Wednesday Reads – The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

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The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax has recently been made into a movie starring Colin Firth (I’m a big fan after his wonderful depiction of Mr Darcy in my all-time favourite book/TV series, Pride and Prejudice) and Nicole Kidman.  I haven’t seen the movie, but I will get myself a copy soon to watch on one of those nights I’m here on my own.  I try to avoid wherever possible seeing the movie before reading the book and am almost always disappointed with the movie.  There are exceptions though.  The Devil Wears Prada was a much better movie than novel, and so was Julie and Julia (though that’s probably because of the way the film was able to show Julia Child’s life in contrast to Julie the blogger in away the book was not).  The Railway Man is a fascinating and at times harrowing retelling of one man’s experience as a POW in some of the most atrocious camps and jails in Thailand and Malaya during the second world war.  The effects of this experience determined his whole life afterwards.  However, in a moving display of compassion Lomax, decades after the end of the war, meets and forgives the one man he had held in his mind as representing the horrors of what was done to him and his comrades.  That is an extraordinary moment of courage and humanity.  And that is the story Eric Lomax tells in his memoir.

However, I suspect this may be one of the few stories I enjoy more as a film than a novel.  The story is fascinating and deserves telling, but I did find the incredible detail a little overwhelming.  Not the detail of the camps or what was done to him and others so much – though that is often disturbing – it’s the nitty gritty detail, the detail about trains (oh so much stuff on trains in the first third),  and times, and timetables, and dates, and…. and…. And then he would skip forward many months or years in just a few lines and skim over many of the things I found interesting – like his time in India before heading to Singapore and his entire several decade first marriage and children.  There is also feeling of emotional distance – understandable given the circumstances – between Lomax and his experiences, especially in his transition from hatred and revenge to forgiveness and compassion.  He talks candidly about his inability to talk about anything to do with the war and his captivity for several decades, only opening up after meeting his second wife and finding a clinic that dealt with the emotional and psychological scars left by torture.  Despite this, the book for me, still lacked that insight in some ways.

Having said all that, this remains an important book and one worth reading.  It is clearly written, but could have been edited a bit more tightly, and has obviously been a cathartic exercise for the author.

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Bringing in better habits

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Image from here

I recently discovered a number of local to Ballarat bloggers and their blogs (obviously!).  New discoveries like this are always welcome – though these days finding time to read blogs is not always easy.  It’s funny when you realise that no matter where you go there are people pretty much like you and that’s what many of these blogs are.  Not exactly my life but a close enough approximation for me to connect and to get some inspiration from.  And that’s what happened when I read a recent post from Potential Psychology on creating good habits (or breaking bad ones, but let’s put a positive spin on it).

Now psychology isn’t really my thing, but the writer of this blog, Ellen, doesn’t talk in any sort of ‘psycho-babble’, it’s not preachy and the tips are straightforward common sense.  For example to change habits she suggests having a good think about it – is this really something you want to do, or something you feel you should do? – and then start small and make it fit your life, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure.  What I especially liked about this post was Ellen sharing her own journey to better habits – learning to run.

So what are the habits I want to change?  I have two, they’re kind of related.  Firstly, I thought, I want to be an early riser.  My five year old bounces out of bed at about 6am with a smile of her face and itching to get stuck into her day (her three year old sister is just about the dead opposite of this!).  Miss Five gets herself something to eat, pulls out the iPad to watch a few shows, starts the first of her involved role-playing games with a dozen or so dolls and soft toys and entertains herself for sometimes up to TWO HOURS.  I suggested she try to sleep in a little recently after a couple of late nights and a mild illness, she replied “But I like getting up early Mum”.  Oh how I wish this was me!  When she’s desperate for a proper breakfast she comes into me and begs.  This is when I get up, usually around 8am.  That’s pretty late for a ‘grown-up’ I reckon.  If I was working I would be up considerably earlier and next year when school starts I will have to be.  But that’s not why I want to change this habit, I want more time to do the things on my daily lists and an hour or more extra time in the morning seems like a good place to get it.

I told Mr Good my plan, he laughed.  He laughed and said if you want to do that you’re actually going to have to get some sleep at night.  He’s right, I am a terrible sleeper and often the best (sometimes only) sleep I get is between 6am and 8am.  I was a bad sleeper before I had kids, now I’m ten times worse.  And if I think it about part of the reason we moved was to reduce my stress and my levels of exhaustion.  When we moved I made a pact with myself that unless absolutely necessary I WOULDN’T get out of bed until 8am.  Seems kind of ironic now that this is exactly the habit I now want to break, but this time last year I desperately needed redress the sleep debt crisis I was in after over a year of getting 3-4 hours a night (and broken sleep at that).

So this habit change is going to be tough.  I need to work on improving my sleep – which also means working on keeping Miss Three in her own bed and I really have no idea how to approach that.  We have done the tough love thing in the past and after several horrid nights she does stay put….. but it never lasts and then we’re back to square one.  The rest of it is about switching off my maddeningly active brain so I can fall asleep and working out strategies to get back to sleep when I wake (or get woken) during the night – this can take me several hours at the moment.  In short it’s all a bit more complicated than just setting my alarm earlier and hauling myself out of bed.

The second habit – also about giving me more useful time – is having a short shower.  A much simpler task so let’s start with that.  Firstly I should admit, this is a life long habit and one that was possibly passed on through genetics (thanks Dad).  However in the years of working everyday my showers were speedy things, just long enough to wake me up and get me clean.  Then children came along and the shower became a retreat, a (usually) solo activity in a world of anything but solidtude.  Now it’s time to give that up and take back a few extra minutes for reading, studying, blogging, organising, housework or whatever.

The big question is how long, is long in this context.  I’m not exactly sure, but probably over 15 minutes, sometimes a long way over 15.  There, I’ve said it, let’s move on.  My strategy is simple, use the kitchen timer, when the bell rings the water goes off.  The hard part is following through!  I started by just cutting a couple of minutes off and am now down to ten, which includes hair-washing if needed.  This morning I had something of a breakthrough.  I felt like I had been in the shower for a while longer than I should have and figured the timer hadn’t work – which occasionally happen – so I got out only to realise I had two minutes left.  I possibly had a smug, self-satisfied grin on my face after this.  Time to cut it down to eight minutes obviously.

If I am to do as suggested and really think about why I want to change these habits, is it because I think I should or because I really want to?  The answer is both.  It will be better for our water and gas bills (argh!) if I take shorter showers and that’s a good thing.  But the want part is the time – the extra minutes in the morning is enough time to get the kitchen cleaned up properly after breakfast which means a clean kitchen when we get home.  It means mornings are less rushed in the getting-out-of-the-house stage, good for everyone involved. The school drop offs should be less stressful next year.  I can take half an hour to sit and read or write or garden without the guilt of having housework or study to do, because I would have already done it (in theory).  It’s all about maximising the hours in the day I have and sleeping in and long showers have slipped down the list.  I WANT more time to DO the things I enjoy the most.

I’ve got another ‘life hack’ post coming up on making the most of the time available.  In the meantime tell me about how you have or hope to bring in a better habit in your life.  How did you break that old habit?  Did it last?  How did it change your outlook?

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Great Reads of Kids 4# – Oliver Jeffers

I thought this week I would look at just one author for my great reads for kids post and I selected Oliver Jeffers who has cropped up several times recently in our library picks or other places.  Jeffers is up near the top our list of the greatest makers on kids books ever!  While we love Mem Fox and Patricia Allen and Lynley Dodd and Shirley Hughes there is something much more unique, eccentric and vivid to books by Oliver Jeffers.  Now I can’t say we’ve read them all, but we have read enough to know that any we pick up with become firm favourites.

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Image from http://oliverjeffersworld.com/library/

It all started with a book called Stuck.  An absurd little story about a boy whose kite gets stuck in a tree.  Miss Three fell in love with this book and from about the age of 2 she requested it every night for her bedtime story.  Normally this kind of long-term repetitiveness makes me loathe the book after some time, and I may or may not have hidden certain books to give myself a break from reading them.  Stuck never did that, night after night we read it and it remained funny, dramatic and interactive.  Jeffers has the wonderful skill of being able to tell a story with very few words yet injected with character, curiosity and humour – his pictures tell as much if not more of the story than his perfectly selected words.  Every night we read this the girls would beg me to tell them what the fireman, or whale, or neighbour no longer across the street would be saying in certain scenarios.  We told the story a little differently each time and that’s what sustained us for oh so long.  It helps that before this discovery the only books Miss Three had connected with were Spot or Maisy books – they were wearing a little thin!

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Image from http://oliverjeffersworld.com/library/

The second Jeffers discovery was quite different in both look and story, but still with that reserved use of language and illustrations that make the reader become the storyteller.  It was a book called the Great Paper Caper and is about a group of animals who discover that a thief has been stealing bits of their forest.  They set out as detectives to discover the truth of the matter.  It’s very funny! We’ve since borrowed this at least four times – perhaps I should just buy them a copy!

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Image from http://oliverjeffersworld.com/library/

Another book we have monopolized from the library is one of the Hueys series.  Miss Five launches herself for this if she sees it on the display shelves.  It’s called The Hueys in The New Jumper – a book about being the same and being different.  We’ve yet to find the other Hueys books, but I will be putting them on reserve this week.  I have no doubt we will enjoy them as much as any others.

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Finally comes a book called The Heart and the Bottle, about the curiosity of childhood that seems to, at some point, get put aside for the sake of self-preservation.  It’s sadder than the others, a sort of melancholy tale of growing up.  But rest assured all is well in the end as the girl, now a woman, rediscoveries the wonders of the world with the help of a child.

There are several others on the Jeffers list that we are yet to read – my sister-in-law has highly recommended The Day the Crayons Quit (which Jeffers did in collaboration with another author) – but you can be sure we will be making our way through the collection.  

Oh and if you want to check out a little more about this wonderful author and the world he has created have a look at Oliver Jeffers World and this little clip of himself and how he works – it looks like so much fun!

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Wednesday Reads – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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Had I just noticed this book in the bookstore or library I would have walked right on passed.  The title did not grab me at all, in fact it had quite the opposite effect, making me think this is absolutely not a book for me.  This is what my thinking would have been except for the fact that I had an interesting conversation with a woman working in a bookstore while I was looking for a book for Mum.  Then someone at bookclub mentioned we should consider it and it got me curious.  What was this book with the terrible title all about and what was making it crop up in conversation here and there?  So in the same month as we read The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden, we also read this one, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  They were both a break of the heavy going war books we’d be stuck on…. I think this was my fault, I am accidentally a magnet to war books at the moment.  But while I only have gave the King of Sweden book a two stars, this one got five out of five (or perhaps four and a half if that was a option of Goodreads, damn you with your only full star capacity, I want halves!).  The bookstore woman told me nothing except that it was intriguing and well worth picking “but anything else would give away the story” and I’m going to feed you the same line.  Just trust me and pick it up, you’ll thank me for not letting the cat out of the bag!  

I will say that the main character Rosemary Cooke is a university student who has a difficult relationship with her parents and has two missing siblings.  From there you’ll have to figure the rest out for yourself.

What makes this book completely not-put-downable is it’s structure, it is not in any way linear.  Rosemary – who narrates the story – starts in the middle, then goes both forwards and backwards in various parts, giving you the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end and finally the beginning and the end.  It’s a real journey through time and adds suspense and mystery to the story.  The language is totally accessible and the writing is witty and engaging.  Fowler writes of family dynamics and the avoidance of difficult conversations that often happen in families with such clarity and humour you wonder how close she was to what she is writing about.  

In our bookclub discussion we got onto the topic of Rosemary’s friend Harlow, she is quite the conundrum.  I though her character played a pivotal role in revealing the true character of Rosemary, but she was somewhat annoying.  My only criticism was the neatly tied up ending, I thought a messier version would have been closer to reality, but perhaps that’s just my aversion to happy endings?  Either way, add this to your must-read list and put aside a weekend because you won’t be doing anything else!

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Recipe: Punchy Crunchy Lamb Noodle Salad

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Sometime last year I won a copy of Jamie Oliver’s Save with Jamie cookbook through the Good Guys.  It has become a regular fixture on my kitchen recipe stand and has somewhat transformed how I think about food and cooking, especially the roast.  Sides are important additions to meals, not just last minute thoughts.  Sauces, gravys, dressings are a must and are generally pretty easy to whip up from scratch – his mint sauce for a roast lamb, yum!  The bigger the roast the better – so much scope for left-overs – and cheaper cuts with long, slow cooking make it a smart economic purchase.  Now I’m more likely to do a shoulder of lamb, than a leg, the chicken I buy is always the biggest I can afford (and usually free range) and planning the meals using left overs is exciting and new.  No longer do I do the standard shepherd’s pie or cold meat fritters – not that there’s anything wrong with these, but there are many other options – instead I whip out the Save with Jamie book and try to get a bit more creative.

Here in Australia, this last Sunday was Father’s Day and the request from Mr Good was a roast.  I had a lamb cushion in the freezer from my last lamb order (a friend and I split a lamb together a couple of times a year).  I hadn’t even heard of a cushion of lamb until this order, but after a quick explanation from the farmer we bought the lamb off we decided to give it a go.  A cushion is bascially a shoulder, bones out and then tied together to resemble a round cushion.  You can add a stuffing or filling to the centre before you tie it up, but ours was just the meat.  I cooked it for about 2 1/2 hours with some onions, beef stock and wine in the base of the roasting dish and covered with tin foil.  In the last hour of the cooking time I added potatoes that had been parboiled.  Carrots and pumpkin were roasted in a separate dish.  The foil was removed for the last 30 minutes to crisp up the spuds and the top of the roast.  The juices at the bottom of the pan made a lovely gravy.  After we had all eaten our fill of meat and veggies, I had about 400g of meat left over.  

This is where I hit the cook book and see what appeals.  What I love is that most of the dishes using left over meat only require about 150-250g of meat and are very adaptable, add more veg if you’re light on meat or vice versa.  Some use up left over gravy as well – very useful considering I always make way too much.  This time around it was Jamie’s Punchy Crunch Lamb Noodle Salad that was calling my name.  The girls love noodles and the weather has started to warm up a little (though you wouldn’t know it today!) so salads are on my mind and while it does have a bit of chilli I thought it would be easier enough to make a small portion without the heat of the chilli that Miss Five is so fervent in her hatred of – Miss Three doesn’t mind it at all.  It turned out to be a very good decision, dinner was a hit!

Jamie Oliver’s Punchy Crunchy Lamb Noodle Salad

2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and grated
1-2 red chillies (I stuck with one, but could easily have put a second in)
8 tablespoons of olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
300g medium rice noodles
2 carrots
1 cucumber
2 gem lettuces (these seem to be like mini cos lettuce here)
1 round lettuce (I only used the gem lettuce)
1 bunch of mint
250g leftover cooked lamb
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
1 teaspoon of honey (this was my addition, not in the original recipe)

Add the grated ginger to a bowl with half the chilli (Jamie grated his, but I find this tricky, so just finely diced mine) oil, vinegar and soy sauce.  Mix and then set aside.

Put the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water, then leave for 15 minutes or until tender.

Speed-peel the carrots into long thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler and slice the cucumber however you like.  I really should get one of those cool crinkle cutters, instead mine were plain half circles of cucumber.  Add both to a bowl.  Trim the lettuce and then cut into wedges – I love this way of slicing lettuce, it gives the salad a sort of structural appearance – and add to the bowl.  Then pick over the mint leaves and add those too.  Drain the noodles and add to the bowl.

Shred the left over lamb and put it into a frying pan on a high heat with the sesame seeds.  This is where I varied the recipe a little.  In the book Jamie’s lamb looks dark and glossy which I just wasn’t getting, plus mine seemed a little dry.  So I initially added a tiny bit of the lamb dripping I’d kept from the roast (another great tip of the book) and then I added a teaspoon of honey, which gave the lamb a bit more moisture and that lovely glossy look.  The honey also works with the chilli, ginger and vinegar in the dressing.

Mix the dressing up again, then drizzle over the salad and toss well.  Finely slice the last of the chilli and scatter this over the salad.  Finally top with the lamb and sesame and serve.

This recipe serves 4-6 people, but as it was just for two adults and two kids I reduced the quantities a little.  I also made a small non-chilli version for the kids using a third of the dressing ingredients.  Like I said his recipes are very adaptable and this would be equally great with some snow peas or other crunchy veggies so play around with it.  Lastly, even though I made a smaller version we still had plenty leftover (leftover, leftovers!).  It holds up pretty well to a day in the fridge and is excellent “wodged”, as Jaime would say, into a wrap for lunch.

Kids salad without chilli

Kids salad without chilli

 

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Another late Wednesday Reads – The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

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For followers of the blog you’ll remember I reviewed the first of Jonas Jonasson’s books, The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, back in April.  A fun, clever and surprisingly complicated story written in a distinctive quirky style.  I gave it four or even five stars on Goodreads.  Jonasson’s second novel, The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden, is written in his same distinctive style, with the same entwining, complicated and slightly absurd storyline.  So much so that I felt it was a carbon copy.  I felt like I had read this before and while I think Jonasson is very clever he is also at risk of becoming a one trick pony.

This time his central characters are a young, black South African woman by the name of Nombeko Mayeki and Holgar Two, a Swedish man who doesn’t really exist.  The two stories – of Nombeko and Holger Two – begin considerably far apart in both geography and circumstance, but Jonasson gradually brings them together before they eventually become a team, intent of saving the world, Sweden, or at least the 32 mile radius from their position, from nuclear disaster.  Of course there is a cast of wildly implausible secondary characters as there was in the One Hundred Year Old Man, including the King of Sweden, the Swedish Prime Minister and the Chinese President, Holger Two’s twin Holger One and his angry young girlfriend, Celeste.  

Jonasson has reined this story in slightly more than in his first book, which I did appreciate – moving from one crazy situation with a despotic world leader to another did wear just a little thin last time, though it was also very funny – however Nombeko wasn’t nearly as interesting or likable as Allen Karlsson was.  

This book was one I read for book club and the table was divided in their opinions.  Myself and another member felt similarly, though we had both read the first Jonasson within the last six months.  The other two members enjoyed it much more – one having read the first book well over a year ago and the other not at all.  I’m sure if this was my first foray into Jonasson’s writing I would have enjoyed it as much as I did reading his first, but as it was I had to force myself to finish it and became quite annoyed at reading the same jokes over again.  

So if you’ve not read any Jonasson’s before, by all means pick this one up.  It will be a light, easy yet clever and witty book – as long as you’re comfortable with the absurd.  But if you’ve read The One Hundred Year Old Man already either don’t bother with it or leave it a good long time between them!

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Great Reads of Kids 3#

Another week, another trip to the library.  This week our selection was more miss than hit – despite the promising titles – but still there are a few worth sharing.

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Firstly is a Charlie and Lola.  There are many, many in this series by Lauren Child, but this one, Slightly Invisible, was a particular hit with the girls.  It deals with Charlie wanting some space from Lola – I’m surprised he puts up with his younger sister as much as he does! – but also features a slightly invisible Lola and a completely invisible Soren Lorenson (if you look very carefully you can find him on each page).  The hunt for Soren Lorenson was the draw card for the girls and they have had a fabulous time racing each other, and me, to find him.

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Second was by one of my favourite authors of both picture books and young reader books, Jackie French (I’ve read several with Year 7 English classes and would highly recommend them for late primary-early high school readers).  Queen Victoria’s Christmas follows the original, Queen Victoria’s Underpants (another worthy of checking out).  It’s told from the perspective of the Queen’s pets, two dogs and a parrot, and is an interesting take on the customary Christmas traditions.  The illustrations by Bruce Whately are very funny.

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Third is something of an abstract story, as children’s books go.  It’s called Never Ever Before, by Stephen Michael King.  It starts in the land of small, when Big is born, followed by Talls.  Each being, small, big and tall, bring their own unique qualities that when put altogether make a world that is safe yet adventurous.  Quite a good message for our world today.

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The fourth selection was Emily and the Dragon, by Lyn Lee and David Cornish.  Emily is a girl, who despite the laughs and teasing of Jock, wants to be a dragon hunter.  Together with her chicken friend Egg, she sets off to find a dragon and on her journey finds a witch who wants some friends, a knight who wants to knit and eventually a dragon who wants……  I love the message of breaking through stereotypes – one my girls need constantly emphasized – and this is a particularly fun way to get that message across. 

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FInally, is a book we own that I’ve been meaning to recommend for months.  It’s called The Runaway Hug by Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood.  Lucy, a loving and affectionate young girl, shares her mother’s last hug with everyone in her family, including the dog who runs away with it.  Lucy is worried she has lost her mother’s very last hug.  This book is gorgeous as much for the wonderful illustrations – as a mother I LOVE the fact that Lucy’s house is messy, disorganised and chaotic because that is exactly the way family life is – as for the simple, meaningful storyline!  

So until next week’s list, grab your kids or grandkids, head to the library, curl up on the couch or sit in the reading circle/tent/bed (we have many designated reading spots!) and enjoy the amazing array of children’s books.  Oh and don’t forget to send some recommendations my way.

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