Quickie book review #3 Melbourne murder re-imagined

KATHERINE KOVACIC – The Portrait of Molly Dean

“But now as thoughts of murder and missing files chase each other around my head, I realise something: I’m completely hooked.”

Alex Clayton is a Melbourne art dealer, with a strong hunch that a portrait of a woman who was murdered in the 1930s will fare her well come resale time. As she sets about finding out more about the subject of the portrait, Molly Dean, she is sucked into a tale that leads her deeper and deeper to expose the truth about what really happened all those years ago.

The first Alex Clayton mystery novel by Kovacic re-tells the real-life story of Melbourne woman Mary “Molly” Dean, who was brutally murdered in the 1930s in St Kilda. She uses fictional characters and motives to reimagine what might have happened.

This is possible, because the case remains unsolved to this very day. Nothing spikes interest like an unsolved murder, right? Just ask the creators of all those successful crime podcasts. There is clever interplay between the world of Molly Dean’s 1930s in the days and weeks leading up to her death, and the ‘current’ 1999 day of art dealer Alex Clayton.

Gripes: Not many. I chuckled at the convenient entrance of some people in the story to allow Alex to re-hash the details with someone else, i.e. her mother calling her.

Not a gripe, but amazed to find the words sanitiser and toilet paper within the first 6 pages of each other, and I kid you not, corona is on page 85… This was published in 2018. 😮

Pros: Cleverly executed, I mean you know the ending, well that of Molly Dean’s anyway as you begin to read… yet knowing this and still wanting to know what happened? Well, it’s crime genre, and you have to know who done it, even if it is a fictional whodunnit, right? Despite not being a major art buff and art is definitely a dominant theme, I was hooked early on.

I also loved the nod to various Melbourne locations. We’re taken to places such as Luna Park and Flinders Street Station, and let’s face it in this day of lockdown we can live vicariously, right? Albert Park Lake, Toorak, and inner-city Melbourne are all made mention of.

Molly never got her closure, she still hasn’t in real life, so it’s a kind tribute when people try to settle it for her. When we recreate the past, however fictional, we try to work things out for the sake of those involved, but more so for ourselves. It brings a peace and closure to the story, and provides a voice for those that can speak no more.

For mystery and crime buffs, you can find out more about Molly Dean if you google podcasts and books on the subject.

Quickie book review #2 Amelia in all of us

ERIN GOUGH – Amelia Westlake

“Bios are bullshit.”

For my next ‘quickie’ book review I bring to you a former winner of the coveted Hardie Grant Egmont award, the Ampersand Prize, and with it her second book, Amelia Westlake.

Will Everhart and Harriet Price couldn’t be any more different. Will goes against the mainstream, battling against the establishment as much as she does symmetrical haircuts, while Harriet is the picture perfect high-achieving student, as blonde as she is bouncy on the tennis courts.

A sudden shared goal brings them together to shed light on some unfair treatment being dished out at their prestigious all-girls school.

But they need a ruse, and they can’t use their real name… enter their personal work of fiction, Amelia Westlake, a so-called student at Rosemead Grammar.

It’s a high school whodunnit, only we know whodunnit and we’re waiting for the penny to drop for the powers that be. I love being part of the know. And they go from girls barely able to stand each other, to working well together, to really working well together!

Gripes: Very few, this book was superbly written and grabbed me at every chapter. Minor things like a Nancy Drew/Jessica Fletcher type reveal when the secret is revealed and we get a massive info dump, kind of made me cringe, if only a little.

Continuity piqued my interest when Harriet needs to look up Will’s house address from the school contact list, but the thing is, she’s already been there. Compare pages 192 and 236. I’m a stickler for details.

Pros: This book has so much character. Will and Harriet are so varied in their life, personalities and styles, that it’s impossible to believe you will love them both… and yet you do, so so much. This YA explores so many teenage issues and topics of class, race, same-sex relationships, discrimination, and world issues, while maintaining that really teen-centric vibe and keeping it light and on the pulse all the way through. Very current, and very diverse. I can see the lengths gone to tie up every possible loose end, and the work apparent in doing that makes me stand up and do a standing ovation.

Also, Gough’s ability to write herself out of difficult situations without relying on the deus ex machina, is impressive indeed. I was scratching my head thinking, how will she get from here, to there?

But she did.

One more quote, I can’t leave it at just one.

“Star signs are a loud of crap, but I’m willing to bet she’s a Leo.”

Must read for context. 🤣🤣

Quickie book review #1 Unexpected and expected things

MORGAN MATSON – The Unexpected Everything

For my first of my ‘quickie’ book reviews I bring you this YA novel from Morgan Matson.

Andie is a 17 year-old whose life is planned to perfection. At the surface level all seems ideal – she has a pre-med summer program lined up at a prestigious university, her future career prospects look good, she has the best friends a girl can have, and her Dad is a prominent congressman.

But when a scandal rocks their world, she has to readjust her entire way of seeing out her summer, the people around her, and her world. Insert the most amazing and happy-go-lucky season of her life… but as it ends will all the good around her end too? Will she revert back to her old self, or take her learnings into her new future?

Gripes: There is heavy overexplaining throughout, teenage cringy/typical at parts and some chapters, particularly the first half of the book, were sooo long, I wondered how the hell they weren’t divided up into two.

Pros: It deals with the whole gamut of teenage experience, from broken down family, friend conflicts, boy lust and love, issues of identity and fears of failure. It has it all, and it has real heart too.

This YA novel aligns itself with the type of books I used to read growing up, but despite the happy and hopefulness present, it is also surprisingly real, not everything tied up in a neat little bow. This initially impressed me, but pondering on it I felt there could have been more closure with some plot points, especially seeing as it isn’t a series. Maybe that’s why it bugs me, I want to see them again, to check in and see what they’ve done since.

BANG. When you like the characters, you know it’s a win.

Scared to get off the train

PAULA HAWKINS – The Girl On The Train

“… It’s because I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected. I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose.”

It’s the everyday girl at it again, taking your sympathy, well-meaning thoughts and constant cheerleading from the sidelines, and stealing them before jumping onto the moving train.

Yes it’s the everyday girl, but the ever day girl in crisis and beaten and battered by life, is what works in fiction, stories, LIFE.

I’ve been noticing this a lot lately, and maybe it’s because I happen to be reading books like this more often right now, or maybe it is too prevalent… I don’t know. I know it works, but it has made me more aware of my own representation of women in my works.

It works. Don’t get me wrong, it does. And as much as it appears overused to the brim, this concept still has you turning page after page.

I was made curious already by the end of chapter 1.

Hawkins does well to keep you interested in her thriller. The tone of the book starts out cheery and with some hint of positive promise, and as we are exposed to each day of this fairly ordinary girl, and her journey on the train every day, we start to gain glimpses of darkness, of sadness, and of desperation.

It is a slow reveal, much like the old-fashioned train brakes squeal slow slow slowly to a screeching halt, deafening you with their metal-scraping sound at their destination.

She is an ordinary girl yes, but her life is messed up in more ways than she can count, and as reader, you sway quickly between thinking of her as pathetic, to feeling really sorry for her. It’s a fine line.

An early insight of her darkness comes in the first chapter:

“Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.”

Such a true observation. I love it much more when I come across a passage in a book that rings so true to me, to life.

And with this early intrigue into our poor protagonist Rachel’s life, we learn many things, all of which make this a fantastic thriller.

She is an alcoholic. Centring a thriller around the inconclusive and unreliable memories of a drunk is a GREAT start.

She has an ex that left her for another woman, and they live in her old house. Ouch.

And she has been privy to a love story unfolding from her seat in the train, about the supposedly ideal couple that lives doors down from her old place… but then after witnessing something that shatters that love story, something happens.

All the characters are, or become, intertwined with each other in this story, and this becomes apparent both as the story progresses, but as different characters points of view come into view per chapter, with the first differing view being from her arch nemesis, the woman who took her ex away.

Oooh! Juicy.

I found this an interesting tactic, and a foretelling one, as it’s risky to have the point of view of your protagonist’s enemy expressed in a book. Naturally when you put someone’s point of view in a book they organically become more understood and less hated by the reader. Even killers have been known to have their motives understood in this way. So to have someone so apparently selfish and self-obsessed, have her views and opinions expressed and validated and EVEN understood, is a huge deal. It is an important one too.

It is a book about clues. There are clues throughout as to ‘who did it,’ who people really are, and what their real intentions are too, but of course these clues are so well imbedded, that as I was trying to read into every detail, these clues just became extra details. The clues not only reveal things well in advance, but their mention spikes interest and keeps the story moving forward.

There are hints of adultery, hints of cheating, and hints that things are not always as they appear, clearly a prevailing factor of the story. What Rachel sees while on the train, is not necessarily as rosy and perfect as it is in real life. This is further supported by the differing points of view that we get, as we are suddenly privy to another character’s actual thoughts and real everyday life, something far removed from Rachel’s perception of them. The fact also, that Rachel cannot remember what happens after she gets drunk, is further testimony – how can you trust your own head, thoughts, memories, when they are based on substance abuse? She is as clueless as we are as readers.

As for Rachel as protagonist… sure we like her. A bit. We root for her because sadly, she is quite pathetic. Her drinking and lying get her in trouble time and time again, and sympathy reigns supreme as she pines for the life she used to have, the life she lost. We root for her, because we want her to get it together, but then we also want her to solve the mystery and prove to everyone that she isn’t incompetent! Unfortunately, she treats small victories like she deserves a reward, and those rewards come in the form of a drink. So the cycle is ugly and seemingly never-ending. If anything, that on its own serves as a warning – do not drink: it can mess up your head and you will fail to solve a mystery!

The scary element comes in not knowing what has transpired in the time that she was inebriated… she often can’t remember anything. She’ll have a message or email as memory, but will have no recollection of it. This isn’t just frightening for Rachel, but as reader you have to wonder: if she can’t remember what has just happened in the last 8 hours, there is the very real possibility that she did something horrible while drinking and now also can’t remember it?

The book gives us realistic representations of life, not just in the sad honesty that is alcoholism – she is constantly on and off it, and sometimes only stays sober as she wants to stay involved and know what has happened – but there are the media references too. Things like facebook, email, even X Factor make an appearance. These social media references stand out so starkly, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a book like this would be received let’s say 50 years down the track… would it still make sense? But then again we still read Austen today and we don’t care how out of date that world is!

“…the part of me that can’t resist a bit of drama is actually quite disappointed.”

Although this is stated by Rachel, you will feel anything but in this page-turning thriller. The number of times I changed my mind on who I thought was guilty was overwhelming, and I had a number of wild theories about who did it, only to be proven wrong time and time again. Rachel is drawn to the scene of the crime like a moth to a flame, and the risk of getting burnt is almost guaranteed. But it is drama to her dull life, and she can’t help herself from going back, time and time again.

The biggest message from the novel could be this: someone else’s life could look ideal when you take a glimpse from within a moving train… but when we look a little closer, we can hear the harsh words spoken. Bear witness to the constant arguing. The holes in the walls… the un-slept beds.

Ultimately this is the story of people, how they change, how they are perceived differently from one person to another, and how we can never really truly know someone… anyone. And it stays true to the theme ‘the grass is not always greener on the other side,’ or should I say,

“life is not always smoother once you’re off the train’s tracks.”

Please let me know your thoughts on The Girl on the Train in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 😊

The Magic of Creativity

ELIZABETH GILBERT – Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner – continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you – is a fine art, in and of itself.”

I actually bought this book for a friend, as part of a KK present in 2015. She LOVED it, having viewed Gilbert’s TED talks online, and eagerly took it all in, before kindly offering to lend it to me.

I’d had no intention of reading it. I didn’t know much about Gilbert, I hadn’t seen her online TED talks, and I hadn’t even read Eat, Pray, Love. I know. Am I even a woman?

Yet, when I read Big Magic, I felt like this book was truly meant for me.

That story in itself is one kind of Big Magic there. 😉

This is a book for all creative souls, and don’t be mistaken for thinking that you are NOT one of them, or cannot be creative in any form. Creativity doesn’t just appear to artists, writers, actors and musicians: it is there in the kitchen, at the needle and thread. It is in your garden, on the running track, and out in the wilderness. Creativity comes in an endless amount of arenas, in fact, it is EVERYWHERE, and the purpose of this book is Gilbert setting out to help you find that Big Magic of yours, whatever that may be – and giving you the purpose and courage to just go for it.

“All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.

It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.

I cannot think of a better way to pass my days.”

Gilbert puts forward the case that a creative life, is the only life to live. And I have to agree, as a fellow writer (I am declaring myself, as she says you must) this book was like “yep, yep, yep” for me. But you don’t need to be a writer to enjoy this book, or find a sense of kinship in the stories she puts forward. It is an entertaining read, very easy to follow and hard to put down, and her conversational style lets you flip page after page after page quite easily. Her examples and self-rules are appropriate for all creative endeavours, and she basically thinks you should just do what you want to do, no matter what.

“Begin anywhere. Preferably right now.”

Creativity, and the act of fulfilling what it is you love to do, is the reward in itself. Putting the pressure on your creativity, whatever it may be, to pave your way through life and pay your bills, is a huge and unfortunate act, and a horrible burden for your creativity to endure. The act of doing what it is you love is the reward itself, and Gilbert said it best, when she spoke about a time of her life when she was not being published:

“The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness I held that I had chosen a devotional path and I was being true to it. If someday I got lucky enough to be paid for my work, that would be great, but in the meantime, money could always come from other places.”

She also told the story of a friend of hers who had returned to figure skating in her 40s – after giving up on the sport when she was younger, realising she wasn’t going to be winning any medals. However she loved the sport, and would get up a few hours before work to figure skate to her hearts content.

The story is a realistic one too, in that her friend did not quit her job or sign on with an Olympic coach after rediscovering her dream – the creative living is in the fact itself, that is the reward, and no ‘awards’ are needed.

Because, you can pursue your dream and live to your hearts purpose, living out the days of your life with joy, as Gilbert puts it:

“Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth – not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?”

Otherwise, she offers up this juicy dare:

“There is always that alternative, after all. You have free will. If creative living becomes too difficult or too unrewarding for you, you can stop whenever you want.”

Ha! Not a fat chance in hell. I’m in this for the long haul… are you? 😉

But I’m scared! you cry out. Gilbert covers that too. She paints a picture of fear as boring. Something I had never considered before, but when she explains that humans and animals are all afraid of the unknown, and that that in itself is nothing extraordinary or special… well then that fear becomes very boring. The object of fear most likely differs between human/animal, sure… but it is still fear. So same same, so unoriginal, just another “mass-produced item.”

We all need fear to survive, it’s human nature, it’s a survival tactic. But creatively speaking, we do not need it in that arena. It is mute, unnecessary.

She says how Harper Lee did not write for decades after writing To Kill a Mockingbird, because she was scared of how she would out-do its success! Fear kept her from writing, when writing in itself is the reward. Imagine if she had only forged through her fear and written on, what do you think she could have produced? We will never know.

Rather than waiting for your genius to hit… you must head out there and get onto your passion, because guess what? Your genius is waiting for YOU.

“There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.”

And no matter what you do, there will always be that one person. That one, measly person, (1, if you are lucky), who finds fault in what you do. You cannot be in charge or control what other people think of you, and Gilbert says it is none of your business anyway. Let them have their own passionate opinions about you, just as you have your own passionate opinions about them. The only thing you are in charge of, is creating your own work. That’s it. It’s the only sane way to live.

And what to do, if someone is really, truly, attacking your work and everything about you? Gilbert sums it up absolutely perfectly.

“Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art.

Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

She swears. I fucking love the gal.

“Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, in other words; it also doesn’t have to be important.”

I hear you sister. When I decided that in order to become a writer, I had to embody writing as something I did in EVERY day of my life (years later and I’m still posting regular content on SmikG and carcrashgratitude) I wasn’t concerned with how it was going to heal the world. I had, and still have an expression that needed to come out, I wanted to share my views with the world, on writing, on coffee, on Motherhood, on whatever the hell shit me or made me so inexplicably grateful that day, and I never really asked myself ‘is this really important?’ To some, probably no. To me, it is what I love to do, and so if it makes me happy, if it means I can express myself as I wish and get a great sense of fulfilment in doing so, in just being me…

Well then, why the hell not?

I think what she is trying to say, is don’t get caught up in the whys and hows, worried that what you are doing is not going to save somebody else’s life. Creativity is an important part of everyone’s existence whether they realise it or not, and the world needs humour, insight, honesty and flair to keep them going on going.

And though you may think it has all been said, or done before… maybe it has, but not with your unique take on it. Only you can say it, or do it, as YOU can.

You have to do whatever it is that is within you, because of YOU. Because you have something that has to be said. To be expressed. No one else has this, just you.

“You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.”

She offers up some fabulous bits of advice, some of which I carry close to me as I write, or just generally as I go about life… firstly, no one else cares. Not in the vindictive sense – but a freeing way of thinking about your life, and doing what you want to do, is to remove yourself from the idea that people are so concerned about everything you are doing – chances are they probably don’t think of you as much as what you think. They are too busy building up their own lives and doing their own thing, they don’t have time to stop and ponder hard about what your next move will be, and how it will affect them. So just worry about yourself.

Secondly, you will fail. But when you do, do not bother with the whys and hows of it – just pick yourself up and move on with the next project. Dwelling will only make things worse. Own it, and just move on.

Which brings me to another great question…

“What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?”

Hmm that puts things in perspective doesn’t it? She offers this up in a different form, rephrased by the writer Mark Manson, who asked “what’s your favourite flavour of shit sandwich?” This sounds absurd, right, but just take a moment to think about it… what are you willing to put up with the most, and what are you so passionate about that you don’t care about the cons of what it is you are trying to do? That my friends, is your flavour of shit sandwich.

How bad do you want ‘it?’ Like Gilbert said when a friend of hers didn’t want to write anymore, because he didn’t like the results (awards) he got from it, leaving her hungrily eyeing off his uneaten shit sandwich! How much, do you want it? It’s a telling question (and answer) indeed.

A terrific idea Gilbert brought forth in this book was the concept of ideas, and them owning us, choosing us to manifest themselves through, rather than us discovering them. They live around us, with the whole purpose of their being to be made material through us, and they will try and catch our attentions through all manner of ways. Sometimes we catch the signs… sometimes we don’t. And when we miss them, they will simply move onto another willing participant.

It certainly explains the phenomenon, of two people in different places having the same idea. Or how you think up a great idea or invention, and then months later it is advertised or on the market, and you say “that could have been me!” Well it could have been, but you didn’t want it bad enough, so the idea left you. Sheesh, harsh there.

Gilbert offered up one story regarding herself, and an idea she had… and then how the idea went away because she had not been focusing on it for a while… only to later learn the exact idea had now been brought into existence by a fellow writer friend of hers!

Why, that sounds like Magic! Big Magic to be precise. I’ll let you read the actual book for the full details, but it is one of those stories that you just can’t get your head around, it’s that terrifically fantastical.

One name for this is multiple discovery, a term used in the scientific field. It is when the same idea appears in two different places at the same time, and a lovely way to explain it is:

“When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places, in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.”

I have always in some way believed this, and I don’t even know how this thought of mine came to being or where I got it from. But once an idea is out there, it is ripe for the picking!

This made me think, A LOT. I was stressing for a good while over the book I wrote, that had just been hanging around on my laptop waiting for me to do it over, or send it to someone, for ages. Her take on ideas moving around drove me to push on, because I don’t know what I would’ve done if my idea went away from me! I owe my idea, my book, that much!

I have ideas though that have stayed with me for so long, so I don’t know what Gilbert would say about that… my ideas love me? They don’t want to leave me even though I rarely have time for them? I believe with her theory while still feeling it’s unfinished, incomplete, with some work in progress exemptions to it. 😉

Believing in an other-worldly force, like ideas playing with us, is not an overall novel concept… the Romans for example, didn’t believe that people were geniuses. They believed a person HAD a genius, a muse as it were.

Are you responsible for your incredible thoughts, visions, imageries? Or is it your Muse who should really be accepting all praise/blame? Keeps that ego in check doesn’t it?

“I have chosen to believe that a desire to be creative was encoded into my DNA for reasons I will never know, and that creativity will not go away from me unless I forcibly kick it away, or poison it dead.”

I couldn’t agree with her more. Something has always happened to lead me back to writing, and one of the classic examples was one night many many many years ago, when Hubbie asked me what I would do if I had no boundaries, what would be my ultimate vocation, and so the wheels started turning from way back then. I think it’s important for us to go on this creative journey and find what it is that makes us happy, and then go about our lives DOING THAT THING. It IS about the journey, and not the outcome, because at the end of it all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Living a fulfilled and happy life?

I’ll end on the most terrific story.

Many years ago Gilbert’s uncle went to see the writer Richard Ford at a bookstore appearance. During a Q&A, a man in the crowd asked Ford why he was so successful with his writings, when the man himself was the same age as Ford, wrote the same themes as Ford, had a similar background to Ford, and yet still did not have the same success as Ford! He wanted some advice, but asked – please, don’t tell me to persevere, that only makes me feel worse.

Ford replied that he would never tell him to persevere; instead he told him to quit. The crowd was stunned. Ford went on to say that clearly, writing gave him no pleasure, and life was too short to be miserable during it. He told him to find new hobbies, find new things to do “but don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

And then.

“If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did… well then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

CHILLS CHILLS CHILLS.

You’re welcome.

Please let me know your thoughts on Big Magic in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 😊

Word by Word

ANNE LAMOTT – Bird by Bird

“I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this.”

Much can be read from this line that comes from the book on writing and life advice by Anne Lamott.

1: Her mention of Jesus makes one think that she is religiously-inclined, that it is a significant part of her life, or that it plays a pivotal role in her daily decisions. From what I have read, that would be correct.

2: The fact that Jesus himself would become an alcoholic based on the things she says, kind of paints the picture of an insanely articulate yet unhinged, hilarious writer whose bark is worse than her bite, and who manages to make the darkest of themes, like even death, humorous.

From what I have read, that would also be correct.

Lamott has a wicked sense of humour. From the outset, I could tell that I would like her. Her witty, sharp, insightful remarks and views on the world, ability to poke fun at herself and allow us to see and hear all her very real insecurities and jealousies about being a human, and about being a writer, made me immediately sympathetic to her story. She’s honest and real about the struggles in a writer’s world, and let’s face it, trying to get into it in the first place, yet despite her stark frankness in the matter, suggesting that only a small number get to go on Letterman, she has put together this book in an effort to encourage and help aspiring writers, as she has often done in her writing workshops.

“The best thing about being an artist, instead of a madman or someone who writes letters to the editor, is that you get to engage in satisfying work. Even if you never publish your work, you have something important to pour yourself into.”

This book made me laugh, and it made me cry. It gave me some good hard advice, as well as some awesome little snippets and ideas on what I can do in my writing life to just generally be better at it.

So let’s begin Anne’s writing class. (I usually call writers by their surnames in my reviews but after reading this book I feel like I know her so well).

SET THE MOOD

“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it…”

I got quite a few good tips from Anne on ways to improve my writing environment. Firstly, it seems simple, but using some kind of external trigger, like a candle, and the act of lighting it, when done repeatedly over time it can serve as a kind of switch for your writing conscious to kick in. This excited me because for my birthday I got given this beautiful candle in a glass jar, and the wick actually crackles as it burns (I actually picked the candle for myself and my parents paid, but same thing). As if I didn’t need further reason to get it, the lady behind the counter said “when the house is quiet, light it and listen to it crackle as you read a book.”

Um, what about write a book? God if she knew. So that will be my thing, the candle, in particular this most awesome-nest of awesome candles, the wicker-crackling candle.

And speaking of the conscious mind. The rational mind is probably our worst enemy. Second guessing ourselves, reading over what we’ve written, trying too hard, sticking to plans and not letting things flow – this all obstructs the natural story-telling and writing process. She says that characters are created in our unconscious mind, the area in which we have no control over, so it would come to reason that we should relax a little, try to listen to our intuition more, and just let the unconscious do its thing. She uses the metaphor of broccoli for her intuition, but whatever ‘voice’ it is that you can’t control within, as long as it works for you. I love the metaphor and vision of the butterfly, and it has significance for me on many levels, and with its random yet gentle fluttering, I’ve decided to watch this creature in my mind’s eye and follow where it leads me. Just as a green vegetable will work for Anne, a transformative insect will work for me.

Preparation-wise, Anne has index cards placed pretty much all over the place at her house, in her car, she even takes them with her on walks in case an idea, thought or inspiration strikes her. I have to say, when I’ve had a great thought and not had the necessary pen/paper/mobile to capture it, I whole-heartedly agree with Anne when she says:

“That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have had a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it.”

There’s nothing wrong with needing a prompt to remember things. Being a mother herself, she offers a great insight into one reason you may need these cards in your life, something that despite my uber-organisation, I can totally relate with:

“When a child comes out of your body, it arrives with about a fifth of your brain clutched in its little hand, like those babies born clutching IUDs.”

There will be bad days. You will have writers block, which she says is less about being ‘stuck,’ and more about ‘filling up again.’ She tells her students to try to write at least a page of something, anything, dreams or streams of consciousness or memories, every day, and that on bad days to try and do this just to keep their fingers from becoming arthritic. And in the event of being ‘empty,’ to go out and fill up again.

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit.”

HOW TO WRITE

E.L. Doctorow once said “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It was interesting to find this quote in Lamott’s book, because I had just finished reading Loon Lake before getting Bird by Bird, and it was in fact this precise Doctorow quote, reading it literally before his death, that rang very true for me.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research, or any writer’s workshops, or join any online writing groups when I first started on my book. I just went into it, with a handful of characters, some strong themes, and a round-a-bout destination in mind. I knew A, I knew somewhere E was going to come in, but then I didn’t know anything in between, just a rough Y and a hazy Z. It’s always comforting when you read that someone you aspire to, such as a successful writer, does the same thing you do, or confirms something you’ve always thought to be true. I never really thought of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write, I think we all just do what works for us, but this above metaphor that applies not just to writing, but to life, rang so true to me. Because from my A, B C and D sprang forward, and just by writing scene by scene, character by character, a whole story formed, and I surprised myself on multiple occasions.

You don’t need to see the path to your destination, nor even see your destination at all. Anne talks about ‘Short Assignments,’ and when you struggle in your writing to just think of getting one memory, one scene, one exchange out in front of you, enough that would fill up a one-inch frame. Focusing on one thing at a time is far less overwhelming than worrying about how your protagonist is going to confront the bad guy three chapters away.

“Your plot will fall into place as, one day at a time, you listen to your characters carefully, and watch them move around doing and saying things and bumping into each other.”

Writing can be a very difficult experience, something she admits for herself and for most writers she knows. Getting by is to write a shitty first draft. In this stage anything goes, even phrases like:

“Well so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?”

You just need to get anything down, no matter what it is. Her friend said:

“the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up….And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

 “Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’”

This is so comforting.

You can even liken your writing to your dreams – the way one absurd scene just flows into another, so too must your writing be “vivid and continuous.” In discovering plot, Anne says her characters know where they are going, she just needs to stay with them long enough. She needs to care for them, polish them, and then suddenly they will show her the way. Another way to think of it is this:

“they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad.”

What about me then? I need my characters to do everything for me because my handwriting beats that of a doctors!

In writing, you need to revoke all control you have. You may be focusing on the fence, but the yellow sparkling flower in the corner of your mind-frame starts to sparkle and all of a sudden, it’s stolen the show. You must explore that.

“If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it.”

Anne says that when she starts writing she wants to fill the page with witty insights so that the world will see how smart she is. Whoops. Where I fall into step with the favourable Doctorow quote, so too do I have to begrudgingly agree that I sing along with this writing flaw. But as you write, you want your characters to act out the drama of humankind, which doesn’t include your witty and ground-breaking life insights.

“…the purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal in an ethical light who we are.”

FUNNY STORIES

Anne made me LOL so hard, that in my re-reading of notes I was still laughing out loud. Oh geez.

The two below cases in point I think really paint a great picture of the dual character-traits she encompasses. Take the story of when readers were surprised to hear that she didn’t love to garden like one of the characters in her book, that she had in fact been researching it heavily and ‘winging’ it instead:

“’You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent, like when Salvador Dali said his favourite animal was fillet of sole.”

Oh my fucking lord. I love it.

(I was on a swearing frenzy following Loon Lake, so screw it let’s go).

(Let’s not make much of the fact that one quote on my calendar once said ‘Swearing exposes weakness not strength.’)

A second moment, where she is talking about paying attention to the world around you and using religious metaphors in doing so, displays the heavy theme of God in her life, while also reminding us that she doesn’t give a shit:

“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are worthless Philistine scum.”

Her chapter on jealousy is refreshing. If a writing friend of hers is successful with writing, sometimes she wants –

“for him to wake up one morning with a pain in his prostate, because I don’t care how rich and successful someone is, if you wake up having to call your doctor and ask for a finger massage, it’s going to be a long day.”

These images are so clear and paint such a humorous picture, and the fact that she does it all, making it appear so effortless, makes you realise how great of a writer she really is.

I can re-type countless funny moments and stories of hers, but I just need to do one more, I promise. I love the following mental picture. When researching for the name of the ‘wire thing’ used for wines, she called a winery to try and found out its proper name. The receptionist there didn’t know the name of it either so she transferred her to:

“a two-thousand year old monk. Or at least this is how he sounded, faint, reedy, out of breath, like Noah after a brisk walk.

And he was so glad I’d called. He actually said so, and he sounded like he was. I have secretly believed ever since that he had somehow stayed alive just long enough to be there for my phone call, and that after he answered my question, he hung up, smiled, and keeled over.”

Oh God. I love it!

Okay, back to the serious writing stuff (clears throat). Writing can be hard (duh Fred). Even for published professionals such as herself, there is still a lot of staring at clocks, staring at blank screens, and yawning. Making phone calls and distracting oneself with other tasks other than writing, is very normal. Sometimes voices would continuously harp at her, and she’s use a tactic a hypnotist once suggested to her, to imagine all the voices as mice, and to one by one drop them into a jar, turn the volume on the jar up and then down, and watch them claw at her as she then muted them. It’s interesting she mentioned this, since I have a kind of different picture, just something I use for when someone I can’t stand is driving me insane in my head. I imagine them as a ball, and with a baseball bat (for some reason it’s baseball, maybe because the ball appears to go very far during that game) I strike it so hard and so out of view that they are no longer seen, or heard.

Perhaps slightly violent, but it does the trick. You can use that for yourself, tell me how you go.

Anne talks of the publishing fantasy, and how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She mentions the early draft process, and when she gets her friends to initially provide her feedback on her work. When she doesn’t hear from them by the next day, she starts to think –

“… about all the things I don’t like about either of them, how much in fact I hate them both, how it is no wonder neither of them has many friends.”

When she gets to sending her writing to her editor and agent, her thoughts are equally as insane and hilarious, if not more so. She convinces herself that they are in cahoots, laughing their arses off over her book, now proclaimed the worst book ever written.

“At one point your editor is laughing so hard that she has to take some digitalis, and your agent ruptures a blood vessel in his throat.”

But it doesn’t stop there. On the date of publication, the blow to the ego comes when your phone ISN’T ringing off the hook, and the 5 people that turn up at your book signings, as well as the review that likens your book to dog poo, just makes it all seem not worth it. Additionally, dealing with people who ask “have you written anything I might have heard of?” while others claim they read everything and yet do not know your name, leaves little to be desired in the world of publication.

She makes the process sound quite shit. She is a great writer after all.

SAD STORIES

Just as I laughed, so too did I cry.

The sad moments made me tear up, quite bad, punching me hard in the heart. Perhaps some of the saddest material came in her section on ‘Letters,’ where she suggested that if you’re stuck in your writing, write an informal letter to someone you know. This has not only been a beautiful present to the person in question in her own life, but has captured a moment of time that will never be forgotten.

The three letters she speaks of are the ones she wrote to her Dad, her best friend, and the couple of a boy who passed. The first two ended up being published books, with both her Dad and best friend getting to read her book dedicated to them, before they passed. It was especially hard for me to read the part of her Dad dying, since I have someone in the immediate family who died from the same thing that struck her Dad. It was shocking, and frightening, to say the least. The fact that she got to write something for her Dad and he read it, and it got published, is heartbreakingly bittersweet.

I was almost crying my eyes out at her third example of an informal letter. A couple she knew had lost their son at 5 months of age. He had been called ‘Cloud Boy’ by his mother’s friends: because he had been resuscitated at birth, he was neither here, nor there. She wrote a piece about him and it was broadcast on radio, and the fact that I had earlier been very cranky with baby girl, just broke my heart. My note on this read:

‘Makes me feel guilty for getting upset earlier at baby girl –big hug later :)’

Page 205, has quite frankly the best story of giving, EVER. It is so painfully moving and inspiring, that I cannot will myself to re-tell it here, in fear of butchering it to death. So just do yourself a favour and get the book and read the damn thing, especially page 205.

Finally, the following poem is one she re-tells, as having thought of it in regards to a student of hers who wasn’t doing so well in his writing. Its fragility is touching.

“Above me, wind does its best

to blow leaves off

the aspen tree a month too soon.

No use wind. All you succeed

in doing is making music, the noise

of failure growing beautiful.”

LIFE

The title of Anne’s book Bird by Bird comes from one of the best stories, in my opinion, to come out of the book (apart from page 205). It is so relevant to life, that I’ve found myself quoting and muttering it ever since I finished reading it.

Anne tells of the story of when her older brother had a report due on birds the next day, which he had had 3 months to write. Close to tears, surrounded by bird info, and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the task, his Dad had put his arm around him and said “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Now I find that I’ll be doing something and I just go ‘bird by bird.’ Some passer-by may think it means I’m collecting the aviary kind, but the significance is just so great, I can’t help but to say it out loud.

She discusses libel, which is one of the most memorable and humorous lessons in the book. If you must make someone horrible from your life a character in one of your books (God help me, I threaten every twerp I meet in my mind with ‘oh you wait ‘til I make the world hate you in my novels, mwa ha ha!’) change all their traits so they can’t sue you, and make them impossible to trace and identify from the people in their life… and of course give them a little penis so they won’t come forward even if they’re suss on you.

It’s Okay. Anne says this every so often, and always with a capital ‘O.’ There is some significance, and I’ve been trying to work out what… suggesting that Okay is a state of being, holding much importance, it all goes back to being alright…. You got me, I’m not sure. But just remember all you writers out there, it will all be Okay.

She talks about all the great things about being a writer, which hey, we all knew already, right? (And if you didn’t, what kind of masochist are you?) Even though she says that publishing is in fact, a fantasy, telling her students that in writing “… devotion and commitment will be their own reward,” she also says:

“But the fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose.”

Writers “get to stay home and still be public.”

Something I’ve always believed: you get the best of both worlds. I did come to question myself, as I have on so many occasions: why do I do it? Why write? Why do I feel the pull, the need, the obsessive urge to get everything down on paper? I journal passionately, having captured my entire pregnancy, the first year of baby girl’s life, and I have since continued, picking up from where I left off years ago and beginning to journal all of my life again.

There are many reasons. First, so we are not lost. One day we will die, and all that will remain of Hubbie and I, which our children will be able to hold onto, are photos, memories, and this. My journals. My journals will give them a view into our worlds like no one else can. Despite our absence, our stories that we’ve passed on to them, and my words, will still be alive.

This is something that I find so magical. That I can be reading ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ written by Shakespeare, and laughing out loud over the lines he wrote hundreds of years ago. That is amazing, that is inspiring, that kind of life-transcendence, for a story to be living and making people feel long after you’re gone.

Of course, I love to write. It is almost an obsessive urge in me, where I need to get stuff down. Additionally, I have a tremendous story in me that just needs to be told. I believe so whole-heartedly that it will resonate with people out there, that I simply must do whatever it takes to get it heard. I will try.

I don’t always love to write. But I always have to do it.

“But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion…”

The world will always need writers. Stories have existed from the beginning of time, and will always be a necessity. You don’t have to write just for yourself: “Risk freeing someone else.” Make someone else’s day, help someone going through the troubles in their life, by telling them your story.

One of the greatest things her father taught her was to pay attention. And that in itself is beautiful. Going somewhere with a sense of purpose, noting things down, whether because you’re going to review it later (a restaurant you’ve been to, or a book you’re reading) or simply to capture the details for a written piece, either fictional or personal.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

In closing, this is a tremendously inspiring and informative book, one all writers should read, published or not. I’m not sure whether it is better than Stephen King’s ‘On Writing:” that I would need to read again, since his I read during my writing book process, and Anne’s one came much later in the game. But both are equally entertaining in their own way, and really, we should be grabbing ALL the advice that successful writers send out to us, and not question it! Take it, absorb it, memorise it, and then with your arms full run for the hills.

I want you all to take these two quotes I present from Anne’s book, and use it to fuel your story, your passion, and your purpose.

“All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

And now run.

Please let me know your thoughts on Bird by Bird in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 😊

A Loon-y journey

loonlake

E.L. DOCTOROW – Loon Lake

“You are thinking it is a dream. It is no dream. It is the account in helpless linear translation of the unending love of our simultaneous but disynchrous lives.”

There are so many things to think and talk about when discussing this book by E.L. Doctorow.

It is about obtaining love.

It is about wanting more from your life.

It is about the many forms of isolation.

It is life’s perversion at its finest worst.

And it is a random bunch of episodes, warped and brutally honest moments that are individual and yet oddly parallel to one another, leading to the same universal goal, that somehow makes it an unexpected whole, a whole that makes sense, yet still leaves you scratching your head.

Confused?

Questions abound in the reading of this novel. From the blurb, you know half of what to expect when you begin to turn the pages. Joe is on the run from authorities, and decides to follow a train’s route when he sees a flash of important people in the carriages pass him one night, including a young woman looking at her naked image in the mirror. Drawn to the obvious wealth present on the train, and hypnotised by the woman’s beauty, he follows the train to its resting point at a very wealthy man’s estate.

‘Very wealthy’ doesn’t begin to describe how wealthy this man actually is. The owner Bennett has his initials on everything, down to the cigarette boxes.

“He was very rich. He owned thirty thousand acres here and it was just one of his places. He owned the lake itself, the water in the lake, the land under the water and the fish that swam in it.”

”But not the dogs? (…)”

“Oh, no (…) Those are wild-running, those dogs.”

And here we have present a hint of humour, something also prevalent in Loon Lake. It is hard to focus on any one element in my review because they are intertwined and dancing with one another in sporadic points, but there is definitely some black humour popping up at various intervals.

With the humour often came some interesting life insight, such as this:

“I could tell that each of them felt badly used to be taking care of some tramp who had wandered onto the grounds. It was an affront to the natural order which made service to people bearable because they were higher than you, not lower.”

And this which I loved:

“And as for Mr Penfield I knew in my bones I didn’t have anything to fear from him. He had a way of canceling himself out if you let him talk long enough.”

So back to the story. What I thought would be the basis and location of the story, Bennett’s estate, ended up changing half-way through. I naively had believed this would be the scene of all the action, since that was all that was mentioned in the blurb. However, the story went further and deeper and darker than just wandering around some enormous estate, looking at lakes, and trying to catch the fancy of the prettiest girl there.

Not that those parts weren’t entertaining on their own. I guess the way the story stops and changes pace and moves in a different direction, often taking other character’s points of view, is something you would liken to real life: how sometimes we go here, we stop; we go there – but wait that didn’t work; we revisit this place, but only in our minds; and then we go back to where we started.

My first thoughts of the book were not much. There was swearing in the first page, which made me think perhaps I could do the same in my writings, however it’s something that I think is a bit borderline since my work is geared towards a young adult audience. Still, I was happy to read:

“Streetcars rang the bell on the whole fucking neighbourhood.”

This definitely was not the sole instance of swearing, and the crudeness continued not only in terms of language, but in behaviours (pissing was a recurring one), events, and really, really horrible circumstances that made you question humanity. The crudeness continued in the written word too, with Doctorow placing some really interesting ‘I’ references that jolted me out of my reader-state and ‘broke the wall,’ so to speak. Lots of jumping from one character’s point-of-view, to the narrator (author) back to the character in a matter of paragraphs. Without warning. Also the character never continuously spoke in the first person, with Doctorow often injecting a different narrative voice just to make you wonder what the hell was going on.

In one instance, the character Warren Penfield is speaking from his point-of-view, and then it changes to this:

“I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment – cancel lifelong commitment – fatal attraction for any kind of communication whether from words, flags, pigeons or the touch of fingertips in hope of a common language, but we must remember how we are vulnerable to the repetition of our insights so that they tend to come to us not as confirmation of something we already know but as genuine discoveries each and every time.”

At first all of this was very jarring, but like the first time you read Shakespeare and needed to get used to the old-style language, or when you read Trainspotting and had no idea what was going on until half-way through the book when their lingo became second nature to you, so too did I eventually become very well-acquainted with his jumpy style of writing.

Aside from this jumpiness in many character point-of-views, changing from 1st to 3rd person, going back and forth in time between the two main men Joe and Warren, and a good smattering of poems, death notices (and one death notice where we are actually introduced to the character whose future death is foreshadowed before we meet him) there is the case of the run-on sentences. This is normal:

“The track went through some woods circled around a small mountain lake and then it started up a grade a long slow winding grade, I was not already in love with her but in her field of force, what I thought I felt like was some stray dog following the first human being it happened to see.”

This doesn’t show the full extent of the much-often absent comma, as the best example is at the end of the book, when Warren’s POV goes a full two pages without a single full stop. At an average of 11 words per 62 lines, that equates to approximately 682 words. That’s a lot of ideas in one sentence. Without googling, this must not be Doctorow’s first work. I’m sorry, but a first-time author would NEVER get away with that (and it kills me that so many things are out-of-bounds for us).

However, Doctorow does it all so well, and so absurdly, breaking the rules that it actually makes sense. He keeps us confused and guessing, up until a certain point before we are about to break with insanity, and then reveals the information we need so we don’t think we are going crazy with misinformation. He keeps us on our toes.

The above quote doesn’t just show how thoughts change abruptly, displaying the real nature of the human mind, but it shows a beautiful element of Joe’s character, and despite the questionable acts he has done in the past, and does continue to do, he has some tender moments. Take this:

“She was happy on the move, alert and at peace, all the inflamed spirit was lifted from her. She had various ways of arranging herself in the seat, legs tucked up or one under the other, or arms folded, head down, but in any position definitive, beautiful.”

And my favourite, this one:

“Her grey eyes shone, her mouth stretched in her tremulous overbitten smile. I danced her out of there out down the corridor doing a fast fox trot full of swirls while I hummed the tune I had heard the night I came ‘Exactly Like You,’ Libby laughing and worrying at the same time, telling me to hush, looking back over her shoulder, giggling, falling against me every other step, brushing my cheek with her lips. And the light lay like a track along the carpet and shone in golden stations of the open doors.”

The crudeness of the novel had rubbed off onto my notes as I was reading, with the following associated with the above: “This guy can fucking do beautiful poignancy!” As another nod to how his themes intertwine and repeat, there is reference here to the terms ‘track’ and ‘golden stations,’ homage to the train he followed to make it to Loon Lake.

Ahh, the elusive Loon. First mention of it comes from a poem by Warren Penfield, before we even meet Warren! This spiked my curiosity, as I didn’t know what an actual Loon was, or even if it was anything, maybe a particular name or place. It is in fact a bird that grabs fish from the lake of the esteemed estate that it’s named after it. This following poem captures the metaphor of the bird, and the story, and the dual nature of things often present in this book, perfectly:

“A doomed Indian would hear them at night in their diving

and hear their cry not as triumph or as rage

or the insane compatibility with the earth

attributed to birds of prey

but in protest against falling

of having to fall into that black water

and struggle up from it again and again

the water kissing and pawing and whispering

the most horrible promises…”

Beautiful imagery is present there. Doctorow makes stunning use of precise details, painting vivid pictures, like this:

“The chief is not cold. He sits at his desk in a short-sleeved shirt. Arms like trees. His wrist watch appears to be imbedded in the flesh. His badge, pinned to his shirt pocket, pulls the material to a point.”

And this, which tugged at my heartstrings with its sadness:

“Warren knew they were poor and lived lives the colour of sag.”

I’ve mentioned crudeness, but the other notable theme is that of poverty, something both of our protagonists share in. Going back to the beginning, we discover Joe has had a fairly pathetic upbringing, and learns to become street-smart in order to get by. He is an interesting protagonist, because he makes choices that would normally make him a very complicated bad guy, only slightly worthy of redemption, rather than the man we are rooting for. Despite the fact that he is on the run at the beginning of the novel due to theft, we come to like him because we see that he’s clever.

He tells the story of how in his early years he stole a cart full of groceries from the fat delivery boy, and instead of taking the groceries for himself, delivered them to all the intended customers, brought the trolley to the store man, and gave him all the money down to the very cent. He scored a job out of this, and it is this event that we start to see, hey, this isn’t some ratbag kid chasing short-term goals. He is in it for the long-term… until he steals the wrong person’s property that is.

He has many ‘save the cat’ moments. There is much I want to say, but I’ll refrain for spoiler’s sake. Let’s just say that he ends up at a carnival, and there are a lot of really sordid, sad scenes. One scene that comes later in the book during a kind of flashback, was really, really distressing to me. I remember finishing that section late one Sunday night and just feeling so low, so crap. Knowing that somewhere in the world, not perhaps that particular thing, but something of the sort, was happening, and had happened, and maybe even would happen again, just made me so sad. Joe is an explosive kind, and despite his own very, very dubious actions, redeems himself in key moments.

“I wanted to do to her what had been done to the Fat Lady, I wanted the force of a hundred men in unholy fellowship, I went at her like a murderous drunkard.”

The whole reason I had sought out this book in the first place is because I had heard of a quote by him that really grabbed my attention:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When later that week I was in a library, I went in search of some of his name and found Loon Lake. I hadn’t really looked into much of his work, or even been recommended any particular book, but seeing the mysterious tones mentioned in the blurb it seemed within my field of interest.

Despite my initial confusion with almost ALL elements of the novel, I still revelled in it, as I like going out of my comfort zone and exploring different forms of storytelling, be it in movies, music or books.

Confusion abounded in Loon Lake: Joe and Warren’s point-of-views were eerily similar, with similar heartbreaking backgrounds, had travelled similar paths to Loon Lake, and later, were in love with the same girl. Their personalities were so different, yet their journeys so symmetrical, that until they actually met each other, I was convinced they were the same person, just bipolar. However the events leading to their meeting, the events that unfold, and the things that happen after Loon Lake are truly fascinating.

The story felt goal-less when Joe was on the run at the beginning; I realise the enticing incident was the authorities chasing him, making him move on, but there were many pages and many continuous moments of crossing land where I just thought “what is pushing the story forward? What is Joe’s motivation?” I guess this story does mimic real life, as I mentioned earlier in Joe’s jumpy thoughts, where sometimes things just move along, move along, and then BANG! you’re given a reason to run.

Just like life, this story has everything: it has the ultimate goal, searching for love, searching for the one, and searching for the life that you believe you deserve. It does this in a perverse way. It has humour. It has sadness. It has desperation, and it has manic moments. It has frightening insights of bleak honesty, so harsh and eerie that it makes you shiver. There are scary moments – scary from humans, and scary because of life. Some things feel like a dream, things go back and forth, and you question many, many voices that are presented throughout. Like the Warren quote mentioned above where Doctorow ‘breaks the wall’ and begins with “I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment…” this passage is also telling in the random thoughts and flashbacks of Warren’s, including one of his repetitions which is identical to another but refers to two separate incidences. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean. But it had me flipping wildly to the start of the book, muttering “I’ve read this before!”

Still, despite the frequent bleakness, and the fact that I probably won’t read another Doctorow book until I read a few really happy novels first, I did enjoy it, and it did have enough humour and insight that I appreciated. I would read another book of his. Just after a blindingly cheesy-happy one.

The ending is not really an ending: not to me anyway. It definitely isn’t one in the Hollywood movie-ending scheme of things, if we’re talking karma and what not. You don’t have very many answers as you go along, and it kind of just ends there, just kind of like life. Some things are tied up, and sometimes, some things are not.

All in all, this novel is a f*^ked up accomplishment of sorts. It has everything, as it had me feeling, and thinking, long after I finished reading. Well done Doctorow. To make a reader feel and think so hard, is testament to your form. Also, to read a book that has so many analogous yet confusing elements in it, yet still giving enough that allows the reader to make sense of it all, is an achievement. If you only like shiny happy things, you’ll walk away screwed up. You’ve been warned.

I’ll end on this page 76 quote that interestingly foreshadows the future of the story while also painting a terrific metaphor.

“…a loon was coming in like a roller coaster. He hit the water and skidded for thirty yards, sending up a great spray, and when the water settled he was gone. I couldn’t see him, I thought the fucker had drowned. But up he popped, shaking and mauling a fat fish. And when the fish was polished off, I heard a weird maniac cry coming off the water, and echoing off the hills.”

Please let me know your thoughts on Loon Lake in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂

The most Sensible of all

sense-sensibility

JANE AUSTEN – Sense and Sensibility

“I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.”

This telling line comes from Edward, our protagonist Elinor’s love interest. And as is so common in an Austen novel, the questions of sense and who we are, people in general and how varying things drive us, take central focus.

From pride and our bias in judging others, to how we differ wildly in similar circumstances, and hold and present ourselves to the world in light of it all… Sense and Sensibility is a novel of character study, and a novel one at that. 😉

But isn’t a novel about people, and who we are inherently, going to maybe, bore a reader? All those questions of why, how, and then throw in class and money… how can that be at all entertaining? How can it fill 394 pages with tiny type, and keep you enthralled?

Why, it is fascinating simply by being the focus on one of the most interesting animals on the planet… humans! We are the most unique species, in all of our differing views, the things that drive us, our individual opinions and those things that light our fire… the way we respond to things or NOT, and even how we conduct ourselves in our day to day… Jane Austen takes these questions and applies them to, yet another love story.

An interesting one. (There is no other option for her).

The story focuses primarily on the two eldest sisters in a family of 3, after their father has fallen to illness and passed on. Elinor, our protagonist: reserved, careful and smart with her statements which are well thought out and considered before they are brought to air –

“…as Elinor had had time enough to collect her thoughts, she was able to give such an answer, and make such observations, as the subject might naturally be supposed to produce.”

And then Marianne, the slightly younger sister, and also you could say, young and immature in heart and nature. Because Marianne is such a polar opposite of her sister, it is this difference that makes the story move in such an interesting fashion. Marianne is passionate, liberal with her thoughts and opinions, and thinks anything that isn’t bold and brash and colourful is just plain boring.

“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both… to hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!”

And an interesting picture begins to form. Perhaps Elinor says it best (and so eloquently as she does) in regards to Marianne’s statement about having no one to watch falling leaves with:

“It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”

The outline of the story is that Elinor has feelings for a man named Edward – he like her is serious, introverted and takes care before he speaks, but whether that is due to a regard for others or due to his own character, is either here or there. Marianne meanwhile falls head over heels for the animated and vivid Willoughby – a character to match her own, he is passionate and robust, and the two hit it off immediately and you can imagine nothing but a bright future for the two… or can you? It is a novel after all, and if the characters are happy at the start, you can be assured that romance will not ride a steady course right through to the end.

Not only does the love story for both girls take a decidedly different course from the other, both still with an emphasis on the unfavourable, but the way both girls take to their disappointments also varies wildly. It is summed up perfectly and with such eloquence by Marianne when she says:

“..our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”

Marianne cannot be reminded of Willoughby and her distress at his parting; she seems to be reminded of him wherever she goes, as portrayed here:

“…and though her family were most anxiously attentive to her comfort, it was impossible for them, if they spoke at all, to keep clear of every subject which her feelings connected with him.”

It is so true how when you are missing someone, you tend to see them in every place you go, every song you hear, every spot of sunshine and drop of rain… all these things, in one way or another remind you of the absence of who you love. Their loss, amplifies the memories and the reminders.

Elinor on the other hand takes an entirely different approach. It reads:

“Elinor sat down to her drawing-table as soon as he was out of the house, busily employed herself the whole day, neither sought nor avoided the mention of his name, appeared to interest herself almost as much as ever in the general concerns of the family, and if, by this conduct, she did not lessen her own grief, it was at least prevented from unnecessary increase, and her mother and sisters were spared much solicitude on her account.”

We see this theme dominant within Elinor throughout the novel, and even though she can be ‘practical’ around her loved ones and play pretend that all is ok, she cannot hide from her true inner feelings only known to herself in private, and us the reader:

“In Edward – she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see; – happy or unhappy, – nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.”

This quiet torment isn’t lost on Marianne who is otherwise preoccupied with her own unattachment, or even their mother Mrs Dashwood, who later reflects that Elinor’s suffering may not have been as grand, loud or excessive in display as Marianne’s, but that does not mean it was not as strong.

Even in happiness, Elinor is subdued:

“Elinor could not be cheerful. Her joy was of a different kind, and led to any thing rather than to gaiety… it led to no outward demonstrations of joy, no words, no smiles. All within Elinor’s breast was satisfaction, silent and strong.”

The starkly different characters that Austen paints does not stop with the two sisters. As is common in a Jane Austen novel, the supporting cast are hilarious, comical, and so vividly clear as your read their lines, it is hard to imagine Austen not basing these on actual people she came across, so precise is her description of them.

A fantastic passage that very accurately paints a clear picture of many characters is this section:

“Here comes Marianne,” cried Sir John. “Now, Palmer, you shall see a monstrous pretty girl.”

He immediately went into the passage, opened the front door, and ushered her in himself. Mrs Jennings asked her, as soon as she appeared, if she had not been to Allenham; and Mrs Palmer laughed so heartily at the question, as to show she understood it. Mr. Palmer looked up on her entering the room, stared at her some minutes, and then returned to his newspaper. Mrs. Palmer’s eye was now caught by the drawings which hung round the room. She got up to examine them.

“Oh! dear, how beautiful these are! Well! how delightful! Do but look, mama, how sweet! I declare they are quite charming; I could look at them forever.” And then sitting down again, she very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room.”

The subtleties and nuances on display here are so obvious in reading, and they paint such a vivid picture of each person. Another example of character is here, with the animated Mrs Jennings talking:

“… and how forlorn we shall be, when I come back!-Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.”

Some of these lines are so ridiculous, I think they surely came from a real person, they are just that outrageous to make up. Nonetheless, Austen’s ability to show character through dialogue is remarkably strong and a true talent.

Elinor makes her own observations on character when thinking about Mr and Mrs Palmer:

“…wondering at Charlotte’s being so happy without a cause, at Mr. Palmer’s acting so simply, with good abilities, and at the strange unsuitableness that often existed between husband and wife…”

Perhaps Austen’s character descriptions ring so true, because at their foundation they do display the genuine human condition. Regardless of this being written over 200 years ago, human emotions are fundamentally the same, and whether we have servants or not, how we react to misfortune, to good news, and to others, will remain as is through the years… subject to our own personal character of course.

It led me to calling out ‘I know people like this!’ when I read the following. In talking about her sister Marianne’s temper, Elinor thinks:

“Opposition on so tender a subject would only attach her the more to her own opinion.”

Ha! Tell me you don’t know someone like that!

Again with Marianne, and also her mother, Elinor reflects:

“They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow…”

You know there are people who just get on with it and try to move on when something bad happens, and then there is the aforementioned, who wallow in pity and feel it in every part of their bones, body, and soul, and let ALL who pass their path know about it?

She captured that perfectly.

Even the practical Elinor falls prey to this pity at times, with the humorous thought:

“After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.”

And there can even be stark differences between two outwardly passionate people, especially where matters of the heart are concerned. Here Elinor is observing Marianne at the shop compared to Mrs Palmer:

“Restless and dissatisfied everywhere, her sister could never obtain her opinion of any article of purchase, however it might equally concern them both: she received no pleasure from anything; was only impatient to be at home again, and could with difficulty govern her vexation at the tediousness of Mrs. Palmer, whose eye was caught by everything pretty, expensive, or new; who was wild to buy all, could determine on none, and dawdled away her time in rapture and indecision.”

Perhaps it was most hilarious (or I found it so as I have a child and know it to be true!) at the following observation early on in the novel:

“On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up 10 minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.”

SO TRUE.

As is the case with a Jane Austen novel, you (at least I) find things to be highly fascinated with, at the very least because of the time and era her stories were based in, as well as the way she writes and how she paints certain characters… well this time it was the reoccurrence of a certain word… monstrous.

Monstrous pretty. Monstrous glad. Monstrous lucky. There were so many ‘monstrous’ mentions, and by so many differing characters, I almost went around saying it myself… monstrous!

And then again, the era difference came through strongly in specific moments. Not just with their hierarchies of class or strong dependence on continual income through inheritance, but in the way they dealt with stress, or sickness.

Wine. Now I know that people do de-stress with a glass of red, I am not throwing stones from my glass house, since I do it too. But when you are sick with agony and distress and feel weak with an aching head, and the treatment is, wine?

Hell maybe they had something going there.

This is what Elinor ‘procures’ for her sister upon receiving some devastating news for her. It allows her to finally ‘speak.’

Of course.

And on another slightly more comical note, when Marianne leaves a room beside herself with sadness, Mrs Jennings laments:

“…how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord!”

Excuse me for a moment for being so blunt… but lady, the girl doesn’t give a shit about your cherries. She is heartbroken!

Be prepared, for there are a lot of characters. I am ashamed to say it took me well over a year to start and finish this book, to no fault of the novel, but moving house happened somewhere in between the reading, and every time I read the book in dribs and drabs, I honestly had to turn back to earlier pages and remember who everyone was, and why so many names seemed so alike… from Dashwoods to Steeles to Ferrars’ and Jennings’… not to mention the Sirs, Colonels and Lady’s! Keeping them straight was a task, yet towards the end of the book it was slightly easier to remember a cast you had been acquainted with for a while already.

But while we are at it, can I say, what kind of daft name is Fanny? Why, Austen cast that name perfectly I think 😉

At the end, things wrap themselves up perfectly, as is common in this type of classic literature… but Austen’s clever storytelling definitely has you stressing and guessing ‘how,’ repeatedly. In fact she writes herself into such a corner, that at one point I could see no way out! And then, an escape hole!… and not the garish “wake up and realise it was all a dream” weak attempt to solve everything and bring everyone to some kind of equilibrium. Austen managed to untangle the situations she had set up so brilliantly, doing it so realistically, and using the one main important trait the whole book was about: sensibilities.

And yet it was this thing that slightly irked me. Sure I was content with the ending… but the way it came about, and what was said… no, not really. Sacrifice and settling were themes that prevailed, and in one such situation the matter of ‘duty’ was heavily featured… I was at first quite jarred by this sentiment, but I took a step back and looked at the time this book was set in… and even though I was in complete disagreeance with the choice and how it came about, I was understanding that that is just how it was at the time.

My frustration due to my preference for passion and outward displays continued with the theme of ‘settling’… what? This seemed like a bit of a weak explanation for me, and even though things evolved to something grander and fuller, still this was something that upset me. I could understand the story, the realistic ending, sure, but it was something that did not sit well, even now as I think back. I still like the story, and yet this one thing, maybe more so than the ‘duty’ theme, irritated me to no end. I wondered, just because I disagreed, does that mean it was not right, it was not true? Many questions may arise when reading this book, and nothing more so than the ending will have you questioning: what would you do? What would you be happy with?

This novel in short, is a great character study on why we do the things we do, what drives us to do them, and more specifically, why we do the things that we do when in love. What makes sense for some can be completely alien for another, and yet it is in these differing ways that we learn about each other, we grow, we experience something we have not been privy to before, and we gain an enormous insight into the ‘monstrous’ complicated human condition.

And that is what Jane Austen does so well, and explores methodically with great humour, wit and sensitivity.

I will close on some lovely observations. I loved the insight and attention to detail in the following expression:

“Mrs. Ferrars,” added he, lowering his voice to the tone becoming so important a subject…”

Oh wow. Just magical. Her observation of how people speak and react is another level. She has to be one of the greatest writers of all time. And lastly, this gem:

“But it was too late. Hope had already entered; and feeling all its anxious flutter, she bent over her sister to watch – she hardly knew for what.”

Ahh… Goosebumps. If you haven’t already, please do yourself a favour and read this book… it would be highly un-sensible, not to. 😉

Please let me know your thoughts on Sense and Sensibility in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂

Much Ado About Something

shakespeare collection

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – Much Ado About Nothing

“Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made

That wounds only by hearsay?”

This is an exceptionally succinct quote within a play that sums up the premise of a long-held classic tale.

But you would expect nothing else by the brilliant and world renowned playwright William Shakespeare.

No, this is not me, in any way, trying to write a review to say this play is either good or bad. Call me biased, but all of his writings are amazing. I love his work, just as I love this play, and this review only serves as a summary of the wondrous words and witty humour that Shakespeare injects into his work. Cupid, mixed signals and cheeky hilarity? Why, trademarks of just another Shakespeare play. But each are unique and brilliant pieces of work in their own right.

I only decided to read the play some time ago, when I found out that the creator of the Angel/Buffy Universe, Joss Whedon, had done a modern retake of the film, featuring some of his Universe’s characters in the main lead, in the form of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. This was timely and encouraging, only because –

***ANGEL SPOILER ALERT!***

Those same two people played characters who came to unhappy ends in Whedon’s Angel. Fans around the world mourned the future for the couple they would have wished to have seen blossom and grow together. The ending was heart-breakingly devastating, in true Whedon style, more so because it ended just as it had began. Oh the unrequited love we had to endure, to then grab a hold of, only to see it while away and DIE.

***SPOILER ALERT OVER***

So when he chose to do a movie as his own homage to the late and great Shakespeare, I was impressed, and also, curious. I bought the DVD…

But I would have to read the original first. This wouldn’t be hard, as I have a complete collection of plays by William Shakespeare that I will be slowly reading through in amidst other reading projects, from now to the rest of my life.

So, moving on to the original heart-breaker. Although in this tale, the heartbreak is presented with that much wit and humour, that to class this in a genre, you would say foremost that it is a comedy.

I imagine Shakespeare thought out his plot twists and ends well in advance, that’s how convoluted and intricate they often are. And this play doesn’t disappoint.

Don Pedro the Prince of Arragon, arrives in the city of Messina with his men, a couple of young lords by the names of Claudio and Benedick. Claudio is immediately taken with Hero, the daughter of Messina’s governor; and as he begins the relatively easy task of getting her acceptance to marry him, with the added blessing of Leonato, Hero’s father, there begins a hilarious and offensive ongoing feud and war of words between the other young lord Benedick, and Hero’s cousin, Beatrice.

Beatrice is a wild and fierce character, and there are fabulous snippets of her wit that very accurately paint a picture of the non-traditional, unashamed and straight approach that she employs.

Her early remark lets us know what she thinks about matters of the heart.

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

And another one later on, where her uncle and father are trying to convince her on the merits of having a husband –

“What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel, and make him my waiting-gentlewoman? HE that hath a beard is more than a youth; and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him: therefore I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward, and lead his apes into hell.”

But the earliest note of hers regarding Benedick, her opponent in everything amicable and friendly, comes when a Messenger hears her talk about him in unfavourable terms, and questions

“the gentleman is not in your books”

to which Beatrice responds with

“No; an he were, I would burn my study.”

Oh man. What a line! As Ashton Kutcher’s Kelso would say, ‘Burn!’ Only Shakespeare!

Despite this ongoing aggressive engagement between the friends of Claudio and Hero, you start to question if in fact there is something more behind their sharp words to one another, when Benedick early on provides us with this snippet (in talking about Beatrice next to Hero):

“I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter; there’s her cousin, an she were not possess’d with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December.”

Words can portray so much, and despite our intention to hide our true thoughts with them, often our subconscious will trick us and belie us the truth, that comes out in dribs and drabs when we are not thinking. When one is too staunch on a topic, often you wonder why, and what that strong-willed position is actually hiding…

While Benedick and Beatrice’s not-so-friendly banter continues, plans are made for Claudio and Hero to wed – they are madly in love, and because of this decide that they can make arrangements for their all too passionate and disobeying friends to admit their love for each other too.

One line I loved was said mid-way through, to test Benedick into admitting his true feelings for Beatrice, and yet the quote still serves as a current quote in the life that we live now.

“a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.”

Almost everyone in Hero and Claudio’s circle conspire to set Beatrice and Benedick up, and make the other believe, despite ongoing disparaging remarks, that they are in love. However there is a third plan being set up, despite anyone’s knowing… and that is the plan of Don John, Don Pedro’s bastard and cruel brother, who also arrives in Messina with intentions to ruin the planned union of Claudio and Hero, and make Hero out to be an adultress.

The tone changes significantly here. From a hilarious and light-hearted story, suddenly it turns, as Hero stands accused on the day she is to be wed, facing an onslaught of accusations from the man she loves, and even her father joins in on the crucifixion.

“Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:

For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,

Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,

Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,

Strike at thy life.”

It is truly a horrendous scene. When I had the fortune to watch this very play in Shakespeare’s Pop Up Globe theatre earlier this year, this particular scene acted out in front of me almost brought me to tears. It was heart-breaking, the accusation of something Hero had not done, made to her by the man she loved, and further condemned with no evidence whatsoever, by her Father! To see the anger and betrayal brought forth by Claudio and Leonato, supported even more so by Hero’s strong refusal and shock to accept the wrongful accusations – it was truly distressing.

Upon reading it, I couldn’t help but think of one thing… Sex and The City. My how times have changed! Here was a show exploring the sexual explorations and lifestyles of 4 women in the current day, whereas in the 1800s a woman was considered a write-off just for apparently talking to a man from her bedroom window! There was no innocent until proven guilty – that was it!

Fortunately for Hero, her reprise comes in the support of both her cousin Beatrice, and interestingly, the Priest (not even her father believed her until he spoke):

“…In her eye there hath appear’d a fire

To burn the errors that these princes hold

Against her maiden truth.”

Aha! It’s ‘fake a death’ time! Does Shakespeare particularly like faking deaths? Using trickery to outdo, trickery? Think Romeo and Juliet. Ahh ok, here we go again.

Leonato, Hero’s father, now convinced of Claudio’s injustice in wrongfully accusing his own daughter (can he just make up his mind?) brings us this beauty in describing his now distaste of Claudio

”My lord, my lord,

I’ll prove it on his body, if he dare,

Despite his nice fence and his active practice,

His May of youth and bloom of lustihood.”

I live for lines like that. Bloom of lustihood. I find that not only is Shakespeare the original author of the base of almost every story told nowadays, but reading lines from such a tale brings such absolute pearlers, I can’t even!

And that is part of the mystery and enticement of reading such old stories. Not only are you going into an older world, but it is a world so similar in themes and values, yet so different in time and place and way of life that it is almost comical to consider that these stories are representative of the time lived then. It is both fascinating and sometimes, horrifying.

In true form of a humorous tale as this, all is restored again by the end, with more than one couple making plans to wed, and the wrongdoers being discovered and called to justice.

But it isn’t as simple as that, is it? It’s true that in life, we start off with one line of thought, and learn that we were wrong all along. This is true in both Benedick and Beatrice’s circumstance, with Benedick speaking ill against it in the beginning

“That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks; but that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.”

and then coming around by the tale’s end.

“In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”

And what a conclusion that is.

‘For man is a giddy thing’!

Please let me know your thoughts on Much Ado About Nothing in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂

The Root of all things

dark roots

CATE KENNEDY – Dark Roots

“The butcher becomes my friend. All day he bashes up the carcasses of dead things, and I’ve never seen the smile off his face. Now there’s a puzzle for you.”

Not only is that my little homage to my own smiley butchering Hubbie, but it beautifully represents the regular juxtaposition the following book presents… that beneath the common every day, lies something unknown, deeper, darker…

Dark Roots.

I came across Cate Kennedy and her work in a round-a-bout way. The year was 2013, and I was about 6 months pregnant.

It was also Hubbie and mine’s wedding anniversary, and on top of that I was going to a writing workshop up in the Dandenongs, hosted by none other than the above, yours truly.

I had been writing my young adult novel for a while, and when I heard about the workshop, was more than intrigued. More so because it was in a location we had been to the same time last year, and it was the foundation of this picturesque setting, that I decided to take a day off work, and take myself out of my comfort zone, and to a place, both figuratively and literally speaking, where I would be alone, vulnerable and at the mercy of possible harsh elements.

2013-05-03 17.16.13

Not just the bush, but the critics.

The day was eye-opening in many ways. I learnt much, discovered not to compromise my style, whether in life or in writing, and found that as much as some people there were truly lovely and supportive, others eyed me off judgmentally and with deep critique.

It’s to be expected when there are many of the same field in the one room, and abundance isn’t the universal language of all.

At the end of the day, I purchased a book from Cate, as I had never even come across her name or style. Dark Roots it said, and she wished me well in the inside cover.

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And finally, I started reading it over a year later, once baby girl was about 6 months old.

Let me start by saying that reading darkly-themed stories isn’t probably the best idea when you have a newborn.

Not to say the themes were horror and kept me up at night, when I already had a little monster doing that for me – no, not at all. Cate’s short stories embody a sense of unease about the world, about life, where people are placed in unfair situations, and in many of these they stay there. There’s a deeper meaning, a greater picture, a portrait to paint of the human condition. And it ain’t all fair and pretty.

Even when the endings are happy, and there are only few, they are so only by being bittersweet, where the happiness is tinged with just enough sadness to make you go, “oh, damn.”

Three things became apparent to me as I made my way through the stories. The first was how bleak the stories at the beginning of the book seemed, and how mid-way through they seemed to lift just that little bit to keep me going.

The second was the double-meaning of the story titles. Habit became an early favourite of mine, and very cleverly penned, both about drug use and a Nun. Resize becomes not only about resizing your wedding rings, but resizing your entire relationship. And The Light of Coincidence was another enjoyable one, talking about a favourite topic of mine, but one that showed the incredulity of life and how sometimes, things can work out in the most remarkable of ways. A game I started to play at the beginning of each story was to try and determine why the story name was as it was, only to find out it in fact had two meanings, almost every time.

However my third observation and confirmation, came early on in the realisation that I was not cut out for short stories, even more so, ones that had ‘dark roots.’ I prefer to fall in love with a set of characters and a different world over a period of time, where I dedicate myself to their path, rather than the quick chop and change, 15 or so pages dedicated to each story in this book. Having said that, Kennedy is one who performs this niche art form like the artist she is, capturing your attention, your heart and your mind, making you feel for a character who may be insane, pathetic, or a murderer, and make you root for them the whole way. She has an innate ability to pull at your heart strings by showing the rawness of life, and it’s because she does this so damn well, that I just can’t fathom the sadness of it all.

Her ability to represent life in its true form, either through dialogue or description is on key. She also brings an acute awareness to every day tasks, things that you wouldn’t normally think about, but reading her words you think ‘I get it.’ For example, in the first story the main character is climbing out of bed:

“This is how you slide from a bed: move your foot out and over the edge, find the floor, slide sideways supporting yourself on the bedside table, your fingers touching the fake antique lamp your parents gave you a pair of for a wedding present. Haul out from under the doona…”

And suddenly, I was the one climbing out of bed. Not only does she paint the picture as if she were watching you try to stealthily get out of bed undetected, but the addition of those physical descriptors, not just the antique lamp, but FAKE antique lamp from your parents no less, well here lies another back story…

Another story has a man fishing, and the visual imagery is so beautifully striking in its sadness:

“The trout lay there drowning in the air, and I could see the miraculous gills opening and closing, its eyes moving as it gulped the wrong element, two old scars on its big mottled back, and then everything slowed down and I reached my fingers, fumbling with agonised realisation, into the trout’s mouth to get that hook out, and I snatched the fish up in both hands and threw it into the water.”

And finally, when I read the following:

“Three years ago I tried some street coke and the hit was just enough, through the glucodin and speed percentage that seared into my nasal cavities, to make me make a vow to myself. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would try the real thing: the purest, whitest, Colombian cocaine available to the casual buyer.”

I had to question, how did she know this so accurately?

However I had to remind myself of the funny fact I had once read, that writers become a neuro-blah expert on whatever they have set out to research, often overnight! It is just the life of a writer, to be as real as you can be about a subject matter… whether from living it, or studying it like hell.

In the story Habit, I found myself rooting for the protagonist to get through customs with their drugs, even before I knew they were dying, and needed the drugs! How does she do that? And when all became even clearer at the end, without giving too much away, suddenly all the Godly mentions and phrases had a double meaning that shone with heavenly clarity 🙂 I absolutely loved it, and it was probably the first ‘kinda’ happy ending that hit me, right there.

But many times, there was no ending. The story was just a window into another person’s world, their often difficult, uncertain life. There was the woman in Soundtrack, who suddenly had a child many years after having her first daughter, and how the ambulance couldn’t get there in time, so her teenage daughter helped deliver her child. And then life kept on going, to the soundtrack of life in the background. Then there was the story The Correct Names of Things, where Ellen worked in a Chinese shop in the 80s paying her way through uni. Another piece on how life is lived, and how you learn and attach names to things, where I had absolutely no idea where the story was going – it seemed, nowhere in particular, since it appeared to be more an explorative piece.

In Kill or Cure, the description of farm life was so meticulous, that I recalled Kennedy mentioning her own life on the farm many times, and suddenly it all made sense. The story of a woman moving to a farm with her farm husband, trying to adjust to the land, the life, and be accepted by him, the town, and his best friend, the dog… it was all so melancholy and lonely, I also had to wonder again, how much of it was fiction. Even without a proper ending here, you couldn’t not feel.

But for many of these stories, it didn’t appear to matter whether they had a purpose or ‘real’ ending, or not. They served their purpose by just providing a snapshot into another’s life, and I realised without my usual necessary closure need, that I kind of enjoyed it. The journey, and not the destination.

It was common to feel achy, sad and despondent when going through the book, like in the short story Angel, where the assault of a young child is hinted at and made definite by the direct retribution that happens after, and also Cold Snap, where a young boy is ridiculed and made to feel inferior. Here the boy is laughed at, with others saying in his earshot “it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home,” so when those same few get what they deserve, you smile menacingly, while still feeling a pang of longing for a boy who doesn’t exist, and yet somehow, you know somewhere, he does.

Kennedy’s pace is fast, as suddenly you are here, then you are there, but it all happens in such continuous fluid motion that you didn’t even know you moved until you realised the sun was on your face as opposed to the bed you were just sleeping in. I felt like I could learn a thing or two from her genius. But I guess this is the way that short stories have to be, and when they are like this, they work brilliantly.

Her language is telling and cheeky too… like in the story Resizing, ‘lubricate’ is used in the context of getting a car started again, and yet it means so much more in a steamy car of a formerly fighting couple on the verge of reuniting. In The Testosterone Club, a house wife concocts some comedic revenge on her untrusting husband and his friends in the form of slowly curing pickles, which says so much about manhood and the ‘flaccid’ nature that it can fall into. Here, the routine and mediocrity of a boring housewife existence was captured well, recorded as so monotonous and regular, and yet so unexpected in its satisfying final outcome.

But, I found as I read, and continued to look back on my notes for Dark Roots, that there was Hope. Both in the form of me finding a short story that I really liked, and then the realisation that I might too, want to dabble in and try my own hand at short stories. I found my inspiration brewing in her story The Light of Coincidence. Not only did my home town and its landmarks feature prominently, but so did an area of speculation and great interest to me: Coincidence, fate, and how they play together. From the middle:

“Let me tell you a story, a connoisseur story of coincidence. There I was trundling down the ‘down’ escalator at Flinders Street Station, jammed into crowds of people, when who should I see but an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in ten years going up the escalator across the way. She was in blue. Oblivious to my calling and waving, she disappeared up the moving stairwell. I was seized with an overwhelming urge to say hello, and at the bottom I turned and raced back up her escalator and was deposited in the whirlpool of commuters on the ground floor. No sign of her. I raced outside and saw her blue jumper, sixty or so metres up Swanston Street, so I barrelled across the road and caught up. Tender greetings followed.

‘What a coincidence,’ I said. ‘I just looked up at the right time to see you on the escalator in the station.’ A puzzled frown crossed her face.

‘I wasn’t in the station,’ she said.”

Chills, or what? The goosebumps I got from reading that grabbed my attention, and kept it more firmly for a good while after. Because when a writer develops in you some kind of emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, or more happily, belief and Hope, that is when one tends to turn up more often, and listen.

And after reading this book, I am listening.

There is Hope (and coincidence) for me just yet.

Kennedy’s short story title accurately portrays the content which you will find inside. Surface level will show you the every day, whereas when you go beyond this, and to the roots of the matter, you will find that in the character’s thoughts, lives, and ideas, some darkness lives. In doing this, she helps us teeter on the thread of human existence, where on one side it is sunny and well, and the other shows the motivations, fears and hopes that drive us, with the overwhelming blackness that can sometimes unify and occupy us all.

I see short stories in a different light now. Much lighter than the Dark Roots they came from, and I have Kennedy to thank for that. I am now looking forward to reading her other short story collection, ‘Like a House On Fire,’ waiting for me on my bookshelf.

I guess it takes time, but often things will work themselves out like that. Like the closing sentence in my favourite story, The Light of Coincidence:

“I slide it out and fit it into place, feeling the whole configuration resist, and move slightly out of skew. I move it back with the flat of my hand, feeling it shift. Strengthen. Interlock.”

Please let me know your thoughts on Dark Roots in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 🙂