I returned home from my mini-trip. It wasn’t a holiday. It was a workshop day in the Hunter Valley. Tomorrow is a work from home and then I have two more travel days. Here are two more photos from yesterday’s hotel. Their dining room is full of embroideries and samplers. They remind me of my mum and her family’s total obsession with framed stitched beauties. Quite the comfort.
Today is a travel day so I don’t have any writing to share. However, have a look at the funky retro furniture at the hotel (Vine Valley Inn in Cessnock) where I am staying. No, this is not an ad or promotion or review. I have no energy for that sort of palaver.
Observation Note 109: No time for sitting. I don’t sit in the quiet of my backyard. I may have all the tea trees, lilly-pillys, bottle brushes, peach trees, lemon trees all framing the lush green grass bu they do not interest me.
Noisy miners in the grevilleas, rainbow lorikeets in the lilly-billy, pigeons on the tea trees. Indian mynahs nested in the old unused chimney of our home regularly swooping down at our dogs, intimidating them to steal their food. For years, I stand over Bo and Cleo while they eat, a long range water pistol in my hand to spray the mynahs waiting for my exit. No harm comes to them, just a water stream to create a barrier between them and the eating dogs.
The quiet back yard holds no interest for me. It brings me no comfort. It’s primary use is for the dogs to run around, to sun themselves on our outdoor table and chairs, to play hide and seek amongst the clivias and box hedges and [whatever those weird plants are], and to bark their hellos to the neighbour’s dog through the fence.
Observation Note 110:Do I really feel this way? Most people I know in Australia relish their backyards but for me it was a place best left to the birds, to the bat-shit-scary rat that always seems to saunter out of my garage, to our dogs. The occasional possum and the nightly fruit bats, and to our never-ending laundry air drying off lines. The view through our back doors so pretty yet this small square of nature holds little appeal for me. The backyard to me is a place to escape, to not engage with others. However, my front verandah is all about looking across to my neighbours as they walk past, drive pass, ride pass, be it on foot, by car, bike or pony.
I’ve written about my verandah before (see Observation Notes 89-90) and my love affair with it has not diminished at all. But my attendance to it has waned this year as I have been out of the house a lot more, teaching in person, and running workshops across Sydney. I go out to my mum’s home, I drive across the city to meet up with a friend, I travel West to buy my cashews and pistachio nuts from the nutroasters half an hour from home. I go to the new Greek pasticceria in the suburb next to mine. I feel like I am too busy again. I am rushed. I don’t sit. I don’t read. I don’t watch anything any more. And all this energised movement is all done in an N95 mask. I am not in denial, the world should not revert to the Before Times, I am willing to move in the world masked and ready for the future, but it is all starting to tire me.
This is weird to admit: I miss the restfulness of being in lockdown.
Observation Note 108:I need pots. So this gardenia geranium loves to grow. In the gutter facing North, in a pot facing South. It is hardy as you can see here.
In March last year, my sister-in-law gave me a clivia. She put it in a plastic shopping bag so it wouldn’t drop dirt in my car as my husband drove it home. Carrying many items into the house, he left the plastic bag in a corner, leaves popping out the top. The plant seemed happy enough so I threw some water into the bag, thinking that I need to go out to buy a pot for it. A year later, the clivia was still in that plastic bag. It had flowered in the Spring, I had moved it to the backyard, it dropped its flowers, and it survived the cataclysmic rains of La Nina in February. Then a few weeks ago, I noticed that the plastic bag was disintegrating, so I finally transferred it whole and (nearly) healthy into this pot.
Observation Note 107: More flowers. Some of the ground flowers I have are clivias, daisies and a barely surviving, rarely flowering banksia rose which I planted twenty years ago. Instead of a flowering vine, lush with leaves and yellow flowers, the banksia rose just hangs in there, limp and boring. On the other hand, my geranium initially was growing in our gutter, right next to all the electrical wires. It was flourishing and cool, up on our roofline for a good long year. I guess a bird must have dropped a seed in the gutter, leaves having gotten caught and blocking access to the downpipe. We were too scared to get up and remove it ourselves and frankly it was lockdown. Sure, we could have called someone in to do it but we could barely take care of ourselves in 2020 let alone a rusty gutter with a plant lushly growing out of it. In 2021, we finally got motivated and hired someone to put in new gutters. Instead of throwing the plant out, the labourer saved it for us and we repotted it and have ignored it ever since and it continues to flourish.
Observation Note 106: When green appeals. I do know the names of the flowers in my backyard. I have a grevillea that is visited by rainbow lorikeets (Photo 1 is like a Magic Eye pic, squint and you’ll see it) and noisy miners. I have a lilly pilly (also loved by the lorikeets), a peach tree and about eleven tea trees that frame my small (medium for the Inner West) yard. The seats are mostly used by the dogs. It tends to be a green splendour all year round. With the exception of the peach and lilly pilly trees, the rest are all evergreens. Perfect if you are drawn to green.
Observation Note 105:Flowers. I have taken part in Blog June a few times over the last decade. I will do it again this year but for today’s post, I present you with photographs from a micro-meadow in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens. I’m saddened that I don’t know the names of most flowers beyond the obvious daisies, tulips and roses. But I do enjoy their prettiness.
May has been a challenging month with very little pleasure reading. Once again, I am using SuperWendy’s TBR challenge theme for May “Tales of Old” to guide my post.
Observation 103: Same old same old back to being busy busy. Between running workshops for the road safety organisation that I work for (hmmmm – did I mention this weird and out-of-the-ordinary new career move???? I don’t teach driving LOL I instruct on the affect of emotions/moods on driving decisions), I have been teaching a citizenship and communications subject at the university, and I was a tad preoccupied with the Federal election (well….how could I not be happy with the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – he is my local member, he is not a right-wing misogynistic theocratic liar, and his first visit as the new PM was to Marrickville Library, the cultural heart of the community. He did not go to the pub or to a church but instead went to the most inclusive public space dedicated to keeping people informed. I think this speaks volumes as to the evolved role of 21st century libraries as secular, participatory and social meeting places for the exchange of public knowledge but it also speaks volumes to the new approach our change of government is heralding). All this busy-ness has meant that I have not read any books or magazines or anything at all close to pleasure reading. Even my viewing is nearly at zero – a bit of Mike Myers’ The Pentavarate (meh), a couple of Season 2 episodes of Bridgerton (hooked but waiting to binge-watch the rest), and I could only get through 20 minutes of Senior Year (Rebel Wilson can only play one character, right?).
Observation 104: Tales of Mould. Sydney (and much of the East coast of Australia) has been deluged in a La Nina. There have been devastating floods across the state, especially in the north at Lismore, and on the outskirts of Sydney. I don’t know anyone who has not had some sort of water damage, either from leaks, mud, but mostly the mould that is growing everywhere. As I am allergic to mould, I am knocking myself out with fans and heaters trying to keep the house dry, but it has been hopeless. Clothes have mould, shoes have mould, couches have mould everywhere. Some I have washed and treated, others I have happily discarded. It doesn’t help that my kitchen has had water leaks. Every time it rains, I put out towels and blankets to soak up the water. On the worst day we had over 20 leaks. The walls are stained and so is my ceiling. I can’t fault our insurance company who ensured we weren’t in danger but any repairs understandably have to wait while more urgent cases are dealt with. But the absolutely worst discovery of all, was finding my books in the sunroom/study have mould shot throughout them. Devastatingly, I threw out over 400 books. I may have cried.
Reading Note 44: My Book Grief. Like so many avid readers, I tend to keep my books, especially those which hold meaning and significance for me. Shelved throughout my home, they give me comfort. Many were gifts. Many I have read and reread and rereread and travelled with and slept with and swatted with and marked with and just relished in the memories they gave me. Some were gifts and others were inherited, inscribed by myself, by friends, by my parents-in-law. Many were read to my sons who pawed over them, sucked on them, chewed on them, drew on them, read on them. Hours and hours, days, months, years and decades of my reading life – novels, true stories, comics, travel guides. All marked with mould. They were too far damaged to keep especially with the impact they could have on my asthma. They are all now in the recycling bin. Here are just some photos to memorialise my book grief:
A Truman Capote Reader: I remember my older sister buying this book. We shared a bedroom at the time and we kept our books in this large white bookcase with glass sliding doors one of which was broken. In the same week she bought this book, she was given a second copy which she told me I could have. I remember starting with Breakfast at Tiffany’s as I had seen the movie. I then read through all the rest of the short stories, I have only vague recollections of them, with the exception of Capote writing about Marilyn Monroe
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Hot Chocolate: I can’t recall who recommended I read this book but I know that it was well before the 1992 movie was released. Take note that the book has its original title, its later editions (and the movie) being called Like Water for Chocolate. I always was annoyed at this change in the title. The recipe in the book is all about using water rather than milk for hot chocolate. This recipe intrigued me as my Θείο Νικολάκη (Uncle Nikolaki) made hot chocolate in his coffee house in my mum’s village in this way.
A.C. Weisbecker’s Cosmic Banditos: This was a library discovery. The collection librarian where I worked was a total book snob and would snort if I suggested he purchase any romances but he was 100% on board for buying kitsch, weird, absurdist novels for me when I would find them reviewed in the international trade publications. I was deeply amused by Cosmic Banditos and its premise of a band of drug runners in Columbia having stolen a physics professor’s suitcase. They discover his textbook manuscript which they proceed to read and then debate over quantum physics and the meaning of life. I bought this copy for myself, and years later found out that the book had a cult readership having failed in bookshops but having taken off in US army barracks once Weisbecker sent his remainder copies to troops. At least, this is what I recall – it has been thirty years so I am happy to be corrected.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife: I’m quite sure that I first saw this book being reserved, borrowed, returned at the library where I worked on the circulation desk every Sunday while I wrote HTML code for the district “virtual library” website in 2002-2005. These were pre-web2.0 days and I was writing and coordinating content for this site, an early iteration of work-from-home with the first manager of the project which was slammed by the manager who took over. She was infuriated that I coded at home and insisted I sat in a library office to do the exact same thing. Sound familiar??? Anyway, these were book-slump, reading desert years when I had babies and I read nothing at all. Between running from this job to my TAFE library educator job (community college for the non-Australian readers), and taking care of my sons, reading was a past pleasure until, one day, I have no idea what compelled me, I sat down and read The Time Traveller’s Wife in the one sitting. I started some time after lunch and I finished it at 3am. It was the first novel I read in 7 years and it was enough to fire me up again, starting me on a book binge that propelled me into further study.
Gary Larson’s The Far Side: These Far Side anthologies belong to my husband who is forever amused by Gary Larson especially the cow comics. Absurd and anthropomorphised animals going about having human lives, Larson’s quirky and gentle humour held such an appeal for both of us, and both these books were early dip-in-and-out reads for us, though I don’t think we had done so for over a decade.
Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box: As a young uni student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I depended on cheap and free movies for much of my entertainment. One place I would frequent was the long ago shut down Valhalla movie theatre, halfway down Glebe Point Road in Glebe. I would go and watch cheap pics there all the time, often on my own, and often with no knowledge of what I was going to watch. On such a day, I sat down in the Valhalla, and on the screen came a talking head, ruminating on love, life and himself. A one-and-a-half hour documentary that sent me into indie bookshops in search of Gray’s books.
Tama Janowitz’s American Dad: I loved Janowitz’s books. I know I had read all of them, but I only own one. The pity is, that as much as I recall loving her books, I do not recall anything about them. The sense of the book is greater than the story it told.
Hugh Lunn’s Over the Top With Jim: An Australian journalists childhood memoir, I remember loving Lunn’s writing style. At a time when Australia was venerating Clive James’s childhood memoirs (which were ok but a tad boring in comparison to his TV show at that time), Lunn shined gently for those who wanted someone who actually liked and lived in Australia rather than Clive’s Aussie who has escaped Australia reflections. I also threw out Clive James’s books but I didn’t take photos of them.
Amanda Filipacci’s Nude Men: Though I enjoyed it at the time, I think that this book can’t have aged well. I recall a messed up sex scene and I am too scared to revisit the book for a reread. Not all favourites need to be reread, right?
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary: No, I will never reread this book. But I wanted the symbolism of it on my shelf. The book that shifted so much understanding of women back in the nineties.
Various classics: I threw out many tattered, moist classics. I guess I should be upset but knowing that I can download digital copies free from Project Gutenberg or buy cheap new copies, I wasn’t really fussed. I’m much more upset about the out-of-print books I had to throw out.
Reading Note 45: Four decades of reading life. There were so many other books that I didn’t photograph that have now been sent for pulping. Children’s books, with Where’s Wally being thrown away alongside Babette Cole, Roald Dahl, Nick Sharrat, fairy tale retellings and so many others. All my travel guides from my carefree intrepid years. Those tomes with dog-eared and tattered pages. Some water stains. Some oily stains. The occasional food and coffee stains. Pen marks and highlighters, some sticky post-it notes, my trips around Europe, the shops I chose, the accomodation I chose. These books showed my reading life trajectory, my fleeting interests, my impulse buys, my keeper buys with their marginalia, these books showing my life route, my travel maps. It saddens me that I had to throw them out. I did not feel the same grief when I discarded my old e-reader.
Oddly enough, though all these mould ridden books sat side-by-side with my Mills-&-Boon collection, it was the other books that were affected. Fortuitously, all but 5 of the romances were fine. Not even a spot of mould. A lot to be said for good paper stock.
My shelves are now bare. I’ve cleaned them with vinegar and detergent as I have not been able to find oil of cloves anywhere. Now to decide what I can risk putting on these shelves.
In my continuing tale of pretending that I am not taking part in SuperWendy’s TBR challenge, I continue to (quasi) take part by riffing off her monthly themes, and this month is Location Location Location.
Observation 102: Foreshadowing the reading note 42. There is a long history in Australia of migrant Greeks opening milkbars in suburbs and country towns from the mid-twentieth century. Most of these have either closed down or morphed into cafes run by the original migrant owners’ children and grandchildren. Australian photographer and historian couple Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski have captured much of the history of this Greek migrant phenomenon in their non-fiction books.
For example, I remember in 1982 my family going for a holiday to Port Macquarie. My mother mentioned to my dad that she believed her cousin ran a milkbar in the small city but didn’t think it was possible to find her. My dad pulled his car over and called out to a pedestrian “excuse me – where is the best milk bar in town”. The man leant over and said “that would be the Greeks” and proceeded to give my father directions. Dad drove a few blocks. We all got out and it was my mum’s cousin behind the counter.
With stories like these, and experiences in Greek milkbars in Marrickville, Dulwich Hill and Summer Hill in the Inner West where I have spent my whole life, the milkbar is synonymous with family and friends and my experiences. There is even a small bar in Summer Hill called The Rio Bar which draws on its previous history as a Milk Bar which stood there for over 60 years and closed only when its elderly owner George Poulos passed away. The external signage being left intact.
Reading Note 43:Familiarity with a location in novels. Other than romance fiction, I have two other absolute go-to fiction reads – books set in the Inner West of Sydney, (Melina Marchetta, Marele Day) and books written by Greek Australians (Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Polites). So upon discovering that Greek-Australian author Andrew Pippos wrote a book about Greek milkbars in the Inner West of Sydney, it was an auto-read (though it sat on my TBR for over a year). So for my only leisure reading adventure in April, I read Andrew Pippos’s Lucky’s. The Goodreads blurb is as follows:
Lucky’sis a story of family. A story about migration. It is also about a man called Lucky. His restaurant chain. A fire that changed everything. A New Yorker article which might save a career. The mystery of a missing father. An impostor who got the girl. An unthinkable tragedy. A roll of the dice. And a story of love – lost, sought and won again (at last).
Following a trail of cause and effect that spans decades, this unforgettable epic tells a story about lives bound together by the pursuit of love, family, and new beginnings.
I am not really sure where to start with this book. I was intrigued and excited to read it. The promise of a novel about Greek-Australian milkbars and coffee shops had high expectations for me. Sadly. Because high expectations just makes the disappointment that little bit more palpable.
The book is premised on recently made redundant editor Emily who travels from London to Sydney on a search for her (dead) biological father’s connection to a painting he had given to her of a restaurant called Lucky’s. Emily discovers the story behind Lucky (nicknamed as such because “Vasilios” was too hard) who with his wife Valia, built a franchise of restaurants across New South Wales, having first purchased the restaurant from Valia’s mean-assed father, Achilleas (I can’t remember if it is Achilleas or Achilleon. I have returned my library copy so I can’t check). But like many people who build fortunes, Lucky lost his, due to lives that were lost, his wife divorcing him, and his life opportunities being reversed.
As part of her own search for her father, Emily meets Lucky to interview him for a story she was writing in The New Yorker, an opportunity provided to her from a friend and old lover, a man who gave her the chance to rediscover herself after the revelation of her husband’s infidelity. Pippos’s characters are richly written and the one thing that did shine strongly was his ability to write well-defined female characters, something that his male Greek-Australian contemporaries Peter Polites and Christos Tsiolkas fail, their female characters often being reduced to stereotyped caricatures. Pippos is successful where they are not. I like Emily, Valia and the other women in this book. They are full characters, they are believable and complex throughout the story.
The novel moves back and forth through time, from 2002 to the 1940s, 1960s right through to the 1990s. I do enjoy a book that time jumps in its aim to unravel a story but it didn’t really work for me in Lucky’s. I found that there was too much of a disconnect between Lucky’s tragic story and Emily from England’s story, and the time jumping did it no favours. Unfortunately, this was not my only gripe.
I was annoyed by the idea that Lucky’s was a franchise. I get it. This book is fiction. You can write anything you want in fiction, it is poetic licence and writers can do whatever they like to embellish their stories but I was unconvinced and it annoyed me when it could have easily just carried me with the story.
This is not unusual for me. I’m all over the place with my opinion on anachronisms in fiction. In one book, I may be totally fine with an EJ Holden being driven during a Jazz era scene, and in another book I will be annoyed with go-go dancers in a WWII scene. I am totally at ease with wallpaper historical romances, yet easily annoyed by historical inaccuracies in the series The Tudors. And yet the mention of a 1990s trip to Tempe Tip annoyed me. Tempe Tip closed in the 1970s dammit!
There was too much suspension of disbelief required for my reading of this novel. Lucky’s being a food franchise from the 40s and 50s annoyed me. Food franchises didn’t enter Australian until much later in the 1970s mostly through the American experience of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It certainly was not true to the Australian experience of Greek milk bars and cafes. These were single family business and it really bothered me that the set up for the whole novel challenged this knowledge. It even got me wondering if there was even a kernel of truth to it, making me question what I considered an absolute certainty, one validated by the Alexakis and Janiszewski photographic histories. That said, I am more than happy to be corrected on this point.
I also felt that the sense of place was lacking. Even though Pippos makes mention of all the suburbs that I live around, and towns that I have visited, there is a lack of description. I hate to draw comparisons (but I will still do it), but Peter Polites’s description of Sydney (both East and West) is visceral and truthful, as is Melina Marchetta whose description of the Inner West is like the places I frequent every day – though in Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son, there is a scene where the main characters drive to a Newtown pub from Maroubra Beach via the Anzac bridge which is the most ridiculous double distanced route possibly imaginable. Despite this, Marchetta’s Inner West is as strongly characterised as her protagonists. However, the issue with Lucky’s is that the roads and suburbs, the light, the air, the sounds, the sense of standing in the places that his book described to me was a feeling that I didn’t experience. Pippos doesn’t really describe the cafes in the story beyond names. The cafe itself is not a main character, and neither is the city a character. They remained names and any name, any location could have been used.
Another annoyance which is personal and just for me, was Valia’s name which is fine and good. However, it was revealed partway into the book that it was short for Vassiliki and though I can kind of imagine how this is a possible shortening of my name, it is one I have never come across. Name shortening isn’t letter potluck, right? There are naming rules like chopping out syllables, mostly about finding Anglo equivalents. The name “Valia” doesn’t do this and I remain unconvinced.
That being said, I was pleased to be able to add another book to my “Vassiliki/Vasiliki” Goodreads tag which is pathetically sitting on five books having a character with my name.
Just a quick heads up that you may want to stop reading here because there are some spoilers ahead.
Movie Note 1:I masked up and went and saw a movie. So not even an hour ago, I walked out of the darkness of the movie house, and I had two things on my mind. Sandra Bullock and my ride home (cheeky wink for The Outsiders fans). I just watched The Lost City and I was so amused, so delighted, so so so happy that a light-hearted romance comedy had been made and it just slayed. It had everything – an adventure romp with witty repartee, love and snark and everything in-between. It had an enemies to lovers trope. It had cover model jokes. It had the sassy best friend trope (wellll….kinda with a twist – she was author Loretta Sage’s literary agent). It had the nasty (short) villain trope, it had purple sparkly prose metaphors (oh that onesie that Bullock wears for most of the film sublimely channels all the romance expectations), it had allusions and intertextuality, it had lush location location location Atlantic island setting,, it had folklore singing sages, it the dark moments, it had swoon, oh and it had….it had spark!
I have always loved Sandra Bullock romcoms (Miss Congeniality, While You Were Sleeping, The Proposal, Two Weeks Notice) and she just excelled in her role of a tad recalcitrant romance author Loretta who has given up on her dream of being an archaeologist due to her true love husband having died. I have never seen a Channing Tatum movie (that is correct – not even Magic Mike) so I was pleasantly surprised at how cheeky and cool and fantastic he was in this movie as the gormlessly sweet cover model Alan who like Fabio seems to have no surname.
For lots of fun convoluted reasons Loretta gets kidnapped from the launch of her book tour by evil (Murdoch-like) mogul Abigail Fairfax (like realllllly??? The scriptwriters must be keenly in tune with the former Australian mass media family moguls) played by Daniel Radcliffe. Fairfax needs Loretta to translate a dead language for him that only she knows so he can find lost archaelogical treasure. Alan along with Loretta’s literary agent, Beth Hatten (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) hire former Navy SEAL (lol – romantic suspense trope much) Jack Trainer to find Loretta. Jack Trainer is handsome, tough, a deft fighter, and all things OTT amazing including adding complete and utter validation as tough man Navy Seal, he is a hatchback hero who drives a tiny Bajaj Qute. To the scriptwriters – I feel heard! Trainer (Pitt) is a total hero who makes Alan look soft. But that is why Alan is so cool. I won’t go into what happens other than were being twists, turns, fights, blow-ups, burials, a swoon-worthy dance scene, and just a whole lot of fun.
The Lost City reminded me so much of Romancing the Stone (I do believe this is deliberate) yet it felt fresh and original. And isn’t that the thing about truly magical, truly fabulous movies. The storyline was similar, the locations were similar, as were the stars. But I suspect that The Lost City undoes the 1980s sexism, and instead injects a 21st century sensibility. I loved it.