My reviews of Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog, and her young adult novel, Special, were published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. (In Australia, it’s a long weekend for Anzac Day.)
Readers of this blog will know that I don’t copy my reviews into my posts. You can read the reviews of Blain’s two books here.
Instead, I add a few thoughts that I didn’t have the space for, or go off on a small tangent of my own.
While Georgia Blain was writing Between a Wolf and a Dog, in which one of the main characters, a woman in her seventies, has brain cancer, she discovered that she herself had a malignant brain tumour. She was mowing the lawn one day when she collapsed and was taken to hospital.
There’s a very good interview with Charlotte Woods in the Fairfax papers, detailing what Blain went through, and she also wrote a series of articles about it in The Saturday Paper.
You can imagine what you’d feel like if that happened to you. You’d scarcely be able to believe that irony, or fate, could be so cruel.
Blain went back to editing the novel, which isn’t autobiographical, and produced a very fine piece of work indeed.
It’s a co-incidence that, the same weekend my reviews were published, I started reading the manuscript for The Dalai Lama in My Letterbox, sub-titled One woman’s Big Breast Adventure, by Jennifer McDonald. The books are very different – McDonald’s is based around the blog she started when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s warm and witty, at time very funny, intimate and courageous.
Blain’s is fiction, and there are other important characters besides the cancer sufferer. The two books have one thing in common, though; neither is the least bit sentimental.
Jennifer McDonald, I’m proud to say, is the Principal at ‘For Pity Sake’, publishers of my latest novel, Through a Camel’s Eye.
One last comment on Between a Wolf and a Dog. The title comes from a French expression: ‘l’heure entre chien et loup’. This means ‘the hour between a dog and a wolf’, and refers to dusk, or twilight, when an animal, possibly threatening, observed at a distance, is no longer a dog, but not yet a wolf. It’s that unsettling time which, in English, we sometimes call ‘the witching hour’. Blain has inverted the French saying to make it refer, not to dusk, but dawn, the time when the novel begins, with one of the characters who has passed a sleepless night.
My review of Olga Lorenzo’s The Light on the Water was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. As usual, when posting about a newspaper review, I’m not going to repeat the points I make about the novel, but, this time, add some information about the author’s life.
Olga Lorenzo was born in Cuba a month after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Her family left Havana for Miami when she was not quite three years old on one of the ‘Freedom Flights’.
‘It was terrible,’ Lorenzo says. ‘There were no refugee programs in place in Miami. We moved to what was called Little Havana, and everyone was speaking Spanish around me, so it wasn’t a cultural transition. The shock was that I had no toys, we had no clothes, there was no food, we had no furniture.’
When she was 22, Lorenzo moved to Australia and finished her undergraduate degree at Melbourne University, where she later went on to do a Masters and a PhD in creative writing. She currently teaches creative writing and has also worked as a journalist and sub-editor for the Melbourne Age.
Her first novel, The Rooms in My Mother’s House, published in 1996, though clearly fiction, draws largely on her family’s experiences. Twenty years on, The Light on the Water tackles very different subject matter, but with Lorenzo’s hallmark compassion and skill.
Thanks to Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Susan Wyndham, for mentioning my forthcoming novel, Through a Camel’s Eye, at the end of my review.
‘Dorothy Johnston’s novel Through a Camel’s Eye will be published in April by For Pity Sake.’
Through a Camel’s Eye will be launched on April 23rd at the Vue Grand Hotel in Queensciff. Hope to see you there!
Last Friday, while walking 3 dogs, I tripped, fell heavily and broke my left wrist. Now I’m facing 6 weeks without being able to swim, drive or play the piano.
It’s amazing the number of dog-walking mishap/ falling down/ breaking limb/ stories I heard during my 24 hours in hospital.
One of my nurses broke her ankle after slipping on some perfectly ordinary leaves. My anaesthetist told me how he was riding his bike with his dog running obediently alongside when all of a sudden the dog dashed in front of him. He went straight over the handle-bars, but fortunately wasn’t hurt. The culprit? A pedestrian walking towards them carrying a packet of sausages. This story was made all the more vivid because the anaesthetist was sticking needles into me at the same time as he was telling it.
I’ve just tried playing a few bars of a favourite piece on the piano with my right hand only. I can see I’m going to have to do a lot of experimenting/improvising over the next few weeks.
Soon after I started blogging, I wrote a post about the importance of music to my father when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and about playing the piano at different writers’ residencies around the world.
Thinking about this, I was reminded of the poet Tomas Tranströmer and how he taught himself to play the piano left-handed after suffering a stroke.
‘Tranströmer began playing piano as a child and it became for him in his life a passion matched only by his career as a poet. Musical references and composers often appear in his poems. In 1990, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and affected his speech.
This description, from the poet’s official website, and the photo of Tranströmer sitting at his piano, focused and dedicated, his right hand tucked up and his left hand making music, moved me very much. Music is as important to me as writing, and my inconvenience is nothing compared to what Tranströmer faced. Now, when I sit at the piano trying to pick out melodies with one hand, I’ll be thinking of him.
This poem is copied from Tranströmer’s official website. I don’t know if he wrote it before or after his stroke.
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
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.
When I read a description of The Three Princes of Serendip on Gert Loveday’s blog, I immediately felt anxious. Here was an ancient story that began with a missing camel. My new novel, Through a Camel’s Eye, due for release next year by Sydney-based publisher For Pity Sake, and up to the proof-reading stage, begins in exactly the same way. What if I had somehow, without remembering or realizing, absorbed the whole plot and transferred it to modern times, to the small town of Queenscliff close to where I live?
The camel in the old Persian tale is a native, as are the three young men who notice his tracks and cleverly deduce (in Sherlock Holmes fashion) all kinds of facts about him. My camel is an exotic and enchanting creature, at least he is to me. As I read on, I was relieved to find many other differences as well.
So I don’t have to face the ignominy of having pinched my plot. But the word ‘serendipity’, which Horace Walpole coined, using The Three Princes of Serendip as an example, is relevant to my story, and accurately conveys the way my protagonist goes about his detective work.
Chris Blackie, senior constable at the generally quiet Queenscliff police station, stumbles on an important clue while looking for camel tracks in the sandhills. His methods of deduction and inference, and those of his assistant, Anthea, fall well within the ‘serendip’ tradition. The clue discovered in the sandhills starts them off on the search for a missing woman.
‘..they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of..’ Walpole says, referring to the princes in a letter to Horace Mann.
I discovered that the Serendip (an old name for Sri Lanka) story is one of those that fairy-tale scholar Marina Warner describes as having ‘seven league boots’; that is, they can be found all over the world. In India, the tale involves an elephant, while in Palestine and Arabia it’s usually a camel that has disappeared. Walpole substitutes a mule, perhaps because mules were more familiar to him.
In cultures where tracking is not only an important, but an essential skill, it’s no surprise that such stories abound. I wish I could find an Aboriginal one to include here. Never mind, I’ll just keep looking and maybe…
Reading Paul Ruffin’s collection, Jesus in the Mist, reminded me of the stories I’ve written over the years ‘from the edge of childhood’ – stories where the protagonist, a girl or boy, stands with one foot on the shifting soil of childhood, mind filled with a mixture of the fantastical and grimly real, while another foot stretches out across the huge crevasse of puberty.
It’s a subject that draws many writers, of course, but there was something in Ruffin’s stories that I recognised instantly. In ‘Time of the Panther’ a fifteen year old boy is set a challenge by his grandfather. The boy scoffs at the annual re-appearance of a panther, in whom the old men of the district believe. They tell stories about him on the porch of the only store, and around the stove in winter. The boy’s grandfather orders him to cross woods and a meadow in the middle of the night, places where the panther’s tracks were last seen.
The meaning of this story can’t be conveyed by an outline. Like the best short stories, its mysteries deepen the more you read. The clash between old wisdom and new knowledge can’t be reconciled; the best you can hope for is that the image will hold, and that the rhythm will not break.
In ‘The Well’, the task his grandfather sets the protagonist is the apparently simple one of cleaning a well. ‘In Search of the Tightrope Walker’ is about a man’s quest to find a girl he saw walking a tightrope in a carnival when he was a boy.
‘Oh Lord, how he remembered her skinny little body so tightly bound by the silken silver outfit she wore that every bone stood out, ribs and pelvis and vertebrae and high on her back the nubs of her sprouting wings…
Septembers the carnival came to the little Mississippi town near where he lived, as surely as football seasons, welcomed with an almost frenzy by the kids who were still too young to be swept up in the sweat and agony and glory of the gridiron. And even more the country kids who rode their bikes down dusty backroads to the glitter and the glare, then back out under the eery light of the moon or simple stars, penniless, with the sticky sweet of cotton candy still clinging to their faces and the throb of the midway dancing from ear to ear.’
In ‘The Queen’ it’s an old man’s youthful dream of building a ship and sailing away that become the centre-piece, while his children mock him and call him senile.
I think that, in my own stories on the theme, I’ve been groping my way towards something like this – an image comes to me, and a person uncertainly straddled between past and future, and I have to find a way to test their resilience.
Of course, Paul Ruffin’s stories don’t just deal with young people on the brink of becoming adults; they cover many other subjects as well. Ruffin’s sixth collection, ‘The Time the Waters Rose’ and Stories of the Gulf Coast will be published by the University of South Carolina Press later this year. He is Professor of English at Texas State University, 2009 Texas State Poet Laureate and publisher of The Texas Review. An interesting article about Ruffin’s books, and his work as a publisher and teacher can be found in the Huffington Post.
My review of The Landing was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. It’s Johnson’s eighth novel and a fine one.
As usual, I’m not going to repeat the points I make in my review here, on this blog, but add a bit of musing round the edges that I didn’t have space for in 700 words.
This time my musing is about catalogues and lists. Johnson has several of them, mainly of the beauties around the lake where her protagonist, Jonathan Lott, has his holiday house. I came across her first one with a sense of recognition.
Why do authors make lists? Obviously they do so for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones, it seems to me, is that by adding up and counting you, the author that is, can put off getting to the end. Enumeration can delay having to face what happens when you run out of items.
This is most apparent when the author, or character through whom she or he is speaking, knows that fear, or worse, the terror of complete disintegration, hides beneath, or in the middle of, the list.
The critic Ivor Indyk put it this way – and I’m paraphrasing, I don’t recall his exact words – when it comes to lists, he said, the real question is knowing when to stop.
That’s one function of lists in literature, as I see them. Another is the more fundamental and primitive urge to name. You name the things around you, and go on naming them, in an act of bearing witness that you hope will carry meaning in addition to the name.
‘Glory be to God for dappled things,’ says Gerard Manley Hopkins in Pied Beauty, and then goes on to list them, with joy, wonder, and thanks-giving.
And then there’s Proust, the acme and pinnacle of list-makers, who does all of the above.
My review of Stephanie Bishop’s second novel, The Other Side of the World was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. Bishop was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel The Singing.
This second one – and the other side of the world is Australia, viewed from the northern hemisphere, mainly England – tells the story of a young couple who emigrate to Fremantle in the 1960s.
I won’t repeat the points I make in my review, except to say that The Other Side of the World is an accomplished, moving novel. Instead I’m adding a few thoughts about historical fiction and contemporary writing styles, which I didn’t have the space to mention in my 700 word review.
It’s commonplace to say that historical fiction has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of decades, and that this includes works set in the distant, as well as the more recent past – a category that includes Stephanie Bishop.
Bishop’s intimacy with her characters, and the thin membrane which separates their inner lives from the physical worlds around them, works admirably for the story that she has to tell. She says in her acknowledgements that the novel was inspired by the migration of her grandparents. Bishop can draw on universal themes of exile and displacement without having to confront the thorny problems an author faces when dealing with historical events that are widely known, and people who are part of general, that is more than family, history.
Bishop’s up-close-and-personal way of writing has become very familiar to me in recent years as a reviewer and a reader – so much so that deviations from it are unusual. An interesting example is Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which won the 2015 Stella prize. Many reviews have been written of The Strays, most of them highly favourable, and the novel, in my opinion, has much to recommend it. But it popped up in a facebook discussion recently where questions were raised about book’s glittering, imagistic surface compared with the depth and solidity of historical events that took place during the time that the novel covers, events such as the Great Depression, which are not so much engaged with as part of the author’s project, as occasionally referred to.
I’m not putting any of this forward as a way of criticising Bishop, but I do believe there are issues peculiar to historical fiction, matters which ought not to be overlooked, though they often are. These include how to create the resonance of time passing – often a long time – between the characters and events of the novel and the author’s and reader’s present; and how to bring the past to life without pretending, or encouraging the reader to pretend, because she or he feels so ‘close’ to the characters, that it is, necessarily, anything like the world we live in today.
I do admire the versatility of authors who straddle different modes of writing which, taken at face value, might seem to clash with one another. And I admire particularly, since this is my own weakness – strength? – those who produce both literary and crime fiction. Some, like George Johnston, did it to make money. Who remembers Johnston these days for the five detective novels he wrote under the pseudonym Shane Martin? Others write crime fiction as a collaborative effort, for example John Clanchy and Mark Henshaw. Still others split their writing selves into disparate parts, John Banville writing crime as Benjamin Black, for instance.
I wonder how they feel about it, whether it’s easy for them to put on a different hat. It’s not just easy for me; it’s delightful. I wonder whether choosing a playful pseudonym helps. (Shane was George Johnston’s sister and Martin his son.) I’ve never felt the need for a pen name, just as I’ve never felt the need to invent place names for my settings.
Which brings me to my latest – the start of a sea-change mystery series set mainly in Queenscliff on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. The first book is called Through A Camel’s Eye and I’ve had such fun with it! It’s to be published by For Pity Sake in April 2016. You can read a full synopsis on the sea change mystery page, under Fiction. Suffice to say here that it starts with the theft of a camel, and moves on to a missing tourist ….
Thanks to the incomparable Scarlett Rugers for the cover design.
My review of Crow Mellow was published in the Fairfax Press today.
The back cover blurb consists of two sentences. ‘This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.’
While only the name of the writer, Julian Davies, appears on the front cover, Phil Day’s drawings are an essential part of the reading experience, and so I think it’s fitting to include both names in the title of this post.
Most often, the drawings surround the text; sometimes an illustration occupies a whole page, and half of the adjoining one, so that the words are nestled within it. Of course, this kind of reading experience is familiar to us from children’s picture books.
Day’s drawings are often ironic, sharp, and poke fun at themselves as well as the fictional characters they depict. Since I’m writing this post on January 10, 2015, I can’t help being aware that any cartoon or satirical illustration has acquired a whole new depth of resonance this week, and will probably retain it for quite a long time to come.
Who is being satirised in Crow Mellow? As I say in my review, it’s a bunch of people staying in a rich man’s country house. Crow Mellow is modelled on Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, Crome Yellow, published in 1921. Davies’ protagonist echoes Huxley’s – an aspiring writer beset by self-doubt. In both books, the wealthy host is writing a family history. There is a beautiful young woman with whom the protagonist is in love, and a bitter, wordy individual, who acts as a kind of chorus, in the tragic sense, to the mostly frivolous proceedings.
In an interview with Sally Pryor, Julian Davies talks about writing and publishing these days, and in particular Finlay Lloyd, which he established as a non-profit publishing venture in 2005, initially as a partnership with four people.
‘”The thing I realised is what a hidebound set of conventions book publishing is bound by, and literary people don’t even think about it,” (Davies) says. “And sadly, often literary people aren’t very visual and most books are horribly over-designed. Even the better publishers, the books are so covered with gumph because everyone’s so scared of their book not selling. They cover it and smother it, and there’s no room for designers to really design.”‘
‘By the time Davies had become fed up with mainstream publishers, Phil Day and his then-partner were already producing handmade books in small editions as Finlay Press in Braidwood. With Davies, they decided to start publishing books together, and their great friend, the artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe, was also keen to be involved. But eventually Day and his partner split up, Wallace-Crabbe drifted away from the process, leaving Day and Davis to their own joyful devices.’
Pryor’s interview is informative and interesting, well worth reading in its entirety. As is Crow Mellow. I’m just sorry I’m not clever enough to be able to scan a double page of the story, plus illustrations, for this post.