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Time poverty is a problem for many Australian households and work is the main culprit.

Australians start work young, and we are working more, and longer into old age. While maximising our productivity and enhancing our professional skills, we must also raise our children well, care for our aged, be involved in our community and shrink our carbon footprint – a footprint shaped by the patterns and habits of our work, social obligations and households.

What is it costing Australians to try and do it all? And what is it costing our families and communities?

Incisive and thought-provoking, Time Bomb throws light on poor urban planning, workplace laws and practices, care obligations and other issues that rob us of time and put our households under pressure. And it looks at how work affects our response to the greatest concern of our time – our environmental challenges.

Link to publisher’s web site


By Niall Williams
Published by Bloomsbury, 2014

The words of Jane Austen, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and so many others, are woven like snail trails across the cover of this book. They are only visible when light strikes them in just the right way, so I didn’t notice them until I was about a hundred pages in and had found a sunny spot to read. When I did notice them they made perfect sense, because this book is all about stories; those that have been written down and those that are told, and how both make up a life.

Ruth Swain is the narrator of this story and she speaks to her readers directly, from her sick bed in the attic of the house in which she and her twin brother Aeney were born, in the small village of Faha, County Clare. It is a house that has seen fire and flood, and from a window in the attic roof, Ruth can see the constant fall of rain. She is surrounded by her father’s library of books (3958 to be exact, all catalogued and frequently referenced). She is telling us his story, and hers. It is a story of life swimming upstream, and she tells it in that particular Irish way that meanders like the Shannon.
And it is this meandering that will either delight or frustrate. The first half of the book is an ode to the kind of Ireland so many fell in love with after watching Ballykissangel. If not for a peppering of twenty-first century colloquialisms we could be reading about any time in the past century (though to Ruth, a Facebook is a book ‘where faces have been’). It is also an ode to everyday tales and storytelling, with fragments of family history and local lore flowing like tributaries towards the main story, which we do not really get into until half way through the book. I loved the beautiful lyrical Irishness of it all, and was tempted, on more than one occasion, to read a paragraph out load in my best Irish accent, but I did want dear Ruth to get to the point a little quicker.

Once she did, I couldn’t put the book down. I fell a little in love with Virgil, her hapless father, and finally realised what all the stories were for. I finished the book wishing that a few of the hundreds of stories she started had been given just a few more lines, but I am grateful for the one she told, and the way she told it.

Which brings me to the real author: Nyall Williams is an Irishman in love with words and books and reading. The History of the Rain is his eighth novel and it was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. But don’t let that put you off, I understood every word and despite recurring tales of loss, it sang with the poetry of love and hope. Here is one of those tributaries, a story with no beginning or end.

Tommy is a gentle man and he loves Breda with a kind of folklore love. She’s losing her hair now and bits of it land in the dinners she cooks and the scones she bakes, but Tommy doesn’t object, he sees the hairs and eats away.

History of the Rain now sits on the shelf I have dedicated to books worth saving in a fire or a flood – it is book number 43 if you’re interested, which seems a bit impoverished by contrast. But I’m a slow reader constantly distracted by life, need I say more?

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Robert Dessaix
Published by Knopf, 2014

I need to preface this review with a bit of context. I recently sat among the greying crowd of Adelaide Writers’ Week enthralled, amused and occasionally titillated (in that delightful way heterosexual women can be when gay men tease them with sexual innuendo). Robert Dessaix was being interviewed, and he was in fine form. He had just turned seventy one and the span of years was deeply etched across his expressive face, and obvious in the careful tread that took him from chair to lectern when asked to read from his book. But age has not wearied him, and when he read he was magnificent. A raconteur of the most theatrical kind, he would pause mid-sentence, look us over to ensure we were paying attention (as if it were possible not to) then deliver the final words as if each were a precious stone. And they shone, those words, as they rolled off his tongue, so when the performance was over I went straight to the book tent and bought his book.

What days are for is a memoir, ostensibly written during Dessaix’s time in hospital after having a heart attack. Amid the comings and goings of visitors, nurses and doctors, and in the company of three other patients and the constant drone of channel 7, Robert Dessaix found himself asking, what are days for?

It isn’t an original question; Philip Larkin asked it in his poem, Days, where he wrote, What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days? Robert Dessaix has dedicated a whole book to the pursuit of an answer.

So what are days for? In this beautiful memoir Dessaix suggests it is the kind of question a child would ask, and as he lies in his bed on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s Hospital it strikes him as a more sophisticated question than the clichéd adult version, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Well, it would wouldn’t it, when your heart has just failed and your hold on existence is via various plastic tubes connecting your body to bags of elixir and machines with a simulated pulse. Days come into their own when their numbers are threatened.

I have read a lot of Robert Dessaix, his personal essays are my favourite morning tea company. He is conversational in his writing, he challenges received wisdom and he is funny. I sometimes imagine being his neighbour and popping in on a dull Wednesday morning (Because nothing very interesting ever seems to happen on a Wednesday). He’d invite me to stay for earl grey tea and biscuits, and I’d ask about his latest travels, then sit back and listen. That is what this book is like; it is the recollection of days by someone who has lived them so well – childhood days, travelling days, days of infatuation, and days of love. None of us recall our lives in a continuous narrative, and so these days are scattered randomly through time. But their meaning is not random and their relationship to each other, or to the day Dessaix is experiencing on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s, is clear.

I finished What days are for, knowing a lot more about an Australian writer I have long admired. But perhaps the greatest gift of this book was an appreciation of days. As Robert Dessaix says, ‘Within the framework of a day, I can hope.’ And that is what we do, every time we open our eyes in the morning, we acknowledge the day’s potential and hope for something good to come from it.

What days are for will be pleasant company for any reader, and it will be a gentle joy for those who are interested in contemplating life. If you are a fan of Robert Dessaix, reading this book will be like meeting up with an old friend just back from a grand adventure. Whichever category you may fall into, your experience of this book will be a little more sublime if you have Dessaix’s voice in your head as you read. So find a recording online – the Wheeler Centre website is a good place to start – and listen to the way the words roll off his tongue. If nothing else, it will be a pleasant way to spend your day.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Jenny Offill
Published by Granta, 2014

Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.
This quote, from Socrates, begins a story of an ordinary marriage within an ordinary life. But it is told in such an extraordinary way that it demands to be read to the end in one sitting. Of course, I have kids and I work and there are plums falling from the tree in our back yard insisting they be turned into jam, so I didn’t read it in one sitting, but I wanted to. And I might when the kids grow up – that’s how much I enjoyed this book.

It is svelte; just 177 small pages with wide margins and large type (this was its original selling point I’m ashamed to say – I refer you again to the kids and the job and the plums), and its style is episodic; small paragraphs act like photographs in an album, and the life of the narrator flashes before you as you turn the pages. At first I wondered if any depth could be gleaned from such a style, and whether I would find myself wanting more. In this respect it was initially a challenge, not due to any difficulty in the language or obscurity of meaning, it has neither of these, but because it was unfamiliar. I have never read a book like this and there was a certain fear of the unknown. But it didn’t last more than a dozen pages (and remember, they are small and spaciously written so the period of discomfort was barely 10 minutes).

I definitely did not want for more. Dept. of Speculation achieves so much with so little. It is a sketch of a marriage so perfectly drawn that colour and detail would only spoil it. The narrator, the wife, is unpicking her life in the way life is unpicked by any of us – in a moment that represents months, in an action that reminds us of habit, in a phrase that speaks volumes. Lives and relationships evolve over years but we only notice change occasionally. This book compiles those observations to extraordinary effect.

Halfway through the story the narrator says, ‘Some women make it look easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.’ I didn’t need her to describe the years of trying to be something more or someone else, and the emotion of not succeeding.

There is lethargy in the tone of the narrator and a disarmingly calm disclosure of events that leaves the reader to interpret the emotion of the story. There is no manipulation here and no hand-holding, just a simple tale, told simply. I am reminded of the Raymond Carver short story – What we talk about when we talk about Love – the words we use are just a veneer; they are often inadequate to the task. Our experience of love is complicated and difficult to explain. In Dept. of Speculation there is no explanation, and so, as a reader, I feel I understood more.

So, what of the title? I have been trying to work it out. We are told that the narrator and her husband signed off their letters with the Dept. of Speculation, but I think Socrates gives the greater clue: Speculators on the universe are no better than madmen. Perhaps the message is that speculation on love and marriage may send you mad.

Dept. of Speculation was published last year so it will be easy to find at your local independent book store (though not so easy to find at the discount chains, for obvious reasons). Buy it or borrow it, you won’t regret the moments you spend reading it.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney