Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...


This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Book Review - 'All The Birds, Singing' by Evie Wyld

All the Birds Singing : Longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award - Evie Wyld
'All The Birds, Singing' is a very interesting novel. I finished reading it last night and immediately googled 'what happens at the end of all the birds singing' so that gives you an indication of the resolution of the novel. Turns out I'm not as stupid as I thought and the novel ends with some mysteries left unresolved but that does not detract from Wyld's text. It's a mesmerising read. The sinister feel of the novel is created through the dual setting of outback Australia and rural England: despite the birds in the title, it is sheep that dominate the story and descriptions of them dying complement the hard reality of farming life:
'Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like steamed pudding'.
The protagonist, Jake Whyte, is a hard woman to match the hard life of farming and shearing. She has a man's name, lives in a man's world, and descriptions of her strong arms and strong countenance make her an intriguing character: 'It's too hot, but I like the way the heat makes my arms feel like they're full of warm oil, and sweat runs down them in sheets soaking the sides of my singlet'. The unusual portrayal of a female shearer is attractive, and the references to Jake by other characters as a 'bloke' is nicely ambiguous.
The first third of the novel is full of pauses and threads hanging without elaboration, but as the rest of the novel unfolds we are given the full story of Jake's life and it isn't pretty. Wyld's descriptions of sex aren't gratuituous but are confronting, and if we are led to believe that the shearing shed can be a woman's world, we are under no illusion that for desperate young women trying to eke out a living, it is still a man's world: 'And as it goes, the sex is just the same for bored men as it is for over-excited men. I guess they've had the chance to really think about the things they'd like to do to a person'.
Jake dominates the novel, but secondary characters are given brief but engaging cameos: her teenaged friend Karen is a wonderfully eccentric buddy in Port Hedland, Don is a kindly farming neighbour, and Lloyd is a peculiar visitor to the farm, bringing with him kindness and a wry sense of humour. I wish there had been more of Lloyd in the book: he was the only lack of elaboration that disappointed me.
Evie Wyld was on the 2013 Granta list of Best Young British Novelists and this is no surprise given the sophistication of the ideas and imagery in this novel. Her residency in England may be assured now from her overseas success but I hope she travels back home to Australia more to write: she has a clever insight into the ugly beauty of our outback and the people who survive within it.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Book Review - 'An Elegant Young Man' by Luke Carman


<p></p>Luke Carman’s 2013 short novel ‘An Elegant Young Man’ is a dark, witty, honest portrayal of a young man’s life growing up in Western Sydney. Whether this is actually Carman’s own story or only influenced by is irrelevant: the short pieces which form snapshots of a character’s time as child, teen, twenty something and thirty something, are realistic enough to be true, and / or interesting enough to also be fiction. The blurb of the novella claims that Carman ‘tells how it is on Australia’s cultural frontier’, Western Sydney. I don’t know if Liverpool truly is a cultural frontier but certainly the West has been a part of Sydney that has been largely ignored by literature, and subsequently I found ‘An Elegant Young Man’ original and engaging.
Carman’s dark sense of humour really delighted me. I loved the passages about the character Luke’s father. The gruff man’s commentary on his son’s and the neighbourhood friends’ Christmas play was sweet: ‘a plague on both our houses’. Carman’s description of Luke’s childhood friend Arnold was also sweet, a chubby and earnest Fijian boy, and his younger brother, a shy and silent boy: ‘Adam ate in a trance, lost in his inner world, the idyllic daydream of youth was always around him like a nakedness in the decline of our little mountain’.
Carman often describes ugly scenes, realistic portrayals of flabby bodies, worn out old faces, and sneering boys hanging around kebab shops: however, his writing is often beautiful, even describing the grim world of Cronulla’s main strip at peak drinking hour, ‘the smell of their sweat and aftershave and the product in their hair that gave them all spikes pushed out at the girls who gave soft cheeked smiles and eyeliner glances’. Often his language is reminiscent of the short, sharp dialogue of a noir thriller, ‘For a man like me, that was too much of a woman, and I didn’t ever want any more’ and this is in keeping with the swagger of the main character and the world he inhabits. And sometimes the imagery made me smile wryly such as the vividly disgusting description of the smell of a wrestling opponent’s arm pit as ‘like the interior of a Christmas ham-bag’.
My favourite pieces were about the character Luke’s time in the inner West, feeling like an imposter amongst the too-cool-for-school university set. Carman wonderfully sets up the story of his mate Brent through an urban style legend amongst the Newtown crowd, and it’s a lovely piece. I would like to think Brent was a real person: he sounds charmingly droll, ‘He looked into the colourful heap of confectionary and then into my eyes and said “I don’t want your chocolate. My guess is: nobody here does,” and he pushed past me and into the crowd’. Another piece about a girl, Nell, who holds poetry recitals in her Newtown terrace, is also a charming passage: ‘Nell looked deflated and shaken. I wondered if she was thinking how unfair the world is for a woman from the North Shore who believes in poetry and wants to get up on a stage and not be pressed and flattened into a fixture or a faucet of someone else’s machine, and y’know I would have cried for her’.
Carman references his teenage love of Henry Rollins, and the day at school after September 11, and the impact of WWF wrestling on his peer group in western Sydney. He covers a wide range of material in a short text. However, the most lingering piece for me was the third part of his chapter ‘Rare Birds’ where he describes the tumultuous relationship with Louise, ‘a sad-eyed girl with pale skin and black hair that hung to her elbows’. The piece, which follows a road trip that tore the two apart, didn’t echo any part of a relationship that I had experienced, and yet it still felt like a universal experience.
I hope Carman writes more material based in Sydney: he understands it, and has illuminated some interesting pockets of the population and landscape. I’d also like to think that he would be reassured by my admission that it was not only people from the Western suburbs who felt like imposters at the inner west University parties – I’m fairly certain only kids born and bred in Enmore and Newtown ever felt completely entitled to be there.

Book Review - 'The Poet's Wife' by Mandy Sayer



The Poet's WifeI felt a number of things after finishing Mandy Sayer’s new memoir ‘The Poet’s Wife’. I felt relief that she had finally decided to leave her first husband, Yusef Komunyakaa: description after description of his brooding, sulking tantrums nearly tipped me over the edge. I also felt envious of Sayer’s fascinating life: living overseas, writing, busking, meeting interesting people, living in a fabulous sounding apartment in Kings Cross. The memoir made me want to start house-hunting for a little studio of my own on Macleay Street. And finally, I felt that even though I was reading about a fair chunk of Sayer’s life, I was still interested enough in going back to read her first memoir ‘Dreamtime Alice’, the debut which put her on the literary map and which I have been told by friends is a cracking read.
Sayer is an engaging writer but I think what has made her a literary success is just how interesting she is as a person. Even an amateur writer could make something of Sayer’s early life: she was busking as a tap dancer, resplendent in top hat and tails, and living hand to mouth in New Orleans in the eighties.  That’s always going to be interesting. Her entrance into Komunyakaa’s studio, on roller skates, is like a scene from a David O. Russell film:
‘I glided across and came to a stop only inches short of him. He looked down at the skates, then back up at me. At first, I thought he might disapprove of my entrance, think it childish or even dangerous, but then he smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder, murmuring, Good to see you again. I inhaled the scent of his sweat – earthy, like mud – and had a sudden urge to kiss him.’
The fact that Komunyakaa was much older than Sayer, as well as African American, and a Pulitzer prize winning poet, gave Sayer plenty of material to explore within the memoir. But it was the jealous nature of Komunyakaa that became the constant motif of the text, and the ultimate problem in their relationship:
‘Sitting in his kitchen, hearing these anecdotes, I found myself even more in awe of him. He seemed so gentle and graceful – his poetry so lyrical – and I found it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken writer with a war-scarred ex-soldier ready to shoot his cheating girlfriend and all her lovers.’
I don’t know if I’d be alone as a reader of this text in feeling frustrated by the many years of Sayer’s tip toeing around Komunyakaa’s childish behaviour, but her eventual breakdown towards the end of the marriage is affecting, and I ultimately felt sympathetic for her plight:
‘I began writing suicide notes in Spanish, and kept them in my journal. Just describing my thoughts made me feel better, like slowly sucking venom from a snakebite. I knew Yusef read my journal when I wasn’t around – I always double checked the position of the book before leaving the house and then again on my return.’
The moments of writing I enjoyed most were the passages on her time in Kings Cross: Sayer is known for her love of the area, and she portrays the suburb vividly and fondly, without glamorising it:
‘As a kid I’d lived in the Cross for two years, and had returned with my father when we’d first begun busking. Now, in the mid-eighties, it was still an unruly village of corruption and vice: drugs, porn and sex could be procured as easily as a kebab or a beer.’
And I loved all the descriptions of her wonderful busking performances:
‘I set up my gear, tied on my shoes, and pressed play on the cassette player. As Yusef sheltered beneath an adjacent awning, I began dancing to a solo piano version of ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, tapping over the wet bricks, doing my best impersonation of Gene Kelly performing ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, swinging myself around a lamppost, jumping on the park bench, pirouetting from one side of the corner to the other’.
Like many memoirs of a full life, ‘The Poet’s Wife’ could have been slightly shorter – much time was spent describing writing courses in various universities, which became a bit repetitive. However, this is a memoir worth reading, less for the marriage that it explores, but more for the fascinating woman it dissects.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Book Review: 'The Mistake' by Wendy James



Wendy James’ 2012 novel ‘The Mistake’ was a slow burner for me. The first few chapters, setting up the mystery of prim and proper Stepford wife Jodie Garrow and her missing baby, seemed slightly clich├ęd to me and the writing, at first, rather perfunctory. But as the plot developed, not only was I interested in what indeed had happened to the baby the teenaged Jodie had given away for adoption, I also really began to care for the characters. This was due entirely to James’ insightful portrait of the Garrow family. I knew James had been reviewed well for her other novels, and she had won the Ned Kelly award for her debut novel, so I was interested enough to continue past the initial chapters. What impressed me most was the believable portrayal of Jodie: she was a teenager from the wrong side of town, clever and determined to claw her way out of her dismal upbringing. The story of her rise out of working class misery to her position as attractive, well-to-do mother in small town NSW (no doubt based on Armidale, where James’ bio says she resides), was realistically and sympathetically told.
As a 1970s child of a teenage mother, I reflected on my own mother’s experience, as James described the fear and resistance of the 19 year old Jodie after the birth of her daughter:
‘No. Please.’ Jodie’s voice is sharp with panic. ‘Don’t you understand? I don’t need to see her. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to touch her. I want her – I want her gone. Oh, God.’ She turns away, closes her suddenly stinging eyes. ‘Isn’t there someone who can make it all go away? This is like some sort of crazy nightmare.’ Then, like the child that she is: ‘I wish I was dead’.
Her child-like rationale, no doubt influenced as well by her lack of worldliness, meant that Jodie saw nothing troubling about the hospital matron’s suggestion that the child be ‘given’ to a couple who were having trouble adopting. The reader is immediately alarmed; the novel then moves back and forth in time adding details to the puzzle of the whereabouts of that child some twenty years later. The ultimate picture that we are given of Jodie is complex, sympathetic, and quite haunting. I thought the description of Jodie obsessively reading social media commentary of her alleged ‘crime’ particularly moving, and it did cause me to stop and think about the treatment of victims and alleged perpetrators in real life crimes.
Secondary storylines involve Jodie’s very nicely drawn teenage daughter, who became more and more nuanced as the novel developed:
‘Hannah feels irritation flare, unaccountably maddened by her mother’s meek obedience, her passivity. Why won’t she do the talking? If it’s her story, why not tell it herself, her own way?’
And Jodie’s lawyer husband Angus is given some insightful moments that balance out a more traditional portrayal of the philandering husband:
‘The truth is that Angus doesn’t know the full story either. And one part of him – the cool, disinterested lawyer side of him, the aspect that, as the years pass, as his work becomes almost a second skin, has begun to define him – that part of him doesn’t want to know the full story, is warning him to proceed with caution.’
I enjoyed this novel and was quite affected by the resolution of the story. I’ll be going back for more of James’ work, in particular her latest ‘The Lost Girls’ which piqued my interest after reading recent reviews.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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