Friday, November 16, 2012

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 4, November 2012

 Welcome to the fourth video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club.

This month we discuss two new and really intriguing novels that both deal with idea of travel and the consequences of shifting populations: Michelle de Kretser's breathtaking Questions of Travel and Emily Maguire's terrific novel set in Vietnam, Fishing for Tigers

You will also find our written reviews of these books below, as well as a range of other very fine articles.

As you read the books we feature, please share your views in our comments section. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision. Many thanks to Peter Kirkwood for the marvellous job he has done filming this conversation and bringing it to you.

Walter Mason reads Emily Maguire's Vietnam novel Fishing for Tigers

In this enchanting new novel Australian author Emily Maguire captures perfectly the shiftlessness and loneliness of expatriate life. Fishing forTigers is her account of love and lust among a group of foreigners living in Hanoi, a group of people marooned in a poor and insular city, not out of any passion for its people or culture, but because:

" was the only place they'd found where they could get away with being who they were. The only place with five-star hotel bars, anyway."

Monastery attached to One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

The novel's protagonist, Mischa, begins a passionate but morally questionable affair with Cal, an eighteen year old Vietnamese adoptee, a young man who only knows life as an Australian and who comes to see his putative homeland through the eyes of the wounded Mischa.

They stumble through a schizophrenic Vietnamese culture, a place torn between the worlds of tradition, Socialism and rampant consumerism. Cal, posing as the cynical and super cool hipster, is astonished when he visits the ancient Confucian university of Van Mieu and discovers its statues have been restored thanks to the donations of a credit card company:

"A communist government sponsored by American Express. Classic."

Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

Together the lovers hide, betray and titillate each other, and Maguire's novel is filled with an electric eroticism as well as a trenchant social criticism. The character Mischa is never clearly one thing or another. She is alternately victim and exploiter, sympathiser and traitor. The moral complexities of Maguire's characters make this a thrilling book, and one that offers no easy answers.

Emily Maguire has said that this book emerged out of her own fascination with the city of Hanoi, a city which has enchanted many other Western visitors but has not been written about as much as it should. And Hanoi's claustrophobic intensity is beautifully and perfectly evoked in the book, along with the effect it has on the novel's characters as they drink, sleep and curse their way around an uncertain life in a city that really has no need for them. The confused and messy sex lives of expatriate communities has never been so intimately charted, either, and be prepared for some surprising revelations as the novel proceeds.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

And Maguire plays with an interesting post-colonial dynamic, opening up a tremendous can of worms by dealing, not only with interracial relationships, but with inter-generational ones. The depth of exploitation, or its absence and pose, is batted around tantalisingly in this book, though Maguire is too smart to ever attempt a definitive answer. The freedom to indulge in pleasure, and the way that living abroad affords this freedom, convinces Mischa that:

“ my mind was my own and my life was what I decided it should be.”

But of course, events prove that not to be the case.

This is an extraordinary novel, one that will interest anyone who has ever visited Vietnam or who has considered, just for a moment, packing it all in and moving to a distant land. Fishing for Tigers is a very modern dissection of lust, identity and belonging, and I have come away a firm fan of Emily Maguire’s work.

Van Mieu, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

Fishing for Tigers is available through our bookstore affiliates (top right) on this blog. We also welcome your comments and opinions!

Stephanie Dowrick reads Michelle de Kretser's superb Questions of Travel

Australian prize-winning novelist Michelle de Kretser
My co-host on the Universal Heart Book Club, Walter Mason, is describing Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, Questions of Travel, as his book of the year for 2012. And it is truly deserving of such praise.

Only a relatively small number of writers could fairly be described as artists. De Kretser is among them. Even more rarely, she is someone who holds her talent in check. By that I mean she doesn’t use her technical or psychological skills or even her artistry to seduce readers or to create sensation for its own sake. On the contrary, she presents characters to us who are almost devastatingly ordinary. And yet, like all of us, they find themselves in both chosen and involuntary situations for which they are almost entirely unprepared.

There are two central characters in Questions of Travel (and many strongly realised minor characters). Laura is born in Australia, Ravi in Sri Lanka where de Kretser herself was born and raised. We follow these two people quite separately from the 1960s, in Laura’s case, and the 1970s, in Ravi’s, until 2004 when a devastating tsunami hits the beaches of Sri Lanka.

In the years between – the years of this long, unhurried novel - there are all kinds of emotional tsunamis also in these characters’ lives. Again, none feels forced.

Ours is a time of ubiquitous restlessness that takes us through many levels of “travel”. This is captured particularly well in the telling of Laura’s story as she leaves different countries, jobs, lovers, friends…sometimes with a sense of direction or purpose, more often not. She is carried forward more by impulse than insight, and we feel the dangers and familiar insecurity of that with her.

Ravi’s story is of course very different. The "difference" is stark and undisguised. It's the chasm between living in a world of more - or less - choice. Ravi's “travels” are far less voluntary, including his hard-won journey to Australia. Without his feisty, immensely likeable, sometimes foolish wife, without his beloved child, Ravi is seeking asylum from a country that he has loved and still loves but where he can no longer feel or expect safety.
I must rush to say right away, though, that while Ravi's story makes clearer the complex, sometimes extreme feelings of being forced to seek, to beg asylum from those unwilling to offer it, this is not a “refugee novel” – if such a category exists. No one is stereotyped, trivialized or romanticized; there are no facile assumptions made about one set of experiences over another. The novel is more humane, truthful and profound than that. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself more interested sometimes in Ravi’s stories than Laura’s, and yet I could certainly see that while Laura’s life is far safer and more desirable in very real ways, she is also inwardly displaced. In this, Laura is known to us. Indeed, I suspect that many readers will recognise Laura in their friends or themselves, and will feel great empathy with her efforts to fill her life and make it meaningful.

In a recent interview de Kretser said that she loves detail in fiction. “That’s my sense of the material, the concrete… The novel needs the stench of life.”  Her attention to detail is highly sensual, painterly but – again – there is no sense that she’s slapping on extra paint because she could. The details make the book desirably long. The short story-like episodes are mostly crowded, urgent and require leisurely reading. But they also accumulate purposefully creating a mature, deeply thoughtful and unpredictable novel.  I urge you to read it.

Michelle de Kretser's novel is available in hardcover only - and is worthy of its handsome production and place on your shelf. You can find it through our bookstore affiliates (top right) on this blog. We also welcome your comments and opinions!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Joyce Kornblatt on three great writers on writing

Writer & writing teacher Joyce Kornblatt
 Three essential writing books, newly appreciated by a master writing teacher.
Joyce Kornblatt's essay offers insights into the "deeply intuitive", often mysterious process that writing is: essential reading for thoughtful readers as well as writers.

During forty years of writing, and teaching writing to others, I haven’t found many worthwhile books on the subject. Too many are ‘how-to’ manuals, reducing a deeply intuitive art to the kind of carpentry that has little art in it, and promising fame and fortune if the instructions are followed. All serious writers know that writing is more like prayer than anything else, though it is important to have the tools to shape the prayer into something beautiful, durable, and polished in the way we polish good wood:  transparently, so the grain shows through in all its mysterious natural perfection.

Three books about writing that I treasure share that reverence for  the writing process, and each leads us into a particular dimension of the  dream-like activity out of which wonderful literature emerges.   Annie Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE, Gail Sher’s ONE CONTINUOUS MISTAKE and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD offer  personal insight into the nature of creativity in its written form.  With intelligence, humour and vulnerability, each of these women—wonderful writers of fiction, poetry and memoir—invite us into their own hard-won wisdom.  

 Acclaimed for her powerful accounts of the natural world and the spiritual life as zones of knife-edge revelation, it follows that Annie Dillard offers a vision of writing as a risk-taking necessity in which fierce faith trumps doubt and logic: “Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” The gravity-defying desk may be whimsy, but it also points us toward  an understanding of writing as the highest order of courage and generosity.  “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I find her passionate intensity inspiring, because it is in no way sentimental or mere bravado.   She knows all about the difficult days and the failed drafts and the loss of confidence.  But her love for the gift of the writing life sustains her.  “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as if with a dying friend,”  she says.” I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” I return to the THE WRITING LIFE again and again, for the sheer beauty of Annie Dillard’s language, and for  her unshakeable belief in writing as an act of awakening:What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?"
Gail Sher also experiences writing as spiritual awakening, but her voice has the quieter quality of the long-time Zen practitioner she is. Reflecting on the writing process through a Buddhist lens, she brings to ONE CONTINOUS MISTAKE: FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS FOR WRITERS  the Zen principles of discipline, compassion and  not-knowing.  “Writing-related fear and low self-esteem both arise from straying attention.”  Her book in an ongoing invitation to come back to body, breath, pen, paper, this moment’s perception translated into words on the page.  Much as a Chinese brush painter experiences each stroke as a breath, Gail Sher invites us to breathe into the next word, and the next, and the next.  
And as Annie Dillard advises, so the Buddha said, centuries ago, that “nothing should be clung to as ‘me’ or ‘mine.’”  Gail Sher articulates it with characteristic directness: “For writing practice to be complete, we must give it away: the efforts, the results, and identification with results….You become a vessel through which creative spirit flows.”  
Writing as a gift we offer, rather than a product we produce or a truth we keep private:  she is uncompromising in her counsel, yet never unkind. And in the true spirit of Zen, she is, in the end, a teacher with no instructions:"Writing teaches writing. No one can tell you your own secret.”
Anne Lamotte, author of Bird by Bird
If Annie Dillard offers us a mystic’s manual, and Gail Sher a Zen koan’s counter-logical handbook, then Anne Lamott’s book is like a volume of letters from a cherished friend who loves us enough to speak the truth. In BIRD BY BIRD, she’s a genius of the telling anecdote, the wry zinger, and the open-hearted confession.  And in this way her book models the kind of writing to which she urges us to surrender. “It helps to resign as the controller of your fate,” she suggests. And: “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.”

This is a book that gives ongoing permission to write imperfectly, and to write as if your life depended on it. When Anne Lamott says, “Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake,” that’s the same advice she gives herself and us:  “Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go into.  
What moves me about all three of these books is the generosity each writer brings to the page, the willingness of Annie Dillard, Gail Sher and Anne Lamott to reveal their own struggles and terrors, and also to own their earned authority.  

Each is a wonderful companion on the writing path.  Composing this essay, I’ve felt as if they were all here with me in my study, the four of us talking together for hours, intimately and with much laughter, about the deep mysteries of the writing process. What a joy.  

Joyce Kornblatt taught writing for many years at a leading American university. Since coming to live and write in Australia, she has continued to offer lucky writers at many stages of their writing lives inspiration and guidance that draws on her Buddhist commitment as well as her writing experience. Her own books include The Reason for Wings and also Nothing to do With Love which - in a lovely turn of events - was published in the UK by The Women's Press, London, founded by Stephanie Dowrick. 
Ready to read the books that Joyce Kornblatt suggests? Please use our affiliate links (above right). This Book Club receives a small % on all affiliate sales. We also love to have your comments and opinions!

Emily Maguire talks about coming to an understanding of Vietnam

Author Emily Maguire outside a Hanoi market

In 2008, I went to Hanoi on a three month Asialink literature residency and fell passionately in love with the place. I longed to stay forever, but I knew I couldn’t, because of various responsibilities and ties back in Sydney. As I walked the streets feeling heartbroken at having to leave soon, these characters began to emerge. Mischa, who has fled to Hanoi to escape an abusive marriage and then found herself unexpectedly besotted with the place, and then Cal, a young man who is hurt and angry because his father has made the kind of decision I wished I could make, and moved half a world away from his family.

Hanoi Street, photo by Emily Maguire

Cal's father is an Australian living in Vietnam, but his mother and grandparents were amongst the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled their homeland after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He has spent his life thinking of Vietnam as a place to escape from, rather than to. As I wrote his story, I was forced to confront some hard truths about the country I had fallen for and its relationship with my own.

As an Australian born after the end of the American War (as they call it in Vietnam) I had knowledge but no real understanding of the conflict. My Vietnamese friends in Hanoi, too, were born after it was over and talked about it as ancient history (if at all). Indeed, one friend told me that the only people in Vietnam who cared about the war were American veterans who came to revisit battlefields and ‘calm their minds’.
However, reading work by, and speaking to, Vietnamese Australians whose families fled and whose memories of their country of birth are at best, complicated, and at worst, bitter, caused me to apply a new filter to the way I viewed my beloved Hanoi. In Fishing for Tigers, Cal does exactly that to Mischa.

Mischa is someone who considers herself a good person merely because she isn’t as bad as her friends. But Cal forces her to think about how the company she keeps reflects on her and how her choices might be damaging to others. She has to re-examine that very western idea that we each deserve happiness and that personal fulfilment is a worthwhile and morally defensible goal.

Apart from Mischa and Cal, the main character of Fishing for Tigers is Hanoi itself. It’s a thrilling, beautiful, vibrant, sensual, fascinating place and I loved every minute of working on this novel, because it allowed me to spend more time - if only in my imagination - in this incredible city.

A glimpse of Hanoi Cathedral (photo by Emily Maguire)

Are you ready to read Fishing for Tigers? This wonderful book - and any others - can be purchased through our on-line affiliate bookstores (top right). Those sales return a small % that supports the Universal Heart Network and Book Club.  We also welcome your comments and engagement!

Walter Mason reads Rev. Jerry D. Troyer's Coming Out to Ourselves

The Rev. Jerry D. Troyer has written the most inspiring, illuminating and empowering book that uses a premise familiar to GLBTQI people everywhere - the notion of "coming out" - and applies its liberating potential to all. In Coming Out to Ourselves, Rev. Jerry draws on his own personal journey through addiction and recovery to draw some wider lessons for all readers.

He employs some of the ideas of our very own Stephanie Dowrick and his own personal teacher, the dynamic teacher, author and Unity minister Edwene Gaines

Jerry captures perfectly the mood and concerns of so many of us in the early 21st century. Difficult childhoods, shame around our sexuality and relationships and the less-than-enlightened teachings of some religious leaders all contribute to a potential core of anger within us, but Jerry urges us to turn instead to forgiveness, which is ultimately more liberating. It also, hopefully, leads us towards taking a kinder view of our own journey because, as Jerry points out, "Often, forgiving someone else is easier than forgiving ourselves."

Rev. Jerry D. Troyer
In a world in which we are potentially paralysed, paradoxically by both choice and an overwhelming sense of obligation, this lovely book reminds us that any major change is the merest step away. Instead of terrifying ourselves with the prospect of massive shifts in being, Jerry leads us along a gentler path, telling us that instead we can condition ourselves to make small and consistent choices that lead us towards more positive states of being. Jerry writes with great heart and warmth, and is brave in exposing his own battles with lifestyle changes, which included dealing with a weight problem and the drug addiction of his life partner.

This is a book about leaving our old selves behind and moving towards new beliefs that accept the true wonder of who we are and celebrate the hope that lies in all our futures. It is beautifully inspiring, and a lovely reminder that we are indeed wonderful and unique beings. After reading it I felt an immense gratitude, and a great love for all of the wonderful people in my life who have encouraged me to grow and to celebrate my uniqueness. In a world where we are so often surrounded by negative, angry discourse it's important we remind ourselves of just how much love is available to us.

For, in Rev. Jerry's words: "Wouldn't you rather have a truly, honestly, fabulous life?"

 You can purchase Coming Out to Ourselves, or any other titles, through the bookstore links above right. The small % we receive from sales support the Universal Heart Network and Book Club. We also love to hear from you - on these pages or on Stephanie or Walter Mason's Facebook pages.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Ros Bradley reads Drusilla Modjeska's new novel

Writer Ros Bradley reviews Drusilla Modjeska's novel The Mountain, which deals with some of the turbulent recent history of Papua New Guinea.

This novel encapsulates an important part of Australia’s history; our deep and strong association with our closest neighbour – Papua New Guinea. Modjeska’s book highlights the emotional and hopeful times, immediately before and after Independence. I worked in PNG for two years, 1974 and 1975: many Australians of the last generation did the same, retaining wonderful memories of this amazing country and its enchanting people.

This is a story that is not well understood by many Australians, and one that needs to be recognized. After I finished reading The Mountain, I told friends and family that every Australian should read this book. It’s a gripping and haunting read, my first by the award winning author and scholar Modjeska, and it will stay with me for a long time.

The Mountain is divided into two distinct parts. The first is set in 1968-73 when Independence is in the wind. It centres on Dutch-born Rika, a promising photographer recently married to English ethnographic filmmaker Leonard who is in PNG to study and film a remote village in the mountains. In settings ranging between the capital Port Moresby, the mountains and the fjords, Rika finds friendship through the new university with expatriates and locals. But her fascination with a dynamic local academic complicates and changes everything.

Jericho is the protagonist in part two, set in 2005-6. Through his relationships with others of his generation, this mixed race (and mixed-up) young man faces the harsh cultural, economic and environmental realities of post colonial times. In addition, he realises his identity is fluid and greatly influenced by place.

There is a richness in the inter-connecting layers which form the backbone to this book: the web of relationships and subsequent perils and consequences that arise from cross-cultural and inter-clan living; intrigue, love, friendship and betrayal; the spirit of the mountains, the rich ancestral wisdom and the fascinating lure of the bark-cloth paintings. Underlying these themes, Modjeska poses the ubiquitous question Independence for what? and the dilemmas and responsibilities this has raised.

Modjeska writes beautifully and sparingly. Although she lived in PNG from 1968-1971, this book is not autobiographical but Modjeska freely admits she makes use of her experience there as well as her subsequent reading about PNG's history, literature and anthropology. Every raw emotion expressed by the characters resonates with the reader. The short sharp sentences stay with you.

The Mountain is a thoroughly well researched book and a rewarding read. I was immediately transported back to my time in PNG: the village life with its smells and sounds - the cackle of women and shrieking kids. Modjeska vividly evokes the terrain and the flamboyant traditional dances.

The bark-cloth paintings by the mountain women articulate stories of memory and connections related to the natural world and their ancestors. Their commercial value may provide a flicker of hope in a country split between two worlds coping with a culture of greed, displacement and corruption.

A glossary would be an excellent addition on any future publication of The Mountain. Many of us who lived in PNG will understand the pidgin terms and many have been explained – but this would enliven the text and better orient an unfamiliar reader.

This novel has prompted me to read other books by the author and has sparked my interest in researching more about wilderness and the changing nature of place. I hope many Australians will read this book which skilfully captures the complexities and challenges facing PNG during pre and post Independence.

Ros Bradley

Ros Bradley is the author of A World of Prayer, a book of prayers from all the major traditions, published by the prestigious American company, Orbis Books.

Are you ready to read The Mountain? This wonderful book - and any others - can be purchased through our on-line affiliate bookstores (top right). Those sales return a small % that supports the Universal Heart Network and Book Club.