Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2014

Australian and New Zealand novels on the 2014 IMPAC longlist

There are 142 books on the IMPAC longlist but these are the Aussie and Kiwi ones, with links to the ones I’ve reviewed, and some reviewed by Kim at Reading Matters.  We’ve nearly got them all covered!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2014

Crow Mellow, by Julian Davies

Crow Mellow Crow Mellow is a most unusual book, not like any other that I’ve read.  A collaboration between the artist Phil Day and the author Julian Davies, it’s a reinterpretation of Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow which I re-read a little while ago.  I read it then because  I wanted to see how this new novel by Julian Davies played with the original…

The answer is quite a lot.  Apart from its playful title, Crow Mellow is, like the original, a social satire that uses a gathering in a country house in order to poke fun at contemporary fads and fashions.  Davies borrows the structure of the Huxley novel, and his characters, transplanted into contemporary Australia, follow the Huxley script to such an extent that if you’ve read the original recently as I have, the interest lies not so much in the plot but in the witty correspondences.   So there is a pompous, confused young would-be writer called Phil Day who corresponds to Denis Stone; there is his lady-love Anna Rimbush (Anne Wimbush) who’s more interested in the artist Paul (Gombauld).   Mr. Scogan becomes Scrogum whose name with the transposition of a consonant allows Davies some rather adolescent humour.  And so on.

The satire covers all sorts of contemporary issues, not just literary and artistic pretensions but also capitalism, consumerism, gender politics and a parody of our not-so esteemed prime minister at a fancy dress party.   Julian Davies’ disenchantment with the state of modern publishing  finds voice in Scrogum’s inspection of Mitchell’s library, a strange and increasingly anachronistic place:

‘We all now believe in a world where knowledge has no physical existence, not substance.  It shimmers with electronic effervescence and swamps out minds with its sheer extent.  A hundred years ago it was likely that educated people anywhere in the West shared a good part of what they read.  Today what we know we know almost alone.  We exist in cyber isolation simply because we cherry-pick from a plethora of information on a whim.

‘So here, in this museum to the past, we can celebrate the mystery of lost certainties, lost commonality.  And yet what a motley spectrum these books create.  Look at them bunched together, their faded colours, the lettering running horizontal to the spine so that we must distort the posture of our necks to read the titles and end up looking like a pack of quizzical dogs. What a fine thing this is, you might say –  a collection of a good part of the dead knowledge of our species. But even this is a mere flippant smattering of the books of the world.  And what of the books of this year, even those of this year in Australia?  For against all expectations, books are still published.  When I last researched the numbers, as I do periodically, I found that there were over ten thousand titles published in one year in this country alone.  (Ch. 14, there aren’t any page numbers).

Scrogum goes on to mock titles such as Selected Prejudices and A Short History of Lost Opportunities, suggesting that it might be better to resist the temptation to open the book.  Davies has a lot of fun with the targets of his humour, though I can’t say that I enjoyed the scatological elements.

What makes this book most unusual, however, is the profusion of illustrations, line drawings by Phil Day.  They are like huge marginalia, swirling around the text, often dominating a double page spread.  I wish I could scan a page to show you, but that would be a breach of copyright.  The next best thing is for you to visit the Finlay Lloyd home page – but it doesn’t really show you how witty these drawings are: each character is depicted in a kind of shorthand cropped image, so that, for instance, Anna is a pair of impossibly long legs in high heels, topped by an impossibly short mini skirt and boob-tube.  No head, because the blokes aren’t interested in what’s in her head.  Melissa, on the other hand, is an impossibly long plait  – no body, as befits her intellectual pretensions.  The blokes are mostly just heads, though one is a hectoring pointing finger.   Mitchell’s head is like an egg with a Hitlerian moustache.

I’ll be interested to see what readers might make of this book if they come to it fresh, without the experience of reading Huxley first.

Author: Julian Davies
Illustrator: Phil Day
Title: Crow Mellow
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592941
Source: Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd


Fishpond: Crow Mellow

See Finlay Lloyd


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2014

Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish, by Jan Swafford

Beethoven Triumph and AnguishI don’t usually review books I haven’t finished reading – and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this one – but I know that there are music lovers out there who would love to have this book for Christmas so I’m breaking my own rules so that you have time to get a copy of it for the one you love.

I have been in love with Beethoven since I was just into my teens. My mother’s favourite symphony was the 8th, but we had them all on LP (the von Karajan recordings) and my friend Ruth and I would play them every weekend, one after the other in order, following along with the scores that we had between the two of us.  Sometimes I would take the train into the State Library and flop down on the floor beside the Beethoven books and read everything there was on open access.   I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Beethoven but I was wrong…

I did not know, for example, how strategic Beethoven was in planning his career.  In the chapter entitled ‘Generalissimo’ Swafford tells us how he crafted the progress of his first opus numbers because only the pieces with opus numbers were going to be ‘serious’ ones.  And he was very careful which genres he published. Mozart and Haydn were unassailable rivals that he had to manage in his early career if he were to avoid comparisons that he wasn’t ready for.  Since Mozart and Haydn owned the territory with string quartets and Haydn was ‘the Father of the Symphony’ to boot, Beethoven played instead to his strengths, making the piano trio his own.  This worked well for him because unlike his rivals, he had grown up with the piano:

Both his predecessors had spent much of their careers composing for harpsichord, while Beethoven was a pure pianist and piano composer. … When it came to idiomatic piano writing – exploiting the full range of touch, articulation, volume, texture and colour available to the piano as opposed to the harpsichord – one of his prime models was Muzio Clementi, who wrote one of the first substantial bodies of work for piano. At the same time, as a composer in general Clementi posed no threat to Beethoven.  Clementi wrote attractively and idiomatically for the piano, Mozart and Haydn beautifully in general, but as far as Beethoven would have been concerned , the first truly significant repertoire for the piano was waiting to be written.  He intended to write that repertoire. (p. 167)

Beethoven as we all know was a rather cranky fellow, and apparently even in his youth he was firmly convinced of his own genius, but – well, why not?  He was a genius.  It’s fascinating to read the little snippets that illustrate his contrariness, and this is a very well researched book that sustains reader interest from the get-go.  So, for example, it tells us that Beethoven never really resolved the tension between the artistic debt and the veneration he owed Haydn and the jealousy he felt, so he refused to put ‘pupil of Haydn’ on the cover of his first published opus as other students routinely did with pride.   It tells us that he was very cross with the publishers Artaria for pre-emptively publishing his ‘Se vuol ballare Variation as Opus 1.


And there you see the reason why it’s taking me so long to read this beautiful new biography….

It’s not because it’s a whopper (thought it is, at 1100+ pages) it’s because I keep stopping to source and listen to various compositions that Swafford refers to.  As well as tracing the events in Beethoven’s life he also goes into detail about how and when his compositions were created.  Let me give you an example…

In the chapter ‘Virtuoso’, we learn that Beethoven in 1797 published his cello sonatas, a four-handed piano sonata Op 6, and Twelve Variations on a Danse Russe.  He dedicated this last to Countess von Browne, who gave Beethoven a horse as a token of thanks. He rode this horse a couple of times and then forgot about it (!), so the enterprising stable-hand rented it out, pocketing the profits.  (Beethoven was not best pleased to subsequently receive a huge bill for feed).  Swafford then goes on to write about  a work that took Beethoven two years to write but became one of the abiding successes of his life, the song Adelaide.  In four stanzas conjuring up images of the beloved inspired by nature, this song is derived from the sentimental verses of a poet called Friedrich von Matthisson (to whom Beethoven dedicated it, along with a plea to write another such poem).  Swafford explains, as only a composer can, how this work fits into this period of Beethoven’s life, not only conjecturing about whether there was a woman behind his enthusiasm for romantic songs, but also placing the work in the context of his creative life:

…he created a singular style, limpid and direct, thought with far-roaming modulations.  Like the cello sonatas and other works of his early maturity, it is a style if note quite “Beethovian”, not derivative either.  (p. 201)

Now, who could read this, and not scamper off to You Tube to find a version of Adelaide, eh?


And the work that led to his troubles with a horse?!


Sometimes, even when I’m familiar with the music Swafford is referring to, I still want to hear it so that I can really absorb what he’s saying about it.  So reading this book is a work in progress, and will bring me hours of pleasure for a long time as I make my way through it.

Highly recommended, not just for Beethoven enthusiasts but for anyone who loves music.

Vienna, Beethoven's grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op!)

Vienna, Beethoven’s grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op back in 2010!)

BTW I love the handsome picture of my hero on the dust-jacket, and there are lots of other full-colour illustrations of various composers, family members and Beethovian pilgrimage sites as well.

PS Jan Swafford has also written a bio of Brahms, and a Vintage Guide to Classical Music.   Santa, are you listening?

Author: Jan Swafford
Title: Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571312559
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Fishpond: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

EEvery Day is for the Thiefvery Day is for the Thief is a curious book: the blurb says that it’s a novel but it reads nothing like a novel, more like a travel memoir, and a rather melancholy memoir at that.

Teju Cole was born in the US to Nigerian parents, brought up in Nigeria, and now lives in America where he won the PEN/Hemingway for his second novel, Open City.  The blurb on the back cover quotes Salman Rushdie saying that he’s one of the most gifted writers of his generation.  But I’m not so impressed…

Cole’s narrator is an expat Nigerian who goes ‘home’ after an absence of fifteen years.  The book consists of vignettes of Nigerian life, invariably depressing ones recording his dismay at the lamentable state of affairs there.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that the nostalgia that drove him home was very quickly replaced by a judgemental eye.  Like many a first novel, Every Day is for the Thief betrays the urge to get something off one’s chest, in this case the author’s disappointment with his own origins.

I’ve read a number of Nigerian novels, and none of them shy away from the problem of poor governance, crime and endemic corruption.  But Cole’s novel goes into overdrive: as the narrator goes in search of his identity successive chapters expose the routine bribery; the standover men; ‘area boys’ who (unarmed) turn up and intimidate grown men into handing over money; home invasions; the necklacing of a boy who kidnapped a baby for a gang; the unabashed scammers in internet cafés; the police who pull him over and demand ‘something'; and so on.  In an interview at the Africa Book Club Cole says that he is not interested in African optimism, he is interested in African realism.  But realism is necessarily selective, and for all that this is a story of homecoming – to family, old friends, a first love – the relentless negativity conveys a sense of the narrator as a hyper-critical outsider.

The writing is excellent – the vignettes are vivid, and the depiction of the narrator’s melancholy soul coming to terms with the gulf between nostalgia and reality, is compelling.  Maybe this is what Salman Rushdie admires.  But the pessimism of this purported novel of middle-class disenchantment depressed me in a way that the Song for Night or Waiting for an Angel did not, despite their horrific subject matter.

Other reviews are at the New York Times and the Guardian.

Author: Teju Cole
Title: Every Day is for the Thief
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571307920
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: Every Day is for the Thief

A Thousand Peaceful Cities

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a textbook example of how the internet has changed my reading habits.  Ten years ago when all my reading was filtered by what was available in bricks-and-mortar bookshops, I would never have heard of the Polish author Jerzy Pilch, much less read his amusing little book or be sharing my enjoyment of it on a blog.  But thanks to a tweet from the international champion of translated fiction,  Stu at Winston’s Dad, I signed up for the First 25 deal at Open Letter Books.  A Thousand Peaceful Cities  is the third book I’ve read from the collection; the other two are Gasoline by Spanish author Quim Monzó and The Sailor from Gibraltar by French legend Margaret Duras.  My horizons have widened.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is the droll story of an attempted assassination.  Set in 1963 during the post-Stalin thaw, the novella is narrated by Jerzyk, a bemused teenager who wants to be a writer.  He practises his craft by recording the bizarre conversations around him, writing so fast that sometimes he predicts the end of sentence before it’s uttered.  The impossibility of anyone being able to do that alerts the reader that nothing in this narrative can be trusted and it’s a book to romp through without worrying about whether any of it approximates reality.

Jerzyk is a close observer of his world, which includes his aloof and cynical father, and his father’s friend Mr. Trąba, an incorrigible alcoholic.  Coming to the end of his life, Mr Trąba wants to do something of significance before he dies, so one vodka-soaked afternoon he hatches a plan to do something good for humanity: the assassination of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka, the de facto leader of Poland (which back in the 1960s was still firmly under Soviet rule).

Actually, Mr Trąba would really like to bump off Mao Tse-tung, but there are practical difficulties that can’t be resolved, even by a man of his ambition (or Jerzyk’s imagination).

‘Maybe our terror is not a great terror,’ Mr Trąba flared up, ‘but it’s still terror. Better that than nothing.  Better a sparrow in the hand than Mao Tse-tung on the roof.  Yes, OK, I intended to do something for humanity, but after all, if I do something for Poland, I will have done it for humanity too.  Of course I would prefer a great deed on a global scale.  Of course I would prefer, as I explained to you,’ Mr Trąba raised his shoulders, ‘of course I would prefer to tighten my tyrannical fingers around the neck of Mao Tse-tung.  A person would get to see a little of China in the process.  But we don’t have the resources for such a long journey.’  Mr Trąba sighed regretfully, ‘and a short trip is out of the question for reasons of ambition.  You can’t expect me to humiliate myself with quasi-foreign trips around the block of the People’s Democracies.  Oh no, not that, no.  I certainly won’t go to Sofia to lie in ambush for Comrade Zhikov.  Nor to East Germany in order to administer justice to Walter Ulbricht.  Please don’t even try to persuade me.’

‘And what about Khruschev?’ Mother unexpectedly spoke up, neither asking nor quite proposing, from above an already considerable stack of potato pancakes.  ‘Have you considered Khruschev?’

‘Khruschev,’ Mr Trąba seemed to ignore the absolute astonishment with which Father and Commandant Jeremiah looked at Mother, ‘Khruschev may be removed at any moment.  It isn’t worth the effort.  I go to Moscow, which, however you look at it, is also a good hike, and on the spot I discover that changes have just then taken place at the highest level of the CC CPSU, and I’ll look like a boob.’ (p.43)

Mr Trąba also rejects the Commandant’s offer to turn a blind eye should he decide to choose the Bloody Dictator of Fascist Spain because (a-hem) he thinks that Franco is a great statesman…

So there they are, around the kitchen table with the potato pancakes, calmly discussing which world leaders to send to their maker, with all the aplomb of a Monty Python sketch.  The novella goes on in this vein, with an amazing assortment of digressions and diversions, all delivered with the sardonic eye of the narrator looking back on his adolescence with a kind of bemused wonder at the madness.   There are coming-of-age elements as Jerzyk tells us about his angel of my first love moments but it’s Mr Trąba who is the star of the show, a wonderful comic character worthy of Dickens.

There are laugh-out-loud moments right through this book, but it’s poignant too.  Under Stalin, under Mao, under Franco, there might well have been many kitchen-table fantasies about grasping at freedom with a well-planned assassination.  Except that all these monstrous regimes had surveillance of their own citizens down to a fine art and there were informers were everywhere, as Jerzy shows with the arrival of that genial commandant who knows all about Mr Trąba’s plot.  This book is a comic fantasy because the very idea of an insurrection was a fantasy.  For decades.

Also see the reviews at The Complete Review, and if you’re interested in Polish writing, also check out Stu’s inspiring reviews.

Author: Jerzy Pilch
Title: A Thousand Peaceful Cities
Translated from the Polish by David Frick
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781934824276
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books


Fishpond: A Thousand Peaceful Cities

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade ListsGreat news, tweeted by Paddy O’Reilly a short time ago:

Jane Rawson has won the 2014 Most Underrated Book Award for her debut novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.

Read my review here

and a Sensational Snippet

and find out more about Jane at Meet an Aussie Author.

Congratulations also to Barry Scott from Transit Publishing who has sent me so many interesting and unusual books over the years!


A Love AffairAdolescent girls have a bit of a reputation for sabotaging their parents’ attempts to re-partner, don’t they?  If you think that such brattiness is a modern phenomenon, this novel by Zola will make you think again…

Une page d’amour, translated variously as A Love Episode; A Page of Love; Hélène: A Love Episode; or A Love Affair; was first published in 1878. It’s eighth in the publication order, but tenth in the recommended reading order, following on from The Sin of Father Mouret (see my review) and exploring the same kind of theme of transgressive love.  Jean Stewart says in her brief introduction to this edition, that Zola had shocked his readers with his exposé of social evil and human degradation in the nightmare world of The Dram Shop (L’Assommoir, 1877) and he wanted to show that he could also write about a touching subject, treated with the utmost simplicity…a good natured book. (p.5)

A Love Affair is, as Zola apparently said, about nice people and romantic feelings and children and flowers – but he couldn’t help himself, he had to make his romance fit with his dubious theory of heredity and a crude determinist philosophy. And so that malevolent young girl on the cover is the inheritor of the Macquart character flaws.  She is the great-granddaughter of mad Adelaide Fouque and the grand-daughter of Mouret who hung himself after his wife died – and, irrevocably stained by this heredity, she is the eleven-year-old saboteur of her mother Hélène’s love.

Jeanne has a morbid illness which means that when she has one of her wild passionate fits of temper, doctors must be called in the middle of the night. Dr Deberle – who just happens to live next door – turns out to be kindly and handsome and he can’t fail to be interested in the beautiful young widow Hélène.

Alas, Henri is married, and his wife Juliette becomes a friend to Hélène, who then becomes a frequent visitor to the Deberle household.  And although Paris is full of light-hearted adulterers, as the attraction grows Hélène struggles with the conflict between the serenity of innocence and the dawning of her latent sexuality.  She wasn’t in love with her first husband and is unprepared for the tumult of passion.

Jeanne, of course, is alert to any threat to her exclusive ‘love’ for her mother.  The Abbe Jouve had suggested that Hélène marry his brother, the good, kind and attractively rich Rambaud – but Jeanne put a stop to that with her tantrums even before Hélène had decided that she wasn’t interested.   Jeanne’s self-absorption, possessiveness and jealousy are legendary!

There are some wonderful characters in this novel.  Mère Fetu is a splendid old emotional blackmailer who trades on the good natures of Hélène and Henri to wangle money and attention, but she also rents out rooms in her squalid apartment.  When Beau Malingnon, a dandy proposed as a suitor for Juliette’s sister Pauline, wants a tryst (no, sorry, no spoilers here!) he sets this room up as a lurid fantasy in pink which reminded me of the bedroom excesses of The Kill.  The maid Rosalie and her lover, the soldier Zéphyrin, are also interesting as a lower-class couple who are also constrained from fulfilment of their feelings.  Juliette, who today we would label ‘ditzy’ and would have a career in event management, is a wonderful creation: she throws a splendid fancy-dress ball for her seven-year-old son Lucien which Zola uses to satirise the greedy excesses of Paris, and the way she stage-manages the funeral is extraordinary, even sourcing countless April flowers to tastefully match the colour of the outfits for the procession.  (No, I’m not going to tell you whose funeral it is).

One other character deserves a mention, and that’s Paris.  Yes, the city itself, as viewed from Hélène’s window.  Of necessity she spends long hours beside Jeanne’s bed, and she often looks out over the rooftops viewing the city’s moods in one kind of weather or another.  Zola uses the city to symbolise radiant hope in Spring and the cruelty of life in Winter.  For me, much as I am fond of Paris, these scenes were often too long and too laboured.  I was more interested in the psychological study of obsessive jealousy and tormented guilt about sins as yet uncommitted.

For some odd reason A Love Affair is (according to Wikipedia) the only title in the Rougon-Macquart series that doesn’t have a modern translation.  I was about to succumb to the Gutenberg version on the Kindle when Jonathan who blogs at the Books of Émile Zola fortunately intervened and recommended Jean Stewart’s translation instead.   It’s excellent and the lurid cover of this edition is a bonus!  The Elek translations are notorious for their amusingly tacky covers, and they play a starring role in Jonathan’s post about Lurid, Gaudy or Tasteless Covers at the Books of Émile Zola blog – do check out his slideshow to see what I mean.

Next up in The Zola Project is The Belly of Paris.  I have a copy of Brian Nelson’s 2009 translation published by Oxford World’s Classics …

Author: Émile Zola
Translated from the French by Jean Stewart
Title: A Love Affair
Publisher: Elek Books, London, 1957
ISBN: none
Source: O’Connell’s Bookshop, Adelaide, via AbeBooks

Do as I did and hunt out a copy of this translation…

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2014

Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis, with Patrick Weaver

Walking FreeWalking Free is an extraordinary memoir: if someone rewrote it as a novel, readers would say it was unrealistic.  Yet this story is true…

Munjed Al Muderis was born into a privileged family in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein.  He survived its wars with Iran and Kuwait, and the First Gulf War, and despite disruptions to his education managed to graduate as a doctor.  He got married, and had a child, and lived what passed for a normal life in Saddam’s Iraq…

Until the fateful day that changed his life forever.  He was working as a junior surgeon at the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad when busloads of army deserters were hauled into the hospital by a team of heavily armed soldiers.  To their horror, the surgeons were ordered to amputate the tops of the deserters’ ears, by order of Saddam Hussein.

Then I saw three burly officers striding along the corridor towards the operating theatre.  They were menacingly huge, heavily armed and dressed in full camouflage uniform with combat boots – the most finely honed instruments of Saddam’s brutality.  As they approached they were giving orders to staff to immediately begin the surgery.  The most senior doctor in the operating theatre refused their instructions.  He told the officers he had taken a solemn oath to do no harm to his patients.  Straight away he was marched to the hospital car park, briefly interrogated and then shot in front of a number of medical staff. The military thugs then came back to the operating theatre and bluntly told us, ‘If anyone shares his view, step forward.  Otherwise carry on.’ (p.134)

Muderis shared the view of this brave senior doctor, but he didn’t want to die.  He slipped out of the theatre unobserved, hid in the women’s toilets for five hours,  and then fled.  He had no plan, only an instinct to escape Iraq before the authorities caught up with him. With a combination of luck, loyal friends, and bribery using his mother’s money he made his way to Jordan, and from there to Malaysia where he hoped to be able to get work as a doctor.

It was in Kuala Lumpur that he found himself using his fluency in English to help a couple of refugees who were taking the people-smuggling route to Australia, and through a complex web of circumstances he ended up joining them on the boat to Christmas Island.  From there he was sent to the notorious Curtin Detention Centre in the remote Western Australian desert, a place deliberately designed to dehumanise the internees.  There he was always addressed by his assigned number 942, arbitrarily punished with solitary confinement and repeatedly told to go back to where he came from.

In 2000 after 10 months he was granted refugee status and finally freed.  And despite the way Australia treated him, Muderis has remained here and forged a new life, becoming one of the world’s top osseointegration surgeons.  It is extraordinary to think that if he had buckled under the stress and trauma of Curtin, this brilliant man might never have pioneered the techniques that have changed the lives of amputees.

Muderis bookends his book with the story of Michael Swain, a British soldier who lost both his legs in Afghanistan.  Thanks to Muderis, he was able to walk unaided  at his investiture to receive an MBE from the Queen.

This is a compelling story, recounting details of life in Iraq that go beyond the headlines and revealing aspects of internment in Australia that more people should know about.   Patrick Weaver, the journalist who worked with Muderis on this memoir, has done an excellent job of bringing a powerful story to life.

Also see this review at the SMH.

Author: Munjed Al Muderis, with Patrick Weaver
Title: Walking Free
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781760110727
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin.


Fishpond: Walking Free




Exciting news!   *drum roll*

The City of Stonnington will be holding its third annual
[untitled] Literary Festival in November
and I will be chairing a panel of authors to discuss the theme of The Glittering Façade: what lies beneath?’.
My guests will be the authors of books you’ve read about before on this blog:

*another drum roll*

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Yes, if you come along, you will have the chance to see and hear these authors:

Nicole Hayes, author of The Whole of My World,  reviewed here by guest reviewer Karenlee Thompson

Catherine Harris, featured in Meet an Aussie Author on this blog.  I’ve reviewed Catherine’s debut collection of short stories, Like Being a Wife, and her novel The Family Men, see my review here


Paddy O’Reilly, featured in Meet an Aussie Author on this blog.  I’ve reviewed three of Paddy’s novels, The Fine Colour of Rust , The Factory; and the one we’re going to talk about on the day, The Wonders.  (You can see a Sensational Snippet from the book here).

The session will be on Sunday 23 November between 2.00pm-4.00pm,
at the Phoenix Park Library in East Malvern.
Sessions are free but you need to book online or call: 8290 4000.

Find out more about the festival at the festival website.

The City of Stonnington Mayor will launch the festival at the Toorak/South Yarra Library with drinks, nibbles, live music and a brief talk by author and comedian, Fiona O’Loughlin.
Friday 21 November, 7pm-9pm
I’ll be there, wearing my ANZ LitLovers badge, so do say hello if you come along!

ANZ LitLovers badge

Post-war LiesPost-war Lies, by Malte Herwig, is a challenging book to read and review, because it would be so easy to fall into the trap of sitting in moral judgement about Germany’s Nazi past.   You might also ask, what’s it got to do with us, in Australia in the 21st century, if Germany is still exploring its mea culpa issues?

Well, I would argue that a thoughtful reader makes for a thoughtful citizen, and Germany’s quest for truth is relevant to many societies.  While the Holocaust is unique in human history, the acquiescence of ordinary citizens in morally culpable crimes against humanity might be more common than we like to admit.  Herwig in his concluding chapter quotes the German author Martin Walser saying that if concepts of ‘state’, ‘people’, ‘nation’ or ‘race’ have any meaning at all, then each individual has a responsibility to enquire into his complicity in political crimes.  (Or as I would put it, you can’t belong and then wilfully ignore what is being done in your name).  Walser was talking about complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich, but he could IMO just as easily be talking about political crimes against asylum seekers or future generations who will suffer the effects of climate change.  He could just as easily be talking about the complicity of non-indigenous Australians in the distortion of its Black history.

Post-war Lies explores the vexed question of the culpability of the generation born in Germany between 1919 and 1927, and specifically whether they were members of the Nazi Party or not.  According to Wikipedia there were 8.5 million members of the Nazi Party, (10% of the population) while Herzig says 10.1 million, but whatever the exact numbers were, in the post-war de-Nazification period (1946-1948)  it was intended that these people should be the subject of intense scrutiny.  The Allies were determined to rid Germany of Nazi ideology entirely, to punish supporters whose complicity was criminal, and to ensure that Nazi Party members were removed from positions of influence.  (See Wikipedia).   The numbers, of course, made the goal unachievable.  Inevitably, people slipped through the net.  And by the 1950s, it was realised that it wasn’t possible to create a functioning, economically independent and democratic state without the contribution of these people, and the Constitution was amended so that ‘minor offenders’ who’d been sacked could be re-employed. Herzig’s figures show that some West German government departments were completely dominated by ex-Nazi Party members.

But those were the older generation.  A generation defined by the date that they joined the Nazi party.  If they were one of the 1.5 million that joined the Party before Hitler came to power in 1933, they were defined as ‘hard-core Nazis’ (See Wikipedia), (differentiating them from those that Herzig calls opportunists, conformists or the ambitious).  They were expected to atone for what had been done (if such atonement is ever possible).  But Herzig’s interest is in the Flakhelfer generation, the Hitler Youth generation that in some contexts can be described as child soldiers, and in particular those who became the high-profile leaders in positions of influence who helped to rebuild post-war Germany into a genuine democracy. For these people exposure of any Nazi past is a stain on Germany’s contrition and a personal affront.  Despite what looks like compelling evidence, the claim that they progressed from the Hitler Youth (which was compulsory for Aryans from 1936, and unavoidable) to becoming members of the Nazi Party, is, apparently, almost universally denied.

Herzig quotes Nietzche’s to explain how repressed memory works:

Long before Sigmund Freud, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described how repression works: ‘I did that, says my memory.  I cannot have done that, says my pride, and remains adamant.  In the end, memory yields.’

It is an important metaphor, and one that could serve as the motto of a whole generation of Germans. (p. 79)

Under the American Occupation in what was (before reunification) the Federal Republic of Germany i.e. West Germany, records from the Nazi regime were stored in the Berlin Documents Centre (BDC), and among them was an index of Nazi Party membership.  Herzig traces the story of the suppression of this index by both Germany and the US, and the ongoing denials of what it contains.   Astonishingly, despite eventual American efforts to extricate itself from this remaining vestige of the Occupation, this archive – with the most politically sensitive records hidden away in the safe of the American Director, Mr Simon – remained under US control until 1994 where all attempts to access it by researchers and journalists were resisted.  The archive wasn’t resistant, however, to East German spies who used what they knew of it to publish the Brown Book in 1965, which named and shamed 1,800 West Germans in political, economic, administrative, military, legal and academic fields,  (p.104), the GDR operatives bragging to their superiors in East Germany that it included ‘SS murderers from A to Z’ and ‘Members of the Gestapo, the SD, [the Nazi Security Service] and the SS in the West Berlin police force’.  (p.105).  According to Herzig, East Germany also used their files to blackmail West Germans into performing surveillance activities for them.  They succeeded in this because the threat of exposure was so shameful.

(Herzig also says that German staff at the BDC also pilfered Nazi memorabilia such as Hitler signatures and Nazi insignias and sold them on the black market.  Eventually the US appointed a new Director, sped up the process of microfilming all the documents, and introduced computers, temperature/humidity controls and better security in the building before handing it over to Berlin (which was by then unified though Bonn remained the capital until 1999).

In addition to discussing the role of high-profile politicians instrumental in suppressing the historical record, Herzig devotes two chapters to the preeminent German authors and intellectuals, Günter Grass and Martin Walser.  Both of these deny membership of the Nazi Party, using what Herzig calls the ‘fairy tale’ claim (p. 155) that they were never members because they were automatically joined up by some unknown flunky as a ‘birthday present’ for Hitler on his 55th birthday, and since they didn’t sign the application forms the membership was invalid.   This argument was accepted in a 2012 court case in which Walser’s reputation was questioned – but Herzig remains sceptical:

The court delivered its verdict on 5 October 2012, and partially admitted Walser’s claim.  As the assertion that Walser had been a member of the NSDAP [National Socialist German Worker’s Party, i.e. the Nazi Party] was likely to diminish the author’s social standing, the chamber judged that it was up to the accused* to prove Walser’s membership.  But the court did not recognise Walser’s card in the central NSDAP card file as proof of his membership, and accepted his statement that he had never made a membership application.  Without a signed membership application, there was no NSDAP membership – that was the essence of the judgement.  However, in the Federal Archives only 600,000 membership applications have been preserved, compared to 10.7 million membership cards.  Following the logic of the Hamburg judge, one might de-Nazify 10.1 million NSDAP members with a stroke of the pen on account of the fact that their applications no longer exist. (p.234)

* In Australia, defamation cases are torts i.e. civil matters: the person suing is called the ‘plaintiff’ and the ‘accused’ in this excerpt would be called the ‘defendant’.  The term ‘accused’ is only used in criminal trials.  It may be a translator’s error or it may be that European courts operate differently.

Courts, in Germany as in Australia I presume, operate to a different standard of proof to history, a standard that is different again in the court of public opinion.  Herzig argues that the secrecy surrounding the index, and the US government’s complicity in the suppression of politically sensitive records is indicative of their stance about the issue.  To refute the court’s dismissal of the index as proof of membershp, he also quotes Nazi directives and research from the Federal Archives which contradict it:

…under Point 3 [in Directive 1/44 by the Reich Treasurer on 7 January 1944 regulating the intake of memberships] it says “The membership application should be carefully filled in by the boys and girls to be accepted into the party, signed in their own hand and passed to the responsible Hitler Youth leader.”

and, from a statement in the Federal Archives:

‘In the holdings of the Federal Archives there are reference documents as well as many individual case studies which reveal that the NSDAP party bureaucracy operated highly meticulously, that the membership recruitment process was highly regulated and that, fundamentally, no one could be accepted into the NSDAP without their own participation.’ (p.233)

Again, one might wonder why it matters if very old men interrogate their own pasts or not.  Well, Herzig’s view is, first of all, based on a commitment to the historical truth, but also a belief that it is wrong to deny the transformation that has taken place.  Men like Grass and Walser are representative and from their writings…

… in a hundred years it will still be possible to read [their] work as a record of the processes of consciousness of an entire generation that grew up in a dictatorship but created a democracy.

Walser’s generation may have been too young in the Third Reich to become perpetrators.  But they are the burnt children of bad parents – parents who brought up their children not in the spirit of civic enlightenment and tolerance…  … These children were deceived by an idealism infected by National Socialism.(p.227)

Herzig asks that under these circumstances isn’t it probable that these young people:

… were given an application form to fill in, and obeyed the demand that they join the party? That they signed and promised something that had nothing to do with them?  That assumption might come closer to the actual reality of the situation for intelligent and ambitious young people in the Third Reich than retrospective attempts to explain away the existence of the membership cards. (p.230)

For him it is a liberating issue, one that gives the story of this generation a happy ending, because it proves that things can go the other way, and that the good can grow from the bad. (p.245)

In 1946, the American newspaper correspondent Judy Barden wrote of de-Nazification in Bavaria: ‘It will take 72 years, until 2018, to complete the task.’ While de-Nazification was officially declared finished in 1948, the Nazi pasts of many of the Flakhelfer generation still surprise and preoccupy us even today.  But it would be wrong to try to retroactively de-Nazify exemplary democrats such as Martin Walser, Walter Jens, or Hans-Dietrich Genscher by simply denying the existence of the NSDAP membership cards.

On the contrary: the life’s work that these Flakhelfer created after 1945 as artists, academics, or politicians deserves to be acknowledged all the more for having been produced under the most unfavourable conditions imaginable.  Seduced and betrayed, they were released by the Third Reich into an uncertain future – one which they mastered.  So they didn’t just contribute to the democratic success story of the Federal Republic.  Their fate effectively embodies the transformation from bad to good. (p. 243-4)

Two omissions would have made this book easier to read: an index, and a glossary to complement the list of acronyms.  The term Vergangenheitsbewältigung might be familiar to some, but it certainly wasn’t to me, and if it was explained early in the book I had forgotten what it meant when I encountered it again. (It means ‘the struggle to deal with the past’, thank you Wikipedia).

Author: Malte Herwig
Title: Post-war Lies, Germany and Hitler’s Long Shadow
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle and Shaun Whiteside
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2014

Fishpond: Post-War Lies: Germany and Hitler’s Long Shadow

Or direct from Scribe (Australia)
or from links at Scribe (UK)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2014

In My Father’s House, by Jane Mundy

In My Father's HouseIn My Father’s House by Jane Mundy uses an unusual scenario to lure the reader in: it’s about a woman who’s a hoarder and she gets in one of those clutter-buster types to help her sort out the mess in the house so that it can be sold.  This process enables the characters to retrieve memories long suppressed and to sort out what it is that they really value.

The  last time I read a book in a similar vein was Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow and that ended very badly indeed because they didn’t have a clutter-buster!  In this novel, however, the author shows not only how necessary it is to shed the hoard, but also how hard it is.   Martha the clutter-buster proclaims her three rules of thumb:  ‘do you use whatever it is;? do you need it? does it have any sentimental value? but her method also includes starting in the kitchen where there are fewer items likely to cause angst, and also lots of talk, asking about Beth’s future plans.  Still, she gets it badly wrong when she is about to toss a wok into the pile of discards, not realising that this particular wok has memories that go back a lifetime.

Beth was a young adult when the Vietnam War started tearing Australian families apart.  Her father, who for his own hidden reasons is dogmatically supportive of the military, is also implacably against anyone who objects to Australia’s participation in the war.  Beth falls in love with a young conscientious objector.  This is the kind of scenario that estranged families for decades.

The novel is beautifully constructed so that the jigsaw pieces of Beth’s memories are only gradually revealed.  At the same time, her emerging friendship with Martha’s son enables Martha to confront issues in her own life.  Her son has warped ideas about what it means to be brave and his desire to prove himself as a soldier in Afghanistan almost breaks her heart.

What also interested me in this novel was the unflattering depiction of the writing life.  Beth’s father is a would-be writer, and he tyrannises his family into sharing every single event in their lives so that he can pillage them for inspiration.  He demands subservience from all in the service of his art.  He brooks no rivals.  His sardonic cruelties reminded me of Felix Shaw in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower.   A horrible man, who made family life a misery.

Letters would often arrive at our house from these magazines, amateur writing groups who’d run story competitions, that sort of thing.  They were all for Father.  I would collect his mail sometimes and put it on his desk for when he got home from work.  I learned that the days these letters arrived were bad days.  First there would be the sound of an envelope being ripped open, then a short silence, then the slamming of a fist on the desk or perhaps the crash of an upturned chair. In due course Father would emerge thunderously from the bedroom and Mother and Nigel and I would scuttle from his path like ants from the footsteps of a giant.

Occasionally one of these letters might contain a note from an uncharacteristically kind editor explaining briefly why some piece Father had written had been rejected.  Over dinner on such occasions Father would launch a merciless attack on each carefully worded, diplomatic explanation, defending his position and drawing into question the professional expertise and parentage of the editor.

‘Bastard!’ He would spit out the word with such venom that pieces of mashed potato would force their way through his teeth and land on the far side of the table.  ‘What does he know about writing?  I bet that know-all, would-be literati’s never written a thing in his life.’ (p.56)

The characterisation of Beth’s doormat of a mother (no, no spoilers!) is one of the best surprises in this novel.    I was also impressed by the way the author wove current events and recent history together and depicted times that I lived through with faultless authenticity.  It doesn’t feel as if it’s ‘been researched'; it feels as if these passions and obsessions have been lived.

This is a terrific book.  I look forward to reading more by this author.

Author: Jane Mundy
Title: In My Father’s House
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000597
Source: Review copy courtesy  of Hybrid Publishers


Fishpond: In My Father’s House
Or direct from Hybrid Publishers

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2014

Brian Castro wins 2014 Patrick White Literary Award

Wonderful news: one of my favourite authors has been awarded the 2014 Patrick White Literary Award!

To see why I admire his work, see my reviews of his books here:

Other novels to seek out and enjoy include

  • Birds of Passage (1983)
  • Pomeroy (1990) (on my TBR)
  • Double-Wolf (1991) (on my TBR)
  • After China (1992)
  • Stepper (1997) (on my TBR)
  • Shanghai Dancing (2003) (on my TBR)
  • The Garden Book (2005) (read before I started this blog)


Here’s the Press Release:

Perpetual announces 2014 Patrick White Literary Award winner

Brian Castro honoured for outstanding contribution to Australian literature

7 November 2014

Perpetual, as trustee, has today announced Brian Castro, acclaimed novelist and essayist, as the 2014 winner of the Patrick White Literary Award.

Benefitting from the proceeds of the Trust of Patrick White’s 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mr Castro will receive $24,000 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Australian literature.
The Patrick White Literary Award was established by Mr White to advance Australian literature ‘by encouraging the writing of novels, short stories, poetry and/or plays for publication or performance’. For the past 41 years it has been bestowed to an author who has made an ongoing contribution to Australian literature, but may not have received due recognition.

Andrew Thomas, General Manager of Philanthropy at Perpetual, congratulated Mr Castro on his achievement.

“Brian Castro must be commended for his original and prolific contribution to Australian literary culture,” Mr Thomas said.

“His exciting and diverse body of work includes 10 novels, two radio plays, two stage plays, five short stories and a collection of essays on writing and culture.

“Patrick White continues to support our literary community by using the proceeds of his Nobel Prize and is renowned as the first and only Australian who received this honour for literature. As trustee, Perpetual is proud to continue Mr White’s great legacy and the tradition of philanthropic support for the arts through this award.”

Brian Castro was born in Hong Kong in 1950 to parents of Portuguese, Chinese and English descent and was sent to boarding school in Australia at the age of 10. His early childhood experience of the fluidity and range of language has significantly influenced his writing. Throughout his writing career, Mr Castro has explored questions of identity, race, lineage and hybridity using a distinctive provocative and playful style. Mr Castro is recognised as sharing similar qualities in his writing to Patrick White and in 2007 he published an essay, Twice Born in which he paid homage to the Nobel Prize winner.

Reflecting on the unique quality of the Award and Patrick White as author and benefactor, Mr Castro said: “As others have noted, this is an award by a writer for other writers. I cannot think of another Nobel winner who left this kind of legacy. It is not a prize for which you can apply, as it acknowledges a body of work rather than a single publication. It takes in the larger view, and is not about long-lists, short-lists, betting-lists and gossip-lists. I am proud to be amongst such great company as past winners Christina Stead, Randolph Stow and Thea Astley.”

Describing the many merits of Mr Castro’s body of work, the 2014 judging panel said: “His continued willingness to take imaginative risks and be ‘blackly playful’, and his evident potential to produce more significant work make him an excellent recipient of this most prestigious award.”

The 2014 judging panel members included Professor David Carter, Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, and Dr Bernadette Brennan.

Thanks to Jarrah Aguera at Honner Media for the news:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2014

Melbourne Dreaming, by Meyer Eidelson

Melbourne DreamingI have had a wonderful day today, thanks to this exciting new edition of Melbourne Dreaming, A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present.

It is, as the name implies, a guide to the indigenous heritage of our city.  First published in 1997 but now updated, the guide lists 36 places of interest, grouped by location so that exploring can be done in manageable chunks.

In the city, you can discover the Freedom Fighters execution site on the corner of Bowen and Franklin Streets where Maulboyheenner and Tunnerminnerwait became the first men executed in Victoria.  They were not allowed to give evidence in their defence because they were deemed unable to take the Christian oath and although the jury recommended leniency on the grounds of general good character and the peculiar circumstances in which they are placed’ the government was determined to make an example of them and they were executed on January 20th, 1842.   You can visit the Koorie Heritage Centre which houses one of the largest indigenous collections in the country including 10,000 weavings, baskets, eel traps, paintings and other artefacts.  There’s the Bujilaka Cultural Centre, the Birrarung (Yarra) art and Heritage Walk, Billibellary’s Walk, the scarred tree in the Fitzroy Gardens, and more.  You have to get the book to see just how rich this heritage is in the CBD, a modern bustling city with an ancient history that is unique in the world.

Further out in the eastern suburbs, there’s the Stonnington Indigenous History Trail, the Bolin Bolin Billabong, and another scarred tree at the Heidi Museum. (How many times have I been to Heidi and not known this?!)  There are astonishing earth rings at Sunbury in the outer north, and a fish trap at Solomon’s Ford in the west.  Down on the Mornington Peninsula (where there are numerous congenial wineries for sustenance en route) there is Collins’ Settlement and Bunjil’s Cave.

Fascinated by the wealth of things to investigate, I decided to start in my own area.  I set out today with my friend Mairi Neil (occasional guest reviewer on this blog) to walk some of the Bayside Coastal Trail.   We parked the car at Middle Brighton – where we discovered that the book is a tad misleading here and there: the Barraimal Emu is actually about a 20 minute walk back towards Elwood from the Middle Brighton Pier – which wouldn’t have mattered if we had started from Elwood as suggested, but did confuse us a little until we found the coastal trail guide panel by the pier and worked out which way to go.   But the walk was worth it: we were fascinated by the story of the emu (which you can see on the panels on the slide show) and delighted by the sculpture depicting the Barraimal Constellation, an emu’s body, nest and eggs created by the Southern Cross, Pointer, Scorpio, Sagittarius and Coalsack Nebula in our southern skies.  (It’s one thing to read about this in reference books, as I have, when planning a unit on Space for school, and another thing entirely to see it represented as a work of art in this way.  BTW this constellation is only visible in the night sky in June, July and August, see here).

One thing we discovered quite quickly is that covering this entire trail might be quite expensive for some visitors.   Bayside Council charges an astonishing $5.00 per hour even for street parking along the Beach Rd, and the full trail would involve parking the car half a dozen times in different places.   For the energetic a bike is probably the best solution.  Not an option for me with my dodgy ankle…

My dodgy ankle also meant that traipsing across the sand at Dendy Street was out.  Fortunately Mairi is an excellent photographer and it’s her picture of the midden that you can see in the slideshow.  It’s astonishing to find this precious reminder of former indigenous cooking fires on a suburban beach in our city.  But there it is, one kilometre long in the natural dune system.  The book tells me that there are more than 350 of these middens recorded around Port Phillip Bay.

Brighton was one of the most popular fishing places for the Boom Wurrung in Melbourne before two miles (3.2 kilometres) of the Brighton foreshore was sold to Henry Dendy in 1841.  Dendy Street beach was an ideal willam [camp]. Sand dunes provided natural shelter from the wind and sun and a soft place for sitting.  Native trees provided firewood and shelters.  Most importantly there is a very large shallow reef adjoining the beach.  Reefs are good sources of shellfish and crustaceans.  These in turn attract fish which could be speared.  Stone traps could be built on reefs using the tide to strand fish.  Stone from the reef could be used to sharpen tools or provide rocks to increase the heat of fires.

At Brighton, Kulin women in particular harvested shellfish and many of the plants found on the coast such as Karawun (Mat Rush), Kummeree (Pigface), Worike (Banksia), Bowat (Poa Grass), Kabin (Running Postman) and Seaberry.  (p.114)

We think that clearer directions might have been useful in some places – we never did find the panels on the Beach Road opposite Sims Street in Sandringham, but we consoled ourselves with a very pleasant lunch at Coffee  Cottage and it was such a glorious day that we didn’t mind.  And what’s more, even without the promised signage to guide us, we had begun to perceive our landscape in an entirely different way.  I have walked these pathways by the beach hundreds of times without knowing its story, now I know better, thanks to this book. By the time I dropped Mairi back home and slipped round to the Mordialloc Aboriginal Reserve to see the scarred trees I had begun to feel – as I did in Pompeii – that there was a living history beneath my feet and a presence that demanded my respect.

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I am delighted to be able to share this experience with a giveaway copy of Melbourne Dreaming, thanks to Aboriginal Studies Press and Scott Eathorne from Quikmark Media. The usual rules apply:

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). Please note that your address will be passed on to the publisher who will send you the book direct.

Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator by the middle of November.

Good luck!

Author: Meyer Eidelson
Title:Melbourne Dreaming, A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present (2nd edition)
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922059710
Source: Review copy courtesy of Aboriginal Studies Press and Scott Eathorne from Quikmark Media.


Fishpond: Melbourne Dreaming: A Guide to Important Sites of the Past and Present

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2014

Mr Mac and Me, by Esther Freud

Mr Mac and Me Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is an unexpectedly seductive read: if you start it late at night you may find yourself reading on till long past your bedtime.  Fortunately for me I started it on a Friday night, so it didn’t matter that it was well after four o’clock in the morning when I finally drifted into sleep, and I was able to finish the book first thing when I woke up on Saturday.  It’s that kind of book: it’s delicious.

The voice of Freud’s young narrator is pitch-perfect. Thomas Maggs reminded me of Stephen in Michael Frayn’s Spies, and Leo in The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley.  A boy on the cusp of adolescence, observant, good-hearted and thoughtful – but limited in his understanding by his youth and inexperience.  The novel is set in 1914 on the Suffolk coast when the Defence of the Realm Act – nicknamed ‘Dora’ by the village – begins to impact on Tom’s parents’ business and on the suspicions of the locals on the Home Front.

While the Blue Anchor is a billet to an endless succession of young men bound for the front, the hours of opening are cut and the beer must be sold half-strength.  The one person still able to get full-strength beer is the publican – Tom’s father, a morose and violent drunk nostalgic for his days butchering pigs.  Tom, at 12 and with a crippled foot into the bargain, is too young to take him on, but he knows one day he will.

Into the stasis of the village also comes Mr Mac, an artist-architect modelled on Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  (To see some of his work so luminously evoked by Freud’s words, click on the link and then on the photo of Mackintosh, then use the arrows to scroll through photos of his designs, including the Glasgow School of Art recently damaged by fire).  Mackintosh is a troubled man, resentful about being unacknowledged for his work and anxious about the money from his wife’s inheritance running out.  ‘Dora’ prohibits the building of anything new so he is in the village to produce small saleable paintings of wildflowers, one of which you can see on the book-cover.  His wife Margaret is an artist too: she worries about her masterpiece, The Seven Princesses – a massive gesso panel in Austria that’s been hidden behind a wall to protect it from destructive anti-British feeling, and she feels guilty about worrying about a piece of art while so many lives are being lost in the war:

‘So,’ Mrs Mac shrugs.  And then with no warning tears are streaming down her face.  ‘What if no one remembers? What if everyone who knows must leave Vienna, and the seven princesses remains forever sealed in their tomb?’ Her shoulders shake. ‘But at least,’ and to my surprise I find that she is laughing, ‘the colours will not fade.  Not like the panels I made for my husband’s houses, which sit above the fireplaces and are already mottled by candle flame, gas lamp and smoke.’

She rises then, and folding the letter back into its envelope she presses it into place in its drawer.  She gives herself a little shake.  ‘Tell me, how are preparations going for the wedding?’ And without waiting for an answer, she moves through to the kitchen where she pours us both a glass of water from a narrow jug.  ‘The thing to remember,’ she takes a gulp, is that it is nothing more than a great lump of plaster of Paris.  There are thousands, millions of people who are suffering. It is they who need our prayers.’ And as if to convince herself further, she turns to me and smiles.  (p. 257-8)

(Although only a minor point in the novel, the true story of this panel is worth watching on this You Tube video).

Mr Mac is self-absorbed but he notices Tom’s drawings.  The boy is obsessed by ships and yearns to go to sea.  He has outgrown the village and its small ambitions.  He draws sailing ships from memory in the margins of his school books until – poor as they are – the Macs give him a sketch book where he begins to draw other things, including a portrait of Betty, one of the ‘herring girls’ who come down from the highlands each season to gut the fish.  (This immediately reminded me of Amanda Curtin’s Elemental which so brilliantly evoked the hardships of this life).  They give him paints too, and there is always cake or a sandwich for a hungry boy when he visits.  He fits unobtrusively into the quiet of their home, a child that comes and goes, making no demands that would interfere with their art though they are happy to be kind to him when he is there.  Tom does not always repay that kindness: there are small acts of betrayal along with other moral lapses.  Like other subjects of a coming-of-age novel, Tom has flaws that invite a reader’s complicity.

His loyalty is tested when Mr Mac’s odd behaviour invites suspicion.  He spends long hours outdoors, peering into the sea with binoculars forbidden by ‘Dora’.  He has an incomprehensible accent, his wife speaks German, and they have correspondence in German.  Tom considers it his duty to patrol his patch of the coast in case of invasion, and he is both excited and appalled when the inchoate enemy suddenly materialises in the form of Zeppelins overhead.  He has seen bereavement at close hand when almost the entire Suffolk regiment was lost in the early days of the war that was meant to be ‘all over by Christmas’.  He knows, as much as any adolescent boy could know, what spies might do…

Author: Esther Freud
Title: Mr Mac and Me
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408857182
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia


Fishpond: Mr Mac and Me

The Almond PickerI wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about this book.  I was intrigued at first, then became confused by the huge cast of characters and was tempted to abandon it – but found my interest reignited when the plot began to resolve into a more coherent whole.

It’s the story of Maria Rosalia Inzerillo, also known as La Mennulara, a nickname she retained from her days as an impoverished almond-picker.  In the small town of Roccacolomba there were few options during her childhood: Sicily was still a highly stratified, almost feudal society and education wasn’t available to the children of poor families.  She went into service where she was expected to contribute her earnings towards her sister’s dowry.  But at the time of the novel’s opening in 1963 she has just died aged 55 amid rumours that she is a wealthy woman and the source of her money is a matter of great interest to everybody.

As events unfold, it seems that Mennulara‘s life and death is highly unusual.  She leaves detailed, rather bossy instructions for her obituary and funeral, and her employers are quick to take umbrage because she was, to them, only a servant.  However they soon change tack when they realise that she has managed her affairs from beyond the grave, the Mafia are loitering and there is either an inheritance or the restitution of stolen money to be had.  It is impossible to keep anything private in Roccacolomba, especially not the raging rows that erupt in the wake of Mennulara’s machinations.   Everybody knows about what’s going on, and everyone has a different opinion about it.

On reflection, I think that the style of the book was meant to represent the gossipy, incestuous nature of small town Sicilian life.  It’s written in fifty short chapters, covering events on nine separate days between September 23rd and October 23rd in 1963.  Each chapter is named in a style with which readers of British classics are familiar: for example 1: Dr Mendico attends a dying patient or 10: Signor Bommarito, the surveyor, does not receive his morning coffee, and each chapter drip feeds a little more information from a different perspective.   Indeed, so many different perspectives, that I was tempted to start recording all the different characters, just to keep track of them all.

What I found most interesting was the gulf between the lives of women as depicted in this novel.  It is 1963.  The daughters of the Alfallipe family have moved on and have independent lives (although one remains in an abusive marriage that no smart woman would tolerate today).  Unlike Mennu, who retained a stoic sense of duty to the family throughout her life, they feel no compunction about abandoning their elderly mother, and Mennu actually pays one of them to visit her.  She takes over the management of the estate because these selfish offspring are totally incompetent, and is obviously a highly capable woman – indicative perhaps of the wasted talent in countries that don’t support equal opportunity.  She has other talents too, but these must be kept secret because Mennu herself is hidebound by the idea of ‘knowing one’s place’.

The Almond Picker is rather like an Agatha Christie mystery though there’s no murder to solve.  If you enjoy unravelling a complex web of clues, you’ll probably enjoy this.  It was a best seller in Italy.

Author: Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Title: The Almond Picker
Translated by Alastair McEwen
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005, first published as La Mennulara by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2002
ISBN: 9781920885632
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Angus and Robertson.  (That shows you how long I’ve had this book… A&R bookstores collapsed in 2009 when the RedGroup died, dragging with it a venerable name in Australian bookselling since 1884).


Fishpond: The Almond Picker (There were two second-hand copies on the day I looked), and Text still has copies available on their website.

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