Monthly Archives: October 2011

When is an Autobiography a Memoir?

A weekly series of riffs in 200 words

I’ve read a heap of biographies: the subjects as diverse as Aristotle Onassis, John Lennon and the delightful ‘Dame Edna Everage’ (does ‘she’ count?), as well as a good pile of autobiographies and memoirs.
Whilst a biography is what it is, I sometimes find it hard to differentiate between autobiography and memoir.  
A memoir is like a vignette plucked from the fullness of a life, or even a series of vignettes (Angela’s Ashes is a well-known memoir but I would cite Kay Summersby Morgan’s Past Forgetting as an equally good [completely different] example).  Conversely, an autobiography is generally a sketch of a whole life up to the time of writing (such as Christiaan Barnard’s One Life).
Some people believe autobiographies to be scholarly whereas a memoir might be considered more entertaining.
But why?
Well, the short answer is, I think, Voice (yes, with a capital V).  One of my friends – a wonderful writer herself – suggests humour and insight as two qualities that make a good Memoir and I believe these traits best show themselves through the author’s Voice.
Here’s a conundrum then.  The ‘autobiography of…the thirty-seventh president of the United States’ is titled The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.
Go figure.

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…yclept means ‘having the name of’.

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Fictionary Dictionary Friday

If you are waiting with ‘great trepidation’ to discover what will happen to Fictionary Dictionary Friday once we arrive at the end of the alphabet, I have good news and bad.

Bad:  No more Fictionary Dictionary Friday after we hit the Big-Z next week.

Good:  I do have something interesting up my sleeve to replace it so stay tuned.

In the meantime, what is the meaning of the [admittedly obsolete] word, YCLEPT? Have a guess and check in on Sunday for the answer.

 

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The Changing Forms of Clouds by Dalia Millingen: Book Review

Dalia Millingen has been haunted by the ‘Black Dog’, seemingly since early childhood, so her memoir The Changing Forms of Clouds naturally has something to say about the debilitating disease (and with great knowledge and insight) but this engaging story is about so much more.

Being fond of what I refer to as ‘late bloomers’, (some of the more well-known Aussie literary ones were mentioned recently on a Whispering Gums post), I’m delighted that Millingen has had her first book published on what must be almost the cusp of her 90th birthday.  What a marvellous achievement!

And well done to Hybrid – a Melbourne Publishing House that, amongst other things, specialises in Jewish writings – for launching this unusual memoir.

The Changing Forms of Clouds is unusual on two main fronts:-

Firstly, it leaves much unsaid.  Facts are sometimes glossed over and events inferred, meaning it is necessary to read between the lines.

 Millingen admits to a frustration with “people who exaggerate size or numbers while storytelling” (15) and it shows in her sometimes cautious choice of phrase, as though she is determined to be as truthful as she can be.

When she ponders if her inability to remember the bed she slept in at her parents’ house was the result of the “brutal months” she lived through (92), we are reminded that much has been left unsaid because, at that point, “brutal” is not a word that would come to mind.

When three-quarters of the way through the book, Millingen briefly mentions an abortion she had many years prior, it comes as a shock.  Her confessional style is such that, by that point in the book, I felt I had lived through many of those years with her and, as if I were a confidant, I felt hurt that she had not shared that fact with me before.

Secondly, the voice is not constant, vacillating between the conversational and the highly stylised.  It can go from the poetic:
Sealed in the shadows, my early years have imprinted bluntly and left indelible scars.  I breathed the poisoned fumes that pollute the air of absent nurturing. (25) 

to the prosaic:
There was not much space in this apartment, and my widowed grandmother went to live with one of her sons.  The single bathroom was part of the first floor’s tenancy.  My father went to the public baths. (12)

 with the occasional difficult passage:
I appreciate the advantages of electronics but it has been easy to take it in my stride and I am protected from a disease where the virus is both potent and infectious.  As to bigger and better, it isn’t a question of indifference to comfort but the intimation from living experience that happiness can be found in the simplest of settings, (9)

It is frightening to think that, at the tender age of eight,  already suffering  from a perceived lack of affection, little Dalia was plucked from her home to be sent to a ‘Preventorium’ for three months, because she was dangerously underweight and thought to be at risk of the dreaded tuberculosis.  There she lived with “silence, fear, anger and longing” being “washed, towelled and dressed by anonymous hands” (32).  This was obviously such a difficult time for Millingen that she rarely refers to herself alone during the retelling of this period, preferring instead to write of the group of children: “We were directed…twenty little girls lie still…we lie, curled up with long-learned patience” (34).

In recounting the horror of the dormitory-style existence, Millingen shocks with the description of the supervisor “a disciplinarian who in hatred presses the white pillow over a mouth that dares to utter a few words or cry” (34).  But the author chooses not to go into any further detail, whether because of the difficulty in the telling or the distance of the memory (broken links were caused by the electroshocks she was subjected to many years later), is difficult to say.

There is a pronounced shift in tone and voice when Millingen disembarks from The Napoli in Melbourne in 1950 and, again, I ponder the reason.  Is it because her more recent memories are clearer?  Perhaps, with friends and children available to check facts and bounce remembrances off, it is easier to be sure of the occurrence of events.  Or could it be that, in remembering her childhood and growth in Belgium, she was ‘thinking’ in another language and was constantly translating those thoughts?  After her many years in Australia, does English come naturally to her and is it easier to relate events without filtering through language? 

In unveiling herself to us as the newly arrived wife and mother in Australia, Millingen allows her sense of humour to surface, tasting Four’N Twenty meat pies in Frankston and believing them to “be the specialty of the town” (117).  The Australian habit of replacing ‘Hello’ with ‘How do you do’ led to some embarrassing situations as Millingen lingered, endeavouring to answer what she thought was a question.  It reminded me of my first visit to Queensland from the southern states (where I was born and schooled) to be confronted with ‘eh?’ at the end of sentences and I would flounder trying to answer the question that was not a question.   

Despite the young family’s isolation (they saw little of her husband’s large extended family) and somewhat lean living conditions, Millingen was content until the loss of her seriously ill baby at three months.  The dead-pan telling of the trauma reveals grief still palpable.  “Little Kim came home to us after a month and lived for another two.” (124)  Can you imagine, after the death of a child on Christmas day, continuing on with plans to eat Christmas dinner with friends, after first expressing a surplus of milk?  I certainly can’t and I can barely comprehend the severity of the post traumatic stress that would eventually topple even the toughest individual.

What a road Millingen has travelled!  Following her divorce, she showed incredible chutzpah in getting her application to a three-month overland trip for under thirty-fives accepted, despite being fifty-three at the time.  She showed strength and courage travelling across Nepal, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.  She showed growth and compassion in the way she dealt with her mother after the life-long strain of their relationship.  She also showed a continued strength of mind and a willingness to educate herself further, specifically in relation to the debilitating disease of depression which seems to have haunted her since childhood.  But I did baulk when, after feeling hurt by her sister’s lack of consideration, Millingen momentarily turned in on herself again, writing that her sister was right to be hurt given that she – Millingen – had “selfishly abandoned the family” (221).

The book would have benefited from a more detailed final edit (“does depression triggers anxiety” (174), “or did her merriment expressed respect” (25)) but it’s a minor quibble.

One of my favourite passages from the memoir:-

I imagine life as a piece of string of indeterminate length handed at birth to each of us and we are compelled to follow its twists and turns as the string uncoils.  The metaphor is adequate, for the string, once unrolled, can be rewound, enriched, braided with others, enlightened with insight. (1)

Millingen’s metaphor is an apt description for the full yet difficult life she unravels for us within the pages of The Changing Forms of Clouds.

 BOOK DETAIL
Millingen, Dalia. The Changing Forms of Clouds, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 2011.
ISBN: 9 7819251 665387

CROSS-POSTED at ANZLitlovers.

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The Nightmare that is Shopping

A weekly series of riffs in 200 words

I spent five hours in a shopping centre yesterday and I have a few things to get off my chest.

  1.  Isn’t it time Just Jeans changed its name?  When they opened, however many eons ago that was, I think they really did sell ‘just’ jeans.  These days, they’ve got tops and dresses and shirts and all sorts of apparel.  Could they be ‘Jeans and heaps of other Stuff’ or ‘Apparel [including jeans]’?
  2. Do all shoe-makers (Diana Ferrari excepted) think that everyone who wears a size nine-and-a-half or above really wants to draw attention to their feet by flopping around in unflattering boats in boring colours?
  3. Can shop assistants half my age, please stop calling me ‘darling’ or ‘dear’?  Even people I know don’t get away with that without ducking a slap.
  4. On that same note…when did we start using Ma’am?  If I want to hear that sort of nonsense, I’ll go shopping in New York if its all the same to you.
  5. Once you’ve said hello and offered your assistance, please continue on with your business.  I’m sure you have plenty to do and I know where to find you if I need help. Cheers.

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…Xylocarp is a fruit.

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It’s Fictionary Dictionary Friday

WHAT IS THE CORRECT MEANING OF XYLOCARP

Have a guess and check in on Sunday for the Answer

 

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The Plush Velvet Lining of Clouds

A weekly series of riffs in 200 words.

As an author, it is sometimes disheartening to visit bookstores, ready to introduce yourself and offer to sign some books or assist in promoting your book, only to find it isn’t stocked.

Some of my favourite people work in bookstores: most of them are passionate about books and eager to ‘order the book in’.  But there is something rather special about just stumbling upon one’s ‘pride and joy’.

To add confusion to my situation… due to a mix-up in the very early publication stages, some book stores have my name as Karen LEE-THOMPSON instead of Karen lee THOMPSON so friends occasionally report that my book is not in store as, naturally, they look under T.  I am now discovering that it is often to be found half-way through in the Ls.

I have published articles as Karenlee Thompson and I’m thinking adopting it again (my husband calls me Karenlee).

Sometimes it’s frustrating and disheartening (especially if, like me, you’re still on promotional L-plates), but when I saw this shot of ‘my baby’ nestled comfortably between the hilariously funny Kathy Lette and the sexily erudite Tobsha Learner, I was buoyed once more. 

So that’s the plush velvet lining behind today’s cloud.

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…WICKIUP is a hut made of brushwood.

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It’s Fictionary Dictionary Friday

WHAT IS THE CORRECT MEANING OF…

 

WICKIUP

Have a guess and check in on Sunday for the Answer

 

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A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other short stories by Alan Collins: Book Review

If, like me, Alan Collins is one of those writer’s who has slipped under your radar, then A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other Stories is a terrific place to get to know him.  But be sure to follow it up with Alva’s Boy – check out Lisa Hill’s review.

 As I read some of the stories in this anthology I easily imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with a writer who Arnold Zable describes in his introduction to this posthumously published work (Collins shrugged his mortal skin in 2008) as a “classic Australian yarn spinner”. 

His mastery of the metaphor and skilful use of the simile are evident in every tale:

An engine that “continues to sputter on independently [is] like an aged person to whom no-one ever listens” (2).  When sugar ants converge where a glass of iced drink had stood, they “matched themselves to the moist circle like a living necklace” (125) and the surface of sliced black bread is “as smooth and as cold as a corpse” (129).  In ‘A Friend in Need’, we meet the wheelchair-bound Gail who’s face has the “blandness of practised concealment”, yet “the history of her illness was written around her eyes in long creases like a dry river delta (157).

In ‘My War’, the narrator – “a Jewboy living in Bondi” surviving on his wits – apologises at the outset “for not spending the war years living on turnips, being concealed in an attic or cellar” (41) reminding me of the stereotypical relationship between Jewish children of a certain era and their parents.  As it happened, those spot-on familial relationships are not a part of Collins’ own canvas: his mother died in childbirth and he spent much of his childhood in charitable institutions.

I imagined the young Alan Collins in the character of Jules in ‘That your Boy?’  Here is a young boy who one might expect would be angry with a mother who died and left him lonely within his relationship with his father.  We’d be unsurprised to see the young Jules furious with his father for sending him away from what could have been an idyllic life in the country to a welfare establishment in Sydney.  He could have been forgiven for feeling bitterness toward the woman who showed him affection but then turned her back.  Instead, Jules places blame on the “dud Japanese shell” (173) that landed on a Bondi Street and spooked his father into fleeing.  My heart ached for him.

Collins’ sense of humour appears both subtly and in laugh out loud passages.  In the title story, for example, the narrator (one assumes Collins himself as it was incorporated into his memoir Alva’s Boy) reads what he believes to be a ship’s name on its stern and after spending his schooldays asking kids at school if they arrived on the ‘Pas op de Schroeven’, discovers (at age thirty-five) that the words painted on the ship meant “Beware of the propellers”. Equally funny is the “reffo kids” responses.  It’s a great comedy of errors.  (33)

The Showcase story for me is ‘The Value of a Nail’.  I deliberately choose the word ‘showcase’ because in it we see the fabulous traits that Collins brought to the table as a writer: a razor-sharp observance of human nature; an ability to seamlessly meld fiction and memoir in order to turn a spotlight on subjects as varied as Jewish history, social injustices and the Australian working class; and a talent for describing physical surrounds with metaphor and simile.  All of that wrapped up in a deliciously wicked sense of humour makes for a fantastic read.

‘The Value of a Nail’ opens thus:

The gentiles, Ernst felt sure, were born with a hammer and nails in their hand.  He didn’t mean that irreverently, he told himself.  It was just that they always seemed to be, as his neighbour put it, “knocking up a chook-house, a dog kennel or a set of shelves”, all those Saturday afternoon jobs that set the street ringing with the sounds of hammering, sawing and nailing. (136)

I read ‘The Value of a Nail’ as a study on the various coteries to which we feel we belong and our understanding of how we each fit into both the dominant culture of our surrounds and the culture with which we frame our natural inclinations.

Ernst is a man who finds himself disorientated and displaced after moving from the known and knowable St Kilda – with its regularly attended synagogue, kosher delis and Jewish friends – to Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Playing hooky from the synagogue one Saturday morning, Ernst finds himself in a hardware shop surrounded by the mysterious paraphernalia of the weekend handyman and he covets the folded rulers tucked in the side-pockets of the Australian men’s overalls, seeing the rulers as status symbols.

 I instantly recognize these Aussie blokes who “stroked unshaven chins and talked knowingly to men in dustcoats with measuring tapes clipped to their belts” (137) and empathised with Ernst’s desire to be allowed entry to their clique.

He works hard to build book shelves and puts up a plethora of hooks, before designing and crafting a beautiful kidney-shaped coffee table and is pleased to be treated with a degree of respect by the man in the dustcoat at the hardware store.  After deciding to host their inner-city friends (Viennese sophisticates as Ernst’s wife thinks of them) for a Sunday afternoon get-together, Ernst is bursting with anxiety and pride over his home improvements. 

Lotte and Leo arrive in a cloud of perfume and pipe-smoke with a bounty of “the exotic cakes that grew in St Kilda” (143) but Leo shatters Ernst’s pride with his unflattering review of the shelving and meticulously crafted table. 

In just nine pages, Collins has shown us the sense of ourselves that comes from the groups we feel we belong in and those we wish to belong to.  He teaches us something of the Jewish culture and the Australian way of life and, after a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, we can sympathise with Ernst as he is left to take comfort from the carpenters’ rule folded in his pocket.

There is something to like in every story in A Thousand Nights at the Ritz, and there is much to ponder.  Every time I see one of those folding carpenters’ rules, I will probably ponder how far I have come, how long it has taken me to get here and what my place is in the community in which I live.

 BOOK DETAIL
Collins, Alan. A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other stories, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne. 2010.
ISBN: 978-1-876462-93-2

This review is also published at ANZ LitLovers

 

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Give me an S! Give me a Z! What will it be?

A Weekly Series of Riffs in 200 Words

When our American neighbours reach for a ‘Z’, we Aussies generally fancy the ‘S’.  However, my trusty [Collins English] dictionary (circa late last century) has a few exceptions.

When I follow the dictionary (in the manner I was taught to use it), I believe Editors think I am insane.  Working on the assumption that because my dictionary was ‘English’ and OLD (so old that its spine is broken, the pages are discoloured and some are ripped), I purchased a brand spanking new ‘Collins Concise Australian Dictionary’ but I remain unenlightened.

 Here are some examples to show you how I use my dictionary:-

  • realize or realise (Because ‘ize’ comes first and there is no listing on its own under realise then, the listing would tell me that the correct spelling is ‘ize’).
  • fantasize or fantasise (same as the above example – I would opt for ‘ize’)

Has dictionary use changed over the years?  Am I being pedantic? Or was I taught incorrectly? Does the first word represent the ‘preferred’ or ‘more correct’ spelling?

I’m betwixt and between, at sixes and sevens, between a rock and a hard place. 

The answer to Friday’s fictionary dictionary…VAIR is fur used to trim robes in the middle ages.

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It’s Fictionary Dictionary Friday

WHAT IS THE CORRECT MEANING OF VAIR

Check in on Sunday for the Answer

 

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