Monthly Archives: April 2019

‘Imperfect’ by Lee Kofman

Imperfect1140-658x1024

2019, 306 p

In reading this book, I alternated between anger and a vague sense of voyeurism. When I review books, I tend to avoid tackling the author and try to engage more with the words on the page, the research, the planning decisions in mounting an argument. However, sometimes the author insinuates herself so much into the text, and makes herself so much part of the whole endeavour, that it’s impossible to separate the two. The other book that angered me in this way was Caroline Jones’ Through a Glass Darkly (my review here) and the two books are similar. Both books profess to be – and are – very honest but I find myself wondering just why these authors decided to put themselves on the page like this at such a personal level. They have made their book about themselves, quite deliberately. They force the reader to engage with the writer as a person. And in both cases, I think to myself “You know, I don’t think I like you much” and I want to move away. This is different from not ‘liking’ a character in a fiction book: instead, it is the whole premise and world view through which the book is filtered – and this world view is something that, as authors, these writers have decided to foreground.

Lee Kofman has undergone several bouts of surgery during her life. As a young child in the Soviet Union, she was operated on for heart problems, then a bus accident resulted in injuries to her leg that required skin grafts, leaving her with a large scar and misshapen leg. Her self-consciousness about her scars was heightened when she shifted with her family to Israel, where a high premium is placed on body image, before moving to Australia. She adopted clothes that hid what she saw as her ‘disfigurements’, always tentative about the act of revealing her body to friends and lovers. Not only is this a point of vulnerability, it is complicated further by a sense of inauthenticity and evasion – that she has pretended to be something perfect and whole when she is not.

This self-consciousness about her body and its disfigurement has bubbled through her professional life as well. Her PhD was written about concepts of the human body; she has undergone therapy with what she perceives as mediocre success; she has included in her fiction characters who are physically marred in some way. And now this book: an exploration of ‘body surface’ (her phrase) and the way that it shapes the people we become. It all starts with her.

I confess that my brittleness about her use of her own life-story as a rationale and lens springs from my own experience (ah! I’m aware of my own hypocrisy here). But in her exploration of obesity, horrific burns, facial deformities etc., and her assumption of a sense of shared experience, she personally has the luxury of the dilemma of when and if to reveal. That is a luxury denied to most of the people she interviews, whose difference is right there from the start, visible to all- not just to lovers and friends – but the curious, cruel and supercilious alike.

She admits at times that her own curiosity verges on voyeurism about other people’s experience. Her analysis is not just of imperfect bodies, but bodies that have been deliberately manipulated through extreme surgery and piercing, tattooing and shaping. She ranges far, interweaving her interviews with ‘imperfect’ people with academic research encountered as part of her PhD study. In many ways, even though I know that many readers enjoy it, I am uncomfortable with this mixture of the confessional and the academic.

She writes that her own sons have albinism. I do wonder how they will read this book when they are older. Will they see “Mummy’s scars”, which have figured so heavily in her writing and academic life, as a common bond between them, or will they resist? Will they resent being drawn into her analysis? I suspect that they may well.

Kofman gives us plenty of herself, but the voices of the people she interviews are reflected through her lens. I find myself thinking of the excellent ABC program “You Can’t Ask That” that gives time to look, and then listen. The interviewer there is silent because the questions are written on cards, and drawn from a range of questioners. Kofman is not silent.

I will probably let this post sit for a while as I ponder whether to post it. When I dislike a book, I generally don’t write a blog post about it at all. After all, I figure, if the book is a dud, then my piling-on is not going to make the book any better, or the author a better writer.

But neither this book, nor Caroline Jones’ book are duds.  And in both cases, the author herself has made choices. She has chosen to place herself in the centre of her book, not just in terms of the action (as an autobiographer or memoirist might do), but to use herself as the starting point of the analysis, not just in an intellectual sense but asking you to join her in the exploration as well. In this case, I’m not comfortable with her fixation on what she sees as her own failings. Even more, I’m not comfortable with her assumption that it gives her a sense of fellow-feeling with people whose ‘body-surface’ is much more confronting and demanding than hers.

My rating: 7/10 (actually, I found this hard to judge)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 April 2019

background_briefingBackground Briefing (ABC). Alex Mann and Background Briefing are doing us all a service by keeping an eye on the Far Right here in Australia and its attempts to infiltrate mainstream politics. Last year they brought us Haircuts and Hate: the rise of Australia’s Alt-Right and now they’ve produced Shitposting to the Senate: How the alt-right infiltrated Parliament. When Fraser Anning starts spewing his bile, we’d better be careful how we react because we may well be playing right into their hands.

The Drawing Room (ABC) I’m not that keen on Patricia Karvelas, and so I don’t often listen to this program. But I just finished reading Jill Giese’s excellent The Maddest Place on Earth and in this segment, Giese is talking about the book with Karvelas.

Giese’s book fascinated me so much that I decided to seek out more about The Vagabond, whom she cites at length. Earshot has a good program about him as one of the very early undercover journalists called “The Vagabond: Digging the Dirt on Melbourne“. As part of their discussion, they go to visit contemporary non-fiction writer Helen Garner, who is impressed with The Vagabond’s keen observational skills and writing style.

Big Ideas. A friend of mine mentioned that they heard a woman speaking on Radio National with enthusiasm and knowledge about Australia’s electoral system. “Ah!” I thought,  “that would be Judith Brett!”, and it was. Recorded at the Avid Reader,  “How Australia got its unique system of voting and elections” is based on Brett’s new book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage.

‘Black Tide’ by Peter Temple

Temple_BlackTide

1999, 356 p.

That’s it. I’m not reading another Peter Temple ever.

In fact, I said that to myself after I had to re-read Truth for my CAE bookgroup earlier this year. I looked back at my original blog post and everything I said there, I say again. Too disjointed. Too much conversation. Too confusing. And definitely not worthy of a Miles Franklin prize.

I’m amazed to find that I’ve read as many Peter Temples as I have. I quite liked The Broken Shore, but by White Dog the appeal had worn off. In the Evil Day was set in Africa, but it had all the same problems (too disjointed, too much conversation, too confusing etc).  He does dialogue well, but why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write plays? At least the speaker is identified in a script and you don’t have to count back to see who’s talking. And who are all these people he keeps bringing in? Or capturing a setting, which he also does well: why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write travel books?

At least Black Tide is a Jack Irish story, and I can see Guy Pearce, the three old blokes at the pub, Cam, Harry Strang and Stan the bartender in my mind’s eye.  Thank God for television, I say. The dodgy betting is here, and the carpentry, and a bit of sex, along with a confusing story about dodgy companies.  But I really have no idea what it was about.

So that’s it. Ned Kelly Awards and Miles Franklin prize be damned. If someone chooses another Peter Temple for bookgroup ever again, I’m just going to say “Nup. I don’t like Peter Temple”.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: ONLY because it was chosen for my CAE bookgroup.

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton

winton_shepherdshut

2018, 267 p.

Well, Tony Abbott may have just discovered his local Little Library, but I’m very well aware of mine- both of them- one in the park and the other outside Open House, a local drop-in support centre. They have done dreadful things to my already groaning bookshelves. But how could I go past a brand-new, never-read, hard cover copy of Tim Winton’s recent book The Shepherd’s Hut?

littlelibrary

The thing that strikes you about the book is the strong, confidently-written voice of Jaxie Clackton, young runaway who is fleeing his brutal father and the consequences of an accident. In fact, this is the only voice that we hear for nearly half the book, which is quite an achievement (and one that Alice in Alice in Wonderland didn’t appreciate- the dearth of pictures or conversations in a book). The full picture of Jaxie’s life emerges only slowly: both what he is running away from, and what he is running to. Meanwhile, Jaxie bashes his way through the hostile Western Australian landscape, until he comes across an old deserted hut.

Jaxie is rough, crude but not a bad kid. When he meets Fintan, who seems to be some type of defrocked priest, he is wary of him, although Fintan seems to take Jaxie as he finds him.  The book is violent and seeped through with twisted masculinities.  I found myself sitting up late to finish it and when I went to sleep, I was disturbed by the ending.

After my early love affair with Tim Winton with Cloudstreet (on the page, of course) I haven’t found another of his books that captured the magic of the first Winton I ever read. I have found myself tiring of his books about beaches and waves, and broken people.  There are broken people in this book too, but this book comes closest, I think, to Cloudstreet in terms of narrative control and voice. So thank you, who-ever put it in the Little Library, and now I shall return it so that someone else can enjoy it too.

My rating: 9 (I think)/10

Sourced from: The Little Library in Macleod Park

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 April 2019

Russia if you’re listening (ABC) Well, that was annoying. The second series of Matt Bevan’s podcast series about the Trump Russian connection was just about to go to air, and then the summary of the Mueller report was released. In Episode 1, he talks about the Mueller report, Episode 2 looks at Maria Butina, the Russian spy who infiltrated the NRA (very relevant here in Australia at the moment) and Episode 3 looks at the music promoter Rob Goldstein who seemed to be involved at all the sticky moments, but now denies it all. Matt Bevan’s not leaving this story alone, and it unfolds in real time. This second episode seems rather too-overproduced, with little music stings and sound effects. It doesn’t need them.

McNabConversations (ABC)  Richard Fidler is back! In ‘The Secret Life of the Beauty Queen Killer‘, he interviews Duncan McNab, ex-detective, crime writer and author of The Snapshot Killer, the story of serial killer Christopher Wilder who murdered at least twelve people, possibly more,  in Australia and America. A readiness to give him the benefit of the doubt, the financial and family resources for good lawyers, poor policing and the prejudice against the testimony of young women, meant that he killed for over twenty year. Rather graphic, and very disturbing.

Standard Issue This podcast was founded as an online magazine by one of my favourite comedians, Sarah Millican. It ranges across many themes, although it tends to have an emphasis on female performers. Episode 192 Bedrooms of London interviews the curator of the Foundling Museum where between February and May 2019 they have had an exhibition of photographs of the ‘bedrooms’ (many are actually just single living rooms) of children living below the poverty line in London today. You can find out more about the exhibition – including a sample of the photographs) at the Foundling Museum site and a Guardian feature on the exhibition here.

The History Listen. An excellent podcast here, based on the book  Blue Lake:Looking for Dudley Flats, which I reviewed here last year. This is not your normal author-interview; instead it is a dramatization of some of the events, interspersed with current day interviews. It’s excellent, and check about the History Listen webpage too, where you can find a photo of Blue Lake from 1869.  There’s a good article by the author here too, with lots of photos.

 

Movie: Hotel Mumbai

This movie is based on the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that spanned twelve locations over a period of four days. The film concentrates on the attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, a dominating landmark in Mumbai that evokes British imperialism and the simultaneous presence of  obscene wealth and obscene poverty. The film reminded me of the disaster movies of the 1970s (Towering Inferno, or The Poseidon Adventure) where, as a viewer, you become invested in a small number of people amidst the anonymous and largely ignored carnage of other people as background. Perhaps we’ve grown up a bit, because not everybody here makes it out alive.

I saw this film at a Crybaby Session at a local cinema. I wondered if the gunshots and explosions would transform the snuffling little bundles into real crybabies, but the noise wasn’t too overpowering (perhaps they had it turned down?). There was a lot of violence here -rather too much perhaps as Wikipedia estimates the number of deaths at the Taj Mahal at 31 and I’m sure that the film depicted many more deaths than that.

My daughter-in-law and I had high tea at the Taj Mahal eight years later (see my travel blog entries here and here). Other than the memorial outside the hotel, there was no sign of the damage and carnage. It didn’t occur to us at the time, and it was sobering to realize, that many of the staff working there had experienced the terror attack.

 

Podcast: Blue Lake – Finding Dudley Flats

The History Listen on ABC RN has a good podcast based on David Sornig’s excellent book Blue Lake which I reviewed here late last year. This podcast doesn’t so much re-tell the story as bounce off it creatively, and it’s well worth a listen.

And to see an amazing clear photo of the lake from 1869, check out the ABC RN History Listen webpage about the program.