Heat and Light

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You may have noticed that maintaining this blog is a thing which sometimes I rock at, and sometimes I fail at. It should come as no surprise that I find it difficult to carve out time to reflect and to write – even to read, really – while traipsing around Europe.

Heat and Light was the second book I read for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, two weeks ago now (!). I managed somehow to cram it into a singe weekend, in between saying goodbye to England and hello to Holland, sitting on my great-aunts’ couch on a cloudy day, reading about sparkling sunshine and a possible future and people having to live with terrible truths.

Heat and Light is separated into three parts: Heat introduces a family, one by one, sharing their experiences and the way they fit into the world. I was struck by my own colourblindness: I could not forget that these characters were indigenous, and it occurred to me that if these characters’ identities hadn’t been as clearly defined as they were, I would have assumed they were white, and slipped into the stories without so much as a peep. As it was, I struggled to connect my comfortable, solidly-middle-class white-girl world with the world that van Neerven’s characters had to live in; to connect with the fact that these experiences were occurring, are occurring, just outside my periphery.

Water shows a possible future; one where a Prime Minister has been elected whose platform is the plight of the Indigenous population, but who herself is so removed from the problem that building an island to ship them off to seems like the perfect solution. Also in this future are strange, humanoid creatures springing from the islands that ring the Top End, with faces and voices and who are literally connected to the ground that they spring from. Van Neerven explores the mutability of sexuality when her protagonist falls in love with one of these creatures; Larapinta is delicate and feminine, but they are not female, do not have gender the way humans perceive it. Yet the protagonist falls in love with them, is attracted to them, anyway. I want to be flippant and say something about van Neerven taking pansexuality to a whole new level, but this love story is too tender to be treated so.

Light is the last section of the book; where perhaps Heat showed where its characters were coming from, Light shows where they are going; where they have the potential to go. Each story in Light is a moment hanging suspended in time; from here, the characters each have choices to make, futures which could be opening for them if they only turned in that direction. At the risk of sounding flowery, each moment in Light was like a pearl on a string, glinting in the sunlight, full of endless potential.

That’s the thing I love about short stories. Each of them is more than its parts, making you aware of the before and after, the unwritten, in a much more visceral way than anything longer ever does. Heat and Light is a beautiful book, and I’d easily recommend it is foy love short stories, Australian fiction, or simply a good read.

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Reading resolutions for 2015

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I’m a big fan of resolutions. I rarely achieve what I set out to at the beginning of the year, but I find that resolutions have a way of keeping me on track, keeping me mindful of what I’m doing on a daily basis, and if nothing else, they help to remind me of my priorities when they fall by the wayside. I find that the resolutions I make in hopeful, earnest January are the things that remind me of what’s important when I get to distracted July and apathetic August.

I try to make a broad range of resolutions; fitness resolutions, travel and language goals, writing resolutions. Below are the reading resolutions I’ve made for for 2015; perhaps ambitious, given how I went with my reading goals in 2014, but more detailed than I’ve made them before.

1. Read 50 books

It’s an ambition of mine to read 52 books in a year; one for every week. I’ve yet to hit more than 25 or 30 in a calendar year. Let’s hope this year, with it’s (slightly) more achievable goal of not-quite-one book every week, I can hit my target.

2. Read 12 Miles Franklin winners

I’ve always been interested in the Miles Franklin Literary Award, awarded each year for the novel by an Australian author that represents Australian life in any of its phases. I’m interested to see how the prize represents what the Australian literary scene of any given year (since 1957) views as the epitomisation of Australian life. This year I’ve joined a Miles Franklin book club through a friend at work, and I’m super excited to see how it goes.

3. Read 6 books written by Australian women

I’ve never really weighed in on the women-in-literature debate, except to say rather noncommittally that there seem to be fewer women represented in popular literature and literary prizes because women writers seem to write more genre fiction than “serious literary fiction”, but I do believe that as an Australian woman, the best lens through which to critically evaluate the culture I live in is through the writing of Australian women. I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge a few years ago, and failed miserably, but I feel like between my Miles Franklin goal and my to-read pile, there’s no way I can miss out this year.

4. Read 10 works of nonfiction

I’m so glad I started getting into nonfiction in 2014, and I can only imagine that my love for a good essay will grow as I explore more of the essay collections, memoirs, and other nonfiction works that pique my interest.

5. Read 10 works on my to-read shelf

Forget a to-read pile, I have a whole bookcase crammed full of books I’ve bought with the intention of reading, and then never read. Fiction, nonfiction, award winners, classics, Australian fiction – all the works that I’ve bought with the best of intentions and then gotten sidetracked from. This year I’m going to read (at least) 10 of them, and I hope that once I get the ball rolling my to-read shelf will shrink before my eyes.

6. Read every book that I purchase

I went into a bookstore three or four days before Christmas, and I was only in there for about 5 minutes when I’d found three books that I wanted to buy. Being the week before Christmas, I refrained, but it got me thinking – if I’d bought those books, they no doubt would have ended up shoved on my to-read shelf as soon as I got distracted by something new. So, a resolution – try to buy books one at a time, and above all else, read everything that I purchase. Hopefully that’ll curb my tendency to walk out of secondhand shops with towering piles of oh-I’d-like-to-read-this-someday books.

So there you have it – my reading goals for 2015. Have you made any reading goals for this year? What were they? Let me know in the comments!

Lost and Found

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Lost and Found could have been a typical finding-yourself novel, but it isn’t. Instead of indulging the angsty adolescent myth of white middle-class suburban oppression, Lost and Found revolves around people who suddenly find themselves thrust out of their comfortable lives and into a world that is much harsher than their experiences.

Millie Bird is seven years old, and collects Dead Things. Her Dad is a Dead Thing, but her mum is just missing. Millie’s on a mission to find her, because she’s tired of waiting and doesn’t much fancy getting taken away.

Karl the Touch Typist has had his autonomy taken away by his well-meaning daughter-in-law. He loved his wife until the day that she died, but when his son’s wife can no longer stand the possibility of finding him dead in his armchair, he gets shifted off to a nursing home without any further ado.

Agatha Pantha hasn’t left her home in years, not since her Rod died. Her days tick by in a strict repetition of routine, recording new wrinkles in her Age Book in the morning, shouting at the street after lunch, and writing angry letters before supper. But then one day a lonely little girl knocks on her door, and despite herself Agatha Pantha is intrigued.

Manny is just a mannequin. But with his new friends Millie Bird, Karl the Touch Typist, and Agatha Pantha, he’s about to embark on hue he greatest adventure of them all.

Maybe it’s just because I came straight off the back of reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I quite enjoyed Brooke Davis’ irreverent, down-to-earth view of ageing. Foer’s book is soaked in grief and regret, where Davis focuses her characters strongly on the exuberance of discovering the world beyond their borders rather than the grief of what they’ve lost. It’s a determined attitude of There is something fabulous beyond what I thought my life had in store that keeps the characters motivated, even little Millie Bird, who determinedly ignores the idea that she may have been abandoned and simply goes on with piecing her life back together.

One thing that I did struggle with was the level of ambiguity at the end. I loved the imagery of Manny taking the leap into the great unknown, of Millie Bird and Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha driving off together like a motley family-of-choice, but the questions became too much. What happens to Millie Bird? Do Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist get charged with kidnapping? Karl, at least, was in a pretty precarious position when they left the city, and surely his son is looking for him. What about Agatha Pantha? Does she ever stop comparing her new relationship with Karl to her old one with Ron?

Sometimes I feel like I’m demanding too much of my fiction – that I’m more interested in having all the ends tied up than in enjoying a good story. And Lost and Found was a good story. One of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while.

Demons

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This article originally appeared in The Big Issue no 464. If you like what’s below, please consider purchasing a copy or donating to support the publication’s good work in supporting the homeless and long-term unemployed.

There’s a moment in every writer’s life where an idea they’ve been sitting on for a while crystallises, when ideas about form and function and social commentary finally – and it can really be finally – coalesce into something that can become, with some hard work, a novel. For Wayne Macauley, that moment happened quietly, on an afternoon that could have been any other, with a realisation that it was his generation sitting in Parliament House.

“It struck me one day some years ago, that they were the same age as me. It was quite stunning. And I realised that this generation, my generation, is now the generation in charge. It’s a big driver of what I was interested in about that age group.”

The main group of characters in Macauley’s new novel, Demons, fit in that age group – that mid-forties to early-fifties age bracket into which most of our political, community and business leaders fit into. One of the characters has recently been elected into politics. So the parallel between the title of Macauley’s new work and the Dostoevsky novel of the same name is significant, and utterly intentional.

“That book was dealing with a different generation, but he was asking the question about these guys who were potentially revolutionaries and what was the flaw in them that turned them from potential revolutionaries to violent revolutionaries; to terrorists, essentially. But equally, and as importantly, I’m asking is there a demon in the human mind that also creates, from ideals, complacency, and shallowness, and self-interest.

“I think the more prevalent demon, if you like, in the higher echelons of our society is this self-deception, or inauthenticity, or the ability to lie to oneself.”

Demons takes place just outside of Melbourne, where a group of middle-aged friends decide to slow down for a weekend, shut themselves off from humanity and just breathe the ocean air. No kids, no pets, no devices – just a few friends, a house on the beach, and stories.

Each of the characters sets out to tell a story, and while each story is about a different as it can be, self-deception is a recurring theme. A couple who will do anything – absolutely anything – to fill the void left by the passing of their sick child. A story about an eternal student, forty-something and still smoking weed and funding adaptations of Chekhov’s more political works with the proceeds of his divorce. A politician who has to give up his pet cause – land rights – or else kiss his career goodbye.

In between the stories there is domesticity, a closing off of the world. A huge storm cuts off their little house by the beach and makes even a quick trip to the shops impossible. It’s intentional – the great theatrical tradition of closing people off in a room together and seeing what happens. So they’re left, old friends swapping stories and arguing ideologies, trying to figure out what difference they’ve made to the world they live in.

One character asks, in the aftermath of telling a story that her companions have dismissed as untrue, ‘I wonder if stories can change how things are in the world or if they’re just us telling others what we think the world looks like?’ It’s a loaded question – one character immediately answers in the affirmative, another with a vehement negative. But it’s about more than just ideologies – Megan is a documentary filmmaker, filming Aboriginal elders in the Centre telling their own stories. The others come from idealistic backgrounds too – musicians, journalists, advocacy lawyers. “She’s asking a genuine question, as someone in her middle age, what am I doing and what have I done. They all are.”

In some ways, the answer is no – stories don’t change the world. Megan’s story is unanimously decided to be untrue, and Leon’s career as a journalist ended with him languishing in the opinion columns, writing pieces that it turns out nobody was reading.

There’s another character, barely present, who offers another view on the efficacy of stories in changing the status quo. Extenuating circumstances propel one character to bring his teenaged daughter along, and for much of the novel it seems an inconsequential detail. Tilly is there, in the house, toting her phone with her wherever she goes. Connected, but not connecting, and the difference is striking.

Macauley seems content to leave the answer to that question up to the reader. “At the end of the day I’m just a social commentator. Not even that, I’m just a teller of stories.” But stories have an effect beyond the writing on the page.

If this book were to be summed up in two words, they’d be truth, and stories. Do stories change the world? Does it matter if they’re true? The stories that we tell ourselves and others, that reflect the world as we see it – can they change anything?

There’s a sense, for the reader, that a weekend of trading stories might not have made any difference – for the characters, or for themselves. But there’s hope there as well, that in arguing and understanding their ideologies the characters can better understand the world they live in, and the effect they can have on it.

The Slap

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It’s been a long time since I read Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and I’m not really sure why I haven’t written about it earlier. I had heard about The Slap sometime around its award winning spree in 2009 – it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal and the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year. But I was nervous about reading it, as I had attempted Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe in 2004 and found it rather too challenging for my fifteen-year-old brain.

Then in 2011 The Slap was made into a major ABC drama, and suddenly you couldn’t get away from it. I was intrigued by Tsiolkas’ premise, and the tagline for the series – Whose side are you on? – drew me right in. Interest piqued, I managed to score it as a Christmas present, and dove right into this wonderful, challenging novel.

The Slap’s star is its narrator. Omnipresent and unflinchingly curious about the lives of its subjects, Tsiolkas’ narrator pulls no punches when it comes to showing us what the characters are really like. The boy who was hit is the unmanageable apple of his mother’s eye; the man who slapped him was protecting his own son, and had been drinking beer all afternoon. Worded like that it feels that there can be no right answer – as the tagline suggests, the question is not who is in the right, but whose side do you take?

Even now, months after reading The Slap, the morality question still hangs over my head. I liked Rosie, the boy’s mother, who is overprotective only because she never thought she’d be able to have children. Yet I flinched away from some of her choices – letting a four-year-old breastfeed was just too much for me. Each of the eight characters given their own chapter to star in have the best intentions, want to protect themselves and their own, want what’s best in life. They are real people, keeping secrets, failing and trying again, acknowledging that they can’t always have what they want. They have sex in the kitchen while the children are in bed; they lust after their friends’ husbands; they tell truths and manipulate each other  to get what they want.

Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap is an intriguing novel, and well worth the read. It reminds you that seeing the best in people isn’t all that’s required – to live well with others, you have to be prepared to look out for yourself too.

The Sugar Mother

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It’s been over a month since I finished reading Elizabeth Jolley’s The Sugar Mother, and I’m still not sure what I think about it.

The story itself is unsettling. Edwin is a past-middle-aged university professor, his wife Cecilia a renowned midwife. When she gets a job in Canada and the UK for a year, Edwin remains at their home in Australia, teaching his classes and being overseen by their mutual friend. While Cecilia is away, Edwin’s next-door neighbours, a mother and daughter, insinuate themselves first into his house, and then into his life, finally convincing him to have a baby with the daughter.

I felt incredibly bad for Cecilia – it was clear, even though the story was told from Edwin’s point of view, that the couple had decided not to have children mutually, and I felt that his agreement to father a child with the young woman was flaunting that decision in her face. But by the end of the novel I also felt bad for Edwin, as doubts start to creep up on him as to whether or not he is in fact the father of the child.

I found the character of Edwin fascinating – his constant referrals to quotes and lectures, his three diaries – the external, the internal and the intangible – and his relationships with the women around him. For he is surrounded by women throughout the novel. First there’s Cecilia, and her friend Vorwickl, then his neighbours who move in, then the friend who’s keeping an eye on him, then the friends who Cecilia has consigned to throw him dinner parties every month. Granted two of them are men, but their almost charming loyalty to their former regiments in the British army (the friends are all British expats) still leaves the un-nationalistic Edwin on the edge.

I’ve read often that Jolley’s work explores loneliness, but reading The Sugar Mother I didn’t get that sense – I was far too far into Edwin’s mind. But writing this review now it becomes painfully obvious that despite the extenuating circumstances of his rather horrid neighbours, Edwin is in fact struggling to deal with Cecilia’s long absence – hardly unusual after 30 long, if open, years of marriage.

Edwin was manipulated rather masterfully by his neighbours, and I did feel bad for him, doddery old fool that he ended up looking. But I still can’t forgive what he did to Cecilia.

I loved some of the descriptions – the pine plantation is so vivid, as are Edwin’s rosebushes. The scene where Lila gets lost in the pines still sticks in my mind, and all I can see is the darkness, smell the pine, feel the wintry cold. Jolley is often seen as a quintessentially Australian writer, and the pines and the cold certainly gel with my Australia, but at the same time this tiny half-block of suburbia could be anywhere in the world, and I love that about the novel too.

Night

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Ever since I read Anna Funder’s All That I Am last year, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Germany. I followed All That I Am with Funder’s nonfiction work Stasiland, and then because I was still wrapped up with Hans and Dora and Toller I tracked down Toller’s memoir I Was A German.

I Was A German may or may not have blown my mind. I never got into The Diary of Anne Frank (it reminded my teenaged self a little too much of the Babysitter’s Little Sister books I devoured as a kid), so I Was A German popped a lot of my book cherries.

First nonfiction book about the Second World War. First memoir that I actually liked. First time I empathised with a character who was actually a real person.

This week I’m reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, tagged “His record of childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buhenwald”. Night won a Nobel Peace Prize and was required reading in high schools for a long time.

That’s about all I know about it, which seems a bit short-sighted (I love reading about books almost as much as I love reading them), but I’m looking forward to reading it.

Fifty pages in and I already want to throw it against the wall. I am heartache and shame.