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: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme Simsion

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_best_of_Adam_sharpThis book is really good chick lit – so good,  I would have assumed the book had a female author, had I not read the front cover.

The book starts with an email Adam Sharp receives from Angelina Brown, an Australian actress who was briefly the love of his life more than 20 years ago. He was a British IT contractor on an assignment in Melbourne and they met in a club where he occasionally played the piano and sang in exchange for a few beers. That night he was trying to impress a woman he was on a date with, but all thoughts of her were forgotten when Angelina walked up to his piano and asked if he knew a particular song.

Although Angelina was married to Richard, the pair had a short but intense fling before Adam had to leave to fulfil the next part of his contract. Despite their best intentions, life got in the way and they ended up going their separate ways. Adam had a long relationship with his partner Claire and never gave Angelina another thought – until he received an email from her, with just the word ‘hi’.

The pair start an online conversation that Adam keeps from Claire. She is stressed as it is, as she is in the process of selling her software company. If the sale goes ahead she will end up in the US, and Adam has made it clear he isn’t prepared to go with her. The emails lead to Angelina inviting Adam to join her and her second husband Charlie on holiday in France. Adam doesn’t know why she invited him, but he knows things aren’t going anywhere with Claire so he ends their relationship and heads to France.

As soon as they are reunited, it’s obvious there is still an attraction between them. But Angelina is married with three children… and Adam doesn’t know what he wants, other than to go back to the time they first met. I don’t want to give away anything by going into detail about what happens in France, but it will shock and surprise readers!

The ending had a few surprises in store as well, and just when you think you know what life has in store for Adam, Angelina, Charlie – and Claire – Simsion throws another curve ball into the mix.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, made all the more interesting by the playlist of songs that accompanies it. I’d guess the author is about my age as I knew all but a few of the songs listed, and could summon the lyrics as I read the book.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Best of Adam Sharp
by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355376

Books I’ll be giving this Christmas, by Nicole Phillipson

Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.

Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153

cv_man_v_natureThis short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.

Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691

cv_mansfield_and_meThe first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364

cv_commonwealthAnn Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183

cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakesIn How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029

cv_coming_rainComing Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.

by Nicole Phillipson

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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 Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lesser_bohemiansThe woman in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is still a half-formed thing. The Irish 18-year-old arrives in London to study drama and to “make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine”. She meets a brooding troubled actor twice her age and their relationship unfolds in a series of excruciatingly lovely and excruciatingly awful episodes.

They each bring some serious baggage to the relationship, recalling some of the dark themes and the damaging nature of secrets that McBride covered in her first novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and a slew of other awards.

There’s drugs and drink, squats and bedsits, drama and literature and many of the other accouterments of a ‘bohemian” lifestyle, albeit the lesser one of the title.

And there’s sex, lots of sex. McBride pulls this off (excuse the pun) with explicit but not graphic descriptions, and with a female sensibility that will resonate with many readers. It took me back decades to when I thought my own virginity was a millstone which held me back from experiencing LIFE because I too had run fast and far from a small town to university in a big city.

However the great strength and enjoyment of The Lesser Bohemians is a continuation of the starkly original style which almost defies definition, that McBride introduced us to in her first novel. Her sentence structures can almost run backwards, there’s unconventional word use, using nouns as verbs, and the word spacing and kerning is erratic. It’s almost stream of conscious narrative but is much more than this too – the technique enables us to tap directly into the psyche of the woman making for an intense and surreal read. It is like slowly driving on an unsealed road. Sometimes it’s smooth and familiar, then a pothole jolts you to a new consciousness and you have to retrace your steps. This slows you down but makes for a most satisfying and rewarding journey.

For example, only a few pages in, we are settling into a lonely Saturday in her bedsit when “Waiting, behind the distractible time, a little bit of pain. Just a tipple. Hardly a thing. Almost pretty pink petals cigarette burns on my skin. Bouquets exist, rosiest at the shin, contemplating though up my thigh. It’s a pull rope for the wade of hours on my own, and matches slice for slice all diversions I know”. It’s a hang on, WTF moment. Did that mean what I think it meant? And The Lesser Bohemians is full of these moments.

It’s a book that is also about identity, reinvention and the power others have over our view of self. We are two thirds into the book before she is named, by him, and he is named, by her, only 40 pages from the end. In A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the final sentence is ”My name is gone.” In The Lesser Bohemians the naming signals a form of redemption and personal reconciliation, although not necessarily an unequivocally happy ending.

So if you like your fiction dark with shocking shards of brilliant illumination, and your characters flawed, sometimes unlikeable but utterly human; and a style that can pull you through a hedge with just about every sentence, this is a book for you. If you don’t like that kind of stuff, I’m sorry for you but look elsewhere.

The Lesser Bohemians has just been nominated for the avant-garde Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won in its first year, 2013.

Reviewed by Rose Boyle

The Lesser Bohemians
by Eimear McBride
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355161

Book Review: Lecretia’s Choice, by Matt Vickers

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lecretias_choiceThis certainly is a story of love, death and the law as it stands in New Zealand in our right to choose when we die and to surround our death with dignity. At this point in time, it isn’t for us to choose, that is out of our hands.

Lecretia and Matt Vickers were trailblazers: raised in down-to-earth homes where education was valued, they took their opportunities and made the best of them. After meeting and marrying, the world really did appear to be their oyster but life can have twists and turns, some kind and generous, others not so much. Matt and Lecretia wanted children and when it didn’t happen naturally, they turned to IVF, to no avail. A series of nasty headaches sent Lecretia on the path to what turned out to be the diagnosis of Brain Cancer, and the terminality of this cancer opened a door that many wished would stay shut.

Lecretia had seen death, it wasn’t pretty, and more than anything Lecretia wanted to die with dignity, she wanted to make her own choices, without depending on others. Her choices would allow her to say goodbye to her loved ones as she wished, Lecretia didn’t want to suffer unnecessarily. Dependence on others for pain control and the basics of life was, to Matt and Lecretia, a ghastly way to end ones life; and so they began to fight, not just for themselves but for others who might find themselves in the same position. It was a hard battle, one taken to the High Court, to seek a pathway for herself and others to die with dignity. The Ethics of Assisted Dying are complicated and rigorous in their application. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a mother, father or husband – if you help someone to die in New Zealand, you can be prosecuted.

Sadly Lecretia did not win her battle, and the fight continues.

This book is a marvellous example of what love can do and a testimony to the spirit of resilience. It isn’t always an easy read but it is a great retelling of a life well-lived and of the courage that allowed Matt and Lecretia to step outside of themselves at the most difficult time in their lives, and stand tall for their beliefs.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Lecretia’s Choice
by Matt Vickers
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355598

WORD: Tim Flannery – An Atmosphere of Hope, with Simon Wilson

tim_flannery

Tim Flannery

Simon Wilson got an early laugh as he announced himself as “speaking on behalf of the Lorax.” He was an excellent chair, knowledgeable and entertaining.

A sobering fact of climate change to start with: if the earth’s temperature continues to rise at the current rate of increase, in 80 years the whole earth will be 4-5 degrees warmer on average. The sea levels will be at levels that they were 55 million years ago, and there will be virtually no ice caps. This will cause huge migrant populations, with flow-on effects including food shortages and economic problems.

To stay within 2 degrees of our current temperature, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. Wilson was an excellent chair: one of his first questions was, on the scale of 1 – 100 in optimism in our ability to bring about change, with 100 being ‘it’s all going to be fine,’ where does Tim Flannery sit? In short, he was close to 1 seven years ago when the Copenhagen Climate Council (which he was involved in preparing for) failed to bring about change: he is now at 50 or 60, since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The significance of the Paris Agreement is that “we now have unified, consensual agreement to end the fossil fuel era.”

To put some context around this: Tim Flannery is one of the world’s experts on and authors about climate change. He is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group, and from 2011 was the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public. Until he was sacked by new Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

One of the key ways that Flannery thinks that as nations, we can make drastic cuts in emissions, is by shutting down all coal-powered Electricity plants. And his renewable energy of choice is something I hadn’t previously heard of: Concentrated solar power. “There’s a lot of way of doing this – mirrors, tower, super-heated objects.” You can store it in a lot of places – silica sand being an example. Port Augusta coal-powered Power Plant was the biggest emitter of CO2 in Australia: it has now been replaced by CSP. Sundrop Farms, an agricultural farm that is run using this technology, now grows 10% of all of Australia’s tomatoes. The biggest benefit of CST is that it can make our most worthless land – desert land – the most productive agricultural place on the planet. The challenge with regular solar power is that it can’t be stored – it needs a back-up for days that aren’t sunny.

Wilson put it out there that if you breed despair, we feel hopeless. But then if you generate hope, you are in danger of people just going well then we won’t worry about it – we’ll carry on as is. To this Flannery noted, “The single greatest impediment to implementing environmental change is that we haven’t got everybody along with us.” But despite all that there are solutions, and promising trends. China has started to close down a lot of their coal-powered plants, in favour of nuclear plants, and more renewable energy plants – and they are scaling up their electric car manufacture hugely.

The trend of electric cars, and driverless cars is something Flannery thinks is going to make our world unrecognisable within 20 years. My husband has been putting off learning to drive because he figures nobody will be soon – he may well be right. Certainly by the time my kids are grown up, they will be watching out for robot cars on the roads – or perhaps being driven by them.

Flannery thinks that developed countries have passed peak oil use, and that the idea that developing countries still need to go through this stage is a strategic challenge that these countries have to work through.

Politics and the environment
Here’s where things get revolutionary. Flannery believes that our system of government has taken us as far as we can go. He believes that decisions about money shouldn’t be in the same space as decisions about how to deal with climate change. With climate change, and anything that affects the whole world, we need to select citizen juries and give them all the facts scientists know. Flannery gained an enormous respect for the common sense of people while Climate Commissioner. “We have to break the nexus between money and corruption. If we can do that, we would get a long way forward.”

The conversation shifted to carbon credits at one point: at the moment, the price for carbon credits is random. To make any true difference to our CO2 emissions using our current methods we’d need to plant all of North America in forests. Flannery says, “We need to start making investments that are required to make a difference. We need to both reduce emissions, and find new ways of dealing with our world via technology.”

The reason Flannery has hope stems from a combination of factors: the two-year flat-lining of Co2 emissions, the fact we have the Paris Agreement, the changes in technology and social networks are among them.

There were some good audience questions at this session. How do we prepare for what is coming? Flannery quipped, “NZ needs to live up to its reputation of being clean and green. You guys have some great innovators. The government needs an innovation fund to foster this in areas we’ll need in the future”.

Ultimately, “We have to start preparing to adapt to the unavoidable. We need common sense regulations in place to deal with that.”

I am going to be reading more about this essential topic – I think we all need to. This is the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. My sons will still be alive in 80 years; I don’t want them to be living in a ruin caused by us.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Atmosphere of Hope: Tim Flannery

Atmosphere of Hope
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355406

The Explorers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Classics
ISBN 9781921922435

We are the Weather Makers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781921145346