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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PeonyPeony by Pearl S. Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The appeal of Peony is two-fold. First, it reveals a history of the Jewish diaspora in China–a population I was entirely ignorant of–and second, it was published in 1948, suggesting that Buck wrote at the very time when the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s were revealed to the world. The latter context embeds the book in a conversation about about Jewish identity, a question that was surely uppermost in many people’s minds of the time as they struggled to process such an overwhelming and final expression of hatred towards a religious group.

Peony is a young bondmaid in a wealthy Jewish household in China of the 1800s. She has served David, the only child of the Ezra family, since she was procured as a child, attending to his every need. Now young adults, it was probably inevitable, in such a cloistered environment, that Peony has come to love David as a woman.

If David were more culturally Chinese, this mutual attraction would, perhaps, have easily been admitted; David’s conscience would have allowed him to marry his mother’s choice of a Jewish woman, while taking Peony as a concubine. But David is Jewish, despite his efforts to free himself from the strictures of his heritage that his mother continues to practise.

David’s efforts to reject his religious heritage are complicated, not only by his mother’s religious obeisance, but by news of the slaughter of Jews brought by his merchant father’s partner, along with a caravan of goods from the west. The parallels here to mid-20th century atrocities are clear. David recommits to his religion and so unwittingly introduces a threat in Peony’s mind to her continued service in the household.

The drama of Peony and the Ezra family explores the question of religious identity as it is lived in the face of threats to its integrity: through the dilution of diaspora and assimilation, as well as outright persecution. It explores the personal costs of maintaining that identity in the face of a dwindling community in a largely indifferent culture, particularly in the figures of Madame Ezra and the elderly Rabbi.

Further, and this is what I liked most about the novel, Peony, explores the positions that different religions and cultures afford women. While Peony perceives a threat from David’s proposed marriage to Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi, for Leah, the prospect of her arranged marriage to David comes to be a lifeline out of poverty and servitude to her father and brother. In this light, Peony’s actions seem unkind, perhaps, but then her fears for herself, at this stage, are not unfounded.

I would say there are no winners in these circumstances, but ultimately, Peony does win, to an extent that is better than continued servitude to an entitled, if caring, master. She finds a way to move beyond her indenture to the Ezra household and, indeed, her culture at large, to bloom, as her namesake, for the rest of her years.

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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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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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