Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2014

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams


History of the RainHistory of the Rain was long-listed for the 2014 Booker, but it’s drawn the occasional caustic response from doubters at Good Reads.  I quite enjoyed it, but I think its appeal will depend on whether or not you have a soft spot for the Irish.  If you ‘hear’ it in a soft Irish lilt; if you can picture a small farm with a quaint cottage; if you ‘know’ the intimacy of an Irish village; and above all if you are familiar with the style and steely sentimentality of Irish storytelling – then this book will be a pleasure.

But if not, it may not be for you.  Even if you’re the sort of reader, as I am, who enjoys allusions to the books of a lifetime’s reading.

The storyline is simple; the artifice is not.  Plain Ruth Swain (yes, that is how she refers to herself, because that’s how the village does) is gravely ill with an unspecified disease in an attic bedroom.  Surrounded by and constantly referring to the books which formed his library, she is writing the story of her family and the father she hardly knew.  The family’s story is one of hardship and tragedy: the small holding consists of fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland and the nearby River Shannon combines with the incessant rain and her father’s incompetence to make things worse.  Given the title, it is hardly a surprise that History of the Rain is a very wet book.  (Yes, wetter than Angela’s Ashes.)

You don’t need to be a feminist to notice that this is a male author writing in a female voice, but maybe you do to notice that for Plain Ruth Swain this story of her family is an homage to the males.  Well, they are dead, tragically so, of course, and perhaps it’s more compelling to construct a story around the romance of tragic death.  It is not so interesting to take much notice of  Ruth’s stoic mother who plods through the book making bread and providing raincoats when they are needed.   Having fallen in love with a romantic who turns out to be a poet incapable of earning a living, she clearly has no time to read a book at all.

Ruth, like her mother, has a tolerance for male frailty that will either charm you or irritate you.  In Virgil (the father, the poet) the incompetence is because he is a poet.  This can involve long hours standing by the river with rain streaming down his back or it may involve long hours humming in the attic, oblivious to his family including, of course, his wife.  She doesn’t seem to mind, she is a saint.  She understands that poets need this sort of self-absorption in order to do their thing.  And the village is very proud of his (unseen, unpublished) poems too, so they are tolerant as well.

I hasten to add that I understand this self-absorption myself.  Ours is a creative household, and both of us know that an interruption at the wrong moment can thrust the elusive word or perfect cadence into eternal oblivion.  But few relationships survive one-sidedness – and decades of grinding poverty in the service of art usually depend on manifestations of love of some sort.  Apart from Virgil’s early and risible attempts at farming (which take place before he realises he is a poet) there’s not much evidence that he loves his wife.  Perhaps she intuits it.

Novels, of course, don’t have to be realistic, and the narrator is an adolescent confined to a sick bed so a testy reader has to keep reminding herself that the artifice here in this book necessarily limits her perspective.  I found the first part of the book interesting, lost interest in the middle and found myself bemused by the Booker fuss, but ended up completely absorbed by the last third of it, possibly because this is where the tragic deaths are revealed and Ruth’s own demise seems imminent.  If you like weeping over your novels and you like caring about the characters, you’ll probably love this.  Kim at Reading Matters certainly did, see her review here – and obviously the Booker judges did too.

It is witty, it is clever, and Williams does write beautifully.  Here he is writing about Virgil’s romanticised version of his sailing days for the children at bedtime:

‘And why were you there?  What were you sailing there for?’ Aeney wants to understand how you can get into a map that’s on page 28 of an Atlas.

‘Why was I there?’ Dad says.

‘Yes.’

My father’s eyes are looking straight up at the slope of the ceiling and the cutaway angle where the skylight is a box of navy blue with no stars.  The question is too big for him.  I will see this often in the years to come, the way he could suddenly pause on a phrase or even just a word, as if in it were a doorway and his mind would enter and leave us momentarily.  Back then we thought it was what all fathers did.  We thought that fatherhood was this immense weight like a great overcoat and there were all manner of things your father had to be thinking of all the time just to keep the overcoat from crushing him. ‘Well,’ he says at last, ‘that’s a long story.

‘All right.’ Aeney props himself up on his elbow.  One look at his face and you know you can’t disappoint him.  You just can’t.  Before they are broken small boys are perfect creations. (p. 172)

Williams goes on to write about the colour blue – and remember, this is a novel of interminable grey skies…

‘The Caribbean, you know, is not a place.  It is many places.  Islands.  Some of them are so small they’re not even on that map.  But all of them are beautiful.  The water is this marvellous blue.  It’s so blue that once you see it you realise that you’ve never seen blue before.  That other thing you were calling blue is some other colour, it’s not blue. This, this is blue.  It’s a blue that comes down from the sky into the water so that when you look into the sea you think sky and when you look into the sky you think sea.’

Aeney and I lie there and realise we’ve never seen blue, and how amazing it must be, and for a while I try the difficult trick of seeing what I’ve never seen except through my father’s telling. I set him sailing in the very best blue I can imagine, but know that is not blue enough. (p.174)

(Astute readers will recognise that Virgil is telling his kids about R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and that he hasn’t been anywhere a Caribbean blue either).

Here Williams is writing about the disappointed men of the village – not IMO successfully as an adolescent female narrator (despite the twee capital letters) – but very successfully as an older-and-wiser man):

It was a noted wedding in the parish memory.  I think it was because Dad was still that DC Comics figure, The Stranger, and because none of the men in the parish could believe that Mam hadn’t chosen one of them.  Long before the Consecration, before the head-bowing part where the Bride and Groom are up there kneeling together and there’s this sense of Something Big happening, men’s hearts were already breaking.  Bits of longing and dream were cracking off and sliding away the way Feeney’s field did into the sea.  Father Mooney must have felt it, this giant ache that filled his church.  In the Men’s Aisle there were some with prayerbooks clasped knuckle-white, cheeks streaked with high-colouring, thin nets of violet, and their Atlantic blue eyes boring down into the red-and-black tiles hoping for an Intercession.  When it didn’t come they did what men here do and by midnight had emptied the bar at the Inis Cathaigh and the emergency crates and barrels that were brought up from Crotty’s.  (p.201)

History of the Rain is full of treasures like this.  It’s just … it’s just that it’s not enough, not for me.

Author: Niall Williams
Title: History of the Rain
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408852026
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Availability
Fishpond: History of the Rain

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2014

2014 Most Underrated Book Award shortlist


I am indebted to Books and Publishing for the following information, and to Jane Rawson for alerting me to it.

The Small Press Network’s shortlist for the 2014 Most Underrated Book Award is

*drum roll*

* This is a first for this blog: a link to a review by one of the other shortlisted authors!

The winner will be announced on 13 November.

As it says on the Small Press Network (SPN) website:

The shortlisted writers represent three of the original and worthy voices to be published by independent Australian publishers in the 2013 calendar year. These books show excellence in their genre and demonstrate quality of writing, editorial integrity and production. They have been overlooked for other prizes and have not generated the sales they deserve for any number of reasons other than the great quality of the products.

I’ve only read one of these, but if that’s any indication of the standard, these are excellent books.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors, publishers and cover designers – these small publishers put the cover designers of the big houses to shame!

Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists Holy Bible

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2014

Grant’s Bookshop has moved nearby!


IMG_1498Grant’s Bookshop - specialising in old and rare books – has been a Melbourne institution for years.  They used to be in Armadale, a lovely place to shop but absolute hell in terms of traffic and parking, so I am ecstatic that they have now moved to nearby Sandringham.

I was on my way back from a bit of shopping in Hampton when I spied their sandwich board on the nature strip in Tulip Street.  Well, how could I resist?

You can see my new treasures in the photo at right:

  • Three first editions by Rodney Hall, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Just Relations (1982) and the Grisly Wife (1994) and one of my favourite authors (but hard to find in any edition)
    • Captivity Captive, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1989
    • The Second Bridegroom, shortlisted for the MF in 1992, and
    • The Island in the Mind,  shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 1996
  • The UQP first edition of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang which won him his second Booker in 2001.  I had a first American edition, but this is the proper Australian edition with a deckled edge, nicely protected in a Mylar cover.
  • A gorgeous first edition of Randolph Stow’s debut novel A Haunted Land (1956) with a cover photo on the back that shows him looking like a schoolboy with Robert Menzies eyebrows.  (Well, at 21 he wasn’t long out of school.  He was only 23 when he won the Miles Franklin for To the Islands in 1958 but the work showed a maturity that you don’t often see in young authors today.)
  • Another one for my David Malouf collection: the UK first edition of Child’s Play, with Eustace and The Prowler.  (When I reviewed Child’s Play, I only had a copy from the library so I was rapt to find this one).
  • Best of all, two Patrick White titles that I didn’t know existed.  A first edition of his Four Plays published by Eyre and Spottiswoode (1965).  The Plays are The Ham Funeral (1947); The Season at Sarsaparilla (1961); A Cheery Soul (1962); and Night on Bald Mountain (1962) which I had the pleasure of seeing performed at the Merlyn Theatre earlier this year.  The other one is a collection of his essays and articles published as Patrick White Speaks (1989) by Primavera Press.  It includes his autobiographical essay published in Sweden when he won the Nobel Prize, and some splendid photos of him as well.

When my credit card recovers, I’m going back to check out their collection of Zolas!

Grant’s Bookshop, 4/91 Tulip Street, Sandringham
Open Wednesday to Sunday 1-5.30pm
Ph 613 9585 4181
rarebooks@grantsbookshop.com.au
www.grantsbookshop.com.au

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2014

Sensational Snippets: The Golden Age, by Joan London


The Golden AgeSome of our most cherished Aussie authors make us wait a while between books.  Joan London – author of Gilgamesh (2000) and The Good Parents (2008) is one of these.

But it is worth the wait when we find ourselves reading Sensational Snippets like this, from The Golden Age. 

Meyer Gold is delivering his gift of soft drinks to the children at the polio hospital where his son is a patient.

He put the crate down by Nella’s fridge and, crouching at the open door, started to poke bottles of Bickford’s Ginger Beer, neck first, into spare corners of the intricately packed interior.

‘Take care, Mr Gold!’ For some reason his actions made Sister Penny want to laugh.  ‘For Nella this fridge is a person!’

Meyer kept out one bottle.  He found iceblocks in the narrow freezer tray, and two glasses.  As he poured, the glasses erupted into a fizz of pale brown bubbles.  ‘This is really quite refreshing in the heat,’ he said.  ‘Cheers!’

She laughed, liking to hear the local words in his accent.  ‘Cheers!’ she said.  They clinked glasses, suddenly light-hearted.

They sat at the table.  He told her how he had changed jobs.  The brother of a fellow worker at the bike factory was starting up a cool drink business and needed a driver.  ‘I told him I was a driver.  Then in my lunchbreak I rushed to take my test.  Thank God I pass!  In Hungary I used to drive all the time.  I love to drive.  But, to be honest, I never have worked as a driver in my life.’

‘What did you do in Hungary?’

‘Ran the family business.  Imports and exports.’

‘Do you like this job?’

‘It’s my ideal, I think.  I’m alone, outside, free to move and look around. I’m beginning to understand this city.’

‘Understand what?’

‘That it’s its own place.  It is not like anywhere else.’

An incongruously beautiful woman, he was thinking, looking at her wide, smooth, burnished cheeks, her full, composed mouth.  Why incongruous? Why be surprised by beauty in this country?  There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even – especially? – in a children’s polio hospital.  Was this what was making him happy?  It had always been here but he hadn’t seen it.  As if the old world had finally taken its hands from his eyes.

Joan London, The Golden Age, Vintage (Random House, 2014) ISBN 9781741666441, p. 140-141

So much, so economically expressed…

Availability

Fishpond: The Golden Age and good bookstores everywhere. (I bought my copy from Readings).


Dark emuI first became aware of this remarkable book when two of my favourite bloggers posted reviews of it on the same day: they are both historians, and they were both  impressed.

Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past piqued my interest with her comment that Pascoe used the journals of Australia’s explorers to make his case:

Pascoe draws on the work of Bill Gammage, R Gerritsen and others as well as his own research make a strong argument for the reconsideration of our understanding of the way Aboriginal people lived in colonial times. He draws extensively from the journals of explorers to present a remarkable array of evidence about the agricultural and technological sophistication of Aborigines before contact.

And Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip linked the book to some recent unfortunate remarks made by our blundering Prime Minister.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

Like many teachers, I’ve used the term hunter-gatherer in exactly that way, and so I felt impelled to read the book.  I’ve had Bill Gammadge’s award-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia on the TBR for ages, and I will get round to reading it one day, but it was an indigenous voice I wanted to hear.  Now that I’ve read it for myself, I think that this is an indigenous voice Australians should hear…

In 156 pages, Pascoe has inverted almost everything I thought I knew about pre-colonial Australia.  Importantly, he’s not relying on oral history, which runs the risk of being too easily debunked, his sources are the journals of notable explorers and surveyors, of pastoralists and protectors.  He quotes them verbatim, describing all the signs of a complex civilisation but viewed through the blinkered lens of appropriation and White superiority.  These diaries describe systematic agriculture and aquaculture; permanent dwellings; storage and preservation methods and the use of fire to manage the difficult Australian environment.  The reader can sense Pascoe’s pride in asserting that all these complex systems were managed through stable government that was fundamentally democratic in nature.  (Elders, after all, earned their role through initiation and learning the law: they did not inherit their power or grasp it through conquest.)

There is much more to this exciting book than I have outlined here so I urge you to follow the links above to Yvonne’s and Janine’s reviews.  They interrogate the book as historians do, with the expertise of their profession.  Also check out Adventures in Biography and the book’s own blog.  Thanks to MST for the link:)

As a teacher, however, I recommend it as essential reading for any educator.

Dark Emu has been shortlisted for Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing.

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title:  Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident
Publisher: Magabala Books. 2014
ISBN: 9781922142436
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability
Fishpond: Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?
Or direct from Magabala Books

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff


YarraThis intriguing book is one that’s been sitting on the TBR for so long that I’d forgotten I had it until I went fossicking for Robyn Annear‘s Bearbrass as a reference for some school stuff I was doing.  I bought it long ago when I was a volunteer for the New International Bookshop  – the nearest I ever came to having a job in the book trade.

I can’t remember how I came to hear about the NIB, but because its mission was ‘progressive’ i.e. flogging tomes on socialism, sad little pamphlets on anarchism and a lot of unsaleable secondhand university Pinko politics and economics text books, it was a bookshop so unprofitable that it could only run to one paid employee and everything else was done by volunteers.  I was in one of my have-to-get-out-of-teaching phases and I thought it was a good weekend opportunity to learn a new career in retail.  The bookshop operated out of the Heritage-listed Trades Hall Building, was congenially across the road from some very nice Carlton eateries, and rewarded its volunteers with a 10% discount on purchases.  In addition to these charms, I agreed with one aspect of their philosophy.  I thought then, and I still do, that even if I think anarchists et al are barmy,  a sophisticated city like Melbourne ought to have a bookshop offering alternative political points-of-view.   I’ve often wondered since if my stint at the NIB has generated an ASIO file…

Since they also sold a selection of new release mainstream titles in an effort to subsidise the less profitable stuff, I spent a small fortune on books, keeping the NIB afloat some weekends when my purchases were the only sale of the day.  But I failed miserably at retail: I never mastered credit card transactions, tangled up the price sticker machine, and tried to steer people to the kind of books I like.  (Fatal mistake!)  However the committee collective which had oversight of operations was tolerant of these mistakes (or else desperate for staff)  – until they introduced the coffee machine.  (This was the era when bookshops thought they could lure customers with coffee and sofas for book browsing à la Borders).  Making dreadfully bad cappucino was very dispiriting so I decided it was time to bid the NIB farewell… and I think they were relieved.  Melbourne’s reputation for great coffee was at risk!

One of the treasures I bought from the NIB was Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River.  (It’s still got its little yellow $32.95 sticker on the back!) It really is remiss of me not to have read it sooner because it’s such a delightful quirky book – and it (briefly) made me want to pack up a rucksack and go exploring along my city’s fascinating river banks. (I have actually done a bit of hiking around Dight’s Falls; have boated along the river as far as an 18-foot runabout will go; and The Spouse and I used to stroll along the river when we were courting because the backyard of his Hawthorn flat was the banks of the Yarra.  But *sigh* all that was before I wrecked my ankle).

Kristin Otto has pieced together a fascinating armchair ramble along this much-maligned river of ours.  First of all, she explains why it’s brown in a nicely patriotic way:  it’s because Australian rivers are notable for their muddiness turbidity i.e. they are silt-filled. The colours of the Yarra are the colours of our country, literally, being suspended earth from the upstream and middle-stream banks.   She tells the geological story, and the story of Batman’s infamous so-called treaty with the local Aborigines, and the shameful story of how when the river suffered one of its numerous diversions, the unmarked grave of Barak was lost forever.

And then she goes on to tell the extraordinary story of how it has been re-routed so many times and in so many places to meet the needs of the city that it bears almost no resemblance to its original meander at all.   As Robyn Annear also explains in Bearbrass, (a funny, clever, totally absorbing book about early Melbourne that should be in every walker’s backpack), diversion of the river’s natural flow and the annihilation of its billabongs began very soon after early settlement because flooding was so severe.   (And still is sometimes.  See here for an iconic photo of the 1972 flood).  The irony is that after a century or more of moving it and mucking about with it, Melbourne has finally realised that it’s better to live with it and is now busy restoring the old waterways and wetlands so that we will have a more natural and better-behaved river after all.

Then there’s the story of our bridges.  The beautiful ones, the ones that fell down, all the odd little ones that you forget about until there you are and they’re just irresistible – you have to walk over them even if you had no intention of going that way.  (My favourite of these is Kane’s Bridge at Studley Park).

And the social history is fascinating.  Commerce and industry dominated it at first, and then we got smart and started building gorgeous riverbank houses on it, and nice places like Southbank and the Fairfield Boat House.  (You haven’t lived if you haven’t idly rowed a skiff there on a balmy summer’s day and finished up with Devonshire tea in the tea rooms).

This is a terrific book.  Melburnians, of course, will love it but it’s an entertaining book no matter where you  belong.

(Well, maybe not Sydney).

Author: Kristin Otto
Title: Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885786
Source: Personal library, purchased from the New International Bookshop (which is still going, still staffed by volunteers!)

Availability

Fishpond had a second-hand one the day I looked: Yarra and Text still have copies direct.
Or you could try Brotherhood Books or your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

Meet an Aussie Author: Malla Nunn


Malla-Nunn.jpgMalla Nunn is the author of A Beautiful Place to Die and when she made contact after I reviewed her novel, I wasted no time in asking her if she would be willing to be featured on Meet an Aussie Author.

Malla was born in Swaziland, a sovereign state almost completely encircled by South Africa, but now she’s an Aussie. Her family moved to Perth in the 1970s where she went to school and university.   After further study in the US, where she worked in film, she returned to Australian and now lives in Sydney with her American-born husband and children.  She’s made three award-winning films: Fade to White, Sweetbreeze, and Servant of the Ancestors, and her debut novel in the Emmanual Cooper series was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and the Macavity Awards for Best First Mystery Novel while Blessed are the Dead (No 3 in the series) was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

If (like me) you want to read the Emmanuel Cooper series in order, here they are:

Malla is busy writing her next book but fortunately for us she found time to answer my questions for Meet an Aussie Author – thanks, Malla!

Mall-Nunn-writing-space.jpg

Malla’s writing space – I wish mine was as tidy as that!

1. I was born a poor brown child in colonial Swaziland.

2.When I was a child I wrote out bible verses and memorised them to earn prizes.

3. The person who encouraged me to write was my mother who loved to read and thought books were magic.

4. I write in the kitchen after the breakfast dishes are cleared.

5. I write when the kids have gone to school and the house is quiet.

6. Research is best done by someone else!

7. I keep my published works in the garage & some inside to inspire me to keep writing.

8. On the day my first book was published I sat on the back stairs and took a moment to thank the universe for my amazing luck.

9. At the moment I’m writing a Young Adult adventure with a kick-ass girl who saves the world.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea I go for a walk, eat or watch a movie.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know that I very rarely read crime fiction, but trust me, if A Beautiful Place to Die is anything to go by, these are not your usual run-of-the-mill crime novels!

A Beautiful Place to Die Let the Dead Lie Blessed Are the Dead Silent Valley Present Darkness

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman


Shifting Colours

I haven’t read enough South African fiction to know for sure, but I suspect that Shifting Colours is a rare example of a book that tells the story of domestic service during the apartheid years. That may be because the Black women who ran white households need to be empowered to tell their stories, or it may be that White South Africans feel that these are not their stories to tell.  If you have read my post about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will know that the question of authorship across a racial divide is a vexed one…

Fiona Sussman was brought up in apartheid South Africa, but migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s.  She raises the issue herself in a note at the beginning of the book:

As I embarked on the writing of Shifting colours, I was acutely aware of the challenge ahead – the challenge of writing in the voice of characters whose life experiences and culture were so different from my own.  I hope I have not unwittingly caused offence to anyone.  In the end I have drawn on my experience as a mother, a daughter, wife and sister, and I hope that the common denominator I share with my characters is our humanity.

Shifting Colours is the story of a mother and daughter separated by a most unusual adoption.  Celia is a live-in maid in an apartheid-era household in 1960s Johannesburg, and she considers herself ‘lucky’.  Her living quarters consist of a cramped, bleak and ill-furnished room built in the back garden.  She has only rare contact with her three sons who are brought up by their grandmother in Soweto, and she hasn’t seen her husband who works in the mines for a very long time. This was the norm for residential domestic servants in South Africa: their living conditions were sub-standard and they were separated from their families for very long periods of time with visits home entirely at the discretion of their employers.  The alternative, however, meant long and expensive daily journeys from the segregated townships, rising before dawn to travel into the privileged suburbs of South African cities – and still seeing very little of their families.  But what makes Celia value her position in the Steiner household more than anything is that her little girl Miriam is allowed to live with her, and is an occasional beneficiary of gifts and – importantly – the beginnings of an education.

Told from the perspectives of Miriam and her mother, Shifting Colours tells the story of Miriam’s adoption by the childless Steiners, and her removal to England.  Like many South Africans, these employers are unnerved by the Sharpeville Massacre and they decide to leave.  Celia accedes to their unusual request to adopt Miriam when the child witnesses a shocking instance of police brutality.

She does so in earnest hope that it will lead to a better life for her child, but it breaks Celia’s heart.  And the promises made by Rita Steiner and her husband Michael are not kept.  They do not bring the child back for visits, and they do not write to tell Celia about the child’s progress.  What’s worse is that they tell Miriam that her mother didn’t want her.

And in the meantime, things don’t work out with Celia’s new employers, and her life goes from bad to worse, each new address making it more and more impossible to trace her movements.

England turns out not to be a promised land, and Miriam grows up experiencing a different kind of racism to the institutionalised form of it in South Africa.  And eventually she feels impelled to make the journey back to South Africa to resolve her confused identity and to try to find her mother.

There is an authenticity about the tale that unfolds that makes the book hard to put down.  This is a debut novel of unexpected power.

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: Shifting Colours
Publisher: Alison & Busby, UK, 2014
ISBN: 9780749016128
Source: Review copy courtesy of Raewyn Davies at 24/7 PR

Availability

Fishpond: Shifting Colours

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists


Dear me, it says something about the publicity machine at the PM’s office that I found out about the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists from Michael (The Complete Review) Orthofer  who tweets @MAOrthofer and lives in New York, eh?

Still, the good news is that the awards have survived the slash-and-burn budget cuts.  For the time being, that is.

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists are:

Fiction

A World of Other People, Steven Carroll (Harper Collins) (On my TBR)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia) See my review
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin: Hamish Hamilton) See my review
Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin) On my TBR.  See Kim’s review on her classy new blog.
Belomor, Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing) See my review

Poetry

Tempo, Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry)
Eldershaw, Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper)
1953, Geoff Page (University of Queensland Press)
Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call, Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry)
Chains of Snow, Jakob Ziguras (Pitt Street Poetry)

Non-Fiction

Moving Among Strangers, Gabrielle Carey (University of Queensland Press)
The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater (Harper Collins Publishers)
Citizen Emperor, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Rendezvous with Destiny, Michael Fullilove (Penguin)
Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, Helen Trinca (Text Publishing) See my review

Prize for Australian History

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)
First Victory 1914, Mike Carlton (Random House)
Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, Hal G.P. Colebatch (Quadrant Books)
Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, Michael Pembroke (Hardie Grant Books)
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright (Text Publishing) See my review

Young Adult Fiction

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo)
Pureheart, Cassandra Golds (Penguin)
Girl Defective, Simmone Howell (Pan Macmillan)
Life in Outer Space, Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The First Third, Will Kostakis (Penguin)

Children’s Fiction

(I’ve read all of these and my students love them all.)

Silver Buttons, Bob Graham (Walker Books )
Song for a Scarlet Runner, Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin)
My Life as an Alphabet, Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin)
Kissed by the Moon, Alison Lester (Puffin)
Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!


The Sin of Father Mouret

The more I read of Zola, the more interesting he becomes.  The Sin of Father Mouret is utterly unlike the others I have read in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it tested my understanding of Zola’s place in the French Naturalism movement.  Because whatever else I might say about The Sin of Father Mouret, it isn’t the sort of realism that I have come to expect from my reading of Zola’s novels so far.   The chronology is impossible; time itself plays tricks; nature behaves more like a tropical hothouse than a French landscape, and the characters are surreal.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Since the dust-jacket of my 1969 Prentice-Hall edition gives away a good part of the plot, it’s not really a  spoiler to reproduce it here:

The Sin of Father Mouret presents the tragic confrontation of love, death and religion. A novel of overwhelming power, it revolves around the internal struggle of a priest determined to make himself worthy of the Virgin Mary by dissolving his basic human drives. Falling in love with the beautiful Albine, a pagan creature of nature, his conflict becomes so strong that he develops brain fever, and falls into a coma.
He awakens to find himself alone with Albine, in her secluded old mansion. In his weakened state, he remembers nothing of his past, and surrenders himself to the sensual delights of the girl and her garden paradise. Together, the two explore the primeval world of unspoiled nature, and finally discover the ecstasy of love and sexuality.
When the priest recovers his memory, he flees back in horror to civilisation. Appalled by his sin, he nevertheless is haunted by memories of his beautiful life with Albine. The girl, innocent of the world and of sin, implores him to return to her. The priest’s inner struggle becomes a paralysing force, precipitating the final tragedy of the novel.

Part 1 of the novel focuses on Father Mouret.  His parents are the cousins Marthe Rougon (from the legitimate side of the family) and François Mouret, (from the illegitimate side) so according to Zola’s belief in the scientific truth of eugenics, he is subject to the respectable and the disreputable in his personality, as they are expressed in the environment in which he finds himself.  This existential struggle between good and evil is heightened by Mouret’s vocation to the priesthood where he finds himself trapped in the geographically and spiritually arid environment of the godless village of Artauds.  His housekeeper, La Teuse struggles to maintain the standards of the church because they have no money to repair the crumbling building and the shabby vestments, and Brother Archangias urges him to give up altogether:

Meanwhile as Voriau led the way down the dusty road, Brother Archangias was speaking irritably to the priest.  ‘Give up the damned to hell, abandon these toads, Father.  There’s no way to make them pleasing to God short of hamstringing them. They’re wallowing in irreligion just like their parents before them.  I’ve been in this part of the country for fifteen years and I’ve yet to make anybody a Christian.  It’s all over the day they leave me.  They belong to the earth, to their vines and olive trees.  Not one so much as sticks a foot in church.  They’re animals in a war with their rocky fields. Lead them by hitting them with a stick, Father, with a stick.

Then catching his breath, he added with a horrible gesture, ‘Look Artauds is like the brambles that eat the rocks around here.  One was enough to poison the whole country.  They clamp themselves on, they multiply, they thrive no matter what.  The town’s just like Gomorrah; nothing but a rain of fire from heaven could cleanse it.’ (p.22)

In this spiritual vacuum, Father Mouret’s devotion to the Virgin Mary becomes an unhealthy passion.  Aged only 26, he spends long hours praying on his knees, inventing new ways to isolate himself from the world and suppressing all his natural instincts to the extent that he barely eats at all.  Since celibacy is a requirement of the priesthood, he is especially vigilant about avoiding the lusty young women of Artauds.  He is repelled by nature and is especially troubled by the fecundity of the animals tended by his simple-minded sister Désirée.  He finds it very hard to leave the sanctuary of the presbytery to deal with the needs of his parishioners, and his innocence is tested by the frank earthiness of premarital pregnancy and a father who would rather see his pregnant daughter unmarried than have her marry a penniless peasant. These pressures have their inevitable consequence and Mouret falls gravely ill.

Part 2 takes place in a lush Garden of Eden.  Fearful for Mouret’s sanity, his uncle Doctor Pascal has removed him from any exposure to religion and sent him to an old ruined estate called Paradou, and placed him under the care of the young and beautiful Albine.  Crucially, Albine is a pagan, in the original sense of the word, that is, she has no knowledge of any god.  In this part of the novel called only by his Christian name Serge – Mouret recovers, but with no memory of his life as a priest or of anything outside his immediate environment.  Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, these innocents explore the glories of nature in this Paradise, and, yes, like Adam and Eve they eventually succumb to their natural desires.  (There is lots of serpent-like imagery in the garden).  (And a lot of flowers, of which more later).

But there is also a wall which surrounds the old estate, and a spot which affords a view of the town and Serge’s old life as Father Mouret.  Albine implores him not to venture there, but the inevitable happens.  And so begins Mouret’s struggle to reconcile his sin with his vocation.

Part 3 traces Mouret’s tortuous path through guilt and temptation.  Like the Knowledge of good and Evil which irrevocably cast Adam out of the tranquillity of innocence, Mouret’s knowledge of human love sabotages his devotion to the Virgin Mary.  He tries substituting devotion to the passion of Christ and he tries denying his love of Albine but he is a man now, no longer an innocent boy.  And Albine’s love is demanding: she does not understand the vows which torture her lover, and she will not be denied.

The misogynistic Friar Archangias is a caricature of the Archangel who expels the lovers from Paradise.  Sex, and the women who tempt men into it, are sinful, and Archangias wields a mighty stick to ward off the temptations to which he is subject too.  He bars the gateway to Paradou with his massive body, but he is no match for Albine.

The plot resolution with its malevolent flowers is even more surreal than the other mythic sequences, yet it has a strange kind of realism all the same.  The Catholic Church is as intransigent about celibacy today as it was in the 19th century, but there are provisions for men who fall in love to leave the priesthood, and while I am not sure if it’s the church that provides supports for those who leave, there are psychological and counselling services available to assist with the transition.  For Father Mouret, the spiritual dilemma could realistically only be resolved by death.  A death, (like many other odd circumstances in the novel) by magic realism, though the term hadn’t been invented then.

While some may read The Sin of Father Mouret as a critique of the Catholic Church, I find that Zola’s portrait of religious devotion is sympathetic.  It seems quite clear to me that Zola intended to show that it was the godless environment that tipped Mouret into  insanity.  If he had been in a contemplative order, the flaws in his personality would never have been tested.

According to my edition’s helpful Afterward by the translator Sandy Petrey, the surreal style of the novel suits Zola’s mythic purpose.  Like The Dream, (see my review), it shows Zola experimenting with different writing styles and genres (though that term – as far as I know – hadn’t been invented then either).   Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next title in this Zola Project,  A Lesson in Love (1878) which is apparently a star-crossed lovers sort of novel.  Zola as a romance novelist?  That will be interesting indeed!

The Petrey translation, I’m sorry to say. is pedestrian.  It is sad to see a great writer’s work spoiled like this: I cannot imagine what he might have thought of ‘Don’t say stupid things, kid’ (p 269, used to denote the French tu); or ‘Okay, when will that guy be through with covering himself with incense?’ (p. 226).  As for hamstringing in the passage quoted above, even the often risible Google Translate can do better with On devrait leur casser les reins as We should break their backs. But until something better comes along, there is limited choice for this title, as you can see at the Translations page at Reading Zola. I think I’m stuck with old Vizetelly for A  Lesson in Love!

Author: Émile Zola
Title:  The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret)
Translated by Sandy Petrey
Publisher: Prentice-Hall, 1969, first published 1875
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks.

Cross-posted at The Works of Emile Zola.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, read by Judi Dench


The Driver's SeatI was quite enthralled by this rather strange novella, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first Muriel Spark novel I read.

Because  it might well have been the last. I might have dismissed it hastily, and crossed Spark off my list of authors to explore. Fortunately for me, I had read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie back in the year 2000, and more recently I’d read the swish Folio edition of The Girls of Slender Means (see my review).  So I was more tolerant of the spiky prose and peculiar characterisation than I might have been, and of course I was also captivated by the splendid voice of Judi Dench as she  narrated it.

It’s the story of Lise, an office worker setting off for a holiday on the continent, terrorising shop girls with her outrageous attitude to frocks and startling the entire plane with her odd behaviour.  Well, not quite everyone, Lise manages to captivate Bill, who has the seat beside her.  Bill’s macrobiotic diet apparently requires him to achieve two orgasms a day and he has his eye on the main chance, but a holiday romance this is not. Authorial foreshadowing alerts the reader to Lise’s eventual fate, but it is certainly not the one that I was expecting.

The plot, frankly, is completely bizarre, but once you reach the conclusion, it does make a peculiar kind of sense.  Lise , for reasons not revealed until the end, has a death wish, because it’s the only thing she can control. This makes the novel rather confronting, and it made me wonder if Spark would have written it today, when things are so very different.

If you are quite sure that you are never going to read The Driver’s Seat, or if you’ve already read it, you will probably enjoy this amusing video review of the film version.

The Driver’s Seat is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition) and it was apparently Muriel Spark’s favourite novel.

It isn’t mine.

Update: Kim at Reading Matters loved it!

Author: Muriel Spark
Title: The Driver’s Seat
Publisher: Canongate Books, 2010, first published 1970
ISBN: 9781471220951
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

Richard Flanagan wins the Booker Prize 2014!


The Narrow Road to the Deep North
I was thrilled to hear this morning that Richard Flanagan has won the Booker Prize with his magnificent  novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has been reviewed widely:

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Publisher:  Knopf, 2013
ISBN: 9780857981486
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Availability

Fishpond:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North (hbk); The Narrow Road to the Deep North(pbk); and also the audiobook The Narrow Road To The Deep North

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2014

To Name Those Lost, by Rohan Wilson


To Name Those LostI try not to overdo the superlatives when it comes to discussing books, but Rowan Wilson’s new novel To Name Those Lost is magnificent.  Somehow he has managed to capture both the brutality and the redemptive promise of early Tasmania in a superb novel that had me captivated from the moment I started reading it.

Thomas Toosey is a veteran of the Black War about which Wilson wrote so evocatively in The Roving Party.  He is a hard man, brutalised by years of poverty and violence, his own childhood destroyed by life on the Tasmanian frontier:

His first sight of the island as a child of fourteen sent out for thieving two overcoats in the winter of 1827 was the sandstone buildings studding the hill above the harbour in Hobart town and when they brought him above decks of the Woodford in iron fetters and set him aboard a longboat for the shore he’d thought Hobart a pissing version of his own Blackpool, the inlaying of warehouse masonry much like the stores on Talbot Road, the stark shapes of houses near the same, but then the winter mist parted from the mountain peak above and he knew he was in venerable country, as old as rock, and it wasn’t long before he became indentured to the frontiersman John Batman who ran a trade in victualling the army, and here the boy Thomas learned how the island’s wilder parts truly belonged to the tribal blacks, a displaced people taking refuge in the hills, and for a government bounty and to secure his land this frontiersman meant to hunt them by whatever means just or unjust, bloody or brave, and he marshalled a party of transportees and black trackers and put into the scrub armed for war and war it was, a bloody war, in which all hands were soiled and Thomas’s no less than another’s for a killer now he was, an easy killer, and yet while he was diminished by it, made less in God’s eyes and his own, he saw in the bullet, the knife, and the club a power that could make a man his own master.  (p. 55)

(You can see in this excerpt Wilson’s masterful use of prose which conveys a sense of the 19th century and its rugged idiom without overdoing it).

The use of that power lands Toosey a 10-year sentence in Port Arthur, further hardening his heart.  But this brute receives a pitiful message from his son, twelve years old, and motherless now.

My deer Mother is dead.  I have been turned out of Home.  I have nothing at all Deer Father I wish you wood come back.  There is no home for me with out you. I have only You in the hole world to love.  I hope You will stow this letter safley as a tresher of my faith in You your loyal Son.

He hasn’t seen the boy for many years, but he keeps this battered letter in his pocket and sets out for Launceston to rescue him.

But anarchy reigns in Launceston. The new Deloraine-Launceston railway has failed, and the people are refusing to pay a levy to ameliorate its debts.  Across the city there is looting, arson, and thuggery.  Young William and his orphaned friends are at risk not only from hunger and homelessness, but also from men who take advantage of the general lawlessness.   Wilson’s depiction of how these youngsters live shows the human tragedy of societies that don’t provide safety nets for the vulnerable.

Into this chaos comes Thomas Toosey, pursued by the Irish transportee Fitheal Flynn and his strange companion, a hooded man.  Flynn doesn’t just want the £200 that Toosey stole from him, he wants revenge.  His companion is ambivalent: the lawlessness will not last forever, and a confrontation that ends in violence as it is destined to do, will be a Pyrrhic victory.  Yet what lies beneath the hangman’s hood demands retribution and Toosey knows it.

With consummate skill, Wilson weaves the story between pursuer and pursued, leaking information about the connections between them but revealing the bitter truth only at the novel’s shattering conclusion.

Geordie Williamson also reviewed To Name Those Lost for The Australian but you may find it paywalled.

Author: Rohan Wilson
Title: To Name Those Lost
Publisher: Allen and Unwin. 2014
ISBN: 9781743318324
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Availability

Fishpond: To Name Those Lost

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2014

The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour


The Last IllusionThe Last Illusion is a rather exotic novel: it’s a strange melange of magic and  realism, and although it’s set in New York,  its defining myth comes from Iranian legend.  The characters are all outsiders, and the central character, a feral child, is incapable of that most basic of human feelings, love.

Bringing all these elements together is a risky endeavour for a novelist,  but somehow Porochista Khakpour pulls it off with panache.

Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings)Derived from a legend  from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the central character in The Last Illusion bears the same name as the great hero of the legend, Zal, an albino who is abandoned in the wilderness and raised by a giant godlike bird.  Like his namesake the novel’s Zal is born in Iran, and also like him the contemporary Zal’s too-white skin and blond hair makes him a freak in the rural village where he is born.  But there the resemblances end.  Zal does not grow up to be a great hero: thought to be a White Demon, he is raised in a cage with his mother’s pet birds, and untouched by human hands till he is recued at the age of ten, Zal of the novel is a feral child.

A New York child psychologist and feral child researcher called Hendricks sees a doco about the child and because he has some familiarity with Iranian culture and language since his now-dead wife was Iranian, he is allowed to take this irrevocably damaged child to New York for therapy.  The novel traces the coming-of-age of the boy.

Although it is made clear from the outset that some psychological damage can never be undone, Zal – through a combination of good therapy and the unconditional love and wisdom of his new father Hendricks – is able to transcend some of the limitations that had been forecast for him.   Despite some residual physical limitations and the damage to his brain, he learns to walk and to talk, and his therapist teaches him ways of resisting most of the habits that he learned in the cage: dreaming in ‘bird’, desiring to fly, and eating insects. 

However, his fame brings him into contact – and disillusionment – with people who are attracted by his unique life story.  He meets the illusionist Silber who claims he can fly (and whose ultimate illusion bears some resemblance to the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty performed by the famous illusionist David Copperfield).  It is a relief to Zal when he meets a rather odd artist who believes she is clairvoyant because she doesn’t know about his tragic history, and makes no allowances for his limitations, considering.  But her family life tests the reader with the question of what ‘normal’ might be in contemporary New York. Both Asiya and her sister have eating disorders and her brother is very strange indeed.

Asiya’s visions gain in intensity in the September of 2001, and they coincide with Zal’s devastating realisation that his future will always be constrained by his past.

Every novelist who conjures the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks takes a risk, but the conclusion of this novel is an homage to the spirit of New York.  It ends in hope.

Author: Porochista Khakpour
Title: The Last Illusion
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781620403044
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Availability

Fishpond: The Last Illusion

The Last IllusionPS 13/01/14 A paperback edition ISBN 9781408858585 with a gorgeously clever cover design by Sarah Greeno is now also available, see The Last Illusion

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2014

2014 Barbara Jefferis shortlist


The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced today, and I’m pleased to see that my good friend Stu has reviewed at least one of the winner’s books so I recommend that you visit his blog to find out more about Patrick Modiano.

But not to be overshadowed, I hope, here’s news about one of my favourite awards -

The 2014 Barbara Jefferis Award has just announced its shortlist for 2014, and I’m pleased to have read and enjoyed so many of the books!

Amy Espeseth: Sufficient Grace (Scribe) (on my TBR
Tracy Farr: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press) see my review and Meet the Author here.
Jacinta Halloran: Pilgrimage (Scribe) see my review
Margo Lanagan: Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin)
Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest (Penguin Books) see my review
Margaret Merrilees: The First Week (Wakefield Press) see my review
Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain (Vintage, Random House Australia) see my review

I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them, there is some really great reading here!

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