Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

What to Read When You Have Nothing to Read

When you read fairly quickly it's not always practical to pay $30 each for three books that you might finish in a week. So to supplement the joy of succumbing to such a bundle of new books from Readings or Dymocks I also swap books with friends and browse secondhand bookshops or book exchanges. (No, I don't use libraries. I just can't relax, knowing I have to take it back.)
But for a while recently I was in that panic-inducing state of having nothing to read. But a good browse in the wonderful Ramalama Book Exchange in Wonthaggi got me by.

There I found one of the most beautiful stories I've read for a long time: The Light Between Oceans, by M.L Stedman.
It made me ache with pity for not just one, but several, of the main characters. Goodreads said:
'...we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss'. 
The fabulous setting on a remote island with the lighthouse keeper certainly helped. Read it and be changed.

Then I bought The Fisherman, the much anticipated debut novel by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma. I'd so loved his beautiful essay 'The Audacity of Prose' that I couldn't wait to read his book. It did not disappoint, a gripping story and so 'novel' with its setting of an unfamiliar Nigeria in which characters swayed between that culture and the infringments of the western world. Mysticism, superstition, danger, the powerful ties of family and a sense of foreboding right from the beginning—all combined to chart the destiny of the so easy-to-love brothers and the terrible fate ahead for them.

Sebastian Faulks' Engleby was on the shelves at home and unread so that was next—published in 2007 but recommended some time ago by Andrea Goldsmith for the tricks that the clever use of voice and point of view can play on us.  The blurb concludes - '...unlike anything he has written before: contemporary, demonic, heart-wrenching and funny, in the deepest shades of black.'

I tried Gary Crew's The Diviner's Son and was so depressed by the premise which involved a boy chained up by the ankles in a sideshow caravan that I put it away after the first few chapters, figuring that my life would not be enhanced by carrying that image in my head for one moment longer than I had to. I know, what a sook.

And then I got a cold. One of those head colds that makes you a thorough misery-guts to live with and keeps you coughing, night and day, for weeks on end. So I hit the easy reads. Having heard Liz Bryski speak at the Writers Festival I noticed several of her books on the shelves of another favourite book exchange, so I bought four. (I had read one of hers previously but I forgot, and bought it again.) I'm sure there's a huge market for these books with their subject matter of vaguely disenfranchised women busting out and 'finding themselves' but—suffice to say they were ideal for someone functioning on just the two cylinders, with a head cold and a perpetually runny nose. I look at them now and for the life of me can't remember the plots of any of them.

But now that I'm better I plan to embark on something a little different (for me). I rarely read non-fiction but have been tempted by Richard Glover's highly acclaimed memoir, Flesh Wounds. And, although I rarely read about magic, Jennifer Byrne's Bookclub on the ABC at the weekend has me thinking seriously of buying Lev Grossman's Trilogy, The Magicians, which Goodreads calls 'an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced (sic) in the real world - where good and evil aren't black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.'

It has been called 'the grown-ups' Harry Potter'. Not sure if that's a good thing or not.

Anyway, that should keep me going until my study term ends, by which time I might decide to read Wuthering Heights again, in the hope that this time Cathy comes to her senses and marries Heathcliff instead.


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Literary Support

Every aspiring writer needs someone on hand to discuss things with when necessary.
Stella can be very thoughtful about the big issues of Life.
Here she is preparing a case for the use of the present tense.

Some are more help than others...

~ * ~

Friday, 7 August 2015

The Audacity of Prose

Chigozie Obioma - The Audacity of Prose

Before I'd heard of Chigozie Obioma's debut novel The Fishermen - currently long listed for the Man Booker Prize - I'd read the essay he wrote for The Millions entitled "The Audacity of Prose". The essay came my way via Krissy Kneen, a Brisbane writer who said Obioma's essay made her want to stand up and shout 'Hurrah!'

"I've been so bored with the trend towards clean, crisp unadorned prose sweeping the literary world of late. Gone is the poetry and playfulness that marks some of my favourite writing."
This struck such a chord with me that I followed the trail along through her article, to Obioma's essay and then to the first enticing chapter of his novel, now available from the BBC at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05mq8wt .

The main contention of Obioma's essay is an objection to the prevailing trend in fiction writing towards sparse, minimalist prose. "The enthroned style," he says "is dished out in schools under the strict dictum: Less is more ... resulting in the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing."
While he accepts that a minimalist style is often the right style for the task at hand, it is also the case, he claims, that "more can also be more, and less is often inevitably less..... excess is excess but inadequate is also inadequate."
Writers today, he says, should be aware that the novels that are remembered will be those that err on the side of audacious prose. Among the proponents of this he includes Nabokov, Updike, Conrad, as well as William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy to name a few.

Obioma's own fiction prose is anything but ornate. There is no 'flowery' language, no pretension, but neither is there a dominance of those flat, clipped sentences to which present day aspiring writers are so often told they must aspire. On the basis of the one chapter of The Fisherman though, Obiamo is already a master of the exquisite metaphor, the simile so apt we want to stop and write it down.
I for one can't wait to read the lot, and as I sit here on this dreary, grey Melbourne afternoon I can't help but wish to be transported to the Byron Bay Writers' Festival where the man himself will speak any time now. And the sun will most likely be shining, tourists trekking up to the lighthouse, not to mention the Pacific Ocean crashing away across the sandhills....

Oh well, you can at least read his essay here:


Monday, 20 July 2015

Hamlet - Just for the Words

Went to see director Damien Ryan's production of Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare at Melbourne Arts Centre on Saturday, with Josh McConville as the prince himself. You wouldn't want to be daunted by those who've come before to play this most celebrated role: John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, David Tennant and recently the fascinating Benedict Cumberbatch, to name but a few. My favourite still, despite his sometime bizarre behaviours since, has to be Mel Gibson in Franco Zeffirelli's sublime film. Gibson was just the right age, fabulous to watch and with those mad eyes, just right for Hamlet's wild wrestlings with love, grief, suspicion, revenge, rage and despair.
But Josh McConville did a fine job and I found his performance riveting as the questionably reliable narrator. There were a few weak characters in my ever-so-humble opinion - Claudius in particular was unsatisfactory and Ophelia didn't come near to what Ophelia should be - far too flouncy and pert to be a figure of such tragedy and though she handled her descent into madness very well, no-one but Hamlet seemed to care very much when she died (Gertrude especially recovered with amazing speed). And I too was unmoved. (This was also the verdict of those around me in our little post-play exchange in the foyer afterwards). She had one of those universal accents acquired from television and I expected her at any moment to say "OMG! That's awesome!"
Costuming was odd, a mixture of small suburban office types and the Brunswick Street breakfast crowd.
But the costuming is largely irrelevant. It's the words we go for, isn't it? Those oh-so-famous speeches that half the audience knows by heart - what pressure to deliver those and hope to satisfy! For me the rhyming couplets at the end of many of the scenes are the milestones that make me catch my breath, waiting -

Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. 

The play's the thing, Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king!

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!

But the pinnacle of words in Hamlet brought tears to my eyes, as ever, and made the lady beside me suck in her breath and clutch both hands to her mouth and yes, I saw tears glistening there too.

Poor Horatio, to have to deliver these exquisite, heartbreaking lines -

"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

Read them aloud, and weep.
~ * ~

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Review: Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep

I feel a very presumptuous, setting out to write a review of Sofie Laguna's Miles Franklin winner, The Eye of the Sheep, but The Resident Songwriter* in this household once told me that I represent 'the average ear' so my opinion must be of some value after all.
But there I was, having selected A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, to read next, and wading slowly through the first 50 mostly incomprehensible pages, when the Miles Franklin was announced and lo - I already had the book! So with this excellent excuse to abandon A.S. Byatt for the time being I straight away set to reading the one everyone was talking about. As you do.
What to say? It's brilliant, important, original, heart wrenching, harrowing, un-put-downable. Is it fun to read? No. Was I glad when it was over? Too right. Am I glad I read it? Without a doubt.
The narrator is Jimmy Flick, a quirky, desperately needy, 'special needs' boy whose voice and language we soon adapt to even though his words are usually not those of a boy his age. Jimmy is well-intentioned and kind but his world requires different coping strategies which don't always work out well in the eye of others around him.
But this whole family has special needs and each of them is drawn with such accuracy and such compassion that we ache for each of them along the way. Jimmy's mother Paula is a chronic asthmatic with a compulsive eating disorder that makes her obese and physically compromised. She is full of love for Jimmy, for his brother Robby and even for Gavin, her alcoholic husband who beats her up from time to time to vent his frustration at his own powerlessness. And despite his despicable actions, Gavin too elicits some sympathy with his dirty, dead-end job at the Altona refinery and the absence of any better prospects for the future. Gavin doesn't have the kind of patience that living with Jimmy demands so he takes his refuge in whiskey and the mournful songs of Merle Haggard. His wife Paula pays the price. Despite all the burdens they face, there is still a mutual tenderness between these two which surfaces from time to time and we lean into it with them in the vain hope that it might last.
We've all known families like this, especially those who've worked in health, education or welfare, and Sophie Laguna has drawn each of her characters with astonishing insight and empathy. Which didn't make the journey any less harrowing. Thank heavens for the dog, the comparatively stable uncle, and for the return of Robby who is absent for far too long.
And there are some joyous highlights - Jimmy's first fishing trip out to sea, the fabulous go-cart episode with his father.
So I read it very quickly. It's not the kind of story to loll around with on the couch and savour but as a portrait of all the families out there who struggle with disadvantage and personal issues too great to manage, this is a record to read and keep. It waves a red flag against quick judgements about the obese woman, the drunken man and the irritating kid, all of whom cross our paths, and all of whom run as deep and as complex as anyone - as Sophie Laguna has so cleverly shown.
(Sophie Laguna, by the way, is another on the dauntingly impressive list of graduates of the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT.)
For now though, it's back to A. S. Byatt for me in the hope that it might soon become even marginally as gripping as The Eye of the Sheep.
Watch this space.

~ * ~
*  http://www.macjams.com/song/72985


Friday, 19 June 2015

Marion Halligan - Lovers' Knots

I have just finished reading Marion Halligan's The Age Book of the Year novel, Lovers' Knots. That's the 1992 Age Book of the Year and no, I'm not just catching up; I've read it twice before this.
It documents one family over almost one hundred years but there's little that's sequential or predictable in this patchy but oh-so-engaging collage of who's who amongst the progeny of Ada and Albert Gray.
Ada with her ample bosom, her tiny feet and bursting bunions, volunteers at the Mission of Seaman at Newcastle Port. It is 1911. At home she shares endless pots of tea with her son George while husband Albert, seduced out of respectability by the devil drink, lurks in the background, the object of Ada's disappointment and disapproval. Daughter Lily ditches George's decent friend Vic in favour of the vaguely sleazy Joe who supplants George in Ada's affections and in the household.

It is not until page 170 in this book of 377 pages that we are given a family tree so we can see how George's and Lily's respective families develop. And yet this doesn't seem to matter.
We are given chapters with headings and dates and then snapshots of who's doing what with whom. And there's no equity in who Halligan chooses to reveal.
One of George's daughters, Veronica, gets lots of pages, focusing mainly on her long relationship with the photographer Mikelis with whom she makes love on the balding red velvet couch in the studio where he works for Neville of Newcastle.
"She's unclasped the marriage pearls (a gift from the boring Martin) from around her neck, and her mind dances in tarty black dresses while the long legs of love flash like scissors through the daily silk of life." 
(I wonder how a vivid sentence like this would stand up today in the climate of 'sparse prose' advocated by so many writing workshops.)
I'm not sure why I love this book so much. It skips from Newcastle to Canberra and back with an occasional detour to my old hometown, Murwillumbah. It skips around in time and certainly in style. And yet being temporarily lost doesn't matter, so engaging are the characters and what the author chooses to tell us about them.
Halligan takes some amazing liberties with her authorial voice and gets clean away with it every time. In a short chapter called 'Webs' she zips through five generations and a smattering of random events to conclude:
"So there you are, up to the fifth generation, or counting Ada the sixth. You could write a thousand page novel to get to this point; a block-busting, best-selling, negotiating the mini-series in however many digits, retiring to the tax haven of your choice .... Instead of a neat little chapter of what, seven pages? Six?"
Cheeky thing! But I love her for it all. And the brief, final chapter is exquisite.
There are a few books I've read more than once and I know this is true for many people. Cloudstreet, The Transit of Venus, Cat's EyeDinner at the Homesick Restaurant just off the top of my head. There was a period of my life where I read Wuthering Heights anew every year, maybe in the vain hope that this time Catherine would see sense and marry Heathcliff instead of the pale and soppy Edgar Linton. I suppose I stopped when I accepted that this wasn't going to happen.

Having closed the last pages of Lovers' Knots, again with such satisfaction, I'm about to embark on A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. At 615 pages it's not going to be quick so for now I'll just aim for reading it the once.

~ * ~

Friday, 12 June 2015

Puppy Love

"Not every person knows how to love a dog but every dog knows how to love a person."

Yes, well - that's the least soppy of all those doggy quotes I've just been reading, and mainly true I would think.....

I suspected when I named this blog that there was a risk it would be heavily weighted towards dog stories. On the contrary, they’ve barely had a mention. However a few recent instances in our doggy household I think give me licence to write about them again at last.

Our dear Archie, love-on-legs spaniel who would probably be on Ritalin if he were a child, hurt himself on the beach last weekend and frightened the daylights out of us with his whimpering and his obvious pain.

The vet diagnosed only ‘soft tissue damage’ to the hip, prescribing Rimadyl and ............ rest!


Archie is 8 and still doesn’t know about rest as something you might have to do on a long term basis. He was 'surrendered' in Bairnsdale at 11 months of age for 'persistent puppy-like behaviour' and that's how he's continued to live his life. (They don't know what they've missed out on, those surrenderers).

So how to walk the other two and ‘rest’ Archie is a problem we’ve not solved as yet.

Meanwhile our Stella, part whippet, part 'brown dog', feels the cold quite severely. Lucky for her there are no such things as kennels on this property – well, not to sleep in anyway – but even inside with her hand-made puffy sleeping bag she still wakes me up several times a night to cover her up. So far a search for coats has not been very successful but a huge warehouse of doggy necessities caught my attention on the way up High St. Northcote yesterday and lo – an appropriate piece of sleepware was found for our Stella.

(Does she look as if she loves it yet? No?)

Many garments showed serious design flaws but this one is free of nasty lumpy seams and hard pieces of Velcro, so fingers crossed for us all sleeping the night through tonight. (This girl came via the RSPCA after being picked up as a puppy on the roadside in Ballarat so how she turned into a Princess-and-the-Pea-type gal is anyone’s guess.)

Our latest and oldest waif, Barney, (left) is unfazed by either of his housemates’ issues and still just wants to play. Every night. Dignity doesn't come into it. He was eight when we were given him by a neglectful but well-intentioned owner so Barney is on a determined mission to make up for lost time. He's thirteen now and shows no signs of flagging just yet.

Like many of our friends we suffer from the foolish belief that if we are excessively kind to our own animals it might somehow seep across to all those others who aren’t so lucky.

So if the words ‘kennel’, ‘chain’ or ‘no walk today’ are part of your household vocabulary – we need to talk.

~ * ~

Friday, 5 June 2015

Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

I’m a bit hard to please with books. It takes a certain combination of factors to make me sigh with satisfaction when I close a book on the final page before I reach for the next one. (I can’t sleep after finishing a book and as I read in bed every night, I have to have another one lined up to start straight away. Hence the pile beside the bed, within easy reach.)

Many books promise great things, maybe have wonderful language, characters you don’t want to part with, a landscape you just know you’ve been to in another life. But also, many fail to deliver at the end. After eagerly turning pages for whatever reason, I’m very often left with a feeling of anti-climax. Is that it? But what about......? and how did....?

So Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing made me want to instantly thrust it on a friend, an acquaintance, anybody - urging them to read it at once.

Andrea Gillies, in The Guardian, called it “brilliant and unconvincing”. She was unhappy with what she perceived as an inconsistent voice as Maud, the 84 year old dementing protagonist, dithers and forgets, repeats things and makes a nuisance of herself while her internal voice is lucid and at all times engaging.

But how else could it have been done? If we have an adult fiction story told from the point of view of a child it won’t be written in the language of a 7 year old or a 12 year old. (Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend springs to mind.)

There are parallel stories here -  Maud’s current anxious search for her old friend Elizabeth, whom she believes is missing, and her struggle to make sense of the disappearance of her sister Sukey seventy years ago. The fragments segue repeatedly into each other as Maud’s memory does its ragged dance between now and then, Elizabeth and Sukey, certainty and confusion.

What I found so impressive was that this really seemed to be a documentation of dementia from the inside (not that I’d know, yet.) But the author takes us convincingly into the mind of Maud so that we live her frightening frustrations and her confusions, then instantly become weak with sympathy for Maud’s stoic daughter Helen who just can’t keep up with the twists and turns inside Maud’s mind that lead her to do the things she does.

Okay, the resolution may be just a little bit easy, but well worth it to see Maud vindicated in at least one aspect of her quest. I could not bring myself to quibble about this as an ending. It satisfied me.

The thing is, it would have been so easy for Emma Healey to write her first novel about a beautiful 20-something woman living in London - which she is; plenty of scope there. But how much more admirable to have nurtured the seed of an idea, undertaken the research and the interviews, collected the stories and then fed all this into her imagination so successfully to invent Maud.

~ * ~

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Pat Hoffie's Digital Essay - Ground Truthing

A gem came to me last week via the Griffith Review online in the form of a digital essay – Ground Truthing - by artist and academic Pat Hoffie. It describes a road trip she made through the Queensland outback to investigate the state of affairs at Bimblebox Nature Reserve, formerly Glen Innes Station. In 2003 the Bimblebox Nature Refuge Agreement looked like guaranteeing the survival of the area's flora and fauna ‘in perpetuity’. The Environment Protection Agency in Queensland claimed it as being “the richest, most biologically diverse region in the Desert Uplands”.
Unfortunately, despite the support of all levels of government, no-one thought to insert a clause that would prevent mining in the nature refuge. Four years later, enter Clive Palmer.....

The blurb for Hoffie’s essay states:

“...a contemporary road trip, immeasurably enriched by the images, sights and sounds and the strong and unique characters who inhabit this land and who are passionate about it. Listen, watch and read an artist’s journey to the heart of Queensland and it will earn a place in your imagination, and heart."

It will indeed but it might break your heart as well.

Hoffie has used the multi-media publishing tool Atavist to present the lengthy text, the photographs and a few videos along the way. 
The prose itself is always engaging, and often exquisite, for example: 

"As if in preparation for this golden hour, the Rusty Jacket gums appeared to have slithered into gold-lamé outer garments for the event..." 
Some breathtaking photographs by Emma Harm and Greg Harm accompany the text.

It's not a quick read so when you can make the time, brew a pot of tea, shut out all potential intrusions and thank your lucky stars for people like Pat Hoffie and for the Griffith Review.
You’ll find it at: