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Sam van Zweden

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Review: Street To Street, by Brian Castro

Brian Castro’s latest work, Street to Street, is based on the life of Australian poet, Christopher Brennan. No, not quite – it’s more about the life of Brennan’s biographer, Brendan Costa, and the ways that this man’s life paralleled with Brennan’s.

At the start of the book, Brennan and Costa don’t have heaps in common – they’re Australian men with academic flair. Throughout the story, however, Costa’s obsession with Brennan’s life pulls the two men’s stories together. Or is it the similarities between their stories that fuel Costa’s obsession?

Through Costa’s failures and increasing frustration with the institutional rigidity of academia, Costa and Brennan come to play out quite similar lives. While Brennan’s life is separated from Costa’s by some eighty years, Costa feels such an affinity with the older man that he sets his mind (consciously or unconsciously, or perhaps by chance) to immitating Brennan’s life. His eventual mirroring of the man’s life – his failures and dysfunctions, an intentional nose-dive – is something of a homage to a fiercely creative man. Is immitation the best way to honour people we admire? For Costa, yes.

There’s some lovely Borgesian stuff in Street to Street, where Costa’s single-minded immitation of Brennan reminded me of Borges’ Don Quixote story. In it, an author tries to recreate Don Quixote by living his life exactly as Cervantes had lived. Both this and Brian Castro here are asking: is greatness conditional? If we can recreate the right conditions, then is greatness a given, or is it more individual than that?

Street to Street seems to carry some judgement within it, reflecting pretty harshly on academia and creativity in general. Brian Castro does a beautiful job of considering the self-destructive impulses of creative people, but seems to take these as a given. Perhaps they are. The book also heavily criticizes institutions such as universities, and notions like “Australian literature”. Brennan and Costa seem representative of all creative types, where any ambition within their field really translates to an ambition to fail.

There’s so much happening in this slender volume, that it seems to prove impossible to write a very coherent review, or do the enormity of Castro’s mission with this work justice – but I have done my best. To really get your head around it, you’ll need to give it a look-in yourself. Just keep in mind, this one really requires an open and receptive reader. If that’s you, then this book will pay off.

As mentioned, Street to Street is a small book, and one that’s not afraid to call itself a novella. While it’s being suggested that digital reading primes the market for renewed interest in novellas, it’s really nice to see Giramondo doing their bit to continue the form in print. In true Giramondo style, the physical thing is a joy to hold, and a rewarding challenge to read.

The Memory of Salt Review

Alice Melike Ulgezer’s debut novel, The Memory of Salt, is organic, human, and above all, authentic.

The story is about Ali and her Turkish father (Baba/Ahmet) and Australian mother (Mac). Baba’s life is ruled by mental illness and religion. Mac’s life is ruled by Baba. The narrative isn’t chronological, as we follow Ali’s process from confusion and anger, to understanding and forgiveness. As the narrative shifts about in time, so do those emotions. Life isn’t chronological or one-way like a book, and the structure of The Memory of Salt highlights this beautifully.

When I say that the book is authentic, I say this from a place of knowing practically nothing of Istanbul. Ulgezer really beautifully paints the Middle East as a place of mysticism and tradition, and she has done it so well that whenever I think of that part of the world, I will now think of Ulgezer’s version. (I had a similar reaction to the Bali in Ruby J. Murray’s Running Dogs. Melbourne’s got some damn talented women!)

While I knew next to nothing of the Middle East before this book, I know a fair bit about mental illnesses and the strange (not all bad) things it can do to a family. The relationships that exist between Ali, Baba and Mac are spot-on. They’re truthful and they contain all the anger and unlikely generosity that’s required in that kind of situation. Baba is an infuriating character, but as we shift about in time, learning about the beginning of Baba and Mac’s relationship, its demise, Ali’s childhood and eventual return to Istanbul, we come to love him despite his worse qualities. We aren’t just told that Baba is charming – we are actively charmed.

Ulgezer’s prose is a very particular kind of writing. To be honest, it took me a while to get into it – at first it seemed flowery, and intentionally alienating in the way it’s peppered with foreign words, often without translations. However, once I’d gotten into the rhythm of the writing, it became part of what makes the work so distinctive. And by the end of the text, I’d pick up a few words of Turkish. It’s similar to the kind of gear-shift your brain does to read Jane Austen. At first all the clauses are confusing and seem verbose, but when you’re in gear you get entirely sucked into that world, and it’s great fun.

The book’s layout is organic, with no chapters and only page breaks indicating a shift in time or place. For the story, this works well, totally immersing the reader in the world of the novel. However, for the reader who reads fitfully like me, this can be disruptive. There’s no clean place to put the book down, and it really requires a few long sittings to be read properly. Don’t let this stop you, because it’s a rewarding read (in terms of ripping your freakin’ heart out, in the best way possible), but it does do best when you’ve got the time and space to dedicate to it.

Just a side-note on the physical book: it’s beautiful. As with all books from Giramondo (publishing company), the production values are really high. It’s a little wider than a regular format, the type is well-spaced on the page, and there are perfect margins to stop you from cracking the spine. The fact that it feels so good to hold means it’s easy to not put it down.

As a reader, you need to invest a lot in The Memory of Salt, getting into the rhythm of the prose, spending long periods of time with the text. This pays off though – Ulgezer’s knack with both place and human relationships is well worth the effort.

**A note added later: I just read a Q&A on Readings’ website with Alice Melike Ulgezer, and she talks about how Ali’s gender is never revealed. Isn’t that strange, how I took Ali to be female? Is this because I am female? How did I not notice this? Gosh.

Review: The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

I decided to review these books as a whole series, rather than individually. There’s problems inherent to doing the review this way (spoilers and hints, so I’ll try to be a bit veiled about it all), but I felt it was important to give a comprehensive review of the series overall. This is for two reasons – the first being that the series attracts many younger readers (I’ve seen kids as young as eleven buy the series) and there’s so much I think it’s important for these kids’ parents to know about what their kids are reading. The other, simpler reason is that these books can be inhaled in the space of a few days each (for me, a slow adult reader) and their moreish qualities mean you’re unlikely to just read one. You’ll finish the series, whether you like it or not.

The first book, The Hunger Games introduces us to our heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in a world ruled by a dictatorship (headed by President Snow in The Capitol), which has split the realm into twelve districts. Each district specializes in providing a good or service to The Capitol and its wealthy population, while the citizens of each district struggle to live. As a yearly reminder of the districts’ dependence on The Capitol there exists “The Hunger Games”. A boy and a girl from every district are thrown together in a huge arena (it could be a desert, a jungle, anything) and forced to kill one another. The last person standing wins the right to live, and a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their family.

Something about the books really reminded me of the Tomorrow When The War Began series – possibly something about young people and survival; really basic instincts mixed with all that comes with being a teenager. I think my enjoyment of the books came from whatever in me enjoyed the Tomorrow… books.

The murder thing is pretty full-on. Katniss is a reluctant participant in The Hunger Games, offering herself up only to spare her younger sister. So not only is there murder, but it’s less malicious than it is “kill-or-be-killed”. The deaths of “tributes” (district children involved in the games) are described in detail, and the gruesome nature of the deaths and the situations created by the gamemakers to torture the tributes is like something out of a nightmare. It’s really good reading, don’t get me wrong. I loved it, in an awful way. But eleven year-olds reading this kind of thing? Heavy.

Both Katniss and her district partner, Peeta, express their desire to stop being a piece in The Capitol’s games. Throughout the series this plants the seeds of a revolution, earning them very dangerous enemies in some camps and friends in others.

The second book (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) sends Katniss and Peeta back to the arena, and the shift in the tributes’ attitudes to killing one another make for some really interesting, often touching, reading. Of the three books, though, I felt like this second book was the least enjoyable. It was still good, but things certainly picked up again in book three.

Book three (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) is based entirely on the final show-down between The Capitol and the districts. This book was really quite troubling for me, with themes touching on murder, refugees, the loss of everything that accompanies war, sexual slavery, genetic modification, trauma… The list goes on.

The Hunger Games series is really tricky – it’s not an adults’ series, it’s not aimed at a regular adult fiction-reading audience. But it’s definitely not something for kids on that bridge between children’s older readers and young adult novels. I can’t stress enough the importance of the maturity warning on the third book. If you’ve got kids below, say, fifteen that are reading this book – read it first.

Interestingly, like a other successful YA book series, The Hunger Games has been released with multiple covers. While they haven’t been expressly marketed as “children’s” and “adults'” covers, one is definitely more acceptable for adults to be seen reading. A strange phenomenon, that…

Okay, the political stuff aside…

Like so many great addictive novels (arguably, every novel, but we’ll not get into that now), there’s a love triangle at the centre of the books. Katniss goes into the arena with Peeta, who makes it his business to keep her alive. Back home awaits Gale, her best friend and possible love interest. While reading this a friend asked me if I was “on Team Peeta or Team Gale?” – and I realized it’s the same love triangle we’ve seen in other grossly popular YA novels, eg Harry Potter (Hermione/Harry/Ron) and Twilight (Bella/Jacob/Edward). That’s not to detract from it at all – it’s great reading, and you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in both the boys, torn as to which Katniss should choose. And with the film coming out on the 23rd of March, the addition of some pretty attractive (is that ok? Are they too young to be attractive?) actors as Peeta and Gale, the Team Peeta/Team Gale question will get even harder to answer.

I did find the wrap-up of the series a bit lacking. In a way, Collins has depicted the effects of trauma really well, leaving Katniss scarred both physically and emotionally. However, it also feels like there’s a bit of a need for a “happy” ending after all the horrors of the books, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the ways a few situations were wrapped up. Actually, throughout the books a few things really displeased me as a reader, such as who died and how they went. My emotional reaction to deaths did prove one thing though – I’d become really invested in what happened to those characters. Perhaps Collins is trying to balance this bad (almost too real) stuff by giving readers some happy closure, but after all the shock and trauma it just doesn’t ring true. But really… A unsatisfying final few chapters after three whole books of Awesome isn’t too bad.

Just a quick note: don’t discount these as disposable crap because of their popularity. I have a habit of doing this, and I’m making a concerted effort to not be a book snob. The Hunger Games seems to be the next big thing post-Twilight, and there’s a reason for that. They’re good.

Un-follow-up-able

I finished reading Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

It’s so… Just so. I was grabbed from the very first sentence. I like a good opening line, but I don’t remember ever being struck as hard as I was by this one:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.

I’m not? Oh.

The second-person point of view is pulled off with great success in this novel, and there are so many moments of genuine poetry. The prose is beautiful, and the resonance McInerney has created by moments that in any other novel would threaten to be disparate…

I can’t write a genuine review of this, there’s too much already floating around out there and I’m not sure I have much to add. Just to say that I loved it, and heartily recommend it to you.

Review: Flying With Paper Wings, by Sandy Jeffs

Sandy Jeffs’ autobiography, Flying With Paper Wings: Reflections on living with madness is an enlightening memoir and exploration of the experience of schizophrenia. Sandy Jeffs takes readers through her diagnosis and early experiences, through hospitalizations, and her later life negotiations with her identity as schizophrenic.

There are many misery memoirs out there on the subject of mental illness, and I can’t say they interest me too much. There’s dangerous territory there, where the writer can wallow in their own interior mess, and with a subject like mental illness that’s not constructive at all when it comes to communicating exactly what the experience is.

Sandy Jeffs’ account of her illness makes no attempts at speaking for everyone with the same or similar diagnoses, but her representations of what goes on in her head during an episode are fascinating. This includes whole pages of her interior monologue. These don’t take over the book though, and more interesting are Jeffs’ meditations on the very real political issues she faced, as well as philosophical considerations of the mind/body divide and the ways in which trauma and obsession manifest themselves in psychosis.

While Jeffs underlines the individuality of her experience, she also raises some larger issues which are in need of some serious attention. The end of the book looks at the ways that care for psychiatric patients has changed over the years, and the gaping holes that still exist in the mental health system.

A family member of mine suffers from a mental illness which has much in common with schizophrenia, and in reading this book it’s a bit impossible for me to make a judgement separate from that experience. But that’s probably the best endorsement I could possibly give it – I felt like this book helped me understand a bit more. In this book, Sandy Jeffs gives a strong voice to people who are misunderstood and often ignored. She makes some meaningful steps toward bridging a very big gap.

Review: After the Snow, by S.D Crockett

Check out that cover artwork. It’s pretty nice, huh? Unfortunately I’ve been seeing an alternative cover floating around that’s nowhere near as pretty, but here’s hoping that we get this pretty thing in Australia.

After the Snow by S.D Crockett is a work of young adult fiction, set in an ice-age some time in the not too distant future. The main character, Willo, is left alone in the mountains when his parents are forced out of their family home, and the book follows Willo’s search for his parents and his growth from a boy to an insightful young man.

The story is told in first person from Willo’s point of view. Willo’s voice is really distinctive – his vocabulary is limited (think Jack from Room), and his worldview is very particular to his rural life as a “straggler”. He’s a skilled hunter and craftsman, and a brave young man. Willo has a lot of peculiarities that make him utterly endearing and relatable character. For example, Willo has saved a dog’s skull and fashioned it into a hat. When he wears this hat he is influenced by “the spirit of the dog”, and this spirit guides him throughout the book.

This kind of imagination on Crockett’s part is really refreshing. While I’m not an expert on YA fiction by any stretch of the imagination, I think my lack of general enthusiasm for the genre comes from the tendency for YA authors to sell their audience short: having a young audience does not mean you need to dumb down your narrative or emotional content. Crockett shows faith in her readers by presenting them with Willo’s difficult voice, and his complex emotional journey. This respect for the audience’s maturity and insight is the crux of what’s so exciting about this novel for me. It also makes the novel really enjoyable not only for young adults, but for readers of all ages.

The other lovely thing about this book is the language. It’s a strange and brilliant feat to make less language seem more. Despite Willo’s limited and peculiar voice, Crockett makes it fresh with language that jumps off the page with its poetry. There was a lot of stopping to write lovely bits in my notebook as I read.

I’m looking forward to the release of this one so I can spruik it to everyone. Starting here. The book’s due out mid-February, which is almost upon us, so keep an eye out.

Review: Rocks In The Belly

Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer
Scribe, 2010
ISBN: 9781921844539
RRP:  $24.95

I’m a slow reader, but I ripped through Rocks in the Belly. It’s the kind of book you think about even when you’re not reading it. This novel is impressive in so many ways.

The story is about a child whose mother fosters boys. She bonds with one boy in particular, pushing her biological child  to the point where he can’t deal with the prospect of having his mother love a foster child more than himself, and he acts out. The novel explores the moral and emotional aspects of that situation, and the fall out of the 8 year-old boy’s actions.

The structure of the novel is unique – it’s told in two different voices. That’s not particularly new – authors have been playing with multiple points of view for yonks. What I found interesting, though, was that the two voices are of the same character. We hear of the childhood trauma in present tense from the focalization of the eight year-old boy, while alternating chapters are from that same boy as a twenty-eight year-old returning to his childhood home to care for his terminally ill mother. While I’ve read plenty of books that use different voices, I’ve never read any books that use two different voices from the same person at different stages in their life. Bauer has executed it really skillfully, tying these two voices together convincingly through distinctive sentence structures, in-jokes and personal tics.

There’s a lot of grey area in this book, and not in a purposely vague way. The main character (who remains nameless throughout the whole novel – mechanically, surely, pretty impressive) has this huge internal conflict, constantly trying to redeem himself from being a “bad” person. All characters in this novel engage in some pretty morally ambiguous actions, and one of the main themes of the book seems to be to examine that question – what do you have to do to be a “bad” person, and then what does it take to undo that? Indeed, can any of your actions make you a “bad” person, or are we all a little bit bad anyway?

The language Bauer uses is truly beautiful. At no point did I check out and skip over chunks of description (as we all do when we don’t care) – I didn’t want to miss a thing. The language is so gripping, and so fresh, that I was hooked from the prologue, where we are offered the haunting insight that the main character’s childhood haunts him “in much the same way my fists haunt my hands”. This kind of rich language is laced right throughout the novel, and it never upstages the action. The two are perfectly balanced, so that unless you’re reading like a writer who’s consciously looking for these things, you don’t even notice what’s happening other than the book being is really great.

It’s not often that I give anything 5-stars on my Goodreads account, but this got it. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself this emotionally invested in a piece of fiction, while also being really switched on to the language and its masterful execution. Jon Bauer’s Rocks In the Belly is a new favourite.

Cherry Ripe

I picked up my copy of Cherry Ripe at the closing-down sale of City Basement Books, when they left Elizabeth Street. I got it for only $1. For this reason, it’s sat on my shelf for quite a while, and I’ve felt no pressing need to read it quickly in order to get my money’s worth. And having been written quite some years ago (1985), I didn’t feel the need to read the book or else fall behind in my reading. So now, about a year after I bought the book, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

The story is of three generations of women in Tasmania, mixing the real and fantastical in a way that makes the line blur – pure Carmel Bird.

I’m a big fan of Bird’s short fiction, “Automatic Teller” being one of my all-time favourite short story collections by a single author. I’ve only read one of her novels (she’s written about ten), Red Shoes. I loved Red Shoes for its amazingly rich narrative, a really intricate combination of wonderful story-telling and some really great research into myths and traditions.

While I’ve read it later, Cherry Ripe was a precursor to Red Shoes, and it certainly has that same feeling of being incredibly well-researched, and a strange mash-up of realism and magic. Like the hugely entertaining glossary in Red Shoes, Cherry Ripe is also a kind of vehicle for magical stories which sit outside the main story itself, and these stories are delivered through Aunt Agnes. She hands stories down to subsequent generations, telling of girls flying off cliffs from grief, and girls who drink vinegar until their blood runs dry. Having said that, even the action in the main story is quite fantastical – a girl eats a daffodil to show her love for a nun, and the Sacred Heart and a Fairy Queen commentate on the lives of the women.

The book is heavy with knowledge and iconography – much of it to do with tradition, femininity and religion. As a writer, I struggle to even begin to think about what the research for this novel would have looked like.

The book is a quick read, with large print. The chronology jumps around, and the reader never becomes bored with where the book is going, because the logic of the book doesn’t act in a forward-moving motion, it jumps around all over the place, linking the experience of one generation of the women with that of another, and jumping backward when reminded of another image or scene.

Though descriptions are dense (“Pearly just cred louder, big long tears, confetti runny rainbow teardrop tears”), they are also economical in a way, with every word working hard for its place on the page. Carmel Bird is a veteran of the art for a reason – she has such tight control over her words.
I regret that it took me a year to read this, and had I known it was going to be so enjoyable, I would have paid more than a dollar for it.

The Best Art Feels Like Playing

“DAWN: Oh, I dunno, Nadine. Sometimes that’s good. I like his work, it’s fun. The best art can feel just like playing…”

In Death of a Ladies’ Man, Alan Bissett has written a novel that feels just like playing. I enjoyed this novel so much, though, because that’s not all it feels like. It’s so easy for those post-modern, tricksy texts to be fun, and that’s all. But Death of a Ladies’ Man is also serious, and relevant, and familiar, and well-written.

The novel is about ladies’ man Charlie Bain: divorced teacher with a promiscuous sex obsession. The characters are real and rounded, with Charlie always acting in ways that are true and honest, even when you squirm and wish he wouldn’t.

The prose sparkles – multiple times while reading I needed to grab my notebook to write down phrases that caught me offguard:

Close up on her eyelashes: like the skinny, regal legs of synchronised swimmers.

All Charlie saw was the bruise. Bruise! it said. Bruuuuuuise. Like a comic-book ghoul.

Alan Bissett has shown bravery with his form, with the novel presenting as something of a pastiche of film scripts, catalogues, first, second and third person narratives, shifting points of view and time. The thing I enjoyed most was that this playfulness of form perfectly matched the content. Experiments with fragmented typography match the drug, alcohol and sex experiments Charlie engages in, and his increasingly fragmented state of mind.

Even the difficulty of shifting narrative points of view is admirable: somehow Bissett manages to tell past episodes in second person present tense, and present episodes in past tense third person, mixed up with some first person interior stuff toward the end. This sounds impossible and mashed-up and wanky, but it really works.

Mostly, I laughed. This last week I’ve been sick in bed, having had my tonsils out, and Alan Bissett has kept me from going insane. It’s not a feel-good novel, far from it, but it’s got a definite dark hilarity to it, and despite its touching on some truly heavy stuff, it all still feels like playing.

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