Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Long and Short of It: A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
Canongate (Text in Australia)

This review constitutes part of a challenge undertaken by myself and Simon from The Blether.

Theodore Adorno is quoted as saying "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz."

Does this mean there can be no poetry after 9/11?  After the Tsunami that rocked the coast of Japan in 2011?  What about MH370?

The truth of the matter is that words are one of the only ways that the human species knows how to console themselves in the face of tragedy.  I think perhaps it comes from an impulse towards closure, a need to explore the why and how of big events.  Writing can also serve the meditative purpose of helping a person come to terms with the fact that sometimes there can be no explanation.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a novel which explores the liminal space pre and post Tsunami in Japanese culture.  It is narrated by two voices: by Nao, (Yasutani Naoko) who is writing a diary to an unseen 'you' figure, documenting her decision to commit suicide, and by Ruth, a present day Japanese expatriate living on a small Canadian island with her partner.  This Ruth figure shares a name, home town and relationship with the author, and is a writer herself, but I saw her as somehow divorced from the author in her ability to influence events in the book.

This novel bucks the traditional concepts of genre, being epistolary, realistic, and also at times science fictional.  When Ruth finds Nao's diary, along with some other relics in a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach, she is drawn into Nao's story in a compelling fashion.  At first it seems like she has no agency in what happens in Nao's story, but after a string of bizarre coincidences, it becomes apparent that stranger, more dreamlike forces are at work.  One of the things I found most compelling about Nao's narrative in particular was the candid nature of its confessions.  Nao tells the reader about horrifying ijime (bullying) that borders on rape and grievous bodily harm, about her father's repeated attempts to commit suicide, and about how her life leads her down a path that ends in prostitution and the possibility of being murdered by a hentai (pervert).

Because of the duality of the narrative, the reader is given a sense of hopelessness in reading Nao's story; because the belongings have washed up among detritus washed out to sea by the tsunami, second narrator Ruth imbues the reader with her own sense that Nao must have been one of the thousands upon thousands lost in the tragedy.  The evidence in support of this begins to mount, as Ruth's searches online for traces of events mentioned in the diaries show up with clues that disappear.  She and her partner Oliver are haunted by a Jungle Crow, native to Japan and NOT Canada, which seems to be an omen of bad news.  As Ruth distracts herself more and more with the diary, she begins to grow more anxious about its outcome, and dreams of Nao's great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist Nun, coming to her with premonitions.  These dreams continue throughout the book, and are key in its conclusion.

The book takes a strange and unsatisfying turn towards the end when the diary begins to become not a historical object but one of the future.  The words disappear from the end of the diary prompting Ruth to have to seek out the ending of the story by intervening through her dreams.  To me, it is this implausible ending that caused the book not to win the Man Booker Prize.  In a sense, it felt like by giving the reader/narrator some control over what happened to Nao, Ozeki shied away from the true tragedy of life, and also mitigated her responsibility for the fate of that character.  The effect was a distancing.  One moment I was sitting on a bus stop in Sendai with Nao, hoping we would get to Jiko before she died and the next I was questioning the sanity of a character who had up to now been rational and a little lonely.

Nonetheless, I will definitely reread this book, if only for its brilliant dialogue with the aftermath of culture surrounding the Tsunami, and for its immersion in a culture so alien to my own that it almost feels no different at all.

Four out of Five stars.

Monday, 24 March 2014

What I Learned In Creative Writing Class

A personal reflection on whether or not I should have just gone to Law School

I'm going to be controversial here and say that the first time I read Hanif Kureishi's article slamming creative writing classes, I was almost inclined to agree with him.  Kureishi, who teaches at Kingston University, was quoted in an article posted by The Guardian online on Wednesday, March 5th as saying that creative writing courses are a "waste of time" and that "a lot of [his] students just can't tell a story."

Now if you want to read an excellent piece defending the teaching of creative writing, I direct you to this piece by Annabel Smith, which includes several interviews with people involved in some way in a creative writing course.  This blog post is not designed or intended to be a rebuttal, but is rather a think piece in which I detail how my thinking about studying creative writing has changed in the years since I finished the course.

"a lot of my students just can't tell a story..."

Picture this.  You walk into a brown and grey lecture theatre through the front door and climb the stairs to the desk you've picked out for yourself.  It's not so close to the front that you seem over eager, but it's not at the back.  You take this seriously.  You are here to be a Writer.  Capital W.  But this first lecture, this first bite of the academic creative writing program pie is totally bland and tasteless.  The teacher reads the unit guide aloud to you, slowly and allowing dum-witted questions from the peanut gallery who just want to waste your time.  'I thought studying creative writing was going to be fun!' You think.  'I thought I was going to be asked to stand on the table saying "Oh Captain, my Captain" or given a licence to carry a moleskin and look troubled.  This isn't what I signed up for at all!'  Thankfully, the introductory lecture is once off.  Formalities aside, you're divided into a couple of classes and from then on, you meet once a week to have round table discussions on some of the more key elements to story crafting.

Some of the people in your class don't have a clue, and some of them are only there because they get an elective in first year computer science and they thought this one would be easy.  Some people object to being asked to read an excerpt from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, on moral grounds, but in week four, they read out a story that they say is autobiographical, all about the time they dealt heroin out of their share house.

You notice, as the weeks go on, that the discussions you have in class are helping the stories become more interesting.  The class is learning.

"They can write sentences by they don't know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.... Can you teach that?  I don't think you can."

When you love to write, like I do, you do it whether it's a homework assignment or not.  Every time the teacher sets a workshop exercise, it's like another person's voice is being channelled through you.  What's more, you feel confident that it's right.  It's good.  It has potential.  And the teacher is smiling at you, and the person sitting next to you is eager to swap with you and read your work while they read yours.  Are you being taught something?  Not in the traditional sense.  No one takes to the whiteboard and writes out a lesson for you to copy down.  If creative writing was taught that way, we'd be very bored by what the literary world was offering by now.

There is no formula for the creative spirit.  Combining A with B does not always result in C.  Your teacher knows this.  He or she takes your impressionable mind and fills it with examples of brilliant prose.  They nod, encouragingly when you read your work out.  They make suggestions, they open it up to the floor, so that your fellow students might be your teachers for a while.

People go on creative writing courses for a weekend and you think, 'A weekend?'

Creativity develops at different rates in different students.  For those who already have a good understanding of English and of writing composition, a creative writing course can be a space to let loose and get feedback from people who think about the same kinds of things that you do.  It can take the three years that it takes to complete your BA, or with the right teacher, it can take a weekend.  Really clicking with your teacher is key.

Midway through last year, I did a creative writing course through UWA Extension with local author Natasha Lester which I proclaimed taught me more in five weeks (fifteen or so hours all up) than I felt I had learned in four years of tertiary study.  At the point of saying this, I was feeling disillusioned with where my creative writing degree had led me, but Natasha's courses were genuinely fantastic.  The course was purely recreational.  Every person in that room was serious that writing was what they wanted to do.  Every person (bar a few who didn't speak much) read widely, and wrote as much as they could as if compelled to.  It was a room full of people who felt like they were or would be writers.  This is something that is currently missing from the tertiary creative writing environment.  Oftentimes, I would feel superior to other people in my university classes because they struggled with concepts like dialogue and plot that I had been familiar with for donkey's years because it was something that I counted as an outside interest.  (And then I felt bad for feeling superior, because I wondered, existentially, if I seemed as conceited and self-deceived, unjustly so.  Isn't there a Flannery O'Connor quote about people who think they can write generally not being very good at it?)

"...find one teacher who [you] think would be really good for [you]... most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you...."

Now that is genuinely conceited thinking.  Ever heard of the expression, you have to walk before you can run?

Writing, in my experience, is not something you can ever be an expert in.  You're always learning, and sometimes your brain gets so full that some of the basic stuff gets pushed out one ear onto the floor.  Learning the basics in a group format can be a great way of resetting, of going back to the start and discovering new angles and approaches.  The creative writing class is a diverse group.  By thinking you are too good to research with the crowd, and seeking out a teacher who will stroke your ego and teach you the "difficult concepts" is not going to make you a better writer.  It will make you... (well I think the cliche here would be to say, it will make you Will Self, but in fairness to Mr Self, I haven't read his work, only the work of others which gives the opinion that he's got tickets on himself)...

"good writing courses will help you work out if you are a writer or not..." (Matt Haig)

I spent a good part of 2013 thinking that I had hurt my chances of ever being a writer by studying creative writing at university, completely forgetting that at the time, I had loved it.  I have vivid memories of crying whilst doing a reading of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", prescribed to our class by one of my favourite teachers, a woman who would return work that she had given a High Distinction to with red pen all over it, suggesting changes.  This woman later became my honours supervisor for the creative portion of my Honours thesis, for which I received a 2A.  (At the time, this devastated me, but I have accepted it, and will one day do my PhD, become a Dr, and say neh neh neh neh neh to anyone who doubted me.)  What doing honours revealed to me was that I hated academic writing with a passion, and loved creative writing.  I loved having time to write long sections of prose, and trying new things and looking at edits.  I loved the wrestle between what she wanted for the piece and what I wanted.  If I'd had more time with the piece, it would have been a masterpiece, but as it was I had a year and I was far too close to it.  But that year, I learned that I would be a writer, whatever it took.

"I can't stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing.  So what?  They're a dime a dozen."

When I first read Hanif Kureishi’s article, I was reminded of that old Flannery O'Connor attitude that those who think they can write, can't.  But since then, I've learned O’Connor is also attributed this quote:  “I’m often asked if I think Universities stifle writers.  My answer is I don’t think they stifle them enough.  There is many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”  It’s the good teacher of that quote which is key.

A good teacher is patient, and recognises in the student writer a desire to create, even if the student does not know what, how or why.  A good teacher gives names to the amorphous concepts that the eager student might already have tried, names like figurative language, theme, juxtaposition, intertextual links.  A good teacher makes reading recommendations.  A good teacher provides a safe space in which to write and share what has been written.  A good teacher mediates between constructive and unfair criticism.  A good teacher will return even a piece which has been given a High Distinction with red (or some other colour) comments all over it, knowing that there is always room to learn more.  I was very lucky for most of my undergraduate writing career, because I had teachers who did all of these things in their own way.  Since then, I have learned how to bend and break the rules of what I was taught, in order to find a stronger voice that is more ‘me’ than the academic one I developed when I was also writing essays on the use of setting in Wuthering Heights, and obscure 19th Century Japanese history.  There was a time when I thought having to do this meant that studying creative writing was a waste of time, but I have recently decided I was always meant to do this; a university creative writing course gives you training wheels, and it is up to the writer to decide when, and if, to take them off.

Which brings me to another quote, this time from Eleanor Catton at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival a few weeks ago.  When asked by an audience member what she thought of the teaching of creative writing at tertiary level, Catton (who teaches writing herself) replied, “I think it is very easy to do badly.”

Just like it’s easy to be a bad student, to treat the class like a cop out, it’s just as easy to be a bad teacher.  By deciding outright that the majority of creative writing students are untalented, and writing for the wrong reasons, a teacher is bound to be a bad one, and make their own course a waste of time. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Writing Process Blog Hop

I have been tagged in a blog hop by Emma Chapman, author of breakaway hit, How to be a Good Wife.  I first came across Emma's work at last year's Perth Writers Festival, and was immediately impressed by her ability to describe honestly and beautiful the human form.  There are also other amazing things about Emma's writing that you too will discover if you read her book, which is available at all good bookstores.

Without further ado...

1) What am I working on now?

I'm currently in the middle of the eighth draft of my novel, Between the Sleepers, which I began when I was in Year 12 many moons ago.  It's a historical coming of age novel set in Fremantle in the late 1930s, and follows a working class boy named Winston who meets and falls in love with a middle class darling who seems determined to lead him into a world of jazz, heartbreak and war.

2) How does my work differ from others in it's genre?

Well, I don't know how this applies to other books, but my writing has always been heavily influenced by modern music.  I don't read a lot of poetry but when I listen to music I'm really only listening for great lyrics, the ones which crystallise feelings I've experienced but never been able to verbalise.  The whole idea for the novel came from listening to an album called The Compound, by a band called Search/Rescue.  The songs on that album seemed to be telling a story to me, and I wrote down what I thought might happen in each chapter if that album was a book, and that was my original chapter plan.  It's changed so much since then though... for a start, in the original plan, my female lead character was the victim of an unsolved murder.  Then I remembered how much I love historical romances.

3) Why do I write what I do?

People always say that I should write the book that I would most like to read, so I strive for that.  But what impresses me most about the books I love is that I feel I never in a million years could be that good.  So it's a constant reaching process.  Maybe I'll never get there.  Or maybe I'll be Margaret Atwood when I grow up like I've started saying I'd like to be.

I'm also fascinated by relationships.  I use writing to explore the ins and outs of them.

4) What is my writing process?

I show up at the desk and I write.  Usually it's on a laptop, but sometimes I write things by hand in my journal.  I always keep a journal and it goes with me everywhere, even when I don't write in it for weeks.  When I finish a novel, I put it away for a while, and then come back, print it, read it as if I had never written it, mark up the changes I want, and start over.  I type the whole thing out again from the marked up copy, diverging from the text when there are changes to be made.  And then I start again.  While I'm doing this, I'm reading constantly.

Hope you find this interesting!  I certainly enjoy reading about other people's writing processes....

I have been asked to tag three people at the end of this post, and I have selected:

1) Kristen Levitzke 
2) Louise Allan
3) Iris Lavell

These three talented ladies are all members of local writing groups, champions of independent bookstores, and authors to watch.

Check out their answers next week!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

My Mum Reviews: Heist by Robert Schofield

My mother, Megan, is an extremely intelligent woman who often says she would like to write a crime novel.  If anyone could do it, it is her.  As it is, she's a busy academic who still finds time to devour at least two novels a week.  These novels are usually crime novels.  As I don't usually read crime, I thought perhaps it might be nice if every now and then, I got her to review something she rather liked for you all, seeing as my bias away from crime is surely not shared by all my readers.  In the style of Triple J's breakfast program, in which they ask their fathers to review the feature albums, I now bring you My Mum Reviews.

Robert Schofield
Allen and Unwin

As an avid reader of crime fiction, I picked up Heist and read the blurb: an inauspicious start I thought, but enough to get me to start reading. 

From the first I could see this as a movie.  The settings lend themselves to the action movie, and it was easy to see how this book will translate – I hope Robert Schofield gets the chance to profit.   The gold room at the mine, the outback roads, Kalgoorlie’s race round, and its colourful Hay Street contrast well with the suburbs of Perth.  

I found that I read it quickly and it kept me interested, and while there were a couple of places  where I asked myself questions about local facts or places, I did not find the errors I have sometimes found in other books set in places with which I am familiar.  The action was plausible, although at times just stretching the margins of possibility, I found myself caught up in Gareth Ford’s urgent need to get to Perth to ensure the safety of his daughter and ex-wife.  The police, Kavanagh and the others, including Detective Inspector Chadwick, the bikies, the Vipers and their associates, and the other characters all lend themselves well to the story.  I began to suspect the what might happen in the end, but was not sure enough to give up reading, and certainly the momentum and the plot were not lost in this growing suspicion. 

Schofield describes aspects of Perth in ways which I had not thought about before, and yet he is able to evoke in me memories of places I have been in such a way that they felt familiar.  His prose style is colloquial and easy to read, while at the same time containing an air of sophistication sometimes lacking in action style crime novels.  Heist is a crime novel, but it is not a detective novel or police procedural, and the action associated with the crime as the protagonist tries to work out what is going on, and who to trust, made it well worth the read.  I wonder what book Schofield has in the pipeline for me to read next. 

- Megan Paull, 2014

Sunday, 16 March 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 
Karen Joy Fowler, 2014
Serpent's Tail Books

I love Karen Joy Fowler.  She's the perfect mix of sassy and verbose.  She's Marian Keyes meets Zadie Smith and I find all of her books entertaining and educational.  So it really wasn't a surprise to me that my gut reaction, on seeing a copy of her new book, was to snap it up and then race through what I was already reading so I could bump it WAY up my to read pile.

On first examination, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves seems to be the typical American family novel set in the late nineties.  Think The Virgin Suicides- there is something dark in the family's past, but the narrator isn't going to tell you what yet.  Rosemary Cooke is 22 and studying her way through almost the entire course catalogue of Davis University, California.  She doesn't have many friends, so it is as strange to her as to everyone else when she gets arrested for throwing her lot in with a violent drama queen named Harlow.

So, Rosemary begins to tell her story, not from the beginning but from the middle.  Once, there was a little girl named Rosemary who had a sister named Fern who was the same age as her, and a brother named Lowell who was about six years older.  But then something terrible happened, and after that, Fern didn't live with them any more.  Lowell blamed Rosemary for the terrible awful, Rosemary and her big mouth, and then a few years later, Lowell ran away.  So Rosemary decided that from then on, she would keep her mouth shut.  But it's hard to make friends, and hard to find yourself if you don't talk, or even think about the things that happened to you.  Hence, book.

If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now and go read.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson

The Weaver Fish
Robert Edeson, 2014
Fremantle Press

It's been quite interesting to observe the recent branching out of Fremantle Press titles into new and perhaps more typically 'masculine' genres (although arguably there is no such real category, but that's a discussion for another day.)  Earlier in the year I reviewed Ray Glickman's Reality, a psychological thriller where a reality program is enacted on six unsuspecting Perth residents.  Today's title, The Weaver Fish, is similarly influenced by crime and thriller nuances.

Edeson was the recipient of the 2012 TAG Hungerford Award, supported by the friends and family of the late Bill Warnock, and from 2014 the award will be sponsored by the Fremantle city council.  It is an award which seeks out fresh new writing from unpublished writers in Australia, and usually manages to unearth books which are fresh, surprising and inspiring.  The 2012 award was plagued by excellent submissions, with the result of the runner up also being given a publishing contract for later in the year, although not the prestige or the prize money.  In The Weaver Fish, judges Richard Rossiter, Susan Midalia and Delys Bird have definitely unearthed something very new.  Edeson is an expert in several disciplines, and his love of learning comes through in the text, which begins on a remote island in the Ferendes where a research station has been set up to study peculiar phenomena in language and culture relating to the deadly weaver fish which devours its prey in seconds, leaving the skeleton behind it.  The primary researcher at the station, a man named Edvard Tossenturn (this kind of pun name styling continues throughout the book) has commissioned a hot air balloon from an aeronautics company so that he can get close enough to study the fish, but both man and balloon go missing.  Anna, Edvard's 'friend' (and it's implied that she's a friend of the special kind), goes to the Ferendes to help search for Edvard and continue his work.  When an unidentified man stumbles into the research centre in need of medical attention, she hopes against hope that this might be Edvard.  Fast forward to the second major narrative of the book, which takes place in Perth, a computer genius named Richard Worse has just killed a Chinese assassin and dropped him down the elevator shaft in his home.

But how are these narratives connected, and what on Earth do they have to do with logging concerns?  You'll just have to read the book and find out.

As a novel, The Weaver Fish  is highly intelligent and complex.  I like that if you read the book as straight text, it isn't too hard for the average non-scientific person to follow on, but that for the hardcore maths and science lovers, there are deeper, scarier jokes included in footnotes, lending credence to the idea that this book is a scientific record compiled by someone named Magdalena Letterby.  However, it is this duality of author, and the double narrative, that make this book seem a little like it's having an identity crisis.  Perhaps I merely failed to understand, but the book appeared to have many unbelievable coincidences at it's heart, and particularly in the case of Richard Worse, the hand of the author was a little too visible.

I gave The Weaver Fish three stars.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Claire North
Orbit Books
Publication date: 1st April 2014

How to classify a book like this one?  It's something of a quandary.  It's not historical fiction, though it takes place at the same time as a number of notable twentieth century events like World War 2, and Vietnam, but it's also not a science fiction novel, despite involving a form of time travel.  Part counter-factual history, part spy thriller a la James Bond, complete with top secret research facilities behind the Iron Curtain, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August avoids categorisation by being many things at once, and I think because this has been done so well, it would be safe to say regardless of genre, the book will be a best seller.

But while this is 'Claire North's' first book, it's not the author's.  It appears, from an obscure author's note tucked away at the end of the book, that the creator of Harry August is no stranger to bestseller's lists.  "Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels.  This book is completely different from any of them." So says the author's note, and so began my extremely close reading of this book in an effort to be the person to unmask Claire North.

(Sadly, I failed.  And while I don't think that the identity of North will remain forever a mystery, I do think I'll have a long wait ahead of me to find out who it is.  Just FYI, it's not JK Rowling. )

Harry August belongs to a group of people known as kalachakra or ouroborans, people who relive their lives over and over in an infinite loop.  They retain knowledge from their previous lives, but under the watch of the Cronus Club, an organisation set up to help kalachakra, they agree it would be unethical to change the course of history.  But when a message is delivered to Harry August on his deathbed by a six or seven year old girl, he realises that someone is not playing by the rules.  The end of the world is coming.  It comes earlier and earlier in every life.  This message has been passed down through the generations, from child to dying old man.  Something must be done.

And so, Harry sets out to discover the source of the problem, following anachronistic technological discoveries throughout the world... but as the perpetrator is also an ouroboran, can he be stopped?

I love this idea; it's fresh, it's intelligent, and it requires the reader to do just a little bit of thinking as well, to wrap their heads around some of the concepts.  Think of the book as a cross between a Tom Clancy novel, an Ian McEwan, and The Time Traveller's Wife.  (In fact, I am even wondering if the author could BE Ian McEwan...)  'North' writes with simple, pared back prose, but puts you completely in the moment, allowing the reader to feel what Harry is feeling and see what he's seeing.  As a narrator, Harry is compelling and imperfect, but his motivations are always clear.  He has a tendency to ramble, and as parts of the story that occur in different lives are told out of chronological order (instead following a thematic pattern) he can sometimes be deliberately vague, but the lingering question mark doesn't hang like the sword of Damocles for too long.

However, I am left wondering if the mystery of the author's identity kept me reading when the book became, quite markedly, more of a technological spy thriller at around about page 300.  It's an important question to ask.  I was frustrated by the numerous unfulfilled love interests Harry pursued, particularly given that barely any of these women were given voices of their own, including Akinleye, whose dual status as paramour and ouroboran made her a key figure in the unfolding of the plot.  While she was present for a number of anecdotes, she rarely expressed her own opinions.  I quite liked her and wanted to know more, but it was not to be.  Likewise, Harry appeared tortured over losing his first love, Jenny, and there was a moment where several lives later, it seemed sure he would get her back, but the love story part of the plot was far less important than other aspects I suppose.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a compelling read, highly original and very intelligent, but only time will tell if it will be overshadowed by the mystery of its author's identity.

Four stars.