Heartbreaking & necessary: Fire anthology review

Last month I had the great fortune to be part of a launch of this profound anthology hosted by Eltham Bookshop and the Eltham Library. The event was well attended, booked out, standing room only in fact. Five of the seven Victorian authors included in the anthology were in attendance, three of us gave readings. The readings held the audience  in thrall.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

Part of the magic of the kind of work presented in this anthology is voice. Each piece presented is unique, whether it be poetry, short story, photography or an artwork. Within each piece is a clearly articulated voice, carrying it’s own weight and tone, conveying it’s own message. A new voice emerged with each reading from Fire. As each author’s voice resonated around the room the scent of smoke seemed to manifest and emotion ran high. Each of us felt and heard the experience of waiting, of fearing, of deciding, descend upon us with every uttered word. Eyes were damp, hearts were blown open and we were reminded, again, of our human frailty.

The work contained in Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, is not confined simply to the human experience of bushfire, although that is a prevailing theme. The voices within this anthology speak of interactions with fire in the present and past. David Milroy’s Warlardu and Karla imbues a contemporary man’s grief with a beautiful, ancient Aboriginal myth of love, Cassandra Atherton’s Raining Blood and Money… gives a bone-chilling account of the 1911 Shirtwaist fire in the US, Brooke Dunnell explores the devastating consequences of our contact with fire in The Pressure Suit.

Images are striking, even heart-stopping at times. John Gollings’ aerial photo of Kinglake after Black Saturday shows ‘red strokes…the residual ash from burnt out and fallen limbs and trunks of particular genus of pine tree whose ash is red/orange’. It is beautiful, stark and tragic.

Poetry touches places other forms can’t. Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s Coming Down to Earth reflects on the sense of esoteric pointlessness of choosing new bathroom fittings. Miriam Wei Wei Lo uses words like lassoes and whips in her shimmering poem, Playing with Fire, drawing the reader in then shocking them back out again.

Fire is not a book to be consumed all at once. It’s chocolate is way to dark for that. It’s best read in small bites, followed by time for digestion and reflection. It is an important piece of work, reminding us that we live in a dangerous time in our history and we are less in control of our surroundings than we believe ourselves to be.

My own copy has become quite dog-eared, it’s been carted around so often from place to place, which is why I recommend it.

Purchase Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images from Margaret River Press or your local indie bookshop.

My Hundred Glorious Phrases – review My Hundred Lovers

I love Susan Johnson. Sorry, I haven’t started batting for the other team. Let me qualify. I love Susan Johnson’s writing.

It took three library borrows to find the time to read this book and now that I have it’s on my list of books to own. I consumed My Hundred Lovers with a passion I usually reserve for expensive wine. Aside from the delicious poetry of her writing, Johnson had a way of delivering this story that made it read like a degustation menu. Each chapter was served like a delectable morsel with its own particular flavour within a broader and very satisfying narrative.

The premise of the story is a woman turning 50 reflecting back over her experiences of love, or what she thought was love, throughout her life. While the work is rich with eroticism, it’s no romance. This is an exploration of what it feels like when love, and it’s elusive sisters, beauty and sensuality, come to visit.

Johnson’s mastery of erotic language transforms ordinary things – grass, sunshine, a bridge – into living entities, imbuing them with a soul and memory of their own. Each chapter describes an experience of love, often erotic love, of men, women, buildings, history, family, words, bodies, cities, wine, cigarettes and her son. The story of a woman’s ordinary life unfolds in the context of extraordinary history – from the 1960’s to present day – placing her ancestral history within the bigger political and social movements of each decade.

Interwoven in the narrative a kernels of life truths that rang so true I copied many of them down:
‘I was born preferring death to surrender.’
‘…love was supposed to mean desiring the happiness of the lover as much as one desired it for oneself…let the lover be himself or herself, unopposed!’
‘Love lives in the body and when love dies the body is the first to know.’

There was more to my love of this book than just the writing. I related to the story being told through the experiences of the protagonist on a very personal level. It was one of those reading experiences littered with ‘ah-huh’ moments. I felt Johnson was able to beautifully articulate the impulsive confusion of desire that ignites most love affairs – especially the bad ones. The sense many of us get at a certain age that we a ‘destined to live out life within the poor confines of unwitting compulsions.’ And the point (which I am quickly approaching) when we realise we must live with the consequences of these compulsive decisions, the poor choices of lovers in whatever form they came, and the inevitable truth that the heat of youth is cooling in our veins.

The ending seemed particularly poignant to me. She (the protagonist) identifies that her true love has always been romantic love, and that it will ever be unrequited because it ‘naturally and properly never gave me what it promised’. Given much of the content of my own work focuses on unrequited love, this admission resonated strongly with me. Our obsession with romantic love, our unending belief in soulmates and love at first sight, renders us children in the face of real love. While we believe in such fantasies we keep ourselves forever in desire (a not unpleasant place to be for some) and never able to recognise the very ordinary nature of love when it comes our way.

My Hundred Lovers has to be my favourite book for this year. In the words of Molly Meldrum, do yourself a favour.

A writer stripped bare

I am an unabashed fan of Nikki Gemmel’s writing. Her prose never fails to impress me with its fluid poetry and an inventive turn of phrase that is uniquely hers.

‘The golden thrum washes through you like liquid sun under your skin.’

That said, I don’t love every story she writes.

Nikki’s most well known claim to fame is ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’. It was first published anonymously (only for a week before she was outed as the author). Its salacious erotic content created quite a stir in the international publishing world. Was it a ‘serious’ book or just ‘literary porn’?  In the end it didn’t matter, the controversy was all she needed to promote massive book sales.

When I read it I found it to be both un-put-downable and annoyingly self indulgent. The whole book is written in second person (‘you sit down in a café – you look for him’) from the point of view on an unnamed main character. The sex is written interestingly, compellingly and sometimes veers into downright dirty. Nikki has consistently declared her aim was to write a really honest book about contemporary female sexuality – which I think she managed with Bride Stripped Bare.

Unfortunately I think she was preaching to the converted – women. We already know what we are universally missing in the sexual experience. Generally it’s blokes who remain (willingly) in the dark about what makes for great sex. And when it comes to books like these the vast majority of men skip through to the sexy bits and miss the educative bits inbetween.

With My Body has been touted as the ‘long awaited sequel’ to Bride Stripped Bare. It’s written in the same style – in second person, in the form of a diary of an unnamed character. It’s essentially a mid-life crisis story. Married, expat Aussie mum in her mid-forties bored senseless by relentless piles of laundry, a sexless marriage, and the social tensions of the English private school community, returns to her remote NSW home with her three boys for recovery, reconnection and respite. Here she revisits the blooming of her sexual self between the ages of 14 to 16 and in particular, an intensely adventurous sexual affair she had with some older man she discovers in a virtually abandoned mansion completely by accident.

This man introduces her to the art of love making – not just sex – but an exploration of desire and fantasy in a supposedly safe environment. The woman/young girl telling the story comes across as desperate for attention and this bloke provides it in spades.  She’s falling in love and he, well, we are never really sure where he’s coming from. There’s plenty of vivid description of what goes on as he pushes the sexual boundaries with her further and further, introducing silk blind folds, hand-cuffs and strangers (though we never know how many).

Having found myself compelled and annoyed by Bride, I was unprepared for how I would feel reading With My Body. I was irritated. I found myself wondering if this was a book Nikki was expected to write, had to write, rather than wanted to write. At times there was a sense of déjà vu and I wondered whether she felt compelled to make the sexy bits explicit because that’s what she’d done in Bride Stripped Bare.

I found the second person narrative a bit of a hurdle, especially in scenes where, as a reader, you’re looking for empathy with a very young character and can’t find it. There were moments when the prose glittered and I was drawn into the story, but more often than not I was unconvinced that this particular sixteen year old girl was really brave enough to allow a mature man to push her boundaries quite so far, given it was her first sexual experience.

Still, I might be wrong. I was pretty clueless at sixteen. I can’t say I have much of an idea what sixteen year olds would get up to if they were pushed. The character in question goes to all the places and more that most of us only travel to in fantasy land. Nonetheless the sex scenes, for the most part, were a fun ride 😉

In the end the character’s journey back is one of reclamation. The inevitable, unexplained dumping that leaves her breathlessly depressed for years is explained and she able to draw on the magic of ‘closure’ to return to England and reclaim her marriage and her rightful place in the private school social order. She finally has sex (good sex) with her willing husband again (who is surprisingly not at all bitter about going without for 2 years) and she comes to terms with who she has become in her forties.

It’s a tough call as a writer, having to follow up an absolute rip roaring block buster that caused a complete ruckus. I almost wonder if it’s better not to. Unless what was started in the first one isn’t quite finished – which can happen. Writers don’t just write about ideas. They write to ideas, toward them. It’s not uncommon to see themes evolving through subsequent works. I’m not sure that is what Nikki Gemmel was aiming for in With My Body or not. Only Nikki knows. And you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Another Australia

“I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communties, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communties. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities.”  – Alexis Wright

There is a reason (other than school holidays) for my long absence of recent weeks. I’ve been reading a modern epic. I’ve been lugging it around on the train, to bed, to work, to cafe’s, pretty much anywhere I could find a few moments to get through a few more pages (a chapter would be too ambitious).

Carpentaria is the fourth novel I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (if you want to join it’s not too late!). I’ve been wanting to read it for years – because it’s a Miles Franklin winner (2007), because it’s by an Aboriginal author(many of whom deserve to be more widely read), and because it was an underdog.

The manuscript was rejected by every major Australian publisher before being picked up by small publisher Giramondo. At the time of publication it got caught up in the controversial Angus & Robertson decision to play hardball with small press publishers by refusing to stock their books unless the publishers paid a fee. The big book giant was aiming to clear shelf space by getting rid of those pesky lesser known Aussie authors with small print runs to make way for the block buster international authors with high sales volumes. It caused one hell of a ruckus and had the effect of significantly lifting Carpentaria‘s sales figures.

Carpentaria is everything its shout lines promise it to be – part epic, part scripture and brimming with vivid characters that dominate its equally vivid landscape. It is an Australian literary triumph, the likes of which I’ve not read for a very long time.

However, at 518 glittering pages it is a big – no enormous – reading commitment to undertake, especially in these days where the quick fix read reigns supreme. It took me exactly 6 weeks (two library borrows) to finish it, but finish it I did and because I wanted to not because I felt I had to (although there was an element ‘I won’t let this thing beat me’ to it).

Alexis Wright is incapable of writing a boring sentence.

It was refreshing, and eye-opening, to read a story that has a contemporary Aboriginal world view at its heart. There are some challenges here for those who are unfamiliar with some of the core aspects of Aboriginal culture. The prose careens between the real and the unreal, integrating the ancient lore of a dreamtime landscape with modern Australian cultural life, and the divide between black and white that persists, particularly in the northern parts of this land.

Wright’s characters are complex and intensely imagined, like their names – Normal Phantom (seaman and fish embalmer), Angel Day (femme fatale and Queen of the rubbish dump), Bruiser (the bully-boy Mayor), Truthful (the failed policeman), Mozzie Fishman (the cultural Law Man).

‘This was the only man they knew who lived in the world of marine splendour, riding the troughs on God Almighty seas, surviving cyclones one after another, following a fish to where other fishing men had perished just for the sake of it, once in a while, returning to port to check on the family, before leaving the very next dawn. What a man! An asset to the town, an asset to his race, mind you.’ (re: Norm Phantom)

Entire communities become single characters in this novel, acting as one with various cultural voices combining to create a picture of a mob acting in its own best interests. Even the landscape, teeming with stories and spirits, is a character in this novel. Powerful beings from the Dreamtime move within and over the land, ghostly ancestors traverse the space between dreams and reality and interfere with the daily lives of human beings. There are pages devoted to the whims and rages of spirits of the sea and land and the violence of their jealousies, furies and kindnesses.

The story Carpentaria tells is enormous too. The prose is riddled with beauty and insights as Norm battles with his belligerent wife, Angel Day, and his disowned activist son, Will Phantom. The characters personal battles are fought within the larger landscape of the songlines of the land and sea and the clandestine activities of a vampire-like, morally bankrupt mining company. Sound familiar? Because it is. This is a tale that is fast becoming part of the Australian landscape – the mining company dominating political and social debate, drowning out the voice of the citizens of this country no matter what their colour.

“You know who we all hear about all the time now? International mining company. Look how we got to suit international mining people. Rich people.”

Wright has plenty of fun at the expense of the blundering, supercilious white inhabitants of the town of Desperance and her tongue in cheek moments are evenly and appropriately placed. She shows clearly how silly Australian mainstream culture can be, how ridiculous some of our social rules are and how smug are the generations of Australians who have grown up feeling entitled to their sanitised, abridged version of Australian history.

‘Remember! Who bloody knows what kind of traditions people have, who say they came from nowhere and don’t believe in their own God anymore.’

‘What could they do? It looked like defeat was imminent. And, that same old defeated look, two centuries full of it, began creeping back onto their faces.’

The rhythm of the prose required me to read differently. Perhaps it was the earthy vernacular, or the unfamiliar spirit beings and landscape, or just the lengthy chapters. There were two parts of the story I struggled with, both set in a cyclone, but that might have had more to do with not having the time to sit and consume it as a single chunk. Nonetheless, because the prose was such a pleasure and the story a challenge to read I never contemplated putting the book down.

If you can, make the time to ingest the world of Carpentaria. It won’t cease to surprise with its vast narrative and beautiful prose, and it will introduce you to a new way of looking at Australia and its people.

I love a sunburnt cowboy

My desk computer has crashed so I have no option but to leave the project I was working on and turn to my trusty, rust-clad lap top and blog. Thank heavens for multiple devices.

Before I launch into this review it’s only fair that I should make a couple of declarations.

Declaration 1: I’m no great reader of genre fiction. I’ve paddled in it occasionally, especially when the literary air has become too steamy and complicated. I’ve found a cool, refreshing dip in something blessedly simple and clean clears my head. But I should be honest, my opinion of genre fiction is complicated, divided and riddled with ‘what if’s’, ‘nonethelesses’ and ‘on the other hand’s’.

Declaration 2: I’m a bit of a fan of Margareta Osborn because… well… the truth is (and this blog is all about truth – I think) she’s a very good friend of mine. Such a good friend, in fact, that you will find my name on the second page of her very long list of acknowledgements. There – it’s out – I’m biased.

That said I’ve been as honest as I can in this review, and will leave you to make up your own mind about whether it’s worth the pixels it takes up on your screen.

Bella’s Run (published by Random House) is a rural romance, fondly known as ‘chook lit’ to those closest to the style. It is a relatively new genre, romance with a distinctly countryfied Aussie flavour. It contains all the traditional elements of the romance genre while bringing the sweeping beauty of the inimitable Australian landscape and our legendary country life into its full embrace.

Margareta’s love of her subject matter is obvious from the get go. Her characters are vivid and very, very human – although the city based ones are all suit-wearing, self-involved financial men. Then again, they make a good contrast to the tastier and more earthy country boys. And tasty is the word. Her hero, Will, is so deliciously described he sounds good enough to eat – twice! (‘She took in his tanned and rugged face, his molasses eyes so liquid she just wanted to roll in the sweetness of them.’ Hmm-hmm, he’s welcome to park his cowboy boots under my bed any day.)

The friendship between Patti (Pat-me-tuffet) and Bella (Hells Bells) is sweetly rendered and will make any female reader long for their sisters-in-crime days with their best mate. The prose revels in Australian vernacular reminiscent of a fireside yarn spinning. Dialogue is brimming with ‘Crikey’, ‘crap’, and ‘righto’, which you’d think might bring on a bout of cultural cringe, but it doesn’t because it’s completely appropriate to the story, the characters and the settings.

The story flows well, leaping across two states and eight years to follow Bella’s escape from and return to what she knows as home. Osborn builds the misunderstandings between Bella and Will while maintaining a fabulously raw sexual tension and attraction between them. I ended up jeering and cheering the pair from the sidelines as I watched them struggling to get it together right till the bitter end – (and thank God they did – I don’t think I could’ve coped with anything but a happy ending for Bella’s Run).

There are a couple of scenes in the book I have reservations about (don’t worry, Margareta already knows about them). One involves an impressive (but fairly nasty sounding) attack by stock whip compliments of Patti, and a synchronised spewing scene that didn’t do much for me. Still, they didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book – and yes, I genuinely did enjoy it.

Bella’s Run is a refreshingly boisterous and fun read, with some heart wrenching and tragic moments tossed in. It paints a vibrant picture of how the landscape of our youth is intrinsically linked to our sense of identity. I oughta be grateful, Bella’s Run reignited this once-upon-a-time-country-girl-now-turned-city-chick’s longing for the simpler pleasures of living within Australia’s magnificent and diverse rural landscape and the hard muscled, tanned men that inhabit it.

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Truth doesn’t always hurt: You’ll be sorry when I’m dead – Marieke Hardy

I finished this book feeling a bit sticky and tired, as though I’d just been on an all night bender with a warm hearted stranger I took up with while travelling. It’s a champagne-clinking, fist-in-the-air, misty-eyed memoir commemorating the spoils and foils of misspent youth in Melbourne in the 80’s and 90’s – and I loved it.

I have to concede that my being only marginally older than Hardy, and of similar political mind-set, may have increased the appeal of the book, and I’m not sure that your average bloke from the northern suburbs would feel the same way (I’m not sure if they read anyway so maybe nothing has been lost there?). Many times I laughed out loud at the friendly little digs she makes at the soft, comfortable under belly of educated Melbourne middle-classness, the sort of in joke that would probably be lost on those who aren’t familiar with the contempt we smart-arse southerners hold for the rest of the country in general.

Hardy takes us on an honest, surprising, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering journey through her exploratory twenties. It’s hard to comprehend how she’s managed to squeeze out a media career in between all the substances she’s ingested and friends she’s lost (not always deliberately) along the way. Her sexual experimentations (the main reason my husband read the book) were revealing in that they showed how human curiosity can override passion and often kill it in the process. Through her eyes sex is less – well – sexy and more like an adventurous romp between chimps that’ve let their grooming go a bit too far. Her visit to the swingers club in well-heeled Kew is particularly enlightening, and men who still think ‘it might be a good idea to freshen the relationship’ would be well advised to read it.

Throughout the book Hardy manages a healthy enough balance between sentimentality and self-depreciating humour to make it a fun and reflective read. My sappy hubby even cried over the chapter where she reflects on her experience of accidental motherhood and, speaking from personal step-mum experience, it is moving. She is right when she says ‘… there is not one word in the known language that describes what it feels like for a once-reluctant stepmother to lose access to a child she has learned to raise.’ Mothering someone else’s kids on L plates is a terrifying and eye-opening experience. It’s the main reason I chose to have a child of my own, so I didn’t have to sit on the sidelines for the rest of my life (and I didn’t have to feel guilty for screwing up someone else’s kids when I could do it to my own as well!).

The public Marieke is not always the most popular of personalities. In Sorry when I’m dead she gives us all a chance to get to know her better and she takes the opportunity to explain herself to her past. It’s a brave deed, a public act of contrition, but not annoyingly so. Hardy’s ‘You’ll be sorry when I’m dead‘ could be the Aussie answer to Eat Pray Love – a journey of self discovery that uses booze in place of meditation and prayers to Bob Ellis instead of God.