Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

What is Women’s Fiction?

Big Little Lies By Liane Moriarty G.P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Books USA, 2014

What is Women’s Fiction? It is not romance, though it usually has what the Romance Writers of America call “romantic elements.” Neither is it exactly “chick lit”. That genre was established well and truly with Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones and her diary. Awkward, warm, silly Bridget is so easily recognizable we all love her. Helen Fielding apparently based her book on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and that, dear readers, is in my opinion, a classic work of Women’s Fiction. I’d say the major definition is that the characters in Women’s Fiction are usually a little older than in chick lit, maybe in their thirties or forties. Often they have children. Or they want children and that drives the plot. Unlike romance, or chick lit, Women’s Fiction often deals with larger issues than ending happily ever after with Mr. Right. Women’s Fiction is often indistinguishable from “upmarket commercial fiction” except that the viewpoint character is a woman. That is not to say that works of Women’s Fiction get the literary attention they deserve. Even if they are best-sellers. Take Liane Moriarty. This exceptionally talented novelist has written book after book that zooms to the best seller list. In her latest book, Big Little Lies, Ms. Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying, by the children, and by the parents, is her theme, as the innocuous school, in its beautiful Sydney beachside setting, becomes a microcosm for all the nastiness that inhabits the world of adults. The author’s sense of humor is never too far beneath the surface and the book is laugh out loud funny at times. The heart of the story, however, is domestic violence. It is riveting and disturbing, the more so as it shows how difficult it is for the victim to leave. This is not chick lit by any means. So, what it comes down to is this. Women’s Fiction, in my view, simply shows a fictional world through the eyes of a woman or women. That’s why, in my next couple of posts, I’m going to review books of historical fiction with female protagonists. Watch this space.

The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles By Karen Thompson Walker Random House, 2012 I’ve been captivated by Karen Thompson Walker’s dark vision of the end of the world. The novel, narrated through the eyes of a middle school girl, tells the story of the “slowing”, when the earth one day slowed its rotation around the sun, and days and nights extended. Crops die, birds drop from the ground because gravity has changed, and I won’t give away the plot by saying that scientists are mystified. In the book, the narrator recalls that a few years before, the bees had started dying. That is actually happening now, and no one knows why. By intermingling real events with imaginary ones, Walker makes us believe her story could happen. Karen Thompson Walker’s narrator’s awakening adolescence fits the sense of wonder that people feel with the “slowing.” The world she shares with others is changing drastically, just as her own world shifts as hormones work their bodily magic. Walker captures the confusion these changes bring, and writes with elegiac sadness of the loss of the ordinary. A tragedy for the planet, perhaps, and yet Walker’s title is just right. She manages to infuse her tale with a sense of life’s mystery and amazement.

Alternating Viewpoints in Fiction

Don’t know about you, but I was absolutely riveted by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Told in the alternating points of view of Amy and Nick, a childless couple married five years this creepy, plot- twisting novel kept my attention till the last page. Then there is The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison. Here, another childless couple, though older, Jodi and Todd, go about their lives in alternating chapters, in mutual misunderstanding, evasion and outright deception. Like Flynn’s novel, murder is committed, and the characters are less than attractive. But their actions are understandable, and the plot-twisting ending is remarkably satisfying. Now I’ve just read a brand-new book with alternating viewpoints. It is Principles of Navigation, by Lynn Sloan. (Fomite, Burlington VT. 2015) Set in 1998-9, the book begins with the protagonist, Alice, desperately trying for a baby with her husband, Rolly. They’ve been trying for three years and Rolly refuses to get medical intervention. Alice appears to believe that the new millennium will give them a child and a new chance at happiness. The novel is told in the alternating viewpoints of Alice and Rolly and shows their disintegrating relationship as the months wear on. Interestingly to this reader the character of the husband, Rolly, is much more appealing. He has flaws and failures as a husband, but he hurts, he changes, and we care about him. The character of the wife, Alice, becomes harder and more alienating as time goes on. Her behavior drives the plot. Or rather, he makes a move, she resists. Like a chess game, each acts according to what pushes them forward, even as each is unaware of their most profound motivations.  In life, we propel ourselves forward according to often unconscious instructions. Perhaps the title, Principles of Navigation, refers to this blind drive to reproduce, as locked into our genes as any other creature’s, and we push onward upstream against all obstacles,  like the salmon when they spawn.

Organic On A Budget

Organic On A Budget The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011) Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson (Da Capo Press, 2011) What happened to the old domestic skills of cooking to a budget and eating food that has not been contaminated with pesticides? Is it even possible to do that now? While we say they want to eat a healthier diet, we tend to believe this option is only for the well-off. Really? Food writer Robin Mather felt that the locavore food movement was perceived as being for the “foodie elite,” when in truth it is how our ancestors always ate, and she wrote a book to prove how she lived on a food budget of $40 a week. And that was in Michigan, surrounded by snow for five months a year. Mather, a food writer for the Chicago Tribune, found herself without an income when she simultaneously lost her job and her husband. She retreated to live alone in a vacation cabin on Lake Michigan, and there began an experiment in frugal living. She chronicles this year long journey-in-place in a marvelous book, The Feast Nearby. She canned, froze, baked, and bartered to fill her larder.  One has to admire her fortitude as she faced financial misfortune, and the surprising richness of spirit she found within herself.  She’s written a series of essays and recipes. If you’re interested in actually measuring how to stretch your food dollars, meal by meal, Linda Watson’s Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson, sets out to show readers how to “Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy and Save the Planet All on $5 a Day or Less.” “Food evangelist” Linda Watson believes in eating a vegetarian diet, based on plants that have been raised organically. Her book is not so much about eating locally as about eating well on an extremely limited budget. She decided to experiment for a year, buying and cooking on the monthly food stamp allowance of $1.53 a meal. She bought at chain supermarkets and state farmers’ markets. She “scoured old cookbooks and interviewed older cooks,” and changed her cooking style to make use of bulk and seasonal purchases. With her new shopping list she tested her budget at Whole Foods and found she could still cook at less than $2 a meal. The book includes shopping lists and price comparisons. The result is a charming how-to manual filled with satisfying recipes. Each of these books offers the following principles to shop by: -Buy bulk staples of flour and rice. -Reduce or eliminate meat in the diet. -Buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season and in bulk. -Learn to preserve food safely by canning and freezing. -Save on gas or electricity by using the oven to cook several things at once, cook more than you need and freeze extra. -Make simple food elegant by the use of garnishes. -Vary your diet by exchanges, as in the potluck party. -Eat with others. You’ll talk more and eat less.

Crafters Caring for Koalas

Everyone loves koalas. They look adorable, or perhaps we think that because so many toy koalas nestle on childish pillows. They are in fact gentle quiet creatures. They live in eucalyptus trees in my native Australia, sleep most of the time, and move slowly. So when bushfires ravaged the state of South Australia at the beginning of January, many of these animals were trapped, or, trying to escape, burned their paws. Rescuers found infant koalas clinging to burned trees and crying for their mothers. Volunteers in animal shelters made cotton paw protectors for the little marsupials. The idea was to help the burn cream applied by veterinarians to stay on so the burns would heal faster. Then, the International Fund For Animal Welfare put out a appeal for more mittens. It published a template for making the mittens from 100 percent cotton. Within days, there were mittens sent from all over the world. A week later,  the IFAW said, “Enough already!”  And asked animal lovers who could  sew to make pouches for baby kangaroos (“joeys”) whose mothers were dead or injured in the fires. Joeys can use up to six cotton pouches a day. Think diapers and you have the idea.  You can find detailed instructions on how to sew joey pouch liners at the IFAW’s website here.


Longbourn by Jo Baker Random House, 2013 The popularity of Downton Abbey and the spate of movie versions of Jane Austen’s novels makes this book almost inevitable. Inevitable doesn’t always mean good. But this book surpasses expectations. Jo Baker has created a novel out of the “downstairs” people of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennet family – drama queen Mrs. Bennet, her five marriageable daughters and their father, bibliophile Mr Bennet, bored with it all, the bonnets, the dresses, the dances  – are served by a small overworked household staff. The story opens in the kitchen with the servants. Sarah is a young woman, probably about seventeen years old. Polly, the “scrub” is a mere child, about ten or eleven. Mr. Hill is the ancient footman, groom, and jack of all trades. He is getting too old for the work, and the whole shooting match is held up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill, capable, hard-working and kind, is the heart of this novel, though there are three viewpoint characters. The others are Sarah, and James Smith, a mysterious stranger who arrives at Longbourn and becomes the family’s footman. Through her portrayal of the day to day work of these servants and her lyrical  descriptions of the English countryside, Baker has  given us a fascinating view into everyday life in the early nineteenth century. That would have been enough for me, history buff that I am, but it would not have made a novel. On the edifice of Austen’s fictional characters and place, though, Baker has created a plot so powerful that it enhances the original Austen model. Unlike Austen, Baker moves the reader beyond the safe little Tory world of Longbourn, to the Napoleonic War raging in Europe, which in Pride and Prejudice is central to the plot because of the stationing of the English Militia in the town of Meryton. Though Austen’s own brothers served in the Navy, in her novels the war is seen only through the eyes of home-bound women, who see officers as marriage material. In the second half of Longbourn, Baker takes the reader beyond England to Europe and back again, exposing the perennial horrors of war, and showing us the social inequities that led to the revolutions of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen has been criticized for portraying a small world-view, comfortable and smug – even though her writing is actually rapier sharp, exposing women’s limited options. In Longbourn, Jo Baker redresses this alleged fault.

How Green Is Your Orange?

We had a prolific orange tree growing in our back yard when I was a kid and now I grow two lovely trees in our own back garden. In winter they bear globes of fruit in that luscious color. It never occurred to me that oranges were not always the color orange. Let alone that growers in some areas of this country dye the fruits to get that color. I was shocked to read that the FDA allows this, especially as the dye, Citrus Red 2, contains ingredients that may be carcinogenic. Read about it at the FDA’s own website here. You’ll see that the FDA only allows the oranges (which remain green if grown in  tropical climates) to be dyed if they are not  “intended for processing.” Whatever that means. Does “processing” mean juicing? Does processing mean zesting? I do both all the time. Have you ever seen a supermarket orange that’s labeled “Use only if not intended for processing?” Arizona and California do not allow Citrus Red 2. Florida, with a wetter, warmer climate does. You might want to ask where your grocery store’s oranges come from. As for me, I’m lucky we can grow our own. And I intend to eat these only, from now on, in their winter season. Margaret Recipe Card1

The Dog Catcher of Jabiru in About Place Journal

Ranger Mine, Jabiru, AustraliaWelcome to my blog. As a freelance writer, my beat was the odd nugget of information, the buzz at parties, parsing what people were muttering about. Not the breaking of a news item, but finding out if  “Who Knew?” was real or a rumor. What I found is that truth is really stranger than fiction. A trip to the Top End of Australia, where the strange meets the wonderful, the funny, the tragic, and the redemptive is chronicled in my essay, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru. The Dog Catcher of Jabiru was published in the November 2014 issue of About Place Journal. A version of this story won the 2013 Tara L. Masih Intercultural Essay Prize in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. About Place Journal is a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute, dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society. Volume III, issue II is called “Voices of the Human Spirit.”  Edited by Michael McDermott, this online magazine issue features articles, essays and poetry on environmental and social crises, the search for a sustainable environment and social justice and the need to find support and inspiration for change. To read The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, CLICK HERE.

Montpelier Tomorrow

Montpelier TomorrowMontpelier Tomorrow By Marylee MacDonald All Things That Matter Press, 2014. Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS, is a devastating disease. The victim loses motor function, may undergo personality changes, and will eventually be unable to eat and to breathe. How do family members cope with this disease when it strikes? Based on real-life experience, Marylee MacDonald has written a fine novel about how a family deals with this situation. I urge you to read Montpelier Tomorrow. At first, Colleen Gallagher’s instinct was just to help her daughter, who gave birth to her second child the same week her husband was diagnosed. But as her son-in-law Tony’s disease progressed, he became the third child in the family, not only physically disabled but regressively self-centered, compounding the difficulties of care. The novel raises so many questions: What does it mean to be a good mother, a good wife? How do we make end-of-life decisions that preserve the dignity not only of the dying, but of the caregivers? How do we make end-of-life decisions when the consequences of putting someone on a respirator or a feeding tube are not honestly discussed by medical professionals? Why is it so difficult to get a terminally ill person onto Medicaid?  Who pays for custodial care? Who should? You cannot read this novel and come away unchanged.