You know that feeling when you get on a reading roll? You finish a few books in quick succession and it’s like you’ve taken on this momentum. You have...moreYou know that feeling when you get on a reading roll? You finish a few books in quick succession and it’s like you’ve taken on this momentum. You have to be lucky with the books you pick though or you bog yourself in something that allows itself to be put down midway through and forgotten about. Tony Birch’s second collection of short stories, Father’s Day was certainly not one of those books that you could put down for too long.
It’s a subtle yet incredibly moving collection of short fiction that’s over-arching themes can be best described as dealing with family, those on the fringes of society and characters with something missing. After reading the story ‘Shadowboxing’ and his novel Blood last year, I have come to love not just how Birch is drawn toward dealing with marginal characters, like I do in my own writing, but his realist mode of writing. It is direct and unobtrusive. The danger I find with collections of short fiction is the pause between each piece and having to immerse yourself in a new one each time. But Birch’s realism allows for you to do that easily. You are not lost each time in thick obscure description in the beginning. Birch places you in the scene clearly and immediately. It is like the author is not even there.
But I guess critics of writing like Birch’s would argue that there is no art to it, and Birch often breaks the rule that you’re meant to “show not tell” but he does it so well. The statement of “fact” and the placement of those events without the intervention of the author is in itself quite moving. And to me, the style and the insignificant way in which he finishes most of his stories conveys a realism situated in the often mundane, subtle and trivial details that portray what it is to be a marginal character in society, so much so that they seem to be the kinds of stories that other writers would overlook and deem not significant enough to tell.
I’m someone who looks for books that punch you in the stomach. I look for great, cataclysmic events that leave me breathless. This collection is not like that but still leaves me thinking this is a very good collection of short stories. There are moments when pieces feel unfinished, but necessarily so and the sense of loss you get from some of them is a reaction that I think is not always the one you seek, but I think worthwhile all the same.(less)
I read it in just two-sittings last week, on the way to Perth and then back again. I read The Slap a few years ago and it’s a novel I still think abou...moreI read it in just two-sittings last week, on the way to Perth and then back again. I read The Slap a few years ago and it’s a novel I still think about, and had been meaning to read more of his work, and my friends had raved about Loaded.
It is sharp and intense. It’s about a 19-year-old boy Ari who likes to have sex and take a lot of drugs, and it takes place over one night. The novel moves seamlessly through the various places he goes out to, to the various people he meets. It feels a little like a drug trip as you read it, but it’s never just drugs and sex and nothing under the surface.
As with many successful novels, I think Tsiolkas has managed to nail the voice, along with a kind of minimalism that is not too over the top. The casual language and pace make it easy to keep reading and finish in a short while. There is politics there. It alludes to a feeling of apathy and powerlessness that I think was a common mood of the 90s and it speaks a lot to me about the motivations for the kind of lifestyle Ari leads, without being patronising about it, perhaps because it also feels to me as if it might be semi-autobiographical. There are details that seem to match up.
I saw Tsiolkas speak at the Wheeler Centre a few weeks back, where I bought the book and got him to sign it. He did a reading from his forthcoming novel, Barracuda. Like someone like Tony Birch, he has a fascination for characters perhaps marginal, perhaps just those overlooked. I’m interested in that too as a writer. But I’ve only just discovered them recently, never the kinds of texts they gave to me in high-school, but then I wonder if I would’ve read them then.(less)
First Doctorow novel I've read and the world-building and futuristic pop culture references kind of hook you in and the novel is pretty quick to read....moreFirst Doctorow novel I've read and the world-building and futuristic pop culture references kind of hook you in and the novel is pretty quick to read. Kept coming back to it even though I was meant to be reading Kakfa and other such fiction for uni. Geeks will love it and at the same time, Doctorow seems to have a healthy injection of skepticism about the state in the way he constructs the world.(less)
I had come across Tony Birch during a class last semester on short fiction. We were introduced to Shadowboxing and I was struck by his well written wo...moreI had come across Tony Birch during a class last semester on short fiction. We were introduced to Shadowboxing and I was struck by his well written working-class characters and his ability to impart meaning and depth of character in simple things like a father trying to teach his son boxing. It was also a realisation that I was beginning to enjoy this ‘minimalist’ style that I’ve been reading. I was also surprised to find that Blood is Birch’s debut novel, which seems like an inexact label given his experience with short fiction and notable collections.
Blood reminds me a lot of MJ Hyland’s This is How for the use of minimalist prose, very exact and simple yet conveying a lot in the actions of the characters, but also for Birch and Hyland’s ability to say a lot whilst a lot of the plot surrounds everyday things. There is something about the style that makes reading the text addictive and able to read it very quickly. The events seem to happen at the level of the individual characters rather than worldly events, perhaps this is something I’ve noticed as I read less ‘genre’ fiction and more ‘literary.’
In Blood, Jessie, with his sister Rachel, narrates their lives of moving about a lot with their mother, Gwen, who doesn’t like to be called ‘mum’, and trying to grow up, whilst Gwen lives in hope with each new partner and they essentially have to look after themselves. You really get a sense of how shit it is to live a childhood so unstable, unable to root yourself anywhere. The two kids don’t seem to have any friends other than each other. It is an experience coming out of their class background and the nature of Gwen only being able to find casual work in bars.
And whilst in some senses the family can be seen as an institution that holds people back, for Jessie and Rachel, their bond is all they really have. It is their only hope when everyone and everything around them doesn’t seem to care about them or what happens to them. This is symbolised in both of them cutting into their fingers and rubbing their blood together so they can be ‘whole’ brother and sister after their mother reveals that they are born to different fathers. Their family histories to Gwen are often treated like accusations of how they are not normal, like when Gwen refers back to Jessie’s indigenous father.
It is out of the story of their transitory lives and getting to know Jessie and Rachel, that Birch is able to impact us as readers so successfully when the stakes of the plot become much higher. The ending, though open ended and leaving you raw, hits you with the contrast as it all escalates beyond something so ordinary, like we could have lived that life ourselves to make you feel that perhaps your own life could unravel and be thrown upside down like that. Birch says in his acknowledgements that he has no idea how it ends. I might have felt a little cheated after I turned the last page, but it seems apt. Where do Jessie and Rachel live now? I wonder about them as I would a real pair of siblings.(less)
I’ll begin with an important (and exciting) disclosure that my piece ‘Occupying Writers’ appears in this important collection about writers and writing, so that may taint my view of the book. In that light, this isn’t particularly objective, but the best way to get an idea about the book is to read it.
Edited by Karen Pickering and published by the wonderful Emerging Writers’ Festival, I really recommend this collection to writers, especially those hovering around that label: ‘Emerging.’ It contains pieces by a whole variety of emerging and emerged writers, on a whole variety of topics, from the technical to the organic and inspirational, from a variety of perspectives, and across a variety of questions and issues.
I read it cover to cover (including an overly critical reading of my own piece) and I guess I immersed myself in it, like I did the festival, but it’s something you can read at your pace, around other books, and look back to for guidance if you’re struggling with something in particular.
There were a few pieces that particularly struck me and gave me a bit to think about. The first was Johannes Jakob’s piece, ‘How to Behave Around a Dying Gazelle.’ It struck a nerve of familiarity with me as he talked about how we as writers, for better or for worse, conflate ourselves with our work, and that success or failure of your writing can feel like it’s a judgement on you as a person. The anxiety of how, or if, people receive a piece of my writing, or if they turn up to a spoken word gig, often feels more important to me than more personal occasions like birthdays, but Jakob’s piece gave me food for thought.
The other piece was by Sam Cooney with the awfully long title, ‘If Kurt Vonnegut Can Start Out Writing Pretty Bad Science Fiction Stories and Still End Up Becoming Kurt Vonnegut, Maybe There’s Hope?’ Cooney manages to articulate something else that I have a familiar feeling about, the struggle to do justice to the events or ideas we’re trying to express through writing. Sometimes writing feels like a real struggle and that you haven’t quite managed to succeed in putting into words what you had in your head.
Other pieces by Maria Papas, Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Stephanie Honor Convery, Tiggy Johnson, Kirsten Innes, Esther Anatolitis and Karen Andrews all manage to do similar things and resonate with me. They have personal resonance with my own writing life, the issues I am facing and the stage I’m at with my writing. I’m sure other readers will have similar or completely different pieces that particular grab them and make them think, clarify and move forward as writers.(less)
I used to think there was a divide between ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poetry. I was clearly in the later camp and didn’t think I liked much poetry for the page, except perhaps Sylvia Plath. But Ashes in the Air by Ali Alizadeh was part of showing me that it’s just a matter of finding page poetry that you like, understand and can connect with.
I’m not exactly sure how you read a poetry book, let alone review. I suppose everyone is different. I basically read it cover to cover, perhaps like you’d read a prose novel, with a pause after each poem to think and breathe. I stopped at a few poems in particular, either to read them over because I was really moved by them or because a first reading was not sufficient and it took me a few more to gain full understanding, or at least enough to get something out of it. I think perhaps you read poetry books a few times and keep coming back to it. Or that’s how I intend to approach it.
But I think reading poetry collections in general can feel a little foreign, to even spoken word poets like myself. I was force fed a bit of poetry in school, but never really made it a habit, beyond being struck by Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and ‘Meatworks by Robert Gray. They are two poems in particular that I remember as moving me. I was introduced to spoken word much later and found it accessible, much more than some of the poetry I read in various literary journals and so my opinion about the page and stage divide began to form in my head.
This is important for readers to see where I’m coming from with this review. I have often felt that page poetry requires an advanced education to gain full understanding, which is very much the opposite of something like slam, but Alizadeh’s collection Ashes in the Air really impressed with me with how accessible it felt to me, even though I had to read a couple a few times over. Is that how you read poetry? Is there a right way?
I bought the book after meeting Ali at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in May. In one of the ‘Embassy sessions,’ one of the issues that came up was about the poet’s persona and whether that was important. I feel like it is, and that meeting the poet in question helped to gain an understanding of his work. It’s just a matter of knowing some basic biographical details, perhaps how he speaks and the issues he’s concerned about outside of poetry that allow for this. Does it allow a poet to get to the heart of creating the imagery and poetics without having to labour over explaining details to put the poems in context?
His poetry deals with issues of travel, migration, coming from Iran and living in Australia. The poems that struck me the most were ‘Shut Up’ about an Iranian asylum seeker in detention (I’m always on the look-out for affecting poetry about refugees and asylum seekers in Australia) as well as ‘The Guns of Northcote’ which talks of gentrification and poverty in Melbourne.
Often the choice of how the lines are placed, and where there are line breaks are not obvious to me, with all page poetry, but in this case, it does not prevent me from that simple level of understanding and from there, the more subtle. The form does not force you to live or die in making sense of it, but it allows you to focus on the content of the poems, and the images, which to me seems the most important part. You can write nice sounding poetry, but if it fails to mean anything then it leaves the reader wanting. Alizadeh does not leave me wanting.(less)