A compelling and heartfelt collection from some of Australia's best writers.
Author and editor Lee Kofman sent out a request for personal essays about breaking up. It could be about any kind of separation or split: with people, objects, whatever. Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings is the result. A roster of well-known authors – Alice Pung, Graeme Simsion, A.S. Patric, Romona Koval, to name but a few – tackle all kinds of painful separation stories: marriage break-ups, difficult parents, coping with Alzheimer’s disease, coming out journeys, struggles with autism, scars left by childhood, sudden job losses and estrangement from one’s own country of birth.
Each story in this collection is intensely personal and compelling, almost confessional. The emotional range, honesty and deep introspection make Split read like a map of the human heart. While the subject matter is separation and loss, an equally strong theme that emerges is one of transition. Suffering leads to personal transformation.
A thoroughly bracing and enjoyable collection, pooling the wisdom of an impressive range of Australian writers. Split will appeal to fans of Leigh Sales’ Any Ordinary Day, her searching book about loss and grief. Honest and entertaining, with a cathartic effect, it would do well to fall into the hands of any troubled soul.
Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings, edited by Lee Kofman. Published by Ventura. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
Elizabeth Gilbert sets her new novel in New York's theatre world of the 1940s, creating a sparkling, cocktail fizz of a book.
It’s 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has left home after a lacklustre performance at Vassar College to live with her flamboyant Aunt Peg in New York. Peg runs a down-at-heel theatre called the Lily Playhouse, home to some rather cheesy musicals. The theatre's troops – dancers, musicians, writers, actors, theatre managers – live on site, making for a cosy, bohemian ambience.
Vivian throws herself into theatre life and soon makes friends with actress Celia Ray. The two enjoy New York’s night life and have various sexual adventures, not to mention the odd misadventure. When Aunt Peg’s estranged husband turns up on the scene, he comes up with the idea for a show that is eventually called City of Girls. The theatre imports the posh British actress Edna Parker Watson and the show ends up being a hit, lifting the flailing Lily Playhouse out of trouble and putting it on a good financial footing.
Then disaster strikes. Vivian unwittingly becomes involved in a scandal and must get her disapproving brother to bail her out. She experiences shame and humiliation, and is sent packing home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to The Signature of All Things is a light, frothy affair, almost a feel good story. The bulk of the novel is full of humour, with a well rounded cast: chancers, rogues, bright-young-things, frumpy lesbians and street wise, cocksure young men. Gilbert writes with a joy and elan which is infectious. The theme of the novel is how we deal with shame and the inevitable mistakes we all make. Vivian learns, with the painful passage of time, that everyone of us carries a dark, secret history, and that we must forgive ourselves, grow, and ultimately become better people.
A small caveat: the story is perhaps a bit long, with narrator Vivian speeding through three decades in the last hundred or so pages, giving the novel a bit of a lopsided feel. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable, cocktail fizz of a book that Gilbert fans will lap up.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A typical English family turns out to be not so typical after all.
The Mennyms are a neat, respectable little English family living quite peacefully in their modest home. They have lived there for many years – forty in fact – without much to bother them. Out of the blue comes a letter from Australia. A certain Albert Pond has inherited the house and is their new landlord. He's a likeable enough chap, going by his letters, and wants to meet the Mennym family. He plans on making a trip to England. When would the family be free to meet him?
The prospect throws the Mennym household into absolute chaos. The problem? The Mennyms are not human. They are actually a family of rag dolls, made by the house's original owner, Kate. The exquisitely made rag dolls she left behind came to life and now reside in the house, functioning as a perfectly normal family. The family keeps a low profile in the neighborhood, wearing thick glasses to cover their button eyes and hats so they are not so conspicuous. Errands to the local shops are made quietly and with a minimum of fuss, so as not to draw attention.
There are three generations of Mennyms. Magnus and Tulip are the grandparents, Vinetta and Joshua the parents, Soobie and Appleby are the teen children, Poopey and Wimpey the twins and lastly is Googles, the baby. Not to be forgotten is Miss Quigley, who lives in the hallway cupboard. She likes to keep up appearances, knocking at the front door and pretending she has come from her house for a visit. Later she will officially farewell the family, but secretly slip in the back door and back to her cupboard. In fact, the Mennyms do a lot of pretending. Can they keep up a good enough pretence to make Albert Pond think they are real?
Sylvia Waugh's first book in The Mennyms series (she wrote five in all) is both charming and hilarious. They are a blameless family who simply want to get on with life undisturbed. The endearing comedy comes from the Mennyms trying to keep up appearances and seem normal. The family often devise ludicrous strategies to “pass” for human. Their cloth bodies often gets them into scrapes, like when Joshua, a night time security guard, finds that a rat has eaten the stuffing in one leg. He suffers enormous embarrassment when he tries to walk home with a leg that won't support him properly. Or there is the time when Soobie “scandalises” the family by blurting out in front of Miss Quigley that she lives in the hallway cupboard. The Mennyms' dignity and that of their lodger depends on a series of “pretends” and artifices. This is perhaps what makes The Mennyms so enduring, as one of its major themes is the fragility of our place in the world, and how our well being depends on the little kindnesses of others.
Highly readable and intimately human, The Mennyms is sure to captivate.
The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh. Published by Puffin. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
British journalist Oliver Bullough explains how the rich hide their money - from regulators and tax authorities - and why we should care.
Moneyland is the story of how the world’s super rich – whether they derived their wealth by fair means or foul – secretly stash away their money, hiding it from tax authorities and regulators. British journalist Oliver Bullough begins the story with the Bretton Woods Agreement, established in 1944. The whole idea of this agreement was to limit destabilising, speculative money from travelling across borders. The rich and big business would have to keep their loot in the one place. This system lasted for a while, but would soon be subverted by the cleverness of financiers and their even smarter lawyers. With the ingenious use of shell companies, trusts, secret bank accounts, bearer instruments and a whole host of other tricks that bent but not entirely broke the law, the ridiculously wealthy could avoid tax. Not only that, they could remain anonymous, especially handy if you’re a dictator looting your own country.
Money at this scale is powerful enough to make the rules. The complexity of the paper trails hiding so much money, created by an army of extremely well resourced lawyers, means bringing cheats and scammers to book has become increasingly difficult. More worryingly, the pile of this secret money buried in complex trust funds and Byzantine shell company arrangements is now in the trillions. The wealthy – a lot of them corrupt, or dodgy at the very least – are only getting stronger, able to buy their own immunity.
There’s no denying Moneyland can make for disheartening reading. The pointless greed and waste is staggering. We read of corrupt politicians and their specially designed toilets featuring a television set at eye level, so one can defecate and watch a favourite show; or the rich woman who wears a nappy on her plane trips because she can’t be bothered going to the toilet. Nevertheless, Oliver Bullough has done us a service by explaining in a lively and easy to follow manner how this complex global trade is effected, and the deleterious impact it has on democracy and equality. While so much financial sleaze and chicanery is hard to swallow, as citizens it’s better to be informed than in the dark. A lack of public outrage – due to the arcane manner of these transactions – only allows this murky underworld to keep on flourishing.
Moneyland: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How To Take it Back, by Oliver Bullough. Profile Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba