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True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction

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Helen Garner visits the morgue, and goes cruising on a Russian ship. She sees women giving birth, and gets the sack for teaching her students about sex. She attends a school dance and a gun show. She writes about dreaming, about turning fifty, and the storm caused by The First Stone. Her story on the murder of the two-year-old Daniel Valerio wins her a Walkley Award. Garner Helen Garner visits the morgue, and goes cruising on a Russian ship. She sees women giving birth, and gets the sack for teaching her students about sex. She attends a school dance and a gun show. She writes about dreaming, about turning fifty, and the storm caused by The First Stone. Her story on the murder of the two-year-old Daniel Valerio wins her a Walkley Award. Garner looks at the world with a shrewd and sympathetic eye. Her non-fiction is always passionate and compelling. True Stories is an extraordinary book, spanning fifty years of work, by one of Australia’s great writers.


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Helen Garner visits the morgue, and goes cruising on a Russian ship. She sees women giving birth, and gets the sack for teaching her students about sex. She attends a school dance and a gun show. She writes about dreaming, about turning fifty, and the storm caused by The First Stone. Her story on the murder of the two-year-old Daniel Valerio wins her a Walkley Award. Garner Helen Garner visits the morgue, and goes cruising on a Russian ship. She sees women giving birth, and gets the sack for teaching her students about sex. She attends a school dance and a gun show. She writes about dreaming, about turning fifty, and the storm caused by The First Stone. Her story on the murder of the two-year-old Daniel Valerio wins her a Walkley Award. Garner looks at the world with a shrewd and sympathetic eye. Her non-fiction is always passionate and compelling. True Stories is an extraordinary book, spanning fifty years of work, by one of Australia’s great writers.

30 review for True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    PattyMacDotComma

    Update: The Monthly has a cover story on her. Hotel Golf (H.G., get it?) https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2... 5 “ One friend of mine, a keen and discriminating reader of fiction, confessed to me, ‘I even forget the books I’ve loved the most. And it’s not through lack of concentration: I’m completely absorbed by the book as I read it—but afterwards it’s like another world that I lived in for a while, and now I’ve left it behind. I remember how I felt, but not the book itself.’” You too? That’s Update: The Monthly has a cover story on her. Hotel Golf (H.G., get it?) https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2... 5★ “ One friend of mine, a keen and discriminating reader of fiction, confessed to me, ‘I even forget the books I’ve loved the most. And it’s not through lack of concentration: I’m completely absorbed by the book as I read it—but afterwards it’s like another world that I lived in for a while, and now I’ve left it behind. I remember how I felt, but not the book itself.’” You too? That’s certainly true of me and my memory, although there will always be characters and scenes and plot twists that stick. I remember so many little scenes from Garner's work. This is an impossible book to review, other than to say it’s a wonderful collection of short works by one of my favourite authors. It was compiled in honour of her 75th birthday (2017) and includes three of her previously published books plus the long essay “Why She Broke”, which was published in The Monthly magazine. It’s about a migrant mother who drove her children into a lake where some drowned. I had previously read the essay and her original story collection, also called True Stories: Selected Non Fiction, some time ago. More recently I read and reviewed Everywhere I Look (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) In The Feel Of Steel, the "steel" refers to when she took up fencing. She has done a lot of unusual things. These are all made up of short non-fiction pieces, about everything from crime to babies to drugs to being sacked as a teacher for teaching sex in her class to kids who needed to know about it. She goes nowhere without her notebook, and she stops in the middle of whatever she's doing to write things down. She began being interested in what is now called the True Crime genre, but for her it was sparked by following a controversial court case and writing a book This House of Grief (about a father who drove his children into a dam where they drowned). She sits in court day after day, studying all the players and getting a better insight into the story than any juror could possibly have. She is an interesting mix of private and persistent. She’s a skilled interviewer. but she had to learn. “As an interviewer you have to discipline your narcissism. You have to train yourself to shut up about what you did and saw and felt. You learn by practice to listen properly and genuinely, to follow with respect the wandering path of the other’s thoughts. After a while this stops being an effort. You notice that your concentration span is getting longer—longer than you ever thought it could become. Fewer and fewer things bore you. Curiosity is a muscle. Patience is a muscle. What begins as a necessary exercise gradually becomes natural.” I like that. We do talk about exercising patience, don’t we? I never considered doing the same for curiosity, although being naturally curious, I’m interested in most people. I read once where a man told his son to listen to everyone, because truly boring people are one in a million, and the fact they are one in a million is a reason to make them interesting. I’m not sure if Garner has ever though that, but she does seem to strike up conversations easily with anyone. She’s an outsider who writes from the inside. In some stories about her growing up, (she was the eldest of 6), she is sometimes the ringleader around whom the action revolves and yet often felt like the odd one out, the one who didn’t fit. You too? And the same at university and in share houses with other (mostly) young people. Many were doing drugs (some soft, some hard), and trying to manage a household with rosters and rules. Again, she sometimes felt like the one who didn’t fit, but she writes from the heart of the inner circle and doesn’t miss a trick. She is opinionated (and why not), and critical of poor punctuation, among other things. Just one of her pet peeves. But she is just as hard on herself, often telling anecdotes where she comes off second best. “. . . I was reminded that I ought to keep a lid on my passion for punctuation when I bragged to my friend Tim Winton that I had just written ‘a two-hundred-word paragraph consisting of a single syntactically perfect sentence’. He scorched me with a surfer’s stare and said, ‘I couldn’t care less about that sort of s**t.’” She has chronicled so much of life in Australia for the last 50 years, that when I read her stories and essays, I feel as if I’m reading my own history. Not that I spent time following cases in a maternity ward or learning the ins and outs of the morgue. No. But the families she meets could be people I knew. Their circumstances are recognisable, so I know when she’s writing about something completely outside my ken, I can trust her. This was a particularly touching excerpt from an interview during her time in the morgue. “‘With the SIDS babies we take extra time. We wash and powder them. And during post-mortems we’re really careful not to damage them. You feel they’ve been through enough. We rebuild and reconstruct them really carefully. Funny—when you’re holding a dead baby in your arms, you know it’s dead, but you still have the instinct to support the head, and not to let it drop back.’ . . . ‘You have to realise,’ says Jodie, ‘that what we deal with here isn’t really death. We see what’s left behind after death has happened—after death has been and gone.’” See what I mean? She’s very much the stranger, the outsider, but people let her completely into their confidence. “People will always tell you more than you need to know—and more than they want you to know.” She describes an episode in the maternity ward (where she watches labour and births!): “A beeper goes off. Five doctors dive for their belts, in curved, two-handed plunging gestures, as graceful as if they were dancing. Midwives are the sort of people you’d be glad to see come striding through the door in an emergency. Doctors too, of course—but while doctors can seem driven and head-tripping, midwives have the relaxed physical confidence of sportswomen. With their slow, wide-swinging gait, they radiate capable calm. Their professional mode is unflappability.” After a long labour, dainty dark Mala from Madras finally has her baby. Her husband has been tender and solicitous, but once the baby is born, he begins to behave a little oddly. He tries to indicate something to the doctor, not really knowing what to say. “He urges her to note that the baby’s skin is much lighter in colour than his or Mala’s. Nik [the registrar] stands stock still at the foot of the bed. Linda [the doctor] steps forward to the cot and leans over it. A beat. ‘His skin,’ she says clearly and carefully, ‘will darken in four to six months. As soon as the sun hits him—boom. All babies are born with light skin.’ She hovers over the baby. She looks up at Mala’s husband. Something more needs to be said. Linda swallows and takes the plunge. ‘He bears a very strong resemblance to you,’ she says. ‘Oh, very strong. Doesn’t he. Yes—the father’s the winner, with this one.’” And you’ll be the winner if you enjoy good writing about life in general, life in particular, and the thoughts and musings of a wonderful, witty, warm, sarcastic, opinionated, fun-loving writer. About a time she and a friend were walking along, laughing almost hysterically at a number of things, Helen writes: “As we lurch along, sobbing with laughter, holding each other up, she gasps, ‘This reminds me of something Bill Garner said to me about you, right after you split up. He said, “If all there was to life was walking along the street, Helen’s the person I’d like to do it with.”” Same here. And I'd like her to bring her notebook. I’m such a fan. Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted. And thanks to Helen Garner for making such good use of her diaries and notes.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Text Publishing

    ‘Those who consider Helen Garner the Australian Joan Didion want to compliment Garner, but maybe they are truly complimenting Didion.’ El Cultural, Spain ‘The chameleon-like non-fiction of the Australian Helen Garner, queen of the effervescent true crime, proves that reality is, at times, pure literature.’ Babelia, Spain ‘This last story [Killing Daniel], shocked me so much that, in the absence of a punching ball, I jumped out of bed, put my shoes on and went for a run until my rage subsided. And ‘Those who consider Helen Garner the Australian Joan Didion want to compliment Garner, but maybe they are truly complimenting Didion.’ El Cultural, Spain ‘The chameleon-like non-fiction of the Australian Helen Garner, queen of the effervescent true crime, proves that reality is, at times, pure literature.’ Babelia, Spain ‘This last story [Killing Daniel], shocked me so much that, in the absence of a punching ball, I jumped out of bed, put my shoes on and went for a run until my rage subsided. And I know—or thought I knew—how to control my anger.’ Esquire Magazine, Spain ‘A first-class author, who shines with her open and sharp view… Her writing makes these real stories come alive.’ La Razon, Spain ‘Her prose is wiry, stark, precise, but to find her equal for the tone of generous humanity one has to call up writers like Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov.’ Wall Street Journal ‘Garner’s non-fiction is often driven by the question why. Ruthless and full-blooded, her journalism nevertheless displays the greatest nimbleness in its accommodation of ambivalence and uncertainty. Her short stories, on the other hand, have a tendency to rise seamlessly towards epiphany.’ Times Literary Supplement ‘This collection of columns, essays and feature writing from the early 1970s to the present is a real treat, offering immersive journalism, humour, whimsy and analysis.’ Overland ‘As I leaf through the volumes, having just re-read both of them, I am still brought up short by another revelatory insight of the everyday…I could go on and on, but I am out of words. Many happy returns Helen Garner!’ Adelaide Advertiser ‘Helen Garner’s collections of fiction and nonfiction corroborate her reputation as a great stylist and a great witness.’ Peter Craven, Australian, Books of the Year 2017 ‘Smoking dope and eating spaghetti, the abrupt ending of a happy marriage, the psychological effect of wearing stripes. Helen Garner takes slivers of daily life, sometimes the most mundane, and gently folds them into poetry on the page.’ Australian Gourmet Traveller ‘Memoirist, fiction writer, faction writer, journalist? Australian critics and booksellers have stopped trying to pigeonhole Melburnian writer Helen Garner and now just give her prizes…These stories and essays are the work of a natural storyteller, of an unsparing yet sympathetic eye…It’s all wonderful stuff: unstinting honesty, clarity and charm. Dive in.’ North & South ‘This is the power of Garner’s writing. She drills into experience and comes up with such clean, precise distillations of life, once you read them they enter into you. Successive generations of writers have felt the keen influence of her work and for this reason Garner has become part of us all.’ Australian ‘True Stories by Helen Garner—I mean, really. Helen. Helen Garner. Do you hear that sound? It is the sound of glitter cannons exploding in my heart.’ Marieke Hardy, Melbourne Writers Festival Staff Summer Reading List ‘Stories and True Stories are handsome companion volumes deservedly celebrating Helen Garner, our greatest contemporary practitioner of observation, self-interrogation and compassion. Everything she writes, in her candid, graceful prose, rings true, enlightens, stays.’ Joan London, Sydney Morning Herald’s Year in Reading ‘Published in beautiful editions to celebrate life given shape in words.’ Drusilla Modjeska, Sydney Morning Herald’s Year in Reading ‘Both of these books are concerned with moments of heartbreak and of hope, with loneliness and love, and with great cruelties, and the things that drive people to them. They are animated by a desire to understand what seems unfathomable, and to pay attention to the small pleasures of the everyday. Garner's precise descriptions, her interest in minute shifts of emotion, and the ways in which we reveal ourselves to others are always at work in these books, and make them a real joy to read.’ Age

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer (JC-S)

    ‘Everything around me is seething with meaning, if I can only work out what it is .’ I want to have my own copy of this book: this collection of Helen Garner’s short non-fiction, spanning fifty years of her work. I’ve borrowed a copy from the library, had access to an electronic copy for review purposes, and I’ll be buying a hard copy of my own. There’s something about the way in which Helen Garner translates experiences and observations into words. Some of these pieces I can identify with ‘Everything around me is seething with meaning, if I can only work out what it is .’ I want to have my own copy of this book: this collection of Helen Garner’s short non-fiction, spanning fifty years of her work. I’ve borrowed a copy from the library, had access to an electronic copy for review purposes, and I’ll be buying a hard copy of my own. There’s something about the way in which Helen Garner translates experiences and observations into words. Some of these pieces I can identify with easily. As Ms Garner writes, in ‘The Insults of Age ’: ‘I had known for years, of course, that beyond a certain age women become invisible in public spaces.’ It’s one thing to know it, another to experience it. Sigh. Other pieces, such as ‘Killing Daniel’ (about the murder of Daniel Valerio) and ‘Why She Broke’ (about Akon Guode driving into Lake Gladman) reduce me to tears. Ms Garner adds depth in her non-fiction short stories, illumining aspects that are rarely apparent in the frenetic media cover of these horrific events. I’ve read many of these non-fiction pieces before: in ‘Everywhere I look’ or ‘The Feel of Steel’. And, even when the subject matter is of limited appeal to me (‘A Spy in the House of Excrement’) there’s something in Ms Garner’s writing that holds my attention. While many of these pieces of non-fiction are about events that are external to Ms Garner (in the sense that she is primarily an observer) others are about her role as a daughter, a mother, a teacher. ‘My Child in the World’ is a beautiful account of Ms Garner watching her daughter in the schoolyard, at the edge of her social group. And her accounts of life as a grandmother are just magical! This book and its companion, the much smaller ‘Stories: The Collected Short Fiction’, have been released as Helen Garner turns 75. Both will find a home on my bookshelf. Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. Jennifer Cameron-Smith

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lee Kofman

    Garner is terrific as always, but reading this book was particularly fascinating as you can see her progression as a writer over the years. In her case, she got better and better with age. It doesn't happen to that many writers, many peak somewhere between 30s and 50s, then decline. Not Garner though.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Rolfe

    I really liked the chronological progression of the stories as I felt I gained such an insight to her development as a writer and into her personal life journey. She is such a good writer. Have to take it back to the library but will have to buy my own copy.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris Waterford

    95 essays of various merit but mostly very good and some of them superb. Her sections called "Dreams of her Real Self" and "Notes from a Brief Friendship" are a masterclass in writing. I will never tire of reading her.

  7. 5 out of 5

    MisterHobgoblin

    True Stories is a massive book - 800 dense pages (you have to see it in the less to appreciate it), collecting all Helen Garner's previously published short non-fiction. This spans decades. The early works date to the 1970s, the last ones were first published only a couple of years ago. Helen Garner has created a style where fact and fiction are blended; observation and impression are interwoven. If Garner observes something - people at a health spa - then the facts and Garner's thoughts are True Stories is a massive book - 800 dense pages (you have to see it in the less to appreciate it), collecting all Helen Garner's previously published short non-fiction. This spans decades. The early works date to the 1970s, the last ones were first published only a couple of years ago. Helen Garner has created a style where fact and fiction are blended; observation and impression are interwoven. If Garner observes something - people at a health spa - then the facts and Garner's thoughts are treated as equally certain. Or, perhaps, equally subjective. This is not a collection to read from go to whoa. It is a resource to dip into, to snatch a story or two between planes or trains. The true stories help us see the world through curious, judging eyes. Garner is generous in her judgements, but judging nonetheless.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cee Davis

    3.5 stars. Like a lot of collections, there were stories that I loved and some I read with no connection or interest. Others had me hooked from the start while some I would have preferred to skim over. What I'm trying to say is that there is something in here for everyone. Helen Garner is such an honest, curious person who is incredibly interested in the human condition. I can also relate to many of her personal stories. I love that about her, which is why I'd always recommend one of her books, 3.5 stars. Like a lot of collections, there were stories that I loved and some I read with no connection or interest. Others had me hooked from the start while some I would have preferred to skim over. What I'm trying to say is that there is something in here for everyone. Helen Garner is such an honest, curious person who is incredibly interested in the human condition. I can also relate to many of her personal stories. I love that about her, which is why I'd always recommend one of her books, 3.5 stars or not.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jodie Warner

    Incredible as always. I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Garner herself and I’m always surprised by her voice- it’s clipped and sounds a bit New Zealand-ish. Definitely not as polished as her writing! I didn’t enjoy all of this collection- her author essays didn’t grab me a lot but I loved her human interest pieces- of her and her sisters, her travels on the Victorian train system in the early 90s and her time in the labour ward. Her writing gets better and better.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sal

    Found this collection from Australian author, Helen Garner, wonderful to read. Her perceptive eye for observation and detail when turned towards people and situations paints a vivid picture. Her willingness to examine own self is brave and refreshing. Highly recommended.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Marion Matthews

    Many short true stories in this book complied in chronological order of when they were written. Some interesting insights into hg’s life and her relationships with various people. My fav story was about ‘women of a certain age’ becoming invisible and her reaction to a waiter in a bar. Priceless.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rhonda Lomazow

    A treasure trove of Helen Garners writing as titled her True Stories every story so well written so interesting a book to dip in & out of,# netgalley

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cara

    Helen Garner you are amazing.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Great collection - actually includes Everywhere I Look as well. The Insults of Age is brilliant, but there are standouts in every section.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Another brilliant collection from one of my favourite female authors. Whenever I read anything by Helen Garner I just want to jump on a plane and spend some time in Australia.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Melinda

    2.5

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kathy Fogarty

    I’m a devotee and though I’ve read these stories in different publications, it is always the deepest pleasure to read them again.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tamsin Parke

  19. 4 out of 5

    Maryanne Church

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mark Watling

  21. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Clements

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Quinn

  23. 5 out of 5

    Erin Vieracre

  24. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  26. 4 out of 5

    Miranda

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sally Watson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Georgia

  29. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anne Handberg

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