Bryce Courtenay’s ‘April Fool’s Day’ and a renewed perspective

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Every now and again a book comes along, that for whatever reason you read at precisely the right moment and it has the potential to affect you tremendously. Most recently I had this experience with Bryce Courtenay’s beautifully written, but heart wrenching story about his youngest son’s death at the age of 23, which I have just finished reading. The cover was familiar. I had glanced over the book hundreds of times both as an adolescent perusing my parents bookshelves for something to read and later as an adult on the same mission when visiting my mother. But for some reason, I had not picked it up to read until now. I always say you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read some books and perhaps my current state of mind was simply ripe to read April Fool’s Day.

The book brought me to tears on many occasions but it also occasioned me to laugh out loud and at other instances to feel genuine anger and disgust towards the blatant lack of empathy and consideration of the Australian medical and political communities of the time. Not since reading Shantaram or indeed Sepharad last summer in Europe, have I felt this connected and impacted by a book and even then not on this level.

Reading for me is, and always has been, a refuge, an opportunity to delve into another world and escape my own for a while. The topic of Courtenay’s book is not what you would call light reading or indeed lighthearted. The story of his son’s slow and painful demise is horrendous and Courtenay does not shun away from the details or try to hide the reality of the suffering caused by haemophilia or AIDS. But what struck me most about the book, and I believe this was one of the goals in writing it, was the sheer positivity, willpower, desire to live and unfailing love portrayed by his son Damon and the entire family, and in particular in the relationship between Damon and his girlfriend Celeste.

You really begin to question your own priorities and petty problems when confronted with a book like this. I almost felt ashamed at myself for giving my own minor grievances so much airtime and energy over the past few months.

Courtney masterfully blends raw despair and heartfelt humour, both of which make up most human lives, throughout his writing. Despite the seriousness of the book, one particular scene is simply brilliantly written and had me in absolute stiches. It is when Courtenay is describing his three son’s plunge into what he calls ‘pubescent insanity’.

‘Instead of quite liking their parents they now see them as practically mentally retarded. Everything “sucks” and nothing can be done to please them. Their angst, confusion, malice, ill-temper, thoughtlessness, despair, superiority and disinterest comes out in the form of arms locked across their chests and brows so deeply furrowed as to be practically prehensile. Their voices drop an octave and they temporarily lose the ability to speak, this faculty being replaced by a Neanderthal grunt which covers every possible situation they may confront.’

The book not only provided me with a bit of a shake up to reconsider my own priorities but oddly enough it was also a balm of sorts. Since leaving Australia four months ago after an almost four-year stint Down Under, I have only recently begun to realise how much I missed the country, the people, the way of life and my own life there. Despite being born in South Africa, Courtenay lived most of his life in Australia and in my opinion – having taught and read some Australian literature – he has developed an Australian flair for writing. Reading this quasi-Australian novel with many familiar expressions and locations was like a temporary balm on my still open wound.

I have to admit that it took me a while to appreciate Australia literature and the books and short stories of writers such as Tim Winton and Henry Lawson. They have a unique quality about them that makes them distinctly Australian, as well as possessing an uncanny ability to capture the feeling of the country and it’s people. The writing is raw and open, unlike many of the American and British authors I have read over the years, who often tend to embellish situations and skirt around the reality. There are of course many exceptions to this claim, Zadie Smith being one that immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless it took me a while before I really appreciated the writing of Australian authors. I suppose coming from a diet of largely classical books, the majority being from English authors and female, maybe I am slightly late in coming to the table in my appreciation of more modern and realist writing. However, being a high school English teacher in Australia certainly helped in broadening my literary repertoire.

Being the true geek and English teacher that I am, despite leaving Australia, I have kept abreast of the changes being made to the NSW English curriculum. I most recently perused the new list of prescribed texts for the HSC. Always on the lookout for new books myself – my amazon Wish List is almost at 200 books – I was pleasantly surprised by the many new and varied texts that have been added and indeed to the extensive number of Australian authors included. While I cannot as of yet offer an opinion on many of these authors, apart from Winton’s of course, I do plan to read a number of these over the coming months.

But I digress from my original purpose in writing this post, which was to talk about Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day. The book simply has to be read. I cannot say much more than that, it is a wonderful, heartbreaking and life-affirming book that has helped me in beginning to get back on track and refocus my priorities. But please ensure you have time to savour it, don’t rush this book, and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to read something of this intensity.

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Europe with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s ‘Sepharad’

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Being back in Europe is like coming home. After more than three years of living in Australia, I had not forgotten the pull Europe has on me, however, it had become fainter in its intensity. As the plane descended towards Schiphol Airport, it felt like I was coming home. Then over the next few days as I wandered through the streets and grachten of Amsterdam, with various friends and family members, the scents, sounds and scenes of the city enveloped me, filling me with heady and intoxicating memories and emotions.

Sepharad

While travelling through Europe I am reading Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad (in English), which a friend lent to me. I am rarely at a loss to describe my feelings about a book and to give an overview of what it is about. The last book that left me equally at a loss was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. With Sepharad I once again struggle to explain competently why the book is so great and what it is ultimately about. Potentially contentious for some, I would have to say that I would put Sepharad above Shantaram. Maybe it’s due to the timeliness of my reading the book, during my return to Europe after a notable absence, while travelling and as I once more immerse myself in the history and culture of Europe which I have missed so much. They are such vastly different books, yet both are equally thought provoking and inspirational. Sepharad has launched me once again into the literary world of Europe, reminding me of books and authors I have loved and had somewhat forgotten about during my sojourn on the other side of the word. My knowledge of the culture and history of this part of the continent is suddenly being refreshed, and the cities of Europe, many of which I have lived in and grown attached too over the years are once again focal points for me.

The book is an epic journey through time of history, culture, passions and literature laced with the nostalgia experienced by many travellers returning to and yearning for their homeland from far-flung places. There are loose threads evident throughout the book but many of the characters stories stand alone, linked simply by a shared yearning for their homeland. Muñoz Molina lives and breathes history, bringing memories and characters to life in this thought provoking book.

As one of Muñoz Molina’s characters says, several days before leaving on a journey the traveler has already left in their mind. Similarly the day before leaving Australia I sat at my desk at school, watching the clock, already tuned out and ready to leave. Luckily for me, and my students, I did not have to teach many classes on that last day as my distraction was palpable. Like Muñoz Molina’s character I too had already left the school and Australia in my mind.

The excitement of travelling back to loved places can hypnotize you, as Muñoz Molina aptly wrote the pull of return is like ‘the strong current of time that carries you back at a speed greater even than that of the car on the flat straight highway’. Memories are indeed a strong trigger and as I walked through Amsterdam and later sat on the train to my grandmothers village in Germany with the constant stream of travellers entering and exiting, each engrossed with their own agendas and lives, memories came flooding back. The pull of return and the transition between languages and dialects so familiar, yet at the same time slightly foreign to me after years of solely speaking English enveloped me in memories of my childhood and adolescence in these places, and of people familiar and loved.

Muñoz Molina’s book is both nostalgic and new for me, a piece of edible literature which I find hard to put down and which sees me rereading and savouring certain passages over and over for their beautifully written images, metaphors and language. The English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden is superb, I can only imagine how beautifully written the original is in Spanish. If I ever learn Spanish well I will re read it in its original form. Reading Sepharad has also encouraged me to write again, something I have struggled with over the past few years, neither finding inspiration or the right words. But through Muñoz Molina’s book and while travelling through Europe I am inspired to write again. It almost feels as if I have emerged from a cocoon that has been incasing me for a long time, I feel emotions and passions returning that I had forgotten I possessed.

I have just finished reading the last few pages of the book while sitting on my grandmother’s balcony in Germany on a balmy July evening, accompanied by a glass of red wine. I cannot even feign to try and do this wonderful book justice, but I have tried to explain in some coherent manner why I love this book and how I related with it personally.

Reading it during a crossroads in my own life and on my return to Europe after a notable absence has been both a balm as well as an awakening of senses. Will the next stage of my life be governed by the passions I have constrained for so many years or will my pragmatic logic continue to persevere?

It is now so dark outside that I can only make out the silhouettes of the plants on the balcony and the peaked roofs of houses beyond the garden. It is time to finish up and retire for the evening. For those literary, culture, history and travelling enthusiasts, Sepharad is an absolute MUST! Just make sure to read it slowly, savouring each and every word.

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We’re all going on a summer holiday

The beach

It’s the last day of school; you’re sitting quietly in the classroom at the edge of your seat, eyes glued to the clock. The ticking seems to be getting louder and louder and the hand is crawling, as if in slow motion. You’re waiting, waiting for the final bell of the school year to go: the signal that it’s the holidays, the summer holidays.

 

It’s been over 10 years since I left school, but I’m getting that unmistakable summer holiday buzz. That feeling of waiting impatiently for that final bell to go so that I can dash out of the school grounds and enjoy my five-week, well earned break.

It’s funny, when I left school I never thought I’d set foot on school grounds – never mind voluntarily – again. And I certainly never imagined I’d experience that distinct summer holiday excitement, exclusive to my school days ever again. But after completing my first term as a fully-fledged schoolmarm, and at the cusp of a well-earned five week summer holiday, that feeling is palpable.

I did it; I survived my first term of teaching! It feels like quite an accomplishment and I’m pretty impressed with myself for making it. I must have done a half decent job as the school have lined me up to continue teaching in Term 1, starting at the end of January.

 

On my way to work this morning, on the last day of school, I had to stop in at the mechanic to get the bumper of my car bolted back on – not as dramatic as it sounds. While waiting, I popped into the little café next to the mechanics to get a coffee. In our current cashless society, I like many others, rarely carry cash, so I was somewhat surprised when the café owner said they didn’t have Eftpos facilities. On hearing I was a local and waiting for my car to be fixed the barista bartered with me; either I come by later and pay for the coffee or I could pop into the Servo and buy him a Powerade in return for a coffee. Much amused I popped next door and got him a purple Powerade.

It felt like it should already be the holidays as I sat outside on the verandah in the morning sun, listening to the birds and looking out at the trees swaying in the breeze. Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to the coast to spend Christmas with my mum, sister, her partner and my gorgeous nephew. After about six Christmas’s Down Under and living here for over two and a half years, I still can’t get used to Christmas in the sun. There is something just not right about it being hot and going down to the beach at Christmas. It’s supposed to be cold outside with snow on the ground, while you sit inside in front of an open fire curled up with a good book where it’s warm and cosy with the smell of Christmas baking wafting through the house.

 

The bell is about to go, I’m sitting at the edge of  my chair – like I did all those years ago at school – watching the clock on my computer screen crawl from 3.19 to 3.20. I’m going to press the ‘Publish’  button and then dash out the door, into my car – with a secure bumper – and home to the pub for a well earned glass of Vino Bianco before finishing off my packing and going to bed on time as I have an early start in the morning.

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Book Review; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My favourite books

For those of you who have already seen this post in draft format, apologies, it decided to publish itself, clearly too eager to wait for me to finish it!

On a trip to Bathurst recently I renewed my love of secondhand bookstores, purchasing eleven new books in the process, that’s my winter reading sorted. I just adore the rows and row of books; that old and worn book smell, the intrigue as to who the books former owner was and who else has thumbing through its pages deciding whether or not to give it a home. One of these eleven books that I picked up was Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Borrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now I’d seen this book in London and the title had always intrigued me, but for some unfathomable and shameful reason I never bought it!

At the weekend, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows I sat inside curled up in front of an ope fire, with a cup of green tea, an Anzac cookie and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in hand. In my opinion, the absolutely perfect reading conditions!

The book is an epistolary novel, which is not a format I’ve read since reading Evelina by Francis Burney at University. The correspondence is between the main character Juliet Ashton and a range of characters from friends, to acquaintances, her publisher and a suitor.

It is the most delightful, witty, well written, captivating and beautifully descriptive book that I have read in a long time. I had heard nothing but praise for it and now I know why. Mary Ann was clearly an avid reader with a love for literature and reading. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is like taking the things you love the most about your favourite books and rolling them into one marvellous novel.

At times I was reminded of Anne of Green Gables, when Juliet writes to Sophie and tells her that she is going to ‘run through the wild-flower meadow outside my door and up to the cliff as fast as I can. Then I”m going to lie down and look at the sky, which is shimmering like a pear this afternoon, and breath in the warm scent of grass’.

The game ‘Dead Bride’ which Juliet and Kit play, could easily have been something Lucy Maud Montgomery might have had Diana and Anne play at in Anne of Green Gables. The description is very Anne like; ‘The bride veils herself in a lace curtain and stuffs herself into a laundry basket, where she lies as though dead while the anguished bridegroom hunts for her. When he finally discovers her entombed in the laundry basket, he breaks into loud wails’.

I got glimpses of the Secret Garden when Kit and Dawsey watch a blackbird tug a worm out of the ground. And the description of how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was founded and the roast pig saga is almost Wodehousian in it’s description and humour.

Juliet’s London suitor Mark Rynolds is like a modern day version of Mr Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility; handsome, proud, fickle and vivacious, while Dawsey is a Mr Rochester like character; mysterious, brooding and hiding a ‘secret sorrow’.

Mary Ann’s fabulously vivid imagery really brings her characters to life and I found myself laughing aloud as well as close to tears at a number of points throughout the book. I particularly liked when she describes Isola as being ‘better than a stalking horse’, her language is so full of luscious words, images and quirky sayings.

The book mentions many loved authors and well known books, poems and plays. The Brontë sisters, in particular Anne Brontë are mentioned extensively as well as Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and there is an entire Oscar Wilde section, as well as many more favourites.

Mary Ann’s novel has also got a serious historical side to it through it’s setting in post World War II Europe and its focuses on the German Occupation of Guernsey. I have to say I was ignorant of the fact that Guernsey had been occupied during the war, so it was equally intriguing to read about this from a historical point of view. The book mentions the Todt workers, the German prisoners of war who were sent to Guernsey to work during the Occupation and the inhumane way they were treated. Two of the characters are sent to Concentration Camps in Germany, and the Islanders experience of the Occupation is detailed and harrowing in it’s description.

If you love books, reading and literature, you will adore The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I don’t know how and why but this book makes you feel so good but it does. It also makes me want to re read all my favourite books again. I have to say, I’m really missing all my books at the moment, they give such a homely touch to a place and I just want to be able to get up, browse through them and re read all my favourites. One day I’ll get them all from London, and line a bookshelf with my old and trusted friends.

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Wiser words on teaching after surviving my second teaching placement (at a private school)

Year 10 student comment

Year 10 student comment

With three weeks and counting left before I have to submit my final assignment for University, I feel that I’ve come a long way since starting out last September, both in relation to learning about the ins and outs of teaching and of course actually standing in front of a class and teaching.

Year 8 student comment

Year 8 student comment

For my first teaching placement I spent seven weeks at a local public school, after which I have to admit I was slightly skeptical about my second placement which was to be at the local private school. Being myself from the Irish public school system (although at the time I did not rate it and I’m not sure how it’s changed since I was at school) I was already somewhat prejudiced towards the private system, with what I believed were a number of solid reasons. However, after having spent six weeks teaching and working at the private school, my views have changed considerably. Yes, there were elements that I had had preconceived ideas about which proved to be well founded, however, as a whole the school was great, the students were a delight (most of the time) and the other teachers were not only excellent teachers but also very supportive and inclusive.

Year 10 student comment

Year 10 student comment

I know that I already mentioned in a previous blog my slight trepidation regarding my choice of going into teaching before my first placement, and how I was relieved that I had made the right decision during my time at the school. Well this was only further reinforced during my second placement.

Year 8 student comment

Year 8 student comment

At one point during the six weeks I was asked by the principle and other teachers if I could give a careers talks about my background and experiences both of working and University to the Year 9s and the Year 10s. I assented and spent a half hour on two consecutive Thursdays talking about and answering question regarding my previous experiences. When asked by a student in the Year 9 class whether I thought different types of people were suited to certain jobs, I responded that I did believe this was the case, to which I was further pressed as to whether I believed my personality was right for the fields and jobs I had chosen (journalism and PR), this really made me think. The honest answer that I came up with and responded to the class with, was that no, I don’t believe my personality fitted either the field of PR or journalism, but that I had gone outside of my comfort zone and tried and succeeded in both areas, growing with each experience and acquiring new skills. It was only after I said this out load that I realised that standing in front of a class and teaching is the most natural thing for me and it’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt. Yes, I was terrified at the start and the idea of being unprepared for a class truly frightens me (which is why I don’t believe I’ll ever be unprepared for a lesson) but it feels right and that’s what I told the students.

That’s the great thing (I really despise that word, its such a filler and lazy word) about living in the 21st Century, you don’t have to know and decide what to do with your life straight after finishing school. You can go on to try many different things before you decide or find out what it is you’re supposed to or want to do. It took me a few years, but I learnt so much in the process and had the opportunity to travel at the same time, I’d never take any of it back.

And the most rewarding things about teaching; well it’s when you teach a great lesson, when you inspire students and when they write lovely things about you when asked to feedback on your teaching!

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Teaching; I survived my first placement

English

This post has been on the cards for a while, however, as often happens in life, other things took over such as Christmas, family visiting, finishing off assignments and of course working, unfortunately bills need to be paid. With two days to go before starting on my next assignment and a brief retrieve between jobs, it’s now or never really to get this post written.

Going into my first teaching prac I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy it. The initial week was probably the hardest, I was thrown in the deep end and teaching lessons pretty much straight away. The first class where I had to stand up at the front of the room with 23 Year 9 students sitting there and staring at me, waiting for the teacher to say something, was totally terrifying. I was responsible for them, I had to teach them something; my palms were sweaty, my throat dry and my heart was racing. But I got through the class, thanks to being an overly organised person, I had a fool proof lesson plan written, extra material in case I rushed through the content of the lesson too quickly, and a teacher in the room, just in case it all went haywire.

Over time I learnt which ones were the cheeky ones, who needed extra help, which boys needed to be split up and sat with the girls, who handed in their homework and school work on time and those that needed constant reminding and chasing. But those first few lessons were so very scary.

I learnt so much over the seven weeks that I was teaching there. I taught a mix of classes; an online Year 7 English class through a trial virtual selective high school (xsel) for students in rural areas around NSW, a traditional classroom group of Year 9 students and a small group of Year 11 students who were taking English Standard classes.

As with most things I had good days with a sprinkling of bad ones. But each day I learnt something new and every mistake and error I made (and trust me there were a few) I learnt from and took that experience and feedback on board. What I enjoy about teaching is that every day is different, you have different classes to teach, different students and a different topic, so no one lesson or day is the same.

There were a few small misunderstanding on account of my accent (one student thought I said a character was blind instead of blond) and a number of questions about Leprechauns, all of which added a bit of humour to the lesson.

Card

It was hard work, involving a lot of late nights and working over the weekends; correcting homework, creating lessons, searching for resources and writing endless reports for university, but cards like this one and genuine thanks and questions as to whether I would be coming back to teach the class in 2015, made it all worth the while. The pride I got from seeing the end result of the class newspaper that my Year 7 class created was immense. I had taught them a media studies unit from the start to the finish, decided what areas needed to be covered, assigned work to students and fed back on their creations. It was so fulfilling to guide them through the process, observe their progress and get frustrated when they did not take feedback or suggestions on board. And the end result confirmed that they had learnt something and that my teaching had been successful. At the end of the day, isn’t that what teaching is all about, those moments of pride where you can clearly see that your hard work has paid off!

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Road trip; Byron Bay and Queensland

Byron Bay lighthouse

After four months of winter and work, I was hanging for a break, absolutely dying to get away for a few weeks. Last year I went to Newcastle for a week with my sister and nephew to recuperate after winter, and this year Queensland was on the cards. Originally we were going to fly straight to Brisbane, but what with one thing and another and wanting to leave as soon as possible, we ended up driving via Byron Bay to Queensland.

The drive was lovely, and long. I’ve finally started to get used to the vast distances in Australia, it takes about six to eightOld Bar beach festival hours to drive from one side of Ireland to the other, but in Australia, well six or eight hours is nothing. It took us two days to drive to Byron Bay, stopping in Bar Beach on the way, where they happened to have a Kombi run that evening. Which is something I’d never seen before, there were just so many VW’s in every colour imaginable.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay was lovely, if a bit windy. We walked to the lighthouse on our first day and the view was spectacular. It was so nice to be lying and walking on the beach again and soaking in the sunshine, it was much needed. On our last afternoon there, I booked a time at the local tattoo parlour to have a tattoo. It’s something I’d wanting to do for years but was always too scared to actually go ahead with. Finally, with some morel support – although I was told it felt like a Stanley knife cutting into you – I decided to go for it. On the aforementioned afternoon we rocked up at the tattoo parlour, I was surprisingly relaxed – although while the lady was doing the tattoo I gripped the chair so hard my fingers were cramped by the time she was finished. Once it was all over and done with, the lady proceeded to explain the aftercare and the rest is a bit of a blur as I passed out falling smack bang on the tiled floor. The egg on my forehead that resulted from passing out, was definitely something to write home about, it was bloody huge! By the next day, half the swelling had moved down my face so I now had two puffy black eyes and a somewhat deflated egg on my forehead. A month later and I still have a small lump on my head and the wrinkle lines on my forehead still don’t line up. Other than that, love the tat!

Oh yea, and that all happened the day before I met my boyfriends family!

When we finally arrived in Queensland it was hot. It was throughly enjoyable, relaxing, not working – just a bit of studying – and lovely warm weather. While there I went for a two hour horse ride, in true country style; Western saddle, riding through the cattle and gorgeous sunshine. I hadn’t ridden a horse for maybe 10 years and I loved every minute of it. Not so much after, as my ass was a little bit sore for the next two days and every time I sat down I had to wince.

Following the lovely two week break, I went straight into teaching, but that’s another post for a different day!

 

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