Lynette Washington (ed), Breaking beauty (Review)

Lynette Washington, Breaking Beauty

Courtesy: MidnightSun

As I’ve said before, I usually don’t read book introductions until the end. In the case of Breaking beauty, an anthology of short stories edited by Lynette Washington, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had read it first because Brian Castro’s intro gave nothing away while at the same time saying a lot. He starts by noting that the short story is making a come-back, “and wondering why it ever went away, perhaps because we were too imbued with the great whatever novel in the Borealis of canons or by the glossy fits of fashionable shades of grey”. Love the bite in that!

It’s a great introduction. It’s erudite, pithy, and often tongue-in-cheek. Castro says, reading my mind, “what good is an intro-duction if you haven’t been in-ducted, or even read the stories”. What indeed? And yet, his “intro-duction” manages to craftily incorporate the stories and their contexts, the ideas that drive them, without over-explaining or giving anything away. It is one of the most delicious introductions I’ve read in a very long time – unlike my introduction, so let’s move on!

Breaking beauty is a collection of stories by graduates of the University of Adelaide’s Creative Writing course. As Castro hints through a reference to Rousseau and as Washington states more directly, the stories explore the “complementary forces” and “dualities” encompassed by the idea of beauty, the notion that “there is no beauty without ugliness”. There are 28 stories, of which 22 are by women. They range in length from three or four pages to ten or so. Five of the stories have been published elsewhere, including Melanie Kinsman’s heart-rending “A paper woman” which was published in the Margaret River Press’s The trouble with flying (my review).

As you would expect, the stories look at beauty from all sorts of angles, physical, emotional, spiritual, even intellectual, but they rarely tell it straight. In Matthew Gabriel’s “To my son”, for example, an ugly father presents, to his apparently similarly ugly son, his solution for “neutralising physical appearance” which, he believes, will “not only rid the world of ugly’s plague but also its inextricable and toxic inverse”. Jo Lennan’s “A real looker” explores an extra-marital passion that resulted in a daughter who struggles to understand the adult world of passion, and a father transfers this passion to a boat called Marilyn. Sean Williams’ “The beholders” is a speculative fiction piece which cleverly twists the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In other stories, beauty is more abstract . The second story, Corrie Hosking’s “A well strained fence”, is told first person by a young man for whom beauty is neatness and order. It’s a nicely sustained story that epitomises what a complicated notion or concept beauty is. It also neatly provides me with an opportunity to talk about voice. Just over half the stories are told first person, and two are told second person. One of these, Mary Lynn Mather’s mother-and-child story, “Whatever happened to the fairy-tale ending”, uses second person effectively to convey an emotion that is almost beyond bearing.

But of course voice is about more than which “person” is used; it’s about the persona used to tell the story, that is, about how the narrator of that story sounds to us. In short story collections – particularly anthologies – we usually find a great variety in voice (and, related to this, tone). Lynette Washington, in “Lia and Amos”, uses a matter-of-fact, reporter-like third person voice to tell a story with an unusual twist. The voice keeps us on our toes, divulging only what is going on in the moment, with no backstory or additional information, so that the end, when it comes, surprises and yet seems natural at the same time, because nothing has been sensationalised. By contrast, Rosemary Jackson’s narrator, Athina in “Athina and the sixty-nine calorie burn”, exudes the distressing (in this case), naive confidence of the young while the reader knows exactly what’s going on.

Several stories, including some already mentioned, tackle contemporary society’s (over-)emphasis on beauty. Others look at a broader notion of aesthetics from some interesting angles. Rebekah Clarkson uses an argument about aesthetics – a finial, in fact – in “A simple matter of aesthetics” to expose male arrogance, while in Katherine Arguile’s “Wabi-Sabi” a man’s commitment to aesthetics puts his family’s health, indeed survival, at risk. Meanwhile, Stefan Laszczuk’s narrator in “The window winder” finds beauty in a very gruesome place.

There’s no way, of course, that I can mention all twenty-eight stories. The ones I’ve mentioned here aren’t the only ones I enjoyed. There are moving – and often painful – stories about love, about sons and mothers, nieces and aunts, husbands and wives, mothers and children. There are stories about ageing, and the losses that usually attend, in one form or another. And there’s Lilian Rose’s cheeky story about a very unusual “Ladies Tea Party”.

Castro writes in his introduction of “the fleeting and the fleeing before one’s eyes, as a good short story is wont to do, not allowing its meaning to fully emerge because that would kill it, but letting it flit mothlike into memory”. This definition of good short stories could also define “true” beauty – as I’m sure the writers in this diverse and enjoyable collection would agree.

awwchallenge2015Lynette Washington (ed)
Breaking Beauty
Rundle Mall: MidnightSun Publishing, 2014
228pp
ISBN: 978192522700

(Review copy supplied by Midnight Sun)

Pulse: First 2014 (Review)

Now here’s the thing. I’m a librarian by training, so I have certain expectations of how publications are titled, and Pulse, I must say, confused me. However, we librarians also know that publishers and writers don’t care about our rules; they just do what appeals to them! Fair enough. They’re the creators after all. Still, when I see a serial publication titled Pulse: First 2014, my immediate assumption is that the serial’s title is Pulse, and that I have in my hand the first edition for 2014. Not so, in this case. In fact, the serial – here, an annual – is titled First, and the title for the 2014 edition is Pulse! Got it? I have now!

So, what is First? It is “an anthology of creative works by students at the University of Canberra”. It has been published as First since 1995, but it commenced in 1993 under another title, Analectica. The editors of the 2014 edition therefore see Pulse as the anthology’s 21st volume, a “coming-of-age” edition. An impressive achievement I think. I’m not an expert on student-writing publications but 21 years in a world where projects come and go with some rapidity demonstrates a wonderful commitment by the university to its teaching of writing, design and editing.

The volume was put together by an editorial committee comprising students, some of whom feature in the volume. We are assured however that entries were all read blind. According to the university’s online news site, Monitor Online, there were 130 entries from which the final 26 stories and poems were chosen. Two prizes were given, though this is not noted in the volume: Best short story to Andrew Myers for “Neon Snow”, and best poem to Madonna Quixley for “The Archeological Dig”. The Monitor Online article also says that this was the first time all first year design students at the University submitted designs for the book’s cover. Sarah Watson won with her design which suggests “a sharp and energetic heartbeat”. It’s an attractive design, simple but strong, and I like the way a simplified version of the heartbeat (or pulse) carries through at the bottom of each page. Very stylish.

So, the content. I’m always interested in the order used in anthologies. In this collection, the first story, Alex Henderson’s imaginative “Easiest job in the world”, is futuristic, about a new way of creating energy using human power. There is a sinister mismatch between the protagonist’s unquestioning acceptance of his/her role and the reader’s suspicion that this acceptance is dangerously naive. It makes for a powerful start to the anthology. The last story is, fittingly, about death! Titled “Death’s apprentice”, and by Kaitlyn Wilson, it’s a reassuring, somewhat light-hearted, but by no means trivialising exploration of dying. In between is a diverse collection of works including poems, a graphic short story and a travel piece, as well as more short stories. Let’s talk about the poems, first.

Nine, if I’ve counted correctly, of the works are poems. I laughed at Cameron Steer’s “Nuts”, and smiled at the wry but wistful “Love song” in which an uncertain Katherine McKerrow writes to her potential lover, as yet unknown:

I’m not sure you should
look for me.
Try someone made with more
reality, brave enough to sing with the world

I loved Marjorie Morrissey’s short but evocative poem, “Canberra”, in which she captures the life and noise of the bird we love to hate, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo. If you like dogs, you’ll relate to the powerplay between master and dog in Owen Bullock’s “On the beach”, and if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy spotting his books in Gloria Sebestyn’s “Ode to Murakami”. Then, of course, there’s Madonna Quixley’s winning “The Archeological Dig” to which I can certainly relate. It starts:

Called ‘my side of the bedroom’,
it bears imprints of
geological and metaphorical
layers; not necessarily
related to years or epochs.
Books, almost categorised,
files, letters, pretty pieces of
paper that wrapped
gifts, now unclothed,
lie strewn throughout the sediment.
There are attempts at organisation
amongst the dust.

Against this, in the margin, I wrote “oh yes”!

This is an unusual anthology – at least in my experience – for the diversity of forms it contains, the most surprising of which is a graphic short story. It’s “The bringer” by architecture student Christopher Olalere. The art is sure, with a lovely use of colour. Like a few of the stories in the anthology, it has a speculative fiction element, this one to do with a “wishing star” that isn’t what it appears.

I wish, as I’ve said before, that I could comment on all of the pieces, but we’d be here forever, so I’ll just comment now on a few of the short stories. I liked, for example, Kieran Lindsay’s “Emily”, which is a cancer story with an unexpected ending. Ashley John’s “Not a toy” is about an arguing couple in which the apparently down-trodden husband gets his own back in a shocking way, while Rachel Vella’s “The noose” is a surprising story about a rather sour mother-son relationship. Claire Brunsdon effectively builds up tension in “Run”. I enjoyed Niki van Buuren’s “Only silence leads to salvation” about a future world in which music has been banned! Wah! No music? The story itself is a little predictable, perhaps, but I did laugh at the idea of a “Silence Revolution”. Andrew Myers’ “Neon snow” is a father-son story about a father’s concern for his gay son, and his promise to always be there. Nick Fuller’s entertaining “How not to write”, on the other hand, provides some wise advice about writing, despite its “philonoetic hebephrenia*”!

I wasn’t sure what to expect of a tertiary student anthology, but I enjoyed it. Not all the students are young. Some, from the bios, are clearly “mature-age”. Consequently, there’s a range of stories from those dealing with transition to adulthood to those exploring more mature relationships. I was intrigued by the overall tone. Although individual pieces vary and although much of the subject matter – like cancer, the environment, noxious relationships, good relationships under threat, and technology – is serious, there is, somehow, a light touch. Misery isn’t laboured, and yet there is no sense that life is easy either. Interesting too is the fact that several pieces either fall into the speculative fiction spectrum or involve eerie happenings or other-world beings. Does this signify a loosening of genre division, a willingness to break free of the purely rational – or it simply that this is a broad-brush anthology?

Whatever the case, Davis puts it well in her Introduction:

There’s magic, humour, hope, fear, colour, variety, simplicity and complexity in this Pulse: First 2014.

There’s talent and heart too. It will be interesting to see where these writers go next.

awwchallenge2015Pulse: First 2014
Managing editor: Irma Gold
Introduction: Brooke Davis
Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra, 2014
85pp.
ISSN: 1838-5303

(Review copy courtesy University of Canberra)

* “Philonoetic : intellectual” AND “Hebephrenia : a condition of adolescent silliness” (according to Nick Fuller)

Cate Kennedy (ed), Australian love stories (Review)

Cate Kennedy, Australian Love Stories cover

(Courtesy: Inkerman & Blunt)

Four hundred and forty-five stories! She read four hundred and forty-five of them! I’m talking about Cate Kennedy, the editor of Australian love stories. These stories were the response to Inkerman & Blunt’s call for Australian writers “to share their love stories, fictional or true”. Having no experience in these things, I don’t know what they expected, but 445 sounds like a good response to me! The final anthology contains just 29, and they are all, not surprisingly, good reads. This is not to say that I loved them all equally, but certainly none jarred for being ordinary or clichéd. Not only is the writing high quality, but Kennedy’s selection has produced a collection that is diverse in subject matter and style. It wasn’t hard to read four or five in a sitting.

If you’ve read my previous reviews of short story collections, you’d know that I’m always interested in the order of the stories. Well, this anthology has been overtly structured, with “like” stories grouped under headings. Each heading, cutely I suppose but nonetheless effectively, draws from a story within the group. So, for example, the heading “A sweetly alien creature” comes from the second story in its group, Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”. I’m easily amused, I know, but I did look forward to spotting the heading-title as I read each group. There are seven of these groups, each containing four stories, with one exception that had five. In her Introduction, Kennedy, herself an award-winning short story writer, says that “Donna Ward [the publisher] and I arranged the stories into a kind of narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us [in] the process.” This arc, though, isn’t an obvious one, like, you know, young love, broken love, old love. It’s more fluid than that.

And so, the first story, Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn”, is about an older couple who have been together for a long time. The narrator, the man, clearly still adores his wife, and watches her, caresses her, in the early hours of the morning. While the birds come to life and sing in the day, she sleeps on. He knows her well, knows what he can do, how far he can go, before he will irritate her and break the spell:

So I don’t touch that bone. It would be over. She presses in closer to me and her breasts slide heavily against me and a thigh rises over mine and she squirms again, adjusting, moulding herself to me, fidgeting this limb and that, this foot against that, settling. It is not yet over.

This is a beautifully observed piece. It thrilled and inspired me – and gave me confidence that if the collection started like this, I was going to be in good hands.

What I particularly enjoy about an anthology like this is that it can give me a taste of writers I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (such as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Lisa Jacobson), or reacquaint me with writers I have read before and enjoyed (such as Irma Gold, Leah Swan, and Carmel Bird), or, perhaps most excitingly, introduce me to writers I don’t know at all (such as  J Anne DeStaic, Sally-Ann Jones and Sharon Kernot). But, here’s the thing. How to write about a collection in which pretty well every story moved me? I don’t want to simply generalise and tell you that they covered the whole gamut of love – from straight to same-sex, from romantic love to parental, from lasting to broken love, from supportive love to betrayal and revenge, from love across nations to love at home – though the anthology does do all these. And I can’t really describe every story in the book. So, I’ll just choose one from each section to give a flavour.

I’ve already mentioned Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn” so will leave it at that for opening group titled “A sensuous weight”. The second group, “Why cupid is painted blind”, includes stories about love that can be passionate, obsessive, overwhelming. J Anne deStaic’s “Lover like a tree” is a devastating story about a woman in love with a man in love with his drugs (and yes, also with her). DeStaic conveys this two-edged love, his need for the drug as strong as her need for him, with sensitivity and without judgement. It is what it is.

The next four stories, in “Adrift in shards and splattered fruit”, explore same-sex love. They are not the only stories to touch on this issue, which was pleasing to see. Confining them all to one section would have insulted today’s reality. Debi Hamilton’s “The edge of the known world” is about missed opportunities, about the one who loves and the other who doesn’t see it:

Carmelita. Carmelita. There. I like to think her name. If you want to hear a love story I can write you one. If you want a story in which someone breaks someone else’s heart, this is the story for you.

We are warned early in the story, and yet the end still saddens.

From this group we move to “There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret”. These stories are about difficult loves, sometimes past loves. It’s a powerful and varied group, but I’ll choose Sally-Ann Jones’ “Hammer orchid” to represent it. It spans thirty odd years in the lives of a young woman and an indigenous man. It starts “when she was eight and he was sixteen” and ends when they are fifty and fifty-eight. Set in Western Australia, it tells the story of a young girl’s crush and a young man’s recognition of the boundaries that need to be maintained. It gently encompasses issues like the patronising “naming” of indigenous workers (“Bill” is called “Biscuits” by his employers), knowing country, and environmental protest, all tied together by Levis and a silver belt buckle – but, beyond that, my lips are sealed.

“A sweetly alien creature”, as you might guess from this group’s title, explores parental love. Of course, like all love, this doesn’t run smooth. There’s a story about a false pregnancy (Rafael SW’s “Small expectations”), and another in which Lola promises to marry Henry and give him a baby if he’ll let her have a cat (Caroline Petit’s clever “The contract”). There’s Irma Gold’s only-too-believable story about “The little things” that can bring it all asunder, and Natasha Lester’s succinct piece about losing the language of adult love, postpartum (“It used to be his eyes”).  And then there’s Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”, a bittersweet story about what happens when conception doesn’t happen on demand. What then?

I hope I’m not boring you, but we are nearly there! The penultimate group, “Firm as anchors, wet as fishes”, looks at how health issues can challenge or get in the way of love. There’s cancer of course, and I had to laugh at Sharon Kernot’s resourceful wife in “Love and antibiotics” when she tells her husband she has chlamydia. Allison Browning’s “These bones” is, we learn from the biographies, an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress. It’s about Enzo, a gay man with dementia. He’s in a care facility and misses waking up next to Nev. He might have dementia, but he still manages to escape the facility, despite its security-coded doors:

Today is a gardening day, the kind where no gloves are needed because the earth is warm and kind to the skin and the dirt feels soothing on the flesh.

We do meet Nev at the end, and he is as tolerant and loving as Enzo remembers and deserves. I’m intrigued now about the novel.

The last section, “The unbroken trajectory of falling” is – and you’ve probably been waiting for this – about love gone very wrong. There’s adultery of course, and breakups. There’s even a murder. Kennedy clearly decided that there would be no whimpering at the end of her anthology. No, we would go out with a bang. And so, if Pascoe opened the collection with a lyrical evocation of mature love, then Carmel Bird’s “Where the honey meets the air” brings it to a close with a breathless piece that barely stops for a comma, let alone a full-stop. Here, Sugar-Sam, in a stream-of-consciousness featuring word-play galore and “mincing metaphors”, chronicles his relationship with Honey-Hannah. It’s wickedly funny, with allusions high and low, little digs at our modern ways of communicating (“the merrymedia, social and anti-social”), and pointed references to contemporary issues. It is surely not a coincidence that Tasmanian-born Bird’s character marries into a family called Gunn. He describes the family’s taking over their wedding:

when Her Family swept in and tied us up in knots, ribbons, bows and a certain amount of barbed wire, and whirled us up the aisle …

Lurking in the language, behind its breezy tone, are, as you can see here, hints of something else. “I should have warned you”, he says at one point, “about how this narrative will tie itself in the knots of several metaphors and coincidences and things”. It certainly does that. By the end we are left fearing that Sugar-Sam has indeed tied us up in knots. A clever, satisfying, not definitively resolved story. What a way to finish.

All in all, a wonderful read. If you don’t want to take my word for it, do check out reviews by John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Karen Lee Thompson.

awwchallenge2014Cate Kennedy (ed)
Australian love stories
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2014
275pp.
ISBN: 9780987540164

(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)

Richard Rossiter (ed), The trouble with flying and other stories (Review)

The trouble with flying book cover

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

The trouble with flying and other stories is the second collection I’ve read from the Margaret River Short Story Competition. I greatly enjoyed last year’s collection, Knitting and other stories, so was very happy to read this one. I’m pleased to see Margaret Press maintain its commitment to publishing stories from the competition, and hope that annual publication will help both the competition and the press, itself.

There were apparently 218 entries for the 2014 competition, which is somewhat fewer than last year’s 260 entries. Stories came from every state in Australia, as well as one from New Zealand. They include both new and experienced writers, many of whom have won awards and/or been published in some of Australia’s best literary journals. I was pleased to see that four of the 24 writers included in this volume, appeared in last year’s collection.

Last year, 20 of the 24 stories were by women, and the trend continues this year with 21 being by women. Presumably this roughly reflects the gender ratio of the overall entries. I wonder why this is? Is writing short stories something women who want to write feel they can juggle more easily with other responsibilities? Or? I’d love to know whether this is a common pattern, and why it might be.

Finally, before I get to the stories, I should say that of course the collection includes the winner, runner-up, and five highly commendeds, as well as the winner and two highly commendeds in the special award for writers from the South West (where Margaret River is located). They didn’t all accord with my favourites, but that’s the subjectivity of reading isn’t it?

Like last year’s collection, the title comes from winning story, Ruth Wyer’s “The trouble with flying”. In the bios, we are told that Wyer is “a fledgling writer from south-west Sydney”. Fledgling she may be, but she has a delightful way with words. It’s a story about transitions, about Rita, an unconfident young girl, moving from high school to TAFE. Intriguingly, Rita doesn’t appear until a few paragraphs in, which disconcerts the reader somewhat as to who this story is about. It is in fact quite an unsettling story, combining humour with pathos and a sense at the end that Rita may not break free of “the loosely bound fog” that she feels envelops her. Flying, in other words, is not easy. It’s a bit cute to say, I suppose, but in many of the stories the characters struggle to fly, to escape the concerns that mire them – and, in fact, some don’t.

One who doesn’t is the immigrant mother in Linda Brucesmith’s “A bedtime story”. Ridiculed by her husband one too many times, she leaves the house after midnight. Another mother in trouble is Annika in Cassie Hamer’s “A life in her hands”. Overwhelmed by a colicky baby – and oh, how I related to that – she decides that “escaping together would make them both much happier”. So, like the mother in “A bedtime story”, she heads to the sea. There, the kindness of one young man and the near tragedy of another shocks her to her senses and she feels “the euphoria of a lucky escape, a second chance”. Life for some, we realise, can often hang on little chances that determine the decisions we make.

A mother of a different kind is Tara in Lauren Foley’s entertainingly titled “Squiggly arse crack”. This is a bright, breezy story about an older single mother enjoying her “staycation”, that is, a brief shopping expedition away from her beloved child, Squig. To ensure she doesn’t change her mind about leaving him with her friend, she “sashays” out the front door without looking back, “pretending her neck is in an Elizabethan collar or pet lampshade”.

This is just one of the stories that departs from the resigned or melancholic tone that seems to be more common in short stories. Another upbeat story is Chinese-born Australian writer Isabelle Li’s “Red Saffron” about a feisty woman prepared to go after love. No shrinking violet, she. Announcing at the beginning of the story that

If poetry is language making love, then cooking must be food making love

she tells us that she’s cooking for Walter. She’s a poet and editor of a poetry magazine, and her aim is to seduce fellow poet Walter while her current lover, Richard, is away. This is a woman in charge of her destiny:

I know how sweet I am, in men’s eyes that follow my movements. I look younger than my age, with my dense hair and lustrous skin. I know they want to taste me on their tongue. But they are wrong: I’m no honeysuckle.

Glen Hunting’s Martha in “Martha and the Lesters” is spirited too. The story is told by Martha’s lodger, who is – no, not Lester. The Lesters are the spiders which proliferate in elderly Martha’s rather untidy home. Our narrator Roland, for that’s his name, describes the Lesters going about the business of life – reproducing, eating, sometimes other insects, sometimes each other. They play a complex role in the story. Martha feels blessed by their presence, and yet, as we see, their lives represent “gluttony and violence writ small”. Perhaps that’s the point. Unlike Martha’s children, they accept her, don’t judge her, and don’t pretend to be other than they are!

Continuing in the vein of positive stories is Kate Rotterham’s “Potholes” about a rather curmudgeonly, recently retired husband and father, Les, “who was surprisingly confident in diagnosing a range of mental disorders” in those around him, but who, delightfully, does a complete about-face at the end.

There are, though, some devastating stories such as Bindy Pritchard’s second-prize winner “Dying” about a rural mother with terminal cancer, and Leslie Thiele’s portrait of a man with dementia in “Catching trains to Frankston”. The challenge of ageing, in fact, appears several times in the collection. I enjoyed Kathy George’s story, “Walking the dog”, about a lonely old widower who, like Martha in Hunting’s story, is confronting the limits of his independence.

Not surprisingly, the collection encompasses many concerns currently facing Australians, with issues like ageing, cancer and fire appearing in several stories. Indigenous issues and our multicultural make-up also appear, albeit way less frequently, reflecting I’m guessing the backgrounds of the writers. It would be good to see more diversity here – but that is another discussion methinks.

And now for the apology. I would love to comment on every story in this collection, not only because each has something to offer but because I know writers (like all of us) love feedback. I can imagine, if I were a writer, coming to a review like this wondering whether my story would be featured. All I can say is that many of the stories, besides those I’ve chosen to write about here, touched me. I’m sorry I couldn’t mention them all.

“Practise senseless acts of beauty” is one of the instructions Harry (“Potholes”) reads in Ten Ways to a Happier Life. I’m so glad the writers in this volume had a go at their own “acts of beauty”. They’ve given me much to ponder.

Richard Rossiter, with Susan Midalia (Eds)
The trouble with flying and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2014
348pp.
ISBN: 9780987561527

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Richard Rossiter (ed), Knitting and other stories (Review)

Richard Rossiter, Knitting

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

Short stories, I’ve decided, are the ideal reading matter for breakfast, so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in Knitting and other stories, which contains a selection of stories from this year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition. The competition is new, having been offered for the first time last year. According to the Margaret River Press’s website, there were 260 entries. This book contains 24 of them, including of course the winner and runner-up, and four highly commendeds.

The collection takes its title from the winning story, Knitting, by Barry Divola. Divola is one of the only two names I recognise in the book, the other being Jacqueline Wright whose first novel, Red dirt talking, was published last year. Knitting is a rather apposite title because most of the stories are about characters whose lives are unravelling – or have unravelled – in some way. And not all manage, by the end of their stories, to knit themselves together again, which is realistic even if it makes us readers feel a little unravelled ourselves!

As I was reading the stories a few things became apparent. Most of them are by women (20 of the 24 in fact). Does this represent the gender ratio of stories entered? Not that it matters, but it’s interesting, partly because it also means that, with a few gender-crossing exceptions, most of the stories focus on women. I noticed some recurring themes, about which I’ll write more below. And, I became aware, through connections between theme, character and/or setting, that the order of the stories had been crafted. Rossiter’s introduction, which I read after finishing the book, clarified that he had indeed grouped stories together. I think it enhanced the reading. There is always a jolt when you move from story to story, particularly if you read them without a break. Grouping them not only lessens the jolt but somehow encourages the brain to think beyond the immediate story. Karen Lee Thompson who has also reviewed this book feels quite differently about “contrived” ordering.

Another thing I noticed was that the majority of the stories seemed to be told in first person. Fifteen of them in fact. One is told in second person, making eight in third person. Does this matter? Probably not. First person can provide a level of intimacy that you don’t quite get with the other voices and I enjoy that. But, when you read one after another, no matter how well written they are, all the I, I, I can feel a bit tedious, a bit self-involved. This is not a comment on the individual stories so much as on the impact of the whole. Fortunately there are some lovely third person stories in this collection to break up the I-ness! And Amanda Clarke, in “The girl on the train”, uses the second person effectively to convey the dissociation experienced by a woman grieving over her daughter’s death. Describing her grief as “a vicious sort of cling wrap”, she is both trapped in and standing apart from herself. The “you” voice captures this beautifully.

Now to that old problem of how best to review a collection. For this one, I think the best approach is through its themes, and I’ll start with the one that stood out for me – grief, grief for people who have died, or for broken relationships or lost opportunities. Kristen Levitzke’s “Solomon’s Baby” about a baby’s death is particularly wrenching, but there are stories about grandchildren and grandparents (Vahri’s “I shine, not burn” and Louise D’Arcy’s “Down on the farm”) and people grieving for lost time and opportunities (Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end”), to name just a few.  Other recurring themes are memory, growing up, ageing and, either explicitly or implicitly, time. Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end” starts:

Let’s not fool ourselves, time is not something to be negotiated. Time passes through us or we pass through time. No second thoughts, no second chances.

Family and family relationships are common subjects. In many stories, a parent is missing – either through death, or separation – creating a gap that can have lasting ramifications. One of my favourite stories in the collection is JS Scholz’s “Focus” about a young boy who’s on the run with his mother from his abusive father. Seen as a “hopeless” student who can’t “focus”, he uses his initiative to carry out a subversive action which shows his true character. In another favourite story, Kathy’s George’s cleverly named “A bend in the road”, the temporary absence of the father creates a tension between a mother and son. The daughter, though, sees the real issue:

“The family is a board game, a game with a missing piece … and nobody can play the game without the missing piece. Not properly anyhow.”

In some stories, it’s the chance meeting of strangers which throws light on the protagonists’ situations. Amanda Clarke’s second-person-story is one of these. In Kerry Lown Whalen’s “Notes in a scale” and Bindy Pritchard’s “The bees of Paris” the strangers are also neighbours.

While most stories are about character and family relationships, not all are. One such is John Dale’s “Expressway” which satirises the need to believe. It’s the story of a smudge on the wall of the Cahill Expressway which Francesca Lombardo believes is an image of the Virgin Mary. This sets in train a series of events including the removal of the section of the wall to Darling Harbour “which had better facilities and all day parking”. The government, talk shows, scientists, and social media are all targeted in this fun but pointed story about, at best, our desire for miracles and, at worst, our gullibility.

There is some lovely writing here, but I’ll just share two short examples. Dorothy Simmons describes the bush in her story, “Off the map”, about a young girl who is an orienteering champion:

All the little movements: lizard flicker, goanna slither, leaf rustle, sleek silvery trees posing beside slouching shaggy grey ones; cicada hum, magpie trill, whip bird …

The other is Paulette Gittins’ description in “Playing with Ramirez” of a gang of children coming down a Melbourne suburban street:

Down the street towards me a vaulting, whooping gang in stripes, red and black, blue and white, shrilling, colliding, hilarious; black-haired, scrawny, curly and nimble, they poured past.

As with any collection, some stories touched me more than others, but all have something to offer, something to say, about living and surviving in a world that for many, as Divola writes in the title story, “is too sharp [with] edges everywhere”. A most enjoyable read.

For other reviews of this collection which highlight some different stories, check out Karen Lee Thompson (in her review mentioned above) and Anne Skivington.

Richard Rossiter (Ed)
Knitting and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2013
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2013
319pp.
ISBN: 9780987218087

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Irma Gold (ed), The invisible thread (Review)

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

I even get nervous when I open a book, you know, for the first time. It’s the same thing, isn’t it. You never know what you’ll find, do you? Each person, each book, is like a new world … (from Mark Henshaw’s Out of the line of fire, in The invisible thread)

At last, you may be thinking, she’s going to review the whole book. At least, I hope that’s what you’re thinking, because this book deserves a dedicated review rather than the scattered posts I’ve done to date. The book I’m talking about is, of course, Canberra’s centenary anthology The invisible thread.

The aim of the anthology is a little different to that of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue, which I recently reviewed. While its editor, Sanders, wanted to offer “a taste of Canberra”, Gold’s aim was to present “literature of excellence” from writers, past and present, who have had a significant relationship with Canberra. For her, Canberra is “not the headline act” but provides “the invisible thread” linking the writers to each other and to the rest of Australia. In her foreword, Robyn Archer, the centenary’s Creative Director, puts it this way:

Many of the pieces are not about Canberra, but they reveal a diversity of interest and style among writers in this region, and thus reflect the unique nature of a city which is located rurally, but positioned nationally.

In other words, The invisible thread is not a parochial apologia for Canberra but an intelligent presentation of the city’s and thence the nation’s cultural, political, social and interpersonal life. The nation’s concerns are Canberra’s concerns – at both the macro (war, indigenous-non indigenous relationships, the environment, and so on) and the micro (birth, marriage, death, and everything in between) levels. You would be hard-pressed as an Australian, or even as an international citizen, not to find something in this book to interest and move you.

Reviewing an anthology is tricky though, and this is particularly so with The invisible thread because it comprises highly diverse pieces – poems, short stories, essays, and excerpts of novels and non-fiction works.  The pieces are not grouped by form, like the Meanjin issue, but in a more organic way intended to take us on a journey in which, editor Irma Gold writes in her Preface, “each work is allowed to converse with those beside it”. And so, in preparation for my reading group’s discussion, I went back to the start and read the book in the order presented. What a pleasure that turned out to be because I did indeed discover added meanings that weren’t necessarily apparent from the dipping-in-and-out approach I had been using.

Let me give an example. The anthology opens with an excerpt from war historian CEW Bean’s Anzac to Amiens, itself a condensation of his Official history of the first world war. I knew of Bean but had not read his history. I was surprised by his use of imagery, such as this:

And out on every beautiful fresh morning of spring come the butterflies of modern warfare – two or three of our own planes, low down …

After another war-related non-fiction piece, the anthology segues to a short story (“The Good Shoppers”) by Lesley Lebkowicz, which is about her refugee parents, now old and shopping in the supermarket but still affected by the Holocaust, and then to two poems about age (Judith Wright‘s “Counting in sevens” and AD Hope‘s “Meditation on a Bone”). The “conversation” encouraged by this sequence is complex and, I expect, different for each reader. For me, the juxtaposition suggests an irony: “war” steals “age” from many of the youths sent to it. This is just one small example of the sorts of “conversations” Gold has set up in the anthology. Considering them as I read the book added another layer to an enjoyable reading experience. I like reading that challenges my brain on multiple levels.

Compiling an anthology involves, obviously, selecting what to include. It must be hard enough to choose poems, short stories and essays, but what about writers who are best (or only) known for novels or non-fiction books? They can only be represented through excerpts, but there is the risk that these cut-down pieces will be less satisfying to read. Alternatively, of course, they might encourage us to locate the full work and read it. The Bean example above is an excerpt. There are many others, including those from Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill, Jack Heath‘s Third transmission, and Roger McDonald‘s When colts ran. I have noted many to follow-up, which tells you how I found the excerpts overall!

A trickier challenge, probably, is that of representing diversity – not just regarding chronology, subject-matter, tone, and form or genre, but in terms of the writers themselves, such as their gender, or whether they are of indigenous, migrant or other minority background. What emphasis should be given to these in the selection process? And, anyhow, should the writer’s background be highlighted? I’m not sure what Gold and her committee decided about this but the anthology, while primarily representative of the majority culture, is not exclusively so and probably reflects the writing community it drew from.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me on the anthology. It is much too delicious, much too rich, much too full of “luminous moments”* for me not to continue to draw from it. I’m possibly – probably? – biased, but I believe this book should be on every Australian bookshelf and, without disrespecting Irma Gold’s hard work, I’d say it doesn’t really matter whether you read it in its original order or just dip into it as the spirit moves you. What would matter would be to not read any of  it at all.

Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread: One hundred years of words
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
256pp.
ISBN: 9781920831967

* from Marion Halligan’s essay “Luminous moments” which concludes the book.

Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue (Review)

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

Zora Sanders writes in her Editorial for Meanjin‘s Canberra Issue that Canberra has (or, is it had) a reputation for being The National Capital of Boredom. This is just one of the many less-than-flattering epithets regularly applied to Canberra: A Cemetery with Lights, Fat Cat City, and the pervasive, A City without a Soul. For me though it’s simply Home … a home I chose back in the mid-70s when I applied for my first professional job at the National Library of Australia. I was consequently pleased when Meanjin offered me their special Canberra edition to review.

Sanders describes the issue as being “full of the usual eclectic mix of fact, fiction and poetry” and says it aims to “offer a taste of Canberra as it is now, 100 years after its founding, as viewed by the people who live there, who’ve left there and who never meant to find themselves there in the first place”. The result is something that’s not a hagiography, if you can apply such a word to a city, but that offers a thoughtful look at Canberra from diverse angles – political, historical, social, personal.

With the exception of poetry which is interspersed throughout, the issue is organised straightforwardly by form, rather than by theme or chronology. This is not to say, however, that there is no sense of an ordering hand. The first essay, for example, is, appropriately, Paul Daley’s “Territorial disputes” which explores Canberra’s complex and sometimes controversial indigenous heritage, including the thorny question concerning Canberra’s name. Is it derived from “Ngambri”, which means the “cleavage between the breasts of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie“?

The issue includes a Meanjin Papers insert comprising an essay by ACT historian David Headon titled “The genius and gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India”. So much has been written about the Griffins over the decades, and particularly this year, that it’s a challenge to present them in a handful of pages. Headon’s approach is to focus on the Griffins’ idealism, on what drove them to do what they did, and bypass the complex story of what happened to the plan. That story is explored a little later by Chris Hammer in his essay “A secret map of Canberra”. Griffin, like the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, was, Headon writes, inspired by the prospect of “a prosperous egalitarian future for the new democracy in the south”. He planned his “ideal city” to serve such a nation. It didn’t, as we know, quite turn out that way, but I love that our city has such passion in its genes.

Anthologies are tricky to write about, particularly one as varied as this (despite its seemingly singular subject). The main sections are Essays, Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. There’s also a Conversation and a Gallery – and an opening section titled Perspectives. These pieces provide a fittingly idiosyncratic introduction to the volume. First is novelist Andrew Croome (whose Document Z I reviewed a couple of years ago). He writes of the 2003 fire – Canberra’s worst disaster – and its impact on the observatory at Mt Stromlo. There was a terrible human cost to this disaster but, without denying that, Croome takes a more cosmic view, and turns our eyes to the future. It’s nicely done. Writer Lorin Clarke follows Croome with her cheekily titled perspective “The love that dare not speak its name”. She ferrets out, without actually using the word, some of Canberra’s soul, seeing it in small spaces rather than showy institutions and in, if I read her correctly, the gaps that appear between carefully planned intentions and reality. The third perspective comes from a previous Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, who, like Clarke and other writers in the issue, starts with the negatives –  “a public service town” etc etc – but suggests that “the city is beginning to acquire a patina”. He argues, rather logically really, that Canberra is still young. Other planned cities, like Washington DC and Istanbul, have got “into their stride” and Canberra probably will too.

These perspectives – and the way they test Canberra’s image against reality – set the tone for the rest of the issue. I’m not going bore you – though the contributions themselves are far from boring – by summarising every piece. There is something here for everyone – and they show that the real Canberra is more than roundabouts and public servants. Dorothy Johnston‘s short story “Mrs B”, though set in Melbourne, reminds us of the hidden world of “massage parlours” and migrant workers, while Geoff Page‘s poem, “The ward is new”, addresses mental illness. Michael Thorley’s poem “Bronzed Aussies” reveres some of Canberra’s (and Australia’s) top poets, AD Hope, David Campbell and Judith Wright, while award-winning novelist Marian Halligan‘s memoir “Constructing a city, Constructing a life” recounts how a move to Canberra for a year or so turned into half a century and still counting. Several pieces describe Canberra’s natural beauty, including Melanie Joosten’s bittersweet short story, “The sky was herding disappointments”. And Alan Gould’s poem “The blether”, pointedly but wittily the last piece in the volume, suggests we could do with less aimless chatter and more of the “sweet unsaid”.

Of course, as this is Canberra, there has to be some politics. I particularly enjoyed Gideon Haigh’s essay, “The Rise and Rise of the Prime Minister”. Looking at the recent development of prime ministerial libraries à la America’s tradition of presidential libraries, he argues that the political landscape is being personalised, resulting in a shift in focus from ideology to leaders and their personalities.

Many of the pieces interested me, and I plan to write separately about one or two of them in future posts, so I’ll end here with architects Gerard O’Connell and Nugroho Utomo. In their essay “Canberra LAB – a mythical biography; or the art of showing up”, they say:

One has to understand that Canberra is a dream. It doesn’t exist. It is an ideal unrealised. A half-finished work on the way to becoming a masterpiece.

I like that. Meanjin has compiled an anthology that shows, as contributor Yolande Norris puts it, how “rich and strange” Canberra’s history is. It’s hard for me to be objective, but I’d say this volume has enough variety and good writing to appeal to a wide range of readers – whether or not they know or care about Canberra.

Meanjin, Vol 72 No.1 (Autumn 2013); or,
Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
191pp.
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)