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Posts tagged ‘Tim Winton’

Best Books 2013

The KillsBecause it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure everybody’s mind is focussed on matters literary I thought I’d take a moment to pull together a list of some of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the past twelve months. As usual I’ve already made a start in my contributions to the annual roundups in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which also have contributions from Delia Falconer, David Malouf, Geordie Williamson, Felicity Plunkett and a lot of other people: if you have a chance I really do recommend checking them out.

As I said in my list for The Australian, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that the best new book I read this year was Richard House’s 1000 page metafictional thriller, The Kills, a book I’ve been proselytising about ever since I read it back in August. In a time when it’s occasionally difficult to make a case for the novel House’s book (or books, I suppose, since it’s really four short novels) is a reminder of exactly why fiction matters: smart, savage, politically ferocious, it’s also technically and formally audacious, pushing the boundaries of what novels are by incorporating video and sound into its structure.

I was also hugely impressed by Rachel Kushner’s dazzling study of art and politics, The Flamethrowers, a book that’s distinguished both by its intelligence and by the electric energy of its prose, Margaret Atwood’s occasionally frustrating but ferociously funny Maddaddam, Karen Joy Fowler’s characteristically smart, self-aware chimpanzee experiment novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Philipp Meyer’s sprawling Texan saga, The Son and Patrick Flanery’s brilliant, angry and thrillingly unstable exploration of contemporary America, Fallen Land.

Another book I liked very much but which seemed to receive less attention that I would have expected was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. Although I’m a big admirer of Barnes I was a bit underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending. But Levels of Life is a remarkable book, exhibiting both extraordinary control and a palpable sense of the raw, unprocessed (and largely unprocessable) nature of grief.

RevengeMeg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is another book that seems to have found a while to attract the attention it deserves, so it’s pleasing to see it turning up on a number of best of the year lists. Warm, capacious and very smart about the nature of friendship and the way age and success alters the dynamics of relationships, it’s also one of the most consistently enjoyable things I’ve read this year. And while I suspect it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, I loved Yoko Ogawa’s splendidly sinister matryoshka doll of a collection, Revenge.

There are also a couple of books I came to late, but which blew me away. The first is A Death in the Family, the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical fiction, My Struggle. I’ve yet to read the second, A Man in Love, which was released in an English translation earlier this year, but I was mesmerised by A Death in the Family. The Sydney Review of Books has just published a brilliant review of the two of them by editor James Ley; if you only read one piece about Knausgaard it’s the one to read, not least because it’s very articulate about the reflexiveness of Knausgaard’s project, and about the Proustian edge to the books, which seems to me to have been mostly misunderstood. I suspect a lot of the impact of A Death in the Family is due to the power of the final third, and its unflinching depiction of the narrator’s father’s death of alcoholism and its aftermath, but the book is also fascinating for the way it explores the tension between mimesis and banality.

The other book I came to late was the late Ian MacDonald’s thrilling study of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, which I read alongside Pete Doggett’s whip-smart account of the lead up to and aftermath of their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money and Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s huge but often fascinating biography of the band and its members, All These Years. While the others are all good, MacDonald’s book is hands-down the best book of pop music criticism I’ve ever read, although it’s given a run for its money by one of the other standout books I read this year, Bob Stanley (late of pop group, Saint Etienne)’s endlessly absorbing, occasionally problematic and constantly delightful history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah. I want to write something longer about Yeah Yeah Yeah at some point: for now I’ll just say that while Stanley lacks MacDonald’s deep critical intelligence he’s never less than engaging and his command of his extraordinarily diverse material is remarkable, and like many such works my arguments with it only added to the pleasure of reading it.

Caspar HendersonI have to confess I didn’t read as much Australian fiction as I should have this year, but of the things I did read a couple of books really stood out. One was Tim Winton’s Eyrie, a book that in its portrait of the contradictions underlying the West Australian boom was more explicitly engaged with contemporary Australia than a lot of Winton’s fiction, but the real standout was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan seems to have spent most of his career looking for a way to marry his family history to the national narrative; in The Narrow Road to the Deep North he’s done just that, with remarkable results.

On the genre side of things I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Graham Joyce’s slyly unpredictable follow-up to the wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale, The Year of the Ladybird, and Ann Leckie’s terrific debut, Ancillary Justice, as well as Paul McAuley’s final Quiet War novel, Evening’s Empires and Madeline Ashby’s queasily acute exploration of the line between human and Other, iD, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Guy Gavriel Kay’s gorgeous, allusive sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. All Kay’s books are terrific but I suspect River of Stars is the best thing he’s written to date.

Of the non-fiction I read this year the best thing was Caspar Henderson’s prismatic exploration of our ways of thinking about animals, Nature and ourselves, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, but I was also dazzled by Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s astonishingly beautiful compendium of bird lore, Birds and People. I admired Cocker’s last book, Crow Country, very much, but Birds and People is a much more singular creation, and, interestingly, one that has more than a few resonances with The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Other non-fiction books I enjoyed include Tim Dee’s deeply disquieting study of four spaces, Four Fields, Philip Hoare’s peripatetic exploration of the ocean and its meanings, The Sea Inside, psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully humane and psychologically sophisticated The Examined Life and John Ogden’s magnificent study of Sydney’s southern beaches, Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (if you’ve got a moment the interview with Ogden on the ABC’s Late Night Live is well worth a listen).

And last, but not least, a book I came to late but loved quite immoderately, Stephen Collins’ delightfully weird contemporary fable, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. As I said in my piece for The Australian on the weekend, even if you don’t normally read comics please take the time to track one down; you won’t be sorry.

And finally my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season: I hope you’ve had a great year and the twelve months ahead are full of life, love and all good things.

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Summer and the myths of Australiannness

Narelle Autio, 'The Climb', © Narelle Autio 2001

Some of you may have noticed my piece in The Weekend Australian about summer and the myths of Australianness a couple of weeks back. It was an interesting piece to write, not least because the process of putting it together was, in an odd way, very similar to the processes of remembering and reliving the past that seem to me to so essential to the experience of summer. Certainly while writing it I was reminded very powerfully of my childhood and adolescence in Adelaide, and of the silent, empty streets and wakeful nights.

As a writer you have next to no control over the illustrations that appear with your pieces(I think I’ve been asked for a suggestion once and offered them unsolicited twice in all the years I’ve been writing for newspapers). But in the case of this piece I’m not sure I could have chosen something more appropriate, because Review’s Editor, Deborah Jones, chose to use not just an image by Narelle Autio, but her photo ‘The Climb’, which was taken on Brighton Jetty, only a kilometre or so from where I grew up.

I’ve been an admirer of Autio’s photos for a long time, and my partner and I actually own several of them. While the early black and white images of swimmers and surfers bear a passing resemblance to Wayne Levin’s images of bodysurfers, they have an informality and sense of play that’s very much their own, a celebratory aspect that seems to capture something not just of the joy and spontaneity of their subject, but of the odd way that joy and spontaneity seems to exist suspended on the edge of memory.

But the series ‘The Climb’ is a part of has always been my favourite. Partly that’s because the images that comprise it are so vivid and immediate, in particular photos such as ‘Black Marlin’. But it’s also because they capture that oddly informal and shapeless communality that summer holidays often involve, the groups of people and sudden pleasures of caravan parks and camping grounds.

Part of what makes them so beautiful is the sheer saturation of colour, not just the blues of the water but its greenness, the yellow of the sand, even the brooding, impossible purple of late afternoon cloud. I suspect to many it’s a saturation that will seem immediately tropical, but oddly enough I remember standing in front of these pictures in the gallery and being immediately, unshakeably certain that Autio was from South Australia like me. It wasn’t the subjects of the photos – indeed I’m reasonably certain the photo that made me so sure she and I grew up near each other, ‘Orange Car’, is actually of somewhere in New South Wales – rather it was something about the quality of the light and its intensity, the degraded nature of the yellows.

As it turned out I was right: Autio grew up two beaches away from me in Adelaide. But that certainty was a reminder of somethign I’ve long thought about the nature of the Australian experience fo the beach. I keenly remember reading Robert Drewe’s brilliant memoir, The Shark Net, for the first time and being struck by the way it spoke to the summer landscape I knew as a child. Partly that was about it being set amidst the emptiness of sandhills and marram grass of the west coast rather than the cliffs and broken bays one finds on Australia’s east coast, but it was also about the way it made the landscape so palpable, not just the heat and the wind, but the denuded palette of sand and sea and sky, the intense, almost unbearable light.

One of my enduring regrets about The Penguin Book of the Ocean is the fact I couldn’t find a way to include something of Rob’s, not just because he was one of the first two or three writers I thought of when I was planning the book, but because he’s a writer I’ve admired enormously for many years, and whose writing played an important part in inspiring me to become a writer in the first place. I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about the process of putting the anthology together, and the way my desire for it to work as a whole, rather than as a collection of pieces made a lot the decisions for me. But in the end I just couldn’t find a piece by him that spoke to the ocean in the way I needed it to (for a writer whose public image is so indelibly associated with the beach Drewe’s books are usually only interested in landscape in a fairly passing sense, and tend to focus much more on the illusions and betrayals of middle class life).

But I do wonder whether that sense of the differences between the bays and beaches of the east coast and the more denuded landscapes of the south and west coast isn’t one of the reasons Penguin decided to use Autio’s photos to illustrate their recent rerelease of Tim Winton’s coastal memoir, Land’s Edge.

Originally published in 1993, with photographs by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood, Land’s Edge is at one level an account of Winton’s enduring love of the ocean, and of the part it played in shaping him. But it’s also a sort of manifesto, a mapping out of the emotional and philosophical territory Winton’s fiction has explored over the years.

To my mind it’s an interesting, if slightly unsatisfying book. I’ve read it twice now, and both times I kept wanting Winton to go further, push harder, dig deeper. But that’s not to say it’s without its pleasures. Certainly it’s fascinating to see the way Winton’s experiences have been woven into the larger fabric of the work, and to be made aware of echoes and allusions between the books and the life which would not otherwise be apparent. It’s also interesting to be reminded how much deeper and darker Winton’s work has grown in the last two decades, and of the manner in which his command of language has kept pace with that deepening: word by word, sentence by sentence I’m not sure there’s any writer working in Australia  at the moment (except maybe Delia Falconer) who can match the raw power of Winton’s prose. Even its rough-hewn textures are deceptive, intimations of the steel beneath (in this context you might want to check out my review of Breath from a couple of years back) .

But in a way the real pleasure of this new edition is the book itself, and the use it makes of Autio’s photographs. Penguin have clearly gone to considerable expense to use excellent paper, and it shows, lending both the text and the images a richness and a clarity they might otherwise lack. It’s also convinced Winton to speak publicly, something he doesn’t often do (if you’re interested there’s a long interview with him by Stephen Romei in yesterday’s Australian, complemented by an audio recording of Winton reading from Land’s Edge). If you’d like a taste of the book I’ve reproduced several of the images in it below, and there’s an extract available on Penguin’s website. Likewise if you’d like to see more of Autio’s images you should visit Stills Gallery. Otherwise you can read my piece on summer at The Australian.

Narelle Autio, 'Black Marlin', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Before School', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Orange Car', © Narelle Autio 2001

 

Tim Winton’s Breath

While I’m on a little surfing jag I thought it might be worth linking to my review of Tim Winton’s Breath, which was published in The Age last year.

Review of Breath

Don Walker’s Shots

shots-cover1On Wednesday 11 March I’m hosting a conversation with Don Walker at Gleebooks in Sydney. Don’s name may be unfamiliar to anyone from outside Australia, but to almost any Australian under the age of 50 his name will be immediately recognizable as one of the creative forces behind Cold Chisel.

The event is to promote Don’s first book, a memoir called Shots. In recent years there’s been a spate of memoirs by members of the iconic Australian bands of the 1980s – Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil published Willie’s Bar and Grill a few years ago, Mark Seymour’s take on his career with Hunters and Collectors, Thirteen Tonne Theory, was published last year, and Paul Kelly has a book coming out with Penguin later this year. Yet all of them are essentially accounts of the lives and times of the bands with which their authors are associated.

Shots is a quite different and much more ambitious proposition. Written in a free-flowing, impressionistic stream of consciousness, it deliberately downplays Don’s time with Cold Chisel. They – the band – are never mentioned by name, and even Jimmy Barnes is only ever identified as Jimmy.

Don Walker

Don Walker

This decision allows not only allows Shots to break free of the expectations usually associated with memoirs by musicians, but has the effect of emphasizing the fact that Don’s time with Cold Chisel, and in particular the period of their greatest success, was relatively brief. Reading the book I was struck by the realization that despite dominating the Australian music scene in a way no other band ever has, in fact there is only about three years between the release of their first really big album, East, in 1980, and the band’s breakup in 1983.

In place of lengthy reminiscences about life with the band, Don tries to give a portrait of the textures of a life as it is lived, spanning from his childhood in North Queensland and Grafton to his reunion with his daughter several years ago (indeed in many ways the book reads as a sort of gift of his life to his daughter, a process of documenting and recording the steps which brought him to his life with her, and his love for her), and taking in his failed career as a physicist, his many years as a struggling musician, and the sprawling disaster of Cold Chisel’s fame and the years that followed.

It’s a fascinating document, and not least because it’s so beautifully written. Don has managed to graft the spareness and vernacular rhythms of his songwriting to the larger narrative frame of the book with startling success, and there’s a swing and a tensile strength to the seemingly plainspoken prose it’s difficult not to admire. But it’s also fascinating as a kind of psychogeography, a mapping of places, and people.This is immediately apparent in the early sections, about growing up in Ayr and Grafton. But it’s in the chapters set in Adelaide, and later Sydney, where it really comes to life. Again and again the book very clearly captures the textures of life in Kings Cross in the 1970s, and of the spaces and secret worlds that moved within the Sydney of that time.

In a way this shouldn’t be surprising. Although I suspect their intelligence and precision has been somewhat obscured by years of FM radio play, the songs Don wrote for Cold Chisel are best seen as little word-pictures, depictions of people and places. Many – ‘Breakfast at Sweetheart’s’, or ‘Cheap Wine’, to name just two – are rooted in the demi-monde Don depicts so well in Shots, others, such as ‘Flame Trees’ are about the landscape of regional Australia. But at their best, all are remarkably successful, not just as songs, but as evocations of particular moments and lived realities which owe more than a little to Carver or Tobias Wolff. They’re not narrative in form, more impressionistic, prose poems of a sort, but they’re very effective nonetheless. Indeed for all that it is usually Paul Kelly who comes to mind when Australians talk about storytelling songwriters, Don does it just as well, if not better, precisely because he eschews the narrative devices that people celebrate in Kelly’s songs.

The interesting thing is that this sort of writing is not, as a rule, something Australians do well. With the not inconsiderable exception of Tim Winton’s recent work, our fiction, and in particular our short fiction, is not particualrly good at the sort of pared-back, realist writing which draws its integrity from its observation of regional lives that is seldom far away in American writing. This is partly because the economics of our industry militate against the short story as a form, and partly, presumably, because our population is essentially urban, but it is also at least in part a function of our sense that stories of ordinary Australian life are somehow lacking in ambition. Not for nothing have the most celebrated Australian writers of the last few decades been those who produce foundational narratives about the imaginary origins of Australia, whether in the highly-coloured vein of Peter Carey or in the more conventional vein of Kate Grenville. As the taste for this sort of capital “N” national literarure has dissipated in recent years this has begun to change, and writers as various as Malcolm Knox, Christos Tsiolkas and Steven Carroll have begin to write fiction which more deliberately situates itself in the lives of the city and the suburbs, but I suspect many still have trouble placing their work in a larger critical framework, precisely because it isn’t national literature in any meaningful sense.

But I digress. I’m embarassingly excited to be involved in this event, not least because Don’s songs have been such an important part of my life. I’m old enough to have seen Cold Chisel play live as a teenager. I picked a drunken Jimmy Barnes up off the floor at a gig at the Apollo Stadium in Adelaide in 1983 or 1984, which was the height of glamour to me then (I also remember a very different Jimmy roaming the dancefloors of Mardi Gras and Sleaze back in the 1990s, though that’s another story) and I still love many of their songs. But I’m also excited to be able to help Don promote the book, which is a genuinely impressive achievement.

More information about the Gleebooks event is available on the Gleebooks website. For information about events in Melbourne and elsewhere contact Readings or visit the Black Inc website.

Shots can be purchased from Gleebooks, Readings or bricks and mortar bookstores anywhere.

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