Tag Archives: Memoir

Solly’s Girl: a memoir by Ros Collins: book review

In the opening lines of Solly’s Girl: a memoir, the author is wearing a Pierre Balmain copy wedding dress as she rides pillion on a Lambretta named La Cigale (the cicada) behind her “skinny Australian” through the icy streets of London. Straight away, we know this is no ordinary girl. Her name is Ros Collins and she is someone destined for an extraordinary life of bucking trends and taking adventurous paths.

I first heard from Ros, in response to a review I wrote of a collection of short stories by her late husband Alan Collins. I wrote at the time that I could easily have imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with Alan, a writer described by Arnold Zable as a classic Australian yarn spinner. My disappointment at never having met Alan was assuaged by my first meeting with Ros when, joined by Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers who brought along a very fine bottle of bubbly, we clinked our glasses in a joyous toast to the forthcoming release of Solly’s Girl.

The title is suggestive of Alan’s memoir Alva’s Boy (review at ANZ Litlovers) and, despite the gulf between the respective childhoods of the authors, the books make fine companions.

In the closing pages of her memoir, Ros ponders the readers for whom she wrote:

At the beginning I thought I was writing for my children and grandchildren. Then it seemed I might be completing what Alan started in Alva’s Boy – albeit not in the same style. It’s hard to tell. (288-289)

As a reader who was not on the author’s radar when she first put pen to paper, I can tell you that this is a memoir for us all. Jewish-Australians, ten pound poms, home-grown Aussies, wives, husbands, lovers. Despite being a personal account of a life, Solly’s Girl is universal in its themes of love and loss, duty and freedom, joy and despair. It unfolds like a conversation. “Let me entertain you”, opens the chat and, in less than 300 pages, we are indeed entertained.

There is some delightful humour on show early in the piece. When her new husband Alan told her how much she would love living in Victoria, mentioning picnics and visits to the Dandenongs, the author, being unaware of the Dandenong mountains, instead imagines meeting “some Mr and Mrs Dandenong”.  And the suburb of Caulfield sounded – to an English girl of a certain class – like the name of a property “rather like Tara in Gone with the Wind” (13).

The Lambretta, La Cigale, is like a character itself in the opening chapters, having been shipped out to Australia by the newlyweds. She was a beacon to the local cops who were keen to check her out and when, as new parents, Ros and Alan reluctantly sold her, they kept her brass cicada mascot. A Lambretta just like La Cigale will form part of the décor for the Melbourne launch of Solly’s Girl. How fitting.

Parts of Solly’s Girl read like a missive of thanks from a daughter to her parents, an atonement perhaps for a perceived lack of communication years ago. The deep love that cemented her parents’ life together is enchanting. When Sadie died aged ninety-seven, Ros’s father Solly visited Australia twice more from London, each time bringing a silver framed picture of his beloved wife.

He slept with it under his pillow, together with the little red woollen mittens she wore to keep her hands warm. (62)

But back in Ros’s youth when a daring sense of adventure battled with her love and respect for her parents, adventure won the day. Despite the fact that “nice Jewish girls didn’t leave home unmarried” back in the fifties (89), Ros moved out to bunk with a school friend in a boarding house in Hampstead. What an interesting bunch they met there, living in the home of a Holocaust refugee composer and his family. Amongst the boarders: the photographer of Edmund Hilary’s Everest expedition; the first black actor to appear regularly on British television and his German girlfriend; and a man who allegedly doped horses.  Ros writes that the house “had a kind of raffish aura about it” and the exposure to the “intellectual European refugees and émigrés, artists and actors” (92) must have been terribly exhilarating.

The author also gives an insightful study of the lives that went before her parents – the grandparents and aunts and uncles who forged ahead, in some way shaping the lives that were to follow. Ros writes of her need to acknowledge a debt to grandparents she hardly knew:

Their worldly achievements were quite minimal, their material wealth very slight. … The fortunate made it to America, the goldene medine; the brave and hopeful young idealists went to Palestine; my ancestors chose England. One hundred years later, here in Australia, I am grateful. (53-54)

She writes freely about the challenges of married life and the exhausting and exacting tasks of a mother and wife in that era:

I hung on hopefully to a deepening sense of love for a man I hardly understood, whilst in his mind Alan created a fantasy goddess out of a confused and rather lonely young woman.  (32)

It is clear that the her suburban days spent in Box Hill mothering three small children, caring for a foster child and playing “straight guy” to her charmingly “offbeat” husband (120-121) didn’t amount to her ideal life, but she made the best of it and emerged, as the children went off to school, just as you would expect of a freedom-loving adventurous individual; by snagging a job, obtaining teaching qualifications, joining protest marches and offering her services to the technical teachers’ union. When the Collins family eventually returned to Ros’s beloved Elwood, there was no backward glance.

Amongst her many professional achievements, Ros became director of the Makor Jewish Community Library, received an award for outstanding services from the Zionist Council of Victoria and was awarded the Woman Achiever of the Year in 1999 by the National Council of Jewish Women. Between the lines, it is clear that Ros has a deep connectedness to her Jewish roots, a respect she has passed on to her children, but she is obviously not one to drown in dogma and tradition:

I am writing these sentences on Yom Kippur, a day on which I should be fasting and praying for forgiveness. But I don’t fast, and repentance is something I deal with as soon as I realise I have made a mistake. (175)

 Wise words.

There’s a description in the book of a wonderfully Aussie celebration of Jewish New Year. After a failed fishing expedition on the Alligator River in the Northern Territory, barra is purchased from the local fish shop and an apple pie concocted in a hot caravan oven.  Rosh Hashanah was celebrated “sitting around a deserted swimming pool in a caravan park”. The accompanying photograph shows three generations sitting at an outdoor plastic table, their beaming faces testament to the occasion which would become a precious memory.  The candles were “like little mirrors of the stars in a vast mysterious sky” and there were “cans of beer and bottles of lemonade to wash down the pie” (236-37). What a celebration!

Solly’s Girl is a beautifully produced memoir with quality photo inclusions and, above all, it is superbly written.

You can find details of the launch and where to purchase Solly’s Girl here.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Memoir

The Big ‘I’

Yes, I am trumpeting myself but the ‘I’ actually stands for Issue.

A short piece of mine has been accepted by The Big Issue for its next run which is set to hit the streets on 2nd May. So, if you live in the city, make sure you grab a copy from your favourite vendor and see what you think (Don’t forget, half of your purchase price provides direct earnings for the homeless, marginalised or disadvantaged vendors).

And for fellow wordsmiths, check out the call for fiction entries. Last year’s fiction edition was a real treat.

13 Comments

Filed under Freelance, Writing

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

Riding the Trains in Japan by Patrick Holland: Book Review

On Patrick Holland’s author site Riding the Trains in Japan is described as “a book of travel essays encompassing Japan, Vietnam and China”, a phrase that doesn’t do justice to his latest work.  Adding that the essays also encompass “imaginative and liminal places in-between” goes part the way toward bridging the descriptive gap between a mere collection of essays and what this work truly is: a deep and reflective collection of mini-memoir.

Certainly, it’s about travel. It is also about History.  And Geography; as well as Modernity, tradition, life lessons, philosophy, psychology (individual and collective) and a study of our sense of place and belonging.

I found myself wondering how much more fascinating and enriching the school subjects of history, geography and the social sciences would be if these essays were appended to the standard curriculum.  Instead of great tomes crammed with facts and dates for regurgitation at end of year exams, a study of Riding the Trains in Japan would no doubt spark a healthy wanderlust, while providing the cultural insight and tools to produce thoughtful, pleasant and intrepid travellers. 

There is little doubt that, for the most part, Holland is a natural and contented traveller, describing the atmosphere in transit centres as “pregnant with the possibility of striking off along any one of a thousand paths (10)”.  But later he confesses that the life of a traveller is not always as idyllic as it seems.  In the final piece ‘Coda’ the author reflects on his oft felt loneliness and isolation.

I feel panic about how little hold I have on the world, despite the fact that some part of me refuses to grasp it, and that I am often at its mercy.  To be honest, I do not know what I mean by living the way I do. (230)

and

A fool in a bar in Brisbane is the same fool on a mountain in Tibet, I often said to my few and diminishing friends back home who claimed to envy my travels.  The truth was I had begun to fear I was that fool (228).

I hope the author doesn’t allow despondency and melancholy to ‘cure’ him of his almost fearless sense of adventure  and that he continues to venture forth so others may travel with him from the confines and constrictions of their safe protected lives.

 I do have an aversion to frequent sequences of short sentences and I found it jarring when they surfaced.  For example,

The daily mass would begin in less than an hour.  I walked the shanty town at the edge of the basilica’s grounds.  The inhabitants were among the poorest people I had ever seen in Vietnam.  I gave money to an old beggar woman and was surrounded (56).

But elsewhere, Holland’s ability to paint minimalist canvases to mesmerise us is subtle yet perfect.  Pretty women in silk gowns move “like secrets through narrow alleyways” (35), an old woman laughs “even deeper creases into her face” (72) and, in ‘The Race for the Kingdom of Women’ (which fleetingly showcases Holland’s sense of humour), retired German merchant banker Jens, with his badly-dyed mauve hair,  wore “a gold earring in his right ear so he looked like an aging lady pirate on the wrong end of a three-day mead bender”. 

If I had to pick a favourite piece, I would choose ‘The Art of Memory: oku-no-in’ in which the cemetery – a delightfully tranquil, thoughtful and inspiring place for me – is given a starring role.

Cemeteries typically possess three beautiful negatives which, for all our acquisitions, we of the 21st Century run very short on: space, stillness and silence.  And to that triptych I would add a fourth intangible: reverence (86).

Holland understands cemeteries as being “negative images of the cities they belong to” and he feels their rhythm and poetry, his emotions conveyed perfectly in this passage:

The woman of my memory played her violin beneath the bow of a red gum.  I cannot remember what she played, perhaps I did not even hear.  But on reflection I hear Bach’s partitas (89).

And if I had to pick my least favourite, I think it would be ‘Lost Cities’ which I found a little bit too long and heavy with historical fact .  Elsewhere, Holland merely sprinkles the history grains and we take them in almost subliminally but the historical passages in ‘Lost Cities’ are large and weighty enough to take the reader away from the author’s experiences and into the realm of historical tract.

Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about the collection of essays penned by this Queensland ‘boy from the bush’ was Holland’s untarnished respect for women, particularly showcased in ‘The Race for the Kingdom of Women’ which concludes with a glimpse of a girl’s face that the author elects not to photograph because:

The girl’s beauty belonged to the mountains; they alone would receive it and let it pass into them, just as the beauty of the girl’s grandmothers and her great grandmothers had passed here in secret (151).

In her recent review Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers writes that the book encourages “reflection about travel, identity, memory and the absurdities of modern life”.  I concur. Since turning the last page with a sigh, I have dreamt of the “inscrutable lights on the horizon” as seen from a speeding train, the “white noise” of the desert, the strange poetry of rivers and bridges and an [almost] memory of flight (see ‘In Transit: meditations on Flight’).

Patrick Holland takes you with him, into the heart of a country and sometimes into the depths of his psyche and you feel you want to keep returning (to both) to see if there is yet more to learn; an even greater depth of understanding.

BOOK DETAIL:
Holland, Patrick. Riding the Trains in Japan: travels in the sacred and supermodern east, Transit Lounge Publishing, Yarraville, Aust., 2011
ISBN: 978-1-921924-12-5

4 Comments

Filed under Reviews

2011 Redlitzer Anthology: Book Review

As readers of this blog would be aware, I am a huge fan of the short story and I wish we had more published in Australia.  In these days of shorter attention spans and media bombardment, there is a need that could be filled perfectly by anthologies and collections of shorts.  

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the 2011 Redlitzer Anthology by being persistent but it seems they are as scarce as hen’s teeth.  The anthology is the result of a competition run by the Redland Libraries for emerging unpublished writers, and the Redland City Council is to be commended for its support for such a worthwhile endeavour.

I took it upon myself to review the collection (who knows…it could harbour the next Elizabeth Jolley or Patrick White ) and here are my thoughts on five of the ten works, in order of their publication within the anthology:-

Sticks and Stones by Beverley Asmus.
In our school years, most of us would have known a boy or a girl who we might have referred to as being ‘not quite right’  and I’ve read a couple of stories centred around such characters but what sets this piece apart is Asmus’s ability to get inside the character’s  head.  Daniel – who sees and understands his world in purely literal terms – wonders why rust tastes horrible, yet mandarins (which are the same orange colour) are sweet and juicy.  Trouble comes when Daniel is compelled to stop some boys from smoking (because as both the packet and his mother inform him ‘people got cancer from smoking’).

Heartburn by Danielle Carey
Jeremy is a girl-shy church-going writer, feeling more awkward than usual in a new city.  When he meets a rather strange and forward girl by the name of Lou, he projects his ideal female onto her and through a strange sort of osmosis, she reflects what he so desires.

Friends and Lovers by Trish Cation
A murder mystery vignette that might make you think twice before accepting a glass of champagne at a work party.  Renee is an evil piece of work: ‘Money and men – success and sex.  Put it any way you like, they were the two things that mattered most to her…’  Renee’s foil?  the fool…‘sweet little Lauren’. 

The Heart of the Matter: a memoir by Marci Dahlenburg
I really enjoyed this memoir piece, a kind of ‘sliding doors’ snippet about what might have been.  The author takes us with her as her status as a new mother is thrown into turmoil.  She becomes ‘lost in the labyrinth’ that is the hospital as she makes her way to the Paediatric Cardiology rooms to discuss how her daughter who ‘just this morning [had been] perfect’ was now less so.

How do you say it?  Is Down Syndrome? Has Down Syndrome? It was the first time I’d said it.  I didn’t even know how to say it properly.

While the nurse is ‘effervescent’, the baby is ‘floppy’ and the new mother is clamping one hand on top of the other trying to claw her ‘way back to reality’.  My heart ached for her.

Instead of stepping blithely from the shower, grief laid me low.  I was curled foetal on the tiles, screaming a mute prayer into the drain with tears and soap mingling.

The Heart of the Matter packs a devastatingly powerful punch and I hung on every word.

Always by Janice Gallen
I am a fan of one-word titles and this one  immediately conjured a love story. The song of the same name played in my head as I began to read, the structure of the sentences seeming to fit the cadence perfectly.  And yes, it is a love story in a very true sense.  On the day of her beloved husband’s birthday, an elderly woman allows the sands of time to shift as she reminisces about the period before the war when she met the one and only love of her life.  She tries to ignore the portentous pecking of a magpie at the window and shrugs off the tightness in her chest as she remembers the passionate letters they once shared and the unbreakable bonds they forged throughout their married life. 

 She was beside her darling, her lover, her soul mate, and since she’d met him, she hadn’t wanted to be anywhere else, either in life or death. 

 I loved the honesty of this piece.  It pretends nothing:  it is – quite simply – a love story.

In a forthcoming post, I will review the final five stories.  In the meantime, if you’d like to nab yourself a copy of the 2011 Redlitzer Anthology, try contacting Redland Libraries.

BOOK DETAIL:
2011 Redlitzer Anthology, Edited by MK Hume. Redland Libraries, Redland City Council, Aust.
ISBN: 978-0-646-56337-4

4 Comments

Filed under Reviews

shanti bloody shanti by Aaron Smith: Book Review

shanti bloody shanti is one of those rip-roaring rollicking good time Boys’ Own Adventure kind of tales, told with a distinctly Aussie voice and a delightfully devious sense of humour.

Aaron Smith’s Indian odyssey is filled with imagery so vivid that, by the end of the third chapter, I began to feel like a seasoned visitor to Mother India, despite the fact that I’ve never set foot on her shores.

Of the Victoria Monument, Smith writes:

This was a marble palace from the height of the British Raj, fronted by a grumpy, pigeonshit-encrusted bronze Queen Victoria and surrounded by acres of English gardens wilting under the Indian sun. (12)

Mumbai from the back seat of a taxi:

…we passed through blocks of slums, destitute shantytowns built from pieces of plastic, scraps of metal and whatever refuse could be salvaged from the streets.  Overhead, masses of tangled powerlines were illegally tapped from the city grid. (25)

To say there is an interesting array of characters on this journey is an understatement: from bargain-hunter Frankie who once scored ‘a classic vintage 70s hang glider’ (24) to the Japanese hippy chick who introduces herself as ‘Suz the Nip’ and just about every eccentric character of every hue imaginable in between.

However, a couple of warnings:-

Smith might have given us just a bit too much information when it comes to vomit and shit and nostril gunk.  I’m not sure I needed to know that a case of food poisoning resulted in ‘what feels like liquefied internal organs’ falling out of his ass (17) or that staring into a bucket of his vomit he spies sweetcorn , despite not having eaten corn for months.  I know, I know…this would definitely be a big part of any back-packing, hostel-haunting, Indian safari but I occasionally cringed.  Boys being boys though, the guys will get a real hoot out of this kind of stuff.

The second warning relates to the substantial amount of drug use.  I am assuming this must be de rigueur for the twenty to thirty-somethings that would be inclined to embark on such an odyssey and I suppose it is a reflection of some affluent young Westerners (but I don’t believe it necessarily represents the majority, even in that age category).  Most people, at one time or another, have probably turned up to a party only to discover acquaintances shrouded in a Hiroshima-like haze or nasal deep in white powder but the acid tripping seemed more reminiscent of the seventies flower-power era than early twenty-first century.  Smith even hints at the strangeness of it himself I think, when he and his friends are tripping while listening to The Doors as someone rolls a joint – ‘it’s all so trite.’ (180).

I recognize that, as a fifty-something female, I am not the targeted demographic for such a book and yet I enjoyed it.  Despite not being a cricket fan, I had a good chuckle over the constant Ricky Ponting references and I enjoyed the Aussie colloquialisms (true blue, the sketchy bail and built like a brick shithouse), most of which were explained (with an eye on an international audience, I assume).  

I can’t help but wonder how many young men, after reading of Smith’s odyssey, will be testing ‘handfuls of zinc tablets’ (28) as sex-marathon-assisters.  Will readers trawl through the internet to clarify the official scientific line on déjà vu?

shanti bloody shanti is not all beer and skittles.  The unfortunate incident of Dahlia and the ‘stairway to heaven’ signals impending doom and what follows is a series of strange events and eerie coincidences that seem to straddle the fence of reality.

I learnt much about Hindu spirituality, the mighty Ganges, Nepalese politics and even the animal spirits of the Yorta Yorta people back home.  But Smith manages to impart with educational gems with the lightest of touches, eschewing any hint of the didactic. There is certainly nothing high-brow about shanti bloody shanti but Aaron Smith knows his audience and I suspect those readers will lap up this entertaining memoir.

BOOK DETAIL:

Smith, Aaron.  shanti bloody shanti, Transit Lounge, Yarraville, Aust., 2011.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-11-8

10 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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’.

3 Comments

Filed under 200 words, Writing