Sunday, 29 January 2012

Let them eat cake

I’m in Europe.
I have to pause there and go, gulp. It's not everyday, or even every year, I get to go to Europe.
More specifically, I'm in Vienna. And a young man, kitted out in a red greatcoat with gold embroidery on the shoulders and sleeves, stops me in the square, known as Stefansplatz,  outside the cathedral. He's waving a leaflet at me. “Do you like music?” he asks.  I’m not sure why he addresses me straight off in English, perhaps I just don’t look Austrian.   “I love music,” I tell him, shrugging my shoulders, “but I’m a rock 'n' roll girl.”  “Then you are in the wrong city,” he says, just like that. I don’t respond but to me Vienna is about so much more than music.

It’s about Sigmund Freud and the artist Gustav Klimt, and the gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral. And St Peter’s and St Michael’s and the Frauen Kirche and many, many other churches, some gothic, some not, but all brilliant in their own way. 

Vienna is about stunning architecture.

And vast open spaces which I have no hope of capturing on camera.

And Vienna is also about cake.  

Viennese cakes represent what I have come to love about the city in the brief four days I’ve been here.  They’re elegant. They have poetical names like Sachertorte and Apfelstrudel. They are steeped in history. Viennese cakes are made to be admired. 


Yesterday, at Café Pruckel, I ate a cake called Topf Marille (if my memory serves me correctly). It consisted of a base layer of rich pastry, followed by a high filling, which was similar in consistency to thick custard but tasted more like creamy cheesecake, and was topped with apricot halves.  The cake was served on a plate, by itself. Less is more. I silently applauded the lack of cream, which is ubiquitous in Australia, and would have detracted from the taste. 

Eating Viennese cake certainly fills me with content. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

Books I read in 2011

Recently I wrote a list of the books I read last year and was surprised to find that there were 18.

I thought I'd mention them here and, briefly, how I came to read them, and what it was about them that I loved, liked or disliked.  I’ve put them into categories. Books I had to read for uni, books of my choice, and my top three reads from last year. And, yes, you'll see that covers are important to me.

Here goes:

Books I read for uni:

Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
I was surprised by this book. I thought I might be bored. Instead, I loved it. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, even if the story is so very sad. I will never be able to go to Stonehenge again and feel the same way.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This is an awfully impressive work from a girl who was only just eighteen. Interesting narrative techniques at work: the stories within the story, book-ending the work, the credible narrator. Have to love the cover!

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
A good story, if a bit stereotypical. Not in the same calibre as Great Expectations which is on my ultimate Top Ten List.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
I first read The Quiet American when I was seventeen and at school and I have to admit that I didn’t understand it or grasp any of its nuances.  Reading it again now was a wonderful experience. It’s a haunting and sad story. Reflecting on what I could say about it I was reminded of something Hemingway said—something along the lines of “if the story is brave and honest and true, then it will be a good story”.

The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton (called The House at Riverton in the USA, which I quite like.) This is a doorstopper of a book, but I didn’t at any stage feel bored or frustrated by its long-windedness. Morton’s works are a success because she knows how to tell a good story.Lovely cover.

Let the Right One In by John Lindqvist
Wonderful subverted vampire story, which is also a story about small town living and the bonds of friendship. A little bit too bloody to make the Top Three. 

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I did not enjoy this. I know I was supposed to; many students in our class loved it, but I found it slow and boring, and was frustrated by Madame Bovary’s lack of action. Yes, she was restricted by the times, but she could have made so much more of her life.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Outstanding crime fiction. I loved it. The setting. The characters. Temple’s dry, laconic dialogue. The weaving in of social issues. The dogs; I have to mention the dogs. The only criticism I have is that the ending seemed a little out of left field.  

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I thought I’d never read Alice (although some of the poetry and stock phrases such as Off with her head were familiar), but my mother tells me that she read it to me as a child. Clearly, I don’t remember it (whereas I remember Peter Pan vividly).  I think it appeals to certain readers more than others, such as those with a bent for fantasy.

The Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder
Dreadfully boring.  I’m not sure how I got through it. I think I lived in hope of its improving. It seems to me that the author’s main objective was to write an entire story using emails. Fail.

Books of my choice:

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I wanted to read this book because of the opening first paragraph, which is absolutely stunning.  But rather than being repelled by the idea of an old guy (he’s not exactly that old) and a young nymphet, as many readers seem to be, I became bored with his sexual antics and his obsession with himself. Barely managed to finish it. But the first paragraph? Amazing. 

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
I chose to read this because the title and the cover and the blurb at the back appealed to me. I don’t know what I was expecting – I think the blurb was misleading – but it wasn’t what I got.  I did enjoy it, there are some wonderful moments in it, but I became  frustrated with the author who would promise or pre-empt something and then not deliver.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronté
I picked this up because of my interest in gothic writing, and because Anne is not a Bronté one hears much about.  It was an interesting read, but there were some pages near the beginning where I thought I would be flattened by the intrusion of the author’s opinion.  Not in the same ball park as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.

Land’s Edge by Tim Winton
This is Winton’s memoir of a life spent alongside the sea.  Moving and beautifully written with his characteristic honesty. Stunning photographs. The cover is evidence.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I was given this as a freebie for volunteering at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and, shortly afterwards, Murakami won the Nobel Prize for Literature for IQ84, so I approached it with high expectations. I was disappointed. I thought the simple writing came across as bland and, in the end, like Lolita, I was overcome by the protagonist’s obsession with himself.

My Top Three Books from 2011:

The Passage by Justin Cronin
I didn’t want this story to end. There are over 2,000 reviews of this book on the internet and I feel that whatever I say – and there are many fine things to say – I cannot hope to be original.  Also, it will take up a lot of time and I did promise to be brief.  Its placement on my Top Three list speaks for itself. The cover of my copy has a close-up of Amy's face, staring out at me. I love it.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My introduction to memoir. Immensely sad, but astonishingly well-written true story of a woman who loses her husband at a time when her daughter is critically ill.  I was absolutely captivated by Didion’s writing style, and by her honesty.  Bland, awful cover which does no justice to the contents. 

Bereft by Chris Womersley
This is a haunting story. It is months since I finished it and I find myself still occasionally thinking of Quinn Walker, its protagonist. The descriptions of the Australian bush are evocative and vivid; you can feel the heat of the land, the cold of the early mornings, and smell the smoke from the campfire. I love, too, how the writer leaves things open-ended – is Sadie Fox real or imaginary? -- and makes the reader work.  Fantastic cover.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Forgiving words

Last year when I was still at uni, a group of us did a presentation on Writing as Therapy as part of an assignment. We talked about how we made sense of the world through writing, and covered themes such as the process of writing sometimes being a cathartic one.*

I’ve had cause to think about writing and catharsis over the past few weeks because I’ve written a piece of memoir. 

I wrote it largely because Fish Publishing now have a memoir segment as part of their annual competition and I want to enter, but also because this particular incident was troubling me. Has been troubling me for some time. It happened when I was seventeen and to a large extent I’d pushed it to the back of beyond for many years, but for some reason – maybe because I am growing old – I’ve been thinking about it again.  
I admit that I had no idea how to handle it.  I thought about talking to the people involved, but they are elderly now and they’re very dear to me and I don’t want to upset them. They’ve never known the extent of the damage of that day, because they weren’t there, and the two people who were, myself and one other, lied about it at the time. Not so much lied as pretended everything had been rosy, when it had not. I also have a fear that they will see my wanting to talk it through as an indulgence on my part. This obsession we have with ourselves and our lives (memoir writing, autobiography, Facebook, Twitter, blogging) is only fairly recent, and they’re from the generation where you don’t talk about troubling things, you’re stoic and you soldier on. 

Writing about it seemed a good way to get it out into the open, to prod it and see whether – after all this time – there were extenuating circumstances. I realise now that I’ve not only wanted to write about it for some time, but I needed to write about it, and the Fish competition was the necessary incentive.  Thank you, Fish.

I covered memoir writing in uni last year, and read Joan Didion’s wonderful The Year of Magical Thinking as part of that unit, and I submitted an assignment and did well, so I thought I was prepared, that I knew how to go about this.

Well, I was wrong.  I wasn’t prepared.  In my first attempt – my first draft – I was in the story, but I wasn’t the narrator. I’ll repeat that in case you didn’t get it: I wasn’t the narrator in a piece of memoir. Well, yes, I know. What was I trying to accomplish? I think I was trying to pretend I wasn’t there.  I also had a cast of not thousands but at least ten, as if they could cover up for me, as if they could somehow block out the fact of my participation.

You see, it’s not a pretty story. I behave badly. I was young and immature and I didn’t know any better.  In my opinion some adults in the story behave badly, too, by putting me in a position that I wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t able to cope with. But I won't go there today.

Fairly recently, I’ve acquired a good – and becoming dear – writing friend who was brave enough to point out the flaws in that first draft and offer constructive criticism. If I didn’t have that feedback and her encouragement I doubt whether I would have gone any further. I sure wasn’t having any fun.  

When I started the second draft I began all over again. That’s a first for me. I don’t think I’ve ever done that; I always work from a first draft. I guess that’s an indication of how bad it was. I’m now at a point, however, where I am fairly happy with the piece. Happy not being an appropriate word because it’s not a happy tale.  If it should do well in the Fish competition you will hear about it here.  I might even bring myself to put out an excerpt.

I think I’ve proved that writing can be therapeutic. I’ve let go and am ready, not to forget, but to forgive. I think I’ve forgiven myself.  I think that was what it was all about, forgiving myself.

The other thing of equal importance is that I owe my writing friend who was unflinchingly honest and so positive and who held my hand throughout this ordeal, an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank you, Andrea.

* In my case, I discussed interpreting travel through writing. Earlier in the year one of my lecturers, who has a blog called Are my feet in the way? – he’s very tall – had kindly published a piece of mine called Letter from Cape Town. You can read it here.