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Meatloaf in Manhattan by Robert Power: Book Review

The title story in Robert Power’s 2014 collection (Transit Lounge) took out second place in The Age short story award in 2011.  The tale spotlights both the gullibility and the callousness of a young man visiting the Big Apple. What better place than New York to purchase dried onion rings masquerading as weed and to pose as a blind guy as a pickup ruse, only to let it all loose with barely a flicker of guilt after Budweiser and Wild Turkey work their magic. It’s a sad tale in a jaded sort of way but also quite funny.  The hallway in the apartment in which Frank dosses is piled high with newspapers,  ‘A bit like the trenches in the First World War, but drier’ (25) and the mattress sports ‘cigarette burns that look like bullet holes’ leading Frank to picture it as an execution backdrop (26).

Meatloaf

Firenze & Snowball is a bittersweet tale of the lure of alternative lives available in online worlds.  In this case, the online world is ‘Alterlife’ which is, as far as I can ascertain, a fictional account of ‘Second Life’.  Some years ago, I did an anthropological study of ‘Second Life’ and can attest to its ability to provide a completely believable alternative universe (in which one can easily and subconsciously replicate unwanted traits and experiences).

In the case of Power’s story, Snowball (so called because ‘he’s so white on account of being indoors so much with his head in a computer’ (14)) scores a gig for his ‘songwriter Goth’ best friend.  Circumstances cascade until the fictional singer/songwriter ‘Firenze’ hits the big time.  It is a story about money and what it can and cannot buy, and it has something profound to say about friendship and happiness.

In ‘She calls her boy Amazing’, Ny is a young Vietnamese boy adored by his mother despite a ghastly conception at the hands of bedraggled and filthy men with ‘sea-madness in their faces, deep scars on their souls’ (38)’.  When Ny finds himself motherless, Old Man Luc becomes his guardian and mentor.  Luc eventually arranges for Ny to go to school in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘And then, who knows how wide your wings will spread, how far you will fly?’ (45). Luc assures his young charge, who has never stopped hoping for his mother’s return, that he will watch out for her every night. ‘I will go to the platform and tell her of your progress and she will smile and be at peace’ (45).

I will be in Vietnam next month and will quite possibly scour the railroad platform in Danang looking for an ‘Old Man Luc’ to sell me a bouquet of flowers and I will think of a little boy like Ny far away at school.

‘The Visit’ showcases an unusual playing with the narrative mode so that the narrator speaks of his mother thus:  ‘Once, though it feels like an age away now, she was tall and strong and as sharp as a pin’ and then switches (within the same paragraph) to ‘How I loved being with you then’ (48-49). This she/you switch is clever and seems to complement the flow of the narrative beautifully.  Power’s word choices and sentence structures throughout ‘The Visit’ indicate an unhurried and well-edited manner of working.

I sit opposite the woman who is my mother.  Her hair, long whitened by the twist of her mind, is now yellowed by surrender.’ (47)

‘The I Zingari Cap’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’ and ‘Synge’s Chair’ all touch on father/son relationships and the circle of life, and ‘The Shoe Lovers’ is delightfully clever with the twist it hints at in the opening paragraph and the altogether unexpected one that is delivered on the closing page.

‘Grooming’ is more of a plot-driven piece (where most of the other stories seemed to explore character to a greater extent) and the plot is just a little too contrived. Conversely, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, while obscure, is both darkly funny and maddeningly thought-provoking.

One of my favourite shorts in this collection is ‘The Postman Gets a Letter’.  The Postman is a beautifully realised character who has tried to make life easier for his depressed wife by finding her a caravan by the sea where she can nurture her wounded soul.  At the same time and in the absence of romance, excitement and/or children, he has channelled his energies into the all-consuming hobby of chronicling the history of the country town in which he lives.

The Postman’s wife reveals her unhappiness – and eventually the secret she has kept from him – by way of a letter she writes from ‘down on the tip of Port Phillip Bay’ (174) with ‘the waves heaving back and forth, oblivious forever to the fears and joys of those passing by’ (165-166). Her demons are stronger than their love, she writes to her husband.  When she tells him of the back story she has invented of a ‘tall, handsome, teenage son’ (169), it’s time for the tissue box. This mythical son has a name and a sense of humour, and she has a reserve of created ‘memories’.  It is, indeed, heartbreaking.

The Postman has a secret of his own and it is amusing to wonder about the impact of his secret on the lives of so many people.  There could be another set of stories in that.

This collection was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts.  It’s engaging short fiction and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into it from time to time.

My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Power, Robert. Meatloaf in Manhattan, Transit Lounge, Melbourne. 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-64-4

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THE DOUBLE by Maria Takolander: Book Review

Despite completing my first read-through of The Double a few weeks back, it has taken me considerable time to bring my thoughts together and I suspect I’ve subconsciously put off tackling this review because of the sheer complexity and cleverness of the themes.

the double

Melbourne born Maria Takolander is a senior lecturer in literary studies and creative writing so it comes as no surprise that she uses allusion to great effect. The stories in this collection carry titles from earlier narratives such as ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’ (a novel by the Chilean writer Jose Donoso), ‘Paradise Lost’ (John Milton’s epic blank verse poem), ‘The War of the Worlds’ (H.G. Wells’ popular sci-fi novel) and those titles provide the link to Takolander’s themes.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t enjoy these perfectly crafted stories if you don’t have an intimate knowledge of the earlier literary figures.  In fact, Takolander’s tales carry a momentum and thoughtful contemplation on their own merit.  To do justice to them in a critical review though…well, that’s something else again.  Nevertheless, here I am giving it my best shot.

The doppelgänger motif of the title story comes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella ‘The Double’ and the schizophrenia and portentousness of Dostoyevsky’s tale is portrayed brilliantly here from the opening mystery of a woman waking confused and dishevelled, on wet grass with her lower half submerged in water to the puddle she returns to seeing “a stranger there in the mirrored surface, her pale face muddied, her body bound in white sheeting.” (78)

The morning after witnessing his parents’ drunken violence, the narrator in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ heads off to a “nine o’clock tutorial on William Carlos Williams”, (12) the modernist poet who penned the poem commonly referred to as ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.  Takolander seems to be saying something about the search for meaning in life (and perhaps the meaninglessness of it) through the analysis of poetry:

I found the question sheet and sat at my desk.  ‘In poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”’, I read, ‘William Carlos Williams strips the world bare of meaning. Discuss.’  I looked out of the window above my desk and into the backyard.  The sky was cloudless, and the air was still. (27-28)

Takolander’s imagery and simile unfurl with seductive ease:

“The midnight sun was glowering on the horizon, and mosquitoes bumped against her bedroom window like tiny ghosts.” (64) [The Double]

“The room would become black, and the silence in the receiver would thicken until I felt I was connected to some dark place underground.” (133) [The Interpretation of Dreams]

“There is firmer land somewhere.  Land where cattle stamp the soil with cloven hooves.  Where horse hair is torn against barbed fences.  Where colossal windmills slice the air. But that is not here.” (30) Tatiana has skin that may be beautiful behind her veil or may be “pocked like the creek mud” (32) and Svetlana has “the hems of her black pants hectic around her ankles.” (41)[Three Sisters]

Where Part One of this collection consists of eight distinct short stories, Part Two meanders along a different path.  Takolander won the 2010 ABR short story competition with ‘A Roankin Philosophy of Poetry’ a kind of absurdist look at academia (I think) and she extends the theme here with ‘Roankin and the Judge of the Poetry Competition’, ‘Roankin and the Research Assistant’ and ‘Roankin and the Librarian’. I’m not sure that I fully appreciated this second Part (at least not to the extent of part one) but Takolander does give her humour full rein:

The garden shed abutted a homely chicken coop, and I had been living there comfortably, beneath a picturesque series of power lines, ever since. (203)

—————-

Roankin’s last words outlining the Roankins’ philosophy of poetry sung on the page like a plague of locusts granted only twenty-four hours to copulate before they die. (203-204)

The intriguing cover design by WH Chong perfectly mirrors [pun intended] the book’s contents and, as it sits beside my keyboard now, it seems to be daring me to hunt down a copy of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Double’ and then revisit Takolander’s take on the theme.

BOOK DETAIL
Takolander, Maria. The Double, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2013.
ISBN: 9781922079763

This review is cross posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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The China Factory by Mary Costello: Book Review

Tiny frissons of recognition hit you at unexpected moments as you dip into the lives of Mary Costello’s ordinary men and women.

The twelve short stories woven together in The China Factory have a deeply personal feel, as though the author has spent some time exploring the slow ‘going’ of lives and relationships.

9781922147417_large_cover

Mothers and fathers and siblings come under Costello’s unwavering gaze but its husbands and wives that sit most starkly in the light her telescopic lens.  In ‘Things I See’ we feel a husband’s slow distancing, the threads of a relationship that become something less because “with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him” (56).

In the title story, the casual convenience of a tentative friendship between a young girl and an older man – workmates, distant relatives and driving companions – forms the backdrop to a coming of age story that focuses on duty and the burden of loyalty.

The narrator and Gus (a behemoth of a man) both worked in a China factory so, later, the things that become Gus-reminders seem at once both obvious and subtle.

“The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or my mother setting down her china cups, or even King Kong, all call Gus to mind.” (20)

It is a tale about moving on – geographically and personally – and what and who we leave behind, why they are left behind, and what we take of them with us.

“I would like to have mitigated the loss and the guilt I felt at leaving them behind, the feeling that I was escaping and walking away.  It is not an easy walk, I longed to tell them, but I’m not sure anyone was listening.”(21)

‘This Falling Sickness’ is my favourite story from the collection.  While its subject matter of death – not one, but two  – is a harrowing one, Costello’s understated method bites.

Upon hearing of her ex-husbands death,  Ruth “stared at the floor and felt herself folding” (72).  As Ruth copes with this death, she relives the more harrowing one in the distant past, the deaths connected by blood.

Costello effortlessly segues between the two deaths and captures grief so perfectly;  the detailed pictures of ‘before’ and the snapshots that collect around the fuzziness in the ‘after’ when  Ruth sees her mother’s shoes sinking into the clay, hears her sister’s voice crack as she reads a poem at the graveside and the roar of the traffic beyond the walls of the cemetery.

A husband’s adultery closes out the grief, a liaison that Ruth choses to see as “not unforgivable” because, she decided “it was easier to be the one hurt, than the hurter” (85).

‘This Falling Sickness’ brought me, as the saying goes, undone.

Light creeps into the shadows behind everyday façades as Costello quietly shocks with deft pauses and the great unsaid.  Beautiful.

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read Mary Costello’s first book of stories.  This review is cross-posted there.

BOOK DETAIL
Costello, Mary. The China Factory, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781922-147417

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Griffith Review 38, Annual Fiction Edition, the Novella Project: Book Review

My thanks again to Lisa Hill for providing me with some fabulous fodder for these reviews for  ANZ LitLovers.

Griffith Review’s Annual Fiction Edition The Novella Project is a treasure box filled with six novellas – a couple of them just a smidge over what might be called substantial short stories – and a small collection of pictures entitled ‘Here comes the sun: a loose association of artists (Tai Snaith’s ‘Assorted Organic Thugs 2012’ a delightful standout for me).

Cover Image is 'The Cruel Sea' by Tai Snaith

Cover Image is    ‘The Cruel Sea’ by Tai Snaith

Doors slide silently throughout Mary-Rose MacColl’s ‘The Water of Life’ revealing snapshots of lives affected by a pedestrian and a bus and a wrong-place-wrong-time moment.  One of the key players likes “the routes that start ordinary and end up somewhere unexpected by going a strange way” (15), metaphorically broadcasting the intentions of the author, perhaps:  certainly sending a signal to the reader.  MacColl gives us an on-the-ground view of a Brisbane she is obviously familiar with. The 385 bus that “starts in the city, goes over to South Brisbane as if it’s tricking…” (15), balloons over the waking city, “Remax and Sirromet and another one she can’t read” (16) and “smokestacks puffing away over the four exes on Milton Brewery” (25).  It’s an entertaining thought-provoking time-warp tale.

Lyndel Caffrey unwraps the love story of Bird and Glad in ‘Glad’ with a constant eye on the detail of a 1920s Melbourne: of gold dust in the printery; of Kiwi shoe polish and the Sherwood Knitting and Spinning  Mills; of the Bulletin and Henry Lawson and trips to Brighton Beach; the boot lasts and beeswax of a cobbler’s corner.  Caffrey captures perfectly the depth and ease and awkwardness, joy and sadness of youthful innocent love.

Here’s Glad and Bird falling in love at Brighton Beach:

My Glad, that’s who you are.
He squashed her sticky salty hands together in his and found her salty lips against his mouth and held on until her head pulled back and she took a great breath of cold air.
If anyone asks you your name, you tell them you’re Bird’s Glad, that’s who you are, he said.
(53)

And here Bird and his sister race to the Sherwood Mills:

They rocketed through the back streets of Brunswick and Coburg, him light-headed as his feet turned the pedals, Fynn up on the handlebars, twisting her head back and filling him in. (47)

Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Intimate Distance’ jumps from Efes to Athens and leaps forward to a 2017 Sydney and back again.  Over the distance of kilometres and years, intimacy unfolds in many ways, such as in its description of “the marine scent of semen growing cold on the sheets” (77) and the quiet softness of a dawn that “pricks the shutters with needles of light” (84).  The intimacy between the lovers Zoi and Mara is pierced by the intrusion of Zoi’s brother Dimitri.  There is the ultimate intimacy of pregnancy; the strength of the connection between a woman and her body, a child and its mother, the baby’s link to an unknown world.  And there’s a changed (and charged) intimacy between lovers when paternity hovers.  But where is the line between telling and holding back?  At what point does the telling revoke the intimacy?

His mouth locks onto my nipple, a drop of colostrum oozes into his body like light, the same light.  Thin blood, rose-coloured, fading or brightening into white.  Trickling out of brown nipples like rain. (137)

Still intimate as it is typed onto a page no doubt, but perhaps lost by the time it is read?

I floundered within the pages of ‘A Minor loss of Fidelity’ and was not able to find my place as a reader.  It was as though Christine Kearney wrote in a bubble and I couldn’t force my way in to unravel the nuances.  Did the author have something to say about motherhood?  Or was I missing something in the UN connection? Timor? Family? Politics? Poverty? The Law? It was never quite clear for me.

With apologies to my sisters of the pen, I’ve got to say that the most memorable pieces were written by the two men represented in the collection.

If I struggled to find a convincing voice in Christine Kearney’s story, no such issue arose with ‘River Street’.  Jim Hearn sets the scene and tone in the opening paragraph (“I pump my fist and work a sullen, pockmarked vein toward courage” (235)) and soon follows up with a solid, convincing voice that never wavers (“I’m not sure if innocence exists but if it does it belongs to a time before you realise that the world is just one long river of pus”(236)).

The horror of the life of a junkie is expanded by the apparent normalcy of securing a job in order to fund the vice.  Hearn’s narrator doesn’t ask us for pity, doesn’t need us to understand his morality.  I found a certain heroic streak in the way Jimmy handles his addiction; his intelligent understanding of his limits, his pragmatic approach to attending to his needs, his precise calculation of time-frames necessary to function as a human being.

Two weeks have passed since I read ‘River Street’ (I read it three times, trying to grasp how the writer made such a sympathetic character out of a foul-mouthed junkie) and Jimmy’s voice still haunts me.  I search for his likeness in restaurants (could that guy flambéing in the kitchen be sweating through an aching desire for drugs?), I look for him amongst the bustle of pedestrians (is that the walk of an addict looking for his next fix?).  When a stranger speaks pleasantly to me at the bus stop, could a voice be screaming inside him ‘I could be dead in half an hour’?  Might he be waging a silent war with his legs which seem to have a craving all of their own? “I picture smashing them into the side of a bus while riding a motorbike. The daydream is pure pleasure.” (276).

Hearn is just pipped at the post by Ed Wright for my favourite piece: ‘An End to Hope’. Its size (53 pages) and weight of subject matter (duty and suicide) are perfectly suited to the novella. It is executed within the form to perfection.  From the opening line, Wright urges you on with a sense of immediacy:

A moment’s hesitation was all it took. She stood there trembling on the tree.  Noose around her neck. Waiting for the final count that would take her to oblivion. (149)

The narrator – a duty-bound Japanese daughter – side-steps acceptable behaviour to befriend an enemy soldier and to eventually take him as her lover, in the shadow of her dead soldier sweetheart Yukio.

The intimacy shared between the lovers for whom language is not the only barrier is at once familiar and alien, all the more so by the denial of a name for the soldier.  Despite their intimacy, the girl’s secret soldier-lover remains – in her mind – ‘the enemy’: “I rested my head in the enemy’s lap and his stuff continued to trickle out of me…” (170).  He is always ‘the enemy’ in the deepest private part of his lover’s soul, even as she imagines him ageing: “His chiselled jaw would have grown more chins.  His firm belly would have gone soft.  The skin on his chest would have sagged.  His hair would be thick and grey.” (183)

This imagined ageing is beautifully realised and continues as the narrator describes her future self: “an obachan wobbling through the village with her back perpendicular to her legs as if time had turned the entire world into mountain.” (182)

This 38th Edition of Griffith Review is perfect for lovers of short fiction.  It’s also a great way to ‘taste-test’ these authors if you’ve not read their work before.  I’ll be checking out Ed Wright’s first full-length collection of poetry, When sky becomes the space inside your head (Puncher and Wattman) and I’m looking forward to reading Jim Hearn’s High Season published by Allen and Unwin in 2012.

BOOK DETAIL:
Schultz, Julianne, Ed. The Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project, Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing. Sth Brisbane/Melbourne, Summer 2012.
ISBN: 9-781921-922602

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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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