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Australian Love Stories edited by Cate KennedyI admit it: I’m a sucker for a good love story. Give me a happy ending, or the heartbreak, or the bitter sweet, in whatever form or style—realist or speculative, gay or straight or bending, darkly menacing, hallucinatory, or fertile romp. Can there be more fertile ground for fiction? Judging by this excellent forthcoming anthology of short stories, which focuses on love in all its guises, the answer is a resounding no.

Edited by renowned short-story writer Cate Kennedy into seven themed sections, which take their titles from the prose of one of the stories within that particular section, the highlights are so many that when I started to put together my favourites from the 29 stories on offer, the list quickly became a regurgitation of the table of contents. And no wonder, for in her introduction Kennedy relates the enormous task of sifting through, count them, 445(!) submissions—a herculean task and one which she has done admirably given the quality of the stories that made the cut.

On display are some of our finest and most respected proponents of the short form, such as Bruce Pascoe, Carmel Bird, Tony Birch, David Francis, Lisa Jacobsen, Irma Gold and, well, there I go again with the table of contents listing eh? And joining them are newcomers, whose work sits alongside the more established authors with ease.

Where to begin? First an outline of the seven themed sections, which cover: (1) the dawn of love; (2) all-encompassing desire; (3) same sex love; (4) love with children in the picture, with troubled relationships or relationships that are slow burners, only bringing lovers together after decades; (5) love in the midst of babies and/or expectant arrivals; (6) love in times of health crisis; (7) affairs and their aftermath. Six of the sections contain four stories, with the remaining section containing five. There’s a wonderful balance, and I love the titles (‘That Sensuous Weight’, ‘Why Cupid is Painted Blind’, ‘Firm as Anchors, Wet as Fishes’, and so on).

Picking any is to be cruel to the others, for there were only two stories that didn’t resonate with me, but I could see even in them reasons for why they will resonate with other readers. But onward to some of my personal favourites…

An early highlight in the universally excellent first section, (which also features Bruce Pascoe, Catherine Bates, and Kathryn Lomer), is Susan Pyke’s Meltemi. The meltemi is a summer afternoon wind in the Aegean Sea. The Aegean Sea, I hear you ask, I thought these were Australian stories? Hmmm, it is perhaps the collection’s only misstep: there are two stories set wholly overseas, and a couple of others set both overseas and in Australia. Given the title of the anthology, you could mount an argument that those stories set wholly overseas shouldn’t have been included. I suppose the counter argument would be ‘love is universal’. Anyway, Meltemi is a sweet coming-of-age tale, set in Samos, an island near the coast of Turkey with a beautiful end as the girl who is our narrator takes a swim in the sea to cool off in the torturous summer heat, stripping bare, and finds herself swimming near rocks, thinking she is alone until she sees the guy she has had her eye on, who is playing his flute to attract the crabs out of the rocks. It has a lovely poetic ending.

Another stellar story is Leah Swan’s delightful Why Cupid is Painted Blind, also a hot summer story, in which Mallory is introduced to us as a ‘woman who’d danced with a man who was not her fiancé and could think of nothing else. She’d heard that love could be a madness that descended on you, like an illness, like the flu.’ And poor Mallory does suffer from the madness of love, something that turns the straight-laced woman into something of an obsessive. She has danced with Karl, a musician, for whom she writes a poem, and despite seeing him living in happiness with a woman and children, Mallory can’t help herself and pops the said letter in his post box! That’s not the end, of course, but I shan’t spoil it for you… but it’s a perfect ending. Lovely.

The haunting Lover like a Tree by J Anne deStaic deserves special mention. It’s the story of a heroin and methadone addict, whose female partner sticks with him even when she’s not sure if she, being an ‘ordinary’ woman, can handle it or fix him. The story employs the metaphors of terrain and tree, and drips with poetic resonance. Preparing to inject himself he ‘wipes the side of his wrist with an alcohol swab and its fragrance hits him quickly as his veins draw like a map up his arm, wide highways painted blue, picked out against the flat plain skin.’ We switch points of view between the addict and his partner, getting both sides of the story as it were. And how lyrical is this description of his drug-induced haze:

… the caress of her hand has the brush of leaves and twigs and her arm over him is a pale bark branch and her hair a canopy of blossoms and birds are sleeping there and butterflies rest in her cool green shade while her roots sink down through the bed and the floor and the earth to its rocks and he feels the rain sliding over him, dripping from her leaves, his lover like a tree.

I enjoyed the fabulous Hooked by Toby Sime, a powerful story with striking images and word choices. Our male narrator comes across a girl he had seen many years earlier when she was in some trouble; she has a scar near her mouth that is shaped like a hook. And our narrator is indeed hooked. ‘The scar at her lip was the hook in my mouth; my tongue made its shape on the back of my teeth.’ And, ‘the crewel of her scar had put a stitch in me I’d been unable or unwilling to unpick.’ Her kiss: ‘was a labyrinth. All, all I wanted in the world, was to never find my way out.’ And this: ‘… I knew, though she was no ghost, that we were in a spirit realm now, and I could pass my hand right through her, or she through me, because the physical barrier between us had been extinguished.’ The story is peppered with imaginative simile and metaphor, ‘kohl-black hair’, ‘the miraculous Berkeley Square of her bed’, and has a lovely twist at the end.

Oh dear, I am rabbiting on. Special quick mentions to the adorable Swallow by Jon Bauer, about a young boy whose mother is in an abusive relationship with a man who is not his father. The boy goes outside in a gale, believing their argument to have caused the high winds: ‘The kitchen argument going up a notch on the Beaufort Scale, the parental vitriol bending the spruce trees over in the wind. … the first dead leaves aloft in the sky like the spirits of birds.’ He rescues an injured swallow. ‘It felt strange once he’d gathered it in the jacket, light and fragile, but substantial. Meringue.’ Rejecting the tin cans of his would-be step-father, he finds the perfect home for it, opting for something much closer to his heart.

I loved A Greek Tragedy by Claire Varday (aside from a couple of surface copy editing issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the final published version), which is constructed in two parts, the romance and the tragedy. As the narrator observes: ‘It starts as a romance and ends as a tragedy. There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret. It is, after all, Greek.’ (Some of this story is set in Oz.) It is an utterly heartbreaking story, very well constructed.

I would be erring not to note Allison Browning’s These Bones, which features Enzo, a gay man with Alzheimer’s, who makes a break from his care facility in order to go home to his partner, Nev. The helpful biography section informs me Browning is developing These Bones as a novel with the assistance of the annual Australian Society of Authors’ mentorship program. So look out for the longer version of this beautifully rendered love story soon-ish (hopefully!). It shows love at its most enduring and blind best, underscoring what it means to love someone come rain or shine. I defy anyone not to fall in love with Enzo, and feel for his and Nev’s loss, and Nev is an absolute stalwart. There is a description of a shower they have after Enzo has wet himself, the two of them standing in the shower ‘firm as anchors, wet as fishes’—a perfect combination of strength and fragility, (and which Kennedy appropriately chose for the title of this section of stories set against the backdrop of illness).

A quick nod to Tony Birch’s wonderful Joe Roberts, which is rife with lingering questions about Joe, who meets a very troubled girl at the train station on his way to the hospital to undergo tests. He leaves the girl lying on the station platform, shuddering wet in the cold. At the hospital we learn he has a shady past, though exactly how shady we’re not allowed to know. It is a masterfully constructed and realised story about the possibility of redemption.

Last, but by no means least, is the final story, Where the Honey Meets the Air by Carmel Bird. Narrated by ‘Sugar Sam’, it is a veritable tour de force. After a very brief introduction of five one- or two-line paragraphs, Sam (and Bird) takes us deep into a story of an affair gone wrong—all delivered in an eight-page long stream-of-consciousness sentence, a deluge without break. There are delightful jokes and puns, allusions to Shakespeare, wordplay, wordplay, and yet more wordplay. And there’s a wily, crafty story, with Sam recounting his friend’s affair and his subsequent murder of his wife and her lover… but there’s another way of reading it, which comes clear toward the end, a delicious and sly turning of the story on its head. Although an affair and a murder don’t sound like a good way to bring the curtain down on a collection of love stories, I don’t think Kennedy had much of a choice!

awwbadge_2014And to think I’ve only mentioned half of the stories I wanted to. There’s no room for Debi Hamitlon’s moving The Edge of the Known World; the lovely slow burn of Sally-Ann Jones’s Hammer Orchid, which sizzles across a racial divide, an age gap and decades of elapsed time, and is reminiscent of Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country in terms of feel even though it’s set in WA; the intriguing pull and laugh-out loud asides in David Francis’s Moses of the Freeway, about a gay couple in Los Angeles; the surprise tail-end of Caroline Petit’s The Contract; the sadness of Susan Midalia’s A Blast of a Poem; the brief pain and lovely turn in Natasha Lester’s It Used to be His Eyes; or the stunning end to Megg Minos’s Need Gone Today.

I’ve already read a few stories twice, and I can see this volume sitting within easy reach for constant dipping into. And for those keeping track of such things, of the 29 stories, 22 are by female authors. (Would it be cheeky to use this book towards my AWW2014 target?! There’s plenty of great Aussie women writers in this anthology, so why not?) Perhaps the only surprise is that Cate Kennedy didn’t contribute one of her own stories, which would have made the collection better (even though I am very wary of editors contributing their own work to anthologies).

Australian Love Stories will hit book stores in October, becoming stable-mate to the well-received Australian Love Poems, edited by mark Tredinnick, which came out last year. Perhaps Stories can become an annual publication, or biennial at least. After all, we all like a good love story, don’t we?

Australian Love Stories edited by Cate Kennedy

2014

Inkerman & Blunt Publishers

289 pages (plus author biography section)

ISBN: 9780987540164

Source: preview copy provided by the publisher

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(#59): ‘On Our Selection’: The Art of the Anthology with Cate Kennedy and James Bradley, with Tim Herbert

The Bangarra Mezzanine is a lovely room, but just not at 4-5pm on a beautiful sunny autumn day in Sydney with all that sun, sun and more sun streaming in!  I had a similar experience last year.  I don’t know why the event organisers can’t put up some shade cloth over at least some of the windows.  We in the audience were all wearing our sunglasses and shading ourselves with programmes from the sun!  It was a shame as the room was not full and I just wonder whether it was because of this, as the topic was very interesting with both James and Cate talking about the art of creating an anthology. 

Cate, of course, has done a few anthologies, most recently last year’s wonderful The Best Australian Stories – and has signed up for this year’s as well.   James Bradley has edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean.  So, what is the art of the anthology?  Well to kick things off, Tim Herbert gave us the etymology of the word ‘anthology’: from Greek: ‘anthos’ meaning ‘a flower’, and ‘logia’ meaning ‘collection’ – so off we went to talk about how these two well known authors in their own right came to select the flowers for their bouquet. 

For Cate, the process is really about choosing the absolute best stories.  She is aware of the reader’s experience in terms of the emotional charge of the stories and their order of placement and orders stories in this way. 

For James, the task with the very well reviewed Book of the Ocean was different.  He tried to make a shape.  The stories needed to talk to one another and the order of them was a very deliberate thing.  He reflected on how hard it was for him to lose some things which perhaps should be in the book but just didn’t fit the shape.  He equated editing his anthology with trying to make a poem out of found objects, which I quite like the idea of.  Following on from this ‘fitting’ comment he talked about how he sometimes had to select a piece from an author which wasn’t their best piece of writing because it didn’t fit or because another of theirs fit better.  He gave the example of the account of the sinking of the Essex, written by Owen Chase, which Melville used as the inspiration for Moby-Dick.  The section that Owen wrote after the sinking, where the survivors resort to cannibalism to survive is much more harrowing and riveting, but he needed to use the account of the sinking itself as it fit with the inclusion of a section of Moby-Dick

What was interesting was the discussion that there is not a lot of Australian stories set in the sea or ocean with the obvious exceptions (Nam Le’s excellent The Boat or Tim  Winton’s stories).  Most of our stories are landlocked. 

Cate selects stories that are still speaking to her several days later.  Interestingly, the 2010 collection were quite dark and she spoke about how she thought whether she needed to balance this darkness out, but she eschewed that approach, believing that if the submissions for that year were dark then that was reflecting something in the public mood which she didn’t want to tamper with.  She also said that the gender balance (very close to equal male and female representation) was not intentional. 

James was aware right from the off that he was going to have quite a gender imbalance.  There was no way around it, he said, most of the accounts of sailing and sailors were written by men.  Part of his response was to open and close the book with pieces by women.   

Cate spoke of the enjoyable challenge of reading so many submissions (last year around 800 short stories, this year already 600 submitted and counting).  It is a huge task but Cate loves it.  She said she gets to find those special gems.  The stories are not really edited, they are selected, so they need to come in as perfect as they can be.  She spoke of what made a good short story: how she preferred things should be implicit rather than explicit, how it should be cinematic in the sense that we are shown something happening and all the subtext and theme are implicit.  She talked about how there were a huge range of formats of stories that make it interesting, such as one story from last year which was a list of 100 things, and which, when you reached the end had revealed the structure and theme in this implicit manner.  She gave some sage wisdom on what constitutes plot, which she summarised in three words: ‘things get worse'(!) – a fantastic description!  And she talked about her own journey as a writer and how short stories are wonderful learning ground – “nothing teaches like the blank page” – and nothing teaches like the short form. 

There was an interesting discussion on the so-called renaissance in short stories.  James made the point that he thought it was not so much a renaissance in the form but more a renaissance in a certain literary culture.  Cate hopes that the reason short stories are becoming more popular is not because we are all time poor but simply because there is a realisation that the form is a wonderful thing in itself, when it is done well, there is nothing like it.  I couldn’t agree more. 

There was also some discussion on the evils and benefits of social media.  James was more in favour.  Cate sees them as antithetical to the creative process. 

A great little (sun-drenched!) session. 

BTW: James writes an excellent blog at: City of Tongues

The D!

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It’s that time of year again (yay!).  The Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is but a few weeks away and the programme has just been released. 

There’s a great selection of local and international writers.  A quick perusal has got me lining up the likes of:

  • Our very own Kim Scott, talking about his recent, highly acclaimed novel, That Deadman Dance, up for Best Book Award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question;
  • The very imaginative David Mitchell, talking about his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, (see my review here);
  • Tea Obreht, member of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40”, talking about her acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife; 
  • Michael Cunningham of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours fame;   
  • Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, (see my review here); 
  • Interesting indigenous sessions, covering culture, art, fiction, poetry;
  • Poetry and Sydney-centric sessions, including the likes of Cate Kennedy and too many others to mention!;

The Festival also sees theawarding of several high-profile literary awards, including The Commonwealth Writers Prize (will Kim Scott win for That Deadman Dance?), the NSW Premier’s Awards, and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writers’ Award.  I plan on attending the awarding of the Commonwealth Prize as well as a session the next day in which the judges will talk about their deliberations (and arguments?!) and how they arrived at the winner. 

There’s plenty of non-fiction-focusses things on too.  Politics, culture, environment, food.  Indeed, foodies should not be disappointed with Anthony Bourdain and critic AA Gill featuring.  There’ll also be many sessions for children, and other interests far and wide. 

Looks like a busy few days for me, although Sunday seems strangely clear.  A little imbalance in the programme perhaps?  Whatever the case, there’s plenty of interesting things to listen to and get involved in across the week and I can’t wait to blog about it. 

Anyone esle going along?  What are your festival highlights? 

The D!

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The Boat is a wonderful collection of short (and long) stories written by Australian author Nam Le.  Le came to Australia with his parents as refugees on a boat as a one year old and it seems the sense of travel has stuck with him, both in terms of his own peripatetic wanderings and the diverse settings he has created for these seven tales, including Iowa, Columbia, New York, Hiroshima, Tehran and the final piece, in which he relates the story of his and his parents incredible and harrowing voyage on a leaky boat to Australia.  This diversity of settings alone marks the collection as ambitious, yet setting alone would count for little were it not for the success of the stories themselves, for the stories, too, are incredibly diverse.

Take for instance, the second story, Cartagena, which centres on child assassin, Juan Pablo, in Columbia.  Juan Pablo has sucessfully escaped the streets in becoming an assassin and now has enough money to ensure his mother lives in a nice apartment.  But there are costs.  He is asked in the course of his duties to knock off one of his friends and refuses.  This, as you might suspect, doesn’t go down too well with his handler, ‘El Padre’, who calls him in for a ‘chat’.  Given that they have never met, it is clear that the assassin’s own head now lays on the chopping block.  The beauty of great short stories is that they leave you with unanswered questions.  In short, they leave you wanting something a little more.  The end of Cartagena, the coastal town which Juan Pablo dreams about escaping to, provides exactly the right balance.

There are some other gems too.  Halflead Bay is a coming-of-age story set in a Victorian coastal town, a place in which everything ‘stinks of fish’ due to the dwindling fishing industry there.  It focuses on the life of Jamie whose mother is dying and whose family are at odds at whether they should move to the larger nearby town in order to give her better care.  Jamie’s father doesn’t seem to love his son, or at least respect him.  Meanwhile, Jamie, newly feted for his heroics for the local footy team,  falls for a girl named Allison whose ex is the town bully, Dory Townsend, a man kept back a couple of years at school, and a man who is rumoured to have killed a Chinese immigrant fisherman.  If you think it all sounds a bit Tim Winton then you’d be right: Le’s ‘voice’ in this piece is very Winton-esque.  For example, this piece describing Jamie and Allison’s late night meeting (p146):

“He was dazed, for a moment, by the trespass in her voice.  He looked out.  In the high moon the water was sequined with light.  Muted flashes from the coastal freighters past the heads.  Beyond that, stars.”

Later, (p148), we have Allison described thus:

“She pulled back, teeth flashing, and then she was laughing, liquidly, into the night.  He waited, watching her.  Sensing, deeper and deeper, how profoundly her laughter excluded him.”

The writing is powerful and compares well with Winton.

Fortunately for us, Le is very un-Winton-esque in the sense that his next story is not in the same coastal setting with similarly slightly broken people finding their footing in the world, but in Hiroshima, followed by Tehran.

Tehran Calling is a highlight, a great story about friendship set against the backdrop of the totalitarian regime.  Sarah meets her best friend, Parvin, at a US university.  Parvin is a woman who left Tehran to go to the US, where she sets up a call-in radio programme agitating for change and woman’s rights in her homeland.  She has people call in from Iran and beams their stories back into Iran from the US.  But Parvin then decides to move back to Tehran, and after a failed romance Sarah goes to ‘visit’.  She tells Mahmoud, one of Parvin’s friends, that she has come to Iran ‘to escape a man.’  Mahmoud tells her, “Then you are the first American to escape to Iran.”

Sarah’s journey of self-discovery is set against Parvin’s friends’ efforts to protest their lack of rights.  The brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl provides a stark introduction for Sarah into the ways of the regime.  Then Parvin herself goes missing.  She had been taken once before by the authorities, but all Sarah and her new friends can do is wait and see whether Parvin will turn up alive or dead.  The horrors of such repression are brought home with controlled ferocity by Le.

For a first book, The Boat is a great achievement.  None other than Cate Kennedy, one of Australia’s premier writers of short fiction, is quoted as saying that The Boat has put the short story back in the “literary centre stage.”  There’s no finer praise than that.

Who knows where Le’s imaginative footsteps will take him – and us – next?  I for one wait with eager anticipation.

The Boat by Nam Le

Penguin

2008

ISBN: 9780143009610

313 pages

Source: won in a twitter competition run by Penguin.

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