The Giver

Lois Lowry's The Giver has been a perenniel favourite on school reading lists just about forever, and yet I had never read it. My friend Suzanne pressed a secondhand copy on me last time I saw her, and now finally I can see what all the fuss was about.

I think I had vaguely imagined something like The Maze Runner (perhaps I had seen the cover above??) but The Giver is really more of a fable about memory and conformity than a dystopian story, though it does have elements of dystopia about it.

Jonas's world at first seems like a rather benign dystopia, as dystopias go. Everyone is part of a well-planned, ordered society, where even the weather is regulated, food is delivered to the door, children are assigned their perfect jobs and trained accordingly. However, this paradise comes at a cost. True emotions have been flattened out almost to non-existence. Music and art and books have been lost. 'Stirrings', the beginnings of love, are eradicated with pills. Even the perception of colour has disappeared. And people who are disobedient or no longer serve a social function are 'released' -- a less benevolent action than it sounds.

Just one person, the Giver, holds the memories of everything that has been sacrificed to make this peaceful, bland world possible -- love and war, snow and redness and ecstasy. Now it's time for the Giver to pass those memories to Jonas. But perhaps that burden is too much for one boy to bear...

A deceptively easy read, The Giver is a terrific choice for early high school students. It skims over big issues about difference and conformity, the worth of those things that can't be economically valued (like art, love, or disabled children), and the place of shared stories in building a community. Inspired by Lowry's own father's memory loss, this book is deservedly a modern classic.


Letters to Judy

It's shocking, I know, but I didn't read Judy Blume when I was a kid. I always preferred speculative and historical fiction to realist novels, and English authors to American ones, so it's not surprising that Judy Blume slipped through my personal reading net. However, my friend Heather is a huge fan, and after reading Letters To Judy, I have a new respect for Blume's work and the effect she clearly had (and no doubt still has) on her readers.

This is a moving and emotional volume, directed ostensibly at parents. The letters are grouped into subjects, from sibling rivalry and divorce, to facing death and dealing with sexual abuse. Seeing what some of these kids have had to navigate is quite confronting; in some cases, Blume kept up correspondence with the most troubled letter-writers for years, doing what she could to advise and assist.

Blume is honest in acknowledging her own parenting mistakes, and reveals very personal details of her life, admitting she re-married too soon, and how she struggled with her role as step-mother. Clearly, these experiences have informed her writing and her honesty is part of what attracts her readers. Though it was published in 1986, this book is still filled with relevant advice about listening and supporting children and young adults, about sharing your problems and finding help.


Goodbye Sandra

Photo from Metal Magazine
I first met Sandra Eterovic at a party almost thirty years ago. My best friend had been raving about what a lovely person she was, and I was jealous and determined not to like her. However, after a few minutes' conversation, I grudgingly had to admit that she was indeed completely lovely. She was wearing a pair of trousers that she had made herself. Before long I learned that not only was she an accomplished sewer, she could also paint, draw, knit and cook, and much more besides.

Sandra had two exceptional gifts. She could make almost anything. The name of her Etsy shop was I sew I draw I knit, but she also painted, built models, designed clothes and cushions and prints, made cards and stickers and mirrors, and illustrated books. Her designs adorned Strike bowling alley and Seed children's clothing. Her art appeared in galleries and magazines and on The Block. It was a standing joke among us that there was nowhere in Sandra's house to sit down and relax -- she was always on her feet, making something.

 But what she was especially good at making was friends. In the days before she died, her hospital room was so crowded with people that the staff had to shoo us away. She never neglected her friendships, cultivating them with the same love she devoted to her garden. She always arrived with a gift in her hands -- wine or muffins or a book.

Sandra was a part of our family. She was Michael's high school girlfriend, and they remained close, affectionate friends. She was the closest thing our daughters had to a godmother; they both slept beneath a cot quilt Sandra made. Our house is filled with her art, including the beautiful painting she made for our wedding invitation, which hangs above our bed. Alice wears skirts and shirts and jackets that Sandra made. She and I would compare notes on the ups and downs of the creative life.

Sandra has left an incredible legacy of art, but more, so much more than that, I will miss her laugh, her generosity, her compassion, her friendship and her love. Goodnight, my darling friend.

To see some of Sandra's artwork, visit her website here.


Changing History?

The indefatigable local author Goldie Alexander has produced three books based loosely on Shakespeare. I went to the launch and picked up this one, though I was strongly tempted to buy the anthology which contains all three volumes, including Gap Year Nanny (based on Macbeth) and The Trytth Chronicles, which transplants The Tempest to outer space!

Changing History? takes the eternal story of Romeo and Juliet to late 1920s Berlin. Eighteen year old Australian tourist Taylor is bopped on the head and time-slips from 2017 to 1928, where she finds a job at the Hummingbird nightclub, rubs shoulders with all kinds of louche Berlin types, and debates whether to share her knowledge of the future with her new friends, Jewish Rom and gentile Juliet, whose parents have forbidden them to marry. And when Taylor learns that a guy called Adolf Hitler is coming to town, she has a very big decision to make...

After lapping up the sumptuous series Babylon Berlin earlier this year, and now embarking on Ku'damm 56 (set in Berlin in the 1950s), I seem to be going through a Berlin phase. I especially enjoyed the period detail of Changing History? which cleverly drops plenty of historical information into the novel without overwhelming the human story. Taylor learns to appreciate her modern creature comforts, while picking up the political parallels with our own time. This book might even be more useful to students of modern history than those studying Shakespeare!


Getting Your Life Back

As some of you know, someone close to me has been suffering from severe depression for the last few months, so I've been reading lots of self-help books and trying to push the better ones in their direction. Getting Your Life Back is nearly twenty years old, but it's a thorough and logical workbook which leads the depressed person step by step through useful approaches toward recovery.

Jesse Wright and Monica Basco divide their method into five crucial 'keys': Thinking, Action, Biology, Relationships and Spirituality. Each emphasises a different element -- the Thinking section tackles distorted thoughts via CBT; Action encourages a healthy approach to exercise, nutrition and sleep; Biology offers a comprehensive (though possibly slightly dated now) overview of anti-depressant medications and chemical imbalance in the brain; and the Relationship section gives useful and sensible advice to improve your interactions with others. The Spirituality Key is perhaps the boldest, exploring ways to find meaning, purpose and connection, whether it be a religious path, devotion to family, creativity, or giving to the community.

All these Keys are important for each of us to lead a balanced and fulfilling, though not every depressed person will find all the sections equally helpful. Working your way through this book, which includes worksheets, questionnaires and exercises to complete, would certainly benefit anyone struggling with depression. My only concern is that they might find the task too daunting; you'd need to be pretty motivated to tackle the whole thing, and if you have that much motivation to get well, you're halfway there already.


The Witch's Daughter

I picked up Nina Bawden's The Witch's Daughter from a box of books that a friend was discarding, because I'd never read it. Published the year I was born, on one level it's a very old-fashioned adventure story which deals with jewel thieves and hidden treasure on a remote Scottish island. On another level, it's a skilful and engaging exploration of what it means to be different.

Our three child protagonists are Perdita, the so-called witch's daughter, a half-wild girl who is teased and bullied by the local kids; her greatest dream is to be allowed to go to school. Brother and sister Janey and Tim are visitors to the island. Imaginative, sensitive Tim is desperate for his father's approval; Janey is blind, and keen for more independence than her anxious parents will allow. Janey is particularly interesting, because her special strengths shine during the adventure -- she is extremely observant, with an excellent memory, and (spoiler) at the crisis of the story, it's Janey who saves the others by leading them out of a pitch-black cave. 

This is a beautifully written novel for younger readers, but alas, I fear they might find it a little slow to get going. I think I find these old books so satisfying because they don't talk down to their readers, and the quality of the writing is wonderful.


Momma and the Meaning of Life

I had this earlier book by Irvin Yalom sitting on my shelves, but it's a very long time since I read it, so it felt quite fresh. Momma and the Meaning of Life is a collection of pieces, mostly memoir, a couple of fictionalised tales, all centering on the dance of therapy, the relationship between therapist and client. Yalom likes to relate to his patients in a direct, compassionate way. Though traditionally therapists shy away from any physical contact with their clients, Yalom is prepared to shake hands, hold hands or hug his patients if he feels it's necessary. His emphasis on the 'here and now' of therapy means that the interactions in the therapy room take on a particular importance. In the hands of a lesser practitioner, you can see this leading to trouble!

The most striking chapters in this book deal with cases where Yalom's doubts and irritations are squarely faced -- where he initially forms a strong dislike to a patient, or in a one-off group therapy session where the participants don't seem to have much to offer, but where Yalom is determined to show off his skills for some observing students. Here his humour and self-awareness shine, and you can see what has made him such a successful therapist over so many decades.


Flora and Ulysses

Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses is our junior fiction choice for the Convent Book Group this month, on the theme of Friendship. It's very sweet. Flora is a human girl, a sceptic who doesn't believe in romance. Ulysses is a squirrel who undergoes a magical transformation when he is accidentally vacuumed up -- now he can understand human speech, fly and type out poetry! But the pair have a number of potential villains to foil and allies to win, before they can live happily ever after.

The story is adorable and the illustrations perfectly match the sentimental, slightly melancholic mood. I know I should be suspending my disbelief (magical vacuum cleaner, squirrel with the gift of flight etc) but it did bother me that the squirrel could suddenly type in perfect English... I don't know why I balked at that particular aspect but it did bug me. Not enough to spoil the book for me, though. Flora & Ulysses won the Newbery Medal a few years ago and it's not hard to see why.