Tag Archives: Elizabeth Strout

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.


Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.

Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.

The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:

The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
 Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.

There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.

Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.


Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,

We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.

Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.

I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:

She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?

(page 75)

This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.

Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.


After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.

My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.

It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.

Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).

On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.

Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.

One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.


Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking 2019)

This is a sequel to Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I haven’t read that book, but I did see and love Lisa Cholodenko’s 2014 miniseries starring Frances McDormand (my tiny blog post here).

Olive Kitteridge is a retired math(s) teacher in the small Maine town of Crosby. The book’s thirteen chapters form what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative – sometimes Olive is front and centre, so that we see everything through her eyes; sometimes she makes a tiny, almost inconsequential appearance in the lives of other local characters, and we catch glimpses, usually unflattering, of how they see her.

Olive is a large, socially awkward woman who can be shockingly unaware of the needs of other people: when her son and his wife come on a visit from New York City with their four children, including a small baby, she doesn’t think to buy milk and realises only when they are all there that she has only two chairs in her kitchen. The flip side of that quality is that she speaks her truth unsparingly – without malice, but without care for the effect of her words. As trivial example, at a display of work by local artists she loudly proclaims that it’s all crap. She tells a grieving widower that his recently deceased wife once called her a cunt – and Olive is a woman who hates swearing.

Yet amid all the wreckage of her life, she has a wonderful integrity and an ability to learn from painful interactions. To at least some people she’s loveable; to some she’s an inspiration. When she needs home nursing help she bluntly challenges the racism of one carer but wins her affection anyhow, and her similarly blunt interrogation of a Somali-heritage nurse wins her as well.

In the brief Acknowledgments, Elizabeth Strout mentions ‘cultural differences between New York City and Maine’, which makes me think that perhaps Olive is meant as a kind of incarnation of the spirit of Maine – plain-spoken, honest, taciturn as opposed to New York’s sophistication. I do wonder if Olive might be on the spectrum, but really that’s not what matters: she lives on the page as completely her own woman, warts – plenty of warts – and all.

If the book is reaching for anything other than a portrait of a woman (definitely not a lady) who came to Elizabeth Strout fully made, maybe its an approach to life, a philosophy, that’s summed up in a statement made by another character who is dealing with bereavement (there’s a lot of death, suffering and infidelity in this book, as well as love, tolerance and surprising moments of joy):

‘I’ve thought about this a lot. A lot. And here is the – well , the phrase I’ve come up with, I mean just for myself, but this is he phrase that goes through my head. I think our job – maybe even our duty – is to – ‘ Her voice became calm, adultlike. ‘To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.’

(p 115–116)

Very much in her own way, Olive has grace.

Year’s end lists 2017

It’s been quite a year. As it comes to an end the Emerging Artist (now with an MFA) and I have drawn up our Best Of lists.

MOVIES
I saw 64 movies, including a number watched on YouTube such as Godard’s Le mépris and Eisenstein’s October, the EA slightly fewer. It was a year of wonderful movies, as well as a handful of crushing disappointments, but here’s what we managed to single out.

The Emerging Artist’s top five, with her comments:

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan 2016): I liked the slow, meditative build-up to the reveal and the ultimate resolution of the past that allowed the character to keep living.

The Salesman (Asghar Fahadi 2016): Tense, intense and brilliant. The visuals were wonderful, from the woman in shocking red against the grey of usual clothing to the tightness of action carried out in multiple stairwells.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt 2016): Many friends didn’t take to this film, and we saw it at a disadvantage on a very small screen. Three interlocking stories each gave small moments of pleasure, especially the last.

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof 2017): We saw this gripping Iranian film at the Sydney Film Festival. It has a universal theme of how to live a moral life when survival depends on going along with corruption. Deeply human, and also claustrophobically Kafkaesque.

Living/Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa 1952): What a delight this was. We saw it at the SFF. In three long sections the main character explores how to live well. Being a bureaucrat isn’t the answer.

… plus a bonus documentary for the EA

Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed 2016): A visceral look at northern Iraq through one man’s eyes, a paramedic trying to stay in his town as ISIS moves in.

My top five (chosen after the EA chose hers, avoiding duplicates):

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016): Marvellous film, very slow. One of my companions said that it was like a behind the scenes look at The Wire. Three wonderful performances as the boy who becomes a man, perhaps especially Trevante Rhodes who shows the small frightened boy inside the streetwise drug lord.

Denial (Mick Jackson 2016): A very methodical film, written with great clarity by David Hare and featuring an excellent cast, this is a timely look at the importance of evidence-based thinking as opposed to adjusting the fact to accord with one’s political interests.

Silence (Martin Scorsese 2016): An old(ish) man’s deeply felt exploration of his Catholic heritage. Timely to be reminded of the intensities of Catholic belief when the institutional church’s failures around child sexual abuse are being exposed.

 I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck 2016): James Baldwin was brilliant, and this film does him justice. Favourite quote: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it has been faced.’

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve 2017): Is there a word that means ‘bombastic’ but has entirely positive connotations?  That’s the word I want to use about this movie. And as someone asked on Twitter, ‘What happened to Deckard’s dog?’

… and a favourite moment:

In Hope Road (Tom Zubrycki 2017), at one point in his arduous fundraising walk, Zachariah Machiek (one of the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan) strays onto private property and meets a couple of rough looking types who exude menace worthy of any Hollywood thriller.

Worst film of the year:

We both picked the same one, Sea Sorrow (Vanessa Redgrave 2017). Me: This started out as a fundraiser for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, in which a number of big name actors did bits from Shakespeare and other turns. Vanessa Redgrave wanted to reach more people with her passionate message of compassion and worked it up into a film. Sadly it’s hardly a film at all. Emerging Artist: I’d have to agree. Though we did see a few really bad films, this one rated as it was so anticipated.

THEATRE

All but two of our theatre outings this year were to the Belvoir. It was a very good year – we only left at interval once. These are our picks:

Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen 1882): Eamon Flack’s director’s program note says this production isn’t set in 1881, but in a room that hasn’t changed since 1881. Like Tony Abbot’s mind. The sarcasm of that note is nowhere to be seen in the production, but it’s accurate anyhow. Pamela Rabe is brilliant in a very strong cast. The set refers to the detail of Ibsen while being quite spare. There’s a marvellous theatrical moment involving ash.

The Rover (Aphra Behn 1677): Aphra Behn was quite a playwright, and Eamon Flack and his physically diverse cast have a lot of fun and give a lot of joy in making it new. At the very end there were a couple of bars of Nino Rota’s film music, and we knew we were all on the same page.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Tommy Murphy 2017): Directed by David Berthold with Sarah Peirse and John Howard as the leads and set designed by Michael Hankin, this is a terrific play. I would have gone home happy at the end of the first act, but wasn’t disappointed by the rest. I went in thinking I knew the story and expecting to be mildly engaged, but I was bowled over.

BOOKS

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible: A lovely meditation on life and death and ageing. I read it in hospital after major surgery and it fitted my mood. I loved the interweaving of the characters and the story is excellent.

Michael Chabon, Moonglow: Telegraph Avenue is still my favourite Michael Chabon novel, and I loved this because it had many of the same qualities.

Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark: She’s a very quirky writer who takes the reader into weird places. This book possibly had too much Kafka in it but it was still a very enjoyable expedition.

My top three (linked to my blog posts about them):

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)
Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: My favourite book for this year, it has all my favourite things in it: art, maps, an attempt to come to terms with the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. And it’s respectful of everybody.

Hannah Fink, Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things: At present Bronwyn Oliver is my favourite Australian artist. This book gives insights into her work, her practice and the tragedy of her life. It looks at the dangers of the artist’s life, in particular the use of toxic materials, which contributed to her early death.

Susan Faludi, In the Dark Room: A wonderful interweaving of the history of Hungary, anti-semitism, male violence, trans politics and a daughter–father relationship. It’s got everything.

My top three (once again, apart from excellent AWW books listed yesterday; linked to my blog posts):

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)
Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life ( 2016)

Poetry
(I choose reluctantly, placing it behind most of the AWW poetry books):

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997). I recommended this enthusiastically at our book swap club. Someone picked it and then rejected it because I’d failed to mention that it was …. poetry.

Comics

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volumes 1–4 (Image Comics 2016, 2017), my blog posts here and here.
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Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2018 see #metoo bear marvellous fruit. May the world become less racist, more peaceful and more just. May all the detainees on Manus and Nauru find safety somewhere very soon.

Elizabeth Strout’s Burgess Boys and Sonnet No 9

Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys (2013, Random House 2013)

20141116-183712.jpg This was a good book to read in New York City, as the action is divided between Manhattan and a small town in Maine.

The three Burgesses, two ‘boys’ now actually men of mature years and a ‘girl’, the twin of the younger brother, live in the long shadow cast by an accident that happened when they were 8 and 4 years old – one of them released the handbrake in the family car which then rolled down a hill and killed their father. True to Maine ways, the incident is never mentioned, and each of them finds a way of functioning more or less successfully without ever dealing with the huge emotional issues they have been left with. The brothers are both lawyers in New York City; the sister and her teenage son live in quiet mutual dependence and isolation back in Maine. The tenuous equilibrium of their lives is disrupted when the teenager gets into trouble – a prank turns out to have much more serious ramifications than he has imagined, and the family dynamic is thrown out of kilter.

The book is well within the conventions of what people who are into genre fiction call litfic. It has a dysfunctional family, adultery, childhood trauma, a dubious sexual harassment charge, a wealthy uptight Connecticut character, a hint of recursiveness (the otherwise impersonal narrator introduces herself in a prologue, and a number of events from her life feature in the imagined lives of the Burgesses), and an Important Issue. I’m not saying it’s done by the numbers; it’s engrossing, we care about all the characters, and the Important Issue is done modestly but challengingly: the butt of boy’s prank is the community of Somali refugees who have settled in the whitest state of the USA (the Burgesses are white). The way the white community, including the legal system, responds to the Somalis and deals with the fall-out from the prank provides a rich background to the family story.

Today’s sonnet is based roughly on an episode in the novel. The Slessor reference is to his poem ‘William Street’.

Sonnet No 9: a Fictional visit to New York
She came from Maine to New York City.
Her brothers thought she’d have a ball.
Instead, she thought the place was shitty,
a state fairground where every stall
was huge, creating dreadful racket
(they mocked her speech, her bright red jacket),
and all the rides were underground.
The sirens’ midnight retching sound,
The mess, the homeless, lattes, bless us!
Signs and shirts may ❤NY,
she will never add her I.
I think of that refrain of Slessor’s:
you find ugly what I find
lovely. Are we both half blind?