Australian Writer

BBC World Book Club

For those interested, I  have just participated in the next session of the BBC World Book Club featuring Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. I got to ask him a few questions about the novel via phone. It was a very exciting moment for me although very, very nerve wracking!

Recent Reads in a Nutshell

I’ve been reading quite a bit again which I am loving. I’m finding that I am racing through books but I’m still typically reading a book a week. I have noticed that I am reading more popular  fiction these days rather than my usual feast of moody classics or obscure authors. I have been reading titles that are on all the best selling tables in bookstores (although even that is becoming a rarity these days). So here is a round up and a little summary of what I’ve read lately:

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013). A story of the last days of Agnes who was the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Interesting and certainly vivid but I’m not sure if it lived up to the hype. It is certainly different to the sort of ‘Australian’ novels but…I wasn’t left amazed.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007). A Young Adult novel about a girl who commits suicide. Before she died, she made thirteen tapes detailing the steps and people who lead her to take her last steps and she mails them to each of the thirteen people on the list. The people on the list must listen to all the tapes and past them on to the next person otherwise the tapes would be made public. A pretty insightful novel on the teenage world and a cautionary tale about bullying.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013). I love Kate Atkinson. I think she is one of the best writers today and I always love her Brody novels. Case Histories is an amazing book and I remember wanting to stay in and read it while I was travelling in Vienna! Atkinson has this unique talent for structuring overarching storylines and have them interlace together beautifully before bringing it to a close. The best way I can think to describe her stories is that her chapters are like a series of little dots in a painting and by the end, if you step back, you’ll have an amazing masterpiece. Life After Life was no exception although I did find that it lagged a little towards the end.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2013). A ‘love’ story about the marriage between Nick and Amy. Both get to tell their side of the story and it’s a clever psychological read (although I did guess the first part). Both characters became increasingly unlikeable though but a very well written. If you’re in a reading slump, read this!

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (2013). Galbraith is also known as J.K. Rowling. I never read The Casual Vacancy. I did read a chapter or two but found it hard going and then I had to return it to the library because it had around thirty-five reserves on it and then never felt the desire to continue with it. But this, this is a most wonderful crime fiction. Fantastic character development, very atmospheric and by chapter two, you have forgotten that this is J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. By that time, you’re simply engrossed in the story. I did find the story evolved quite similarly to Harry Potter plotlines but that isn’t a criticism. Another fantastic and clever read. And Rowling seems to have a knack for creating plots that makes you double take at the end and wanting to flip through to the beginning again to see if you spot the clues again. I always love that.

Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austen (1813). I think after reading so many contemporary crime fiction, I had a strong urge to re-read this old familiar. A quicker read than I remember but not any less enjoyable. I read my high school copy of this book and I wished I didn’t write so many notes in it. It was quite distracting! But re-reading Jane Austen is always such a pleasure. I spent the most enjoyable afternoons reading on the couch with a lovely cup of tea and biscuits. After reading it, I had the urge to re-watch the BBC version of this and it still proves to be a delight! 🙂

Murder in Mississippi: The True Story of How I Met a White Supremacist, Befriended His Black Killer and Wrote this Book (2013). John Safran’s first book. He is more well known for his documentaries that pushes social (and his own) boundaries. While filming his last documentary, Race Relations, he had shot some film with a white supremacist in Mississippi that never went to air due to consent being withdrawn. That man was later murdered and when hearing this, Safran thought this would be his Truman Capote moment. It’s an interesting book and Safran is as funny and witty in his writing as he is in his documentaries. The way the story panned out was not what I had imagined though but that isn’t a bad thing. Very interesting book but perhaps not Safran’s Capote moment yet. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1962). For some reason, I picked up this book and decided to borrow it from the library. Perhaps I wanted a little breather after Safran’s book. This is a fantastic play. So short but so powerful. There are four main characters who are two couples. Middle- age couple Martha and George end up inviting a young couple who is new to town, Nick and Honey, to their place for a night cap at 2am after a faculty party Martha’s father had thrown. The first two acts show Martha and George as such grotesque people who are so horrible to each other. As Martha and George both play their games and draw Nick and Honey into their arguments, cracks begin to show in their own new marriage. But the third act, the final act, is so brilliant at explaining everything in such a subtle way that you realise why their horrible games were necessary. 

How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (2013). Set in an undisclosed Scandinavian town, Marta and Hector have been married for a very long time. Their only son, Kylan, have flown the coop and now lives in the city. Marta has been trained to be the perfect housewife with the much older controlling husband and overbearing mother in law. As Marta goes through her days, she recites rules from the Good Wife handbook. But Marta finds herself having flashbacks and a life she can’t remember. She has stopped taking her pills that Hector makes her take everyday, physically putting them into her mouth that Marta mocks swallows. She has taken them for as long as she can remember, with both Kylan and Hector reminding her about the last time she decided to stop taking them and the disaster that unfolded. Marta soon decides that something is terribly wrong with her memory and that Hector is hiding something.

A very thrilling, easy and quick read. Marta is an unstable narrator and as things unfold, you aren’t sure what to believe (although I did tend to side with Marta). There is no definite answer at the end but it does provide a thrilling crescendo that will make you want to stay up and finish the book.


Review: “Berlin Syndrome” by Melanie Joosten [2011]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Scribe.

It is Berlin, 2006 and Claire, a woman from Melbourne, is mid-way drifting through a backpacking slash working holiday through the old Soviet countries. Claire is an architectural photographer and is working on a coffee table book of Soviet buildings. While visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Claire meets a local man, Andi, who randomly offers her strawberries. Delighted by this chance encounter, Claire sits down to chat with Andi who lets on the meeting may not have been random:

‘Sometimes I like to just sit there and complicate the world.’

He had watched for her reaction.

Clare had laughed, throwing her head back in a pantomime of enjoyment. Would it annoy him after some time? Would he stop trying to make her laugh?

Complicate? You mean contemplate…but it’s very funny.’

He had laughed with her. It was a good choice. He had almost gone with compensate. Consummate. Concentrate. Consecrate. Complicate had definitely been the best choice. – p. 15

Claire and Andi both connect and are attracted to each other but neither work up the courage to say anything. They go their separate ways but through another chance encounter at a bookstore a few days later, Claire goes home with Andi. The two begin a seemingly normal relationship and both Claire and Andi connect through their mutual disconnection in the world. Claire has left and given up keeping in touch with her friends and family, only sending her mother a few emails here and there to let her know that Claire is alright. Constantly travelling, Claire is searching for something that she cannot define and constantly looking into the distance.

‘But maybe we are always looking forward to something else,’ he  said … ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Not if there are things to look forward to.’

‘It is impossible to be present in the present.’ [Claire] – p. 51

Andi only has his father with whom he shares a stilted relationship. Both are alone in the world. The romance develops but it soon disintegrates into something entirely sinister beginning with a locked front door:

She felt slighted, wanted to kick something. She gave the door a half-hearted nudge with the toe of her shoe. It was one thing not to be able to get in. But not get out? How could he have forgotten she was here? How could he have locked her in? She kicked the door again, harder, and a scuff mark appeared like a rebuke. – p. 57

Andi, utterly but quite rationally in love with Claire but completely deluded, wants to ensure that she won’t be able to leave him and so virtually keeps Claire locked in his apartment. He brings her gifts and does not harm her, hoping that Claire will soon warm to the idea and return his love once again. Like most lovers, Andi wants to save Claire:

‘Running away? What have I [Claire] ever run away from? You don’t know me at all!’

‘I’m just trying to help. I’m giving you a place just to be yourself. In the moment, not looking to the future. That’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it?’ He is doing this for her. Why can she not see that? – p. 97

Andi lives in an isolated apartment block and have taken away all forms of communication from Claire. Trapped, Claire eventually reforms a rather twisted relationship with Andi who wants nothing but Claire.

Berlin Syndrome is a really thrilling read and is the debut novel from a Melbourne writer. The prose is sparse but polished and, I found, very elegant. The small, claustrophobic cast was well drawn and in a rather bizarre sense, both Claire and Andi really complemented one another. They were really two lost souls and you felt for their loneliness and disconnectedness. I’m wondering if the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t want to put anybody off but if you liked Room by Emma Donoghue or Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, then you’ll probably like this too because it’s in a similar vein.

Review: “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice” by Emily Maguire [2010]

Your Skirt’s Too Short is a dissection of the current situation of the female sex in the world today. Yes, sexism still exist. Maguire, having already written an earlier version of this book entitled Princesses and Pornstars, explores the various aspects that threatens and prevent the female sex achieving sexual equality. The book also looks at what feminism means since society’s perception of feminism still recalls the movement in the 60s and of women burning bras:

To be clear: feminism never says that men and women are exactly the same. But the vast majority of gender differences are socialised, not natural, and are not significant enough to justify unequal legal and social treatment of women. A common misconception about feminism is that it means taking something – power, rights, status – away from men. But feminism is about restoring the rights, power and status of women so that they match those of men; not taking, no giving, simply restoring the natural order. And it is the natural order unless you believe that men are inherently more deserving than women. – p. 181

This is one of the best explanations I’ve read. Feminism is not about aggression, unshaved legs, burning bras or ‘acting like a man’ but simply restoring rights to women that had been systematically stripped away from women over the centuries simply because they menstruated and had a vagina. Of course, it is easier said than done.

There is also the ever persistent double standard of sex where Maguire likens society’s perception of a woman’s vagina to that of a used car: it goes down in value with every use/man. And yet, virginity has become somewhat of a shameful badge to carry around. Too many lovers, the girl is a slut. Too little, she’s a prude.

Men believe women don’t really like sex, they complain about it to their mates, they contrive ways to convince the women in their lives to go to bed with them, and they lament the unfairness of having to work so hard just to get laid. And then they meet a woman who’s totally into it, and they collapse into misery and confusion … And women play along, going home frustrated every night because he hasn’t performed enough money-spending, movie-romance rituals to allow her to sleep with him without feeling like a ‘slut’. Or they stop playing the game, sleep with whomever they want whenever they want, and end up stigmatised or pitied. – p. 32

Alongside the recurring debates about women and the portrayal of their sexuality, Maguire also discusses sex education. The focus on sex education is to explain the changes in the body, safe sex and how to prevent pregnancies. However, Maguire argues that it should also include all the other aspects generally involved with sex: the emotions in play, how to say no, masturbation and advice for those dealing with their sexuality.

Emily Maguire discusses other issues that are hounding the female sex that I can’t do justice to in this pithy review. However, I do highly recommend this as it did leave me rather enlightened although also a little more disheartened that we still have to battle our way through socially ingrained sexism. Most of these I believe are due to laziness (household product commercials – I despise you). Maguire doesn’t blame only the male sex for the ongoing oppression of women but women also partly carry the blame. To achieve gender equality, it is ultimately up to all individuals to not socially discriminate according to their gender.

Feminism does not treat men as stupid, worthless, uncontrollable, savage, dangerous or expendable. The system that does that is called patriarchy and we live under one. It’s a system that relies on restrictive gender roles as a means of keeping us all under control. If the men stay in their place and the women in theirs, and if when they do meet they are filled with misunderstanding and bitterness and resentment, then maybe they will never recognise each other as friends and allies, and they will never join together to make things better for everyone. – p. 194

New Releases

Firstly, I’ve been a bad blogger lately so apologies for the lackluster updates and visits to your blogs. I’ve been lurking but only commenting occasionally. 🙂

Spring is in the air and summer is just around the corner and perhaps that the reason why there seems to be an onslaught of fantastic new releases. Here are the titles I’m very excited about:

The Romantic by Kate Holden. Labelled as a follow up to her 2005 memoir, In My Skin, this book chronicles Holden’s life after she overcomes her drug addiction. Kate Holden is also a fortnightly columnist in A2 and she’s one of my favourite Melbourne writers.

Great House by Nicole Krauss. I’ve never read anything by Krauss before but this book sounds so intriguing and well thought out. I love old houses and furniture and this one sounds like something right out of Dickens.

Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I’m quite a fan of Lindqvist (Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead) so I was excited to hear that he has a new novel out. Typical of Lindqvist, he mixes horror with the study of relationships. While his books may contain zombies and vampires, the horror is always very subdued and is a way of demonstrating mass perception.

I rarely become excited about new releases and tend to stay away until the hype goes down but these titles all sound fantastic. I hope they won’t be a let down once I get my hands on them! What about you? Have you heard of these titles? What titles are you  looking forward to?

Review: “Milk and Honey” by Elizabeth Jolley [1984]

It’s such a shame that Elizabeth Jolley’s works are quite difficult to find and that she has become somewhat obscure. Except for The Well, not many of her other writing are published. Some of her titles are being republished by Penguin Modern Classics with beautiful new covers but I haven’t seen many, if any, of them in stores.

I don’t know why I decided to reserve Milk and Honey from my library when I saw it on the list. The title is indeed quite intriguing and the story rather bizarre. The story is narrated by Jacob, also known as Jackyboy by his lover Madge, who we know from the beginning is dead. He makes his living as a failing door-to-door salesman, trying to etch out a life in a dreary town, in a dreary little house, with his silent and exhausted wife and young daughter. Their lives are only slightly cheered every Sunday when a family friend, who we later find out is Madge’s widower, visits although Jacob is irritated by Norman. Jacob’s hands are also hideously disfigured and he recounts what his life was once was.

Coming from an immigrant family, Jacob is sent to board at a music teacher and his family’s house when Jacob is around fourteen. The family, lead by the elderly Leopold, originate from Austria. The large, run down house is also inhabited by Leopold’s two sisters, the stern Tante Rosa and aunt Heloise. There is also Leopold’s teenage daughter Louise and son, Waldemar. Waldemar likes to play harmless jokes on Jacob, is heavily spoilt by his family and loves sweet biscuits, milk and honey. Louise and Jacob bond but he is still being constantly teased by Waldemar. At the urgings of Leopold, Tante Roas and aunt Heloise, Jacob finally gives Waldemar a whack on the chest from which the overweight Waldemar promptly dies from. To Jacob’s surprise, the family loves Jacob all the more for it and treats him as a hero and not a murderer. With this hanging on Jacob’s conscience, he throws himself what he loves best – playing the cello.

When I played the cello and the cello hesitated, poised on a single note so pure and restrained and lovely I closed my eyes with an exquisite love of the cello. I was in love with the cello. – p. 35

Kept isolated in the house and living and breathing music, Jacob passes his teenage years. The only times he ventures outside is to accompany Leopold on his weekly trips to the local psychiatric hospital where he plays the piano for the women’s ward. Jacob also begins to play with an orchestra where he meets Madge who, although Jacob does not realise this for some time, represents freedom and the life he has missed out on. When Jacob’s father suddenly dies Jacob inherits his father’s small wealth. He also quickly becomes engaged to and marries Louise. Without any action on Jacob’s part, he has been entirely consumed by the household.

In spite of  spending my afternoon resting and planning ways in which I could enjoy my new freedom, I felt tied into the house, joined to the people by invisible cords. It was by their acts of kindness they imprisoned me. As a boy  I had only to call out in a dream and Tante Rosa was immediately beside my bed to comfort me. Leopold was devoting himself to my music lessons. And, I was, without any effort on my part, engaged to Louise. I wanted all that I had, but I wanted something else as well. – p. 57

Jacob begins an affair with Madge and attempts to loosen his ties to the house which is now near impossible. He soon discovers, but refuses to believe, that Waldemar is still alive after all and has been living on the top floor of the house from which Jacob has always been forbidden. Another twist comes when Louise, the timid and obedient girl, reveals she is pregnant soon into the marriage even though she and Jacob failed to have sex on their wedding night.

Milk and Honey is a very quiet book and yet it is constantly filled with tension. Elizabeth Jolley effortlessly evokes the heavy, stifled atmosphere and pushes the reader gently along. That Waldemar has an undisclosed mental impairment is never loudly revealed but Jolley gently guides the reader to realisation. I love that the house is featured as a supporting character. The Leopold family remains mysterious, particularly Louise who remains a silent figure going about the daily drudgery of life having never quite lived. The title, of course, refers to how one can catch a bee more easily with honey than with a trap. None of the characters, except Leopold, were particularly likeable. Jacob himself was quite self absorbed but who can really blame him after spending his formative years virtually a prisoner?

‘All whom I held in my arms did not remain

but you are reborn again and again:

because I never held you, I hold you for ever.’

“You don’t love anyone except yourself Jacob. You don’t want the words to sing for me Jacob. You want them for someone else.” – p. 164

Review: “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute [1950]

A Town Like Alice is a tale of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life in the face of various hardships. Jean Paget, a British woman working as a typist at a shoe and handbag manufacturer is twenty-seven years old when she inherits a nice little fortune from a long forgotten great-uncle. In his will, and due to his low regard for a woman’s ability to look after her own finances, the great-uncle stipulated that Jean may not have full access to her fortune until she is thirty-five years old and his lawyer, Noel Strachan, is to act as a trustee. Ironically, Jean is not a typical flighty woman as Strachan discovers when she tells him her experience of  WWII.

Before the outbreak of war, Jean worked as a typist for a British company in Kuala Lumpur and decides to stay during the war. When the Japanese suddenly invades Malaya (Malaysia) Jean is taken prisoner along with thirty other white women while their husbands are herded off to Singapore or a prison camp. When the Japanese realise that the women, which includes children and a baby, cannot stay where they are, they are shepherded to and from different towns, made to walk in the the unforgiving conditions with no end in sight.

“People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had,” she said quietly, staring into the embers. “They don’t know what it was like, not being in a camp.” – p. 56

As it becomes clear to the women that the Japanese had no camp or plans for the women except to march them to death, the women, with Jean as the de facto leader, struggles to survive. Jean, quick to adapt and already familiar with the Malay ways and fluent in the language, quickly sheds her ‘white woman’ persona and dresses and acts as a native to physically survive, dressing in sarongs and walking in bare feet. The remaining women also soon follow suit. Along one of these marches, they come across two Australian men, who are also prisoners. Both parties are surprised to see each other, particularly the men when they see how the women have changed.

“Which of you speak English?”

Jean said, laughing, “We’re all English.”

He stared at her, noting the black hair plaited in a pigtail, the brown arms and feet, the sarong, the brown baby on her hip. There was a line of white skin showing on her chest at the V of her tattered blouse. – p. 67

Angry at the treatment of the women, the men try to help them. Jean instantly bonds with one of the men, Joe Harman, who tells her about his life as a stockman in Alice Springs and who nicknames her Mrs. Boong for her appearance. When Joe steals some prized chickens from a Japanese general, who is later convicted and hung for war crimes, he brutally punished. He is crucified, with his hands nailed to a tree, and whipped. The women are moved on and believe he is dead. They later find refuge with a kind tribesman and is given permission to stay with the small village and accepts Jean’s idea of working in the rice fields. They would stay there for the next three years until the end of war.

The second part of the novel follows Jean as she attempts to find a life for herself after she is repatriated. When she inherits the money, she returns to the village in Malaya that had sheltered the women and builds them a well so the women would no longer have to carry heavy barrels of water on a long trek. It is while she is talking to the well diggers that she finds out that Joe Harman did not die and is still alive and so she sets off to Australia and tracks him down. While she waits for Joe in Willstown, a run down, small town in the outback, Jean begins to think of some business plans in order to help the town – to find jobs for girls, who are leaving in droves to work in the city, which will attract men and which will increase the economy. Fate plays with the couple for a little while but when Jean and Joe are finally reunited, it is sweet:

He had been looking for a stranger, but it was unbelievable to him that this smart, pretty girl in a light summer frock was the tragic, ragged figure that he had last seen on the road in Malaya, sunburnt, dirty, bullied by the Japanese soldiers, with blood upon her face where they had hit her, with blood upon her feet. Then he saw a characteristic  turn of her head and memories can flooding back to him; it was Mrs. Boong again, the Mrs. Boong he had remembered all those years. – p. 183

Once they are reunited, they don’t get their happily ever after immediately but they have to wait while Jean tries her hand at opening up some businesses to give her something to do, if she was going to live in the desolate town with Joe, and to help transform Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, which was then a booming place in the outback, with her inheritance.

Alice was a terrific read, somewhat to my surprise, and almost reads like two different stories. I had expected the typical war romance sort of book but this was something very different. Jean is a terrific character and heroine and it was more often than not that I kept thinking that she was rather similar to one Jane Eyre – plain, alone and who make their own way into the world. What I loved was the display of understanding and respect from Jean, and Shute as a writer, of cultural differences and customs. It was largely due to Jean’s respect to customs to the Japanese soldiers and Malay tribespeople that allowed the women to survive. I also loved how when Jean finally married Joe, despite all the time they had lost and what it took for them to find each other again, it was on her own terms.