Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2014

Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley


Crow MellowCrome YellowJust recently, Finlay Lloyd publishers sent me a copy of Crow Mellow by Julian Davies, which the blurb says is a satire based on Aldous Huxley’s early social satire, Crome Yellow, but transplanted to contemporary Australia.  Crow Mellow looks like fun to read, especially since there are playful illustrations on every page, but it’s much too long ago since I read the original Crome Yellow for me to spot the resemblances, so I decided to re-read the original first.

My copy is an ancient grey Penguin Classics edition, one of four Huxleys that my father bought me as a present when I was a teenager.  My recollection is that I enjoyed them all, especially Brave New World, but I suspect that I was too young to really appreciate Huxley’s wit.  Considering that he was only in his middle twenties when he wrote it, it’s rather amazing that he wasn’t too young to write it!

The blurb draws attention to the science fantasies of Mr Scogan because this debut novel anticipates the Huxley of Brave New World, but I was more interested in the way that Huxley used  this character to satirise himself within his own novel.  Denis Stone is a middle-class young graduate with literary ambitions, paying a visit to Mr Wimbush’s country house.  He fancies himself as a poet, and is writing his first novel.  When Mary Bracegirdle, thinking it would be nice to have a little literary conversation, asks what he is writing and he replies that he is writing verse and prose, Mr Scogan pounces, unerring in his target:

“Of course,” Mr. Scogan groaned, “I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a ‘novel of dazzling brilliance”; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. (p.17)

Huxley then goes on to write exactly this novel in a splendid parody of the English Country House novel…

Moscow, Chekhov's shed (24)

Chekhov’s cottage at Melikhovo 40km from Moscow

Blake Morrison, in an entertaining article for The Guardian, listed 7 reasons why grand country houses are literary obsessions to this day.  They not only provide a setting that allows for multiple characters under one roof (which is especially handy for whodunnits), there are other opportunities too:

  • They are quintessentially English, even though other cultures also set their fiction in large country houses.  (Though I don’t agree with him about Chekhov’s country estate being equivalent: I’ve been there and it’s nowhere near the size of an English mansion, it’s not even two storeys.  In fact, it was so cramped that the poor man had nowhere to get away from all the visitors and ended writing some of his masterpieces in a little cottage as far away from them as he could get);
  • All those bedrooms and staircases and dark shrubberies offer great opportunities for illicit sex [or hopeful fantasies about it];
  • There can be rightful ownership disputes and envy (again handy for murder mysteries) and ambitions to marry heiresses;
  • Poets have rambled on about the wholesome virtues of country life since the days of he ancient Romans;
  • Rich Americans [or other interlopers] can muscle in where they don’t belong;
  • Their age and architecture makes them ideal for ghost stories and whodunnits;
  • Characters can include a mixture of classes.  Morrison refers to Upstairs/Downstairs i.e. servants can play a role, but country houses also played host to guests with little or no money and variations in what the Brits call ‘background’.

In one way or another, Huxley plays with all of these elements.  With its  eccentric 16th century privies influencing the architecture of its three towers, the house is as quintessentially English as you can get, and as Denis discovers to his envious dismay, Anne, heir presumptive has (a) plenty of dark shrubberies to fool around in with Ivor who is not only an interloper but a foreigner and (oh no!) a Catholic as well, and (b) a studio where the Provençal Gombaud (whose talent has an artist far exceeds poor Denis’s) can entertain the ladies.  When she falls over outside in the dark, even Denis gets to grope Anne a little bit.  There is a lot of poetry for Huxley to mock, most splendidly when Denis shares his efforts to use the word carminative in one of his odes, and Mr Wimbush invokes the ghosts of his ancestors with his whimsical tales from his History of Crome.

As to the characters, all of them are sponging off their host while indulging their pretensions.  But behind the humour, Huxley has something serious to say about England in this brittle between-the-wars period.  After the carnage of WW1, the young women have very little to choose from in the way of husbands, and the memory of the lost is being squandered in asinine arguments about what form the local war memorial should take.  The nihilism of the period is overt: As Mr Scogan has so rightly intuited, Denis the poet has nothing to say.

Crome Yellow is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition, which is the one I’m using).

Author: Aldous Huxley
Title: Crome Yellow
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1936 edition, reprinted 1967.
No ISBN
Source: Gift from my dear old dad.

Availability
Fishpond: Crome Yellow (Modern Classics)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2014

Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal


Historic HesterIf I hadn’t already got this book, it would definitely be on my wish-list for Christmas. Historic Heston is the ultimate book for anyone interested in the history of food and cooking, and it’s a sumptuously luxurious book of ‘food porn’ into the bargain.  Unabashed by Wayne Macauley’s clever satire The Cook we here chez The Spouse et Moi are devoted to Masterchef Australia, and always look forward to Heston Blumenthal’s appearances for the extravagance of his creations and his humorous adaptations of staples like hamburgers.

Historic Heston is a generous (i.e. hefty) book of 430-odd pages, printed on expensive high-quality paper with a silky bookmark – and the witty graphics by Dave McKean and photography by Romas Foord are superb works of art in their own right. The still life for eggs in verjuice is worthy of a place in the National Gallery.  I am sorely tempted to upload a page or two just to prove it but rather than breach copyright I suggest that you can get an idea by visiting this article by Peter Aspden, and if you watch carefully you can see the still life at this trailer for the book, as well as some of McKean’s art work.    You can also see one of Foord’s still life photographs at a site called Good Food, which notes BTW that Historic Heston was co-winner of the James Beard Foundation’s annual Books, Broadcast and Journalism award for 2014.

The concept that lies behind this book is Blumenthal’s mission to rescue Britain’s melancholy reputation for awful food by exploring its grand old traditions using chef’s recipe books of the past, and adapting them into scrumptious creations for the menu at his London restaurant Dinner – and *in my dreams* wouldn’t I love to include a visit there on my next trip, sitting at the Chef’s Table!

Even if you’re not a ‘foodie’, Historic Heston is fascinating reading.  Starting in medieval times, the original recipes used all kinds of strange ingredients not always recognisable and of course the cooking methods described in Ye Olde English are entirely different.  In the chapter which charts the development of Blumenthal’s recipe for Alows of Beef, which dates from 1430, he explains that roasting, like everything else, was done over an open fire.   These alows were basically stuffed meat rolls using small cuts of beef, so they had to be cooked on a spit. Turning that spit by hand fell to one of the ‘scullions’, i.e.the lowest in the pecking order in the kitchen, and this child (who often lived and slept in the kitchen, and stripped off when tending the flames) had the job for as long as it took, supervised by the chef who monitored how the wood was burning, and when to move food nearer to or further from the flames.  We tend to think that people of the past didn’t care too much about working conditions so I was surprised to see Blumenthal quote a Kings Ordinance from 1526 that

It is ordeyned by the Kings Highnesse [that] scolyons … shall not goe naked or in garments of such vileness as they now doe… nor lye in the nights and dayes in the kitchens or ground by the fireside. (p.73)

Blumenthal, of course, is describing the arrangements in grand kitchens such as those of the king or his courtiers, but domestic cooks i.e. women would have had the same limitations in cooking over an open fire, without an army of underlings to help out (unless they had hapless children, I suppose).  This reminded me of my younger partying days when The Ex constructed a spit roast machine out of half a large metal cylindrical drum split vertically with legs welded on the bottom.  The hard labour of turning the spit was taken care of by a motor harvested from an old washing machine, but the all-day job of basting a suckling pig or whole lamb and adjusting the heat of the fire was shared with The Offspring, who like his father probably infringed whatever there may be in the way of domestic health and safety regulations by going shirtless.

Is Historic Heston a cookbook?  Well, I suppose that depends what kind of a cook you are.  In the introduction, Heston says he hopes that some readers will give it a try, listing  as more accessible than the Taffety Tart which is complex and demanding to prepare, the Spiced Pigeon from 1777 (only two pages long and 26 ingredients for 6 elements) or the Powdered Duck from 1670 (also only two pages long, but involving curing brine, smoking duck fat and a sous-vide).  If the full recipe seems daunting, he suggests that domestic cooks can cherry-pick from the techniques and elements, and I think that is most likely what The Spouse may do, starting with the Red Wine Sauce (p.81) that goes with the Alows of Beef but would also be a delicious accompaniment for any roasted beef dish.  It’s basically red wine and madeira with the sort of vegetables you’d expect, with the addition of both black and pink peppercorns and some herbs that grow in our garden.  (I may need to volunteer as the scullion when it comes to mashing it through the fine-mesh filter bag).

I reckon we could easily do the strawberries with camomile sugar served with yoghurt cream and dead-easy almond biscuits (p. 124), but I am unconvinced by Blumenthal’s devotion to adding salt to food even if it is flavoured exotically with Earl Grey tea.  And while the Taffety Tart does look too hard (I’ve never successfully made caramel and have ruined too many saucepans ever to try again) I think that even with my rather ordinary plating skills I could easily assemble some of the elements (vanilla biscuits, rose cream, puff pastry arlettes, vanilla ice-cream and poached apples) into a swish dinner party dessert, notwithstanding the absence of the apple caramel gel, the tatin, the crumble, or the crystallised rose petals and lemon zest.  I’m also just a little bit tempted by Quaking Pudding, (p.152) which although prefaced with a somewhat daunting exposé of the difficulties involved in setting what is basically an egg custard, is a recipe of only one page, and might even be dead easy since we’ve got a sous-vide.  There’s also a very simple recipe for pickled beetroot (p.166) which I might experiment with if we have too many beetroots in the vegie patch, and the technique for making pickled lemons in the sous-vide bag is brilliant! (p.279)

Whatever the challenges posed by the recipes, this is the only book of recipes that I’ve ever read from cover to cover.  Blumenthal doesn’t just present fascinating stories about the origins of the recipes and how he adapted them, he also comments on political and cultural developments in British culinary history, everything from the way that religious fasts impacted on meat eating for almost half the year, to the influence of England’s first professional female cookery writer Hannah Wolley (1670) on Britain’s traditions of plain fare.  She wrote for domestic cooks, simplifying recipes and making them less expensive.  Another great British tradition, deep-rooted anti-French sentiment prompted by the continual wars with France was responsible for the 18th century demise of court cookery books full of elaborate French dishes, and it was the enclosure of the commons that eventually led to the demise of pigeons as a staple dish.  Vast numbers of dovecotes provided pigeons for the bleak winter months when other food was scarce, but once most of the land was turned over to farming, landowners took a dim view of pigeons stripping a field bare and that was the end of the dovecotes.  And I bet you did not know that the English philosopher Francis Bacon died researching refrigeration: he experimented with stuffing a dead fowl with snow and caught pneumonia!

There’s also a very interesting chapter about how the theory of the humours (based on the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates) influenced food combinations.  The medieval diet had to take into account the idea that the human body is made of four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and these manifest themselves as bodily fluids – blood (corresponding to a sanguine temperament); phlegm (a phlegmatic personality); black bile (a melancholy disposition); and yellow bile (a tendency to choleric behaviour i.e. crankiness).  Diners had to adjust food to balance their health and behaviour, which meant eating food with the opposite humour, for example, avoiding lamb (which was thought to be moist and cold) if you were very old or very young (thought to be phlegmatic).  It had to be cooked the right way too.  Blumenthal says that

… resourceful chefs began to make a virtue out of necessity: it’s thought that the development of sauces was largely inspired by the desire to find new ways to apply that final humoral seasoning.  A green sauce made with parsley (warm and dry) was the ideal accompaniment for cold, moist pike or mackerel. (p.91)

It must have been a nightmare for domestic cooks to muck about balancing the assorted humours of their usually large families!

For me, the must-quote sentiment comes from page 261, where (discussing the breeding of more profitable pigs) Blumenthal says this:

When large-scale commerce becomes involved, flavour often seems to drop down the list of priorities.

Amen to that!

Author: Heston Blumenthal
Title: Historic Heston
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408857571
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Availability

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2014

The Philosophy Book, edited by Sam Atkinson


The Philosophy BookIt’s taken me a good while to read this book because it’s not something to hurtle through, but The Philosophy Book is excellent for a generalist reader who wants to know what philosophy is about.  It covers all the major thinkers in philosophy, summarising their ideas in graphics and easy-to-comprehend flowcharts, and explaining further in the text. Artworks often accompany the text and it’s bright, colourful and cheerful, as DK books usually are.   Some philosophers depending on their importance get 3 double page spreads, and others get only one single page, but the overall effect is a broad overview of how philosophy works.

I particularly like the before/after context box on the LHS of each philosopher that shows how each ‘new’ philosophy builds on the ideas of philosophers of the past, and then becomes the building blocks for philosophy of the future. Page references also make it easy to go these before/after references and refresh the memory about the main points.

I also liked the way the book is divided into eras: the Ancient World; the Medieval World; the Renaissance and the Age of Reason; the Age of Revolution; The Modern World; and Contemporary Philosophy.  These periods made sense to me intellectually and provided a framework for each grouping of philosophers so that I could see how they belonged in a certain social, political and historical context.

Serious philosophers may look at this book and object to its simplifications, and certainly in the case of philosophers that I have read in the original it is clear even to me that a few pages cannot possibly convey the complexities of any philosophical theory. In some cases limitations, contradictions or controversies have been noted, but in others it is up to the alert reader to join the dots herself.  In the case of Rousseau, for example, whose Émile I have read, The Philosophy Book makes no mention of how absurdly sexist Rousseau’s ideas about education are, nor does it point on Rousseau’s page to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women which was a response to it. But on Wollstonecraft’s page the connection to Rousseau is noted.

Another criticism that may be levelled perhaps is that the book makes only token attempts to be inclusive.  There are very few female philosophers, and likewise there are not many African, Asian and Middle Eastern philosophers.  The approach is basically Eurocentric, becoming more inclusive of American philosophy in the later sections.  I don’t know enough about lesser-known philosophers to know if this approach is fair, but it does correspond to what I know of the historical development of philosophy.  (The Spouse has an overflowing bookcase of philosophy books, so as Chief Duster of The Books chez our place, I know who the Names are, even if I haven’t read them.)

Apart from getting a broad view of the historical sweep of philosophy and a clearer understanding of the way to think about things, I think The Philosophy Book also has great value as a launch pad or a reading list.  Two books that I have already added to my TBR include Wollstonecraft’s and Kahn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  And I’m about to start reading Leviathan for my next UniMelb Great Books masterclass!

General Editor: Sam Atkinson
Title: The Philosophy Book
Publisher: DK, 2011
ISBN: 9781405353298
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: The Philosophy Book


Every Day is Mother's DayEvery Day is Mother’s Day (1985) is an early novel by Hilary Mantel, now a the bestselling Booker Prize winner of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies fame.  It is quite different in style to the Tudor novels, more like Beyond Black which I read and enjoyed for its sardonic humour in 2005.

The ironic title refers to the battle of wills between Mrs Axon, the vicious mother of Muriel, who’s not too intellectually disabled to wage war of her own; and Isabel Field, the hapless social worker who’s completely out of her depth with this woman.  Isabel is also having a lacklustre affair with a teacher called Colin Sydney, and she loses the file on the Axon case.

Black humour charts impending disaster.  Isabel briefly succeeds in getting some stimulation for Muriel at a sort of day centre, but that leads to a disaster only too common for intellectually disabled young women, and that’s when Mrs Axon shuts and bolts the door against any interference.

It’s a grim book, but it shows Mantel’s early skill in characterisation, and her talent for poking fun at pretension.  Sandra Duncan does a fine job of narrating the story.

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: Every Day is Mother’s Day
Narrated by Sandra Duncan
Publisher: Clipper Audio, 2013
ISBN: 9781471243677
Source: Kingston Library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2014

Nemesis, by Philip Roth


7703038 Now that I’ve caught up on my reviews for the books I read while I was away in Queensland, I’m ready to tell you about the first one I read when I got back: Nemesis, fourth in the sequence of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling.  It’s captivating reading, and because of a slight similarity in the setting, it reminds me also that I must soon read Joan London’s new book The Golden Age.  Those of us who love London’s writing have been waiting impatiently for a new novel, and yet it’s been sitting on my shelves for over a month.  I must get my reading priorities in order!

That’s not to say that I regret reading the Roth.  Nemesis is a human tragedy that was probably all too common in the years before the Salk and Sabine vaccines made polio obsolete in western nations.  This short novel of 280 pages shows the impact of a polio epidemic in Newark in the sweltering summer of 1944, when not even the cause of polio was known.  Bucky Cantor is an athletic young man unfit for war service like his friends because he has poor eyesight, inherited from his ne’er-do-well father who disappeared out of his childhood.  Cantor works as a playground supervisor (presumably similar to being a yard duty teacher in Australia, but in Nemesis it’s a paid position available during the holidays).

As news emerges about polio cases in the area, Cantor worries about his charges.  He is devastated when one of them falls victim to the epidemic and dies.  At the same time, his lovely girlfriend invites him to apply for a position at a camp in the mountains, and while he believes his moral duty is to stay and keep things normal for the children, he succumbs to panic and opts for the safety of the mountains.  Keen to cement his relationship with this girl to whom he has impulsively proposed, he departs, feeling guilty about leaving his home, but also relieved about being out of the danger of infection.

Fate intervenes, and for Cantor it brings a crisis of faith and identity.  How, he asks himself, could a loving god inflict this pestilence on innocent children?

After all this time, it had suddenly occurred to Mr Cantor that God wasn’t simply letting polio rampage through the Weequahic section but that twenty-three years back, God had also allowed his mother, only two years out of high school and younger than he was now, to die in childbirth. He’d never thought about her death that way before.  Previously, because of the loving care that he received from his grandparents, it had always seemed to him that losing his mother at birth was something that was meant to happen to him and that his grandparents’ raising him was a natural consequence of her death.  So too was his father’s being a gambler and a thief something that was meant to happen and that couldn’t have been otherwise. But now that he was no longer a child he was capable of understanding that why things couldn’t be otherwise was because of God.  If not for God, if not for the nature of God, they would be otherwise.  (p. 126)

Cantor never recovers his equanimity.  Towards the end of the book the narrator reveals himself as a surviving polio victim who went on to have a satisfying life.  But Cantor fails his own personal struggle against the disease, and never forgives himself for it.  It is heartbreaking.

Kevin from Canada reviewed it too.

Author: Philip Roth
Title: Nemesis
Publisher: Houghton Miffin Harcourt, 2010
ISBN: 9780547318356
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Nemesis

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2014

Don Dunstan, Intimacy & Liberty, by Dino Hodge


Not there: Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, by Dino Hodge.I don’t usually comment here on books that I abandon, but I was very disappointed in this biography of Don Dunstan, innovative Premier of South Australia and hero of progressive Australians in the 1970s.  I was expecting it to recapture the heady atmosphere of those reforming days and to celebrate the man’s remarkable personality and astonishing achievements, but it doesn’t.  In fact, it was too dull to finish.

The author’s premise seems to be that Don Dunstan’s sexuality was the catalyst for his interest in human rights and civil liberties. In pursuit of that argument the details of Dunstan’s intimate life overwhelm the man’s political and cultural achievements.

Unless you have a more than general interest in the history of homosexual oppression, you won’t be interested in much of the introductory chapters.  I plodded through them in search of Don Dunstan, but he doesn’t arrive in the book until page 200 (of 331 pages, not counting the extensive index, bibliography and notes).   It’s not that I don’t care about gay rights, far from it, it’s just that once you’ve absorbed the fact that there were antiquated laws in South Australia that were more repressive than many other places in the Western World and that the situation was exacerbated by Cold War paranoia, these early chapters have a lot more detail than could hold my interest.

By the time I reached Part 3, only to find that the first chapter was titled ‘Loves Found and Lost’ I was fed up, and I was not prepared to trudge on to Chapter 8 ‘Homophobia and Humiliation‘ or Chapter 9 ‘We Are What We Are’.

The cover is awful: the man was Premier of South Australia and a charismatic public intellectual, whose influence extended beyond his state to the national stage.   The indignity of the cover photo is that it doesn’t even show his face.  I’d like to post one that does, but since I can’t find one that’s copyright free, you need to click here for the one that’s at Wikipedia.

Bob Ellis at the SMH found this book either misjudged or malign and I recommend that you read his review.

PS I have listened to Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live interview with Dino Hodge.  Adams thinks highly of this biography so I recommend you listen to that too.

Author: Dino Hodge
Title: Don Dunstan, Intimacy and Liberty
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743052969
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2014

When the Night Comes, by Favel Parrett


22043013Favel Parrett is the highly acclaimed author of Past the Shallows so I was interested to see the direction she might take in this, her second novel.  For me, there has to be more than fine writing to make a book worth reading: I’m interested in ideas and/or experimentation, and I want books that make me think in ways I hadn’t thought before.  It’s a tall order for a beginning author to achieve, because these things depend on life experience, wide reading, and an awareness of life beyond the familiar, an awareness that doesn’t just come from the media.   (Especially *up on my soapbox* not the Australian tabloid media, which is shallow, grubby, narcissistic and xenophobic).  Having a go at writing the kind of book I like also takes courage because it’s risky.  Readers like me are tolerant of debut authors writing about common themes but expect more from later novels, even though experience has taught me that second novels from highly acclaimed debut authors are sometimes duds, rushed into publication on the crest of the wave long before the author has had time to percolate ideas or craft the writing to match their debut.

So, how does When the Night Comes stack up?  Past the Shallows was a pitiless tale of privation and melancholy, and When the Night Comes traverses some of the same territory: sad kids, broken family, inadequate mothering.  Hobart as a miserable grey place where the sun never seems to shine.  Poverty of mind and spirit as well as lack of money.  What saves When the Night Comes from this pervasive Misery 101 theme from the creative writing schools is the central image of the Nella Dan, the rugged red Antarctic supply ship which operated from 1962 to 1987 for ANARE (the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) and harboured in Hobart.  Isla’s bleak life is enlivened not just by the splash of colour in the harbour but by the arrival of Bo, a Danish cook who becomes her mother’s friend.  Bo brings laughter and sunshine and impressively good food into a house that’s not a home, and Isla learns to look beyond the gloomy confines of her world through him.

I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bo tackles the Women’s Weekly cuisine at Isla’s place – savoury mince and Russian potato salad with egg.

‘I think this needs to go in the rubbish tip,’ Bo said, and dropped the book in the white swing-top bin.  My eyes must have opened wide, because then he said, ‘Well, we won’t tell anyone we did that.  It will just be lost.’

He put his hands on his cheeks, pulled a face.

‘Oh, where could it be? Where could that wonderful cookbook with such exciting food be? We are lost without it!’

I looked at the bin.  I was worried about how I was going to manage to cook without the recipes.

‘Food comes from here,’ Bo said, putting his hand on his chest. ‘Good food you know how to cook from …’ and he looked up at the ceiling, maybe searching for the words in English. ‘By heart,’ he said.  (p. 196)

The descriptions of his golden pastries are superb. Parrett is good at vivid scenes, and the contrasts of colour in this book are particularly good.  The palette is grey, but the bursts of primary colour remind me of stunning B&W art photography where just one element has colour, or that unforgettable image of the little girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

This is more an impressionistic novel than a plot-driven story, but there is some interest in whether or not Bo is a Pinkerton figure (though the formless grey figure of Isla’s mother is certainly no Butterfly), and feeling pessimistic at one stage, I wondered whether there was going to be another pervasive theme, the sexual abuse of the adolescent girl.  The real focus of the novel, however, is the power of briefly intersecting lives, and the romance of the brave ship’s journeys in the Antarctic.  Today, when people can visit Antarctica as tourists, the researchers can keep in contact through the internet, and everybody’s seen nature docos about polar regions, Antarctica seems less remote, but that was not so in the 1980s.  I remember when the Nella Dan was stranded in the ice for seven weeks in 1985, and I think all of us were worried about the fate of the crew until they were rescued.

The story is constructed in short scenes which juxtapose Isla’s young life with Bo’s life aboard the Nella Dan and in Denmark, concluding with scenes from much later when Isla is an adult and Bo is a father.  There is also a newspaper report about the ship’s demise, and there are snippets from ships’ logs, scraps of poetry and many references to popular music of the period.  What makes the story line a little hard to follow in places is that there’s not sufficient contrast between Bo’s narration and Isla’s.  Parrett has avoided reproducing the speech patterns of a character with English as a second language but his command of idiom makes him indistinguishable in some scenes: talking flat out, photos that are arty (p. 23) seems unlikely, especially for someone who travels with a multilingual crew.   But this is a small quibble.

Parrett’s writing style is spare, pregnant with meaning.  The reader has to pay attention to fill the text with what is not there.  In this passage, for example, we see the small family coming home after visiting Bo’s ship:

We walked home from the wharf with Mum, and my brother held the box tightly all the way.  It was a box of a hundred packets of Wrigley’s chewing gum, and even though I’d never seen my brother eat chewing gum before, I knew he still couldn’t believe his luck.

He looked at me and he told me that I could have half, that we could share the chewing gum.  That’s how things were between us. (p.36)

Limited by poverty but not diminished by it, Isla’s brother is a little boy for whom treats are a rarity – but his relationship with his sister transcends everything else.

Parrett’s research for When the Night Comes involved an Australian Antarctic Fellowship enabling her to visit Macquarie Island and the Antarctic aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis, but (see this interview at the Mercury) it was experiencing the journey that gave the novel life.  Is this enough?  For this novel, yes, I think so, but I’m hoping that the next one tackles something bigger.

Other reviews are at The Guardian, the SMH and the ABC.

Author: Favel Parrett
Title: When the Night Comes
Publisher: Hachette, 2014
ISBN: 9780733626586
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Availability

Fishpond: When the Night Comes


7804060I loved reading The Piano Cemetery, but I’m not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what it was about.  And I don’t feel the least little bit embarrassed about that, because Ursula Le Guin was baffled tooSome reviewers were overtly hostile to the difficulty of reading this book, while others found it frustrating.  Perhaps I was more tolerant because it was not until quite late in the book that I became confused, and by then I was so intrigued, it didn’t matter…

The story has two narrators, and I must be circumspect in this review because part of what I enjoyed was hope that the second narrator Francisco Lazaro would transcend his ostensible heritage.  The book is a very loose fictionalisation of the story of the Olympic athlete who died at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the marathon when he reached the 30 kilometre mark.  Named for his father, the Francisco of the novel wants to make his name his own.  Naming is significant in this novel.

The Piano Cemetery isn’t the first book to use the same name for father and son.  Such naming was, after all, very common indeed in Britain and Europe for centuries.  And the naming’s not the source of the confusion because the voices in the novel are entirely distinct: Francisco the Father narrates his story in ordinary paragraphs in a coherent way, despite not being in chronological order.  Oh yes, I nearly forgot, and despite being dead…

It was Sunday because it was sunny, because I had decided I wasn’t going to work, because not many cars could be heard in the city, because the world seemed infinite, because my daughters had dressed with ribbons they tied round their waists and because I had slept until I was woken by the church bells calling the people to mass. My wife was smiling and the morning bore the lightness of her smile.  My wife was younger on Sunday mornings when she smiled.  Our children were still small.  Francisco was not yet born.  Marta was already helping her mother.

Francisco the younger narrates his story in fractured fragments of different lengths,  as he runs the race of his life. His narrative is punctuated by captions denoting how many kilometres he has run:

…Shouting, he asked my mother, ‘What went through your head, spending money on this rubbish?’ My mother didn’t reply.  My father said, ‘What a swindle, what rubbish.’ My mother continued not to reply.  My father grabbed her by the arm, shook her and shouted’ ‘Aren’t you listening?’ My mother looked at him, her eyes serious.  In a single movement my father took the plate and smashed it on the floor. Shouting, he said, ‘Don’t you look at me like that, you hear me?’ It was that Sunday that my father stopped being ashamed of Marta’s boyfriend.  When Marta took him to the door

Kilometre six

to say goodbye, my father’s shouting could be heard from the kitchen and Marta was crying with shame. (p. 96)

And although some of some of these fragments are no more than breathless scraps of sentences, somewhat like the fragments in Gilgamesh or Sappho, it’s  always possible to fill the lacunae with something that makes sense.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

No, what makes The Piano Cemetery confusing is that there is ambiguity about the identity and the chronology of these characters.  For a start, some significant characters are never named at all.  Neither Francisco names his wife, referring to her always as ‘my wife’, and the husbands of Maria and Marta are never named either.  There are two uncles blinded in one eye who also are not named.  With one exception, the characters who are complicit in betrayals are those who have no name, as if they are not worthy of naming.  These betrayals mostly take place in the ‘piano cemetery’, the place which defines the identity of this family and its heritage.  It’s a warehouse behind the carpentry shop, where ruined pianos wait for resurrection.  (Making love on a piano doesn’t sound too comfortable to me, but that’s what they do!)

But more significantly, the identity of the marathon runner is ambiguous.  Francisco the elder marries, and his new wife cleans up the house that has been neglected since his mother died.  She finds some medals which are subsequently revealed to belong to Francisco’s the Elder’s father, i.e. apparently to the Francisco Lazaro who died in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics.  I read from this point on thinking that Francisco the Younger was aiming to resurrect his grandfather’s ambition and claim the name and the race as his own.  Towards the end of the novel, this interpretation became fuzzier.  The grossly fat aunt who showed Francisco the elder the photo of his father (which is reproduced in the book) seems to be a replica of Marta and she tells him about a sister who dies in dubious circumstances whose photo is exactly the same as a sister of Marta and Maria who’s never been mentioned before.

There is doubling of characters all over the place in The Piano Cemetery, suggesting a timelessness in the affairs of this family.  The era is obscure: clearly the generations that do the storytelling are not of 1912: a vague sense of the 1940s is conveyed by the radio around which they gather to listen to the race broadcast; the phone which announces the cycle of rebirth; the van which is used to ferry Marta about because she’s too grossly fat to fit into the car – and by the absence of television.  Unravelling all this seems not to be very important in this novel because its circularity seems to be the very point of it all.

There were some exciting postmodern flourishes.  Iris, who is three, trots into the piano cemetery by herself, and starts a conversation with her grandfather.  By this time in the novel I was used to his narrative voice and had forgotten that he was dead.

… She sits down on the lid of a piano without legs, on the dust.  She is so small.  She lifts her face, looks at me and says:
‘Who are you talking to?’
Silence.
‘I’m talking to the people who are reading these words in a book.’
‘Maybe my mum will read the book, won’t she?’
‘Maybe.’
‘What are they called, these people who are reading the book?’
‘They have many names.  Each of them has a different name.’
‘Maybe there’s one of them called Iris, isn’t there?’
‘Maybe.’ (p.178)

She goes on to ask him about the other people reading the book, but ‘Only they know where they are’ he says.  And he explains that he knows this because he’s been one of those people reading the book even though it’s not finished yet.   And then she turns on him, castigating him for the way he has lived his life and for not telling the truth in this book:

‘So how come you’ve already been one of those people?  Have you already lived the life these people are living?’
‘No one can live someone else’s life.’
‘That’s not true.  You didn’t just live your life.  Have you seen Grandma? You wore her down.  You made her old before all the other women her age.  Say what you like – the light clouded your eyes, you didn’t see, there was some force that carried your movements, you couldn’t feel – say what you like, but the truth will still exist – the truth.’
‘You’re not even three yet, you can’t talk like that. No three-year-old talks like that.’
‘I can’t? I can’t? You’re sure of that? You’re dead.  You should be the last person to talk about what I can and can’t say.’ (p. 179)

Lisbon, says Peixoto, is careful imperfection.  Perhaps not unlike the always slightly warped paving that decorates the city’s streets, this novel is deliberately constructed to be as treacherous as the glassy, reflective stones.  I’m sorry I have to take it back to the library…

Author: José Luís Peixoto
Title: The Piano Cemetery
Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
Publisher:  Bloomsbury 2010 (first published 2006)
ISBN: 9780747599654
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2014

The Ark, by Annabel Smith


22432611Up front, I have to admit that I would never have read this most interesting book if not for the fact that Annabel Smith is one of my favourite authors.  Firstly, I don’t like reading eBooks, and secondly, I’m not fond of speculative fiction.  It’s a measure of this author’s skill that I was captivated right from the start and finished the book wishing it was longer.

The Ark doesn’t have to be read as an eBook, but (yes, I know I’m contradicting what I’ve written here many times before) I think it’s more fun, and more authentic, given its subject matter and experimental style.  The story is composed of emails and other digital forms of communication, and there are links in the text that you can explore as well.  You can, for example, explore the setting through creepy little black and white vimeos with eerie sound tracks!  I read part of it on my kindle (because I was too impatient to wait for the iPad version) and then when it was available I read the rest of it on the iPad that I otherwise only use for taking photos of student work at school.

The story begins in 2093 with Book One, titled ‘Kirk’ and a ‘report’ from The Australian: 17 people have emerged from a bunker built into Mt Kosciuszko, revealing a priceless storehouse of seed specimens previously thought to be extinct. The survivors have been there for almost half a century, their numbers dwindling from the original 26 to only four, while the other 13 are second or third-generation bunker-babies.  From this beginning, the story then travels back in time to 2041 when a seed bank called ‘Ark’ is sealed with a small group of people inside.  (A seed bank is a storage repository for seeds in case some sort of disaster destroys the world’s reserves.  There are a number of these seed banks around the world, the most famous of which is the Svalbard one in Norway.)  In The Ark the oil crisis has created havoc in the global economy and society has broken down, so the decision is taken to preserve  the seeds for whatever the precarious future might hold.

The action begins with an increasingly fractious email correspondence between Kirk Longrigg who represents the corporate owners of the seed bank, and the Ark’s charismatic director Aiden Fox.  Before long, the bemused reader must try to make sense of a campaign of vilification and PR-speak: is Aiden a crazy power-hungry anarchist acting outside his remit, or is he saving the seeds from an amoral biotech company intent on a covert plan to destroy natural seeds?

Amongst those called in to the Ark are the wives and families of the workers.  At first they are told that the Ark has been sealed for only a short time, but this is not consistent with what Aiden says elsewhere.  Is truth the first casualty, or is Aiden a benign dictator making decisions palatable in order to achieve a greater good?  Emails of one sort or another fly backwards and forwards as the characters are introduced, sometimes vacillating in their support for Aidan but always committed to the security of the seeds.

The next section introduces Ava, wife of one of the scientists.  She arcs up about the loss of fundamental freedoms in a contract signed on her behalf by her husband (!) and she demands to have a say in the decisions made about the future.  Her husband is quickly convinced that she is mentally unstable, not coping well with the confinement and lack of privacy.  Does the treatment she gets in the ‘Vitality Compact’ soothe her, or is it more Orwellian than that?  Her sister Tillie is marooned outside the ark in an increasingly dangerous world: she tries to keep in contact with Ava, but the pirate servers aren’t reliable.

The ArkThe epistolary nature of this book limits the reader’s access to the perspective of the characters that are available through the digital records of the Ark, using all kinds of communication methods.  There are three email systems varying in the level of privacy that users can rely on.  There is the illegal ‘Headless Horseman’ thought by its users to be covert and secure; there is the encrypted person-to-person ‘Gopher’ system, and there is ‘dailemail’ which is monitored by the systems within the Ark and works rather like Reply All.  There is voice recognition software called ‘Articulate’ which automatically takes minutes of meetings in The Hub, noting not only what is said but also the tone of voice that’s used, as you can see in the image I captured at right (click to enlarge it). 15 year old Rosko communicates on his blog ‘Kaos Kronikles’ in what looks like SMS – the comments box is labelled Bitchin N Moanin, and his link take you to a real Twitter account!) and then there’s a messaging system called Parlez-Vite.  Even if you are only dimly aware of government plans to monitor our communications and store our phone records, this book will certainly make you aware of the consequences of inescapable surveillance.

As is the case with most of the dystopian fiction I’ve read, it’s the moral issues that intrigue.  Aiden’s insistence on the preservation of the plants raises the question of what the cost might be. As events move towards the conclusion, the tension rises.  Human lives are in the balance, and the way the small community is manipulated becomes increasingly sinister.

This is not the first interactive book that I’ve read, but it’s the first one that actually offers more than just clicking to see a few pictures or jump to another chapter.  However I was interested to see in Ben Lever’s review at GoodReads that some readers may not like the privacy implications of using the iPad app, and may perhaps prefer to use the Ark website to access the interactive bits instead.

Do check out Annabel’s blog to see the most unusual launch!

Thanks to Annabel for the review copy:)

PS Jane Rawson, author of Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, (another speculative fiction book I expected not to like, but did, see my review) reviewed it at GoodReads.


Australian Love Stories

Cate Kennedy is one of our much loved authors, but in this collection of love stories published by Inkerman and Blunt, she has turned her hand to editing.  Karenlee Thompson is doing the honours again, with her review:

Love, luv, lurve.

I adore a good love story. And the short form is perfectly suited to the genre, as this collection will attest. Destiny, heat and lust, cold betrayal, unrequited. It’s all here.

Cate Kennedy’s introduction is superb and I hope other Editors will take note of it. There is no need for spoilers and academic dissections. Nor do we need explanations about how the reader should interpret any given story or what we should expect to gain from the read. I have always felt that writers prefer their work to be interpreted by the reader; it allows for so many possibilities. Kennedy (award winning writer and poet) clearly understands this and she gives us a beautifully written introduction on what it means to be entrusted with so many pieces of work, juxtaposed with the interpretation of love itself, and a vignette on her considered approach to choosing the stories to be included in the collection. She writes:

‘They’re not all pretty, any more than love is always pretty, but look, here they are, miraculous, tumbled and shining, from a stranger’s cupped hand to yours.  I hope you love them.’ (p.6)

The grouping of the stories into what Kennedy calls a ‘narrative arc’ is uncontrived and gives the Contents pages the look of a poem with stanzas introduced thus: ‘That Sensuous Weight’ and ‘The Unbroken Trajectory of Falling’ book-ending seven sections in total. Beautiful.

Are they all love stories? That will be up to the reader to determine but I wasn’t sure about a few. ‘Is that what you call love?’ I asked myself. I was sometimes puzzled. Are all these stories Australian? Not necessarily in setting, so the Australian of the title perhaps relates more to authorship.

Minor quibbling. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Let’s look at some of these stories.

I am going to start with my favourite. As I began to read Susan Midalia’s A BLAST OF A POEM, I felt my spine relax. Aah. This is the one I’d been waiting for.  Other readers will have a completely different aah moment I expect. ‘A Blast of a Poem’ starts off in a domestic setting with ‘creamy songs’ of ‘moons and stars and rivers’ and ‘one that made me shiver without knowing why’ (p.179) and with paragraphs beginning ‘When I was fourteen years old and gushingly romantic…’ (p.179) or ‘When I was twenty-four and my heart was shattered…’ (p.180). There are layers of love, set over yet more layers, gently and succinctly unfurling a life for us to see in all its sweetness, heartache and devotion. The story takes us from the undoing of a poem to primal sex, and to a few places in between. There are so many beautiful phrases and sentences and words I could offer you here as a sample.  I have chosen this one, not because it is necessarily the best, but because it gives you an idea of it all, without spoilers:

As the weeks became months and the months became years, my life began to feel like an old time movie, in which the leaves of a calendar are ripped off and tossed aside by some cruel, invisible hand. (p. 185)

 Here are some other standouts:

LOVER LIKE A TREE J Anne deStaic’s haunting tale of addiction left me breathless. Here’s a man caught in ‘his own private storm’ (p.56), his veins like ‘wide highways painted blue’ (p.4). Here’s a woman who lies beside him watching him breathe. She remembers ‘the heat of his skin on hers when all that will fit between them is one layer of sweat’ (p.56). All the man wants is ‘morphine and a lover like a tree’ (p.58).

DAWN Bruce Pascoe allows the reader into the bed of the narrator and into the depths of his thoughts so that we can see beyond what may seem like simple, everyday actions, to the enormity of the emotion that propels them.

HAMMER ORCHID Sally-Ann Jones has given us a hint of star-crossed lovers of different shades. A ‘Ten Pound Pom’ (p.130) and an older Aboriginal farm hand. Love barely hinted at, barely understood. ‘Biscuits’ (as the farm hand is known) is cool and knowing; he’s warm and open, he’s understanding and closed. ‘Don’t look at me, kid,’ he tells her (p.136) when ‘she was sixteen and he was twenty-four’ (p.135). And much later when she goes to visit him, he warns her to stay away.  She tries to entice him into what she has always yearned for on the eve of her wedding. ‘It could be a wedding present,’ is her desperate enticement. ‘No’ is his succinct response (p.138-139). Sexy. Intriguing. Sad, in a way. But is it optimistic as well? Maybe.

THESE BONES Allison Browning writes of mature weathered love. Enzo has dementia and the home is both alien and familiar. He wants to awake beside his partner Nev but time warps and memories waver and he is constantly distressed by the current self and the self of his dreams. ‘He is no longer the young man he was moments ago, without lines and the notations that time leaves.’ (p,224) But Nev still sees him through eyes of love: ‘He looks worn, his body deflated, but the essence of him fills the space somehow like the echo of laughter in a room’ (2p.33).

A LITERARY LOVE STORY (memoir) Catherine Bateson’s entry (which I read as a letter to a younger self) gives a nod to the Bronte sisters and [French novelist] Colette and, as the title suggests, literary allusion and metaphor abound. ‘Once I woke with a French phrase clinging to my morning mouth, the only language for unrequited love.’ (p.21) Strangely though, it is wonderfully Australian.

MOSES OF THE FREEWAY David Francis knows how to amuse. Gorgeously laugh-out-loud politically incorrect at almost every turn.   Can’t resist these quotes:-

  • The lesbians just look awkward as usual (p.142)
  • Next came the photo of the foundling called Marvel from El Salvador (p.143)
  • I, myself, can’t go to the gym. It isn’t safe. I end up backstage in the showers for hours, wondering if I shouldn’t just stay there forever, have my mail forwarded. (p.146)
  • My own pittance sent each month to Amalia from Manila. Lagoon eyes and a slightly snotty nose. Save the Christians probably added the snot for the photo. (p.146)
  • Bette’s vaguely bipolar in a subversive downtown beatnik sort of way, her hair a tangled mess. (p.148)

A GREEK TRAGEDY Claire Varley. Beautifully written. Beautifully sad.

WHERE THE HONEY MEETS THE AIR Carmel Bird’s stream-of consciousness comic monologue is fun.  I adore its word play and jokes about topics as varied as ‘Elizabethan roots’, dictionaries and bees and ‘the merry media, social and anti-social’ (p.288).

There’s a good review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante [and another, posted online after Karenlee sent this review to me, at Whispering Gums.]

***

In the interests of full disclosure – one of the fundamentals of journalism – I confess to entering into the call for short stories about love, boots and all, but my ‘baby’ didn’t make the cut. I certainly didn’t take it personally and recalled a 2006 interview with Jane Sullivan (the Age) during which Kennedy talks about one of her short stories finding a place in The New Yorker after it had failed to make a mark in a number of Australian competitions. Ruminating on the lesson to take these knock-backs in a professional manner, she said it was a case of ‘Some other time, some other place’.

© Karenlee Thompson, cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson.

Karen Lee Thompson

Karenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Editor: Cate Kennedy
Title: Australian Love Stories.
Publisher: Inkerman and Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9 780987 540164
Review copy courtesy of Inkerman and Blunt.

Availability

Fishpond: Australian Love Stories
Or direct from Inkerman and Blunt

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2014

Over the Water, by William Lane


22380303I was surprised by the cover art for this book.  Over the Water is a novel exploring the uneasy experience of an expat teacher in Bandung but this cover design by Peter Lo with images by Hengki Koentjoro doesn’t suggest Indonesia at all.

What it does convey is the sense of floundering experienced by the central character, Joe.  Following the example of his brother before him in more ways than one, twenty-four year old Joe comes to Bandung to teach English and is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Java’s third city.  This is not the Indonesia that most Australians know from lazy holidays in Bali, this is a bustling city of nearly 9 million people, densely populated and subject to all the usual social and infrastructure problems of rapid, chaotic over-development.  As Lane shows, the rich live cheek by jowl with the poor, and the poverty can be extremely confronting, especially when the beggars are physically disabled in ways never seen in places with adequate medical care.

But Joe has to adjust to much more than that.  Mau ke mana? he is asked by complete strangers everywhere he goes: it means where are you going? and it’s the standard friendly Indonesian greeting, equivalent to the Australian nod accompanying G’day as you pass someone familiar.  But from my own experience studying in Yogyakarta it can feel intrusive, and it can be hard to make a noncommittal but friendly-enough reply that doesn’t result in ongoing conversation you don’t particularly want to have with a complete stranger.  For Joe, it adds to his confusion when he answers the question literally, and is warned hati-hati. He does need to take care, and there may be danger ahead, but he has no idea what it might be or how to avoid it.

The expats at the school at which Joe works are mostly shut away from anything Indonesian and know nothing about the culture says Lisa, with whom he takes a room.  Seduced by the ‘magic of Indonesia’ she claims to have immersed herself in the culture, but has no idea how patronising she is:

‘I’ve lived in many places,’ she said, undoing her ponytail, prising open the second bottle of Bintang.  ‘But Java is the only place I feel I can’t leave.  I should leave, my stomach is basically ruined.  I’ve lived on sweet potatoes for the last three months and I still can’t stop the dysentery – and I’ve got some kind of liver fluke – but I can’t leave.  I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this.  Something about this place keeps me, there’s something magical about it.  It doesn’t matter if my body’s sick, I believe that’s not the most important thing.  This place can heal me in other ways, more important ways.  The healing of the body follows the healing of the spirit, right? Yes, that’s why I’m here, to be healed.  It’s the people.  They’re so friendly, so warm, so giving.  They’re unique.  Like my boys – Clive, Budi, Adi.  They’re naïve, really, unspoilt.  They’re childlike.  You’ll find most of the Indos are like children.   (p. 13)

There are some characterisation lapses into caricature, and this is especially tiresome with the teacher Georgie.  Every time she makes an appearance she litters her utterances with the filler ‘m’laddie’ which (I suppose) may conceivably be authentic, but it makes her sound like a hockey mistress from those British boarding school stories of the 1950s:

‘Well, look sharp, m’laddie, and smile please, no shirking now. We thought you’d deserted us, let the side down.  You don’t know what you’ve let yourself in for working at this school, Mr Joe, that’s all I can say.’ (p. 16)

Between Lisa’s soppy spiritualism and Georgie’s imperviousness to the culture in which she finds herself, Joe flounders about, trying to be respectful to Indonesian culture while not knowing how to deal with its superstitions, a religion he doesn’t understand and the mores that surround sexual relationships.

Tom, an unwholesome-looking Englishman at the school, warns Joe that the small expat community tends to latch onto newcomers and that he should set boundaries, but it doesn’t take long before Joe is enmeshed in relationships with various women who make demands on him that he’s not ready for emotionally.  He is discomfited by Lisa,  whose Javanese ‘boys’ turn out to be her harem;  compromised by Danu, who expects him to save her from an arranged marriage;  and baffled by the reclusive Babette, who lives in a ruined colonial mansion reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s.  The fragility of Joe’s own identity in what seems to him to be moral chaos is complicated by the shadowy figure of his brother, a kind of Pinkerton figure, a symbolism reinforced by references to butterflies.

Over the Water is a cautionary tale for would-be expats!

Sally Keighery also reviewed it for Readings.

Author: William Lane
Title: Over the Water
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN: 9781921924668
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


6055537The Sailor from Gibraltar is a marvellous dreamy book – reading it is like drifting away from all that’s mundane and real.

The University of Rochester’s Open Letter Press is a non-profit literary translation press, dedicated to opening cultural borders.  I’ve never heard of most of their author list, but I like the idea of expanding my horizons and when they recently had an offer to good to ignore, of course I succumbed.  I bought the first 25 of their titles to be published for only $200.  (Yes, that’s less than $10 a book:) .  I have already read and reviewed one of them (Gasoline by Quim Monzo, translated  by Mary Ann Newman) and now I’m discovering Marguerite Duras.

Duras is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but the recommended title is The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964).  The one in the Fist 25 Collection is The Sailor from Gibraltar, an earlier book from 1952 and before she adopted a more experimental style.  It’s probably not very original to say so, but it reminds me of Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider, published in 1942) because it also features a disaffected, disengaged young man drifting into a surreal kind of existence.

The story begins in Italy, where he is on holiday from his dreary job with his girlfriend, Jacqueline.   He gets a sudden impulse to go to Florence, but once there, he succumbs to an invitation from the van driver who gave them a lift, to visit Rocca on the coast.  Once again, the impulse is urgent, and Jacqueline goes along with it even though she’s been enjoying the tourist delights of Florence while he – to her frustration – has been wasting his days in cafés drinking coffee and crème de menthe.

What she doesn’t know is, that after all the years they’ve lived together, her hopes of marriage are about to be trashed because he’s decided that he’s going to dump her at the same time as he abandons his job.  He has fallen in love with the story of a rich American woman called Anna who sails around the world looking for a sailor from Gibraltar – and it is a short step to falling for the woman herself when he actually meets her.

The story becomes more surreal as the yacht sets sail.  Does the sailor from Gibraltar with whom Anna had an affair years ago really exist?  The stories say that he is a fugitive because he is a murderer, but the story of the murder seems fantastic.  All the ports in the Mediterranean know that she is desperate to find him and will believe any story about where he is.  In response to stories that people bring her about him, the yacht sails around in search of him, from France to Africa.

The feelings that she has for this ethereal sailor impinge on any relationship that she might form with anyone else.  Eventually the pair fall in love, but it’s always conditional, because her quest is enduring, and if it’s ever successful, the sailor from Gibraltar will claim her.

It’s not the plot that keeps the reader engaged in this story, it’s the sun-filled days, the endless glasses of champagne, and the idleness of it all.  The conversations are all inconclusive, nothing really matters, there are none of the mundane problems of everyday life.  Reading it is like taking a break from all the pressures of modern life.

I must read more of Marguerite Duras!

PS Love the book cover design: a perfect marriage of colour and image; it’s by Milan Bozic.

Author: Marguerite Duras
Title: The Sailor from Gibraltar
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Publisher: Open Letter Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781934824047
Source: Personal library.

Availability:

Direct from Open Letter Press

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2014

Demons, by Wayne Macauley


An interesting title, eh?  This is Wayne Macauley’s fourth satire – perhaps not in the same league as The Cook (see my review) – but nonetheless an ambitious book in its intent and execution.

Like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, the novel is framed around the idea of storytelling.  A group of friends set off for a weekend away at a coastal hideaway somewhere along the Great Ocean Road: they’ve left their phones and other techno-toys at home but have brought a plentiful supply of booze and the makings of comfort-food meals.  Macauley brings his characters together on a cold Winter weekend where the old friends’ plan is to reconnect with each other by telling each other stories.

Yes, it’s to be a talkfest.  This is the generation that came to adulthood in the long shadow of the Baby Boomers.  Before long they have a roaring fire going, but really they don’t need it.  It may be  bitterly cold outside but this lot generates enough hot air all by themselves.

The novel takes a while to get going.  There are seven characters to be introduced and some argy-bargy to sort out: who sleeps where, will the stories have titles and so on.  A lot of this is banal, and the writing is rather plain.

Megan and Evan took the main bedroom, with the view of the sea.  The other rooms were down the hallway past the bathroom with the view up through the trees.  The latecomers got the bedroom downstairs.  After everyone had unloaded their stuff and dropped the bags of food and drink in a row on the kitchen floor, Megan suggested a walk.  The dark was coming down.  She and Lauren, then Leon and Hannah, put on their hats and coats and scarves.  Put the meat in the fridge! said Lauren from the bottom of the stairs.

Evan found the cooler bag with the beer in it and twisted the top off two.  Are you into this? he said.  Adam put his beer on the bench and started unpacking the meat. I reckon we should have themes, said Evan, like politics or the environment or technology or love or something, otherwise everyone’s just going to rabbit on about any old crap.  We should write down half-a-dozen and put them in a hat then someone chooses one and we tell stories about that.  Then, it we’ve got the energy, we choose another one later.

They unloaded the shopping and went into the living room.  It was warm in there now.  At one end was a big set of windows and a sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony that looked out over the treetops to the sea. Two couches, four big armchairs and in the centre a low table of sea-worn timber with a stack of magazines and picture books on it.  (p. 4)

Truth be told, this kind of pared-back writing puts me in mind of assessing student work.  Year 5 or 6?  Perhaps Year 7?  Pedestrian vocabulary;  a grammatical clanger (everyone i.e. singular, talking a plural possessive i.e. their); too-casual expressions (stuff, any old crap); no punctuation to signal speech, and an almost complete absence of adjectives to create atmosphere.  Big is used twice in the same paragraph – but ah! there is also sea-worn – the one word that signals that Macauley has written in this pedestrian style for a purpose.  It’s still a pain to read, IMO, but it serves to draw the reader’s attention to the adolescent nature of these middle-aged adults.

Eventually a story-telling stick (a piece of driftwood) is produced and Lauren begins her tale, Woman Killed by a Falling Man. 

Depending on your taste for short stories, these stories within a story will hold your attention or not.  They are, of course, linked by Macauley’s design, and they have a confessional significance not immediately apparent to the listeners.  The reader is less naïve, because (quite apart from the hints in the back-cover-blurb) the behaviour of the characters sends small signals too.  The revelation when it comes is therefore not much of a surprise, and although the dénouement executed by the interloper is unexpected, it’s a bit of an anti-climax.  Macauley is more interested in drawing attention to how this generation responds to it.  Make a fuss because it makes you feel good to let your anger out?  Or move on, because it’s nicer for everybody if you do?  The response is, crucially, not about morality or ethics.  It’s about personal satisfaction.

The character who best exemplifies this facile attitude is Marshall.  The back story isn’t revealed until the end of the novel, but Marshall explains that his late arrival and the absence of his wife Jackie is because her brother has committed suicide.   He, however, has decided to come down anyway.  By any standard this is selfish behaviour, to abandon a wife in this situation.  It doesn’t conform to social niceties either.  It’s a spectacular example of individual desire trumping every other consideration.  Marshall has also reneged on the terms of the weekend contract by bringing his teenage daughter, because she wanted to come, reinforcing other anecdotes that show this generation failing parenthood because it’s too hard.

At times Demons seems more like a lament for a lost generation than a satire.

There’s something a bit sad about us, isn’t there? said Adam.  Us? said Lauren.  I mean, how we’ve only ever danced across the surface, had everything our own way, free education, free dole, no wars, no revolutions.  We’ve not lived to the limit of human experience, we’ve moved in a little circle.  We’ve looked out for ourselves, not others, and if we do make some big magnanimous gesture there’s always something a bit calculating about it. Even when we’re listening to another person’s cares and woes, aren’t we actually thinking about ourselves?

Stop talking, she said, and she rolled over and pulled the covers up to her chin.  We’re pragmatists, said Adam, idealism’s not our thing. No, said Lauren.

Adam lay listening to the sea. (p. 81)

Only one of the characters stays sober.  Leon, Megan’s younger brother, is a recovering alcoholic who had beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease.  He tells a story about a public servant turned radical activist, exemplifying the death of idealism and the growth of expediency.  Through mash-ups of Chekhovian drama these radicals try to sell their message to the self-satisfied bourgeoisie who will not listen: as if up in the sky, the sound of a broken string. (p. 101).

Leon mourns these winds of change:

Nothing changes anything, said Leon. They all looked at him.  The power’s elsewhere, he said, always has been – but no one knows where elsewhere is.  It might have been the politicians once, a long time ago.  Writers and artists once had power to change things.  People say it’s business now, global corporations, the media, the new media – but I don’t believe that either.  They’re powerless too, they’re chasing an idea of power that even they know is elsewhere.  People power? Nah. I don’t believe it; no left-winger can believe it after what’s happened to Soviet Russia.  Maybe that’s power’s natural property, said Leon, to coagulate, concentrate.  Stalin.  Mao.  Pol Pot. Mugabe.  The excitable energy and goodwill of the people, that great maelstrom of peopleness, all that fantastic fire is eventually distilled into a single despot.  Maybe by its very nature power can’t be a spread out thing. And that was the trouble, for someone like me, a journalist with a conscience: no one changed anything unless he or she was lucky enough to be the one who became a despot, the right person in the right place at the right time in whom all that power was held.  So no, Megan, or Adam, sorry, stories change nothing. (p. 157)

This pseudo-nihilism might just have well have been delivered with a glass of Heathcote shiraz in hand – it oozes self-pity.  Of course the stories are told with Macauley’s trademark absurdity, culminating in Adam’s story Home which riffs on the selfishness of childlessness, but as prophets, these characters are too shallow to be taken seriously, and drunk or not, they know that themselves.  Like Dostoevsky who in Demons a.k.a. The Possessed critiqued both the radicals and the conservatives, Macauley savages the ideologies of his generation by satirising their disillusionment and discontent.

It’s a departure in style from his previous novels: more black, rather sour.

But interesting!

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Demons
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922147363
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

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Fishpond: Demons
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Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2014

A Million Windows, by Gerald Murnane


A Million Windows I found reading the latest book by Gerald Murnane even more challenging than usual, and yet it was impossible to abandon it.  In A Million Windows he once again dissects the meaning and process of writing fiction, dredging from memory the books he has read or written; the girls he has imagined (or maybe met); the dreamy landscapes of what might be outer-suburban Melbourne; and the thoughts and dictates of the personage in this work of fiction, who seems like a first-person narrator and may perhaps be a bit like the author (but is most certainly not a character).  But it is not easy reading.

For a start, there is an implied expectation that the reader will be familiar with all of the author’s previous books.  Well, when Murnane draws on his own previous published works of fiction, the allusions may seem like old friends if you have read those books.  But if one title or another (in my case, Barley Patch) still rests unread on the TBR,  you too may be occasionally flummoxed (in my case, by an allusion to Torfrida) – unless you cheat like I did and consult Google.

But I do not believe that Gerald Murnane writes to be deliberately obscure.  And while (certainly in this book) he expects a lot of his readers, nor do I think that he wishes his readership to be an exclusive scholarly clique.   To the contrary, he goes out of his way to explain himself and the conceptual framework that underlies his fiction and I think that he would be well pleased to find readers such as myself muddling through, as best they can.   I suspect that some of what seem like provocations to the reader in A Million Windows are intended as a spur to arouse stubborn persistence…

My previous experiences reading Murnane meant that I was not expecting to understand everything on the page.   With his demanding fiction, it’s a case of read on, and pieces will (mostly) fall into place.  But still, it is disconcerting to learn that reading what Murnane calls ‘considered narration’ entitles me to nothing more than to suppose that the narrator of the paragraphs was alive at the time when they were written and felt urged to report certain matters. (p.15)  Later on,  the narrator/the voice of this work reminds us that he is under no obligation to do anything other than report what’s in the mind of the person of the narrator of the fiction (p.159) and that to be deserving to be called the implied reader we must be worthy of the trust placed in us by the writer of ‘true fiction’.  (p. 185)

Early on, this narrator refers to ‘undiscerning readers’, and how they may misinterpret what lies within these pages.  Discerning readers are reassured that falsehoods included in his paragraph about ‘a Swede’s film’ (i.e. Ingmar Bergman’s) were

… allowed into the text for the sake of the undiscerning reader, who might have found tedious a strictly accurate account of what is reported there.   (p. 5)

The undiscerning readers being patronised here, you see, expect more in the way of narrative conventions.  They are inclined to imagine images of actual-seeming persons, whereas a discerning reader knows that they have no existence in the world.  Undiscerning readers may expect to like, or at least identify with the characters.  This, apparently is a grievous error for

a true work of art in no way depends for its justification on its seeming connections with the place that many call the real world and I call the visible world. (p.4)

This warning comes in the context of prose that swirls around and seems to play games with the reader, and I suspect that I am not the only reader who will be reminded of Italo Calvino.  Alas, making this connection this puts me straight into the company of undiscerning readers, where I did not want to be.  I like Murnane, I’ve liked everything I’ve read of his fiction even when I didn’t fully comprehend it.  I was quite discomfited by being placed in this clearly undesirable camp!

What’s more, this somewhat confronting label has the effect of creating an awkward tension between the narrator/voice of this fiction and the reader.  It felt mildly confrontational.  I expect that this sense of being judged will make most readers try, as I did, not to disappoint, but despite my efforts, yes, there were times when this personage blithely corrected my wayward interpretations with what seemed like very little tact.  If like me you had thought yourself a reasonably discerning reader, you may well find A Million Windows rather chastening.

It was especially discomfiting to write, as I did in my reading journal, that I must be en garde as in a chess game where a better player than me is placing his pieces in a series of moves behind which lies a strategy I have yet to discern only to turn the page and find Murnane describing Calvino

as someone for whom writer and reader are opposed to one another as the players on either side of a chessboard are opposed. Even the undiscerning reader of this fiction of mine should have understood by now that I, the narrator, would dread to feel that we were separated even by these sentences.  (p.33)

Oh dear.

So.  You have been warned.  I am an undiscerning reader and probably ought not share my undiscerning thoughts about A Million Windows.  But I’m going to anyway because I was fascinated by it and despite the rather bossy narrator telling me how not to read the book, I liked reading it so much, I read it twice.  Perhaps on cue, I had become stubbornly determined to engage with it.

I was amused by the narrator’s adventures with ‘narratology’.  There was a time when he thought that writing fiction was a craft that he should strive to improve.   Long before the days of buying books online he came across a book ‘reviewed respectfully’ in the TLS and, thinking he was obliged to be aware of the sorts of fiction being published in distant countries, he ordered it from overseas.  It was by a respected German scholar (who? who was it??) and was full of charts and diagrams to do with narrative styles, which alas made him inclined to scoff because it put him in mind of some or another inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilisation long since vanished.   Indeed, preferring the work of an American professor, he forgot all about this diagram until writing this book, and at first had thought he might refer to it to

startle the undiscerning reader who believes that a work of fiction contains little more than reports of so-called characters, of what these characters do and say and think, and of the scenery, so to call it, in the background. (p. 51)

But on reflection, he (the narrator) considered the other writers of fiction in the house of two or, perhaps, three storeys where much of the action, so to call it, of this work of fiction takes place.   They (i.e. not you or I, but rather the fictional personages of this book) may find their own work susceptible to the sort of analysis that had given rise to the diagram.  Now, I don’t know about anyone else, I find this idea of baiting the undiscerning reader just a tad provocative – and even more so to lump the fictional personages of this book in with them!

Punctuated by an assortment of narratives about persons who have featured in Murnane’s previous works of fiction, the narrator goes on to pontificate about plot, character, setting and so on, and will neatly invert any ideas the (undiscerning) reader might yet have clung on to about these aspects of fiction.  You can’t have any of those when you read Murnane.  The Murnane reading experience is not like that.  The compensation is that it is intellectually daring, enjoyably exasperating, and occasionally droll.

(You also have to get used to very long, somewhat pedantic sentences with multiple clauses.  One that I noticed on page 47 is 27 lines long).

Although I had read A History of Books I was still intrigued to see how confined Murnane’s the narrator’s reading interests seem to be.  The voice is that of one of the most interesting and exciting contemporary authors, considered to be Australia’s next most likely Nobel winner, and yet he eschews all kinds of contemporary writing because he doesn’t trust the narrative techniques.  The book will be cast aside, for example,  if it features dialogue because it’s purporting to be a film script.   He is especially scornful about stream of consciousness as a technique, calling it ‘posturing’  in the case of Mario Vargas Llosa.  He likes Thomas Hardy, for example, because the narrator seems like someone older and wiser, telling you what to make of it – what to conclude, or what to feel.  And Dickens can be admired because he can direct the actions of his fictional personages (i.e. there can be a plot!) but writers of what he calls ‘true fiction’ lack something needed to do that:

On the rare occasions when we discuss authors such as Charles Dickens, we seem to agree that we lack for something that writers of fiction seemed formerly to possess.  And yet, if we have lost something, so to speak, we have also gained something.  We may be unable to exercise control over our fictional personages the sort of control that Dickens and others exercised over their characters, but we are able to turn that same lack of control to our advantage and to learn from our own subject-matter, so to call it, in somewhat the same way that our readers are presumed to learn from our writing. (p.128)

As you could tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last weekend, Murnane’s House of Fiction with its million windows (a metaphor derived from Henry James) comprises many different wings, for writers of different genres.   There is a wing where residents are accorded respect in proportion to the tens of thousands of copies of their books sold or the number of their books adapted for film or even the number of literary prizes awarded them, and while there is some contact between the poets and the exclusive (but necessarily small) wing where the narrator creates his ‘true fiction’, the reader does not need to be told that the narrator eschews contact with these best-selling prize winners and the writers of romance!

Murnane’s preoccupation with girls surfaces often in A Million Windows.  (There is a kind of narrative thread that runs through the book, but I hesitate to call it a story).  I was rather charmed by the narrator’s surprise that girls don’t understand his oblique behaviour.  In adolescence he strikes up an awkward acquaintance with a girl on the train, but she offends him by asking an idle question about how he refers to cinema: movies, pictures or films?  Somehow she should have known that he could not sustain a relationship with a girl who cares about cinema.  Indeed, he feels a mild resentment that to get to know girls there has to be the burden of ‘going out’ with them – he would much rather withdraw and write.  Without any word or overt sign from him, this girl should have understood that her interest in cinema was the reason why he abandoned conversation with her after that.  He was puzzled and hurt when he saw in a ‘Dear Dorothy’ letter in a newspaper that seemed to apply to this incident and to judge him harshly for it.  And he remains utterly convinced that she still thinks of him, as he thinks of her decades later.

I enjoyed this interview with Giromondo’s publisher Ivor Indyk, but I think it’s probably best savoured after reading the book, whereas an audio interview at ABC RN with Michael Cathcart is a useful introduction or companion as you read.

For much more erudite thoughts than mine about A Million Windows, see Peter Craven in the SMH, Emmett Stinson at the Sydney Review, and, if you’re really keen,  K. Thomas Kahn’s at The Quarterly Conversation.  And while I don’t usually care for the anonymous reviews at The Saturday Paper,  I refer you to this one because I was a little relieved to find that I was not alone in thinking some of Murnane’s positions somewhat combative.  Still, I can’t help but find the book exhilarating to read, and I find the stated writing ambition compelling.  What he wants to do is to call into being a narrator more knowledgeable and trustworthy than a personage such as myself, the narrator of this book. He wants it to be a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design (p. 68)

This ambition is based on a desire for trust between writer and reader, and even though I feel I have failed to meet Murnane’s exacting standards, I hope I have conveyed some of my delight in tackling this book.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Million Windows
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146533
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Availability
Fishpond: A Million Windows
Or direct from Giramondo.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2014

Sensational Snippets: A Million Windows, by Gerald Murnane


A Million WindowsI am on my second reading of Gerald Murnane’s new book, A Million Windows – and I can’t resist sharing this marvellous metaphor for poetry…

Imagine, if you will,  a ‘house of fiction’ harbouring many writers, who seem to have corralled themselves into different wings of the house.  In one wing no one ‘owns to’ being a poet, but in the adjacent wing there are former poets, who made the transition to writing prose when the ‘winds of fashion’ arose and there ceased to be a craze for ‘declaiming poems in public places’ to ‘cleanse the world’.  These former poets are evasive about the motives for their transition, and the narrator is a bit scornful about them since their poetry was ‘no more than badly punctuated prose arranged in lines of arbitrary length’.

But, there is one former poet who explains his motives thus:

He likens poetry to whisky or gin and prose to beer, which is his only drink.  He says the amount of alcohol in a given volume of beer constitutes a sort of perfect proportion or golden mean whereas whisky and other spirits are akin to poisons, with a potency out of all proportion to their volume.  Poets, he says, are distillers while we writers of prose are brewers, and he strives while he writes to turn out sentence after sentence the meaning of which will keep his reader in a heightened state of awareness for hour after hour whereas the poet that he had once wanted to be might have had his reader fall forward, before long, to the table, seeing double after a surfeit of metaphors.  (p. 109)

*chuckle* I know just what he means.  I’m reading Sappho at the moment, in preparation for my next Masterclass at Melbourne University, where Germaine Greer is the lecturer.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Million Windows
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146533
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Availability
Fishpond: A Million Windows
Or direct from Giramondo.

 

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