Monthly Archives: July 2013

MY MOTHER, MY WRITING AND ME by Iola Mathews: Book Review

It’s worth reading this review at ANZ LitLovers so you can read Lisa Hill’s comments as well.

As I turned the last page of Iola Mathews’ 2009 Memoir, I was struck by how apt the word order in the title is.  Despite the author’s honest protestations and the occasional fight against it, her Mother came first.  Then, because of Mathews’ obvious love of the written word and a strong desire to simply put pen to paper, writing took a firm second place.  In third place (or fourth, had the author chosen to insert ‘family’ into the title) is simply ‘Me’.

Iola Mathews

There is a tendency with Memoir to tell too much, to feel a need to explain something in depth which might otherwise be glossed over in fiction and Mathews does face this dilemma in the first third of the book, even letting us in on the struggle with: Who the hell are you to tell people about yourself? This is pure self-indulgence. (24) The author, a former Age journalist, told Richard Fidler in a 2009 ABC interview that it is confronting for a journalist to talk about themselves and she admits she felt great embarrassment during the process.   (audio or podcast available here if you are interested). In the interview, Mathews talks quite extensively about her “mid-life crisis”, something she believes we all have to face (personally I don’t agree with her on the inevitability of it).

I found the latter two-thirds of this memoir to be written more freely, the author looking outward, less intent on her inner thoughts, although an occasional phrase jolted (‘angry time bomb’ (26), ‘my heart jumped up and down in my chest’ (46)) and the inner dialogue between the author and her ‘Demon’ (we all have one) is a little clunky.

Elsewhere, a writer’s life is deftly illuminated.  A friend of Mathews has this phrase: ‘It’s easy to write, you just stare at the screen until your head bleeds.’ (167) which I think is an adulteration of a Hemingway quote.  When reading about the writers’ studio Mathews visited in the hills north of Melbourne, I pencilled in the margin next to the author’s fond description of a wisteria-covered courtyard, Australian bush paintings and Persian rugs, “a room of one’s own?” Lo and behold, the next chapter starts off with a reference to that famous Virginia Woolf essay.

In the chapter titled ‘Religion’, Mathews seems to have warmed up, as she relates to the beauty in the everyday: a warm, light garden, ‘the sun filtering through the large oak trees that spread over the front lawn’ (96), the moon reflecting on Regent’s Canal in London seizing her ‘with a moment of pure beauty and pure happiness’ (103).  And throughout the book the author nails the procrastination and avoidance that can sometimes be the writer’s life: filing one’s nails, making cups of tea and watering plants – the minutiae of daily life gnawing into what should be writing time.

There’s some comic relief too.  Admiring her mother’s new walking frame, Mathews lifts the padded seat to check what’s in the basket: ‘a romance novel, a clean handkerchief and a bottle of gin’ (112).  Later, in a moment of solidarity, a friend of Matthews relates this little tale about her own mother who has Alzheimer’s:

‘After dinner my mother always says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.” I say “good idea,” and she has the Scotch and washes the glass and puts it away.  Then a few minutes later she sits up and says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.”  I say “good idea,” and she gets out the glass and has a Scotch, and washes the glass and puts it away.  Then a few minutes later she says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.”’ (161)

The author turns her journalistic eye toward the birthing process when present for the birth of her grandchild, giving us a fascinating insight into the labour, episiotomy and exhaustion that brought forth little Caleb.  I did have a chuckle though when I read that, as her daughter strained in the final stages, pushing with all her might, the author chose to place a hand on her shoulder and talk: ‘When I gave birth to Keir…’ (129). That might have been grounds for a slap in many a birthing room.

BOOK DETAIL
Mathews, Iola. My Mother, My Writing and Me: a memoir, Michelle Anderson Publishing, South Yarra, Vic. 2009.
ISBN: 978085572

8 Comments

Filed under Reviews

LETTERS TO THE END OF LOVE by Yvette Walker: Book Review

I’m placing some big ticks against Yvette Walker’s Epistolary take on Love.

MB900434663 tickThere is something about a poet’s prose that gets me every time; unmistakable in its – well – poetry.

MB900434663 tick Pets with personality

MB900434663 tick Art as a thematic device that runs through each of the stories like a fissure through layers of rock.

MB900434663 tick Music, in particular the Beetles’ White Album as both a physical reality and metaphor.

MB900434663 tick  Stories within stories, layers beneath layers.

The stories and their layers
There are three main stories, told through letters between couples.
Dmitri and Caithleen write daily throughout 1969 (despite living in the same house), following the news that Dmitri is dying.  It is fascinating to read a simple domestic scene from two differing perspectives.
Louise (Lou) and Grace are in Western Australia in 2011 (at least Grace is there, while Lou is hotel-hopping her way around the globe as publicist to the hugely successful entertainer Stow, with her BlackBerry ‘as faithful as Ulysses’ dog’ (29)).  Their relationship is floundering, perhaps lost in the comfort of years and the tyranny of distance.
In 1948, John writes to his dead lover David (an artist).  I felt a profound sadness each time I reached the end of one of John’s letters, knowing there was no letter to be returned.  At the end of one chapter, John recalls the day he and David witnessed an historic tennis match.  ‘You and I, listening in with the rest of the world, we were there with them.  We are there still.’ (151)

The Poetic Prose

  • ‘The tide ran quicksilver, the fishing boats saluted the bay ahead.’ (1)
  • ‘… my hands were locked up, my mind creased, my heart distracted.’ (15)
  • ‘…a blue I know now is only possible in Siberia, a blue that is burnt with white.’ (15)
  • ‘Death still frightens me the way he did when he first arrived, knocking at our back door like a salesman, his signature bold and flourished on your test results.’ (16)
  • The dying Dmitri to Caithleen ‘My love for you is shifting, archiving, preparing to become a memory’. (20)
  • John describes his stepmother as ‘a woman with a sternness I hadn’t noticed growing over her heart until it was too late’ (40)
  • ‘I have the ghost of you pressing against my ribs like deep water.’ (41)
  • Loneliness. Its long white feathers drop and gather around my feet…’ (94)
  • John (a doctor) writes of enemy aircraft shifting with ‘anaesthetic slowness’ (95) and of the letters to his lover ‘burning a small surgical hole in the inside pocket’ of his jacket (100)

Pets with Personality

In his opening letter to Caithleen, Dmitri recounts his morning walk with the dog. After the wonderfully named ‘notorious dog’ catches the scent of ducks,  Dmitri  writes: “I whispered to the dog a small, simple sentence: ‘No, my friend.’ So he bowed his head.  The tips of his ears quivered as he ceased his duck poetry”(1).  Notorious dog is more than a pet, he forms a link between Caithleen and Dmitri, always there in the background setting the scene: laying on the floor ‘like a Tatar prayer rug’ (5), flicking back his ears in irritation over the uncharacteristic rock ‘n’ roll music, or ‘loiter[ing] in the doorway like an old-fashioned juvenile delinquent’ (112). The notorious dog simply appeared one summer’s day ‘walking slowly up the long drive like a returned solder.’ (13)

Grace and Lou have a pet cat called Crow Bait who misses Lou terribly when she is away. Grace writes: ‘Every morning without fail he comes into the bedroom, head-butts me awake, meowing, and begins his search for you…’(80).  Crow Bait twirls around Grace’s feet ‘like a feather duster’ (172).

Art and Music

Dmitri listens to The White Album as he completes his enormous canvas of a ‘thousand shades of white’ (8) and, despite his unconventional reasons for the purchase and his trepidation when first placing it on the turntable, he (and, eventually, the notorious dog) finds much to like in the music.

The great influence on Dmitri as an artist is German-Swiss painter Paul Klee and it is a Paul Klee print that is one of Grace’s favourite possessions. This Paul Klee thread is also woven seamlessly through the story of John and David.

German composer Kurt Weill and Ute Lemper’s interpretation of his work backdrop the coming of age of Grace’s nephew Nate

Walker

I have had to be ruthless in my culling of an overly-lengthy, super-effusive draft of this review but then found myself left with one sublime quote that I simply refuse to leave out so I will allow Walker herself to sign off with Caithleen’s words:

 ‘There’s somewhere, isn’t there, between the bones and the flesh – not quite the mind, not quite the soul, where we keep those feelings we can’t bear to have, but there we must keep them, because they make us who we are.’ (162)

MB900434663 tick

BOOK DETAIL:
Walker, Yvette. Letters to the End of Love, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, 2013.
ISBN: 978 0 7022 4966 2

Thanks again to ANZ LitLovers (where this review is cross-posted) for the opportunity to review Letters to the End of Love.

5 Comments

Filed under Reviews

This Writer’s Life

Regular readers will have noticed that my reviewing which has never been overly prolific has slowed to a trickle and I thought it was time I fessed up to spending more time than usual immersed in the lives of my fictional characters.

These days, my world is split, not just in two (the earn-the-dollar-working-day and the nights of fictional delights) but into three.  You see, I’ve been living inside my latest manuscript whilst also reworking and polishing the bone-chilling psychological thriller I wrote last year. I’ll write more about my writing adventures in the months ahead.

Nevertheless, thanks mainly to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers, I do still have a small pile of books for review and I’ll continue at my usual snail’s pace.  Upcoming reviews are:-

  • My Mother, My Writing and Me: Iola Mathews’2009 memoir
  • Letters to the end of Love by Yvette Walker
  • The Whole of My World by Nicole Hayes

I’m also delighted that Margaret River Press is sending me the latest published results of its Annual River Short Story Writing Competition.  I was highly impressed with last year’s anthology, as you can see from my review.

Also on my bedside table, in various stages of re-read, are Bryce Courtenay’s tiny hardcover, ‘The Night Country’ which I’ve read once before, ‘A Virtuous Woman’ by one of my favourite authors Kaye Gibbons and the magnificent ‘Walking into the River’ by Lorian Hemingway (I should have known better than to pick this up again.  Despite having read it three times, I marvel at its compact perfection every time).

Sometimes it is just as well I have these books to review and a day-job to attend, else I would surely turn into the mad old woman living a fictional life with characters yet to be seen by the rest of the world.

10 Comments

Filed under Writing