Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann


2016, 256 p

Written by the author of one of my favourite books (This Side of Brightness) this is a really strong collection, comprising a novella and three short stories.  Each one of them is memorable in its own way.

The heart of the book is the eponymous novella with which it opens ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’.  It is told in thirteen chapters, each of which is headed by a stanza from Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. It was not clear to me that the stanzas had a direct connection with the chapter: they seemed to act more as an organizing device.  The octogenarian Manhattan judge Peter Mendelssohn is murdered after lunching at a nearby restaurant with his boorish, self-centred son. The thirteen chapters follow Mendelssohn through this last day as he wakes and is tended by his live-in nurse, dresses, shuffles to the restaurant, eats, then leaves.  Some chapters are his lengthy, wordy inner monologues which flesh him out as a character; others are more detached descriptions of the vision captured by the CC cameras with which wealthy Americans, in particular, surround themselves as a way of insulating themselves from danger.  We see, and yet do not see the one thing we need to know: who killed him?  We have multiple perspectives, and have been given knowledge things that the judge and jury in the ensuing murder trial do not know- but the ending of the story is abrupt and frustrating. The question is not answered definitively, but in many ways it doesn’t matter.

I was perhaps less taken with the second story, “What Time Is It Where You Are” which is a rather postmodern story of the construction of a story- in this case, about a female soldier in Afghanistan on New Years Eve. Just as in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’, there are choices in how a story can be told.  ‘Thirteen Ways’ utilized CC cameras as its way of creating a narrative, and in this story it is the unnamed author who is weighing up which facts to include or omit, and which twists of plot to introduce or not.

The third story, ‘Sh’khol’, riven through with a raw, keening anguish, counterbalanced the archness and self-consciousness of the second story.   An Irish mother, separated from her partner, is holed up in a cottage beside a raging ocean, with her thirteen year old deaf son who was adopted from Russia.  She has given him a wetsuit as a present. The next morning she wakes and he is gone.  Sick with dread, she searches for him on the windswept beaches and in the swirling waves.

I thought that the final story was as good as the one with which the collection opened.  In ‘Treaty’, an elderly nun has been enfolded back into her Irish convent when she is confronted with the sight of the  right-wing guerilla fighter who had kidnapped and raped her in the South American jungle many decades earlier. She’s not sure whether this re-fashioned ‘peace negotiator’ really is the man she thinks he is, and like Peter Mendelssohn in the opening story, her grasp of past and present is slippery.

I often find myself thinking about the editorial decision to select one short story over another in a compilation like this, and whether and how the individual stories contribute to the overarching unity of the collection.  These stories, very different though they are, are linked by their exploration of multiple perspectives, the elision of past and present and the contingency of fate. I enjoyed each of them, most particularly the first and final stories. Perhaps it’s because there were only four of them, but each of them is clearly defined in my mind in its own right – something that doesn’t always happen when reading a book of short stories. Or perhaps, as I suspect, it’s because Colum McCann is a very, very good writer.

Source: E-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10 (high praise for short stories from me!)

‘A Book of American Martyrs: a novel’ by Joyce Carol Oates


2017, 736 p

It’s been a while since I last read a book by Joyce Carol Oates. What a prolific author she is! Her bibliography lists 41 titles, with one book published each year since 1994. Some of them are gritty, edgy (often icky) novella-length books (e.g. The Beasts at 130 pages) while others, like  My Heart Laid Bare (531 p.) are real door-stoppers. There are themes she revisits in many of her books – emotionally lost female protagonists, infatuation, and the rippling effects of a crime on a family – and they’re all here in A Book of American Martyrs.

Here, though, they’re placed within the cultural and religious chasm between pro-life and pro-choice activists that has ruptured American politics for years.  Luther Dunphy is a zealous evangelical Christian, convinced that God has chosen him to assassinate an abortion provider, Gus Voorhees, in the driveway of the clinic where he is employed. Both men pay with their lives, in different ways.

Rather unusually for a fiction book, it has a table of contents. The book is divided into five sections, each divided from the next by a grubby, much-handled page that suggests that the book is a series of smaller, covered books, each separate from the other.  The first section focusses on Luther Amos Dunphy ‘Soldier of God’ and leads us up to the shooting. It is followed by a section ‘The Life and Death of Gus Voorhees’, subtitled ‘An Archive’. This archive, collected by Voorhees’ daughter Naomi, is her way of trying to make sense of her father’s death. It comprises a disparate and unsorted collection of documents, interviews and narratives from different members of Gus Voorhees’ family, some no longer than a paragraph, others some thirty pages in length.  The reader is left to make her own sense of all this.

The remaining three sections are arranged chronologically. ‘The Hammer’ turns to Edna Mae and Dawn, Luther Dunphy’s wife and daughter, in the years leading up to Dunphy’s execution in 2006. (I read this book in May 2017, very much aware of the multiple executions being lined up in Arkansas, where the drugs used to kill the prisoners are due to expire. It all seemed very pertinent) Now there are two martyrs: Dr.Gus Voorhees who died for the pro-choice principle, and Luther Dunphy who revels in his role as the man God chose to save the babies that Voorhees was about to ‘murder’ that day.

In the fourth section ‘The Embrace’ (2006-2010) and the final section ‘The Consolation of Grief’ (2011-2012) the two daughters, Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy come into each other’s orbit.  Both are damaged by their fathers’ deaths, each in their own way. Dawn, poorly educated and marginally employed, is achieving minor success as the female boxer, D. D. Dunphy. Naomi, who has spent most of her adolescence and adult life so far in obsessively collecting the ‘archive’ in Part Two is freed by wealth and connections from any real necessity to make a living. For both women, though, their families have fractured.  The two girls are united by their fathers’ martyrdom, but politically and culturally they are far separated.

This is a very long book at over 700 pages, but I didn’t find myself wishing that it were shorter, and I even felt sorry when it came to an end.  The Dunphy characters – Luther and Dawn- are more fully drawn than the Voorhees family, who always seemed rather insipid. I don’t know enough about small-town Evangelical working-class Americans to know whether Oates is being clear-eyed or loading on the stereotypes- I suspect a bit of both.  There is a lot of detail about boxing which probably could have been trimmed, although given that Oates wrote a series on essays On Boxing, it’s probably no surprise that so much attention is paid to the sport.

Oates herself does not come down on one side or the other of the abortion question. She gives each of the ‘martyrs’ a worldview that makes sense of their actions, however they might appear from the outside.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9

‘Alicia en el Pais de las Maravillas y El Mago de Oz’


155 p.

I feel a bit as if I’m cheating counting Spanish books as ‘books read’ but – dang it- they take me as long to read as any 400 page novel, so count it I will! This book is not overtly aimed at the Spanish learner, in that it does not have vocabulary or questions at the back although its author information at the start seems to be aimed at an adult audience. The font is large, with a large illustration on the facing page, and the chapters are relatively short (i.e. a couple of pages). Of course, being Alice in Wonderland, strange vocabulary pops up and you think ‘Surely that can’t be right!’ but then you remember that yes, croquet is played with flamingos etc.  The Wizard of Oz story was easier to read because there was more repetition and the story followed a more conventional arc.

Does it work for me, reading a children’s book in Spanish? Yes, on one level, given that both are familiar stories which makes guesswork easier. But it certainly was a very abridged version, tracing plot alone, and in Alice in Wonderland particularly, it depended a lot on prior knowledge of the story with one event piled on another with little connection between them.  Come to think of it, though, that’s very much how Alice in Wonderland is, I suppose.

Source: Borrowed from my Spanish teacher Renato

‘Wild Island’ by Jennifer Livett


431 p., 2016

From the opening lines of this book, you hear echoes of a book you have read before:

Reader, she did not marry him, or rather, when at last she did, it was not so straightforward as she implies in her memoirs. Jane Eyre is a truthful person and her story is fascinating, but some things she could not bring herself to say. Certain episodes in her past, she admits, ‘form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt upon’ .. My name is Harriet Adair, and forty years ago on that ship I was Jane Eyre’s companion (xii)

Thus begin Harriet Adair’s own memoirs, written forty years later.  Readers of Jane Eyre have met her before, as Grace Poole, caring for the mad Bertha Mason at Thornfield.  But in this telling, Bertha did not die in the fire thus freeing Edward Rochester to marry our Jane.  The woman we knew as Grace Poole was really Harriet Adair, and Bertha was instead  Anna – not Antoinette as in Wide Sargasso Sea, a model for this book in extrapolating and subverting Jane Eyre into a new story. There was a way in which Edward would be free to marry Jane, but it involved sailing to Van Diemen’s Land to seek out Captain Booth, now a commandant at Port Arthur Penal Settlement, who was the only man who could confirm an earlier marriage that would invalidate Edward’s marriage to Anna (Bertha). Part way along the journey it is decided that Edward and Jane will return to England, and so off they sail back into the northern hemisphere to become shadowy, background characters who tether this book to its original inspiration but play no further role.

There have been other books that have sprung from a much loved story – Wide Sargasso Sea is one; Pemberley is another- but in this book Jennifer Livett has added another level of difficulty.  The opening pages have two lists of characters: the first a list of historical characters drawn from the real-life inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and early 1840s; and the second a list of fictional characters, some of whom have been taken from Jane Eyre, others created to mingle with the real-life Hobartians.  The research for this book is exhaustive- and exhausting.  In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book, the author mentions that this book has been forty years in gestation, and I believe it.

From my own research into Port Phillip at the time that this book was set, I know these historical characters and, for me, there was a little leap of recognition as if I’d seen Tulip Wright (who later turned up in Melbourne) in his brilliant-hued waistcoat, disappearing around a corner.  You probably know them too. We’ve met Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in several books previously (see here and here),  and Mathinna from Richard Flanagan’s Wanting makes an appearance. John Gould the bird-artist and his wife Eliza are here too, and there’s even Mad Judge Montagu and Charles Swanston, the bank director whose finances propped up the Port Phillip expedition, now immortalized in one of Melbourne’s main streets.

Livett has a beautiful turn of phrase: take for example her description of black swans, heads-down feeding, looking “like black mops floating on the surface” (p. 245).  Her ear for dialogue and her historical felicity are first rate. The details are absolutely accurate but -oh- there are so many of them and I often found myself wondering if a reader less steeped in Tasmanian/Port Phillip politics would find them overwhelming.

One of my favourite quotes about Port Phillip society is the Port Phillip Gazette’s observation that “Melbourne boils over like a bush cauldron with the scum of fierce disputes”. It’s a characterization of colonial life which holds true for many of nineteenth century port towns across the British Empire including Hobart. In this book we are taken to the factional conflict  between Sir John Franklin and his colonial secretary John Montagu, an adherent of the Arthurite faction who had prospered under the long governorship of Franklin’s predecessor Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. We are taken to the politics of the transportation policy and its change over time, with the cessation of the assignment system.  At times the narrative becomes a vehicle for explaining the politics, and at this point, it threatened to collapse under the weight of so much didacticism and so many peripheral characters.

And yet, even for a reader familiar with this period of Tasmanian history, reading this book brings this history alive, especially the world of middle-class women who have been swept up into the circuits of empire through the postings of their husbands to official positions throughout the Empire.  Livett captures well the jostling for position, the grabbing at opportunities that opened up in a settler-colonial economy, the importance of patronage and   the censoriousness among women restricted to a round of visiting and levees and balls. She is completely at home with the ‘networks of empire’ conceptualization of colonialism that underpins much recent historiography:

…there are always more connections than we know about, across the widest spaces. So many links between the colony and England, most of them fluid. Water, ink, blood, each carrying its own cargo. Frail ships criss-crossing the seas, their holds packed with innocent-looking objects as dangerous as guns: china tea sets; bolts of flannel; packets of seeds and bank drafts. All bearing the message that there are certain ways in which life must be lived, and ways in which it most assuredly must not.” p 44

At the same time, the author is pulling the strings of the Jane Eyre connection, with the question of whether Rowland Rochester  (Edward Rochester’s brother) had ever lived in Tasmania providing the narrative pull of the story. St John Wallace, Jane Eyre’s rather wet (in my opinion) cousin is here with his wife Louisa, and Anna (the former mad Bertha) moves in and out of the story.

It’s a long book, but Livett has maintained Harriet’s narrative voice throughout the alternating chapters which switch between Harriet’s first person point of view and a third-person omniscient narrative.  It is this high-wire act of playing out a twist on the Jane Eyre story, while maintaining such historical integrity that most impresses me about this book. But then I find myself wondering: is there such a thing as too much historical integrity? I suspect that there is; and I think that the book threatened to be engulfed by it, even for someone familiar with and appreciative of its fidelity.

And so, my praise for Wild Island is not completely unalloyed.  Livett has aimed high, but much though I admire the accuracy and richness of her historical rendering of Van Diemen’s Land, I wonder if it ensnared her in details and explanations that stopped this book from really soaring.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2017-badge

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf


2015, 179 pages.

What an absolute gem of a book!  It’s only 179 broadly spaced pages long, but it’s gentle and wise and sad and when I finished it too late into the night, I sat in bed and cried.

Addie Moore is a widow in a small country town and one night she knocks on the door of her long-time neighbour, Louis.  They have known each other a long time, both their partners have died, and their children are grown up. “Will you sleep with me?” she asks- not sex, but just sleep.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.  Lying down in bed together and staying the night.  The nights are the worst. Don’t you think? (p 5)

It’s ironic that I recently read a book called Reading in Bed that involved older characters. I disliked it for its shameless milking of ‘older reader’ characteristics and preferences.  The theme of being in bed as an older person ties the two books, and yet they couldn’t be more different.  Reading in Bed was trivial and bloated: Our Souls at Night is restrained and dignified and says more in its 180 pages than the other book did in 344.

I even had a little chuckle at the end of the book when the author rather cheekily referenced one of his own books – Plainsong – which I read many years ago (and even remembered!)  It was a little wink to the readers of his other work, and I felt like saluting him. This book was published posthumously, Haruf having died in 2014 at the age of seventy-one.

This is a simple, affirming, grown-up book.  I loved it.

My rating: 9.5 /10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra


2013, 400p

Reading the debut book of a writer whose second book you really liked is a bit of a gamble. What if s/he only found firm footing with the second book? What if the first was a dud?

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities between Anthony Marra’s second book The Tsar of Love and Techno in that both books have sections set in Chechnya (in fact, the whole of Constellation is set there) and they both have oblique titles,  but this book focusses more on a small group of people and is ‘straighter’.

It is set over five days, and the book is divided into three sections (The First and Second Day;  The Third Day; and The Fourth and Fifth Day). But within these three sections the narrative slides chronologically- and I use the word ‘slide’ deliberately because each chapter is headed with a timeline spanning 1999 to 2004 with the year in which the chapter is set marked out in bold type. In 2004, in a small snow-covered village in Chechnya, the good hearted Akhmed watches as his life-long neighbour Dokka is arrested and his eight year old daughter Havaa flees into the woods.  Akhmed finds her, and knowing that they will come back for her too, he takes her to a Russian doctor in the city, Sonja Rabina, who is struggling to hold together her bombed-out hospital.  There’s lots of backstory to be filled in: why Dokka has been arrested; who informed on him;  who this doctor Sonja is, the relationship between the villagers, and the tension between Chechnyans and Russians. I know very little Chechnyan history, but I feel that I know more having read this book- and what an easy, seductive way to learn it.

All of this written with wisdom and compassion and with landscapes and people described so clearly that you can see it. Is this really only his second book and is he really only the age of my son? He’s good. Very good.

Delia Falconer wrote a very good review in the Sydney Review of Books.

My rating: 9.5

Read because: I so much enjoyed his second book.

‘Billy Sing: A Novel’ by Ouyang Yu


2017,  135 p. Transit Lounge

In my grave my spirit lingers, the undead, if you believe that sort of thing, which I think you ought to, you beings so materialistic you forget that life is not just one life but multiple ones, so that, for certain people not tied to possessions and property, life travels forward as it travels back, in time, one’s spirit interconnected to spirits of a similar persuasion, with a mind large enough to encompass all times, all places and all people. Still, as I lie here, I envisage that in some future time someone will stop by and put his ears to my heart, separated by cement and stone, and find himself whispering into the ears of my spirit. I shall listen. I have done enough sleeping in life to live death awake. Conversely, if you have not lived enough death in life, you’d better mind your own business. (p.36)

The voice is that of the dead Billy Sing, a real-life Gallipoli sniper nicknamed ‘The Assassin’ by his fellow soldiers. But it’s an imagined voice- and here the subtitle ‘A Novel’ is important – and it’s a voice that probably belongs more to Ouyang Yu than the character he has created.  In writing this review, I googled ‘Billy Sing’ because,  I admit, I had never heard of him. In the Wikipedia entry, mention is made of a television mini-series made about Sing, which cast him as European.  Queensland National Party member Bill O’Chee, a member of the Billing Sing Commemorative Committee criticized this decision to ‘white-out’ Billy Sing, saying “When a person dies, all that is left is their story, and you can’t take a person’s name and not tell the truth about their story.”  Ouyang Yu couldn’t be accused of ‘whiting out’ his Billy Sing. Instead Billy’s mixed race, in an Australia which saw the White Australia policy as a founding issue, is a fundamental part of his personality and story, permeating not just his reputation but also the language with while Ouyang Yu tells his story. The issues of racism and national identity bookend Billy Sing’s life, silenced only by his stint in the trenches at Gallipoli where he shucks off his humanity to become a disembodied killing machine.

The subtitle of this book is ‘a novel’. As it happens I finished reading this book just as I read Judith Armstrong’s  rumination on the relationship between facts and fiction in her own writing of what she calls ‘biographical novels’ of Sonya Tolstoy and more recently, Dymphna Clark (wife of historian Manning Clark). She describes both these books as  a “hybrid method of rigorous research coupled with intuitive interpretation”  but found that there was strong marketing and cataloguing resistance to accepting them as ‘novels’, even though that is what she insists they are. Hilary Mantel recently raised similar questions in relation to her own historical fiction, where she described fellow historical-fiction writers as ‘cringing’ when they attached a bibliography.

  You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary”

More than ‘fictionalized biography’, these novels – for they all clearly identify themselves as such – stake for themselves a place for imagination and supposition. The authors do not claim to be writing history or biography: it’s a novel. In Ouyang Yu’s case, he has tethered his narrative around a number of factual, documented fenceposts.  One is the author Ion Idriess’ diary entry about Billy Sing, another is Sing’s Distinguished Conduct citation.  These he cites in a small bibliography at the back.  Beyond these, however, the author has let his imagination play.

When an author is faced with a dearth of documented material, which is the case here, that very absence can be turned into part of the character him or herself, and this is certainly the case here. Billy Sing asserts that others may scribble, but he will not write.

Every time I saw him pick up a pen and put something down in his notebook, a green-covered one featuring a thin blade of corn across the cover, I’d wonder what that would lead to and if, in the writing of things the person vacated himself, a husk of a being, hollow inside and substance emitted.  It would be infinitely preferable to just go and dream and go on dreaming, in a sleep that never ended, and, better still, in  a sleep that was coupled with love or the act of it… If I had the ability to put it down, it would not amount to much, either. I’d just let it go as most things in my life would do. (p. 73)

I found this a difficult book to get into. The language was poetic, but strange and didn’t seem to go anywhere.  It may be the historian in me speaking here, but it was only when I reached those footnotes and realized that there was a factual basis, that I felt as if I were no longer scrabbling on gravel, trying to get a foothold. It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more afterwards, once I found out more about the real Billy Sing.  The dream-like, insubstantial nature of his telling of his marriage mirrors the historical uncertainty over whether his wife ever came to Australia or not.  Dreams and a sordid, visceral reality are intermingled, and it’s a slippery book to read.

Did I enjoy it? I really don’t know how to answer. It is only short, and I was able to suspend my anxiety over whether I was ‘getting it’ over 135 pages, while I doubt that I could have done so had the book been 300 pages instead.  It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more after finishing it, and once I’d established the ‘facts’ I was better able to appreciate the artistry and lyricism of the fiction. Somehow, I suspect that this is not the way the author intended his book to be read.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers, who has read a lot of Ouyang Yu’s work has reviewed Billy Sing here.

Source: Review copy