Strange Objects Covered with Fur: The 2015 UTS Writers’ Anthology

It’s always fantastic to see the work of emerging Australian writers receiving publication! In this case, by students of the UTS Writing Program.

strange_objectsI picked this up by happenstance, it was sitting on a display shelf at Chatswood Library and caught my eye. I’m not going to give a response to each text in this volume, as the number is too large (and I am too lazy). Nor am I going to single out any particular works, as I don’t think that would do justice to this project and its contributors.

This collection is a diverse feast, full of bold ideas and acute observations, as well as stuff that doesn’t quite come off. If you have the opportunity, pick this up and dive in. You probably won’t like all of it, but then, as Samuel Johnson (not the actor, the eighteenth century writer)  would advise, you don’t have to read all of it.

Now, a bit of housekeeping. Over the last few months, my reading has focused on Australian female writers. They will remain a strong element of my reading list, but I will be broadening my scope from now on. And so next time, it will be Christopher Isherwood’s  A Single Man. Until then, happy reading!

 

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The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Harley Savage, patchwork expert and part-time curator, arrives in the small town of Karakarook to help establish a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman, somewhat antithetically, arrives to supervise the demolition of a historic but badly decaying bridge and the construction of its replacement.theideaofperfection

They are both misfits, painfully aware of their incongruity, and resigned to bafflement at the seemingly magical facility most people exhibit in getting on with others.

They are also deeply wounded by failed relationships, and by their perceived failures in living up to family expectations.

For two people so tortured by self-consciousness, inhabiting a small community as outsiders is like living under Klieg lights.

They are attracted to each other, but have many practised methods of getting in their own way. Nevertheless, fragments of intimacy begin to accrete, and a stray dog does its best to help things along.

Meanwhile, Felicity Porcelline, the wife of the local bank manager, copes with the constant threat of self-awareness  by waging daily blitzkrieg against the signs of ageing, repelling existential dread from behind an exfoliating mask.

She is no less wounded, in her own way, than Douglas and Harley, but unlike them she lacks something to tether her to a world of meaning and agency.

For all their anxiety and self-loathing, Douglas and Harley are able to express their true selves through their work. Felicity has no such outlet – her work is the constant reinforcement of appearances, and the zeal with which she pursues it is quietly horrifying.

The Idea of Perfection is a novel about awkwardness, about the necessity of imperfection, and the needless suffering that is inflicted when we ignore the strength and beauty of  the world simply because it is knotty, and patchwork, and sometimes falling to bits. It is sad, and funny, but above all profoundly compassionate.

Next time, the 2015 UTS Writers’ Anthology, Strange Objects Covered With Fur. Until then, be kind to your books, and to each other, and happy reading.

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

Jenny is a British expat working for NATO in Naples, about a decade after the end of the Second World War. She is uncertain and untethered. Having escaped the oppressive domesticity of life with her brother and sister-in-law, she lacks assurance in an identity absent its emotional constraints.

She knows no one in Italy, but does have a second-hand connection to Giaconda, a writer who enthusiastically welcomes her friendship. Jenny is fascinated by Giaconda’s intellect and self-possession, attributes that seem oddly nullified in her pliant interactions with her lover Gianni, the filmmaker who directed the adaptation of her first novel. Jenny’s relationship with both artists nurtures a growing sense of liberation, but in the end exacts an emotional toll that compels her to take flight.

Hazzard’s depiction of a country that she has known for decades is nuanced and evades romanticisation – la dolce vita tinged with the squalor of post-war Naples, and shadowed by the trauma of conflict and loss.

The language is incredibly rich – arguably at times a little too rich – but there is a kind of gluttonous pleasure to be taken in the complexity, and Hazzard’s judgement and sense of control are impressive. Many sentences strike with aphoristic force, as in this observation of Gianni’s character:

Like many men who are compulsively cruel to their womenfolk, he also shed tears at the cinema, and showed a disproportionate concern for insects.

Brilliant stuff! If only for passages like that, this novel is worth reading.

What it lacks, however, is guts. Emotions are evoked from a distance; from so far away, in fact, that they lose too much energy and barely ripple the surface. While this fading of impact might be consistent with the story being filtered through the worn lens of Jenny’s memory, the resulting feeling of insubstantiality remains a problem, and the coruscating prose cannot entirely make up for it.

Next time, Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Until then, as always, happy reading!

Elizabeth Harrower’s first and last novels

down_in_the_cityElizabeth Harrower’s debut novel Down in the City, published in 1957, essays similar themes to her last and better known work The Watch Tower, released nine years later.

Both novels are concerned with co-dependency; with the taut, fearful dance of toxic relationships and the formative experiences that leave people vulnerable to becoming enmeshed in them.

Harrower is interested in how and why people subjugate others, and seek to strip them of their agency and sense of self. On the other side of the equation, her writing interrogates the reasons people become trapped in cycles of victimisation, and can be slowly warped towards complicity in their own destruction.

Possessed of lucid and biting psychological insight, Harrower is keenly aware of the transactional nature of human relationships in a society in which women, especially, can easily find themselves on the wrong side of the ledger.

These are two powerful and unsettling novels, from one of Australia’s most underappreciated twentieth century writers. Highly recommended.

Next time, Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon. Until then, take care and happy reading.

Reading female Australian writers

About six weeks ago, I decided to make a commitment to reading more fiction by female Australian authors, because I shamefully realised that I had read so little of it.

I also decided that I would post on Facebook short reviews of the works I read.

With the creation of this blog, that is no longer necessary.

So I thought it might be a good idea to concatenate my previous Facebook posts, so as to provide a recap of the novels and short stories I have read so far and my responses to them. Some are slightly edited from their original form.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 18 June 2016

I’m making a commitment to read more female Australian writers over the next several weeks. This morning I finished “Monkey Grip”. I have memories of this book; a copy with a photo of Noni Hazlehurst on the cover sat in my parents’ bookcase. But this is the first time I’ve read it through. I loved it to pieces.

Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings 20 June 2016

Last night I finished “Moral Hazard” by Kate Jennings. Cath – a self-described “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” – is forced to take a job as a speechwriter at a Wall Street investment firm when her husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Jennings’ prose is incisive, witty, and economical, and her depiction of a woman (a fictionalised version of herself) watching her partner’s mind and identity crumble is all the more haunting for being wholly unsentimental.

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow by Thea Astley 13 July 2016

Last night I finally finished ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley. I found it a bit difficult to get into at first. The writing is richly textured, so much so that it took a while before I found a rhythm with it. This is a book that stings. It’s about collective guilt, imprisonment of many kinds, and the brutal and dehumanising treatment of indigenous people under the guise of benevolence.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood 15 July 2016

Amazing. An absolute gut-punch of a novel, an allegory of contemporary misogyny that is fierce and heartbreaking and brilliant. A book that urges you to thrust it into people’s hands and cry “Read this!”

The Delinquents by Criena Rohan 16 July 2016

The story of Brownie and Lola’s commitment to each other is beautifully told, but the other joy of this novel is Rohan’s ability to dissect adult hypocrisy and self-delusion with sardonic precision. There are also some darkly comic observations on the suffocating bigotry of 1950s Queensland!

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic 20 July 2016

I have mixed feelings about this novel. It’s well-plotted, features some vividly written scenes of violent action, and the emotional stakes resonate. But there are some details of characterisation and incident that feel contrived, and these had the effect of pulling me out of the narrative.

The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley 24 July 2016

A deeply compassionate portrait of a man longing for family, for emotional fulfilment, and for acceptance. Desires that leave him open to being exploited in a most unusual way… There is a certain formality to Jolley’s use of language, but it richly captures the inner life of her protagonist and his many vulnerabilities.

Forecast: Turbulence by Janette Turner Hospital  28 July 2016

Each of the short stories in this collection is a haunting jewel. The chaotic nature of weather, with its potential for purification as well as destruction, weaves through these stories as a metaphor for unintended consequences, for unendurable loss, for healing revelation.

Next time, two novels by Elizabeth Harrower: Down in the City and The Watch Tower. See you then!

Welcome to foxing around the edges

I created this site to share what I am reading. In the best possible way, it wasn’t my idea. A friend suggested that I should build a blog around my reading list. Other people concurred, which made me think that it might be a project worth undertaking. So here it is!

The best literature can make us better people. It can heighten our sense of empathy. It can expand our vision of the multitude of different ways that people can be. As my flatmate recently observed, it can gift us, however fleetingly, with second lives.

I hope that my responses to the texts I read will inspire you to seek out and experience some more of those second lives for yourself.

Happy reading!