‘Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine’ Exhibition

This new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales looks great.

Kill or Cure Exhibition State Library of NSW

“From the influence of the stars and the phases of the moon, to healing chants and prayers, to the knife-wielding barber-surgeon and game-changing scientific experiments, Kill or Cure? takes you behind the curtain of western medicine’s macabre history.

Explore our many treatment rooms with instruments that will make your skin crawl. Hear quack doctors spruiking dangerous cures from behind the interactive walls. Meet the bloodletting man and learn why veins were opened to restore health.

The Library’s extensive rare books collection reveals some of the powerful and enduring ideas from western medicine that have since been debunked, and those we take for granted today.”

Lots of fascinating, gory exhibits about bloodletting, leeches, plague and scurvy! It’s free and will be at the State Library’s Exhibition Galleries in Shakespeare Place, Sydney until January 2023.

And after you’ve visited the exhibition, if you want to learn even more about the weird and wonderful history of medicine, why not read (or re-read) Dr Huxley’s Bequest: A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects?

Dr Huxley's Bequest paperbacks

Further Thoughts on Quilting and Writing

I’ve been struggling with writing this year (and indeed last year, and the year before), which is largely because I’ve been working in a hospital during a pandemic, so I’ve been constantly tired and stressed. But even when I’ve carved out enough time and energy to sit down and focus on my latest manuscript, getting each chapter finished has been a colossal effort.

Now, writing has never been easy for me (I’ve always given a hollow laugh whenever a reviewer has mentioned my “effortless prose”) but it seems to be getting more difficult. Shouldn’t it be plain sailing now that I’ve had five books published? Shouldn’t experience be useful? I’ve got everything for this novel-in-progress plotted on a spreadsheet. I know a lot about the characters. I have a reasonable vocabulary (and possess a thesaurus) and I understand how to construct a range of sentence types. I know what needs to happen on the page.

But I recently realised that I’ve been expecting each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, to be close to perfect before I can move on to the next section. This is why I’ve re-written the first chapter seventeen times (in fairness to myself, it is now an excellent opening chapter). But no wonder everything’s progressing so slowly! It’s really not surprising that I dread sitting down at the computer and opening up the document.

I needed a mental re-set, so I put aside my writing and made a quilt. Usually the quilts I make have traditional geometric patterns, because this appeals to my nerdy maths brain:

Milky Way quilt

This latest quilt, though, is a Seaglass Quilt. I took an online course at Exhausted Octopus to learn the technique. It was a clear, useful course, but they don’t provide any pattern. The size, shape and placement of pieces are all improvised. Instead of traditional piecing and hand-quilting, there’s raw edge appliqué with fusible adhesive backing, and Free Motion Quilting, and facing rather than binding. The course even suggests basting WITH SAFETY PINS. This was all totally out of my quilting comfort zone.

But this quilt was so much fun to make! The course suggested making a small quilt first to try the techniques. I ignored this and made a big quilt to hang on my bedroom wall, so it did take about a week to finish, mostly because my very old sewing machine said ‘Nope!’ to Free Motion Quilting, so I used straight stitch around each of the 126 seaglass pieces. Some of the fused pieces fell off the background fabric before I’d gotten around to sewing them, so I pinned them back on, often in a slightly different position to where they were meant to go. At one point I decided I didn’t like the colour of a piece I’d already sewn so I sewed another piece directly on top. I just used whatever thread I had, sometimes to match the seaglass pieces, sometimes contrasting, depending on what I thought looked best at the time. The safety pin basting mostly worked but I did end up with some wrinkles in the middle:

Seaglass quilt closeup 1

But that was okay, because it looks like ripples in the sand around the pieces of seaglass. And the edges of the quilt aren’t perfectly straight, because some of my facing was a bit uneven, but that’s also okay. It’s organic and free-flowing. There are scraps of fabric that remind me fondly of past sewing projects.

Seaglass Quilt closeup 2

It’s colourful and cheerful and it makes me happy when I look at all of it, including the imperfections.

Seaglass quilt

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for perfectionist writers. Go with the flow. It won’t be perfect on the first draft, or the seventeenth draft, but a completed project will bring you satisfaction and possibly even joy.

You might also be interested in reading:

Five Ways In Which Writing a Novel Is Like Making A Quilt

What I’ve Been Reading: #OzMG

I’ve been reading lots of interesting middle grade novels lately and by an Amazing Coincidence, they’re all by Australian authors.

'The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel' by Nicki Greenberg

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is by Nicki Greenberg, best known for her teen-friendly graphic novel versions of literary classics such as Hamlet and The Great Gatsby. Her latest book is a detective story for middle-graders, set in the 1920s on a real-life ocean liner, the RMS Aquitania. Pepper Stark, daughter of the Captain, is very excited to be allowed to sail to New York with him and she promises to be on her best ladylike behaviour. But when an American starlet’s diamond necklace goes missing, Pepper evades her governess and bands together with some new friends to solve the mystery and save her father’s reputation. This novel is full of vivid descriptions of the ship and its routines, with special attention paid to the elaborate meals prepared for the first class passengers. The author clearly did a lot of careful research. I did find the characters were flat and stereotypical and the mystery takes quite a while to develop. However, the concluding chapters are exciting and fast-paced with some clever plot twists. This will appeal to middle graders who are proficient readers, interested in history (particularly those obsessed with the Titanic) and who enjoy Agatha Christie-style mysteries.

'Huda and Me' by H Hayek

Huda and Me is a funny, lively debut novel by H. Hayek, based on her own large Australian-Lebanese Muslim family. Twelve-year-old Akeal, his mischievous little sister Huda, and their five siblings are left at home under the care of a family friend, ‘Aunt’ Amal, when their parents travel to Lebanon. Unfortunately Aunt Amal is completely horrible to all of them except their adorable baby brother, so Huda hatches a plan to escape and Akeal is reluctantly dragged along. Akeal is an endearing narrator — thoughtful, caring and able to draw on hidden reserves of strength when his family is in danger. This book is rightly being celebrated for showing some of the diversity of modern Australian life and depicting the challenges young Australian Muslims can face (for example, in one scene, an Australian boy tries to pull off Huda’s hijab and Akeal bravely stands up for his sister).

However, this book reminded me that diversity in publishing does not mean pushing one particular, progressive viewpoint, but rather, publishing a range of books that reflect all aspects of society, including conservative, patriarchal, religious viewpoints. There is nothing subtle about this author’s message. All the male characters — Akeal, his father, their elderly neighbour, the male flight attendant, a security guard at the airport, a taxi driver who offers the children his own home-cooked lunch — are strong, compassionate heroes who are good at their jobs and always do the brave, right thing, even if it sometimes means disobeying the rules. (The boy who abuses Huda rapidly repents when Akeal confronts him, then he helps Huda and Akeal escape.) The villains — deranged Aunt Amal and a belligerent female flight attendant — are all women who don’t have children. Girls can be as feisty as Huda until puberty, this book suggests, but after that they need to be excellent at cooking (like Huda’s twin sisters), proficient at hair, make-up and beauty treatments (Huda’s eldest sister), then get married and have at least half a dozen children (Huda’s saintly mother, who is so passive that when she finds out her beloved children are in danger, her response is to cry and leave her young son and husband to sort out the problem). According to this book, girls who don’t fulfil their God-given destiny to become housewives and mothers will either turn into crazy baby kidnappers or ice-hearted, child-hating career women. Do I agree with these anti-feminist messages? Obviously not. Would I give this book to young readers? Sure, it’s a fun, Dahl-esque read with good male role models. But I’d then give those readers one of the many middle-grade books that show that girls can also grow up to be strong, compassionate and competent, whether they choose to marry and have children, or not.

'Elsewhere Girls' by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman

For example, Elsewhere Girls by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, an enjoyable time-slip adventure, in which thirteen-year-old Cat from Sydney finds herself in the body of a teenage girl in 1908, who just happens to be Fanny Durack, future Olympic swimming champion. There’s lots of amusement as Fanny, living in 2021 in Cat’s body, tries to make sense of mobile phones, microwave ovens and aeroplanes. Meanwhile, Cat is horrified by her new life as one of ten siblings living above a Surry Hills pub, where it takes an entire day to do the laundry and girls aren’t allowed to swim in front of men. The authors acknowledge their debt to classic time slip novels, including Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, one of my favourite books. There is some serious commentary in Elsewhere Girls on how much life has improved for girls and women, but this is aimed at middle-graders so it avoids the more grim, confronting realities of life in Edwardian Sydney slums (unlike Playing Beatie Bow, in which poor Abigail gets kidnapped and locked in a brothel). Elsewhere Girls is recommended for about twelve years and up, particularly girls interested in history and feminism.

'Footprints on the Moon' by Lorraine Marwood

Footprints on the Moon by Lorraine Marwood is set in more recent history, in 1969. In her first year of high school, Sharnie is dealing with a lot — her best friend turning into a Mean Girl, the death of her beloved grandmother, and family conflict due to her elder sister Cas protesting against the Vietnam War. Sharnie makes a new friend who is grieving over the death of her brother, a war conscript, and the two friends join forces with Cas to celebrate the moon landing and protest against the war in a creative way. This is a verse novel, a collection of beautifully written poems with careful use of metaphor and moon imagery, arranged in narrative form. It’s well researched and has an important message, so teachers and literary award committees will love it, but I must admit I found it a bit dull and worthy. However, I’d recommend it for thoughtful young readers dealing with the death of a grandparent or those who are interested in the moon landing.

'Are You There, Buddha?' by Pip Harry

Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry also has a narrator in her first year of high school, also dealing with a range of problems, but this was a delight to read. Bee’s mother has abandoned her to live in an Indian ashram, her best friend Leon is showing worrying signs of having a crush on her, her well-meaning stepmum keeps meddling in her life, a Mean Girl at swimming practice is making life difficult … and worst of all, her body is changing, with stretch marks, new breasts and the dreaded start of periods. Bee is such a lively, funny, sweet narrator, always trying to do the right thing, although not always succeeding. I especially liked the realistic depiction of menstruation — cramps and blood stains and trying to insert a tampon for the first time and the inevitable bad timing of the start of a period (an especially annoying thing for Bee because she’s a competitive swimmer). The only odd thing about this book is that it’s described as a verse novel, but to me, it just seemed like a book written in clear, simple prose with odd punctuation, with sentences broken up to create more white space on the page and make it more appealing to reluctant readers. There’s nothing particularly poetic about the language:

“I open the door
and he tips
a pile of picture books
on the floor.”

So, I don’t think it’s a verse novel but it is an excellent read. I’d recommend it for girls (and boys) aged about ten years and up.

'Dragon Skin' by Karen Foxlee

Finally, Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee is an exquisitely written novel, a sad, gritty but hopeful story about a ten-year-old girl living in outback Australia in dire circumstances. Pip’s mother’s boyfriend is abusive and her only school friend has died. Then Pip finds a tiny, half-dead dragon by the waterhole and her quest to save ‘Little Fella’ and return him to where he came from changes her in profound ways. She makes new friends and ultimately moves on to a better life. The descriptions of Mount Isa are beautiful, each character is real and interesting, and the publishers have produced a gorgeous hardcover edition with lovely cover art, endpapers and line drawings. I’ve no doubt this book will win all the awards. However, it’s definitely for thoughtful, mature readers and is possibly a book that will appeal more to adult readers than child readers.

What I’ve Been Reading

How can we be a quarter of the way through 2022 already? Is it the multitude of terrible things happening throughout the world that is causing me this difficulty with time perception? I have at least been reading a bit more this year, both for education and escape. Here are my favourites so far.

'Unfollow' by Megan Phelps-RoperUnfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper was an inspiring memoir by a young woman who escaped a notoriously homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-everything cult founded by her grandfather. From the age of five, Megan was an obedient and devoted Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member, holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ signs outside the funerals of American soldiers, picketing outside her own school and college, then running the church’s social media campaign. It isn’t surprising that she followed the church’s beliefs, because nearly everyone in her large extended family was a member of WBC. What is surprising is how she managed to leave WBC at the age of 26, cutting herself off from the family she still loves, to become an activist and educator dedicated to combatting extremist beliefs.

There were two things that helped her leave. Firstly, WBC, unlike other American cults, allowed its children to be educated in the public school system and encouraged them to go to college, where Megan was often socially isolated, but was at least exposed to other beliefs and learned some critical thinking skills. WBC members were also encouraged to use social media to get publicity for the church’s bigoted preaching. Megan writes of her “profound gratitude to Twitter … Instead of booting me from its platform for ‘hate speech’, as many had demanded, it had put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child.” In fact, she ends up meeting and eventually marrying a man who had spent years debating against her on Twitter. She despairs of the “division of the world into Us and Them” in the Trump era and points out that in the age of the internet, “we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of an idea, whether good or bad … the answer to bad ideas is to publicly reason against them, to advocate for and propagate better ones”. Megan comes across as a thoughtful, ethical person who, despite her traumatic upbringing, has a lot of compassion and empathy, and she argues convincingly against #NoDebate and Cancel Culture.

'The Edible Balcony' by Indira NaidooI also liked The Edible Balcony by Indira Naidoo, a guide to growing fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for those of us who don’t have backyard gardens. Indira managed to produce 70kg of produce in her first year of balcony gardening and this is a good beginner’s guide, with great photos and illustrations, handy tips and some delicious-looking recipes. It must be noted that although Indira claims her Sydney balcony is “small”, it is 20 square metres (about five times the size of my own balcony), and is north-facing, with its own water supply and a building concierge who looks after her plants when she’s away. She also has the advantages of farming friends who provide her with fresh manure, a vertical garden system supplied for free because she’s a celebrity, and access to ABC TV’s gardening gurus. Still, this book provided me with inspiration as I was re-establishing my own balcony garden, following last year’s building reconstruction works. Here are some before and after pictures of my balcony:

Before: my balcony in April 2021
BEFORE: My balcony in April 2021 as reconstruction started and the scaffolding went up
After: My balcony in January 2022
AFTER: My balcony in January 2022. I’m growing mint, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, lavender, lemon thyme, spring onions, two types of chives, three types of lettuce and two types of basil.

The Edible Balcony provided valuable food for thought. For example, I’d always considered tomatoes to be too difficult to grow on a balcony, but Indira successfully grew tomato varieties in pots, so that could be a project for me next summer. Conversely, I now think a little lemon tree might be a bit too ambitious for me, after reading about all the pest problems Indira had. Still, her remedy for powdery mildew (diluted milk sprayed on leaves) worked a treat on my afflicted mint plant, so thanks, Indira!

'Sugar Town Queens' by Malla NunnIn fiction, I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens, the latest YA novel from Malla Nunn. This is a fast-paced story about a mixed-race girl growing up in poverty in a Durban township. Amandla’s mother is white and her father is missing; they live in a one-room tin shack but her mother regularly comes home with wads of cash; and her mother has strange delusions and gaps in her memory. Amandla, with the help of her friends Lil Bit and Goodness, discovers the truth about her mother’s wealthy family and tragic past. The romance seems shoe-horned in and the conclusion is unrealistically upbeat and Cinderella-ish, but I really liked the depiction of strong relationships between the girls and women in the story, with schoolfriends, neighbours and grandmother working together for truth and justice. (I think When the Ground is Hard is a much better book, though.)

'Cat Problems' by Jory JohnFinally, Cat Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a charming and funny picture book about the very difficult life of a household cat who has many problems, all of which he complains about loudly. He has to deal with a sunbeam that moves; a noisy vacuum cleaner; dry cat food instead of wet; and another cat that persists in sitting “in my spot … in my other spot … now you’re in my THIRD spot.” A squirrel outside the window explains how difficult life is for wild animals outside but Cat is unimpressed (“How can I eat this very talkative squirrel?”) Then he stalks off to complain about the paucity of sunbeams at night. The fuzzy illustrations and mimimalist backgrounds are very appealing. Recommended for anyone who’s ever lived with a cat.

Local Authors at Glebe Summer Streets Festival This Saturday

As part of the Sydney Summer Streets Festival organised by the City of Sydney, Gleebooks will be hosting local authors and their books outside the famous Glebe Point Road bookshop.

Author Ken Saunders explains, “Over twenty titles from twelve different authors give but a glimpse of the wide-ranging interests of your very own neighbourhood writers. We have a fictional Pyrmont GP solving crimes, an absurdist comedy of an alleged ‘autobiography’ written by a computer program, reflections on Secular Buddhism, significant historical and sociological works, Young Adult literature of a family caught in the tensions leading up to World War Two, historical fiction, a beautifully photographed children’s book of Australian birds, local history and art, the biography of the great Glebian Sadie King and the travel adventures of some locals who drove two vintage cars on an epic journey along the old Silk Road.”

Glebe Summer Streets Local Authors 2022

Authors at the Summer Streets stall include Ken Saunders, Emily Booker, Winton Higgins, John McCombe, Michelle Cooper, Janice Challinor, Heather Goodall, Gaiti Rabbani, L M Ardor, Trish Curotta and Anne Wark.

Gleebooks
Local Authors’ Table
Saturday 12 February 10:00am – 2:00pm
49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe