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AUSTRALIAN LOVE STORIES Edited by Cate Kennedy:Review

Love, luv, lurve.

I adore a good love story. And the short form is perfectly suited to the genre, as this collection will attest. Destiny, heat and lust, cold betrayal, unrequited. It’s all here.

Cate Kennedy’s introduction is superb and I hope other Editors will take note of it. There is no need for spoilers and academic dissections. Nor do we need explanations about how the reader should interpret any given story or what we should expect to gain from the read. I have always felt that writers prefer their work to be interpreted by the reader; it allows for so many possibilities. Kennedy (award winning writer and poet) clearly understands this and she gives us a beautifully written introduction on what it means to be entrusted with so many pieces of work, juxtaposed with the interpretation of love itself, and a vignette on her considered approach to choosing the stories to be included in the collection. She writes:

‘They’re not all pretty, any more than love is always pretty, but look, here they are, miraculous, tumbled and shining, from a stranger’s cupped hand to yours.  I hope you love them.’ (6)

The grouping of the stories into what Kennedy calls a ‘narrative arc’ is uncontrived and gives the Contents pages the look of a poem with stanzas introduced thus: ‘That Sensuous Weight’ and ‘The Unbroken Trajectory of Falling’ book-ending seven sections in total. Beautiful.

Are they all love stories? That will be up to the reader to determine but I wasn’t sure about a few. ‘Is that what you call love?’ I asked myself. I was sometimes puzzled. Are all these stories Australian? Not necessarily in setting, so the Australian of the title perhaps relates more to authorship.

Minor quibbling. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Let’s look at some of these stories.

australian-love-stories-edited-by-cate-kennedy

I am going to start with my favourite. As I began to read Susan Midalia’s A BLAST OF A POEM, I felt my spine relax. Aah. This is the one I’d been waiting for.  Other readers will have a completely different aah moment I expect. ‘A Blast of a Poem’ starts off in a domestic setting with ‘creamy songs’ of ‘moons and stars and rivers’ and ‘one that made me shiver without knowing why’ (179) and with paragraphs beginning ‘When I was fourteen years old and gushingly romantic…’ (179) or ‘When I was twenty-four and my heart was shattered…’ (180). There are layers of love, set over yet more layers, gently and succinctly unfurling a life for us to see in all its sweetness, heartache and devotion. The story takes us from the undoing of a poem to primal sex, and to a few places in between. There are so many beautiful phrases and sentences and words I could offer you here as a sample.  I have chosen this one, not because it is necessarily the best, but because it gives you an idea of it all, without spoilers:

As the weeks became months and the months became years, my life began to feel like an old time movie, in which the leaves of a calendar are ripped off and tossed aside by some cruel, invisible hand. (185)

 

Here are some other standouts:

LOVER LIKE A TREE
J Anne deStaic’s haunting tale of addiction left me breathless. Here’s a man caught in ‘his own private storm’ (56), his veins like ‘wide highways painted blue’ (54). Here’s a woman who lays beside him watching him breathe. She remembers ‘the heat of his skin on hers when all that will fit between them is one layer of sweat’ (56). All the man wants is ‘morphine and a lover like a tree’ (58).

DAWN
Bruce Pascoe
allows the reader into the bed of the narrator and into the depths of his thoughts so that we can see beyond what may seem like simple, everyday actions, to the enormity of the emotion that propels them.

HAMMER ORCHID
Sally-Ann Jones
has given us a hint of star-crossed lovers of different shades. A ‘Ten Pound Pom’ (130) and an older Aboriginal farm hand. Love barely hinted at, barely understood. ‘Biscuits’ (as the farm hand is known) is cool and knowing; he’s warm and open, he’s understanding and closed. ‘Don’t look at me, kid,’ he tells her (136) when ‘she was sixteen and he was twenty-four’ (135). And much later when she goes to visit him, he warns her to stay away.  She tries to entice him into what she has always yearned for on the eve of her wedding. ‘It could be a wedding present,’ is her desperate enticement. ‘No’ is his succinct response (138-139). Sexy. Intriguing. Sad, in a way. But is it optimistic as well? Maybe.

THESE BONES
Allison Browning writes of mature weathered love. Enzo has dementia and the home is both alien and familiar. He wants to awake beside his partner Nev but time warps and memories waver and he is constantly distressed by the current self and the self of his dreams. ‘He is no longer the young man he was moments ago, without lines and the notations that time leaves.’ (224) But Nev still sees him through eyes of love: ‘He looks worn, his body deflated, but the essence of him fills the space somehow like the echo of laughter in a room’ (233).

A LITERARY LOVE STORY (memoir)
Catherine Bateson’s
entry (which I read as a letter to a younger self) gives a nod to the Bronte sisters and [French novelist] Colette and, as the title suggests, literary allusion and metaphor abound. ‘Once I woke with a French phrase clinging to my morning mouth, the only language for unrequited love.’ (21) Strangely though, it is wonderfully Australian.

MOSES OF THE FREEWAY
David Francis knows how to amuse. Gorgeously laugh-out-loud politically incorrect at almost every turn.   Can’t resist these quotes:-

  • The lesbians just look awkward as usual (142)
  • Next came the photo of the foundling called Marvel from El Salvador (143)
  • I, myself, can’t go to the gym. It isn’t safe. I end up backstage in the showers for hours, wondering if I shouldn’t just stay there forever, have my mail forwarded. (146)
  • My own pittance sent each month to Amalia from Manila. Lagoon eyes and a slightly snotty nose. Save the Christians probably added the snot for the photo. (146)
  • Bette’s vaguely bipolar in a subversive downtown beatnik sort of way, her hair a tangled mess. (148)

A GREEK TRAGEDY
Claire Varley
. Beautifully written. Beautifully sad.

WHERE THE HONEY MEETS THE AIR
Carmel Bird’s stream-of consciousness comic monologue is fun.  I adore its word play and jokes about topics as varied as ‘Elizabethan roots’, dictionaries and bees and ‘the merry media, social and anti-social’ (288).

There’s a good review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.
My review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

BOOK DETAIL:
Kennedy, Cate (Ed).  Australian Love Stories. Inkerman and Blunt, Carlton South, Aust, 2014.
ISBN: 9 780987 540164

 ***

In the interests of full disclosure – one of the fundamentals of journalism – I confess to entering into the call for short stories about love, boots and all, but my ‘baby’ didn’t make the cut. I certainly didn’t take it personally and recalled a 2006 interview with Jane Sullivan (the Age) during which Kennedy talks about one of her short stories finding a place in The New Yorker after it had failed to make a mark in a number of Australian competitions. Ruminating on the lesson to take these knock-backs in a professional manner, she said it was a case of ‘Some other time, some other place’.

 

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THE GLASS KINGDOM by Chris Flynn: Book Review

In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.

While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.

glass kingdom

Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character.  He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).

Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.

Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soljer has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses.  He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:

Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia.  There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing.  The dickheads would all shoot each other. (11)

The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits.  Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:

The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers.  The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (15)

Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan.  When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.

It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat.  “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the fucken exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (48).

In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.

Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster.  Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:

He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him.  Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (116)

Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character.  I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (105).

Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus.  In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.

When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me.  He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.

In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers.  Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for ReadingsJames Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”.  So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.

I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.

My thanks, once again, to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. The Glass Kingdom, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2014.
ISBN: 9 781922 147882

 

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KNITTING and other Stories (Ed. Richard Rossiter): Book Review

There was one little book that packed a powerful punch for me last year.  It was the compact, concise, compelling collection of short stories Things that are Found in Trees (my review).  The stories were selected from entries to the inaugural Margaret River Writing Competition.  I loved the book and I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Margaret River Press ever since so I was delighted to be asked to review the anthology resulting from this year’s competition.

Knitting and other Stories is a larger collection (24 stories) presented in conventional paperback form with a great knit-look cover (designed by Susan Miller).

Knitting

Barry Divola’s winning entry ‘Knitting’ is a brilliant stand-out story.  He nails his characters, from the perfect depictions of a bogan neighbour (who is basically a language-challenged, ugg boot wearing mother of a scowling five year old in a Hello Kitty T-shirt), to an aside on gallery openings:

The cheap wine, the cheap opinions, the cheap people.  And the horror of someone coming up to you as you’re looking at a picture and asking ‘So what do you think?’ (21)

‘Knitting’ is beautifully structured with a mystery posed early by way of ‘seven years of silence, no reconciliation’ (23) between mother and daughter:  the same mother and daughter who had once silently knitted together, their needles forming a ‘soft click-clack like a morse code from one to the other.’ (22)  The narrator’s recollection of the man ‘who called himself Blaze (when his name was Craig)’ (23) is hysterically funny.

Sally Naylor-Hampson won second prize for ‘Laps’, a story of a secretive sexual awakening: ‘I could think of nothing but naked breast against steering wheel.  Bare back to dashboard.  Heaving thighs on seat.’ (156-157).

‘I Shine, Not Burn’ (Vahri McKenzie) won the South West Writer Prize with an introverted look at life and death and memories.  Here’s the narrator reminiscing after her grandmother’s death: ‘She made the best of a bad lot and stoically refused to name the bad lot for what it was.’ (101)

Kristen Levitzke was Highly Commended in the Open Category for her haunting depiction of postnatal depression in ‘Solomon’s Baby’ and I think this is my favourite from the collection for the emotion it sucks from the reader and the questions it leaves.

I was honest, I didn’t lie.  ‘I did it.  It was my fault.’ And I said it over and over, ‘My fault. My fault…my fault…’ I know I alternated the intonation like a song, but it was all that I said, one confession strung like a pearl to the next. (47)

Not easily forgotten.

Jacqueline Wright shows finely-honed word skills in ‘My Mother and the Robber’. A city apartment is described thus: ‘It was Fort Knox material soaring fifteen stories into the belly of a midsummer Perth Sky’ (68).  Ultimately though, the story left me slightly baffled and unsatisfied, as did Gemma Nisbet’s ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Playing with Ramirez’ by Paulette Gittins.

Hilary Hewitt shows a wry humour in ‘The Cushion Phase’: ‘…his eyes are the most tempting colour, like seventy per cent Lindt.  Google is quite clear about the beneficial effects of dark chocolate.’ (114). I enjoyed Margaret Everingham’s humour too in ‘Father Figure’.

Another standout is Barbara Knight’s ‘I am Alien’, a clever look at the influences that shape us, from our families to our peers.  The story shows how easily innocence can rupture through little more than apathy, with corruption and sordidness speedily replacing it.

There are certainly some fine stories here. But I have one concern; the seemingly contrived way each story segues from its predecessor.

For example, ‘Laps’ (Naylor-Hampson) features a young surfer and is preceded by another surfing tale (‘That Summer at Manly’ by John Jenkins). A Pregnancy is central to Divola’s ‘Knitting’ as it is to the story that follows, ‘Off the Map’ (Dorothy Simmons).  Amanda Clarke’s ‘The Girl on the Train’ is immediately followed by another train story ‘Kissing Tracks’ by Alyssa Davies. Two thirty-nine-year-old women in Paris (‘The bees of Paris’, Bindy Pritchard), are immediately followed by ‘Francesca Lombardo, aged thirty-nine’ (292) in John Dale’s ‘Expressway’(which is an entertaining and humorous contemporary tale about a Virgin Mary shrine or a murky stain on the concrete wall of the expressway, depending on your point of view).  One father story is followed by another, drugs features in a story and the next one runs with the same theme. After a while, it starts to resemble tag team story-telling.

I find it disconcerting to see themes and patterns emerging from what should be an eclectic collection and I’m not convinced that stories from different authors (competition entries) need to be presented in this way unless they are pieces written to a specific theme.  Still, it’s a minor quibble.

After completing my review, I searched the net to see what others think but didn’t stumble across anything, apart from a considered review from Anne Skyvington in which she names her three favourites.

So I figured I would do the same as Skyvington and share my favourites here, along with some info from the ‘Notes on Contributors’ (which I didn’t read until I’d picked my three):

  • Kristen Levitzke for ‘Solomon’s Baby’. Perth-based teacher, writer, mother. This is a superb story that I don’t think I will ever forget. ‘Solomon’s Baby’ is fearless and thought-provoking.
  • Barry Divola for ‘Knitting’.  Sydney working journo with seven books to his credit. “one wife, one daughter, one cat and no hair”.  I would have preferred to give another writer a ‘moment in the sun’ but I just can’t go past this judges’ favourite.
  • Barbara Knight for ‘I am Alien’. Ah! What a joy to include a ‘late bloomer (75, writing seriously for just eight years), and a fellow Tasmanian to boot! (Incidentally, if you had asked me which story was written by a 75-year-old retiree, I would never have guessed it was ‘I am Alien’).

I hope some of my blog visitors (or visitors to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted) will purchase this latest publication from Margaret River Press (available here) and, if you do, please come back and let us know your three favourite stories.

BOOK DETAIL:
Knitting and other stories. Ed, Richard Rossiter, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe WA, 2013.
ISBN 978-0-97872180-8-7

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Things that are found in trees & other stories, edited by Richard Rossiter: Book Review

Margaret River Press  should be mightily proud of this little production which packs quite an aesthetic punch. 

Early followers of this blog would know me to be a self-confessed bibliophile bordering on bibliomaniac so those with similar leanings will understand my delight at receiving this beautiful 11 x 16cm (yes!) glossy soft-back that fits perfectly into my hand.  As it nestles there, my fingers just curling over its edges, I stare at the title.  Yes, I’m a sucker for a good title as well.

 Things that are found in trees
& other stories

It should come as no surprise that Margaret River (south of Perth, Western Australia) would have a thriving arts scene, their slow food and wine culture being something to behold.  Following the 2011 Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival in 2011 (the inaugural being held in 2009), Arts Margaret River joined forces with Margaret River Press and – voila! – the Margaret River Short Story Competition was born which led to the publication of these select entries.  The collection is edited by Richard Rossiter who, together with Nicole Sinclair and Robert Wood, judged the competition.

Let’s look at the title story, Things that are found in trees. Beverly Lello paints a small town picture onto a world canvas as she connects a photograph of a dead elephant calf marooned in a tree in Sri Lanka with the narrator’s memories of her boyfriend.  It’s a poignant tale that, despite our fears for the worst, keeps us hoping for an alternative. 

The narrator and her Mother put up posters in their search for the young man but it is hard to see the missing Michael in the picture:

His bland, serious, photo face was just a blip between crazy clown and snorting idiot.  He could crack me open and turn me inside out.  It was my crazy clown I was looking for and I didn’t think anyone would recognise him from this photo. (27-28)

Catherine Moffat provides a perfect sense of time, space and place in Waiting for the Wheels to Fall Off like the city car dealer with ‘a cappuccino machine and Marie-Claire in the waiting room [where] the cars were laid out in shiny, complementary colours like the lipstick counter at David Jones.’ (102)

One of my favourite stories is Kerry Whalen’s ‘Its Her Place’.  Next door neighbours Hazel and Ruby come to life through their dialogue:

‘Why do you collect things, Rube?’ Hazel had once asked.
Her friend sucked her gums, face wreathed in wrinkles.  ‘It’s a hobby. Like saving stamps.’ (142-3)

Ruby’s compulsion to collect is so great that she loses sight of the line between taking something unwanted and outright theft.  Twelve tiny pages and I loved Ruby.  I cared about Hazel too (emotions that that can take a writer half a novel to achieve) and wondered what made her such a kind and forgiving neighbour.  The ending surprised me, answered my question and left me smiling.

Rajasree Variyar gets a gong for this sentence in Men don’t cry: ‘And the nightmares that stalk my midnights bared their dark faces in the day’ (50). Tight. Superb.

The other writers in this compact treasure trove are:-
Georgina Luck, William Lane, Christine Piper, Liliane Grace, Jane Skelton, Jacqueline Winn and Bernice Barry.

I was pleased to find notes about the contributors included at the end and, whilst the Editor’s comments on the stories provided in the introduction were interesting and insightful, I would have liked to see them placed at the end also so that inadvertent spoilers or preconceived notions couldn’t influence the reader’s enjoyment.  It’s a small quibble and, because of my preferences in this matter, I simply skipped the intro and read it later.

You can find out more about Things that are found in trees & other stories on the publisher’s website.

Congratulations to the winners and huge applause and cries of ‘More! More!’ toward Margaret River Press.

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Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth: Book Review

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is so well-researched and beautifully written that I have sought special permission to quote.  My copy is another of those uncorrected bound proofs but it would be a great disservice to Forsyth to review this work without giving some samples of her prose.

 With the publisher’s permission, here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite passages:-

Words.  I had always loved them.  I collected them, like I had collected pretty stones as a child.  I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch. (444)

 Between the pages of this substantial novel you’ll find a re-imagining of the Rapunzel fairytale interwoven with a fictionalised account of the life of French writer Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, complete with the intrigue and scandal that accompanied her life at court under the regime of Louise XIV.

 Let’s talk about Charlotte-Rose first; a feminist before the word existed; a feisty passionate woman; a lover of words and art, sex and life.  In the opening pages, Charlotte-Rose is being shipped off to a nunnery upon the orders of the King.  She is still unsure if her punishment is for some impious carols she had written, a rumour she was having an affair with the King’s son, or merely her bold expression of her views.  She wonders if her words – written and spoken – had grown too sharp.

 As a writer, I felt a personal joy in Charlotte-Rose’s love of the implements of her craft:-

My writing tools were my most precious belongings.  My best quill pen was made from a raven’s feather. [. . .] I was often so poor that I could not pay my mantua-maker, but I always invested in the best ink and parchment.  I smoothed it with pumice stone till it was as white and fine as my own skin, ready to absorb the rapid scratching of my quill. (26)

 Forsyth’s imaginative turns of phrase infuse the novel with a deep lyrical quality.  When Charlotte-Rose is awoken in the middle of the night, she lies disorientated and afraid and her mind is ‘filled with the flapping rags of dreams’ (38).  A blown-out candle leaves ‘a question mark of smoke in the air’ (107) and dawn ‘slithered in like a fat grey slug’ (423).  In her prison tower, hunger becomes for Margherita ‘a hot presence in the room, a companion that never let her be’. (187)

 Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney and her knowledge of the subject, together with the historical background of the Huguenots of France and Venice Renaissance life, gives believability to the lives of the central female characters. Period detail is imparted with beautiful subtlety:

Soeur Seraphina gently removed my lace fontanges. It was named for the King’s mistress Angelique de Fontanges, who had lost her hat while hunting one day and had hastily tied up her curls with her garter.  The King had admired the effect, and the next day all the court ladies had appeared with their curls tied back with lace. (21)

The author resists the urge to rely on the fairytale stereotypes of good and evil, giving sympathetic back-stories to dark characters like La Strega.  One chapter, titled ‘Love and Hatred’, is so perfectly circular it could form a self-contained short story.  After opening with ‘Love and hatred were the witch’s currency,’ the chapter closes with the young La Strega in-the-making becoming an apprentice by day and a courtesan by night. ‘One I loved and the other I hated.  A good training ground for a witch’. (235)

 Bitter Greens is a page turner.  Charlotte-Rose is such a loveable character, that it becomes imperative to know her fate, along with that of Rapunzel.  You may think you’d be well aware of what happened to Rapunzel but there are so many different takes on this fairytale and, in Forsyth’s capable hands, the tale could have finished any number of ways.

 Some other reviews you might like to check out:-

Thuy Linh Nguyen for Kill Your Darlings.
Christine Cremen for Sydney Morning Herald
Tania McCartney for Australian Women Online

BOOK DETAIL:
Forsyth, Kate. Bitter Greens, Random House, North Sydney, 2012.
ISBN 978 1 74166 845 2
Uncorrected Bound Proof

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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

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Dressing Up for the Carnival by Carol Shields: review

Once again, thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers for the book and the opportunity to flex my reviewing muscles.  Cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.

Chicago-born latter-day Canadian Carol Shields was an Orange Prize-winner, a short-listee for the Booker Prize and the 1995 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one comes to Dressing up for the Carnival (published in 2000, 3 years before her death) with rather high expectations. 

So when I say that some of the stories in this collection left me unmoved and nonplussed, I think you will understand that the shortcomings are likely to be mine as the reader.  Specifically, it was the tales with a humorous slant – like ‘Weather’ in which the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike – that I didn’t quite latch on to. 

Elsewhere though, Shields just nails it. 

The title story is, for me, about identity.  It’s about the way we package ourselves.  That old adage ‘Clothes maketh the [wo]man’ resonates beneath Shields’ sure pen. And, if not clothes, then props: like a mango (“An elliptical purse, juice-filled, curved for the palm of the human hand.”) or a bunch of daffodils (“They form a blaze of yellow in his arms, a sweet propitiating little fire.”) 

The final story is about clothes too…or lack of them…or more particularly, what we become without them.

 Sandwiched between these two stories, are some delightful fillings:-

  ‘A Scarf’, the purchase of which is to suit a very specific purpose.
 The narrator – a fledgling author at a loose end in a strange town – spends hours choosing the precise scarf for her daughter who “had always been a bravely undemanding child” but the scarf finds its own – totally different – purpose to serve.

 ‘Dying for Love’, in which three women – separately – contemplate suicide. 
Shields doesn’t give us maudlin drawn-out violin strings.  Beth  merely “wonders what would happen if she took all twelve pills plus the gin”  before ditching the lot in favour of a hot milk.  On the brink of jumping from a bridge, Lizzie recalls she is a brilliant swimmer.  And Elizabeth realises “she has the power to create parallel stories that offer her a measure of comfort”.

 ‘Windows’ is a sort of reverse ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and a study of lives diminished by a lack of windows.  Aesthetics, imagination, art and deprivation culminate in such descriptive gems as this:

Glass is green like water or blue like the sky or a rectangle of beaten gold when the setting sun strikes it or else a midnight black broken by starlight or the cold courteous reflection of the moon.  

‘New Music’ is my favourite story – a real standout in this collection.
It opens with a young woman explaining to a man she has just met why she prefers to study the second-best composer, rather than the best.  

 As a writer, I empathised with the woman – soon married to the man she met in the opening paragraphs and with three children – who gets out of bed one hour before the others in the household.  To do what? To make breakfast scones for her family? To iron clothes? Prepare for her day at the office? No. She spends her gifted hour writing at her desk, dressed in her “old and not-very-clean mauve dressing gown”.  Yes  – most writers have one (mine is blue and equally not very clean).

 The wife and mother in ‘New Music’ has completed her 612 page biography of the second-best composer and the manuscript has been sent to a “a reasonably distinguished publishing house – though certainly not the best”.  After publication of the biography (and a suitable hiatus spent catching up on the housework and bonding with her children), she is finally tempted to write about the number one composer and we sense an immediate shift in the dynamic.

 This woman who previously found ‘second-best’ her forte, who loves her middle child (“neither clever nor exceptional in appearance” ) the most, is busy and preoccupied.  “Her word processor sends out blinding windows of authority” as she begins to look at her husband “with an odd, assessing, measuring clarity” and we know that her husband might think he belongs to the days of ‘second-best’.

 BOOK DETAIL:
Shields, Carol, Dressing Up for the Carnival, Fourth Estate, London, 2000.
ISBN 1-84115-165-3

 

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