Beyond the story

Janelle McCulloch wrote the book, Beyond the rock: the life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock. While it is a biography about the life of Joan Lindsay, it is also an inquiry into the writing of Joan’s mysterious novel Picnic at hanging rock.

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I invited Janelle to be a guest speaker at our library and she gave an energetic and riveting talk about this topic to an audience of spellbound people. From the moment she entered the room, Janelle was talking, and she didn’t pause for an hour and probably could have continued. People were slow to leave, wanting more.

As a perennial mystery embedded in Australian culture, the mystery behind the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, tantalizes us with the need to be solved. In Joan’s original unpublished forward to the novel:

            “…the story is entirely true.”

Janelle teased us who were in the room with the possibility of another book that does indeed reveal the truth. Her journalistic nose having uncovered parts of the story that, according to people who lived and live around Hanging Rock, “everyone knew”. We all responded with enthusiastic urging that she must indeed write it. How often does that happen to authors who are not J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or George R. R. Martin?

The process of journalistic research is of great interest to me, as I love doing that myself. I know the addiction of a good detective hunt. Genealogists know this well. Janelle prompted us to get to work as:

            “Everyone has a story that needs to be told.

So feeling enthused and having procrastinated long enough about getting my own family story curated, I started. I had already created a storyboard of sorts using PowerPoint. So I purchased a large sketchbook and a scrapbooking kit. I set up a space where I have all the photos nearby in boxes and photo albums and on file.

It is apparent from the moment I begin where the gaps are, so many photos missing. Do they even exist? Does someone have the ones I need? I phoned my husbands aunt not remembering how old she must be. We had a nice conversation and she agreed to look to see what she had. Yesterday I received an envelope with some gorgeous old photos of my mother-in-law and her sister, and their mother, and my husband’s parents. And there was an image of my husband’s late eldest brother as a 3 year old. His family didn’t have photos of themselves or their children; unlike my own father who was a bit of a photography geek.

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As thrilled, as I am to receive these photos, there are still gaps. I have not found a photo of my husband’s maternal grandfather – Arthur William Duncalfe. Using the library member’s subscription to Ancestry, I have found the certificates online that give the details of his birth and death, but no photos. I have even located a passport photo of his father Arthur Gregory Duncalfe as he emigrated from the USA to Australia.

So as I restock the glue sticks and refill the printer ink, the hunt continues.

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Six months of library events

I have been assessing and indexing my blog lately and I realised I had not posted anything for the first six months of this year; and so I looked at my work record and found I was just a little bit busy with organising events at the library.

Authors

Here is the incomplete list:

  1. Craig Smith – Wednesday 25 January – Summer Reading Club Finale
  2. Thomas Hugh – Sunday 29 January – Live Music Sunday
  3. Fiona Wood – Saturday 31 January – Author Talk – Cloudwish
  4. Cam Lee-Brown – Sunday 12 February – Live Music Sunday
  5. Kenny Chan & Tom Taylor – Saturday 18 February – Heroes & Villains
  6. Meryl Leppard– Sunday 26 February – Live Music Sunday
  7. Sheree Marris – Wednesday 15 March – Author Talk – Aquatic Science
  8. Nicky Johnston – Saturday 18 March – Book Launch – The Fix-It Man
  9. Shane Maloney – Saturday 8 April – Author Talk – crime fiction
  10. Matthew Fagan – Sunday 9 April – Live Music Sunday
  11. Australian Ballet – Monday 10 April – Dancing story – School Holiday Program
  12. Lego with Young Engineers – Thursday 13 April – School Holiday program
  13. Andrew Rule – Saturday 22 April – Author Talk – Journalism
  14. Adi Sappir – Sunday 23 April – Live Music Sunday
  15. Ruth Clare – Wednesday 26 April – Author Talk – Enemy
  16. Amadou Kalissa – Sunday 7 May – Live Music Sunday
  17. Jade O’Donahoo – Monday 8 May – Author Talk – Eat This My Friend
  18. My Emma with Lise Rodgers – Tuesday 9 May – Jane Austen Performance
  19. Wendy Mak – Saturday 20 May – Author Talk – The Capsule Wardrobe
  20. Mojo Pearls – Sunday 21 May – Live Music Sunday
  21. Alice Pung – Tuesday 23 May – Author Talk – Unpolished Gem
  22. Sydney Writers Festival – 26 May – 28 May – Live & Local live-streamed
  23. Dr Michael Carr Gregg – Saturday 3 June – Author Talk – The Princess Bitchface Syndrome
  24. Sean Dooley – Saturday 17 June – Author Talk – birds
  25. Clementine Ford – Saturday 1 July – Author Talk – Fight Like a Girl

My Family History

Surrounded by piles of photos, prints and digital, and indebted with family facts and stories, I struggle to shape it into a sensible narrative.

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Curating the family history is a challenging exercise and yet I am enthusiastic to weave it together for prosperity and for anyone who might someday wonder.

This is something that has interested me for many years and I have been on some previous fact finding missions that revealed things we didn’t know. I love to find out about our origins and the lives of our ancestors. I can name three ships that brought different branches of the family to Australia: The Hampshire, The Shand, and The Niagara. I love to see the photos of ancestors to spot the family resemblances that crop up unexpectedly.

Not a ‘scrap-booker’ by nature I think that ultimately a hand crafted personal creative book would be a beautiful result. In the meantime I have begun to do a simple storyboard using PowerPoint to set out my narrative. There are obvious important gaps that need to be filled somehow.

So I think about others in the family who have compiled remarkable genealogies that are relevant and interesting to my story. One of my father’s cousins has passed away now and I wonder where that wealth of knowledge is now. Another cousin of my husbands father must be very old now if not also passed away – where is her lovely story and impressive pedigree charts now? Another – my cousin is contactable, but that branch of the family story is well documented already, so not as pressing.

Some of the old photos are gorgeous but without captions the identities are a mystery. ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ but also presents many questions; such a who, where, when, why.

This historic photo for example is of the family of Smiths who lived in Portland Victoria Australia. One of the boys is my paternal grandfather.

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Family members who knew them previously identified the others in the photo. A scribble on the back of a print states that this photo was taken in 1920 in Portland, just prior to the family being ‘separated’. The father and mother of this family are not in the photograph because they had both passed away. I know the story and it is a tragic tale that I will include in my personal family history when the time comes.

Meanwhile my investigations continue and I try to wrangle this precious pile of pictures into something interesting and useful.

Tell me

A realization struck me as I sat in the audience listening to Doctor Bruce Wells talk about happiness: I am living my life aligned to my passions and values. My employed work is to plan and organize library related events for the interest and benefit of our local community. It is a privileged position and while, in general, library work does align with my values associated with ethics, morals, and liberty, Dr. Wells made me realize that for me there is something deeper.

 

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Dr Bruce Wells at Frankston Library 16 April 2016

I love reading and books. I love being exposed to new ideas. I love to imagine other worlds and lives that exist between the pages. I love being told a good story. I love feeding my hunger for exploration and discovery. I love sitting at home in a comfortable chair absorbed in the latest good read. Working in a library, invites, supports and encourages others to read a good book and learn new things.

But it is my work that takes this one step further. What good are books full of treasured stories if they sit idly waiting on shelves gathering dust? What makes people pick it off the shelf and open the cover? It relies too heavily on serendipity. Library staff create displays and programs to highlight and celebrate books and themes in order to help people see what they don’t always know is there. (I read ebooks too and I am well aware of the new consumer habits associated with obtaining ebooks, but for this post I am focussing on our public libraries and print books. Many people don’t know that you can borrow an ebook for free from a public library; but that’s a whole other post).

But I go one step further. I invite authors to come along and speak at our library. What better way to bring books to life than to have the author there before you, in the flesh, to tell you more about their ideas?

Being told stories is a cherished human activity that goes back before books. Campfire stories are still a favourite thing to do when we can. The popularity of TED Talks is no surprise. We all love to hear something interesting. Then we might follow up this interest by exploring more on the topic.

So my realization was that I am able to share my own love of reading, books, and storytelling, by inviting authors to come and speak in person at our library. Local people can enjoy hearing stories told, and the writing craft explained, by the authors themselves. Books are thus brought to life. It is a true privilege for me to be in this position to be able to bring about this unique alchemy.

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Ali MC and Abe Nouk at Frankston Library 19 March 2016

These are the authors that I have organized speaking events for over the past year:

And these are the events that are coming up soon:

Reading fiction

Reading fiction is not my preference. I prefer true stories; epic adventures; personal quests; travel, and description of place. Fiction has to grab me in the first ten pages; otherwise I become bored and abandon the book. After all, life is too short and there are too many books to read.

For me, a good fiction story is a page-turner that makes me keen to know what happens next. I hate reverse chronology. Often I find a story has hooked me in the first chapter, and then the following chapter takes me back to some point in the past. And that’s where I usually abandon the book.

I like a good story, told from the beginning to end with some unobvious point of focus that gradually unfolds to a satisfactory close. It is disappointing to say, “ I liked the story, but I didn’t like the ending.” I loathe nihilistic tales of woe with hopeless and detestable characters that seems to be a current popular theme.

But is reading fiction a waste of time, as some people suggest? After all it is just someone’s imaginary tale. And why bother when our world is full of amazing and interesting real people, lives, places and situations?

Research provides interesting reasons that support reading fiction as a valuable activity. Not only does this pursuit provide insight into situations and ideas outside of our everyday life, but there is evidence to suggest that it has positive effects on our brains by making new neurological connections that remain activated long after the reading activity is over. This heightened activity called a ‘shadow activity’, similar to muscle memory, by scientists working on the Emory study.

We reiterate the idea that there are only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster.
  2. Rags to riches.
  3. The quest.
  4. Voyage and return.
  5. Comedy.
  6. Tragedy.
  7. Rebirth

Typically though our bookstores and libraries arrange fiction into genres of:

  • Romance
  • Relationship
  • Humour
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Thriller
  • Adventure
  • Historical
  • Classic
  • Western
  • Chick Lit
  • Paranormal romance
  • General
  • And others.

My fiction reading sometimes follows a typical pattern of author trails. I discover an author I like, then I am keen to read more by that person; until I am satiated with their voice, style, and ideas. Elizabeth Gilbert and Joanne Harris are two authors I enjoy reading. I loved The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is stunning with its unique story and intelligent prose. I like to follow a trail of reading that is unique to my interests at that time.

Many librarians use website tools such as Fantastic Fiction, Literature Map, LibraryThing, GoodReads, and others to find the next great read for ourselves and our customers.

But there is more to be said and understood about the activity of reading fiction and how it impacts and influences our community and society. Librarians get a very real sense of this phenomenon when working with library users. Some book titles seem to grab hold of the attention of the populace and there is a groundswell of interest that seems to defy understanding. The Slap by Christos Tsolkias is an example that comes to mind. It was an uncomfortable book to read. Not everyone liked it. One incident provides the focus for a masterful portrayal of multi-cultural suburban Melbourne in current times. The slap itself – right or wrong – receives attention and opinions from different generations and cultures, and ultimately judged in politically correct times. This resonates with a culture where this experience is known, shared, and debated. We all have an opinion and all are valid.

“Texts affect readers on many levels – emotional, ethical, intellectual, sensual, spiritual. Consequently, two readers can respond very differently to the same text.” ~ Robert Beardwood

But this book had its time and that groundswell of attention is past. Did we learn anything? How has the experience of reading this book of fiction influenced our society? You will still find this title in the bookstores, libraries, and on Book Club lists, but it has been read, discussed, made into a TV series. Why have we gone past that particular book when there would still be many people who haven’t read it? We could apply the analysis of this phenomenon to many new and popular fiction titles. It would be an interesting study.

Fiction of this type leads our collective conscience. We read, we think, we learn, we discuss, we grow, we evolve. I think that this is key to the function and popularity of Book Clubs in our communities. But we know that.

Now relieved of my requirement to read bureaucratic reports and academic articles, I have been trying to catch up with some fiction reading. I have just read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks. And now, like so many others at present, I am immersed in the book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I am thoroughly enjoying the voice, the story, the situation, and the intelligence.