Monday, 13 March 2017

Carrie On Leia

It would come as no surprise to anyone that I am more than a little obsessed with Star Wars. My brother and I grew up with the characters, would act out scenes verbatim, and spent many Halloweens dressed as Vader, Yoda, and the gang. Princess Leia Organa has always been my hero and I admired her qualities: she is smart, sassy, and driven. A Princess who didn't need to be rescued. A General who motivates and maintains the Resistance. A role model for girls and women everywhere.

When Carrie Fisher passed away suddenly in December 2016, I mourned her greatly.

Fortunately she has left behind her work. While she is most known as an actor, Fisher is also a writer. Her latest book, The Princess Diarist (2016), is based on the journals she kept while making the original film in London in 1976. Carrie Fisher was only nineteen at the time and one of few women on the set. She and (married-with-children) Harrison Ford had a brief affair which is documented in these diaries.

But "Carrison" is no tale of romance. This is a much older man, aloof, uncommunicative and disinterested, engaged in a relationship with a young, inexperienced, naive woman. She wants more from him, imagining a life they may have, while he knows it will only last as long as the three-month shoot does.

The first part of the book is about Fisher gaining the role - auditioning, choosing the "Buns of Navarone" hairdo, her relationship with famous parents Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Fisher is self-depreciating, witty and open.

The second part is an extract from the diaries. I was impressed by the poetry Fisher had written - aching, raw, humourous - about Ford, and surprised there was so much of it. I had expected more set anecdotes and insight into the filming, but clearly she was obsessed with Ford and could write of nothing else.

The last third of the book was a bit disappointing. She recounts various encounters with fans, and bemoans their love of Leia and unwillingness to see Carrie beneath. She begrudges the lack of money she earned from Star Wars (having signed away merchandising rights) and the humiliation of having to show up and sign autographs at fan festivals. She writes this section from the present, aged sixty, reflecting on her past and the character that has set the trajectory for her life.

I must admit that I read this book with twinges of sadness. There were moments where she talks of her legacy and what people will think after she is gone. I will remember her as Leia of course, but she is forever Carrie - a wonderfully complex, wise and witty woman, a talented writer and a tireless campaigner for mental health.

Vale Carrie Fisher. May the Force be with you.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Fire Next Time

Do you ever get the feeling that you should enjoy a book more than you do? That you know that the book is important, a bestseller, widely regarded, critically acclaimed, but you just don't get it? Do you struggle along nonetheless confused as to why it just doesn't gel with you?

This happened to me while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me (2015). I didn't enjoy it, but I was determined to finish, hoping that I would suddenly find myself engrossed. While this never happened for me, I do appreciate the beauty of Coates' writing and the passion with which he expresses himself.

This National Book Award Winner is essentially a series of essays written to Coates' teenaged son. In these essays he writes about race in America and how history has shaped the way in which African Americans are seen and how they see themselves. There are parallels to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1962) and Baldwin's writings more broadly.

Coates' poetic letter to his son is timely. In the wake of countless shootings of black youth, uprisings across America in response to police violence, and the Black Lives Matter campaign, he presents a thoughtful critique. He shares what it was like to grow up on the streets of Baltimore, to attend Howard University, and to witness violence - particularly the murder, by police, of his friend Prince Jones.

I am not the target market for this book. It is not written to me or for me. But I am interested in issues of race, class and gender and I hoped that reading this book would provide insight into race in modern America and a way forward. Instead I found it rather pessimistic, as if America is on a path that cannot be changed.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Stella Prize Shortlist 2017

The Stella Prize shortlist was announced on International Women's Day. The six titles vying for the prize are:

Georgia Blain - Between a Wolf and a Dog
This novel takes place over the course of one day in Sydney.  Esther is a family therapist who works to bring people together, while personally her own relationships are strained. The judges described the late Georgia Blain's final novel as "a triumph: finely structured, suspenseful and morally acute."  I am not familiar with Blain's work but by all accounts she was a fine writer.

Maxine Beneba Clarke - The Hate Race
The judges describe this memoir as "an important account of growing up in suburban Australia in the 1980s and 1990s." Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian of Afro-Carribean descent, faced discrimination and casual racism, and through this book she shows the complacency of white Australia and the reluctance to deal with issues of race. I have seen interviews with Clarke and have read some of her poetry, but have not yet read this book.

Catherine de Saint Phalle - Poum and Alexandre
I must admit, I have never heard of this book, nor its author. Catherine de Saint Phalle is a Melbourne based author and this is her first work of non-fiction. It is a memoir of her unmarried parents and their lives in Paris. The judges describe this as a "tender portrait of a lifelong partnership [that] deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre."

Emily Maguire - An Isolated Incident
I read this book in 2016 and really enjoyed it. A page-turning psychological thriller set in rural Australia, Maguire switches perspectives between two different women as the mystery unfolds. I can see why this was nominated as it is a taut novel which addresses issues such as domestic violence, sexism and discrimination from a feminist perspective. My review of Maguire's book is available on this blog.

Heather Rose - The Museum of Modern Love
This is the seventh novel of Tasmanian author Heather Rose. The judges describe this as "an ambitious novel that demonstrates the value of art as a catalyst for love, connection, and an apprehension of mystery." The novel ponders deep questions through characters attending a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sounds interesting, and I totally I love the cover of this book. Update June 2017: Read review.

Cory Taylor - Dying: A Memoir
Taylor wrote this book while she was dying from cancer. A life-affirming memoir about dying, novelist Taylor details why she wanted to choose the circumstances of her death. While I have no doubt this book is well written, I don't feel like I want to read this book. Having recently read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), I know that books about death can be inspiring and uplifting, but I think I will pass on this at this time.

The winner revealed on 18 April 2017. The only one I have read is An Isolated Incident and I reckon it is pretty good. But I am keen to read some the others as well.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Celebrating Women Writers

International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate women writers. Most of my favourite writers are women, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Helen Garner, Edith Wharton, JK Rowling, Anna Funder, Elizabeth Gaskell, Maya Angelou, Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, Anne Tyler, Joan London, LM Montgomery, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Austen and George Eliot.

On International Women's Day 2017, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction announced the longlist for their 2017 award. It is a fascinating list and many authors I have not heard of.

Here's the list:

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Set against the backdrop of social and political upheaval in 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is the story of a couple struggling with infertility. The story shifts perspectives from husband and wife and whether their fragile marriage will survive. By all accounts this is a beautifully crafted, though heartbreaking novel. Adebayo has published numerous short stories. This is her first novel.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
British author Naomi Alderman has crafted a dystopian world in which women are the ones with power, literally. Teenaged girls suddenly develop the power to conduct electricity through their hands, and with this the ability to control those around them. Written from multiple points of view, Alderman's thriller shows how power corrupts, as she turns gender politics on its heads. I am keen to read this book.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Frequent readers of this blog will know how much I love my fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series in which Shakespeare plays are rewritten as modern novels by authors like Jeannette Winterson, Anne Tyler and Atwood. I have not ready any of these, but I would likely start with Atwood.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint
This novel is inspired by the story of Alice Crimmins. Set in Queens, New York, in 1965. Ruth, a single mother, discovers her two young children have gone missing and are soon found dead.  As the police investigate they centre their attention on Ruth. Did she murder her own children?

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
This coming of age tale is about a disadvantaged girl and her horse. Eleven year old Velvet Vargas participates in a program to give disadvantaged kids an opportunity to spend time in the country.  The story traces her relationship with her host family over several years.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
After the Second World War two teenage siblings are sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent. Here they meet other residents - ex servicemen, a university graduate, and various others with the affliction.

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Eimear McBride won the Bailey's Prize for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2014. In her latest novel, an 18 year old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and dreams of becoming an actress. She meets an older man, an established actor, and begins a relationship with him.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
Father and son farmers in Suffolk are enduring a particularly hard winter on the land their family has worked for generations. They are haunted by the death of their wife and mother. This is a novel about guilt, loss and love.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
The Forges are an old Kentucky family descended from the first settlers. They are now horse breeders wishing to breed the next Secretariat. This is a novel of ambition, race, and reckoning.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Set in 1950s South Africa, this is the story of two elderly neighbours, one white/one black, who are sworn enemies. The women were both successful business women, now retired and widowed, giving them more time to put towards their bitter feud.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
Rose and Pierrot are orphans raised in a Montreal orphanage by nuns. Both are prodigies - he as a gifted pianist, she as a dancer and comedienne.  When they are of age, they are separated and have no means of contact. Working as servants during the Great Depression, they descend into poverty trying to survive.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Set in Victorian London, this is a historical novel about two people who fall for each other in an unusual way. Cora Seaborne is a London widower who moves to Essex and meets Will Ransome, the local vicar. Mysterious disappearances are attributed to a legendary Serpent, and a moral panic ensues.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx
I have heard great things about this huge novel by Annie Proulx. I love her work but have not yet attempted this 700+ page beast. Spanning 300 years, this is the story of immigrants to New France, who were wood-cutters or barkskins, and their descendants.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Neve cannot escape from her toxic marriage to Edwyn. She is a thirty something writer, he is an older man with ill health. Neve sees her parents' marriage in her own relationship. Is she reliving the past?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is a safe bet that Thien's novel will be shortlisted for this award. This is the epic story of an extended family in China who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
A melancholy tale of two childhood friends - Gustav and Anton - in Switzerland. The first part focuses on Gustav's childhood. The next is on his parents, and in the final part Gustav and Anton are older men reflecting on the choices they made.

These titles will be reduced to a shortlist of six, with the winner announced on 7 June 2017.