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.

Without A Trace

Last year when the Booker Prize longlist was announced, Belinda Bauer was named for her crime thriller Snap (2018). Before the nomination, I had not heard of Bauer despite her success as a writer of eight crime novels. Upon recommendation of my aunt, I sought it out and have spent the past few days engrossed in this tale.

Eileen Bright's car breaks down on a motorway. She leaves her three young children in the vehicle and goes off in search of an emergency phone and is never seen again. Her disappearance and subsequent murder breaks the Bright family as dad is unable to cope with the loss of his pregnant wife, leaving his eldest child Jack to be assume responsibility for his younger siblings.

Three years later, a spate of house burglaries are frustrating the local police, unable to catch the robber they have named 'Goldilocks'. And one night, pregnant Catherine While disturbs an intruder who leaves her a threatening note. Could this be Goldilocks? Could it be same the perpetrator that killed Eileen?

Enter Detective Marvel and his crew of investigators who, in searching for Goldilocks, may have found the clues to solve the Bright cold case.

Bauer has an insightful, empathetic way of writing about the Bright children and the trauma they experienced. She has crafted a tale that weaves together a string of coincidences to slowly reveal the full picture. There were some parts where credulity is strained - such as Detective Reynolds' frequent bumbling and Catherine's unwillingness to get police involved - but for the most part it is an entertaining read. I wish she had not given a character a surname of While as it occasionally made it confusing to read. But I really enjoyed Snap and will seek out Bauer's other novels.

However, I am surprised that it was nominated for the Booker. Thrillers generally don't get nominated for that literary prize and I am confident that there would be much better representations of the genre published last year (Rankin, Galbraith, Winslow etc).

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Stella Prize Shortlist 2019

On International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, the Stella Prize shortlist was announced! The six titles vying for this year's prize are:

  • Jenny Ackland - Little Gods
  • Enza Gandolfo - The Bridge
  • Jamie Marina Lau - Pink Mountain on Locust Island
  • Vicki Laveau-Harvie - The Erratics
  • Melissa Lucashenko - Too Much Lip
  • Maria Tumarkin - Axiomatic

The chair of the judging panel, Louise Swinn, said this of the shortlist:
“The six finalists on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist explode the myth of the death of the book, and they are a hearty response to the under-representation of women’s work in awards. This is an incredibly diverse knot of books, with broad subjects showing that identity is shaped across many continents and informed by many cultures. Non-fiction and fiction works stray from their formal constraints as authors give authentic voices to those who are otherwise under-represented. The books on this shortlist inform and entertain, and while they speak absolutely to our moment, their insights are timeless."
I was surprised to see the two longlisted titles I have read - Bri Lee's Eggshell Skull and Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist - were bumped. Both were incredible books that have been lauded and awarded in many other awards programs. So these shortlisters had better be good!

For more information about the shortlisted titles, see my post on the Stella Prize longlist.

The winner will be revealed on 9 April 2019. Happy reading!