My Big Breast Adventure is a path breaking book which crosses the boundaries between a factual account of one woman’s breast cancer treatment, a philosophical discussion about what it means to be sick – and what it means to be well – and a celebration of humour in the face of adversity.
‘..when one has just had a cancer diagnosis and is about to undergo major surgery, laughter is at a premium and does not come easily,’ Jennifer McDonald writes.
Yet an early chapter heading reads ‘Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh’ and time and again I found myself laughing while reading My Big Breast Adventure, which is based on the author’s blog posts and includes comments by readers. When I stopped to think and wipe my eyes, I asked myself why I was laughing when the author was going through hell. Answer: I was laughing because she made me laugh. McDonald’s humour is the buffer between her threatened sanity and the daily, weekly, monthly rounds of tests and chemo, radiation, more tests and more chemo.
There are many examples I could choose: here is one about hair loss.
‘I cut all of mine off before starting treatment even though my carers told me the hair probably wouldn’t fall out until about week three. Why wait to be bald I say? No word (or movement thankfully) on the eyebrows and lashes as yet. As my sister reminded me though, we McDonald girls come from staunch Celtic, Methodist stock which means we have eyebrows like John Howard and leg hair like the family dog.’
McDonald’s humour is like a dance with a quick, flicking two-step at the end. It is insouciant, irreverent, compassionate and warm. As readers would expect, anger and sadness, nausea and crushing fatigue are part of the story. They are acknowledged and dealt with. Jokes don’t take the dark side away; they make it into something more.
‘..I believe there are much worse things than death – being kidnapped by Boko Haram, having your business put into general administration, sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one, or living in Tony Abbott’s (Australian Prime Minister at the time of writing) electorate. Hang on, I do live in his electorate –what the FEC?’
FEC is an acronym for an extra chemo cocktail which McDonald took for nine weeks after her twelve-week standard chemo program was finished. For Father Ted fans, it’s also an irresistible reminder of Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea to Father Jack. McDonald of course makes the most of this connection.
When discussing the importance of active acceptance, the author refers to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and on the next page quotes a poem by an ancient Sufi mystic. Quotations and references abound, but they never feel intrusive in the text, or stuck on for effect. They don’t detract from the central story; they enrich it.
McDonald makes the point that, while, she has striven for accuracy in describing her treatment and its effects, both physical and emotional, My Big Breast Adventure is not a therapy manual. Though she refers throughout to aspects of traditional and complementary medicine, she stresses that her approach is personal; she is not setting out to tell others what to do when they receive a cancer diagnosis, or where to look for help and guidance. Yet I’m sure her book will be a help and guide to many, not least because of her unfailing sense of humour.
- My Big Breast Adventure can be purchased for $24.99 paperback and $9.99 ebook from For Pity Sake Publishing.
To celebrate Christina Stead week this year, Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers is hosting a selection of reviews and appreciations of Stead’s work. As my contribution, I’ve written an appreciation, rather than an objective review of For Love Alone.
For Love Alone meant a great deal to me when I first read the novel in the mid nineteen seventies, a time when I was teaching myself to write. It is among the top ten, if not top five novels from which I learnt the most. The mid nineteen seventies was also the time I met Christina Stead, while she was a writer-in-residence at Monash University. This post – which is really more of a personal testament than a critique of the novel – is not the place to describe our meeting. Suffice to say, Stead struck me as both gracious and formidable – gracious in that she had taken the time to read and think about a manuscript I’d sent her – formidable, as well as accurate, in her criticism of it.
While I learnt much from For Love Alone, I understood, young as I was, that it would be vain and foolish ever to imagine I could write like its author. But I identified with the struggle of Stead’s protagonist, Teresa Hawkins, to better herself through education, to scrimp and save in order to afford the fare to Europe. I also identified with the mistake she made in falling in love with the wrong man – not only a kind of generic ‘wrong man’ – but a man who was also her teacher.
And I fell in love with Stead’s prose, her language that is rich and deep, extraordinarily well orchestrated, heart-felt.
Jonathan Crow, the tutor who turns out to be nasty and self-serving, is the catalyst Teresa needs to get away from Australia, from Sydney. But what a Sydney Stead creates in the early parts of the book! I can never go to Watsons Bay without recalling her descriptions of the water and the summer heat, and Teresa and her sister Kitty, dressed in their best, heading off to their cousin’s wedding.
Stead’s London is the London of the 1930s, where Teresa finds work with the American radical, James Quick, a man who finally wins her affection and returns it. The title, For Love Alone, I have always read as ironic. It is not ‘for love alone’ that Teresa triumphs and learns to forge her own path; it is certainly not for romantic love, and she turns her back on the duties that might have kept her in Australia as a consequence of loving her immediate family.
During her lifetime, Stead was often maligned and misunderstood, the power of her prose sometimes frightening off readers and reviewers, not to mention the publishers who forced her to re-write The Man Who Loved Children and set it in America. Thankfully, Stead did not bow to the same kind of persuasion when it came to For Love Alone.
I’ve said I’m not going to describe my meeting with the author in this post, but I will finish it by mentioning one thing. It has always intrigued me how, in The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa helps her step mother to kill herself, or at least does not prevent it happening. When I met Stead at Monash, and asked her about this harrowing and memorable scene, she replied, ‘I could be violent with them (meaning her characters) because I was violent with myself.’
Here is a link to another contributor, who has reviewed Christina Stead: A Life of Letters by Chris Williams.
As time goes on I’ll be adding more.
The Art of the Possible is a comic novel in the tradition of Gert Loveday’s previous books: Crane Mansions and Writing is Easy. It is hilariously funny and at the same time quietly philosophical, with a warmth and humanity I have come to expect from the author.
This new book certainly does not disappoint. Bearer of the gentle philosophy in The Art of the Possible is doctor turned medical administrator, Frank Owlbrother, a lover since his childhood of Sagaworld comics and heroic Norse legends. From the start of the novel, Frank is at the mercy of his boss, a bully who takes medical newspeak to ridiculous heights; his wife; even his office cleaner. Then there are the Oldies, a political force to be reckoned with since the introduction of Optiviva, a wonder drug that makes people over 60 vigorous and increasingly aggressive. Hospital staff, the Oldies and their youthful opponents, cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minister, become involved in a dramatic tussle to win supporters and discredit one another.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for Frank, he doesn’t recognize himself in this job description: ‘Possessing excellent stakeholder management skills, you are a proven performer who enjoys driving strategic capability initiatives within a framework of dynamic management philosophies and paradigms.’ Frank is mildly but determinedly resistant to all those who would mould him to suit their own ends, including his wife, the hospital hierarchy, even a charismatic Russian who has transformed the lives of elderly people without the use of drugs.
Towards the end of the story, Frank discovers the joy and release of free running. Gert Loveday’s satire is often sharp, yet Frank’s misadventures are perfectly plausible when you’re in the midst of them. For those who know Gert Loveday’s books, this one will be a pleasure; those who don’t have a triple treat in store.
The Art of the Possible is available from Smashwords, Amazon, and soon to be released on other platforms.
I’ve just come across a brilliant prose poem, ‘The Ships’ by Constantine Cavafy. Judging by the number of English translations on the official Cavafy website, the work is well known, but I’m glad to have found it, if a trifle later in life!
This photograph of the poet dates from around 1900.
‘From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it. The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods…’ More
The prose poem is a wonderful evocation of the imagination as a ship and well worth reading in its entirety.
Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived most of his life in Alexandria and whose poetry went largely unrecognised in Greece during his lifetime. One of his best known poems is Waiting For The Barbarians.
Gert Loveday had done it again with another wild, whacky and delicious comic novel.
Writing Is Easy, Gert’s debut novel, is a marvellous send-up of a writing workshop and the people to attend and run it. Crane Mansions, the place, is a school for foundlings – literally babies left in baskets – presided over by Dr Crane, who is obsessed by pigeons and has created an entire philosophy built around observing them. Crane leaves the running of the school to evil Marcel Hogue and a group called the Leaders. The children, the Learners, are half-starved and bullied, made to parrot nonsensical Texts, Precepts and Axioms, and punished for failing to interpret them correctly.
This sounds grim, and on one level it’s meant to be – a satire on the worst kind of boarding school. Like all good satirists, Gert exaggerates in order to make her point, and we laugh at the ridiculous posturings of the so-called teachers, and the pupils’ schemes to get the better of them, one way or another.
But Crane Mansions is more than a simple or straight-forward satire; it has at its heart a humanity and warmth that many satires lack. Milly Lord is apparently an indigent foundling like all the other children, though she arrives as a seven-year-old rather than a baby. Milly has memories of another life, and is wise and imaginative as well. She responds to Crane’s kindness, manifested at first by offerings of cake and a willingness to listen, and gradually the whole, cruel edifice of the school begins to crumble.
The cast of humorous villains includes Trish Vowles, out to swindle Milly if she can, her partner Sam, who, in an attempt to win her back turns himself into a furiously sun-tanned and bewigged buffoon, and Eustace Pugh and Sybilla Shaw, who start off on the side of the villains but are redeemed in time.
The cover tag line reads ‘a novel about the redeeming power of cake’ and while this is obviously a joke, it also holds its own kind of truth. Crane Mansions, while sending itself up continually, and tying itself in knot after knot, is redemptive in ways that only a special kind of comedy can be. So that even the crazy Thoughts of the headmaster come to mean more than they appear to, and the Pageant at the end becomes a celebration of human ingenuity and irrepressible sense of fun.
* Gert Loveday is the pen name of writing duo Gabrielle Daly and Joan Kerr
Crane Mansions is available for sale on Amazon
A few weeks ago I began drafting a post about the difficulties of ending novels. I was going to talk about the problems I perceived both as a writer and a reader, and how I often lay in bed after finishing a book, wondering why it had to end in just that way.
But then my mother died. Two weeks ago today, early in the morning, I got the call to say she’d passed away in the middle of the night. Ivy Johnston was 94 years old. She caught pneumonia and the doctors said that she could not recover. But then she seemed to rally, and for five days hung between life and death. Not a long time. Not long compared to many.
I’m looking now at the thoughts I’d set down on fictional endings, the points I wanted to make about aesthetics, the comparisons between musical and written language. They seem trivial and silly – yet maybe not entirely so.
I was going to compare the ending of a piece of music with a work of prose fiction or a poem, and try to capture the feeling I have when learning a piece on the piano, of looking forward to the end. When my fingers are just beginning to grasp what is required of them, when finger memory is just beginning to take hold, I begin to anticipate returning to the home key. I long for this, and the comfort of knowing that it’s there.
The home key marks the ending of a journey. But it must be the right ending and the right return. I hate aesthetic endings that come cheap, but with the ending of a real life, can this ever be said to happen?
I began playing the piano again after my father contracted Alzheimer’s. (He died in 2001.) It’s often observed that musical memory is retained after other kinds are lost. I set down my own thoughts about this once in an essay.
The truth is, I don’t yet believe that my mother has gone. I feel as though these last few weeks have been some kind of weird rehearsal and that we’ll all do better next time. When I wrote this in an email to a friend, she replied, ‘But you’ve only got one mother’. By ‘rehearsal’ I didn’t mean that another mother would step in and take over, but that mine was only practising for being dead.
On the second of those five days spent waiting in the hospital, my daughter burst into the ward, the way the sun bursts, or a sudden shower, carrying a big bunch of daphne, and my mother, her grandmother, opened her eyes and smiled.
‘These fragments have I shored against my ruins’
What a weight that verb ‘shored’ has to bear. How courageously it does so!
The inspiration for this post comes from a review on Guy Savage’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly, which I recently discovered thanks to fellow novelist and poet, Joan Kerr. Joan also hosts a sparkling blog, with her sister, under the pen name Gert Loveday.
Guy Savage criticises best-selling author Joel Dicker for over-reaching himself, biting off more than he can chew, in Dicker’s recently published The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I read the critique with a start of recognition, for it touched on something that I’ve been feeling increasingly myself, both in writing paid reviews for newspapers, and those I’ve undertaken for no payment, as an indie author and reviewer.
It’s a common fault with inexperienced, (often self-published) authors, that they reach – it seems unhesitatingly – for the sky, that the scope of their narratives is panoramic, while their prose is barely up to describing a blade of grass. Can this disparity, between ambition and skill, be dismissed as a form of hubris? Could it be a way of learning how to write? In the grasp and falling back, an author might well be discovering what is truly within his or her capacity. One can dare to fail. I’ve been guilty of that daring and that fault myself.
But these days, (perhaps like Guy Savage), I’m less willing to make allowances for best-selling authors, already secure in their stardom. Last year I reviewed, for the Fairfax newspapers, Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty, a title destined for the best-selling lists if ever there was one. I found it bloated, over-long, and redolent, more than anything else, of the author’s ego.
The title of this blog post is borrowed from an essay by Ivor Indyk in the Australian Book Review, November 1997, well before the explosion of book review blogs that have changed not only the face but the entire body of reviewing, and what is understood by literary opinion and authority. In a way that seems prophetic now, Indyk stated that ‘the critic’s authority is a reader’s authority. Criticism is the reflective aspect of reading, present to a greater or lesser extent in the experience itself, not detachable from it.’ Book bloggers often disclaim any authoritative status, professing instead to express ‘personal’ opinions. They often use the word ‘honest’ as well; it is as though these claims, to personal opinion and honesty, absolve them from analysis, or comparative judgements built up over a period of reading and reflecting, or a knowledge of literary traditions and history.
So many opinions and judgments are now being offered publicly, not just to a circle of friends, or private book discussion group, that anybody trying to negotiate them faces a daunting task. This is happening at the same time as traditional newspaper reviews are drastically shrinking.
As a traditionally published fiction writer and a professional (ie paid reviewer) who has moved into publishing her own ebooks, and writing reviews of other indie authors, I welcome the new opportunities, and indeed could not think of myself as having any kind of a writing future without them. But I also believe that publishing one’s opinions carries a responsibility; first of all to read the book the author has actually written, whether or not it conforms to expectations raised by a particular genre, or whatever happens to be the current fashion with regard to style; and secondly, by suspending the expectations of personal taste. The gratification of personal taste should not be at the forefront of a reading experience, when that experience is undertaken with a view to publishing world-wide.
Since launching off into the brave new world of digital publishing, I’ve met some great ebook authors.
My first effort was to self-publish a collection of short stories, Eight Pieces on Prostitution and now Wakefield Press has released all four books in my Sandra Mahoney Quartet. It’s a steep learning curve, but an exhilarating one as well.
From time to time I’ll be posting reviews I’ve written of ebooks that have captured my attention, beginning with – aptly named – Beginnings: Where A Life Begins by Gary Heilbronn.
Beginnings: Where A Life Begins is an ambitious, multi-layered novel about the workings of genetic memory through many generations of women. The novel deserves a wide readership not only because of its original and audacious premise, but because each historical episode is vividly imagined, and the female characters, linked in ways they recognize but do not fully understand, are remarkable inventions in themselves.
The novel is predicated on the controversial idea that Mitochondrial DNA, transmitted from mothers to daughters, is understood, by certain outstanding women of their times, as an accumulated heritage. These women know the line they come from even if they cannot explain this knowledge; it gives them courage and it makes them proud.
Many of the women Heilbronn portrays as young, athletic warriors, but the main protagonist, Maria, a Basque refugee from Franco’s Spain, is of a different type. She suffers the tumultuous war years, having barely escaped across the border into France, and wishes only to remain unobtrusive and unnoticed by those who have the power to do her and her daughter, born shortly after her arrival, harm. The story moves in a wide arc, returning to Maria and Anna at various points. It is while Maria is giving birth to Anna – in a kind of trance – that the first return to deep genetic memory is accomplished, to the Cantabrian Mountains in about 10,000 BC. Other sections include ‘Coming of the Phoenicians’, Siege of Saguntum, (in the third century BC) and the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century. Each is conveyed with an eye for detail, while the forward momentum of the story is maintained. Mt favourite section tells of the coming of the Phoenicians to the northern coast of Spain. The many differences between the indigenous people and the Phoenician traders, the troubles in which they find themselves, and in particular the character of Hannh, the young female warrior, made me want this section to continue.
At the end of the chapter describing Maria’s escape, readers are introduced to ‘an original, ornate dagger’ which, like the characters’ elusive yet crucial memories, has been handed on through thousands of years and will continue to play its own part in the story.
In an afterword, Heilbronn gives an account of the historical and scientific background to his novel, with particular reference to the meaning of genetic links in people like the Basques, ‘whose ethnic identity and genealogy have been insulated and isolated through millennia.’ Beginnings is complex and full of intriguing concepts and characters, yet at the same time emotionally vivid and fast-paced. Heilbronn has the ability to carry his readers along no matter if the scene is set in Palaeolithic times or the 1950s, with the rise of the Basque separatist movement. I highly recommend this book and look forward to its sequel.
My short story collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution is now nine!
You can purchase an extra story, at no extra cost, from Authors Unlimited.
The story is called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and it formed the nucleus of my novel The House At Number 10. Paul Ham accepted the story as a stand-alone and then told me he wasn’t going to publish any more fiction.
I wish I’d known in time to include it in my ebook collection, but here it is now.