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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams: Book Review

The journo in me longed for a clever play on words to open this review.  Perhaps ‘Vicky Swanky is a Beauty is a Beauty’ or a pun about it being ‘swanky’ but, alas, Diane Williams has left me nonplussed with this collection billed on the cover as cementing Williams’ position as ‘one of the best practitioners of the short form in literature today’.

In a Q&A with Diane Williams, a Mcsweeney’s Books interviewer says Williams’ stories are ‘frequently very, very funny’, a statement that sent me scurrying once again for another read to see if I could find my sense of humour.  Alas, I raised a smile once, but no sign of a laugh.

After quite a bit of late night research and three or four reads of some of these shorts, I suppose you could say I get a couple of them.  At the same time, my inner voice kept telling me that life is too short and that perhaps I needed to get a life instead of spending hours trying to understand what might be – essentially – a bit of self-indulgence on the part of the author.

However, another voice whispered that Transit Lounge would not be wasting time publishing the collection if no merit existed.  So, with that in mind, I’ll endeavour to do the work some justice by looking at a small selection from the fifty-one shorts (including flash fictions) contained within the pages of Vicky Swanky is a Beauty.

My Defects
I read the first part of the opening story as a prod at consumerism and perhaps gluttony in various forms.  But the latter part of this piece (less than two half-pages in total) seems to segue – not very seamlessly – into saying something about motherhood. 

Between Midnight and 6 am might give us a peep at voyeurism and marriage or it could be about something else entirely.  It seems to concern a married man’s craving for sex as he remembers a woman who lived in his family home for a while when he was young.

If Told correctly it will centre on me showcases the best and the worst of the collection for me.  I make no claims to understanding this:

Then Jack Lam sat briefly himself, put his chin down, frowned.  I acted as if I was biting the top of his head – setting my teeth on, not into him – not to mention the fact that I was also swallowing darker areas.
          Over the next seven years that I kept this project close in mind, I came to understand that my devices belonged to a lost age.
and yet, I love not only the descriptiveness of the ending of ‘If Told Correctly it will centre on me’ but the way it marries with the title:
          I heard the dog next door making a good imitation of what my asthma attacks sound like.  Everyone is sounding like me!
         Don’t forget me!

Broom
While reading ‘Broom’, I had that vague notion that I could almost grasp something tangible; that here – at last – might be a piece I could understand.  It features a man burning papers from his briefcase and I think it says something about fresh starts. By the time I reached the end, I’d lost the fine gossamer thread of comprehension.

Mood Which Gripped Me
If pushed to pick a ‘favourite’, this might be it.

To a ludicrous degree I could have been in a very good mood looking forward.  I am going to be married – followed by dessert, fruit, and bonbons in dishes.
Clever opening, I thought.  ‘Mood Which Gripped Me’ also features the sentence that elicited a wry smile from me:
Over across the – how can I make this wonderful? – the large turf bog! – the sky showed fewer than a hundred birds and at its near top, zero.

Defeat
One Healdsburg Taxicab arrived while she put three wide, wide pieces of paper into her waste can.  A peculiarly restricted number of flowers had been cast into the vase and Julius Minx is now here and he exceeds our space.

That is ‘Defeat’ in its entirety. Sorry, as a reader and a reviewer, I am defeated.

Blake Butler says Diane Williams reminds him of David Lynch.  I wish that were true for me.  I adore David Lynch and I can enter his worlds easily.  With Lynch, I can abandon myself and go along for the ride.  But with Williams’ collection of shorts, I just kept missing the bus.

 I searched for some reviews that might tell me about the understanding [or otherwise] of other readers.
Matthew Love for Timeout enjoys the ‘strange underbelly of domestic drama’ and Paul Di Filippo for The Speculator seems to appreciate Williams’ Kafka-like humour.
Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers who tempted me to dip my toe into Vicky Swanky is a Beauty reminds us that ‘avant-garde writing deserves an adventurous spirit, open-mindedness and a willingness to abandon the habitual ways we have of making meaning.’

I don’t think you’ll see me knocking over fellow readers in my rush to purchase the next Diane Williams offering and yet I feel she got into my head and odd little passages from Vicky Swanky is a Beauty seem determined to linger.  Questions abound, such as why it the short story titled ‘Vicky Swanky was a beauty’, yet the title of the book is Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’?

I’ll leave the final words – a sentence that resonates strongly with me – to Diane Williams…
I make every effort not to crack or to split and to fit in, albeit, fitfully.

 

BOOK DETAIL:
Williams, Diane. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-20-0

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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

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