Monday, April 29, 2013

{review} a little bush maid

This is another review for Kim at Reading Matters' Australian Literature Month. Kim is generously donating 50p to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation for each review she receives for the month that links to her blog.


Mary Grant Bruce A Little Bush Maid (1910) & Mates at Billabong (1912)
She was perfectly aware that while Daddy wanted a mate he also wanted a daughter; and there was never any real danger of her losing that gentler attribute—there was too much in her of the little dead mother for that. Brownie, the ever watchful, had seen to it that she did not lack housewifely accomplishments, and Mr. Linton was wont to say proudly that Norah's scones were as light as her hand on the horse's mouth.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Australian bush, the result of a teenagehood of family camping holidays with two keen parents and three much younger siblings. In fact, I shudder at writing 'camping' and 'holiday' in the same sentence. Our misguided (literally, if it was my job to read the map) forays away from civilisation exposed me to much of my home-state, South Australia. I am grateful for having seen so much (race-day riots at Coober Pedy), experienced so many things (feral cats in one's sleeping-bag), and been exposed to every extreme of temperature that this great land is capable of producing in spectacular abundance when one is forced to endure life under canvas. 

The 'Bush' - that bit of Australia that is neither urban nor Outback - is quite astonishingly beautiful:

This is in the Grampians, in Victoria (Feb. 2013).

But it is also filled with a variety of hazards ranging from the merely inconvenient (no showers!) to the downright deadly:

The Giant Koala (Feb. 2013)

I am, I readily confess, no Norah Linton:
She loved the bush, and was never happier than when exploring its recesses. A born bushmaid, she had never any difficulty about finding her way in the scrub, or of retracing her steps. The faculty of bushmanship must be born in you; if you have it not naturally, training very rarely gives it.
It is no surprise, therefore, that it took me until over the age of forty to pick up these classics of Australian children's fiction, the first two books of the 'Billabong' series. Mary Grant Bruce's stories (fifteen in all) of Norah Linton, her kindly father, big brother Jim and his mates from school, and the inhabitants of Billabong Station are classics of their kind.
Norah's home was on a big station in the north of Victoria–so large that you could almost, in her own phrase, "ride all day and never see any one you didn't want to see"; which was a great advantage in Norah's eyes. Not that Billabong Station ever seemed to the little girl a place that you needed to praise in any way. It occupied so very modest a position as the loveliest part of the world!
The two books that I have read (so far!) have many positives: the heroine, Norah, is a strong, self-sufficient, smart young woman, who has been brought up to think for herself and be kind to others. There are few things that she is not allowed to do (as a woman in the early twentieth century), and many, many things that she can do regardless of her sex, and sometimes far better than the blokes. I thought she was an excellent role-model. 

The bush is not depicted as a bucolic paradise, a sort of child's Eden: rather, the bush is a place where one has to work hard all the time to hold on to what is important; it holds unspeakable dangers for the naïve and unwary, and heartbreaking tragedy may lurk around every corner (are there corners in the bush?). Yet it is also a place of great community solidarity - a place where people help each other in times both good and bad. And, significantly, it is a place of great and healing beauty.

The negatives are mostly due to the series' grand old age and for that reason must be forgiven: the modern reader will cringe at the presentation of Aborigines ("That's a good boy," said Norah, approvingly, and black eighteen grinned from ear to ear with pleasure at the praise of twelve-year-old white) and non-white foreigners (although I note that Norah is generally open-minded about those she encounters) and, amusingly, almost anyone from a town:
And one of our men has gone down with the heat and can't field—fellow from the hotel with red hair, who made five—remember him, Wal.? He's out of training, like most hotel chaps, and as soft as possible, So we're playing a man short."
Curiously, she also has no time for the more generously fleshed: "she held the view that it was better to be dead than fat". In this, her outlook might appear excessively modern.

While Norah gains an enormous amount of outdoor experience (and can cook, sew and housekeep like an angel of the house), other aspects of her education are less satisfactory (until she is packed off to school):
Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy? As for Norah's education, that was of the kind best defined as a minus quantity. "I won't have her bothered with books too early," Mr. Linton had said when nurse hinted, on Norah's eight birthday, that it was time she began the rudiments of learning. "Time enough yet–we don't want to make a bookworm of her!"
In the first two books in the series, Norah deals with bushfires and typhoid, reunites a broken family, encounters heartbreaking loss and nearly loses her beloved father, tries to get to grips with city habits ("Further off came the cheerful voices of Jim and Wally on their way to the lagoon. Cecil preferred the bath in the house, saying that he considered it cleaner, which remark had incensed Norah at the time"), has a narrow brush with a fate worse than death, and prepares herself to be sent away from her beloved Billabong to a girls' school in Melbourne. I gather that, in the next books, the family travels to London, fights in the First World War (written contemporaneously), and is eventually reunited in our bush paradise. 

I am keen to read on; however, while some of the series are in the public domain in other countries (at Project Gutenberg; or Girlebooks), the series is still in copyright in Australia under a family trust (info). I plan to collect myself some nicer old editions as I see them.

In sum: well-written children's adventure stories with a strong female heroine. Dated, but rollicking good reads. 

Thanks again to Kim for coordinating Australian Literature Month!

Monday, April 22, 2013

{review} eat me

Linda Jaivin Eat Me (Text Classics: 2012 [1995])

This is a review for Kim at Reading Matters' Australian Literature Month.

Kim is donating 50p to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation for each review she receives for the month that links to her blog. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation "aims to raise literacy levels and improve the lives and opportunities of Indigenous children living in remote and isolated regions. This is done by providing books and literacy resources to communities and raising broad community awareness of Indigenous literacy issues." (source). This is an excellent cause and I have clicked over and made a donation which "will buy 3 or more books for an indigenous child living in a remote community."

But, the review... (and, incidentally, I do not think that this will be a book handed out to children unless something goes rather wrong in the distribution process.)


Text Classics offer new editions of Australian books, "milestones in the Australian experience". I picked Linda Jaivin's Eat Me, first published in 1995, because it seems to have totally missed my radar, and I suspect that was because I was living in the UK in the second half of the 90s. I imagine that I missed rather a lot of Australian writing in those poor student days. I also picked it because I like books that link food and sex in interesting ways. That said, I may never be able to look at grapes in quite the same way again.

It was a warm night. He was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans. He was probably in his fifties and, as he bent over the hood, I got a good look at him. I was still thinking along the lines of how I would describe him to the police.
Eat Me is a very funny collection of erotic stories with a distinctly Australian voice, setting and aesthetic. (Although fortunately not always as memorably antipodean as "sucking to the beat of 'Waltzing Matilda'.") Set mostly in Sydney (but with a wholly unforgettable scene set at the Big Merino), it ostensibly relates the tales told by four very modern women who meet up - café society! - and offer each other stories based, one is led to believe, on personal experience. But this easy narrative style soon begins to break down both for the women and for the reader, and by the end of this very well structured book one finds oneself (as do the narrators) somewhat at a loss about what is real and what is not. Can these stories even be real, one might (even) ask? 

This ambiguity begins to extend to Eat Me-the-book itself, trapping the reader in a very pleasant puzzle about what it is they are, in fact, reading: reading erotica about listening to erotica read by writers of erotica writing erotica from female and male perspectives... and so on!
Without further ado, he rolled on top and entered her. A zillion images flooded into his head: of marscapone, of Sharon Stone, of steaming cannelloni, of lingerie, of Elle Macpherson, of stallions, of stamens, of Mal Meninga on a run, of Madonna on a gondola, of cocker spaniels, Mick Jagger’s lips, of ET, of wet t-shirt contests, of mangos, of his father swinging a golf club, of a platypus wriggling its way down a muddy river. Much to his horror, Beavis and Butthead provided the soundtrack, laughing: hehheh hehheh hehheh.
This ambiguity is heightened, I thought, by Jaivin's use of a number of the stereotypes of erotic encounters: the mysterious sudden absence of all witnesses to very public sex acts; exaggerated, er [trying not to get myself blocked here!], manhood (shall we say?!); the ease of sexual conquest; an exaggerated brutality of genital language (love blender; goluptious trough); to name but a few. My assumption was that these features were deliberately signposting the fault-lines between reality and fantasy, that is, sexing up the intellectual calibre of erotic writing at the same it is implicitly undermined. 

As one loses one's footing in the narrative, tripped up by its multiple narrators (unreliable? fictional? female? male? quasi-autobiographical?!) with distinctly different perspectives, one starts to question the dynamics of the genre itself. Sex is never simple; it is intimately bound up with power, for one thing. Jaivin's playful female reworking of the norms gives one a lot to think about re the genre and one's expectations of the erotic ("I think it’s important to valorise safe sex practices even in fantasy").
Is this too pornographic? Are you shocked? I can’t really stop here, though, can I? Besides, if it’s pornographic, do you think it proves or disproves Robin Morgan’s thesis that if rape is the practice, pornography is the theory? What happens when we women write the pornography? Can we rape ourselves? I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. The other day, Philippa shared one of her erotic stories with us and asked about the latest line on pornography. I’ve never quite understood the difference between erotica and pornography, have you? I mean, is erotica merely porn with literary pretensions? Or is something pornography if written by a man but erotica if penned by a woman?
(The narrator here is, one can perhaps guess, an academic!)

In sum: I would love to read some more of Jaivin's writing - she has a very witty and very Australian voice. Sexual fantasy is very personal, and there were elements of this book that almost certainly will not appeal to every reader (myself included; especially the grapes), but I did rather like how this book made me consider my own generic expectations and the underlying power dynamics of (predominantly) heterosexual erotica written for and/or by women. Have I, for instance, been carefully over-intellectualizing the risqué to render respectable my reading of erotica?! ;-)

Thanks to Kim for encouraging us all to read more Australian writers during Australian Literature Month

Thursday, April 11, 2013

{review} desert of the heart

Jane Rule Desert of the Heart (1964)

Fidelity to any human place, except the heart, seems to me a dubious thing.
When Desert of the Heart appeared in 1964, Jane Rule became, she says, "for the media the only lesbian in Canada." It might, nowadays, (thankfully) be hard to see why the book was such a game-changer, but it is certainly far more than just a 'lesbian novel'. 

It engages - generally wittily, sometimes brutally, frequently heart-breakingly - with all manner of conventions about the expectations surrounding how a woman should live her life. It is an engagingly important feminist text, I thought, as well as a thought-provoking examination of contemporary sexual politics. It is also, as Jackie Kaye notes in her introduction to this Virago edition, a "relatively positive work of fiction, where no lesbian dies."

Evelyn Hall goes to Nevada to get a divorce from her husband of sixteen years. She is an educated woman, an English professor, but not, we discover, prone to anything but a quiet dissidence:
She was one of the few women she knew who preferred Mrs to Dr, perhaps because her marriage had been more difficult than her Ph.D. to achieve and maintain... Dr now was her only 'proper' title, but it seemed too easy a solution, or too ironic.
One of the joys of Desert of the Heart is how Evelyn's somewhat stifled inner voice begins a regeneration.

The divorce is her choice - "She was to be divorced, a convention that might be as strange to her as the convention of marriage had been" - and to obtain it she must live in Reno in Frances Packer's boarding house, until the divorce comes though in six weeks' time. Evelyn is prepared for boredom, prepared to read and get on with her academic work, prepared even to rediscover a life alone; but she is not prepared for the effect that Ann Childs will have on her as she crosses off the days until she is free. 

Ann is a permanent resident in the boarding-house: a slot-machine change girl at a casino, easy with her favours - "the child she had always wanted, the friend she had once had, the lover she had never considered." Will she also be Evelyn's salvation from the dull sadness, that "desert of the heart", the "aesthetic distance", her "care about morality"? "But decorum was a climate in which Evelyn lived." Can she lose - and find - herself in "unimportant intimacy"? "Must I be careful?", Evelyn begins to ask herself, as she (of course!) begins to over-intellectualize "the grotesque miracle of love" and whether she is embarking on "an attempted moral suicide".
"Why have you loved me at all?" "Lack of social orientation. Latent homosexuality. Moral amnesia. Masochism. Revenge. But I'm willfully ignorant in these matters. My terms are probably very inaccurate."
You might see here how dangerously close Desert of the Heart runs to a good wallow in the clichés of lesbian melodrama that inform its background (e.g.,. The Well of Loneliness). But that would be, I think, to miss how manneredly Rule deals with her potentially florid material.
If she had never actually made love to another woman, she was intellectually emancipated in all perversions of the flesh, mind and spirit. Her academic training had seen to that.
I addition, the Reno setting works beautifully as a background to the novel. It makes emphatic the fluctuating status (rich/poor, unmarried/married, married/divorced, morality/amorality, fidelity/unfaithfulness, even living/dead) of the characters, and the desert too functions as a clichéd yet powerful image - a sort of demarcated zone signifying both sterility and the potential for (re)development and fulfilment. Its emptiness is particularly potent in contrast to the Hogarthian (Rule's image, not mine!) chaos of the casinos.

So, in sum? A quiet, clever, beautifully written, heart-breaking love story.

Highly recommended.

{READ IN 2018}

  • 30.
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  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore
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