Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.
Review of Walking Home by Simon Armitage
Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’
Review of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams
Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about. Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.
Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies
In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.
Review of Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster
Broadly speaking, there are two types of epitaphs: those formulated by loved ones to describe the living qualities of the interred; and those that would presume to speak from the grave. Writers, ever reluctant to pass up a blank page – even if it is a tombstone – are disproportionate constituents of the latter. H.G. Wells, father of science fiction, penned his epitaph: ‘Goddamn you all: I told you so.’ Dorothy Parker quipped ‘Excuse My Dust’, while Charles Bukowski, abandoning humour for something bleaker, counselled: ‘Don’t try.’ Rhyll McMaster, who happily still dwells among the living, claims her epitaph will one day read: ‘No-one knows.’
Review of All that I Am by Anna Funder
“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe. It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.
Review of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland. Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love.
Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
In English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it. But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner.
Review of Love: A History by Simon May; and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines.
Madame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”. Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.
Review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter; and The Salt Companion to John Tranter
In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory. The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish.