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.