Steamy, evocative Shanghai

I’m just back from a three week visit to China – smoggy, stately Beijing and steamy, glitzy Shanghai.

If you are ever in Shanghai, I wholeheartedly recommend the Shikumen Open House Museum in the French Concession area. Shikumen are stone courtyard houses running off narrow alleyways. There are similar houses in Beijing’s hutongs – some of the old areas that have escaped the massive development in the city. You can see them in pockets set back from major roads. Some of the houses have been converted into hotels, and you can stay there (and have all the mod cons never dreamed of by the original residents).

China, at least in the big cities, is truly monumental, dwarfing mere humans. That’s why the open house museum in Shanghai was so evocative to me. It’s small in scale, one house, making attention to detail easier. I loved the sense of something familiar – gramophone, movie posters, children’s books, hairbrushes – mixed with the exotic – Chinese tea sets, dark wooden screens, a cramped ‘servants’ courtyard’ to dry washing on poles.

There is a sense of that strange westernisation of the East that occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century (see my review of The Makioka Sisters). Perhaps its epitome is the cheongsam, the beautiful close-fitting silk dresses, western-styled in essence but with elegant Chinese detail.

On a writerly theme the shikumen had a small uncomfortable corner room (cold in winter, hot in summer) that was often rented out to aspiring writers. The writer’s room in the museum has notebook, pens and typewriter but, how wonderful that there were so many writers to occupy all the houses (a bit like Newtown or Fitzroy in Australia today!).

There’s a nice review of the Shikumen museum in the Sydney Morning Herald which you can read here.

What’s so haunting about the lifestyle depicted in the museum is how short-lived it was. By 1937, the Japanese had invaded China, and Shanghai was occupied until 1945, and by 1949 Mao Zedong had established the People’s Republic of China.

Somewhere I read that many of the westerners, who might have lived in Shanghai for generations, and survived internment during the war thought they could carry on as usual after the war (with their privileged lifestyle) not realising everything had changed.

As so often happens when you’re travelling, you yearn to read fiction about the places you’re visiting – to get behind the surface and immerse yourself in atmosphere, story, insight.

I have to admit to not being able to find a bookstore with many English language titles, so I was at a bit of a loss. However when in Beijing, I had a drink in the Writers’ Bar – at the Raffles Hotel. Nice hotel but it’s a bit of a cheat to have a writer’s bar there – the original being in Singapore where some actual writers did drink – Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, most notably.

From the B&W photos adorning the Beijing version I think they are confusing communist party luminaries with literary types but, I give them their due, they did have one bookshelf of foreign language titles and in this I found Flower Net by Lisa See, a mystery thriller set mostly in Beijing.

Lisa See begins to do for Beijing what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did for turn-of-the-century London or Dashiell Hammett did for 1920s San Francisco: She discerns the hidden city lurking beneath the public façade says The Washington Post on the back cover blurb. What more could you ask?

Well, a Lisa See book set in Shanghai and she’s delivered on that too with Shanghai Girls about two sisters who live a comfortable life in Shanghai in the thirties but who have to flee when the war breaks out and end up in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Lisa See has written a number of novels set in China, historical and contemporary. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan which, among other things is about a secret women’s form of writing has now been made into a film. See has also written a sequel to Shanghai Girls called Dreams of Joy.

Tiger’s Wife wins Orange Prize

There’s a lot of buzz around this book and it’s quite amazing as Tea Obreht is only 25 years old. The head of the judging panel Bettany Hughes (of Helen of Troy fame) said: 

“The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.

“The book reminds us how easily we can slip into barbarity, but also of the breadth and depth of human love. Obreht celebrates storytelling and she helps us to remember that it is the stories that we tell about ourselves, and about others, that can make us who we are and the world what it is.” 

Women and literary awards

There has been a brouhaha about the three-book short list for the Miles Franklin Award – the list being all male. The year before last, there was also a controversy when the long list was all male, so the judges would have been well aware of what they were doing, in this case. I’m sure the three books on the list are worthy – they are high-end literary and  dealing (at least with Bereft and the That Deadman Dance) with pretty serious issues (When Colts Ran is an outback, male-centred story). But as many other people have said: are male writers really that much better than female writers? Or do men choose what our culture still regards as more weighty, serious, important subjects and treatments, and thus these works are more suited to a culturally prestigious award?

Of the novels that have won the Miles Franklin for the last 10 years, only two are by women – Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (Hazzard is a very intellectual serious novelist of the old school) and the other was Carpentaria by indigenous writer Alexis Wright – a big and highly ambitious work.

The ten all up are:

* 2010 Peter Temple Truth
* 2009 Tim Winton Breath
* 2008 Steven Carroll The Time We Have Taken
* 2007 Alexis Wright Carpentaria
* 2006 Roger McDonald The Ballad of Desmond Kale
* 2005 Andrew McGahan The White Earth
* 2004 Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
* 2003 Alex Miller Journey to the Stone Country
* 2002 Tim Winton Dirt Music
* 2001 Frank Moorhouse Dark Palace.

Barbara Jefferis

I have to admit to not having read a single one of the above. I started Dark Palace but hated it. I also started Dirt Music and didn’t get very far with that either. Now I come to think of it, a certain masculine outlook in both books turned me off. I also avoided Truth , after trying to read The Broken Shore, and again not being able to get onto the wavelength of the writer (I know I’m in a minority here).

So perhaps reading the Miles Franklin winner is like eating your greens – you know it’s good for you even if it’s not to your taste. If it’s any consolation to the women who perpetually miss out on the award, I think women writers have a bigger readership than male writers (Tim Winton excepted).

The whole issue of women missing out on major literary prizes was the impetus behind the Orange Prize in the UK and, ironically, there have been rumblings over the last few years over whether there should be a prize based on gender at all (the playing field being so flat now, after all!!) There is a women-only prize in Australia, the Kibble Literary Award (for novels and life writing), and it is quite lucrative at $30,000, but who has heard of it?

There is also the Barbara Jefferis Award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. This definition means that male authors can also enter (only one brave male did so last time). G L Osborne won the most recent award with Come Inside. But, sad to say, this award hardly rates national media attention (although the Orange prize is quite high profile). So I guess you could say having such prizes doesn’t really address the problem of womens’ writing being regarded as less culturally significant than mens’.

The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was, up until his death, regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. The Makioka Sisters is his most famous novel translated into 14 languages. The English language translation by Edward Seidensticker was published in 1957.

The Makioka Sisters (published in Japan as A Light Snowfall – 1943-48) covers five years in the lives of four sisters in pre-second world war Osaka. What struck me most about the book is its leisurely style. Although it was written in the early forties there is definitely something of the late Victorian era about it.

The story is mostly told through the point of view of Sachiko, the happily married second sister and her responses to the predicaments of her other sisters, in particular, Taeko, the youngest and most modern of the sisters and the enigmatic Yukiko.

The drama of the story resides in the ongoing attempts to find Yukiko a husband – arranged marriages still occur for well-to-do families – and in the attempts by Taeko to be independent from her family, and to choose her own husband and have control of her own life.

The trials and tribulations take place in a tightly controlled society where “the main house”, that is, the house of Sachiko’s eldest sister and her husband (who has married in to the family and is now its head) has precedence over the sisters’ lives, and who they must defer to.

The beauty of the book is the minutiae of Japanese life at a fascinating period. In some ways Japan was westernised at the time, especially in the main cities. People travelled overseas and foreigners working for Japanese firms were common.

The Makiokas’ houses have Japanese rooms and Western rooms and the women wear both kimono and Western clothes. I was under the misapprehension that Japan was a very traditional society until being westernised after the war.

I also loved the aspects of Japanese life which haven’t changed for centuries- (just read the eleventh-century The Tale of Genji – which incidentally Tanizaki translated into modern Japanese) – the love of music, dance, kabuki and poetry. A scene I particularly loved was when Sachiko, her husband, and her daughter, sit down to write haiku poetry after viewing the autumn moon from the garden. Yukiko is away and homesick in Tokyo so they roll up the poems and tie them with sheaves of autumn grass to send off to her.

The family tensions and drama are given added poignancy because we know (as the characters do not and neither did the author at the time he began to write the novel) that very soon the war will bring utter devastation to Japan that will irrevocably change their way of life.

The novel was serialised beginning in 1943, at the height of war, and it fell foul of the Japanese censors and publication was halted. The full novel, in three parts, was published after the war.

After going so far with the Makiokas, through floods, sickness, miscarriages, I found the ending abrupt and somehow unsatisfying. The fates of the sisters were not bright enough nor dramatic enough, but perhaps that’s my cultural expectation, especially as the novel takes the Victorian family saga form in which we’re used to seeing our heroines richly rewarded for their trials.

Analysis of wings

I borrowed a copy of Karen Foxlee’s Anatomy of Wings from the library a while ago and enjoyed this coming of age story a lot. I scanned the cover of the trade paperback as part of a number of books whose covers featured parts of women and girls’ bodies (see under ‘covers’ category).

As A of W was published in 2007, I thought I’d check whether, the author had published a follow up book to her debut. As far as I can tell she hasn’t published anything new, but I did notice some new covers for her book.

It’s always heartening when an Australian novel, especially a debut one, has a shelf life and I was pleased to note University of Queensland Press has reissued A of W. It is also interesting to note that they have put out teachers’ notes for it for senior students so the novel must be on a curriculum somewhere.

My research (such as it is) has also revealed that the novel is also published in the UK and the US.

What a great thing for Karen Foxlee, especially as A of W is set in small town Australia (Mt Isa) and, despite being beautifully written and a bit mysterious in a Lovely Bones kind of way, is also pretty hard-hitting re sex and violence.

Foxlee’s talent has certainly been recognised. She won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author and used this award to work on her manuscript for A of W. She also won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book South East Asia and Pacific Region) and the Dobbie Award.

It’s quite interesting to work out what the designers are doing with the covers. Obviously the new UQP cover (top) is aimed at that high school/YA market but I think it misrepresents the book somewhat. For some reason, it looks to me like the cover to something by Isabel Allende. On the other hand, the ‘this is serious’ literature vibe, suits a school text.

The old UQP cover (second from top) appealed to an older female readership. It’s quite evocative – I like the feel of dry grass in a summer backyard and going around in bare feet but it suggests the narrator, who’s ten, is much younger.

On the whole I think UK book designers (third) are much closer to the Australian sensibility than the US ones. Here the UK design goes for a prairie-like look (don’t think Mt Isa has wheat fields but I could be wrong). However, they’ve got the age right of the girl and the idea that she’s on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. Plus they’ve got two suggestions of ‘wings’. The kite and the strange feathery sky suggestive of angel’s wings.

The US cover (bottom) is in the ‘body parts’ style and the ‘realism’ of the photography would be more in keeping with a non-fiction book here. They also have the female figure as much older – she probably represents the narrator’s older, troubled, sister, Beth. The clouds below her feet remind me of the film version of Lovely Bones. I’m sure that’s not accidental given the immense success of that book in the US.

Hint of freshness about Miles Franklin this year

I think the Miles Franklin Award long-list looks interesting this year. Absent are the mega names that turn up year after year. No Peter Carey, no David Malouf, no Alex Miller, no Helen Garner, Louis Nowra, Kate Grenville, Tim Winton etc. With the dinosaurs away, the small, furry mammals can peep out of their burrows. Okay, Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin back in 2000 with Benang but he’s hardly a household name and Roger McDonald won if for The Ballad of Desmond Kale a few years ago but, on the whole, the list is of newish or low-key writers.

John Bauer and Kirsten Tranter are debut authors and the nominations for Chris Womersley, Honey Brown and Patrick Holland are for their second books. It’s surprising to see Melina Marchetta there – not because she’s not a good writer, she’s a great writer – but because she’s known as a YA author (The Piper’s Son is short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Award under YA).

The long-list

  • Rocks in the Belly, Jon Bauer, Scribe Publications
  • The Good Daughter, Honey Brown, Viking (Penguin)
  • The Mary Smokes Boys, Patrick Holland, Transit Lounge Publishing
  • The Piper’s Son, Melina Marchetta, Viking (Penguin)
  • When Colts Ran, Roger McDonald, Vintage (Random House)
  • Time’s Long Ruin, Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press
  • That Deadman Dance, Dance, Kim Scott, Picador
  • The Legacy, Kirsten Tranter, 4th Estate
  • Bereft, Chris Womersley, Scribe Publications

The Three Miss Kings

Ada Cambridge

Ada Cambridge is an Australian author of the late 19th century. She was born in Norfolk in 1844 but came to Australia after marrying a clergyman at the age of 26. She lived in many rural towns in Victoria before settling in Melbourne. Like many 19th century women writers she wrote to supplement the family income. Ada was a very popular novelist in her day (she wrote 18 novels and this one The Three Miss Kings was published by Heinemann in the UK in 1891 after being serialised in the Australiasian in 1883) but like many 19th century Australian women writers such as Rosa Praed and “Tasma”, Jessie Couvreur, she is virtually unknown today.

This is a pity because The Three Miss Kings is not only an enjoyable read it also provides a portrait of colonial Melbourne and paints a picture of the mores of daily life at that time. While the novel is essentially a romance, like writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada also deals with social themes such as philanthropy, religious belief, the role of women, and class – but with a light touch.

The three Miss Kings are: the maternal Elizabeth, the eldest; Patty, outspoken and artistic; and the youngest, the more susceptible, Eleanor. At the outset of the novel they are in their twenties and recently orphaned living in a remote cottage “overlooking a wide bay of the Southern Ocean”. Their parents lived in obscurity but brought up their daughters in a romantic way, steeped in music, foreign languages and the natural world. After their father’s death the sisters determine to make their way in Melbourne on the small amount of money made on the sale of the cottage. Landing in Melbourne by steamer they are initially taken under the wing of Paul Brion, a journalist and the son of the sisters’ solicitor.

Of course it’s “improper” for an unrelated male to involve himself with the women alone so he introduces them to a society matron, Mrs Aarons. Paul is mistaken in his opinion of Mrs Aarons who snobbishly slights the unsophisticated sisters. However at one of Mrs Aarons’ soirees Patty plays the piano and impresses a German maestro. It is here we begin to see there is more to the sisters’ past than meets the eye. Paul also falls for Patty partly through her music – he listens to her playing from the balcony of his rooms which are next door to the modest house where the sisters live.

Also at the soiree is the kind-hearted but overbearing Mrs Duff-Scott. She sees the innate refinement of the sisters and hopes they will becomes the daughters she never had, showering them with fine clothes and introducing them to society.

Historical events of the day provide backdrops to two crucial scenes in the novel. At the procession for the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1880, Elizabeth becomes separated from her sisters and finds herself crushed by the press of spectators on the Treasury steps only to be saved by the strong arms of Kingscote Yelverton. And at that Australian institution, the Melbourne Cup, the sisters experience a social triumph. Shown to advantage in their special outfits they are universally admired as society beauties, but the Cup is also the scene of a misunderstanding between Patty and Paul that sends their budding romance onto the rocks of despair.

A turning point in the novel occurs when the sisters retreat from the tensions of their obligations to Mrs Duff-Scott and the choices to be made regarding suitors and return to their old home (conveniently bought by Paul’s father – the solicitor). Here a sightseeing trip to the local caves helps Elizabeth make up her mind about Yelverton and a chance discovery in the house leads to an unravelling of threads from the past.

Ada Cambridge sets up an intriguing dichotomy between “natural” worth – innate qualities such as artistic sensibility, sympathy to others, self-awareness – against social values such as wealth, position, custom, and I had hoped this would be developed more fully. However, as Audrey Tate states in her perceptive introduction, “in the earliest chapters the novel appears to be on the verge of developing an exciting feminist theme … but the pressures of society of one’s time are not easily disregarded”.

The novel may end as a conventional romance but Ada’s humour and irony shine through. Like Austen before her she employs a knowing omniscient narrator. When Elizabeth flings her arms around Yelverton’s neck, the narrator comments:

“It is not, I own, what a heroine should have done, whose duty it was to carry a difficulty of this sort through half a volume at least, but I am nevertheless convinced that my real Elizabeth did it, though I was not there to see—standing as she did, within a few inches of her lover, and with nothing to prevent them coming to a reasonable understanding.” p.249

For other reviews of Virago Modern Classics go to Book Snob or A Few of my Favourite Books and click on Virago Reading Week.

Virago reading week

Rachel at Book Snob and Carolyn from A Few of my Favourite Books blog have arranged a Virago Reading Week this week – from 24 Jan to 31 Jan. The idea is to celebrate Virago Modern Classics. Virago was bought up by Little, Brown but still publishes under the Virago imprint. The original company, though, was set up in the seventies to reissue forgotten women writers and publish new ones. The modern classics mostly covers late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century writers but a lot of the distinctive dark green-covered “refound” works are now also out of print. The reading week encourages us to scour our bookshelves and search out secondhand book shops to find these books and read them again.

I’m reading The Three Miss Kings by Australian author Ada Cambridge. The novel is set in Victoria in the 1880s and follows three recently orphaned sisters as they leave their beloved farm overlooking the southern ocean and relocate to Melbourne, and who knows, perhaps the world. I suspect they are going to learn a few life lessons in the face of their other-worldly ways and, of course, experience first love and romance. What better way to spend Australia Day than in the company of Ada?

A year of short stories

Last year I decided to dedicate myself to reading a short story a week for a year. That may not seem like much but, although I write short stories myself, they’re not my preferred reading matter and I felt guilty about it – how can I expect other people to read my stories when I don’t read theirs? – so I forced myself into a regime of at least a story a week (see the list of stories I read in 2010 under “Weekly Bread” link at right). After completing the year these are my reflections.

Short stories are hard to find

I had to go out of my way to find short stories to read – I wanted to read both classics and contemporary. I had some collections I’d already purchased such as UTS student anthologies and Best of Australian Stories. I also had the odd collection of short stories on my book shelves (and mostly I hadn’t read these). However, on the whole, I had to search out stories from other sources. I did buy a few collections, mostly anthologies, that I thought had a variety of stories of which I was bound to like some: Jeffrey Eugenides’ My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead and A S Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories, were two. The local library was also another obvious place but, as I discovered, short story collections make up a miniscule portion of the fiction holdings, plus they are hard to find being shelved in with the novels. In the end I also scoured the secondhand bookstores for collections to buy.

Contemporary short stories are published in the literary journals but I find these too expensive to buy to read one or two stories. There are hardly any stories published in cheaper sources such as women’s magazines (remember the old days when Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly regularly ran short stories?). The Big Issue is a notable exception with its regular annual fiction special.

Genre stories are even rarer

Literary stories have outlets in literary journals and the annual short story anthologies, however genre stories don’t appear to have a home. Surely there is as wide a readership for crime/speculative/thriller stories as there is for novels in these genres but this market isn’t catered for as far as I can see. When they do publish stories, genre writers publish them in their own collections – Joanne Harris’ Jigs and Reels, for instance. There is the odd big anthology in the library like the very enjoyable and high quality Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women and Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories, but there are not as many around as I would have expected.

Beware the editors of collections

I thought I’d purchase couple of anthologies and that would give me a head start in having a large number of stories to read. It hadn’t occurred to me before to scrutinise the editors of anthologies – I’d just look at the table of contents and if there was a couple of writers I liked, I might buy the book – but I learnt my lesson when I bought the Oxford Book of Short Stories edited by A S Byatt. Like a lot of people I loved Possession but I’d forgotten how dry and intellectual I found Byatt’s other novels. After sampling a few of the stories in the Oxford book I realised I didn’t see eye to eye with Byatt – I just don’t like the pieces she selected. To compound matters, I experienced the same thing with Jeffrey Eugenides’ collection. It’s supposed to be a collection of love stories but it’s as though Eugenides thought he’d have the last laugh on any sap who bought the book on the strength of the subtitle “great love stories from Chekhov to Munro”. I’d say these are stories that have a relationship at their centre and that’s about all. It’s also American-centric. However it does include an Alice Munro story I’ve wanted to read for some time, the great “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.

The best of the crop

Reading a lot of short stories from a wide variety of sources concentrated my thoughts on what I actually like about a short story. Unlike a novel I don’t invest so much in a short story so I can afford to read something I might otherwise not read, which is a good thing. On the other hand, lack of investment means it’s easier to give up on one story and move on to another.

On the whole I like a story that is a story, ie has a story arc and enough substance to sink my teeth into. For this reason I thoroughly enjoyed many of the fantasy stories in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women especially “The Lake of the Gone Forever” by Leigh Brackett and “The Ship who Sang” by Anne  McCaffrey.

I also appreciate beautiful, intricate writing in a short story, writing that might be too rich or tiresome in a longer form. In this category I loved “Bridge of Sighs” by Gail Jones, “The Kiss” by Angela Carter, Ted Hughes’ “The Rain Horse” and Annie Proulx’s quite magnificent “Testament of the Donkey” from her collection Fine Just the Way It Is.

Then there are the uncomfortable, sad themes I might baulk at in a novel such as Peter Goldsworthy’s “Shooting the Dog” and Eva Hornung’s “Life Sentence”.

Stories that hang in my mind and I’m not sure why are: Barbara Hanrahan’s “Tottie Tippet” set in 19th century South Australia and with an unforgettable narrator, the unlikely-named but moving “The Slovenian Giantess” by Penelope Lively, a completely unsettling story by Joyce Cary about a father and his daughters called “Growing Up” that I was amazed to find included in a 1964 anthology meant for schools, and a similarly unnerving story “The Fog Day” by Amy Patterson set in Papua New Guinea.

It was an enlightening experience to read so many stories, and one I’m going to repeat in 2011.

The Small Hand – Susan Hill

This book should have been right up my alley. It ticked all the boxes for a satisfying read. Narrator (antiquarian book dealer) stumbles into an old neglected garden and then feels a ghostly child’s hand take hold of his, a family secret, a possibility of madness, the ramping up of the haunting mixed with the searches for rare manuscripts and a remote monastery in France. Tick, tick, tick. It’s hardly original but handled well it can make for riveting reading, think Sarah Waters’ The Little Friend, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

So why did I find Hill’s book so dissatisfying? First and foremost it fails in its primary purpose which is to be frightening. The Small Hand just isn’t scary. I’m not sure why this is. It’s not as though Susan Hill can’t write terrifying books – The Woman in Black is deservedly recognised as one of the most chilling ghost stories ever written. I wonder if part of the problem is that the reader doesn’t empathise with the main character, the narrator – he is a rather stuffy, self-satisfied type and perhaps his retrospective reflections on his feelings of apprehension and fear distance the reader. There are too many “I shouldn’t have done that”, “if I had known”, “that was my last moment of peace”, “it  wasn’t a dream, it was real” etc.

Another problem may be the novella form. (The Small Hand is 130 pages or so long). Novellas have no sub-plots so they are of necessity a straight-forward telling, missing out on the complications a novel can provide. The Small Hand needed additional complexity to tease the reader more. As it is, the narrative is too obvious and the ending pretty lame. I also have a few quibbles with the standard of writing: repeated words, incorrect usages – a monk in the monastery in France says “for some months we are impassable” about being snowed-in in winter.

If you want an atmospheric ghost story, also in the novella form, Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts is more satisfying, proving that what a novella sacrifices in terms of narrative possibility can be made up via evocative writing.