Know where you live

I was listening to Melissa Lucashenko interviewed on The Garret podcast about her novel Too Much Lip whilst I laboured in the garden. The novel won Melissa the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award amongst other accolades.

Too Much Lip is the story of Kerry Salter, a First Nations Woman, who returns to the place she has been avoiding all her adult life – her hometown. She heads south on a stolen Harley for one last visit to see her dying Pop. The novel is a dark, political, funny and fast paced story about the Salter family, love and redemption, set in fictional Bundjalung country.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip

During the interview Melissa spoke about relationships to land, connection to country, and the cultural differences in that connection and knowing. It occurred to me, with a little embarrassment, that despite having lived in the same place and admired the same fabulous view every day for twenty-five years, I did not actually know the names of all the distant landmarks. So I did a bit of research to educate myself. Sadly my efforts returned very little about the Indigenous culture of the specific mountains I can see from my balcony, though all fall within the Wurundjeri and Taungurung lands of the Kulin Nations.

One Tree Hill (372m), Christmas Hills.

One Tree Hill

Europeans named Christmas Hills after David Christmas, an emancipated convict shepherd who got lost in the area in 1842. Gold was discovered at One Tree Hill in 1859 causing a brief gold rush until 1964. Remnants of the mining activity are still visible if you meander along Happy Valley Walking Track through the bush and along the creek of that name. The reserve is home to the large bent-wing bat, eastern horseshoe bat, the carnivorous marsupial phascogale, and powerful, and barking owls.

Yarra Ridge (241m), Christmas Hills

Yarra Ridge is not just a wine label, though being part of Victoria’s first wine growing district most of the information online is about wine. The regions viticultural history goes back to 1838 when the Ryrie Brothers planted a vineyard at Yering Station and produced their first drop in 1845. Vines were first planted at the original Yarra Ridge vineyard by lawyer Louis Bialkower in 1983, though Yarra Ridge wines are now just a brand, having been taken over by Foster’s Group.

Yarra Ridge the place is part of the Great Dividing Range. The Watsons Creek catchment runs along the southern spur downstream form Kinglake National Park and is home to the Growling Grass Frog, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart and the Barking Owl.

From my balcony on 7 February 2009, I could see the glow of the fire that swept along Yarra Ridge which carried it down to devastate the Steels Creek valley. Alice Bishop, author of A Constant Hum, a book which grapples with the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, grew up at Christmas Hills.

Mount Graham (271m), Christmas Hills

Mount Graham overlooks Sugarloaf Reservoir, built in the 1970s to supplement Melbourne’s domestic water supply. The dam is fed by the Yarra River and the Maroondah Aqueduct that runs past the base of Mount Graham via the Sugarloaf pipeline.

There is a 14km walking track around the reservoir that skirts the base of Mount Graham. The more adventurous can take the steep climb along a rough track over native grasslands and through fern thickets to the top of the mountain.

Mount Tanglefoot (1024m) and Mount St Leonard (1100m)

Mount St Leonard

Mount Tanglefoot is just north of Mount St Leonard in the Toolangi State Forest. The two peaks are connected by a 10km saddle.

Toolangi is an aboriginal word meaning tall trees, a nod to the Mountain Ash and Myrtle Beech trees in the area that attracted the paling splitters and timber cutters who moved there in the 1890s. At least one of the giant beauties was spared – Toolangi Forest is home to the 400 year old, 65m high Kalatha Giant, a mountain ash that is the seventh largest tree in Victoria. The forest also houses a sculpture trail that takes in sculptures formed from materials taken sustainably from the forest.

Toolangi even has a bit of literary history. One of Australia’s most famous poets, CJ (Clarence James) Dennis the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in the early 20th century, lived in a hut at Toolangi in the early 1900s. He published his first volume of poems, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, whilst living there.

Book Review: Maggie Terry a novel by Sarah Schulman

This pulp fiction novel bleeds desperation, anxiety and struggle and takes place during a relentless New York summer whilst a madman called Trump is in the White House.

Maggie Terry’s life is a mess but she’s been given a second chance. It’s her first day on a new job as a private investigator at a small law firm run by a guy who’s son she tried to save and failed. Now he’s saving her following the loss of her job as a cop after her partner was killed and 18 months in rehab after being sectioned by her now ex-partner who won’t let her see her child anymore.

Whoever had thought up date night for long-term couples should have been shot on the spot. It was all about creating pressure and then shining a light on everyone’s inadequacies. There was pressure to prove that one was loveable, pressure to keep up her end of the conversation, to show she was interested, to ask the right questions, to try to get the fucking discussion going in a way that would bring them closer. Not to fall into old traps of unresolved conflicts and problems that never went away, that was not the goal of date night.

All Maggie’s emotional energy is exhausted by being angry at her ex, missing her daughter and trying to stay sober by attending 12-step meetings intermittently throughout the day. She struggles with simple day to day tasks like buying teabags whilst trying rebuild her shattered life and take stock of all the changes in New York.

What was she supposed to do? Find a way to get foolish bravado out of mint tea, or find a way to be terrified all the time and let that be okay?

Famous actress, Lucy Horne, turns up at the law firm on Maggie’s first day seeking the discrete investigation of the murder of a strangled minor actress. Horne identifies the actresses famous novelist and boyfriend as a potential suspect.

That was the problem with taking responsibility, Maggie remembered. Everything becomes deeper. It is not a way out of life, it is only a way in.

The novel explores police brutality, addiction, queer love and New York nostalgia. I found it an easy, enjoyable and fast read.

Grand Dames of Crime: Georgette Heyer

English novelist Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was best known for her Regency romances but she also wrote crime novels. Heyer was not as prolific in the crime genre as her better knows grand dames of crime contemporaries like Dorothy Sayers, Ggnaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, but twelve of the fifty-seven books she wrote over more than fifty years were country house mysteries produced between 1932 and 1953.

“I can’t imagine what possessed you to propose to me.”
“Well, that will give you something to puzzle over any time you can’t sleep.”

Behold, Here’s Poison

Heyer’s country house mysteries contained women who drank (cocktails), smoked, swore, wore makeup and drove fast cars. They also included characters more in keeping with her Regency romances who were droll and witty: The withdrawn, solitary, Aspergerish man; the heroine governess; the alpha male; the gold digger and so on. She liked to play up the haughty, self-entitled scoundrels of the upper class and her exceptional awereness of human nature meant her mysteries were brimming with complex characters and elaborate family dynamics.

If you set aside the racism, sexism and class consciousness of the era, most of Heyer’s novels have clever plots, good pace, and settings akin to books written by Dorothy Sayers. Heyer employed both amateur incidental detectives and eccentric professional policemen to solve her crimes novels which are excellent for an indulgent and frivolous afternoon read with tea and biscuits.

Two of her best mystery novels (many of which are still available) are Death in the Stocks (1935) and Envious Casca (1941).

Death in the Stocks (1935) is an English manor mystery and black comedy in which a gentleman in evening dress is discovered slumped dead in the stocks on the village green beneath a sinister moon hanging in a sky the colour of sapphires. The book is brimming with superb and complex dialogue and eccentric murder suspects in the self absorbed Vereker family.

People who start a sentence with personally (and they’re always women) ought to be thrown to the lions. It’s a repulsive habit.

Death in the Stocks

In Envious Casca, there are three Herriard brothers. Nathaniel spends his time accumulating money and self-riteous indignation . William got married, had two children then died, and Joseph ran away from his legal career to join the theatre and marry Maud from the chorus. The couple eventually return from overseas to sponge off Nathaniel. The family all come together in the family manor for christmas, which is where the story begins, and Nathaniel is found dead in his locked study.

It was Joseph who had been inspired to organize the house-party that was looming over Nathaniel’s unwilling head this chill December. Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical person bound to on another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.

Envious Casca

Heyer was intensely private. She did not give interviews or make appearances and even shunned fans. When asked about her private life her pat response was ‘You will find me in my work.’ That being said, she was also understood (according to two biographies written about her) to be a formidable character with strong views that she was less shy about expressing in correspondence.

Georgette Heyer Mysteries:

Footsteps in the Dark, 1932
Why Shoot a Butler?, 1933
The Unfinished Clue, 1934
Death in the Stocks (Merely Murder), 1935
Behold, Here’s Poison, 1936
They Found Him Dead, 1937
A Blunt Instrument, 1938
No Wind of Blame, 1939
Envious Casca, 1941
Penhallow, 1942
Duplicate Death, 1951
Detective Unlimited, 1953

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.

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.

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.