Monthly Archives: August 2011

Fictionary Dictionary

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…

A quarender is a dark red apple

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It’s Fictionary Dictionary Friday

WHAT IS THE CORRECT MEANING OF…

Quarender

Have a guess and check in on Sunday for the answer

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Dressing Up for the Carnival by Carol Shields: review

Once again, thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers for the book and the opportunity to flex my reviewing muscles.  Cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.

Chicago-born latter-day Canadian Carol Shields was an Orange Prize-winner, a short-listee for the Booker Prize and the 1995 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one comes to Dressing up for the Carnival (published in 2000, 3 years before her death) with rather high expectations. 

So when I say that some of the stories in this collection left me unmoved and nonplussed, I think you will understand that the shortcomings are likely to be mine as the reader.  Specifically, it was the tales with a humorous slant – like ‘Weather’ in which the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike – that I didn’t quite latch on to. 

Elsewhere though, Shields just nails it. 

The title story is, for me, about identity.  It’s about the way we package ourselves.  That old adage ‘Clothes maketh the [wo]man’ resonates beneath Shields’ sure pen. And, if not clothes, then props: like a mango (“An elliptical purse, juice-filled, curved for the palm of the human hand.”) or a bunch of daffodils (“They form a blaze of yellow in his arms, a sweet propitiating little fire.”) 

The final story is about clothes too…or lack of them…or more particularly, what we become without them.

 Sandwiched between these two stories, are some delightful fillings:-

  ‘A Scarf’, the purchase of which is to suit a very specific purpose.
 The narrator – a fledgling author at a loose end in a strange town – spends hours choosing the precise scarf for her daughter who “had always been a bravely undemanding child” but the scarf finds its own – totally different – purpose to serve.

 ‘Dying for Love’, in which three women – separately – contemplate suicide. 
Shields doesn’t give us maudlin drawn-out violin strings.  Beth  merely “wonders what would happen if she took all twelve pills plus the gin”  before ditching the lot in favour of a hot milk.  On the brink of jumping from a bridge, Lizzie recalls she is a brilliant swimmer.  And Elizabeth realises “she has the power to create parallel stories that offer her a measure of comfort”.

 ‘Windows’ is a sort of reverse ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and a study of lives diminished by a lack of windows.  Aesthetics, imagination, art and deprivation culminate in such descriptive gems as this:

Glass is green like water or blue like the sky or a rectangle of beaten gold when the setting sun strikes it or else a midnight black broken by starlight or the cold courteous reflection of the moon.  

‘New Music’ is my favourite story – a real standout in this collection.
It opens with a young woman explaining to a man she has just met why she prefers to study the second-best composer, rather than the best.  

 As a writer, I empathised with the woman – soon married to the man she met in the opening paragraphs and with three children – who gets out of bed one hour before the others in the household.  To do what? To make breakfast scones for her family? To iron clothes? Prepare for her day at the office? No. She spends her gifted hour writing at her desk, dressed in her “old and not-very-clean mauve dressing gown”.  Yes  – most writers have one (mine is blue and equally not very clean).

 The wife and mother in ‘New Music’ has completed her 612 page biography of the second-best composer and the manuscript has been sent to a “a reasonably distinguished publishing house – though certainly not the best”.  After publication of the biography (and a suitable hiatus spent catching up on the housework and bonding with her children), she is finally tempted to write about the number one composer and we sense an immediate shift in the dynamic.

 This woman who previously found ‘second-best’ her forte, who loves her middle child (“neither clever nor exceptional in appearance” ) the most, is busy and preoccupied.  “Her word processor sends out blinding windows of authority” as she begins to look at her husband “with an odd, assessing, measuring clarity” and we know that her husband might think he belongs to the days of ‘second-best’.

 BOOK DETAIL:
Shields, Carol, Dressing Up for the Carnival, Fourth Estate, London, 2000.
ISBN 1-84115-165-3

 

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The Hanged Man in the Garden by Marion Halligan

In the interest of updating my blog, I’m posting here my review previously published at ANZ LitLovers.

Marion Halligan’s The Hanged Man in the Garden crept up on me slowly and then, unexpectedly threw an enormous punch to the solar plexus.

I had read just one of the stories previously – Belladonna Gardens – and, whilst I remembered it for its x-ray of the bureaucracy and constraints of housing commission lives half-lived, I did not appreciate it as much as I do now that I’ve read it nestled between companion stories with recurring themes and characters.

The characters of Martha and Richard are constants, as are teaching and cooking and the peripheral themes of Canberra (where Halligan now lives), wordplay, gardens, grief and art.

In a 2003 interview with Gillian Dooley (adapted and reprinted in the June 2004 issue of Antipodes), Halligan confessed an Iris Murdoch-like fascination with art: “I notice some writers, like Jolley and Garner, take images from music, but I get mine a lot from art, painting especially.”

Consider, from the title story, one of the many ways a garden might be experienced, if seen from a new angle: 

  See it with anonymous medieval eyes: the herbs in formal squares in their sun-dialled bed, the carpets of violets, purple starred.  Or the eyes of Monet, when  the roses will haze into shapes of light; or Matisse, which make a garden of the mind which reassembles objects by its own logic.  Or the eyes of Bonnard, which paint their own dazzlement.

 Halligan presents a realistic unvarnished Canberra as the major setting throughout this…collection?  My question mark comes about because I find it less of a fragmented collection and more a series of vignettes that can easily be cut and pasted.  It reminds me – rather bizarrely – of a Quentin Tarantino movie, with its structure of separate incidents that make for a satisfying whole when assembled as one complete work.  

In addition to Canberra, the author casts a fresh eye over Australia in its entirety.  Upon her first sight of New Zealand, “all fresh and jagged”, it suddenly occurs to Martha that her own country is “soft”, an observation that clashed with my idea of Australia as a sunburnt country with rugged mountain ranges, girt by rough-and-tumble seas. 

The shortest of the short stories at just a tad over 3 pages, ‘Use more hooks’ is a delightful seduction told in a sure Australian voice; unfurled with sincere humour and leaving much unsaid. It is award-winning Marion Halligan at her best.

“I’d love a sunburnt nipple” Richard says to Martha (reminding me of Dorothea Mackella’s Sunburnt Country) when he hints she might like to remove her “copious bikini” in the company of so many bare-breasted beach-goers.  Later, when Martha orders tellines and separately sucks the “pearly golden pink” flesh from each minute shellfish, the reader can only imagine Richard’s thoughts as he gets drunk waiting for her to finish.

In Martha’s dream that night, her homeland ocean is anything but soft (unlike the Mediterranean she is visiting).  Instead, the shallows are frothing with waves that roll about “bearing her up, tossing her down, energetically caressing”.  Martha thinks: “A sea to swim in ought to be energetic”.

Unlike a romantic fantasy where the inner monologue of Martha would have eventually collided with Richard’s unvoiced longings, realism prevails.  The timing is wrong, as it so often is in life (especially a married one) and Richard will never know that Martha was full of a strange longing he could have fulfilled.

The story that gave me that great big whack in the chest was ‘The Failure of the Bay Tree’. Finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, Jenny remains “cold through the process of the growing child”.  She was quite certain her life would not change but she was unprepared for the “overwhelming, terrifying love” that hit her after the birth of her daughter. She becomes a “quivering defenceless surface open to harm” and, contrary to her pre-birth ideals, she is not interested in going back to work or in getting a nanny.  She wants to spend her time with her baby.

It is such a shock then, when she discovers the baby’s small fist, cold and stiff.  The juxtaposition of Hansel poking a bone out through the bars of the cage (in the Hansel and Gretel story she’d read earlier) with her daughter’s “little finger poking through the bars of the cage of the cot” is heartbreaking.  The desperate need of the grieving to find something or someone to blame settles on both: the someone is Sybil the babysitter, who surely must have been a witch; the something is the bay tree given to Jenny by Martha with the Nicholas Culpeper quotation neither witch, nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where a bay tree is.  The tree’s failure to protect brings the gift-bearer Martha to terror and tears.

It is worth noting that, in the later brilliant stories featuring the babysitter, Sybil smiles a “witch’s smile” and is “like a charming witch”, reminding us of her place in the overall scheme, perhaps tarnishing her by that earlier association.

Many people would not have read these stories together (many were published separately throughout the eighties) and it seems like only half the experience to have read, say ‘Paternity Suit’ with its glimpse of the kimono without ever experiencing the divine pleasure of ‘Sybil’s Kimono’.  I tried to imagine having read of the as yet unmarried and childless Martha and Richard in ‘Blood Relations’ without ever knowing of their later shared experiences.  As insightful as ‘A list of last things and lost’ is, with its telescope honed on teenage grief, it is all the better for knowing that young Jimmy’s interest in the tarot – first outed in ‘The Hanged Man in the Garden’ – remains and blossoms.

The Hanged Man in the Garden is a wonderful collection of short-stories but I prefer to read it as an unusually structured (and extremely satisfying) montage of a novel.

 REFERENCES:
Dooley, Gillian. ‘An Interview with Marion Halligan.’ Antipodes, June 2004, 5-7.

 BOOK DETAIL:
Halligan, Marion. The Hanged Man in the Garden, Penguin Books, Ringwood Aust., 1989.

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Favourite Reading Places

A Weekly Series of Riffs in 200 Words

I love to read in bed but there are a few down-sides: the light bothers one’s significant other, reading glasses preclude a comfortable switch of sides; eye-strain brings sleep quicker than expected.  And there’s the problem of poor lighting in hotels when travelling.

In my youth, I loved to read at the beach.  Those were the days of slow-roasting ourselves like little piglets on spits.  We were also young and carefree enough not to worry about sand grit between the pages (and between everything else).

When I am desperate for some sun in the middle of bitter Stanthorpe winters, I head to the park where the naked trees don’t even have a pair of leaves to rustle.  Even so, I am an intrepid people watcher so can become easily distracted.  Many is the time I’ve had to read a page three times over.

Libraries are still fun.  There’s usually a comfy chair with good lighting and, unless its kindy day, it’s quiet.  Again, I’m easily distracted.  I cannot sit still reading one book when there are thousands more begging to be opened.  It’s like being in a lolly shop.

Do you have a favourite reading place you’d like to share?

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…
Puissance is a show jumping competition.

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It’s Fictionary Dictionary Friday

(yes, it is only Thursday. Early for this week only)

What is the correct meaning of…PUISSANCE
Have a guess and check in on Sunday for the answer.


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Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

I was delighted to be be given the opportunity to review Her Father’s Daughter.
Alice Pung’s latest memoir is chock-a-block-full of powerful imagery; both rich and sparse. Her Father’s Daughter reads like a multi-layered love letter from a daughter to her father. Its four parts unwrap a father’s complicated and sometimes flawed protectiveness, while shining a light on the interconnecting strands of that most intricate of webs; the family.  At the same time, it casts a steely unflinching eye over Cambodia’s devastating history.

Alice Pung who won the ABI Newcomer of the Year Award in 2007 for Unpolished Gem, mesmerises in this second memoir with her stylish (but not overly-styled) prose.  With fabulous humour, Pung introduces us – in part one – to modern-day China with its robust marketplace-haggling, enigmatic Chinese guessing games and ‘two-thirds of the world’s cranes’ (as Alice’s guide proudly informs her). 

Pung describes mundane late-night traffic in such a way that lights on a highway become something akin to an exquisite necklace.  She can make you think about what tea-cup size says about a society.  Small cups don’t invite talkativeness:

You couldn’t tell a longwinded story about a visit to the supermarket while holding a Chinese cup with two fingers.  Its contents were two gulps.  The end.

Despite the occasional hint that there is much more beneath the surface, part one had me smiling my way through happy-go-lucky  pages of tourist-stops and ‘beautiful perfumed young women floating around the city‘, drastic hair-cuts and the considered love of Aunties and Uncles.   And then there is the agonised restraint of first love revisited.

Melbourne forms the back-drop for part two, four years before the China trip.  Alice feels uplifted by her pokey little University flat that represents solitude and freedom to her twenty-three year old eyes.  The ties to her family are still strong however, and she returns to the family home every weekend to don her blue Retravision shirt and work in the back office of her father’s store.

Into this story of a young woman’s search for independence from a loving family and an over-protective father, comes the devastation of the father’s struggles in his ‘other’ life.  ‘Cambodia: Year Zero’ is shocking and riveting.  Devastating.  There is some frightening imagery and my reviewer’s pencil was stunned into stillness.  Sometimes, the shock is in the sparsity of the descriptions.

While some survivors swapped stories, others – starving and exhausted – remained silent because ‘it took about seventy muscles in the face to mutter a single word, and they were exhausted’.

Here, her father’s friend describes one of many atrocities with a chilling economy of words:

 The bus, the man said.  It loaded us on, and then it took us to the top of a mountain and dumped us there.  The mountain was dotted with landmines.  At the top there was no food or water, so we went down and exploded and died.

Thankfully, Pung’s sense of humour – showcased wonderfully in her introduction to Growing up Asian in Australia when she tells of her initial response to the label ‘Power-Point’ – remains not too far from the surface, ready to drag the reader back from the brink of despair with a couple of perfectly chosen words or a stab of wry humour.

The clever menu pun on the Nixon/Kissinger bombing campaign ‘Operation Breakfast’ is – all at once –  macabre, funny, and macabrely funny.

Amidst the many violent deaths, there is also just Death; like the man who finally gave up after losing his whole family, when simply moving became hard work.  Then, even looking became too hard.  And, finally, breathing. ‘Breathing was the hardest task of all.  He decided that he just wasn’t up to it anymore.’

One of my favourite gems amongst the many to discover in Her Father’s Daughter is the chapter titled ‘The secret life of the senses’, with its ‘Life of hearing’ and ‘Life of Touch’ and so on, culminating in ‘Life of the Mind’ which allows survivors to mould people back to life ‘out of the wet clay of their recent memories’ so that painful chapters can somehow be skipped, history rearranged, deprivation and death banished.  It is in this chapter that Pung unearths one of those less-talked-of truths: often, it is easier for people who have witnessed extreme trauma together, to separate; to take divergent paths, because the submergence of painful memories is less demanding when there is no-one to share them with.  Over time, they might become less real.

Alice’s father is a delight with his notion of University as a ‘strangely perfect word’ because it contains the word universe, and in the way he tries to come to grips with a language that uses the term ‘tender submission’ for a business form.  Here is a man whose repressed memory sees him filing down the pointed end of a knife in order to protect his family from injuring themselves, a man who based his choice of car on the number of its airbags. 

Her Father’s Daughter is a powerful account of one woman’s attempt to understand her roots, and is perhaps best summed up in the prologue by Alice herself as she begins her quest:

She thought of her grandfather – her father’s father – dead of starvation, her two cousins buried alive, half her relatives wiped out, the whole of Cambodia reduced to one extended bony arm begging for a bowl of rice.  This was her heritage.

BOOK DETAIL
PUNG, Alice. Her Father’s Daughter. Black Inc. Collingwood, Aust. 2011
ISBN : 9781863955423
Source: Advance review copy courtesy of Black Inc
Availability, (from August 29th 2011):
Fishpond: Her Father’s Daughter

Alice Pung’s other works are:-

The above review was published at ANZ LitLovers on 14th August 2011.

Post Updated 16th August 2011

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