Year of Wonders- a Novel of the Plague: book review

Year of Wonders- a Novel of the Plague

By Geraldine Brooks

2001

About the Author…

Geraldine Brookes is an accomplished journalist-turned-novelist who hails from the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Throughout her impressive journalistic career she lent her voice to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Wall Street Journal. It was during her time as foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal that Brooks travelled to the small town of Eyam, Derbyshire (or the ‘Plague Town’ as it has become known), from which the contents of, ‘Year of Wonders’ was inspired.

 

 

‘Year of Wonders’ takes place in the small English mining town of Eyam, in 1665. Our narrator and heroin, 18-year old Anna Frith, is struggling with the loss of her husband, and raising their two sons alone, when she agrees to take in a boarder. George Viccars is a well-mannered, handsome and accomplished tailor. With him he brings hope and excitement back into Anna’s life. He also brings a tainted piece of fabric from London, infected with bubonic plague.

And thus the devastation begins…

After a passionate plea from the town vicar, Michael Mompellion, the residents of Eyam agree to voluntarily quarantine themselves within the borders of their “wide green prison,” ensuring the disease remained confined. What unfolds is a beautifully recounted tale of disease, hatred, ignorance and unfathomable catastrophe. The underbelly of human nature arises as the community struggle with grief and superstition, and continually turn to extreme acts such as witch hunts, grave-robbing and murder, oh my!

As the months drag on, and the body count sours, Anna’s battle to survive and bring new life into a dying town eventually turn a year of intense suffering into annus mirabilis, a ‘year of wonders.’

The Good…

Despite its contents, the story is actually quite enjoyable to read. The book recounts a staggering amount of deaths, yet it’s not depressing. Deaths are dealt with swiftly and not dwelled upon (for the most part). Brooks’ time as foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Africa obviously taught her that prattling off death after death ultimately loses its effect after a while.

The Bad…

Unfortunately though, the book tends to be a little predictable (despite the wacky twist at the end). The sequence of events is pretty straight forward, and the characters were annoyingly two-dimensional at times. The town dwellers were cut straight down the middle. You have your heroes- Anna; the vicars wife; and Anys Gowdie; the towns ‘healer.’ And then you have your villains- the evil, rich Bradford family who fled Eyam when the plague erupted; and Josiah Bont, Anna’s father and local lunatic who buries people alive! Inevitably, and predictably, the heroes are rewarded, and villains punished accordingly. There was obviously no grey area in Eyam’s ‘wide green prison’.

Having said that though, ‘A Year of Wonders’ is still a good read. It deals with the plague in an incredibly refreshing way, a more personal way. More than just death and disease, ‘A Year of Wonders’ is about human nature, and how communities deal with crisis.

Tips for Bargaining in Thailand

The bargaining process can be intimidating for first-timers. I remember the first time I gave it a go in Bali. I felt awkward, embarrassed and totally inadequate.

So here are a few tips to guide you through your haggling experience.

IS BARGAINING APPROPRIATE HERE?

When shopping, the first thing you need to determine is whether or not it is appropriate to bargain.

All too many ‘farangs’ (Westerners) travel to Thailand with the belief that fixed-prices don’t exist. They’re wrong.

In general, open-air market places are fine- haggle your little heart out. But department/ convenience stores  are a different story because you aren’t dealing with the owner directly, and retail staff in Thailand have the same amount of power as their counterparts in Western nations- very little. So don’t bother.

In terms of accommodation, prices are fixed unless you are staying longer than a week, in which case you can try to get the price down a little.

Suan Lum Night Bazaar, Bangkok.

 

WHERE TO START

My general rule of thumb is to halve the original asking price, and go from there. With practice you can get up to 40% off the vendors initial price.

Never buy the first thing you see- excluding original art- because I guarantee you’ll see the exact same item two or three stalls down. This way you’ll have a chance to shop around, and get a better gauge on what things are really worth.

ATTITUDE

The number one rule for successful bargaining is a good attitude. Remember that haggling is part of Thai life, so while you may feel embarrassed or out of your depth, it is expected. And it’s fun! A big smile, good sense of humour and a little bit of patience will get you a long way.

Another hot tip- don’t be an arrogant ‘Westerner’. When haggling on a price, don’t scream and yell, and don’t throw your money at the vendor (I’ve seen this happen before!).

Be respectful and don’t get caught up in the trivialities of bargaining. All too often an argument will erupt over a 10 THB discrepancy. Always put it back into perspective- 10 THB is about AU30c, and that 30 cents will probably be much more useful to them than to you.

LANGUAGE

Getting a firm handle on some of the basics will get you a long way. Here are some to practice:

Hello/goodbye: Male- Sawadee krap

Female- Sawadee kaa

How much: Gee Baht?

Yes/no:               Chai/ Mai

Expensive: Phaeng

Always begin with a Thai greeting. Not only is it polite, but vendors will take you a little more seriously and appreciate the gesture (even if they do have a little chuckle at your pronunciation).

It will also make you appear less gullible, meaning that their opening price will be more realistic. I’ve also heard of vendors offering ‘Thai-speaker prices,’ which are obviously cheaper than non-Thai-speaker prices, so learn as many phrases as you can!

BECOME FAMILIAR WITH THE MONEY

Always carry plenty of small change, and make sure you familiarize yourself with the aesthetics of the currency before you start shopping.

Thai money is colour coded, i.e. 20 THB is green, 50 THB is blue etc. It’s good to have plenty of these small notes for purchases such as water (approx. 10 THB per 1 L bottle). It’s very easy for a vendor to ‘accidentally’ give the wrong change when an  unsuspecting ‘farang’ (Westerner) hands over a 1000 THB note for a 10 THB bottle of water. So, check your change!

THE UNWRITTEN RULE

Thailand is like eBay. If you make an offer, and the vendor accepts, you MUST buy it. I’ve never actually seen what happens in this situation, but I’ve heard stories, and in general, it’s just poor form. Don’t make an offer unless you are willing to see it through.

Good luck and bonza bargaining to you all!!

Sia at the Enmore Theatre

Sia Furler

Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

2010 was a big year for Sia. After more than a decade of releasing music, the 35-year-old, Adelaide-born singer is finally enjoying the recognition she deserves, thanks the release of her fifth solo album, ‘We Are Born,’ which debuted at number two on the ARIA charts.

Last week I was lucky enough to see the amazingly talented, and irresistibly charming Sia perform at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. Her eclectic blend of Jazz, RnB, Soul and pop, provided an equally eclectic mix of humans walking through the doors of the ‘Furnace’ formally known as the Enmore Theatre. The cool kids sipped beer with the queens, and middle-aged mums gyrated up against cute zygotes wearing skinny leg jeans.

Not surprisingly, the 8pm start time stated on our tickets actually meant 9.30pm, so I had a solid hour to enjoy the non-air-conditioned venue (in the middle of a Sydney heat wave), half-listen to the opening act- The Holiday’s- and make some lovely new friends who would sporadically fan me with the crumpled up fliers they’d absentmindedly grabbed on their way in.

It also gave me a chance to appreciate Sia’s wacky set design, filled with multi-coloured crocheted nanna blankets, hippy rugs, loads of stripes, and kind of looked like it was a Big Ted short of a Play School set. It was great!

When Sia finally did grace the stage, the Play School theme continued as she waddled to the microphone wearing a pink tutu, black ruffled top, and mass amounts of black body paint covering her exposed flesh – face and all! Strapped to her back, was what appeared to be an old cardboard box that had been ripped apart, painted black, and held precariously together with sticky tape. Jemima would be proud! Meanwhile, her band members all looked like giant candy-canes; donning colourful, stripy get-ups. It really did look like an art and craft wonderland!

Aside from the kooky set, Sia’s performance was flawless. Her voice is, quite simply, unreal. She entertained the sweaty crowd with a few of her older tracks, and a plethora of new ones, from her latest album, ‘We Are Born.’

Throughout the night Sia was crazy, sarcastic, and engaged in playful banter between almost every song, in her adorably cutesy, High 5 voice – not to mention her crazy cackle, which is deliciously infectious.

My only complaint (aside from the lack of air-conditioning) is that Sia’s set didn’t last long enough. Her battle with Graves Disease – an autoimmune disorder affecting the thyroid – could be the reason she can’t perform for prolonged periods of time. After a bit of cyber-digging I discovered that symptoms of Graves Disease include increased sweating, warm and moist skin, and heat intolerance. No wonder she couldn’t get off the stage quick enough, the poor girl! She also announced last year that due to her illness she will stop promoting and touring. But no fear, she will continue to create and release new music,

“Someday I’ll die. Between now and then I’m going to keep my shit together and sing my fucking heart out.”

Lets hope so!

 “I’ve always been obsessed with the beauty of sign language. The movement and expression just appears, to ignorant-hearing-me as a dance… a beautiful, emotive dance. But the real beauty is that, hidden in these perfect shapes, is communication.” Sia

Public Holiday’s and National Parks don’t Mix

Public holidays are an Australian institution. We don’t even care what we’re celebrating, just give us a day off, and we’d probably throw an engagement party for a cockroach. I mean, the Queen was born in April, but every second Monday in June we eat heartily, drink merrily and in our own way, wish the Queen a very load, happy ‘fricken’ birthday!

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Last week, Aussies all over the word celebrated Australia day. How did you celebrate?

I foolishy ventured into one of our beautiful national parks. Growing up around the southern suburbs of Sydney I have a definite soft spot for the Royal National Park, located 32km south of the Sydney CBD. My favourite beach rests here, so on Australia Day that’s exactly where I headed, only to discover, so had the rest of Sydney. By 9.30am there were sighs around the Sutherland Shire claiming the National Park was full! We took our chances and headed in anyway. What a mistake. Turns out my ‘secret spot’ isn’t so secret and there were cars parked up to 4 km (a rugged, steep 4km!) away from the beach. We left.

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Instead, we waited until the next day, when the place was unrecognizable. Big black garbage bags lined the outskirts of the beach, and stray rubbish was scattered everywhere.  It definitely didn’t look like a pristine, protected national park, and got me to thinking that maybe this shouldn’t be allowed to happen, especially when there were no clean-up services the next day. In any case it’s a shame that people can’t simply pick up after themselves- considering all we know about how fragile our environment is.

What do you think? Should there be a limit to the amount of people allowed entry into national parks during public holidays or should they be closed altogether?

Mundine Knocked Out

This week I attended my very first boxing match… bout…fight… whatever you call it, at Acer Arena in Sydney. The main event saw Anthony ‘The Man’ Mundine take on the winner of last year’s reality hit ‘The Contender,’ Garth Wood.

I was quite impartial going into the fight. I have never quite understood the allure of boxing, and the thought of watching two men beat the s*** out of each other seemed overwhelmingly barbaric and just a little bit stupid.

But I must admit I have been swayed, and am beginning to see why so many people flock around a padded square, with a few soft posts, and some stretchy rope.

It’s not just about the lightning fast jabs, or the brain shattering uppercuts. It’s all about the theatrics darling! Most successful boxers could moonlight as beefed-up Hollywood action stars.

I mean, it’s all a little bit ridiculous, but undeniably fabulous. The music, the entrance, the entourage, the heckling- all closely examined by the football stars, socialites and wannabes in the front row.

Not to mention the hundreds of look-a-likes all donning tight white tees struggling to hold their stitches together under the strain of the bulging, steroid fuelled muscles within. It’s intoxicating.

I had absolutely no concern with who won, I was just there because I was the lucky recipient of a spare ticket and had nothing better to do at 11.30 on a Wednesday night.

I know many Australians love to hate Mundine because of his carefully crafted media image, but I am not one of these people. I simply do not care enough! So I really didn’t mind who won.

That was, until I saw the ‘Peakhurst Inn’ banner being erratically waved around by a member of the Wood entourage.

So of course, being a proud ex-pat of the fine southern Sydney suburb of Peakhurst, I was instantly urged to support the contender.

And that I did, soon finding myself out of my seat and screaming obnoxiously, much to the annoyance of the Mundine supporters around me.

Needless to say, my loyalty to the homeland payed off, and in the fifth round ‘The Man’ was knocked out by a lethal blow to the back of the head, swiftly delivered by Wood, making him the first person the knock out Mundine, who has only been beaten in 4 out of his 44 professional fights. Pretty impressive.


So all in all my first boxing experience was thrilling. While I still find it a little bit silly, it definitely oozes a sort of sleazy, exclusive, sexy, homoerotic vibe.

But what I enjoyed most were Mundine’s comments the following day.

While reading the paper I had to double-check I hadn’t accidentally picked up the Bible when Mundine was quoted as saying that his “greatness” will re-emerge; “…the doubters and the non-believers can have their fun. But I came back before and I know The Man can come back again, I know that.”

We’ll see.

Post-uni blues

Uni course complete- check
Graduation- just around the corner
Job- ………….?

As graduation looms, and family and friends offer their congratulations and a pat on the back, I can’t help but feel a little bit nervous. Over the past month (since completing my course in media and communications) numerous expectant, smiling faces have asked me the same question; “So what are you going to do now?” Most seem perplexed when all I can offer is a shrug and a mumbled, “I really don’t know.” Many well wishers have suggested I try and get a job at the Sydney Morning Herald; Channel 7 they argue would be ideal, or what about the ABC, my dad wants to know.

Up until now I have wrapped myself tightly in that warm, protective cocoon that IS student life. Whenever anyone asked, “So what do you do?” my answer was always the same, “I’m a student.” I was not questioned; I was not looked down upon. Being a ‘student’ was my crutch and now that it’s been violently ripped away from my body I feel entirely exposed, and completely petrified.

The search for a job is daunting. Entry level positions are rare, and the rest I simply don’t qualify for due to my lack of experience. Even as I attempt to find a casual job until something more suitable comes along, I meet obstacles. I couldn’t even get a job as a waitress if I tried. Most restaurants and cafes require at least two years experience. So what’s a girl to do? Work for free I guess, which is what I have started to do by volunteering at 2ser radio.

But still, my future seems uncertain.

I feel like I’ve been pushed out from underneath an enormous tilia tree. No longer do I enjoy the cool protection of its shade. I’m out in the blaring sunlight, and I can barely see where I’m going…

Nanny Diaries

Australian author Gregory David Roberts once wrote, “Nothing ever fits the palm so perfectly, or feels so right, or inspires so much protective instinct as the hand of a child.” My experiences as a nanny have taught me that nothing could be truer.

What began as a flexible and convenient way to make some extra cash while at university, has somehow managed to completely alter my life.

And as I commence my final semester I can’t help but feel a mixture of excitement to embrace my future, and great sadness at the thought of leaving my little buddies behind.

While many cringe at the thought of being elbow deep in another human beings waste, or wrestling with a deliriously tired baby screaming for their mother, I view them as tiny speed humps on an otherwise gloriously scenic drive along an ocean road.

The pale blue sky in Toby’s eyes, the crashing waves of Grace’s curly hair and the sunshine that is Sarah’s smile. These things make the journey a breeze, and make me sad to know that one day I will have to say goodbye to my little treasures who mean more the world to me.

But for now I make the most of these beautiful people. They are my friends and my confidant’s, my teachers and my students, and I fear I will never be able to reciprocate the knowledge they have imparted to me.
Lauren Bourke, three, once taught me about the complex nature of the aging process. “When I was one, I was one. When I was two, I was two. When I was three, I was three.” She stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

And Toby MacKenzie recently enlightened me with his beautifully simplistic take on love, “Louise, I love you all the way up to the top of the sky.”

Little Lauren, Big Tree

But it’s not all giggles and games. There is a serious downside when working as a nanny.

This became blatantly clear to me last week, during a dinner date with friends, when I triumphantly announced that the food was, “Super Dooper yummy!!”

And apparently I’m not the only one assimilating foreign phrases into my everyday vocabulary.Levi MacKenzie (22 months) has adorably picked up a few inflections of my own. When asked a yes or no question the likely response is no longer, “yes”, but, “yeah man”. It is not possible to describe how delightfully funny this is, nor can I begin to explain how beautiful he is when asking for a “duddle”.

But as the universe reminds us again and again; nothing lasts forever, life catapults forward, and children grow up.

However, their brutal honesty, infectious giggles, spontaneous wet kisses and warm bear hugs will remain with me long after the dummies have been discarded, the one’sies packed away and innocence lost.
I thank Toby, Levi, Sarah, Grace, Lauren, Summer and Max for loving me. You will never know how much you have touched my heart, and how much I love you.