Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

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American Writers Review 2022 is here!

Barry Lee Thompson

My contributor copy of the latest American Writers Review arrived yesterday. San Fedele Press has done it again, and produced a beautiful piece of art – a treasure trove of writing and images. I can’t wait to delve in.

American Writers Review 2022 | The End or the Beginning? (San Fedele Press)

To find out how you can lay your hands on a copy of this terrific literary journal, visit the link below:
American Writers Review

Happy reading and writing, as always.

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Shuggie Bain — another novel from the Booker long list

This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.

Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart plunges us into the slimy, putrified ghastly poverty of 1980s Glasgow and we are held there, as though under water, not allowed to surface for the entire 430 pages of the novel. It is a world of ill-fitting dentures, dirty underwear, the stink of vomit — yet I found it a compelling read. I am normally irritated when writers incorporate regional accents into their work. But the Glaswegian brogue enlivens every page and I loved it.

How did a 16 year-old boy come to be living alone in a dirty bedsit alongside down and out old men, mainly drunks, working in a supermarket deli and occasionally going to school? The book tells us how this came about.

It is about the relentless and unbreakable cycles of poverty and alcoholism.

Hugh, known as Shuggie, is the child of Agnes Bain’s second marriage. He is thus much younger than her other children. The husband (Shug) dumps his family in a remote and rundown housing estate out at Pithead but never lives there with them. A daughter finds refuge in a marriage that takes her to South Africa and Shuggie’s older brother, Leek, who was offered a place at university two years ago that he has been unable to take up, stays around to try to help young Shuggie ‘act normal’. But to the other kids Shuggie is a ‘wee poofter’ and is mercilessly teased. Agnes took to drink long before Shug dumped them at the Pithead estate. With an alcoholic’s desperation she uses whatever money she can get her hands on to satisfy her need — even after robbing the gas meter and the meter on the TV set, the family often has to go without a hot dinner. And yet, Agnes has a certain pride. When she’s not in a drunken stupor, the house is neat and tidy and she takes great trouble in her appearance, keeping her hair dyed and pantyhose unladdered. Shuggie has a desperate love for her, believing that he must be able to make her better. As a reviewer in The Guardian says, ‘something sadder than heroism is Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother’.

There is brief hope when Agnes joins AA and goes for a year without a drink. But a new boyfriend entices her back one evening at a posh golf club dinner, and after that it takes only a matter of hours for her to be back in an alcoholic stupor. She is ashamed of herself. There is a suicide attempt, but she is rescued by her sons.

The book would be unbearable were it not for the love that is the foundation of Shuggie’s devotion to his mother. Even when she dies (after a night out on the town, brought home by the police), Shuggie makes sure that Agnes looks as she would want. He puts fresh red lipstick on his dead mother’s lips and, for her funeral, improvises some earrings.

Broken Rules and Other Stories, update

Barry Lee Thompson

Some early reviews of the book have appeared. There’s a write-up in Westerly, here, and one from The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, here.

The book’s release date is now 1 September, owing to the COVID-19 reschedule. There’s a chance it might come out a bit earlier, possibly late August. But the main thing is it’s printed and waiting to meet the world. For more info, visit Transit Lounge at their website, below.

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Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto

I first heard the remarkable Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, in 2001 at a Huntington Music Festival – he was then in his early twenties and I remember being amazed by his versatility: dynamism coupled with tenderness. Also at that festival was a young Benjamin Martin – now a leading Australian pianist. As a part of his diverse career as soloist and composer, Pekka is Artistic Director of the ACO Collective – described as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ‘regional touring and education ensemble’ of ‘emerging’ professional string players.

Pekka and ACO collective

Pekka Kuusisto leading the ACO Collective

Pekka is a good friend of composer Nico Muhly (who worked as an editor of Philip Glass), and the two came together last December to present a memorable concert.

Pekka 2

Pekka Kuusisto

After a five minute ‘Drone Meditation’, which maybe served as a kind of warm-up, we heard a duet for two violins by Steve Reich, played by Pekka and Harry Ward, which demonstrated the idea of canons ‘drifting out of sync’ while the ACO strings shimmered away in the background. There was then an arrangement for strings of Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here. Originally a string quartet, the piece depicts a couple’s long-term relationship. After interval we heard Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise. The piece depicts the many colours of Birds of Paradise and large sections of the music were bird calls.

Pekka 4There was a world première of Welsh composer Alex Mills’s One is Fun, which was described in the program notes as ‘a constant state of intrigued stress’ – a push and pull effect created by the two violin soloists (Pekka, and Liisa Pallandi). The final programmed piece was another world première of Nico Muhly’s, Shrink: Concerto for Violin and Strings, which had been commissioned by the ACO and Melbourne Recital Centre. As the composer tells us, each of the three movements ‘obsesses’ over certain intervals – ninths in the first movement, sixths in the second and in the final movement ‘a tiny set of anxious intervals between unisons and fourths’. He describes the unisons as ‘coming in and out of focus’.

Nico Muhly 2

Nico Muhly in his studio

This was indeed a mind-blowing concert. But it didn’t end with the final programmed item. The concert program invited audience members to ‘please get a drink and join us back… for Breaking Ground, a special duo set that will include improvisation and Finnish folk songs’. What generosity! After their demanding concert program, Nico Muhly played piano and, as well as improvising on his violin, Pekka, at times, sang and whistled. One could sense the pure joy of music-making shared by these two extremely talented musicians.

Nico Muhly and Pekka 1

Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly







French Film Festival: Non Fiction


non fiction 4

This film, directed by Olivier Assayas will have special appeal to writers. There are animated discussions about the nature of fiction, the future of print media — everyone huddled over wine and finger food. I felt very much at home!

Near the end of the film there is a reference to words from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: Everything must change so that everything can stay the same. And indeed, this can be seen as the main premise of the film — most significantly as a response to discussions about the future of literature, but also as an underpinning to the lives of the main characters in the film. Should the publishing company focus on E-Books and audiobooks? There is an amusing suggestion that Juliette Binoche would be a good person to read a particular audiobook: Binoche plays the part of Selena in the film.

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Leonard , played by Vincent Macaigne

The film opens with writer Leonard discussing his latest book with his publisher. He has published several books — Leonard describes his writing as ‘auto-fiction’ — but his critics say it is actually autobiography — a case of blurring the line between fact and fiction, because each book is about one of Leonard’s affairs — and we, the audience, discover that his latest affair is with Selena, the wife of his publisher. Unaware of this, the publisher tells Leonard that, on this occasion, he won’t offer Leonard a contract.

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Leonard with Selena

Leonard is a lovable, seemingly naive character. When Selena breaks off the affair, Leonard tries to tell his wife, who isn’t particularly interested. At the end of the film, we are on tenterhooks when Leonard and his wife have a beach-house lunch with Selena and her publisher husband. Will the truth about Leonard and Selena’s relationship slip out? It comes close when Leonard, in his naive way, admits that he’s been to the house before — he must have gone there on some occasion with Selena. All is well — and the countryside, a remote beach, is beautiful. On the way home, Leonard and his wife take a break (they are on a motor scooter) and, lying under a beautiful coastal pine tree, his wife tells him she is pregnant. Leonard seems stunned, but ultimately delighted. His writing will probably take a new direction. And near the end of the film there is mention of a ‘spike’ in the sale of print books in the US.


Brian Aldiss: master of metaphor

Maybe this is a grandiose claim, and I am referring to only one book by Aldiss. But, as I read Comfort Zone, his novel published in 2013, when he would have been 88, I found that I was picking out more favourite phrases and metaphors than usual. So I decided to write something in the ‘Writing’ category of my blog, rather than a book review. As I read, I kept saying to myself, this man who at the time had been writing books for more than 60 years, really knows how to write.

I took a little while to get into this book, in which we are confined by the daily routines of an 80 year-old man living in a village on the outskirts of Oxford. But the writing is beautiful, with an underlying wit and honesty about what it’s like to be shuffling around in your eighties. At one point Aldiss finds the need to jump into the text and tell us that the main character, Justin, isn’t him. In parallel with coping with life: the end of a love affair, an adult disabled son, the need for a medley of medications, Justin works on a thesis about the evils done by religions in the world today and the suggestion that everything is governed by chance.

Some metaphors and phrases that I particularly liked are:

windows with their pouting sills (page 8)

complaint crept in like a hungry slug among lettuces
(page 32)

a woman of bustling corpulence
(page 78)

the summit of Justin’s happiness
(page 97)

[a face] alight with anger
(page 110)

his rickety old voice
(page 122)

his … voice clogged with a junket of hope and dread
(page 254)

[a] tumbledown man
(page 264)

the suited man whinnied with laughter
(page 290)

Charlotte Wood:The Natural Way of Things

This book won the 2016 Stellar Prize for women’s writing. The language is masterful, conveying a pent up, simmering anger towards misogyny that is rife in our present society. Through the book we suffer the experiences of ten young women – some still in their teens –who come to from a drugged state and find themselves in a horrifying captivity. The story is told from the viewpoint of two of these young women, Yolanda and Verla.  In some ways the prison – a kind of run-down remote sheep station – is timeless. The girls are forced to wear scratchy uniforms and have their hair shaved like women in 19th century prisons. Yet they are contained by a high and powerful electric fence. Along with Yolanda and Verla, it takes some time for the reader to realise why the girls have been imprisoned. But we come to realise that each has been involved in some kind of sexual misadventure – scandals involving powerful men, footballers, a politician; the kinds of situations where the victim is accused of being the perpetrator. The novel has been labelled dystopian. How plausible is it that in today’s world, Hardings International Agency might run such a prison to remove women whose presence is an inconvenience (the politician, for example does not want his wife, or his electors to find out about the affair)? Force the women into hard labour, situate them in a place that is completely removed from any form of communication, feed them nothing but watery powdered food. What happens?

I do not see this as any kind of fantasy novel although some aspects are implausible.  The two guards seem to be imprisoned too. Supplies run out (and the electricity goes off, though not the electricity for the fence) but Boncer and Ted can do nothing about it. A pathetic woman, Nancy, who is supposed to be a kind of nurse, is almost as much a captive as the girls. Ultimately the girls kill their two captors, but this doesn’t mean they can escape through the fence. And prior to this they offer up (or force to submit) one of their own as a ‘sacrifice’ to Boncer’s sexual needs. There is no sense of sisterly bonding. Hetty waits ‘lumpish and squinting’ to face her ordeal – which ultimately leads to her suiciding by touching the fence.

For Yolanda and Verla there is some kind of return to the ‘natural way’, where Yolanda gradually, almost metamorphoses into a rabbit and Verla has a kind of obsession (not an addiction) with mushrooms. These women will not return to their former world or their former selves. Whereas – implausibly again – after months of captivity and after their captors have been killed, a bus comes to collect the remaining girls and – an overwhelming cynicism here – they delight in the expensive department store sample bags that are distributed to them. The bus takes them through the electric fence’s gate (and Yolanda and Verla slip through too), but where will it take the girls?  ‘The girls . . .burrow back into their treasures, not caring, not seeing that the bus turns west, not east.’ [page 309] And when the bus driver says, You poor girls. He ‘did not mean what had happened to them back there. He meant what was to come.’ [page 309]

Metaphors and phrases I like

As a new writer, I often marvel at the language of other more experienced writers. One beautifully chosen word sums up a feeling or paints a picture. So for a couple of years now, I’ve been ‘collecting’ these examples as I read. I use an index card as a bookmark. I usually have a pen nearby, so it is no trouble to record these phrases when I read them. I apologise that I haven’t noted all the publication details of the books. Here are ten phrases from my collection.

Judge Beggs lay on his stern iron bed Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz, p.16
The leggy pier Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water, p 134
The clatter of his wife’s existence Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, p 33
The glacial neatness of Mrs Peniston’s drawing-room Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, p 42
Their fathers were all ruddy, explosive men Toni Jordan: Addition, p. 41
The hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p.120
Nancy, dressed at enormous expense by the greatest artists in Paris, stood there looking as if her body had merely put forth, of its own accord, a green frill. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, page 157
They stay turtled up to the bar Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, p.199
the ceiling fan’s blades . . . slowly shucked time Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, p.146
the red and grey huddle of Kiplington Winifred Holtby: South Riding, p. 61

Here are ten more that I’ve collected:

My heart flopped in my chest like a hooked fish. Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, p.45
Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. Cormac McCarthy: The Road
the words fidgeted in her mouth Markus Zusak: The Book Thief, p. 147
a gust of annoyance Cate Kennedy: Former Glory (novella), p.34
irrepressible vitality Vera Brittain: Testament of Friendship
a crackling aura of purpose Helen Garner: This House of Grief p.169
curdled with contempt Helen Garner: This House of Grief p.224
We were all standing in a soup of grief. Margaret Drabble: The Pure Gold Baby p. 177
her nicotine-cadenced throat Margaret Drabble: The Pure Gold Baby p.182
her red coat bled into view Emily Bitto: The Strays p.1
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