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

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 of mine 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 won’t give you that. 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
ISBN (e-version): 9781925052343

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

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see (Review)

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeJust when you thought that there couldn’t possibly be another angle to writing about World War 2, up comes another book that does just that, like, for example, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see. I had, of course, heard of it, but it wasn’t high on my reading agenda until it was chosen as my reading group’s September book. I wasn’t sorry we chose it, because I do, in fact, like World War 2 stories, and Doerr’s turned out to be an engaging one – warm, generous but not sentimental, and highly readable despite its alternating time-frames, locations and characters.

I’ve read several and reviewed some World War 2 novels and memoirs. Many have been about Jews and the Holocaust, such as Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Hans Bergner’s Between sea and sky, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and two memoirs, Halina Rubin’s  Journeys with my mother and Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. A couple have been about the fighters, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. Some have drawn on the perspectives of children and young people – Zusak’s The book thief, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river and, of course, Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl. Doerr’s book fits into this last group, but is different again. Zusak’s and Hegi’s girls are non-Jewish Germans, and Anne Frank is of course a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. These books focus on the Holocaust. Doerr’s does not. His interest is the personal experience of his young people – a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, born around 1928, and an orphan German boy, Werner, born around 1927. Their stories – Marie-Laure’s birth in Paris and flight with her father to Saint-Malo after Paris is occupied, and Werner’s childhood and youth in Germany followed by his war experience in Russia, Central Europe and France – are told in parallel until they inevitably meet.

Marie-Laure and Werner are nicely realised characters. They are ordinary young people trying to make a life for themselves in terrible times, but are extraordinary too. Marie-Laure’s childhood-onset blindness makes her initially helpless but she becomes a resourceful and imaginative young girl. Werner, the orphan, is a clever boy who develops a fascination with radios and things electrical. This leads him to a particular role in the war – tracking down partisan-resistance transmitters – that is different from most “soldier” stories.

All the light we cannot see is a big book. It has a wide, but not unwieldy, cast of characters, and a complex structure comprising two chronological sequences, within each of which the stories of our two young people alternate. This might sound difficult or confusing to read, but Doerr handles it well.

I’m not going to write a thorough review of this. Being a top-selling prize-winner, it has been reviewed widely. Instead, I’d like to share some of its themes, or ideas, because these are what interests me most. Before that though, I want to raise one issue. One review I read and some in my reading group expressed irritation at Doerr’s use of American idiom (such as people going “to the bathroom in their pants”). For some reason this sort of issue rarely worries me. Does that make me a bad reader? Perhaps. But it’s difficult, I think, to write in the language of another place and time, and when writers try to do it, it can feel forced. Some manage it (like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang) and some compromise by relying on some well-placed words from an era. Generally, I’m happy for the author to use contemporary-to-them expression.

What you could be (Volkheimer to Werner)

What interests me most as a reader is not whether authors get these sorts of details right but questions like why is the author writing this, why has the author structured the story this way, what does the imagery mean, and so on. It is to the first of these that I’ll turn now. The novel’s overall subject matter is the obvious one – the tragedy of war, the way war destroys people’s lives – but within this are some interesting ideas.

One relates to logic and reason. Early in the novel, Marie-Laure’s locksmith father believes (or, perhaps, wants to believe) in logic:

Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key.

This idea is reiterated in the book Marie-Laure is given by her father, Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea:

Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.

The opposing view, however, is put by Werner late in the war when he is tracking resistance transmitters:

Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.

Logic and reason may work well enough in “normal” life, but during war they can stand for very little.

Somewhat related to this are the discussions about curses and luck. A major plot line concerns an ancient gem, the Sea of Flames diamond, which is said to carry a curse. It’s surely not by chance (ha-ha) that Doerr hides this stone behind the 13th door in the museum, and that his novel has 13 sections! Anyhow, here is Marie-Laure’s father on curses and luck. There are, he says:

no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.


Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

Later though, when her father has been arrested and Marie-Laure is scared and alone, she conducts an imaginary conversation with him:

You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.

In almost every story I’ve read about war – fiction and non-fiction – luck has played a significant role. It’s one of the things that makes war so scary. You cannot expect reason to prevail.

Finally, related to these two ideas is that of choice:

Frederick [Werner’s friend at Schulpforta, the Nazi training school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices …

Frederick, in fact, chose to exercise his choice by refusing to follow orders and he suffered the consequences, while Werner did as he was told – at school and later in the field (“they do as they’re told”) and suffered the consequences in a different way. Late in the novel, Werner meets Marie-Laure:

He says, “You are very brave.”
She lowers the bucket. “What is your name?”
He tells her. She says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” 

These and similar discussions thread through the book. They remind us that in war survival is largely a matter of “luck”, that reason and logic will only get you so far when you confront the chaos of war, and that, perhaps paradoxically, you do have choices even if they are between two unappealing alternatives. The ultimate tragedy is that war destroys “what you could be” – all those talents, all those dreams, are subsumed into the business of survival.

This is not a perfect book. It’s a bit sprawling, trying to do a lot with imagery that I haven’t been able to completely untangle. And I wonder about the necessity of the final decades-later chapters. However, it is a page-turning read and produced a lively discussion in my bookgroup. I’m glad I read it.

Anthony Doerr
All the light we cannot see
London: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007548682 (eBook)

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (Review)

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

At last I’ve read that classic of African literature, China Achebe’s Things fall apart. It all came about because this year ABC RN’s classics book club is doing Africa. As I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and as my reading group has been making a practice of choosing one ABC RN bookclub book a year, I recommended Things fall apart and – woohoo – they agreed. I am so happy! OK, so I’m easily pleased, but …

The funny thing is that as I started it, I did wonder what all the acclaim was about. Yes, I was finding the writing gorgeous, and yes, I found all the detail about life in the little Igbo village of Umuofia fascinating, but were these enough for its huge reputation? Then, I got to Part 2 – this is a classic three-part book – and the arrival of white man and the missionaries in southeastern Nigeria. The plot started to thicken – but, not just the plot. The whole gorgeous structure of the novel, its complexity and its sophisticated analysis of human society and the colonial imperative started to become clear.

Here, though, is my challenge – a challenge faced by all bloggers writing about much-analysed classics – what can I add? I haven’t actually read any of the analysis, except for my edition’s introduction, so I risk either going over the same old ground, or heading off on a completely irrelevant tangent, but I’m going to try. And how I’m going to try is to talk about a few of the aspects of the book that stood out to me, which, as is my wont, will focus more on how it is written than with the story itself.

However, I will start with a brief synopsis of the story, just in case there are others out there who haven’t read it. The plot is fairly simple: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an “ill-fated”, “lazy and improvident” man, he decided early in life that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected “warrior” in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a “man”, to never show a “female” side. Male-female dichotomies are, in fact, an underlying thread in the novel. Whenever things go wrong for him, his response is always aggressive: if you aren’t confronting a situation head on, you are a “woman”. This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen I think as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw, an inability to be flexible, an unwillingness to marry his two sides.

This idea of two parts is fundamental to how the novel is structured and how the themes are developed – and Achebe conveys it through dichotomies and parallels. There’s the male-female one, which Okonkwo battles within himself. “When did you become a shivering old woman” he asks himself regarding the distress he feels after engaging in a violent act. Later, he is surprised to hear of a husband who consulted his wife before doing anything:

 ‘I thought he was a strong man in his youth.’ ‘He was indeed,’ said Ofoedu. Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully.

But there are other dichotomies, and two, in particular, that I found interesting. One is between  Okonkwo and his friend Obierika. Both are respected men in the village, and both adhere to their traditions and conventions, but Okonkwo, who is “not a man of thought but of action” is so fearful of appearing weak he follows the “laws” rigidly. Obierika on the other hand is more thoughtful:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?

A similar dichotomy is set up between two missionaries:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

So, we have dichotomies established within the two cultures he’s describing – the African and colonial/missionary – but these two sets of dichotomies also work as parallels for each other, reflecting the differences, the conflicts in fact, that can occur within both (all) cultures.

Now I get to more uncomfortable ideas. Okonkwo’s tragedy could be seen to mirror Africa’s, but this is a tricky thing to consider. Okonkwo’s flaw we know. Did Africa, likewise, have a flaw or weakness? We criticise colonialism – and surely it is a bad thing, the subjugation of one people by another, the taking of one people’s land by another – and yet … Achebe himself benefited from the education brought by the missionaries, and in Things fall apart he tells us that some Igbo villagers saw positives:

The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

Some even saw positives in the religion.

So, Achebe is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation – the colonisers and the colonised – but his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial project. In the last paragraph we learn that District Commissioner plans to write a book. Its title, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, euphemistically describes the colonisers’ mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as “pacification” and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is “primitive”. For Achebe, then, the overriding point of Things fall apart is not so much to present the positives and negatives within the two opposing cultures, but to expose the disdain with which the colonisers treated African people, and the way they denigrated African culture.

This is such an honest and provocative book, one that would bear multiple re-readings – like all good classics. Have you read it?

Chinua Achebe
Things fall apart
London: Penguin Classics, 2001 (orig. pub. 1958)
ISBN (e-book): 9780141393964

Anna Funder, Everything precious (Review)

Anna Funder, Everything preciousI must thank John aka Musings of a Literary Dilettante for introducing me to this intriguing little e-work by Miles Franklin award-winner, Anna Funder. When John read it, back in October, it was in daily instalments, but when I clicked the link in his post I was offered several e-book versions, including for the Kindle and iPad, or for an audiobook which I believe is read by Funder. It’s free.

So, what is it? Here’s the description at the start of the story:

This story is a unique collaboration between Paspaley, acclaimed author Anna Funder, photographer Derek Henderson and award-winning actress Teresa Palmer. It’s an original story of love, self and all things precious, featuring the most beautiful pearls in the world.

Paspaley, for those who don’t know, is an Australian-based company founded in the pearling industry of northwestern Australia. Although it has now diversified into other businesses, it is probably still best known for its pearling arm. As you might assume from the title of Funder’s story, “Everything precious”, it is the pearling arm that sponsored Funder. John wrote his post before he finished reading the story, and said he feared finding some product placement at the end. However, in a postscript added later, he advised there was no such thing. He’s right – in a sense – as there’s no reference to pearls or Paspaley in the text. But, in my e-book version, between chapters 4 and 5, there is a series of five photographs taken presumably by Derek Henderson and featuring, again presumably, actor Teresa Palmer. They are tasteful in that high-class-magazine way … no text, just beautiful images of a lovely woman wearing gorgeous pearls.

I researched a little more, and discovered that the story is part of a “multi-channel campaign” to launch Paspaley’s new Touchstone collection. The “campaign uses storytelling to engage a new, younger, more fashion conscious audience and make pearls relevant and appealing to them”. Intriguing eh! I wonder how successful it’s been?

What, besides presumably money, did it all mean for Anna Funder? Here’s what she says:

Working with Paspaley has been one of the most exciting writing experiences I’ve had. To have total creative freedom, a time limit and an audience turn out to be the perfect conditions for writing a short story. And the idea that a company, which makes things of great beauty and value from nature, values literature, which (on a good day) is also something of beauty and value that reflects the world around us, was inspiring. Writing this story has been a joy and a privilege, and was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

Now, let’s talk about the story, which the promoter’s website I’ve linked to above describes as “a short story of desire, need, love and all that is precious”. The plot is pretty simple. It’s about Tess, who works in online legal publishing, and would be in her mid thirties. She has a husband, Dan, head of epidemiology in the State Health Department and a lovely SNAG if ever there was one, and three children, Charlotte who is 13, and the twins, Tom and Lorna, who are 6. She also has a father, Howard, a retired judge who is in Assisted Living because he has dementia. This is, then, an upper middle class, professional family. Tess and Dan have been together for 17 years and she’s feeling a little trapped and restless. A bit of a midlife crisis, in other words, or, as Funder writes in the story, Tess is:

at a hinge moment: between youth and age, between the life you thought you wanted and the one you feel might, now, suit you better.

So, Tess decides to consider that other life she might have had, but … well, I won’t give the ending away because it’s easy for you to access at Paspaley.

It’s interesting to look at this story in terms of the campaign because I’m presuming that although Funder had “total creative freedom” there must have been a brief – one that at the very least identified a target market, oops audience, for the story. This audience would, I’m sure, identify pretty easily with the character and set up, with the restlessness attended by guilt that she should be so restless. The brief must surely have identified a tone too. You wouldn’t sell pearls with a grim story – or did they assume Funder would have the nous to make the story appropriately positive? Regardless, the story would clearly suit what I assume was Paspaley’s target market – upwardly mobile or already there professional thirty-to-forty-something women who have the disposable income but who may see pearls as the province of their Baby Boomer mothers.

This all sounds pretty cynical, and to some degree it surely must be. I would describe the story as “chicklit” for the well-to-do married woman. It’s not challenging reading. The resolution is easy to comprehend and reassuring. However, it is written by Funder. This means that the writing is good, there’s intelligence at play (including an allusion to Chekhov!), and the insights into the pressures of early 21st century professional family life are authentic even if not explored in any depth.

awwchallenge2015Overall, then, it’s an enjoyable read and an interesting concept to ponder. I certainly wouldn’t criticise Funder for taking up the opportunity offered to her. Writers, like all of us, have to live – and if a company like Paspaley is prepared to pay, and offer “complete freedom”, why would you say no?

Anna Funder
Everything precious
Sydney: Paspaley, 2014
Smashwords Edition
Available: Gratis at Paspaley

Annabel Smith, The Ark (Review)

SmithArkSelfPubI must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.

The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.

Roscoe's Blog

Roscoe’s Blog

Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.

But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:

Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.

There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.

Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.

This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.

As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.

Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.

awwchallenge2014Annabel Smith
The Ark
Self-published, 2014
ISBN: 9780646923109

* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.

Neomad: A Yijala Yala Project

First up, I have to admit that I’m rather challenged when it comes to e-book apps. I did love The Wasteland app which I reviewed a couple of years ago, but it was clearly designed for a, let us say, more staid demographic. Neomad, “a futuristic fantasy” in three episodes, is another matter. Consequently, my aim here is less to review it as a work and more to talk about what seems to be an exciting collaborative project involving 30 young people from Roebourne in the Pilbara, comic artist Sutu and filmmaker Benjamin Dukroz.

We hear so much negativity about indigenous communities in outback Australia that it’s easy to feel the situation is hopeless. However, while we should not forget for a minute that the situation for many indigenous Australians is still dire, things are happening. Not enough, but nonetheless something, and these things can surely be seen as models for further action.

Pilbara landscape, Newman, WA

Pilbara landscape, Newman, WA

So, back to Neomad. Produced as part of the Yijala Yala Project, it’s currently available free from iTunes (or the Apple App store), so I decided to have a look. It’s colourful and infectious. The Facebook site calls it “an interactive digital comic”. Late last year it won Best Game – Multimedia Production in the 2013 ATOM (Association of Teachers of Media) Awards. So what is it? A game? A book? What’s in a name did I hear you say? Fair enough. Let’s not get bogged down in categorisation right now, except to say that it’s an example of what is apparently being described as “interactive fiction”.

Ignoring the categorisation issue, though, the ATOM site is useful for the neat little summary it provides of the story:

Set over three episodes, NEOMAD follows the story of the Love Punks and Satellite Sisters, techno savvy young heroes from a futuristic Roebourne in the Pilbara region of WA, who speed through the desert full of spy bots, magic crystals and fallen rocket boosters branded with a mysterious petroglyph.

The app itself says it is “based on real characters, places and stories that connect people to their country”. This becomes evident when you click “Play” on the Home page, as it starts with a lovely live-action sequence set somewhere in the Pilbara, involving a group of indigenous boys. They are the Love Punks and they feature in Episode 1. They tell us “When you see a star fall at night be sure to welcome it to the land for the star brings new life”. The story is set in 2076 and sees the Love Punks chasing a space robot (oops, space bot) across the sky, only to find, when it crashes to earth, that it bears the image of an ancient petroglyph. What does this mean? Episode 2 begins with quite a different live-action sequence involving indigenous girls, The Satellite Sisters, learning about the importance of their ancestors. Like Episode 1, this sequence progresses into an animated comic, which you can read as text or click on the speech bubbles to hear the characters speak the words.

As an interactive-game-challenged person I wasn’t always sure how much was on each “page”. For example, on some pages extra “things” pop up when you tap to “turn” the page. I presume that you can’t miss anything important, that no matter where or how often you tap or swipe, the app won’t take you to the next “page” until you’ve seen everything on the current page. However, I did find it disconcerting, as pages vary in layout so you never know what might be there behind the clicks! I expect this is not a problem for the people to whom the app is targeted though!

There’s an Extras section, comprising short live-action movies providing background to the project. We hear the kids talk about the meaning – one Satellite Sister tell us “that film is about the Satellite Sisters looking after the country” – and the process, such as how they learnt to use PhotoShop to colour the animation. There is also a “junk percussion” music video in which the Love Punks perform music using found objects such as corrugated iron, old drums and metal bars. I love it!

What is exciting about this project is that, amongst all the glitz and colour, it reaffirms the importance of country. As the name – Neo (new) Mad (nomad) – suggests, it marries respect for tradition with acceptance of change, looking for the points where they coincide:

“You boys need to respect these men and their robots. They’re all part of our community and they’re all looking after our ngurr, our country.”

“Sorry Nanna Tootie.”

This is kids telling a story in their language for other kids – and it is good fun. If you have young children around – and even if you don’t – do check it out. Meanwhile, thanks to E. Teacherlord, as our daughter calls her brother, for introducing me to the Love Punks and Satellite Sisters.

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution book cover

Lifted, with approval I hope, from Johnston’s website

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.

The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).

The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?

Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:

She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Johnston’s characters are often wistful or even a little sad, but they are never pathetic. They are intelligent, and Johnston respects not judges them. They are not powerless, either, though sometimes the power they have is limited to their domain and can be tenuous. They can be a little lost, or perhaps just at a cross-roads in their lives. Maria in ‘The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry’ is uncertain about the world and her place in it. She thinks, when she moves and loses a client:
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
Sandy in ‘Names’ admires university student Gail’s strength and resilience:

She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.

There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.

The pieces are set in places known to Johnston – Canberra and Melbourne. We get a clear sense of those cities, but even more we are let into the rooms the prostitutes inhabit – the ones they work in, the ones they relax in between clients. We learn about the things that are part of their daily routine. Sophie, for example, in ‘Commuting’, finds that when she steps outside work
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
The final piece is the novella ‘Where the Ladders Start’. The title comes from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”.  The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?

As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.

Johnston’s language is a delight to read. She’s precise but expressive, using imagery with a light touch:

The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.

She can be quietly ironic:

Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.

Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.

In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.

Dorothy Johnston
Eight pieces on prostitution
Australian Society of Authors, 2013
Availability: Online download for $9.95 from the ASA site

Weekends with TS Eliot


Reading TS Eliot's Selected poems (Image: Courtesy RubyGoes via Flickr, using CC-BY 2.0)

Breakfast in bed is my weekend treat. It’s when I kick back with a book and simply relax – except this weekend and last I kicked back instead with my iPad and app for TS Eliot‘s The waste land. What fun I am having and intend to have over a few more weekends.

So, what have I been doing?

Fiona Shaw’s performance

Well, last weekend I pottered around the app checking out what’s there and how to navigate it, trying a couple of the readings (but not listening to the whole), and so on. And then I listened to/watched Fiona Shaw‘s performance of the poem. This is a performance rather than a reading. She uses gesture and limited movement (around the upper storey room in a house in Dublin somewhere) to convey the drama, humour and mystery of this rather tricky poem. If you hold the iPad in landscape orientation, Fiona Shaw’s performance fills the screen. However, if you rotate it to portrait orientation, the poem appears below the image with the text synchronised to the performance. This is what I did and, being a textual person, I preferred it this way. I loved seeing the words played out on the screen – and she was almost word-perfect.  I didn’t time it properly but it took, I’d say, 15-20 mins. I’d recommend this as a good way to start re-acquainting yourself with the poem if, like me, it’s been an embarrassing number of decades since you last read it.

Perspectives, from Seamus Heaney, Paul Keegan, Jim McCue and Craig Raine

I said above that I am a textual person and that’s true but, paradoxically I suppose, the thing that most grabs when I’m reading is rhythm and sound (something I’m loving in my current read, Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance, but that’s for later). And so, I have always loved TS Eliot:

In the room women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
(from ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots.
(from “Preludes”)

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
This is the dead land
This is the cactus land
(from, of course, “The hollow men”)

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
(from “W. What the thunder said” in The waste land)

…  and so on. Staccato or sing-song, repetition or not, rhyming or not. It gets into your bones.

This weekend I decided to explore the Perspectives section of the app which is where various luminaries talk about aspects of Eliot and the poem. I listened to/watched Irish poet Seamus Heaney, poetry editor from Faber and Faber Paul Keegan, Eliot expert Jim McCue, and English poet and academic Craig Raine …. and I gained some new perspectives! I’m not going to comment on all they say since you really should explore this app yourself (if, that is, you have access to an iPad). I’ll just focus on an aspect that most comment on, one way or another – Eliot and sound.

Heaney comments on the “musicality” of the poem. Paul Keegan goes a little further. He suggests that
“acoustic things, tonalities” are what attracts people more, today, to the poem than the “monolithic meanings”. These “acoustic things” though do convey meaning, don’t they, particularly when the allusions elude us. I do not, I admit, “get” all the allusions, but I love the sound of the poem and can sense his concerns even if I may not be able to articulate them in an analytical way.

Somewhat related to this, Keegan argues that Eliot showed it was possible for a poet to write without knowing exactly what larger meanings he was conveying. He suggests that Eliot didn’t necessarily know what he was getting off his chest and that he was more interested in “what poems do than in what they say”. This rather ties back to sound doesn’t it? Or, it does for me. What his poems “do” to me is complex – they move me emotionally but can often mystify me intellectually. They can sound at times like nonsense and yet you “feel” or “hear” something profound. How does he do that? Anyhow, Keegan expands his point, suggesting that Eliot’s poetry encouraged a new fearlessness about poetry “having to make sense, forensic sense”. It freed up, he says, some of those questions*.

Jim McCue’s contribution is a short but interesting one on the history of the poem’s publication. And then, Craig Raine takes up the sound issue again, but from a slightly different perspective. He describes Eliot, the American born English poet, as, really, a world citizen. The waste land is full of “voices” – something conveyed well by Shaw in her performance – from around the world including, most obviously, Germany, France and India. It’s like, Raine says, changing the radio dial (which was still a fairly new technology then.) He also describes the poem as “a fantastic operatic selection”, a not surprising description, I suppose, for a poem which Eliot considered titling “He do the police in different voices”!**

A technical (sort of) note

The app doesn’t always behave exactly as I would expect or like. Changing the orientation will sometimes bring a surprising result and take you away from where you were. It’s not hard to get back as there’s always the Home icon available at the bottom, but it can be disconcerting.

* I will though come back to meaning in my next post after I’ve finished the “Perspectives” section of this App.
** From Dickens’ Our mutual friend