Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Plots and Plotting

Cambridge University Botanic GardenJust got back from a trip to Europe. Spent the last few days in Cambridge, England. My photos reflect the cool gray rain-filled skies. My novel, Lipstick On The Strawberry, is set partly in Cambridge. There’s a scene in the beautiful Cambridge University Botanic Garden. As I walked that garden the other day, I thought, a good novel is like a well-planned garden. No wonder the word “plot” is used for both books and gardens. In the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, gravel and woodchip paths wind past a pond, rock gardens, formal lawns and beds of flowers in full bloom. Trees, strategically planted, obscure the planting beds around corners, drawing the visitor forward to see what is around the bend. That’s what I hope readers will do with my novel – turn the page to see what happens next!

The Grass Castle

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2015 This is the second novel by Karen Viggers reviewed in these pages. I have not met Karen, but she is the neighbor of my sister-in- law, Philippa, who told me about her remarkable books. She’s an author who deserves wider recognition. As in her previous novel, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, the Australian countryside becomes a character in itself in this book. Most Australians are city folk, but Karen Viggers grew up in the cool, forested mountains. There, she says in her acknowledgements, she roamed freely on her little pony. A veterinarian, she imbues her writing with her unsentimental knowledge of the natural world. The novel starts with the killing of a kangaroo. The animal is hit by a car, but Abby, a graduate student studying the species, must finish it off. This vivid opening scene sets up a theme of the book. Kangaroos lack predators now that aboriginal boomerangs no longer bring them down. The ecological balance in which the hunters held the land is upset and the animals overgraze the land, particularly in a drought. Should they be culled? The interplay between nature and science, between a holistic view of the world and the individualistic one of modern society is explored here through Abby and her friendship with Daphne, an elderly woman. As in The Lightkeeper’s Wife, Karen Viggers creates two central characters, one an older woman, and one a younger person who has trouble with romantic relationships, or with relationships in general. Abby, prickly, lonely, intelligent, is pursued by Cameron, a journalist, but the events of her family life haunt her, and only through Daphne’s loving friendship can she confront them and heal. This is a book that goes far beyond a woman’s individual journey. This is also a book about ideas. Endlessly topical conflicts about animal rights vs. human needs, country vs. city, gun ownership and the right/need to hunt, all these are shown here in dialogue, and the reader wants to join in the conversation. This is a very good book. I look forward to reading more of Karen Vigger’s work.

The eBook vs. the “Real” Book

There is no question that the invention of the word processor enabled people to write more easily and quickly. Correction becomes a breeze with a tap on the keyboard. Revision leads to better writing. But the invention of the e-reader has not had such a happy result. Electronic readers have increased reading, probably, and have certainly democratized publishing. All that is to the good. But the actual reading device is now on an “improvement” kick that has diminishing returns. I almost lost it when I purchased a new Kindle last month. I was buying an average of two books a week to read on the Kindle. Then I stupidly left mine on a plane. So I ordered a replacement. I bought the Kindle Paperwhite. I chose this device because it has better lighting, and I need bright light to read. I found the new device almost impossible to use. There are no navigator buttons. This Kindle came with no instructions. Even if there were instructions, I could not access them with this ipad- like interface. I don’t need a keyboard. But navigator buttons, such as “Menu” or “Home”, “Forward” and “Back,” which were on my old Kindle, actually helped. I am lost without them. I learned to read when I was six years old and have been an avid reader and writer ever since. For most of my life, it was good enough to be able to buy or borrow a book, open the pages and read till the end. Then Kindle came along and opened a way to read many more books – and yielded Amazon a very nice profit. That is fine. Until the customer is forced to buy an updated model. In the end, my in-house technical director, my husband, came home and showed me how to use the new Kindle. We registered it. But I find that I am buying more and more books the old fashioned way. That is, books on real paper. I like to see where I am in the book – by page number, not by percentage of book read. I like to be able to go back – easily – and reread a particularly striking passage. I like to deconstruct books to see how they are put together. I can share them with others, I can give them away, and I can exchange them for other books at our wonderful local independent bookstore, Changing Hands. All that, paperbacks and hardbacks make it easy to do. I am not alone. My wonderful webmaster, Kristen Burkhart, sent me an article this morning. Do read it. My point exactly. Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books What do you think?

Daughter of Australia

By Harmony Verna Kensington Publishing Corp. 2016 In February I happened to be in Fremantle, Western Australia, visiting relatives. Browsing the internet, something stopped my fingers on the keyboard. A debut novel was about to hit the bookshelves, and its title was Daughter of Australia. Naturally that got my attention. But there was more. The novel begins in a remote township of Western Australia – Leonora. I could not believe it. My father spent his teenage years in Leonora and its sister township, the gold-mining hamlet of Gwalia. Virtually unknown outside Western Australia, this tiny town has a surprising connection to the United States. President Herbert Hoover made his name in mining there when, as a young geologist, he purchased the Sons of Gwalia mine for his employers in 1897. It became one of the richest mines in Australian history. Hoover’s name lingers in the “White House Hotel” in nearby Leonora, and the house Hoover built for his bride is now a bed and breakfast. The 31st president does not feature in this work of fiction. But the harsh life of the miners, contrasted with the wealth of the owners, does. Harmony Verna, an American who has never visited Australia, has managed to capture aspects of the desert landscape and its plants and animals. Her characters are complex and vivid. Billed as a worthy successor to Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Daughter of Australia tells the story of an abandoned little Australian girl who, since no one knows who she is, takes the name Leonora after the tiny speck on the map where she was found. She is adopted by a wealthy American couple, marries unhappily, and returns with her husband to the land of her birth. Drama, based very loosely on historical events, follows in this fast- paced story. Set a hundred years ago, the story fleshes out contemporary concerns of immigrants vs. nativism, capitalism vs. workers’ rights, poverty vs. wealth, racism and misogyny. At its core, though, is a love story. This is a first novel for Harmony Verna. I wrote to her after I started to read the book, and we are now happily corresponding. I am so glad to have made Harmony’s acquaintance. I invite you to read her book, and to visit her website, to sample more of her writings.

Desert Rose RWA

This week’s blog post isn’t about a book. It’s about the amazing power of books and the awesome energy of the Romance Writers of America. I spent the past few days at the Desert Dreams Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The biennial conference of the Desert Rose RWA is a small one, and a good place to meet literary agents. It was a productive conference for me. At the Friday night dinner, I looked around and said to my companion,” Isn’t it amazing, each one of these women had a secret as a child – we liked to read.” Yes, we were the kids who loved the library, who snuck away to our rooms when other kids played, who read on the swings, who read and read and read, and when we got tired of that, we scribbled journals and diaries. All those women became writers. In Phoenix this weekend we were lawyers and college professors, salespeople and computer programmers, farmers and jewelers, teachers and librarians and psychics, there were tattooed women, women with big hair, and some with very little hair, women wearing cowboy boots and women in high fashion, women of different ethnicities and faiths. One woman had a service dog and a blind writer crocheted a baby blanket as she waited to see an agent. The best-selling mystery author J.A. Jance told her life story on Friday night, then sang  Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” in a haunting alto, and the pathos of the song made me want to cry. Kris Tualla, the president of Desert Rose RWA, was teary when she thanked Judy Jance and said that song spoke to the audience. “Because,” she said, “writers often feel like outsiders.” Authors are readers first and foremost, who were captured young by the magic of words, which, simply rearranged on a page, can take a person into an imaginary world. Not everyone understands the need for fiction. But fiction is just human experience transmuted into hypothetical situations and characters. Only writers understand the labor and love that goes into creating a book. Each of the writers present this weekend in Phoenix loved the worlds she’d created, and the agents who came from New York to find the next great author love those imaginary worlds also. Romance writing is sometimes mocked in the literary universe. Nevertheless, romance writing and its sister, women’s fiction, is a skill that must be learned and practiced. RWA chapters provide a place where writers can take lessons on craft and keep up with publishing trends. RWA provides learning by doing opportunities for people who can’t afford to take an MFA degree. Fundamentally, however, RWA understands the writer’s need for community, for validation for the lonely hours spent at the keyboard. Writing’s a competitive business, but one thing was clear to me this weekend. It’s a big tent, and there will always be room for new writers and new books. Here, everyone who believes in the power of words is welcome. Thank you, RWA.

Paperbark Shoes

By Goldie Goldbloom Picador Press, 2011 Have you ever heard of a place called Wyalkatchem?  I had not, until I read the novel Paperbark Shoes by the extraordinarily gifted writer Goldie Goldbloom. But as soon as I read of kerosene drums used as water pails, flour bags recycled into clothing, a sixteen hour train journey over desert, I knew I was reading about Western Australia in the first half of  the twentieth century. That’s because my father grew up in such a place, a tiny, isolated, hot and dusty township, hundreds of miles from a city, thousands of miles from the events of the wider world.  (Actually, Dad grew up in several of these hamlets, as my grandfather moved from one struggling gold mine to another, hired to bring them back to profitability.) Wyalkatchem, population “sixty eight adults and forty-three children, counting the ones in the cemetery” is a real place in the Western Australian wheatbelt, but Goldbloom has created memorable fictional inhabitants of its surrounding countryside in the sheep farmer Agrippas Toad, a short, bumbling man who keeps a collection of women’s corsets in his shed, and his albino wife Gin. Gin grew up in privilege in Perth, but her albinism made her a social pariah, and, improbably placed in the “madhouse” by her stepfather, she leapt at the chance of rescue by Toad. He proposed when, visiting someone at the mental hospital, he heard her play the piano. The story begins in 1943 with the arrival of Italian prisoners of war, who were sent to help work the isolated farms, which struggled to survive when their own employees were conscripted. Given the desert and the distance, it was not thought likely that the prisoners would escape. It is always an interesting situation when people are forced together in mutual incomprehension and with their own longings, and Goldbloom creates a surprising, emotionally truthful tale about the Toads and the two Italian men sent to their farm. Goldbloom’s gorgeous prose makes this remote place come alive. The writer’s choice to make Gin an albino offers a double metaphor. The condition causes low vision, difficulty with bright sunlight and skin so pale that desert living must be excruciating. So it is with Gin. Her blindness to what’s happening, as well as her hyper-sensitivity to the township’s hatred of anyone different, fuels the plot. Gin, short for Virginia in this story, is also a derisive, offensive term for an Aboriginal woman used for sex by white males. The term was common in that part of the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Whether cognizant of this or not (I suspect she is), Goldbloom uses the word as a double entendre. Gin’s extreme whiteness is as different and therefore as unpalatable to the prejudices of Wyalkatchem as the indigenous people who seem to have abandoned the landscape of this novel. Goldbloom writes short stories and non-fiction, but Paperbark Shoes is her first novel. First published in her native Western Australia, it won the Independent Publisher’s Association Foreward Magazine’s Literary Novel of the Year in 2011 and the 2008 AWP Novel Award, and has also been published in the U.K. and in French translation. Do read it.

This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial

By Helen Garner The Text Publishing Company, 2014 When Australian author Helen Garner checked her junk mail at the beginning of March, she saw a note that she had won a prize. She had never heard of it. This was the Yale-based Windham-Campbell Prize, and was worth $150,000 US dollars. Garner, one of Australia’s best known novelists and essayists, received the prize along with other English-language luminaries such as British novelist Tessa Hadley, as well as Jerry Pinto from India, and Americans Branden Jacob-Jenkins, C.E. Morgan, Hilton Als, and Stanley Crouch, playwright, novelist, writer/editor, and poet/literary critic respectively.  The Windham-Campbell prize is unusual in that there is no submissions process. Winners are selected by the judges from works in English, published recently. When she realized the prize was not a hoax, Garner was of course relieved and jubilant. She had after all, spent at least a full year at the trial and retrial of Robert Farquharson before writing her riveting account of the trial and the personalities involved. Farquharson, a divorced father of three young sons, living in the quiet country town of Winchelsea, Victoria, had his boys for Father’s Day, 2005, (Father’s Day is in September in Australia) and was driving them home when his car went into a dam. Farquharson escaped the sinking car, but the three boys, aged eleven, seven, and two, drowned. Their father said he had been overcome by a coughing fit and blacked out. He was charged with murder. Helen Garner unpacks the arguments of the prosecution and the defense in light of the gradually emerging personalities of Farquharson, his ex-wife Cindy Gambino and the witnesses for each side, and through the lens of her own rich experience ( Garner is a grandmother, several times divorced) and her compassion. It is the compassion for all the parties involved that drives this book. I won’t be a spoiler and say whether Farquharson was found guilty or not. The writer powerfully leads the reader on, page after page.  At the same time, she brings her own sensibility to the story, wondering, as she goes home after a draining day at the trial about her own young grandsons. She wants to hug them, trying to imagine “How can such wild, vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?” Two chapters later, she relates how “rage blinded” her when the children would not obey her. Garner is known for the emotional honesty of her writing, and this book demonstrates this over and over again. But this is not just outstanding journalism. Garner brings to her descriptions of place a lyrical quality. Like Garner, I, too, am a native of Victoria, that southern state of Australia which belies the image of a “sunburnt country.” It is very often cold and windswept in this area near the Otway Ranges, which fall sharply to the sea. Garner conjures up the feeling of hopelessness that must have befallen Robert Farquharson as he sat with his sons in the car, listening to the football, that long ago Sunday afternoon. She remembers, and it brought it all back to me, too, “winter Sunday afternoons in that part of the country, their heavy melancholy…. The air is still and chilly. The steel-cloud-cover will never break. Time stalls. There is no future. One’s own desolation is manifest in the worn-down volcanic landscape. The life-force burns low in its secret cage.”  Surprising imagery, like a spear-point in its accuracy.  Garner never spares herself in her dedication to this dreadful story and its penetrating grief. At the end of the book she almost apologizes to the boys’ parents, acknowledging that the grief she felt in hearing their story cannot be compared to theirs. “But no other word will do,” she says. “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken.” This book richly deserves its prize. Very highly recommended.

My Name Is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout Random House, 2016 A sense of melancholy infuses this extraordinary book from one of America’s most original writers. It is told from the point of view of Lucy Barton as she looks back ( for most of the book) to a period in the nineteen eighties when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for a persistent infection after surgery. Her children were small and cared for by her husband, who rarely visits the hospital. Her mother, from whom she has been distant, visits, and their conversation reveals Lucy’s longing for love. This conversation, in which Lucy appears to bait her mother to reveal more of herself, to wrap Lucy in the maternal love she willingly gives her own daughters, occurs over only five days. Within it, and around it, as Lucy obsesses years later on her marriage, her parents’ marriage, her love for her own children, Elizabeth Strout muses on poverty. Physical poverty – the lack of enough money – leads to being cold and hungry. Physical poverty and its corollary, emotional poverty, lead to isolation, to being jeered at within the community, to a sense of being unworthy. Ripples of this sense of unworthiness fan out in the story, as Lucy considers the AIDS epidemic, raging at the time of her hospitalization, as the legacy of Nazi atrocities echo in the story, and even in the sense of vulnerability that Lucy feels as her short stories are published. For the artist exposes his or her innermost self for the world to see and judge even as the work itself is a construct – a not-real thing, a work of the imagination that a world valuing material things may laugh at and consider unworthy of the effort. Like Strout’s first best-seller, Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton defies the structural norms of fiction. Olive Kitteridge was a series of stories about a woman of emotional economy. Barton’s story doesn’t so much as progress as reveal itself in flashbacks and musings by the protagonist. As it reveals so much about the human being’s primal need for parental love, social acceptance, and respect for creativity, one gradually feels an unconditional love for Lucy. This is marvelous achievement in a novel.

Food In Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot in my genre of Women’s Fiction lately, and the mother in me is now going on a rant. Especially as it’s January, when everyone goes on a diet. I am going to scold my writers. Their characters eat junk. Junk, junk, and more junk. No wonder this country has an obesity problem. In Mary Ellen Taylor’s Alexandria series, the baking McCrae sisters are delightful. Their eating habits leave much to be desired. I know, they run a bakery. But I lost count of the donuts, sweet rolls and cake the characters consumed. And never gained a pound. I recently finished Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. Her protagonist, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter, Georgie, can’t boil an egg. Her sister asks her, sarcastically, if she waits for her husband to put breakfast out for her. But both this sister and Georgie consume pizza, waffles, Pringles, tacos, tuna mac and cheese (hold the peas!)  No wonder Georgie has to wear her mother’s velour jogging pants and an oversize T-shirt to go to work! The probably semi-autobiographical novel, Reality Jane, by Shannon Nering, notes the odd eating choices of the worker bees that bring Americans Reality TV. Also set in Los Angeles, this novel chronicles the adventures of Canadian journalist Jane Kaufman, after she lands a job as a producer of reality television. At times hilarious, at other times poignant, Jane has a distinctive voice. She alters her diet over time from French fries and burgers and coffee with “an inch of cream and three sugars” to less fattening fare, but still, the bad diet was there in the first place. This is Women’s Fiction. Writers want readers to identify with their protagonists. We want readers to get inside their heads, to feel as if they are in their actual bodies, even though the characters are just a bunch of words. As readers we love characters that stumble and fall and ultimately triumph. Seems to me the ultimate universal connection point would be in what we all need – good food. It should not be so hard to create something readers would like to eat.

The Lightkeeper’s Wife

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2012 Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this rewarding book, which is set in a place most of us will never visit – the closest land mass to Antarctica and the land of the South Pole itself. Seems to me that publishers should be aware of other books with the same title before a book’s launch. Another book named The Lightkeeper’s Wife, written by Sarah Anne Johnson, was published in 2014. Karen Viggers, an Australian veterinarian, wildlife scientist and writer, should be annoyed about this, because her book with this title was first published in 2001 and reissued by Allen & Unwin in 2012. Also confusing is the cover of Vigger’s book, which features a dreamy-eyed young woman looking wistfully into the distance. In fact, the lightkeeper’s wife of this novel is a seventy-seven year old woman facing imminent death and looking back on her life. Furthermore, Mary Mason is not the narrator of the story. Her portion of the book is told in close third person, while the first person part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Mary’s son, Tom. Tom is a most unusual male character –  a shy, melancholic, sweet-natured, diesel mechanic. He’s devoted to his mother, was dutiful to his deceased father, is a bit in awe of his much older brother and sister (though he is forty-two) and has been divorced for some years. That much I can tell you without divulging any more of this story. The book’s strengths lie not only in its intricate tracing of Tom’s character, but its breathtaking descriptions of Antarctica, and in the dramatic coastline of Cape Bruny on the southern tip of Tasmania. A lighthouse was built there in 1838 and was operational until 1996. The fictional lighthouse keeper and his family of the book seem to have lived there in late nineteen fifties to the seventies. Viggers writes brilliantly of the birds and other wildlife of Bruny, constantly buffeted by winds from the Southern Ocean, carrying with them the fierce cold of the Antarctic, which lies directly south of Bruny Island.  It’s still a long way from the world’s southern most landmass, as Viggers makes clear, describing a boat trip of seven days from Hobart to the beginning of the ice pack, and then two to three weeks of cutting through the bergs to get to the scientific stations near the South Pole. Antarctica is so different from the rest of the world, so cold that people have never settled there, that the experience must almost be like going to the moon. Put athletic young men and women together in isolated conditions doing intellectually challenging work they have chosen to do, in a searing cold that makes snuggling in a single sleeping bag the most logical thing to do, and the inevitable happens. Viggers explores the confusing emotional dynamics of the Antarctic experience and the difficulty of re-entry to the “real” world. She’s coupled this unusual human experience with the veterinarian’s  understanding of animal emotions and an Australian’s love for her country’s extraordinary landscape. Recommended.