Category Archives: AWW2015

Laurinda by Alice Pung

LaurindaLaurinda by Alice Pung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novel about the intersection of class and race in Australia, a country that prides itself on the notion of ‘the fair go’. It begins compliantly enough: the protagonist, Lucy Lam, is successful in her application for the inaugural access and equity scholarship at Laurinda, an exclusive private girls’ school.

Narrated in the epistolary style, Lucy shares her triumphs and doubts, as she, the child of Vietnamese refugees who work in a carpet factory and sew for pittance from home, enters into the elite Catholic society of Laurinda.

Lucy quickly learns that her schooling to date does not meet the Laurinda curriculum standard as she is required to take remedial English via a series of individual tutoring sessions. While she easily understands the explicit educational expectations of her new school, she struggles considerably with the implicit curriculum: the social and cultural values and prejudices that underpin every interaction she has with her peers, teachers, and the school’s administration.

Pung interrogates the rhetoric of access and equity that pervades educational discourse and, indeed, Australian society, revealing it to be less about affecting social change than maintaining the status quo. Laurinda is a tale of noblesse oblige , Australian style.

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A Pocketful of Eyes

A Pocketful of EyesA Pocketful of Eyes by Lili Wilkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Things to like about A Pocketful of Eyes:

1. It’s a contemporary homage to classic fictional detectives from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple.
2. The central character, Bee, has a volunteer job as a taxidermist at a museum. That’s cool.
3. Bee looks askance at anyone who makes dumb remarks about mobile phones and social media.
4. Bee’s nickname for her mother’s new boyfriend is the Celestial Badger
5. I learned the difference between venom and poison thanks to Bee’s nerdy love interest, Toby.

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The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

The AnchoressThe Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I”m not sure where I read that most of the recent literary prize winners by women had historical settings. The writer made this point as a negative criticism, noting that as a society we can’t seem to engage with or acknowledge contemporary women’s lives and ongoing inequalities between men and women.

On the one hand, the writer has a point: doesn’t an historical setting ensure the ongoing injustices of gender discrimination are always elsewhere? Doesn’t awarding these stories our highest prizes serve as a kind of self-congratulatory pat on our collective backs that we’ve left the dark ages behind and are basking in the glow of our enlightened ways?

I remember listening to television scholar, Charlotte Brunsdon, defend historical drama on the BBC once. She argued that historical drama, whatever the setting, will always be an interpretation of a previous era through a contemporary lens. So, if an historical drama has scenes of rape within marriage (this was her example, I can’t remember the specific program), then, given every representation is a matter of deliberate choices made by writers and so forth, this is a way of addressing a form of violence still experienced by many women today.

I am sympathetic to this interpretation, not least because Brunsdon is an alumna of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose methods and legacy inform my own approach to texts and interpretation, but also because, well, no one seems to have any trouble with this very argument when discussing The Crucible: it was too dangerous to talk about the McCarthy trials when they were happening, so Miller turned to history, the Salem witch trials, to tell his allegorical tale.

Perhaps there’s still a criticism to be made about awarding prizes to predominantly historical novels. If we still need to hide behind allegory, then are we still stuck in the 1950s? We do seem to have finally gotten over the inevitable suicide of heroines that characterised the end of many a nineteenth century novel, so perhaps soon more awards will go to stories about contemporary women’s lives.

What does any of this rambling have to do with The Anchoress? Well, these were my thoughts as I finished listening to the last chapters of the Bolinda Audiobook edition, read by Madeleine Leslay. These thoughts were further prompted by my frequent scouring of available audiobooks to borrow from my local library. Sometimes I just want a novel set in contemporary Australia and I’m often surprised by how difficult they can be to find. I suppose I’m trying to find some way to think about the times I live in.

In the end, I did find a way to think through contemporary issues, although it did take a while. After reading about a third of The Anchoress, it put me very much in mind of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. For some this would be a very high recommendation, but that’s less the case for me.

Burial Rites and The Anchoress share an isolated central female character who has been ill-treated by a manipulative romantic interest and is subject to the whims and prejudices of authority: the law and the church. As much as Kent embellished on the life of her heroine, she was ultimately bound by Agnes’s fate; conversely, while Cadwallader draws on her research into Saint Margaret, Three Methods For Reading The Thirteenth Century Seinte Margerete: Archetypal, Semiotic, And Deconstructionist, her character, Sarah, is fictional and so she is afforded agency.

I don’t want to discount the interest of the historical specificities in The Anchoress. The entire concept of a woman living her life in a small room with locked doors praying to God on behalf of others is fascinating. There is so much to learn and be curious about. The physical effects on the body of forced sedentariness and a lack of exposure to sunlight are quite alarming. I also very much appreciated the insight into the work done to produce books in medieval time: a collaboration between a scribe and an ‘illuminator’ or illustrator.

Overall, what eventually captured my attention in this book was Sarah’s arc. In spite of her seclusion, she forms relationships with the community she serves, if somewhat reluctantly at first. Her arc is matched by that of Ranaulf, the young monk and scribe charged to be her confessor. He is as isolated as she, if not physically, then certainly emotionally. Both are gently prodded into friendships with villagers and colleagues. Here, special mention must be made of Eleanor or Ellie, a guileless village girl who alternately charms and annoys them both into submission.

The other main aspect of this novel that elevated it in my estimation was the way both Sarah and Ranaulf engaged with and questioned the teachings they inherited through the church, in the face of their own and other characters lived experience. There is a refreshing spirit at the core of The Anchoress that doesn’t eschew intellect or heart, but shows how each requires the other in order to live the very best of lives.

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What A Piece of Work by Dorothy Porter

What A Piece Of WorkWhat A Piece Of Work by Dorothy Porter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a portrait of a bad psychiatrist. He exploits his patients, conducts experimental therapy, and, all in all, What A Piece Of Work charges the psychiatrist to ‘heal thyself’.

Dr Peter Cyren smokes cigarettes while on duty, so perhaps the doctor’s god-complex belongs to another era, along with the critical R.D Laing anti-psychiatry perspective held by his lover, Fay.

Perhaps if I’d read What A Piece Of Work when it was first published in 1999, before literature and television had offered more complex portraits of psychiatrists and their methods, I would have appreciated the narrative and characterisation of Porter’s verse novel more; as it is, for me, it draws upon untenable stereotypes and misrepresentations of treatment–especially electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

That said, Porter’s portraits of Peter’s patients, Frank and Penny-Jenny, are true and compassionate, and give rise to the very best verse.

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AWW 2015

I signed up for the AWW challenge again this year.  I chose the Franklin level, which is to read ten books and review at least six of those.  That’s about what I ended up doing last year, although I didn’t sign up for that level officially.

My focus in 2014 was initially on creating Librivox recordings, but for various reasons (and none at all) I had a slow year with that. I’m going to do some more recordings this year, beginning, appropriately enough, with Miles Franklin’s Some Everyday Folk and Dawn.

I updated the ‘Books’ page to reflect this. Here’s a snippet pertaining to this year’s challenge:

I’m beginning 2015 with a renewed sense of purpose for this project, following some wonderful encouragement from Elizabeth Lheude, the founder of the AWW challenges.

I’d like to do a solo recording of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. At the moment there’s a collaborative recording available at Librivox, but given many listeners like a single voice–and an Australian one for Australian authors–then I want to make that available.

For now, I’m going to begin the year with the only other Franklin work available in the public domain in the US:

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn

Started: 19 January 2015

Progress: 0 of 30 sections

I’d like to complete at least one other recording this year, but I’m not sure what it might be yet. If anyone has a suggestion or request, I’m open to that. Of course, I have to comply with both Australian and US public domain restrictions, so that can be quite restrictive with what I can record.

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

The EngagementThe Engagement by Chloe Hooper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What a strange book; I really have no idea what to make of it.

The Engagement tells the story of Liese, an English woman who is retrenched from her job as an architect, who moves to Australia and finds work as a real estate agent in Melbourne. In this job she meets Alexander, a member of the squattocracy, a bachelor looking for a pied à terre. They have sex in one of the properties she shows him; he concludes her real estate job is a front for her prostitution and so he pays her. She sees his misunderstanding as an opportunity to pay her substantial debts and so she doesn’t disabuse him. Their relationship and the plot get murkier from there.

The blurb on the Bolinda audio edition says ‘…this is a psychological thriller for the modern age, one which explores the snares of money and love, and the dark side of the erotic imagination’. I don’t know. Perhaps. If Alexander’s desire to simultaneously hire, rescue, and punish Liese is to be believed. Liese is an unreliable narrator, and ‘psychological’ seems to mean someone–Alexander? His mother? His sister? Liese?–has a vaguely-defined mental illness that is expressed through violence and manipulation.

The Goodreads summary compares The Engagement to Surrealist Luis Buñel’s film Belle de Jour. On the one hand, there is certainly a part-time prostitute character; on the other hand, I’m not convinced that deliberate obfuscation about key artefacts, such as the damning letters and photographs addressed to Alexander and Liese respectively, is the same as the philosophical resolution to Séverine and Pierre Serizy’s intimacy issues. It just feels as though Hooper didn’t really know how to resolve the various threads she set in motion.

The audio book was read well by Jane Nolan, if with some often-distracting long vowels.

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Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island)

The Brides of Rollrock IslandThe Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first encountered the selkie legend in the Irish-American film, The Secret of Roan Innish (Sayles 1994). The notion of seal brides all seemed terribly magical and romantic, if ultimately sad. Remembering this film was part of what attracted me to Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island); I was intrigued to learn more about these curious brides who emerge from the sea to bear the children of men, only to become increasingly forlorn for their sea lives, land-bound as long as they are separated from their skins.

Reading Lanagan’s interpretation of the selkie legend, I found myself thinking about the origins of this fantastical creature. Was it first offered as an explanation for an unexpected dark-eyed child to hide the sin of adultery? To explain a wife’s desertion of an unhappy marriage? What are the stories of migration, slavery, and inter-racial liaisons that gave rise to selkie lore? Lanagan’s story doesn’t openly engage with any of the questions I’ve posed here, however it does pursue a story through the selkie legend that I found equally intriguing.

Miskaella is a misshapen and outcast child from a large family. While her family take turns to taunt and shun her, the old folk in the Rollrock community recognise and fear her affinity with the island’s seal population. As Miskaella comes of age and understands she is condemned to a single life, she decides to exploit her ability to summon the seals to secure her fortune and status by procuring wives for the island’s men.

Miskaella’s story is the beginning of a curve on a spiral of selkie legend, a tale of four generations of the Rollrock community that explores the lot of women as spinsters, mothers, wives, and daughters across the ages. It is sad, thought-provoking, beautiful, and hopeful.

I listened to the Bolinda/ABC audiobook edition, read just wonderfully by Eloise Oxer and Paul English.

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