Review: Page Seventeen Issue Eleven

p17issue11coverPage Seventeen returns from its hiatus with its eleventh issue and a new, glossier format. There’s clear emphasis on the new, as editor Beau Hillier invites you to abandon stuffy old front-to-back linear reading in favour of a novel pathway system. (Think those Choose Your Own Adventure books you read as a child.) This small touch personalises the reading experience, allowing you to shape the overarching narrative in a small way.

But, of course, what you really want to know about are the stories. Kathy George’s opener ‘Blessed are the cracked …’ takes a lateral look at the nature of creativity, demonstrating the sometimes obtuse ways artists find inspiration. (For more on this topic, check out the Busybird website, where Page Seventeen contributors were invited to share their processes or anecdotes which have inspired their work. Mine is reproduced on this blog here.)

In ‘A step back in time’, James May takes a soul-searching trip back to his hometown of Adelaide, seeking answers, catharsis and a new perspective. This was a visceral piece, full of grit and longing.

With ‘Protest’, Beverley Lello crafts an exquisite literary tale about acceptance and marital dissonance. Meanwhile, Lois Murphy’s standout ‘Mosquito bites’ tells a ripping yarn about a likeable-but-downtrodden young man with an addition to his already-lengthy list of mistakes: allowing his loved ones to believe he is dead. The story starts with a memorable one-two punch – ‘We were pretty pissed off when my cousin showed up at his own funeral. All that effort, those wasted tears.’ – and takes several unforeseen turns, with the cousin cutting an unexpectedly tragic figure.

In ‘Onshore, offshore, unsure’, Eril Riley uses poetic language to tell of one family’s traumatic struggle for asylum. Hemmed in body-to-body with other survivors, the protagonist waxes philosophical while enduring discomforts like urinating in a battered metal drum. This story made me appreciate the freedom and luxuries we take for granted.

Other highlights include Joshua Coldwell’s ‘Swan song’, a black comedy about a young man’s obsession to uphold the family legacy (by imparting witty or memorable last words), and Geraldine Borella’s ‘Achilles and the maple leaf’, a tale of unlikely friendship, and a touching reminder that sometimes the universe smiles upon us, bringing people into our lives precisely when we need them.

Warwick Sprawson continues to impress with ‘Spin’, a tension-filled casino story about a dealer with a sizeable (ahem) chip on his shoulder.

There’s also a veritable smorgasbord of poetry – much of it esoteric, all of it thought-provoking. I’ve never had much of an ear for poetry, but particularly enjoyed Katherine E Seppings’ quiet, assured ‘Seville’; Paul South’s perplexing ‘No sense’; and Jude Aquilina’s ‘Love suffers’, which begins:

Love suffers from a plague of clichés.
It claims to gleam like a bolt
of silken sun through winter cloud
but actually, it’s sharp and quick
like a tattooing needle.

Page Seventeen Issue Eleven is available for purchase here.

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Some Thoughts on David Lynch’s ‘Catching the Big Fish’

So, I just finished this on the train and felt compelled to put down my thoughts while they’re still fresh (also I don’t blog enough).

catching-the-big-fish_lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

What I Expected From This Book:

  • A reasonably detailed dissection of Lynch’s creative practices.
  • A practical guide to meditation.
  • An entertaining/illuminating reflection on Lynch’s work.
  • Specificity.

What This Book Delivered:

  • Shallow, cutesy proclamations about the importance of meditation.
  • A lack of direction. These anecdotes are so haphazard in their delivery. It’s like Lynch waffled into a tape recorder (Agent Cooper style) for an hour and thought the results worth publishing.
  • Repetition.
  • Repetition.
  • An irritating sing-song prose style laden with clipped sentences.
  • Vagueness. Lynch seems to go out of his way to avoid offering any true insight.

Example of Lynch’s Disagreeable Brand of Pop Psychology:

“How does meditation get rid of negativity? Picture it this way: You are the Empire State Building. You’ve got hundreds of rooms. And in those rooms, there’s a lot of junk. And you put all that junk there. Now you take this elevator, which is going to be the dive within. And you go down below the building; you go to the Unified Field beneath the building – pure consciousness. And it’s like electric gold. You experience that. And that electric gold activates these little cleaning robots. They start going, and they start cleaning the rooms. They put in gold where the dirt and junk and garbage were. These stresses that were in there like coils of barbed wire can unwind. They evaporate, they come out. You’re cleaning and infusing simultaneously. You’re on the road to a beautiful state of enlightenment.”

Review: ‘Pet Sematary’

pet-sematary-coverThis book, alongside a discouraging handful of other King novels, begins with great promise, drawing the reader in with the kind of three-dimensional characters King does best. Unfortunately, it hits a slump halfway, from which it cannot recover, and meanders its way to a predictable conclusion.

The plot deals with grief, obsession and reincarnation. The Creed family (Doctor Louis, Rachel, and two children Ellie and Gage) move to backwater Ludlow, a small town in – you guessed it – Maine. Ludlow’s a dandy slice of American pie. It’s also the halfway point between two large townships and is frequented by huge trucks on shipping runs … See where this is going?

So, protagonist Louis strikes up a friendship with local old-timer, Jud, and learns about a makeshift cemetery that is situated near the Creed’s new home. Apparently generations of residents have used this ground to bury their beloved pets, and it’s become a sort of eerie community tradition. But this ain’t your grandpappy’s cemetery; the titular Pet Sematary is actually a front for ancient Micmac burial grounds. It’s a spiritual place with deep historic roots – generations of teenagers have fooled around here. Burying your pet here is said to bring about reincarnation, which is handy because, after some whacky hijinks, Louis ends up home alone with the still-fresh corpse of family cat, Church. Ruh-Roh!

So Louis is faced with that classic parental dilemma: tell Ellie (his daughter/Church superfan) the truth, or dabble blindly in the dark arts. The choice is clear; anyone who’s seen the Arnie classic Jingle All the Way knows only deadbeats disappoint their kids.isc080booklet.inddAnd so Church comes back — albeit a little dopier than before. His movements are sluggish and he permanently smells of the earth, which was admittedly cool. The prospect of a reanimated cat – possibly infused with a sinister Micmac spirit – is great horror fodder, but, in King’s hands, it amounts to nothing. The cover and blurb allude to some terrifying developments; a murderous four-legged zombie that perfectly resembles your beloved Mr Whiskers would make for an excellent monster, but nothing like this eventuates. The whole concept of the Pet Sematary is severely underutilised – unless your secret fear is slow, dim-witted cats that lumber around not hurting anyone.

Nice Churchy!

Nice Churchy!

Pet Sematary has a strong premise and solid opening. It’s great to see King sink into teeth into some serious subject matter and, as usual, he excels at inhabiting his characters. Rachel and Louis are particularly compelling (as luck would have it, Rachel has a debilitating fear of death – guess who’s confronting their fears tonight?), and it’s a pleasure to discover the intricacies of their marriage. Louis is a bog-standard King everyman; however, his profession does distinguish him (slightly) from others of this mould. Doctors are logically minded and less inclined to buy into supernatural mumbo jumbo. I enjoyed Louis’ early scepticism and stoic nature, but grew frustrated with the irrational behaviour he exhibits later on.

Pet Sematary also suffers serious pacing issues. It takes three quarters of the book for all the (obvious) set-pieces to come together (believe me: the signposts are as big as Maine itself). You know the Pet Sematary will cause major complications, yet it goes damn near unmentioned for the first half of the book. Instead, the reader is dragged through family drama subplots that, while mildly interesting, add squat to the narrative.

My biggest issue with Pet Sematary is its conclusion, which unfolds like a slow train wreck. Despite being cautioned by Jud on the dangers of the Pet Sematary, and learning about how a reported case of human burial went horribly awry, logical, level-headed Dr Louis jettisons all common sense and tries it anyway.

A sizeable portion of the novel’s conclusion details Louis’s inner monologue as he climbs up to the haunted burial grounds, his child’s corpse in tow. He openly admits it’s not the answer, that he’s clinging to empty hope. He knows whatever emerges from the ground won’t be his loved one, no matter the resemblance. He knows his actions will cause grief and heartache, and that they will destroy his remaining family’s chance of moving on. He also knows his actions will place everyone in very real danger – yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.

The ensuing bloodshed was senseless, a chore to read, and was all so preventable. King spends so much of the novel (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t short) building rich characters and relationships, only to throw them to the wind in the last seventy pages.

I get the suggestion that grief supersedes rational thinking, and that the Micmac burial ground had some sort of supernatural pull of Louis, but that doesn’t justify this frustrating, limp-wristed ending. Here, King rejoices in kicking his readers in the teeth. The fact that Louis is aware what a dope he is adds insult to injury. God awful – and this is coming from someone who defends and understands Cujo‘s macabre ending.

Read The Shining instead.

Some Thoughts on Bird by Bird and Writing Advice

Bird_by_Bird_LR_titlecoverBestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.

I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.

Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.

A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.

Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians. Continue reading

Review: ‘Captives’

CaptivesFCROnline, flash fiction is celebrated, with literally hundreds of thriving micro fiction-writing communities; in print, though – and in the annals of literature – the form still struggles to prove its own legitimacy. Perhaps this is why Angel Meyer has – with this, her debut – taken to the form’s defence; Captives is a pocketbook of intense flash fictions.

My first impression was favourable: Captives is an attractive little book, with tight presentation and a striking, inky art style. Obvious care and attention went into its production; even the font choice seems complementary. I commend all involved at Inkerman & Blunt for their great work.

Inside this impossibly pretty artefact awaited 37 dark and unsettling tales. I’d not read any of Meyer’s fiction before, but had long enjoyed her blog and understood that she’s a bit of a mover and shaker on the lit festival circuit. She’s a bonafide author now; in Captives, I found an impressive new literary voice. Meyer wears her influences on her sleeve, but also readily subverts them. I wouldn’t say I found every story a homerun, but each intrigued in its own way. I got the sense Meyer must’ve had a lot of fun trying on all these different styles. The variety here was impressive. There was supernatural suggestion (‘Glitch’, ‘My Sweetheart Saw a Child’s Face in the Train Window’); dips into history (‘Portrait of a Suicide’ and the deft scene-setting of ‘Automat’); riffs on literary culture (‘Spark’, ‘Booklover’s Corner’); and introspective travel stories, told with verisimilitude (‘Amsterdam’, ‘Halloween in Atlanta’).

Lengths and tones varied, ensuring no one mood lingered too long. Meyer’s hops between eras and headspaces were especially impressive. A sharp observer of human behaviour, she excels at inhabiting characters whose backgrounds are vastly different from her own. In some stories, she even gives voice to actual historical figures (often the darkest or weirdest stories; it’s true, then: real life is stranger than fiction!).

Captives’ stories are batched in seven sections. These have titles like ‘Push/Pull’ and ‘On/Off’, suggesting a theme of opposition and hinting at the specific tensions found within. The sections are a great point to stop and start, though I didn’t notice any huge thematic distinctions between these. To me, the unifying thread throughout was change or uncertainty. (‘Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment,’ the cover promises.)

As delectable as these stories were, I had to refrain from gorging on too many at once. Despite their brevity, it felt gluttonous reading more than, say, three at a time. I have this problem with novels and short stories, too – particularly those that err towards open-endedness. Upon completing something, I find I need time and distance to reflect, decompress. This is especially true of reading micro-fiction, as the narratives are often particularly spacious. The form is involving for readers. Many of the stories are like little puzzles; close reading is rewarded – and often mandatory. Still, like exquisite chocolates, a few at a time seemed the right way to enjoy these.

In keeping with the emphasis on variety, some stories were vignette-like, concerned with mood, while others told intricate little narratives. I was amazed that such a Spartan storytelling form had the capacity to surprise me. But surprise me it did, especially when the stories had clever, last-minute reversals (‘Empty Cradle’, ‘Like Another Time’, ‘Thirteen Tiles’). I found some of the shorter pieces, like ‘The Old Man’s Dog’, a bit ineffectual, but there were always great moments, powerful openings and lines that cut deeply. A few choice excerpts:

  • Her father is out there, suspended, and the conditions are terrible; the tightrope a curled, fine hair sitting across the plughole. [from ‘The Tightrope Walker’s Daughter’]
  • ‘What’s the story with this one?’ asked the tall man, of his great-grandmother’s Swedish pine side table. The camera was trained on McCullough, but he didn’t want to tell strangers. He didn’t want them to own the story. [from ‘Highland Pickers’]
  • I sat there in the dusty library, the spectre of sudden death wrapping an icy hand around the tail of my spine. [from ‘A Bag of Wool’]

Also noteworthy were ‘Nineteen’, an authentic piece about a night out with friends; ‘Spark’, an homage to Muriel Spark, which has its narrator comparing her life to that of The Driver’s Seat protagonist, Lise; and ‘Green-Eyed Snake’, a sinister piece that put me in mind of John Fowles’ The Collector.

Meyer is at her best when her poetic sensibilities take over. She’s adept at creating mood and – as is necessitated by the form – truncating whole paragraphs into single lines. This debut was impressive, and showcases an author with much promise. It also disproves a common misconception; as Captives shows, micro fiction can have just as much substance as its long-form cousins.

Review: ‘The Girl in the Flammable Skirt’

the-girl-in-the-flammable-skirt smallThis collection, originally published in 1998, was on my to-read list for ages, but my local libraries and bookstores never carried it. Fortunately, with the recent popularisation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender’s older works have gotten the reissue treatment (slash they’ve made it to backwater Australia in the first place). Even with the reissue, though, this was still a difficult find. I had to grab the LARGE PRINT edition from my local library. Ever read a large-print story about a promiscuous librarian during the morning train commute? Didn’t think so. Don’t scoff.

Fortunately, it was worth the trouble. Although The Girl with the Flammable Skirt feels a bit like the work of a writer still developing their voice, its stories were loaded with entertainment value. Bold, eccentric and dripping with originality, Bender’s short fiction contains highly memorable plots with unconventional subject matters. She trades in the sort of quirky surrealist style associated with writers like Francesca Lia Bloc and Miranda July. A strong sexual undercurrent also permeates these works, further accentuating this comparison.

Still, I enjoyed this way more than Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Though they’re aesthetically similar, I find July’s writing gratingly cute and too far removed from reality; Flammable Skirt was, oddly, more grounded in real human emotion, thus I connected better to the stories. (I say oddly because, like contemporary fairytales, Bender’s subject matter is pretty out there: an incognito imp, of high school age, makes an unwitting sexual advance while stroking the hair of an incognito teenage mermaid; a woman’s boyfriend, disillusioned with the state of the world, experiences – perhaps initiates – reverse evolution, eventually becoming a salamander; two young women experience the hardships of adolescence – with added elemental burdens: one has an ice hand, one fire.)

Reading these, I was delightfully forced from my comfort zone (realist literary fiction). The stories were often trés silly, but Bender sells them, establishing the parameters quickly and upholding them, honouring them. Universality grounds even the most outlandish story, and so they read like strange fables, cautionary tales. I’m intellectualising what doesn’t need to be: at their core, I must emphasise, these stories are just great fun.

I had several favourites, including: ‘The Ring’, a story about besotted thieves whose stolen ruby ring permanently dyes everything it contacts; ‘Quiet Please’, a story about a grief-stricken librarian who decides to have sex with every man who enters her library; ‘Dreaming in Polish’, a story about a prophetic old couple who dream visions of the future in unison; and ‘What You Left in the Ditch’, a story about a military wife who finds it hard to love her wounded husband after he returns from war without lips.

A couple didn’t quite hit home (the sprawling, overambitious ‘Marzipan’ and the ineffectual ‘Legacy’), but theses don’t tarnish what was an otherwise compelling debut. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading more of Aimee Bender’s work in the future.

Review: ‘Sweet Tooth’

ImageContrary to the way it’s been marketed, Sweet Tooth is not an espionage novel. Not really. Among other things, it’s a love story, coming of age tale and meditation on literature. By fictionalising elements of McEwan’s youth, it also works as a strange composite of fiction and reality. Long-time McEwan fans will enjoy the various nods to his past work. There are myriad references, and an interesting look at the relationship artists have with their work.

Set in the afterglow of the Cold War, Sweet Tooth details Serena Frome’s (rhymes with ‘plume’) unlikely ascent from plucky academic to MI5 agent. So far, so James Bond, but Serena’s mission is not to take down the irrepressible Jaws; she is sent, as MI5’s resident bibliophile, to covertly cajole promising young writer, Tom Haley. Under the guise of representing a national literary foundation, Serena commissions Tom in the hopes that she can get him to unwittingly pen novelistic propaganda. It’s the 70s, see, and an international war of ideas rages. Britain is facing industrial unrest, and MI5 are desperate to influence the national culture. One of their approaches is to use well-received fiction writers to lure left-of-centre European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective. Continue reading