Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2016

Sister, Sister, by Anna Rosner Blay

Sister, Sister It’s hard to find the right words to describe the experience of reading Sister, Sister.  It’s a memoir of two sisters who survived the Holocaust, Hela through the mercy of Oskar Schindler, and Janka just barely alive at the end of a death march from Auschwitz.  Words like interesting or compelling are all wrong and yet the book held my awed interest throughout…

I’ve read a few accounts by Holocaust survivors, most notably Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, and I’ve read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List – and seen the film too. But since most people did not survive Auschwitz, I hadn’t come across an account from someone who did, nor had I ever read anything by any of the Schindlerjuden.  To look at the eloquent cover image of these two women looking unbowed by their experiences seems like a miracle after all they went through, but the cover also asserts something else that’s different: this is a Holocaust memoir not from the predominant male point-of-view.

(Thomas Keneally interviewed Hela’s husband Poldek (Leopold Rosner) for his book, but not Hela, who wasn’t ready to talk about it at that time.)

The memoir is told in the voices of three different women: Hela’s, Janka’s, and that of the author Anna who inserts her childhood memories into the narrative, especially the accounts of the post-war period in Melbourne.  In this way there is a child’s perspective on a mother’s excessive anxiety about having enough food, about being warm enough, about being safe.

The female perspective makes this memoir distinctive.  It reminds me that Schindler had a wife called Emilie, who at the risk of her life scrounged extra food and cooked cereal into digestible form for the 1200 Jews and disabled people who would otherwise have perished.  And I suspect that only a woman could have coaxed this admission from Janka:

I’d never had a child with Salek, and I felt overcome by pain and loss.  I had nothing to remember him by, just absence and emptiness.  But then I remembered my father’s advice at the beginning of the war: he had told me not to get married or have children, as terrible things were going to happen.  And indeed, I witnessed so many of my women friends suffering or perishing because of their children that I was determined not to have one of my own.  Some didn’t want to leave their children behind, so they threw themselves into the grave with them.  What was the use of loving, caring for someone?  All it brought was pain.  Only much later was I able to allow my maternal instincts to overcome my fears.  (Kindle Loc 3075)

Another image that strikes me from this memoir is of Hela at Schindler’s factory, learning from another woman how to turn a heel for a sock.  They had been given some greasy wool, the men had fashioned some wooden knitting needles, and the women used it to knit garments to keep them warm in the harsh winter.  Older women taught the younger ones as their mothers might have done had the girls not been separated from them when they were too young to learn.  (Hela had lost her mother before the war, but many other young women were wrenched from their families when they were still children).

At New Year in 1945, the women at Schindler’s factory made a gift for him.  I can’t read this without a lump in my throat at the idea of women who have nothing – literally nothing but the shabby, inadequate clothes they wore – making a gift for someone else:

Some of the women collected metal strips and offcuts from the machines and created a bouquet of flowers for Schindler.  It seemed that even the most religious Jews were praying not to God but to Schindler.  When he was presented with the bouquet he was visibly moved, and said to us, ‘As long as I remain alive, you will survive.  The war is ending; let’s try to hang on.  I know things are difficult, for you as for me.  Trust me to the end.  We never know what battles we will still have to fight to survive.’ People were crying, thanking him.  His voice broke as he took the bouquet and then gave us the rest of the day off.  (Kindle Loc 2708)

For Janka in the hell that was Auschwitz, the daily battle to survive is harrowing to read.  But even when the war was drawing to a close, German evil prevailed and they sent the survivors out of the camps on death marches that killed thousands more.  Janka was on the one that Wikipedia says is the most notorious:

The most notorious of the death marches took place in January 1945, when the Soviet army advanced on occupied Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at the death camp at Auschwitz, the SS marched nearly 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzisław Śląski (German: Loslau), 56 km (35 mi) away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on the way.

Even so, Janka feels guilt at what she did to survive:

I looked at the unfamiliar landscape, aware of the hunger gnawing at me. But as we began our march we saw a woman we knew, Mrs Stenser, who was carrying three loaves of bread, which she had been shrewd and quick enough to grab. She was having some difficulty carrying them, so I told Marysia that I would ask Mrs Stenser whether we could help her carry her bread in return for half a loaf for the two of us to share. She agreed, so we carried one loaf of bread for her, and promised to return half of it later. After a couple of hours marching, when we stopped for a rest, we couldn’t find Mrs Stenser. We sat down on the snow, and we were so hungry that we tore off a whole piece each. Then Marysia and I looked at each other. Without a word needing to be said, we both ate the remainder of the loaf. Afterwards we always had a guilty conscience that we had betrayed her trust and eaten the bread we were supposed to return. I suppose it’s some comfort to know that she survived.  (Loc 2735)

The end of the war and liberation did not, as we know, mean that their troubles were over.  For women there was an additional peril: rape by Russian soldiers.  The memoir records some instances of great kindness, but also a narrow escape and a sense of compassion for the German women who were victims of this very common war crime in post-war Germany.  Their fear of the Russians prompted some women to leave Poland:

I moved in with my sister, but I was afraid to stay in Kraków, not only because of the Poles and the Germans but because of the Russians too. I was afraid whenever I came across a group of Russians, remembering their brutality. My fear was so great that I wanted to leave Poland as soon as possible to get out of their reach. (Kindle Loc 3058).

I was taken aback also by the way in which Hela and her sister were finally reunited after the war.  Janka searched for Hela by asking around about Hela’s famous husband Poldek who was a musician.  While eventually the system for reuniting displaced persons facilitated reunions or revealed the sad fate of loved ones, in some cases it took years.  It’s disconcerting to think that in the early days, for some people, it was the man’s work that enabled finding a lost relation.

For people who think they’ve read all they need to know about the Holocaust, this memoir offers fresh insights about the capricious nature of survival, and an inspirational view of the power of the human spirit.

Sister, Sister was short-listed for the 1998 Age Book of the Year.

For extracts from other reviews, visit Anna Blay’s author website.

Transparency statement: I’ve never met Anna Blay, but I ‘know’ her through her comments on this blog, via Twitter and because as publisher at Hybrid Books, she sends me occasional books for review.

Author: Anna Rosner Blay
Title: Sister, Sister
Publisher: Port Campbell Press, 2012 (first published by Hale & Ironmonger 1998)
ASIN: B0081C6H06
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle from Amazon Australia $6.25

Death by WaterI am reading Death by Water by Nobel Laureate Kenzabure Oe and it’s wonderful.  I am reading it slowly to savour all the interesting insights about an ageing man facing mortality.

Kogito Choko is an author, reflecting on his life as a writer, and in particular about his long-held dream of writing a book about his father, who drowned in a river when Choko was a boy of ten.  Oe has already inserted conversations that explain that Choko is referencing a poem that I know, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land 

He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool

(I can’t resist noting here that our own Richard Flanagan drew on The Wasteland back in 1997 when he used death by drowning as a catalyst for exploring the past, in Death of a River Guide).

Choko talks about the authorial dilemmas of writing the book that could answer the question:

As my father was drowning in the vortex of the raging river, how did he pass the last moments of his life?  What was going through his mind?  (p.114)

Have we not all pondered this unanswerable question, at some time, about our loved ones, or about significant people, good or evil, as they lay on their deathbeds?  Choko, with the hubris that he must have in order to write, needs to believe that he can answer it.  (Or else he’s naïve.  I am not sure yet.)

So having decided to write about what his drowning father remembers, he must decide how to structure these thoughts as they flash by:

But what should I, the writer, have my drowning father remember – and in what sequence?  At first I took an oblique approach to the problem, rereading ‘The Snows of Kilmanjaro’.  Before I embarked on the actual writing, I needed to find a way to incorporate bits of history and folklore into the narrative, one by one, without fretting about realism or verisimilitude.  At the same time I was trying to layer brief vignettes throughout the story. (p. 114)

(This method is exactly the method Oe is using in constructing his narrative).

As the reader of this book, I am familiar enough with the poem that’s the catalyst for Choko’s novel, and I know something of the pre- and post-war history of Japan, though not much.  But of its folklore I am ignorant.  I have heard of ‘The Snows of Kilmanjaro’ but know no more than its name.  I have heard of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough which Choko finds amid his father’s possessions and I know from university that it’s a comparative study of myth which presumably includes Japanese folklore.  But I’ve never set eyes on it…

So here’s the rub: should I stop reading and Google Japanese folklore so that I can enjoy whatever allusions are made?  A while ago I was mildly indignant about a spoiler in a review which claimed that everyone would have Googled for it anyway because these days people routinely do.  Well, I routinely don’t.  But I am reading a splendid novel by a Nobel Laureate and wondering if, for this book, I should…

What do you do, readers?  Do you Google elements of a book that mystify you?  Do you research a novel’s background because you’re worried you’ll miss or misunderstand something important?  Or do you just let it pass by and take the book as it comes, and work its magic on you as are you are, with the knowledge and experience that you have as you enter the pages of the book?

Author: Kenzaburo Oe
Title: Death by Water
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015
ISBN:9780857895455 (hbk, RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: Death by Water

A Woman in the Polar NightIf you’re anything like me, you’ll read this book in a mixture of fascination and dismay.

Christiane Ritter was 34 years old when in 1933 she spent a year in Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the Arctic with her husband, described on the blurb as an explorer and researcher.  But he’s not, according to her testimony in this memoir.  He’s a hunter, one of those inextricably linked to what the Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon describes as the silence that broods ceaselessly about the lands that approach the Pole.  Lawrence Millman, who quotes Gordon in the introduction, tells us that this silence is because

Spitsbergen, or to use its Norwegian name, Svalbard… was still close enough to Europe that it could be pillaged by Europeans far more easily than, for instance, Arctic Canada.  By 1934, when Christiane arrived, wildlife had become relatively scarce, and the taking of animals was strictly regulated by Norwegian law. (p. 2)

So as you read Christiane’s awestruck delight in the beauty of the Arctic, and you marvel at her courage when she is left alone in a blizzard, and you admire her fortitude in coping with so many privations, and you take a sharp breath when you realise that she and her husband have taken these risks while leaving a child (!) back in Germany – it also slowly dawns on you that whatever scientific explorations her Hermann may have done in the past, on this trip and on many others he and his mate Karl are there to hunt.  Mainly Arctic foxes, for furs.  Fur coats and those grotesque little tippets that women used to wear slung around their necks in the 1930s.

And because Hermann and Karl are there to hunt, (and Christiane as tourist cum hausfrau is there to keep her husband company) they also have to hunt for food.  Or they say they have to.  I am not convinced that they could not in 1934 have taken adequate supplies.  Anyway, they kill seals, ptarmigans (a kind of grouse, a game bird), gulls, and a polar bear.

Christiane often expresses sentiments that people who love animals do.  There is a fox they call Mikkl and train as a trusting house fox, feeding him up so that he will be a fine specimen in due course.  Christiane doesn’t want it killed:

“Poor Mikkl, you’re traipsing to your own doom. In a few days the fox trapping will begin; they’re after your life. They will pull your beautiful fur over your head and send you far away where a lot of people live close to each other.  There they will give you glittering eyes made of glass, and then you will hang in one of the thousands of glittering shops in one of the thousands of glittering streets, together with thousands of other glittering things”.  (p. 81)

Christiane also often comments on the shallow values that she claims to have left behind, but in which she is complicit, since her husband supplies this market:

No, the Arctic does not yield its secret for the price of a ship’s ticket. You must live through the long night, the storms and the destruction of human pride. You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness. In the return of light, in the magic of the ice in the life-rhythm of the animals observed in the wilderness, in the natural laws of all being, revealed here in their completeness, lies the secret of the Arctic and the overpowering beauty of its lands. (p.214)

On the day that Hermann and Karl leave to begin the fur trapping, Christiane expresses her distaste, vainly imploring and beseeching, using [her] entire stock of feminine coquetry to protect Mikkl, and she frees the fox when he is caught scrabbling in the trap that readers had previously been assured killed the animals instantly.  But there are hunters all over Svalbard, just like Hermann and Karl, killing the other foxes.  The text implies that Mikkl is never seen again because his trust is broken.  It’s much more likely that he was killed.

“You shouldn’t measure animals’ feelings with a human scale”, [Hermann] says soothingly when Christiane expresses sympathy for a seal mother whose pups have been taken by a bear (p. 186) – and she doesn’t, not by the time their supplies have run short and they kill a bear.

Despite a fierce wind, Hermann goes out to inspect the traps and comes back with the joyful news.  With knife and sleigh we make our way to Odden through the whirling snow.

The powerful beast is lying in front of the trap, a small hole in its forehead.  It takes all our strength just to turn the bear over in order to skin it.  It is freezing work in the storm. We have just loaded the pelt onto our hand sleigh when the gulls come, screeching and circling around the corpse.

Now we are rid of our worries about food and begin to enjoy life. (p. 202)

But you noticed, as I did, that they take the inedible pelt on the sleigh…

I ask myself why I deplore this hunting when I made no objection to it in my review of The Home of the Blizzard. Obviously explorers like Mawson in the Antarctic hunted polar animals for food too, so on the face of it I am being inconsistent.  But although Millman is scornful about the luminaries of Arctic exploration, calling them an unpleasantly obsessive bunch,  I think there is something different about the heroic age of exploration because the privations suffered and the hunting done for survival have to do with the quest for knowledge and scientific discovery.  Nothing to do with anything as banal as women wearing furs…

On the one hand Ritter’s memoir (which has been a bestseller in Europe for decades) contributed to public awareness of the environmental values of the Arctic, and I found it worth reading for the descriptions of the glorious Arctic landscapes and for the author’s growing self-knowledge as she learns to deal with isolation, fear and the eerie cycle of the Arctic day and night.  But I found their purpose in being there repugnant even though I understand that their attitudes derive from the values of the time.

Not that our attitudes are any much better.  It’s on our watch that the polar ice caps are melting and the habitat of declining animal populations is being destroyed.  We all know it too, and if we belatedly ever get round to doing something meaningful about it, it’s only because our habitats are becoming dangerous and uncomfortable.

Author: Christiane Ritter
Title: A Woman in the Polar Night
Translated from the German by Jane Degras
Publisher: Greystone Books, 2010 (first published 1938)
ISBN: 9781602231009
Source: Gift of Jenny S, thanks Jenny!


Fishpond: A Woman in the Polar Night

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2016

Hill of Grace, by Stephen Orr

Hill of GraceHill of Grace, Stephen Orr’s second novel published in 2004 is destined to be one of my top ten novels for 2016.  Like The Hands, (see my review) it features an irascible, rigid father in conflict with a son more open to change, but the central premise of the novel couldn’t be more different.  Fundamentalist Lutheran William Miller believes that he has heard the Word of God and that he knows the date of the Apocalypse.  In the small town of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, the Lutheran community is divided and the rest of the town dismisses him as a fool.

Since the novel is set in 1951, with a date for the Apocalypse in 1952, the reader knows from the outset that William is wrong.  We’re all still here, messing up the planet as always!  And yet there remains a well-controlled narrative tension: what will happen when the date comes and goes without the expected return of Jesus?  As the last pages of the novel approach, William has been deserted by his friends and all but one of his followers, he has all but destroyed his relationship with his son, and his patient, tolerant wife Bluma is on the verge of rebellion.  Yet, unexpectedly, the reader has come to care about this tyrannical man…

What makes the novel such a pleasure to read, then, is the rich tapestry of William’s relationships with

  • his only son Nathan, aged 15 at the beginning of the novel, and restless to map out a different future for himself;
  • his (somewhat idealised) wife Bluma, denied even the most basic of creature comforts because of William’s insistence on an Amish-like lifestyle; and
  • his bemused friends and neighbours, and the Lutheran community torn between Pastor Henry’s and William’s interpretation of their faith.

The rich detail of the setting brings the period to life.  The 1950s was the beginning of the consumer society.  Bluma, working in a medieval black kitchen and suffering a constant cough because of the dust, yearns for lino.  But William won’t even have electricity in the house.

Electricity mean bills and bills meant servitude, and worse, people reading your meter, keeping your details in a filing cabinet and counting you amongst the throng. (p.4)

Bluma conceals her small acts of rebellion: she hides the instant coffee in the cellar so that she can serve it to her fellow-quilters – and on the quiet, she buys synthetic stuffing too.  She sneaks out after dark to use insecticide on the vegetables, so that William can be right when he brags about not needing to use pesticides.

The big wineries that are all familiar to us now, break with tradition for the 1951 vintage festival:

[They] organised a ‘Chemistry of Wine’ float, complete with scientists in lab coats testing wine in Pyrex beakers.  This, a sign explained, was the future of their industry: the perfect pH and tannin, woodiness in predictable amounts, bags of tartaric acid hovering over the edge of giant stainless steel tanks which could each hold more than ten of William’s vintages.  William himself shook his head and muttered to a stranger, ‘What’s that got to do with wine?’ (p. 66)

Cheap blocks of land at the new satellite town of Elizabeth threaten to lure one young couple away from the Lutheran community; and neighbours think Arthur is mad for introducing floriculture on his farm. “Flowers you can grow in your own garden. Who needs to buy Arthur’s?”

Orr also has a little fun with the Anglo community’s clumsy attempts to welcome post-war migrants.  A day out at  ‘Dinkum World’ is cringeworthy, and there are wry descriptions of attempts to try international cuisines, such as Rose Drummond’s excruciating chow mein:

What Rose Drummond called ‘chow mein’ was cooked in her near-new Namco pressure cooker, whistling steam every minute or so in tribute to Saigons never seen and Shanghais never tasted.  As Nathan buttered bread she explained how it was the latest thing: carrots, peas and top-grade mince, doused with Keen’s curry and covered with as much cabbage as a Namco could hold, steamed down and served with bowls of rice beside slices of Kraft cheese on ‘continental bread’.  (p.100)

Rose only has seven dishes in her repertoire: chow mein, stew, chops, corned beef, roast lamb, bangers and mash and on her off nights: bubble and squeak, fish and chips, baked beans.  Bob, her husband, who once persuaded her to attend a cookery class, knows better now.  He implores Nathan not to suggest she try anything new.  Rose is also a well-intentioned volunteer at a hospital where she welcomes Terese with a friendly invitation to “Tell us about your village – Vienna, wasn’t it?” and this contrasts with the personal histories of the Lutherans being interned and German businesses being boycotted during both World Wars.

Of most interest is young Nathan.  Chafing at his father’s inflexibility, he tests the boundaries with Lilli, the rebellious granddaughter of Bruno and Edna at the Apex Bakery.  William’s standard punishment is to send the boy to his room to write out slabs of the Bible, horizontally on the page first, and then across it vertically.  Despite this insult to his intelligence Nathan  is a promising student – but when Lilli’s flirtations lead him to fail his exams, he heads for Adelaide to do an apprenticeship in refrigeration.  He is desperate to get away from his father’s anachronisms – death by hand-harvesting because he understands that it’s his own identity that’s at stake:

Memories had to be forged, made unique, otherwise they were just somebody else’s. (p. 84).

William doesn’t approve of the Drummonds, with whom Nathan boards, but Nathan, watching Bob negotiate his son Phil’s late adolescence, marvels at the novelty of a father sparring with his son. In his Tanunda home, William’s word is law.

And as March 21st 1952 creeps closer, the Lutheran community gradually rejects William’s tests of faith.  There are some droll scenes involving local children in dramatic representations of the forthcoming doom, and William himself fails to see the irony in using a printing press to inflict endless brochures about his prophecy on his community.  The Elders meet in dismay and irritation, and he tries another church but is told that a churches are families, and that if you’re not happy with the one you’ve got, you won’t be happy with anotherThis is the dilemma facing Nathan, because he is happier in another family.

Hill of Grace is a deeply satisfying novel.  The large cast of characters and the frequent scene-switching requires the reader to pay attention but it mirrors the way Nathan makes sense of his experiences, piecing them together bit-by-bit.  But it’s more than a coming-of-age novel; it’s also a deft portrait of a community coming to grips with post-war social change, and it depicts the depth of feeling and belief that motivates people of fundamentalist faith.

See also the Combined Reviews at Matilda.

BTW, Wakefield Press have a Stephen Orr package that offers three novels for $39.95.  All three of them are reviewed here on this blog:

  • Dissonance (2012)
  • Time’s Long Ruin (2009), longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and winner of the National Year of Reading Award; and
  • this one, Hill of Grace (2004).

PS (Uncharacteristically for Wakefield Press), the cover design by Liz Nicholson, designBITE, seems inappropriate for this book.  I’m open to being corrected but I think it’s anachronistic.  In my memories of the 1950s, teenage boys did not wear tops like that i.e. a collarless, long-sleeved, and oversized pullover; they wore buttoned shirts at school, at home and at work.  Wealthy, fashion conscious young men might have had polo shirts for casual wear because Lacoste began to market them in colours other than white in the 1950s but they were expensive (and William Miller wouldn’t have allowed his son to have one).  In the 1960s US universities began advertising their names on sweatshirts like the one on the cover but they were not available for general wear until the 1970s.  Not only that, Orr makes a point of the Miller household being dressed in dowdy, out-of-date clothing because William insists on using what they have, including his own father’s suits. (See Fashion History and the History of the Polo Shirt or just Google images for ‘children’s clothes in the 1950s’).

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Hill of Grace
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2004
ISBN: 9781862546486
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Direct from Wakefield Press including as an eBook, and from Fishpond: Hill of Grace


Life of a Counterfeiter Late last year, I found myself unable to resist the tantalising reviews at Winston’s Dad and JacquiWine’s Journal,  and so I lashed out and bought myself a subscription to Pushkin Press.  The first title arrived today…

It’s a selection of three short stories by Japanese author Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991) but the story that gives the selection its name is at 82 pages by far the longest.  Life of a Counterfeiter is ostensibly about a journalist’s failure to fulfil a commission to write a biography of a famous painter called Keigaku, but it becomes a quest to find out more about Keigaku’s forger, a man called Hösen.  The lives of both men are difficult to trace, but the narrator finds the forger a more captivating subject.  Through his research he learns that Hösen was very clever at avoiding detection, and that he had wasted his genuine talent as an artist even though he probably made more money selling famous poor quality fakes than he would have selling his own good quality artworks.  Hösen was also a keen hobbyist in the art of making fireworks, and yearned to create one that is a perfect semblance of a bell flower.

The prose is spare and simple, and the narrator’s voice is self-aware and introspective.  Occasionally he is quite hard on himself.

After the war, my feelings came to be dominated by an odd reluctance to embark again on a once-failed project, and while I knew I had no choice, insofar as I had taken the job, my acute awareness of the particular annoyances I would face made it hard to pick myself up and do what had to be done.  What’s more, when the war ended, I had – quite out of the blue, even from my own vantage – quit my post at the newspaper, moved to Tokyo, and plowed (sic) headfirst into the world of literature, so that all my time was occupied by writing of that nature; thus, what with this and that, I allowed my work on the biography to languish, putting it off until tomorrow, then the next day, with the result that even now, after all these years, I have yet to produce anything beyond that incomplete timeline, littered with blanks, and two or three notebooks of fragmentary jottings.

So the situation stood.  The realisation that I had now failed to produce the biography in time for even the thirteenth anniversary of Keigaku’s death made me feel so ashamed of myself and my endless procrastinating, with respect both to the Onuki family and to the deceased himself, that I really could not have faced them; and so, ever since I received the announcement, I began to think that this year, at last, I absolutely had to cobble together at least the semblance of a biography, so that I would at least have half carried out my responsibility, and be free of that burden.  (p. 16)

However this guilt turn out not to be enough to keep him on task for very long! Hösen is a much more interesting man – and that’s because he’s a flawed human being compared to the rather anodyne Keigaku.  Research into the forger’s activities is much easier too.  Along the way, the narrator ponders the intrinsic value of real versus fake (as so many have in the world of art) and also explores the whole problem of fact and fiction in biography.  The story concludes with the narrator  resolving afresh to get on with the biography, but it doesn’t look promising:

These past two days, during which I added nothing to the biography of Keigaku, and sat staring out at the slopes of Mt. Amagi, the red crape (sic) myrtle in the corner of the garden suddenly lost most of its blossoms, colored so that they recall an earlier age, and at the same time, just like that, the white crape (sic) myrtle burst into bloom; the summer clouds that welled up constantly over the ridge of the mountain seemed – though I may have been imagining it – to have changed into autumn clouds, gliding along so slowly you could barely tell they were moving at all.  Looking at the calendar, I realised that it was indeed the first day of autumn. (p82)

(I really do not understand why an English publisher inflicts American spelling on its readers.  Plowed?  Crape?  It grates).

This is a calm and measured story.  There is little action, and as usual in the Japanese literature that I’ve read, there is a strong sense of restraint.  I suspect that perhaps there are semi-autobiographical elements in this story, and likewise I am quite sure that the story is full of Japanese myth and symbolism that has escaped me entirely.  Never mind, the only way to get to know another literature is to read it.  I have Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe on my TBR – I shall see how I get on with that…

Read Tony’s review too….

Author: Yasushi Inoue
Title: Life of a Counterfeiter
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781782270027
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: Life of a Counterfeiter

Dining AloneI don’t often read short stories, but this collection intrigued me for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it’s edited by Barbara Santich, the food historian who wrote Bold Palates, Australia’s Gastronic Heritage and more recently Enjoyed for Generations, the History of Haigh’s Chocolates, both of which introduced me to a different kind of ‘food’ writing; and secondly because a collection based around the topic of dining alone sounded interesting too.

It was only when I actually started reading the book that I realised that the collection is the work of students of food writing at the University of Adelaide from 2007 – 2013.  Who knew?  I would have taken that course for sure if it had been around in my student days! Not only did they have fantastic teachers like Kerryn Goldsworthy; Brian Castro, Nicholas Jose, Gay Bilson (who wrote Plenty, Digressions on Food); and Marion Halligan who always includes evocative descriptions of food and eating in her novels, (most notably in The Point which was set in a restaurant);  – but these students also visited markets and dined in restaurants for research so that they could practise writing about them.  A bit different to my days researching in dusty old journals down in the bowels of the Bailleau!

The first six stories all won prizes in the Penny’s Hill/Adelaide Review awards: my favourite is A Recipe for Nourishment by Marianne Duluk.  A woman married to a romantic Frenchman dines in splendour when he’s away on business trips but her affair is with flesh of a different kind:

On Rémy’s trips away, my covert life takes form.  Diners gawk and waiters are startled by a long satin gown flowing into the room with no clumsy male trailing two steps behind on the polished marble tiles.  The whispers are fairly loud.  Why is she alone?  A loner, desperate, a failure? Little do they know that true contentment surrounds me, knowing that a night of culinary ecstasy lies ahead.  Of the meat kind. (p.19)

Rémy, you see, is a vegan.  Before she met him, she had never imagined that ‘French’ and ‘vegan’ could share sentences.  She is dining alone so that she can have bacon, beef, confit duck and decadent desserts in one sitting…

I liked Table for One, by Julia Jenkins too.  It’s clever because the story is told from the perspective of a supercilious waiter:

One-tops.  Waste of a table.  They eat light, barely drink and rarely, if ever, order dessert.  And they’re so needy.  They either need you to hold their hand the entire night to ensure they don’t get lonely or feel the dire need to impress upon you their knowledge of this wine or that Scotch.  Or worse, they shroud themselves in their anonymity and melt into the shadows the entire night.  Waste of a table.  (p. 22)

I was cheering when his expectations were subverted!

These student-writers seem to be a well-travelled bunch.  There are stories set in Times Square, Paris, Greece, China, the Camino in Spain, snowy climes obviously far from Adelaide – and India.  The cuisines range from gourmet French to vegetarian eaten with the fingers.  Characters are in love, or not; ‘alone, together’ or on the verge of separation; waiting hopelessly for someone or else dating themselves, dressed for the occasion.   There’s a story about the classic nightmare scenario, the one where you’ve recommended your favourite restaurant and the diners not only don’t like it but also make no pretence at hiding it so that you feel embarrassed about ever going back there.  There’s even one set in a plane with a passenger who likes airline food!

Almost all the authors are women, and it’s quite striking that almost all the stories betray a tension about dining alone.  These female characters feel either angst or bravado; either way they are self-conscious about it.  One of the stories is even called Sydney 1993: Getting over dining alone and there’s another called Don’t Dine Alone, take an iPad to dinner.  I find this surprising in this day and age; I’ve often dined alone for various reasons and I like the experience.  I never attend the dinner for the conference delegates; I slip out to the nearest nice restaurant and enjoy a peaceful meal by myself.  Perhaps it’s because I’m an unrepentant introvert that it seems odd to me that today’s confident young women might feel the want of a companion? Do they feel like this, I wonder, in lunchtime cafés too, where as  David Gilligan says in his story A Late Lunch it’s more common to eat alone?

Dining alone in a café is expected and welcomed.  Your table becomes a refuge from where you choose to engage or observe. Some diners look for company and conversation; others make it clear – this is their time. (p. 71)

There’s a couple of duds in the collection but there’s good variety in the way that the students have tackled the topic (which was an assessment task).  Carli Ratcliff’s Dinner for Two features a diner being stood up – but with an unexpected twist; Karen Reyment’s Velvet celebrates the triumphant beginning of a new life. The most macabre is Catherine Shepherd’s Cherry Pie featuring the last meal of a condemned serial killer…

From the brief profiles at the back of the book, it’s obvious that many of the authors have gone on to have careers in food journalism or some other kind of writing.  I’ve come across a few collections of student-author short stories before but none of those collections have been as impressive as this one.  First published in 2013, the collection went into reprint, so obviously other readers thought so too.  A talented bunch of writers indeed!

Editor: Barbara Santich
Title: Dining Alone, Stories from the table for one
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743052686
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press, including as an eBook, or from Fishpond: Dining Alone: Stories from the table for one

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2016

Fear is the Rider, by Kenneth Cook

Fear is the RiderI took the advice of Kim from Reading Matters, and read this book in daylight.  Straight through without a break.  It’s a macabre, tense thriller that – as the title indicates – preys on a reader’s inchoate fear of being trapped in mortal danger…

In this case the mortal danger is a crazed madman in pursuit of a young woman called Katie, and of Shaw who blunders into protecting her.  The setting is the hostile Australian outback where the couple are trapped by the perilous heat and the terrain.  And so are others unwittingly drawn into the chase:

But when the Land Cruiser was within fifty metres, fear touched the Aborigine and he began to speed up.  The Land Cruiser kept coming.  The Aborigine realised that he had to get off the track or run the motorcycle flat out.  He couldn’t get off the track.  The line of gibbers held him trapped as long as he was moving at any speed at all. He turned the accelerator handle to its full range and the powerful machine surged forward, quickly reaching eighty, ninety, pulling clear just as the Land Cruiser came up to it.  For a moment the bull bars of the Land Cruiser were within centimetres of the motorcycle.  The motorcycle pulled ahead, but riding a motorcycle at ninety on that surface was lethal and the Aborigine knew it.  At any moment he had to hit a drift of stones, or soft sand, and there were soaks ahead.

He knew he’d kill himself is he kept that speed, and he knew he’d kill himself if he tried to turn off the track, and he knew the Land Cruiser would kill him if he slowed down. (p. 67)

The terrain, neutral in its hostility, is the compelling factor in the novel.  The dust raised by the vehicles limits visibility for both the hunter and the prey, but it also always reveals their position and the direction in which they travel.  But the couple’s small inadequate city-bred vehicle is no match for the track that Shaw was warned against by the policeman to whom he reports his ill-planned intentions.  It’s not just that outback travellers must carry extra fuel and water in places where there is no human habitation for hundreds of kilometres, it’s also that the vehicle must be hardy enough to withstand stones puncturing  a fuel tank or tyres shredded by the surface of the track.  (I learned this myself in a Toyota Corolla in outback Queensland where we drove painfully into civilisation with the fuel lines held together with my tights.)

The characterisation focusses entirely on the couple.  No motivations are offered for the behaviour of the madman or of the minor characters, and there are only three of them, as you’d expect in a remote area.  The hunted couple are both city folks with limited survival skills.  They acquire a gun, but don’t know how to load it or fire it.  They don’t have the right clothes to withstand the harsh sun.  They waste water in a profligate way.  What character development there is focusses on the way the experience of being hunted warps their basic decency, how they react with a ruthlessness that they didn’t know they had.

Is it great literature?  Is it like the modern classic, Wake in Fright (1961) which made Cook’s name as an author long before his untimely death in 1987?  Well, no, the introduction by Douglas Kennedy says that stylistically it’s pure pulp fiction.  He acknowledges wooden dialogue, scanty characterisation, missing psychological insight.

You need to give in to its punchy prose, its B-movie sensibility.  Because this is a novel which grips like a vice.  We’ve all entertained nightmarish reveries about being pursued by a crazy (or, at least I have).  Just as we have all wondered what we would do when faced with a deadly situation in which it is us versus them.

Fear is the Rider plays on all these unsettling ruminations as it puts this thrown-together couple through the most treacherous sequence of nightmares imaginable.  For the madman who is hunting them is, more than anything, a cunning, relentless animal who will not stop until his quarry have fallen victims to him.  His wild determination to kill becomes almost mythic in its wholesale savagery.  (p.ix)

For me, it works because it’s short.  Only 196 pages long, which limits the number of cliffhangers when the madman gets perilously close and then they get away again for a short time.  I tend to get bored very quickly by thrillers which pile on the cliffhangers chapter after chapter because they become so predictable.  (Turn 6 pages? there must be another one coming).  Fear is the Rider takes the time to make each scene work properly, to show the characters vacillating between a wary calm and outright panic, and to maintain a strong control over the suspense.

The manuscript has been languishing in Cook’s papers since his death.  It seems extraordinary that after all this time it’s been found and posthumously published by Text!

Author: Kenneth Cook
Title: Fear is the Rider
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
Source: review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Available from Fishpond: Fear is the Rider

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2016

A Winter’s Tale, by Jon Godden

A Winter's TaleJon Godden’s A Winter’s Tale is an old book in more ways than one.  Published in hardback in 1960, and apparently not reissued in any other editions, it was an Op Shop find, still with its original somewhat battered dust-jacket.   I picked it up because I’d enjoyed the novels of the author’s more famous sister Rumer Godden, and I’d read the memoir Two Under the Indian Sun which was a collaboration by the duo. (Yes, another writing duo!)  But the book is not just old in age, it’s old-fashioned in style.  I can’t imagine anyone writing a story with this plot and characterisation today.

Jerome is a successful writer of plays and novels, living in a remote country house in the English countryside with his former batman Peter, who brings in additional income for the household by breeding orchids.  Peter was disfigured by a shocking accident during the war, and since his wife left him he prefers to live an isolated life, venturing only to nearby farmhouses for supplies.  Jerome needs peace and quiet to write, visiting London only occasionally to see his plays on opening nights, and to have casual, light-hearted affairs with a succession of women.  No one has ever visited the house since Jerome bought it as a workplace.  With only a magnificent Alsatian dog called Sylvie for company, they live together in contentment, Peter doing all the household drudgery, and Jerome writing his books and plays.

Into this apparently idyllic life blunders Una, a foolish young actress [sic] who fancies herself in love with Jerome.  On the day that she arrives, a severe snowstorm makes the house snowbound, and the men are forced to give her shelter.  Although she is ditzy and irritating, the inevitable happens and the dynamics in the house change, most notably regarding the dog.  From being the sole focus of attention, Sylvie has to compete for Jerome’s affections with Una.  Peter also resents Una’s presence and doesn’t try to hide it, and Jerome resents being challenged over his casual dismissal of a dog that is devoted to him.

Out of this unpromising material, Godden makes a compelling psychological thriller.  With all four characters confined inside the house, the mood is sombre and claustrophobic, and the tension builds to a climax with unexpected repercussions.  It is skilfully done.

What makes the novel so old-fashioned is the heavy-handed sexism in the characterisation of the girl.  Unlikely to gain any reader sympathy except perhaps for her naïveté, Una behaves like an annoying child rather than an adult.  She can’t amuse herself, she never stops talking, and she is entirely dependent on Jerome for her self-esteem.   Narcissistic and immature, she is the antithesis of today’s modern young women, and Godden, putting sexist commentary into the mouths of Jerome and Peter, goes out of her way to depict her without dignity.

But the novel has redeeming features.  Back in 1999, I read Anne Chisholm’s biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life and learned that Rumer Godden was aghast when she found herself pregnant with her last child because she had thought she was free at last to devote herself entirely to her writing.  So I was interested to see this motif of a writer’s needs crop up in Jon’s book too.  Una reminds him that Jane Austen wrote amid her family, but Jerome says he cannot do it.  To think and write he must have not only silence, but also no threat that the silence might be broken.  Although he’s not a reader himself, Peter gives the necessary self-absorption of the writer full rein so that Jerome can work uninterrupted when the muse calls.  Grateful because the arrangement lets him lead the kind of life he wants, Peter’s complete lack of resentment at being at Jerome’s beck and call has made him more of a friend than a servant, even though they seem to have nothing much in common apart from a love of orchids.

But Una’s mere presence prevents Jerome from working altogether, even if she doesn’t chatter like a foolish bird.  If she’s not in the workroom, he can’t settle to his task because he just knows she’s going to come in and interrupt for something.  If he allows her to stay, she can’t sit still, she makes small noises and she disturbs the ambience of the work room by her complete lack of understanding of a writer’s needs.  When Una lashes out at Jerome, the reader senses that someone has said these very words to one or other of the Godden women:

“…I’ll tell you a thing or two – it’s time someone did. You only hide up here in the woods to make yourself more interesting and important, and when you are in London you might as well be here.  You go about with the same old crowd, people who eat your food and drink your drink and tell you only what you want to hear.  You ought to go out in the world and find out what real people, young people, are thinking and doing.  You are old but it’s not too late.  I don’t suppose that anyone under thirty has read a book of yours, and the young will tell you that in a few years there will probably be no writers left, a few real poets of course, and people who write for television but certainly no novelists, the world doesn’t need them any more. As for your plays, they are clever and witty but where will they be in a hundred years or event twenty?  Even if you were another Shakespeare that doesn’t give you the right to behave like God!”  (p. 200)

Both the Godden sisters had failed marriages, and sometimes bitterness leaks into the dialogue:

“… just one word of warning or advice, because, believe it or not, I want you to have what you want from life, to be successful and happy.  You have youth, looks, intelligence, some talent, and a good deal of will power, but if you want to please and use men, as normal women do, you must learn that men do not want to hear the truth about themselves, that truth is the last thing they want from women.  The women who succeed in life are the sly and artful ones who hide their motives, cover up, keep things comfortable and never, never tell the truth, not to a man anyway.” (p.231)

Jealousy, betrayal and revenge; loyalty, fidelity and unconditional love. Themes worthy of the Shakespearean title. Just not executed in a way that can stand the test of time…

Author: Jon Godden
Title: A Winter’s Tale, a novel
Publisher: Knopf, 1961
ISBN: none
Source: personal library, $2.00 from the Op Shop.


Out of print.  Try the Op Shop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2016

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

The Ever After of Ashwin RaoSome time in my adolescence when I stopped thinking about myself so much, I began to wonder how it was that my parents had learned to live with the losses of WW2, and how the Holocaust survivors in my neighbourhood had managed to rebuild their lives.  What strengths did they bring to their experiences, and what capacities had they had to learn in order not to be crushed by them?   These questions interest author Padma Viswanathan too, exploring them in her second novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao which was shortlisted for the Canadian Giller Prize in 2014.

It’s an ambitious novel, using a psychologist narrator to interpret stories of the victims of terrorism.  Ashwin Rao lost a sister and her two children in the 1985 Air India bombing, but his plans for writing a book about the impact on families of the victims doesn’t include analysing his own feelings.  While Ashwin is at pains to narrate his story objectively, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Ashwin has cut himself off from even the possibility of relationships, even to the extent of having a vasectomy so that he can’t ever suffer the pain of losing a child.  ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all’? Not for Ashwin, it isn’t.

At home neither in his birthplace India nor the tight-knit Indian communities in Canada, Ashwin is prompted by the long-delayed trial of the home-grown radical Sikh bombers to return to Canada (where he was trained in ‘narrative therapy‘).  He is ambivalent about attending: A Screaming Reluctance to See It had battled in me with A Driving Compulsion to See It. And when he gets there he feels that the trial is a sham.  It is 20 years after the event and it was too late because (post 9/11) everything had changed, and nothing at the trial would do anything to prevent future terrorism.  As for the perpetrators, hot air buffoons not worthy of naming, there is no adequate punishment and no government in the world possessed a moral sceptre weighty enough to flog these puny fellows. 

While the reader notes that the narrator is supposed to be writing a book about how other people have learned to do more than just cope when tragedy strikes, Ashwin explores the back-history of Sikh extremism as a way of trying to understand for  himself how it comes about.  Unpacking events, he ponders the turbulent history of post-colonial India and how its purportedly democratic government (mainly under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency) performed acts of terror on its own dissidents, thus feeding feelings of alienation, resentment and injustice.   In India Ashwin sees his own father shaken out of complacency by horrific violence in their own street; he notes his mother’s equally vehement denial of events.  While none of this is used to justify terrorism as a response to political grievances, and there is no attempt to humanise the terrorists at all, it places Sikh extremism in context.  (And whether the author intended it or not, the depiction of Indira Gandhi’s ruthless violence against minorities on Indian soil also contextualises contemporary claims of home-grown alienation in Paris, London and Lakemba.  Whatever their manifold shortcomings, contemporary French, British and Australian governments have not, on their own soil, instigated nor sanctioned rape, violent murder and riots targeting religious minorities and destruction of their religious sites as in the Golden Temple atrocity.)

Ashwin is also on a journey of spiritual discovery.  While he travels all over Canada interviewing his subjects, the main focus is on two families of the victims in (fictional) Lohikarma in British Colombia.  The reader notes that Ashwin pays only cursory attention to his bereaved brother-in-law and had avoided contact with him over the years, and has distanced himself from his own family in every way.  He is also not religious at all.  But when he meets Seth, a minor and unambitious academic at the university who has for twenty years cared for his cousin Venkat, who lost his wife and son in the tragedy, Ashwin becomes drawn into the notion of religion as solace.  Venkat, irreparably damaged by the tragedy, is involved with a sect with ominous undertones, while secular Seth finds himself drawn to a guru to provide relief from the incessant strain of supporting Venkat (who once made a suicide attempt).  Since I know very little about Hindu religious observance and the role of gurus, I found this strand of the novel fascinating.

I was also interested in the role of women, as depicted in the novel.  Ashwin (against his better judgement and possibly straying into unethical territory) becomes involved as an informal counsellor to one of Seth’s daughters, and so the reader discovers the contradictions of tradition versus modernity in the Indian diaspora.  For women, this means issues like arranged marriage obviating the emotional costs of divorce; marriage and motherhood subverting expectations about academic success and career; caste and status leaking into the lived experience of living in an egalitarian society;  and in the domestic sphere:  dress codes, gendered housework and hiding behaviour from parents well into adulthood.

Also tackled, especially through the prism of Ashwin’s failed relationship with the Canadian Rosslyn, is the topic of Western complacency:

What is one girl’s love life against terror, mayhem, massive governmental cock-ups?  “First-world problems” – a phrase I heard recently, the sort of assessment I would have agreed with when I left Canada, twenty years ago.  But I thought differently now.

Brinda’s worries, my own worries – that we might never have the chance to truly love, or to love again – these are the ways we best understand the effects of terror: someone’s father killed in a falling Twin Tower, someone’s fiancé blown up at a checkpoint in Afghanistan.  First-world problems? Statistics are well and good, but names, faces, stories make us understand , pay attention.  Who are the victims?  (p.90)

I note that some Goodreads reviews have complained about the credibility of the ending.  I shall say nothing here to spoil what came for me as a complete and well-executed surprise entirely consistent with the themes in the novel, except to say that the likelihood of the event is indeed a well-known phenomenon in any mass-scale disaster.

This is a rich, complex, satisfying novel, with many thought-provoking ideas, and for those of us not familiar with Indian history, culture and religion, also an opportunity to learn more about the Indian communities in our cities.

Kim from Reading Matters reviewed it too.

Author: Padma Viswanathan
Title: The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2014
ISBN: 9781742586083
Source: review copy courtesy of UWAP (and my apologies for taking so long to get round to reading it)

Available direct from UWAP, from Fishpond: The Ever After of Ashwin Rao and good bookshops such as Readings.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2016

2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award winners

Oh, it’s a good thing I don’t do the cooking chez moi.  I’ve been glued to my laptop watching the results come in on Twitter.

*drum roll*

Here are the winners of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, in the order they were announced on Twitter.  I’ve left the shortlisted books below so that you can see all the other great books that were nominated too:


Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT, see an interview with the playwright at ArtbackNT


Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications) – Brunswick, Vic, see my review


The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury) – Earlwood, NSW, see a review at The Saturday Paper


Something for the Pain by Gerald Murnane (Text Publishing) – Goroke, Vic, see my review


Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT


Crankhandle by Alan Loney (Cordite) – Malvern East, Vic, see a review at Cordite and also Tony’s thoughts at Messenger’s Booker and More.


Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward (Xoum Publishing) – Brunswick West, Vic, see a review at Readings.


The nominated works were:


  • Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications) – Brunswick, Vic, see my review
  • The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop (Hachette) – Springwood, NSW, see my review
  • Clade by James Bradley (Penguin) – Darlington, NSW
  • Forever Young by Steven Carroll (HarperCollins) – Brunswick East, Vic, see my review
  • The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury) – Earlwood, NSW
  • The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) – Marrickville, NSW on my TBR

Highly commended:

  • Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight (Random House Australia)
  • The Mothers by Rod Jones (Text Publishing) see my review, and
  • Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge Publishing) see my review


  • Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan (MUP) – North Fitzroy, Vic, and Fitzroy, Vic
  • Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb (UQP) – Dulwich Hill, NSW, see my review
  • Australia’s Second Chance by George Megalogenis (Penguin) – North Caulfield, Vic
  • Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska (Knopf) – Birchgrove, NSW
  • Something for the Pain by Gerald Murnane (Text Publishing) – Goroke, Vic, see my review
  • Mannix by Brenda Niall (Text Publishing) – Deepdene, Vic, see my review

Highly commended:
Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books) and
Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing)


  • Mortido by Angela Betzien (Currency Press) – St Peters, NSW
  • Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT
  • SHIT by Patricia Cornelius (Melbourne Theatre Company) – Thornbury, Vic

Highly commended: I am a Miracle by Declan Greene


  • The Guardians by Lucy Dougan (Giramondo Publishing) – East Victoria Park, Vic
  • Crankhandle by Alan Loney (Cordite) – Malvern East, Vic
  • The Subject of Feeling by Peter Rose (UWA Publishing) – Melbourne, Vic

Highly commended: Happiness by Martin Harrison (UWA Publishing)


  • Sister Heart by Sally Morgan (Fremantle Press) – Bicton, WA
  • A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay (Walker Books Australia) – Hamilton Hill, WA
  • Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward (Xoum Publishing) – Brunswick West, Vic

Highly commended:

  • Illuminae by Aimee Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) and
  • Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison (Magabala Books)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2016

The Empress Lover, by Linda Jaivin

The Empress Lover

The Empress Lover is Linda Jaivin’s sixth novel, but I ‘discovered’ her when I went to a translation symposium where she talked about the perils of translating Chinese films for subtitles and then read her Quarterly Essay, Found in Translation, in praise of a plural world.

My experience of reading books set in China is limited.  I read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (1931) ages ago, and I’ve read some of that genre of Chinese émigré writers now living in the West who write stories of female oppression (Wild Swans and the novels of Amy Tan come to mind), and also the Nobel Prize winning Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible about life under the Cultural Revolution).   I’ve  read novels by contemporary dissidents such as Yan Lianke and Liao Yiwu, and also Sheng Keyi.)  But Jaivin’s is the first I’ve come across which is written with the eye of a contemporary Western insider who has developed an intimate knowledge of Beijing over many years.  The insights into Chinese life are fascinating.

The story focusses mainly on the female narrator, Linnie, a woman of uncertain identity.  Of Eurasian appearance with an unknown father, she leaves Australia in middle age when her foster parents die, and returns to Beijing where she has traumatic memories of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the memory of a lover called Q.  Fluent in Chinese, she makes a scratchy living as a film translator, writes an unpublished novel called The Empress Lover about the Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944), and casts an acerbic eye on the rampant consumerism around her.  One day she receives an enigmatic letter which offers the prospect of finding out who her father was.

The novel is narrated mostly by Linnie, and these are the most successful and engaging sections.  As you may have seen from the Sensational Snippet I posted earlier, Jaivin’s observations about Chinese life then and now are profuse, opinionated and fascinating.  She notes with China’s attack on its own past with dismay:

The old city was disappearing at the speed of memory, leaving only its stories to hover over once historic sites like lonely ghosts.  It wasn’t just physical heritage under attack.  In its media, schools and museums, the Party-state was single-mindedly sandblasting the rich, complex and untidy history of the country itself, cleansing it of ambiguity, purging it of shame, and scouring it of blood, unless the stains were conveniently on the hands of enemies.

The relentless scrubbing and scratching has achieved the desired effect.  You meet young people here all the time who have only the vaguest concept of when the Cultural Revolution took place, or what it was about; when I asked one to guess when he thought it had occurred he hemmed and hawed and finally, tentatively, guessed: ‘After Liberation?’ Others referred in all confused innocence to the Maoist era as ‘feudal times’ but to Mao as a hero.  As for the events of 1989, those too young to have lived through them knew so little that one had asked me if it had anything to do with the Falungong.  I felt as though I inhabited two cities – one callow, corrupt, clueless, swelling in wattage, concrete and steel; the other cultured, critical, conscious, dimming into oblivion and leaving behind only a few clichés in the form of Olde Peking picture postcards, regrets and the shadow of defiance… (p. 143)

It was this kind of insight that elevates the story from a mildly interesting mystery into an engaging philosophical journey exploring the boundaries between between truth and fancy, between what’s knowable and what’s not.  However, there were implausible elements of the plot which test the reader’s patience a bit, and I should warn readers that there’s some rather unpleasant erotica narrated by Sir Edmund Backhouse.  (Drawn, according to the notes at the back of the novel,  from Backhouse’s erotic ‘memoir’ of his affair with the Empress Dowager).

The South China Morning Post reviewed it too.

Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: The Empress Lover
Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins), 2014
ISBN: 9780732291273
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Empress Lover

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2016

Meet an Aussie Author: Gert Loveday

Gert Loveday 1

Gabrielle Daly

As you will know if you read my recent review of Writing is Easy, Gert Loveday is the pen name of Australian sisters Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly, and if you followed  the comments chat that ensued, you will also know that there was quite a conversation about writing duos.  Today, Sue at Whispering Gums has followed through with an article about literary couples, and I am pleased to bring you the first to feature a duo in my Meet an Aussie Author series: the authors behind the pseudonym Gert Loveday!

Gabrielle’s writing life began when, after careers in nursing and piano teaching in Australia, she moved with her family to Singapore in 2002. She studied autobiography, haibun and haiku online with the American poet Allegra Wong and had haibun diaries published in Contemporary Haibun Vol 9 in 2008 and several ‘small stones’ published in Fiona Robyn’s zine ‘River of Stones.’ Her story ‘Away’ was highly commended in the 2012 Grace Marion Wilson Award.

00015_P1010187 copy copy

Joan Kerr

Joan is a poet widely-published in Australia, the US and the UK. She has won numerous poetry prizes including the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize, the Henry Kendall Poetry Prize, the Woorilla Prize, the W.B. Yeats prize and the Dorothy Porter Poetry Award. A selection is included in Triptych Poets Issue 3 (Blemish Press 2012)

Gert has published three novels – and you get an immediate taste of the Loveday brand of humour when you read their blurbs:

  • Writing is Easy, (2013) a gourmet casserole of writerly ego, vanity, seduction, blackmail and death, spiced with a superhuman fitness protein and dollops of good red wine.
  • Crane Mansions – (2014) a novel about the redeeming power of cake, the novel Charles Dickens would have written if he’d had enough hummingbird cake.
  • The Art of the Possible (2015) in which meek Dr Frank Owlbrother takes on feral Oldies, political skullduggery, a sinister Russian professor and the seductions of reality TV in a quest worthy of his Norse saga hero Hauskuld Priest of Whiteness.

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So how does a writing duo answer Meet an Aussie Author’s questions?  Like this:

1.  I was born when Gabrielle said to Joan, “Why don’t we write a book together? It would be fun.”

2.  When I was a child I wrote stories about a place called Arrapamatta in which the ordinary rules of logic were turned inside out. People flew through the air and stoutly denied they were doing it, everyone had several identities, and battles were fought over totally insignificant issues such as the relative handsomeness of dogs. And I wrote a lot on the footpath in chalk.

3.  The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write was obviously my avatars, Joan and Gabrielle. They in turn were inspired by the Canadian Freefall writing teacher Barbara Turner-Vesselago who taught them to let it all rip. Before that, there was Mrs Stewart from the Myer Library. I borrowed so many books at a time she had to tie them up with string. When I was ten years old she said my life that I saw as lonely and boring would be interesting to others if I wrote about it in my own words.

4.  I write in, at first, Singapore and Geelong. Now, Williamstown and Geelong. And at the computer, because the first draft is written by email, taking turns and passing the baton just when things get interesting.

5.  I write when the urge comes to write another book. Then for the next month it’s nothing but book. Sometimes I don’t get out of my pyjamas all day. That’s the first draft. A cooling-off period and then the revision starts.

6. Research is a lifetime addiction to reading everything and anything. G & J grew up in a house where books ruled, and went to the same university where they took Pure English honours with a bit of French, Latin and Linguistics thrown in. They love languages – Latin and Ancient Greek, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin and a teeny bit of Finnish. They’ve travelled a lot. They love food and wine. G has a fund of knowledge about peculiar diets and extreme body makeovers, and J about silly word games. What more does a writer need?

7.  I keep my published works in a huge cabinet made of elephant skin.

8.  On the day my first book was published, I had a nice cup of tea and a madeleine or two.

9.  At the moment, I’m writing stuff for my blog and a rewrite and edit on a Loveday-style YA fantasy Dark Pools of Selene. J is writing poetry and cranky letters to the paper about politics. G is writing a daily journal, a fictional memoir in which she’s called Dora, Life Stories for clients on a Palliative Care program, haiku and haibun.

10.  When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I a) just keep writing or b) go for a long walk.

If you want to know more about the fascinating process of writing as a duo, do visit  Guy’s interview at His Futile Preoccupations.

To buy her books, visit Gert Loveday’s blog!

Read Modern

Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum is a sumptuous ‘coffee-table’ book, and as the sub-title suggests, it’s a history of New Zealand life in the middle of the 20th century.  It measures 23cm x 27cm, it’s 4cm thick and it’s 427 pages long.

Just opening a page at random, I’m looking at a full colour page illustration of women’s shoes, sexy stilettos and sturdy sandals.  On the facing page there’s a page of text entitled ‘Shoe Shuffles’ and there’s a B&W photo of a mother with her two children in a shoe shop, and there’s a small colour photo of some toddlers’ shoes – cheerful red leather lace-ups from the 1950s, with a caption that explains that children wore dress shoes in daily life to go with their more formal clothing rather than the casual shoes and garments derived fro leisure wear toddlers might wear today.  This page is part of a whole chapter called Daily Dressing, which begins with this interesting introduction:

Contrary to what the available (largely black and white) imagery suggests, the clothes worn by both women and men in the 1950s and 1960s showed ‘diversity, colour and vibrancy’ and a whole repertoire of talents and abilities.

For women the array of techniques might include knife pleating, chevron quilting, French darts, draping, ruching and gathering.  Evocative styles ranged from ‘whirlpool’ brassieres to matador pants, from petal caps to bouffant skirts, and from winged reveres, to ‘disturbed’ hemlines.  Accessories might include saucer-like buttons, gold lurex stoles, kid gloves and ostrich skin handbags… For men … clothing ranges from porkpie hats to brothel creepers, from tweed hacking jackets to drainpipe trousers.

These wonderful names, some now obsolete, others still in use, conjure up a different world.  But it is not just the details and the styles that evoke the period.  They also stand in for a whole society and way of life. (p.101)

Indeed they do.  Browsing through this chapter brings back memories of what my glamorous mother used to wear during this period, which suggests to me that even then, fashion was universal, at least in the English speaking world.  The page entitled ‘A good foundation’ makes me very grateful to have escaped corsetry though I am old enough to remember that going bare-legged was a fashion no-no and a packet of nylons was a regular purchase for many women.  In fact, my first memory of standing up for myself as a proto-feminist was when I worked in the office at Myer and kept laddering my stockings on the rough edges of the cheap and scruffy desk I had.  I told them that if they weren’t going to sand the legs of my desk, then they should pay for my nylons.  They ignored me, of course, but there was full employment in those days so I simply left and got a job somewhere else – where my stockings lasted for weeks if I was careful!

This chapter traces the shifting silhouettes for women’s dresses and bathing suits, and also the shapes and fabrics used for hats and handbags, with an interesting snippet about Maori women coming to the cities in the 1960s carrying flax kete with handles – but I had to Google this word to see what they look like because there’s no illustration of these traditional woven baskets.   IMG_1415There’s not so much about menswear, but there’s a lovely page about knitting for newborns – which is a good opportunity for me to show off the little matinee jacket I knitted for one of my grand-nieces.  Today few babies wear hand-knits, but most babies of the 1950s and 1960s, like generations before them, wore home-made clothes stitched or knitted by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other family members.  Women all over the world were kept busy knitting during the post-war baby boom, and with the end of wartime shortages of yarn (yes, even in New Zealand, with all those sheep!) knitting layettes became a popular activity. Most women (my mother included) also made their daughters’ frocks, which included a ‘best’ dress, a ‘school dress’ and a ‘town dress’.  Often the same pattern was used for all the daughters, made up in different fabrics, and I remember going to the shop to choose the material with great solemnity…

The book includes other chapters, beginning with Home Comforts which is about houses and furniture.  It’s interesting to see a photo of a woollen carpet woven with native Kiwi plants, which made me wonder if the same was done in Australia, or if the floral Axminsters I’ve seen here were all that was available.  (There was a lurid pink one in my sitting-room when I bought my current house.  That carpet was very promptly replaced by a 1970s Berber!) The book includes photos of ‘modern’ appliances now considered quaint or museum pieces (wringer washing machine anyone?) and also the gear for preserving jams and fruits.  (I still have my trusty Fowlers Vacola, but I admit I haven’t used it for a good while).  But the furniture of the 50s – and perhaps the crockery – will be very familiar to anyone who likes the retro stuff that’s around now.  However, I don’t think the beautiful linens of the period will ever make a comeback, people can’t be bothered with the laundry and the ironing of it, much less embroidering it themselves as we learned to do at school.

Gardening was different: the vegetable patch was the man’s domain, and people raised plants from seeds rather than buying punnets of ready-to-plant seedlings.  Yates was the big name in seeds then as it still is today, and Masport was the big name in lawn mowers.  The focus is mainly on conventional middle-class housing but that, the author says, is because differences in social class and regional variations are difficult to recapture in the objects and images that have survived.  The photo of people queuing up to look at display housing doesn’t seem to include any Maori, and the following chapter, Clean and Fresh doesn’t describe the sort of housing conditions I’ve read about in novels by Maori author Patricia Grace, though there is a brief reference to some pockets of disadvantage:

Yet even at the end of the 1950s, indoor plumbing and toilets were still not universal: almost 14 percent of New Zealand homes did not have piped water and nearly 20 percent did not have a flush toilet.  Residents in existing houses and flats continued to make do with more basic amenities right through the 1960s. (p.73)

So it’s important to remember that this is not a comprehensive history that covers a spectrum of different social conditions to any great extent, although the book is extensively referenced and there’s also a bibliography and an index.

What the book does cover well is gender issues.  Clean and Fresh is about how after the war years women’s role was back inside the house, looking glamorous while using cleaning products and appliances which actually increased her workload because expectations and aspirations were higher.  I was amused to see that when dishwashers became possible for the less wealthy, the advertising offered advice on how the time saved could be used to ‘play with the children … machine that new dress … talk to your husband.’

There’s lots more to this book:

  • a chapter on School Days, describing not only gender segregation and gendered curriculum but also separate Maori schools, which lasted till the 1960s; ‘uniforms and uniformity’; school milk and dental programs; and the popularity of the school banking scheme.
  • a chapter called Working Habits, which also describes the sort of gendered workplaces that were common all over the world; the ‘two-legged economy’ where the pastoral industry brought in foreign exchange and manufacturing generated the jobs to maintain full employment. Maori, migrants and (despite objections from some quarters) women joined the workforce as  New Zealand became more urbanised (a phenomenon described in Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins, as rural family life was disrupted by girls moving to work in town).  Unionism was under attack even then, and there was a clear social divide based on employment status.  A lot of work was boring and repetitive…
  • Getting Around traces developments in transport, and – as in Australia – the influence of the car on the way that cities were designed.  The car was, of course, the male’s pride and joy.  My mother was unusual amongst her peers because she always had the family car while my father took the train to work, as he always had in England.
  • Going Shopping explores the development of the consumer culture in the years after the war.  Photos in this section include quaint advertisements, and scenes from shops in those days of specialty stores and pre-supermarket grocery shopping. New Zealand went decimal in 1967, a year after Australia did, with coins that then as now look a lot like ours, and were probably exchanged by accident across the Tasman then too.
  • Fun and Games is the sort of chapter that children doing school projects about The Olden Days will enjoy.  There are pictures of all sorts of toys (mostly gendered of course), and photos of leisure activities that include picnics, spectator sports, and quaint TVs and radios.
  • Out on the Town follows this theme but begins with a droll quotation:  On her return from a trip across the Tasman in 1959, a Sydney beauty was asked ‘What did you think of New Zealand?’ ‘I don’t know,’ was her reply, ‘it was closed’.  Apparently Kiwis thought themselves unsophisticated too but there was a lot of commercial entertainment: dances, concerts and cinema; the pub of course, and for teenagers, there was a café culture in milk bars.  International pop groups toured, usually as part of a trip that included Australia, and popular musicals made their way to the major cities too.  Belonging to some sort of group was common: sporting clubs, church groups, Rotary and Lions, school committees and so on.
  • Rituals and Traditions includes the 1953 Royal Visit that made many hearts flutter, but it’s mostly about the traditions that derived from religion which was still dominant then.  Christenings and baptisms, marriages and funerals; Christmas and Easter; birthdays and wedding anniversaries; the debutante ball; and for Maori, after a 1952 change in the law which denied registration of customary Maori marriage there was often a customary union as well as a white wedding.   Hostility to inter-racial marriage was common in New Zealand, as elsewhere.   It was a conservative society, but there was also a greater sense of law-abiding community where people do not lock their doors when they go out; where cars can be left unlocked with the windows down; where bicycles can be left propped against your fence overnight.   Along with annual festivals and parades of one sort or another, and kapa haka to sustain Maori language and customs,  there were also large public funerals in this period for the death of the Prime Minister Peter Fraser, Maori leader Te Puea Herangi, the Maori King Koroki, and Prime Minister Walter Nash as well as memorials for the victims of the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster and the sinking of the Wahine in 1968.   This chapter concludes with mention of the emergence of grass roots activism and political protest in the period, which is often a feature of Patricia Grace’s novels as well, especially in Potiki.  

The author, Bronwyn Labrum, is an associate professor in the School of design at Massey university and was formerly curator of history and textiles at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Author: Bronwyn Labrum
Title: Real Modern, Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 196os
Publisher: Te Papa Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780994104175
Review copy courtesy of Te Papa Press.

Available from Fishpond: Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2016

Sensational Snippets: The Empress Lover, by Linda Jaivin

The Empress LoverIt’s Summer here in Melbourne, behaving in its usual Melbourne way, where a day’s scorcher can burn the vegie patch to a crisp but a hasty decision to take the doona for cleaning can leave you shivering overnight.  So it’s interesting to read about the seasons in Beijing in Linda Jaivin’s lustrous novel, The Empress Lover.   Like mine, the narrator’s preferences have changed:

Despite the door snake and all the creaking efforts of the gas heaters, the cold crept through the glass and into my bones.  I shivered and hunched into my doona, but for all the discomfort, the recurrent colds, chapped lips and numb toes, I revelled in the winter.  Odd as it may seem, as the years have passed, winter has become my favourite season in Beijing.  I love hiding myself under layers of under- and outerwear, scarves and hats and woollen socks over leggings over tights.  Summer is a season of exposure and vulnerability.  Even one’s pores are open.  Winter is all about concealment and impenetrability.  I like the way fresh snow hides the city’s dirty secrets and makes it beautiful and new again. (p. 110)

Our winters are not as extreme of course, but I love wearing soft hand-knits; sipping rich winter soups; walking along the beachfront watching a grey swell disappear into the horizon; and watching, from the warmth behind my windows, the wind hurl itself through our trees…

Summer in Beijing often jumps out from behind the curtain in early May like an overeager showgirl, shaking her feathers before getting hauled backstage again.  She tiptoes back out by the end of the month and in June the season is in full swing, with the odd intermission.  She launches into a full, raucous can-can in July and August, complete with those crazy showers and oppressive humidity.  As she winds down the show in September and October, thinning the peaches, fattening the grapes, withering the lotus flowers in the lakes and taking a paintbrush to the hills, people begin to feel nostalgic, speak of her in the past tense and sigh in anticipation of the long wait for her return.  (p. 111)

It’s intermission here in Melbourne as I write, and it’s quite nice – mild days with an occasional shower to save us having to water the garden.  But the oppressive heat will be back, I know it will, and I’ll be sighing in anticipation of the long wait for winter’s return…

Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: The Empress Lover
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2014
ISBN: 9780732291273
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Empress Lover

Fever Dawn Sometimes, a love story can be very good for the soul.  Fever at Dawn, drawn from the love letters of the author’s parents, is a triumph of the human spirit over adversity that is very satisfying reading.

As a child, I had the rather naïve idea that the end of a war meant that the survivors could go home immediately, not knowing that POWs could continue to be held for months and years after an armistice, and that meant that their military guards weren’t demobbed.  Occupation forces stayed in Germany for long after 1945 to manage deNazifiction; the Iron Curtain fell, trapping people behind Soviet borders; and in the case of the survivors of Nazi extermination and labour camps, the precarious state of their health meant that they were unable to go home, even if they still had homes to go to or countries willing to take them.  Over 850,000 people remained in displaced persons camps for years after the war.

This is how Fever at Dawn begins:

My father, Miklós, sailed to Sweden on a rainy summer’s day three weeks after the Second World War ended.  An angry north wind lashed the Baltic Sea into a three-metre swell, and he lay on the lower deck while the ship plunged and bucked.  Around him, passengers clung desperately to their straw mattresses.

They had been at sea for less than an hour when Miklós was taken ill.  He began to cough up bloody foam, and then he started to wheeze so badly that he almost drowned out the waves pounding the hull.  He was one of the more serious cases, parked in the front row right next to the swing door.  Two sailors picked up his skeletal body and carried him into a nearby cabin.

The doctor didn’t hesitate.  There was no time for painkillers. Relying on luck to hit the right spot between two ribs, he stuck a large needle into my father’s chest.  Half a litre of fluid drained from his lungs.  When the aspirator arrived, the doctor swapped the needle for a plastic tube and siphoned off another litre and a half of mucus.

Miklós felt better.  (p. 2)

Fever at Dawn could have been a grim tale, but it’s not.  It’s poignant, but it’s also amusing and uplifting.  For the parents of Péter Gárdos, Sweden became their refuge while doctors tried to save their broken lives, and Miklós, a Hungarian survivor of Belsen is determined to make a new life for himself. Given six months to live before TB kills him, he decides to write to 117 Hungarian girls in Swedish DP camps who are listed as being from his home town – with a view to making one of them his wife.

Dear Nora, Dear Erzsébet, Dear Lili, Dear Zsursa, Dear Sára, Dear Seréna, Dear Agnes, Dear Giza, Dear Baba, Dear Katalin, Dear Judit, Dear Gariella…

You are probably used to strangers chatting you up when you speak Hungarian, for no better reason than they are Hungarian too.  We men can be so bad-mannered.  For example, I addressed you by your first name on the pretext that we grew up in the same town.  I don’t know whether you already know me from Debrecen.  Until my homeland ordered me to ‘volunteer’ for forced labour, I worked for the Independent newspaper, and my father owned a bookshop in Gambrinus Court.

Judging by your name and age, I have a feeling that I might know you. Did you by any chance ever live in Gambrinus Court?

Excuse me for writing in pencil, but I’m confined to bed for a few days on doctor’s orders, and we’re not allowed to use ink in bed.  (p. 14)

Improbably, one of them writes back.  Well, actually, more than one of them writes back, but it’s the letter from Lili that captures his heart.  Lili isn’t well either, though her condition is not as perilous as Miklós’.  And letter by tentative letter, these two fall in love.

Fortunately for Miklós, it’s not easy to exchange photos.  Emaciated and scrawny, he lost all his teeth when he was beaten up during the war, and the cash-strapped relief services have replaced them with metal ones.  His face is disfigured by warts.  Both Lili and Miklós have unprepossessing cast-off clothes and even if either of them had any money, the authorities aren’t about to let them travel across the country to meet up in person anyway.  Miklós is a scallywag who is determined to have his own way, but Lili has friends who warn her against him because she knows nothing about him.

From the beginning of the book, the reader knows that it all works out in the end – it’s the emotional and literal journey that engages the mind and the heart.  The passion that Miklós and Lili feel is more than for love, it’s a passion to find a way to be happy again, and negotiating the memories of their war years is no easy task.  In addition to the bureaucratic obstacles, and the ominous state of Miklós’ health, there are also betrayals and false friendships, because human nature doesn’t change just because people have been victims.  But there is laughter, song and poetry, all driven by the power of the human will.

Stu at Winston’s Dad tells me that Péter Gárdos is a well-known film maker.  This is his first novel, and you can see the trailer for the film at this link.

The book cover design is by the inimitable W.H. Chong.

Author: Péter Gárdos
Title: Fever at Dawn
Translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925240771
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

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