Category Archives: AWW2014

AWW2014: The Year in Review

I really dropped the ball this year with my AWW2014 goals. I planned to finish recording Barbara Baynton’s Human Toll for Librivox, and do at least one other recording.  I did neither. It turns out I got side-tracked by the non-official aspects of my AWW reading: I read and listened to a range of books by Australian women writers and rated and occasionally reviewed them on Goodreads.

In total I read or listened to nineteen books by Australian women writers. Six of these were audiobooks from the Makkede Vanderwall crime series by Tara Moss.  I wrote some thoughts on the first installment, reflecting on my counterintuitive taste for violent crime where women are brutalised. The answer was that Makkede Vanderwall is kickass and triumphs over everything in the end. Throughout the series, I appreciated the way Moss ensured Mak continued to be motivated by her desire to be a forensic psychologist-cum-private detective rather than some lovelorn appendage to her love interests, Andy and Bogey. Andy was routinely shipped off to the FBI Academy or working in another city, which served the plots well. My only disappointment with the recordings was that Moss didn’t do all of them. The last two missed the mark for me, having the effect of changing some characters in unflattering ways.

I’m not sure how much of a factor the reading was in the audiobook of  Marele Day’s The Case of the Chinese Boxes. The central sleuth in this second installment of the Claudia Valentine series struck me as smug and brittle with her cleverness. I didn’t enjoy her archness at all.

Three more of the novels were from the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood. I started these because of the TV series, but didn’t stick with them after the third. One of the things I thought more generally about this genre of novel was that it’s a fantasy genre–not officially, of course, but as in the Makkede Vanderwall series, there’s an impossible kind of triumph over evil doers. In the case of Phryne Fisher, I found the class aspects a bit trying. Part of me thinks I should put this aside, because, after all, it is fantasy and it’s nice to see a woman doing all the rescuing, but Phyrne  and her military-paced benevolence put me in mind of St Augustine’s aphorism, ‘Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.’

Two of the best books I listened to this year were Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.  I was very moved by Stead’s classic novel, which I reviewed. What a painfully genius work; I physically ached. I didn’t review Wright’s novel, but not for lack of enjoyment. A Goodreads’ friend described Carpentaria as a ‘stonkingly huge novel’. Yes, it is.  In both size and scope. I’m not sure if it does justice to describe the Carpentaria region of the title as the central character, but as a place it suffuses the characters in a way that I can’t think of in anything else that I’ve read. I retain such strong images from this book: Norm Phantom in his fish embalming workshop, Angel Day and the reclaimed Madonna, Elias Smith emerging from the sea, Will Phantom outrunning mining security and living on a floating island of plastic, Mozzie Fishman and his entourage. Again, my response to this book was physical, a kind of swelling and opening of my heart. I’ve come to the conclusion that a physical response is my sole criterion for a five star rating.

I also read and reviewed Burial RitesThe Spare Room, and Ninety9 I’m glad to see that one of my fellow book club members has nominated another Helen Garner novel to read next year–The Spare Room made me love her work.

I read and then Goodreads rated Debra Adelaide’s The Household Guide to Dying and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I did enjoy Adelaide’s work–I thought I’d written a review–but I was disappointed by Lindsay’s classic. Part of me wonders how much of the reverence around Picnic is derived from the iconography of Peter Weir’s film of the novel. I was surprised by the brevity of the scenes up to and including the girls’ disappearance. It became a book about the searchers and the school–and not especially insightful–which left me feeling dissatisfied.

I ended my year of AWW reading by turning to Young Adult literature. I listened to the first two novels in Penni Russon’s Undine series. What I most liked about these was the complexity of the relationship dynamic between Undine and Trout–I was quite awestruck by the fineness with which it was drawn. At the moment I’m finishing Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island), which is yet another YA novel that belies its categorisation. It’ll probably sneak into next year’s challenge reviews.


Fetish by Tara Moss

Fetish (Makedde Vanderwall, #1)Fetish by Tara Moss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Given the concerns about representations of violence against women in popular culture, I often wonder about women who write violent crime stories. And women who like to read or watch violent crime stories. I am sympathetic to the critiques of the parade of brutally abused female body parts across our screens and pages; and, from what I’ve gleaned of Tara Moss on the periphery of my Twitter feed, she certainly wouldn’t be advocating a sensationalising of violence against women, despite the fairly graphic descriptions in this, her first novel, of the proclivities of her villain, dubbed the Stiletto Killer.

So, what is going on here? Why do I like these psychological thrillers? Why have I watched Cracker, Wire in the Blood, Prime Suspect and so on over the years, where sooner or later a woman is going to end up sexually assaulted, tormented, and, very likely, ceremoniously murdered? Why have I already decided that I’m going to listen to Tara Moss read the remaining five novels in her series, where Canadian Makkede Vanderwall, part-time international model-part-time forensic psychology student, pursues her friend’s killer, attracts psychopaths at every turn, all the while continuing to earn her qualification and fall in love?

The answer can’t be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, or desensitisation in the face of countless such representations; none of us are stupid, either. This is perhaps why I’m not convinced by arguments that uniformly decry such depictions; I get fairly impatient with the prescriptive nature of them; and then I don’t really say anything for fear of not being a Good Feminist. Let me be clear, I’m not criticising feminism or feminists here; indeed, using a critical feminist perspective, I have to conclude that something else is going on here–it has to be.

I suspect that so many women write, watch and read violent crime as a way of working through fears about violent crime. Perhaps these fears are unfounded; perhaps they’ve been exacerbated by these very kinds of stories. Still, this is what is reassuring about the crime genre: the fears and anxieties about violence are contained in the pages or pixels of the stories and, in the end, the detective triumphs over the killer and she is all the much stronger for it.

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Ninety 9

Ninety 9Ninety 9 by Vanessa Berry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the end of the nineties, I started a master’s thesis on zines, through which I first encountered Vanessa Berry’s work. Over the years of my research, I learned that her zines were enjoyed by many, and that, within the Australian zine subculture, she was, effectively, a celebrity: revered for her writing, her knowledge of various aspects of more obscure instances of popular culture, and her inventiveness and constant renewal of the zine form through various self-publications.

I enjoyed Berry’s self-publishing at the time, beyond my immediate academic concern with her work, generally, as the subject of my thesis. Rather than her subcultural insights into bands, however, I liked what might be considered the scholarly and literary aspects of her work: the research she’d done for her zine that reviewed all 69 St. Vincent de Paul op shops in Sydney; her description of her experiences of reading James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake amid the enforced languor of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; her discipline in writing Laughter and the Sound of Teacups on the 23rd of every month; and, indeed, the aural evocativeness of that title.

I never actually met Berry while I was completing my thesis. I once saw her across the floor at an early National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle, surrounded by a posse of fellow zine makers and bloggers, but as one of the (fledgling) academics that she admits, in Ninety 9, she regarded with suspicion, I was never afforded the opportunity to talk to her in any depth. At the time, I worried enormously about not getting to talk with Berry, as a key figure in the zine subculture; could I say that I had done a comprehensive survey of zine publishing in Australia if I hadn’t spoken with her, gotten her approval for my project? I soon learned that a comprehensive survey of zine publishing wasn’t possible, but also, Berry (and those close to her) had relayed her thoughts and views on zines and her production of them in a range of media otherwise available to me so that I didn’t need to bother her after all.

I’m relaying the above concerns, because I don’t come to this book without a history, however tangential, with its author and subject matter. Perhaps this would otherwise be irrelevant to my reading, except that I sought this book out and began to read it on the eve of my submission of an article about zines commissioned by The Conversation in their ‘Explainer’ series. It had been a decade since I’d submitted my master’s, so I was concerned, not only that my knowledge wasn’t up-to-date, but that I also needed to say something about the trajectory of zine makers I had known or known of during my research. Not everyone whom I encountered during my thesis still makes zines, as Berry does. Indeed, it was of some interest to see Sunanda Creagh’s name on the staff of The Conversation–she too, along with her friend Lee, had been well-regarded zine publishers at the time. So, despite having reconciled the different perspectives on zine production between those of zine publishers and mine as a researcher, I still felt an involuntary twinge of inadequacy about explaining anything about zines all these years later.

***

In the end, Ninety 9, has only one chapter dedicated to zines, but the other chapters contain the substance of the topics that filled Berry’s zines throughout the nineties and into the new millennium: radio programs and mix tapes, bands and music festivals, magazines and T-shirts, cult television and literature, share houses and op shops. Throughout the memoir, a picture emerges of the importance of popular and literary culture in the formation of a young woman’s identity; both forms clearly offered Berry a sense of belonging not immediately available to her in suburban Sydney. What’s key, however, is that Berry’s coming of age memoir is not simply about the consumption of cultural artefacts, but is equally about the relationships she forged through sharing her pleasure in those forms through writing and publishing, through which she found like-minded people and, ultimately, her place in this world.

I found the final chapter, which recounts Berry’s discovery of an abandoned suitcase in the back streets of Petersham, to be a satisfying ending to this fin de siècle memoir. This found object that turns out to contain the papers of one of her contemporaries, which she sifts through to glean a sense of its owner, is offered as an analogy for Ninety 9: a loosely-shaped memoir formed through unadorned prose on layers of abandoned paper, mix tapes, and reconditioned band T-shirts. That said, however, we can be grateful to Giramondo for publishing Berry’s work in a more substantial form than a decaying suitcase, so that rather than disintegrating as ephemera is wont to do, it can serve as a memory, as a record, of a life, of a decade.

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The Spare Room

The Spare RoomThe Spare Room by Helen Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started reading The Spare Room I couldn’t really understand the character Helen’s anger with her friend Nicola’s decision to pursue a course of alternative therapy for her cancer. To my mind, if someone wants to pursue a mode of therapy that doesn’t have scientific validity, then that’s their choice to invest their hope and money, no matter how futile the prospects. It seemed like nothing more than a question of egotism and control on Helen’s part as she railed against Nicola’s considerable suffering throughout her treatment. After all, the Theodor Institute’s regime of Vitamin C injections, ozone immersion, and cupping were not Nicola’s first attempt to stop the spread of her disease; she had undertaken Western, scientifically valid treatments until her doctors had told her they could do no more but manage her pain. As the story unfolded, however, I began to see what an enormous burden Nicola had placed on Helen, as well as members of her family, by asking them to support her suffering unconditionally.

I found this question, of a patient’s responsibility towards her carers, an intriguing one, since it isn’t often that we credit a vulnerable identity, like Nicola, with the agency to make decisions about their ethical position or duty towards others. The question usually posed is about the duty of the powerful, the well, towards the weak, the sick. Of course, the latter is still an important question to consider in most circumstances, where the distribution of resources, material and psychological, are uneven; so, perhaps, there are no broader generalisations to be made about suffering and responsibility here outside of the circumstances of Nicola’s story?

On deeper reflection, I think the broader insights into the human condition that might be taken from Garner’s novel are to be found in the spare room of her title. The spare room is often the place where we store the things we don’t visit regularly, but can’t throw away, because they are still part of us. Garner’s spare room contains Nicola’s pain and suffering that Helen must accept. Nicola is right when she tells Helen that pain is nothing special: pain is a part of cancer, as well as a part of life. But the spare room is also a site of hospitality, wherein a guest is obliged to receive the extended welcome on the terms it is offered by the host. So, our insight here is Nicola’s insight: when we accept care we equally have a responsibility for the well-being of our carer.

This edition of The Spare Room was read by Heather Bolton in a straightforward manner to complement Garner’s compassionate, but unsentimental prose.

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The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved ChildrenThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Henrietta (Henny) and Samuel Pollitt both knew before they married that they never should have married, yet, bound by social convention and the need to secure a dowry, they did marry, and so, perhaps, the trajectory of their lives could only be the tragedy that plays out in this novel.

Henny and Sam’s thwarted expectations of life and marriage have repercussions beyond their individual disappointments to affect their children: Louise (Louie), Sam’s child from his halcyon first marriage, and the five children Henny subsequently bears. The children grow up in the cesspool of this bitter liaison, nurtured on their parents’ mutual violence.

I’m not entirely sure what Jonathan Franzen is talking about when he says this book is funny. Perhaps he’s referring to the moments where Henny’s threats seem like so much hyperbole, or when Sam’s baby-talk to his children descends to utter ridiculousness , but beneath that there is so much despair and narcissism, for Henny and Sam respectively, that for me every one of these moments contained a well of horror.

The Man Who Loved Children is a frightening, moving portrait of dysfunctional family life. Here, it is read by Fiona Press who, despite some distracting pronunciations of words (piahno), ensures we never wholly condemn any of the characters, even while deploring some of their actions.

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Refresh: January

I started my reading year by signing up for things:

I rejoined Good Reads, mostly out of curiosity to know how many books I read.  There was some discussion over at Facebook on my book club’s group page about people’s individual book counts.  Our most prolific reader had a total of eighty-eight, which made the person who had read thirty-six feel very humble in comparison.  I had no idea how many I’d read, but I’m fairly sure it was fewer than thirty. I’ve set myself the very modest goal of reading twenty-six books in their 2014 reading challenge.

My reading count would almost certainly have received a boost in the last months of 2013 after I rejoined the local library.  I’d avoided the library for years after accruing a fine for keeping a copy of American Psycho out until they sent me a bill to replace it.  I returned the book (yes, I did read it), but avoided the library out of shame for at least a decade.  Yes, I knew all about the end-of-year amnesty, but I was too scared to face them.  Anyway, I plucked up my courage and it turns out there was no record of my misdeeds in their system at all. And in the meantime, the ebook has arrived, so I’ve been spending my time happily catching up on the Harry Potter series, both books and films, as well as The Hunger Games series, and a few missed childhood classics, including The Narnia Chronicles.

It’s through the library that I’ve been able to supplement my book club’s first novel of the year, the Man Booker Prize winner for 2013, The Luminaries, with some eye-saving audiobooks for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, which I’ve signed up for again in 2014.  So far, I’ve read and reviewed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and I’ve just started listening to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. 

Actually, neither of these books are part of the official challenge I’ve set myself, which is again focussed on creating audiobooks via Librvox of works in the public domain by Australian women writers. I started the first book for this project, Human Toll,  towards the end of last year, with the intention of completing Barbara Baynton’s catalogue. I have planned to record another two works in addition to that for the AWW2014 challenge, but I haven’t decide which.

I’m looking at anything I read or listen to and review beyond the Librivox recordings as a bonus with respect to the AWW challenge.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as writers must read to be better writers, then audiobook readers must listen in order to become better readers. It’s with this thought in mind, in addition to the pleasure of the stories themselves, that I’m listening to other audiobooks, taking mental notes of the various factors that make for a good telling of another’s story.

Meanwhile, January is also the Month of Poetry, an event I only became aware of via the tweets of Penni Russon and Anna Ryan Punch. I’m following both of their MOP14 efforts  and attempting to retweet the links to their poems via my @ReadingSheilas account. I’m not sure how I would count these if I included them in the challenge; perhaps, as two anthologies? No matter. As a reader, I look forward to the tweeted announcements of both of these writers. It’s a great way to ease into a new year of reading.


Burial Rites

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a note at the end of this novel that says it’s an attempt to make more ambiguous the historical record of the central figure, Agnes Magnusdottir. I think the outcome of the characterisation is far less subtle than that; indeed Agnes is rendered a victim of poverty, circumstance, a particularly manipulative lover, and blinkered judiciary–far from the ‘inhumane witch stirring up murder’ of record . By now it’s a frustratingly familiar story, but it’s one that bears repeating as long as societies continue to condemn the socially and economically disadvantaged, without examining how the very structures of those societies produce ‘criminals’ like Agnes.

Still, while the ‘truth’ of the events in Iceland in 1829 are unknowable, part of me does wonder at the desire to so thoroughly whitewash any historical figure; it’s seems to be motivated by a conviction that people must be wholly good to deserve our sympathies. The same might be said for the characters that we are encouraged to condemn–do they need to be so wholly bad? There seems to be very little to love about Natan Ketilsson–but there must have been more to him for him to gain the affections of Agnes, surely?

The audiobook I listened to was read by Morven Christie at a good pace and with deft pronunciation of the Icelandic names. Her reading evoked the pathos of the story and Agnes to great effect.

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