Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Who doesn’t love an Irish accent?

That Old Country Music is a collection of eleven beautifully written short stories by Kevin Barry. The book is his second volume of short stories and he has also written three novels.

The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn – it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

In the first story a lonely man develops a crush on a Polish waitress at his local cafe and is unprepared for its impact; in another a young Roma girl runs away from a tormented life and finds herself in the care of a kindly old hermit; a writer inherits a cottage from an uncle and finds that his new life transforms him into a ladies man; a vagrant crouches by a dog at the edge of a town and observes people around him whilst he talks to the dog.

He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

The prose is lyrical and poetic with a wild humour that explores love, lust, loneliness, desire and doom in the wilds of western Ireland. Barry develops the characters quickly, infusing them with yearning and longing, set against a backdrop of rich descriptions of the environment.

The hills displayed with arrogance the richest of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness.

I listened to That Old Country Music as an audio book narrated in a lilting brogue, sprinkled liberally with the F$@&k word, by Barry himself and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book review: Traffic by Robin Gregory

Traffic is a contemporary crime fiction story set in Melbourne and is Robin Gregory’s debut novel.

Private Investigator, Sandi Kent’s ex-girlfriend hires her to scout out and plan the rescue of a sex slave from an inner-city brothel. Simultaneously a lawyer friend hires her to seek out angles to defend a Colombian immigrant charged with murdering another sex worker.

Sandi struggles with a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult to resist her manipulative ex-girlfriends advances, making it appear that she is helping Cassy out for all the wrong reasons. Sandi’s desires, and her deep empathy for the vulnerability of others, weaken her professional boundaries and she soon finds herself in much deeper than she ever intended to go.

Gregory explores difficult themes in Traffic but manages to do so with enough humour to make the story an easy read. Issues such as domestic violence, the underbelly of human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug trafficking are traversed against a backdrop of cosmopolitan Melbourne. The story sets a good pace and Gregory’s voice is quintessentially Australian. I found it to be an enjoyable and entertaining read despite the very serious themes embedded in the story.

Out with the old, in with the new

Happy New Year amigos! And thank you for journeying with me through 2020.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

– Stephen King
are we there yet?

Fruit bats sailed across the dusky sky and the shrill buzz of cicadas echoed through the cooling air. Two dogs rested on the sofa after a gambol around the park befriending picnickers and searching for scraps. The table was laid with a delicious spicy meal of fish, tahini potatoes, and an eggplant, braodbean and soba noodle salad. Roast rhubarb and the first peaches plucked from my tree in the afternoon lay in wait on the kitchen bench for desert.

2020 was prickly. It was a strange year, with the main beneficiaries being household pets who got to have their humans around more. Humanity had developed a COVID weariness, a yearning for a return to ‘normality’, and a tentative hopefulness as the year drew to a close.

Reflecting on 2020, I am most grateful for friends and family, a little disappointed that I did not get more writing done, and genuinely curious about what 2021 will bring.

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

– Anne Frank
waiting for action

I sent my completed first manuscript out into the world of querying early in 2020. One publisher contacted me and provided valuable feedback that resulted in some rework. I shelved the idea of sending it further afield as COVID-19 took hold, and the industry entered a state of uncertainty, though I did submit to a few unpublished manuscript awards. No success so far, but I will re-enter the world of querying in 2021.

There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.

– Beatrix Potter

The first draft of my second manuscript is half way through. This year I hope to reinvigorate my work on it after a few months of distraction. Most of my recent writing, other than this blog has been short stories and journaling about day to day life. I have written less than I hoped through the year, but I did read more. Curiously my to-be-read pile didn’t diminish however. A selection of reading highlights, in no particular order, included an eclectic mix:

happy place

New years eve was a companionable night with friends, but I didn’t quite make it to midnight. I drove into the new year. Fireworks erupted from a paddock as I cruised past, lighting up the night sky in psychedelics that startled me and caused the laconic hound to sit up and search for the source of the explosions.

Never one for new years resolutions, I did not make any, but I have promised myself to be open to possibilities, embrace opportunities, and of course to write more.

May 2021 live up to the promises you have made it, and write you a beautiful story.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

– Louis L’Amour

main image: Mainstreet and full moon

Book review: Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer

Joan Smokes is a 68 page novella by Australian author Angela Meyer. Winner of the Mslexia Novella Award (2019), this story is a case of good things come in small packages.

She used to be someone else, but decided to become Joan after she arrived in Vegas, to start again, shut her past out. It’s the 60s and she decides Joan has dark hair, red lipstick and wears floral dresses. Joan is also a smoker, so she buys a packet of cigarettes.

Joan moves forward amongst the casinos and flashing neon, finds a job and meets new people.

She’d seen the Las Vegas  strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue.

Her mother always said one man is as good as another. She forgets about Jack, tries to let things go.

You will want to know what Joan is running from, why she is on the edge of a breakdown and why she thinks becoming someone else will make her believe it didn’t happen. A sophisticated and emotional read that will make you wish the story was longer.

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper – book to film

I read Jane Harper’s The Dry when it first came out and really enjoyed it. So I was excited to go and see a special screening of the movie at Cinema Nova in Melbourne this week. It was also the first time I’d been near a cinema, or any kind of cultural institution since March (pre-COVID) which engendered a sense of novelty into the occasion.

Three members of a family are murdered in a small, parched, Victorian country town. This is the second significant tragedy to strike the town in twenty years and Kiewarra is seething with a hostile undercurrent of mistrust. The first incident involved the drowning of our protagonists teenage sweetheart twenty years earlier. Federal cop Aaron Falk returns to the town for the first time since the girls death to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, after he receives a note from Luke’s father that says ‘You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral’.

It is believed that Luke killed his wife and son, and then himself in a murder-suicide. When Aaron arrives Luke’s parents ask him to look into what happened. Aaron reluctantly agrees and finds himself trying to navigate local hostility to solve two crimes.

It is only four years since The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. It’s been a speedy process from book to film after filmmaker Robert Connolly read the book and loved it. Connolly’s filmography includes: All Men are Liars, The Monkey’s Mask, Three Dollars, Balibo, Paper Planes, and The Bank.

Eric Bana plays Aaron and there’s plenty of pensive, moody moments of pent up emotion as he struggles with his own inner demons as well as those of the town. Other cast members include Genevieve O’Reilly, (Glitch, Rogue One), Keir O’Donnell (American Sniper, Ray Donovan) and John Polson (Tropfest founder)

The film was shot in the Wimmera and Castelmaine and is a great one to see on a big screen to get that sense of the expansiveness of regional Australia. Due for release in January 2021.

Book review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

I have a longstanding interest in the relationship between creativity and mental health. Creating art allows us to disconnect from stress, express inner thoughts and feelings, and often to enter that beautiful meditative state of ‘flow’. As a writer, I find the act of writing soothing.

I was fascinated to discover and read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City recently. The book investigates creativity as an antidote to loneliness, a largely taboo subject about the feeling that arises when we become distressed by the perceived gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it.

Laing found herself alone in New York after the relationship that drew her there from Britain ended abruptly. She set out to investigate the state of loneliness, state that society finds difficult, through works of art that arose out of that state, and to record her own journey to master being alone.

Laing’s main subjects were: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the American realist painter and print maker who captured the loneliness and alienation of modern life in his work; Andy Warhol (1928-1987) a leading figure in the visual art movement; David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) the Polish American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist; and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the isolated American janitor who was posthumously recognised for his writing and art, including collages, and drawings, and 15,000 pages of handwritten prose.

images from web

Each artist was studied by Laing to create what she called a ‘map of loneliness’. Hopper’s Nighthawks is used to explore the spacial dynamics of loneliness with its characters trapped in an iceberg of greenish glass. Warhol’s machine-like aesthetic and the way he mediated intimacy via his tape recorder and camera explores the social strategies used to bridge a sense of strangeness and ‘not belonging’. Wojnarowicz provides a case study of the politics of loneliness and what happens when society excludes people from its ranks. Darger’s extreme isolation throughout his life presents a psychological case study of the condition of loneliness.

The setting of the work in New York city is demonstrative of the fact that being alone and loneliness are not the same thing. Loneliness is a condition that arises from within, an uncomfortable feeling that for some becomes unbearable. Some, like Warhol surround themselves with people but still feel a deep sense of loneliness, whilst others spend significant amounts of time alone without experiencing the condition of loneliness.

Laing explores the gendered nature of loneliness reflecting on Valerie Solanas (who shot Warhol), Greta Garbo and her paparazzo stalker, Ted Leyson, and Laing’s own forays into online dating.

The Lonely City is part biography, part memoir and part cultural criticism about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together. It is a broad ranging meditation on sexuality, mortality, loneliness, and the possibilities of art as an antidote. A fascinating read (or listen – I bought the audio book).

Book review: You Again by Debra Jo Immergut

You Again is Edgar Award finalist (for The Captives) Debra Jo Immergut’s second novel about a middle aged woman haunted by herself. I don’t know about you, but if I think I saw my younger self I couldn’t resist the temptation to offer myself some frank and fearless advice about a thing or two.

Abigail Willard keeps meeting her younger self in her old haunts around New York. A talented painter who abandoned her art for marriage and parenthood and an ordinary day job, at first she wonders if she’s having a midlife crisis and hallucinating about her lost youth. Then, as it keeps happening, she wonders if she has some neurological or psychiatric condition and goes to see a shrink and to get brain scans.

Meanwhile she is also contending with her rebelious son and questioning her relationship with her husband.

Journal entries form the narrative as Abigail’s life unfolds and she wonders whether she should warn her younger self about what is going to happen. There are echoes of magical realism in the plot as the narrative takes you from inside Abigail’s head to a doctor who is trying to work out why her patient is having these strange experiences.

You Again combines psychological suspense and fantasy in a meditation on time, existence, consciousness, fate, love, ambition and regret.

Navigation

My writing mojo is a little flat this week, so I’m going abstract, partly inspired by one of my favourite poets, James Walton

She became certain that the world was not flat when she flew off its edge. The instigating event was packaged in a few short sentences that spelled ‘the end’. A surprise finish to a story she thought only half way through. Some writers like to conclude with a twist.

Afraid of falling as she spun through space. Perpetually at the apex of a roller coaster – dizzy; stomach lurching toward mouth; sense of time and space confused. Astronauts know it only too well. But she held her own and panic subsided. A euphoric calm settled in. Awe at the infinite possibilities of all-that-space. She is a speck of dust, both insignificant and gloriously extraordinary. Weightless.

Wonder at the celestial balls burning bright, lighting up the night sky with constellations of starlore. Her grandmother told her that her anger set fire to the barn. The flames reached into the night sky and their embers created the stars. The old crone could throw back whisky like a Kentucky pioneer and she knew a thing or two about navigation.

Book review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

In The Survivors, Jane Harper takes us to an isolated small town on the Tasmanian coast riddled with a labyrinthe of dangerous caves that fill and empty with the tide. Getting trapped in there at high tide means certain death.

Evelyn Bay is a small, struggling, but close knit community, reliant on tourist visiting for whale watching and diving an old ship wreck in the bay. It has a pub and a police station that is about to be closed because not much happens.

Keiran Elliott left Evelyn Bay years ago, after his brother drowned at sea. He believes his was responsible for what happened to his brother and struggles guilt. He has returned with his wife and baby to visit his parents. Keiran’s father is suffering from early onset dementia and needs care so they are about to sell the family home and move because of this.

The Survivors, three statues commissioned in tribute to the 54 passengers and crew who died in a shipwreck a century earlier, stand as a mythic presence in the town. The waves lap at their feet, almost, but never completely consuming them at high tide. They are a constant reminder of the oceans ferocity, and auger when it is and is not safe to be on the beach.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. Towns people still grieve the losses of some of its members in the crashing waves during a terrible storm a decade earlier. When a second tragedy occurs – a young woman visiting during a break from university who is found dead on the beach – long buried secrets and grievances begin to emerge.

The police investigate the girls death while the townsfolk go wild with speculation on social media. Anger at a newcomer author who bought the house of the local landscaper’s grandmother, and ripped up the garden almost comes to blows in the pub. Animosity and guilt about who’s fault it was that three community members died in the storm all those years ago simmers near the surface, straining long held friendships.

The mystery unfolds as the characters grapple with grief, guilt and regrets that make some stronger, whilst others unravel. Another good read from Jane Harper.

Entering the new world

The New World was first sighted by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana on 12 October 1492. It was during Christopher Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage. Rodrigo was standing aboard the caravel ship La Pinta very early one morning when he caught sight of Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas, and shouted, ‘Land! Land!’

It seemed fitting that my first sojourn out into my own new world post lock down (and post my relationship that became a casualty of Melbourne’s hard lock down) was to a restaurant called La Pinta.

La Pinta menu

It was a friends birthday and a group of us, I refer to fondly as ‘the old girls network,’ came together face to face for the first time since before COVID (except for one who moved to Adelaide earlier in the year). La Pinta set us up at a table out the back behind the kitchen.

I first met these women over twenty years ago when we were all idealistic young aid workers. They have become a group of my most valued friends – they are at my heart centre. We spent the nine months of Melbourne’s multiple lock downs chatting on Whatsapp about the state of the world, food, politics, plumbing, sharing memes, hopes, dreams and disasters.

For Melbourne peeps, La Pinta is a fabulous little Spanish inspired restaurant in High Street, Reservoir. The eatery was established by a group of Italian, Spanish and French heritage, in what used to be an old billiard room. The walls are still adorned with original murals of Italian landscapes that I suspect may have been the inspiration for the restaurants name. La Pinta translates into The Painted One.

La Pinta serves an ever changing menu of delicious tapas made from the produce of a network of local farmers of small-scale regenerative agriculture. I say delicious with some authority as we managed to get through about 90% of the menu over lunch.

The Patch

My other passion aside from writing is my garden, so I was instantly taken with La Pinta. My patch of paradise holds about twenty fruit and nut trees, and a very large vegetable patch.

I have been pondering over recent weeks what I would do with the excess produce I grow including citrus, figs, quinces, and seasonal veggies. Visiting friends generally leave with bags of goodies, but large quantities remain. I had contemplated setting up a street stall, but I live in a very quiet street so worry too much would still go to waste. I don’t want to stop growing food, but I hate the thought of it not being used.

As it turns out going to this particular restaurant was not only fitting, but fortuitous. I am going to try to become one of their suppliers so I can keep up as much growing as I like and see it go to good use. I’m excited about dropping off my first delivery of garlic and dried limes on Wednesday. I wonder what they will make with them, and who might eat the food I have grown.