Sunday, 24 May 2015

On Writing, Female Friendship, and the Importance of Really Caring About What You Do.

Writing a novel is really hard.  There are probably thousands of people attempting to do it as you read this, and I would hazard a guess that many of them won't finish.  Of those who do, some will never revise their work, and some will never revise it enough times to get it to the point of being ready to submit to agents and publishers.  (Some will self publish but that's a totally different subject.)  This is where the real paradox of being a writer comes in.  To get your work to this point, you have to be hard-working and second guess nearly every decision that you make.  (Or, okay, I guess you don't have to be, but I have always found that a lot of writers experience higher than usual self doubt while they are working.)  THEN when it comes time to submit your work, suddenly you have to feel as if you are the greatest writer ever to have put words on a page and you have to convince a handful of industry professionals that this is the case too.  You have to write short but punchy emails that convince agents and publishers to outlay time and money for the furthering of your literary ambitions, and you have to somehow convince them that when your book is a real thing with pages and a spine and cover that people who are not your immediate family will buy copies and possibly that your story will sell movie rights and become a blockbuster hit.

This doesn't come naturally to me.  I'm getting fairly confident in my abilities, and in the last few months I am growing more and more confident that I am a writer and not a person who merely enjoys writing.  I am learning to see my own work semi-objectively and evaluate it, and I am learning to push myself to new emotional depths.  I am learning to work hard and sometimes suffer for my art, and this all feels really really great, particularly when it earns you the opportunity to do awesome things like go on writing residencies and things like that.  But I'm still not super good at self evaluation.  It does not come naturally for me to sit down and write about myself in a manner intended to evaluate myself in a positive light for the purpose of other people's assessment.  It feels weird, and somehow not allowed.

Now, I'm not a man and I've never been a man in my position before, so I don't really want to comment on whether or not this is something I have been conditioned to do because of my own gender.  I am getting interested in feminism and in gender studies, but I've got a long way to go, so I will leave my opinions on #writingwhilefemale to the experts-- awesome people such as Maxine Beneba Clarke, who started aforementioned hashtag, and Ceridwen Dovey who wrote an article called The Pencil and the Damage Done, which I will continue to reference in nearly every conversation I have until someone hits me over the head and says 'Enough already!'  What I will say is that I am lucky enough to be related to, friends with, and inspired by a huge network of amazing women and it's days like today when I feel especially blessed to have them in my life.  I'm fairly privileged to be able to say I have never really been made to feel like I couldn't achieve something on the basis of my gender (which is not to say I've never been discriminated against, but my experiences of this have been fairly recent and I choose to see them as the other person's shortcomings, and therefore hilarious and wrong) and when I look at the amazing women in my life, I know that anything is possible.

Except, you know, writing a self evaluation without feeling incredibly awkward.

In light of the recent cuts to funding of the Australia Council, it's going to become even harder to be a successful artist, writer, actor etc. in Australia, and I think (woman or not), this means it is more important now than ever to own what you do, and continue doing it to the best of your ability.  It would be far too easy to stop producing due to lack of funds and lack of places to exhibit your work, but that lets The Powers that Be win.  And I am inspired by the amazing women in my life, three of whom I have just had an incredible morning tea with, to continue to use my voice and my words for good, to continue writing even when I feel like my voice has no value, and to continue putting myself out into the world, even if it feels like the world doesn't really want my words.  I'm fortunate because writing is something that cannot be taken away from me.  I can write anywhere, and I can write about whatever I want, and government funding or not, I'm still going to have it-- so I am going to keep doing it and feel blessed every time I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.  I will keep throwing my ideas out into the universe until something sticks.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Book Review: In Love and War by Liz Byrski

In Love and War
Liz Byrski
Fremantle Press, 2015 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Liz Byrski grew up in a small English town known as East Grinstead, which you may or may not know of as being near the place that AA Milne based the Hundred Acre Wood on for the Winne the Pooh stories.  During the Second World War, East Grinstead was the home of celebrated and pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald MacIndoe and his 'Guinea Pigs', mean who had been badly injured in RAF missions such as the Battle of Britain.  Thanks to MacIndoe's revolutionary approach to reconstructive surgery, these men were given back functional (if not beautiful) faces and hands, and they were given a semblance of dignity befitting their sacrifice.  The men of the 'Guinea Pigs' club still meet to this day (though their numbers are dwindling), getting together to reminisce on the mateship and the hijinks that got them through their recovery periods.

It is these men, this surgeon, and this hospital that Liz Byrski has written about in her new book In Love and War, which is more memoir than history, though the research she has done is astounding.  Using first hand accounts as well as records, articles and site based research, Liz Byrski traces the history of the hospital, and the men who scared her as a little girl in the village, not understanding where these  deformed people had come from, or why.  By inserting herself into a quest for the truth, Byrski has brought heart and relevance to a story of something which happened a very long time ago and made it a heart warming story of making amends.

The 'Guinea Pigs' don't get all the glory.  In Love and War is the tale of these brave men and their surgeon, but also of the young nurses who came to look after them, and when it comes to uncovering the nurses' experiences, Byrski does not hold back.  With the dogged determination of a journalist, Byrski seeks out nurses who are still living in the area, documenting her efforts in driving far and wide to see them.  Not all of the women are happy to talk, and not all of them remember the time fondly; and the writer does not shy away from this evidence which contradicts the happy image of the hospital as a place where miracles were performed and fun was had.  For some of the nurses, who were very young, the work was confronting and the effort to pretend the young men's faces didn't shock them was difficult.  But worst of all was the casual attitude to sexual promiscuity, and the implication that the young women were expected to put up with the sometimes bad behaviour of the men towards these young women.  For some, it was a rollicking good time, but for others, the pressure to have sex with these young men was frightening and they felt they couldn't say no.  Byrski shows the two sides of MacIndoe's hospital, reserving all judgement in a way that lets the reader form a full picture and make up their own mind, and I feel like this was an excellent tactic.  It is here that the genius of the subtitle is revealed... on which word should the emphasis be placed?  Nursing heroes or nursing heroes? 

Liz Byrski is a beloved West Australian writer and her fictional novels are always well-received, but I feel like it is her non fiction writing in which she really hits her stride.  In Love and War is no exception.  It is frequently very moving, and extremely informative, but can be read in a single sitting if you so choose.

I gave it four out of five stars.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Book Review: The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price

The Bird's Child
Sandra Leigh Price
Fourth Estate (I own a copy)

Hello hello!

Long time no speak, but don't assume it's because I haven't been reading because that would not be true!  No, in fact my prolonged silence was due to an unfortunate incident involving our home internet which left me using smoke signals and flags to communicate for almost a week.  Most frustrating, especially for someone who is trying to complete a university course in another state.  It does make you think though, and realise how dependent we have become on the internet.  One thing I DID get done while I was experiencing cyber-displacement was a heck of a lot of reading, and I didn't even have to shirk my studies.  I got a chance to read a book I had been lusting after since it was published, and that book was The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price.

It's set in a boarding house in Sydney, during the year 1929, and stars a cast of oddly matched waifs and strays.  First, there is the owner of the house, Miss du Maurier (which immediately made me think of Daphne du Maurier, but in fact her name is taken from the OTHER literary du Maurier, George, who is famous for his novel Trilby) who has lost her husband in the war and fills the whole in her life by taking in strangers to live in her home.  Then there is Lily, on the run from a mysterious past.  Lily, we grow to learn, has something special about her.  She is beautiful, but strangely for a late 1920s woman, she wears trousers and has very short hair.  She is also an albino, and has a strange affinity with birds.  This recommends her to Ari, a Jewish boy who fled the pogroms in Russia to live with his Aunt and Uncle, and who dreams of being the intellectual heir to Houdini.  Ari and Lily put together a magic act involving a lyrebird, a parrot, a crow and a currowong, and their professional partnership begins to turn into something more.  But Ari has a rival: Miss du Maurier's other tenant, Billy Little.  Scarred and a little sinister, Billy is a war veteran with a history of seducing women and leaving them shamed.  He is drawn to Lily and believes that she is already his.  The two men are on course for a powerful collision from the very first page of this book, and it soon becomes clear that Lily will be caught in the middle.

What I loved most about this novel was the use of voice.  The story is told from several points of view, and begins by alternating between Billy and Ari's voices.  They're so distinctively different, and cause immediate reactions in the reader, that I really feel like this is one of the most successful multi-POV narrative I have read in a long time.  Billy's voice is slippery and reptilian, and his vocabulary gives away a man who has scraped and clawed his way to a position of arrogance and vigilance.  At times, I was reminded of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in Lolita.  Contrasted with Ari's voice, which was timid and sweet, and felt realistically that of a man who still sometimes feels like a scared little boy, the effect was stunning.  I raced through this novel, and loved all the characters in their own ways, though I did feel heartened with Billy and Ari finally faced off and the best man won.  (I won't say who, though you may have guessed.)

The setting was decadent, the magic was sumptuous... the only thing that spoiled the effect for me was the ending felt a little rushed and I was not 100% sure what was going on in the  last few pages, but I understood enough to know that the people who needed to be together would give it a go, and that all's well that ends well.

I gave this novel four stars.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Reading Round-Up: April

April was a slow reading month for me, not just because I finally finished Middlemarch by George Eliot.  I also managed to get a nasty cold, and while in theory this would have made for lots of reading in bed, in reality it made for lots of sleeping and watching Criminal Minds.

When I say a slow month, I still managed to dispense with six books, which isn't a number to sniff at.  But it's still the farthest off my ten books a month target that I've been so far this year, and so hopefully next month will prove more fruitful.  (I would, however, be happy to read no books at all in May, if only I was writing!)

The Painted Sky by Alice Campion

I reviewed this book early in the month, thanks to Random House who sent me a copy for review.  I don't usually read rural romance, despite it being one of the fastest growing genres in Australian fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by this compelling book.  You can read my review here.

 Middlemarch by George Eliot

The first classic I have read in a long time, Middlemarch took me almost twelve months to read, a fact I am not necessarily proud of.  In the end, I was rewarded by an understanding of George Eliot's biting social wit.  You can read my review, including a review of the next book I read as a companion, here.

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

A bibliomemoir blending personal recollections with a history of George Eliot's life and an analysis of her novels, I would not have fully understood Middlemarch without this book to follow it, and thanks to Mead's enthusiastic words, I am now keen to make a start on The Mill on the Floss.

The Humans by Matt Haig

There is a lot of buzz surrounding Matt Haig's new book, How to Stay Alive, but I decided that I wanted to start with his fiction, and so I borrowed a copy of The Humans from a friend.  It is a novel about an alien who is sent to Earth in the guise of a mathematician in order to smother the knowledge of solving an equation which would give the human race far too much technological advancement.  However, living his life as this man, he gets to know and love his new family, and must choose between fulfilling his mission or following his heart.  I loved this novel.

Bide Magazine, Autumn 2015

An exquisitely packaged, home-spun flash fiction zine, Bide is full of tasty morsels of excellent writing.  I inhaled this the very day I opened the envelope it came in.  I even read some of it aloud to my mother.  You should definitely subscribe to this up and coming literary magazine.  

The Fall of Man in Wilmslow by David Lagercrantz

This translated novel about a police detective investigating the suicide of Alan Turing looked promising for several reasons, including its historical subject matter, about which I intend to write myself.  However, whether the translation was poor or the writing was overblown to start with, this proved to be a fairly painful read and I couldn't make myself finish it.  It bodes badly for the upcoming fourth book in the Millennium series, which Lagercrantz has been commissioned to write.  I do hate to write a bad review...

That's all for me this month! What have you been reading?  Have you read any of these titles?  Let me know in the comments.