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An Unknown Sky and Other Stories by Susan Midalia: Book Review

Thanks to ANZ LitLovers for this fabulous read.  My review is cross-posted there.

An Unknown Sky is Susan Midalia’s second collection of short stories (her first was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards) and it is clear from the outset that the reader is in sure hands.

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The publicity blurb suggests that all the characters are “‘travellers’ in search of connection and belonging” but my readings elicited a somewhat different vibe centred on relationships and inner causality.

Certainly ‘Underground’ is one of the finest sketches of an Australian abroad that I’ve come across. Petra is a loner who overcomes her claustrophobic fears to tackle the black marble steps down to Lenin’s Tomb, partly to humour her beloved nephew and to elevate her stature in his eyes. 

Travelling also features in the title story. Tom leaves home to spread his wings overseas but it is his mother’s thoughts and actions in his absence that show him gone.  Even before he leaves, his mother understands the going:

How I’d edged through the doorway and asked if he was ready, and he’d turned to me with a shadow on his face.  How he’d shrugged when I’d asked him what was wrong. Nothing that a year in the Andes won’t cure, he’d said, and returned to his packing, leaving both of us stranded, fumbling our way through those last days at home.  A hapless, clumsy pair. (26)

Midalia captures the aching fear of a child suddenly beyond reach.  After a nightmare about a plane with its “flimsy wings and a ripple of flames and then a violent bust of orange filling up the sky” (30), followed by a day of trying “not to picture the thin slice of metal on which my son placed all his weight” (30), the familiar sound of an incoming email sounds like “a tiny fingernail, a baby’s fingernail, struck against a glass’ (30).

Every character is finely drawn, motives and ideals unveiled with subtlety.

‘Sacred’ captures the essence of a teenage boy’s angst. When Carlo’s rage over a schoolroom taunt is so fierce that he “sat up straight and his hand flew out and he punched and punched like mad, like a boxer, like a big machine, feeling good, feeling right” (42), we can’t help but recall an earlier scene when Carlo in his new suit and tie arrived at his grandmother’s party: his Nonna “cried when she saw him in his new jacket and wrapped him up in her floppy arms and called him tesorino, little treasure (40).

Masterful word choices keep the prose tight yet poetic throughout the collection. Crows have a “shiny robustness” (45), “oversized westerners” in Dubai are “waddling lords of the earth in their logo-ed shirts” (1),  a cellist “plays like she has bruises inside her” (81) and middle-aged society women have “bright blonde hair cut into dangerous spikes” (132) and “cheekbones like knives” (142).

‘Hypnogogia’ (an odd title; hypnagogia is the usual spelling I believe) is a poignant study of mental fragility; of the reality of thought and the effect of warped reality on loved ones.  Belle’s lifelong friend is stoic and loyal in the face of her despair.  “As I watched her bent head, her slumped shoulders, I saw she had become the shape of alone” (148) and when he arrives at Belle’s house to find she has almost tipped over the edge, his despair is clear as he looks at the policeman’s pen hovering over a blank page:

I…felt my blood sighing, a red, silent river of mourning.  I could have told him about a crazy, loveable kid, a besotted wife, and then a madly skidding car on a wet winter’s day.  A grieving widow; and years later, an abandoned wife.  I could have said I’d been waiting, waiting for a lifetime…” (152)

Midalia’s flashes of wit are delightful, particularly in her ability to sketch absurdity in the mundane. From ‘Crows’:

Stella’s morning walk was often entertaining.  She saw the muscle-bound runner decked out for a trip to the moon: earphones, water bottle, sweat bands, peaked cap, pedometer, joggers with flashing lights.  Panting, Coming through, coming through, to unsuspecting strollers. (45)

‘The Workshop Facilitator Said’ is laugh out loud funny, particularly for writers.   When the workshop facilitator says that a story can be based entirely on what happens inside a character’s head, a fellow aspiring writer smiles but the narrator “couldn’t tell what he was thinking” (176).  Later, she decides to test the theory that writers should “imply, infer, nudge”, on her husband. “I smell something strange in the room, I said, but he didn’t take the hint.” (176)  Then, after a session at the workshop on point of view: “That night, after dinner, I told my husband that she smelled something strange in the room, and he gave me one of his looks.” (178).

An Unknown Sky is an accessible collection, just perfect for short bursts, which is how many of us like our fiction served these days.

BOOK DETAIL:
Midalia, Susan. An Unknown Sky and other stories, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-74258-427-0

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Sunscreen and Lipstick: Book Review

I must say at the outset that I’m not fond of this idea of putting excerpts from novels and longer works into a collection.  Short stories and novellas are self-contained pieces of writing that, whilst they may leave much unsaid, don’t leave you with the notion that the author didn’t finish what he or she set out to do.

Most of the works in Sunscreen and Lipstick are excerpts from novels or memoir and, as such, are not written to stand alone.  Without the full story, some extracts failed to interest me entirely.  Others were wonderfully enticing which, unfortunately, leaves me with only one option.  If I want the full story, then I need to purchase another book.  It may not be the intention of the publishers, but it could be construed as straight-out commercialism.  Instead, I’ll adopt the notion that in combining works of emerging writers with some of Australia’s best known authors, the former get a leg-up in being read and critiqued and it gives writers the opportunity to sample the various authors.

Deborah Robertson’s ‘Living Arrangements’ is a beautiful insight into the life of a lonely woman – Roxie – whose promiscuity is yet another wall, even as her sexuality is used as a means to an end.

Roxie gets the visit she has been dreading from a Social Security official checking on living arrangements (Roxie, in a fit of confusion over the form that seemed designed to catch her out, had written “I’m a Lesbian” (93)):

Hers was a look I had been running from all my life: sensible shoes, sensible skirt, sensible blouse. […] I guessed we were about the same age but I hoped my face wasn’t as dragged by time and disappointment (101)

Roxie’s dry pragmatic voice comes through loud and clear.  Here’s her succinct impression of the social security office:

There was a kid screaming, an old guy coughing up his guts, a woman clutching her briefcase as if it held all her dignity: the usual. (89)

In ‘Maisie Goes to India’, Joan London showcases her award-winning style with descriptive passages such as the flock of birds that “rose, shrieking, while their wings flapped liked aprons in dismay” (156) and clouds that “fill the sky with domes and turrets” (170)

The blurb touts that “this book is all about women” but I think that is an interpretation too narrow.   T.A.G. Hungerford’s ‘The Fisher Hat’ for example, says something about a boy’s relationship with his mother but the story is really about a boy growing up, not about the mother.

‘Gnowangerup Doctors’ – a written record of Kim  Scott’s interview with Hazel Brown – is at once soft and harsh.  Be prepared, if you are a parent, to feel your solar plexus pierced in four powerful pages.

If you fancy a bit of a writerly Tapas, then this book might be what you are looking for.  Just be prepared to put your hand in your pocket when you’ve finished tasting and realise what you really wanted was a big plate of paella.

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BOOK DETAIL:
Sunscreen and Lipstick, compilation with introduction by Liz Byrski. Fremantle Press, Fremantle, WA., 2012.
ISBN: 9-781922-089113

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read and review Sunscreen and Lipstick.  This review is cross posted there.

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Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World by Mudrooroo Nyoongah: Book Review

Warning:  This post contains the names of deceased persons.

 I am delighted to be involved in the ANZ LitLovers ‘2012 Indigenous Literature Week’, this review being my humble contribution.

I first read Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) around fifteen years ago and it left such an impression that when I heard about this Indigenous Literature Week initiative, I thought it would be great to revisit this historical novel.

There is controversy surrounding Mudrooroo’s Aboriginality but my understanding is that he strongly identifies as Aboriginal.  I am far from an expert on Indigenous culture and not up with the modern politics of identification but, as the novel provides a searching critique of the prejudices of white history, I think it deserves a place in any study of Indigenous literature.

I have recommended this book to many people so I was relieved to find it just as entertaining and intriguing when I reread it. I guess it resonates strongly with me because it is set in Tasmania where I grew up and my Island home is at once familiar and like a foreign land, when seen through the eyes of Wooreddy.

Wooreddy’s homeland is Bruny Island: ‘two craggy fists of land connected by a narrow twisting of murky water’ (1) but, as he learns by surreptitiously listening to his elders, the ending of the world has begun, precipitated by the first sighting of the ships carting the ghost-like ‘num’ (white people).  The boy Wooreddy knows that he will live on to witness the end.

Through Dr Wooreddy’s eyes, Mudrooroo shows us the store of knowledge and the level of intelligence required under an oral culture. The narrative turns the idea of a superior literate culture on its head and the white colonisers are left looking simplistic and barbaric compared to the indigenous land owners.

Trugernanna
The school syllabus of the sixties and seventies was not big on local history and there was a dearth of information about Tasmania’s indigenous population. I do remember one history class that touched – ever so briefly – on the name of the ‘last Tasmanian Aborigine’ – Trugannini’.  It seems ironic that no attempt was made to alert students to the various spellings and pronunciation variations of her name and, in fact, Trugernanna is considered more likely to be phonetically correct.
     By all accounts, Trugernanna was a beauty who enjoyed the limelight.  The daughter of Mangana witnesses the kidnapping of her sisters and relays the news to her father: ‘Three ghosts came rowing into the bay.  They took first and second sister away’ (11). Despite this, Trugernanna seems to adapt well to the European ways.
     Through Trugernanna’s reliance on the num and in particular on George Robinson, we see the power shift from her father and her husband to the Chief Protector.

 Mangana
Trugernanna’s father is representative of the alienation and despair of the indigenous peoples, consequent to the num invasion, described in passages like these:-

+Mangana looked across and smiled, not a smile of greeting but one of resignation…
+Mangana seemed to have become all grey – his hair, his beard even his skin was grey…
+In reply to sentences he usually grunted or muttered a single word or strung words together in meaningless sentences…
+Mangana was too listless to play the role of both father and mother, or even just the father…

 George Robertson
Known to many of the aborigines as ‘Fader’, Meeter Ro-bin-un is a bumbling fool of a ‘ghost’ and yet it is clear to Wooreddy that he holds some power over other ghosts so the Doctor is initially elated to find ‘a protector and also a subject of study’ (31).
     White history recounts George Augustus Robertson as either:-
     a)      Conceited, ignorant and incompetent
     b)      A petty crook
     c)       A humane and well-intentioned public servant
     Mudrooroo’s novel casts him in a completely different light and it is interesting to compare the Meeter Rob-in-un in the book to the written historical records of the man and his actions.

 Doctor Wooreddy
The good doctor is a complex character with clear ideas and goals.  He is best summed up by this reaction to his first sighting of the ships:

Another boy would have turned tail or collapsed in a quivering heap of shock, but Wooreddy had been born for such sights.  He watched the fog patches shift as they tugged the tiny dark island along.  Such visions were rare and set a person apart.  (3)

 The writing is evocative and powerful.  Here, Mangana speaks to Wooreddy of his daughter:-

 Trugernanna, an ocean girl, a sea girl, a lover of ghosts.  A ghost girl, a pale girl, she will live on longer than all of us.  Go and eat her food, go and love her loveless body, go and share whatever she will offer.  You and she are both foolish enough to want life. (38)

The story ends as we know it will but there are surprises along the way, as we come to grips with the bewilderment experienced by the native Tasmanians while understanding the hidden strength that accompanies them through to the ‘Ending of the World’.

BOOK DETAIL:
Nyoongah, Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson). Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Hyland House Publishing, Flemington, Victoria, 1983.
ISBN: 0 94702062 02 5

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Congratulations ANZ LitLovers

Wonderful news.  My favourite Literary blog is also – as it turns out – the favourite of plenty of other people.

ANZ Litlovers has been nominated as one of the Top 5 Australian blogs  in the ‘Words’ Category.

That is exciting news in itself for me.  Lisa Hill works tirelessly in championing good Aussie writing.  She introduces us to writers with her ‘Meet an Aussie Author’ series (I had the privilege of being featured myself), participated in the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize and The Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and posts fantastic reviews week after week (I confess that I am in awe of her reading and reviewing speed).

The finalists in all categories were published by The Australian.

I am also extremely chuffed … ahem … to see she gave me a lovely thank you on her post for my guest reviews which I have been extremely honoured to contribute. 

Congratulations to Lisa.  She deserves a big thanks from writers, publishers and readers for her hard work.

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A Tiger in Eden by Chris Flynn: Book Review

I was delighted – once again – to be given the opportunity to review for ANZ Litlovers where you will find heaps of terrific reviews as well as information aplenty on Australian Literature and Literature in general.

Note to Self:  Never judge a book by its opening pages.

Don’t get me wrong, Chris Flynn’s opening paragraphs – like the rest of this novel – are well-written.  It’s just that a misogynistic narrator, together with the street-smart argot of an Irish thug, complete with top-of-the-scale expletives would normally lead me to put such a book back on the shelf.  Thank heavens for these book reviewing opportunities, without which I would have missed out on a story with real depth.

A Tiger in Eden is a relatively short novel, packed with powerful imagery and it addresses the rather “big” themes of loyalty, violence, love and redemption with elegant wit.  It is the humour that makes the horror palatable.

Flynn employs – with a gentle touch – a recurring motif of Hollywood film characters to lighten some dark moments and offset the otherwise serious subject matter.  In referring to the delusional nature of English lads travelling around Thailand annoying everyone with their “shouting about En-ger-land and how they’re going to win the next World Cup”, the narrator – Billy Montgomery – says “They can’t handle the truth, like yer man Jack Nicholson says in that film”. (23)  And later, when Billy smartens himself up with a fresh white shirt and a pair of Ray-Bans to impress a couple of Dutch back-packers, he thinks he’s looking pretty good “like yer man Pierce Brosnan or something, even though he’s a Fenian and in some soft shite movies” (39).

Due to the bluer than the sky language, I won’t quote from one of the funniest passages but midway through the book when Billy muses about three Polaroid shots that might be helpful in deterring pestering sex workers, it is  – despite the blush-worthy subject matter – hysterically laugh-out-loud funny.

When he goes on retreat in a monastery, he finally confronts his demons with a terrible sense of sadness and loss.  He recalls – in a quiet deadpan fashion – his involvement in Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ and I was reminded of Mugabe’s youth militia and the child soldiers in many African countries and other parts of the world who undertake the most heinous crimes because they are programmed to obey; because it becomes unthinkable for them not to.  It is gut-wrenching stuff.

Despite trying to lose himself and bury some shocking memories as deep as he can, Billy is under no illusion as to what he is (or has been).

I suppose I was a kind of soldier even though there were some who would have said freedom fighter and others who would have said terrorist or paramilitary, I never really thought about  it in them terms in fact I didn’t like thinking about it at all. (82)

His experiences in the monastery are conveyed with a gentler comicality.  The Irish tough-man voice is still loud and clear but – somehow – Flynn manages to show us a softer compassionate side to his narrator.  In one of my favourite monastery allegorical episodes, a delightful red ant with a big attitude is symbolic in Billy’s getting of wisdom.

The author has provided some background to his novel: “The Story behind the book”, which clarifies firstly that Flynn knows more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland than anyone would wish and secondly, that he is not Billy.  I’m not sure that either clarification is necessary.  Flynn knows how to tell a story and whether a novel is based on fact, personal experience or exceptional research is not, in my opinion, overly important. 

I understand that a tattooed strong-man who doesn’t seem to know how to react without violence doesn’t sound like a sympathetic character but under Flynn’s pen it is hard not to care about yer man Billy and to care deeply; to hope he will succeed in overcoming his demons and putting his past to rest.

Text Publishing’s author blurb tells us that Flynn (Books Editor at The Big Issue) was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair.  There’s a novel in that, for sure.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. A Tiger in Eden, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781921-922039

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The Wonder of Words

I seem to have been living, breathing and sleeping all things ‘book launch’ for the past month or more and today I have finally managed to distract myself by reflecting on the books, poems or lines that have inspired me.
          My lists change frequently, dependent as they are upon my current head-space, so this one is bound to change the minute I post it. 
          This is not a list of capital L literary works (although a few might have snuck in):  you can find those sorts of lists all over the net.  There’s an interesting one at Time.com and a nice selection of top tens at  one of my favourite blogs  ANZ LitLovers. Or you can find out what Australians voted as best (100) reads according to the ABC
          My list is not restricted to books and is purely personal.

  1. Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons for the unique voice and easy reading style and for the muscular strength of the female characters.
  2. Hard Times by Charles Dickens – because of the names of the characters, particularly the teacher M’choakumchild.
  3. Marele Day’s The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender for an opening that tricked me because of my own stereotyping.
  4. Gillian Rubinstein’s Galax-Arena because it has something very profound and sincere to say to young people.
  5. Eleanor H Porter for having Pollyanna teach us that there is something precious about always looking for the silver lining.
  6. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.  Despite the hype, buzz-words and mission statements, there are some great organisational tools and performance techniques.
  7. Donna Parker On Her Own by Marcia Martin for making a meek little girl feel adventurous and empowered.
  8. I wandered lonely as a cloud (commonly known as ‘Daffodils’) by William Wordsworth.  Just because.
  9. If I had a Gun by Gig Ryan for helping me understand the power of the poetic voice.
  10. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for articulating my jumbled thoughts and making me find my space.

          I always love to hear about  favourites so please share … even if it’s just one book that made a difference in your life.

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