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Carmel Bird, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories (#BookReview)

March 1, 2018

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrix

Carmel Bird, whose latest short story collection, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories, I’m reviewing here, has to be the consummate writer. She can turn her hand to fiction and nonfiction, to short and long form writing, to formal and more informal voices, and to both serious and witty or satiric tones. She’s also an editor/anthologist in addition to being a writer. And now she’s experimenting with a digital platform. So, when she hesitantly offered me The dead aviatrix to read and review, there was only one answer, yes.

Her hesitation related to its e-book form. She feared that we Gums’ people aren’t much interested in ebooks, but, she wrote, “they are a growing part of the literary landscape”. Then, using a very Bird-like expression, she continued, “so maybe one day you will write a bit about them, and if and when you do, The Dead Aviatrix will be idling on the tarmac.” Well, how could I resist, even if I had wanted to, an aviatrix idling on the tarmac? And anyhow, as you know, I do read and write about e-books. Annabel Smith’s The ark (my review) is a good example, but I’ve reviewed several e-books here including Dorothy Johnston’s Eight pieces on prostitution (my review).

Like Dorothy Johnston’s book, which was a digital publishing initiative of the Australian Society of Authors, The dead aviatrix is the first Capsule Collection, a new platform by digital publisher Spineless Wonders. Subsequent titles in the series will, the book’s “About” says, include works “selected from The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award”. You clearly can’t keep a good writer down. I love that this doyenne of the Australian literary scene is still exploring and experimenting.

However, it’s all well and good to explore and experiment with form, delivery platform, and so on, but in the end you need to produce the goods, and this Bird has done with her eight stories. I should say, before discussing them, that all have been published before – in publications like Southerly, Island Magazine, and Review of Australian Fiction.

So now, at last, the stories themselves. They are a wonderful lot. Bird regularly makes me laugh, and she does so again here. It’s not empty laughter though, because her targets are serious. It’s just that she frequently presents her ideas with a cheeky, often satirical approach.

The first story is “The dead aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate”. It’s written in the sort of style Bird used in Fair game, her memoir of Tasmania (my review). By this I mean it digresses or, as she says, becomes “productively sidetracked”. However, as “The dead aviatrix” is “a publishing story”, the opening digression about the prolific Edward Stratemeyer – creator of a childhood favourite The Bobbsey Twins – is relevant in a way (of course!). Actually, it’s very relevant because she finds a quote about an aviatrix in a Stratemeyer book, and uses it to springboard her story. Oh, she’s a character! The tone of the story, like several in the book, is chatty. She talks directly to us, the reader, leading us along, often lulling us into a false sense of security. In this case, it’s a little satire on the publishing industry – on proofs going astray, on distracted publishing interns – but along the way it invokes or references all sorts of ideas, including the Australian aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton who “unlike the great and mysterious Amelia … did not disappear in the skies.” Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Bird (our Bird, I mean!) but I love trying. This story is, partly, about the art of writing stories.

The second story, “The Whirligigge of time brings its revenges”, draws from a Shakespeare quote, and is also a publishing story, this one more satirical about first and second novels, the notion of “literary” novels, awards, and not using agents. Again, it has a similar chatty story-telling tone. Here’s an example:

The history of this novel (The Heat of Summer) is the real subject of my tale. That, and the wheel of fortune and the quirks of fate. The book takes its first inspiration from Camus’ famous L’Etranger, and its content is drawn from the aforementioned history of Joseph Tice Gellibrand, the disappearing Attorney-General of Van Diemen’s Land. Well, you can see that what Frankie was doing here was risky. It was what is often described as literary fiction.

There’s more delicious satire about publishers and their slush piles, but I’ll finish with a quote about promotion:

The media hype for The Heat of Summer is huge, what with the glamour of Frankie’s Paris life, and the deep fascination with gothic Australian bush stuff and so forth. Based around the tragic life of her ancestor. Smash hit. Frankie turned out to be a publicist’s dream, having, as well as the attributes I have alluded to, long legs, a face that could sell cosmetics and airline tickets, and an engaging lisp.

Delicious isn’t it?

And so the stories continue, addressing issues like missing children (“Cold case”), dying towns and New Age shops (“Cactus”), shallow suburbanites and their prejudices (“The matter of the mosque”), surrogacy (“Surrogate”), and species extinction (“Letter to Lola” and “The tale of the last unicorn”). All the stories could be lessons in writing – in tone, in varying form, in how to make words and language work for you, in being absurd without being absurd (if you know what I mean), in addressing serious matters with a light but pointed touch. I enjoyed every one.

While several stories are written in the chatty, satirical tone of the first two. Not all are. “Dear Lola” takes the form of a love letter from a Spix’s Macaw to his lost mate. It’s sad, and pointed, but the whole idea of a bird writing to its lover gives it a whimsical touch too. “The matter of the mosque”, on the other hand, is written in little scenes, comprising mostly dialogue between two mothers in which it’s clear that whether to use hairspray or mousse is more important than opening their minds to different ways of being. Bird’s control of language and narrative here, together with her use of repetition and recurring ideas or images, makes this a little gem.

Now, I know many of you aren’t short story readers, because you want to get lost in character. These stories aren’t those sorts of stories. However, what a mind, what ideas, what fun and, ultimately, what heart, you miss by ignoring a book like this. It’s only available in e-format and costs a whopping $4.99! Why not give it a go?

AWW Badge 2018Carmel Bird
The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories
Spineless Wonders, 2017
50pp.
ISBN (e-version): 9781925052343

(Review copy courtesy the author, but available from Spineless Wonders)

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Glen Hunting" permalink
    March 1, 2018 12:45 am

    I haven’t read this volume yet Sue, but I don’t need to have done so in order to appreciate your observations, particularly those regarding the maintenance of a light but weighty tone, a mastery of language, and a sense of the absurd that retains its deftness and doesn’t lurch into a kind of anarchic blood-letting.
    And regarding your comment “I know many of you aren’t short story readers, because you want to get lost in character”…I DO understand (and enjoy) the dreamy, delicious, assured progressions and readjustments of characters and their circumstances that (perhaps) only novels can offer. Not to mention the tests, trials and travails that more racy narratives subject their protagonists to. BUT let me also say (for any literati who might not yet have sworn undying allegiance to the Long Form) that I think the character that a short story’s single episode can evoke, as well as all the speculations as to how that character might endure or alter beyond the disclosed events, can make both the thematic implications and personal concerns of a masterful short story ring like a bell in the consciousness of the reader, long after that reader has turned the page. 🙂 🙂

    • March 1, 2018 8:53 am

      Well said Glen. I totally agree with you about characters in short stories. They can hit you in the guts. I hope I didn’t imply that character isn’t important in short story! I meant simply that you don’t always get the opportunity to get lost in them, particularly in this collection where some of the stories are more like a comedy sketch where it’s the ideas, the situation and the way telling that engage the most.

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        March 1, 2018 11:57 am

        No, I knew what you meant. I was just offering the observation, to the short story non-believers and equivocators out there (bless ’em), that short stories can definitely pack a personal punch. And you’ve offered the same observation yourself. 🙂

        • March 1, 2018 2:37 pm

          Great, thanks for clarifying Glen, I hoped I was clear because I’d hate to have mislead. I can certainly remember some gut wrenching short stories focusing on character.

    • March 2, 2018 7:51 am

      I love your description of the way short fiction’s characters can ‘ring like a bell in the consciousness’, Glen.

  2. March 1, 2018 3:33 am

    This sounds delightful! I just bought it for my Kindle. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • March 1, 2018 8:55 am

      Oh, woo hoo, Debbie. That’s the best thing to hear… And is an advantage of the e-form isn’t it? You can buy it any time anywhere (unless someone has contained the rights geographically).

      • March 2, 2018 7:52 am

        And you will never lose it or have to dust it or send it to landfill.

        • March 2, 2018 8:23 am

          Exactly Carmel. My current rule of thumb is that I buy e-Versions of non-Australian books, and pint of Australian -and the reason is exactly this. I love reading print but I have my eye on my next move! First step though is the music. Out with the CDs…

  3. March 1, 2018 4:42 am

    I’ve been trying about trying this author. Personally I’m a huge fan of e-books.

    • March 1, 2018 9:05 am

      Then this is a great place for you to start with her, Guy – it’s e-book, it’s short and it’s accessible.

      • March 1, 2018 10:51 am

        I was thinking about Family Skeleton

        • March 1, 2018 11:03 am

          Harrumph, I replied to this via the app on my iPad but it hasn’t appeared. That’s a great choice too – for character, satire and voice.

        • March 1, 2018 11:03 am

          That one is available as an e-book

        • March 1, 2018 2:35 pm

          Which is a plus when you are overseas in particular!

  4. March 1, 2018 7:11 am

    These stories sound very good. A chatty style can be very entertaining. I do like the passage that you quoted.

    I do not read enough short stories. I need to read more in the coming months.

    • March 1, 2018 9:07 am

      Thanks Brian. Yes, the chatty style is wonderfully entertaining here, but you never lose sight of the sharp (in the positive meaning of the word!) mind behind it.

  5. Jim Kable permalink
    March 1, 2018 8:17 am

    This review has it all – The Bobbsey Twins! (Way back there in my voracious reading years of primary school!) And since which almost totally forgotten! Nancy Bird Walton – who lived in Pymble/St Ives – an aunt spoke of having visited her – over 70 years ago – a near neighbour! And “Cactus” – not only a short fiction title by Carmel Bird – but a new eatery of that name is in Kingscote – the “capital” of Kangaroo Island – and of which I snapped a photograph just yesterday.

    • March 1, 2018 9:11 am

      Haha, Jim, aren’t reading/book connections wonderful. Love the Cactus ones – and yes, The Bobbsey Twins were part of my voracious primary school reading days. As for Nancy Bird, I lived my teen years in Wahroonga, but don’t recollect knowing she lived around there.

  6. March 1, 2018 8:41 am

    As you know, WG, I am a lover of the short form and Carmel Bird is one of my favourites. I thought about this some time ago and then forgot to purchase it so your review is my prompt. Thanks!

    • March 1, 2018 9:12 am

      Oh good Karenlee, I’m very happy to have served as a prompt, particularly for this reason.

  7. Glen Hunting permalink
    March 1, 2018 11:32 pm

    I know I’m massively behind the eight-ball with this, Karenlee (blame the education sector if you must!) but I’ve heard nothing but marvellous things about your ‘Flame Tip’ collection, and I intend to avail myself of a copy of it very shortly!

  8. March 2, 2018 8:00 am

    It’s not usual for an author to respond in writing to a reviewer, but let’s ignore conventions here. I was delighted to see Whispering Gums taking The Dead Aviatrix seriously enough to review it, and then I was particularly thrilled to read the analysis. What writer doesn’t love an enthusiastic intelligent review.

    • March 2, 2018 8:28 am

      Thank Carmel. Yes, out with conventions! Blogs are a special sort of review anyhow so perhaps they can have their own conventions? BTW how could I not be enthusiastic about these stories which address ideas and situations that are so relevant to now, and in such a fresh way.

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