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Christy Collins

Thoughts on books, films, writing and life

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Books

Book review: Women of a Certain Age

Having just passed what a friend recently termed “the birthday that shall not be named” I was particularly keen to get my hands on a copy of Women of a Certain Age hoping that the collected wisdom of fifteen diverse Australian women would shed some light on a few issues my friends and I are beginning to see in a slightly less abstract light than was perhaps the case in our twenties and thirties.

 

I’m ‘all in’ on of the concept of this book: giving voice to women over forty to discuss aging, survival and being an age that reportedly makes women feel invisible and silenced by our patriarchal, youth-oriented culture. According to the back cover the essays are ‘tales of celebration, affirmation and survival about what it is like to be a woman on the other side of 40, 50, 60, 70…’  To my disappointment, however, many of the essays seem less interested in the authors’ current reality and experience than in relating stories from their childhood, adolescence and young adulthood – sometimes with only a short final paragraph linking this to their current age or viewpoint.

 

The strongest essays in the collection engage more fully with the experience of being middle aged or older and for me the standout is Krissy Kneen’s essay on the aging female body and the way it is perceived (and indeed sometimes not perceived) by the wider community. Kneen narrates an experience of going to the movies with her similar aged husband. When he hands over their two tickets the usher literally fails to see her standing beside him, and asks: ‘“Is your friend already in there?”’

 

Another of the essays that has stayed with me is Jeanine Leane’s ‘Black boxes’ in which Leane reflects that ‘Whitefellas never can decide what kind of Blackfella they want.’ Pointing to the changing and inconsistent expectations of those (white) people in various positions of power that have – often negatively – affected her educational and employment opportunities since the 1960s.

 

Perhaps my perception of these essays was overly influenced by my particular reading of the packaging and by the media materials I had read before the book arrived in my letter-box. Others will likely find a great deal of interest in what is certainly an interesting cross-section of Australian girl- and young woman- hoods recalled, but that is not what I was hoping to get from this book.

 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Fremantle Press.

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Saying goodbye to my book club

I recently left a book club that I had loved attending for a good handful of years. A club full of bright, beautiful women in the middle of what will probably be the busiest phase of their lives. The club had shifted focus as people moved in and out of it and as members’ lives changed. I left because I felt it had stopped being book-focused in any real way with people expressing increasing disinterest – both overtly and covertly – not so much in books in general, but in the ones we had chosen to read and discuss in particular.

Michelle, who initiated the club and advertised it on Gumtree, originally proposed we would read books from the ‘1001 books to read before you die’ list, or rather lists as there are a number of versions. Other members were working their way through the 100 books listed by The Guardian so we added this to the allowable book selections and took it in turn to propose either a book selection or, more commonly, to present a shortlist to the group who then helped to make the final decision. In my opinion this was the most successful phase of the book club. Later, craving some more contemporary reads, a better geographical spread and a broader variety of selections by female authors, we all but abandoned this list for a loose, and not always adhered to guideline encompassing any book that had received an award.

But I don’t think the actual book selections are what have let us down as much as our level of commitment to reading them and properly discussing them. Apparently this is not uncommon. The brochure from the Reading Contemporary Book Club suggests this is the main reason people join, claiming that their group’s primary focus is on books and that the social aspect is secondary. And so, my plan is to try joining it this year to see if I can regain the excitement I felt about the book club when it first started.

If I am honest I would actually prefer it was a “Classics” book club. I read and buy contemporary fiction anyway, as well as consuming many literary reviews, podcasts and online articles and attending events and festivals. Part of the appeal, to me, of the 1001 Book Club, in its first form, was the way it helped me to build up my knowledge of the canon. As partial and as problematic as the idea of the canon is, the books that form it are strange and wonderful and when reading ten to twelve of them a year they begin to connect and reflect each other in interesting ways.

So thank you, Michelle and to everyone who has formed part of the group over the years. I never thought I’d be a book club type of person but at its best the group taught me about myself, about the books and about the world. Some nights it was thrilling: a true exploration of the literary as well as the cultural. Here’s hoping I can find some glimmer of that early experience in my next book club.

I’ll keep you posted.

Artists’ Residency, Sapporo

A week ago I arrived in a very snowy Sapporo to begin my Asialink residency at Tenjinyama Art Studio. I will be here for twelve weeks in total which will include a little bit of travel in Kansai and Hokkaido. Time seems to be going by very quickly already but so far I have been settling in, feasting on the local food and finding my way around. By now I have a subway pass, some cute sticky notes in the shape of Japanese mountains, a pillow and half a notebook full of notes that I hope will prove to be the start of a new novel. Outside my window it is snowing which is beautiful but I am also using it as an excuse not to venture outside of the studio today except maybe later for a hot sweet potato from the shop at the bottom of the hill here.

Thanks to Tenjinyama, Asialink Arts and the Malcolm Robertson Foundation for this wonderful opportunity.

The Stella Prize

In a few days the Stella Prize shortlist will be announced. A perfect opportunity to boost your reading of books by Australian women surrounded by the excitement and buzz around this prize. I followed the announcement of the longlist, on twitter, from home with a celebratory gin and tonic to hand. I plan to do similarly with the shortlist. Literary prizes are strange things and though I have sometimes been disappointed by the Stella lists (more by what was left off them, than what was on them), I very much admire the amount of interest, and the sense of celebration of books by women, that the team have managed to generate in the few years the prize has been running. Following the Stella is also a great way to encounter new books especially if you, like me, mostly read novels because the prize includes short stories, memoirs and non-fiction in its remit. This year in particular there seem to be a high proportion of non-fiction offerings on the list.

I’m excited to see who makes the shortlist next week. Good luck to everyone on the longlist!

Interview: Katherine Johnson

I recently interviewed Katherine Johnson about her new novel, The Better Son.

Katherine is a Tasmanian author and a fellow PhD student at the University of Tasmania. Her book is a fast-paced, sometimes claustrophobic, read and it brings to life a small corner of Tasmania, which she had a very interesting time researching.

If you are looking for a novel about families that never drops its pace, this is the book for you. I read it in a single day.

The full text of the interview is on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

Congratulations, Gail Jones

Last week Gail Jones was announced the winner of the Colin Roderick Award (for which my novella was also shortlisted) for A Guide to Berlin. I recently read A Guide to Berlin as part of the Australian Women Writers challenge. I very much enjoyed spending time with the protagonist in Berlin as she immersed herself in a group of expats who meet up to discuss their shared interest in the words of Nabokov. Congratulations to Ms Jones and to her publishers.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to report on the part of my committment to the Australian Women Writers challenge that involves reading a certain number of books by Australian women (in addition to reviewing a smaller number of these books) and to see if I can complete one of the AWW2016 Bingo challenges so here is a list of the books by Australian women I have read so far this year marked with the categories they fit:

Gail Jones, A Guide to Berlin (Bestseller)

Toni Jordan, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts (A funny book)

Rose Mulready, The Bonobo’s Dream (Published this year)

Aoife Clifford, All These Perfect Strangers (Contains a mystery)

Rochelle Siemienowicz, Fallen (A book I heard about online)

Lucy Treloar, Salt Creek (Set in the outback)

Rebecca Jessen, Gap (Written by someone under 30)
(Not reviewed because I teach this text and prefer not to have my views on it available to find online)

Charlotte Wood, The Submerged Cathedral (Published more than 10 years ago)

Myfanwy Jones, Leap (set in my favourite city – Melbourne!)

Ellen van Neervan, Heat and Light (Short Stories)
(Not reviewed because I teach this text and prefer not to have my views on it available to find online)

Lisa Bellear, Dreaming in Urban Areas (Indigenous author)
(Not reviewed because I teach this text and prefer not to have my views on it available to find online)

As well as stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Olga Masters, Elizabeth Jolley, Charlotte Wood, Jennifer Down and Barbara Baynton.

Currently reading: Emma Viskic, Ressurection Bay

By my count I’ve covered the AWW2016 Bingo Card One

I am now packing up a box to send to a friend overseas who finds it hard to find Australian books. The box contains several of the above, and of course a number of offerings from male writers as well as a selection of recent literary magazines. For me it’s been a year of discovering the diversity and richness of our literary landscape, and especially the richness of the books and stories by Aussie women and I look forward to the treasures still languishing in my TBR (to be read) pile.

 

 

Colin Roderick Award shortlisting

It’s coming up to the announcement of the Colin Roderick Award for which The End of Seeing has been shortlisted. The full shortlist is as follows:

Collins, Christy. The End of Seeing.

Harding, Leslie, and Morgan, Kendrah. Modern Love.

Jones, Gail. A Guide to Berlin.

Kinsella, John. Crow’s Breath.

Niall, Brenda. Mannix.

Winton, Tim. Island Home.

I’m thrilled to see my book on this list of books by such accomplished writers in a wide variety of genres (novels, biographies, memoirs and short stories). In particular, Tim Winton’s work has been important to me since I was a teenager and it is a particular thrill to be listed together with him.

More information about the award, including the judges comments on each of the books, can be found here: https://www.jcu.edu.au/foundation-for-australian-literary-studies/colin-roderick-award

 

52 Films by Women

We are coming up on 1/4 of the way through the year and it’s a good time to take stock of progress on things we’ve committed to for 2016. For me this includes a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women (I tweet about them using the hashtag #52filmsbywomen) and to read, a rather modest, four books by Australian women, reviewing three of them. The books are proving relatively easy – there’s an abundance of great books that fit the bill and I’ve already read Gap by Rebecca Jessen and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead as well as the two books I’ve reviewed on this site Leap and The Submerged Cathedral and I have many, many more on my To Be Read (TBR) list – most of which are already on my bookshelf.

But the films are proving more challenging. It’s not that there aren’t many films directed by women but more that they form a much smaller percentage of the films out there than one might expect. No doubt that’s the point of the challenge in the first place. So, even if 52 films seems a bit much, I encourage you to have a think about who is getting to head up the film projects you’re consuming. And if you are looking for something to see at the cinema right now, you could do worse than check out the stunning SHERPA directed by Australian Jennifer Peedom. My full review is forthcoming on the Togatus website but in the meantime I would certainly recommend it, especially if you’ve ever thought of trying to climb Everest.

How to read a book you don’t want to read

 

Generally, for adults, I’m an advocate of reading what you enjoy and putting aside books that aren’t “doing it” for you in one way or another. But there are exceptions and, for the last few years my life has been full of them: book club selections (even my own) that fail to interest me, books my supervisors recommend, gifts or recommendations from family or close friends, books I need to teach. I find that often, despite my initial reluctance, I end up enjoying these books more than I would have initially expected. Indeed some of my  favorites are books I may well have set aside if there wasn’t some outside pressure to push on. So if you have something on the “must read” list here are some suggestions of how you might get through it:

  1. Download the audiobook and squeeze it in to your commute, your exercise time or while you’re doing the housework. I used this recently to re-read something my bookclub had selected that I’d read a few years back and it gave me a new level of appreciation for the book and let me experience it in a slightly different way than I had the first time around.
  2. Read it very quickly – at least to start with. This is a trick I learnt at university when tackling the more difficult sections of ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ For a first time reader Benjy’s section can seem impenetrable and the harder you try to sort it all out the more frustrating it is. And then a professor recommended reading it quickly and without worrying too much about the meaning line by line. Suddenly the meaning started to become clear and once it did I found I could slow down and still be able to follow. You can always go back and re-read it so, if you’re struggling try reading it very fast to see if that helps.
  3. Read in patches and skim in between. I find this works well for books others have recommended but that don’t immediately appeal to me. I skim, looking for sections of particular interest or relevance; I read these more closely and then continue. I will confess that this is not usually a very enjoyable way to read – or at least not for fiction – and I find it does not (unlike some of the other techniques I mention here) help me come to a good appreciation of the merits of the book. Very often, if I’ve done this, I seem to remain mystified as to why others speak so highly of it. I don’t know if this is just because tastes differ, or if it’s because this technique really doesn’t give a genuinely good book a chance to reveal itself to me. I save this method for things I am really not enjoying but must give at least a cursory reading. It allows you to have a semi-intelligent conversation about it with someone (perhaps the person who recommended it) down the line.
  4. Start again. Sometimes if I’m 30 pages into a book I’m not enjoying, the best thing to do is turn back and start again. Usually on a second reading I find it easier to get on the book’s on-ramp and pick up momentum. Not all books are initially appealing, not all open up in the same way with a first reading and by the time I’m at page 30 (or 50 or 100) hopefully I’ve learnt a little bit about what the book is doing, which helps me to approach it with more appropriate expectations the second time around. If you need to give a book a good read for whatever reason, I recommend this technique for getting a lot more out of the book than perhaps you might if you try the next method on my list.
  5. Give yourself a daily page goal and push through. This is a tip from one of my thesis supervisors and I do not enjoy doing it but it will get you to the end of the book. Read perhaps 25 pages a day. When you reach your daily target you can stop (though if you’re lucky enough to be in a section you’re enjoying you might consider pushing on).
  6. Read a review or listen to a podcast about the book. Maybe you’re missing something. Maybe the reviewer might offer you a way into the book you hadn’t seen. Is the author doing something particular with the language you hadn’t noticed? Be careful to avoid spoilers if these will slow you down further (podcasts are more likely to spoil books than newspaper reviews but usually they will warn you up front if they are the type of format that reveals spoilers). That said, the promise of an interesting plot point further down the line might be what you need to to be able pull yourself through a book you’re not enjoying.
  7. If you have time: put it away for a while. Maybe the time is wrong. If you don’t have to read it this month, you might enjoy it more in 6 months time. Books don’t go off. Often they get better with a bit of waiting.

Usually, when I’m able to push through a book I’m not enjoying I find it pays off in one way or another. Many people have the experience that a book they initially resisted, or that they had to put away for a few years, turns out to be one of their favourites so stay positive and read on. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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