Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman

I've officially been on maternity leave for almost 3 weeks now, and on sick leave for 2 weeks prior to that (which involved setting relief for my classes, marking, and tidying up some administrative stuff - not particularly taxing, compared to actually being at school). I couldn't quite make it another 7 weeks, as planned...and physically, I have felt SO much better for not teaching. I love teaching (hence this blog), and the best part of the job is definitely being in the classroom with the students, but towards the end that was what I really struggled with; by the end of a day of teaching my hips were so achy I could barely sleep at night. And on the Monday of my last week of school, I worked an 8 hour day straight with no breaks, and that was truly difficult (and disgusting - no-one should work an 8-hour day with no breaks, but that's just what happens when you are a teacher). Whoever knew that having an extra person attached to your front would make life just so much harder?! Well, it did. And it still does, but at least now I can lie in bed until I feel the need to get up, only think about myself and my needs (and the attached person), and take naps when I need to. Needless to say, pregnancy and teaching do not go particularly well together.

But I can't deny the fact that I felt a little...well...bored, a few days into that first week at home. I'm so used to being busy, and having a demanding job to drive me to do stuff, that I didn't really know what to do with my time. Yes, I know I've had school holidays in the last 9 years of teaching; if I got 'bored' I'd start doing some planning (which is the second most enjoyable part of teaching, I reckon), but I'm not going to be teaching for quite a while now, and thus planning units is not a productive nor satisfying use of my time. Yes, there's always baby-prep...but how much prep can you really do? We've got most of the bits and pieces (that we can actually think of at this point - no doubt there are some vital things missing), and there's only so much you can anticipate ("The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley", says my anxiety). Exercise is becoming more and more impossible; it now takes me twice as long to do half as many lengths of the pool than I used to do, and my daily walks around the Red Zone are becoming shorter, and slower, and more painful. So, I've turned to literature, because what else will allow me to lie on the couch and be a full-time incubator, whilst feeling like I can actually be productive and enjoy life?

Thus I'm 'reviewing' all I have read on maternity leave so far. Don't worry, I don't do spoilers :-)

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I really like Anne Tyler's writing. NB: I'm really into realism. I want to believe that everything that is happening in a novel is actually real - the settings, the characters and the storylines. And this was definitely a  typical Anne Tyler novel, in that sense. It's about a 35 year old guy, who lives in suburban Baltimore with his wife (pretty much all of her novels are set in Baltimore, or the north-eastern part of the US, 'cos that's where she's from and it makes it so good when writers write about where, what and who they know). His wife is killed suddenly by a falling tree...and then she reappears. I won't say any more, other than it was quite good. But not GREAT good. My most recent favourite Anne Tyler novel is Digging to America; it's about two American families who adopt Korean babies, and it follows their journeys as they raise them. Digging to America resonated a lot more with me than The Beginner's Goodbye. I dunno why - I am 35, and have had more experience with death than raising a child at this point. But yeah, if you want to read a really good Anne Tyler novel, then I'm not sure this is the best one to begin with.

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

I was excited when I realised that Barbara Kingsolver had another novel out! I loved The Bean Trees (which I read many years ago when it was first published, and then re-read again about 5 years ago), and The Poisonwood Bible is a great novel. I'm pleased to say I really enjoyed Flight Behaviour too, although it's not up there with her other two novels that I hold in such high esteem. I really liked the narrative point of view - a young mum, living on a farm in the Appalachian mountains (yay again for setting texts in places the writer knows well - I guess this means if I ever write a novel I'll have to set it in 80s-90s Wellington and 2000-2010s Christchurch). She is unhappy in her life but a turning point comes when she becomes the first person to witness the migration of a swarm of Monarch butterflies from Mexico. The story is fairly involved, with some other rather interesting characters. Someone told me that they didn't bother reading this novel because they heard it was 'preachy'. And yeah, it was, but I still liked it. I like it when novelists deal with global issues (in this novel the global issue is specifically global warming and, to a lesser extent, capitalism) on a personal level. So I would recommend this novel, although it's not going to make it onto my list of 'best novels ever'.

Into the River by Ted Dawe

I first heard about this novel when it won the Best Young Adult Fiction and New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award this year, and some people complained that it was too explicit for teens, so of course that got me interested right away! And it was a really interesting read - unique, gripping, honest, brutal at times, and sad. I read it partly with the question, "could I teach it?" in my mind. And the answer is no. And here's why. Firstly, it's one of those novels that doesn't clearly fit an age bracket, if you know what I mean. Stylistically, it's not hard to read at all (a Year 9 reading at Curriculum Level 5 could easiy get through it). But the ideas, events and themes are quite complex and thus I'd never get away with teaching to to Year 9s. Or Year 10s. Or Year 11s. Secondly, the structure of the novel is, I think, quite different to what you'd expect. It follows a 13 year old Maori boy who grows up on the East Coast and is then accepted into a prestigious
private school in Auckland. The first couple of chapters about about him - his whakapapa, his identity, and his relationships with his whanau. Then, when he moves to Auckland it all changes, and whilst it's still about his identity, and relationships, the contrast is so stark to the first couple of chapters that it is shocking and heartbreaking, and not a very pleasant read. And that's the point, I guess. Racism sucks. It's a really good coming-of-age novel, and I would definitely recommend it to certain students to read.  The explicit details didn't put me off - sex was dealt with realisitically, and I appreciated that. But in the end you pick your battles, and I prefer not to pick them with conservative parents of teens in a relatively white, middle-class Chch school.

If You Lived Here, You'd Be Perfect By Now: The Unofficial Guide to Sweet Valley High by Robin Hardwicke

So this is a collection of blog posts by a woman who has been writing about various 'teen
texts' she read when she was growing up (so it's very bloggy in writing style). She's about my age, and read all the Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley High (SVH) books as a pre-teen, in the late 80s/early 90s, just like I did. And then she re-read them again as a grown 30-something year old woman, and reviewed each book on her blog, The Dairi Burger. This book is a collection of all her posts about SVH. She critiques them from a feminist perspective (how could you not?) and from a literary perspective, and it is so enjoyable reading her critiques, having devoured the books 25 years earlier myself. Can I just point out, that SVH makes Twilight look like high-end, well-written, liberal literature. I mean, Twilight is not good reading (yes, I have read all four books) but it just cannot compare to the lazy writing of SVH. Yup, I read a lot of crap when I was young, and yup, it possibly did damage my mind/self-esteem a bit. But this collection of blog posts has made it all worthwhile, heh heh heh. I just wish I'd thought of this idea first. I recommend this book to anyone who read SVH when they were younger and would like to see it ripped to shreds now as an adult. Not sure how big the market is for that, but I fucking loved it. NB: You can buy it really cheap on Kindle, or go to her website and read the posts individually. Enjoy!

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

It's the fifth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire Series, and I'd been saving it for maternity leave all year. Don't worry - I'm not actually going to say much about it, 'cos I don't want to spoil it for anyone who is reading the books or watching the series. I did enjoy it a lot - more so than the last one (A Feast for Crows was great, just so very dark, and thus completely and utterly depressing), but I don't think it was as good as the first three books in the series, partly due to the way he structured the last two novels by only having certain characters in each novel (I know he had difficulties with this, and I forgive him, because the books are still gripping and well-written nonetheless). It is very cliff-hangery, which is cool, but now I'm worried that Martin won't get the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter, written and published next year as planned. All I want to say about this series really is that, if you haven't already read it, you should. I'm not really into fantasy (I'm a LOTR hater), but this series is really something special. The characters are complex, and the world Martin creates seems so real. And it is very, very readable. NB: The books are better than the TV series (which is still great, if a little gratuitous at times), but then I think that 99.9% of the time, of course.

And that's it so far. I started another novel today, but then fell asleep on the couch, which was bizarre and unprecedented, so I am wondering if maybe I will be switching to watching and reviewing films and TV series for my last few weeks of solitude...

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