Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677

Book Review: Snot Chocolate, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snot_chocolateSeriously, who could resist a book called Snot Chocolate? Certainly not me or other Morris Gleitzman fans. Each story is told with just the right amount of humour to convey the overall theme of the book, which is a collection of nine short stories focussing on kids handling a significant moment in their lives.

The range of characters include a medieval peasant suddenly made the king, a lawyer’s daughter trying to help her mother, an overly zealous bacterial wiper, a sibling helping to deal with a troll, a diary-writing dog, a girl giving away hot chips and a boy who meets his demolition fairy.

The kids featured in the stories are every day kids who are just like the nice ones in your school or who live in your neighbourhood: caring, smart, and learning about themselves and the world, and how to deal with a variety of social and personal problems. I love how Gleitzman gives each one a chance to shine, allowing them work out and face their problems with courage and kindness. At the end of each story, each character has grown and developed, giving readers encouragement to be able to do the same.

Entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, every story is well paced and expertly written, with authentic character voices and engaging plots. A short story anthology is a great way to encourage reluctant readers, as they can approach one story at a time if they wish, or can equally plough their way through all of them.

Whether the tween-ager in your life is an avid Gleitzman fan or they haven’t yet read any of his books, Snot Chocolate would make a wonderful summer read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Snot Chocolate
by Morris Gleitzman
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 9780143309222

Book Review: The Chocolate Tin, by Fiona McIntosh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_chocolate_tinAlexandra Frobisher is a modern thinking woman hoping for a career in England’s famous chocolate making town of York. But it is 1915, and Alex’s father states, “Association with the factory floor will not do – not for a Frobisher girl”.

Alex has turned down a number of ‘suitable’ marriage proposals much to her parents displeasure but she agrees to marry Matthew Britten-Jones, who promises to allow her the freedom she craves and even encourages her in her dream to establish a chocolate-making business.  With his family connections in the railway which transports chocolate from Rowntrees chocolate factory, Matthew enables her to be introduced to the management and taken on a factory tour.

They agree to take Alex on as a factory tour leader but before that, she get as a day working in the Chocolate Tin Room, where special tins of chocolate are being packed for sending to the troops in France. At the end of the morning packing tins Alex picked up a pencil and a scrap of paper and “scrawled a quick message. Come home safely. With love, Kitty” and placed the note in a tin. The author takes the reader to France where the note is found, and so begins and intriguing search for the writer of the note.

I loved this book, it is a real page-turner and anyone who enjoys a family saga with a strong female character will find the book a great read. It has a good balance of history and romance blended with some controversial secrets and mystery, all ingredients for a stimulating read.

Fiona McIntosh has written a number of books and her meticulous research into the story background has seen her become one of Australia’s most popular modern writers. In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book McIntosh thanks the historians who worked with her in York and also the battlefields in France helping her to “get the sense of place right for this book”.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Chocolate Tin
by Fiona McIntosh
Published by Michael Joseph
ISBN 9780143797067

Book Review: The Dyehouse, by Mena Calthorpe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dyehouseWritten in 1961, The Dyehouse has been republished by Text Classics, who are in the business of reintroducing readers to books that could be considered classics but have faded from the collective consciousness. The Dyehouse has themes that are as true today as they were at the time of writing.

If you’re looking for a light read, some fluff, then this book is not for you. The interwoven storylines, set in a fabric dyeing factory in 1950s Australia, highlight issues of worker exploitation, the plight of the working poor and some rage-inducing sexism (in this reader, at any rate). It’s beautifully written, but definitely not light.

At the heart of the story lurks thoroughly unlikeable Renshaw, the factory boss. In his world, workers are dispensable, regardless of expertise or length of service; and women are there for his entertainment, but only if he considers them worthy. We meet the workers: pretty and naïve Patty, talented and dedicated Hughie, efficient Miss Merton, cock-of-the-walk Oliver, and late-in-life dad Barney. Their interactions with Renshaw and each other are flesh of the story, built upon the bones of the underlying themes.

The opening sentence shows Calthorpe’s ability to add richness to her words without becoming flowery. “Miss Merton came to the Dyehouse one windy afternoon when smoke from the railway-yards drifted darkly over Macdonaltdtown.” You get drawn in, you can almost smell the factory, and the depth of her writing helps you to keep reading despite the cycle of drudgery that the protagonists are seemingly trapped in.

The other thing that kept me reading was a strong desire to see Renshaw get his. He’s just so casually villainous he made my blood boil. Other readers may find redeeming features in him, but I couldn’t. What was particularly frustrating was that Renshaw’s world view still exists in some people, more than 50 years after he was created. And just like real life now, and probably then, there are no Hollywood endings.

The Dyehouse is a pretty gritty read, and tough going at times because of its themes. It’s totally worth it, though, and deserves the wider audience that Text Classics will be hoping for. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Dyehouse
by Mena Calthorpe
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355758

Book Review: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

 

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_good_peopleHow do we know that our lives are ours to lead? What if bad luck arose from a past wrong? These are the questions at the heart of Hannah Kent’s new novel, The Good People.

Nora has lost her daughter and is raising her grandson. The boy, Micheal, was once a thriving toddler, but at four he is paralysed, twisted and incoherent. Then her husband also dies and she is left alone to struggle against the growing rumours of evil, faeries and unseen spirits.

Here is an old tale, but told in poetic language which evokes the mists and lanes of Ireland. It is a bleak existence where the community in the valley live close and watch carefully. The Priest, a man of Christian virtue and upright morals, has no time for discussions about the Good People. He offers little support to Nora, condemning her from the pulpit each week, but not prepared to support her. So Nora turns to the wise woman. It is Nance Roche who births the children and heals the ills of the valley folk. So it is Nance who offers what support she can – and it is Nance who pays the price.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, was well received in her native Australia. This, her second book, will not disappoint her readers. Evocative language beautifully captures the landscape: “Samhain Eve came upon the valley, announced by a wind that smelt of rotting oak leaves and the vinegar tang of rotting apples”. So we see decay is here to stay.

Likewise, Kent captures the language of the people with the twists of phrase and the lilt of the Irish. “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” So says the wise Nance to the Priest.

While at times the story moved slowly, I think this accurately communicated the twists and turns of life in the valley. It is a sad tale and things move with the seasons, in their own time. This is a beautiful read from an author who knows the landscape, the people and the history of Ireland in the 1820’s.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Good People
by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781743534908

 

Book Review: Girl Stuff for girls 8-12, by Kaz Cooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_girl_stuff_for_girls_aged_8-12Kaz Cooke is a very accessible and humourous Australian author and cartoonist who specialises in writing books on health and well being for women (and girls). I can still remember her hilarious descriptions of pregnancy in Up the Duff, which were fantastically described in both words and pictures. Her Kidwrangling guide to raising children was a natural purchase for me once I had children, and I now find myself in the position of having a child in the right age bracket for her latest book, Girl Stuff 8-12.

The first chapter leaps right on in with changes in your body during puberty. All descriptions are factual, simply explained and occasionally humourous. Kaz is very careful to ensure that the book outlines the wide variety in body types and experiences of puberty. My daughter found this chapter very interesting (actually, I did too). I particularly liked her suggestions on responding to comments from people about body changes. There are some excellently pragmatic comments around periods, and I sincerely wish that I had read this book when I was younger!

Later chapters deal a lot with social issues – such as friendships and bullying as well as ‘not-so-happy families.’ There is a great chapter on confidence, and positive self talk. I found her list for parents and girls regarding online safety useful and I will be adopting some of the tips for use. The back of the book has a very useful ‘more info’ section with really good websites and phone numbers (including New Zealand numbers). There is a theme throughout the book of getting good advice and information – such as avoiding advertising messages or asking adults how to manage privacy settings.

My daughter and I read the first chapter on body changes together. I knew that the book was hitting the mark when my daughter took off with the book and finished reading it very quickly by herself! She particularly liked the ‘real life’ comments made by girls throughout the book. When I spoke to her about it afterwards it was clear that she had understood the content, so I think that the book is well written in that respect.

The book does not really get into relationships or sex – there is a follow up book that covers those topics in greater depth. However, if you are after a factual book about puberty for younger girls then this is a great guide. I will definitely be getting the following book in the series.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Girl Stuff for girls 8-12
by Kaz Cooke
Published by Viking Australia
ISBN 9780143573999