Thursday, 31 January 2013

The white feather

I am officially in a state of submission. I found a beautiful white cockatoo feather on the golf course this morning when I was out walking, and I carried it home to symbolise defeat. I give in. Give up. Yield. I'm overwhelmed. Because I have for the moment lost a dear and old friend:  Electricity.

Like most dear friends Electricity and I go way back. Since I was born, actually. We do things together all the time. I have to admit they’re not always fun things (washing and ironing), but I try to make up for it by doing fun things on other days, like brewing coffee and making cheesecake.  Sometimes we play music. Electricity fancies Van Morrison’s gravely voice and she belts out a good Radiohead number. When it’s very hot, as it has been, she does things without asking.  She keeps me cool. Electricity makes ice, and turns the fans. She’s so unselfish. And she’s a wiz at keeping the Loved One and me cool at night...When we're asleep.

Have you ever tried to sleep at night when it’s 30 degrees, there isn’t a breath of wind, and the humidity is sitting at 90%?  It’s not fun. And I don’t know about you but I’m not nice to be with when I haven’t had enough sleep.

On the weekend we copped the tail end of cyclone Oswald, which had been battering far north Queensland, and popped in here just to remind us who was boss. And we had incredible winds, and torrential rain that drove in sideways. Everybody was so busy clutching on to the roof above their heads and worrying about flooding and insurance to look out for Electricity, and, well, she got hurt.  She collapsed in the gutter in a mess of wires and curled herself into the foetal position. It’s been four days and counting... four days...and she’s still like that. She hasn’t moved. I think she’s in a coma.

I can’t fix her because I don’t know enough about her wounds. She needs at least one specialist to check her over. She might even need an operation, I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out more. But in the meantime I’ve realised how much she means to me, how much I’ve ignored her and taken her for granted; how much she does for me that I don’t even begin to acknowledge. Electricity’s a powerful life-giving force. A quiet achiever. And it’s clear that I need her in my life.  

Need her?  I can’t live without her.

I’m hot and bothered. There are no cold beers, or chilled wine. Damnit, there’s no ice water! I can’t iron the Loved One’s business shirts. I haven’t got clean sheets and you know how much I love clean sheets. I can’t put on the TV to distract myself, or use the internet. (Right now I'm sitting in the Loved One's office; bless him.)  I can't do my banking. Or keep my milk cold. And I can’t straighten my fringe… Stupid how ridiculously important that last one is but there it is I just don't feel right with a curly fringe.

So I’m going to remove any sticky notes I have on my fridge door. Any magnets, any dumb signs telling me I’m a great cook. I’m nothing without Electricity. And I’m going to stick my white feather to my fridge door. And only my white feather. As a sign of my love. My respect. And I’m going to leave it there to remind me every day never to take Electricity for granted again.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Literary v mainstream fiction. How to tell the difference

In my blog last year on The Light between Oceans I said it was a difficult novel to categorise because it starts out as literary fiction but turns into mainstream. My writing friend, Andrea, has asked me to explain how I differentiate between the two, and how I know when a novel is “literary”. This is a good question, and I’ve spent a while forming a response. I’ve spent a while because I want an answer not peppered with erudite terms but easily understood by anybody with an interest in reading. The converse of this is that I’m worried I've been simplistic. Ho-hum. I’ve giving it a shot, anyway. 

So how do I differentiate between literary and mainstream fiction? The answer is in the words. I’m being funny, of course, but I’m also not. The answer really is in the words. 

You don’t need to be familiar with The Light between Oceans for me to explain it. There’s a short sentence in Chapter 1 (on pg 16 in my Vintage copy for those who want to look it up) that follows a description of Tom’s war time experiences. There’s talk of men losing limbs, etc, but Tom is still a whole man, undamaged by gas or shrapnel. I quote: But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.
Everything up until this point has been written in clear English, straightforward and easy to grasp. But this last line is an abstract phrase. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward. You have to think about it. What does it mean? What shadow? Shadows fall outside our bodies, why is this one cast inwards? 

To break it down the author could have said, “Tom has been psychologically damaged by the war, and doesn’t like to talk about it”, because this is the gist of what’s being said. Instead a metaphor is used – the shadow represents the darkness of the psychological damage inside Tom – and a phrase is created, using old-fashioned words such as cast and inward, which give it a certain poetry and make it short and sweet at the same time. Nine words as opposed to a possible 15. You can delve deeper if you want. Why is it that other shadow, when the word another would have sufficed? He carries another shadow…It’s possible that other is used as a reference to the works of the literary theorist Edward Said and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which open up yet more trains of thought – but I won’t go there today.

As I’ve said this is a simple example, using a metaphor and a bit of poetry, but you get the idea. It’s a phrase concealing so much more than its basic meaning. 

I don’t go out of my way to look for something like this in a novel, but if I find a phrase that makes me stop and think, then I tend to be more aware of what I’m reading and on the lookout and as a consequence I start finding other things, other techniques, references, which make me decide that it’s literary fiction and not mainstream. Mainstream is when you don’t discover these things. There’s no hidden meaning. You read for the story, the characters, the plot and the suspense. 

In the case of The Light between Oceans some literary techniques were on display at the beginning of the novel, including metaphors and stream of consciousness writing, but as the narrative progressed these diminished. And that was what made me say it starts out as literary fiction but turns into mainstream. I didn’t feel there were enough nuances or techniques at work throughout the novel to call it literary fiction

Obviously one metaphor doesn't turn a novel from mainstream into literary just as one swallow doesn't make a summer. The techniques that signal literary work aren’t only metaphors and lyrical language. There are many techniques – intertextuality, stream of consciousness, silence, repetition – but they are explanations for another day. Or another blog. Prose can also be literary because of the ideas it challenges or its philosophy.

I'm hoping others may want to share their views on differentiating between literary and mainstream.  Or disagree with me.  I'm open to both. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

News Flash

I've been shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Prize, and will be published in the anthology due to be launched at the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival 2013.  Winner to be announced shortly beforehand. My story is semi-autobiographical and involves this lamb.

Now I've piqued your curiosity!

Also, I omitted to mention late last year that I have been published in Stilts Issue 3: The Stilts Handbook of Adventure. It's a short piece called Night Stop.  You can go here to buy a copy. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Books I read in 2012

I'm doing this again: compiling a list of the books I read last year and briefly how I came to read them, and what it was about them that I loved, liked or disliked. As a general observation I didn't read as broadly as I would have liked, and there are no ancient books, as in Chekhov or Dickens, a failing which I intend to rectify this year. I wish I'd had a recommended reading list, as you do at uni. It's not a bad thing. There were no books that I had to read, but there were some that I elected to read for research purposes. So, as before, I have three categories: books I read for research, books of my choice and my top three. I've added the publication dates for usefulness, and a comment on the covers. Can you judge a book by its cover? Definitely not. But a good cover makes a good impression. It's like wearing the right clothes for a job interview.

Books I read for research:

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green (2012)
I read this because I wanted to see what other people were writing about imaginary friends. I am relieved to say it's very different to my story. It's narrated by the imaginary friend, which is unusual and added an extra dimension, but it doesn't venture out of childhood. There were some references for adults to delight in, but mostly I felt it was a children's book, helpful to both children and parents of children who have imaginary friends. Cover does not excite.

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper (2012)
This was referred to somewhere as a gothic novel so obviously I had to read it. And the descriptions of the farmhouse and the deserted Australian countryside are brooding, menacing and evocative. For instance, Then strangely angled farmland. Paddock fences leaned askew; sheep clung to slanted grass (like everything was unstable and tilting). Tick, gothic.I wanted to love this novel but before the end the story lost me. I couldn't warm to the main character. Her name is Liese, which is lies with an extra e, which might be a clue, since I didn't know which character was lying and which telling the truth. This might well have been what the author intended - everything was unstable and tilting -  but it left me irritated and unsatisfied.  Cover could have been better...Could have been the gothic farmhouse!

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke (2011)
This is a memoir. The author's mother dies of cancer and it's an account of that process and the author's grief. I read it because I wanted to gain some insights into death and grief. Meghan O'Rourke writes beautifully and effortlessly but somehow it doesn't carry the same weight of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.  In fact in some places I thought it was overwrought. Too much. Which is hard for me to write because who am I to pass judgment on someone else's pain? What is my experience of grief? Overall I was disappointed. Bland cover.

Books of my choice:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008)
This was a rare occasion of seeing the movie before I read the book. I didn't even know there was a book until I saw the credits roll. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Paloma, an intelligent and philosophical 12 year old who lives in a Paris apartment, and Renee, the concierge of the apartments. I loved it. It was a little hard to get into, but once I reached the Concierge's point of view I was hooked. I needed tissues, and I'll never look at a Paris apartment again without wondering about the residents. Cover is so-so. 

Before I go to Sleep by  S J Watson (2011)
I read this because of all the hype. It is an intriguing premise. Full marks to the author for dreaming up such an idea. Without giving too much away, this is about a woman who forgets everything, including her name, what her husband looks like, etc, every time she goes to sleep. It is so compelling I practically inhaled it. And this is a problem because now when I think back on the book I can't remember much about it. I am keen to see what the author tackles next. I mean, how do you follow up a novel with a premise like that?  Awesome cover (although the skin around the eye is a little too young - needs crow's feet, a little experience and emotion).

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011)
I've included this book although I can't honestly say I read it. It was long-listed for the Miles Franklin. I meant to read it. I even bought my own copy. I tried to read it. Several times. But it wasn't for me. I was bored. Bored. I know people who rave about this book, and the author, so I think it must be me. Pretty cover.

Ten Short Stories you must read in 2010 by The Australia Council for the Arts. A friend gave this to me. She got it from someone else who got it from someone else. And, yes, there are a couple of great stories in it. There were two that stood head and shoulders above the others. Merlo Girls by Nick Earls, and Manuka by Alex Miller. 
It contains a wide variety of stories. Christos Tsiolkas alongside Rachael Treasure for instance. I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. Cover is okay.

The Light between Oceans by M J Stedman (2012)
I blogged about this novel last year and you can read it here.
My overall impression was good, although the narrative was let down by structure. Beautiful cover.

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett (2011)
This was also long-listed for the Miles Franklin and, in this case, it isn't difficult to see why. Sparse, descriptive writing. Evocative. On the whole a distressing read because of the subject matter, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. The story is about three motherless brothers and their abalone-fisherman father on the south-east coast of Tasmania. It's an area not often written about and I can't wait to go there, although I can't imagine it will be a happy visit. I won't say more than that. Awesome cover but out of touch with the storyline. 

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (2006)
I was pushing myself to other genres when I read this, and I have no regrets. It's a book of short stories, some of them weird (as in spec fic), some of them fantastical, but each one filled with wonderful writing. And mostly all giving cause for thought. Not everybody's cup of tea. I can't for instance imagine my mum enjoying these stories. Cover doesn't do anything for me.

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (2012)
Gale was a visiting author at the Brisbane Writers' Festival in September and as I'm a volunteer reading him was a deliberate choice, although, Sod's Law, I missed out on hearing him speak about his work. However, I've no regrets. Interesting read incorporating several points of view,  skipping backwards and forwards in time, and covering an area in England I've actually visited. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work. The cover is good, although, again, I don't think it captures the essence of the story. I'm beginning to think that cover artists never read the stories.

The Boy under the Table by Nicole Trope (2012)
Wow. Another compelling narrative. This one about child abuse, set in Sydney. It's gritty and realistic, and the pace is unrelenting. I saw the title on Booktopia and that was enough to hook me. A problem for me was that the beginning is so confronting the rest of the story can't hope to compete. Also, the main character is beautifully drawn and the story would have benefited by remaining more in her viewpoint IMO. Some readers have raved about the cover but it's a bit wishy washy in light of the book's contents.

Ancient Light by John Banville (2012)
This is a familiar plot line. Schoolboy has affair with best friend's mother. But the book is anything but ordinary. Lyrical. Detailed. Beautifully crafted. I wish I owned a copy so that I could lose myself in the writing whenever I want. I saw this reviewed somewhere, Avid Reader?, and knew I had to read it. There's something about male UK writers that really gets to me. I can't wait to read more of Banville's work. I don't like the cover. It doesn't fit with my conception of the characters and apparently the same photo was used on another work. Unforgivable.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
This I did see reviewed on Avid Reader. It's something I wouldn't normally have picked up so I'm really pleased I did. It's narrated by a man looking back at his 13 year old self, a boy whose mother was raped and assaulted on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. It embraces tragedy and comedy, doesn't conform, and the main character gets under your skin. Well, he did mine. Highly recommended. The cover is awful. Does nothing for a stunning read.

My top three books from 2012:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2005)
I read this in January last year and still find myself thinking about it. I lent it to a friend who said it was tedious, that the detail of domesticity bored him stupid, so I don't know.  It's also a story narrated by an elderly man looking back on his life - I seem to have fallen into a pattern here. It's set in Norway, was written in Norwegian, and this definitely adds something. I can still imagine the scenery in my head. I did a review of it for the Sydney Writers' Centre which you can read here. The cover is awesome, just could do without the disjointing photo at the bottom.

Passage by Connie Willis (2002)
This was a serendipitous find. It's about near-death experiences - that brief period of time when you move from this world to the next (if there is a next world) - and, specifically, the Titanic disaster. I picked it up for research, again delving into grief and death, and was mesmerised. It's clever and the plot is well-thought out, and the characters are endearing. If I have a criticism it's that it's too long, some 500 odd pages. The cover is stunning but doesn't quite fit with the main theme of the story.

A Dark, Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1993)
This was another book I picked up for research purposes. Wiki says that Vine's narratives are whydunits, whereas when she writes as Ruth Rendell (her real name) she produces whodunits. So a psychological crime novel, and it's brilliant. It's a family saga, detailed, and skipping backwards and forwards in time. This is my first Barbara Vine read but it's not going to be my last. I didn't like the title. It's too obscure. And the cover is misleading.But I forgave all that to put it on the top three list.