Category Archives: Australian Literature

Leah Kaminsky, The Waiting Room

9780857986221I had the enormous pleasure of listening to Joanne Fedler interview Leah Kaminsky at the recent Sydney Jewish Writers Festival held at Waverley Library, in Sydney.

I had never heard of Kaminsky before, but I am a huge Fedler fan. And when Joanne Fedler raved about Kaminsky’s book, I knew I had to read it. Before I provide my review, although me to give you some context: I am in the middle of reading Julie Orringer’s magnificent tome, The Invisible Bridge. I am drowning in this book and will no doubt review it when I am done. But, I am reading it electronically and when it comes to the Jewish Sabbath that means that I have to put it down which is frustrating because this is the one day that I have a substantial amount of reading time. I tried the local library, but they didn’t have an available copy so when it came time to read on Friday night, I was somewhat at a loss. I have a huge pile of TBR books, on top of which is Wolf Hall and I decided that perhaps it was time to finally dive into that monster of a book. I did and was thrilled by what I read in the first 6o pages but then my brain began to hurt because of the overdose of different characters and I couldn’t follow which Thomas was which so I decided that I needed something lighter. Sitting next to me was Kaminsky’s much shorter book. I didn’t hesitate. And I read it in one sitting, gulping down the prose as though my life depended on it.

There was just so much about this book that appealed to me. It’s hard to know where to begin. Ironically, what impressed me most was the acknowledgement section where I found a long list of some of my favourite writers who Kaminsky describes as inhabiting the “global village of people who have generously supported the development of The Waiting Room in so many ways over the years.” The list includes Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Fedler, J.M.Coetzee and Liz Kemp amongst many others. I am in awe of these layers of influence and Kaminsky’s book pays tribute to the notion that it takes a village to both raise a child and raise a novel … or a memoir … or whatever genre this book inhabits.

I think what made this book so delicious for me was the fact that as I read it, I had a keen sense of Kaminsky’s own voice describing the various experiences that led to the book’s writing – her relationship with her mother, the things she remembered growing up, her own experiences of being a mother, life in Israel. This made the book very real for me. The other thing which resonated for me, particularly at this point in history, is that this book so clearly describes the very vivid trauma of life in a state of crisis which is exactly what is unfolding for Israelis as I write this. The events of the last week have disturbed me intensely and the protagonist, Dina’s, experiences gave a very personal and vivid voice to what seems to be, so often, so very far away.

This is not a book about G-d, although it does have moments where it touches on the dynamic between religious and secular Israelis. What there is though, is a wonderful and very tender collection of narrative voices, both present and past, which unfold in a kind of dance. Dina’s internal dialogue with her long dead mother struck me as quite brilliant. The tortured experience of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is delicately explored by Kaminsky in this present/absent fashion. Dina’s own relationships with her son, her husband and most disturbingly, her unborn child, present themselves with stark reminders of how we ourselves behave in these different circumstances and the power of the baggage that each of us carries which has the potential to lead us to destroy these bonds.

The book’s title is another point of interest – The Waiting Room. The bulk of the story unfolds in a physical waiting room – Dina, the doctor’s, waiting room which later becomes these scene of a very different kind of waiting room. But the more intangible waiting room is the space that Dina’s mother inhabits; she is no longer alive, but she is clearly neither dead and buried. She occupies a kind of between space, she follows Dina around, talking to her, interjecting in her conversations, criticising her and often getting in the way. She too is in a metaphorical waiting room between life and death which perhaps has to do with the deep discussion that she and Dina need to have but can never quite master effectively. The layers of meaning in this title are fascinating when we think about the other characters in the book – the man who fixes shoes in the Shuk, some of the shoes on his shelf have been waiting there for 15 years and will probably keep waiting there as they are forgotten by their owners, but not by the shoe repairer. In addition, the shoe repairer himself is stuck in a kind of waiting room as he grapples with his own haunted memories of Auschwitz where he learned his trade and was saved. How is it ever possible for these people to graduate from their various waiting rooms and to move forward into the world? It was this that struck me as so disturbing.

What will stay with me from this novel is a sense of the intensity with which some people live, and the way that for others, the past is inescapable. Both of these ideas seemed to be dominant forces in this text.

Kaminsky is definitely a writer to watch and if you are looking for an interesting, yet disturbing read, then this book is for you!

  • as an aside. My mother didn’t LOVE this book in the way that I seem to have loved it. She said it was “huh” which I think translates to something like “yeah, I read it and it was enjoyable but nothing special’ and I’ve been trying to work out what she missed (or what I missed) and I think that the one thing I had that she didn’t have was Leah Kaminsky talking about this book, being interviewed about the process of writing this book and the challenges she faced and how she dealt with those challenges. I really believe that this experience made my reading experience a really intense and real one and so I thank Michael Misrachi and Sharon Berger who organised the Jewish Writers Festival and allowed me to prowl around and take it all in! Thank you all!!

Debra Oswald, Useful

9780670077823My apologies to Debra Oswald, but I have to confess that I grabbed this book in excitement at the local library on Friday because I thought it was written by Debra Adelaide who wrote The Household Guide to Dying. And I love Debra Adelaide. I love her enough to have emailed her when I read The Household Guide to Dying to tell her how moved I was by her book. So, you can only imagine that when I saw Useful by Debra … I jumped, pounced, grabbed. It was the last, lonely copy on the new release shelves. A ‘RED HOT READS’.

Anyway, long story short, I didn’t reailse that Debra Oswald was not, in fact, Debra Adelaide, until I sat down and started reading. After a momentary pang of disappointment, I was thrust into this wonderful book and I soon forgot that initial pang as I fell in love with Debra Oswald and her overwhelming skill at crafting such an intriguing novel filled with these wonderous characters.

I finished the book in less than 24 hours. I couldn’t stop. I had to find out what was going to happen, hanging desperately on to the tiniest thread of possibility that Sully would indeed find his way down the correct path, hoping that maybe I would be spared the weight of an ending that left me doubting …

Now, I won’t spoil it for you by revealing anything more. What you need to know about this book before you commit to reading it is that you will be intrigued. Meet Sully, a man who has never done anything useful in his life. He is the epitome of a bludger, in the true Aussie sense and an alcoholic to boot. He has a well meaning heart but is often sabotaged by his inability to stay sober and the outrageous commitments he makes whilst drunk. But, he’s a likeable guy and that is central to the novel’s success. We first encounter Sully on the edge of a tall building as he prepares to end his useless life. He has it all planned out. There is nothing to live for. He has given away all his possessions, said his goodbyes and he is ready to take a final leap.

What Sully doesn’t consider is the fact that he might survive … that he is so useless that he cannot even execute a suicide! The novel unfolds from that point and Sully goes on to encounter a range of wonderfully vivid and really Australian characters. As we journey with him, we discover the intricacies of attachments that he has made, the beauty of his relationship with a dead man’s dog and the fragility of being honest about emotions.

There is no doubt in my mind. It’s not Debra Adelaide, but this book has it all and I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m looking forward to my next Debra Oswald (as well as my next Debra Adelaide – hint, hint, nudge, nudge!).

If you like a well crafted Aussie drama with balls then this just the book that you have been waiting for!

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego

9780987381149I applaud Julie Szego for grabbing this story and shaking it until its bones rattled. I applaud her for dealing with the harsh, grating issues that lie beneath the facade of the shocking plot surrounding the ‘tainted trial of Farah Jama’ – a black Ethiopian man convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a crime that he did not commit against a white woman … all in a country as democratic and beautiful as Australia.

Szego explores the crime, the crime scene and the various characters involved, from a range of different and compelling angles. She clearly and competently conveys the complexity of this case – the victim, the accused and his traditional, Ethiopian family, and the honour and pride of the Ethiopian community. In layers, Szego unwraps all of these elements, drawing readers into the heart of questions about morality, truth, justice and race relations in Australia.

I loved how this story unfolded. It is part investigative journalism and part social commentary with a touch of thrilling mystery. The way that Szego crosses the boundaries of these genres makes this a fascinating book to read. This book teaches us about humanity, about prejudice, about assumptions and presumptions and about the fallibity of our legal system. Most importantly, it forces us to appreciate the value of asking questions and investigating until we are certain that we have come to understand the truth.

Nine Days, Toni Jordan

downloadSo reading friends, I have discovered the awesomeness of overdrive and my local library. It’s not actually a new discovery, I’ve had the overdrive app on my iPad for the longest time. For some reason, I’ve just never used it. But lo and behold, the other night I was bored and found myself cruising the Randwick Library e-shelves and look what I found – miles and miles and miles of virtual books which are just waiting to be plucked and devoured by little old me. Who knew! It is like heaven, only better… and because I have multiple children, I have multiple cards which means no limit to the amount of books I can download at any one time … it’s overwhelming and dangerous and positively intoxicating for a reading fiend like me. So I downloaded some books for my kids – it’s their card after all – and then began browsing … ah the bliss! But before I succumbed to random book borrowing, I forced myself to consult my trusty and ever-growing Evernote list entitled “Books to Read”. I am too scared to count how many books there are on this list and I very rarely actually read these books. I simply add to the list. Often. Only occasionally erasing the odd book which I actually read. But somehow just having the list is enough to bring me the comfort of knowing that I won’t ‘lose’ the titles of those books which I just know I HAVE to read.

Anyway, back to business. Toni Jordan. One of the few Australian authors who can count me as their number one fan. She is simply stellar. A true genius, crafting softly worded tales about complex characters which punch you in the stomach, leaving you winded and on the verge of tears. She has a wonderful ability to truly capture a very Australian spirit without being cliche or kitsch. And while I generally loathe Australian fiction, Jordan does something that really grabs me – it is as though she brings to life the esse of a slippery Australian identity which is fraught with angst and loneliness and beauty.

Not only does Jordan weave a masterful story, but she does it so tenderly over generations. In this novel each of the central characters is given a chapter of their own which unfolds their role in the larger narrative. The Sydney Morning Herald calls Nine Days a “sprawling family drama” but I didn’t feel this sense of vastness or distance in Jordan’s telling. Quite the opposite, I felt a closeness that I see in many families; my own included. I found Jordan’s book to be sensitive, shocking at times and definitely loaded with a wonderful empathy that only became evident once the struggles of the individual characters had cleared to make way for the depth that hovers in this text. I loved that each character was so separated, described as having their own lives, their own problems and quirks, yet at the same time was so invested in the extended family – past and present – and so much a product of the influences of all these family members. “Like so many things that shape us, it’s the smallest actions that add up to leave the deepest marks.”

There are too many subtle themes in this book to convey them all in a short book review – family, love, friendship, honesty, belonging. One which resonated to me was exposed toward the novel’s end:

“‘Alec. You must know this. People disappear. They just go puff. Thin air. Every time you see someone, you never know if you’re seeing them for the last time. Drink them in, Alec. Kiss them. It’s very important. Never let anyone say goodbye, even for a little while, without kissing them. Press your lips against the people you love. Hands, they can touch anything. Open doors, hold cameras, hang clothes on the line. It’s lips that matter.”

I could share so many sections of this book that I have underlined for posterity but that would only give away the magic of this prose and ruin the dignity of the story which you have to discover for yourselves. Instead, I will leave you just with the last line of Jordan’s novel Nine Days:

“I can hardly believe my good fortune. Everything will be alright.”

The Full Ridiculous, Mark Lamprell

19547813Gosh I love my local library – Librarians Rule!! I picked this one up on a recent visit because it was displayed on the “We Really Liked This One” stand. I figured I had nothing to lose and I wasn’t disappointed!

The cover of this book sums it all up: “Sometimes you can’t pull yourself together until you’ve completely fallen apart” and fall apart Michael O’Dell manages to do with great finesse and wit.

The book opens with a scene setting pop: Michael O’Dell is out for his constitutional, having “yet another premonition that (he’s) hit by a car” when he is, indeed, hit by a car. It doesn’t sound like the most uplifting tale. But the car accident is merely the catalyst for a long saga of other issues which are clearly lurking in the ever-present background of O’Dell’s life but have been successfully ignored because, well, life happens and it keeps happening and most of us never really take the time to deal with the important things.

I loved the way Lamprell tread the fine balance between pain and humour in this novel. His ability to do this allowed him to cleverly navigate his way through some incredibly confronting issues – a daughter who punches out a classmate, a son with a stash of drugs in his room, and a general sense of personal dissatisfaction.

O’Dell doesn’t die. On the contrary, the car accident teaches him how to live again and although it takes some time, he does eventually find his way.

“You are an unremarkable man living an unremarkable life except for this single thing: you love and are splendidly loved. You will never paint a masterpiece or engineer a great bridge or leave any lasting monument to yourself. But you have been swept into the river of love and you know how to swim there and you are teaching your children how to swim as your parents taught you and your teach will teach theirs and on it will go.

This is your legacy, your luck, your glory and your magnificence.”

What Remains, Denise Leith

The remains of What Remains is still echoing for me. I was sure that this was a memoir, so sure that I read it as such and marvelled at the revelations of the characters, the awe of the events and the chaos of war. I relished every description and revelled in the tension that was so evident between the two protagonists. Kate and Pete, Pete and Kate – they are the delicate pulse that drives this narrative through ravaged Bosnia and war torn Iraq. They are friends and later lovers, and later still … well, you will have to read the book to know.

Leith has so clearly captured the essence of trauma and conflict in this book that it is hard to believe that it is fiction. She has clearly done an awesome volume of research to recreate the intensity of conflict and I loved the way that she explored the impact of being witness to trauma and what people do with the weight of that burden.

 

The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman

It’s not often that one reads a book which is so utterly devastating for so many different reasons. It’s not often that one finishes the last page of a tome and then immediately goes back to the beginning to start reading it all over again, to relive the magic and the austerity of the writer’s genius and to follow again the fragments of threads which connect this narrative and hold it together. It’s not often that one sighs, holds one’s breath, sucks back tears and then sits for hours, replaying segments, feeling the imagined remnants of the writer’s language played over the tongue, backward and forward, backward and forward, backward and forward. In the darkness of the early morning, well before morning, that time when it is no longer today and we are teetering on tomorrow, this book filled my world and twelve hours later I am still reeling.

Perlman made me want to write. He made me want to sit for hours and sift through words until I found a string of them that together manufactured a meaning that would hold true for someone other than myself. He made me want to crawl into the pages of his book and to breathe in the air of his brilliance and drown there. He made me think and savour and relish.

In an interview, Perlman has said that this book, was “a little advertisement for the inalienable dignity of the individual.” I cannot think of a more dignified writer to be a champion of this cause. Perlman’s gift is that he can caress characters and situations so that they purr for his readers. Reading this book, I found myself standing there, whispering to inmates at Auschwitz, SS guards lurking at every corner. I was next to Sonia as she stood staring into the fridge, searching for nothing but yearning for comfort and understanding. I was with Adam in that basement when he unearthed those archives and started sifting through them, making a discovery that literally made me tingle.

Perlman says that “Stories can be so cathartic and so enlightening and comforting and educational and they can give people a sense of a world they didn’t know before,” he says. “They can make the isolated feel included; they can make people who feel misunderstood feel better understood. And the great works of literature will always be with you. They’re not fickle the way people are.” How right he is …

It is hard to capture the subject matter of such a fluid book and this makes it a challenge to review. On one level this book is a magnificent, epic story which traverses the globe. On another, deeper level, it is an ode to memory and the need to witness and testify:

“Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.”

There was much that stood out in this text, but I have chosen to share two paragraphs with you which have stayed with me. Both of them are descriptions about the ghetto and Auschwitz, material which represents only one segment of this story but speaks volumes about Perlman’s tenderness and the scope of this novel.

“Nothing, not even the ghetto, could have prepared him for this, and for the rest of his life each day for him would be without the sun… This was his first shift, his first day on the job, but it was the middle of the night. Suddenly it was neither day nor night for him but some new time he had never experienced. If day followed night there would be an end to it as there was for other jobs but there had never been a job like this, not ever. Seeing the mountain of corpses that waited for him, Mandelbrot knew that ‘day’, as he had known it, had ended forever. It had ended not just for him but also for the world.”

“people lost continence and many were pushed down into a mess of blood, urine, vomit and excrement as people with memories, affections, ambitions, relationships, opinions, values and accomplishments all merged into a tangled phalanx of human beings a meter deep covered in their own fluids, all of the gasping, their bodies jerking, their faces distorted by their agony. With their brains and their organs increasingly depleted of oxygen with every second , it was in a state of unimaginable terror and pain that they had their last thoughts. They were no longer people.”

Perlman has said that he was partly inspired by Abba Kovner poems so it seems apt to include some of those poems here:

Death Is Not To Be Preferred

When leading a band of harried fighters
or standing face-to-face with the enemy,
holding out in the siege
and standing alone
on the ramparts,
he never said death is to be preferred,
that life is negotiable;
anxious
frightened
by severe privations
he never asked anything
of Almighty God
but to grant him favor
and ease his pain
when he leads the congregation
in communal prayer;
and forgive our sins
in love
and joy
and gladness
and peace
O God,
Mighty
And Awesome.

My Name is Ross, Ross Fitzgerald

Let me open this review by saying that I don’t follow Australian politics, I don’t generally like most Australian literature and I definitely don’t know much about Australian history. The reasons for all of these things are many and complex and this is not the forum to explore my gnawing distaste. But, understanding this does shed some light on why my choice in wanting to read this memoir is so unusual. I am not quite sure what appealed to me … whether it was just the picture on the cover (what an unusual looking gentleman!) or the subtitle: An Alcoholic’s Journey or perhaps the review that I read which indicated the enormous strength of character that was required for this man to write this book. Nonetheless, I was inspired to read this book and overjoyed when I discovered it at the library. Yay for the public library!!

I have not been disappointed. Fitzgerald’s writing is magnificent. I am dumbstruck by what must be his clear brilliance, his stamina and his ability to gain clarity through the darkest mist. Reading this book has been like entering into a complex maze and trying to understand something that simply does not exist. It is hard to explain. At times I feel as though Fitzgerald is writing with clarity and at other times I am confused and confounded by the lack of structure or perhaps his ability to maintain a thought and complete it. I can only think that this must be the nature of his beast.

While his life is clearly fascinating in and of itself – who he meets, what he does and accomplishes – what this book is really about is the significance of Fitzgerald’s journey through addiction. I was particularly taken by the fact that he credits his alcoholism as saving his life – if he hadn’t drunk he would have committed suicide, he says. There is a stark wonder in this revelation and it is a credit to him that he can see the value in the experience.

Fitzgerald’s life is heavy and the stories that he tells in this memoir are mostly depressing and equally weighed down with portent. His moments of joy and light are few and far between and many (if not most) of his central relationships are plagued with tragedy and/or despair. But, reading this book has, in and of itself, not been depressed. Fitzgerald is grateful that he is alive, thankful that he has had all these experiences and indebted, publicly, to so many people. One cannot help but be inspired.

Without doubt a fascinating individual who has made incredible contributions, not just to politics and academia in general, to the people around him too.

Nam Le, The Boat

I have had this collection of short stories perched on my shelf for quite some time now. For some reason, I started it and then lost interest after a few pages and gave up, leaving it for the proverbial rainy day which just happens to be today, a gorgeous, sunny Spring day!

I want only to reflect on Le’s first story in this book: ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice‘.

The protagonist’s – ironically called Nam – sense of displacement is hauntingly clear in this story. He is in Iowa, completing the Writers’ Workshop while trying to find what he has of value to write about, what defines him, gives him integrity, wholeness, makes him unique. He is lost. His apartment literally reflecting the detritus that has become his existence. He lacks direction, floats on a dream where he envisages poems miraculously coming together in perfect form. Yet, he cannot write. He is incapable of producing anything of consequence, his final deadline approaching as he wallows away in the mire of whisky and cigarettes.

Nam’s dream is interrupted by the opening of the narrative and the brusque arrival of his father: “My father arrived on a rainy morning.” The abrupt manner in which Nam’s father intrudes on his life and space for three short days undoes him and the story unfolds to reveal the complexity of the father-son relationship.

There is tension which runs through their discussions and interactions, Nam too respectful of Vietnamese patronage to offend. The fields are glass, dreams Nam, his life is a mirror, distorting while reflecting, not quite transparent, rather an opaque mist which leads him to confusion. The image is extended with the rain falling outside, water intended to cleanse which actually simply distracts and contorts.

Nam’s father’s presence reminds Nam of his challenge to find himself. Is he ‘ethnic’ or not? Should he write about Vietnam or is that dishonest, riding the strong tide of popular native literature which draws audiences. Where does he belong? Here, a Vietnamese born Australian living in Iowa. “I have to write”, Nam tells his father, as though writing will allow him to create himself, finally, firmly, reborn.

But, Nam struggles to find the words to fill the river of his page. When, finally, he does attempt to bridge the gap between his expectations and the reality of his father’s life, he is disappointed to find that his father still has the power to steal his story. Nam is left speechless:

I was halfway across the bridge when I saw him. I stopped. He was on the riverbank. I couldn’t make out the face but it was he, short and small-headed in my bloated jacket. He stood with the tramp, both of them staring into the blazing gasoline drum. The smoke was thick, particulate. For a second I stopped breathing. I knew with sick certainty what he had done. The ashes, given body by the wind, floated away from me down the river. He patted the man on the shoulder, reached into his back pocket, and slipped some money into those large, newly mittened hands. He started up the bank then, and saw me. I was so full of wanting I thought it would flood my heart. His hands were empty.

If I had known then what I knew later, I wouldn’t have said the things I did. I wouldn’t have told him he didn’t understand; for clearly, he did. I wouldn’t have told him that what he had done was unforgivable. That I wished he had never come, or that he was no father to me. But I hadn’t known, and, as I waited, feeling the wind change, all I saw was a man coming toward me in a ridiculously oversized jacket, rubbing his black-sooted hands, stepping through the smoke with its flecks and flame-tinged eddies, who had destroyed himself, yet again, in my name. The river was behind him. The wind was full of acid. In the slow float of light I looked away, down at the river. On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters. The water, where it still moved, was black and braided. And it occurred to me then how it took hours, sometimes days, for the surface of a river to freeze over—to hold in its skin a perfect and crystalline world—and how that world could be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.

The Quarterly Conversation’s review of this collection can be found here.

A range of other reviews can be found here.

Bloggingthebookshelf’s comments on this one can be read here.

Soul to Soul, Deborah Masel

I read this book in two quick sittings. It gripped me in a way that I have not been gripped for quite some time. It appealed to me on several different levels. Firstly, the story itself is captivating. Deborah Masel is an excellent writer. She depicts her struggle with cancer with enormous clarity and honesty. She draws the reader into her journey in a way that does not inspire pity or sorrow but rather a joy for living and for experiencing all that life has to offer. Furthermore, her deep spiritual insights into life and death are so moving that parts of this book I had to read twice or three times in order to properly appreciate.

It would spoil this book for me to say much more. What you should know is that I have now searched elsewhere for Masel’s writing, wanting deeply to better understand her approach to living. And, even more telling, perhaps, this is a book that I will definitely look to reread at some point in the future.

So poignant was its message that Soul to Soul will stay with me for a long time to come.