the-tilted-worldTom Franklin’s latest book came out well timed to help me in my bid to read books by authors that I’ve read before and enjoyed. A while ago I read his 2011 Dagger Award winning novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. His new novel, The Tilted World, is co-written with Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and Tom Franklin’s wife. Co-written novels are an interesting proposition, I always view writing novels as such a solitary, private process. That extreme level of collaboration must require an intimate relationship so I guess a husband and wife team makes sense. Or they could just end up killing each other in the process.

It’s April 1927 and the inhabitants of the fictional town of Hobnob, Mississippi are fighting to stop the levee of their bend in the Mississippi River from breaking. After months of almost nonstop rain the Mississippi is dangerously high and threatens to flood. Fennelly and Franklin based their novel on the real events of the Mississippi flood on Good Friday, 1927. The flood was one of the worst natural disasters America has experienced, flattening almost a million homes and drowning twenty-seven thousand square miles.

Against this backdrop, Dixie Clay brews moonshine for her bootlegger husband, the handsome Jesse Holliver. Once captivated by his charm, Dixie Clay now sees him for the dangerous, conniving man he really is. As Prohibition nears its death, revenue agents and World War I veterans Ham and Ingersoll travel to Hobnob to find out what happened to their missing predecessors. Meanwhile, saboteurs from New Orleans are trying to collapse Hobnob’s levee in order to ease pressure on their own segment of the river. And an orphaned baby forces Ingersoll and Dixie Clay’s lives to intertwine.

The Tilted World is beautifully written. It has Franklin’s eye for small domestic details seen in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, but with added beauty and tenderness – ‘its Victrolas cupping their ears to the glass to listen for a pause in the monotonous song of the rain’, a fox paddling through flood waters, its ‘tail rising from the water like a question mark.’

I don’t think it’s really giving anything away to talk about the central romance. Dixie Clay and Ingersoll know each other for two weeks, a tumultuous, life-altering two weeks, but a short time nonetheless. The cynic in me finds the sudden romance a tad clichéd and convenient but really they’re both in love with the baby. They were each in desperate need of family, so I suppose it all makes sense in the end.

On the topic of both the love story and the writing, you can tell the sex scene was co-written by a poet. Normally that kind of grandiose rendering of a basic human act would make me want to vomit a little but I didn’t hate it.

They were rocking together, a rescue boat, and then words and ideas of words fell away and they were thrust into the golden light that bodies can climb to. They were there and there and there. Stillness at the height.

It’s kind of beautiful. But maybe a bit too much for me.

The characters are all well-drawn and filled in – you feel for them when they bleed, when they cry, but sometimes they felt like the obvious choices. Dixie Clay is a wonderful character. Her first meeting with Jesse is excellent – selling the furs she caught, skinned and stretched herself, a girl trying to best a grown man at bargaining. But she’s still a feisty tomboy who falls for a charming man with big ambitions, when she really belongs with the caring, solid, somewhat less attractive guy. Although, I think the character choice says more about the plot direction – a universality of story made whole with precise, intimate details.

Franklin and Fennelly paint a slight yet perfect little picture of life on the Mississippi, while echoes of the wider world reverberate – the early twentieth century jazz scene, Prohibition, the 1927 flood, Hoover’s bid to become the next president, and a hint of World War I. The Tilted World is a wonderful miniature etching of a far grander landscape.

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I never binge read authors or genres. I do binge buy though. I’ll read one travel writing book, then read lists and posts about the best travel writing books like my life depends on it. And then I’ll buy five of them. But will I read them straight away? Absolutely not.

I’ve begun to feel like I’m missing out by not immersing myself in a writer or topic that I’m loving in that moment. I never get swept up. I’m beginning to think I’m being too clinical. Oh, I loved that Neil Gaiman but now I must put that aside and read something completely different. But why? To broaden my horizons? Appease the literary gods who won’t be happy unless a wide variety of sacrifices are made at their altar? Maybe I’ve just got too many interests?

I barely ever get around to reading other books by authors of books that I loved. I feel like an imposter calling them ‘favourite authors’. Jane Austen, John Wyndham, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Chuck Palahniuk. These are the authors that I’ve read several of their books. Jane Austen is unavoidable if you’ve ever attended school (and she’s about the only writer of that era I enjoy). Why the others? I love John Wyndham and Philip K. Dick. I greatly admire Kurt Vonnegut. Chuck Palahniuk is a fluke. But ultimately, their books are short. Far less commitment is required. I can read four Wyndham novels in the time it takes to get through American Gods.

Then there’s the threat of disappointment hanging over each subsequent book I read. I thought their book was amazing, even if the next is great, it will still pale in comparison. So it’s better to distance myself from that first taste of a potentially favourite author? Wrong. Absence just makes the heart grow fonder. The more time that separates me from that amazing book, the more the details grow fuzzy and gradually all I’m left with is, ‘I loved that book, it must be perfect’.

I’ve decided I’m going to make an effort to revisit my ‘favourite authors’, disappointment be damned. Or maybe I’ll read four crime novels in a row. But not in a this-is-a-challenge-I’m-going-to-officially-chart-my-progress kind of way, more like a be-in-the-moment kind of way. I probably don’t really need another list of things to read/watch/eat/listen to, which I proceed to meticulously tick off.

Banana+GirlI never would have read Banana Girl if a friend hadn’t lent it to me. I almost never read memoirs, especially of people I’ve never heard of.

Michele Lee is a Melbourne-based playwright, about to embark on a six-month trip to Laos. Australian-born but the daughter of Hmong immigrants, Michele is a self-proclaimed ‘banana’.

Michele has a lot of sex, mostly of the detached, non-relationship kind. She details her meetings with guys like Mr Mercedes, who she has afternoon sex with in buildings he manages. She’s had a handful of serious relationships, the stories of their beginnings and endings floating through her tales of the present. Michele seems to still be friends with all of them to a certain degree, the implication being that once they break up she’s never so devastated that she can’t stay in touch. Yet, her memoir begins with her dalliance with New Zealander Jackie Winchester. Michele visits him in New Zealand and seems to fall for him rather quickly and completely. But it’s complicated.

All of Michele’s ex-boyfriends are given pseudonymic nicknames (I’m assuming to protect their identities while also being knowingly cutesy). Among them is the Cub (a much younger casual liaison), Husband (ex-serious-boyfriend, who she still works with, as well as being neighbours and friends), and Four Track (her second boyfriend from when she lived in Canberra).

I was a bit disappointed at the level of introspection. Deep down Michele knows that she often handles her significant relationships (including friendships) poorly, the conversations she includes that point the finger at her self-centred behaviour show that. She has a conversation with the Cub about her relationship history. Michele has just deleted the Backpacker (an ex living in London) from Facebook. The Cub says, ‘Don’t you think that’s, well, passive? Passive-aggressive?’ and, ‘So why would you delete him?’ She has no real response, just ‘But I was aiming for being assertive’ (despite being well aware that the Backpacker doesn’t know he’s been deleted) and, ‘I suppose I could just email the Backpacker and ask him what’s going on.’ (She hasn’t even tried the direct approach).

Michele also writes very funny imaginary letters from her fifteen year-old self; essentially the voice of her conscience, the voice of judgement – ‘You have sex with strange guys in empty buildings. What if he’s a rapist?’ Michele, through young Michele, knows the accusations that her friends and family are probably telepathically, if not actually, bombarding her with. So when accused, why doesn’t she defend herself. Because she has no idea why she behaves the way she does?

It would’ve been interesting to know why Michele thought she pursued all of these casual sexual relationships. Yes, it’s clear she enjoys sex but that’s not a real reason to have sex with three different guys in a week. I’m curious about the why. It seems strange, and possibly completely unfair, to be writing this about a real person, someone living right now. Maybe it’s the conversational tone, like a friend is telling you secrets, but sometimes you just want to shake said friend, to get them out of themselves, to get them to question their actions. And then other times you just sit and nod, allowing them to have their moment of self-pity, unencumbered by self-doubt or judgement.

I’m focusing too much on the sex, of which there is undoubtedly much. There’s also a bit thrown in about a previous trip to Laos. And the humorous side to the pain of being an artist – a sex farce play Michele writes that reviewers just don’t get, being a young playwright but only actually seeing plays that she can scrounge free tickets to. It was cool to read about Melbourne. Normally I like to read about people and places that have nothing to do with my own life but, living in Melbourne myself, it was enjoyable and kind of soothing to read about a life that has some sort of kinship with my own.

On the whole, Banana Girl is breezy and witty, yet I found it quite melancholy. The story of Michele in year eight feeling inadequate because her best friend, Pretty Polly, had lost her virginity the year before, leading to her downing kirsch on a ‘Friday night under the willow trees in Woden to try to accelerate [her] loss of virginity’ left me quite forlorn.

Michele Lee is undoubtedly funny and genuine. But despite the confessional style of the stories she tells (she bares the facts of her life for all to see) there’s a distance there. I hope she writes more books (I’m not really one for plays) because I can see her growing more comfortable and letting herself truly get close to her material.