet burst onto screens in all its beauty and urgency, knowing potentially irreversible destruction is happening right now without action to avert it fills me with a creeping despair that is increasingly clouding life. I am far from alone in this.

As the screws have been tightening, a review copy of Australia Reimagined by Hugh Mackay, Australia’s best known social researcher, has landed quietly on my desk.

It sat there months, among other things that needed dealing with (e.g. climate change!)

One day I picked it up. I needed something to amuse me during a lunch break that wasn’t a screen. I had no preconceptions. I enjoyed a previous book of his, The Good Life, but I expected this to be a bit boring, to be perfectly frank. A book about Australian society? Yawn!

I was entirely unprepared to be swept swiftly away, by a surging river of ideas.

I began to read the book every lunchtime. At the end of every lunchtime I put it down with increasing reluctance. And at the end of the week I put the book on the back of the bike, brought it home, and spent the weekend devouring the rest, with the kind of fervour that’s usually more to be expected from new-release crime fiction.

Anyone – and I’d hazard a guess that it’s many of us – anyone who feels even vaguely, even a niggle, that there might be something somehow wrong or contradictory about the way we live in this country today – despite all our luck and progress and privilege – should read this.

In a marching argument loaded with insights on the Australian-specific version of Western culture, Mackay examines our trends in privacy, technology use, religion, marriage, loneliness, anxiety, multiculturalism and gender and demonstrates how these trends are feeding into each other, affecting our social cohesion, dragging us down as a people.

It’s a story about ourselves we need to hear. But it’s not a lecture and while it’s at times shocking, it’s never depressing. Quite the opposite: it’s illuminating, empowering, hopeful.

Mackay offers new ways to think about reviving and transforming our broken and disenchanting political system, our crippled public education system, our toxic gender stalemate – and more.

For someone feeling so broken-down by the situation described in my opening paragraphs that sometimes, in my darker moments, I struggle to see the point of even continuing to work, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

His ideas made me want to spring up from my chair after every chapter and take some kind of practical, actionable step. I think anyone who read this would feel the same, but depending on their own problem or passion, the action they would take might look quite different from mine.

Therefore, at various times while reading I wanted to thrust this book under the noses of my brother, sister, mother, husband, boss, colleague and friend, and there’s no better recommendation for a book than that. It would make a great gift (I’ve already lent mine out!)

If I had known how much I would love it, I would not have let it languish in a ‘to read’ pile; I would have placed it on top and read it before anything else.

As should you.

 

Perth doctor’s ‘happy bowel’ guide brings him shitload of fans

Who could have predicted that one of the biggest crowds at Perth Writers Week would be the one that gathered to hear a doctor talk about bowel movements?

Nevertheless, people lined up around the building to see Perth colorectal surgeon Michael Levitt, recently appointed WA’s chief medical officer.

Dr Levitt's book has struck a chord in the community.

“I think there were about 150-200 people, and it was packed – eventually they just had to close the doors,” he said.

“It was [Perth emergency doctor and author] Michelle Johnston who interviewed me, so I guess they figured if I wasn’t entertaining, at least she would be.

“I was a little surprised by the crowd though. It’s not my first book – I’ve written three books about bowels now.”

But this book is something of a departure from the first, The Bowel Book, published in 2002 by Oxford University Press – a textbook of bowel disorders aimed at the general public.

The second, The (Other) Women’s Movement, published in 2008, focused on managing constipation and while it was more approachable than the first, Dr Levitt said it still had “too much detail for general interest”.

But The Happy Bowel, whether it’s the bright cover, engaging tone, the endearing cartoons inside or a combination of it all, has enjoyed runaway popularity.

"An empty bowel is a happy bowel."

“In the course of a career your thoughts inevitably change over time; are subtly modified, based on feedback from patients,” Dr Levitt said.

“I also wanted to write a bit more in my voice.

“This subject is about significantly troublesome systems, and I have found approaching it with a lighter heart gets people onside.

“Every person in the planet has their bowels open in their own quirky fashion. Having that on the table, as it were, I think I get more information and patients become more receptive.”

But the book is not about cancer, colitis, Chrohn’s Disease, or even haemorrhoids.

It is for people who simply find bowel actions difficult – to start, to stop or to control in general. Who struggle with constipation, incontinence and dissatisfaction.

It’s what doctors call “functional” bowel disease.

To illustrate how function fails, Dr Levitt first describes what a “good action” looks and feels like.

“Prompt, effortless, brief and complete,” he said. “And the single most important thing? The strong urge that says, go now.

“People who can generate that urge but choose to go early, like guys who grab a book and wait on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, get into trouble.

“And people who never get that urge, more often women, have another significant problem.”

Read the rest of this article on WAtoday.

‘Girl Painter also Good Cook’: The story of a (female) artist

“Until Nora entered, winning the Archibald had remained the province of male artists for seventeen years. It would be another twenty-two before a woman won a second time.”

In bookstores now.

So begins the biography of Nora Heysen, Australia’s first official female war artist and the first of the country’s biggest art prize, the Archibald Prize for portraiture.

The biography was launched this week by Perth writer and journalist Anne-Louise Willoughby.

And on Thursday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Willoughby attended the launch of a Melbourne exhibition seeking to restore Heysen to what the author describes as her “rightful place” of prominence in the Australian art world.

Heysen worked alongside her father Hans Heysen, known for his distinctive paintings of the eucalypts surrounding their family home in Hahndorf, South Australia. But she also worked all over the world and made a lifelong friend in urban landscape painter Jeffrey Smart, who regarded her so highly he made himself available to contribute to this biography before his death.

But Heysen spent her life struggling to be recognised as an artist first, and a woman second.

“What was so extraordinary is that while her work and its historical context is covered in art collections, we didn’t know anything about her life,” said Willoughby, a writer with a background in art history.

“These things kept cropping up in my study, that nothing was known about her save a list of her works.

“Why was she the first woman to win the Archibald? How did she come to be the first war artist of Australia? Things like that don’t happen out of the blue.”

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.

The insight and mystery of Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was an American writer and art collector who moved to Paris as an adult and there established one of the world’s most famous salons, a name given to places where influential artists and thinkers once gathered to socialise and converse, share ideas and inspiration. Those who gathered with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, and whose art and writing she collected and/or inspired, included painters Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Picabia, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stein and Toklas spent World War I in France, acting as a hospital supply unit, and stayed in country France during WWII despite both being Jews; they and the art collection all survived the war.

Stein published more than 20 books and numerous plays over her lifetime but in 1933 when she was almost 60, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her first popular success. With sardonic literary sleight-of-hand, she had told her own life story through the voice of her partner and this was the book that made her famous. It’s arguably her most readable work and resulted in a year-long lecture tour of America in 1934-5 that cemented her celebrity status.

I have no idea how this book fell into my hands as a teenager or why it captivated me. Maybe it was the audacious trick of writing your autobiography using your own partner as a sort of puppet. Maybe I was agape at the accounts of all these incredibly famous historical figures actually gathering somewhere to talk with friends, about art. The closest experience I had was university tutorial groups where I thought most of my fellow students were meatheads. Maybe it was the arch tone and the style utterly unlike anything I’d ever read. At any rate, it fired my imagination and a sense of nostalgia for nothing I had ever known and has survived years of successive culls, remaining one of the few non-children’s books in my more-or-less permanent collection.

Many years later in a moment of serendipity I recognised her name on the cover of a different book: Everybody’s Autobiography. 

As its intro explained, not everyone had loved The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein pissed a lot of her friends off, chronicling them in totally unvarnished terms. And Stein herself was somewhat troubled by the unaccustomed celebrity it had brought after years of her work being published. She was having a bit of an identity crisis and, it seemed, needed to face herself head-on and not use Alice B. Toklas as a kind of invisibility cloak.

Everybody’s Autobiography is both an account of the lecture tour through Stein’s home country of America that the success of the first Autobiography had brought, and this personal need to set the record straight. So it’s closer in format to a straight autobiography.

If you could ever call it “straight” when it performs another twist of identity in calling her own story “everybody’s”. And when its stated commitment to stay in the “present” means, in practice, a ramble through memories and the reflections they spark, in the form of largely unpunctuated streams of consciousness, pulled up with a jerk every time she needs to re-centre in the time and place of the story.

It’s challenging to read; much more so than the first Autobiography, which stuck to plain-ish English and punctuation; but it’s also much more intimate, and allows you further into Stein’s head. Sometimes with the pithy, the funny, the relatable:

When there is a great deal of unemployment and misery you can never find anybody to work for you.
~
Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
~
Native always means people who belong somewhere else, because they had once belonged somewhere. That shows that the white race does not really think they belong anywhere because they think of everybody else as native.
~
The French women always used to say that a woman’s silhouette should change every ten years. It should not grow less it should grow more and mostly it does.
~
Sound can be a worry to anyone particularly when it is the sound of a human voice.
~
I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.
~
I like to be driven around if I do not have to go inside of anything, and be shown anything that I do not much care for that, but I do like driving and I like seeing country.

Other times, deeper into what she’s thinking, and some of it is so deep I conclude she’s allowed to forget about commas, since she’s grappling with concepts altogether bigger.

Of genius:

Being a genius is not a worrisome thing, because it is so occupying, and then when it is successful it is not a worrisome thing because it is successful, but a successful thing does not occupy you as an unsuccessful thing does, certainly not, and anyway a genius need not think, because if he does think he has to be wrong or right he has to argue or decide, and after all he might just as well not do that, nor need he be himself inside him. And when a dog gets older there is less of it and it does not worry him. When a genius gets older is there less of it and does it then not worry him.

Of ideas:

The real ideas are not the relation of human being as groups but a human being to himself inside him and that is an idea that is more interesting than humanity in groups, after all the minute that there are a lot of them they do not do it for themselves but somebody does it for them and that is a damn sight less interesting.

Of our relationship with time:

Human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It’s just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it.

Other passages deal with writing as a craft and directly with her sometimes alienating style.

They asked me to tell why an author like myself can become popular … writing what anybody feels they are understanding and so they get tired of that, anybody can get tired of anything everybody can get tired of something and so they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding … my writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear, perhaps that is the reason but really there is no reason except that the earth is round and that no one knows the limits of the universe.

Yet while she defends it, she still, touchingly, after so many books and so much fame, shows that as a writer she still experiences what just about all writers do: self-doubt.

Of course naturally in the meanwhile I went on writing, I had always wanted it all to be common-place and simple anything that I am writing and then I get worried lest I have succeeded and it is too common-place and too simple so much so that it is nothing, anybody says it is not so, it is not too common-place and not too simple but do they know anyway I have always all the time thought it was so and hoped it was so and then worried lest it was so. I am worried again now lest it is so.

I can’t really sort through my reasons any better than I did when I was a teenager, apart from recognising the echo of truth in her words: sometimes what we need most is what we don’t quite understand. To test those unknown limits of the universe.

But like a glutton for punishment without punctuation, I will seek more out, hungry for more knowledge about the extraordinary lives of Stein and Toklas. Starting with the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Yes! Toklas wrote her own books, including a cookbook. Which has a chapter on how to cook for famous painters. Don’t you just love it…

 

The 57 books I read in 2018, my top 10 and holiday reading recommendations

Fiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Green: WA writers, because reading local is awesome.
  • Red: Children’s books, because kids need books and books need them.
  • Blue: Crime and thrillers, all trustworthy holiday reads.
  • Black: literary fiction (read on for the top five).
  • First eight by L.M. Montgomery. What can I say? Memory lane beckons.
  1. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery 
  2. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery 
  3. Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery 
  4. Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery 
  5. Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery 
  6. Anne of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery 
  7. Rainbow Valley, L.M. Montgomery 
  8. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. 
  9. Dustfall, Michelle Johnston
  10. Finders Keepers, Stephen King 
  11. Extinctions, Josephine Wilson
  12. The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan 
  13. Survival, Rachel Watts 
  14. You Belong Here, Laurie Steed 
  15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  16. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
  17. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King  
  18. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)
  19. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  20. NW, Zadie Smith
  21. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  22. Body Double, Tess Gerritsen
  23. Vanish, Tess Gerritsen
  24. The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen
  25. Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox 
  26. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid
  27. The Outsider, Stephen King 
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  29. A Girl in Time, John Birmingham
  30. The Golden Minute, John Birmingham 
  31. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
  32. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  33. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller
  34. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith 
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  36. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  38. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  39. 101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith 
  40. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Nonfiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Red: true crime
  • Blue: books about writing/literary/artistic memoirs
  • Green: personal development
  1. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl
  2. Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
  3. Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman  
  4. The First Stone, Helen Garner
  5. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner
  6. Draft No. 4, John McPhee 
  7. Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss 
  8. French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano 
  9. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audio)
  10. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis 
  11. The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips 
  12. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton 
  13. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham 
  14. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  15. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  16. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard 
  17. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein

Top 5 fiction (in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked)

  1. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (literary fiction)
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (literary fiction)
  3. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller (literary psychological thriller)
  4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (literary crime/mystery)
  5. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (literary fiction)

Top 5 (nonfiction) in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked

  1. The First Stone, Helen Garner (true crime)
  2. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (literary memoir)
  3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell (memoir/diary)
  4. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard (literary memoir)
  5. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein (literary memoir)

The Emma Awards

Funniest 

  1. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  2. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham
  3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Best crime:

  1. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (crime/mystery)
  2. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  3. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid

Most inspiring: 

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl

Most beautiful writing:

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje 
  3. All three titles by Helen Garner

Most difficult (all women; coincidence?) 

  1. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein 
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  3. NW, Zadie Smith

Best holiday reads: 

  1. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  3. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King

Hope these lists help you with holiday reading ideas 🙂 If you have any questions about the titles, leave a comment!