Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2014

Book Giveaway winner: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly


Random Org no 2Number 2: you are the winner!  Yes, Janine, that’s you:)

As promised, this is the draw for my spare copy of Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders.  If you haven’t already read my enthusiastic review, click here, and you can read a Sensational Snippet too.

This is the blurb from Affirm Press:

What happens when three otherwise normal people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders. Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, ‘The Wonders’ are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger. Challenging our ideas about celebrity, disability and the value of human life, The Wonders is a boldly inventive, acute and moving novel from one of Australia’s finest authors.

Janine, I already have your postal address,  so the book will be delivered to you very soon:)

Commiserations to those who missed out, but remember, you can buy a copy from Fishpond: The Wonders or good book stores everywhere.


Wolf among WolvesWolf Among Wolves is the fourth novel that I have read by Hans Fallada.  It was his sixth book, published in 1938 just before the outbreak of World War II.   It follows on from Fallada’s attempts to deflect unwelcome attention from the Nazis by writing children’s stories and other non-political material, and because it is a critique of the chaotic Weimar Republic, Goebbels was very pleased with it.  Unfortunately for Fallada, far from deflecting Nazi attention, the success of this brilliant novel encouraged them to commission anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi works, and before long he capitulated to Nazi intimidation, earning him trenchant criticism from the likes of Thomas Mann who fled Germany rather than submit.

Although he later showed great courage by writing The Drinker while in gaol (see my review) and redeemed his reputation with Alone in Berlin (see my review) Fallada was vulnerable to intimidation because of his mental illness and drug addiction.  He made numerous suicide attempts, and his unstable situation was exacerbated by his failed relationships, his ambiguous sexuality and of course by the onset of a brutal war.  Yet it was these very vulnerabilities which make his writing so powerful.  The authenticity of Wolf Among Wolves derives from Fallada’s own experience of weakness and folly, and of living in a society that was crumbling.

Wolf Among Wolves is completely absorbing.  It’s nearly 800 pages long but it’s one of those books that make you want to drop everything else until you’ve finished reading it.  Uncompromisingly realistic, it is written in what is called the New Objectivity  style:

The New Objectivity … is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness.” (Wikipedia)

Not unlike the great classic Russian novels in the way that it depicts domestic concerns on a sprawling canvas, Wolf Among Wolves is a love story, a coming-of-age story and a story of flawed personalities struggling to cope in a society which was in economic and moral chaos.  The love story is thwarted by the characters’ ignorance of themselves and each other,  by their mutual immaturity and by the society which is crumbling all around them.

It’s not just that monstrous inflation makes money worthless, though the impact of that is graphic, it’s that the fundamental values are distorted too.

‘So many people are running away from their jobs,’ went on Studmann. ‘To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason.  But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask.  Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.  (p. 235)

For Wolfgang Pagel, a compulsive gambler in Berlin, there is no point in working because any money earned is devalued daily.  The purchase of anything is always a race against the clock because the money you have may be enough to buy a loaf of bread in the morning, but not enough in the afternoon.  By the end of the novel the reader has become almost more conscious of this than some of the characters are, taking on the anxiety that they should be feeling about the diminishing value of hard-won money.  Because the devaluations are inexorable: there is no time to dawdle about, to be indecisive,  to have a quarrel or do anything else that delays using your money, especially when it’s needed to bail someone out of gaol or to pay rent on a lease with a merciless default clause.

The economic and moral nihilism spreads outwards from Berlin like a cancer.  In the countryside people ask to be paid in sacks of grain rather than money, but small-scale thieving has been replaced by unabashed thefts that threaten the viability of farming.  The old forester Kniebusch becomes afraid to walk the paths, because everyone’s a timber thief, and poachers don’t play by the ‘rules’ any more.  The bucolic serenity of rural life is upended when Von Prackwitz can’t hire labourers and his manager Studmann has to engage a prison detail to harvest his crops.  And it’s not just escapees making everyone feel afraid – there’s a putsch being planned and a shady amoral Lieutenant working for the overthrow of the government catches the eye of Prackwitz’s silly fifteen-year-old daughter…

The story begins with two seemingly unconnected narratives – in Berlin, and on the farm at Neulohe – and because there are so many characters it can be somewhat confusing when some of the minor characters seem to disappear and then resurface later.  But the main characters are unforgettable, and the narrative trajectory never falters..

The central character is Wolfgang Pagel, a chronic gambler who is living in a moral vacuum with his girlfriend Petra.  When the story begins these two barely know each other – they have merely drifted into each other’s company.  She is blinded by an inchoate love, and he uses her loving acceptance to mask the reality of their abject poverty.  Petra has no family at all while Wolf’s mother is a judgemental termagant who rejects Petra as ‘unsuitable’.  Frau Pagel represents middle-class Berlin deluding itself that there is no fundamental change: she cherishes her delusions about her only son and she clings to the customs of the social class he has so comprehensively abandoned.

Wolf and Petra have been surviving between wins at roulette by pawning her clothes, but things go awry when the pawnbroker calls a halt.  Wolf takes off into the countryside to borrow money from an old friend, leaving Petra with (literally) nothing to wear but an overcoat.  When Wolf doesn’t come back she makes her way onto the street where, hallucinating from hunger, she is noticed by a good-hearted policeman.  A chain of events leads not only to her imprisonment but also to a grave misunderstanding between Petra and Wolf.  He has his first moment of truth when he realises how badly he has let her down.

It is Wolf’s good fortune to run into old army comrades, by whose agency he ends up on the farm at Neulohe.  (This is not the first time in literature that rural life has been the salvation of a dubious character!)  Von Prackwitz has been in Berlin trying unsuccessfully to hire labourers for the harvest, and Von Studmann has just lost his hotel job under bizarre circumstances.  Prackwitz, a hot-tempered and impulsive man, hires them both although neither knows the first things about farming, but they turn out to be valuable assets in his battle against his greedy and manipulative father-in-law.

Back in Berlin, Petra has a stroke of good luck too.  In gaol, she meets Ma Krupass who needs someone to help her out while she does her six-month sentence.  More importantly, she talks sound good sense to Petra, whose naïveté has been painful.  So while Wolf is coming of age in Neulohe, Petra is growing up fast in Berlin.

But like any good story-teller, Fallada creates a plot with many twists and turns to keep the reader guessing about whether the couple can ever be reunited.  Wolf has to contend with a mad employer, dangerous criminals on the loose, and the leader of the insurgency who thinks that his desired ends justify any means, but he also has to contend with his doubts about Petra and his own self-doubt.  For her part, Petra has to decide whether Wolf is worth the risk.

It’s a wonderful story, that offers much to think about as well.  If you haven’t read it, add it to your wishlist, you won’t be disappointed!

Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Wolf Among Wolves, first published as Wolf Unter Wolfen, 1937
Translated from the German by Philip Owns, with Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs
Publisher: Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2013
ISBN: 9781922070302
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Fishpond: Wolf Among Wolves

Or direct from Scribe


Some weeks ago when I reviewed Meredith McKinney’s new translation of The Wild Goose by Mori Ogai, the publisher, Finlay Lloyd, also sent me a collection of short stories called Six by Canberran author John Clanchy.  This now gives me the opportunity to introduce a new guest reviewer and her review of this collection.

20579002Mairi neilMairi Neil believes stories make the world go round. Fascinated by life’s quirks, she indulges her love of words to explore where we fit in that world.  She founded and still coordinates the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, and she has edited and published eight anthologies of their poetry and prose, enabling some of her most talented authors to go on to prize-winning publication elsewhere.  She also teaches writing at three community houses: Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Bentleigh and Longbeach Place Chelsea.

Mairi has stories and poetry in  the Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies plus poetry, short stories and memoir in other anthologies, newspapers, magazines and online.   A writer who loves challenges, she adapted one of her short stories to become a ten minute play performed in the City of Kingston’s Write Up festival last year.  (I was there, in the audience!)

Her most recent writing was included in an anthology called Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn).   Her Masters degree from Swinburne has led her into scriptwriting and many of us are hoping that her passion for telling women’s stories will soon make into onto the screen.  (ABC TV, are you listening?)

Writing reviews is also a new venture for Mairi!  Here is her review:

Six (john Clanchy)Six is a collection of short stories, or tales as the author John Clanchy prefers to call them. However, with one of the stories near novella length at 18,000 words, these tales are longer than expected if you read literary magazines and anthologies. By not restricting himself to the average word limit, Clanchy is able to develop characters to the depth expected in novels. We learn more of their backstory and gain a deeper understanding of motivations for their behaviour and reasons for the particular conflict they face. Readers have more than a glimpse of another world as they engage with characters at moments of change in their lives.

Short stories suit my lifestyle and when well-written, they display all the techniques of a craft I love, in a shorter time than it takes to read a novel. Every 10-15 minutes, I visit somewhere different to stretch my imagination, extend my knowledge or challenge my assumptions about life. John Clanchy’s latest book does this, and more, with – as the blurb advises –  ‘humour, insight and compassion’. No surprise, of course, because Clanchy is a prize winning author and foundation director of the Graduate Teaching Program at ANU.

These Six new tales explore loss and grief as well as self-inflicted emotional pain, family relationships, marital breakdown, sibling rivalry, community values, morality and ethics. Along the way Clanchy challenges notions of gender, fidelity, race and loyalty. In an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald, he said the tales in Six were “Reflections on mortality,…I am now seventy after all!” Certainly, the exploration of the human condition in these stories has the maturity of someone who has indeed lived life and observed people in a variety of situations.

For me, some tales worked better than others because they were about relationships and situations I could identify easily. This is the subjective nature of fiction critique –– we are drawn into worlds we either like or dislike, characters we can recognise, feel empathy or sympathy for, or don’t want to know! In Clanchy’s own words:

 I’m interested in the psychological dramatisation of moments of shift, of crisis, in the life of an individual or in partnerships, or in family or social settings. Where small moments have enormous consequences. The ripple effect. Something’s shifted, a crack has opened. I don’t mean apocalyptic events, but a death or a sickness or a betrayal. Or it could be a perception. Or a spiritual moment. A friendship dying off, or a new one forming and life is different after that.

Every story in Six has merit and is memorable and I appreciate the recognisably Australian settings of universal themes.

If I had to choose a favourite it would be Slow Burn an entertaining tale that had me laughing aloud –– a rarity in a world where so much of the fiction mirrors grim reality. I won’t reveal the storyline, but encourage people to invest in a copy of Six and be entertained by an accomplished Australian author.

Clanchy has also authored some novels, so I’m going to track them down once I’ve made a bit more of a dent in the TBR.

Thank you Mairi, for sharing your expertise in short story here at ANZ LitLovers!

Author: John Clanchy
Title: Six
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592934
Source: Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd

Availability

Direct from Finlay Lloyd

and from all good bookstores.

 

 

 

 


Takolander-frontcover-214x300Poetry, as regular readers of this blog know, is outside my field of expertise, so I don’t review it.  I am very grateful to my good friend Karenlee Thompson for sharing her insights about Maria Takolander’s latest collection, published by Giramondo.

Good things come, as the saying goes, in small packages.

The End of the World is a precise and economical collection of poems by Maria Takolander presented in a neat little 78 page paperback. It’s Takolander’s third poetry collection, following on from Narcissism (2005) and Ghostly Subjects (2009).

Takolander’s poems are excruciatingly daring, despite some every-day domestic subjects.

The first two poems ‘Unborn’ and ‘Post-partum’ are linked in exactly the sense that the titles suggest.  Poetry can often seem inaccessible but I was instantly seduced by the recognizable in the surreal animal-ness of these poems about motherhood.

The very first stanza (Morning Sickness) of the first poem (Unborn) is a tour de force. A newly pregnant woman dreams of a sow giving birth to a litter. ‘…their lids were serene,/as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed/to the sound of their own not screaming…’ The two other stanzas ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Foetal Movement’ continue the pregnancy journey.  What modern-day mother (or father) wouldn’t relate to seeing the first grainy pictures of their baby: ‘As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,/the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,/.’ It’s all here in these two poems: the joy, the blood, the recognition, the pain and violence. Every word perfectly precise, perfectly descriptive, perfect.

The motherhood theme continues in this collection (which Takolander has dedicated to her son) and, in ‘Night Feed’, the baby is a ‘time traveller at my breast’.  Once again, the poet is tapping in to the universal experience through the deeply personal for haven’t we all wondered where babies have been, what knowledge they are coveting, what their slot is in time and their place in relation to ourselves?

As two little girls in their pyjamas navigate the aftermath of violence in ‘Domestic’, we are confronted with the interior of a broken TV which looks ‘bereft’, and the mess of a broken pot plant with its soil and roots and shards of terracotta littering the room ‘as if Triffids had escaped.’

The collection unfolds naturally, from the deeply personal (a woman’s body, a mother and a baby, a family broken) outward to the wider world of alien surrounds and different countries, wars and dead relatives, to Stalin and convicts.

The hotel room of the first poem in Section two with its beige bed cover that ‘has been ironed of dreams’ is a place ‘furnished by sanity’. Once again, so accessible, so recognizable is this room, even when painted in the language of the poet.

‘Missing in Action’ is about men lost in wars, a grandmother ‘dead soon after she got an electric stove’, others who succumbed to alcohol and, poignantly:

Three other uncles: heart attacks – possibly euphemistic.                 (Pictures of those men, modest and blank faced,                 Suggest something already buried.)

Part three begins with ‘Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist’ and as I read the following…

                4 rapists, sparkly-eyed.                 6 prostitutes, furnished thickly with hair.                 3 thin-lipped murderers.

…I realised that I was, rather macabrely, almost singing it a-la ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’.

‘Charcot’s Patients’ brings together the historic and the contemporary with a fine dose of black humour, ending with:

Years later – with Charcot posthumously celebrated                 as the founder of Charcot’s disease –                 the Salpetriere hospital in Paris receives the body of Princess Diana, freshly deranged and photographed.  

The final poems use a kind of reverse anthropomorphism to highlight the foibles of the human animal.  Some bizarre imagery emerges from donkeys sitting at a plastic table watching the sunset, a goat dropping a fishing line from the jetty and then throwing a tantrum, and a spectator-pig watching a collection of animals playing sport.

After reviewing Takolander’s first collection of short stories and now this collection of poems, I had formed an imaginary view of her (in that way we tend to do when we’ve spoken to someone via phone numerous times over a period).  And, as is often the way, my picture was just about as far from the reality as it was possible to get.  I expected something haunted and hardened behind dark eyes.  Rather (as Google reveals) she looks soft and innocent, the girl-next-door in a Doris Day mode and most unlike a writer of such deep bleakness and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there’s not some light and laughter here between the lines but it is that kind of underbelly power that forms the lasting impression for me.

 

© Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Karen has also noted that the publication of this collection of poems was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council. And she further comments that a couple of poet friends of hers sense some irony in the fact that many of these poems have previously appeared in esteemed publications while exceptional works of unknown poets languish – without funding – in bottom drawers. A subject worth debating perhaps.

This prompted me to take a quick look at my pile of books for review, because, as a reader rather than a writer, I had never taken any notice of funding issues.  I discovered that five books on the pile were supported by the Australian Council for the Arts, and one was supported by Arts Victoria.  All of them were previously published authors but a sample of six isn’t big enough to draw any conclusions.   So  I took a look at their guidelines and noted that:

  • the council is in transition to reforms which will create a new grants structure and an increase the diversity and breadth of peers who assess the applications
  • ‘reform’ and ‘increased flexibility’ is usually politician-code for less money, but the AC has actually had an increase in funding.  (Yes, I was very surprised too).
  • there are always more applicants than the available funding can support
  • they distinguish between what they call ‘Mid-list writers’ and ‘New work’ but their criteria to choose between applicants for funding within these categories isn’t specified.  (Or if it is, I couldn’t find it).

All, this leaves me none the wiser about the fairness or otherwise of AC funding, but I think it’s a miracle that grants for anybody have survived because market-driven bean counters usually do their best to get rid them!

Thanks, Karenlee, for once again sharing your expertise in reviewing!

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson

Author: Maria Takolander
Title: The End of the World.
Publisher:
Giramondo Publishing Company, 2014.
ISBN 9781922146519
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2014

The Betrayal, by Liam Davison


3636431 The Betrayal is the last of Liam Davison’s four novels, and I was expecting it to be the best but I was a bit disappointed by it.  Like his other novels it is grounded in the concept of what Maria Tumarkin calls Traumascapes,  but character seems more important in this book and the novel doesn’t have that powerful sense of an Australian past permeating the present that worked so well in The White Woman and Soundings, and in The Velodrome to a lesser extent.

The Betrayal centres on a character called Judith Maloney, and she’s as dreary as her name.  She is preoccupied by the past, and it seems to have expressed itself in chronic pain, for which she seeks treatment from a charismatic quack at a spa in country Victoria.  (Based, I suspect, on Hepburn Springs, but none too flattering about its waters!) Here she vacillates between doubts about the quackery and submitting to the empathetic charm of ‘Dr’ Menadue, with a letter from her estranged daughter Louise acting as a catalyst for her to start sorting herself out.

The reasons for Judith’s misery are not entirely convincing.  In a village in France in 1967, she witnesses the aftermath of a crime.  Traumatised by this, she comes back to Australia and marries Alan, a prosaic real estate agent and developer.  She despises his occupation in a seventies anti-development kind of way, making sarcastic remarks to the friends and potential clients that flock around him and taking grim delight when a section of the bluff near his development plans falls off into the sea.   She doesn’t conceal her disdain.

He erected the first of the period homes to go up along the beach – a colonial reproduction with verandahs and authentic fittings.  Everything about it was clean and new.  It wasn’t the idea of the past he disliked as much as the age of things that had been there.  Before long, the whole of Cairo Road was studded with period reproductions – colonial homes, Victorian cottages, Edwardian, Georgian, a neo-classic mansion, a French chateau in miniature – each of them authentic in its own fabricated way.  Each of them built without regard for what stood beside it.  It was like a dislocated theme park, Judith thought.  She was appalled by it.  She half-expected her neighbours to appear in costume at their doors.

‘Why would you want to build a house like this?’ she asked him.

But she could see it wasn’t just the house.  It was heritage colours and picket fences.  It was David Austin roses.

‘It’s living history,’ he said.  ‘People feel comforted by the past.’

‘As long as it’s new,’ she said. (p.85)

The marriage also has to contend with her mysterious pain:

Judith could not have told Alan’s acquaintances where her pain had come from, even if she had wanted.  She was reluctant even to refer to it as pain.  Discomfort perhaps, though at times not even that.  It was more a guarded vulnerability with which she lived, as though she were always on the verge of pain.  The potential for it hummed about her.  At times she brushed against it or stroked it with her fingers, just to reassure herself that it was there.  And it always was.  Anything spontaneous, she knew, would push her into it – a misplaced foot, a momentary lapse in concentration, a sudden jerking of the head – and it would claim her.  She would be dragged to a place that was already part of her.  And she would hurt.

It had started before she met Alan.  Something had tightened inside of her when she had returned from France.  She had felt her hips and shoulders slowly draw towards each other, as though she were closing like a trap. It will pass, she had thought.  Each morning she bent against it, prising her body open to face the day.  But it didn’t pass. It stayed. Despite the dull resistance she offered it at first, it would not leave.  It was part of her  –  something buried that would hump towards the surface each day as if to day Remember. Remember.  And she could not forget, no matter how hard she tried.  (p. 86)

The mutual contempt of a toxic marriage expresses itself in insults. He cracks vindictive jokes about her pain, as if it were an interloper that must be fed and made comfortable.  He labels her St Jude and suggests that her pain is her penance for marrying him.  But she refuses to acknowledge the hurt feelings because it would break some bond between them and reveal a weakness in herself.  So she limps around the house after he’s gone to work, blaming his resentment about her pain and festering contempt for his affairs and scornful jealousy about his self-confidence.  This tedious bitterness may test the patience of some readers; it certainly tested mine.

When Alan has had enough, he leaves, their twelve-year-old daughter Louise going willingly with him.  And although the author has built a convincing portrait of a neurotic woman obsessed by her own inchoate needs, it seems rather odd that this severs all contact between mother and daughter until the arrival of The Letter when Louise is an adult.  There’s no satisfactory explanation for why this should be so.

What is gradually revealed is the trigger that set Judith on her self-destructive path.  So the novel takes us back to Vaucluse on the Côte d’Azur reconstructing the day of the murder of a child at the famous fountain.  On an impulse Judith has travelled there to teach English, boarding with a rather odd woman with singularly repellent culinary experiments and even more disgusting eating habits.  (Davison seems determined to sully France’s reputation for gastronomy with this character!)  Judith becomes intrigued by Paul Leriche, a stall-holder at the local market, a ‘man of mystery’ who seems to attract her and repel her in equal measure.  It is this quasi-relationship that leads to her blundering into a past that is still raw.

1967, when this part of the novel takes place, is only twenty years after World War II.  A war that seems remote and unreal to an Australian girl in her twenties, but still very much within living memory in areas where the German Occupation made itself felt and the Resistance exacted a terrible vengeance after the Germans had gone.  In Vaucluse, the past bleeds into the present but Judith is too preoccupied with her own concerns to read the signs…

Part of the problem with the novel, it seems to me, is that Judith is in need of redemption, but the rapprochement between mother and daughter has nothing to do with the French traumascape, and it feels like an afterthought, a conclusion that doesn’t resolve anything.  But it’s also not clear to me what the author was trying to achieve with this novel.  Having written in The White Woman and Soundings such exquisite novels whose landscapes reveal traumatic events embedded in Australia’s history, Davison seems disconnected from the landscape in France, writing more as a perplexed observer than as an author with a profound understanding of the place where he belongs.

I have been puzzled about why an author of such talent as Davison published no more novels after this one in 1999.  He wrote non-fiction, and short stories, but in the fifteen years before his death in 2014 there was no more long fiction.  Now that I have read The Betrayal I wonder about its reception in the marketplace and whether it perhaps attracted discouraging reviews.  (I can’t find any online).  I also can’t help wondering whether there is an unpublished manuscript amongst his effects…

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the last in my personal tribute to Davison, an author who I came to know only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.  You can find the rest of my reviews of his fiction oeuvre here.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The Betrayal
Publisher: Viking (Penguin), 1999
ISBN: 9780670886524
Source: Personal copy purchased from Graygate Books, Millicent, S.A. via AbeBooks


The shortlist for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Indigenous Writing has been announced.   I am pleased to see that some of the shortlisted books were reviewed here by participants in ANZ LitLovers 2014 Indigenous Literature Week.

The nominees are

The Promise by Tony Birch (short stories)

Lionel Fogarty, Mogwie Idan: Stories of the Land by Lionel Fogarty (experimental poetry)

Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? by Bruce Pascoe reviewed by Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip and  by Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past- and definitely on my Wishlist

Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (see my review) and another by Marilyn Brady at Me, You and Books

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (see my review)

Calypso Summer by Jared Thomas (see my review, and find out more about the author at Meet an Aussie Author)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Availability at Fishpond: Click on the title links.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2014

Storyteller, by Zoe Daniel


Storyteller: A Foreign Correspondent's Memoir Like No OtherI read Storyteller with a heightened sense of awareness this week because of  the death of James Foley, a death which has reinforced my admiration for the courage of journalists who venture into dangerous places.   Zoe Daniel’s remarkable memoir bristles with perilous events, yet somehow she managed to combine her career as a foreign correspondent with motherhood.  It’s an extraordinary story.

Zoe Daniel is a familiar face to those of us who regularly watch the ABC.  We’ve seen her reporting on conflicts in Sierra Leone; we’ve seen her compassionate yet compelling reports about the famines in Somalia and Darfur.   When the opportunity to become the ABC’s foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia arose, she jumped at the chance, but there were new pitfalls to confront on her first assignment.  She wasn’t a mother when she was the ABC’s foreign correspondent in Africa in 2005-6.  When she arrived in Bangkok in 2010 to take up her dream job, she had two small children with her.  In no time at all the political crisis in Thailand erupted into violence on the streets, and no sooner had they settled into their rented house, her husband had to get the children out of the country to safety.

It’s hard to imagine this calm and authoritative journalist bursting into tears because of a spoiled birthday cake, but it’s the frankness of this memoir that makes it so authentic.  Because like all of us combining career and motherhood, Daniel had ambitions to be a good mother too.  Being a good mother these days means mastering complicated cakes from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book, in a country where some of the ingredients can’t be bought and the quest for alternatives leaves her hot and bothered even before the baking starts.  The kids are in her face wanting to help with the decorating, and the cake falls apart.  Not a major tragedy, not compared with the terrible events she witnesses, but it shows how hard it is to maintain a ‘normal’ life amid the stresses of a demanding and dangerous job.  (Remember how vividly Charlotte Wood captured that psychological disconnect for her foreign correspondent character in the novel The Children?)

Being a good mother also means doing Christmas, but Santa is only a fortnight away when she gets the assignment to report on the 2010 Christmas Island boat tragedy.  The ABC finds a charter plane to get her there, but cash-strapped Aunty can’t guarantee a flight back because the commercial networks have got all the charter planes.  She packs up to leave Bangkok just as her mother arrives for a visit, and because of the name ‘Christmas Island’, the kids think she’s going there to pass on their lists to Santa.   But when the reports are done and everyone else packs up to go home, Daniel’s got no ticket home …

I sit in the hotel room with my head in my hands and seriously wonder whether I can continue to do the job if it means sacrificing things like Christmas when the kids are so young.  (p.103)

She’s just lucky that a friendly reporter from Channel Nine offers a seat on their luxurious charter plane – but of course it’s heading for Sydney via Port Hedland, and then there’s the long flight back to Bangkok.  And all the time she’s dealing with the psychological disconnect – the contrast between her plush surroundings and the people

… who risked everything on a leaky boat to escape war and poverty for a chance of a life in Australia.  Forty-two were rescued but fifty drowned. Their case is one of many and it will further fuel a long-running and highly political debate about our country’s treatment of refugees. (p. 104)

Daniel shares the experience of living amid the Bangkok Floods; reporting on the dreadful bridge disaster in Cambodia; a world exclusive interview with Thaksin Shinawatra in Dubai; with all these assignments involving a complex parental relay:

The night before I leave, Rowan is away.  I have an early flight and he’ll land from wherever he is in the afternoon.  We’re still attempting to tag in and out of the country so the kids will have at least one of us home all the time.  We’ll pass somewhere in the sky maybe. (p 117)

It was very interesting to read about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from an insider’s perspective.  In the middle of the fraught Thai election campaign, Daniel secures an interview with the most famous opposition leader in the world.  They have to sneak into Burma posing as tourists, and then they have to gain access to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house without being noticed.  But perhaps that was not the most difficult part.  On the one hand Daniel had to deal with her young son’s anxiety that she’ll be arrested too. With the implacable logic of small children he says:

‘Because Daw Suu is a good lady and you’re a good lady and those men put her in jail so what if they put you in jail too?  And then I won’t be able to see you any more.’  He weeps in great, gulping waves, soaking me with tears.  (p.118)

And on the other hand, she finds that while Aung San Suu Kyi is friendly enough…

She’s tough to interview because she doesn’t like personal questions or assumptions, and despite everything that she’s clearly given up, she won’t admit to having paid a personal price. (p. 125)

The subsequent chapter about the political ‘thaw’ after Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma shows us the difference between reporting clandestinely, and open access for journalists.  The downside of sneaking into Burma is of course that they might have been arrested, but the upside is that once inside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, the interview could take place in a fairly relaxed atmosphere.  But once the military junta starts to issue permits for journalists, the Aussie journalist who got the scoop interview is crowded out by American media who get preferential treatment.  And once Aung San Suu Kyi is elected as a politician, access turns into a media scrum like no other:

When the car reaches us, we can’t move.  David is behind me and there’s another cameraman behind him, and we’re pinned against a steel gate with spikes along the top.  The car keeps coming and I feel it squeezing into my torso, forcing out my breath.  ‘Stop,’ I call, but no one can be heard in this bedlam.  ‘Stop!’

The car is only a metre or two from the office gate and it comes to a halt.  Aung San Suu Kyi steps out with a demure smile and strides unfazed through the chaos, adopting a coltish gait and fixed gaze like a model on a catwalk.  Her security guards surround her, blindly pushing anyone who is in the way.  When they’re all inside, the steel sliding door is shut with a clang and we’re left to recover.  It’s by far the worst media scrum I’ve experienced.

Perhaps it was in part the experience of almost being crushed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s car that lies behind the bleak disappointment that Daniel feels when Aung San Suu Kyi later fails to speak up for an oppressed minority group.  Ever the professional journalist, she pens an explanation that recognises the competing demands of the constituency in a country in transition to long hoped-for democracy, but the reader can sense the reporter’s sense of loss when an idealist has to compromise.

Daniel also writes movingly about the conjoined twins in India and the subsequent death of one of them.   Colour photos in the middle of the book include one of these dear little girls and the team that separated them, a stark contrast with the photos of other more political events.  You can see the Foreign Correspondent report filed by Daniel at the ABC website, and there’s a lovely bit of footage of Daniel holding the babies in her arms before passing them on to their mother who relinquished them because she thought she couldn’t cope.  I found myself wondering about how a male journalist might have reported this same event, and whether there would have been the same attention to gender inequity in India.  I think it’s probably true that no man would have been able to talk to the distraught mother of India’s most notorious rape victim.

This is a most interesting book.  It concludes with the family packing up in Bangkok to go home to Melbourne, an open-ended conclusion because Daniel acknowledged that she’ll miss the excitement.  Her audience will miss her clear-eyed but compassionate perspective.  Facebook tells me that Daniel came home to take up a role hosting ‘The World’ on ABC News24 and Australia Network, but that the job ended due to ABC budget cuts.  (Cuts that – before the election –  the electorate was assured would not happen).  She’s still with the ABC, working with ABC News.  Having read this book, one can’t help but wish her and her family all the best, whatever the future brings.

Author: Zoe Daniel
Title: Storyteller, A Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir Like No Other
Publisher: ABC Books, 2014
ISBN: 9780733332319
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

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8076148I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, so I was pleased to see it at the library.

What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History begins with an Introduction by Marilyn Lake, titled: What have you done for your country?  It covers the reaction to her public lecture which was reprinted in The Age as an ‘Opinion’ piece, and subsequently broadcast on ABC Radio National.   There was, she says,  an avalanche of correspondence … much of it in the form of personal abuse and accusations of disloyalty. (p.1.)  What was most interesting was that many of the most angry respondents said that she had no right to write on this topic (p.4) and she noted that many felt the need to preface whatever they said with their own Anzac credentials, i.e. that they themselves had relatives who had gone to war and therefore did have the right to speak about it.

Well, by marriage, I have relatives who went to war (including some who died there) and the same is true on my own side of the family – but of course they were British (including some who died there) so perhaps they don’t count.  However, I find the mere idea that having an Anzac in the family confers some kind of privileged access to the discourse deeply offensive.  By definition, it excludes most of the Australians descended from non-British emigrants, and – given the racist policies about the enlistment of Aborigines, it excludes most of them as well (unless they broke the law and enlisted anyway, which at least 400 of them did, much good it did them when it came to accessing any post-war benefits that all the other Anzacs received).   There is a nasty little undercurrent in this divisive pseudo-patriotic exclusion, some horrid idea to do with people who are ‘real Australians’ and those who are not.

So you might think that I would be well-disposed towards this book, but actually, it made me feel uneasy.  The title is, I think, unduly provocative.   And for all that it is authored by venerable historians, I don’t think it is particularly well-written.  Much of it is repetitive, a good deal of it is boring, and at the end of the day, while it has some valid points to make, it doesn’t make a very convincing case for an alternative.  The argument that there are other aspects of history that ‘made’ Australia seems like more of an afterthought.

To summarise their arguments:

  • There is some spectacular ignorance about what actually happened at Anzac Cove in 1915.  They quote a correspondent wondering what would have happened if we had not won at Gallipoli (!) and others who overlook the uncomfortable truth that the allies were invading Turkey.  The belief that Australians were fighting for freedom and defending democracy in WW1 is something that I see parroted year after year by earnest school children at Anzac Day ceremonies, presumably because the journalists reporting it think it is true too.  (Lake and Reynolds say that the invasion of Turkey wasn’t anything to do with defending democracy, it took place to assist our ally Britain to support Russia, then the world’s greatest autocracy).
  • Australia was not under threat at all.  We could have chosen to remain neutral, but Australia has a habit of following its allies into wars on foreign soil. (Geoffrey Blainey rebuts the possibility of neutrality in his review, because the Germans were lurking about in German New Guinea and that is where the first Australian WW1 casualties were.  Unfortunately the article is on The Australian’s website so it may be paywalled).
  • Military history has been transformed into family history, made possible by online genealogical resources at the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
  • Australia became more dependant on Britain after WW1, not less, and this contradicts the notion that Anzac is what made us a nation.  Not only that, they say, but WW1 and Vietnam were wars that divided the nation because of the issue of conscription.
  • Other events before and after Anzac made us a nation: the peaceful Federation of the colonies; the peaceful, prosperous, innovative pre-war period which introduced women’s rights, a living wage, old age pensions and kindred measures which pioneered the welfare state.  (p.26)
  • The focus on a war so long ago has stifled debate about Australia’s expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan.   This has led to an unwillingness to solve conflicts with diplomacy rather than war.  (I think it’s depressing that there is no debate about our recent wars, and shameful that our politicians can commit us to them with less fuss than negotiating a free trade agreement, but still, this argument seems incoherent to me.  If as they say, Australia always blindly follows its powerful allies into war anyway, what Australian efforts at diplomacy would there be?)
  • The qualities associated with Anzac are not unique: courage, mateship, sacrifice and determination are characteristics of other nations too.
  • Australia does not acknowledge the one war that did take place on Australian soil, that is, the frontier wars. There are no memorials to Aboriginal resistance fighters and the Australian War Memorial refuses to countenance building any.

The authors believe that it was

democratic equality and the fair go, the demand for justice and the assertion of rights that were once central to Australians ‘sense of themselves’.  At the heart of Australian nationalism, was a belief in equality of opportunity, but ‘equality of opportunity’ is not a value invoked by the ‘spirit of Anzac.’ (p9)

This argument, however, is diminished somewhat by their claim that conservative politics lies behind the promotion of national pride in Anzac as a substitute for our limp efforts to celebrate Australia Day.  Of course it’s true that January 26th is problematic because our indigenous people regard it as Invasion Day, but it’s always been a sad and sorry day to celebrate anyway.   Who wants to celebrate the nation’s birth as a penal colony when the people who came here didn’t have what we Aussies cherish most of all – freedom?  (The Americans have airbrushed their convicts right out of their history!) No, I’d love to have a national day that all Australians felt happy to celebrate, our indigenous Australians most of all, and that’s never going to be January 26th.  It seems to me that the reason most people don’t want to change the date is just because it marks a convenient end to our long, lazy summer holidays.  But whatever about that, the authors have not made a convincing case that Australians are submitting to a sort of conspiracy to make us forget about our awkward national day by making us get enthusiastic about Anzac Day instead.

It seems to me that there are other reasons why Australians go a bit overboard with commemorations, not just of Anzac but of a proliferating number of other battles from other wars as well.  Young people (according to plenty of research) think our history is boring, and for generations raised on X-box war games and aggro-movies from Hollywood, war looks exciting.

And people just like to have heroes.  Especially if they can claim one in their own family.  I think that Reynolds and Lake have got it right when they suggest that the rebadging of WW1 and Ww2 soldiers as heroic victims rather than as killers makes them more heroic and less open to any of the sort of angst that arose over Vietnam.  They acknowledge that there is a longing for a proud national history and they say that The Broken Years (1974) by Bill Gammage and The Anzacs (1978) by Patsy Adam-Smith played a crucial role in establishing the innocent young soldier as the face of Anzac, the beautiful boys in the film Gallipoli (p. 21)  But I don’t think this is a bad thing.  Yes, the Anzacs were aggressive and skilled wielders of the bayonet, they were killers as all soldiers are.  But if some of the Anzacs enlisted of their own volition, many of them were bullied into it with white feathers, and I should think that all of them were very quickly disillusioned by the reality of war.  If books and films showing the waste of young lives made their elders hesitate about sending them off to war, that would be a fine thing.

While I don’t share the authors’ concern about DVA itself developing curriculum materials for use in schools,  I have been uneasy for a while about the amount of money that they have to spend compared to other government departments.  I don’t understand why, when literacy, numeracy and science are supposed to be a very high priority, that – under both Liberal and Labor governments – there is never any money for curriculum materials to support the teaching of those areas, but there are literally millions of dollars available to produce multiple copies of kits about diverse aspects of war, every single year, for every single school in Australia.  (My school, with about 400 students, always gets two sets.  How many does a secondary school with 2000 students get? Do the maths and it’s a lot of money).

The pity is that this could have been a much better book than it is.  I think James Brown’s book, Anzac’s Long Shadow is a much better, more thoughtful and less biased book than this one.

Principal authors: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
Contributors: Joy Damousi, Carina Donaldson and Mark McKenna
Title: What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
Publisher: New South, 2010
ISBN: 9781742231518
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2014

Book Giveaway: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly


There are a number of established Aussie authors whose novels I always buy, for two reasons.  The first is because they’re terrific authors and I know that I’ll enjoy reading the book, and the second is that I want to encourage them to write another one.   In no particular order, these are the authors whose books may not be reviewed immediately but their latest books are on my TBR as soon as I can get my hands on them:

  • Alex Miller
  • Richard Flanagan
  • Joan London
  • Kate Grenville
  • Cate Kennedy
  • Andrea Goldsmith
  • David Ireland
  • David Foster
  • Rodney Hall
  • Kim Scott
  • Marion Halligan
  • David Malouf, and  last – but definitely not least…
  • Paddy O’Reilly.

And that is how I came to have a second copy of Paddy O’Reilly’s beaut new book – because her publisher, Affirm Press, very kindly sent me a review copy while I was waiting impatiently for the copy I’d pre-ordered to arrive.  So, you lucky readers, you have the opportunity to get your hands on Paddy’s beaut new book because I’m giving the second (i.e. unread) copy away.

This is the blurb from Affirm Press:

What happens when three otherwise normal people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders. Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, ‘The Wonders’ are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger. Challenging our ideas about celebrity, disability and the value of human life, The Wonders is a boldly inventive, acute and moving novel from one of Australia’s finest authors.

Here’s a Sensational Snippet, and you can read my enthusiastic review here.

HOW TO ENTERBe in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator by the end of August.

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).

Good luck!

PS BTW, for those who count these things, my list of Must-have Authors is a 7/6 male/female split, and I listed those authors in the order that I thought of them with no deliberate attention to gender, ok?)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2014

Deeper Water, by Jessie Cole


Something rather odd happened when I finished reading Jessie Cole’s second novel last night.

Usually when I finish reading a book, I close the covers, and mull over it for a while.  I give it time to settle, like leaving a curry in the fridge overnight to give the flavours a chance to meld together.  But at the back of Deeper Water there is something I had never come across before: a section called Q & A with Jessie Cole – and the very first question is, ‘What do you think Deeper Water is about?’  And having spent 337 pages showing the reader what the novel is about, Jessie Cole proceeds to tell us.  (To be fair, I doubt if this concept was her idea.)

Like a fool, I read it, and it spoiled the book for me.   I was really, really cross.  I felt as if I were back at school, being told what to think about what I had read.  Because what the author thought this book was about, temporarily swamped what  thought it was about.  I had to stomp around the kitchen doing irrelevant housekeeping things for a long time this morning, before I could get the author’s earnest voice out of my head.

Deeper Water is the story of an innocent called Mema whose sheltered world on a bush block is disrupted by a stranger trapped there by floodwaters.  This man, Hamish, is an eco-consultant and his world is turned upside-down when he is marooned in a place where there is no internet or phone, and all his possessions are gone.  Mema finds herself attracted to Hamish, but her older and wiser sister and mother warn her off.  The characterisation is so good that the reader becomes as convinced as Mema that there may be a future for this relationship.  So yes, this is a (rather YA) story of sexual awakening, and yes, it’s an homage to getting in touch with the nature from which humans seem to be divorced.

But as discerning readers realise, authors often reveal more of themselves in their books than they know.  Deeper Water is a more interesting book than either the author or the creator of those inane Book Group Questions also at the back of the book seem to realise.  For once a book is out of the hands of its creator, it belongs to the reader, who makes of it what she will.  And I thought there was much more to this story than the rather overwrought sexual awakening of its rather improbable character.

FWIW, whether it was intended or not, I thought the book was about the prison of ignorance that parents can impose on their children.  How deciding to bring up their children in a certain way,  can limit their children’s opportunities, destroy their choices, and make them vulnerable.   The irony is that Mema’s male siblings escape the protective, womblike home as soon as they can, and they sever all contact too because they do not belong in it.  It is not that they are too wild, as Mema thinks, it is that they need their freedom and they want to be part of a wider world.

Mema recognises that her all-female world has left her unprepared for relationships, but has no idea how to resolve emotional love and an instinct for sex.  Meanwhile the reader wonders about the definition of masculinity that is evoked in this novel.  They are all Other: Frank, (would-be lover of her mother); Billy (would-be lover of Mema); Anja’s manic father, Jim; and Hamish the Stranger too, of course.  The sense of males as unreliable and dangerous explodes into aggression when the toddler Rory bites Mema, as if warning her that he too will become Other:

Rory bit me then, right on the soft part of my thigh.  I screeched, kicking out at him, ’cause I wasn’t expecting it, but he only bit down harder.  There was a scramble, all of us trying to get him out from under my skirt.  When he appeared he was red-faced and wild.  Mad as a cut snake, floundering around so much Sophie had to pin his arms down.  Mum handed Lila over to me.  My sister couldn’t manhandle Rory on her own, so the two of them dragged him off to the bedroom to give him a talking to.  Holding Lila in one arm, I lifted my skirt.  Rory hadn’t broken the skin, but his teeth marks were already turning a bright scarlet.  My thigh was swelling under my eyes, red and bruised.  I dropped my skirt again so I didn’t have to look at it and Lila started up her squalling.  I tucked her against my shoulder and – stranded there beside the kitchen sink – we cried. (p.321)

The other aspect that interested me was the way that the author explored the impact of isolating oneself from (i.e. rejecting) the trappings of modern life, especially the way that ‘being connected’ makes one dependant on its intrusive communication systems.  I remember reading with sadness that one of the victims of the Black Saturday bushfires had chosen not to listen to local radio.  She did not have a mobile phone.  She did not want the world intruding on her little piece of paradise, because for her, the whole point of living in a rural area was to be able to ignore what was happening in the rest of the world.  So she did not hear the warnings: she expected someone from the CFA to come knocking on her door to warn her.   Deeper Water, it seems to me,  makes a statement about the necessity to take responsibility and remain alert to potential threats to one’s way of life.  It makes no difference whether one lives in a city or the bush: none of us can afford to choose ignorance about decisions that are being made about the way we live.  And the politics of ‘green’ issues in rural areas can be every bit as destructive to the natural environment as fracking is said to be.

Now, if you read other reviews of Deeper Water you will notice straight away that they are effusive about the lush environment in which this story takes place.  Susan Chenery at the SMH commented on the sense of the author’s rural home as an untouched world and the characters being unsullied by the modern world.   She talks about the characters as simple people with a decency and a rough country kindness and how she felt when returning to her own reality that it seems to be missing something.  But Chenery chooses not to comment on Mema running the gauntlet of the town’s young men calling her a slut, nor about the one who starts to manhandle her over to the river because he thought she was up for it, like mother, like daughter.   She takes Jessie Cole at her word when she says that she created the world of Deeper Water as a more welcoming habitat than her previous novel as if Jim’s hut is not an horrific place of violence and as if Anja’s plight had not been so comprehensively ignored by the town.  But as I read it, there is a steely undercurrent in this novel that is very much in tune with Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town (see my review) – it certainly does not romanticise rural life.

Do read the review at Sally from Oz too!

Author: Jessie Cole
Title: Deeper Water
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2104
ISBN:9780732298586
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2014

Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, by Sophie Cunningham


I was alone in the house last Saturday when I began reading Sophie Cunningham’s Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, and a windstorm was brewing.  It was gusting up to almost 60km/h, which is 7 on the Beaufort scale, almost a gale.  I went outside and did the usual things that I do when the weather seems ominous, stacking outdoor chairs away and tucking the cast-iron table upside-down under the shrubs at the back of the house.  I was very conscious that short of evacuating the city altogether, nothing much the residents of Darwin could have done would have made any difference when in 1974 the city was hit by a cyclone packing 217 km/h before the anemometer ceased functioning.  You only have to look at this video to see the destruction.

In the prologue to Warning, the facts are presented without emotion:

These are the bare bones of it: around midnight on Christmas Eve, 1974, a cyclone hit Darwin.  Around seventy-one people died, hundreds more were injured and seventy per cent of the homes of Darwin’s 47,000 inhabitants were laid waste.  That left only five hundred residences habitable out of some twelve thousand.  Every single public building was destroyed or seriously damaged. While the loss of life was limited, the material damage was unparalleled.  The population of Darwin endured winds that some believe reached speeds of three hundred kilometres per hour.  In the week after Tracy, close to thirty thousand people were airlifted out of the ruined town in what remains Australia’s largest evacuation effort.  Many of them never returned.  The damage bill was estimated at between 800 million and 1.5 billion dollars, which is the equivalent of 6.1 billion today.  This, set against the town’s relatively small population means it still ranks as one of the world’s most costly disasters.

The damage was contained, comprehensive and explicitly material.  Tracy wiped out a city.  (p. 7)

But in the ensuing pages, Sophie Cunningham brings these facts to life.  She reviews events with a compelling mixture of oral history and official archives. Acknowledging from the outset that memory is fallible, she has nonetheless made the facts more real with the reminisces of people who were there.  Some of the names are familiar to those of us down south who reacted to the news with a mixture of horror and compassion.  We read about Major General Alan Stretton jetting in to manage the emergency relief program; on TV we saw assorted politicians walking through the rubble in stunned dismay, and we caught vox pops of the evacuees as they staggered onto the tarmac of airports around the country.  But most of the testimonies in Warning are the vivid voices of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary event.  These were people confronted by an unimaginable force of nature with only their bodies to protect themselves and their children.  Everything else: roofs, furniture, walls, birds, trees, gardens, meaning.  All that disappeared.  (p.9)

At its worst, parents were not able to protect their children at all.

Ken Frey describes a colleague’s experience:

One of our architects, who had three children, went into the bathroom, and the two youngest they put into the bath itself, thinking it was fairly safe.  And the mother, I think, was against one wall with her husband.  And one of the children was hanging onto the hand basin when the wall went out; the bath went with the wall, and so did the hand basin.  So all three children went out and the two parents were left in there …. (p. 33)

What I did not know until I read this book was that the evacuees were packed into military planes like sardines, with no toilet facilities.  I did not know that families were separated because in the chaos, that people were simply bundled onto planes without a manifest.  Indigenous people for whom connection to land is a spiritual necessity were packed off to places that were as foreign to them as China would be to me, and they were not necessarily made welcome.  I did not realise that the urgency to evacuate was because there just wasn’t any food, or water, to sustain the population in Darwin.  There were no communications.  For quite some time, the people of Darwin did not know if the rest of Australia had heard about their plight.

Of course some decisions were hasty, ill-conceived and poorly executed. Of course there were competing egos and hissy-fits amongst the personnel who took charge and then had to relinquish power.  Of course there was the usual blame game.  But the miracle Cunningham documents is just how well people somehow coped, how much cooperation there was and how little looting there was.  (And is it looting, if in extremis you take something needed for survival?)

1974 doesn’t seem like such a very long time ago, yet the authorities’ attitudes to women were closer to those of the 19th century than our own.  Cunningham points out that it was never even contemplated that women might contribute anything to the relief effort.  Priority for evacuation was given to the sick, injured and pregnant, then women and children, and elderly couples, married couples and single people after that.  By December 31st, there was only 5-10% of Darwin’s women left in town.   Not all of them had wanted to go.

As if the trauma of the cyclone were not enough, separation was devastating:

When Howard Truran was interviewed about his experience fourteen years after the event he still remembers that, although he wanted his wife and kids evacuated because he was so worried for them, the experience was extremely traumatic.

I wanted to get ‘em out because everything was new to us; we didn’t know what was happening.  And then there was rumours that there was typhoid around, and [there was] no power, no sewerage, no nothing…. [Getting them on the bus] was very heart wrenching.  Therese was very upset and I was upset, and the kids.  You just piled them on the bus; you didn’t know when you were going to see them again: [there was] all this devastation around, and women crying and people on the bus and everybody [was] upset, and then just see the bus disappear. (p. 104)

Warning, however, is not just the story of the people who endured the catastrophe.  Cunningham unpacks the decision-making processes, analyses the reconstruction effort and notes the resemblances with other recent natural disasters.  Explaining her motivation for writing this book, she reminds the reader that the extent and severity of natural disasters is increasing due to climate change:

…the human race is transforming the land, the seas and the weather.  There are signs of that all around us, and in a country already tended to extremes of drought, flood and bushfire we are now facing a world where there will be more calamities more often and larger numbers of us will be affected.  (p. 11)

I hope some of the ostriches in  Canberra pick up a copy of this to read on their flights to and fro…

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079367
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2014

The White Woman, by Liam Davison


The White WomanI was impressed by Liam Davison’s Soundings, but The White Woman is an extraordinary book.  I was lost in the world it created from the moment I started reading it.

The White Woman is not an historical novel, but it evokes the period of early European settlement to tell the story of the mysterious White Woman said to have been held captive by the Kurnai People of Gippsland in the 1840s.  The existence of this woman has never been proven, but the stories had remarkable longevity as can be seen from this extract at Trove.  Indeed if one potters about on the web for a while, one can find a number of scholarly works which deconstruct this legend using any number of isms.  They mostly focus on the gendered and racial sub-text: the public horror over the purity of civilised womanhood being sullied by savages, and the way that successive rescue expeditions provided a convenient justification for surveying and in due course acquiring more indigenous land.  These scholarly works ooze disapproval.

In Liam Davison’s capable hands, this apocryphal story becomes a fine short novel, one which interrogates these isms without being heavy-handed.  The novel takes the reader back into the mindset of the time, while also offering some kind of redemption through the narrator’s latter-day reflections.  We did this, the narrator says, and we were foolish and wrong.  It is the novel that seems more true to me…

The White Woman is a disturbing book, but – especially if you know the Gippsland Lakes and you’ve been there on a day when the lake is absolutely still – the prose is exquisite too.

For all our eagerness to be there, our confident expectation of what we’d find, none of us was prepared for what we saw when the river eventually opened into Lake Wellington.  The banks of the river fell away from us and we were faced with a stretch of water so vast it might have been the sea.  Its surface was absolutely still and, in the distance, its shore broke up in fog so a series of small islands seemed to drift on top of the water.  Nothing was as we’d expected.  Hundreds of swans pocked the water on either side of us.  Even with the light diffused through the soft haze, it still hurt our eyes to look too long across the water.  It seemed we’d come to a place not filled with light but made of light itself.  We clung to the shore for fear of vanishing into it.  (p. 41)

(You can Google Lake Wellington images and see how lovely it is, but none of the photos capture the light the way that Davison’s prose does.  It’s a place that makes you long to be a landscape painter.)

Imagine, if you will, a time when European settlement in Victoria was fragmentary.  There are still plenty of places in Gippsland where stepping off the beaten track can lead to peril and the idea of being lost and alone in remote, densely vegetated areas can cause justifiable terror.  In the 1840s when countless ships were lost off the perilous Victorian coastline, the loss of the Britannia which was wrecked on the Ninety Mile Beach in 1841 gave rise to the rumour that a female survivor had been taken captive by the Kurnai People.  Fear of the unknown and public outrage led to rescue expeditions, one of which is the basis for the novel.

Davison frames his story as a narrative told by one of the expedition survivors forty years after the event.  An un-named man seeks him out to find out the truth about his father, who was involved in events all those years ago.  The discursive, bitter, cynical, and anti-romantic account of events insists on self-doubt:

It’s odd how memory serves you.  Or how it fails.  Before you arrived here tonight, knocking surreptitiously at my door for answers to your half-formed questions, I could barely recall your father’s face.   Oh yes, I could conjure up the vague outline of a man if I put my mind to it (large, heavy-jowled, a solid jaw) but of course there was never any need.  He belonged to his own past, you see, as much as mine.  Nowadays, no doubt, you’d make a photographic print to hold it fast, the image of him as he was then, as if you had to fight against the past to keep him from slipping into where he belongs.  Yes, I’m right aren’t I? Memory’s not enough.  Tell me you haven’t sat in front of the magic box yourself and winced at the phosphorescent flash.

Yet now, with you sitting here before me, the outline sharpens; it takes on your features, your voice, your manner of holding the hot tea to your lips. Your father is back before me. All the years before have gone and I find, yes, I do remember.  I remember what he was like.  I talk with confidence about the things we did.  The events fall easily into place, day follows day, night follows harrowing night.  I open my mouth and it all comes tumbling out as if it happened yesterday: the search for her, the first signs of your father’s presence, the journey up the river… Almost without thinking, it finds its undeniable shape.

But I worry.  If it was somebody else who knocked, somebody else who walked impertinently into my shabby little room to claim association with my past, would I have just as readily recalled a different face?  Would things have moulded themselves just as comfortably to accommodate a different set of features, different questions, different expectations?  Would I have found myself recounting a different story about a different past? And if no one had knocked…? (p. 73)

From time to time, the narrator interrupts his ambivalent account of the expedition to acknowledge his listener, forcing the realisation that his father was an evil man.  The search for the woman was motivated by romantic notions of rescue, but the gruesome reality that they uncovered instead was that pioneer settlers on the ungoverned frontier in Gippsland were massacring the indigenous people.  What’s more, the ideals that motivated the narrator were not shared by other members of the expedition: they knew that it was better not to find a ‘sullied’ woman because it was the search itself which furthered their grandiose ambitions.  The position of De Villiers, who leads the expedition, is secure for just as long as they don’t find her.

It made him what he was, you see.  And once we’d found her, or failed, the focus would shift to her.  Or to whatever it was he knew would be revealed about ourselves. (p. 75)

Rival expeditions muddied the waters further:

Good and evil; black and white.  It’s tempting, isn’t it, to reduce it all to that – moral purpose, the clear delineation …. characters … as if people really worked that way.  They didn’t want us there, you see.  The story grew with every telling until Tyers, half wanting to believe perhaps, had set off in pursuit.  And before long, we had Walsh as well, tramping through the bush towards us with five of his police, following his own story to its natural conclusion.

You had to wonder what they thought we’d find, I mean, to follow us so closely.  They didn’t want us snooping.  Didn’t want us to find her – not when they had failed. (p. 97)

Davison peppers the narrator’s account with images of this woman’s plight.  We see her bound, beaten, delivering a child on a bush track.  Hauntingly, we see her dragged away, looking behind her at potential rescuers beyond her reach.  All of it is rumour, emanating from both black and white who – for their own reasons – claim to have seen her.   The story had resonance because it symbolised a clash of civilisations, at a time when only the European civilisation was acknowledged, and ironically it was thought to be vulnerable when it was actually the indigenous civilisation that was in peril:

The story was unresolved as long as we were out there, and even De Villiers could still convince himself it would end right, with all our actions justified.  He could still believe, in spite of what he knew, that we were under threat, that all we had to do was turn our backs and decency and virtue would be snatched away from us.  It’s not hard to imagine, is it?  Even now, there’re people who will argue that’s how it was (or is) … that we planted civilisation here against all odds. You see them polishing their pedigrees, trying to salvage something from their families’ pasts.

Yes, the past! It says something about us, don’t you think, that we’re so preoccupied with it?  Isn’t that what you’re here for?  Patting yourself on the back for who you are?  Yes, I know your type – all ears for what you want to hear, all shock and indignation for the truth. Well listen up, we’re not done yet! (p. 75)

The White Woman is uncomfortable reading because the thought of any woman being held captive is shocking yet our contemporary sensibilities resist the idea that it was more shocking because (if she existed) she was held captive in a culture so different to her own.  Patrick White explored this idea in A Fringe Of Leaves and Fiona Kidman did the same in The Captive WifeThat puts Liam Davison in distinguished company indeed.

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the third in my personal tribute to an author, who, to my regret, I have discovered only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.   I find it very sad that The Betrayal, the next of his novels that I shall read, is his last.  He was a remarkable writer who deserved to be more widely known.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The White Woman
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 1995
ISBN: 9780702226809
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks

Availability

Out of print.  Scour the second-hand shops or try your library.  This book is well worth hunting down.

BTW On the day I looked, Fishpond had two second-hand copies of Liam Davison’s award-winning but out-of-print Soundings.  So if you were tempted by my review, be quick!


MonaWhere would I be without Karenlee Thompson to help me out when the pile of books for review grows so big it won’t fit in the drawer?  Yes, in my home library they have their very own designated drawer (one of those large plastic Oates stackable ones from Bunnings) so that these books don’t get lost among the 700-odd other books neatly arranged in alphabetical order and waiting their turn in my TBR shelves.  The drawer holds about 20 books (depending on size) and when it starts to get full, I stoically resist offers from authors and publishers and publicists because I don’t like to commit to things I can’t deliver, and I like to read my own books as well, of course!

But some publishers and publicists get so excited about their new books, they just can’t resist sending a copy to me anyway.  Of course it’s great that they feel that even though they know I don’t read thrillers/SF/crime/sad memoirs et al (see my review policy) they have so much faith in the new book that they feel sure that this particular one will overcome my reservations and I will love it like they do!  Authors need publishers to love their books, of course they do, and it’s especially pleasing to see that Scribe is doing its best to promote translated fiction.  (Stu at Winston’s Dad will be pleased too, I bet). But, I just didn’t have time to read Mona, so I’m very grateful to Karenlee for her willingness to write a guest review, especially since she is busy writing her second novel:)

Dan Sehlberg’s Mona is the first book of a two-part thriller, its sequel Sinon being due for release this year.

The plot is breathtaking in its frightening possibility:

Eric is a computer science professor who invents a thought-controlled system for browsing the web and, while some readers might think this is merely imaginative sci-fi, the truth is it is far too close to reality for comfort. Eric’s system collides with Professor Samir Mustaf’s newly-created computer virus with catastrophic results and it is just a matter of time before the lives of Eric and Samir become entwined.

When Eric’s wife Hannah becomes infected with a mystery virus, Eric is convinced that his browsing system has somehow become involved in passing the latest sophisticated computer virus on to her.  No-one believes him so he embarks on his own quest to find answers and to save his wife who has drifted into a coma.  In the process, Eric has to deal with Mossad, Hezbollah and the FBI nipping at his heels.

The intrigue and espionage extend to a Palestinian spy in the highest levels of the Israeli government and a ruthless Mossad assassin – Rachel Papo – who, despite being psychopathic in intent, finds some softness in her heart when it counts most.

There are a number of extremely contrived plot devices and, while it is difficult to settle into an easy belief and relax into the ride, accepting the coincidences that help us on our journey, it is not so difficult to accept the credibility of the fantastic results of the meeting of the virus with the thought-control program.

There’s something of the fairy-tale twist in the denouement that is unfortunately rare in real life, particularly when we are dealing with the volatility of the middle-east. If only these two men from opposite sides of the ideological, philosophical and religious spectrum could so easily bury their differences. If only two men could alter such catastrophic events. If only life were so simple.

The Style

I didn’t find much in the way of Literary style in Sehlberg’s prose but I know little about the translation process and, as I cannot read the novel in its original, there is no way for me to tell how much of the style is completely Sehlberg’s and what – if any – is as a result of the translation. The translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, was lauded for the exceptional job she did with Jonas Hassen Khemeri’s 2011 novel Montecore.

Word choices and sentence structures are sometime jarring.

‘Parents – exclusively women – were standing nearby or sitting on benches, and talking to each other on phones.’ (p. 320) Wouldn’t those ‘parents – exclusively women’ be ‘mothers’? Or ‘women’?

‘Jens hugged him as heartily and roughly as always.  His rough beard scratched Eric’s cheek.’ (p. 40). Most editors would have marked ‘roughly’ and ‘rough’ for a rethink. ‘Eric returned to his car, which had received a parking ticket. He left it where it was and backed out of the parking area.’ (p. 162) Clunky and uninspired.

Occasionally, a gem of a sentence emerges. For example, ‘She was Jewish, with all of Europe running through her veins’ (p. 25-26), imparts the information in a less pedestrian form than elsewhere throughout the book. And this: ‘But when he woke, reality waited restlessly for him with sharp claws and a wide sneer.’ (p. 129). For the most part, though, I found the prose style to be a little dull.

Still, you don’t need Literary style to make a Hollywood movie and that’s where Mona is headed. There’s quite a buzz around Swedish story-telling lately but let’s be clear; Sehlberg is no Stieg Larsson and Mona is a far cry from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Nevertheless, Mona is a page-turner and it comes as no surprise to me that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘New Regency’ has picked up the movie rights.  I can definitely imagine a good Hollywood thriller in a Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg kind of way and, if Angelina Jolie would take on a less starring role, she’d glint like sharpened steel as the ruthless Rachel Papo. This is likely to be one of those rare cross-overs where the movie will upstage the book.

Throughout the story, I often found myself thinking back to the prologue, in which a little girl in Lebanon brings a tin can home to her mother and grandmother.  She’d found the can while chasing a striped cat through a muddy field.  In that creative way of children, she has imagined the cat as a tiger and the can as its cub.

[she] saw her mother’s tears.  She looked nervously at her grandmother, and heard her prayers.  Then she extended the hand with the tiger cub.  That wasn’t a tiger cub.  That was a can. That wasn’t a can.  That was a grenade from an Israeli cluster bomb. (2)

Such imagery is so close to the reality for many families in the Middle East today, on both sides of the fence. It is gut-wrenching.

© Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Thanks, Karenlee, for once again sharing your expertise in reviewing!

PS Don’t you love the way that Karenlee has the perfect turn of phrase? ‘if Angelina Jolie would take on a less starring role, she’d glint like sharpened steel as the ruthless Rachel Papo’!

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson’s blog.

Author: Dan Sehlberg, Dan
Title: Mona
Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Publisher:  Scribe Publications,  2014.
ISBN 9 781922 070975
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Availability

Fishpond: Mona

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2014

The Wonders, by Paddy O’Reilly


I am a big fan of Paddy O’Reilly’s writing, and so I had been waiting impatiently for The Wonders, her third novel.  I read it over the weekend between sessions at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival and I am not at all surprised that it is already racing up the bestseller lists at indie bookshops.

If you read my thoughts about Angela Meyer’s anthology The Great Unknown you may recall that Paddy had a story called ‘Reality TV’ in that collection.  Little did I realise when I noted that the story skewers the hideousness of reality TV without mercy that Paddy’s interest in celebrity was to morph into an irresistible novel!  In The Wonders she exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people.  This is a novel that will engage your interest and your empathy, make you laugh and perhaps cry, but it will also make you think deeply about your own behaviour.

As you will know if you read The Fine Colour of Rust (see my review)  Paddy O’Reilly is brilliant at creating memorable characters.  In The Wonders, Leon, Kathryn and Christos form the troupe managed by Rhona, an American entrepreneur, and from the beginning the author inverts expectations about who’s doing the gawking:

What a shock, then , to meet Rhona at the station in Melbourne.  She was waiting to greet him off the train, wearing cowboy boots and rhinestone jewellery.  Titian red hair.  A big white handbag studded with fake rubies.  Leon had been stewing in indignation about how he was to be displayed as a monster, gawked at by strangers, until he stepped onto the platform and found himself staring at Rhona as if she was the exhibit.  Around him the other travellers were staring too.

‘My Hyland, a pleasure to meet you, ‘ she said in her big American voice, stretching out her hand to shake.  ‘Geez. honey, they told me that Aussies always shut their lips tight to keep out the flies.’  (p. 11)

Leon becomes a celebrity because he has a mechanical heart – and it’s not neatly tucked away underneath the skin of his chest, it’s visible.  He is joined by Kathryn, whose treatment for a rare disorder has caused her to grow fine curly black wool all over her body, and by Christos – who has elected to become a curiosity.  A performance artist, he has had wings implanted into his back.   While Kathryn’s unexpected genetic mutation has had the effect of making her beautiful and sexy, and Christos has transformed himself into a creature of glorious wonder, Leon remains what he always was – an ordinary man, vaguely reminiscent of Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz because he too yearns for love.   Insecure and bashful, he is a tragi-comic figure, puny and plain and often at the mercy of Kathryn’s biting sarcasm.

As some of us know from personal experience, the media can be intrusive, insensitive and a pain in the proverbial.  As Deb Fitzpatrick observed her in recent novel The Break once The Powers That Be decide that a situation is in the public interest, there is no escape for the hapless people caught up in it.  In The Wonders this situation is turned on its head.  Leon, Kathryn and Christos – under the expert management of Rhona – invert this inability to escape from the media and take control.  They manipulate the timing and placement of exposure; they ration appearances; they choreograph information about themselves; and they carefully stage-manage their costumes and aspects of their physical appearance to meet the expectations of the public.  Nobody ever sees or hears the agonising struggle that Christos must endure each time his wings are reinserted; the public knows nothing about the physical limitations of Leon’s heart; Kathryn’s ogling fans do not have any idea that she cannot bear to be touched by anyone.

The trio come in for severe criticism from disabled activists who resent a glamorization of disability which excludes people whose ‘otherness’ isn’t sexy.  Yes, how does the commercialisation of  medical curiosities in this way impact on the long hard struggle for disability rights?   Leon, Kathryn and Christos become rich – very rich indeed – but what of those left behind?  In a celebrity-obsessed society, how much does image matter, and what effect does the manipulation of image have on the person behind it?  As I write the media is obsessed with the fate of the athlete Oscar Pistorius but the more thoughtful commentators are pondering on how the cult of celebrity affects personality and behaviour.

There is also the question of lifestyle.  Is it possible for any of these three to have any kind of normal life, pursued by paparazzi, shielded by security guards, and walled up inside a gated mansion that’s more like a fortress?  And if not, what responsibility does the medical experimenter bear?  In The Wonders it is quite clear that personal ambition was the impetus for Leon’s experimental surgery which was not only dangerous but also illegal.  The plot involves all kinds of people – from voyeurs to outraged fundamentalist Christians – who are trying to track the Wonders down, but it also involves Leon trying to track down the people who saved his life, only to transform it in ways he could never have anticipated.

These clever inversions of our ideas and assumptions makes The Wonders a compelling book, surreal in its depiction of media ‘attractions’, but light-hearted in its execution.  The female characters, Rhona and Kathryn, skewer the males with witty repartee; there is a menagerie of wild animals in the gardens of the mansion to liven things up; and a kidnapping satirises the forces of law and order, making explicit that the very rich don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of us.  For along with those who adore the Wonders there are also those who hate them, and they cannot always insulate themselves from the real world.

You can hear Paddy talking about her book with Michael Cathcart at the ABC here, and Ashley Hay has written a superb review at The Australian.

Update: Catch this terrific interview with Caroline Baum:

Author: Paddy O’Reilly
Title: The Wonders
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781476766362)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Fishpond: The Wonders

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2014

Sensational Snippets: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly


I have just finished reading Paddy O’Reilly’s stunning new novel, and – while I mull over what to write in my review – I thought I’d share a splendid little snippet from the novel.  It made me laugh out loud:)

Leon has been showing off his book collection to the very desirable Kathryn, and you (like Kathryn) can glean something of his personality by checking out some of the titles on his shelves:

  • Seven Steps to Self-Confidence
  • You Can Be a Better Lover
  • Mood Therapy for the Introvert

I won’t spoil this splendid scene by reproducing the repartee, except for Kathryn’s parting words at the conclusion of her inspection:

‘Buy a few novels, will you,’ she said over her shoulder as she swung out through the apartment doorway.  ‘They’re better than that self-help shite.’

Ain’t that the truth!

Don’t wait for my review, get your copy now!

Fishpond: The Wonders

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