20 October 2010

Cultural Cringe in Reviews

Is there a cultural cringe in Australian film and literature reviews? An investigation into reviews of The Slap (book) and Samson and Delilah (film).

The term cultural cringe appears to stem from Arthur Phillip’s Meanjin essay in 1950 (Rickard 2002, 43).  Generally it has come to refer to aspects of Australian culture deemed embarrassing, often with colonial overtones to England and a notion that Australia is in some way inferior to other countries in the Western world, particularly the USA (Rickard 2002, 44).  Frank Moorhouse once joked that Meanjin was an Aboriginal word meaning "rejected by The New Yorker” (Johnson 2010).  It is an Aboriginal word, but it merely refers to “the finger of land on which central Brisbane sits” (Meanjin n.d.).  Meanjin is one of several literary magazines in Australia that regularly includes reviews in its pages.  Newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian also include reviews of books and film in their publications.  The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is a book that has been reviewed by several journals and newspapers around the world.  They are examined here for evidence of cultural cringe.

Australian films are generally more present in wider society than literary works.  It is commonly recognised that Australians have an element of cultural cringe regarding films that represent themselves.  In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald of Look Both Ways, it was claimed:

It is widely acknowledged and readily accepted that there is a most discernible cultural cringe factor in relation to the local film industry and its sporadic output. Over the past few years the Australian film industry and its product have taken a consistent battering from critics and the public alike and the apathetic disdain from Oz audiences (who are annually engulfed by and then heartily embrace big budget Hollywood fare) has meant paltry domestic box office grosses. (Bond 2005) 

Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton, is a film about Aboriginal people that was reviewed both within Australia and overseas.  Australia is often subject to criticism of its treatment of its first people, including in reports by the United Nations.  Is there thus a cultural cringe regarding Aboriginal people revealed in the reviews of Samson and Delilah?  Does Bilal, a character in The Slap, cause cultural cringe in reviewers?  Perhaps the biggest cringe remaining in Australia is about its Aboriginal people and reviews of film and literature are not immune.

On the surface The Slap appears to have been reviewed quite consistently in both Australian and foreign journals and newspapers.  It is universally lauded as a fine piece of writing.  However, on closer examination it is more what isn’t said than what is said that reveals an element of cultural cringe in the Australian reviews.  Australian newspapers focused on the physical disciplining of children and the political environment of the book’s setting.  For instance, Armanno (2008) claims “It's a perfect social document of what Australia is today.”  He also says in his review for The Australian that:

His book is distinctly Australian: from the idiom to the blended families to the multi-multi-multicultural lives of its protagonists. 

Gerard Windsor (2008) of the Sydney Morning Herald introduces his review of the book with:

In the first 37 pages of The Slap we're introduced to 31 active characters. In Tolstoy we'd have the chamberlain announcing "Prince and Princess Oblonsky, Miss Natasha Rostov" and so on as they arrive at the ball. Christos Tsiolkas has his characters swarming through an open front door to a suburban Melbourne barbecue.

Do these quotes represent a form of cultural cringe?   Are Australian reviewers embarrassed that the Australian books they review contain distinctly Australian idioms, blended families and multiculturalism and such suburban culture as barbecues instead of more sophisticated matter like balls?  Many of the reviews associate The Slap with a soapie, regarding it as a multicultural version of the television show Neighbours.  Even though they might nod to the multicultural aspect of the novel the newspaper reviews clearly associate the content with popular culture:

There are elements of The Slap that suggest it's a highbrow soapie with a split personality. The author's choices for inclusion are very politically correct but once let loose the characters get up to all sorts of unacceptable mischief. (Windsor 2008)

There’s a lot of judgment contained in these couple of sentences, besides the term “highbrow soapie”.  Is the reviewer seriously saying that Tsiolkas chose the ethnicity of his characters on the basis of being politically correct?  Could it be that Tsiolkas was actually representing a part of true Australian society, perhaps one he even participates in?  Then there is the judgment that the characters’ behaviour is “unacceptable mischief”.  Perhaps Windsor is trying to disassociate real Australia from the one portrayed in the book, suffering from cultural cringe.

Windsor mentioned the presence of an Aborigine in The Slap in passing, whereas Armanno, who is more embracing of the culture depicted, fails to mention the presence of an Aborigine at all.  He merely says the book “encompassed the Australian middle ground while at the same time veering so far away from presenting traditionally white-bread characters” (2008).  Armanno fails to mention any of the ethnicities represented in the novel so even though he supports the book as representing the middle class he cringes away from saying what that middle class really looks like by concentrating on the violence (particularly the original slap of the child) for 70% (578 of 820 words) of the review.

Also from The Australian, George Megalogenis (2009) notes in his blog that many reviewers “reduce The Slap to the question of ‘Would I or wouldn’t I discipline my neighbour’s spoilt brat?’” Megalogenis looks beneath the term ‘multicultural’ which he sees as indicating cohesion as opposed to a “polyculture in a semi-permanent state of fury.”  He then turns the review into a political discussion about race and class.  However, he also only mentions the Aboriginal character in passing, focusing on the Mediterranean and Middle East people instead, but even they in only a very general sense.  Yet Megalogenis seems prepared to embrace these cultures much more readily than the Aboriginal culture.  This is also a form of cultural cringe.

Meanjin didn’t review The Slap, instead Michael William (2009) interviewed the author, Christos Tsiolkas.  There was discussion about age, class and society but not once in twelve pages were race or ethnicity mentioned.  Overland reviewed The Slap, as part of a collection of five Australian novels.  As one expects of a literary journal with scope for more words and a different audience, it digs deeper than the mainstream newspapers.  There is slightly more than the cursory glance to race and again there’s a reference to soapies:

There’s more than a whiff of soap opera in the structure and form of The Slap. With its epic span and its domestic focus, the book suggests what Neighbours could be – if that show was populated with Aborigines who had redeemed themselves through Islam; if episodes featured bisexual AIDS-afflicted men being good parents; if the characters were Indian, Serbian, Greek, Jewish and Arabic... (Ashton 2009)

There is little evidence of cultural cringe with much of the review focused more on the writing technique such as “multiple narrators” and bodily functions as a “relief” from the main narrative.  Overland pitches itself as a “literary and cultural magazine” on its About page (Overland n.d.) but this review definitely leans more to the literary aspect than the cultural.  Is this a form of cultural cringe?  Probably not.

Once The Slap was long-listed for the Booker Prize the foreign reviewers came out in enthusiastic support.  Brigitte Weeks of The Washington Post opens by describing The Slap as being about “middle-class suburbanites...struggling with too little money and too much alcohol” and concludes:

In “The Slap” we live for a few short weeks in suburban Australia, learning the language, becoming intimate with the characters and experiencing their customs. But finally the novel transcends both suburban Melbourne and the Australian continent, leaving us exhausted but gasping with admiration.

Although Weeks felt the need to include and explain some terms such as ‘stubbies’, this review embraces and celebrates Australian culture more than the Australian reviewers do.

In Michael Arditti’s short review (400 words) in the Telegraph (UK) he describes the novel as “a painstaking exploration of Australian domestic life” and Melbourne as a “melting pot”.  He compares The Slap favourably with Australian television soaps and in his brief description of characters includes “Bilal, an Aboriginal Muslim convert”. 

The Guardian (UK) reviews The Slap twice, first by Jane Smiley, then later as part of an interview by Aida Edemariam with Christos Tsiolkas.  Smiley claims the book expresses that “multiculturalism has won” and the most Australian aspect is that all the characters are “touchy”.  She focuses on the relationships and believes the novel scrutinises “modern Australian life as an exercise in liberalism”.  Despite concentrating on the characters in her 650 word review Smiley is the only one in the four foreign reviews examined here who fails to mention the presence of an Aboriginal person.  Edemariam, on the other hand, quotes Tsiolkas as selecting a moment between the Aboriginal man, Bilal, and a quintessential Australian blonde, Rosie, as the “real centre of The Slap”.  Like the Australian reviewers, she places the book in its political setting but takes it further by including the names of the imposing politicians of the period, Howard and Hanson.

From examining these reviews of The Slap it isn’t clear that the reviewers genuinely suffer from cultural cringe.  However, it does appear that the foreign reviews are more enthusiastic about the Australianness of the novel but then so few Australian books are reviewed in their publications that it would make sense to ramp up the novelty factor.

When reviewing Samson and Delilah it is impossible to avoid the Aboriginal characters.  Actually it appears the Australian reviewers loved the movie for their stark portrayal of remote Aboriginal life.  However, some avoided commenting on the social context by merely describing the movie.  David Stratton (2009) was guilty of this in his review in the Weekend Australian, although it could be argued the movie itself gives the social context.  In the same newspaper edition Michael Bodey (2009) writes more of a report on the movie’s makers than a review and thus uses quotes from people associated with the movie as well as the film itself to write his piece.  Political and social context is left to the words of Thornton, the director.  Bodey compares Samson and Delilah to Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, calling Ten Canoes “a whitefella's rendition of Aboriginal culture [whereas] Samson and Delilah is clearly a blackfella's”.  The reporting style of writing removes the obligation for the commentary expected of a reviewer. 

Similarly to Stratton, Sandra Hall (2009) uses the film’s content and not commentary for social context.  “It's a demanding film, so determined to replicate the listless rhythm which governs the community's routines that you feel a need to slow your pulse beat to adapt to it.”   Words such as ‘demanding’, ‘determined’ and ‘listless’ gives the impression Hall was annoyed that it wasn’t a feel-good movie and she concludes, “Yet like all stories about addiction, this one is ultimately dispiriting...it's tough going.”  Hall gave Samson and Delilah three stars as opposed to most reviewers’ rating of the full five stars.  Perhaps there was just too much cultural cringe for her.

Unlike other newspaper reviewers, Jim Schembri (2009) of The Age places Samson and Delilah firmly in social context, saying “It is the most confronting, powerful, honest and important film about indigenous culture yet made in this country” and that it “breathes with authenticity”.  By saying all this before describing the film, Schembri accepts that this film truthfully reflects Australian culture, without cringing away from it.

In the literary journal New Matilda, Jennifer Mills (2009) acknowledges the authenticity of Samson and Delilah in her very first sentence.  She goes on to describe the social setting in which the film was made, referring to petrol-sniffing, violence, the general feeling of hopelessness and colonisation.  She is very conscious of writing as a white person on Aboriginal issues, “I don't want to be another white person trying to write authoritatively about that life — I want people to speak for themselves,” so is restrained in her commentary.  This is not cultural cringe. 

Peter Craven (2009), a prolific Australian reviewer, wrote a review of Samson and Delilah for The Spectator, a UK magazine.  He summarises the film’s tale and then lobs his grenade with:

On one level, Samson and Delilah is a petrol bomb thrown in the face of Aboriginal mythologising and self-deception. It is a devastating portrait of people in a state of terminal depravation who, even at their most active, are bewildered beyond any point of helping themselves.

As is typical of Craven (Davis 1999, pp.119-120; Rickard 2002), he is blunt and controversial.  His review is the only one examined here daring to go against the Aboriginal culture so often portrayed as the ideal in the media.  It may be a case of attack being the best form of defence.

Russell Edwards (2009) in the foreign magazine, Variety, claims Samson and Delilah is “an engrossing and touching snapshot too often left on the cutting-room floor”.  Ryan Gibley (2010) in the New Statesman is more sceptical of the authenticity of the film as representing true Aboriginal life, qualifying with words like ‘probably’ and saying “the film conforms to tragic type”.  As seen in these two examples, foreign reviews tend to fall into absolute acceptance of the film as depicting real life, similarly to many Australian reviews, otherwise they lean more to the film being a dramatisation of true Aboriginal life.

Samson and Delilah has also been reviewed bluntly and passionately in historical context by History Australia (Gorman 2009), with an element of cringing at how other (non historians) view Aboriginal Australia and by a German completing her PhD in Melbourne on Australian fiction (Schuerholz 2009).  She brought a unique viewpoint of an outsider living in Australia, and thus not subject to a cultural cringe.  She reveals on a personal level that the film was horrifying, but also uses emotive language (‘rejection’ and ‘pain’) when depicting social context.

It is inevitable that Samson and Delilah is compared to Baz Luhrmann’s Australia of the year before.  Reviewers generally made unflattering comparisons, dismissing Australia as “the film...Baz Luhrmann ought to have made instead of his overblown Outback epic, Australia.” (Canberra Times, 2009) but Thornton defends Australia from these attacks, “’He's so brave, Baz, so brave,’ Thornton says. ‘He made an Aboriginal film but hid it behind this love story. Good on you, mate.’” (Bodey 2009).  It seems Australia was panned by reviewers for its romantic colonisation picture of Australia in the lead up to World War 2.  They were cringing from this unrealistic traditional portrayal of Australian life.

It seems Australia has moved a long way from Arthur Phillip’s introduction of the term ‘cultural cringe’.  Although Rickard claimed in his research of literary writing in 2002 that “the cultural cringe just refuses to stay buried,” it appears there is little evidence of it in the reviews of the book The Slap and the film Samson and Delilah.  From this intense look at the reviews it can be interpreted that many Australian reviewers shy away from giving cultural context in their reviews but they are not in denial either.  If there is any one area Australian reviewers still suffer from cultural cringe it is regarding Aboriginal society.  As authors and film makers embrace Australian culture in an increasingly complete and authentic manner reviewers need to so too.


REFERENCE LIST

Armanno, V 2008, ‘Smack dab in the middle class’, The Australian, 8 November, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/story/0,,24600679-5003900,00.html>

Ashton, K 2009, ‘Forms of hunger and hysteria: recent Australian fiction’, Overland, vol. 194, pp. 93-96, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://web.overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-194/review-kalinda-ashton/>

Bodey, M 2009, ‘Tough Love’, Weekend Australian, 2 May 2009, retrieved 8 October 2010, Newsbank.

Bond, G 2005, ‘Review: Look Both Ways (2005)’, In Film Australia, 20 August 2005, retrieved 4 October 2010 <http://www.infilm.com.au/?p=65

Canberra Times ‘An Australia often unseen’, Canberra Times, 3 May 2009,  retrieved 8 October 2010, Newsbank.

Craven, P 2010, ‘As inexorable as the wind off the desert’, The Spectator, 9  June 2009, retrieved 8 October 2010  <http://www.spectator.co.uk/print/australia/3666663/as-inexorable-as-the-wind-off-the-desert.thtml>

David, Mark 1999, Gangland : cultural elites and the new generationalism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW

Edwards, R 2009, ‘Samson and Delilah’, Variety, 11-17 May 2009, p.90, retrieved 8 October 2010 Expanded Academic ASAP

Gibley, R 2010, ‘Hanging on the telephone’, New Statesman, 5-18 April 2010, p.48, retrieved 8 October 2010 Factiva.

Gorman, S 2009, ‘Review of Samson and Delilah’, History Australia, 3 October 2009, p.81, retrieved 8 October 2010 Expanded Academic ASAP

Hall, S 2009, ‘Painful truths in love story from a country's heart’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2009, retrieved 8 October 2010, Newsbank.

Johnson, S 2010, Measuring the cultural cringe, 23 January 2010, retrieved 4 October 2010 <http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/measuring-the-cultural-cringe-20100122-mpvs.html>

Meanjin, About Meanjin, retrieved 6 October 2010 <http://meanjin.com.au/about-meanjin>

Megalogenis, G 2009, ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’, Meganomics, 1 July 2009, retrieved 1 August 2010  <http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/meganomics/index.php/theaustralian/comments/slip_slop_slap/>

Mills, J 2009, ‘Samson and Delilah’, New Matilda, 6 May 2009, retrieved 8 October 2010 Factiva.

Rickard, J 2002, ‘Keeping up with the Cringe’ Australian Book Review, October 2002, pp.43-46, retrieved 3 October 2010 Informit.

Schembri J 2009, ‘Tough-love story pulls no punches’, The Age, 7 May 2010, retreived 8 October 2010 Newsbank

Schuerholz, H 2009, ‘Hostile Territory’, Arena, August-September 2009, pp.60-61, retrieved 8 October 2010 Informit

Stratton, D 2009, ‘A world beyond words’, Weekend Australian, 2 May 2009, retreived 8 October 2010 Newsbank

Tsiolkas, C 2009, ‘Delivering a punch: Michael Williams talks to Christos Tsiolkas’, Meanjin, vol.68, No.2,  pp. 142-153, retrieved 6 October 2010 Informit

Weeks, B 2010, ‘Book review: "The Slap," by Christos Tsiolkas’, The Washington Post, 27 April 2010, retrieved 6 October 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/26/AR2010042603986.html>

Windsor, G 2008, ‘When the smoke clears’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 2008, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/arts/when-the-smoke-clears/2008/10/31/1224956300415.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1>

20 September 2010

Weak Women in Powerful Professions: a review of Spirited and Offspring

I love a good Australian drama.  A few years ago I adored Love My Way.  The two main female leads of Love My Way were played by Claudia Karvan and Asher Keddie.  Now they are each appearing in television shows that have recently debuted on Australian screens.  Karvan stars in Spirited (W on Foxtel, Wednesdays at 7.30pm) and Keddie in Offspring (Channel 10, Sundays at 8.30pm) . 

In Spirited Karvan plays Suzy Darling, a dentist who secretly plots and executes leaving her husband by purchasing the penthouse apartment near her dental practice.  The character is portrayed as a strong woman merely on the basis of her profession and decision to leave her husband.  Otherwise she appears socially awkward, vague and a tad insane.  She seems completely oblivious to her patients’ feelings and when everyone goes home she talks to a picture of her deceased father sitting in the dental chair.  This is exacerbated by her developing relationship with a ghost, whom only she can see.  This ghost becomes the focus of her life who she converses with constantly and the professional dentist becomes increasingly distracted and unprofessional. 

The support cast of Spirited are just that, support.  The husband is an egotistical shallow bastard (hammed up by Rodger Corser of Rush fame), the sister is a bimbo counsellor wanting to be his new love (Belinda Bromilow) and the dental assistant’s sole role is to stop Suzy from making a complete fool of herself every minute of the day. Suzy’s lack of sensitivity for her patients and the mistakes she makes upon the ghost entering her life makes one wonder how she ever had enough patients to afford the new apartment.  The twist to this soap drama, and perhaps its saviour, is the quest for finding the ghost’s past and thus the reason for his ghostly existence.  Upon meeting Suzy the ghost has no memory and does not even realise he is dead.  It turns out he is Henry Mallet (Matt King), a punk rock star from the band The Nerve who mysteriously disappeared in 1982 at the age of 35.  Matt King balances the comic with the serious and the arrogance with the tenderness quite nicely.

Offspring similarly has a professional woman, Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie), at the centre of its drama.  Nina is an obstetrician, recently divorced from a guy with a penchant for blowing things up, which was mildly amusing for a while, but now she is completely obsessed with the new paediatrician at work, Chris Havel (Don Hany).  Like Suzy, she is easily rattled and often socially inept.  The support cast have a little more to work with in Offspring than they do in Spirited and are performed by more experienced actors.  Again, it is very much a soap opera with all its dramas.  Nina’s friend, Cherie (Deborah Mailman) had a fling on a boat cruise not knowing her lover was Nina’s father, Darcy (John Waters), and conceived a child from the encounter.  Cherie and Darcy now live together as co-parents of their child, but not as romantic partners.  Darcy still pines after his ex-wife, Geraldine (Linda Cropper).  Nina has a love-hate relationship with her sister, Billie (Kat Stewart), who is the antithesis of the supposed smart and intelligent Nina.  Billie is a hopeless real estate agent (for her Dad’s agency) because she lets her on-again-off-again relationship stand in the way of success. 

One seductive part of Offspring is its modern approach to editing.  As Nina imagines and analyses possible outcomes of various scenarios, or mentally replays her particular perspective of a past event, the viewer also sees them played out in all their cringe worthy imagery.  For instance, in this week’s episode Nina is still recovering from seeing the paediatrician heart-throb, Chris, in a minor state of undress with the midwife in a storeroom.  When Nina spies each of them for the first time after this incident her mind plays a very sexual version of the paediatrician and midwife together, a gross exaggeration of reality.

Both of these shows are pretending to break stereotypes by having their leading women in professions traditionally dominated by men yet making all other aspects of their lives unsuccessful and pathetic.  For instance, in Spirited Suzy forgets to collect her daughter from school and loses a tooth performing cartwheels in her new apartment.  Her husband then ridicules her in front of their friends for being a dentist with a missing tooth. 

Nina’s voiceover in Offspring keeps lamenting about her personal inadequacies and doubts regarding her ability to establish and maintain a love life, often imagining her dire thoughts played out.  She is treated as a doormat by her family who call upon her to fix their problems and run after them.  Occasionally I may share Nina’s  perspective on life but I don’t find it funny and I don’t like women being portrayed as constantly feeling inadequate.  I’d rather watch a character who I’d aspire to be like, not one I’d rather not be.  It’s like watching Bridget Jones’s Diary repeatedly.  It’s time to move on from such caricatures as Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal.

Joss Whedon recently visited Australia and spoke at Melbourne Town Hall for the Melbourne Writers Festival and at the Sydney Opera House a couple of days later.  He is a scriptwriter and director most famous for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse.  When Whedon was honoured by Equality Now, a women’s rights advocacy group, he provided possible answers for interviewers who are constantly asking why he writes strong women roles.  One response included “Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters?” and he concluded his short talk with “Because you’re still asking me that question”. 

Suzy and Nina are not strong role models for women.  It is appropriate for characters to be multi-dimensional with flaws and all, but Suzy and Nina are given a ridiculous range of insipid characteristics. Women may be prone to the self doubt that these characters portray but there is no need to take it to this extreme for the sake of a few mediocre laughs.  It is rather disappointing to see such talented female Australian actors performing in these shows.  I live in hope of some massive character development that will redeem their current shallow lives and focus on achievements instead of inadequacies.


Information about Spirited

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Spirited” retrieved 5 September 2010
<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1524415/>

Foxtel Management Pty Limited (2010) Spirited retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.wchannel.com.au/spirited/>

Information about Offspring

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Offspring” retrieved 5 September 2010
<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1530541/>

Network 10 (2010) Offspring retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://ten.com.au/offspring.htm>


Joss Whedon’s speech

Equality Now (2006, May 15) On the Road to Equality: Honoring Men on the Frontlines[video] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYaczoJMRhs>

American Rhetoric (2006, May 15) Joss Whedon: Equality Now Tribute Address [video and transcript] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/josswhedonequalitynow.htm>

A Party in Time: a review of the Fitzroy Inn in Mittagong

I am 40 years old.  I am 40 years old.  No matter how many times I say it, or write it, I don’t actually feel 40 years old.  To help me adjust to this new number, this new decade in my life, I decided I needed to party in style.  So I did.

We first stayed at the Fitzroy Inn earlier this year for a weekend away and fell in love with the history of the property.  The original building commenced as an inn in 1836 and currently offers six suites to the public for $240 per night.  The other main building was Oaklands School  from 1871 to 1888 and is now referred to as the School Master’s Cottage.  It offers four suites, slightly larger than those in the main house and thus at the slightly higher price of $260 per night. 

The owners and managers, Paul Lovell and Maria Aloi, are very welcoming hosts.  They originally bought Fitzroy Inn with their spouses who have since passed away.  Plaques can be found in the gardens to commemorate their lives.  A freshly cooked meal with your choice of eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms is included in the price of accommodation.  The mushrooms were the real hit with my husband who is naturally a fan but was particularly enamoured with the buttery alcoholic touch. Stewed fruit is also on offer with an array of cereals, this batch of fruit had the flavour of star anise and cinnamon and a splash of alcohol. 

After breakfast we were treated with a tour of the cellar.  But this is not merely a cellar.  This was the original kitchen built from sandstone with a well in the floor, carved out of the shale by hand during the convict era.  Even more enthralling were the old cells that once held criminals on their way to Berrima Gaol.  A few years ago the Fitzroy Inn also operated a restaurant and these cells were filled with racks of wine.  The racks are still there but they are mostly empty.  Maria talked of the wedding receptions they had hosted which started in the cells beautifully lit by candle light.  I had to have my party in this place.

* * * * *

The party started in the cellar with sparkling wine, simple canapés and candles lighting the room, just as Maria described, and as can be seen in the brochures and on the website.  Guests wandered through the rooms exploring the history it contains.  We then moved to the function room which is a large elevated platform of floorboards surrounded by more sandstone and with thick solid wooden columns through it.  One wall consists of cedar-framed glass bifolds looking out to the School Master’s Cottage and tennis court. The fireplace was lit and candles surrounded the long table inviting my guests to a feast. 

The dinner started with delicious warm and creamy pumpkin and kumera soup.  Then, like a wedding, alternate meals were served. Some received lamb backstrap with a spicy plum sauce and mashed potato and green vegetables, others received stuffed turkey.  Arguments broke out over the lamb but I was very happy with my turkey.  The filling held together well, flavoured with crunchy pistachios and served with cranberry sauce and vegetables.  All plates were practically licked clean.  The desserts alternated between a pear poached in rich red wine with home-made vanilla ice cream and a delicate cherry strudel served with custard and ice cream.  My husband and I went halves in each and I was unable to select a winner, both just melted in my mouth.

We barely noticed the waiting staff as they delivered meals and collected empty plates.  There were no extensive delays between courses, making the night flow smoothly.  Before I knew it there were only four people left and it was past midnight.  Soon everyone was fast asleep in their luscious beds of lovely white linen in simply but elegantly decorated cream and white bedrooms.

The suites are mostly generous in size although some of the bathrooms are small and quaint.  The rooms on the top floor have sloping ceilings on the edges which adds to the historical feel of the place but tall people who forget to duck may receive a painful reminder.  Each room in the School Master’s Cottage has a sofa bed, TV, DVD player, bar fridge and tea and coffee making facilities.  The rooms in the main house don’t have these facilities but instead have a shared formal lounge with a large screen TV, fireplaces, comfy couches and loads of games.  Numerous games of Scrabble and chess were played during our stay.  The tennis courts were also in constant use by our group on this gloriously sunny weekend.

Maria and Paul also live in the main house so the lounge is also theirs.  Tea is freshly made by Maria or Paul, with real leaves, and delivered on trays with a generous serve of biscuits.  The only tea bags I spotted were in the School Master suites.  Maria owns two small fluffy white dogs who seem to be constantly present, particularly when there is food around.  There is a towel over one of the couches which they call home.  My children adored Max and Mimi.  Others may not.

Generally it was a pleasure dealing with Paul and Maria.  They are not great at returning phone calls and may miss some patronage as a result.  Maria’s friendly chatter reveals a genuine person who obviously loves hosting guests.  Paul is a little more reserved and although he was delightful as we organised this event he dampened our enthusiasm slightly at the end with a few snide complaints to some about how late the party went and as we paid the bill he called it “a fiscal pleasure”. 

Overall, I highly recommend the Fitzroy Inn for its historical charm and as a great venue for a function.  It acts as an ideal gateway to the delights of the Southern Highlands and I am now much more comfortable with saying I am 40 years old.

Fitzroy Inn
1 Ferguson Crescent
Mittagong  NSW  2575.
Phone (02) 4872 3457
http://www.fitzroyinn.com.au/

07 August 2010

Liesl Schillinger - a book reviewer at the New York Times

Following a reviewer – Liesl Schillinger (Tutorial work)

I receive a regular email from New York Times containing a brief overview of book reviews.  There must have been something in the sentence or two that made be click the link to Liesl Schillinger’s review of the novel, The Nobodies Album.  It was so persuasive I immediately ordered it through my local book store.  So given this week’s task I thought I’d investigate what it was that made this review work for me.

Schillinger generally starts her reviews with a quick connection to the real world before launching into the fiction of the novel being reviewed.  In the case of The Nobodies Album it was to theatre, television and the mystery genre.  This instantly taps in to the vast number of people’s interests.  It also immediately classifies the type of book being reviewed.  The word ‘genre’ invokes a sense that the writer comes from an academic background.

Then through a narrative of the plot, supported by quotes, Schillinger gives a sense of the book and its characters.  But suddenly she breaks the flow with “But this isn’t a mystery novel. Or is it?”, and thus establishes intrigue.

Schillinger returns to the plot, but ends these two paragraphs with the questions that arise in the book, reinforcing the mystery component to it.  Through her description the novel seems to be a work of metafiction, not that this term is used in the review.  The review is written intelligently without being patronising or alienating and reads like a conversation, a friend giving a detailed description of the latest book they’ve read.

The final paragraph of the review gives high praise for the skills of Carolyn Parkhurst in writing The Nobodies Album. When I checked Schillinger’s other recent views there often isn’t much of a final comment at all.  The reviews end still focusing on the story within the novel being reviewed rather than the quality of the book.  That said, Schillinger is clever at providing a sense or mood of a book through plot summaries.  It appears the more Schillinger mentions the author in her plot summaries the more she likes the book.
A few times she has given criticism but I’ve yet to read a review where she completely doesn’t like the book.  For instance, in a review of The Summer We Read Gatsby Schillinger calls it, “a plucky homage to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece that has about as much in common with “Gatsby” as Diet Coke has with Perrier-Jouët.”  However, she then spends some time justifying the use of Gatsby in the book’s title.

I think what I like most about Liesl Schillinger’s reviews is the intelligent conversational tone.  It also helps that for her reviews she has approximately 1200 words with which to play.




Schillinger, L 2010, ‘Vision and Revision’, review of The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst, New York Times, 1 July 2010, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/Schillinger-t.html?scp=3&sq=&st=nyt>


Schillinger, L 2010, 'Jay, Daisy, Nick and Cassie', review of The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek, New York Times, 27 May 2010, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Schillinger-t.html?scp=7&sq=&st=nyt>

Comparing two reviews of The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas

Reviewing “The Slap” (tutorial work for the subject Reviewing)

Venero Armanno in The Australian approaches his review of The Slap by aligning with the middle-class suburban characters of the book through an illustration of a situation he was in that could be compared to the focal point at the beginning of the book, when the slap of the title occurred.  He then focuses on the violence and the sociocultural aspect of the novel and concludes that it is compulsory reading for a politician needing to determine the mind of Australia’s heartland.  Armanno justifies this by claiming Tsiolkas’s vast variety of characters speak for what Australians “really think behind their smiles” and that Tsiolkas successfully brings the range and wide scope of narratives together to form an overarching viewpoint.  This review comes across as convincing because of the passion behind it and through relating the book to real life examples.  The credentials of Armanno, “Venero Armanno is a Brisbane-based novelist and a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland”, provided at work act as a statement of Armanno’s right to analyse fiction.

The review of The Slap by Kalinda Ashton in Overland is part of a suite of Australian novels being examined in the article.  Overland pitches itself as a “literary and cultural magazine” on its About page.  In this context, as opposed to the more mainstream newspaper, The Australian, Ashton approaches the review from a broader literary perspective.  For instance, she compares The Slap to two of Tsiolkas’s previous novels, Loaded and Dead Europe, and refers to Catherine Belsey, an academic commentator on critical and cultural theory.  It is through these comparisons and use of academic opinion that Ashton justifies her opinion, but mainly it is by making a statement and then backing it with evidence from the book.  Ashton also manages to list many of the more controversial subjects and scenes in the novel without making a judgment on how offensive they might be.  They are laid bare for the readers of the review to note and form their own judgment.

One other distinct difference worth noting between these two reviews is that Armanno is talking to readers, by referring to readers in the third person, whereas Ashton is communicating with her readers by consistently using ‘our’.   By saying “Our sympathies are literally divided among the multiple points of view; our expectations disrupted by contradiction and collision” (p94), Ashton convinces not only by the inclusive pronoun but because the statement is part of her argument against Belsey’s opinion “that the omniscient narrator is suspect in realist writing” (p94) in a clear and persuasive manner.  Ashton shows alternative opinion and then presents an argument against it.  This is a confident technique and thus comes across as very convincing.

As for me, I find The Slap horrifying in that I don’t want to know that some men think the way they do in this book but am fascinated by the nitty-gritty of these characters’ lives and how they fit in the political frame. However, the voice of the teenage girl, Connie, doesn’t ring true for me (I teach teenaged girls) and thus mars an otherwise excellent book.

Armanno, V 2008, ‘Smack dab in the middle class’, review of The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas, The Australian, 8 November, retrieved 1 August 2010

Ashton, K 2009, ‘Forms of hunger and hysteria: recent Australian fiction’, Overland, vol. 194, pp. 93-96, retrieved 1 August 2010