Simple living. It’s not always the simplest way to go, ironically, but it’s something I’ve been engaging in for most of my adult life. Handmade gifts, homecooked food, canning and otherwise preserving, knitting and crocheting and sewing, doing my best to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it’s all a big part of my daily life. I happened upon Rhonda Hetzel’s blog, Down to Earth, a few years ago, and discovered that she had written a book on simple living, also titled Down to Earth(Penguin Australian, 2012). Onto my list it went. It took a bit to get to me via interlibrary loan; Mrs. Hetzel is Australian, and I don’t know how widely known her book is here in the US. My copy came from Virginia, which would probably take most of a day’s driving to get to from where I’m at! Oddly enough, the library in the next town over has another of her books, but not this one. Strange!
If you’re looking to get back to basics, to simplify your life and begin a gentler, more earth-friendly, more soul-nourishing way of living, but you don’t know where to start, Rhonda Hetzel has a plan for you. From the very basics of building a budget that ensures you can cut back and what you can cut out, to building a garden that works for you, and why knitting and sewing and mending is important, to the keeping of chickens, to home cooking and preserving and more, this is an explanation of what simple living looks like at its most fundamental level.
Seasoned homemakers and advocates for this slower way of life may not find anything new here (but inspiration to keep going is always nice, and this lovely book provides that in spades in its gentle encouragement and gorgeous photography), but for neophytes looking to escape the rat race, exhausted working parents barely able to keep up with the daycare costs, folks looking to retire a little early (if possible; here in the US, our lack of a nationalized healthcare system makes this tricky), newlyweds or college graduates just starting out in the real world, all of these people will find a glimpse into a way of navigating life that they may not have considered.
This is an absolutely lovely book- a bit smaller than a traditional coffee table book, more like a small textbook, but it’s filled with beautiful photography of Mrs. Hetzel’s gorgeous life. If you’re looking for a gift for a recent college graduate or a unique bridal shower gift, Down to Earth would make a fabulous choice. Let everyone know that there’s a better way than constantly stopping for fast food and precooked, preservative-filled junk at the store, that even in apartments, your life can be sustainable and earth-friendly.
Down to Earth is a lovely, gentle read about a way of life you may already be engaged in, or something you long for but aren’t sure how to get started. If you’re looking for an overview of all the ways you could slow things down, this is a beautiful place to begin.
And back to work on my reading challenges from the comfort of my kindle! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list is in the front of my reading binder, so I’m going down that list first. A lot of their prompts have to do with the 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed until at least next year (and rightfully so; I can’t even imagine having that many people crammed into an Olympic village, along with all the spectators gathering together. FAR too dangerous right now), and next on the list was to read a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. What I’m able to easily get my hands on factors as heavily into my choices as much as what interests me, and since my library had a ebook of Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006, originally published in 1992), which was set in Sydney, Australia, that went on my list (this also meant I was able to add a pin to my map of the world, which I update every time I read a book set in a different country. I have fourteen pins so far this year!). I started reading the book, a large portion which deals with the main character’s illegitimacy, and I was confused. Do people still care about that? Is that an Australian thing? After a few chapters, it dawned on me after reading a line about the ongoing AIDS epidemic and realizing there hadn’t been any references to things like the Internet or cell phones, and off I went to check the Goodreads page. Sure enough, the book was originally published in 1992, when being a single mother was still very much looked down on, especially in certain communities. That made more sense. I adjusted the setting of the story a bit in my mind and carried on.
Josephine Alibrandi has lived her entire seventeen years with her illegitimacy hanging over her head everywhere she goes- at her fancy private Catholic school, where she’s a scholarship student and the other students constantly remind her she’s a bastard and not *really* Australian; among her large extended Italian family, especially her grandmother, who never let her mother forget her sins; among the wider Australian community, who looks down on her for both not having a father and for her ethnic background. But things are changing in her final year of high school. Josie’s met her father for the first time in her life. She’s dating a boy who challenges her as well as infuriates her. And her strained relationship with her judgmental grandmother is about to be pushed to its breaking point.
Josie’s quick to fly off the handle, but she has a lot to learn about life, about her family, about the secrets of the past and how we all carry them, and about how to handle life’s major ups and downs. Her grandmother isn’t quite who Josie always thought she was, her father might not be the demon she expected, and Josie…well, she’s still figuring out who she really is, and that’s exactly as it should be.
So. I didn’t quite love this, and part of it may be that it’s so…I don’t want to say old or dated, neither seem right, but it very much fits in with the style of how I remember YA being when I grew up (and I’m, uh…not quite old, but I’m getting there!). The story skips over major events, main characters tend to do a lot of shouting and throw tantrums (I get that teenagers do that, I have one myself, but older YA books lean towards their characters lacking a certain maturity, whereas YA today is far, far better about that and is way more teen-centric). Josie tends to go from zero to freak out at the drop of a hat in a way that didn’t feel natural to me. Though her relationship with her father vastly improves over time, something about it seemed off to me as well. I understood that she would harbor a lot of resentment toward his missing out on all the rest of her life, but she was forward with him in a way that didn’t feel authentic either. I also didn’t care for her relationship with Jacob. He pressured her far too much for sex, they fought more than they got along, and he occasionally dropped ethnic slurs at her, which should have been an immediate dealbreaker. I don’t know. A lot of this missed the mark for me personally.
There were parts that I enjoyed, however. I had no idea that Australians interned Italian-born citizens, especially men (and citizens of other nationalities, including Japanese, Italian, and even British), during the second World War. Josie’s family still harbors a lot of trauma due to this, and she discovers a major family secret that stems from this time period, which helps her to eventually better understand why her grandmother is the way she is. I know that Australia has problems with racism toward the Aboriginal communities, but I hadn’t realized that this extended to other ethnic groups as well. Apparently in the 1990’s, Italians weren’t well-liked in at least certain parts of Australia, and Josie suffered through fairly constant slurs toward her and her community. I’ve never understood that. Dislike someone for how they act or how they treat other people, but for where they’re born or their ethnic background? Something over which they have no control? That’s senseless. (And I’m not singling Australia out here; the United States has no room to talk on this matter.)
Content warnings: there are a few mentions of rape and one near-assault, and there’s a suicide near the end of the book, by a character who displays obvious (to the reader, especially to the modern-day reader) red flags through the entire story, so if these are sensitive topics for you, this may be one to avoid.
Looking for Alibrandi was an interesting story that didn’t fully capture me, although I’m always happy to learn new things and get a new perspective on the world. I’ve heard excellent things about Ms. Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, however, so that’s still in my plans to read in the future.
A book read just because I wanted to read it? Nearly unheard of around these parts! A friend of mine read The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) earlier this year, and although it was different from what she expected it to be, I was still intrigued by her review. Since then, I’ve seen it on numerous blogs, and so this Saturday morning, I downloaded a copy from my library- before the library was even open (!!!). For those of us who are old enough to remember the days when the library closed its doors at 4 pm on Saturday and didn’t reopen again until Monday morning at 9 am, being able to get new reading material in this way will never stop being utterly miraculous. 🙂 (For the record, I feel the same way about the internet when I wake up at 2 am Sunday morning, wondering what the capital of Liechtenstein is.)
The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, an Australian woman who is and has been many things during her time here on earth. These days, she’s head of her own business that cleans after grisly death scenes, hoarding situations, and fires and weather-related disasters, but Sandra hasn’t always been Sandra. Her assigned gender at birth was male, and in order to differentiate between her past and present, Ms. Krasnostein gives Sandra’s past self the name of Peter (which is not her actual deadname, but that name is something Sandra prefers to keep private). Peter was adopted by a family that had recently lost a child; he was that child’s replacement (I have NO idea how people think this is a good idea), but instead of providing him with a loving home, that family abused him horrifically. They beat him, starved him, forced him to sleep in a shed out back, refused him entry into the house past 4:30 pm, and he wasn’t allowed to use the bathing facilities or the toilet. All his teeth had to be removed by age 17 due to malnutrition, which was the same year the family threw him out for good. Desperate for love, Peter married at 19, but almost immediately, it was clear this was a terrible decision. Nevertheless, Peter fathered two children with his wife before leaving to live a more authentic life under a variety of aliases, eventually settling on Sandra (the Pankhurst came after another marriage which was later voided by the state).
Sandra’s life is chaos, broken up by brief periods of stability. Like many transgender people, she engages in various forms of sex work in order to earn money (there’s a content warning here for a fairly graphic description of rape and assault). Her attempts at more mainstream employment sometimes work out and occasionally end in disaster, but Sandra eventually finds her niche and opens her own business dealing with the clean-ups that others refuse to do. It’s here that she thrives, but even with that success, her future is uncertain: Sandra lives with terminal lung and liver disease.
The details of each clean-up scene are fascinating, horrifying, and grotesque, and Sandra has the amazing gift of being able to work with hoarders with the goal of restoring order to their homes and lives with the least amount of mental anguish possible. Gently and respectfully, she engages each occupant and meets them at whatever place they’re coming from and helps them move forward. She can tolerate abominable conditions and has no qualms about walking into houses piled high with urine and feces-soaked furniture, bugs, rats, mold, all the hideous detritus that signifies a deeply distressed inhabitant, or the blood, decay, and rot that stems from a tragic and/or unnoticed death. These are remarkable qualities, but my biggest takeaway from this book is how very, very complex humanity is. Sandra has suffered massive trauma herself, from her adoptive parents, through her sex work, from the society that declared her very existence a perversion and attempted to force her out of every viable means of both labor and human connection, and the upshot of this is that at many times in her life, Sandra has been kind of a terrible person. As Peter, she cheated on her first wife and left her two sons without a further word; as Sandra, she cheated for years on the husband who gave her the last name of Pankhurst. She’s made terrible decisions, done terrible things, and still she exhibits remarkable qualities in her work as a trauma cleaner. Her friends and neighbors seem to adore her.
We’re quick to write people off for doing or being certain things- I know I’m guilty of this, I think we all are- and at times, it’s necessary to create distance in order to protect ourselves. But The Trauma Cleaner is a wonderful example of how we grow and change, of how many people we can be throughout our lives. Who we are and how we’re seen by one group of people may be entirely different than the person we are and the way we’re seen by another group later on. And that’s not a bad thing, I think.
What a fascinating book about a complex woman. I’m definitely glad I read this.
I will admit that I know very little about the Aboriginal community of Australia, other than, much like the Native population of the United States, they’ve been treated terribly (one of the books I read in the past few years contained the phrase, “Colonization is violence,” and it’s something I’ve never forgotten). Rabbit-Proof Fence highlights exactly how terribly, beginning with a few stories of the native community of western Australia before the white men show up, and then revealing how much the Aboriginals’ lives changed once these white men began to force them off the land their people had lived on for thousands of years. There are content warnings that go along with this early part; rape and murder are, tragically, part of every story of colonization.
Molly, who would one day become the author’s mother, is known as a half-caste, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a white man. She, along with her two half-caste cousins, Daisy and Gracie, are forcibly taken from their families and sent to an institution for Aboriginal children with white fathers. This was done at the Australian government’s behest because it was their belief that half-caste children were more intelligent than full-blooded Aboriginal children, and, as Molly’s paperwork stated, they hoped that ‘they will grow up with a better outlook on life than back at their camp.’ (Similar horrors were perpetrated upon the Native children of America and Canada, if you’re looking to enrage yourself further.) The three cousins, along with a fourth girl named Rosie, are taken to the East Perth Girls Home at the Moore River Native Settlement. Upon arrival, they’re expecting a school but are instead greeted by a bleak, overcrowded dormitory where the doors are chained, the windows have bars, the beds only have sheets when important visitors tour the facilities, and there are small cells where children who break the rules are locked in, sometimes for weeks at a time, after being whipped.
Molly, the eldest, makes up her mind immediately that she and her cousins aren’t staying. Having been trained in bushcraft and survival skills by her stepfather, Molly leads the girls out the next morning, and for the next nine weeks, they make a barefoot journey that spans 1600 km (994 miles), following the fence built by the colonizers to try to prevent the spread of rabbits (that the colonizers themselves brought in, because there’s seriously no end to the problems caused by people arrogant enough to claim someone else’s land as their own). They sleep in rabbit warrens and out in the elements, eating rabbit, emu chicks, baby cockatoos, and a feral cat along the way, occasionally stopping by a farmhouse to beg for a decent meal. Barely managing to evade the authorities, the girls return home (without Gracie, who left to find her mother before reaching the end), but their stories have no happy endings. Colonization is violence. Never forget that.
God, this story is utter tragedy. Tragedy in what was lost, tragedy in what could have been lost, tragedy in that none of this story needed to occur because the girls’ families should have been left alone to live their lives. There’s a heartbreaking write-up where Ms. Pilkington details how the girls fared as they grew into adults. Daisy is the only one with a halfway happy story; Molly and Ms. Pilkington’s own lives continued to be marred by the brutal policies of the white men long after Molly returned home. So much heartbreak forced onto people who didn’t deserve it. So much pointless heartbreak.
Despite the sorrow that infects every page of this book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. Ms. Pilkington describes the customs and lives of her people with such love that it’s impossible not to be drawn in and want to know more. The girls’s dialogue is peppered with phrases from their Mardu language (there’s a glossary in back!), and having only seen Aboriginal Australian language in print a few times before this, I was fascinated. The mixture of strength and desperation that the girls must have felt in order to undertake such a journey is impossible for me to begin to fathom; even thinking about it makes me want to throw things. There’s seriously no limit to the horror that humans are eager to inflict upon one another, and it disgusts me that so many people continue to defend these kinds of policies.
A movie was made from this book in 2002; my library has a copy, so I may grab it this week when I return the book. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a short book, but it packs a punch. Don’t let that stop you; the story of these girls and all peoples native to Australia need to be heard.
Doris Pilkington, born Nugi Garimara, passed away in 2014.
A prestigious private school setting, a group of popular girls more vicious than a seething mass of pit vipers, and the immigrant experience all combine to make a deeply thoughtful novel in Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh.
Lucy Lam, born in Vietnam of Teochew Chinese heritage, is shocked to find that she’s been chosen as the single recipient of this year’s scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an exclusive Australian private school, especially since everyone knew that scholarship belonged to Tully, the nose-to-the-grindstone girl who aces everything. Laurinda is an entirely different world, filled with filthy rich girls whose attendance there mirrors that of their mothers and grandmothers years ago. Lucy’s immigrant father works at a carpet factory and her mother, who doesn’t speak English, spends nearly all her time sewing for pennies in their unventilated garage while also caring for Lucy’s toddler brother. Even Laurinda’s uniform cost is a stretch for her parents, but they make it happen, and Lucy’s ready to build a better future for herself and her family. Nervous, but ready.
Right away, Lucy begins to see the serious flaws behind Laurinda’s polished exteriors. Barely anyone applauds a flawless piano recital at the beginning of term. Mrs. Grey, the headmistress, seems keen on making Lucy aware of her entrance to the school as a nod to diversity. And then there’s the group of girls known as the Cabinet, three Laurinda legacies who make the characters from Mean Girls look like pious, charitable nuns. After Lucy is sent to remedial English with one of the girls’ mothers, Amber, Chelsea, and Brodie take Lucy in, but never in a way she’s truly comfortable with. The Cabinet’s influence on the school administration quickly becomes apparent, and after a series of incidents in which a teacher is fired and another student is seriously injured, Lucy begins to remember who she really is, what’s important to her, and why she left her friends behind to come to Laurinda in the first place.
This is deep and serious YA about values, self-discovery, bravery, friendship, and standing up for what’s right (and, you know, malicious friend groups). There’s a heavy message, but the book itself never feels heavy, nor does the writing get bogged down with the importance of Lucy’s journey. Even as Lucy recounts her parents’ struggles to make it in a new country, the novel never drags; the family’s optimism and faith in their own hard work and appreciation for their new home shine through and give the story a hopeful feeling. Lucy’s mother is, I think, the most admirable character in the book. Her determination to better her family’s future, her commitment to her work and children, her drive to keep moving forward in life one inch at a time made her such a sympathetic character, and so very real, especially when compared to the privileged mothers of the members of the Cabinet. The image of Quyen bent over her sewing in the garage late into the night, the air around her heavy with dust motes, is one that will remain with me.
This is Mean Girls set in an Australian private school with an immigrant flair, which deeply adds to the story and the egregiousness of venomous friend groups, and provides a fantastic contrast between the wealth of the average Laurinda student and the Lam family’s meager circumstances. It’s something that the movie was missing, I think, which plays out well here and makes for a fuller, richer story. I’d had this on my kindle for a while and opened it the other day on a whim without rereading the synopsis, so spending a few days in Lucy’s world was an unexpected gem, as was spending that time in Australia (which I always enjoy reading about!). Overall, this is a great take on the malicious friend group trope, told through a fresh perspective that renders it unique.