Friday, December 18, 2015

Dear Santa ... Books for Christmas

Below is a list of recent reviews we some how missed publishing.  So if you're looking for a few last minute gifts then consider these.  Perhaps.

'According to Yes' -  Dawn French

OK so our favourite vicar can write.  Can't she?  On the whole her  books are consistently live up to expectation, and I've always enjoyed them. 'Dear Fatty', in particular had a acerbic wit that was a virtual extension of her stage presence.  I just laughed my self silly.  But times have changed.  Serious TV appearances have dwindled.  The breakup of French and Saunders, her marriage to Lenny Henry, everything has come home to roost in the years of late middle age it seems.  Personally there's been a bit to much 'No' lately.

So what are we left with?  According To YES. In the Foreign Land of the Very Wealthy - otherwise known as Manhattan's Upper East Side - has its own rigid code of behaviour. It's a code strictly adhered to by the Wilder-Bingham family.  Yes, Virginia, rich people in fiction have Emotional displays - unacceptable. Unruly behaviour - definitely not hyphenated names.  It's the rules.  This is Glenn Wilder-Bingham's kingdom.  A beautifully displayed impeccably edited fortress of restraint. So when Rosie Kitto, an eccentric thirty-eight-year-old primary school teacher from England, bounces in with a secret sorrow and a heart as big as the city, nobody realises that she hasn't read the rule book.  For the Wilder-Bingham family, whose lives begin to unravel thread by thread, the consequences are explosive. Because after a lifetime of saying 'no', what happens when everyone starts saying . . . yes?

It seems that it takes many words to say 'Yes' - more words than she might to make a point.  Add to this a range of very homogeneous characters that seem to be carbon copies from "Clueless" (Alicia Silverstone), or the film "Six Degrees of Separation" (The Donald Sutherland/Will Smith film), they all have similar issues and strangely familiar friends.  There's a fair few sitcom characters, too.  Plump South West women who love chocolate, for example.  Not original. 

There are some darkly humorous moments, a French trademark, as well as a few emotionally challenging sections to make it a bit more interesting.  Yet somehow, it all feels just a little rushed and that some parts might have benefitted from more rigorous editing,

Overall an enjoyable read, brilliant for a rainy day at the batch, when the Women's Weeklies run out, but don't expect to come away feeling like the ground has moved!

'Big Blue Sky - A Memoir' - Peter Garrett

Peter Garrett - Big Blue Sky

There was a time when long, bald Peter Garrett dominated our TV screens.  He was a man of boundless energy, compassion, intelligence and creativity.  Aussie band Midnight Oil was an outfit larger than life.  Many of their songs, like "Beds Are Burning" challenged our thinking about environmental, social and indigenous rights issues.  With the exception of Aboriginal musicians Yothu Yindi, nobody was as loud, as vocal or as noticed as Garrett and his boys.  Yet Australian indigenous politics and climate change still remain the biggest ostriches on the farm.  Australians still refuse to take these topics seriously.  At least Garrett made some small in roads.

Starting at the end, with a very poetic reflection of his former Canberra Offices on the day after he's lost office as Minister for Environmental Protection, Heritage and the Arts Minister and a previous Minister for Education, Garrett begins to wind back across his own remarkable life.  His first chapter is a sombre note, possibly from a man defeated by the chauvinistic bullying of the Australian parliament.  Gillard has been tossed as Kevin Rudd tries to reclaim his tarnished, battered crown and  Garrett, along with other Gillard cronies has been dismissed. 

From his idyllic childhood in the northern suburbs of Sydney, to early work fighting for equality and social justice; to the height of 1960s culture shock at ANU and then fronting iconic Australian band Midnight Oil; and galvanising his environmental activism to become the only unaligned Cabinet Minister in two Labor governments, it's not the usual rock'n'roll journey.  In fact the more you read, the more you realise that Garrett was never really just a musician.  His writing is what really pulls you in.  It's reflective, delicate prose, a level beyond the usual biography dirge.  You can truly feel his lifelong connection to protect the environment and recognise Aboriginal people.  There's also a strong colour theme, with blue being a strong player in Garrett's metaphoric pallet.  Early memories of washing, kitchen paint, Sydney harbour, the ever present, endless blue sky - particularly in the desert.  It colours an intense passion that stems way back before "Beds Are Burning", back to a time when no white Australian would even approach an indigenous person, let alone consider their rights.  At least that's how it seemed.  And there's more than one reason for bloodletting, including Garrett's demotion in the first Rudd administration, in 2010, over running a troubled Home Insulation Program, in which four labourers died. Garrett calls that chapter "The Fall Guy" - Rudd "didn't need to dump me, and you would like to think a leader with any sense of loyalty or spine, like [Paul] Keating, wouldn't have".  No he's not bitter at all.

Of course the launch of the book, in Australia, was not without some further media hoo hah.  Garrett, understandably dug his toes in about his "scathing description" of former Rudd, calling him "an unpredictable megalomaniac who was a threat to national security".  Rudd, in response accused Garrett, of trying to "rewrite history" to sell books. However, from this side of the ditch, having watched Rudd train-crash his own party not once, but twice, I'm inclined to side with Garrett any day on this one. 

'Parachuted' into the inner-Sydney ALP held seat of Kingsford Smith Garrett was not a real Labor Man.  He had to fight a few stalwarts to gain credibility.  Plus being a rock star would have ruffled feathers down the ASL.

At the time of the launch another black cloud - a correction Garrett was forced to make about his claim that a representative of Clubs NSW had given him "an envelope full of cash" shortly after his election. A "clarification" was inserted in Aussie versions that "Peter Garrett wishes to make clear that the envelope in fact contained a cheque, made out in favour of his electorate council, and not cash."  Cheque/Cash, what ever.  Given Garrett's long connection with fighting for injustice I wouldn't be surprised if this was only the tip of the iceberg. 

More than a musician's memoir, Big Blue Sky contains a fair few reflections on activism, the Aussie music scene in the 60's, 70's and 80's; and a tortuous decade in politics (particularly that Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government rollercoaster) but gives little hint to what may lie ahead.  I doubt that Garrett will be hanging up his megaphone for good.  With the events like the Paris Climate Change Conference, Anti-Terrorism laws going through the Senate and recognition of the 'Lost Generation' (aboriginal children forced into foster care) there will be plenty of reasons to stay on the white charger.  Watch this space, closely!

"Griffith Review 50 : Tall Tales Short The Novella Project III"

‘I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers…’ Ian McEwan

Every Griffith Review is a treasure, a sort of intellectual Pandora's box that makes you look at things just a little differently.  I was recently awe inspired by the vast raft of views about new Asia and new perceptions of war that the last two editions of this quarterly journal.  More than anything t is truly refreshing to read thoughtful, inspiring work coming out of Australia.  Being across the ditch, we are either starved of independent thoughts or drenched in middle class white Australian conservatism. But there is way more to the great red land than the internal chaos of the Labor party or what the Sydney Morning Herald thinks of the All Blacks.   Best of all is the rich tapestry of fiction much that we often forget about, until we find ourselves stranded in an airport bookshop and desperate to rake past the best sellers in search of a 'real country soul'. 

I'd suggest that that soul, or a tiny slice might be contained in this small volume.  In 2012, the "Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project" re-launched the concept of the novella in Australia and it gave back  to Australian and New Zealand authors something of a platform for this lost short:long form of fiction.  Novella's are tricky things.  They are more than simply long short stories.  But often, they just end up being underdeveloped novels.  How do you get it right? 

In Aviva's introduction, she quotes David Mitchel: "I like the length of a novella ... It's short enough to be the getaway car from the cops of boredom".  Who could argue with that?  especially, when you keep falling asleep with the latest Elly Catton. 

"Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories—The Novella Project II" produced another confronting, moving and provocative collection of five novellas, this time with a historical dimension.

"Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short—The Novella Project III" is another bite of the cherry.  this time with the bar set and ready to lift even higher.  It features five novellas selected from a nationwide competition, blind-judged by a panel of writers and academics: Cate Kennedy, Jacqueline Blanchard and Brian Johns. Contributors are Tony Davis, Nick Earls, Helen Gildfind, Catherine McKinnon and Madeleine Watts.   There were no thematic or geographic restraints – the criteria was "were simply looking for the best work".   This year the competition broke several records for the publication: we had a record number of entrants with 271 and a record number of hits – 13,000 – on the competition webpage. Our three judges considered a mountain of entries as they whittled their totals down to a handful, each choice fiercely debated.  the five winners shared a prize pool of $25,000, so a time worth spending for an author, too!

Catherine McKinnon, Will Martin
Nick Earls, Cargoes
Madeleine Watts, Afraid of Waking It
Helen Gildfind, Quarry
Tony Davis, The Flight.
My favourite, if I can pick one is Nick Earls' "Cargoes", a sort of loose road story about an aging journalist taking a trip to interview a self absorbed, hard core rapper at his home.  Sounds like a bit of a dream, especially for someone like me, who'd love to have been that Rolling Stone reporter drugging it up with the band in the back of the bus.   If you are a fan of the TV show 'Empire' then this might seem close to home.  It's the young black celebrity with a troubled past.  Not entirely new I know, but Earls puts them in interesting situations, and with close camera on the intricacies of their interactions.  His work definitely fits the format, though - three distinct locations and moments, with an in-depth study of each situation. A poke at each mouse in the cage.  It's a very real take on the old theme of the elder statesmen surveying the precocious youth and vice versa.  But definitely an original take, I thought. 

Madeline Watts, in "Afraid of Waking It", tells of an impressionable young girl, our narrator, who falls under the spell of an older artist, who wants a muse - a sort of Lolita in reverse, without the pervy overtones.  She's a fragile, delicate person but wields a sort of unmentioned sinister power over him that leaves you feeling confused about who's really in control.  The relationship is intentionally glamorised, as if intentionally 'un-pc', to play with your own moral compass and jemmy the magnets.  Moreover, the trick you learn is that no one is.  That's the disturbing conclusion.  The best bit, though is this incredible sense of place, like familiar photos. You get urban, suburban 'blurs', a flash out of a speeding bus, textures of a place transitioning in the seasons becoming smothering, claustrophobic, alien.

Catherine McKinnon tackles the 18th Century ("Will Martin"), with a story of a cabin boy on one of the first fleet to Botany Bay.  His insights to the first contact is an interesting glimpse into the imagined minds of the early settlers, particularly Bass, Flinders et al.   Definitely a good attempt this one, but of all the stories it was the most trite I thought.  If this was from an aboriginal view point, then perhaps it would really seem fresh. 

I'll confess I haven't read Tony Davis' "The Flight" yet.  But the story of an "Edward Snowdon" type making the long hall to his trial sets up a wonderful tension and is not unlike the damaged, demented protagonist in Helen Gilfind's "Quarry", a man who tries to find love in a world that is full of anger and hate.  A common theme, perhaps.  Gilfind sets up a sort of 'anger management' character, and then proceeds to poke the knives.  His navigation is the journey of the plot. Her 'elephant man' is the 'updatable' mutant Luke who's all too aware of his many shortcomings.  This is a disturbing invitation into a world-weary, savagely damaged mind of a Frankenstein's monster in the everyday.  It would all be a trashy as a 60 minutes special if not for Gildfind’s lyrical approach which settles us into the rhythms of Luke's thinking and familiarises us sufficiently to become sympathetic to his plight.  

These are challenging and abrasive stories at times.  Sometimes the themes are familiar, sometimes a little unrecognisable in their form.  Sometimes the voices are not as unique as one would like.  But always challenging, so that alone is a good reason to pack this one away for the quietest times - for reading just for your self.