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Steve Toltz, Quicksand (Review)

February 5, 2016

Steve Toltz, Quicksand, soverAldo Benjamin, the anti-hero of Quicksand, accuses wannabe-writer-friend Liam of having “such little imagination”. You could not, however, accuse the novel’s author, Steve Toltz, of this. Quicksand reads a bit like a 19th century satirical novel transplanted into the 21st century. It is big in size (though not as big as his first, A fraction of the whole), broad in subject matter, and full of colourful characters. It’s wild, imaginative, and darkly funny. It’s the sort of novel that you can tackle from different angles depending on what interests you most. Religion, god and fate? Tick. Life and death? Tick. Love and friendship? Tick. Social commentary? Tick. Art (broadly), artists and the making of art? Tick.

“Bad luck is my pathology” (Aldo)

Before I tell you what interested me, though, a little about the plot. Quicksand is the story of Aldo Benjamin, told partly by his friend, Liam Wilder, and partly by himself. Meeting at high school, Aldo and Liam remain friends until the book closes when they are in their early to mid 40s. Together they reveal the ups and downs – mostly downs – of Aldo’s life as he tries to make his way against what he sees as the tide of fate or bad luck. The novel opens when they are in their early 40s and Aldo, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, has just been released from prison. We don’t know how long he’s been in the wheelchair or how that came to be, and we don’t know why he’d been in prison. These come out in the course of the novel, which flashes back in chapter 2 to their schooldays and then moves between the past and present to tell the story. We also discover in the opening chapter that Liam is trying to restart his writing career by writing Aldo’s story, much to Aldo’s resigned disgust: “I’m nobody’s muse”, he says. Ironically, though, not only is he Liam’s muse but he’d also been one for his musician wife, Stella, and photographer lover, Mimi.

Aldo, “The King of Unforced Errors” as Liam calls him or a sufferer of “clinical frustration” as Aldo sees it, gets into all sorts of strife. He is regularly bailed out by friends (who cover “the full suite of professional services” such as policeman Liam, Doc Castles, his old school teacher Mr Morrell) and lovers. Nothing much works for him, particularly not his various get-rich-quick business ideas, like the device that was supposed to detect the presence of peanuts in food, or clothing for obese toddlers, or tanning salon taxis, or maternity clothes for goths (“a demographic with an 85% abortion rate”). Moreover, his marriage fails, his child dies, his multiple suicide attempts are unsuccessful, and, to rub salt into his wounds, he ends up in the two places he most fears, prison and hospital. As Liam says in response to Aldo’s question about why write his story:

Because you’ll inspire people. To count their blessings.

I love this sort of writing, this dark humour. It’s full-on to read because lines like this frequently fall over each other, sentence after sentence, leaving you wanting to stop and smell the roses for a minute. Still, I was hooked by page 5 when Aldo presents to Liam a long list of our 21st century insecurities, pretensions and self-deceptions, including

‘You know how people are worried their kid’s going to turn to them and say, What did you do to the biosphere, Daddy?


‘And you know how there’s no replacement cycle too short for today’s consumer?’


‘You know how while we’re enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia?’

These go on for three pages. Wonderful satire. No matter how superior we might feel about most of the pronouncements, there’s bound to be one or two that get us where it hurts! Toltz looks unblinkingly at our lives and shines them right back at us in the most direct, no-punches-pulled way. It made me laugh – but ruefully, if not guiltily at times – almost every page.

“To troubleshoot the human spirit” (Liam)

The other aspect I enjoyed was the thread about art, artists and art-making. The major focus of this is Liam’s novel about Aldo’s life. After years of failure and giving up, Liam finally decides that Aldo is his “natural subject”. Writing about him, Liam tells Aldo, would be “to troubleshoot the human spirit”. It would, he thinks, throw him “into a head-on collision with the meaning of fate, humanity’s sure, but Aldo’s strange specific one too”. Aldo and Liam discuss Liam’s progress frequently, with Aldo always ready with an astute comment or criticism. “Does my character in your book”, Aldo asks, “need to be more consistent than my character in real life?” “No,” says Liam, though in fact many readers do, I find, prefer it to be so!

Liam is not the only creator in the novel. Aldo’s musician wife Stella plunders Aldo’s life for her songs, and then there’s the art teacher from Liam and Aldo’s school, and the artists in the artists’ residence where Aldo lives for a time. Through all these the novel interrogates why we make art, what art is about. Early on, before he starts his Aldo novel and after years of failure, Liam decides to give up writing. He says

I had settled into a life I had always feared but secretly desired, a life uninterrupted and unencumbered by art.

Chapter 2, though, begins with art teacher Morrell’s statement that:

We make art because being alive is a hostage situation in which our abductors are silent and we cannot even intuit their demands.

Art is not, however, presented as something that is easy or even always right. Toltz’s artists struggle to achieve, are frequently self-obsessed, and unapologetically mine their friends and family for material, all the while, thinks Aldo at least, having a good time. “Their brains are all pleasure centres and no circumference”, he tells the court. They are not, in other words, unilaterally lauded, but this is, of course, ironic, if not subversive, since what we are reading is a novel, a work of art itself. The wheels within wheels in this novel – the ironies, the paradoxes, the self-reflexivity – sometimes make your head spin, but in the end, there is an end, and it’s a surprisingly positive one.

And here, I’ll end! This novel is so full of funny lines, so full of ideas, so full of biting commentary, that it’s hard to know when to stop so, as EM Forster* wishes novelists could do, I think I’ll just end, not because I’m bored which is the reason he gives, but because I might as well.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed it.

Steve Toltz
Hamish Hamilton, 2015
ISBN: 9781926428680

* Aspects of the novel, by EM Forster

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Australian releases for 2016

February 1, 2016

With the first month of 2016 already gone, I thought it was time I had a look around to see what new works are in the pipeline this year from our Aussie authors. This is a serendipitous list, partly because tracking down this information isn’t easy and partly because I’m more interested in providing a flavour than in being comprehensive. My main aim is simply to tantalise us all a little, so below you’ll find novels, short stories, poetry, essays and non-fiction. See what you think:

  • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling (January 2016, University of Queensland Press) is a non-fiction work inspired by the story of Eliza Fraser, who was apparently captured by the Butchulla people after she was shipwrecked on their island in 1836. Fraser’s story has been fictionalised before. Behrendt springboards from Eliza’s story to explore how indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere have been portrayed in their colonisers’ stories.
  • David Brooks’ Napoleon’s roads (February 2016, University of Queensland Press) is the fourth collection of short stories from this writer, who is a poet and prose writer.
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (August 2016, Hachette Australia) is a memoir by the author of the award-winning short story collection, Foreign soil. It’s the second of a three book deal she has with Hachette, the third one being a novel.
  • Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look (March 2016, Text Publishing) is a collection of essays. I’ve reviewed here a few books by Garner, including a novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, a book of short stories, Postcards from Surfers, and a non-fiction work, This house of grief, but I haven’t read any of her essay collections. This might be the one.
  • Patrick Holland, OnePatrick Holland’s One (April 2016, Transit Lounge) is an historical fiction about Australia’s last bushrangers. Known for his minimalist writing, Holland has written several works, including The Mary Smokes boys and Navigatio, both of which were shortlisted for various awards.
  • Fiona McFarlane’s The high places (February 2016, Hamish Hamilton) is a collection of short stories from the author of the multiply-shortlisted The night guest, which I reviewed last year.
  • Michelle Michau-Crawford’s Leaving Elvis (February 2016, University of Western Australia Publishing) is a debut collection of mostly, but not totally, linked short stories. Michau-Crawford is new to me but she won the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize in 2013, so this collection sounds worth checking out.
  • Meg and Tom Keneally’s The Soldier’s Curse (March 2016, Random House) is the first in The Monserrat Series (a new crime series). I wouldn’t normally include a crime book in a list like this because crime is not in my sphere of interest, but I’m including this one because it’s by Tom Keneally, who as you probably know is the Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s ark, a Miles Franklin winning author, to name just a couple of accolades. And, also because it’s a collaborative novel with his daughter.
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort food (May 2016, University of Queensland Press) is a book of poetry by the author of the award-winning Heat and light and the short story Sweetest thing, both of which I’ve reviewed.
  • Terri-Ann White’s Desert writing: Stories from country (February 2016, University of Western Australia Publishing) is something a little different. It’s a collection edited by White, comprising stories that resulted from writers’ workshops held with indigenous people in remote communities.
  • Dominique Wilson’s That devil’s madness (February 2016, Transit Lounge) is a novel set in Algeria. It tells story of a photojournalist who, while covering current politics decides to also retrace the steps of her grandfather a century earlier. Wilson was a founding editor of the now defunct but much lamented literary journal Wet Ink. (For an advance review of this book, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.)
  • Arnold Zable’s The fighter (April 2016, Text Publishing) is a biography of Henry Nissen, a boy from Melbourne’s Carlton who became a champion boxer but who now devotes his spare time to helping disaffected people on the streets. It’s also about his mother and her decline into mental illness. I’ve read a few of Zable’s novels, including The sea of many returns which I reviewed early in this blog’s life.

Steven Amsterdam, Ashley Hay, Toni Jordan and Hannah Kent, some of whose earlier books I have reviewed here, also have books coming out this year … Meanwhile, Text Publishing is continuing to put out its classics, and Fremantle Press is starting a Treasures series celebrating its 40 years of publishing. Nice to see backlists (or older works) continuing to get second lives.

Do any of these inspire or you? Or are there books coming up in your region or area of interest that you are keen to read. 

Halina Rubin, Journeys with my mother (Review)

January 27, 2016

Halina Rubin, Journeys with my motherI’ve read a lot of World War 2 literature over the years, but very little from the Polish point of view, so I was more than willing to read Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother when it was offered to me a few months ago. Rubin was born in Warsaw on 27 August 1939. Note the date: her mother, Ola, was still recovering in hospital when Germany invaded Poland a few days later. Within two months, her parents, secular Jews, had fled to the Soviet Union, and this is where the young Halinka and her mother saw out the war. It’s a fascinating story – and it’s told in a thoughtful way.

Rubin divides her story into two parts. Part 1 is mainly background. It provide some family history about her parents, Ola and Władek, and their parents before she was born, but it also describes the depth of anti-Semitism with which they lived, long before the war started. It tells how her parents were radicalised early, how for them “the ideals of communism offered a way to solve the twin problems of unemployment and poverty, and put an end to racial hatred”. Oh, such idealism … but her parents, despite experiencing political betrayal, never fully lost their values and commitment to social causes.

Anyhow, part 2, which conveniently aligns with the start of the war, tells the story of her nuclear family after she was born. “I try to imagine” she writes of those opening days of the war, “how abruptly, how without mercy, their world changed”. She describes how, with their faith in the Soviet Union, her parents fled to Białystok, once a Polish town but now under Soviet control, while other members of the family made different decisions or timed their flight decisions differently, with, in most cases, tragic consequences.

Halina and her family lived there for nearly two years, Ola working as a nurse, until Germany betrayed the Soviet, invaded – and the atrocities began. So, they fled again, heading further east for Russia itself. Władek was taken to join the Red Army, but Ola and Halina made it to Oryol where Ola worked again as a nurse. Later, mother and daughter, who were evacuated under German orders from Oryol, went to Lida in Belarus, and from there they escaped into the forests where they joined the partisans – because, remember, Ola was a committed communist. It’s astonishing, really, that Ola and her oh-so-young daughter survived the threats and privations of such a life, but survive they did:

Around us was a forest so dense that even wild animals – boars, deer and wolves – chose to follow the same known tracks. The myriad of lakes made the terrain marshy.

Only the locals knew how to get their bearings, how to keep away from the swamps ready to swallow you up; how to keep the wolves away. It was a perfect place to hide, but tough to survive.

They were wet, cold, and desperately hungry. A truly amazing story of survival against a backdrop of egregious political treachery.

Journeys with my mother doesn’t end with the war, however, but follows her parents as they return to Poland, then move to Israel, and finally, after her father’s death, her mother’s move to join her in Australia. Rubin describes the early days of peace – the adjustments that had to be made as people separated from war-time friends and connections, and reunited, if they were lucky, with family members; the impact of political decisions being made about governance and borders; and, shockingly, the continuing anti-Semitism. She asks:

Who could have predicted that peacetime would be so difficult?

Although a very different book about a different war, this reminded me of Olivera Simić’s book Surviving peace which I reviewed a year or so ago.

But I’ll leave the story here – to move onto the telling.

I’ve categorised this as an autobiography or memoir but it could also be described as biography, since Rubin’s prime focus is the life of her parents. And that required research, as she didn’t manage to capture all she could before they died. This is partly because she didn’t start thinking about (aka wasn’t very interested in) documenting her parents’ lives until after her father had died by which time her mother was old, but also because the story was so stressful that her mother found it hard to tell. Rubin writes:

As always, whenever remembering her parents or sisters or the years of the war, eventually her voice would turn into a whisper and tears would well up her eyes. In the very last tape, I hear her say, ‘That’s enough, I cannot go on.’ The tape is still recording when I say, ‘Let’s have tea.’ The conversation was never resumed. I did not have the heart to put her through that ordeal again.

Rubin had done this taping before her mother’s death in 2001, but it was not until some years later, with the encouragement of her daughter, that she delved into “two boxes filled with papers, photographs, letters, notebooks and correspondence”. These plus her mother’s stories got her going, but there were gaps, so she travelled back to the places they’d lived, talked to old friends and a surviving cousin, trying to complete the story. She reports this directly and consciously in the book, switching between describing her fact-finding trips (revisiting places, meeting people) and recounting her and her parents’ lives in the places she visits. In other words, she takes us on her research journey – and I like that. It does give the story a disjointedness that might irritate some readers, but for me it adds to the interest and, yes, authenticity.

Like all such research, there are serendipitous finds and wonderful coincidences. One such occurs during a meeting with Valerii Slivkin from a museum in Lida. He shows her a document written by partisans after the war. They mention “the presence of ‘a four-year-old-girl'”. That girl of course was her! Earlier in the book, during one of her discussions of her mother’s stories, she says:

My mother was my first, albeit sketchy, narrator. When talking about the past she would get distressed so her storytelling could be convoluted, meandering around events, places, people. And I had not been a good listener. Perturbed, intent on not missing as much as my mother’s sigh, I could hardly concentrate. Later, however, I would discover how clearly she, in fact, remembered the events of the past.

Slivkin is one of those whose information confirms “how accurate she was”.

However, Rubin is also realistic about the limits of what you can know or discover. Looking at photo of her aunt who died early in the war, she wonders about the story behind the photo:

Ewa looks pregnant. I wonder if this is another family secret or simply a never told story. And if the complexities of our lives are at times impossible to unravel, how much more impossible are the events of the past. Nothing is certain.

It sure isn’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for the certainties – and Rubin, in this book, has given it a red hot go.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Halina Rubin
Journeys with my mother
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
ISBN: 9781925272093

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie writing duos

January 25, 2016

My inspiration for Monday Musings comes from various sources – my own interests, roving around Trove, news articles or stories I come across, or other bloggers. Today’s post was inspired by Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) post on Gert Loveday’s novel, Writing is easy. Gert Loveday is a collective pseudonym for two sisters, Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly. I’ve written about literary couples here before – couples in literature like The Bloke and Doreen, and Australian literary couples like Vance and Nettie Palmer – but, while I did some work on writing duos in Wikipedia some years ago, I haven’t written about them here. Lisa put the challenge to me to do so – so, yes ma’am, here I am!

As I often do with posts like these, I’m going to list a few Aussie duos, roughly in chronological order of their writing:

M. Barnard Eldershaw

Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw are probably the best known writing duos in Australia. While both of them wrote individually, particularly Marjorie Barnard after Eldershaw’s death in 1957, they produced a significant body of work as a duo, starting with A house is built which won the Bulletin prize in 1928 (a prize they shared with Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo). They went on to write four more novels, three histories, plays for stage and radio, a collection of short stories, and several collections of critical essays and lectures. There has been much discussion regarding how they worked together, with the suggestion that Barnard was more the creator, and Eldershaw more the editor, though I suspect the situation varied somewhat from book to book. However, Barnard did write, much later in 1974, that

Well, collaboration is like a bedroom secret; it all hinges on vanity and not having vanity. You must talk everything over before you put pen to paper […] I did most of the writing. Because I had more time and Flora’s forte was criticism […] I’d of ahead, writing with enthusiasm, and we’d talk it over afterwards and she would curb some of my exuberances; that’s what was the matter with “Tomorrow and tomorrow”. I wrote that alone.

It is, though, listed as one of their collaborative novels, but by then they were living in different cities.

They were, in addition, literary luminaries in the 1920s-1940s making a significant contribution to Australian cultural life. They supported and promoted Australian women writers, and argued for government support for writers. They also held “salons” in a flat they shared, at which both literary and sociopolitical issues were discussed.

Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack

Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack, Pioneers on paradeMiles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack mostly wrote solo, but they collaborated on two works, a novel, Pioneers on parade published in 1939, and a play in 1945 titled Call up your ghosts. Unlike Barnard and Eldershaw, they didn’t create a collective name. However, like them they were active in Australia’s literary scene, and were, for want of a better word, social reformers. Pioneers on parade satirised Australia’s 1938 sesquicentenary celebrations, mocking, so says the dust jacket of a later edition”established beliefs and institutions”.

The typical question we want to know of collaborators is how did it work? I checked Miles Franklin’s diaries to see if she said anything. Here she is on 9 May 1939:

Went to town at 3 to do shopping & get proofs at A & R … D.C. [Dymphna Cusack] came too. She is no help – lazy – thinks she is such a genius that she need not slog. Got home at six & read proofs until 10.

The things you can say in diaries! She did, however, work with Cusack again on Call up your ghosts, so it surely wasn’t all bad.

Dymphna Cusack and Florence James

I have reviewed Dymphna Cusack here twice – her novel Jungfrau and memoir A window in the dark. She wrote 12 novels, of which just two were collaborative, Pioneers on parade (1939) and her best known novel, Come in spinner. (1945). Her collaborator was journalist and literary agent Florence James, about whom I wrote early in this blog. Check it out if you’re interested in her take on the life of a freelance journalist in 1940. They wrote the novel while sharing a house in the Blue Mountains. Adapted much later for a successful television series, it beautifully evokes Sydney during World War 2, when American troops were in town and life was changing quickly.

Researching this post, I found a letter from Katharine Susannah Prichard to Miles Franklin (19 April 1951):

“Come in spinner’s” a delightful piece of work. Very well done, I think. With  very real bits & pieces of Sydney & the happenings of those war days. The people all vital and true to type. It headed the list of best sellers here for 3 weeks … […]

I was so pleased that Dymphna had dedicated “Come in spinner” to you. Feels she owes you so much of literary style and intrepidity.

I also found in the same book – As good as a yarn with you – reference to the banning of a radio serialisation of the novel. Miles Franklin wrote (5 April 1954) to Cusack and James, then living in London:

It shows how far we still have to go or that the radio firm which did the serial is spurious. In no sense is procurement a main theme and God save us if mothers of girls can’t stand to hear what happens.

Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings

JenningsGleitzmanWickedAnd now for something completely different, two successful-in-their-own-right children’s authors collaborating on two series of children’s books, Wicked (1997) and Deadly (2000). Both series comprise 6 novels, and Jennings and Gleitzman wrote alternate chapters. A British online magazine for children’s books, Books for Keeps, interviewed Jennings and reported this:

The publishers adopted a high risk strategy for this venture [ie. Wicked]. Jennings and Gleitzman wrote alternative [sic] chapters, faxing them to each other and leaving the fantastic complications which end each episode for the other to sort out. The first books appeared well before they had any idea of how the final one would end.

‘It was fun getting the characters into terrible fixes knowing you didn’t have to worry about getting them out of it, but imagine what would have happened if we’d had a fight; it would have been a catastrophe.’

Gert Loveday

Gert Loveday have (or should it be has?) written five novels, the last being the aforementioned Writing is easy. I have it on my Kindle – in the TBR folder. Oh dear! It is apparently a funny book about writing workshops, which sounds highly appealing to me. Presumably our collaborators Joan and Gabrielle have experienced one of two in their day! Anyhow, I’m not going to write much about this duo, because one of my favourite bloggers, the US-based but Aussie lit fan Guy Savage, has interviewed them. Do check out the post. They talk about their process, how they resolve their differences, and, in wonderful irreverent tongue-in-cheek humour, they describe Gert:

Gert is Gert. We both have other writing identities in different forms, but we have a sense of Gert, or a Gertish way of looking at things. She looks like Elinor Bron, with wild white curly hair. We think she smokes (we would never do that) and she has an Irish wolfhound. She is at once much freer and more ruthless than we are. So she feels separate.

Must get back to my Kindle TBR clearly.

There seems to be such liveliness behind all these collaborations. I love the idea of active minds butting up against each other to produce something together.

Have you read any collaborative works? Does the collaborative factor affect how you think about them?

Phillip Stamatellis, Growing up café: a short memoir (Review)

January 22, 2016

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydPhillip Stametellis’ Growing up café is the third book I’ve read in publisher Finlay Lloyd’s fl smalls collection. Unlike the previous two, by established creators Paul McDermott and Carmel Bird, it is a debut work by an unknown writer. According to the author bio provided at the beginning of the book, Stamatellis is studying writing at the University of Canberra. What an achievement to have this work published, while still studying.

Growing up cafe is an enjoyable read. It tells the story of his growing up in his family’s cafe, the Radnor, in Goulburn, which is just 100km from Canberra. I used to visit cafes there regularly on trips to Sydney, that is, until it was bypassed by the highway. Now, if we go off the highway for a cuppa – and we do – it is not usually to the centre of Goulburn, but that’s another story. Back to the book …

Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly. It is not told chronologically, and nor is it told in one voice. The story of his boyhood is told third person (“the boy”) via anecdotes that shift backwards and forwards across the years between 1965 and 1982. Reflections from adulthood are told first person, from the present, that is from 2014 and 2015. Whilst on the face of it the anecdotes from the past look rather higgledy-piggledy, careful reading shows that there is always a connection. There is method in the madness, in other words – and anyhow, as his friend says to him when he worries about his book making sense, “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s not like life does.” Fair enough.

Things I enjoyed about the book include the nostalgia factor (the memories of Greek and Italian cafes or milk bars that I grew up with, though not “in” like Stamatellis) and the social history (the documenting of such cafes and the lives that surrounded them). Stamatellis captures all this nicely, from a young insider’s perspective. Phillip is, as far as this memoir tells us, the youngest of three boys born to Greek parents. The boys all grew up “in” the cafe, and they all worked in it from the moment they could. “I’ve lost count of the number of tables I’ve cleaned”, he writes, “I could do a three-plate carry by the time I was eight.”

The book opens at “Lunchtime, Summer, 1977”. The opening sentence – “The midday sun was stark in the street, and the small chirruping of cicadas almost drowned the rumbling of a passing Holden GT” – captures Australian country towns in summer perfectly, noisy cicadas and noisy Holden cars. It also reminded me of a song written in 1975 about another regional Australian city, Newcastle. The song, by Bob Hudson, includes the lines:

All the young men of Newcastle
drive down Hunter Street
in their hot FJ Holdens
with chrome plated grease nipples
and double reverse
overhead twin cam door handles,
sitting eight abreast in the front seat,
and they lean out of the window
and say real cool things to the sheilas
on the footpath, like ‘Aah g’day’.

Stammatellis, in his opening paragraph, describes teenagers in the cafe: “Cigarettes hung from their lips, the girls with their arms around their boyfriends’ waists.” It’s all so 1970s Australian – as is, unfortunately, the racism. “Thanks wog“, says a customer. A little further on is an anecdote in which “the boy’s” mother confronts racist graffiti on the cafe’s toilets, and then treats an indigenous person generously. All she says is to her son is:

‘Life is hard for some people but the sun shines for everyone, not just the wealthy’.

It’s not all serious though. There are funny, family anecdotes here too – brothers getting up to mischief, for example. There are stories about local characters, such as fun parlour owner Uncle Con, jeweller Ange Zantis, and the priest Father Sinesios, not to mention the challenge of serving the annual influx of an often unruly snow crowd. (If you are from this region you’ll know all about the trek to the snow through Goulburn, Canberra and Queanbeyan each winter). And there are the reflections from the present. These modern chapters round it out nicely. Through them we learn a little about where “the boy” is now, but overall I most enjoyed the chapters focusing on the past. They provide insight into a life now gone, and yet the lessons – such as tolerance, hard work, family cooperation – are timeless.

In the last chapter – set in 2015 – Stamatellis reflects on nostalgia:

I suppose at this very moment I’m feeling nostalgic and it seems that nostalgia makes a point of highlighting the good stuff and even finds positives among sadness – but my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment …

Stamatellis doesn’t expand upon this, but I wonder if this little “small” is the beginning of something larger. It’s certainly a time and place that could do with some further scrutiny because we haven’t yet, I think, properly documented the experiences (and contributions) of that wave of southern European immigration.

(Note: I did find several typos, which is rare in my experience from Finlay Lloyd.)

Phillip Stamatellis
Growing up café
(fl smalls 8)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592972

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Delicious descriptions: Emma Ayres on music

January 20, 2016

If the bicycle trip gives Emma Ayres’ travel memoir Cadence its chronological spine, it is music which provides its skeleton.

However, before I discuss music, I need to respond to those commenters on my review who noted that “cadence” is also a cycling term. As I’d heard the book rather than read it, I couldn’t quite recollect her mentioning this but felt she must have. I have now checked the book itself and indeed she did. For example, near the end of the book is a paragraph which starts:

Cadence on a bicycle is a vitally important thing. Turn your pedals too slowly, with too hard a gear, and you wear out your muscles and your chain. The trick is to have a light, quick cadence, an allegro cadence, not andante, one where your lungs do the heavy work and your muscles hardly have to strain at all …

But, see how even here some musical imagery slips in! Anyhow, she talks about cadence on the bicycle at other times too, such as the “perfect cadence” when riding downhill one day in Pakistan.

It’s all about the keys

The book’s chapters are named for groups of keys starting and ending with C major/minor, the simplest keys. She writes at the beginning of the last chapter:

Here we are, back at the beginning. The flats have gone and the sharps are yet to come. It is a moment of stillness, before the journey begins again.

This is the aspect of the book that was least familiar to me. What playing one key versus another means to a musician, and how playing different keys varies from instrument to instrument, are not things I can experientially relate to.

That didn’t stop me, however, finding many of her descriptions interesting, if not moving at times. Here she is on C sharp major/minor/D flat major/minor:

This is it. It’s the end of the road for the sharp keys. Every single note is a sharp – FCGDAEB … We have travelled all the way from simple open G major, through the brightness of E major to the unearthliness of B major, and we have arrived in a key that stretches and strains on every instrument, even somehow the even-tempered piano. Music written in C sharp major has a wildness to it, a frenzy even. C sharp major is used by a composer who has seen a new super reality from an escarpment. They are looking through a high window. It’s a shocking key at first, but ultimately I find it very spiritual. It is an extremely brave and rare key.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that this is one of the keys she uses for her trip through Pakistan, the country she’d been warned against, and the one she fell in love with. Another key in this chapter, D flat major, is, she writes, great for the piano:

Easy, like breathing out.

I felt like Pakistan was the right key for me. I didn’t want to ever leave Pakistan, or at least lose the feeling Pakistan had given me.

It helped, of course, that much of her time in Pakistan she travelled dressed as, and was in fact believed to be, a man, Emmett. As a woman, she may not have found it quite so easy, as she implies through one of her musical analogies:

Women in Pakistan, though, were like absent notes in the scale. D naturals in a D flat world.

On composers

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Accompanying Ayres on her trip was Aurelia, a 3/4-sized violin, because, she says, “you never feel truly alone, anyway, if you have an instrument with you”. She decided she needed a musical journey to parallel the cycle one. Her choice? To learn Bach’s cello suites, violin sonatas and partitas.

Consequently, throughout the journey she gave little impromptu Bach concerts. It seems Bach is loved the world around. She shares wonderful stories and gives insights into all sorts of composers, not just Bach, but the one I want to share here is Shostakovich. She spends a few pages on his 13th quartet, which was written in B flat minor. She writes, and I’m excerpting furiously:

His thirteenth, though, depicts the horror of life in a way that is unrelenting from beginning to end. In our life, the police often protect us from knowledge of the most horrific crimes, but in this B flat minor work Shostakovich offers us no protection. If you are going to listen to this piece, make sure you have a friend to call afterwards. Seriously.

… This piece is written in one dreadful movement. Listening to and playing this piece dozens of times, I can find no moment of joy, no moment of exhilaration, no relaxation, no optimism.


… it is a hell on earth. It is a hell of small-minded, picky, tight-mouthed people, people who decide matters of life and death and art; a hell of the violins as they pick out mean, starved sounds from their instruments while the others around them mock and sneer; a hell of music for all the ugly-souled, unthinking, self-serving people in the world, of whom many had power over Shostakovich. This hell never ended for him, neither in his life nor in this piece; it just kept on getting worse.

And she says more – about Shostakovich’s life and this piece. I loved reading these sorts of insights from a practising musician. I also enjoyed her explanations of the modern composers many love to hate, Webern and Schoenberg. She talks of Schoenberg using music’s power to unsettle, and Webern distilling emotion (even if reading a Webern score is “like poring over an ordnance survey”!)

Viola to Violin to Cello to …

The other musical thread I wanted to mention is her discussion of her musical career. The book starts with her mother asking her “the most important question of my life”. What was it? It was to ask her what instrument she wanted to play! She chose cello, but got a violin! Paralleling the story of her cycle journey is the story of her musical life: how she started with violin, then moved to viola – her professional instrument at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – but always hankering for the cello. She returned to the violin for the trip, after which she eventually got to play cello. I won’t tell you where, after all that, she has ended up …

I will tell you, though, that for Ayres music saves people’s souls, and it saved her. As a musician, she says, you take people into your care. You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that “to share the value of music is the resolve of my life”.

Ayres is warm, yet fearless, a woman who marries action with reflection, all of which make Cadence the excellent read my friends told me it was.

Monday musings on Australian literature: June Wright, Crime novelist

January 18, 2016

Regular readers here may be surprised to see this subject for a Monday Musings given I’m not known as a crime aficionado, but never let it be said that I’m not open-minded. I came across June Wright last year in my role as convener of the Literary and Classics area of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and was reminded of her again when I wrote my 2015 wrap-up for the challenge. It occurred to me then that she was worth introducing to you!

Dorothy June Wright, née Healy, was born in 1919, and died only recently in 2012. She wrote six crime novels in the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s obituary, she was born in Melbourne, and went to school at Kildara Brigidine and Vaucluse convents, Loreto (in Adelaide), and Mandeville Hall (in Toorak). She worked from 1939 to 1941 as a telephonist at Melbourne’s central exchange – a significant fact as you will soon see – before marrying Stewart Wright in 1942. They had six children.

WrightTelephoneExchangeHutchinsonNow, here comes the significance of her job: her first novel, published in 1948, was Murder in the telephone exchange. Wright told a reporter at Melbourne’s Advocate that one of her co-telephonists at the Exchange had once said to her “‘You know you could write a book about this place!” The Advocate goes on to tell her publication story:

June Wright wrote her novel in the midst of busy household duties and a toddling, growing family. When the English publishers, Hutchinsons, announced a £1000 detective story competition Mrs. Wright sent along her manuscript, with a sceptical and open mind on its chances. The competition closed on June 30, 1944, but no manuscript, of the thousands submitted, was awarded the prize. Several, however, were recommended for publication by the judges … Among them was June Wright’s “Murder in the Telephone Exchange”. The publishers are evidently so impressed with her gifts as a story-teller that they have not only signed a contract with her for the immediate publication of the competition manuscript, but have also signed options on her next two novels.

Hmmm … not good enough for a prize but they chose to publish? Still, I’m sure the authors were happy to be published. The next two novels were So bad a death and The devil’s caress. Wright went on to be, apparently, more popular in Australia than Agatha Christie – and yet died pretty much unknown.

Reissued in 2015

The reason Wright has come to our attention now is that her novels are being reissued by US publisher Verse Chorus Press under their Dark Passage imprint, with three published in 2015. That’s not how I learnt about them, though, as I don’t have my ear to the crime genre ground. I heard about Wright through Karen Chisholm’s article on her in The Newton Review of Books.

However, before I tell you about Chisholm’s article, I want to share an excerpt from an article in Perth’s The Daily News. It describes an address June Wright made to the Housewives’ Association:

‘Yes, I have four small children, do my own house-work, and am now writing my third book,’ she told association members. ‘I began my telephone exchange murder story when my first child was a year old, entered the novel for an English competition and was delighted when it was selected for publication.’ Mrs. Wright thinks that housewives are well qualified for writing. They are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony — three excellent attributes for the budding writer.

Haha, love it!

I shared this first because it provides a good lead-in to Chisholm’s article. Chisholm, unlike fraudulent me, has read the three reissued novels, and she makes some interesting comments. She says, for example, of Murder in the telephone exchange that the protagonist, Maggie Byrnes “is the first of Wright’s strong female protagonists and we can’t help but assume that there is much of the author herself in Byrnes”. Nagaisayonara, writing at the Crime Fiction Lover website, argues that “it’s a complex, dark novel with a female detective who was far ahead of her time”, and believes that Wright is more like Dorothy L Sayers than Christie. Moving on to So bad a death, Chisholm tells us that Maggie is now married and looking for housing. She writes:

Wright’s family of six children is often remarked upon in interviews when she talks about the workload of writing she maintained, as are the connections between the life of her first character, Maggie, and her own life. Certainly that search for housing during the post-war shortage, and the slightly desperate search for distraction from the day-to-day sameness of childraising and housekeeping, is informed by experience.

Chisholm adds that the new Foreword for So bad a death states that Wright “would joke with interviewers how writing bloody murders was a good way to avoid infanticide”! She sounds like a woman with confidence and presence, doesn’t she?

Adelaide’s The Mail reviewer writing in 1952 about her third novel, The devil’s caress, says that

Mrs. Wright’s new and third work, which concerns odd doings on a Victorian peninsula, is outstanding in one respect. It has a powerful character study of a woman doctor — a commanding, aloof, and in some ways completely misunderstood person, who is married to a surgeon, the antithesis of herself. …  Mrs. Wright’s reportage is as ever brisk and competent. But I eagerly await the day when she concentrates more upon genuine, plausible detection and less upon melodramatic situations.

I wonder if this is why this book was not the third to be re-released last year, although I understand all will be eventually?

Meanwhile, Chisholm writes that in all the three books released so far, the third being the previously unpublished Duck season death, “there has been an underlying sense of fun being poked” and “hints at a wicked, very Australian sense of humour”. She concludes that June Wright was “one of the writers who forged the way for an Australian crime fiction scene that’s vibrant, varied and extremely engaging” and argues that she deserves to be “better remembered and more accessible”.

I must say I’m tempted … are you?


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