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Friday, April 22, 2011

March 29th

This is The Blurb…with Bernard, Emma…and our fortnightly guest, JOHN BARTLETT

Book & Publishing News:

* We found DAVID MALOUF’s “Quarterly Essay” fairly heavy-going as Malouf looks at the big philosophical question: What is happiness? Some very good Letters in response to the last Essay [“Trivial Pursuit”.]

* VICTOR FRANKL was a Holocaust survivor who became a leading psychiatrist, founder of the school of Transactional Analysis. His excellent book, “Man’s [sic] Search for Meaning” was widely read in the 60s – and has now been re-issued.

* I have recommended “Eureka Street” before; yes, it is published by the Jesuits, but is in no sense proselytising. It features some of our best commentators on issues of the day. Available free on-line.

* Local writer ROSALIE HAM [ “The Dressmaker”] has a new book coming out soon: look out for “There Should Be More Dancing”.

* When I spoke about MICHAEL DUFFY’s “The Tower”. I didn’t realise that the second Troy novel, “The Simple Death”, was already out…and I think it is even better than the first. I believe Duffy has just raised the bar in Australian crime fiction. I will speak with him in a couple of weeks time.

* What is it about Autumn? Isn’t it just the best season? JOHN KEATS thought so; not many of our Australian poets do the Seasons, although many talk of Summer in passing. Today John will read the beautiful opening stanza of Keats’ “To Autumn”.

* Last week I spoke with MEG MUNDELL about “Black Glass” – reviewed in “The Age” at the weekend…And there was an article yesterday about SCOTT BENNETT’s “Pozieres” which I spoke about a few weeks back: just reminding you how current we are here at “The Blurb”….And I had written my review of “Little People” last week – before it was covered in the weekend papers…

* PAUL CLEARY”s “The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground” [“The Blurb”, October, 2010] has been nominated for a Walkley Award this year.

* JAMES LEE BURKE’s daughter, Alafair, has ventured into the crime fiction field, not very successfully, I’d say. The son of ELMORE LEONARD, Peter Leonard, however, has written a ripper of a pulp-fiction book called “All He Saw Was The Girl” which is fast-paced, funny, dark, global – all that a contemporary thriller should be.

* The book on which the current film, “The Way Back” is based – “The Long Road” – has been re-issued in paperback.

* Next week, ROBYN ROWLAND will be in again and I hope to talk to CORY TAYLOR [“Me and Mr. Booker”] in Brisbane.

* I spoke yesterday with KATHRYN from that her great little bookshop in Barwon-end Pako, PATON BOOKS: she or someone from the shop will be in regularly to tell us what is happening there. [I reckon the WEST end of Pako needs a bookshop too…The food down there is getting better by the day!]

This Week’s Author Interview: Benjamin Law

John spoke with BENJAMIN LAW, the popular author of the proclaimed and best-selling memoir, “The Family Law”.
[In the not-too-distant future, “The Blurb” will be available for you to podcast and listen to via iPod.]

This Week’s Reviews:

‘Little People’ by Jane Sullivan

This is a very clever book. Jane has discovered some larger-than-life historical characters – especially Charles “General Tom Thumb” Stratton – and re-created the world of late 19th century SE Australia for a rollicking story of showbiz, love and adventure the likes of which we don’t see often [though again I was reminded a little of E.L. Doctorow’s work.]

‘The General’ did in fact visit our shores at the time the novel is set, but Sullivan creates her own tale, via her invention of the interesting Mary Ann, an impoverished pregnant governess through whom we see most of the events…though the author is not content with a straight-forward third person narrative, as I’ll show later. The “little people” reveal all the human traits of love, intrigue, rivalry and adventure-seeking lest you scoff at the public’s adulation of such “freak” shows, I remember the Fat Lady and the “pygmies from Africa” at the Melbourne Show in the early 60s! Anyway the real genius of the show business phenomenon was the legendary P T Barnum who had discovered the child who became ‘The General’ when the latter was a young child whom we meet as an ageing star, and this onward march of age will be his greatest threat – as well as a fellow member of the troupe.

* Our “little people” – Sullivan tells us in a useful Afterword – probably had Pituitary Dwarfism, caused by a deficiency in growth hormones. Their heads, body and limbs were in perfect proportion, they may have been born to parents of normal height – and any offspring might have been of average size.

As to the book’s style and form, Sullivan uses the conventional chapters for a chronological account, but inserts ‘sideshow’ vignettes
[termed “Acts”] from the various minor characters which works very well in letting the reader into the whole picture, complete with authentic period photographs. [This is another beautifully-designed paperback from “text” publishing.] The tour begins in Melbourne with ‘The General’ apparently rescuing Mary Ann from drowning in he Yarra. Then it’s Tasmania, Adelaide, back to Melbourne, thence towards Sydney via Seymour where there is a brilliantly-depicted flood emergency. There are some wonderful characters in this novel: ‘The General’ and his beautiful wife; her sister, the desperate-for-love, Minnie; various underlings who keep the show on the road, including ‘The General’s’ rival, Rondia. Then there are “villains” of the almost hiss-able type. Mary Ann’s plight is realistically portrayed: this was the era long before any social welfare; being single and pregnant was doom-laden; her situation is desperate and yet she acquits herself admirably. Yes, it is a bit That Sort Of Book, though at no stage does it become mawkish or predictable. We await the birth of the child with Mary Ann and her unusually supportive employers.

The historical novel has always been in vogue, I suppose, but I seem to be coming across them more than ever, and they are of consistent quality. Sullivan [literary editor of “The Age”] is an intelligent and hard-working writer. The research she did for this novel shows in the realism of the settings – and the lives we encounter in this very entertaining novel. In the meantime, however, I came to sense as I read that she was consciously entertaining her reader, that is – in McLuhan’s famous phrase – the medium here IS the message…The book is “show time” in print! If this makes it “melodrama” [as one critic put it], all well and good. Read Dickens again. Watch the films of Stephen Spielberg and Tarantino, etc. Melodrama is KING! And, as for “genre-driven”; what is flavour-of-the-decade CORMAC McCARTHY but a writer of WESTERNS, albeit a very good one?
I really enjoyed everything about this book.

SCORE: ****
Jane Sullivan: “Little People”, Scribe pb, pp 342, rrp $34-99

“Me And Mr. Booker” by Cory Taylor

Another FIRST novel. Cory Taylor is an experienced writer, however, with a background in children’s books and writing for film.

I found this a challenging book, not because it was hard to read: Taylor writes fluently, has a keen ear for dialogue and the subject is certainly arresting. I was surprised by my personal response to the novel’s central fact: a sixteen-year-old school girl having an affair over a year or so with a married university lecturer in his late thirties. Call me old-fashioned, uptight, repressed, whatever, but I had difficulty finding the author’s point of view in this book. It wasn’t so much the hot sex scenes, but the age difference, first of all, plus the fact that the affair is given at least tacit approval by the cuckolded wife as well as the girl’s mother who meanwhile is about the only likable character in the cast. What also annoyed me – on a different level – was the girl, Martha’s, utter stupidity in falling for and maintaining a relationship with an utterly-unattractive male. The eponymous Mr. Booker [Martha’s term of address throughout the story] is a heavy drinker who is hopeless at his job, socially inept with his peers; he speaks in clichés and cracks age-old jokes…I am waiting for some women to tell me their reaction to this book. Okay: ever since “Lolita” and probably long before, exaggerated “May-September” sex has been a seller in fiction, but this is the 21st century. Surely the mores of male-female culture have been re-written? I assume Cory Taylor is serious with this book. Next Tuesday I will be speaking with her so I am sure we will find out more.

As I said initially, this is a crisply-written and contemporary novel and certainly has elements of raw social comedy and satire. Taylor’s suburban Brisbane middle-class families are deftly sketched. I loved the estranged dad eventually taking up residence in a caravan in his family’s driveway. Martha’s mother is almost a tragic figure, shades perhaps of “Muriel’s” mother in the classic PJ Hogan Australian film, “Muriel’s Wedding”. I say “almost” because there is for me no reason why SHE should have fallen for the Bookers just because her teenage daughter does. Finally I think Taylor is a cruel observer, but maybe this is a valid perspective on what is a very dysfunctional set of relationships.
Please read this book and tell us what YOU think.

Cory Taylor: “Me And Mr. Booker”, text pb, pp 208, rrp $32-95

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