Sunday, 12 May 2019

Homecoming

Vicki Laveau-Harvie won the 2019 Stella Prize and 2018 Finch Memoir Prize for her remarkable memoir, The Erratics (2018).  The author grew up just south of Calgary in Alberta, Canada near a remarkable glacial rock formation known as the Erratics.

Her childhood was traumatic due to her mother's behaviour and, upon reaching adulthood, Vicki and her sister both moved away from home. Residing in Europe, Asia and later Australia, Vicki became estranged from her parents who had ''disowned and disinherited' both their daughters.

One day Vicki gets word that her mother's hip has crumbled and she has been hospitalised. Vicki ventures back to Canada after a twenty-year absence, to help care for her elderly father. Vicki and her sister arrive at their childhood home only to find that their father has been essentially imprisoned. He is malnourished, medicated and has had all ties cut with the outside world by their mother. The sisters set about cleaning up the toxic house, which has become a hoarder's delight, and trying to reconnect with their father. They are deeply concerned that if their mother returns home, she will continue her abuse and eventually kill their father, so they work to ensure she stays away long enough to rescue their dad. In coming home the siblings need to confront their past, and their differing perspectives, to try and save their family.

Vicki's mother is like a monster in the closet or under the bed. We see little of her in this book, though she is a threatening presence throughout. The mother is manipulative, charismatic, narcissistic and cruel, but I never really got to understand why or how she became this way. Clearly she has had a tremendous impact on her children as Vicki is full of anger and pain. Her sister is too, but she has a different response and will shoulder much of the burden of caring for the father because she is nearer and feels obligated.

This memoir was bleak, but there was a dark humour that ran throughout, allowing light to get in. I read it in one sitting, and it was a gripping book. As a Canadian ex-pat living in Australia, I immediately felt nostalgic for my own childhood home. But there was something missing for me. Perhaps it was the detached narrative voice, as though Vicki didn't want to get too close to her own story.

In terms of The Erratics winning the Stella Prize, I am not sure why this book was chosen. I have read past Stella Prize winners like Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love (2017), Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (2016) and Emily Bitto's The Strays (2015) and took great delight in each of them. I would have preferred this prize to go to other nominated books like Bri Lee's memoir Eggshell Skull or Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist, both of which I found to be better written.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (part 2)

My weekend at the Sydney Writers' Festival continues with another action packed day. Here's a run-down of the final day of my weekend at the Festival.

Sunday 5 May 2019

Kerry O'Brien - A Memoir

Legendary journalist Kerry O'Brien has released a new memoir about his magnificent career. I last heard him speak at the 2016 Festival when he had published his book about Paul Keating.

O'Brien spoke with Philip Clark about his life in journalism. They began with his childhood at a repressive Catholic school, moving on to his early career as a reporter and later to his television career. O'Brien talked about interviewing Mandela, Thatcher, Springsteen and others as well as his time working as press secretary for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. O'Brien spearheaded some incredible programs like Lateline, The 7:30 Report and Four Corners. 

I was interested in this session because my father was a journalist, and listening to O'Brien speak about his career reminded me of my dad. When O'Brien described how he loved the 'ambience of the newsroom, the thrill of the chase, the competition' for bylines, I thought of my dad's early days in print journalism and his later career in television. O'Brien's tale made me nostalgic; wishing I could talk with my dad more about his work. Unfortunately my dad passed away far too young. Had he lived he would have been O'Brien's vintage and would perhaps have written a memoir of his own remarkable life and career.


Trial By Fire

This is the session I was most been looking forward to - Chloe Hooper (The Arsonist) and Susan Orlean (The Library Book) in conversation about their works. In both books, the authors try to get to the bottom of why someone would commit the crime of arson.

Orlean and Hooper spoke to Matthew Condon, who posed really insightful questions, drawing out the parallels and differences of the two books.  Orlean's work is about the fire in the Law Angeles Central Library in 1986 which resulted in over 400,000 books being destroyed by fire and another 700,000 being damaged by smoke and water.  Handsome and charming, Harry Peak was arrested for the arson, but never indicted, leaving the crime technically still unsolved.  Orlean spoke about how the conditions were perfect for a fire of this magnitude with the layout of the building, the ready fuel in the form of books.

The Black Saturday fires of Hooper's book were wildfires, but again the conditions were perfect with the high heat, dryness, and the change in wind. Unlike Peak, Brendan Sokaluk was a simple loner who was convicted of starting the Churchill Fires and is currently imprisoned. What I particularly enjoyed about Hooper's discussion during this session was her sophisticated linking of social issues with arson - she spoke of the connection between unemployment, discontent and fire setters. 


Both women provide incredible descriptions of the fire and its movements in their books. They spoke in the session about how they learned about fire and its movements, and the animalistic qualities we ascribe to fire. 

I completed Hooper's book late last year and I am currently enjoying Orlean's work. After the session I had the great pleasure of meeting both authors and they kindly signed their books for me. I really enjoyed this session and, for me, it was the best session of the festival: a perfect mix of wonderful books, great speakers, and an excellent facilitator.



Daisy Johnson - Everything Under

Last year Johnson became the youngest person to ever be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her book Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth set in the Oxfordshire canals. She spoke with Nada Bailey. I chose this session as I haven't read the book and don't know the author, so I was eager to learn.


Johnson is an articulate, funny and interesting woman. She began with a reading of the first page of her book, and her prose was so beautiful that I was immediately entranced. Johnson spoke about her interest in fragments of memory and how they come to you out of sequence, unexplained and it is up to you to make connections and determine what is real. In this novel the characters have experienced trauma, and this has had an impact on the way her memory unfolds.

Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth and so Bailey asked about the rise of feminist retelling of ancient tales. Recent revisions include Madeline Miller's Circe and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Johnson said that she recalls reading Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, revisions of fairy tales, and she enjoyed the idea of destroying and rebuilding things.

Johnson always wanted to be a writer, admiring the works of Keri Hulme, Roald Dahl, Stephen King and others - trying to understand how they crafted their works. She began writing short stories, and has a collection available called Fen. She said that she rewrote Everything Under from scratch seven times before the final, published version.

After the session I met Daisy Johnson and she has signed a copy of her book for me. Looking forward to reading this when I return from overseas.

Gabbie Stroud - Teacher

My festival friend alerted me to this session featuring an ex-teacher who has written a memoir about her time in the school system. She spoke with Education professor Nicole Mockler about the current education system and how it needs to be improved.

Stroud was a kindergarden teacher who was passionate about supporting children to learn. She began by reading a heartbreaking passage from her book about a morning at the school, where the key won't work, her impatient charges don't give her a second to think, there is that one child who will do the opposite of everyone else, and the teacher is faced with the sheer exhaustion of trying to meet everyone's needs.

Stroud took time off for parental leave and after a few short months she returned to find the teaching landscape had changed with a new national curriculum, standardised testing, professional teaching standards and more. She said she felt morally and ethically conflicted in her work, while she agrees with quality and accountability, she feels that trust has been eroded and teachers have lost their professional standing.

I found this session quite interesting, but didn't necessarily agree with all of Stroud's views.  I work in education, and have an understanding of and respect for quality standards and accountability. But I share Stroud's concerns about implementation of regulations and the lack of resourcing and respect. I liked her straight-talking manner. Her book sounds interesting and I may seek it out once I have whittled down my existing pile of reading. She has also written about this subject in the Griffith Review.

'I Do Not Want To See This In Print'

With an election only weeks away, it was great to attend this session about the relationships between sources and the media. Annabel Crabb spoke with Samantha Maiden, Niki Savva, and Shari Markson.

This powerhouse panel shared all sorts of wonderful insight about confidential sources, 'off the record' comments, the challenges of chasing down a lead, the disappointment when politicians publicly say the exact opposite of what they told you, and the competition for scoops.

Much of the commentary was about Barnaby Joyce. Markson broke the story last year about his lovechild, when in fact she was investigating potential travel rorts. Maiden shared a funny story about Peter Dutton accidentally texting her. Savva spoke about Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and how she is now writing a book called Highway to Hell, about the undermining of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership.

There were a lot of laughs in this segment and it was a fun way to finish off my Festival for the year.

Final Thoughts

I always enjoy my time at the Sydney Writers' Festival. The biggest problem for me this year was that many of the sessions I wanted to attend were at times I could not go (weekdays) or were in conflict. So I had to make some difficult decisions as to what I would see and had to forego seeing a few authors I wanted to see like Jane Caro, Anna Funder, Sean Greer, Meg Wolitzer and Jane Harper. Fortunately I was able to meet Jane Harper and Meg Wolitzer at the festival in the breaks between sessions.

I really like the Carriageworks as a venue - it is close to home, compact and accessible. But the acoustics were shocking in a few of the rooms. I found the noise from other sessions distracting and disrespectful to both the authors and audience. I note that the Festival organisers were working hard over the course of the event to improve the sound and have since apologised. Hopefully they will rectify this before the 2020 event.

For the most part I am pleased with my choice of sessions. The ones I liked best were largely the ones of authors I was unfamiliar with, and part of the joy of the festival is in hearing new voices and being exposed to new ideas.

I was fortunate to have books signed by the following authors at Sydney Writer's Festival 2019:
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer
  • Jane Harper - The Dry
  • Chloe Hooper - The Arsonist 
  • Daisy Johnson - Everything Under
  • Susan Orlean - The Library Book
  • Meg Wolitzer - The Female Persuasion
  • Clare Wright - You Daughters of Freedom
I am looking forward to reading the ones I haven't already explored.

I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links:

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (part 1)

I spent the weekend of 4-5 May 2019 at the Sydney Writers' Festival, attending nine sessions over the two days. Here's a run-down of the first day of my weekend at the Festival.

Saturday 4 May 2019

Literary Worlds

My first session of the day I chose because I was not really familiar with the panelists but I was intrigued by the premise of their discussion. Carla Gulfenbein, Toni Jordan and John Purcell spoke with Susanne Leal about their love of literature and how they have incorporated it into their works.



Carla Guelfenbein is a Chilean writer who has had a fascinating life, fleeing Pinochet and returning to her homeland 10 years later. She is a huge fan of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Guelfenbein's latest novel is In The Distance With You (2015) which features a character, Vera, based on Lispector. Guelfenbein spoke with great passion about belonging and the need for women to find their place in the world. She said that she is interested in people not fitting in where they are supposed to belong, and that is where she writes.

Toni Jordan is a Melbourne based writer. Her novel The Fragments (2018), centres on a dead author and a missing manuscript. In the book acclaimed author Inga Carlson died in a New York warehouse fire in the 1930s and her second novel was presumed to have been lost in the incident. Fifty years later fragments of this missing novel appear in Brisbane. Part mystery, part historical fiction, it is wholly a book about love of literature. Toni spoke about how good writers are also good readers and she reads two novels a week.

Purcell's novel The Girl on the Page (2018) has been on my reading list since it was published last year. It is about two literary giants who have been married fifty years, one of whom has received an advance for a novel that has yet to appear. A young editor is sent to assist the author make good on this advance. This novel is a behind-the-scenes look at the world of publishing, which is unsurprising given Purcell's long career as a bookseller and current role as Director of Books at Booktopia. Purcell spoke about his love of books and encouraged readers to stretch themselves by reading at a higher level that comfortable with.

When I tweeted the photo of the panel above, John Purcell tweeted back with a funny comment about his surly look, resulting in a bit of hilarity on my twitter feed that had me smiling all day.

Whose ABC?

I am always amazed by the political commentary and controversy surrounding the ABC. The independent public broadcaster is an essential in providing quality journalism and local content. The last year or so has been turbulent with the sacking of the Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, and the replacement of the Board Chair with Ida Buttrose.

This fascinating panel was chaired by Sally Warhaft and featured Marc Fennell, Margaret Simons, Jonathan Holmes, and Mark Scott (former ABC Managing Director). The first subject was the appointment of the new Managing Director David Anderson, who was announced the day before this session. The panel spoke favourably of Mr Anderson and encouraged him to get out quickly and present his vision for the ABC. All agreed that Ida Buttrose is more than qualified to lead the Board, but there was a great deal of concern over the lack of transparency surrounding her appointment.

There was a lot of discussion about the important role the ABC has in telling Australian stories, particularly the voices that will not get covered on commercial television - indigenous, regional and remote. Mark Scott pointed out that it costs over $2M to make one hour of quality drama, and that is why so many stations look to making cheap reality TV. The risk is that the only Australian voices will be those of MasterChef and Married at First Sight contestants.

Funding continues to be a huge problem and the cost-cutting has had a terrible impact on morale of ABC staff. The politicising of the ABC has placed pressure on the network. The journalists spoke about the notion of 'fair and balanced' promoted by politicians, and said that balance is not what is needed. Rather fairness is prime, following the weight of evidence. They pointed out that on some topics there is a clarity of the weight of evidence (e.g. vaccination, climate change) and that 'balance' would undermine and mislead reporting.  All agreed that ABC needs to cover broader issues, like business topics (SBS has a series on managing small business) and consumer journalism.

As an ABC viewer I appreciated the insight each panelist brought to this session. Both Holmes and Scott have written essays for the Melbourne University Publishing 'On' Series in which writers are asked to produce a small book about a big topic. Scott has written 'On Us' about new media and Holmes 'On Aunty' about our national broadcaster in an era of media disruption.


Rachel Kushner - The Mars Room

Last year Kushner was shortlisted for the Booker prize for her third novel The Mars Room (2018) which tells the story of a woman who is incarcerated, leaving her young son to be cared for by his grandmother. I had not read this book and was not familiar with Kushner, when I selected this session.

Kushner spoke with Michael Williams (Wheeler Centre) about the impetus for writing this book and her concerns about mass incarceration in the author's home state of California. She spent a lot of time talking wth inmates in order to understand the conditions in which they live and the circumstances which lead them to jail. She spoke about how she is unsettled by the lack of care for those who go to prison - the prolonged sentences, unavailability of books, the hopelessness of the parole system.

During the session, Kushner read a few passages from the book which were witty, heartbreaking and literary. It made me really interested in reading the novel.

Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer

My last session today was with Nigerian author Oyinkan Brathwaite who has crafted a dark, comedic novel about two sisters, one of whom has a habit of killing her lovers.

Braithwaite spoke to Rebecca Harkins-Cross about her literary influences - Jane Eyre, Great Expectations in particular, and the characters that interest her like Estella, Miss Haversham and Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester. She said she is drawn to strong female characters who do nefarious things.

The narrator in Braithwaite's novel is the sister of the killer, the enabler and supporter. She spoke about the need to write from this perspective, rather than trying to get inside the killer's mind. This gave her a freedom to write. Earlier drafts had the women as friends, but as the writing evolved they became sisters to make the ties familial and strong.

Beauty is a central theme as Ayoola, the murderer, is impossibly beautiful and is therefore able to get away with things that her plainer sister Korede, the narrator, is not. Braithwaite spoke about how quickly people are judged on their looks.

During the session Braithwaite read a number of sections, which were witty and compelling. My Sister, the Serial Killer has recently been shortlisted for the Women's Prize. I grabbed a copy at the Festival and was thrilled to have it signed by the author. I have been enjoying reading it in the past few days and will blog my review separately.


I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links:

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Sydney Writers' Festival - Early Sessions

The 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival has begun!  I will be sharing my festival experiences on Twitter (@inaguddle) and blog about them here as I have done in the past (SWF2018, SWF2016,  SWF2015)

Unable to take time off work to attend weekday sessions, I am making the most of my evenings and have an action-packed weekend scheduled. My festival companion and I have chosen a wide array of sessions - some together, some apart - selecting topics of interest and some new authors with whom I am not familiar.

Over the course of SWF2019 I will be hearing from some amazing writers like Gillian Triggs, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, John Purcell, Gabbie Stroud, Kerry O'Brien, Chloe Hooper and Susan Orlean.

So here's a summary of my first few sessions...

Suffragettes, Referenda and Sausages (Thursday 2 May 2019)

This panel session is subtitled 'The History of Democracy in Australia'. Journalist Annabel Crabb sat down with historians Judith Brett and Dr Clare Wright to talk about politics.

I have a keen interest in politics and history and have long admired Wright, author of the Stella Prize winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014). Her latest book is You Daughters of Freedom (2018) about the Australian women's suffrage movement. Judith Brett's latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage (2019) about the Australian electoral system.

This session was so interesting and I learned so much about how unique Australia's electoral system is - with the legal requirement to register, compulsory voting, accessible weekend voting, and the independent electoral commission which protects against voter suppression and gerrymandering - all reasons that over 96% of eligible population are enrolled to vote.

What particularly fascinated me was Wright's discussion of women's suffrage and how influential Australian women were in the British suffrage movement, supporting their 'less fortunate British sisters'. Wright shared some stories of the innovative ways women pressed for the right to vote. Both Brett and Wright spoke about our shameful history of denying rights to Aboriginal men and women, sharing excerpts of overtly racist political speeches. Wright reminded today's politicians that 'Historians in one hundred years will judge you on what is recorded in Hansard' - the transcripts from our Parliament.

After the session I purchased Wright's book and spoke to her while she signed it for me. Can't wait to read it - although it may be some time, as the 400+ page hardcover is not a book I will be taking with me on my Moroccan holiday later this month!


Gillian Triggs - Speaking Up (Friday 3 May 2019)

I have huge admiration for Gillian Triggs, former Human Rights Commission President. I have heard her speak previously at events and always found her to be an intelligent,  passionate and empathetic advocate for human rights. My festival friend and I were keen to hear Triggs speak with Dr Clare Wright about her memoir Speaking Up (2018).

Spending her early years in Britain before emigrating with her family to Australia, Triggs was raised with a keen sense of social justice. She spoke about the influence Greer's The Female Eunuch and de Beauvoir's Second Sex had on her as a young woman and how optimistic she was for a positive, equal future in which she could pursue whatever future she had imagined for herself. She shared how she ended up in law, how difficult it was in the late 1960s for women to get into the profession and how she developed her interest in international law.

Triggs then spoke about the fundamental freedoms at the heart of democracy - rights to be free from arbitrary detention, to a fair trial, to freedom of assembly, to be equal before the law, to vote, etc - and how Australia's rights have been eroded and are not protected by a Bill or Charter of Rights. She claims that 2001 was when Australia began to lose its way because of three distinct but linked incidents - the 'children overboard' claim, the Tampa crisis, and 9/11 - which lead to successive governments conflating Islam and asylum seekers with terrorism, and the creation of laws which have diminished the separation of powers and placed human rights at risk.

She spoke about her time as Human Rights Commission President, the intense scrutiny and abuse she endured, and how her resilience was fuelled by her team at the Commission, her anger at the injustice and the overwhelming community support. Triggs ended this empowering session with an optimistic view of the future and encouraged young people to be bold and stand up for what they believe is right.




Insiders Live (Friday 3 May 2019)


One of my favourite events at each Sydney Writers' Festival is Insiders live which I attended with my festival friend (who secured some amazing seats!). With the host of ABC's Insiders program Barrie Cassidy set to leave the show mid-year, this event was particularly special and it started with a bang when James Jeffrey played the Insiders theme on bagpipes as he walked through Town Hall.


Cassidy was joined by journalists Annabel Crabb, Niki Savva, David Marr and Katharine Murphy, with Mike Bowers 'talking pictures' with Jack the Insider and James Jeffrey. Two weeks out from an election, with 16 candidates having had to pull out of the race for various unsavoury reasons, there was much to talk about.

Earlier in the evening there was a televised debate between the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, which Annabel Crabb summarised. The panelists each spoke about the campaign highlights and lowlights. The general consensus was that Labor is performing well because they are a united team, with solid bench-strength, and they have clearly articulated policies to discuss. On the other hand, the Coalition is more of a one-man show with Morrison doing all the talking in this campaign and having no real policies to speak of.



Talking pictures is always a hoot, with Bowers showing some of the best political cartoons of the campaign and some incredible photographic images. They also showed one of Huw Parkinson's gems - a mashup he did in September 2018 when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted.



The 2000-strong audience all got to participate in the traditional 'Back to you, Barrie' twice this night, the final one including a thank you for Cassidy's 18 years at the helm of Insiders. The show will not be the same without him. The ever-humble Cassidy sought to escape the stage without much fanfare, but was forced to return for the prolonged standing ovation and there was a touching moment when he was hugged by Katharine Murphy and Mike Bowers at the end of the night. A great event with an amazingly gifted panel.

Looking forward to the next two days of the Sydney Writer's Festival!


I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links:

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist has been announced! The Longlist has been whittled down to a handful of titles:

  • Pat Barker - The Silence of the Girls (UK)
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer (Nigeria)
  • Anna Burns - Milkman (UK)
  • Diana Evans - Ordinary People (UK)
  • Tayari Jones - An American Marriage (USA)
  • Madeline Miller - Circe (USA)

I had expected Burns to make the list, after her Booker win for Milkman, but was surprised to see Sally Rooney's Normal People cut.

I was a bit perplexed by the shortlist, in that there are novels with similar themes together  - such as Miller and Barker who both write feminist retelling of ancient stories. And I was disappointed that Greenberg-Jephcott's Swan Song was left off the list.

I will be seeing Braithwaite this week at the Sydney Writer's Festival, so at the moment she has my vote to win.

The Winner will be announced on 5 June 2019.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Stella Prize 2019

The winner of the Stella Prize was announced this week with Vicki Laveau-Harvie being awarded the prize for her memoir The Eratics.

The book traces the author's return to Alberta, Canada to care for her estranged parents when her elderly mother breaks her hip. Over a six year period she learns of her mother's narcissistic personality disorder and her father's trauma.

The judges described the book as follows:
The winning book elegantly tramples all over the Stella requirements: it is excellent, engaging and original in spades. It is moving and funny, and as powerful in what it leaves out as it is in what it includes. 
The Erratics is Vicki Laveau-Harvie's debut as a writer. She claims she will use the $50,000 prize money to travel. Which will hopefully inspire her to write more.



Sunday, 7 April 2019

An American Marriage

The Sydney Writers' Festival begins in a month's time and I am eagerly trying to read books by many of the writers I will be seeing at the festival. One of the headliners is American writer Meg Wolitzer, bestselling author of The Female Persuasion (2018), The Interestings (2013) and The Wife (2004). I had not read any of her books, but as I was keen to see the recent film version of The Wife, starring the incomparable Glenn Close, I decided to start there.

Joan is the wife of a famous American writer, Joseph Castleman. They are en route to Helsinki where Joseph is due to collect a prestigious literary award for his life's work, when Joan realises that she has had enough and must leave him. Having been married for four decades, she has suppressed her desires and her talents to attend wholly to his needs. She has turned a blind eye to his philandering and quietly suffered his humiliations.

Told in flashback, we explore their meeting at college when he was a young teacher and she was his student and a burgeoning talent.  They began an affair, ran off to New York and his literary career began while she cared for their three children.

It is easy to despise Joe Castleman. He is an odious hack who uses his wife terribly. A 'master of the universe' with adoring young fans, who lacks any sense of self-awareness or shame. But it is also hard to fully comprehend Joan and her willingness to put up with the one-sided arrangement she made with Joe. Throughout reading I had to keep reminding myself that she is a woman of a different era, married in the 1950s when expectations were different and women had fewer options. She gave up her studies, her career ambitions to became his doormat. Her fear of being 'small and ordinary' lead her to hitch her wagon to his star, even though he is wholly unworthy.

I really appreciate Wolitzer's writing. She manages to create a real sense of place and being. I laughed aloud at some of her prose, for example, when she described how the excitement of an international flight fades: 'The air, once so antiseptic, was now home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes'. What I particularly enjoyed was Wolitzer's sharp feminist critique of the place of female writers - how they are dismissed and diminished in the literary world. In one scene  novelist Elaine Mozell is talking with Joan about how women's voices are silenced and that females have more success as short story writers 'as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature'.

My introduction to Meg Wolitzer was extremely gratifying and I look forward to exploring some of her other works.

The Wife - Film Adaptation
Late last year a film adaptation of The Wife was released, starring Glenn Close as Joan Castleman and Jonathan Pryce as her husband Joseph. Jane Anderson adapted Wolitzer's novel for the film and Bjorn Runge directed it.

I watched the film a few days after reading the book and I really enjoyed it. There are a few changes from the novel, but it is a largely faithful adaptation.

Glenn Close is brilliant in all things, and was nominated for pretty much every acting award for this performance, winning the Golden Globe. Beneath the cool exterior are layers of emotion, and the camera often focuses on Close's face so we can see the depth of her feeling. Pryce is also excellent, and the key scene between them on the night of the award gala is an acting master class by both leads.   It is well worth watching for this scene alone.


Hungry for more

Rachel Samstat is seven months pregnant with her second child when she learns that her husband Mark has been having an affair. This is not the first time he has cheated during their eight year relationship, but this is one that burns because Mark announces he is in love with the other woman. Rachel flees Washington for New York to decide whether or not to give up on their marriage. She attends therapy, meets friends and muses about how mashed potatoes are the ideal comfort food.

Ephron's novel Heartburn (1983) is autobiographical and would have been quite scandalous when released as it based on her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame. Indeed in her introduction to the book she shares how angry Bernstein was at her for writing it. As she writes, 'what did he think was going to happen?' - she is a writer after all.

The main character is a cookbook writer, so throughout Heartburn Rachel shares recipes for cheesecakes and vinaigrette, as well as casual asides about food ('the truth is that any dish with capers in it tastes better with capers not in it'). She also has some great lines about relationships like 'I think I was so entranced with being a couple that I didn't even notice that the person I thought I was a couple with thought he was a couple with someone else.'

I really wanted to like this book as I am a fan of Ephron's screenwriting and have always thought of her as a smart and sassy woman. But I am afraid this book didn't work for me. It was kind of like hearing an overlong stand-up comedy set which isn't terribly funny. The recipes were unnecessary and distracting, and many of the scenes were over the top and unbelievable.  I guess what I was searching for was a bit more depth, given the seriousness of the subject, and this was a light as a soufflĂ©.

This is the second book in a row that I have read on marriage and relationships, having finished Meg Woitzer's The Wife earlier this week. Both were about marriage, unfaithfulness, division of domestic labour and settling. If anything, these two novels made me thankful for my own relationship and grateful that I live in a different time.

Heartburn was made into a film in 1986 starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, directed by Mike Nichols. Nora Ephron penned the screenplay.






Sunday, 31 March 2019

It Ain't Over Yet

I am a great admirer of Clive James - Australian essayist and poet.  A few years ago I purchased his Collected Poems 1958-2015, a weighty 500+ page tome, and have enjoyed returning to this collection to admire his verse time and again. 

For the past six or seven years, James has been terminally ill with leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. His 2015 collection Sentenced to Life was meant to contain his final works, featuring verse about his illness and his reflections on life, all with his razor-sharp wit and intellect. Despite the melancholy backdrop, these poems are full of life. A few of my favourites are 'Japanese Maple', 'Cabin Baggage' and 'Landfall'. Many speak to his illness and imminent death, such as the opening stanza of 'Japanese Maple':

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort. 
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain

While Sentenced to Life was expected to be the last collection of Clive James' verse, his illness was prolonged and he continues to make the most of his extra time. James continued writing poems and gathered his work together in the 2017 collection Injury Time. This collection is less sombre as James' health has improved (though the prognosis has not changed). It is almost as if he is using this extra time to score as many goals as he can - to get his affairs in order and say all he needs to say.

The collection begins with the 'Return of the Kogarah Kid' which is an 'inscription for a small bronze plaque at Dawes Point':

Here I began and here I reach the end.
From here my ashes go back to the sea
And take my memories of every friend
And love, and anything still dear to me

Thoughts of death appear again in James 'This coming winter' which begins:
This coming winter I will say goodbye - 
In case I do not live to see the spring - 
To all my loved ones one by one. That way,
Taking my time each time, I need not be 
Besieged at the last hour, with the fine thing
Eluding me that I wished to convey...

But it is not all doom and gloom, there is humour and wisdom throughout. My favourites in this collection 'The Rest is Silence', 'Finch Conference' about a gathering in his garden, 'Edith Piaf on YouTube' a reflection on love,  and the essay 'Letter to a Young Poet'.

Of the two collections, there is an urgency in Sentenced to Life which I feel makes it the more powerful. I sincerely hope that James continues to write and there may be more to come, but if Injury Time is his last, he has left us with a remarkable collection to remember him by.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

This week the Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist was announced. The prize (previously known as the Orange Prize or the Bailey's Prize) is the UK's most prestigious annual book award for female fiction writers and has been since it was founded in 1996.

Like the Stella Prize in Australia, the Women's Prize always introduces me to new authors and titles and I particularly like the way in which it seeks out to recognise diversity.

This year the Longlist titles are:

Pat Barker - The Silence of the Girls (UK)
A feminist retelling of The Iliad, Pat Barker puts women's voices first. Troy is under siege over Helen. Elsewhere Briseis, a queen from a neighbouring kingdom, is awarded to Achilles after her male relatives are all murdered. Briseis finds herself caught between Achilles and Agamemnon, and is a keen observer of the two men who will decide the fate of the ancient world.

Yvonne Battle-Felton  - Remembered (USA)
Set in 1910 in Philadelphia, Spring is tending to her ailing son Edward. He has been charged with committing a crime. but did he? Spring is forced to relive her own past as an emancipated slave in order to lead her son home. This is Battle-Felton's debut novel.
Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer
Ayoola has a habit of getting rid of her boyfriends and calling on her sister Korede to assist in the clean up. Korede knows she should report Ayoola, but the family ties are strong. However, Korede is conflicted once Ayoola starts dating someone Korede is interested in. Braithwaite hails from Nigeria and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016.

Melissa Broder - The Pisces (USA)
Lucy has hit rock bottom. She has lost her boyfriend,  she is unable to get an extension on her overdue thesis, and she is spiralling out of control. Her sister offers her a lifeline - come to Los Angeles and house sit while attending therapy.  There, on Venice Beach, she meets a man who loves the ocean. As she becomes drawn to him she discovers her is a merman, but tries to make their relationship work.  Broder is a LA-based poet, essayist and author. This novel is being adapted for film.


Anna Burns - Milkman (UK)
Set in Belfast in the 1970s, during the Troubles, Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by a young woman who is rumoured to be having an affair with a person known only as the Milkman. The novel explores truth and gossip, with a unique writing style. Burns was shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2002 for No Bones and Milkman won the 2018 Booker prize.



Akwaeke Emezi - Freshwater (Nigeria)
This is the debut novel of Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi. Centring around Ada, a young girl who has a fractured self - multiple personalities which have taken root in her mind. When Ada moves to America for college, a traumatic experience causes more personalities to surface. Freshwater has received much praise, including being named as Best Book of the Year by the New Yorker.





Diana Evans - Ordinary People (UK)
Set in London in 2008, against the backdrop of Barack Obama's historic victory, two late-30-something couples have grown dissatisfied with their lives. Sharing housework and childcare responsibilities, their dwindling passions are leading to marital disharmony.  Evans is the author of the bestselling 26a and The Wonder.

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott - Swan Song (USA)
Without having read a single page, I am in love with this book. First of all, I adore this cover. Second, this is a novel about one of my favourite writers, Truman Capote, and his book Answered Prayers which sensationally spread gossip on a group of high profile women who had gathered round him. Definitely need to get hold of this debut novel!
Tayari Jones - An American Marriage (USA)
Newlyweds Roy and Celestial have everything going for them. She is a talented artist and he is young executive. When he is arrested and imprisoned, Celestial finds herself lost and drawn to their mutual friend Andre. This is a love story which is narrated in alternating chapters by the three characters. I first heard about this novel when Barack Obama named it on his 2018 summer reading list.
Lillian Li - Number One Chinese Restaurant (USA)
In Rockville Maryland there is a famous restaurant, the Beijing Duck House, which has been run by Jimmy Han and his family for generations. When tragedy strikes, the family needs to decide what to, but each person has their own perspective - highlighting intergenerational conflict and cultural differences. This is the debut novel by Lillian Li.


Sophie van Llewyn - Bottled Goods (Romania)
Set in the 1970s in communist Romania, this is a novella blending historical fiction and magical realism. Alina's brother-in-law defects to the West and suddenly she and her husband become the subject of secret service investigations, impacting their careers and relationships.

Valeria Luiselli - Lost Children Archive (Mexico/USA)
This novel is about a family road trip across America, a journey from New York to Arizona. The blended family is falling apart and the siblings are concerned they will lose contact if their parents divorce. Their story is interspersed with those of migrants coming to America, in an indictment of US immigration policies.
Bernice L. McFadden - Praise Song for the Butterflies (USA)
In West Africa, nine-year-old Abeo lives a relatively privileged life with her family. When her father loses his job, Abeo's grandmother convinces her son to sacrifice Abeo as part of the trokosi system in which young virgins are sent to be slaves in atonement for wrongs committed by family members. Her she endures unspeakable trauma. McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels.
 Madeline Miller - Circe (USA)
Circe is the daughter of Helios, god of the sun, and Perse. She possess a powerful witchcraft that can transform people into beasts. While Circe had a role to play in the Odyssey, this story is told from her point of view. When Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, Circe learns to best use her witchcraft and decides whether to remain with the gods or to chose mortals. Miller previously won the Women's Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012).
Sarah Moss - Ghost Wall (UK)
Silvie and her parets live in a Northumberland hut, where her father tries to recreate life in the Iron Age. A group of archeology students and keen historians have decided to live like Ancient Britons, hunting, trading and foraging as their ancestors would have. Silvie's father is a brutal man but uses the recreation to justify and hide his abuse. Moss has written six novels and is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick.


Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
Connell and Marianne grow up together in a small town in Ireland, but have very different lives. When they both attend Trinity College, Dublin, they realise they have a connection. This is an intimate character study and a love story, with a backdrop critique of class and privilege. Normal People was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.



Of these titles the ones I am most likely to read are Rooney, Braithwaite and Greenberg-Jephcott. I must admit that I am intrigued by the feminist retelling of ancient tales like Circe and The Silence of the Girls.

The Shortlist will be announced on 29 April followed by the reveal of the Winner on 5 June 2019.