Book review: Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman

(cover image courtesy Murdoch Books)

 

In this ever-more mobile digital age, where job tenure is fleeting, geographic locales are a home but for a moment, and social ties fray and fasten at the speed of tweet, we remain, as a species, heavily-dependent on a sense of place for our sense of identity.

Even when we move, without a second thought, from our childhood home to a place of study and then onto various towns and cities, and these days, countries, we will often refer back to a hometown or a place we most feel like we belonged, an anchor point in the benign turbulence that is our lives.

It’s not necessarily a repudiation of where we are now, and where we have been or wish to go; simply a recognition that this place most heavily shaped who we are and what we became and remains the focal point for our life’s journey upon which everything else pivots, like it or not.

For Maya Suleman, an immigrant in her college years from Ukraine who married Alex Rubin, a New Yorker who emigrated from Minsk, Belarus when he was 8, the much-adored son of Eugene and Raisa, and stayed in America to forge a life, and raise an adopted son Max, whose troubles kick the narrative of Boris Fishman’s second novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, into high gear, questions of identity and place are merely academic or a thing for idle musing anymore.

They become, in a very real sense, a matter of existential life and death when she sets out with a reluctant husband and son in tow, for Montana, to see if she can find out why it is that Max keeps running away, keeps eating grass and floating face down in rivers to stare at fish.

She is convinced, to the very depths of her unsettled, neurotic soul, one that has barely ventured in thought or actuality from her home in New Jersey, that Max will find peace if she can just get back to the state from which he was adopted, see his birth parents one more time and interrogate them on what will make her son happy.

“Frank’s eyebrows, of the same gray bristly mix as his beard, slunk together. ‘All right, now,’ he said. ‘Take it easy.’ The night shift regularly put him in acquaintance with the glitches and flaws of human design, but Maya didn’t seem crazy, only despondent. She nodded vacantly, grateful not to be dismissed so far from home, and turned back to her seat.” (P. 55)

What she’s really asking, and this is only something that comes to light in this beautifully-written, richly-wrought novel that deftly brings together emotionally-evocative drama and idiosyncratic humour to powerful effect, when Maya is on the road in Montana, is who she is.

Projecting everything onto her son, who it emerges is actually reasonably secure in his sense of self, and takes life as it comes in common with most children, she externalises the roiling, restive energy that drives her onwards, ever onwards, a lack of peace that sees her unable to truly settle or relax and which indelibly imprints on her fractious marriage or sometimes-troubled son.

The common denominator for the family, for all its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, is Maya who has never quite found her groove in a society she loves but always feels somewhat of an impostor in.

What she discovers when she finally hits the road and leaves the suffocating smallness of New Jersey and her in-laws behind – she loves them but they have sculpted a small world buttressed by superstition and old world perspective but also humour-laden and flawed certainty of what the new world is like – is that it is she who isn’t at home, who is yearning for something else, for the other, an unspoken need to realise who she is and make something of that.

 

Boris Fishman (photo by Stephanie Kaltsas via Lewis Centre Princeton Arts)

 

As an exercise in identity discovery and true understanding of sense of self, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a delight.

It straddles the serious and the absurd, the deep and the eccentrically and humourously shallow with ease, offering up a portrait of one person’s life, and that of the people in uneasy satellite around her, that you find yourself happily and thoughtfully lost in.

Fishman slowly but surely unravels the real cause of Maya’s slowly-burbling distress, and the way in which it disguises itself, or it is allowed to be disguised by the one-time would-be cook and cafe owner, taking us on a journey that is as surprising for the protagonist as it is for us.

What seems like a simple, if emotionally-complicated and questionable, exercise in re-acquainting themselves with the birth parents Max doesn’t even know exist – he hasn’t been told he is adopted yet, a decision forged in a myriad conflicting desires and issues clung to uneasily by the Rubin family – becomes so much more as Maya discovers that she is the root of her family’s topsy-turvy world, and quite possibly, the source of her son’s inability to fully settle down.

“Maya colored, feeling the interloper’s familiar cluelessness. It, not Alex, was her true life’s companion. Just when she began to get free of the feeling, she mispronounced a word or failed to apprehend some invisible rule, and lived the nest days like a guest, a cherry pit of self-reproach in her stomach. How was one to know these things?” P. 211)

At times Fishman’s narrative just jump around in both sequence and intent, leaving you as befuddled as Maya often feels, but by and large, this is a wryly-clever and sensitive novel that explores what it is like to exist in a weird limbo where you are simultaneously at home and not, all at once.

If you have ever felt a niggling sense that you’re a little too square peg-ish for that round hole you should, in theory, find permanently and wonderfully invitingly comfortable, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo will speak to you, echoing what it is like for anyone, but particularly immigrants or anyone who has uprooted themselves from a world they know intimately and well to one they almost do but not quite, to realise they haven’t quite reached a perfect accommodation with their new life.

Perhaps none of us really do, something Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo more than hints at with its narratively-uncertain resolution that nevertheless find some sense of peace for its restive main inhabitant, all of us forever perched between contentment and an impelling need to find that elusive something that will complete us and leave us feeling, in our minds at least, more at ease with who we are and in the case of Fishman’s fascinatingly real characters, where we are.

 

(cover image via Amazon)

The sounds of Moominvalley will be international and up-to-the-minute

(image via Moomin.com (c) Gutsy Animation 2018)

 

SNAPSHOT
The Moomins are one of Finland’s biggest exports and have a global fan base. Moomins have enjoyed popularity since the 1950s, when the original Moomin comic strips were published in the Evening News newspaper. On the video below Marika Makaroff is speaking about building a new animated world based on Tove Jansson’s original stories. (synopsis via Moomin.com)

I have often talked about the accidental enduring love affair with Scandinavian children’s literature that I developed in my childhood.

I say accidental because my gravitation towards the likes of Agaton Sax, the Moomin books and Mrs Pepperpot was simply the result of my lifelove long of quirky, emotionally-rich and richly-imaginative stories well told.

The Moomin stories by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson was my great favourite, an oasis of belonging, love and practical inclusion that made my school years, which sported none of those qualities thanks to the ever-present schoolyard bullies, so much more bearable.

 

 

Hence my great delight when news broke of a new animated series coming our way in 2019, with an all-star cast including Jennifer Saunders (Mymble), Matt Lucas (Teety-Woo), Alison Steadman (Emma the Stage Rat), Taron Egerton (Moomintroll), Rosamund Pike (Moominmamma), and Kate Winslet (Mrs Fillyjonk), and now, it turns out a glittering array of songs from some big names in music.

Specifically from Columbia Records, part of Sony Music Entertainment, which will see each of the 13 x 22-minute first-season episodes graced by a track from the record label’s artists.

Marika Makaroff, Creative Director and Executive Producer at Gutsy Animations which is making Moominvalley, is understandable excited.

“From the beginning of this project we have been ambitious with our vision – and it has paid off in spades. I’m thrilled to be partnering with Sony Music, which is home to some of the world’s best artists, and can’t wait to announce the incredible names that will be writing brand new music for Moominvalley. What we’ve heard so far is truly magical – it perfectly captures the sense of wonder and spirit of adventure so central to the world Tove created.”

These songs will, according to Moomin.com, “complement an original score composed by Finnish musicians Pekka Kuusisto, whose father composed with the author Tove Jansson in the 1970s and wrote the Finnish National Opera’s Moomin Opera in 1974, and Samuli Kosminen.”

It all sounds absolutely wonderful, and while my life is far more full of love and richer in every way than it was in school, I have more than a sneaking feeling that I am going to love the new series every bit as much as I enjoyed the books way back when.

MOOMINVALLEY will air northern Spring 2019.

 

Book review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

(cover image courtesy Text Publishing)

 

We are so in love, as a species, with the admittedly very attractive idea of love that we often over-romanticise it.

Decking it with roses and chocolates, viewing with rose-coloured glasses and Vaseline-tinted lenses, love is elevated as a warm-and-fuzzy ideal which can answer and make up for all wrongs, a triumphant force that brooks no opposition and emerges victorious every time.

All of its persuasive power is true to an extent; we wouldn’t lionise it the way we do if it wasn’t.

But in Robert Hillman’s exquisitely well-written, deeply moving and unwaveringly insightful novel, The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted, love’s power is framed as it should be – enormously transformative yes, but not the slam dunk, easy trip to happiness that Hallmark would have you believe.

It’s power is unchallenged and suitably reverenced but in a way that recognises the extraordinary evil and terror that can come against it; in that way, we come to see love, real, tenacious love, as even more powerful because it has to overcome real, horrific obstacles to find its true expression.

“Hannah had no sense of mission, no desire to convert the masses to art. But she kept count of the books she sold. Her target was twenty-five thousand, the approximate number of books burnt in Berlin on May 10th, 1033. At the moment she was selling around 110 books each week with the help of the CWA. So four years, five years. The delight for her when someone emerged from a house in the town, from a farmhouse twenty miles away, and brought to the counter a book that the students had set ablaze: The Trial, A Farewell to Arms, Women in Love, Anna Karenina, The War of the Worlds, Ulysses.” (P. 195)

Set in country Victoria, The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is primarily the tale of Hannah Babel, an émigré from Europe in the 1960s who is the sole survivor of her Hungarian Jewish family, a cultured woman with the ability to speak multiple languages who is a force of nature and an ardent evangelist for the power of literature to change lives, but who is forever scarred by her nightmarish experiences in Auschwitz.

Her love, her capacity, has been severely tested to breaking point, with the loss of close family members, a husband and a young son weigh heavily on her soul, as of course it would.

Hillman sensitively balances flashback chapters to the Holocaust in which Hannah must fight, and fight hard, to survive against impossible odds – there’s no place here, it seems, for the marshmallow-soft love of Hollywood rom-coms and greeting cards – with Hannah’s attempts to set up a bookshop in the fictional Victorian town of Hometown, a place, in the late 1960s of conservative values and firm opinions and one which Tom Hope has accidentally come to call home.

A farmer of a small holding outside of town which used to belong to his Uncle Frank, Tom is a sensitive, thoughtful man who buys meat and groceries in town because he can’t bear the idea of slaughtering his own animals.

As traditionally masculine and emotionally reticent as they come on the outside, Tom is, like Hannah but in vastly different ways, a deep pool of emotions that is constantly seeking to find a way out.

 

Robert Hillman (image courtesy Text Publishing)

 

In his case, initially at least, it is with Trudy, a woman who commits to loving him, wants to love him but is finally unable to do so; hers is a shaky, needy love, one that runs away and comes back and runs away leaving Tom reeling and taking away Peter, his son in all but blood, his love for whom is entrenched, real and true in a way that for and from Trudy can never be.

Left reeling when Trudy decamps to a Jesus camp, read cult, on Phillip Island which spruiks true love but evidences anything but, Tom doesn’t believe he will ever find love again.

But he does, unexpectedly with Hannah when he’s called upon to help fit out her shop, and it’s the love these two markedly different people find for each other that fills with the narrative and sets the tone for the rest of this powerfully-affecting book.

But the love between Hannah and Tom, while true and transformative in all the very best ways, is also competing with great heartache and loss, the kind that doesn’t simply go away with a murmured word of affection or passionate nights in bed.

Tom is a smart man, he knows that something is haunting his new love; but for much of the book only we are truly privy to the catastrophic burden Hannah is carrying and the way the love she feels for Tom, while expansive and beautifully alive, is constrained and shaped by a past marked by more death and sadness than anyone should ever experience.

“He [Tom] wanted to be the person who took Bernie Shaw’s rifle from him before it had been fired; the person who said “Pastor, let them go,’ and was heard; the man standing beside Hannah in Auschwitz, holding the child when she lost consciousness.” (P. 252)

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is love in the trenches, quite literally at times, a testament to the way love can sustain us but can also act as a reminder of what we have lost.

Hillman insightfully explores in ways both grim and uplifting that by over-romanticising love, we rob it of its true power and ability to take a life and start it over again, in ways that must fight the current of the past and constantly reassure that this time it will stand.

You can’t blame Hannah for her reluctance to fully commit to the love she finds with him; she desperately wants to and in many ways does, but there is something holding her back, something which resides in the vacant stares and the mercurial changes of mood, and for much of the book, both she and Tom are hostage to it.

Love in Hillman’s achingly beautiful and matter-of-fact world is something robust and substantial, mighty and real, that confronts the daily pain and reality of human existence and is sometimes, in our human perspective at least, found wanting.

It gets there in the end of course, but the journey to that place, that imperfect but wonderful place, fills The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted with vigour and beauty, love in its most honest of incarnations and a never less-than-present sense that we do ourselves a disservice when we reduce love solely to its romantic parts, since in the process we lose sight of the way it can spring back against even the most implacable of odds, but not without journeying through considerable pain and sadness first.

 

Book review: It Came From the Deep by Maria Lewis

(cover image courtesy Maria Lewis)

 

There is a particular pleasure that comes from reading a book by Maria Lewis, the happy result of the author’s singular ability to seamlessly blend the mythical and the magically real into the ordinary everyday to the point where the most outlandish of concepts suddenly seem not just possible but eminently real and touchable.

As with her two previous novels Who’s Afraid? and Who’s Afraid Too?, It Came From the Deep trades off the author’s deep and much-declared love of horror and the supernatural, in this case the kinds of beings who lurk deep in black lagoons.

Or in the case of Lewis’s superlative YA debut, Lake Pelutz, a made-up lake on Australia’s Gold Coast around which is arrayed the homes of the rich and the fabulous, all of whom are no doubt dedicated to the ostentatiously glitzy lifestyle for which the Gold Coast is famed (even if it is one lived by only a fraction of the populace), and in which lurks, well saying too much would spoil the fun of it all but let’s just say not lots of fish (especially not lots of fish and more than a few scared eels).

We actually don’t delve too deeply into the central mystery off the story (though the first chapter is enticingly mysterious) a narratively strategic masterstroke that gives us ample time to get to know Kaia Craig, champion iron woman and an elite athlete from local sporting royalty – her name is the famed Ken “KC” Craig who surfs the world and is everyone’s friend – who has the world at her feet.

“Kaia had become good at wearing a mask over the past few months. She’d never had reason to before, but now she’d been taught to keep her face neutral for the cameras as she left the courthouse, bulbs flashing and reporters shouting horrendous questions to her. She had learned how to mask her hurt when someone would utter the word ‘murderer’ at training, loud enough that they knew she heard them.” P. 26)

Or more precisely, had.

A series of events for which she is not directly culpable but for which some sections of the sporting community lay blame unfairly at her feet, has shaken her usual sunny confidence, and shattered the idyll in which she has lived with her dad and older brother and iron man competitor Storm ever since her mother decamped to Hawai’i when she was a kid.

Her world is safe and certain until fate conspires otherwise and it’s in this media-spotlighted maelstrom that Kaia, held aloft by a stoic shutdown, her family and close friends like Cabby, finds out there is far more in heaven and on earth than the minds of Gold Coast sporting people can dream.

And Kaia, used to success and fulfilled possibility, has hitherto been able to dream very big indeed.

But what she discovers one night in Lake Pelutz when she is attacked while on a night run, proves that she hasn’t been dreaming big enough and that there are events playing out in the backwaters and palatial homes of her home city that dwarf her imagination with their sheer paranormal audacity.

 

Maria Lewis (image courtesy official maria Lewis Twitter account)

 

It’s impossible for Kaia to dismiss these occurrences, no matter how utterly preposterous they seem and as she begins to dig into the mystery of an elderly marine scientist, his experiments and the tantalising presence, or rather absence, of some rather large and mysterious, she starts to discover how big her world really can be.

It Came From the Deep deftly and engrossingly balances a slew of fascinating reveals and nonstop action with the kind of introspective rumination that would slow novels by other less-accomplished writers.

Rather than these two sometimes disparate elements bashing hard up against each other, they work as a beautiful whole, much as they do in the author’s first two werewolf-centric novels, imbuing It Came From the Deep with a capacity to be both spinetinglingly good and calmly existential reflective.

It’s a potently rich combination that keeps you reading not simply out of need to know what and who happens next, but out of a deep abiding desire to hang in there with Kaia who is bearing the weight of the world on her sports-honed shoulders, and soon another far more extraordinary weight entirely.

“Amos’s voice broke as he recalled his final moments with his father. He looked down at the surface of the water, which was still rippling thanks to the rain. Kaia felt like she was finally able to see his face and properly judge the emotions that were dancing there. No longer hidden behind a Cast Away beard, the dark, almost black colour of his eyebrows only highlighted his grief … Kaia felt like she was encroaching on his grief, but she didn’t want him to feel like she was abandoning him.” (P. 143-144)

It Came From the Deep succeeds, apart from its boundless imagination and seamlessly good imagination because it never forgets that what we crave from any story is a sense of connection with the main character.

Because the time is taken to introduce to Kaia so fully and insightfully, to ground her in a world that makes sense and feels wholly real (with friends and family who feel closeknit and the kind of people you would want around you in a pinch … or two), all the paranormal elements, which as noted slide seamlessly into narrative place, feels organic and utterly believable.

Once you read the book, and I urge you to do just that if you like great escapist but emotionally-evocative stories, you will understand just how great a feat this is and how wonderfully Lewis has told a story that is completely human and a whole lot more besides.

If only all paranormal books were this expansively imaginative, breathtakingly human and endlessly, tantalisingly beguiling; It Came From the Deep rewards us at every page in ways that will speak to your heart, engage your mind and excite your soul in a way only the very best writers, and their equally dazzlingly good stories, can.

 

 

Read your way through the end of the world with Anna and the Apocalypse!

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Honestly the zombie apocalypse gets far too negative a rap.

Sure, the world has gone to undead hell in a handbasket and life as you know it is over – and yes that sadly includes watching Netflix and the buying of pop culture memorabilia on Ebay – BUT, and this is an important BUT, you know have all the time in the world to read all those books sitting on your terrifyingly-high TBR pile.

With no work to commute to, no bills to pay and no shopping to do, and hopefully, best case scenario here, an apartment high up from the zombie action stocked with food, water and toilet paper, you can stretch back, crack open a novel and read to your heart’s content.

 

(cover image via Bloody Disgusting)

 

Being the meta-kinda person you are, you will of course be reading the novel tie-in to Anna and the Apocalypse by Katherine Turner with Barry Waldo who are, as it turns out very excited about writing the book:

“Anna and the Apocalypse is a wonderfully realized world, full of strong characters, epic friendships and gripping adventure. The book gave us the chance to delve deeper into relatable, kick-ass characters and really dig into their lives and relationships. The Anna universe is so full of heart and so much fun to explore, it was just a gift to us as writers. It’s definitely the best zombie high school Christmas horror comedy book we’ve ever written!” (Bloody Disgusting)

No word of how excited they are about the zombie apocalypse itself – likely not very despite the wonderful benefits I have laid out – but they’re excitement about the book itself sounds well-deserved.

We get to find out how much fun it will be on 23 October, just in time for yes, Halloween.

 

Book review: Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins_

 

It’s probably fair to say that many of us have a starry-eyed view of what it must be like to work in the entertainment industry.

All those red carpet moments, confected though they are, glamorous two-minute pieces on entertainment reporting shows and the general aura of rose-tinted dreams being realised, all but convince that here is life as it should be lived – exciting, fulfilling, amazing, extraordinary.

But as Nell Scovell, who was worked on some pretty impressive shows and events in her 30-plus years in showbiz, confesses, while there are some genuinely awestruck moments when life seems almost magical, just as advertised, there are a good many more, the majority in fact, that are downright disappointing and demoralising.

Especially if you’re a woman in an industry dominated by men who seem to think, with some notable exceptions, that a woman’s point of view is either unnecessary or a cumbersome hindrance, a distraction from the fine business of making Peak TV and cinematic wonders.

But, of course, that’s ridiculous, since as Scovell points again and again, women brings wholly different, enriching perspectives to all kinds of stories, and by denying them adequate representation, or any representation at all, you’re failing them and society as a whole who are robbed of the unique insight female writers bring to the showbiz table.

“If real estate’s mantra is ‘location, location, location”, show biz mantra’s is ‘talent, talent, talent’. No, wait. That’s what it should be. Instead it’s ‘connections, connections, connections’.” (P. 37)

It seems obvious to you and me how much better everything is when diverse viewpoints are included; it doesn’t matter if its woman, LGBTQI+, people of colour and everyone else in our gloriously multi-hued world – give people a voice and any story suddenly comes alive with all kinds of amazing new perspectives.

Alas, what is obvious seems to fly well under the radar in good old Hollywood.

Take Scovell’s stint as a writer on Late Night, at that point hosted by Dave Letterman, where she encountered an atmosphere best described as “Harvard Lampoon frat house” where being a woman (Scovell was only the second hired ever after Merrill Markoe) or a person of colour (none hired between 1982 and 2015) was so criminally rare.

With a mix of biting commentary and good humour, a hall mark of the book as a whole and Scovell’s TV writing in particular – she also worked as a journalist for a number of years at Vanity Fair and SPY which near-universally happy times in her impressive career – Scovell details how hard it was to make inroads when everything was structurally arrayed against you.

Time and again Scovell encounters a glass ceiling so thick and impenetrable that it might as well have been solid brick, obstacles that she often overcame through tenacity or by playing the game as best she could, but all which spoke to an industry where the boys’ club was well-entrenched and decisions were made behind her back (see her stint on the revived The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour).

 

Nell Scovell (image courtesy official Nell Scovell Twitetr account)

 

Scovell, who proves herself an astute and funny observer of her years in the industry, balances the dark times, and there was unfortunately far too many, with the good times, the great friendships, the enriching career experiences and wonderful opportunities that came her way.

Her time on Coach for instance, was a highlight, buoyed by the superlative mentoring of her boss Barry Kemp; so too her time as a showrunner on the first season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch – this ultimately proved something she had to leave but for reasons not necessarily related to gender inequity – and as a Supervising Producer on Murphy Brown where the “three Ps” (people, product and the process) uniquely and pleasurably aligned.

What is startling is not that these types of experiences existed – Scovell is happy to admit when they did and how good they were, her enthusiasm and gratitude a joy to witness – but how little time many of them lasted.

Her stint at Newhart, where she had a lovely, four-word encounter with the star himself, lasted a scant nine months, and the revival of The Muppets just a year; as Scovell makes clear, without a hint of defensiveness or bitterness, this is simply how the dynamics of showbiz, where talent and accomplishment are often sidelined by politics and posturing, often play out. (This mayfly-like lifespan of a TV writer forms the narrative structure of this highly-entertaining and eye-opening memoir which details her rise, plateau and fall/rise, a rollercoaster of ups and downs that is common for almost all writers.)

“At the exact age of twenty-nine, I opened The New York Times Book review and thought ‘How nice! Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favourite novelists, wrote an essay.’ One paragraph later, I felt sucker-punched. here’s what Vonnegut wrote:

‘If Lloyds of London offered policies promising to compensate comical writers for losses of sense of humor [sic], its actuaries could count in such a loss occurring on average at 63 for men, and for women at 29, say.’

Say what?
My comedy career was justt aking off and now someone I respected was predicting that I’d lose my sense of humour—the source of my livelihood—at any moment. And why did men get thirty-four more years of being funny than me?” (PP. 203-204)

But though Scovell is professionally sanguine about the good and the bad, she is hardly an unfeeling robot.

In often emotionally-charged, laid bare chapters, she is upfront about the toll the many disappointments in her career have taken on her, and while she admits these short-lived stints befall male writers too, it is a particular issue for women who are still fighting, even in the transformative #MeToo movement era, for an equal seat at the entertainment table.

For all her seamlessly and warmly-delivered anecdotes, and her willingness to joke and wryly observe to engaging effect, Scovell is frank about the way women are often sidelined, diminished and restricted to quotas in writing rooms which continue to be male-dominated for the most part.

The inspiring thing is that for all her setbacks and disappointments, and they have been legion along with all the fulfilling times where “passion and contribution”, as her friend and sometime-collaborator Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, terms it, came together, Scovell remains in love with her craft and eager to keep going on and on as she declares in what is perhaps one of the most perfect endings to any memoir I’ve read:

“Thirty years after I broke into Hollywood, I’m still pressing that lever hoping for a pellet. In an ideal world, I’d get to direct another movie. Or maybe I’ll create and run another show. I just want one more shot.
And then one more shot after that.
And then …”

 

Book review: The Way Things Should Be by Bridie Jabour

(cover image courtesy Echo Publishing)

 

Going home, as in back to our home town the place where it all began, or in my case, began all over again after perfectly fine starts in two other places, is a fraught experience.

In theory it shouldn’t be, especially if you have a family, like mine, with whom you get on (mostly) extremely well, in that dysfunctionally functional way common to most close families; but something happens when everyone reassembles in the one place, cheek-by-jowl in a way they haven’t been for a good many years – you start behaving just like you did when you were kids.

Sure, all the trappings of adulthood are there and you are supposedly a whole different person to who you were when the fights were about LEGO and who got to lick out the cake mix bowl, but still, go back home and it’s like some long-dormant program springs into action and you start playing your pre-assigned roles all over again.

That’s certainly what overtakes the Carters of the fictional Australian town of Winston who arrive back to their mother Rachel’s home – their father George also lives in the same town but spending any significant amount of time with the spurned spouse is seen as treasonous by Rachel and so must be done not at all or quietly – for daughter Claudia’s wedding, an event she should be wildly excited about but about which she isn’t.

She should be, she tells herself – Dylan is kind, sweet, helpful, intelligent; in short his list of great points far overweighs the negatives any woman (and quite a few gay men) would be thrilled to have him and Claudia is … sort of.

“Winston was like every other home town in our collective history in that it was incredibly dull but had the power to both enchant and provoke regression in its former inhabitants … If that was not enough to give a 28-year-old woman whiplash from the nostalgia, Claudia Carter had returned that September to get married. Despite being the perfectly average age to do such a perfectly average thing, Claudia was feeling radical. The idea of marriage still seemed to foreign to her that it was almost subversive.” (P. 1)

Her inexplicable indifference, for which she attempts to determine a cause, or at least an assurance that it’s perfectly normal – her siblings and best friend assure her to a person that it’s not in that honest way only siblings and BFFs can get away with – stands in stark contrast to the broiling dynamic that surges through the relationships between all four Carter siblings, and on through to mum Rachel (and her detested selfish sister Mary, who is the unifying aunt everyone detests) who stands at the centre of her own self-appointed, self-centred storm.

The Way Things Should Be, the debut novel by journalist Bridie Jabour, captures the love-hate, uplifting-downcasting back-and-forth of pretty much every mostly-functional family, underlining again and again with fluid, sparklingly authentic dialogue, believably fractious sibling relationships and sibling/parent interactions, and a pitch-perfect setting which is reassuringly as it always was but damningly boring for the same reason, just how odd visits back to home towns can be.

Claudia is mostly like Switzerland siblings-wise, getting on (again, mostly; remember, this is family we’re talking about where nothing is forever) with posh, ambitious Zoe, laconic, stay-out-of-the-way Phinn and combustible, unhappy-with-life baby of the family Poppy and mum Rachel.

Hers is a strangely relaxed existence of getting on with everyone, but as she discovers all over again, or is reminded again, more accurately – because who ever really forgets how every family tableau will play out? You know the ending before they even begin – that doesn’t make you immune from the ebbs and flows of family love and hate, nor of the inability of close friends such as Nora to integrate themselves into a dynamic which, like a particularly testy immune system, repels all comers not borne into it.

 

Bridie Jabour (image courtesy official Bridie Jabour twitter account)

 

It’s a fascinating world unto its own to explore and Jabour does it with easygoing aplomb, serving up the week leading to Claudia’s will she-won’t she wedding as a series of family scenes which illustrate how close they close are, and yet, how very far away from each other they remain, the demarcations of childhood finding fresh expression in adulthood.

Take Zoe. She arrives with the forced glamour of someone trying a little too hard and yet her Instagram feed, which is all the siblings really know of her, and only after someone in Winston’s florist tips them off, would seem to indicate she’s doing very well indeed in life.

But how well? No one is really sure – where does she live? What does she really do? Is she happy, sad, indifferent? No one is entirely sure, just as they only seeing Poppy stomping in and out in one tantrum-like fit after another, unaware of the great existential dramas playing out for her.

That’s the thing with families, which Jabour captures absolutely perfectly – you think you know your siblings because why wouldn’t you, they’re family; and yet when you drop all your assumptions and really think about it, you hardly know anything at all, familiarity papering out the great gaping chasms in what passes for familial intimacy.

“The pair fell back into the silence they had learned more than twenty-seven years ago when Phinn first began to talk. It was a silence like an embrace, familiar and comforting and brimming with habit. They knew they were both thinking about their younger sister. Ensconced in their old battle lines, they had stuck with each other when Claudia slammed the front door, ensuring everyone inside knew she was ignoring them.” (P. 208)

Much of that dynamic of knowing/not knowing comes down to the fact that you easily slip into the roles of yore without a second thought.

You know they’re happening; they’re hard to miss after all.

You can predict with unerring accuracy what one person will do in a particular situation, or that the lines between people, observed with scrupulous precision with those outside the family circle, will be observed unrelentingly, will be blurred again and again, something Jabour illustrates with the amusing, endlessly-recurring refrain of “Are you wearing/using my … ?”

Jabour brings this weird closeness to life with a thousand pithy observations, jabbing lines of dialogue that come loaded with years of resentment and understanding and the easy-flowing repartee of people who do love each other deep down, but aren’t always entirely sure what to do with it.

The Way Things Should Be exists beautifully in that place between reality and longing where we cope with what we have while all the time wishing things were picture-perfect, fairytale perfect.

No one ever says that, of course, but it’s always there, both for Claudia in her indecisive approach to getting married, and the family as a whole as they navigate their forced togetherness because of it, with Jabour bringing to life with gloriously-good, compulsively-readable honesty, how families can be the very thing that should be the best part of our lives but how so often, despite our best intentions and wish-fulfillment longing, they fall perilously and messily far short of the idealised image we have of them.

 

Book review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

We are captives of our calendars.

How else to explain the way looming dates, particularly those for major life events, send us into a flurry of activity and anxiety, a maelstrom of hoping and wishing, planning and organising that in the end, Shakespeare be paraphrased, amount to nothing? Or at least, not what we expected them to?

Arthur Less is a man painfully aware of the machinations of its time and its cruel, unrelenting march to places hoped for but not quite realised; or as he sees it, dreamt of in the heady days of optimistic youth.

A mid-tier writer, as he seems himself, he lives in San Francisco in a home gifted to him by his much older, ex-lover Robert, a man who loved him fiercely but who received nowhere near the same amount of love in return.

This relationship is, in many ways, emblematic of Arthur’s life; an easy cavalcade of moments, one tumbling into the other, neither particular bad not especially remarkable, the dynamic of a person who has had life fall easily and cosily into his lap to such an extent that he hasn’t had to strive or self-examine how it’s all coming together.

It hasn’t troubled Arthur until now, but as he approaches his 50th birthday, and the wedding of Freddy Pelu, the man who got away, to someone definitely not him, Arthur finally faces an existential reckoning, one which causes him to accept an eclectic array of events from around the world simply to get away/

“The Garden of Bad Gays. Who knew there was such a thing? Here, all this time, Less thought he was merely a bad writer. A bad lover, a bad friend, a bad son. Apparently the condition is worse; he is bad at being himself. At least, he thinks, looking across the room to where Finely is amusing the hostess, I’m not short.” (P. 145)

It is not, as you might expect, an attempt to elude the weighty banalities of everyday life, an idyll of time free from the flipping of calendar pages in which he can reason through where his life has got to, and why.

That is how it turns out, in effect, but when Arthur leaves his home for events as diverse as teaching at a German university and reviewing restaurants in Japan, and mismatched program of all kinds of quirky oddities in-between, he simply wants to forgot about letting Freddy go.

Dear lovely, caring Freddy, the adopted son of his frenemy Carlos – he stepped into adopt his nephew Freddy when the young boy’s parents died – who acted as casual as Arthur demanded but who, almost too late, realises he loved the author far more than as a sexual plaything.

Arthur, of course, didn’t help, so used to things simply happening to him, with little to no active effort, that he ended not value things and people as highly as he should.

 

Andrew Sean Greer (image courtesy official Andrew Sean Greer Twitter account)

 

When he finally does start coming around to evaluating the dips, rises and contours of easily-begotten life, somewhere between Germany and Japan, and other points in-between, he comes to appreciate that this negligently chilled attitude of his has cost him a great deal.

Of course, like all of us, he is far harder on himself than he should be, sinking into despondency and vicious recrimination when the simple acknowledgement of benign wrongs committed and understanding of necessary restitution is all that’s needed.

Greer writes Arthur, as he does the entire Pulitzer-prize winning masterpiece that is Less with a lyrical poeticism that is as insightful as it is beautiful.

He avoids that messy, emotionally arms-length place that some writers of exquisitely-lovely prose fall into where the words are a thing of breathtaking beauty but the humanity is lost somewhere in the lustrous prose.

Less never once falls into sounding wonderful but meaning little, or feeling like it means little, netherworld where characters pontificate at length about life and its many vagaries but end up sounding weirdly removed from the harsh realities of life real or imagined.

“But could she also have discovered his other crimes and inadequacies? How he made up ceremonies for a fifth-grade report on the religions of Iceland? How he shoplifted acne cream in high school? How he cheated on Robert so terribly? How he is a “bad gay”? And a bad writer? How he let Freddy Pelu walk out of his life? Shriek, shriek, shriek; it is almost Greek in its fury. A harpy sent down to punish Less at last.” (P. 249).

At every point, no matter how poetically Greer dispense with the narrative or Arthur’s great and small, actual or perceived agonies, does the book ever feel anything less than absolutely real.

Everything about the crisis into which Arthur plunges unexpectedly – he think he’s escaping the wedding of his one great love but in reality he’s walking straight into an accidentally self-appointed review of his entire life and the reasons for living it – feels like it come happen to anyone of us.

Granted, it likely wouldn’t sound anywhere near as poetically-pleasing since though we wish we could speak like characters in a well-written book like Less, we really do; instead we are left floundering in a sea of half-realised epiphanies and poorly-articulated insights, aware we are on the road to Damascus but not entirely sure what we should be doing while we’re on it or when we will know we have arrived.

If we ever arrive, since life is rarely that clean-cut or definitive.

Less is a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize winner, speaking to the human condition – one in this case suffused with a gay sensibility since Arthur and many of the characters either are, or are comfortable inhabiting that world but which never feels less than universal every step of the way – in a way that feels intrinsically, deeply relatable, beyond gorgeous in its articulation but never losing the sense that here is something we should be heeding, whatever it is we might be running from.

 

Rip’d from the pages of my childhood: Miffy by Dick Bruna

(image (c) Dick Bruna estate)

 

Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, died at the age of 89 in February 2017.

That might seem like a brutal way to begin an homage to one of the children’s books series, and characters, I treasured most as a child, but the truth is his death rattled me far more than that of many other great writers and actors of the years in which I grew up.

Partly because my dad had just died eight months before, his death still very raw and present, a marker of my passing years that sat painfully atop, and almost obliterated, every other aspect of my life at the time; but also because his passing reminded not so much of the time rushing by, although it did, but the fact that so much of what I loved of my childhood had been created by people who would soon no longer share the planet with the very characters they had created.

There is something confronting about that, especially when you’re talking about a cute cartoon rabbit that debuted in 1955, 10 years before my birth, inspired, so says Bruna’s obituary in The Guardian, by the need “to entertain his infant son after they saw a rabbit in the dunes while on a seaside holiday.”

That largely explains why this post has been kicking around this blog for almost 18 months, something I desperately wanted to write because I adored Miffy’s sweet, colourful innocence, but almost next to impossible to put pen to paper because of what she now represented.

Quite a lot to sit on one small rabbit’s shoulders.

 

(image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Oddly, despite being enraptured from almost the word go by Miffy’s bright, vivacity countenance, Bruna’s “little rabbit” (from Nijntje which is what Miffy was called in Dutch, the author’s native tongue) was not universally loved by parents:

“But Miffy was not an overnight success; parents weren’t impressed with Bruna’s iconic simplicity: “They said, ‘Oh, that’s too simple. The colours are too bright and I don’t like blue and green together,'” he told the Guardian in 2006. “But I thought it was nice to make everything as simple as possible to give children lots of room for their own imagination.”” (The Guardian)

That surely was the very essence of her appeal, along with her adorably lovely disposition and Bruna worked hard to make sure she was as appealing and emotionally-rich as possible:

“Bruna, who also worked as a graphic designer, spent years finding the specific red, blue, green and yellow that would become known as the Bruna colours. He would later expand his palette for Miffy’s friends Snuffy Dog, Boris Bear and Poppy Pig, but again agonised over the right shade of grey, brown or pink. Despite all of the books, he said that he found drawing Miffy’s eyes and famous ‘x’ shaped mouth hard: “That’s all you have. With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad – and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think, ‘Yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.'” (The Guardian)

You could see all that love and care in every last one of Miffy’s almost 30 adventures, which began in 1955 with Miffy and Miffy at the Zoo (the title most indelibly imprinted on my mind and which I still own) and finished in 2017 with posthumous title Miffy is Naughty.

Each of the stories were just 12 pages long, printed in a small, easy to hold size for a child, a reflection, says Wikipedia, of Bruna’s belief that “that his audience [feel] that his books are there for them, not for their parents”.

 

(image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Honestly I’m not sure any of that ever crossed my five-year-old mind although I did love the fact that the books were easily able to be held by me, that they were astonishingly bright, suffused with Bruna’s primary colour palette – and I was, likely always will be, enraptured by everything vividly colourful so my love of Miffy’s distinctive look makes perfect sense – and that Miffy was as inquisitive and eager to learn about and experience the world as me.

That makes sense; books for kids of the age I was when my mother first introduced to Bruna’s enduring creation are supposed to engender and cultivate the kind of curiosity that was Miffy’s trademark.

But there was something captivating about the way Bruna made something so profound and wonderful look so easy, simple and effortless.

It wasn’t of course with Bruna, again according to The Guardian, working “seven days a week and rose at five every morning” despite “his huge financial success” but then truly great, affecting creations rarely are, as anyone who has ever lived to one of ABBA’s pop gems can attest.

Bruna saw what he did as nothing much it seems, telling The Guardian in 2006 that “I just see it as a very ordinary job. There is nothing else I can do, apart from make little drawings and stories.”

I am not alone is saying that was it was anything but ordinary.

Miffy, sweet, vivid, adorable Miffy, earned a place forever in my heart by being utterly extraordinary, a small rabbit that along with her parents, her fraternal grandparents, Aunt Alice Alice and Uncle Brian, sibling and friends like Boris and Barbara Bear and Poppy Pig, came to be a huge part of my early life in such a way that I am still writing about her almost 53 years after my birth.

That’s some kind of legacy, and I am forever grateful that I have finally reached the point, almost 2 1/2 years after the loss of my beloved dad where I can finally pay tribute to the “little rabbit” who made such a big impression on my life.

 

Book review: The Light Between Us by Katie Khan

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

“Wuv, true wuv”, as the Impressive Clergyman in 1987’s classic The Princess Bride rather hilariously puts it, often tends to get short accurately-portrayed shrift in popular culture.

Not in terms of how often it is featured, which is a considerable amount, dappled as it is in the many hues afforded by rose-coloured glasses, and frosted in sighs, oohs and aahs and more than the occasional “awwww”; rather, in how it is portrayed, as something effete and lovely (which, truthfully, it can be), powerful in one sense but ultimately a thing of romantic ardour only, instead of the far more truthful thing of towering and obstacle-moving commitment that knows no bounds, which is how Katie Khan (Hold Back the Stars) chooses to give it voice in her second triumphant novel, The Light Between Us.

In this wholly transportive piece of writing that offers up fully-formed, engaging characters, a brilliantly evocative sense of time and place (and space) and friendship so staunch it weathers a host of problems that would defeat those not similarly-blessed, Khan offers up a muscular love that is giddy and heart-swelling when it needs to be, but which boldly flies in the face of convention and the theory of physics with the type of power only elicited by the complete giving over to someone else.

This is love with purpose, power and a building sense of the heart-tingling inevitable, all set against the hallowed halls of Oxford where single-minded genius Thea is working hard to prove, often, make that always, in contravention of the academic powers-that-be, that time travel is possible.

“‘You make for an unusual team,’ Isaac says to Ayo while they cross the overgrown kitchen garden, as though he were chatting about the weather in that typical English way. ‘The three – four – of you.’
‘A crazy genius, a sarcastic hacker, an upper-class lady, and a Naija queen? Sounds like a good team to me,’ Ayo says haughtily as they cross the three stepping stones leading to the barn. ‘Diverse. Different. Strong.'” (P. 93)

Flying in the face of accepted belief on what she believes is firmly set-out theory and trenchant self-belief, and with the support of friends who don’t always completely agree with her but will support her right to pursue what she believes with unwavering backing as true friends do, Thea is a woman who is more than capable and far more than able to silence her critics, undertake the necessary experiments to prove her thesis, and convinced that on her path lies points proved and groundbreaking science well established.

But everyone, even science-obsessed Thea, needs goods friends such as boldly kindhearted non-scientist Rosy, eye-rolling inducing sassy Urvisha and calmly-logical Ayo, all of whom come to mean a great deal more in the series of events that follow the budding time-traveller’s decision to press ahead with her PhD experiments, official imprimatur of the Oxford hierarchy be damned.

But while these women are eminently capable, and endlessly, empoweringly supportive within themselves, you can never have too many friends right, of either gender?

Which is where the dashing but kind Isaac comes in, a man Thea meets early on in their academic careers – he’s a digital archivist, the person who gives us a layman’s vantage point on the complicated science underpinning this muscularly-romantic book – and who, bar the misunderstandings of an unfortunate night, may have come to mean so much more to Thea than that of a stalwart, warts-and-all, perspective-re-establishing friend.

 

Katie Khan (image courtesy official Katie Khan Twitter account)

 

But the path of true love is seldom smooth as that wise wizard of words, William Shakespeare once sagely remarked in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Thea and Isaac have never quite managed to get their romantic ducks, or time periods, in a row.

The Light Between Us, which in an ever-escalating and often originally-framed trend in current literature, holds time travel as the central driver of its narrative – the idea of time travel at least; it’s never made clear that this has absolutely taken place, although we are given another delicious, current reality-defying possibility instead – takes that aborted sense of entanglement, once borne of Thea’s academic single-mindedness and Isaac’s unwillingness to risk the friendship for love that may continue to go, friendship-sundering, unrequited, and plays beguilingly with it, taking us, and Thea and Isaac to place neither person has even begun to conceive of (and Thea is possessed of a powerful ability to scientifically imagine).

What makes the will-they, won’t they, will-they-ever-really-be-able-to game so entrancingly fun is the way Khan gifts us with two characters who are spectacularly well-wrought from the get-go.

Never simply cardboard cutout characters solely in the service of a compelling narrative, and that is what The Light Between Us mostly definitely possesses among a great many other superlative qualities, Thea and Isaac stand well and truly on their own two feet, people who could, and do, exist just fine on their own but who could be rather wonderful together if fate, and some scientific finagling, were to be so accommodating.

“‘Perhaps the truth really is one of the simple answers we were trying to discount today. A strong family gene,’ Isaac says, ‘or the app revealing your museum doppelganger.’ He pauses almost imperceptibly at the word doppelganger, sucking in the new resonance it carries for them.” (P. 210)

Khan manages with singularly-impressive aplomb to keep us guessing throughout while delivering up far more than just another possible love story.

Love is in play there is no doubt, and Khan weaves it every bit as magically and wonderfully as your heart might desire, but it is given a robustness and a sense of service to great impetuses and reasoning that simply some sort of ham-fisted lovestruck longing.

There is so much more going on here than just love; strong women staring down a disbelieving patriarchy, friendship that could well stand the test of time, and well beyond, and the way in which we all, to some extent or another, the product of decisions-made, forks in the road taken and the consequences, good or bad, that come forth as a result.

The Light Between Us gives love its proper place in the pantheon of motivations; lovely, sweeping and all-consuming in the most entrancing of ways true, but with a strong sense of reason and purpose and an unwavering of commitment come what may that underscores, and trust me it need some decent PR after so much misrepresentation, that it is so much stronger, and capable of so much more, than any of us give it credit for.