November 2021

BOOK REVIEW: You had me at frosted teacakes

If I lived in Melbourne, and if both Ann Rennie and I were not in lockdown while I devoured her book Blessed: meditations on a life of small wonders, I would be inviting her to afternoon tea, with frosted teacakes, writes Tracey Edstein.

For many years, I have kept a commonplace book, inspired by Rose Kennedy (really!). One of the passages I’ve included is from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Ann Rennie evokes the same extract: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” 

Ann’s thoughtful and generous memoir is a jewel box of rare and wise insights, lit through with wit, humour and just the right words. It can be read through in a state of delight or dipped into randomly when you need a tonic.

Each chapter begins with an apt literary quotation and there is something for everyone, with reflections on travel, marriage, motherhood, literature, music, art, teaching and faith. In fact faith is what infuses Ann’s writings; faith borne from a rich family life, a fruitful education, the courage to travel and welcome new experiences and the determination always to be herself, authentic and unvarnished.

Author Ann Rennie. Image: Adam Bianco.

I think the success of Blessed is due to Ann’s knowledge of self. She is by nature contemplative, and she intuitively mines her experience, shares it generously and commits it to paper. Writing is Ann’s sine qua non. She says, “Saturday night at the kitchen table, the workbench of my dreams, the green light at the end of my dock …” Writing arises from reading, and Ann reads voraciously and shares the breadth and depth of her reading. She reads poetry, classics, bestsellers, award winners and ‘rescue books’ from exchanges and fêtes. In fact you could do worse than work your way through Ann’s reading list. “I dream of unfettered time to myself where I can sit and read for three hours and not feel guilty that I am not busying myself more purposefully.”

What could be more purposeful than feeding the mind and the soul, immersing oneself in the words and ideas of great writers and sharing the fruits of such contemplation?

It’s not surprising that Ann is a writer of letters. When she spent eight years travelling in the United Kingdom and Europe, she wrote home regularly. “My mother kept everything I wrote back home as I sojourned … Every blue aerogramme, inked thickly with detail and description, was scrupulously archived along with postcards, printed ephemera and the occasional novella-long letter written in transit between bouts of employment and happy wandering.” Do we still have aerogrammes?  

Ann treasures the letters sent by her parents between Melbourne and Edinburgh, although she is yet to read them, for “it seems like trespassing on the ghosts of lives gone.”  She is also an advocate of the (dying?) art of letter writing, because “letters connect us in ways that cannot be measured or analysed or data-derived. They are soul to soul exchanges, intimacies shared, love multiplied, reminders that we matter to others … They are the lines of our lives. Lifelines.”

This is enough to make me put aside Blessed and write a letter!

Image: cover design Laneway Press/original artwork Fiona O’Neill.

Blessed is particularly apt for the uncertain times in which we live. It is hope-filled, engaging and diverting in the best way. And it offers a bonus gift: it invites, almost compels you to reflect on your own life – your people, your travels, your calling, and most importantly, what it is that engages you, enlivens you, leads you to grace?

Ann Rennie is a teacher of secondary students at her alma mater, Genazzano College in Kew, Melbourne, so her students are often the ‘first receivers’ of her insights. How blessed are they? “As an English teacher, my girls know about the three Ps: punctuate, proofread and polish, and the necessity for conforming to convention – in most cases. However, I exhort them to experiment with words and ideas and to defy the unforgiving constraints of the class assessment word count if they have something important to say.”

I imagine a happy unpredictability in Ann’s classes (as well as curriculum compliance, of course). One diversion she shares is a fascination with collective nouns. I concur! “What does an ambush of widows suggest? A superfluity of nuns? A tabernacle of bakers?… What fun a mischief of mice must have under the floorboards after we have retired for the night.”

Ann is also a teacher of Religious Education. She values the daily opportunity to share a truly catholic faith that has sustained her and continues to sustain her. “I am … a link in the chain of the Catholic tradition and continuum … My calling is to engage those young people around me, just as I was engaged half a lifetime ago, so that they too can arrive at that moment of recognition, when they acknowledge that they are finally fulfilling the life that God dreamed for them.”

I firmly believe that Ann Rennie is graciously fulfilling the life God dreamed for her – and her students and her readers are the beneficiaries. And Ann, next time I’m in Melbourne, I’ll be in touch.

Blessed: Meditations on a Life of Small Wonders’ is available from Laneway Press.

Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and editor based in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

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