Sunday, November 21, 2010

Suffer the Little Lambs

This morning we put rings on the tails of all our new lambs. It wasn't a big job, just a matter of rounding up all the sheep, catching the lambs, vaccinating them and then slipping on the rings. But it's important because if we don't do it the lambs run the risk of fly strike, and if you've ever seen a fly blown sheep you'll want to avoid it at all costs.

After we let them go there was a cacophony of sounds from all the animals - lambs seeking their mums, ewes searching for their offspring. Just listen to the racket!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Year In The Life Of

It's a year now since my book was published. A year of interviews and articles and reviews and speeches and festivals and libraries and book groups and emails from readers. An extraordinary year really.

This photo was taken at the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Book Festival. That's me there on the left with, in the centre, Michelle Prawer from Sunflower Books who was one of the organisers as well as being terrific in the chair, and also the beautiful and talented Maria Tumarkin, author of Otherland.

A year ago I began all my sentences with 'Maybe this book will sink like a stone...'. Well, maybe it still will, but it's certainly caused lots of ripples along the way.

In this photo I'm holding forth at the Brunswick Library. That was a great session. There weren't a lot of attendees but that made for an intimate and quite intense evening.

A year ago I thought I'd be lucky to get one or two interviews, and maybe an appearance at a festival. Instead of that I've lost count of the number of interviews and appearances I've had with one more to go for the year. One day when I have time I'll add them all up.

A year ago I had no idea what to expect. I thought that getting a book published was the end of the road. This year I have learned, thanks to Nicola my wonderful editor, Emma my amazing publicist, and the rest of the hard working team at Scribe, that it's just the beginning.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Peter Bakowski Reads

As all writers know, books don't sell themselves. Writing and getting published are only the beginning of the process. How do you find readers? How do readers find your books?

This applies across all genres, but particularly I think to poetry. My guess is that the poetry section of the bookshop, tucked away in the back corner, would be the least visited.

Peter Bakowski, a Melbourne poet, meets that challenge head on. He takes his poetry directly to the public, specialising in readings in private homes for audiences of more than eight people.

About four years ago I heard that Peter was in Tasmania and I wrote to him asking if he could come to us in Mole Creek. It didn't work out that time but when Peter was arranging his recent trip to Tasmania for the Launceston Poetry Festival he wrote to me and this time we succeeded.

Farmdoc and I put our heads together and made a list of our friends who we thought would enjoy a potluck poetry dinner. We scraped together every chair and makeshift table we could find.

And our guests contributed plenty of delicious food and drink.

Peter is a relaxed reader and generous with his time and explanations. He provided a wonderful insight into his life as a poet and his technique. It was also lovely meeting his wife, Helen, and their son Walter.

Peter's aim is to 'write clear and accessible poems, to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things...about what it's like to be human.' His latest book, Beneath Our Armour, a collection of portrait poems, was short-listed for the Victorian Premier's Prize.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feast and Famine

There is an interesting series of human interest videos on the ABC Northern Tasmania website. The overall topic is 'Change' but this has been interpreted in many ways.

I provided the producer, Richard Pree, with some scanned photos from our family albums, and a recording of me reading a couple of extracts from my book. He then put these together to produce a very moving short video.

The piece begins with a kiss. My father was in the Air Force, transferred from his home state of Western Australia to Melbourne, when he met a beautiful girl. My mother was 16 when they met and 18 when they married.

While I was looking through the albums I came across a photo of my mother at a party with the television star Graham Kennedy. Look how beautiful she is.

The piece ends with another kiss. This time my father is 90 and my mother 84. She has only months to live, but their love burns as brightly as it did at their first embrace. Even her Alzheimer's Disease cannot quench its flame.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Gorgeous weather here in northern Tasmania. Perfect for sitting on the kitchen deck with a cup of tea and a good book.

I've just finished reading Otherland by Maria Tumarkin. This is an account of Maria's trip back to Kharkov in the Ukraine, a city she'd emigrated from about twenty years before as a 15- year-old schoolgirl. She is accompanied on this return journey by her daughter, 12-year-old Billie, and the book is as much about their relationship as it is about the trip itself and the politics and often tragic history of the region.

Otherland is engrossing. It jumps around in time and space, never getting bogged down in travelogue or historical accounts or political explanation, though it includes all these things.

The book is written in a clear conversational style that makes it easy and mostly enjoyable to read, although it does deal with some dark episodes such as the Siege of Leningrad where over a million people starved to death, and the murder of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar.

The inclusion of Billie's diary entries is delightful, but I did wonder, as a mother myself, whether Billie, as she enters more fully into adolescence, might not feel exploited.

Towards the end of the book the pair visit the apartment block where Maria had grown up. Billie is disappointed in the dvor, the communal courtyard she'd heard so much about, 'where the old and young coexisted in their separate corners of the same world'. Instead of the garden she'd imagined, there was 'to tell you the truth...a rubbish tip.'

But Maria does not wish this trip to be about pitying the poor deprived Russians. She writes:
We are born into spaces and we grow up in them. We are blessed not to know any better...We play with the puddles in which grown-ups step, cursing bad roads and general disorder and decay.We fit whatever size is given to us. And the dirt is much more fun to play with than the sand. We are not deprived. We are not to be pitied. We are on top of the world.
The journey (and the book) is an attempt to synthesise the life in Russia that Maria didn't live with the life she lives in Australia; the world she grew up in and that formed her and the world where Billie lives. It's hard to know about the trip - after all, although Billie is delightfully intelligent and sensitive she is also a typical Aussie adolescent and homesick most of the time for friends and comforts - but at least the book is a success.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What's Cooking?

The last weekend Farmdoc and I were in Victoria we taught a cooking class at the Daylesford Neighbourhood Centre.

I used to be a keen cook. I did a course at the Cordon Bleu School of Cooking in London back in the day, and I cooked for our household of six for years, sometimes serving up five different meals to cater for vegetarians, dieters and those who wouldn't eat anything that was coloured orange.

Once the kids left home writing became my priority. I began to look on cooking mostly as something that took me away from what was important.

But our community-minded daughter Meg believes that everyone has something they can teach others, and she is very persuasive. There are dishes that have remained part of my regular repertoire and it was those that Meg thought I could teach. Teamed with Farmdoc's great bread-baking skills we put together a class that went into the program as Basic Jewish Cooking. We taught challah (the plaited egg loaf eaten on the sabbath), chicken soup, matzah balls and honey cake.

It was a lot of work to prepare. Farmdoc broke every recipe down into individual actions and compiled lists of ingredients and equipment we'd need. We weren't sure dishes would turn out well because the centre's oven cooks unevenly. But the food was delicious and the class was a lot of fun. I think our students enjoyed it; we definitely did. We were lucky to be assisted by Meg and our granddaughter, Indigo.

I'm grateful to Meg for giving us the opportunity to share some of the knowledge and skills we have and encouraging us to teach the session. There's something elemental about preparing and breaking bread together and it was nice for Farmdoc and me to combine our artistic and scientific approaches. We're already planning what we'll teach next year.

Stormy Weather

Back at Onemilebridge after a few weeks in Melbourne, I dreaded seeing the damage caused by the wind storm that kept Farmdoc awake at night while he listened to the wind's howl, fearful something would fall on the house. For a couple of days he couldn't get our car off the property because six or seven huge trees had fallen across the driveway. Others had landed across tracks and paths, and of course onto fences.

By the time I arrived a lot of the mess had been cleaned up. Our neighbours from Blair and Sons Sawmill had come with chainsaws to clear the road and one of the tracks, and to block the timber up ready for use as firewood. In true neighbourly fashion they'll be back with some heavier equipment in a week or so to clear a couple more tracks. Another friend helped repair some of the fences.

It's sad to see these massive old beauties uprooted from the soil where they've stood for decades, and to witness the destruction they caused as they came down, crashing into smaller trees and bringing them down too. We won't see others of their size grown up to replace them in our lifetime.

We were lucky too. Our neighbour's barn lost its roofing iron. Our house and buildings were safe, and we have good and generous friends and neighbours to help us repair the damage. But it's hard not to feel diminished with some of the majesty gone from our patch of bush. The storm has reminded us yet again of how small and defenceless we are, helpless against the forces of nature.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dementia Awareness Week

This week is Dementia Awareness Week, though you'd be forgiven for not knowing. There hasn't been a lot of publicity. Dementia is not a very sexy disease.

To be perfectly honest, for me every week is Dementia Awareness Week. As it is I'm sure for anyone who is caring for someone with the disease, or who has lost someone to it.

According to Alzheimer's Australia, in Australia right now 200,000 people have dementia, with new cases diagnosed every day. When you add in all their family members and close friends that's an awful of of people carrying a tremendous burden. Dementia is an insidious but almost invisible plague that has spread into every neighbourhood in the country and around the globe.

There's an excellent article in the New York Times that describes the disease, its symptoms, causes, tests, treatment, prognosis, possible complications and prevention. It begins:

Dementia is a loss of brain function that occurs with certain diseases. Alzheimer's disease is one form of dementia that gradually gets worse over time. It affects memory, thinking, and behavior.

Memory impairment, as well as problems with language, decision-making ability, judgment, and personality, are necessary features for the diagnosis.

That second paragraph describes exactly the arc of my mother's Alzheimer's Disease.

It was an agonising progression for all of us, though lightened by the way in which my father cared for my mother. His loving devotion enabled her to retain some dignity until the end. Although she forgot everything else she never forgot that he was her beloved husband and she his cherished wife. I describe some of this in an article in the current Notebook magazine.

You can read the whole article, uploaded by my clever daughter M, on my website

My book, Alzheimer's: A Love Story, contains a full account of the sorrows this disease brought with it, but also of the joy we as a family managed to find in the situation. Although our experience of Alzheimer's was harrowing, and I'd have given anything for it not to have come along, it did bring with it many blessings. Watching my father care for my mother, growing closer as a family, and being able to give my mother a proper farewell were among these.

My advice to anyone who is embarking on this journey is to contact your local Alzheimer's Association, and my advice to governments is to spend more money on Alzheimer's research. The need is urgent.

To those of you currently caring for a loved one with dementia, I wish you strength and courage. You'll need it.

My heart is with you.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Happy Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to you dads, and to all you women and children who made them fathers.

It's funny, but even though I know that these Days are cynical marketing exercises, they still touch me. Especially I suppose as my own dad is now 92. Maybe it's pure sentimentality, but I do love to see families together, taking a moment to celebrate their parents.

This morning my older brother and his wife and I took my father out for brunch - a very Melbourne way to spend Father's Day. My father has a busy day ahead of him with the christening of a baby where he will be making a speech as a stand-in for the baby's late grandfather, and then dinner out with my younger brother and his family. My older brother will spend time later today with his children and baby grandson. Farmdoc's at home on the farm wrestling sheep, our children are scattered, and I am in the city wrestling with my novel, so he'll have to make do with phone calls.

I've recently been going through old family photos. The ones on this post are of my dad in the airforce. In the top one he's 21-years old and the middle one was taken on his wedding day in Melbourne when he was 24 but looking much older. The bottom one is undated.

What about you? Do you celebrate Fathers Day, do you give gifts, or do you ignore it, refusing to be manipulated by the advertising industry? However you spend it I hope you have a lovely day.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Room With a View

I've turned my desk around so that instead of facing this:

it now faces this:

I know. Crazy, eh. But the trouble with a passive solar house is that in winter the sun comes in the north-facing windows and I had to keep my blind pulled down all the time. So there was no point in having a view I couldn't see anyway.

I quite like this set up, with nothing to distract me. I'll see how it works. Maybe in summer, when the eaves shade the house, I might move the desk back to where it was.

Where do you work? Do you prefer a view, or do you find it distracting?

Most visual artists I know listen to music - sometimes quite loudly - while they work. When I'm at home I need silence but when I write in coffee shops I like the music and the buzz of sound. I find that somehow it helps me concentrate. Often I'll listen to something to get me in the mood and then turn it off. Or I'll listen to the same piece of music over and over again. What about you? What do you prefer, or doesn't it make any difference to you?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Casting the Vote

Yesterday, along with the rest of our fellow Australians, Farmdoc and I fulfilled our civic duty.

We walked down to our local polling booth at the Mole Creek Primary School, admiring the local sights as we went.

Though admittedly, some of the sights were more attractive

than others.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Top Five Books

I'm in big trouble. In late October I'm going to be speaking at the Brunswick library. That's not the problem; I love giving talks. I'm looking forward to it.

No, the problem is that they asked me to provide them with a list of my five favourite books. They'll display this somewhere in the library with the heading Author Top Reads. Now, I think that's a great idea. Anything to encourage reading and to introduce people to books they may not have heard of.

Unfortunately this request is having a disastrous effect on my brain. At first my mind went blank and I couldn't think of any book I ever liked. Then I began to think of books I've enjoyed that I've read in the last month.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Isn't this amazing? It's already sold over a million copies but I've only just got to it. I read it a couple of weeks ago and thought it was beautifully and sensitively written.

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. I watched trailers of the film and I was so impressed that I ordered the book from the fantastic Tasmanian library service. The story is dark but gripping, and Woodrell captures the closed world of the Ozarks so well with his densely poetic language.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. I loved this. I found it quite haunting when I read it on our recent Cradle Mountain holiday.

There's a stack of books for kids that changed the way I see the world. There are books I read when I was young, or that I read when my kids were young, that have stayed with me ever since. I reread Robinson Crusoe so often I used to dream about it. Little Women kept me company for years. I loved Jane Gardam's Bilgewater.

I read My Side of the Mountain with my kids. Recently my daughter Meg told me she's been reading it with her stepson. She doesn't even remember it from when she was young, but she's loving it now and so is he.

One of my all-time favourite books would have be a small novel for children called Searching for Shona, by Margaret Anderson. I bought this for our oldest daughter when she was in primary school. I read it then and have never forgotten the story of two British schoolgirls swapping identities during World War Two. I have to admit that when my daughters carried off their old toys and books I kept this one; I still reread it every few years.

There are books about writing that I've reread countless times, including Annie Dillard's The Writing Life and Anne Lamott's indispensable Bird By Bird.

Then Farmdoc asked me, 'What about Wolf Hall?' And it's true, I loved that so much I couldn't put it down, and I ended up with a really sore neck from holding it up to read in bed.

And one of our visitors said she'd just read Life of Pi, so then I remembered all the Booker Prize winners I've adored over the years. My mother and I used to buy the winning book as soon as it was announced and discuss its merits over cups of tea at her kitchen table. I miss that so much now she's gone. Toni Morrison's Beloved was one of her favourite books and so was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

That's when I started to feel queasy about this whole project.

In the end I think I'll go with the first five that came to me and I'm going to try to forget the whole thing before I go crazy remembering books I've loved at different times of my life. I've tried to work out why it's these five, and I'm not sure I know exactly. Taste in books, as in so much else, is personal. For me I think it's mostly about the power of the language and story. I like a sense of morality at play too. And I like to learn something.

Drown, Junot Diaz
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

The Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

How about you? What books are on your list?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Simplest Things

Don't you hate it when cliches turn out to be true? The one I'm thinking about now is, 'The simplest things in life are best.' Maybe it's not always true, and I'll bet winning an Olympic gold medal backed by millions of taxpayers' dollars (therefore the opposite of simple) must feel pretty cool, but mostly the saying's spot on, I reckon.

Take yesterday for example, here at Onemilebridge. Sunday lunch with friends. What could be simpler - or nicer!

Lunch was pretty simple too. Lasagne cooked by me, bread baked by Farmdoc, and pavlova brought by our guests. Though lasagne's not exactly simple - it always seems to dirty every dish in my kitchen - it's not all that sophisticated either.

I base my recipe on Marcella Hazan's recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook, a book I've been using for years.

I made the pasta using 100 grams of flour, 1 egg and some spinach leaves picked in the morning. First I washed the spinach thoroughly. (I'm always amazed by how much grit is hidden in spinach.) Then I cooked it in just the water that clung to the leaves for about fifteen minutes. When it was tender I wrung out all the water, chopped it finely, and kneaded it into the pasta dough. Then I rolled it out with my pasta machine and slipped four pieces at a time into boiling water for a couple of minutes.

I cooked up my normal bolognese recipe with our own lamb mince, and made Marcella's bechamel sauce. Then I assembled the dish, grated some parmesan on the top, put it in the oven, and washed the dozens of dishes I'd dirtied.

The proof of the pudding (or lasagne) as they say, is in the eating, and it really did melt in our mouths - that is when we weren't talking.

Finally the pièce de résistance - the pavlova. So to finish with another cliche - here's a picture that must be worth at least a thousand words:

Thanks, Janet and Annie, for a great afternoon. Sorry the weather was too cold for a picnic on the bridge. Next time, maybe.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Voices

Writers' festivals are such a terrific opportunity to learn more about writers, books and writing and to meet other readers. I had a great time at the New Voices Festival in Eltham. There was quite a bit of excitement on the day because the short list for The Age Book of the Year was announced that morning, and two of the day's featured writers were on it but only found out once they'd arrived. Catherine Cole, who chaired the session I appeared in, was one of the judges, so that made it even more exciting.

Back in Mole Creek we have a new voice here too. It's Cafe Bozzey, which recently opened in the rural transaction centre at the eastern end of the village.

They serve light meals and cake and of course tea and coffee.

Farmdoc and Sharon, our share farmer, and I gave it a test run the other day.
I have to admit, coming from Melbourne, I'm a coffee snob, but Sharon enjoyed it. Try it yourself when you're passing and see what you think. It's nice to have a new presence in the village.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reality Bites

Last weekend I attended the Reality Bites Nonfiction Festival in Cooroy, Queensland. The festival is held over two weekends and this was the first of the two. I found it exciting but pretty exhausting. I flew up on Saturday morning, appeared on one panel on Saturday afternoon, a second on Sunday morning, and then flew home Sunday afternoon. Phew!

The weather wasn't wonderful - overcast most of the time and quite cool. Very disappointing for a southerner. I'd hoped for a little sunshine.

The organisers had worked hard to put together a varied and interesting program and a team of volunteers made it all happen. The speakers were ferried to and from the airport, between venues, and to and from their accommodation. It all seemed to run like clockwork.

I enjoyed my sessions enormously. The first was Grief, Loss and Recovery and I shared the stage with Paul Valent, a retired psychiatrist who has worked extensively in this area. Annette Hughes in the chair made sure it was a really memorable session. I think we were all just about in tears.

The following morning I ran into Paul and his lovely wife Julie in the rain in the streets of Noosaville. Spending time with them was a highlight of the trip for me.

Sunday morning's panel, Absent Parents, was chaired by local writer, Steven Lang. Those are my hands in the picture below, waving around, making a point:

Here I'm at it again, talking with my hands. I shared the stage with David Carlin and we talked about our absent parents: my mother whom I watched as she was swallowed alive by Alzheimer's, his father who killed himself when David was six months old. I couldn't help thinking how proud David's father would be of him, and what a good job his mother did.

Both our books contain sadness but both also joy and hope I think. We'll be discussing them again this Saturday at the New Voices 2010 Festival. This festival is run by the folks at the Eltham Bookshop and will take place at St Margaret's Anglican Church Hall, Pitt Street, Eltham, from 9.30.

Our session, at 3.30, is called Whispered Imagining, and we'll be talking about the art of memoir, guided by Catherine Cole.

The program is varied and I'm looking forward to it. Recently I read Glenys Osborne's remarkable novel, Come Inside, so I'm particularly excited to have the opportunity to hear her discuss her writing process. That session is on at 11.15.

So, if you're free on Saturday and are not too far away, come to Eltham. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Winter weekend

This wintry weekend we've eaten pumpkin scones, repaired a fence and established a new vegetable bed in the orchard.

After quite a bit of experimentation I have found the easiest and most reliably delicious scones to make are, despite her politics, Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen's. They don't taste of pumpkin at all but have a lovely golden colour and are soft and buttery. They're particularly scrumptious with sour cherry jam.

1 Tblsp butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup mashed pumpkin (cold)
2 cups Self raising flour
Beat together butter, sugar and salt with electric mixer.
Add egg, then pumpkin and stir in the flour.
Turn on to floured board and cut.
Place in tray on top shelf of very hot oven 225-250c for 15-20 minutes.

I wasn't quick enough to photograph the scones before they were demolished so you'll have to take my word for them.

To make up for the lack of scone pictures, here are some of our other weekend activities.

Our share farmer, Sharon, and Farmdoc repaired the fence between the holding paddock and the bush.

My task was to hold things and pass them when required. And to take photos.

The fence is now fixed. Until the next tree falls on it of course.

After that we raked up a trailer load of waste hay from the paddock and set up a new vegetable bed in the orchard.

First we lay a thick layer of newspaper on the ground in the shape of the new bed. Then we spread some compost on top of it.

Finally we covered everything with a thick layer of smelly old hay, resplendent with sheep and goat droppings.

In a month or two we'll plant potatoes and pumpkins here.