A writer’s home in “the kingdom by the sea”

What is it that is so fascinating about seeing inside a renowned writer’s house, touching the desk they used to work at, seeing where they were brought up—pondering on what made such a brilliant mind? Do we writers hope that, somehow, aspects of the inspiration, the writerly brilliance, of the famous one will transfer itself to us?

It seems that all writers are fascinated with the writing habits of other writers, and I am no exception. I remember being riveted, for example, by the chapter in Stephen King’s excellent memoir On Writing in which he described the placement of his desk. I also have a wonderful coffee-table book, simply titled Writers’ Houses, by Francesca Premoli-Droulers and Erica Lennard (Seven Dials, 1999), which allows me to peak inside the homes of Hemingway, Twain, Woolf, Yeats and Sackville-West, among others. Today’s post is my own story of a trip to the home of one of New Zealand’s best loved writers, Janet Frame.

"The kingdom by the sea", Janet Frame's home, Oamaru. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann

“The kingdom by the sea”, Janet Frame’s home, Oamaru. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann

On a week-long trip back to my birthplace in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island this month, I caught a bus to the small seaside town of Oamaru. I wanted particularly to go to Oamaru, not only because I have family who have lived there for up to 80 years,  but also to visit the town where the New Zealand writer Janet Frame spent her childhood, and about which she described in her autobiography as “the kingdom by the sea”.

With my first cousins-once-removed, I had lunch at the oldest restaurant in Oamaru, the 100-year-old Star and Garter (9 Itchen Street), where I had the lightest, tastiest whitebait fritters, the thread-like fish caught locally only that morning. The Star and Garter has hosted many wedding receptions and anniversary parties from the early 20th century, and it has a fascinating wall on which are glued newspaper articles from these weddings. They are pasted at random, so one from 1927 might be next to one from 1972. There’s a great picture of that wall on Real NZ Festival Insider blog here. For more on the restaurant, see this blog: Oamaru Life.

My cousins then took me to the childhood home of Frame, at 56 Eden Street, which she wrote about in several of her works. In typical New Zealand understatement, there is an unassuming plaque at the front, but you can easily miss it from the road and we drove by it at first without noticing it.

IMG_2488IMG_2489This is the house where Frame lived with her parents, three sisters and brother from 1931 to 1943. I was surprised—though I’m not sure why—to hear they hadn’t owned the house: it was a long-term rental property. They moved in when Frame was seven, and the four sisters shared a room and a double bed, as was common in those days, while their brother had his own room.  The house is not large, particularly for a family of seven, but the rooms are generously proportioned, the ceilings high. “This is because it was built in pre-Second World War times,” the guide told us.

Frame-newThere is no photography allowed inside, but these book marks show what it is like. The upper shows the girls’ bedroom, while the lower is Frame’s desk, which she donated to the house when it was being restored. The desk, of course, is from a later part of her life when she was living elsewhere. During the restoration, Frame herself visited the house and was asked if there was anything she would add to it. An old range would be a good addition to the kitchen, she said, and one was duly bought.

In many ways, Frame had a tragic life, with two of her sisters dying young, and many years spent in psychiatric institutions having been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and even scheduled for a pre-frontal lobotomy at one stage. As is the case with so many people with brilliant minds, they do not conform to the norms that society expects. I love this quotation from her childhood diary: “They think I’m going to be a schoolteacher but I’m going to be a poet.” You can read more about Frame’s life here.

As might be expected in such a small town, my relatives knew the guide on duty that day. They didn’t know Frame herself, but my cousins knew or know several people connected with the family, and it was intriguing to hear them talking not of Frame as the great writer I know from books and films, but in terms of who was related to whom, and who went to school with whom and where they might be now, who they had married and what they had studied at uni, and so on.

A highlight of the house is the 1930s free-standing radio, set up to play a real tape of Frame actually reading from her writing about 56 Eden St. As she describes her mother standing in the dining room by the light of the window, you can gaze, eerily, at just the spot Frame is talking about.

I’ve read some of Frame’s books, including Owls Do Cry, The Lagoon and Other Stories, and To The Is-Land.  I’ve also read Michael King’s seminal biography Wrestling With the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (Viking, 2000). Several new works by Frame have been published posthumously, too. including the latest, Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories (2012, also published as Gorse is Not People). She left her entire estate, including manuscripts and publishing rights to all her works, to the Janet Frame Literary Trust, which she formed in 1999. I was interested to read on the trust’s website  that the literary part of her estate is managed by the legendary Wylie Agency of London and New York. Janet Frame’s literary estate also runs An Angel @ My Blog that has all the latest publishing information.

On a personal note, seeing the house and feeling surrounded by quotations from Frame’s evocative writing has made me want to go back and read more. So, I add more titles to my ever-expanding summer reading list.

I will leave you today with a quotation written by Frame, showing that she had moved into the electronic age and had embraced it. To NZ writer and editor Elizabeth Alley, she said in an email: “I really love emailing, it’s like writing a poem in the sky.”

The first book I bought

The first hardback book I remember buying myself was A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for the princely sum of $3.25 in 1975. I remember seeing this book in the window display of a children’s bookshop in Mission Bay, Auckland.

I was living with my grandparents for a year while my parents were overseas, and they had sent me some money for Christmas. I spent the bulk of it on this book, and it still sits in my book case today. I thought the cover quite the most beautiful I’d seen. I had first been entranced by this story when I saw on TV the Shirley Temple movie adaptation from 1939.

My edition of The Little Princess was published by Platt & Munk in 1967, though I didn't buy it until 1975. The dust jacket says the artist is Stewart Sherwood, a 24-year-old Canadian, who despite his youth had already won many awards for advertising art and had been published in books and magazines across the US and Europe. (Googling Sherwood reveals he is still an artist, painting designs for books, cards and collectable plates. You can see more of his artwork here). This is why I always like books with dust jackets: they contain information not elsewhere in the book. One library I frequent infuriates me by removing all the dust jackets, instead of covering them and leaving them with the book.

My edition of The Little Princess was published by Platt & Munk in 1967, though I didn’t buy it until 1975. The dust jacket says the artist is Stewart Sherwood, a 24-year-old Canadian, who despite his youth had already won many awards for advertising art and had been published in books and magazines across the US and Europe. (Googling Sherwood reveals he is still an artist, painting designs for books, cards and collectable plates. You can see more of his artwork here). This is why I always like books with dust jackets: they contain information not elsewhere in the book. One library I frequent infuriates me by removing all the dust jackets, instead of covering them and leaving them with the book.

I saved my pocket money to buy books from the age of seven. Dad gave me 10c a week, pitiful even in those days. My parents didn’t really believe in the concept of pocket money, but conceded this miserly amount when I insisted. I then made a case that, because I was older than my brother, I should receive more than him. Dad reluctantly gave me 11c a week, provided I never divulged the raise to my brother. How I wanted to gloat to my brother…but couldn’t, lest the extra 1c be removed.

This edition, published in 1970 by Green Knight (but first published in 1942 by Hodder & Stoughton) has a list of prices for different countries of the British commonwealth on the back: UK 3/- (shillings) or 15p, Australia and New Zealand 45c, South Africa 40c, Canada 65c.

This edition, published in 1970 by Green Knight (but first published in 1942 by Hodder & Stoughton) has a list of prices for different countries of the British commonwealth on the back: UK 3/- (shillings) or 15p, Australia and New Zealand 45c, South Africa 40c, Canada 65c. The book was illustrated by Eileen Soper (1905-1990), who was also a writer and illustrator of children’s books in her own right, and a founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists in the UK.

My favourite paperbacks were the Famous Five and Secret Seven series, written by Enid Blyton in the 1940s. I loved the idea in them that children could make a difference, could have a whole world beyond the realm of their parents, and could go on exciting adventures without the presence of adults.

I always keep price tags on the books I buy, and have done since I was a child, because I find pricing very interesting years later.

I still have one of the first books I bought, Five on a Treasure Island, which the back cover tells me cost 45c in the early 1970s. I had to save my pocket money for five weeks to buy one of these (with enough change to buy several 3c lemonade ice-blocks in the summer). I would read the book in a day, then read the best bits again, and prepare for the almost interminable wait of five weeks between purchases. It was always worth the wait!

My Favourite Old Recipe Books

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

Remember the days when if you had a whim to cook something—beef stroganoff, say—you would have to trawl through your cook books, knowing the best recipe was…somewhere?

These days, I can simply google it and come up immediately with the right recipe via the internet. I put my iPad in the cook book stand in the kitchen and away I go.

But you know what? I still love my old recipe books. I still occasionally buy a new one. I have had some of these books since the 1980s when I was first starting out on my own and when I knew little more about food than grilled meat and three boiled veg (orange, green, white).

In the first flat I lived in at 17, my flatmate, Heather—who was nine years older—cooked for us on nights one and two. On the third night, we got home from work (we were both reporters, on rival newspapers) and she said, “Well, I cooked the last two nights, so you can do tonight. I’m going out to mow the lawn. Call me when it’s ready.” And off she went.

I was shocked: I don’t think I’d realised I’d have to cook. I probably hadn’t even thought about it, because Mum and Dad always cooked at home and I was too busy studying.

I can’t recall now what I made in entirety, but I remember calling out the window to Heather, “Umm—how do you cook potatoes?” She put the mower on idle and said, “Peel them, put some water in a pot and boil them till they’re soft,” before roaring away from me with the mower.

Heather didn’t stay long, and I soon had a new flatmate, Jan, who was my age but much more cluey about things domestic. Jan introduced me to the world of recipe books and I was soon serving 1980s wonders such as apricot chicken and potato-topped salmon bake.

These days, there are many fantastic and hilarious websites and blogs devoted to retro recipes: but I prefer my own little corner of history in my bookcase and I often still use my favourite old cook books. Coming up are just some of my favourites. Note that these are not my favourite coffee-table recipe books—this is a whole different category that I should write about some time. These are some of my favourite books that I actually use all the time for everyday meals. They are splashed, stained and creased with the efforts of preparing many meals past.

rec4The New Zealand Radio and Television Cookbook, edited by Alison Holst (1981)

This book was given to me by my godmother when I was 21, and I still use it all the time. It’s great if you want to cook a hearty beef casserole or vegetable soup, and has an “Eastern and Polynesian” chapter which—despite the unsophisticated grouping together of a very wide number of cuisines—is actually pretty useful still. Here we find recipes for sukiyaki, Indonesian barbecued duckling with gado gado salad and rempeh.

Alison Holst is one of my homeland New Zealand’s most famous cooks, and any book she writes or edits is accessible, easy to follow, and fail-safe. For this book, recipes were contributed by “listeners and viewers” throughout NZ.

The preface points to a bygone age when, supposedly, women were the only ones cooking in the domestic sphere (not in my family though—my parents shared the cooking, and my grandad did a fair bit at his place, too). The preface is worth quoting in its entirety, if only for its antiquated sentiments:

“This book contains a wide selection of recipes, favourites sent in by listeners and viewers from one end of New Zealand to the other—farmers’ wives and city women; those who cook for one or two and the mothers of large, hungry families; women who buy just what they fancy and those who watch their food budget carefully; young cooks and women with years of cooking behind them…”

Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec6A Vegetable Cookbook, by Digby Law (1986)

This is my vegetable bible. I got this book in 1986 when I was literary editor of the Auckland Star and interviewed the author. I still use this book most weeks. It lists vegetables alphabetically, explains how to cook them simply, then for each has 6-10 recipes, which range from the well known, such as ratatouille and moussaka, to the exotic, such as choko relleno, “an unusual dessert from Mexico”. There are no photos, just the odd line drawing of a cabbage or an onion. Law’s Soup Cook Book is also excellent.

rec7South-East Asian Cookery: An Authentic Taste of the Orient, by Sallie Morris (1989)

I bought this unpretentious little paperback in 1991, when I was living in Thailand. Its recipes range from the highly complicated to the divinely simple, such as kha-yan-kyin thee thoke (Burma)—green tomato salad; raam long song (Thailand)—meaning “Rama’s bath”, a beef curry on a platter of green leaves; and goong pahd gratiem (Thailand)—prawns with garlic. There are a few coloured photos, but these are of produce for sale in markets and so on rather than of the recipes themselves.

rec3The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces, by Diane Seed (1987)

I started to get interested in cooking Italian food when I met my dear Italian friend, Rosa, at my first job in Australia in 1988. We’re still great friends after 25 years! She opened my eyes to a whole new world of cooking—olive oil, pasta, olives, fresh garlic, chilli and more. This was probably the first Italian cook book I bought, way back in 1989, and I still use it today. Some of its standout recipes, which I have probably made 50 to 100 times each, are penne al cavolfiore (penne with cauliflower), spaghetti con zucchini, and the supremely simple tagliatelle con cipolle (tagliatelle with onion sauce).

rec9Thai Cooking, by Kurt Kahrs (1990)

When I was first going to live in Thailand in 1990, I didn’t even know what the food would be like—this was before the craze for Thai food had hit Australia and the time when Japanese food, not Thai, seemed to be the most trendy international cuisine here. Before I left, my mother bought me this book and I’ve used it ever since.

I have lots of Thai cook books, since it is my particular area of interest, including two amazing books by Thomson  (describe and photograph all as a montage). But I keep going back to favourite recipes in Kahrs’s book: the khao op sapparod (pineapple baked rice), the khai phad met ma Muang (chicken fried with cashew nuts), and the lab kai (spiced minced chicken salad) among them. This book has photos for each recipe, too.

Rec2Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec5The Best Traditional Recipes of Greek cooking, Editions D. Haitalis (1990s)

I bought this little gem in Athens in 1996. It has no date of publication, but the cover states that it is a “new edition”. I love Greek food, and this is the only cook book I need, really. It is full of marvellous authentic recipes of a much wider range that your average Australian Greek restaurant serves. One of my favourites is Spanakóryso, simply “spinach rice”. I make this every Christmas: don’t ask me why only at Christmas, it just seems to fit as a lovely side dish that can be eaten hot or cold. There is an error through this book, in that I think they have confused in translation the words for “teaspoon” or “tablespoon perhaps” and “teacup”: thus, we have recipes calling for “2 teacups of olive oil” in a rice dish. The book includes colour photos of many of the dishes.

rec81,000 Italian Recipes, By Michele Scicolone (2004)

This is a newer acquisition, given to my husband and me for a wedding present in 2006 by our foodie friend Kenny over at Consider the Sauce. If you have only one Italian cook book, make it this one. It is full to the brim of authentic regional recipes, many of them simple and requiring just a few ingredients. There are no pictures, but there are wonderful descriptions of how the recipes came to be.

rec1The dreaded clippings folder

Probably everyone had one of these, full of recipes we’ve clipped from newspapers, magazines and printed out from websites. Believe it or not, I recently cleaned this out, throwing away years-old recipes I’d never made and now had no interest in. But there’s lots of interesting stuff in here—it’s like a lucky dip. It can take some time, though to find a particular recipe. “Now where is it? I know it’s in here somewhere…”

Life in the margins—of books, that is

I still buy print books: these are from my "to read" shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

I still buy print books: these are from my “to read” shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

About half the books I read now are just electronic files on a Kindle. No creases on the cover art, no dog-eared pages, no margins to write in. This is one thing ebooks cannot replicate: the stuff that happens to the book during the reading process. Somehow, electronic highlights and comments on an ereader are not quite the same.

Do you fold back your covers? Often I can’t resist, as I start a new book, pressing the cover open: a loved book is a creased book, after all.
And despite all my efforts to stop them, successive cats I have owned have ALL enjoyed chewing the corners of my books, tell-tale fang holes appearing mysteriously after I’ve been out of the room.
When I was growing up, we were taught never to write in the margins of books. So-called “marginalia” was acceptable only in a text book and then only if you owned it and you wrote in pencil. On a novel, though, the most you could do was write your name and maybe the year on the top right of the title page. It goes without saying that writing anything on library books was forbidden.
So, most of my old books are pristine: but now I wish I’d broken the rules and written my thoughts in the margins.
I made an exception when I was studying German language and literature at university. German was hard and I’d go through texts meticulously, translating every word I didn’t know. Recently, I came across one of my books from that time, a Hörspiel—a radio play— Zum Tee Bei Dr. Borsig, by Heinrich Böll. As well as copious and tedious translations in pencil, my 19-year-old self had written in the margin of one page, “Sooo boring”!
Go back further to myself as a child, aged about 13. My family and I had lived in Los Angeles for a few years and I’d acted in some TV shows and films, so I fancied myself as quite the director-producer-performer when we returned to New Zealand. Back home from Hollywood though and it was back to amateur stage shows in and around Auckland, and fierce competition at auditions.
You were always supposed to give back scripts at the end of a production, but somehow,  I  still have a script from a 1970s production of  The Sound of Music, a typewritten, plain brown-covered script stamped throughout with “TGA Choral and Operatic Society Library”. Although the script says it’s published by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Music Library, I somehow doubt that, because on the title page in capital letters, it says it is “THE RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN LUBRARY EDITION”. Yes, a typo.
SOM-scriptUntil recently, I had forgotten about this script, but my mother found it stored in a box and gave it to me. In it is a lot of marginalia by various actors who performed in the show over the years—pencilled-in dance steps, rehearsal dates, changes to lines, stage directions and so on.

SOM-script3_0002On p. 3 is the cast list, and you can still make out my additions: I’ve obviously been dreaming (quite ridiculously) about producing The Sound of Music at school, because beside some of the characters on the list, I’ve written the names of various friends I thought might be right for the role. Never mind that we were an all-girl school, and Debbie would be cast as Captain Georg von Trapp, while Lucy would have to make do as Franz the butler, and Andrea would be Friedrich. There is no name beside the lead character of Maria—of course, I would have been secretly casting myself in that role.
SOM-script3_0001As ebooks take over (and don’t get me wrong, I love this format for its portability), and even actors use tablet computers to rehearse their scripts, marginalia like this will no longer be made. How we read our books, how, why and where we marked them: these are fascinating insights into our lives and times.

Spooky little Monday morning

All year, I’ve been promising myself that one Monday, I would lie in bed until lunchtime, reading a book and thumbing my nose at the workaday world that normally rules my life.

Today, I did just that.

In an instant, my cat Lucy Locket—a main-chancer as all her species are—was up on the bed and ready for a daytime nap. Even the flash of the camera didn’t dissuade her. She was staying put for the morning too! I laughed when I saw this picture with the ghostly eyes—my spooky little cat was born on Halloween, so it’s her seventh birthday on Thursday.

Halloween birthday girl-to-be Lucy Locket gets spooky on Monday morning.  Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

Halloween birthday girl-to-be Lucy Locket gets spooky on Monday morning.
Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

And I did read away the rest of the morning. I’ve always loved lying on my bed and reading, since I was a small child. There’s something enormously decadent about it—yet you feel smug that you’re not wasting time, because you’re engaged with literature, after all.

What I’m reading though—oh my! It’s the wonderful novel The Luminaries, which has just won the Man Booker Prize for its 28-year-old writer, my compatriot Eleanor Catton. (I will write more on The Luminaries in a separate post when I’ve finished it).

For now, I am lost in this story set in and around the goldfields of New Zealand’s South Island in the 1860s.

While I’m reading, and the rain is falling gently outside, and the cat snuggles closer, the rest of the world has slipped away.

“I’m late! I’m late!”

IMG_2072It seems we’re constantly rushing in our stressful world. There’s never enough time: we’re always “running out” of it or it is “getting away” from us or “catching up” with us.

I had a friend in the 1990s who was constantly late for everything. When I asked him why this was, and asked if he didn’t think it was rude, he said he found it very strange to see people rushing everywhere constantly. “Because, you rush rush, rush to get somewhere, only to sit down for hours when you get there,” he said.

He had a point, and I’ve never forgotten it. You rush, rush, rush to get to a restaurant, then sit down for a leisurely meal; you rush, rush, rush to catch the train, then sit down for the journey just filling in time;  you rush, rush, rush to get to a social engagement, then when you get there, you just sit down or stand and chat to people over a drink or a cup of tea. It goes on and on.

While I still think it’s rude to be late to an appointment, in pursuit of a peaceful life it’s worth thinking about how our perceptions of time intrude to heighten our stress levels. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BCE) said the recipe (no pun intended) for a peaceful life included freedom from fear of death. But when we’re constantly measuring time, freedom from this fear doesn’t seem likely for many people today.

In his novella The Time Keeper (2012), Mitch Albom notes that humans are the only beings who mark the passing of time and thereby dread mortality. Here is one of my favourite quotations from the book, one that so clearly expresses the angst at the centre of almost everyone in western society today:

“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.

“You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.

“Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.

“Man alone measures time.

“Man alone chimes the hour.

“And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralysing fear that no other creature endures.

“A fear of time running out.”

We humans are so obsessed with counting seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, and running our lives by the boundaries they impose, that sometimes we forget to stop along the way. Life seems tumultuous and anything but peaceful, because we’re constantly looking at our watches and hurrying along to get to the next place “on time”.

Lewis Carroll  used this idea in the character of the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” he cries as he runs down the rabbit hole. In the Disney film, this becomes a song with the lyrics “I’m late! “I’m late! For a very important date!”

So what’s the best way to a peaceful life? I think we need to do less time-keeping and more living.

Another thing to think of is that we’re not the centre of the universe. In fact, we’re rather insignificant, as Sir David Attenborough so cleverly put it in Life on Earth, I think: if you imagine an entire beach, the earth is equivalent to just one grain of sand on it.

In the blogosphere, Goldfish has put life on earth in perspective with her post on finding peace through this insignificant position we hold, in which our petty ticking seconds with which we time our days mean absolutely nothing in the vastness of space. You can read her post here.

Funnily enough, this post is the result of being almost late—for this month’s Bloggers for Peace challenge to write about quotations that bring peace to the world. I’m in today in the nick of time. Whew!

Peacetime at home

Even if you can't afford a trip to a beach like this at Phuket, Thailand, you can still take a vacation at home. Painting in PanPastels on board, ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.

Even if you can’t afford a trip to a beach like this at Phuket, Thailand, you can still take a vacation at home. Painting in PanPastels on board, ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.

This post is written in response to Kozo’s June Peace Challenge at Everyday Gurus, to write about maintaining peace at home.

In our hectic lives when every minute of the waking day seems to be filled with work, chores, to-do lists and regrets about so few items on those lists we’ve crossed off,  sometimes we forget that relentlessly, every minute, time is passing us by.

We often neglect relationships with the people closest to us in the pursuit of making those very people’s lives better: trying to make more money to buy them more things, trying to achieve what we suppose are life’s goals.

Yet on our death beds, we will never be glad we made more money, spent more hours working, bought more stuff or cleaned the house more often. We might, however, regret not spending more time on just being with those we love, listening to them and facilitating peace between us.

It’s so important to replenish, rejuvenate and find a sense of joy and peace in our lives, without feeling guilty for taking time out.

I’ve compiled a list of six things I think are important to promote a sense of well being, peace and inner health: I am not saying I follow these things all the time. Too often, I too forget that the world won’t collapse if I don’t meet a deadline.

1. Recycle some stuff you don’t need. There’s something cathartic about de-cluttering your house, and even better if that stuff can go to a good cause and your trash can be someone else’s treasure.

2. Read inspiring novels. Great books teach us empathy, something that is sorely missing in this society that sees angry people constantly tooting horns, pushing in front of each other, and discriminating against their fellow people. Read the classics: anything by Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; read recent novels—anything by Mitch Albom, for example; read historical novels such as March by Geraldine Brooks.

3. Take a vacation, or holiday, as we call it in Australia. Of course, not everyone can afford to actually go away on vacation to an exotic tropical beach, but you could take a holiday at home, even if it’s only over a weekend. A holiday at home means you vow to do no work—not even housework—on those days; it means the majority of every day is relaxing and enjoyable—read a book, watch a movie with your family, make a picnic lunch, lie in bed reading the newspaper.

4. Be a tourist in your own city, and visit the art galleries, museums, or other places of culture you’ve been meaning to see. Go to a live theatre show, particularly if you’ve never been to one before. Small, independent theatre companies desperately need your support and can often be surprisingly affordable.

5. Contact a friend you’ve been neglecting because you’re always too busy. If we don’t keep working at friendships, they are in danger of fading away. And even if this is the sort of person you know you could pick up with again at any time, it’s sad to get out of touch and miss the events, big and small, that are important in each other’s lives.

6. Go for a walk and get to know your neighbourhood. We spend so much time at our computers, in our cars, sitting in the train or bus, that we forget to walk. I walk most days, and often towards dusk, I pass an elderly Greek couple sitting on the veranda of their neat-as-a-pin house overlooking their carefully tended garden. We nod and chat now, even though our conversations are limited by a language barrier. But no matter, we mean each other well. On another street, there’s an old black and white cat who suns himself every afternoon on the warm concrete path outside the apartment where he lives. Then there’s an old man who looks about 90, who rides an ancient bicycle to and from the shops every day. There are all sorts of modes of transport round our neigbourhood: the other day, I saw a young man casually riding a unicycle along the street. Every day, I notice something I have never seen before.

For more on establishing and maintaining a peaceful home, check out blogger Julianne Victoria’s inspirations at Through the Peacock’s Eyes, and to discover what ducks have to do with peace, see the blog My Little Spacebook.

The secret to writing a bestseller

In his ground-breaking 2006 novel J-Pod, Douglas Coupland reveals on the second-to-last page a recipe for writing books people will want to read:

“Yesirree, nothing could possibly go wrong with everything being so good.

“But of course, in books, good is boring.

“Good is a snoozer.

“Good makes people close the covers and never reopen them.”

—Douglas Coupland 2006, J-Pod, Bloomsbury, London, p.448

These words are posted in response to this week’s  Trifextra Reading Challenge, which asked participants to find a 33-word quotation of great writing they admire. If you want to join the challenge, you can find the link here.

If you think about your favourite books, very few—if any—of them will be all about happy events. The interest comes from tension, adversity, bad luck, conflict, bad choices, addiction, indulging in any of the seven deadly sins and so on. In fact, a happy ending is only so when there’s been a lot of unhappiness along the way.

Weekly Writing Challenge: the great ebook versus pbook debate

Over at The Daily Post,  They’re having a debate about ebooks versus printed books. There’s been so much talk about how printed books are doomed, that there’s a danger this  could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, I am both a bibliophile and a bookworm. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I also love new technology and, since 2008, have made a concerted effort to keep up with it. I love my Mac, iPhone, iPad and Kindle and I learn something new about them every day.

Well, I don’t learn so much about the Kindle, because there’s not much to learn: and that’s the way I like it. I have the old-style one with the keyboard, bought in 2010, from memory. My husband has a new one with a touch screen and virtual keyboard.
I have to say, I like mine better. The touch screen is annoying because you can suddenly touch the wrong thing and lose your page. The virtual keyboard is harder to use. Not that I use the keyboard much. My Kindle is for reading—not for games, emails, Facebook or surfing the net. Just reading.
That pretty much makes my Kindle just like a real book, only weighing less. When I first got it, I thought I would miss the physicality of a printed book. But that’s only a peripheral thing. Once I start reading, and lose myself in a book, the medium doesn’t matter; I forget about the medium entirely, unless it’s obtrusive or clunky.
If I turn my iPad to airplane mode, I can read comfortably on it. Ditto, even the iPhone—excellent for commuter trains when you can’t get a seat and have to stand.
HOWEVER—and it’s in upper case because it’s a big however—I still like printed books. The book, to my mind, is one of few things in the world that I call a perfect invention: that is, it’s not necessary to improve upon it.
The printed book is portable (more or less, depending), doesn’t need batteries, and is very durable.

As a young journalist, I wormed my way into a position of literary editor of the then-Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland. I interviewed Jeffrey—now Lord—Archer (a hilarious story for another time). I asked him to sign my copy of his latest paperback, First Among Equals, which he did.
Then my flatmate asked to borrow the book and took it away camping. When he brought it back, he apologised for its condition, explaining that he’d dropped it into a puddle. Because of the autograph, I still have that paperback 28 years later: it is a wreck, but it’s still readable, and none of the pages is even loose.

Archer, Crayon Files
Another reason the printed book is a perfect invention, is that it’s not seen as a security risk. You can read it anywhere, any time (unless it’s a banned book, of course). I love my Kindle for journeys, because it means I can travel lighter—and buy more books while I’m away. BUT, I still have to take a book for planes, for landing and taking off when electronic devices must be turned off.
Another perfect invention that has not been superseded by new technology is the transistor radio. This is because the batteries last forever, radios are comparatively cheap to buy, and you can listen all day and night for free. Despite all my expensive, high-tech devices, I still have a portable radio in my bathroom. It’s simple, cheap to run and it always works.
It seems that whenever a new medium becomes popular, lots of people think the old medium will disappear. While sometimes this is true: the telegram, for example, was largely trumped by more convenient and cheaper phone and email services. I was surprised though, in the course of researching this post, to discover that some countries still offer telegram services, although Australia’s closed in 2011. New Zealand closed its service in 1999 but reopened it in 2003 for business customers: apparently, it’s useful for debt collection services.

But there are a lot of old media that have not been superseded by the new.  My mother says that when she was young, everyone thought TV would spell the end of films and that all the cinemas would close down. This didn’t happen.

Similarly, live theatre didn’t die when film came along, video didn’t kill the radio, digital music didn’t kill vinyl. The latter is the most interesting of all. It was said that cassettes and the “indestructible” (ha ha, what a lie) CD would put paid to vinyl records. But now, the cassette is dead, CDs are on their way out, and vinyl is back in a huge way.

What happens is that the old medium changes to accommodate the new. So, for example, we no longer have news reels before movies at the cinema.

I believe that ereaders and printed books can continue to exist side by side.
How great for students to be able to get electronic text books, which are so much cheaper and easier to carry than the printed versions.
For myself, I prefer text books and academic texts in printed form. This is because I’m constantly looking up notes, indexes and other references, and often have seven or eight books on the floor beside my desk, all open at different pages. Even though I’ve got a huge screen on my Mac desktop, I can’t quite emulate the convenience of my books-on-the-floor method.

Aesthetics is another reason printed books will remain: the world is full of collectors, and showing someone your collection of ebooks isn’t quite the same as showing them your collection of 200 vintage books on Thailand, as I have.

So let’s agree to live and let live: ebooks and printed books side by side in glorious harmony.