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J Courtney Sullivan – The Engagements

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Diamonds are forever.

Publisher: Virago (Little, Brown)
Pages: 515
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08937-6
First Published: 11th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Copywriter Frances Gerety creates the famous DeBeers slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’, and the company sees a massive hike in sales of engagement rings. A couple of decades later, Evelyn and Gerald are preparing for the unwanted visit of their son – Evelyn does not want him splitting up the family. Another decade and James laments his failed career as a musician as he works as an EMT (paramedic), saving lives. Later still, Delphine jumps ship when a younger man comes on the scene, leaving her husband and their antique shop. And in recent years, happily unmarried Kate tries to stay calm in the face of her dysfunctional family as they prepare for the wedding of cousin Jeff.

The Engagements is a multi-plotline novel with five narratives loosely based on the theme of rings.

Most of the stories in this book are pretty bog standard, nice enough to read but not compelling, however the story of Frances Gerety and the accompanying general information about DeBeers and diamond mining is fascinating. It’s not apparent until a little while into the book, but Sullivan takes time to explore every aspect of the industry; whilst most of this time is spent on the way diamonds have been advertised, the author also looks into the relations between the American company and the countries from which the diamonds are taken; she looks at the way the engagement ring is acquired – bought or passed down the generations; she looks at those who have decided not to marry or fall into any of the associated trappings. And whilst the narratives are average (though the stories are far more about relationships in general than engagements), the use of five stories over the course of several decades allows Sullivan to inform you of the way things have changed over the years.

This all sounds great, and it is, but after a while the stories take their toll. The problem here is that the book is simply too long. There is a great amount of info-dumping – after a couple of rounds of it you start to see the warning signs for when a block of irreverent text is on the way; Sullivan will introduce a minor character and give you a lengthy back story or provide a history of a main character you don’t need. The book is to a large extent a series of flashbacks. And it’s not at all aided by the writing. General sentence structure, grammar, older characters speaking as though they are much younger; often the writing is clunky enough that it’s difficult to work out in which country a character is living.

You’d be forgiven for wondering throughout the book why Sullivan has collected these particular narratives together. They bear no relation to each other apart from the loose engagement ring connection – in big part loose because of the sheer numbers of people who can relate to it. Towards the end, the reasoning for these tales becomes clear as Sullivan forms a circle of relation but it’s rather forced, almost a deus ex machina situation. Tying them all together has the effect of showing you what Sullivan may have been trying to do the entire time – spoilers ahead and for the rest of this paragraph because it needs to be said to be explained: show the passing of a single ring down the ages. This concept as used in the book is actually fascinating due to its execution – Sullivan shows the different ways people go about acquiring their rings and the way the diamond industry exploits people whether they have the money or not. It starts as an heirloom, becomes stolen by someone who hasn’t the money to buy a big ring, gets given to this person’s prospective daughter-in-law by his wife who never liked the big diamond, gets left in a taxi by the prospective daughter-in-law when she leaves her relationship, and is lastly bought from a collector/jeweler by a same-sex couple. Through the use of a single ring, Sullivan makes her way through socioeconomic issues and changes in culture. It’s great; it’s just that it’s a bit too late in the proceedings to be able to say that the prior 500 odd pages were all worth it.

The Engagements offers insight into the creation of a monopoly and the politics surrounding it – DeBeers is of course a real-life company and whilst we haven’t lots of information on Frances Gerety, she did indeed write the slogan; and the book offers a great look at the effects of the industry on reality. But it is a big investment for something with relatively little pay off. Rather like, some would say, engagement rings themselves.

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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina – Jerusalem Ablaze

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The twisted fire-starter.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 174
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-46570-1
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th September 2017
Rating: 5/5

In Japan, a young man finds himself with blood on his hands and looks back at how he came to be beside the dead master. In Israel, a priest finds himself in a prostitute’s erotic fantasy. And in town, a child finds themselves in the presence of a crowd running towards a tiger.

Ortega-Medina’s Jersusalem Ablaze is a collection of short stories full of darkness, both the humour and macabre, as well as a few stories dotted about that are less so (and can be a blessed relief!) It’s a fantastic collection, devoid of messages, but nevertheless leaves you with a lot to think about.

This is an incredibly well-written book, with a general style of writing used throughout yet the voices of the individual characters are unique. Told through a thin lens, the writer is there throughout, both at a distance from the text – letting the people speak for themselves – and in the definite position of storyteller, the darkness of the narrative as a whole echoing the idea of sitting around a fire listening to spooky tales. It’s at once both a fair boundary – the reader being far enough away from the character to see the subtext – and wonderfully immersive.

Unsurprisingly, considering what I’ve said above, there are many stand outs, which amounts to most of the collection, given the size of it. A particularly good piece, covered briefly in the summary, Torture By Roses looks at the forming of identity and vulnerability in youth, going to the extremes of having the character taken in by a renowned figure who in the privacy of his own home spends his days sitting amongst a mass of dead roses, wounding himself on the thorns deliberately; his promise of an inheritance for his young companion (or, to the reader, servant) causing the boy to stick around even though his mental stability is crumbling under the weight of what the man is doing to himself. After The Storm tells the story of a woman isolated in a lighthouse who, after said storm, finds a body on the shore and takes it home. The title story, Jerusalem Ablaze, again, summarised, puts an impressionable Israeli priest in the house of a prostitute with a specific fetish (that’s putting the whole situation lightly), and The Shovelist studies the way an old housekeeping agreement can continue once the house changes hands, an elderly couple persuading the younger to let them shovel their access routes.

On the subject of a lack of messages, it’s worth noting that the book isn’t something you read through and put down. There are no morals or so forth in the book but Ortega-Medina does provide much for you to think about, sometimes in the fashion of ‘stay in your mind for days pondering it’ and, suitably more often, the content will keep you thinking simply due to its weirdness. On the whole the lasting impact of the book is as a collection – the general quality and interesting ideas.

Jerusalem Ablaze – excellence all round.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Magda Szubanski – Reckoning

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Baa ram ewe.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 371
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-24043-6
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.

As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.

Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.

One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.

The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.

We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’

Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.

‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.

At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Andrew McMillan – Physical

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In all its flaws, in all its beauty.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Pages: 45
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-224-10213-1
First Published: 9th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Physical is a short collection of poems that’s focused on the male body and sexuality – relationships, encounters, day-to-day life. It uses a specific style to focus attention on a few ideas at any one time. (It is also apparently inspired by poet Thom Gunn – I don’t know enough about his work to comment on this properly; I can only say there is similarity in the themes and the approach to them.)

There are some fantastic passages in this book that have the power to leave you a little stunned in the way of all great poetry (that sort of pause effect this reviewer is coming to love). As it’s short it can be good to read it slowly and it pays to take your time over the lines, to really read into what is being said; McMillan often uses double meanings that are rather clever, a line ending acting also as the start of the next line.

taken allegorically     he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word grace
runs passed and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth

One of the stand outs is the very first entry, Jacob With The Angel, which takes a biblical tale, looking at it from both the usual and another angle. It’s a variation full of artistic license and provocation that asks you not to look at the story in another way exactly, but in a way that asks you to consider a potentially different meaning or possibility behind the words. McMillan explains himself outright, saying, “taken literally” then “taken allegorically” – it’s a story exploration of possibilities that makes you admire the thinking behind it.

At the risk of making it seem as though this review only concerns the very first few poems (because an example of style using the third poem follows this paragraph), another stand out is Urination. The whole being just as blunt as its title, this piece looks at discomfort in public situations, childhood memories, having to use the toilet at home when in a relationship. It seems an almost odd choice of subject but McMillan makes it important, stylist choices making it so much more than you’d think it might be. (And to get away from the first poems the multiple-page-spanning-or-is-it middle section of the book is worth reading just for the use of white space.)

In terms of McMillan’s use of pause, white space, to denote meaning and so forth, The Men Are Weeping In The Gym – about power and things that are seen as weaknesses – is one poem that illustrates the method constantly and consistently, so that you can just extract a couple of lines from the rest to show the method in action. For example:

the bicepcurl     waiting     staring
straight ahead     swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration

A good use of language, a play on grammar, sentence clauses, and when added to McMillan’s tendency to put words together that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be together but could be – twelveyearold; slowpunctured; shortflightstopover – words that in McMillan’s collection become their own entity, it’s quite something.

Quite something – that’s it in a nutshell. Physical is powerful, stunning, mind-blowing, but not quite perfect – a word which of course has value here because in the context of the collection not being perfect is sometimes the point. The collection repeats itself to interlink, to draw connections between poems, but it also repeats itself literally, subjects that are in reality separate scenes but on the page sound very similar. Is that a problem? The answer is subjective – it really depends on how much you’re enjoying reading about the themes; McMillan’s writing itself never waivers. It’s another reason to take your time.

However you feel, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s book is a valuable addition to the world of poetry. To be taken literally.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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