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.

8 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Good ideas on things to read as always. I have a small (3 by 5 meters) garden and have grown many things in pots. There are small eggplants such as Fairy Tale and Patio Baby that do well for me, as do small hot peppers . Lemon Drop is insanely productive and Fish has the added attraction of variegated leaves, and the fruit starts out white, then white with green stripes, then orange with brown stripes , and finally red. I am trying a new variety of tomato called Orange Hat that is only supposed to grow a foot tall.
    I have mostly been re-reading lately, as I have had to retire early due to health and mobility issues, but a favorite was Photographic Guide to the Birds of Australia. I had hoped to get there – all those parrots! And bower birds! And emus! But I am currently unfit for any travel. This makes books about places not here especially enjoyable.
    Any more thoughts on writing about Fiji?
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi, Megan! Your small garden sounds very productive. Hmm, maybe I can try little eggplants with the tomatoes in summer? Although I have to say that Indira’s experience with eggplants was not good, so perhaps Sydney’s climate isn’t eggplant-friendly.

      I’m sorry to hear about your poor health, but glad that you’ve found reading an enjoyable escape. Australia has the best birds! Even in the inner city, we have beautiful LOUD lorikeets and parrots.

      I’m still plugging away at the new FitzOsborne book, so no immediate plans for a Fiji book. Hopefully I’ll make some good writing progress this year.

  2. Your balcony looks beautiful! I am lucky enough to have a standard size suburban garden but it’s full of trees rather than vegetables. I have one pot of herbs near the front door but I keep letting them die 🙁
    I’m interested in reading Unfollow, after Tara Westover’s Educated which seems to be along the same lines. Sounds good.

    1. Ha, I had to wait and wait for a rare sunny moment to get the After balcony photo! It’s been raining pretty much non-stop since December here, so everything’s a bit waterlogged. But I’m very happy to have my little garden back after last year’s building works and it’s so nice having fresh herbs and lettuce right outside when I’m cooking.

      Tara Westover’s book is on my To Read list now – it does sound similar. I found Megan Phelps-Roper’s views of Twitter really interesting and it changed my mind (a little) on how social media can be used for good.

  3. Hi Michelle,
    I’m sorry that this does not pertain to the “what you’ve been reading” post that I’m commenting on. I’m the creator of all those Montmaray trailers and fanvids from so, so many years ago. And I was feeling nostalgic tonight and happened upon your blog. I just wanted to let you know how much those books and those characters still mean to me. I named my first dog after Toby Fitzosborne. And he lives up to his namesake – he is selfless and special but also very dramatic and withdrawn if upset. He’s my heart dog and I think I named him properly. After my favorite fictional character of all time.

    I just wanted to let you know that after all these years, those books are still my safe space. I go back to them time and time again when I’m sad or stressed. You created something really special. I’m forever in your debt for those special stories.

    1. Hi Dayln,
      Thank you so much for your kind comment! I am really happy to hear that my books have been special for you. That’s what most authors aim to achieve – to put something out in the world that is meaningful and helpful for some reader, somewhere – so I feel lucky to have been able to do that for you. And your Toby sounds adorable! I don’t know if you’ve seen this short story I wrote, featuring human Toby: The Mystery of the Dashing Widower.
      I also remember your very professional-looking Montmaray trailer, which led to a few people asking me when the BBC series was coming out! I had to explain that it was a fan video, not an actual TV series… Hopefully one day there’ll be a screen version of Montmaray. And possibly, if I can manage to find some writing time this year, a new book about the next generation of FitzOsbornes, which includes Toby’s loud and dramatic daughter.

  4. I’m so impressed by your balcony garden! I only have a fire escape out back which I’m pretty sure I’m not legally allowed to leave things out on or I’d have started my own – most likely to the benefit of the squirrels and raccoons I’ve found out there, rather than my own. My sister has outdoor space and was able to grow tomatoes one year, fingers crossed for your future ones!

    1. Thanks, Jaye! I’m lucky to have just enough sunlight and space to make a little garden possible. We don’t have squirrels or raccoons here, but we do have parrots and other birds who enjoy digging in the dirt and creating a big mess. Yes, fingers crossed that the tomatoes work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.