Monthly Archives: June 2013

LOVE IS A CANOE by Ben Schrank: Book Review

This is not a normal book review; rather it is a review of 152 pages of writing by Ben Schrank. I can’t tell you how the story – Love is a Canoe – ends.  I’m afraid I was not up to the task of getting there.

The Plot:
The author of a hit self-help book is contacted by an editor with an idea for a contest to celebrate the anniversary of his book.  As the book is about marriage, the prize is an afternoon with the author; a chance for the winners of the competition to save their marriage.

The narrative style:
‘Emily smiled at him from the middle of their apartment, where she stood next to the kitchen island.’ (5)
‘Peter called out to his wife.  She was in the bathroom and he didn’t want to interrupt her, but he would if he didn’t hear from her in another moment’ (16).

The long explanatory passages:
 
‘She hated that she could be so bold in a meeting and yet so quick to cross the street or hide behind a car when she saw an acquaintance.  Over the years, the best way she’d found to unite these parts of herself had grown out of becoming part of an e-mail Listserv that kept its exclusive group of never more than 111 members updated on industrial design events in New York and general global ID trends.’ (57)
(This particular passage is in the midst of a four-page internal exposition of the character and includes paragraphs that begin ‘She had met Eli’… ‘She had discovered this talent’… ‘She often felt like’ …)

The dialogue:
 ‘It’s easy to make a likable pie.  I want to see people fucking love whatever we make.  I want to see forks go in mouths and swoons happen.  I want to see finger licking, not liking’ (7)

‘Say it like you damn well have got to find out where the romance is.’ (34)

In these and other examples, it seems the swear words are slotted in arbitrarily.

The saccharin homilies from the original book
“Good love is a quilt – light as feathers and strong as iron” (39)
“Desire for your loved one gives you the strength to paddle on” (53)

With banal prose, Ben Schrank presents characters in this 339 page book that I simply didn’t care about.  They are so mundane, they could be each other. They could be the author. There is no cohesive pattern or lineal flow and the characters don’t engender sympathy.

I’m afraid there came a point half-way through the book where I faced that ‘life is too short’ moment (you know, those moments when an annoying acquaintance bails you up for a lengthy chat one time too many or you’ve realised you’ve spent too much time cleaning the bathroom and not enough walking in the sunshine).  So, just as I have snubbed the acquaintance and halved my cleaning time, I have put this book aside.

My biggest surprise is that Love is a Canoe is from Text Publishing. I am nonplussed and I would appreciate comment from anyone who has read the book and enjoyed it.

BOOK DETAIL:
Schrank, Ben. Love is a Canoe, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. 2000.
ISBN 9-781922-079190

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THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN by Georgia Blain: Book Review

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The title story of this loose collection by Georgia Blain is a perfect example of short story as mini-novella.  An unabashed fan of the short story myself (in all its snapshot, slice-of-life permutations), I nevertheless understand that some people find them confusing. Regular complaints about short stories include:  It wasn’t a real story or nothing was resolved, even there’s no proper beginning or ending. For those people, ‘The Secret Lives of Men’ (the short story, not the collection) will be appreciated.  It is a lesson in how any story – long or short – can be built. Blain gives us a clear setting, thoroughly fleshed-out characters, a steady ascent to the climax and a satisfying denouement, all with an economical and precise use of words.

In this first piece, the small-town dress uniform – moleskin jeans and striped cotton shirt – is given some ‘panache’ when worn by the desirable Alastair.  Clearly, Alistair’s death is shrouded in mystery.   The story is propelled, not just by the mystery we crave to understand but also by the depth of feeling – a deep abiding sadness – expressed through perfect word choice and hauntingly lyrical prose:

I would wake in the early afternoon and see us both in that sharp light, Alistair still beautiful, eyes closed, skin pale gold, and I would wish that I was someone else (13).

It’s a heart-wrenching story that hinted a promise for the twelve to follow.

Alas, for me, that promise was not upheld.  I found many of the pieces too pared down, too free of adornment. Here and there, they bordered on the mundane.  I was unable to rustle up any empathy or understanding for Emma whose wedding comes about seemingly as a result of pure laziness in ‘Just a Wedding’ and I could find no sympathy for the widower Pete in ‘The Bad Dog Park’.

Occasionally, it seems that Blain loses control of her characters.  Without the luxury of a novel’s pages to build up personalities with distinctive traits, it would have been safer to limit their numbers.  The line-up was confusing in ‘The Other Side of the River’, in ‘Her Boredom Trick’ and even more so throughout ‘Mirrored’ despite the early – clunky – introductions:

I had brought my daughter, Anna, and Jude and Aisla had their son, Miles.  Sal, who had just left her girlfriend, had come on her own.  She had known Frans and Simon the longest, having once shared a flat with them, years ago. (167)

‘Escape’ keeps a humorous slant on a potentially dangerous adventure through a glimpse into the divergent lives of the divorced parents of a twelve-year-old boy and his teenaged sister.  Their free-wheeling father lives in a messy light-filled house in the country surrounded by bush (‘Lawn belongs in Dullsville’ [126]) and picks up his children in a frog green Porsche Roadster.

In the final story ‘Flyover’, Blain returns to the prose style that promised so much in the opening piece with ‘apartment blocks pressed tight against the tangle of roads’ (227), a courtyard gate ‘loose on its hinges from drunks and junkies trying to break in’ (234) and she finishes on a high with a couple ‘trying to cut loose all the threads that had linked and tied [them] for  the past two years’ [246].

Writing for The Australian, Stella Clarke finds the ‘unembellished’ style allows for ambiguity and she seems to admire these ‘unfussy accounts’.  Conversely, I would have like to see a bit more fuss, and considerably more embellishment in some of the stories.

The Age’s Peter Pierce finds Blain’s style ‘most affecting when plain’  but he also points to some confusion in stories where Blain ‘fails to untangle the welter of names with which we are greeted in the opening paragraphs’.

In the end, the excellent bookend stories are the saving grace so I might recommend the book purely for its ability to show that a solid beginning-middle-end story can be constructed in the short form.

BOOK DETAIL
Blain, Georgia. The Secret Lives of Men, Scribe Publications, Brunswick, Vic, Australia,2013.
ISBN 978-1-922070-35-7

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers, where this review is cross-posted, for the opportunity to read and review this collection of thirteen short stories.

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