Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse was the first book I finished. I really enjoyed this book, and not simply because (apparently) it is chick lit(?!). The dominant female characters in this book are delicately poised on a knife edge, balanced precariously between accepting and kicking against the traces of the proscribed role of a woman in an upper-middle-class household. There are women to admire and to pity, and something of a sense of Virginia's own struggle to assert her intellect and personality in a society in which women were supposed to support men and not the other way around.
The narrative is so beautifully constructed: the entire action takes place in a 24-hour period, yet encompasses many years of the characters' lives. At nightfall, the household drops into slumber only to awaken, Brigadoon-like, after the first world war has been and gone.
The best thing about the book is Woolf's way with words. Descriptions that can evoke so much that is familiar and yet magical:
Her hand cut a trail in the sea as her mind made the green swirls and streaks into patterns and, numbed and shrouded, wandered in imagination in that underworld of waters where the pearls stuck in clusters to white sprays, where in the green light a change came over one's entire mind and one's body shone half transparent enveloped in a green cloak.
Now I am off to Book Crossing to log this book and prepare to release it in the wild for someone else to enjoy, I hope, as much as I did.
The second book I finished, Dirt Cheap by Elizabeth Weinhausen, is an account of life as an unskilled labourer. Respected journalist Weinhausen took 12 months leave of her job and attempted to work and live under the conditions faced by many workers in our increasingly casualised workforce. She failed, drawing on her savings to supplement her meagre income. But her account of the jobs she was forced to take and the way she was treated by her employers left me filled with dismay. I have always been careful to try to treat all my coworkers -- including office cleaners and service staff -- with respect, although many of my colleagues felt it was below their dignity to do the same. I could give multiple examples of times when my small investment in friendliness and respect was paid back in beautiful ways: my favourite example is the time our cleaner, Melina (I'm afraid I don't know how to spell it), presented me with a beautiful pair of knitted slippers she had made me after I complained about having cold feet one day!
But back to the book: Elizabeth Weinhausen found the most appalling thing she had to deal with in her 12 months was not the extremely limited pay packets but the way she was treated: as though she had no personality, as though she had no life outside work and as though she had no security in her position. The received wisdom in Australia is that "jobs are there if you really want them" and "businesses will look after their employees even if there is no legislation to make them". Dirt Cheap gives the lie to both of these beliefs. It is true, the jobs are there and Weinhausen had no trouble finding them, but the hours were scanty, the pay scantier and the conditions scantier still.
When I was still at uni I worked as a sandwich hand in the cafeteria of a major bank's corporate headquarters. I was young and naive then, and probably got a little more than my fair share of attention from the customers because the pink uniform they supplied had a zip front and only came in two sizes, one a little too small for my C-cups and the other the size of a circus tent, but my experiences in that job were exactly the same as Elizabeth reports in this book. Depersonalisation, no solidarity with co-workers who were afraid that my work time meant a reduction in their hours, no respect for my timetable (the manager would call the morning of the day they wanted me to work, assuming I would be available) and low, low pay.
In the light of the federal government's industrial relations agenda, there is a frightening future ahead for many low-wage workers. I recommend this book to all Australians, to be read in the name of a fair go.
(This one's not going on Book Crossing as the Voice of Reason wants to read it next. Then I promised it to someone else, I think.)