Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at the Melbourne International ExhibitionsThis is a lovely book, and I hope it turns out to be an inspiration to others …

John Twycross was a successful Melbourne merchant, art lover and dealer whose wonderful collection of decorative arts was donated by his descendants to the Melbourne Museum.  This book tells his story, which turns out also to be the story of the 19th century International Exhibitions that were held at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton.  Its publication coincides with the 10th anniversary of UNESCO World Heritage listing of the building, a building well-loved by Melburnians because it still hosts all kinds of exhibitions from wedding expos to home renovation shows.  Generations of students have sat their final exams there, as I did, occasionally searching for inspiration among the decorative plasterwork and stained glass windows.  (You can see some of this splendour in this virtual tour). The Carlton Gardens which surround the building are beautiful at any time of the year, but especially in spring…

Those early exhibitions were extremely significant to the growth of colonial Melbourne.  Today when we can browse and buy online from anywhere in the world, it’s hard to imagine just how exciting it must have been to see goods brought to Melbourne for sale from all over the world.   Most people know about the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London (because it’s famous for burning down) and perhaps the  1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris (because the head of the Statue of Liberty was on display) or the one in 1889 (because of the Eiffel Tower).   But as the authors of Visions of Colonial Grandeur point out, the Melbourne International Exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 haven’t really been on anybody’s radar…

Yet these exhibitions brought huge numbers of migrants as well as visitors, creating plentiful opportunities for new businesses and a need for new infrastructure.   It gave Melbourne a place on the world stage and was the catalyst for new trade that exposed Australian products to the world.  Manufacturers loved these exhibitions because visitors came from all walks of life – and were easily seduced by the glitz and glam of the marketing atmosphere.   And people didn’t just go once – there was so much to see, they went as often as they could afford it.

For John Twycross, however, the exhibitions meant the opportunity to buy decorator items for his extensive collections.  Mrs Twycross must have been a tolerant wife indeed for he not only spent a great deal of money on things that took his fancy, he also built an entire tower beside his house Emmarine to store it all.  (Click here to see it). He bought paintings, and statuary for the garden, and vases and glassware and toys and all kinds of stuff too elegant to be called bric-a-brac – and, if the illustrations in this book (and on the website) are anything to go by, it was all in excellent taste.

The book includes numerous B&W photos of the exhibits which show pavilions from Germany, France, India and so on, and Twycross bought bits and pieces from almost all of them.  There’s a lovely Meissen porcelain plate from the German Court; a stunning French enamel and ormolu mantel clock that our most famous collector of French clocks would probably like to have; and the Venetian and Austrian glassware is to die for.  Some of the Asian artefacts must have seemed really exotic then when there was little trade between British colonies and Asia: the Japanese porcelain and the Chinese ivory are just gorgeous.   And the best thing is that thanks to the generosity of the Twycross descendants these lovely things were gifted to Melbourne Museum who (unlike some interstate publicly-funded museums I could name) have curated an online exhibition that everyone can enjoy.

The book is a treasure in itself.  While the authors are both historians with impressive scholarly qualifications, the text is written in a chatty style and it’s enjoyable to read.

Authors: Charlotte Smith and Benjamin Thomas
Title: Visions of Colonial Grandeur,  John Twycross at Melbourne’s International Exhibitions
Publisher: Museum Victoria, 2014
ISBN: 9781921833236
Source: Review copy courtesy of Museum Victoria via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

Availability
Fishpond: Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at the Melbourne International Exhibitions
Or Museum Victoria’s shop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2014

WA Premier’s Book Awards 2014


I’ve been really slack about keeping up with the awards lately, (I blame Masterchef for taking up so much of my time!) but I am so delighted by the WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists I am hastily putting this together before dinner…

Children’s Books – I’ve read three of these but with apologies to the ones I haven’t read, I am shamelessly barracking for The Swap.  Buy it for a child you love!

Baby Bedtime – Mem Fox; illustrator Emma Quay (Penguin Group Australia)
Light horse Boy – Dianne Wolfer; illustrator Brian Simmonds (Fremantle Press)
My superhero – Chris Owen; illustrator Moira Court (Fremantle Press)
Stay well soon – Penny Tangey (University of Queensland Press)
The Swap – Jan Ormerod; illustrator Andrew Joyner (Little Hare Books)
Violet Vanishes – Ursula Dubosarsky; illustrator Annie White (Hachette Australia)

Fiction (I am very glad I don’t have to choose between the ones I’ve reviewed, they are all brilliant books.)

Coal Creek – Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin) On my TBR
Elemental – Amanda Curtin (UWA Publishing) See my review and a Sensational Snippet and get to know Amanda Curtin through Meet an Aussie Author.
Eyrie – Tim Winton (Penguin Group Australia) On my TBR
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt – Tracy Farr (Fremantle Press) See my review and get to know Tracy through Meet an Aussie Author.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Random House Australia) See my review and a Sensational Snippet.
All the birds, singing – Evie Wyld (Random House Australia) Hmpf.  All my regular readers know what I think of this one.  I abandoned it after 50 pages and nothing I’ve read anywhere persuades me to try it again.  But obviously finer minds than mine disagree because it won the Miles Franklin).

Non Fiction

Broken Nation – Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)
Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir – Kristina Olsson (University of Queensland Press)
Citizen Emperor – Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury Publishing pty ltd)
Night games: sex, power and sport – Anna Krien (Black Inc)
Out of the Mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla – David Kilcullen (Scribe Publications)
The forgotten rebels of Eureka – Clare Wright (Text Publishing)  See my review.

Emerging Writers

Fractured – Dawn Barker (Hachette Australia)
Letters to the End of Love – Yvette Walker (University of Queensland Press) See Karenlee’s guest review
Salt Story: of sea-dogs and fisherwoman – Sarah Drummond (Fremantle Press) See my review
Stella’s Sea – Sally-Ann Jones (UWA Publishing) See my review

There are lots of other categories as well, (see the WA Premier’s site) but one book I should mention in the YA category is My Life as an Alphabet – Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin) – my Year 5 & 6 students love this one!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2014

The Velodrome, by Liam Davison


The Velodrome_0001It’s a sad thing to discover an Aussie author’s work only because he was killed in an atrocity, (see Vale Liam Davison) but it has been a delight to read his first novel.  Actually it’s a novella, of only 137 pages, but it’s a remarkable debut.  It’s called The Velodrome and the Vogel judges shortlisted it in 1987,  signalling the emergence of a writer of considerable talent.

(Davison lost out to Ilias by Jim Sakkas, a novel which its own author thinks he might have won [the Vogel] because it was the beginning of interest in more diverse novels, the era of multiculturalism. In an interview with an un-named critic at The Australian, for a post-Darville Demidenko article exploring ‘one-hit wonders’, Sakkas – who admits that he was a hobby-author, not someone hoping to make a career of writing – thought that The Velodrome should have won.   (My apologies if the link fails at The Australian’s paywall).  Having now read both novels, (Ilias back in 1997) I certainly agree with Sakkas, whose novel was alas so forgettable that it failed to trigger any memories even with the help of my trusty reading journal.  In the event, Davison went on to become a highly regarded author, winning the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993 for Soundings, and shortlisted for literary prizes such as The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.  He was also a recipient of the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, and a Fellowship from the Literature Board of Australia.  I can’t help but wonder if there is another manuscript-in-progress amongst Davison’s effects…  After all, John A Scott took ten years to write his brilliant N, eh? (See my review).

The Velodrome is a coming-of-age novel, introducing its narrator – Leon – losing his virginity underneath the Velodrome.  This moment is seared into his memory as he looks up through the cracks to the racers above:

The noise was getting louder again, rattling right down to the bottom of the track where we were, down through my hunched-up shoulder blades, and with it came a wind pushing down through the cracks from the whirling pedals causing puffs of dust to curl up into my eyes.  Through it all I could see their faces straining down over the machines as if they were trying to peer down through the cracks at us – my father’s face twisted into a grimace, scowling down at me, Eric’s face squinting beside him, Sam Ballard pushing great breaths out from under his moustache, and the faces of men I didn’t know all watching, watching, then Jody grabbed my hand and put it somewhere where it was warm.

I heard the pedals lock together, metal right against metal.  Something heavy buckled above us and all the bikes came tumbling down, twisting and wrenching out of shape as they came to lie in a tangled mass just above our heads.  With them came the cyclists, still curved over their twisted frames.  They made dull thuds as they hit the wooden track and rolled awfully down to the bottom. (p. 6)

Leon’s father is killed in this fall, and his cycling mate Eric is so badly injured he’s confined to a wheelchair.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The Velodrome is a novel of unsatisfactory fathers.  Leon’s mother, out of an over-developed sense of duty, marries Eric, while Sam Ballard tries to be a substitute father to Leon and to Eric’s daughter Jody, (who is now suddenly Leon’s sister forcing yet another reappraisal of a relationship).  Leon’s attitude to these father-substitutes is signalled by the way he refers to these men: Eric is always Eric, and Sam Ballard is distanced by the use of both Christian name and surname.  Leon is a lost boy, always out riding on his bike, escaping the claustrophobia of his altered home and in search of his identity and what he has lost.

Eric is an eccentric, cataloguing every moment of his life in minute detail because he has an obsession with facts.  His daughter Jody baits him, moving out of the reach of his chair as if to jerk him into realising that she is lost to him in other ways as well.  Sam Ballard, who installed the ramps and moved the door handles to facilitate Eric’s movements into and around the house, can’t stand Eric’s obstinate refusal to see the bigger picture.   While Eric is gloating over his new encyclopaedias, he barely notices that Jody has gone missing at night again, and Leon’s keen eyes note that he’s more interested in starting an argument with Sam Ballard than he is in his daughter’s whereabouts:

‘Collecting bits of knowledge and putting them into books doesn’t mean we’re getting better, Eric.  Ordinary people don’t even know your precious facts exist.  They don’t make any difference except to people like you.  Aren’t you worried about your daughter?’

Eric pushed down hard on his wheels, happy that he’d started an argument and confident surrounded by his books.  ‘Don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference that a man stood on the moon and we’ve got a record of it.  Do you know how many ordinary people died to build the pyramids?  That’s what progress is all about.’ The wheelchair moved like a little chariot, twisting between the boxes and piles of books as Eric followed Sam Ballard, shouting at him to listen. ‘That’s what it’s all about – leaving some sort of record behind to show you’ve been here.’

Sam kept moving away from him, trying to avoid a confrontation with the wheelchair. ‘We all leave records behind,’ he shouted back.  ‘Whether we want to or not.  Even you, Eric, you’ll leave something behind, only it might not be what you want to leave behind.  You can’t create your own history in that little cabinet of yours you know.  That’s not what it’s all about.  You can’t choose what you leave behind.’ (p. 47-8)

(I must admit that reading these last words had an eerie resonance, given the manner of Davison’s sudden death).

Leon’s father would not have chosen the memories left behind for Leon.  History doesn’t work that way.  History has a habit of choosing for herself. (p. 122) What Leon remembers is his father – the air-traffic controller at Moorabbin Airport, high in his tower – always scrutinising his son’s behaviour, alienating Leon by his refusal to acknowledge his interests as different to his own, and oblivious to his wife’s needs.  Leon, looking back on this time, realises that his own indifference to his mother’s individuality was adolescent, recognising at the same time that his father never grew out of that adolescent unconcern.  In Leon’s memory, his father always took his wife for granted.

In the wake of the fall and its consequences, Leon’s strange family makes an abortive trip up north to Queensland, Sam and Eric in the front, and Jody and Leon and his mother metaphorically and physically squeezed between them in the back seat.  Sam’s bike hangs off the bike rack at the back of the car, and Eric’s chair is on top.  This road trip is Sam’s reality trip: he can’t ‘fix’ his unreliable car, and when he takes to pedalling along behind, he can’t keep up as Jody manipulates the driver into speeding up the hills.  It’s a portent that he’s not a member of the family, and he never will be – though as it turns out, not in the way that the reader expects.  There’s an unexpected reconciliation too, but I won’t spoil that.

One of the strengths of this novel is the sense of place.  The Chelsea Velodrome is about 15 minutes by car from where I live – and I pass the Moorabbin Aerodrome (which now hosts the Australian National Aviation Museum) on my way to work every day.   As Leon rides the streets around his home on his bike, the suburbs – as they were in the late 1980s when this novel was written – come alive: the Edithvale golf course, the bridge at Patterson Lakes, the Nepean Highway running parallel with the Frankston train line as it travels north, and the vast flat plains of suburbia where the only hill of any note is Oliver’s Hill at Frankston that overlooks Port Phillip Bay.  I visualise this breathtaking view from the cliff, a view that Leon doesn’t notice as he searches for his stepsister Jody.  These days it’s a $2million view but it was affordable housing back then – and today the weatherboard homes that Leon dismisses are prized as period homes and worth as much if not more than the banal brick veneers of the 1980s:

As I headed off down the hill from our gate I could see the street lights and the lights from the houses coming on in the streets below, but it wouldn’t be dark for another hour yet.  I could still see cars and people moving.  At the bottom of the hill I turned left along Boundary Road.  The houses there are set well back from the streets behind couch lawns and buffalo grass, with low fences separating them from each other.  The high numbers between South Road and the shopping centre are all cream brick, while further down in the seven hundreds, near the edge of the aerodrome, they turn to weatherboard with picket fences and letter boxes made of tin. (p. 49)

The sense of the past – perhaps unintended at the time of writing this novel – is exacerbated by the book as object.  My first edition hardback is beautifully constructed on expensive silky paper, with sturdy boards and fine gold lettering on the spine.  The dust-jacket features commissioned artwork by John Mitchell, and design by Hand Graphics.  Back in 1988 a debut author of promise could be published in fine quality editions like this, and judging by the publication of Davison’s ensuing novels, his talent was nurtured.  It makes me wonder what talent we may fail to support in the 21st century world of publishing. ..

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Davison’s novels.  My thanks go to Larsen’s Books from Exeter WA for getting The Velodrome to me so promptly this week.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The Velodrome
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 1988
ISBN: 0043240208
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Larsen’s Books via AbeBooks, $20

Availability

Out of print.  Try your library, or second-hand Aussie bookshops, the heroes of the bookselling industry for backlist and out-of-print books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2014

Meet an Aussie Author: Tristan Michael Savage


Tristan Michael Savage

I discovered the writing of Tristan Michael Savage recently when I read his SF fantasy novel Rift Breaker for Indigenous Literature Week 2014.  (See my review).  My dear old mother discovered his writing when on my recent visit I left the book lying about, and she loved it!

So it is with pleasure that I would like to introduce you to the author, who has kindly agreed to participate in Meet an Aussie Author. 

Tristan was born in Maryborough and grew up in Townsville.   At James Cook University he took a Bachelor of Creative Arts with a major in Theatre and also a Bachelor of Theatre (Honours).   In just a few short years since graduating in 2010, Tristan has had some remarkable achievements:

In 2011 he won first place in Deadly Funny, a national stand-up comedy competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and in 2012 he toured his one-person theatrical comedy show Australian Ghost to audiences across the country.   The following year in 2013 Tristan was awarded a Black&Write! Fellowship with the State Library of Queensland for Rift Breaker, which was published by Magabala Books in 2014 and took out the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award for emerging artists as part of the Aurealis Awards.

Tristan took time out from his busy schedule to show us his writing space and to answer my questions –  and here they are:

Tristan Michael Savage (desk)1. I was born at the Lady Musgrave Hospital in Maryborough QLD on the 2nd of December 1985.

2. When I was a child I wrote stuff for school mostly. Then I graduated and started writing whatever I wanted. I began a sci-fi story. Ten years later it was published.

3. The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was one of my high school teachers. She told me I had some talent. I’ll never forget that moment – even though I’ve since forgotten her name.

4. I write in my flat, at my desk, with the curtains drawn, in the dark, growing a beard, obsessing over commas and quotes. I’ve no time for coffee shops.

5. I write when my thoughts are clear, in the morning and in the evening.

6. Research is a word used to describe anything I do when I’m not writing: eating, sleeping, watching movies, motorcycle maintenance… it’s all life experience and therefore “research”.

7. I keep my published work/s on my bookshelf next to all my other books on how to write good.

8. On the day my first book was published, I slept in. It was great!

9. At the moment, I’m writing a sitcom, a novel, and a stand-up comedy show.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I do “research” – then look in my thesaurus.

I know exactly what Tristan means about writing in coffee shops: I can read amid any kind of hustle and bustle, but when it comes to writing I need a quiet space and no interruptions.  My friends know not to drop in unannounced!

Wouldn’t it be nice if Tristan’s teacher stumbled on his handsome face here at Meet an Aussie Author and recognised him as that youth with the talent she noticed! What a thrill it would be to learn that a brief comment in a busy day had had such a remarkable effect and inspired a writing career!!

(I moved around a lot over three continents as a child and though I can remember some faces, I can’t remember the names of any of my teachers, not until my last school here in Australia and some of them are a blur too.  I’d love it if one of them popped up here with a comment and introduced him/herself.  (I’ve still got the same name).

You can buy Tristan’s books at Fishpond (Rift Breaker) or direct from Magabala Books or any good bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2014

Gasoline, by Quim Monzo, translated by Mary Ann Newman


Gasoline

Gasoline is a book that messes with your mind, but it’s good fun.

The novella (only 141 pages) satirises the new York art scene, and while it’s true that modern art is an easy target, the way the author has tackled its pretensions is droll indeed.   It’s a little like a shorter, more surreal version of Robert Bolano’s The Savage Detectives (see my review) which was a spoof of avant-garde literary movements.

Written in two parts, January and December, the book begins with the artist Heribert Julia who reminded me straight away of Ivan Gonchaarov’s Oblomov.  (See my review).  Too lazy to get out of his own way, too mired in his absurdist self-preoccupations to make a decision about anything,   Heribert is supposed to be churning out paintings for an exhibition that’s coming up, but he can’t muster the motivation.  He’s impotent, in more ways than one.  And he doesn’t realise until it’s too late that the up-and-coming artist that his wife wants him to help is not only her lover, but is also his rival in the art world.

It’s not until the reader makes the acquaintance of both wife Helena and mistress Herundina, and a bunch of Heribert’s friends that it becomes obvious that almost every character’s name begins with H (and most of them are women).  There’s Humbert, Hubert and Hug; then Hildegarda, Hipólita, Hilari, Hannah, Hilda, Henrietta, Heloise, and Hester.  (Even the first letter of Heribert’s surname Julia sounds like an ‘H’ in Spanish, and presumably also in Catalan). Methinks the author was playing games with us late in the book when he introduced Xano and Marino del Nonno – because it appears as if there is some meaning to be made out of the difference  with these names.   But although I’m happy to be enlightened, I suspect that this name play with the Hs is another example of the kind of lists peppered elsewhere in the book, lists which reminded me of the long lists of Mexican poets in The Savage Detectives.

Anyway, we get half way through the book without knowing the first thing about Heribert’s art because he doesn’t do any.  His thoughts are a complete muddle and he obsesses over everything from cockroaches to the movement of the clock hands.  With the exhibition only three weeks away and most of the paintings sold even before it opens, Hug the gallery owner tries to pressure Heribert into getting his act together, but Heribert is disenchanted with success, with art and with love.  The only time he enjoys himself at all is when he dresses in bizarre disguises to pursue his wife with her lover.

The narrative then switches to Humbert Herrera.  After the indolence and inertia of ‘January’ , ‘December’ is positively frantic.   The reader is suddenly bombarded with Humbert’s ideas for paintings, which he manically records in a collection of notebooks.  He churns out paintings in a day, worrying about any time not spent painting as wasted.  Even when he’s making love, which he does often.  Yes, Humbert has not only assumed Heribert’s identity as the most collectible artist in New York, he has also made off with Heribert’s wife, and it doesn’t take him long to muscle in on Herundina as well.

Humbert  is now the darling of the New York scene, and Monzó  pokes fun at its poseurs with an ‘interview’ in which Humbert traces his path to artistic fame:

“Thanks to the articles Alexandre Cirici Pellicer* wrote in the section on art in Serra d’Or he learned about the existence of minimalism, conceptualism, happenings, earth art, arte povera.  He went through a radical transformation.  He abandoned abstraction, canvas, and acrylic (in his later abstract period he had finally, not without regrets, switched from oil to acrylic) and, in light of the sheer expense of other media, had opted for photocopies.  His first photocopy was of a package of Avecrem Chicken Soup, which he titled Homage to Andy Warhol.

“Avecrem is a brand of instant soup mix..”

“Pleased with that experiment, he had done photocopies of a package of Maggi garden vegetable soup, and of a package of Knorr chicen noodle soup, titling them respectively, Homage to Andy Warhol 2 and Homage to Andy Warhol 3. He cut out a strip from El Capitan Trueno….”

“EL capitan Trueno means ‘Captain Thunder.’  It was a very popular comic book….” (p.92)

These comic book photocopies become Homage to Lichenstein 1,2 and 3.  And so on, you get the picture.

Heribert and Humbert are alter egos of one another: ennui/ambition; impotence/lust; torpor/passion.  But Humbert seems to end up in the same state of mind as Heribert – an artist sated by his own success, troubled by the same odd dreams.  Perhaps like Oblomov, the artist in the modern world is superfluous, doomed to existential boredom.

I never did figure out why it’s called Gasoline.  I thought at first it might be something lost in translation, but the original title is Benzina, so I remain mystified…

BTW There were a few typos which marred the reading of this edition.  I didn’t make a note of them all, just two that really annoyed me: Tress instead of trees on p 28, and Her draws her close on p78.   The reason this was so annoying was that towards the end there a very long passage is repeated word-for-word, and given Monzó’s style, I really wasn’t sure whether this was intended, or another publishing fault.   A pity, because it’s otherwise a terrific book.

* A Catalan writer, politician and art critic

Author: Quim Monzó
Title: Gasoline
Translator: Mary Ann Newman
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2010 (first published as Benzina in 1983)
ISBN: 9781934824184
Source: Personal Copy, purchased direct from Open Letter Books

Availability

Fishpond: Gasoline

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2014

2014 Kibble and Dobbie Awards winners announced


I do love it when a publicist sends me a handy press release that enables me to bring you book news in a timely fashion!  The following comes from Perpetual, who administer the Kibble and Dobbie Awards:

Kristina Olsson and Kate Richards have today been announced as winners of one of Australia’s most prestigious female literature awards programs, the 2014 Nita B Kibble Literary Awards (Kibble Awards).

Ms Olsson’s book Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir won the $30,000 Kibble Literary Award for an established author, while Kate Richards won the $5,000 Dobbie Literary Award for a first-time published author for her book Madness: a Memoir.

The announcement was made today by Perpetual, as trustee and manager of the awards, at the State Library of New South Wales. The Awards were set up by Nita Dobbie to honour the legacy of her aunt Nita B Kibble, the State Library’s first female librarian.

Perpetual’s General Manager of Philanthropy, Andrew Thomas, described Nita B Kibble as an important figure in the literary community and said her legacy highlights the critical role philanthropy plays in contributing to Australian culture.

“The Kibble Awards are a great example of the impact that philanthropy has on Australian women’s literature,” Mr Thomas said.

“In the 21 years since the trust behind the Awards was established with $400,000, it has awarded close to $500,000 to female writers. We congratulate Kristina and Kate on being the latest winners to benefit from the Awards.”

The Kibble Awards are open to Australian female writers who have published fiction or non-fiction classified as ‘life writing’. Since 1994, the Awards have recognised some of the country’s most celebrated female authors, including Annah Faulkner (The Beloved), Geraldine Brooks (Foreign Correspondence), and Helen Garner (True Stories).

Judge and Humanities Australia Editor, Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Webby AM, on behalf of the judging panel said: “Kristina Olsson’s Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir is an exceptional piece of life writing which recreates the fractured lives of her mother and half-brother with brilliant depth and truthfulness.

“Kate Richards’ book Madness: A Memoir recounts her struggles with mental illness in extraordinary language which is poetic in its intensity.”

Professor Webby was joined on the judging panel by State Library of New South Wales Research and Discovery Manager, Maggie Patton, and internationally published novelist, Dr Rosie Scott.

Perpetual also congratulates Debra Adelaide and Melissa Lucashenko, the shortlisted authors for the 2014 Kibble Literary Award, and Fiona McFarlane and Jill Stark, who were shortlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award.

For more information about the awards, please visit www.perpetual.com.au/kibble

Twitter: @Perpetual_Ltd and #KibbleAwards

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2014

Vale Liam Davison (1957 – 2014)


It is with a sense of shock and horror that I note the passing of award-winning Australian author Liam Davison.  He and his wife Frankie were victims of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight which was shot down  over disputed territory in Ukraine.

Liam Davison was the author of five novels.  His first, The Velodrome, was shortlisted for the Vogel award in 1987, and was followed by Soundings in 1993, The White Woman a year later in 1994, The Betrayal in 1999, and Floriegium in 2001.  His short story collections include The Shipwreck Party (1988) and Collected Stories (2001) and he was also featured in The Best Australian Stories 2012 and 2013, and The Best Australian Stories – a Ten Year Collection.  He also wrote non-fiction, publishing The Spirit of Rural Australia in 1999.

From Davison’s author page at GoodReads, I have learned that

He was born in Melbourne, where until 2007, he taught creative writing at the Chisholm Institute of Technology in Frankston.

Educated at St Bede’s College, Melbourne and Melbourne Teacher’s College. Davison was awarded the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993 and has been shortlisted for several literary prizes such as The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. His work is characterised by its sharp and perceptive insights into Australian history and landscape.

To his family and friends, and all who loved his books and writing,  I offer my heartfelt condolences.

I have just ordered four of Davison’s novels from AbeBooks, and my tribute to him will be to read and review them in due course.  Update 26/7/14 The first of these reviews is now available: see The Velodrome

My thanks to Perry Middlemiss for some of the information about Davison’s oeuvre.

PS Visit the Association for the Study of Australian Literature to read Nat O’Reilly’s obituary.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2014

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee


The Undertaking

This is a most thought-provoking book…

One can’t help feeling terribly sorry for the characters.  Their lives are so blighted by World War II that it seems impossible for them ever again to find any kind of contentment.  And they represent real people.  There must have been real victims of war exactly like this, ordinary people experiencing the same terrors and hardships.

This is Faber, a starving German soldier at Stalingrad, lured across the ice by the promise of food:

He realised that there men on either side of him, shuffling, heads down, staring at the ice, refusing to look at each other, to observe each other’s surrender.  A shot cut through the air.  The man on Faber’s right fell forward, blood gushing from the back of his head.  Faber stopped, registered the direction of the bullet, and ran, forcing the stiffness from his limbs as he fled east, tears streaming down his face.  He wanted soup.  That was all.  And to see his son.  To hold his wife.  He ran faster, away from them, towards the laughing Russians banging spoons against metal bowls, cheering him on.  He laughed too and reached his arms higher into the air, smiling in response to their smiles as he approached a large, black cooking pot.  They beckoned him forward.  He looked in.  Chunks of meat and vegetables were simmering at the surface.  He dropped his arms and cupped his hands, begging for their food.  They laughed even harder, gold teeth flashing in the afternoon sun, and took his belts and wristwatch.  He let them, and begged again.  They put a gun to his back and steered him away from the pot, away from the smell of simmering beef.  Away from the soup.  (pp. 221-2)

And this is his wife, Katharina, when the Russians arrive in Berlin:

They heard them on the stairs, hard to tell how many, charging from one apartment to the next, smashing down doors, shouting at each other, running along hallways until they crashed through the cellar door, unperturbed by the barricade, torchlight swinging from one side of the room to the other.  The soldiers staggered, laughing, looking first at Mrs Sachs, then at Katharina; their beams focussed on her as she pressed into her mother.  Mrs Spinell moved away from her daughter.  Katharina leaned towards her father.  He moved away too.  The soldiers shouted at her and gestured with their torches towards the door.  She was still.  One of them hit her across the head with his torch, the beam careering across the room.  She looked at her mother, at her father.  They looked at their feet.  She held onto her father’s sleeve but he jutted his chin towards the door.  (p. 272)

And yet…

And yet, one can’t help but withhold just a little pity from these victims of a brutal war.  For Katharina and Peter are perpetrators too, in the good days, in the days of German hubris, before Berlin fell.  Katharina’s father has some unspecified job with the enigmatic Dr Weinart, and he bonds with his new son-in-law when they go out at night together: smashing their way into houses, rounding up the hapless Jews with violence unhampered by any sense of common humanity, and looting with impunity.  Peter, a school-teacher, resents this ‘work':

The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars.  He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas of mercy.

Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm.  On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman.  Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.

‘I need you, Katharina.’  (p. 35)

Katharina doesn’t have her own wedding ring because theirs was a cynical marriage of convenience.  With young men away at war, the birth rate was falling, so soldiers at the front became eligible for honeymoon leave.  Peter hates the war,  and the prospect of even a brief escape is irresistible. Katharina, chafing for a better life than living at home with her parents and perhaps not anticipating the survival of any husband at the front, is guaranteed a pension if she marries.  So they wed, in a charade of a ceremony, he at the front, and she back in Berlin.  (I don’t know if any of this really happened in WW2 Germany, but in the novel it’s convincing enough).  Surprisingly, when Peter comes to Berlin to claim his leave and marital rights, they fall in love.

The wedding ring is not the only benefit that Katharina acquires as Berlin is emptied of its Jews.  Thanks to her father’s support for the regime, the Spinells leave their shabby apartment and move into more congenial accommodation.  Katharina happily savours the comfortable carpets and sheets, the space, and the matching crockery of the ‘vacated’ apartment, and is content to let her father smash the bust of Mendelssohn and burn the remaining books.  She gets a nice pram, too, for the baby, and is in no doubt about its provenance:

Katharina looked up.  It was a woman, in a summer dress that had once been elegant, a baby at her hip and a young child hanging from her skirt.  Both were boys.
‘It works well, doesn’t it?’
The dark circles under her eyes covered much of her face.
‘Sorry?’ said Katharina.
‘The pram.  It’s very good. I used to have one just like it.’
‘Yes, I like it a lot.’
‘The suspension is excellent.  Better than the model I had for my first child.  My daughter.’
Katharina shielded her eyes from the sun to look up at the woman, at the yellow star dirtied and torn.
‘Yes.  Yes, it is.’
Silence fell between them.
‘How old is your child?’ said the woman.
‘Six weeks.’
‘Your first?’
‘Yes.’
‘Congratulations.’
‘Thank you.’
She wanted to return to her magazine, but all three were staring at her, snot dribbling from the older boy’s nose.
‘How old are yours?’
‘Almost one.  And the boy is three.’
‘And your daughter?’
‘Eight.  Only she’s gone.  Taken with her father.’
The woman’s legs buckled, and she pressed her hand onto the back of the bench for support.  Katharina looked at her, at her hand on the bench, at the doctor’s pram, at the people who passed by.  They could see everything.  They could see Katharina talking to a Jew.
‘You can’t sit down here,’ said Katharina.
‘I know that.  I’m just tired.’
The woman straightened her back and moved the baby onto the other hip.  She walked away, the boy still hanging onto her skirt.  Katharina checked her child, shifted him out of the light and returned to her magazine.  (p 153-4)

I have quoted this exchange because it’s a good example of how Magee’s economical style conveys so much.  The novel is easy to read, I could have read it in a day if work hadn’t got in the way.  But here in a half a page of dialogue, we see the wealth that was used to foster resentment and envy; we see Katharina well aware of that; we note her fleeting recognition of the Jew as a human being like herself and her impulse to break an awkward silence with the conventions of maternal conversation; and then her fear of the culture which prevents her from responding to the woman’s need.  And then, her decision made, we see her turn aside, shielding her child from the light.  Placing him in the evil darkness that permeated Germany.

The novelist’s achievement in this book lies in the way she conjures the moral dilemma at the heart of any judgement about Germany’s guilt.  As  the book cover blurb says, Peter and Katharina are stained with their share of guilt for a monstrous crime against humanity.   Yet they are ordinary people and by the end of the novel only the most hard-hearted of readers wouldn’t want their dream of family to be realised.  The tragedy is that it’s the stain – that persistent belief in eugenics and Aryan superiority – which severs the bond between them.

Author: Audrey Magee
Title: The Undertaking
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743316528
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: The Undertaking


9781922147981_large_coverIndigenous Literature Week 2014 has been and gone, but I have a Giveaway book by an author and artist of Ngai Tahu and European descent that I’m sure will interest readers of short stories…

It’s Arms Race, by Nic Low, who was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and runner up for the 2013 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize.

Here’s Text Publishing’s blurb:

Data theft, internet memes, advertising, terrorism, indigenous sovereignty, drone warfare, opium addiction, syphilis, the moon landing, mining, oil slicks, climate change, giant octopuses: nothing is spared in this collection. Nic Low’s stories go beyond satire, aiming for the dark heart of our collective obsession with technology, power and image.

Set variously in London, an Indian village, remote Mongolia, the West Australian outback and mountainous New Zealand, these are prescient visions of the future and outlandish reimaginings of the past. Arms Race is an arresting debut from a fierce, playful new voice in Australian writing.

Does that take your fancy? Maxine Beneba Clarke describes his stories like this:

‘Nic Low’s stories are like controlled detonations. Arms Race is machete-sharp, politically engaged and thematically fearless. Australian short fiction just got lobbed into the twenty-first century.’

For a taste of Nic’s style, visit this link to Overland.  Thanks to Jane Rawson for the link.  (BTW Jane has been featured at Meet an Aussie Author and has written a beaut, quirky novel called A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists so she knows what she’s talking about when she admires Nic’s stories!)

HOW TO ENTER

Be 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 July.

All entries from Australian residents 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!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2014

Claustrophobia, by Tracy Ryan


ClaustrophobiaClaustrophobia is an interesting book.  It took a little while to lure me in, but once it did, I became more and more intrigued.  It reminded me of Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour (see my review) because once again the reader is inside the mind of someone who is seriously psychologically disturbed.  So part of the pleasure is decoding what to believe.

Pen (Penelope) Barber reveals herself as a bit odd right from the start.  In conversation with her awful hectoring mother, Pen thinks mutinous thoughts, but never confronts her – or anyone else who provokes her self-righteous feeling of inferiority .  Indeed, she’s often in a curious dream world of her own, having conversations in her mind that she would never dare to have in real life.  She has a nice husband called Derrick, who seems devoted to her, but when a parcel is delivered for him her overreaction is bizarre: she vacillates between fantasies about surprise gifts, and unhealthy suspicion. And when she finds an hysterical letter that Derrick sent in the death throes of a long-ago love-affair, she decides that this long-ago lover must be dealt with in no uncertain terms.

It a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.   It turns out that this lover from the eastern seaboard is an associate professor now also living in Perth, and that enables Pen to stalk her.    However, things don’t turn out as she expects and before long she is enmeshed in a tortuous tangle of lies, accomplished with a breathtaking level of deceit.  It’s an astonishing transformation, from a resentful woman who has no confidence in herself at all to one who risks everything to have what she wants.  It’s difficult to say much more about it without ruining what is a very surprising plot. (The blurb says that ‘the novel possesses the dark wit, psychological insight and narrative momentum of a Patricia Highsmith’ which reminded me yet again that I have The Talented Mr Ripley on my TBR and I really should get round to reading it.)

There’s a calamity at the school which might have sordid undertones but that’s not fleshed out.  Nobody wants to rock the boat or make nebulous accusations – which might be why the doggedly dutiful Derrick later on turns out to be surprisingly good at a cover-up.

But it’s the characterisation of women which is most interesting: the mother still trying to dominate her daughter’s life; Jean Sergeant the school counsellor who seems remarkably insensitive, and the femme fatale Kathleen Nancarrow.  None of them really connect with Pen, because she doesn’t connect with anyone.  Is she a sociopath?  I haven’t read enough crime novels to know…

That’s a suitably creepy cover, BTW, but the car reminds me of what seems to be a small ‘continuity’ error in the book.  Pen and Derrrick have only one car, a Volvo, which works fine because they work at the same school.  They go in together, and she drives it home when she finishes her part time work in the office, and he takes the bus home when he’s finished teaching in the afternoon.  On the day Pen sets out to do some mischief she takes a sickie and sends Derrick off to work in the Volvo. (p.35)  She sets off for UWA (that’s the university with the peacocks) in an unspecified form of transport, but lo! when (having executed her little bit of sabotage), she leaves – she takes herself safely out to the Volvo parked below(p. 43) How did she do that, eh?

PS 20/7/14 Mystery solved!  I’ve had an email from the publisher about what I thought was a ‘continuity error’.  Apparently the line space in the MS – conveying the passage of time and that the day Pen drives to and from UWA in the Volvo is  a different day to the day that Derrick has it –  fell on a page-split in the final version that went to print.  This will be sorted out in the next edition.

Author: Tracy Ryan
Title: Claustrophobia
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2014
ISBN:
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Availability

Fishpond: Claustrophobia


Some time last week, this blog passed its 500,00 hit milestone.

That’s 1551 posts, 915 reviews and 11, 727 comments!

44% of the books reviewed are by female authors, and there are 128 reviews of books in translation, and 114 reviews of debut Australian fiction.  And although this blog is for lovers of literary fiction, there are also 209 reviews of non-fiction, 75% of which is Australian non-fiction.

This year was the third year I’ve hosted Indigenous Literature Week and there are now 35+ reviews of books by indigenous authors on the Indigenous Literature Reading List.

A big shout out to author Karenlee Thompson who has so generously contributed 23 Guest Reviews and without whom there would be no reviews of short story collections on this blog.

Clustr Maps shows that ANZ LitLovers’ readers come from all over the world, led by Australia, the US, the UK, Europe, India and South Africa.  In the last six months more than 22,000 hits came from Australia (with Victoria at 7000+ leading the way but the Northern Territory snubbing me with only 41 hits).  Clustr Maps tells me that I’ve even had a visitor from Kyrgyzstan.  I used to think that hits from non-English speaking countries were all accidental, until I was assured by an expat in Russia that she loved hearing about Aussie books at ANZ LitLovers because it made her feel less homesick.

Cluster map 16

Enough of this bragging!

A big thank you to fellow bloggers who inspire and encourage me, especially Sue from Whispering Gums, Stu from Winston’s Dad,   Tom Cunliffe from A Common Reader, Kim from Reading MattersKevin from Canada and John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante.

And a very grateful thanks to the readers who take the time to share their thoughts in comments.  There was one this week from a reader called Nichola – her kindness made my day:}

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 


ILW 2014

Once again we come to the end of Indigenous Literature Week 2013 at ANZ LitLovers, and I would like to thank all those who showed their support for NAIDOC week by reading, reviewing, blogging, commenting, tweeting and advertising this event in social media.

There was a depressing setback on the eve of  NAIDOC Week  – our Prime Minister had made the offensive claim that Australia was unsettled before the arrival of the First Fleet, and like many others I felt that this insult to our indigenous people could not have been worse timed.  But I was heartened by the widespread condemnation of his remarks, by the dignity with which Aboriginal representatives responded, and by the way NAIDOC celebrations to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples went ahead with good will and enthusiasm just the same.

My aim in hosting an Indigenous Literature Week  is to encourage people to seek out and enjoy the books that indigenous authors have contributed to Australian and New Zealand literature, and so I was delighted to see that indigenous authors have responded to Anita Heiss’s question ‘What book do you think every Australian should read?’ with a wealth of great reading to savour.  You can see their recommendations at Whispering Gums where there is also a great article called In Conversation with Black Words.

The reviews readers have contributed have all been added to this site’s database of indigenous reading resources.  This database continues to grow -including everything from children’s books to YA; from memoir to history: and fiction of all kinds.  The reviews which readers have so generously contributed is what makes this a marvellous resource – it’s not just a list of titles, it’s word-of-mouth recommendations.

I would also like to thank indigenous publishers Magabala Books and Jukurrpa Books (IAD Press), and the book distributors and Dennis Jones and Associates for their support with ILW.

I will be monitoring the reviews page until the end of July and will add any additional reviews to the database if you contact me using me using the Mr Linky button and comments box on the reviews page. 

I will also be updating the database of indigenous reading resources when new books come to my attention.  You might like to bookmark this page because you can also use it to access links to

Thanks again, everyone!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2014

At Home with Sous Vide, by Dale Prentice


At home with sous videThe Spouse and I are devoted to Masterchef: we watch it religiously and this 2014 series is the best yet.   The spouse is a keen cook, you see, and so he’s always looking for beaut new ideas that are do-able at home. But until recently, there was one method of cooking that couldn’t be replicated at home, and that was sous vide, i.e. cooking in a low temperature water bath.  It’s a fabulous way of cooking that results in perfectly tender, evenly-cooked meat and fish, with delicious flavour and texture.

Sunbeam sous vide machineSo you can imagine how pleased I was to discover that Sunbeam have brought out a sous vide cooker for domestic kitchens, and DJ’s had parcelled it – on special – with the vacuum food sealer machine as well.

Pork bellyThe first experiments were with the recipe book that comes with the instructions.  We tried hapuka and salmon, and a scrumptious pork belly (free range, of course) with beetroot relish.

But then it was time to try something a bit more ambitious.  So now we have The Cookbook – and already we have had some delicious dinners using its recipes.

Dale Prentice is the director of Sous Vide Australia, and is also an experienced chef, working with the likes of Greg Malouf and George Calombaris.  At Home with Sous Vide, however, begins with the basics and – while there are some advanced restaurant dishes made with hard-to-source ingredients – most of it is not too difficult for keen home cooks.

There’s an introductory chapter covering the principles of sous vide: planning ahead, buying wisely, preparing the food, sealing it in a vacuum bag, and cooking safely.  After that comes a list of the top 10 ingredients, which – as well as the ones you’d expect (pork belly, confit duck, salmon) – contains some surprises.  Who knew that you could cook custard or rhubarb in a sous vide machine?

Chicken Ballotine

There are then five sections: eggs, poultry & game, meat, fish, and fruit & vegetables, again with some surprises.  A Baileys Irish Cream Cheesecake with hazelnuts, and scrambled eggs!  We haven’t tried those yet, but (as our Facebook friends know) we have tried Anthony Fullerton’s chicken Ballotine – and then a variation of it created by the ever inventive Spouse.  Tonight,  it was a simple weekday salmon dish again, but the flavour is brilliant when it’s cooked sous vide and there are no worries about whether the thick end is cooked right through.

There are some other lovely recipes to try.  I like the look of Barbecued Chicken with Moroccan spices, the Chicken and Pistachio Terrine, the Spicy Syrian Eggplant with Labneh and Ryan Clift’s Pork Belly with Milk, Truffle Puree and Salsify (but I think we’ll need a trip to The Vital Ingredient to pick up some Sosa black powder and the xanthan gum for the puree).  Christine Manfield’s Snapper with Toasted Walnut Crumble and Yoghurt Relish sounds divine, but I think we’ll probably skip Shannon Bennett’s Pademelon, Pumpkin and Smoked Bone Marrow.  (Two days to brine the bone marrow? And where do we get a pademelon from?  Would we want to eat a cute little pademelon?)

The book is generously illustrated to provide ideas for plating, and there’s a step-by-step sequence at the beginning of the book too.

Moroccan chickenPS (the next day): He cooked the Moroccan chicken – and it is divine!  (Served with yellow rice and salad).

Author: Dale Prentice
Title: At Home with Sous Vide
Publisher: Sous Vide Australia, 2013
ISBN:  9780987526328 (hbk, 223 pages)
Source: Our personal recipe book collection, purchased from Sous Vide Australia

Availability

Direct from Sous Vide Australia (and they delivered it within 48 hours!)

 

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2014

The Tribe, by Michael Mohammed Ahmad


The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to Sydney. I haven’t had any reason to go now that I have no family there,  but even in the days when I made the occasional fly-in/fly out visit for a family celebration or a conference, I never got to know the city very well.  That makes me part of the audience for this small book, because it is written with firm intent.  It is a political work, created with the intention of redressing what the author thinks is the misrepresentation by the media of Arab-Australians in western Sydney.  You can read about Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s big ambitions for this small book in an article at The Guardian

I know two Sydneys: fleeting impressions of the tourist attractions and conference centres I’ve visited and the fashionable inner city addresses where my sister lived – and a night of sheer terror when in my twenties I drove along up from Melbourne with my son asleep in the back of the car, to rendezvous with my husband at a suburban motel on the Parramatta Road.  It was in the middle of the night and a gang of hoons in their hoonmobiles thought it would be fun to ‘escort’ me into Sydney.  It was not until a police car turned up on patrol that they melted into the side streets, leaving me with an  impression of Sydney as a place where a woman apparently alone was not safe on a main thoroughfare.

Neither impression is the real Sydney, of course.  It’s not so different to Melbourne, and it’s like many cities overseas as well.  A tourist and business centre, clean, shiny and bright – and then the vast mass of suburbs full of people who are as individual as their fingerprints.  It’s multicultural in the way that Melbourne is, or London or dozens of other cities around the world.  Ethnicities converge in certain suburbs, and disperse themselves.  (Cheap, immigrant-rich areas in Sydney contain a mix of ethnicities rather than ghettoes, see this interactive data visualisation at the SMH).  But for reasons which those who read  tabloids and listen to shock jocks will know better than I do, the Lebanese of Western Sydney have acquired a bad reputation.  The Tribe – a novella in the Giramondo Shorts series – sets out to redress this.

It’s a book that celebrates the customs and lifestyle of a large extended family of Lebanese-Australians, as told in first person monologue by Bani, a child of seven when the book begins.  The family are minority Shi’ite Muslims in a community of Sunnis, but although their faith seems strong, they have abandoned observances such as daily prayer, they drink alcohol and the women don’t ‘dress modestly’.  Bani is somewhat immune to some of the cultural norms in his community: when his mate Omar at Lakemba Public School ticks him off because he doesn’t know how to eat pies from the school canteen, and that he should open the top and eat it with a spoon, Bani ignores him.

Since I grew up in Alexandria, right next to Redfern, I know the Australian way to eat a pie.  (p. 120)

The book is written in three parts, starting with the child’s emerging experience of his huge family; moving on to a 500-guest wedding when he is nine; and finishing with the death of a grandparent when he is eleven.  The novella is bookended with, and each part begins with the same pattern: I was only seven [nine/eleven] when this happened but it always feels like right now.  Myriads of characters comprise what is called ‘the tribe’ because uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents all have very large families by Australian standards.  There is a noisy accretion of detail.  Everything seems very loud.  Everything seems interconnected.  The baroque excesses of this style – and, it must be said, the representation of women and how their men treat them – reminded me of Palace Walk by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz.  It’s more like the oral tradition of unedited story-telling than conventional forms of writing.

The narration tumbles over itself in waves of childhood impressions connected so artfully that the reader may forget that it is an older Bani narrating these events.

Just before I have to leave for school Mum tells me to go and sit with my grandmother.  I’ve been ignoring Tayta for the past couple of days.  She’s up every night screaming that her legs are aching.  They’re brittle and brown, with red scabs all over them.  Tayta makes my younger sister, Yochaved, sit on her legs to put her at ease.  Yochaved still runs around for our grandmother.  She sleeps in the same bed.  At night, at 1am, Tayta whispers to Yochaved that she wants her water bottle and Yochaved runs to the freezer to get it for her.  There are always three bottles of frozen water for Tayta in the freezer.  Yochaved goes to bed when Tayta goes to bed.  She leaves Tayta to go to school and comes back to Tayta in the afternoon.  My grandmother’s bed is old.  I imagine it’s the bed she’s had since she first came to Australia with my grandfather, my jedoo, but I’ve never really asked.  It’s a heavy steel bed with a wooden bedboard that’s been painted pink over and over.  Tayta sleeps on a long double-sized pillow.  Yochaved often puts her head on this pillow too.  She smells just like Tayta, like mixed Arab spices. (p.113)

This last part, when Bani has to deal with the first death he has known, is less engaging that the others. The seemingly endless accretion of family members visiting the dead woman and Bani’s observations of their behaviour perhaps serves the reconciliation of estranged family members at the end, but it tempted me to scamper over the details.  If the book had been longer than its 150-odd pages I probably would have.

As a window on the life and customs of this community, The Tribe can be confronting at times.  More than a sense of separateness guides the culture that is represented here: while Bani is happy to play Lego and basketball, to eat KfC, and eventually to choose his own wife, there are also examples of the family rejecting Australia and Australians.  Bani’s parents tell him that like all Aussies, Chuck [their local hairdresser] is scum (p.57, underlining mine).  When Bani asks why there are so many interminable visits to the house of Zubaida, who is to marry into the family, the answer shows their contempt:

I asked my dad once why Uncle Ali couldn’t just go on his own, and he looked at me like I’d torn pages out of the Qu’ran.  ‘Because we’re not Aussies, ‘ he said to me.  ‘We’re taking this girl away from her parents, we have to show them that we will look after her.’ (pp. 43-4)

In The Tribe, domestic violence is the norm.  We see that ‘looking after’ one’s own involves knocking out the teeth of a husband who beats his wife, and Bani is proud of his father for ‘protecting’ his sister like this – even though he knows that Haroun still bashes his Aunty Yasmine from time to time.  However, Bani’s also confused by his father’s intervention – not because of any qualms about male-on-male domestic violence, but because in our culture we weren’t meant to butt into the affairs of a husband and wife (p.134).   In another sequence, two men holding Uncle Osama back aren’t enough to stop him kicking his pregnant wife in the belly because the children had woken him up, and a damaged child may be the result – she’s still not talking at three years of age.  Bani and his siblings are beaten by their father with a belt, and Bani himself punches his cousin Zena when she takes a piece of his Lego:

Our eyes meet but she doesn’t say anything to me and I don’t say anything to her.  I sense that she’s about to turn around and just as her face flinches I make a fist with my right hand and punch her in the nose.  It lands flat and makes a small ‘thud’ sound.  It wasn’t that hard and I know it’s not going to make her bleed, but it probably hurt.  After the punch she stares at me for a second longer and then her face crinkles as she screams. (p. 32)

Bani’s mother protects him from the wrath of Uncle Osama, but there is no reprimand from her.    When I think of how hard we teachers try to teach our students not to solve their disputes with their fists, reading this makes me despair at the way boys are privileged in the violence they inflict on girls at home.

On the other hand, The Tribe celebrates the fact that communities can survive and thrive in Australian cities like Sydney.  There are times when there are culture clashes, and sometimes Bani is uneasy about some of what he observes, particularly in relation to the roles of women, but one senses that he represents a new generation that will preserve the traditions that matter, and adapt the rest to suit.  Just like the rest of us do…

Do read Matt Todd’s review at A Novel Approach too.

Author: Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Title: The Tribe
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146564
Source: review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Availability

Fishpond: The Tribe
Or direct from Giramondo

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2014

Stoner, by John Williams


StonerIn the moments after I finished this book, I found myself musing on two books from the story: the book that Stoner wrote in his youth; and the book dedicated to him.  They seemed so real that I could imagine myself coming upon them in an OpShop or second-hand store, finding them a bit battered and faded and holding them briefly in my hands before putting them back on the shelf.  Not knowing their worth or their meaning beyond the words on the page.

What a loss that would be, not to know the story of Stoner and these two books.  One written for the sheer joy of scholarship, by a young man who had grown up expecting to be an impoverished farmer but by chance and his own hard work became instead a teacher at a university – and the other written by one who loved him and taught him that it was possible to reconcile the life of the mind and the life of the senses and that he did not have to choose between them.

But that brief joy was an illusion.  Stoner was married to someone else, and there could be no resolution that would preserve what he and Katherine Driscoll meant to each other.

He leaned back on the couch and looked at the low, dim ceiling that had been the sky of their world.  He said calmly, ‘If I threw it all away – if I gave it up, just walked out – you would go with me, wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘But you know I wouldn’t do that, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘Because then,’ Stoner explained to himself, ‘none of it would mean anything – nothing we have done, nothing we have been.  I most certainly wouldn’t be able to teach, and you – you would become something else.   We would both become something else, something other than ourselves.  We would be – nothing’.   (p. 231)

Some readers, I suppose, may wish Stoner to grasp a chance at Hollywood happiness, to ditch his poisonous marriage, and to run away with Katherine and write books in romantic poverty somewhere.  But John Williams (1922-1994) has firm control of his character.  Stoner cannot be who he is, and have Katherine too.  It would damage them both, and he pays Katherine the respect her academic potential deserves.  (She is the only female academic in the book).

Towards the end of the book, the author reminds the reader that Stoner’s stoicism derives from his bleak childhood.  He does not expect to be happy, not even content:

But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand.  Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain.  Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.  (p.266)

This inheritance forms the man.   Stoner’s father sees beyond that inheritance only dimly when he makes his son the astonishing offer of a place at agricultural college.

‘I never had no schooling to speak of,’ he said, looking at his hands.  ‘I started working a farm when I finished sixth grade.  Never held with schooling when I was a young ‘un. But now I don’t know.  Seems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain’t rich like it was when I was a boy.  County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University.  Maybe he’s right.  Sometimes when I’m working the field I get to thinking.’  He paused.  His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table.  ‘I get to thinking -‘  He scowled at his hands and shook his head.  ‘You go on to the University come fall.  Your ma and I will manage.’ (p.4)

None of them at that moment could imagine that Stoner might stumble into an English class and fall in love with words.  This beautiful book traces the transformation of farm boy into scholar,  and the course of what might otherwise seem an unremarkable life.  The opening lines of the novel tell us that Stoner entered the University of Missouri in 1910,  and completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree eight years later.  He accepted an instructorship, wrote a book, taught at Missouri till he died in 1956, and then faded into obscurity.  In the course of his life, he was married, had a child, and had a brief affair.  But the unremarkable trajectory of this life is transformed into a novel of astonishing power.  Melancholy in tone, Stoner is a celebration of victory over the self and the dignity of a quiet, honourable life.

Although Stoner is not a ‘campus novel’, the machinations of university administration impact on the life under examination.  Like many a man Stoner faces pitfalls in his career, and there comes a moment when his integrity forces a choice that halts its progress.  Few readers will not then pause for reflection to ask that eternal question: what would I have done?  The pitiless vanity and malevolence of power is exquisitely rendered with not a trace of irony.  Stoner suffers that in his disastrous marriage to Edith too.  The novel is firmly anchored in place and time so there is no question of freedom through divorce, but it is Stoner’s stoicism that guides his decision, not any fear of scandal.

There is a wealth of reviews out there, but I particularly enjoyed Rohan Maitzen’s at Open Letters Monthly.  An academic herself, she examines the book through that lens, and though I don’t agree with her in her summation of Stoner’s relationship with Edith as a flaw in the novel, it’s a thoughtful review with insights that clarified my ideas about the book.

Stoner was first published in 1965 and reissued in this edition as a Vintage Classic.

Author: John Williams
Title: Stoner
Introduction by John McGahern
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 2014
ISBN: 9780099595762
Source: review copy courtesy of Random House

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Fishpond: Stoner: A Novel

 

 

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