Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What can I do exactly?

Recently I've been through the rather complicated and laborious process of applying for jobs. Those selection criteria are astonishing. One job I looked at (but did not apply for) had seventeen selection criteria, for a job which basically consisted of answering the telephone and filing. I spent some considerable minutes wondering who would apply for that job, and which poor human resources minion would go through the applications and decide who wrote reasonable answers.

But quite apart from trying to think of ways of convincing myself and others that I have communication skills, problem solving abilities, the ability to work in and/or lead a team and drive, the process has made me wonder what I can actually do. What have I learned in my time at university and in the workforce? Is it any use to me? Is it any use to anyone? So I have been having a crisis of meaning.

My undergraduate degree is a BA, with a major in creative writing and a minor in media studies. Even I, with my heartfelt commitment to a humanities education, feel slightly embarrassed mentioning this to chance acquaintances, let alone potential employees. My postgraduate research is in the field of children's literature and publishing, only narrowed down even more than that. When having a friendly chat with the managing director of a local publishing house about future work he commented, bleakly, 'that's very specific, isn't it?'. I tried to explain the generic skills and industry knowledge I was accruing, but he had already turned his mind to other things (which in this case was praising mutual friends, which made me like him quite a lot at the time).

So I learned one thing, don't mention too much about my research topic to people who might be interested in employing me. This has stood me in good stead at my recent round of interviews, although after getting a bit carried away one astute interviewer did ask me why I wanted to work in his organisation if I was so passionate about my research field. I had to do a Fonzie like double-take and turn the cool back on. Given the amount of other postgraduate students I met at these interviews I have to say I'm not the only one who has realised that the public service is a better bet vocationally than trying to pursue an academic career in the humanities.

I'm pretty confident I have learned quite a lot of other things, though. No one is much interested in my opinion of 1990s media policy, no one has asked about my ideas on Australian satirical poetry or my well-evaluated attitude to digital communications technology. They are mostly interested in whether I can understand what I read, whether I understand statistical information (the answer is no, actually), whether I can listen and whether or not I'm really interested in working at their organisation. I think I learned some of those skills at university, but I suspect what I really learned was how to figure out what people want. All those different tutors, lecturers and workshop leaders taught me that. Thank you to all of you.

And yes, I did really want to work at the organisations. I've also learned, from my undergraduate students, to be absolutely honest about what I want.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sonya Hartnett's biscuits

A couple of years ago I used to tutor in a subject at university that taught Sonya Hartnett's book Sleeping Dogs. The tutorials were always good value, because the classes were inevitably split between love and hate. Some students, usually from the education faculty, tended to view it as inappropriate for young adults because of the subject matter of incest and violence. They couldn't understand why a book like that would be given to young people to read. This was particularly common in the younger group of students, those who were only eighteen or nineteen themselves. I suspect that part of this was an effort to separate themselves from their school days, an attempt to define themselves as adults who could take seriously the responsiblities of protecting children, or marking out boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and who were trying to keep their own childhood selves safe from the pollution of adult concerns. Perhaps if I had asked them their opinion when they were fifteen or sixteen their replies might have been different.

On the other hand there were frequently students who loved Hartnett's book, and who looked at it as a doorway into many different kinds of literature. These students loved the bookishness of it, although many of them had not read any of the books that Hartnett alludes to in the text, and sometimes were unaware even of whole genres she was playing with. For them Sleeping Dogs was the start of a reading odyssey and a new way of experiencing the world and literature. As a teacher, these are the moments that you live for.

I guess Hartnett is probably less aware of the effect her book has had. Authors seem to exist quite a long way away from the bit of the world where readers bump up against the realities inside the text, although some authors are more aware of the process than others. I've often observed an expression of shock or dismay on authors' faces during interviews or at writers' festivals when the reader asks a question or makes a comment on a book that is unexpected, or does not quite gel with the author's own expectations of the work.

Hartnett's new book The Ghost's Child is now out, in a touchable hardcover that reminds me of lollies and bedspreads and flowers. The first chapter raised my hopes immensely. I thought that here was a book that would return to me that feeling of being a child-reader, of existing entirely in the world of the book and of being surprised and seduced into believing that the world inside the book was possible in the real world. The rest of the book almost, but not quite, lives up to that promise.

The sentence that gave me the most intense pleasure, and pulled a burble of surprise out of me, was the one in which Matilda tells the unexpected visitor that she has no nice biscuits to offer him because she ate them herself. Her phrasing suggests, gently but firmly, that she is entitled to eat the nice biscuits because she likes them too; just because she is old, she means, she does not have to give up her right to something over the rights of the young. After watching so many years of denial from great grandparents, grandparents and great aunts this had the ring of revolution about it, but not in a grasping or selfish way like those ads for remortgaging the house so that baby boomers can spend their children's so-called inheritance. This was a claim to person-hood, to existence, to pleasure and to an ackowledgement of the self. I loved it.

For me the book is mostly about autonomy, but I haven't finished yet, so I'll wait and see if it continues on in the same direction, or if it gently or stridently takes my observing self somewhere completely different.

And I'll have to go and buy some nice biscuits as well, of course.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


This week Noodle has had many days off school, because of a rather persistent cold. As he is so good at sharing I have managed to share the experience of runny nose, vague headache, ennui and slight peevishness. The resulting self-indulgent bed rest has meant that I am now finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which ends satisfactorily enough with mysteries solved, absences maintained and the worthy and honest rewarded. I quite enjoyed that some of the less worthy characters managed to get exactly what they wanted as well. Dumas, unlike God, has a wonderful sense of poetic justice.

I've moved on to reading a book about Ursula Le Guin that I found in my library bag. I'd completely forgotten that I borrowed it. I won't mention who wrote it, because he says at one stage that Philip Pullman won the Booker prize for The Amber Spyglass, and I feel so peevish about it that I can't think positively about the book at all. I suspect my tolerance for literary criticism has reached an all time low anyway, even worse than during my first attempt at an English degree at Melbourne University way back in 1990 when I understood nothing that they were trying to teach me at all.

I've just started to read the new Sonya Hartnett, The Ghost's Child. In the first few pages the old woman, Matilda, announces to her unexpected guest that the good biscuits are gone because she likes to eat them too. I don't think a single line in fiction has made me this happy in years. I immediately thought of the grandmother in Joan Aiken's story Moonshine in the Mustard Pot, from the colletion The Faithless Lollybird. The grandmother in this story shows her granddaughter the world as both intimate and mysterious, and allows Deborah to change her world and her self rather than conforming to expectations.

Hartnett's earlier books hardly carry any of this joyful freedom (what with the incest, murder and wild children), and I'm sure that there'll be plenty of sorrow and harrow in her latest as well. But Matilda can assert herself and her needs; it's ridiculous that older woman characters in books are usually limited to selflessness, grumpiness or boredom. Matilda here might be bored, but she certainly doesn't sound dull. It's a wonderful thing to read the first pages of a book and immediately feel the secret and electric urge to want more, instead of just plug, plug, plugging away until the end.

The book I really want to read, though, is something new from Michelle de Kretser. I hope she produces something sooner or later. I would have given The Hamilton Case the Booker prize if I was boss of the universe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Head colds

Today Noodle, the number one son, has a head cold. He is more distressed about snot than any other possible discomfort, pain or trauma. So none of us has had much sleep.

Since his episode of rhabdomyolisys last year he has been much more anxious about illness generally. He is starting to realise, eight months later, that not every sniffly nose or queasy tummy is going to land him in intensive care. And so am I.

Neonatal Doc wrote once about children who are seen as 'ill' after being admitted to hospital, and are treated differently than before. He was specifically talking about children who do not need particular care, and the burden of needless anxiety that the parents and the child carry around as they worry whether or not their child will become ill again. We fall somewhat into that category, but we do need to be continually vigilant. One of my son's doctors suggested that we have a two vomits, straight into hospital rule, and we are always anxious about high temperatures, aches and pains and tiredness. This last one provides the kick, because we are always stressing about whether old Noodle is doing too much. Is walking around town after his French lesson too much? Is going swimming too much? Is staying out for dinner after a day at the footy too much? We're afraid (all three of us) that we won't know until later.

Noodle used a wheelchair for a while after his acute rhabdo. He couldn't walk at all for a month or two, and then he could walk, but became exhausted very easily. The wheelchair meant that he could do a lot more. He is starting to get to heavy to carry around when he gets tired. We are all contemplating how to use the wheelchair to help him enjoy himself. I know he gets fed up with needing to stop and rest, with needing to come home early, with having aching legs. I guess we'll just figure it out as we go.

Today we are reading:
Me - The Count of Monte Christo - in which a pot boils, and ingredients are added in a random fashion until the flavour is spicy and hot

Noodle - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - see above, plus jokes

Harry Potter all over again.

Now it's three days after the final Harry Potter day. Everyone who really wants to read the book has read it. There's been a flurry of reviews, blogs, comments and breathless articles on the events of the Big Day. It's over. It will never, ever happen again.

I wrote a column about it too, and I read the book as quickly as possible on Saturday so that I wouldn't find out what happened in the end through message boards or blogs or newspaper reviews. My life has not been changed by reading the book one bit. I liked the fans theories and solutions much more than I enjoyed J.K. Rowling's version. But that's fine, I liked junior Harry much more than the teenage version. I do wonder, however, how his relationship with Ginny holds up after she takes the time to demonstrate her jealousy over Cho during the final confrontation with Voldemort. A relationship based on this kind of adolescent angst and superficiality would not be my choice for a life-long partnership. But hey, witches and wizards clearly marry young in England.

My editor described the ending as 'mawkish' which is no doubt accurate, but irrelevant seems a better word to me. Not that I wrote that in my column, actually, since I was also carried away with the hype. Hype is over now. I'm glad I had fun with it.

The Guardian writes about books we should be reading post Harry. Most of the esteemed authors seem to think going back to older fantasy fiction is the thing, and I feel a strong nostalgic urge to recommend Ursula le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle and suchlike authors as well. But surely there are newer books to catch the fancy of the juniors out there as well. Not so much the terrible, formulaic junk that publishers have foisted on bookshops over the past few years, but some other stuff entirely. There are plenty of series and stand alone titles that surely aren't any worse than the later Harry Potter books (such as the Magyk series), but heavens, who would want to recommend any of those?

I reckon everyone should now go out and read the old titles mentioned above, pastiche the lot of them and then publish their own series. There are still an awful lot of bits and pieces that J. K. Rowling didn't use in her book. There's not much King Arthur, for example, and while she was quite fascinated with death, there wasn't much of a spiritual angle. Or much history.

But actually, I hope that every single man, woman and child on earth now goes out and buys Diana Wynne Jones's backlist. There's a person who really should be a billionaire, if dollar value were based entirely on talent.