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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2017

The Custodians, by Nicholas José

The Custodians, first published in 1997, was Nicholas José’s fifth novel, and it captures my generation perfectly.  Tracing the lives of characters who came to adulthood in the heady 1970s, it depicts the idealism and the optimism, the delusions and pretensions, and the steady disenchantment of adult life in the real world.  It’s a big, heavy book, nearly 500 pages in my first edition, and it’s big and ambitious in its preoccupations.  I’m a bit surprised it wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin, but 1997 was a very strong year with books by David Malouf, Thea Astley, Janet Turner Hospital, John A Scott, Robert Dessaix and Robert Drewe, with the prize eventually going to David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove.  So The Custodians hasn’t had as much attention as I think it deservesdespite a 2012 paperback reissue in the Allen & Unwin House of Books seriesand an impressive blurb from no less than an authority than Simon Schama

A brilliantly vivid tapestry of the Australian predicament, rich in possibility, but shot through with accident and revelation. Through it all breathes the ancient reality of the land: its red earth and bright air painted with the sure hand of a master.’ – Simon Schama, A&U website,  (where, bizarrely, it has been categorised as Popular Fiction.  Have they read it??)

Anyway, I found it very satisfying reading over a number of days…

The main characters start life in Adelaide, and leave it for what they think is a more exciting life elsewhere.  Jane is a painter in love with the light in Sydney; Wendy is an indolent thrill-seeker with a penchant for dubious company;  Elspeth the heiress wants enlightenment but not if it involves parting with her money; and Josie wants to be good and thinks she can be, as a nun.

José fleshes out the characterisation of the men a bit more, especially Alex, clever and ambitious but always wanting to keep his options open.  At ANU he studies economics, Australian history and law, and he won’t commit to a relationship with Jane in case something better comes along.  (He keeps Josie ‘in reserve’ back in Adelaide until – to his chagrin – she joins the nunnery).  Ziggy is a charismatic thespian; and René is an ideologue spouting dialectics and Chinese communism with Alex at ANU.  On the fringes of their childhood group are Aboriginal boys from the Stolen Generations: Cleve, a scholarship boy at a Catholic boarding school, and Danny who stumbles from one institution to another, marginalised further by his reticence and his illiteracy.

While the relationships between these characters hold the book together, the themes of The Custodians unfold as Australia comes of age in the 1970s.  With the finding of Moorna Woman (an event fictionalised from the discovery of Mungo Woman) Australian history turns out to be much older than first thought, and the emerging empowerment of Aboriginal Australians under a reforming government (based on the Whitlam Years) means that the pastoral land on which the bones are found becomes contested.  Chinese investors make an appearance as Australia turns to Asia, and their Australian interpreter, a character loosely based on the communist sympathiser Wilfred Burchett, has to decide where his loyalties lie.

Betrayals are everywhere.  Josie betrays her religious vows, and she betrays the father of her child.  Alex unwittingly betrays Elspeth when, from his lofty position of power in Canberra, he nominates her property in remote NSW for World Heritage.  He also betrays his minister in a political stoush between ministries.  Jane betrays her own art and her feminist ambitions; Ziggy lets grubby sex sabotage his acting career.  Wendy and her lover Alfonzo both abandon their child though in different ways and for different reasons.  In choosing to live a life of luxury with a drug-dealer, Wendy has abandoned ethics altogether.

Wendy thought it bourgeois of Jane to be offended by Alfonzo.  Morality, she thought, was itself immoral.  In all his years Alfonzo had not tripped up.  If people were vulnerable to exploitation, that was their decision, their choice, their risk-taking, their death-wish.  There was big money to be made, and what big money was ever made out of tender regard for other people’s susceptibility?  You could not protect people from themselves.  Wendy’s only problem was with the risk.  She did not want her parents involved.  She delighted in Alfonzo’s cleverness at being able to live with enviable ease.  (p.227)

It’s the system that betrays Danny.  Stolen from his family as a little boy, inarticulate and illiterate, he is an emblem of the damage done by institutionalisation, and his gruesome death symbolises the tragic problem of Black Deaths in Custody.  Without labouring the point, José uses Danny’s twin brother Cleve to articulate the dilemma of not knowing his own identity.   Although Cleve receives instant acceptance from the community, some connections can’t ever be restored, and not knowing is indelible.  Visiting Elspeth on the property that’s been hers for generations, he tells her that his adoptive family dropped him when their ‘goodness’ bargain with God failed to save the life of their biological child.  He doesn’t blame them for this:

‘… No, they’re good people.  I owe them something.  They took me from the Home when I was a kid.  Three of four, I suppose.’

‘You must remember something.’

‘Nuh.  Nothing.’

‘It just seems strange that you came back to this part of the world.  Those Adamses used to have a place down the river from here, according to my mother, near my Masterman cousins.’

Shaking his head, as if to throw off a demon, Cleve turned to her with a forced smile.  ‘I’m not being rude or anything.  It’s just that I don’t know anything about it so there’s nothing much to talk about.  Imagine that, can you, when you know all about your great-grandfather and your cousins and all them.  This place could be my place for all I know.’ (p.203)

At Nulla, Cleve finally hears the story of his abduction by the Welfare from Old Joe who heard it many times from his wife Mary:

Cleve was a smart little three-year-old.  He knew where to run. He had his hiding place in the chook shed.  Little Daniel was more confused.  He wanted to follow Cleve, his older twin, as he did in everything else, but their mother told them always to separate if the Welfare came.  Daniel ran down towards the river to the logs of fallen trees where he hid when they played hide-and-seek.  Rhonda and Arthur ran ahead towards the river.  Mary and the baby followed in the same direction but at a slower pace.

The Welfare car stopped and a man in a navy suit, a lady in a nurse’s uniform and the driver in creased khaki shorts and long white socks stepped out.  They were striding round the yard.  Mary ducked behind the broad trunk of a tree and pressed against its bark.  Then the baby, squeezed against its mother’s heaving bosom, began to cry.  The Welfare man was marching towards the river, his feet crunching the bark and leaves.  Before Mary could gag the baby’s mouth, the man had made a beeline for the tree.  Mary was too frightened to run.  The man came round the tree and gave a smile to discover mother and child at their game.

‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ he asked as he reached out calmly for the infant.  (p.213)

José’s understated style offers many interesting observations about human nature.  In Italy where Elspeth is learning to be an art conservationist, she is befriended by an Australian family, and with her lover Guigi she goes on a picnic with them.  They visit Monterchi in Tuscany, a hilltop village where in 2005 we shared a villa with friends for ten days.

On a spring Sunday the Dales suggested an outing.  Margie took pleasure in preparing a proper picnic with sandwiches that would not fall apart, chicken legs, fruit salad in plastic containers, plates, paper towels, salt and pepper, chocolate cake, wine, wineglasses, and not forgetting a corkscrew to open the bottle.  They took a bus to the nearby village that housed Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto and found the strange monumental painting on the wall of the little church next to the cemetery.  The virgin was standing in a tent with angels on either side of her holding open the flaps.  She was looking down with concern, pointing to a slit in her gown through which her pregnancy swelled as the momentous parturition began.  ‘It’s sliced open by time,’ said Rod admiringly. (p.167)

How cunningly understated is José’s representation of Margie!  This family has been in Tuscany for three years while Rod Dale pursues his artistic ambitions.  Margie has scrimped and saved to enable it, hoping only that her kids would grow up independent and unfussy. She has had occasion to resent Elspeth’s extravagance when she helps herself to more than her fair share of things, but now her picnic menu shows her inability to adapt.  Not a sign of unfussy Italian cuisine – and in a place where a cheap enoteca would have welcomed her children and make a great fuss of them!

José shows Alex’s preoccupation with power, from childhood bullying to manipulation in Canberra.  There are some amusing sequences that I recognised as thinly-veiled portraits of the machinations behind Bob Hawke’s ascent to the prime ministership, and some passages show an intimate knowledge of how power operates:

Life in the capital had taught Alex how political power worked in its several phases: the power of senior politicians channelled through the projects they personally wanted to see realised, or through the people they were loyal to, or who were loyal to them; the power of the bureaucracy, greater than the power of politicians when it came to where the money went and what actually happened, but hedged around by process, complexity, inertia, rivalry, accountability; the sway of public opinion, through media, lobby groups and the unpredictable shifts of community attitudes; all these Alex could manipulate and ride now, to serve his masters one way, the party another, and himself yet another.  He had seen many of his contemporaries bail out because Canberra was not about money of hedonism or the adventure of your own creativity, except in coded ways, but he did not really expect anyone to care that his own faceless successes were, in their own way, as great as Jane’s and Ziggy’s public, self-achieved triumphs.  It was enough that there should be a moment of awed silence when people heard he worked in the Department of the Prime Minister.  Politics depended on the fearful attraction of those close to power.  (p.233)

The Custodians is absorbing reading, especially for people of my generation.  Highly recommended.

Author: Nicholas José
Title: The Custodians
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 1997
ISBN: 9780330352710 (first edition, hbk).
Source: personal library

There were three secondhand copies at Fishpond on the day I looked: The Custodians

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 24, 2017

The Art of War, by Betty Churcher

Last week, with Anzac Day approaching, it seemed a good time to browse through Betty Churcher’s magnificent tribute to the artists who depict war.  The Art of War was written to coincide with a TV program on SBS, produced by Film Australia, and I had not long ago stumbled on my copy at Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton.  But the day after I started drafting this review, my father unexpectedly died, and I forgot about this post until tonight, the eve of Anzac Day 2017.  So for now, I’m just going to focus on what I’ve read of the book, just Chapter One.

The Art of War is a paperback, but it is full-sized and printed on quality glossy paper so  the reproductions of the paintings are superb.  (You need to click the links to see most of them, because of copyright).

This is the blurb:

The wars that have been an unrelenting feature of the past hundred years have left an enduring legacy in the art they have provoked.  Here, Betty Churcher, [1931-2015] one of our leading art historians, explores the range and diversity of art inspired by war.  She explores the work of official war artists in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the war against terror in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.  She looks, too, at lesser-known artists, ordinary soldiers, who were drawing and painting in the trenches during the First World War, the concentration camps of Europe, the prisoner-of-war camps of Southeast Asia, and at artists who have been inspired by peace-keeping missions in Timor, Somalia, and Eritrea.

The Art of War is stunningly illustrated throughout, featuring images as diverse as George Lambert’s dramatic battlefield panoramas, Will Dyson’s political cartoons, Ray Parkin’s prisoner-of-war camp sketches, and Gordon Bennett’s graffiti-influenced works produced in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York. Using works created to inspire patriotic sentiment, to record personal insights, or to protest the senseless loss of human life, Churcher shows that where war has influenced movements in art, art has also changed attitudes to war.

The first chapter is called ‘The Birth of a Legend’ and the first painting shown is Grace Cossington Smith’s Reinforcements: Troops Marching c1917.   Churcher, always so observant about the human aspects of art, notes the strident colours of the mother waving off the troops while she ignores her crying child behind her.  This painting is accompanied by a photo of huge crowds lining Collins St Melbourne to farewell troops in 1914, and she tells us the story of her own father’s disillusionment to amplify what follows:

My father never discussed the war. Everything about the First World War turned out to be repugnant to him, yet there could have been no more ardent recruit. (p.1)

The paintings Churcher has chosen to include are influenced by this family history.  Nothing in this book glorifies war.

The government hadn’t officially appointed a war artist by the time of Gallipoli, but there were men there who made drawings and watercolours to record their experience.  When they ran out of watercolours, they used the red and blue pencils issued for military mapping, and they applied washes with an iodine brush, giving their pictures that distinctive sepia tone.   CEW Bean, then a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, gathered the tales and sketches of the soldiers for a compilation to be called The Anzac Book, which with its famous cover art by David Barker, is still in print.   Bean also lobbied for the appointment of a war artist, eventually getting permission for Private Frank Crozier to make sketches on the Western Front, and finally to be appointed as an official war artist in September 1918.  Many readers will have seen his painting Sausage Valley (1919) at the Australian War Memorial.

It was mainly civilian artists who were appointed as war artists, given the temporary rank of lieutenant and kept firmly behind the lines in safety.  However Will Dyson had wangled permission to go to the front as a civilian artist, and he produced some of the finest artworks of the war, concentrating not on big battle scenes but on the men.  ‘Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60’ (1917) is typical of these: it shows an exhausted soldier, still in all his kit, fast asleep while his mates stand by in the tunnel.  Another one ‘Patrolling in no man’s land on the Somme’ (1918) manages to convey the danger of the exercise in the anxious turn of a head and in the cautious tread of his shadowy figures’ but Dyson also captured humorous moments, as in ‘The batman (compree washing madame) (1920).  Dyson drew anti-German propaganda cartoons as well, such as ‘Freedom of the Seize’ (1915).  His paintings are held at the Australian War Memorial but if this article from 2016 is correct, they are not on display but you can find them if you search online at the AWM.

The big battle paintings were tackled by other artists, but the works Churcher has chosen are not like the heroic battle paintings of the 19th century.  I can show you this one: ‘First Australian artillery going into the third battle of Ypres’ by H. Septimus Power is in the public domain now.

In the book, the painting is accompanied by Betty Churcher’s keen observations, and a full page reproduction of a detail which emphasises the mud and the stoic determination of the men.  ‘Stretcher bearers’ (1922) is a vivid testament to non-combatants.

Cathedral Interior c1918 (Streeton)

Arthur Streeton was appointed as a war artist in May 1918, but most of his paintings are about the aftermath of war.

He painted the landscape of war-ravaged France, the valley of the River Somme and the landscape around Mont St Quentin.  If figures appear in his paintings, they’re there only to give scale to the landscape.

There is only one painting by Streeton in the book, ‘French Siege Gun’ (1918) which shows the monumental size of this monstrous weapon.  It’s such a ghastly contrast to the ‘Golden Summers’ paintings for which Streeton is so famous, that I prefer to show the painting at right, called ‘Cathedral Interior’, painted in 1918 or so.

George Lambert was the most famous of the war artists, but his great epic paintings were all done in the studio.  However, he had visited Anzac Cove with CEW Bean in 1919, where he gathered information for his famous picture (also now in the public domain):

Anzac, the Landing 1915 (George Lambert)

But Churcher also tells us that Lambert chose to ignore some of the facts:

For example, [Bean] remembers telling Lambert that the soldiers had been instructed to roll their sleeves to the elbow, so that in the half-light they would stand out from the Turks.  However, he also remembers that nothing would have persuaded Lambert to depict the landing in that way: his soldiers would be properly uniformed in this official record.

He also told him that the men wore British-style flat caps.

‘I suppose some of them wore hats, Skipper?’ Lambert asked.

‘Certainly,’ said Bean.  And that was enough for Lambert – they all wore slouch hats!  (p. 24)

This painting doesn’t show the courage or bravado of hand-to-hand fighting.  It shows the terrain as enemy.  Like its companion piece ‘The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915’ (1924) it shows the futility of war, and again the book offers a full-page detail so that its emotional impact is profound.

The chapter goes on to show that Lambert’s paintings of the desert in Palestine influenced artists in the post-war period to begin a tradition of inland painting.

Previously the desert had been recorded by exploration artists in topographical studies; never before had it been seen as a landscape subject in its own right.

But that was not the only way in which this wicked, wasteful war influenced art:

… in Europe the soldier-artists who had served in the trenches of the Western Front returned to their studios seething with anger and disgust at the cruelty and mindless waste of war.  They saw themselves as victims of the war who had escaped the shells and bullets but not the trauma, and they introduced dramatic new movements in modern art to reveal their psychological damage.  Neither art nor its audience would ever be the same again. (p.47)

The chapter concludes with Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series, reminding us that he once said that he wanted his Gallipoli pictures to ring like metal – to ‘clang’  as if they’d been beaten into shape at a blacksmith’s forge.  And Churcher once more invokes the personal when she tells us that the figures in the left hand panel of Nolan’s Gallipoli diptych, are Nolan’s father, trying valiantly to prevent his son Raymond, (with his corporal’s stripes) from sliding deeper into death. (p.53) (To see both paintings at that AWM link scroll down below the descriptions and click the blue Gallipoli link).

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: The Art of War
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, 2004
ISBN: 9780522850994
Source: Personal copy, found at Bound Words Secondhand Bookshop in Hampton St Hampton for $25.00

Availability: try your second-hand sources…


I probably would never have read this book if not for Tony Kevin, author of Walking the Camino and Return to Moscow. A retired diplomat who was based in Moscow during the Soviet era, Kevin recommends John le Carré as an author who depicts the intricate world of spies and diplomacy in quite realistic ways.  So, when I saw A Most Wanted Man at the library, I thought why not?  I had liked The Constant Gardener, after all…

A Most Wanted Man turned out to be quite entertaining reading.  Not surprisingly, it has been made into a film.

It’s a thriller, so I’m not going to tell you much about it.  This is the blurb:

A half-starved young Russian man is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse round his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa… Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client’s survival becomes more important to her than her own career. In pursuit of his mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Freres, a failing British bank based in Hamburg. Annabel, Issa and Brue form an unlikely alliance – and a triangle of impossible loves is born.  Meanwhile, scenting a sure kill in the ‘War on Terror’, the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge upon the innocents.

The interest lies in trying to work out whether Issa Karpov is what he claims to be, and whether the covert security services of Germany, England and America are (a) going to cause major grief for Annabel Richter and Tommy and/or (b) sabotage each other in their quest to out-rumble Issa and his protectors.

I found my attention drifting towards the last two or three CDs as Annabel’s attraction to Issa, and Tommy’s conversion to Issa’s cause because of his attraction to Annabel, becomes more overt and Issa spurns both of them.  He constantly proselytises his faith to Annabel (which is very boring to listen to) and she, respecting his faith, can’t even touch him.  The argument about whether Issa would or wouldn’t accept money that had been his corrupt father’s didn’t seem all that convincing when, from the outset, Issa had come to Hamburg to get it.  And the plot becomes harder to follow as Bachmann, the German counter-terrorism operative, makes things more complicated because he’s trying to ‘turn’ to his cause, both Issa and also a Muslim philanthropist called Dr. Abdullah who is funnelling money to terrorists, whether he knows it or not.

However, what the book shows is how hamstrung Germany is in dealing with terrorism.  Their Nazi past makes it imperative that they play by rules which constantly frustrate Bachmann.  OTOH as the climax shows, American exceptionalism suggests that they can do what they like, and they do.

Well, we saw them do that with Guantanamo Bay, and Australia was complicit in it too when – unlike the Brits – we abandoned our citizens to detention without trial.

Michael Jayston does a great job of rendering a diversity of accents in the narration.

John le Carré
Title: A Most Wanted Man
Publisher: Chivers Audiobooks (BBC Audiobooks), 2009, first published 2008
ISBN: 9781408431368
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2017

Another meme: #Book Buying Habits

I came to this meme at Book Mongrel via Booker Talk, and it interested me because of the prevalence of ‘book buying bans’ that have sprung up lately in the LitBlogSphere. I may be a bit evangelical on this topic, but I firmly believe that book culture will die if people don’t buy books because there will be no incentive for authors and publishers to produce them.  This is especially important for authors and publishers of Australian literary fiction because ours is such a very small market always under pressure in a globalised economy.  Yes, there will be authors content to struggle for exposure in Amazon’s self publishing swamp but that is not where the great books of our time will be found.  Yes, shelf space is an issue, and so is the family budget, and yes, we should read the books we have… but I am a Buyer of Books, and always will be.

And since I saw somewhere recently that nobody really knows what makes people buy books, I thought it was worthwhile to share what makes me buy them, even though I might be the only person in the universe who has these reasons.

Where do you buy your books from?

From independent bookshops that I want to stay in business, because they stock and bring me news about my kind of books.   F2F I go to bricks-and-mortar shops like my favourite Benns Books in Bentleigh, but also Ulysses Bookstore in Sandringham.  (I used to go to one in Hampton but they have gone downmarket with lots of trashy books and the place is full of noisy children.)  The Readings chain sends me a monthly newsletter and I buy from them online, but lately their newsletter has been promoting so many misery memoirs and novels derived therefrom, that to my dismay I often can’t find anything to buy.  For other books that I hear about online from my BookBlogging network (mainly translations not available in my bricks-and-mortar bookshops) I used to use the Book Depository but now I use Fishpond because (a) it’s not Amazon and (b) it has free postage and (c) it started in New Zealand and is a source for NZ books, and now it operates in Australia.  (#Transparency I have an affiliation with them here on this blog, see my About page).

Very occasionally I have an impulse buy for the Kindle, but I use it so rarely that #blush I tend to forget about these books and not read them.

Do you ever pre-order books and if so, do you do this in-store or online?

#Blush: not books… but I have been known to put in an online order for the latest Game of Thrones DVD and Un Village Francais as soon as I know the release date.

On average, how many books do you buy a month?

Averaged over the last 12 months, I spent $140 a month.  That’s an average of 4 or 5 books (bearing in mind that it includes the occasional Op Shop Find and an expensive first edition or two.  It equals about 480 coffees, about 40 each month, or about 5 coffees each week.   It’s less than the council rates and the power bills and much more than I spend on clothes.

Do you use your local library?

All the time.  There have been times in my life when I have had no money at all to spend on myself and my library was my sole source of books.  If I were ever to move house, being within walking distance of a library would be one of my essential criteria.  These days I belong to three: Kingston, Bayside and Glen Eira.  Kingston has a branch in my local shopping centre and I go there as part of my routine, hovering around the New Books Shelf for serendipitous finds, and maintaining supplies of audio books which I find expensive to buy and (generally) too demanding of shelf space because I like CDs not digital versions.    If I am a bit hard up, I’ll reserve a book using the online catalogue, and if I’m really hard up and they don’t have it, I put in a request for them to buy it for me.  (Through the Australian PLR (Public Lending Right) authors and publishers still get paid when their books are in libraries.)

I noticed that Book Mongrel kept incurring fines for overdues: all my libraries send me email reminders, and I used to use Library Elf before library reminders became standard practice.

If so, how many do you borrow at a time?

Two or three audio books in case I don’t like one of them; 2-8 novels or non-fiction, it just depends on what I find.  I stop once my arms are full…

What’s your opinion on library books?

They’re essential:

  • for reference, whether you’re looking for a recipe or a history book.  Yes, even in the days of Google, because you can take them home and curl up on the sofa and read them;
  • for serendipitous finds.  Libraries have a responsibility to provide a wide variety of books, for all kinds of readers.  Libraries that focus too much on commercial and genre fiction are letting down people like me.  My library branch has the balance right; I’ve observed that other branches in the same network don’t.
  • for being with people who love books, especially if the rest of your world isn’t interested in them.  They are restorative for the soul;
  • for kids to learn about the world of books and a bookish atmosphere.  This does not mean inviting children to a story time session and allowing them to run around screaming, which is what I experienced to my dismay at the Jasper Rd branch of the Glen Eira library last week.  I left without collecting the book I’d reserved there.  I couldn’t stand it.  (Teachers (including retired ones like me) tend to be intolerant of badly behaved children because children never behave like that at school, only when they are with parents who let them make a nuisance of themselves).

I take even greater care of library books than I do of my own.

How do you feel about charity shop/second hand books?

These places come into their own for backlisted books, the ones culled from the library and no longer stocked online or in bookshops.  They are an essential part of the mix.  The author and publisher don’t make anything from the sale, but Op Shops use the money in worthy causes, and second-hand shops need to make a profit or they don’t stay open.  And we need them to stay open so that we can browse for serendipitous finds and to search for backlisted books by our favourite authors.  My favourite second-hand bookshops are Grant’s Bookshop in Reserve Rd Cheltenham and Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton, and I miss – I really, really miss – Diversity Books which used to be in Mordialloc and then Mentone, but is now only online.  I also use the charity site Brotherhood Books because they have an excellent search function on their website, and I can sometimes find something there that I can’t find anywhere else.

Do you keep your read and TBR pile together/on the same bookshelf or not?

They’re on separate shelves in my own home library, alphabetically by surname for fiction and by topic for non-fiction.  Up to a point.  I thought when I had a library at home that my books would all fit into it, but they don’t.  So some books I’ve read (not TBR books) are elsewhere around the house.  The only rooms that don’t have books in them are the bathroom and the laundry.  The slide show below doesn’t quite include all our books because I didn’t want to disturb The Spouse while he is working.  So you can’t see Biography; Military History; Jazz, Economics or his uni books.  You also can’t see my collection of plays and of foreign language learning books because the bookcase is tucked into a corner of the sitting room and it’s too hard to photograph.  There is also a cardboard box with about 20 books that publishers have sent me, but a box doesn’t make a great photo!

Do you plan to read all the books you own?

Of course.  (But I don’t make reading plans, not any more.  I never kept them anyway so now I just have vague intentions, as to the timing.)

What do you do with books that you own and that you’ll feel you’ll never read/enjoy?

I don’t have any of those.

Have you ever donated books?

I used to keep all my books, and I mostly still do, but because of lack of space now I donate books I know I’ll never read again (i.e. disappointments) to my local Op Shop.

Have you ever been on a book buying ban?
No. I have sometimes been too hard up to buy books, but that’s not a ban on buying them.  See my introduction.

Do you feel like you buy too many books?

I don’t know what this means.  Too many for what?  I have about 860 books on my TBR and at a reading rate of about 200 books per year, that’s 4 years supply if I read nothing else but what’s on my TBR.  If the eBook had succeeded in killing the real book, what I have wouldn’t be enough to last very long.  Since reading is essential to my sanity, my TBR is insurance against a bleak bookless future.

If this question means, is having a big TBR is a problem, my answer is no, it’s not.  It’s like having a well-stocked pantry, or enough clothes to meet your needs.  We make room and time for the things that matter, just as we find the money for the things that matter, or we find some other way to get them (like libraries).

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2017

Tobruk 1941, by Chester Wilmot

Doug Allan 1970

I don’t usually read military history, but I couldn’t resist this latest release in the Text Classics series.  Tobruk 1941 interests me because The Offspring had a great-uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk.  Uncle Doug Allan, who died in 1985, was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, generous to a fault and with the typical laconic Aussie sense of humour, but this apparently ordinary Aussie Bloke was also a hero, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Early in 1941, Australian troops captured Tobruk from the Italians: it was an important victory because it was Mussolini’s stronghold on the Libyan Coast.  Bordered by pitiless desert, Tobruk was a strategic fortress because it had a deep-water harbour on the eastern Mediterranean.   Rommel’s Afrika Corps quickly arrived to reclaim it and so began a 241-day siege beginning in April and not lifted until November of that year.  Germany had successfully stormed through Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, and the Afrika Corps had never been defeated.  Tobruk was the first time they were repulsed and it wasn’t just Rommel who was outraged, the German High Command was livid.  They were especially galled to discover that their crack troops had been stymied by a bunch of volunteers.  As a captured German diary showed:

Our opponents are Englishmen and Australians.  No trained attacking troops, but men with nerves and toughness, tireless, taking punishment with obstinacy, wonderful in defence.  Ah well, the Greeks also spent ten years before Troy. (p 186)

The defenders comprised 14,000 Australian soldiers commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead,  about 5000 men in four regiments of British artillery, and about 500 Indian troops under the command of the British.  For both sides, Tobruk was critical because the Allies wanted to keep Rommel tied up in Libya while they regrouped after their defeat in Greece, and the Axis Powers wanted to get on with having control of the oil fields.

Chester Wilmot was an embedded war correspondent with the AIF, and he wrote this landmark text during 1943 while he was becalmed in Sydney.  (He’d lost his accreditation because he’d offended General Blamey with criticism of the high command supplying the troops in New Guinea).  With the war still raging, Wilmot used this time to write a unique military history of the Siege of Tobruk.

As Peter Cochrane says in the Introduction:

In Tobruk 1941, Wilmot’s roving eye blends coverage of fast-moving events and battle with rich social observation, and melds the local story with its global implications.  His narrative is punctuated with biographical cameos and excerpts from interviews with the men of the garrison, so the vernacular figures prominently in an erudite text.  He is the educated Australian who can lapse into pub-yarn mode, his manner easy, his intellect sharp.  He is both military analyst and social historian, providing eyewitness accounts of combat and conditions in the fortress, covering themes such as food, fleas, health, work, sport, concerts and other entertainment.  He is pioneering a new form of military history, blending a cool dissection of material realities with a record of battle and striking descriptions of everyday life.  (p. xi)

The siege conditions were difficult, to say the least.  It was fiercely hot by day and the nights were cold, but it was the dust storms that were a severe trial:

They were far worse at Tobruk than in the open desert beyond.  Within the perimeter thousands of wheels had churned the baked crust of the earth into a fine powder, and every wind whipped it into a choking cloud.  The men breathed dust, and ate dust.  Every few days the wind raised a storm that blotted out everything.  But regardless of this the troops had to man their posts and guns; drive their vehicles without windscreens; unload ships or lay mines.  (p.206)

The diet was adequate but not nutritious and as the months went by there were cases of ‘desert sores’.  Little scratches took weeks to heal.  The water ration was just eight cups a day – and that was for all uses including washing – prompting a joke that the Diggers couldn’t wave a white handkerchief in surrender because they didn’t have any clean ones.   Wilmot – who knew all this because he was living it too – describes cricket matches to alleviate boredom alongside the casualties from the incessant bombing which could come from anywhere.  He notes that ‘shell shock’ was rare, and malingerers rarer still, and he provides examples of Aussie wit:

There’s militant teetotallers
Who abhor all kinds of drink,
There’s wives who break good bottles
And pour them down the sink;
This place would suit them to the ground,
We’ve searched in every nook,
But booze is rare as hen’s teeth in
This place they call Tobruk. (p.211)

If the Rats were bored and longing for a beer, the crack German troops were seriously disgruntled.  Wilmot had access to the diaries of captured Germans, and they reveal that their pride was hurt by the indignity of their situation:

They had been picked and trained for offensive warfare.  Many of them had been fattened on the quick victories and easy loot of the European campaigns.  They disliked a defensive role: still more distasteful was the task of digging holes in the unfriendly Libyan plateau, working in sandstorm and in heat that often rose to 110 degrees.  (p. 203)

The German rank and file were fed up with having nothing to do and nothing much to eat, because Rommel’s supply lines were dislocated.  They wanted to attack and teach these volunteer Aussies a lesson.  But by contrast morale within the besieged Tobruk was high because the Rats knew how important their role was – because they heard it in signals from the highest levels:

‘Personal Gen. MORSHEAD from C.-in-C.  Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on EGYPT and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive.  You could not repeat not be doing better service.  Well done.’

‘To General MORSHEAD from PRIME MINISTER ENGLAND.  The whole empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of EGYPT with gratitude and admiration.’ (p.188)

In the course of writing this review I visited Wikipedia, and – because I would like young Australians to know the story of Uncle Doug and his fellow Rats of Tobruk – I can’t help but comment on how dull and uninspiring the Wikipedia entry is, compared to Wilmot’s vivid writing.  Sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  But Tobruk 1941 is worth reading because it’s both.  Chapter 2, ‘Break Through’ relates the capture of Tobruk from the Italians, and it begins like this:

Their only weapons were a thin willowy stick, a pair of scissors, a pocket full of nails and a revolver.  Yet they were the advance guard of the 16000 Australian and British troops who assembled on the dark face of the desert on the night of January 20th, 1941, ready to attack Tobruk before dawn.  On the steady nerves and fingers of these men with strange weapons, the waiting infantry relied to clear the maze of booby-traps, which screened the Italian defences.

They were thirty-three members of 2/1st Field Company, led by Lieutenant S.B. Cann.  Several hours before moonrise they moved out into no-man’s land to the accompaniment of jibes from infantry, who little realised how important those thin willowy sticks were.  A stinging wind swept the desert and the sappers were thankful for their army-issue jerkins and long woollen underwear, and for ‘rum-primed’ water bottles, which were some compensation for the greatcoats they had left behind.  To lessen risk of detection  they wore woollen Balaclavas instead of tin hats and their shiny leather jerkins were turned inside out.  (p. 29)

I found it interesting that I developed a different kind of reading skill for this book.  In some ways it was like the experience of learning to read legalese when I was doing a law degree.  It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of getting used to concepts, vocabulary and acronyms that are just not part of an everyday vocabulary.  I did get used to the military acronyms, but it took a bit longer to be able to visualise all the different kinds of weapons, planes and ships.  (There are maps that show events, but I would also have liked one that showed Tobruk’s position in North Africa and the Mediterranean.)

The other thing that happened as I read, was that I became very conscious of the casualties.  Wilmot mentions few heroic deaths by name, but I think most 21st century readers will read between the lines with a keen awareness of the enormous human cost of this one episode in a war that lasted six years.  When Wilmot wrote – not casually, but without lingering over details – about a ship going down during the relief operation, I thought about the people on board, and their families and their descendants.  I don’t think I’ve ever been made quite so aware of the courage of individual men even though Wilmot mostly only names the officers.

I don’t know how this book stacks up against contemporary histories of this heroic story: Tobruk 1941 was written during the war so perhaps we should assume not just that some matters were self-censored, but also that its mildly triumphalist tone was not just asserting a strategic and symbolic enemy defeat but was also intended to sustain domestic morale.  Cochrane notes that Wilmot had little to say about the Indian contribution and local civilian casualties, and my guess is that contemporary military historians would attempt to redress these omissions with research.  Populist historians might be inclined towards being dismissive or critical of the British as they so often are, but Wilmot is at pains to acknowledge the complementary efforts of the Tommies and the Diggers, invoking the Anzac spirit to praise the dashing courage and initiative of the Australians in the vanguard while admiring the Churchillian spirit of the dogged and indefatigable British.  Aware that there was a tendency for some war correspondents to give all the credit to the Australians, Wilmot writes extensively about the British artillery that – without air support – repulsed German aircraft and he acknowledges that nothing could have been achieved without them.

But at heart, he says in the Preface, we are all British, which is not something anyone would suggest today:

A few words of explanation may be necessary on the vexed question of the use of the term ‘British’.  Where I have spoken at large of our forces as opposed to the enemy’s, ‘British’ embraces all the Imperial, Dominion and Allied troops. But wherever I have spoken of particular forces I have used it – lacking any suitable alternative – to refer only to those of the United Kingdom.  This obviously does not imply that Australians regard themselves as any less British than the people of the British Isles.  (p. 8)

Quaint, eh? Well just remember – it’s not all that long ago that Australians had British citizenship and British passports!

Author: Chester Wilmot
Title: Tobruk, 1941
Introduction by Peter Cochrane
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925498455
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Tobruk 1941: Text Classics (Text Classics)
Or direct from Text, where it is also available as an eBook.

Sarah Waters has legions of fans, but I wasn’t expecting much from The Little Stranger, and so I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s quite an enjoyable Gothic/ghost tale, but it’s a bit too long for itself and even the faultless narration by Simon Vance didn’t prevent my attention from wandering a bit.

The story is set in rural Warwickshire, in post-war Britain, where the Bolshie Labour government is taxing the aristocrats out of their Stately Homes so that they can fund the National Health Service.  The narrator, Dr Faraday, is conflicted about this because as a working-class lad made good, he is conscious of his origins but likes hanging about with Posh People.  He becomes the family doctor of the troubled family on the Hundreds Estate, where Roderick is physically and mentally damaged by his time in the RAAF, and where Caroline has had to leave a potentially more interesting life in London to come home and look after him and her widowed mother Mrs Ayres.  (But Caroline is stoic about this, as befits her unmarried status and Roderick’s status as a war hero.  Oh yes, and also befitting her Responsibility to The Estate).

The catalyst for Faraday’s first visit is the mysterious illness of the servant Betty.  (The house is falling to bits, the weeds are miles high, but gosh, they can’t possibly do without a servant, can they?) Faraday, quite capable of patronising people from the same class origin as himself) discovers that Betty thinks there is a Presence in the house.  She is only 14 and she wants to go home, but Dr F dismisses it all as nonsense and promises her that he won’t tell anyone that she was faking as long as she gets back to work.  Which she does, and becomes  A Loyal Retainer thereafter, but she retains the right to mutter about The Presence, of course).


After this forewarning, the Strange Things start to happen.  A placid dog attacks a small child.  There are noises.  Marks on the walls.  Moving objects.  And then a fire.  When Roderick finally cracks up, he is treated more respectfully than Betty, but it’s a dubious honour.  He gets packed off to an expensive ‘rest home’.

It is at this point that the sceptical reader starts to question proceedings.  All these weird things are reported, not seen.  Is Roderick deranged, pretending to be deranged, or is he being deluded by a malevolent person who might be Caroline, Betty, or even the good Dr F? Is there some advantage to scaring off the others, leaving one of them in sole possession of The Estate?  Or is there really a poltergeist?  Really??  Really???

Faraday’s motives get murkier when, having offered his scornful opinions about Caroline’s unattractiveness and poor dress sense, he now finds he fancies her.  He doesn’t ever say so, but any reasonably alert reader will realise that marrying Caroline is his entrée into the gentry.  (We Australians always find this class-consciousness stuff incomprehensible.  We can be snobs too, but not about obsolete pedigrees).   However Caroline – although we suspect that she sees the benefit of Faraday’s income on the weeds and the cracking plaster – gives off rather strong touch-me-not signals- which might mean she is gay, or it might mean that she thinks Faraday is a Creep.  (As some readers are also starting to do).

More Strange Things happen and the reader still wading through the padding might take a mild interest in who benefits from the mayhem.  Or might not.

I was bemused to see that this book was nominated for the Booker.  It’s mildly entertaining light reading, but there isn’t really any point to it.  No less a person than Hilary Mantel said it was ‘gripping’ (really??) and that it combines ‘spookiness with sharp social observation’ but really, the characters are such clichés I can’t believe Mantel was being anything other than kind-hearted.   Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell have the bases covered on class consciousness and it’s been a common theme in BritLit since Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice.  What is the point of ‘sharp social observation’ of the mid 20th century, other than to reinforce class stereotypes?  Was there some other significant theme that I’ve overlooked?

Author: Sarah Waters
Title: The Little Stranger
Narrated by Simon Vance
Publisher: Penguin Audio, 2009
ISBN: 9780143144809
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Little Stranger


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Konstantin, by Tom Bullough

Konstantin was a serendipitous find at the library.  It’s a fairly simple story, but beautifully written, and there are some heart-stopping moments to propel the narrative along.

Based on the real life story of the Russian/Soviet scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, this novella tells the story of the emergence of his interest in rocketry and astronautics, and how he overcame all manner of difficulties to become one of the founders of space travel.  But the book is not a fictionalised biography, it is slices of an imagined life, focussing on the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of its subject.  And Russia, with its magnificent landscapes and brutal weather, is almost a character too.

The book begins with Kostya’s childhood in Ryazan on the river Oka where his father Eduard Ignatyevich is a forester.  He is an adventurous child with an enquiring mind but he falls victim to scarlet fever and is left with residual deafness.  Because he cannot hear properly and his mother Maria Ivanova fusses over him, he is teased by his cousin and almost drowns in the frozen river. It would have been a loss to the world if he had.

Kostya is fascinated by the solar system and loves to make models of inventions like the steam engine, but he falls behind at school.  His father, who believes passionately in the life of the mind, is very disappointed but he supports Kostya with an allowance for self-study in Moscow.  By sheer good luck he becomes acquainted with the librarian at the Chertkovsky library, and it is Nikolai Fedorovich Federov who brings him a copy of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. By now Kostya understands enough of physics to identify the flaws in Verne’s science – and to posit an alternative.  He thinks there might be some way to harness the Earth’s centrifugal force.

The brutal poverty of those pre-Soviet days almost kills Kostya, and his interest in the daughter of a very wealthy aristocrat turns out to be perilous too.  Kostya is headstrong, and passionate about his ideas, but the book concludes with his early career as an inspiring teacher, making experimental models on the side.  In real life it was the Soviets who harnessed his genius and the epilogue reveals his legacy: it tells the harrowing story of Alexei Leonov’s first space walk in 1965 and near-disastrous re-entry.

I can’t help but note here that I remember the marvel of this space walk, which took place before the author Tom Bullough was even born.  But I had never heard of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and I enjoyed reading his story.

Recommended for anyone who’s not blasé about the miracle of space travel!

Author: Tom Bullough
Title: Konstantin
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012
ISBN: 9780670920921
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Konstantin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is such a strange book, I hardly know how to begin.  Marilynne Robinson is world famous, especially after Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but I didn’t much like Gilead so I was in no rush to read this first novel when in 2015 it arrived chez moi with the first release of Faber Modern Classics. (Which has since gone on to become a list of 21 titles).  Housekeeping sat alone and lonely, abandoned in a box marked 2015, but I couldn’t quite make myself take it to the Op Shop which is the fate of books that publishers have sent me but which fail to spark my interest.  I have no such compunctions with thrillers, crime novels, YA and weepy memoirs, but, well, I am in awe of the Robinson name, if not of her books.

Alone and lonely, abandoned in the care of someone not very interested in its fate… without knowing it, I had treated this book just like the characters in this novel!  Lucille and Ruthie are two girls living in Fingerbone, a small village in rural Idaho.  In what looks like a carefully planned suicide, they are abandoned first by their sole parent mother Helen to the care of their grandmother Sylvia, who has herself been abandoned by all three of her daughters.  (Molly has gone off to be a missionary in China, Helen had lost contact when she married, and Sylvie is an eccentric wanderer).  When grandmother dies, two elderly in-laws called Nona and Lily come to care for the girls but they are only too relieved to abandon the responsibility when long lost Aunt Sylvie turns up.

Men are conspicuous by their absence: Grandfather Edmund is killed in a train crash off the local bridge, unburied in the same lake in which Helen suicides.  The girls have never known their father, and there is a mock father figure of the sheriff (who is clearly out of his depth in this dysfunctional situation) but he becomes the catalyst for the breakup of this fragile family.

I haven’t read many reviews but the ones I’ve seen go on about the religious aspects of this novel and its Calvinism.  That’s not what I noticed so much.  This is a novel of the 1980s, a time when many of us were questioning women’s roles and exploring how we could have equal rights and our freedom and manage the impact on our families, our homes, and our children.  It seems to me that in amongst the religious stuff, Housekeeping is asking the same questions, trying to resolve a yearning for freedom and a rejection of the expectation that it’s women who pick up the pieces.  The novel asks: what happens when women just don’t do what society expects them to do.  What happens when they just don’t comprehend the predetermined roles?

First published in 1980, the novel has no clear setting in time, but it has a 1950s feel, the postwar period when women had had to abandon their participation in work and the wartime economy to retreat to housekeeping and domesticity.  These homemakers were also expected to conform in appearance and to sustain a devotion to their clothing and hair.  But the girls in Housekeeping have a free-range childhood.  They are under the nominal care of successive women who – for different reasons – pay no attention to the socialisation or education or appearance of Lucille and Ruthie, and who seem to have no concept of what keeping house might mean.  It’s not just an epic fail in housework, it’s an inability to make a home, a place to nurture two little orphaned girls.

I may have missed it, but I don’t think the author ever uses the term homemaker.  But it is implicit, though it’s not clear what homemaking might mean when separated from the domestic nirvana perpetrated in the 1950s.   Nobody is baking brownies or sewing or knitting for the girls. Nobody is decorating the house or organising playdates, sleepovers or birthday parties.  Nobody is making sure that shoes fit, nobody is reading bedtime stories, nobody is nursing wounded souls or even answering the girls’ questions about their parents.   But which of these aspects of housekeeping matter seems submerged.  I am not sure if Lucille and Ruthie have a sense of home even as they become aware of its limitations, or if what they have is a constrained (or just desperate) sense of family.   But it is also not clear who should be doing whatever kind of housekeeping is ultimately deemed important.  It is not exactly neglect on the part of the adults: I am not sure that the characters reject their expected roles as homemakers, it seems to be more a case of simply not comprehending what it means.  The feminist in me makes me note that nobody is expecting the absent father to make a home for his children.  The reader is left to wonder whether he comprehends housekeeping.


Aunt Sylvie is dramatically eccentric: she hoards empty tin cans and newspapers like Homer and Langley do.  But we can also read this as refusal, the kind of blind refusal to see the trash that needs to be put out by somebody.  The stereotypical 1950s man read the newspaper, and when he finished, he left it where it was, and he did not see it to notice it cluttering up the tidy home thereafter.  The stereotypical woman of the 1950s may have asked him to put it out with the trash – and if she asked twice it was nagging so her timing had to be good.  But if he didn’t remove his newspaper (and it was his) then she had to deal with it or it would have mounted up in stacks like Sylvie’s do.  The tin cans flourish, of course, because Sylvie does not cook except for ad hoc fry-ups, like men who say they can only do an egg or a burger, not cook an evening meal.  (These battles seem won in the 21st century, but some women discover guerrilla warfare when they stop work to have children).

Sylvie also disappears for long periods of time, crucially at night, when grownups are supposed to be there in the house to protect the children and to make them feel secure. Somebody supervises the pyjamas and tooth-brushing, tucks the children in, and deals with night-time terrors or wet beds.  The stereotypical 1950s mother did all this because she was expected to and because the stereotypical 1950s father was ‘tired after being at work all day’.  But Sylvie is as oblivious as he was.  She sleeps outside – on the grass and under trees and in her car.  She is as absent as a father who has gone away for a conference or on night shift, who takes it for granted that somebody is taking care of things.  But there is no somebody.  Society has assumed that Sylvie is the somebody but she is just someone who has moved into the house with the girls.  She has not ‘taken them on’.

Sylvie also has an unreachable personality.  She isn’t brooding or sulking.  Words float past her and there are long silences. She is simply not there for the girls.  She is unavailable to be a counsellor, a guide, a role model or a negotiator on their behalf.  The reader does not know what she thinks, or where she has been, or why she has become a drifter – and neither do the girls. So Lucille and Ruthie depend entirely on each other for love and affection, not to mention many of the practicalities of life.  I am not sure if the novel asks us to believe that these girls are undamaged, as if to say, see, all those brownies and frilly knickers are unnecessary, but as they reach adolescence, Lucille makes an unsurprising choice.  She opts for conformity and abandons Ruthie by going to live with a schoolteacher.  Facing belated pressure from the good folk of Fingerbone, Ruthie and Sylvia abandon things too.

Not since I read Angela’s Ashes, have I read a novel so saturated with water.  (Sorry, the pun is irresistible). It’s not just the fatal lake, the village also floods under torrential rain.  The heavens open a lot. But although the ground level is flooded, the quirky house built by Grandfather is a kind of ark – though why an Old Testament God should visit such punishment on the seemingly harmless wasn’t clear to me. But besides the flood, the girls are always getting wet and sleeping in damp clothes,  as if to compensate for tears unshed.

I didn’t find Housekeeping a very engaging novel, but I liked it better than Gilead.  Housekeeping is no 92 in the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.  (Careful, that review is one of the worst examples of spoilers I’ve ever seen).

Emma at Book Around the Corner reviewed it too: be sure to read the comments as well!

Author: Marilynne Robinson
Title: Housekeeping
Publisher: Faber Modern Classics, 2015, first published 1980
ISBN: 9780571322756
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Housekeeping: Faber Modern Classics

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2017

Vale to the man who taught me to love books

My dear old dad died today.  He almost made it to his 92nd birthday.

It was my dad who nurtured my love of books.  He read stories to me when I was little.  Wherever we lived in the world, he took me to the local library.  He gave me books for Christmas and birthdays.  He introduced me to the great writers of the 20th century.

We spent a lifetime talking about books together and he was still talking about the books we loved just last week.  If ever you’ve enjoyed chatting about books here on this blog, then please raise a toast to the wonderful man who was the catalyst behind every word I’ve ever written here.

He taught me to be stoic too, so the show goes on….

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2017

A meme: Novels with Place Names

Yesterday when Sue at Whispering Gums published her Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie novels titled with place names, she began by saying that she got the idea from  Tony (from Tony’s Book World)’s post on novels with city or town names in their titles.

I had a little rush of blood to the head and suggested that it would make a good meme.

Well, with Sue’s encouragement, here goes with the first meme I’ve ever hosted here at ANZ LitLovers.

As you can see at Tony’s blog, he got things started with these places:

  • Gilead, Havana, Petersburg, Peckham Rye, Brooklyn, Middlemarch, Wellville, Sparta, Winesburg and London

At Sue’s blog, she refined it to Australian books that have cities and towns in the title:

  • Alice Springs, Carpentaria, Castlemaine, Mullumbimby, Surfers Paradise and Sydney.

So these are my rules for the meme:

  1. Name four novels with the name of a town, a city or a village in the title. Countries or states or counties don’t count.  (I was going to make it five, but that’s too hard!)
  2. You can have just one fictional place name.
  3. You must have read (and ideally, reviewed) the books you choose.
  4. They must all be from the same country, or if that’s too hard, the same continent or region (e.g. from Africa, from Asia, from the EU, from the British Isles, from the former Soviet Union, Latin American etc).

So, to get you started, here’s mine:

My novels have Russian place names:

Petersburg by Andrei Bely, translated by John Elsworth: I loved this novel.  I read it before we visited Russia in 2012, and it was sheer magic to walk the streets of St Petersburg with images from this novel in my head.  First published in 1916, Petersburg is set in the pre-revolutionary fervour of the early 20th century and the plot revolves around a young man who’s become mixed up with radical elements at university and although he doesn’t know it at first, he has been entrusted with a bomb – to kill his own father, who’s a powerful bureaucrat in 1905 Petersburg.  So the theme of turmoil is both personal and political.  Don’t take my word for how good it is: Vladimir Nabokov said it is one of the ‘four greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose’.

Then a more recent novel, Moscow in the 1930s, a novel from the Archives, by Natalia Gromova,translated by Christopher Culver.  It’s a book from the post-Soviet period, and it resurrects the atmosphere of Moscow in the Stalinist period when authors and poets had to be so very careful about what they wrote.  I learned the names of some famous Russian poets whose work was suppressed, and although I had a bit  of difficulty with the book, it contributed to my understanding of the period in the same way that Julian Barnes showed Shostakovich’s struggle to be creative at a time of repression in The Noise of Time.

Stu at Winston’s Dad recommended The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated by Krystyna A Steiger.  It’s also a novel written in the post-Soviet era, but it’s a parody of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment enabling the author to explore the interpersonal travails of living in a communal house during ‘Soviet Times’.  The elderly Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya is the sole remnant of the aristocratic family that once lived in the house – a house now that is now occupied by a disparate group of people who form an eccentric and not very compatible extended family.  There are squabbles over kitchen space, over whose friend or relation gets to move in when there is a vacancy, and the younger generation do the usual irritating things that offspring do and provide opportunities to create discord, inconvenience and complaints.  A fine example of the Russian sense of humour.

Finally, with a neat segue back to Tony’s Book World because Tony recommended it, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  Tony described Towles as a great literary stylist in the order of Vladimir Nabokov. A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way. A stylist can go on and describe a game of Hide the Thimble for several pages, and we will not complain; in fact we will be charmed.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a droll story with a serious undercurrent: An unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov who has failed to understand the revolution, is in 1922 sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal, to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin.  This is also a novel with humour, poking fun at many aspects of the Revolution, but also showing how people learned to adapt until – in some cases – a line was crossed.  For Count Rostov, the line occurs when the child he has adopted grows into a woman whose future is compromised unless she escapes. 

So there you are!  Over to you!  If you’re joining in, please put the link to your blog post in comments below:)

Please use the hashtag #NovelsWithPlaceNames on Twitter, thanks!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2017

Into the Heart of Tasmania, by Rebe Taylor

It seemed to me as I read the concluding pages of this intriguing book, that it was worth reading for the last chapters alone, where the author Dr Rebe Taylor offers an explanation for the vexed state of enquiry into Indigenous issues in Tasmania.  It’s obviously not an easy thing to decide whether and what aspects should be studied, and by whom, and for what purpose, and who needs permission and who gives that permission.  More than I knew – though I knew about the unedifying History Wars – the politics of Indigenous identity are especially fraught in our island state.  It was a surprise to read that the archaeologist Rhys Jones was not welcome in Tasmania although he was a key figure in dating the arrival of Indigenous Australians, first with radiocarbon dating and later with luminescence techniques.  It’s all very complicated, and rather than try to summarise it, I think it’s best left to readers of this fine book to learn about it for themselves.

The main focus of the book, however, is about a different man entirely.  Into the Heart of Tasmania is the story of a man called Ernest Westlake, an eccentric English naturalist, anthropologist and amateur geologist who went to Tasmania looking for rocks to prove a theory and unwittingly collected valuable information which proved something else altogether.

Science is suppose to be neutral, but it can have an unconscious bias.  English scientists of the 19th century all believed that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct, and Westlake was no exception.  He went to Tassie to prove that there was a stage in human history between the opportunistic use of stones that were naturally the right shape to be useful as tools, and the next stage which was distinguished by the stones being adapted in some way, e.g. by polishing them.

Back in 1865, Sir John Lubbock came up with his theory of four Pre-Historic Ages:

  • Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic)
  • New Stone Age (Neolithic, with the polished stones)
  • Bronze Age
  • Iron Age.

But no sooner had the ink dried on his pages than evidence turned up suggesting evidence of human activity before the Palaeolithic Age.  Rocks that were called eoliths (eo meaning dawn, and lithic meaning ‘of stone’) that might have been human tools.) Archaeologists were in dispute: obviously there must have been ancestors before the Palaeolithic Age but whether these eoliths were proof was not agreed, because they might just have been stones broken by natural causes and not by the agency of humans.

Westlake, with just enough income to be able to indulge his amateur interest in collecting, had kept his faith in the wake of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but he was keenly interested in the evolution of man.  He had his lightbulb moment when, having collected a large quantity of eoliths in Auvergne in France, he saw a British Museum exhibition of stones from Tasmania that looked similar.  Westlake thought that whereas the origins and use of his French stones were lost to antiquity, the ‘Stone Age’ people of Tasmania had only recently become ‘extinct’ and so there might still be surviving witnesses who could tell him how the stones were made and used.

(BTW when I say ‘a large quantity’, I really mean massive.  The quantity and weight of his collections as they were transported around the world beggars belief, and it was no wonder that after he died, neither his son Aubrey nor museums in Britain were very keen to keep on storing them).

But even though Westlake’s initial premises were all wrong (and are now deeply offensive to Tasmanian Aborigines who are not ‘extinct’ at all), his open-mindedness and his willingness to listen to the descendants of Indigenous Tasmanians resulted in an extraordinary treasure trove of anthropological information.  Between 1908 and 1910 he trekked and cycled all over Tassie, often in dreadful weather, as he recorded stories from nearly a hundred informants about how Tasmanian rock samples had been made and used and lots of other information besides.  Some of this information turned out to be crucial: at one stage in Tassie’s anthropological journey there was a theory that because the Tasmanian Aborigines were cut off from the mainland by the rising waters of Bass Strait, they had, in consequence of their isolation-induced regression, lost the ability to make fire and could only pass it on from one to another.  Westlake’s notes, recording descendants talking about the activities of their grandparents, disprove this theory.   But Westlake did not realise the value of his research:  he did not regard his informants to be reliable witnesses of traditional Tasmanian culture because they were being interviewed more than a century after first settlement and he thought they were not ‘real’ Aborigines because (using terms no one would use today) they were ‘half-castes’ and not living ‘a wild life’.

Back in Britain, Westlake’s plans to write up his research never came to fruition and today he is better known as the founder of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, which is a quaint sort of non-militaristic version of scouting.  (Westlake had a Quaker upbringing).  He fell out with his daughter Margaret over her romance with an improvident artist but fortunately they were reconciled just before Westlake was killed in a car accident in 1922.  His son Aubrey inherited more in the way of responsibilities than money: he pursued a number of academics to publish his father’s work but there was disinterest and worse, refutation of his theory.  Some of the  French rock collection was used as ballast for a driveway.  It was not until the 1960s when the Welsh-Australian anthropologist Rhys Jones saw the value of Westlake’s research: not to illuminate the European Palaeolithic, it was their potential to realise the depth of Australia’s Aboriginal past.

There is more to Into the Heart of Tasmania than an interesting piece of the patchwork of scientific discovery.  Dr Taylor also discusses the ethics of removing artefacts to museums; the offensive labelling of descendants by percentages (e.g. ‘quadroon); and the vilification of the Straits communities where a creole society developed because of judgements shaped by geography, space and politics. She discusses the work of recent scholars like James Boyce and Lyndall Ryan, and also the opposing conclusions of Nicholas Clements and Patsy Cameron, both of whom were supervised by notable historian Henry Reynolds.   It really is a very interesting book!

Author: Rebe Taylor
Title: Into the Heart of Tasmania, a search for human antiquity
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Publishing), 2017
ISBN: 9780522867961
Review copy courtesy of MUP.

Available from Fishpond: Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity or direct from MUP (also available as an eBook)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2017

2017 International Dublin Literary Award Shortlist

The 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award shortlist has been announced. The list includes The Green Road by Irish author, Anne Enright, six novels in translation from Angola, Austria, Denmark/Norway, Mexico, Mozambique and Turkey, and novels from Nigeria, Vietnam and the USA.

It looks like an interesting list: I’ve seen most of these reviewed around the blogs I read, and will hunt out links to them when I have time.

1. A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa (Angolan) Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn.

2. Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Mozambican) Translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw.

3. The Green Road by Anne Enright (Irish ), on my TBR

4. The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine (Danish/Norwegian) Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.

5. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Mexican) Translated from the Spanish by  Christina MacSweeney.

6. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnamese/American) First novel.

7. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Nigerian-American) First novel. Already on my wishlist.

8. A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish) Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap.  On my TBR.

9. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (Austrian) Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins.

10. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (American)

From their website:

The International DUBLIN Literary Award is worth €100,000 to the winner and is the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English. The award was launched on 7th April 1995 and is now in its 22nd year.

‘The 2017 winner will be chosen from this intriguing international shortlist which includes six novels in translation from Danish, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish. The novels come from Angola, Austria, Denmark/Norway, Ireland, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Turkey, Vietnam and the USA’, said Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian. ‘Issues of conflict and communication are set against a myriad of cultural and family settings and in contemporary and historic time periods. For readers, these stories add new and absorbing characters to our circle of international literary acquaintances.’

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2017

Darwin (New South City Series #9), by Tess Lea

Darwin is the only Australian capital city I’ve never visited, but whereas Peter Timms’ book In Search of Hobart in the same New South City Series made me want to pack up and move to Tassie overnight,  Tess Lea’s impressionistic survey of Darwin makes me want to avoid it.  I just couldn’t put up with the weather:

… Darwin is a place where the imported seasonal markers of summer, autumn, winter and spring have no meaning.  Locally, people note two main seasons: ‘the Wet’, a brief but intense monsoonal deluge from January through to March; and ‘the Dry’, a long drought extending from April through to September.  By December people are willing storms to break the searing heat and rising humidity that precedes the Wet.  Locals call this bridge period ‘the build-up’, a reference both to the climbing humidity and temperatures, and the mounting stress of the sticky, sapping heat.  Alternative names are mango madness, the silly season, even the suicide season.

It is as if the body registers as a psychic assault the lowering air pressure from thunderstorms brewing over warm water. […]

You are in a stifling sauna, not a romance novel of languid afternoons under the palms.  Your brain seems to be melting and tempers flare; irritability spreads from itching skin to the whole world.  Only the fish, mozzies, fleas and cattle ticks are happy, breeding faster in the steaming heat. (p. 13)

Well, of course, tourists don’t have to visit during the build-up or the monsoon.  But Lea gives the impression that there are social disadvantages to Darwin too:

… for young people Darwin continues to have the attractions and the downsides of a large country town.  ‘You endure the heat, you get drunk.  If you stay, you can have a baby and maybe get a home loan.  It’s better to get out,’ one young man told me, briefly back home for his studies ‘down south’. It can feel suffocating. (p.183)

And this:

‘It becomes very repetitive in Darwin after a while,’ she told me.  ‘There’s a strong culture of drinking and drug-taking.  Everyone in Darwin’s smoked weed or drunk crazy amounts of alcohol by age fifteen.  It’s more expected there, more accepted.’ (p. 183)

And then there’s the cane toads and mosquitoes, urban crocodiles, and swimming pools that are unusually shallow, which means it warms up more readily in the build-up heat to a pea soup temperature, just when people are mad keen to escape the seething heat.  Nothing lasts long: even the buildings corrode from within in the moist salty air, which is why it’s too expensive to protect what remains of the city’s heritage buildings.

And more importantly, from a tourist’s point-of-view, it seems that outsiders have little chance of discovering the city’s appeal.  (Lea does say, in the Preface, that her book is not a tourist guide configured as a map of visitable sites).  After visiting a training session for the Chinese ‘Lions’ that perform at blessing ceremonies all over Darwin, she finds the streets are empty:

… Darwin is not a town for idle pedestrians, at least not before dusk on a hot weekend afternoon.  I remember squinting up at yellow and navy long-sleeved cotton shirts, the tradie’s signature uniform, as they flapped against verandah railings on high-rise apartment buildings, where tiny metal porticos provided scant shade against the blasting tropical sun. Does this town disappoint those tourists who make the mistake of walking in the city, in forlorn search of the Darwin they’ve heard is the most Asian of all Australian capital cities? Amid the great secular ugliness of the CBD they would find a car park instead of a Chinatown, for Darwin’s multiculturalism is not well packaged. Yet the lack of ethnic enclaves somehow seems fitting, Darwin’s poly-ethnic make-up is such a naturalised part of everyday life, it has no need to fabricate special districts or ornamental displays.  (p.121)

‘Fabricate’ is a loaded word in that sentence.  Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t ‘fabricated’, it’s a sexed-up version of what was always there, and it plays an important part in acknowledging an ethnic group’s contribution to our heritage.  (I’ve taken school groups to the museum there).  But since most of Darwin was flattened by Cyclone Tracy – and before that in WW2 was the only city in Australia ever to suffer a bombing campaign –  the city has had to rebuild itself, and has had to make choices about what would be rebuilt and where.  Were the Chinese in Darwin so ‘naturalised’ that they didn’t build temples or industries alongside the market gardens they are famous for?

Lea’s approach to writing this book was ‘anthropological’, participating in what she describes and talking to ordinary people, not celebrities or political notables.  She says in the Preface that her approach shows the Darwin people know, one that might be unfamiliar, and aspects some don’t want to know about.  Her themes are disasters and reinvention, real and imagined dangers, how the place is lived, and where it might be going.  But in naming her ‘omissions’ in some detail in this Preface, right at the very beginning of the book, she gives prominence to events that have made Darwin infamous – the  murder of Peter Falconio and the abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees on its back roads in 2001, and the disgraceful treatment of Lindy Chamberlain in the Darwin judicial system.  So the book begins with a harsh reminder of negative events, not really offset by a scanty allusion to Darwin’s extraordinary creative scene…

Although the book starts with the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1975 (as I suppose it must, since that transformed the city like no other event), it was the chapter called ‘Dangerous Proximities’ that tells the history of Darwin from a perspective that most people might not know:

It is more conventional to begin with the voyages of Captain Cook, take in settlement along the country’s south-east, track west and inland, before eventually reaching the frontier north as the most recent event.  Yet, recast from a northern perspective, Australia gains a more elaborate, sophisticated and older recorded history.  For hundreds of years, there was valuable trade with trepang collectors and, with this, links with the European trading empire that centred on the so-called Spice Islands of the Indonesian and Malay archipelago. The port of Makassar was the centre of the trade, with the uniquely repulsive Australian trepang attracting the highest coin.  (p.102)

Among non-Indigenous and non-Chinese Darwinites, Lea says, very few can trace their Darwin roots back to the 19th century, and the population is highly transient.  But a potentially successful model of multiculturalism was dismantled and became instead a catalyst for the White Australia policy because of fears that the Chinese would overrun the north, spill across the borders and overwhelm the Australian colonies. 

But what to make of the comment about compulsive judgements tacked onto the end of a paragraph about the discrimination against Aborigines in the early 20th century?

For Aborigines, it is a time of curfews and righteous religious instruction, the berated audience forced to swallow the contradictions of good Christian settlement.  The authorities gave reasons for European men to fear marrying Aboriginal women and backed them with legislation.  Social judgements did the work of policing too.  Swift ostracism of the explicit sinner, the ‘combo’ was harsh and instinctive.  The good ladies and gentlemen of Darwin deplored with a moral rectitude that stiffened their spines and tightened their lips.  Their aversion was as readymade as my own prissiness when I spot a red-hued Aussie male draping his blancmange arms over a young Asian girl.  It is a compulsive judgement that needs no intimate knowledge of circumstances.  (p.109)

While Lea is at pains to celebrate the ethnic diversity of Darwin, and has included Aboriginal voices (e.g. about their experience of the bombing of Darwin), it’s tempting to guess where her sympathies lie in the vexed matter of access for recreational fishing.  In the chapter about fishing rights, Lea reports the ruckus when Aboriginal title was extended to coastal waterways.  She reports the outrage from the local fishing lobby, and quotes a racist remark from one of them. She also cites a woman called Chrissie who coordinates the annual Secret Women’s Business Barra fishing challenge.  Is the name of this challenge okay with the local Indigenous women?  Is it an offensive mockery of Indigenous culture, or just harmless Darwinian humour?  That might depend on who’s laughing, or so it seems to me, but if there was any mention of the Indigenous perspective, or a quotation celebrating their restored title to their waterways, then I missed it.  Elsewhere in this book there is respectful commentary about Aboriginal issues, but not in this one.

An academic born and raised in Darwin, Tess Lea is (according to the cover flap blurb) someone who ‘got out’ but still calls Darwin home.  Perhaps that explains the unsentimental way she describes the unappealing aspects of Darwin while also conveying some pride in and affection for the place.  The book is heavily researched: of 290 pages, 40 are acknowledgements and a bibliography.  I’d love to read a review of it by permanent resident of Darwin!

Author: Tess Lea
Title: Darwin
Publisher: New South City Series #9, New South Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781742233864
Source: Kingston Library

The City Series is available from Fishpond:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2017

R&R, by Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin is the author of three novels: King of the Cross (2009) which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction; Spirit House (2011) which I read when it was long listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (and was also shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year and the Royal Society for Literature’s Ondaatje Prize); and now R&R (2015), which I bought last year at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival.

Dapin’s Goodreads photo is interesting: Dapin strikes a Tough Guy Pose, he has tatts, and his black sleeveless Tee-shirt features a naked woman (See Mark’s comment below, setting me straight!) though his folded arms obscure part of the design, hinting that this is necessary to get past the Goodreads ‘community standards’.  But his facial expression doesn’t fit the Macho Man image: he looks a bit uncomfortable, a little rueful, perhaps not quite certain about this persona he’s portraying, as if he’s dressed up in a costume that doesn’t suit him.  This pseudo-laddish photo, it seems to me, captures the pseudo-laddish spirit of R&R, a novel which will antagonise some readers and make others admire it.  I couldn’t put it down.

Drawing on his military history The Nasho’s War (2014) Dapin brings alive a sordid story of Vung Tau, the R&R base behind the front line in what the Vietnamese call The American War (to distinguish it from the war of independence against the French).  R&R (Rest and Recreation) consists of drinking, prostitution and the occasional concert for the troops, and as the new US MPs (military police) are told when they arrive, they are at the front line of the war against venereal disease […] but what might be called the “back line” of the war against communism. So it is ‘safe’.

‘As you go about your duties,’ he said, ‘remember this: you are the best unit in the best army in the best city in the best war the world has ever known.  It is almost unheard of for a soldier to be killed in Vung Tau, and military police here have sustained no casualties whatsoever.

‘This is your war, men; a gift from the gods.  Enjoy it, because one day it will be over.

‘But not,’ he added, ‘any time soon.’ (p. 23)

(NB This is a rare example of text that I can quote without having to deal with ‘language’ I don’t use on this ‘family-friendly’ blog).

The Australian Army has arrived to share joint patrols, prompting these words of praise:

‘What we hope to achieve, I couldn’t tell you.  I only know that the Aussies have done a tremendous job of pacifying Phuoc Toy province, which was one of the most peaceful in Vietnam before they got here and doesn’t seem to have got any worse since they arrived, which is a f- outstanding success for any military program.’ (p.23)

And thus a noble but naïve protagonist from Bendigo called Shorty (because he’s tall) joins the antagonist anti-hero called Nashville whose real name is John Ulysses Grant from Tennessee, just in time for murder and mayhem to break out.

R&R is a tale of Man v Self and Man v Society, where the norms of society at home are in conflict with the society in which he finds himself in Vietnam.  Can Shorty be a Good Man in Vung Tau, and can there be redemption for Nashville?

To avoid spoilers, it’s best to hint at proceedings with the publisher’s blurb:

When another MP shoots a corpse in a brothel, the delicate balance between the military police, South Vietnamese gangsters and the Viet Cong is upset. Nashville and his partner are drawn into the heart of the matter by their violent colleague Sergeant Caution, the obsequious landlord Moreau, the improbable entrepreneur Izzy Berger and the mysterious, omnipotent Mamasan. Events begin to force the pair to uphold the law and eventually to take it into their own hands.

The characterisation is insightful, eventually bringing back stories to bear on the damaged personalities of Nashville, Sgt Caution and the ‘bar girls’ Quyen and Baby Marie.  But it’s definitely not a story for the faint-hearted or prudish.  There is brutal sex, casual violence against the helpless and appalling racism against both the Vietnamese and the African American soldiers, using thoroughly offensive but probably authentic language.  (Dapin is a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy).

The implication is that this is how the story has to be, which may or may not be true.  In a past life, I knew many soldiers: nashos and regulars, officers and gentlemen, those who went overseas and those who stayed at home, and some who had failed to prove their case as conscientious objectors, were imprisoned for it, and then forced to serve out their two years as national servicemen anyway whether they did anything useful or not.  Not one of any of these thought we should be in Vietnam, though some of them went willingly either because it was their duty or for the money.  All of them had wives and girlfriends that they loved and missed, and loved to talk about with yearning when there were no other blokes around.  I can’t imagine any of them as cynical exploiters of women as depicted in this story.  But maybe I am as naïve as Shorty was on arrival…

Dapin, invoking a sporting metaphor, suggests that some men went to Vietnam for the adventure, which might also be true:

The platoon hated cordon-and-search operations.  They had come to Vietnam for a fight.  The one thing they wanted was to meet an enemy the same size as them – no, bigger – and fight him hand to hand, toe to toe, eye to f- eye, to shoot at men in uniform and be blasted in return.  They craved their father’s war, not this one.

The platoon had lost four men […] and never even seen a VC*.  They were fit and hard and armed and angry, trained up like first-grade footballers, moving instinctively as a team, working exactly the way they had been drilled.  And every week – every single f- week of the season – they were promised a fixture against the opposition, but when they arrived at the stadium the ground was deserted, with only a handful of old men in the stands, who hated them for their stupidity and their audacity, and turned their backs when the team waved to the crowd.

They were infantry soldiers, and none of them enjoyed frightening farmers.  They felt they’d been lied to, but they couldn’t say by whom.  And now here they were again, marching into the dawn, bogeymen for the village children. (p.263-4)

*Viet Cong, communists from the north, the eventual victors in the war.

R&R is a confronting novel, but I think it’s a compelling one. I suspect that Dapin has a strong readership amongst men, but IMO it’s instructive for women to read him too.

Author: Mark Dapin
Title: R&R, a novel
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2015
ISBN: 9780670078202
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival

Available from Fishpond: R&R

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2017

Julie Goodwin’s Essential Cookbook, (book review)

JUlie Goodwin's Essential Cookbook Well, I’ve barely had time to try more than a few recipes from Wow! It’s Italian when lo! into my PO box came Julie Goodwin’s Essential Cookbook today.

Masterchef aficionados will recognise the author as the winner of the very first Australian Masterchef season in 2009.  Julie Goodwin is proof that this TV reality program changes lives.  Formerly an IT professional, she now writes a regular food column for a magazine, she’s on radio, she runs a cooking school and she is the author of six cookbooks:

This Essential Cookbook isn’t the glossy coffee table type: it’s under $40 for the paperback version, and it’s not lavishly illustrated like many cookbooks are.  It’s more the sort of cookbook that makes an ideal gift for young people starting out in their own kitchens or for someone who’s just never learned to cook.  It’s very like the cookbook that my colleague at the State Film Centre, Mrs Mac, gave me as a wedding present long, long ago, inscribed with the now somewhat quaint message that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’

Well, the world has changed and now it’s not just women who are expected to do their share in the kitchen.  But many families live on takeaway and reheated meals from the supermarket freezer, and so there are people of all ages who don’t know how to cook at all.  Sometimes it’s when the two-income family drops to one that the cost of this lifestyle becomes unsustainable.  Sometimes there’s a need to learn to cook because of health issues.  Whatever the reason there’s a need for sensible cookbooks with family recipes, and that’s the purpose of this Essential Cookbook.

The 250-odd recipes are everyday basics, made with everyday and mostly inexpensive ingredients.  In the Introduction Julie explains that this is because it was written for her newly adult children:

I want them to have these recipes not just so that they can cook well but so they can cook for the people in their lives and, through that act of love, draw them closer and make they feel valued.  So they can create new memories of their own, and by doing that be truly connected to the patchwork of our family through generations.  So they can have family meals like we have – gathered around a table, appreciating the food, laughing and talking about the day.  So their children might develop their own passion for cooking and pay it forward to their children.

The book is set out in sections:

  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Sauces, soups and dips
  • Vegetables and preserves
  • Baking
  • Desserts.

There are some blank pages to add your own recipes or notes, and a comprehensive index, set out alphabetically, the way I like it.

I’m certainly not a beginner in the kitchen so the recipes in the savoury sections were almost all familiar to me, though there were some dips and sauces I like the sound of:

  • Roast beetroot dip
  • Blue cheese and almond dip
  • Caramelised onion jam
  • Baileys and white chocolate dipping sauce!

But my repertoire is only now in my retirement extending to baking.  My father is in aged care, and he loves sweet things.  But for ease of swallowing, the daily treats I bring him have to be moist, not crisp, and so I headed straight for the baking section, where I found a good selection of new things to try.

  • Little carrot cakes (I’ll make some, for us, with the candied walnuts, and leave them off for my dad)
  • Lime coconut cupcakes (the lime tree is in season now, yay!)
  • a Zucchini cake for when we are drowning in next summer’s zucchinis) – and also the Pea, Zucchini and Feta Muffins
  • an inexpensive Chocolate cake (many recipes these days call for luxury chocolate as an ingredient, this one just uses cocoa powder and the choc bits you buy in the supermarket)
  • Lemon scented scones with lemon curd
  • Tiny mud cakes

There’s a good selection of flourless cakes too:

  • Flourless chocolate cake
  • Flourless citrus syrup cake (which takes 3 hours cooking time, but with lime, lemon and oranges, it sounds divine).
  • Flourless almond and pistachio syrup cake

The desserts include crumbles and steamed puddings which, once learned, become adaptable to other fruits than the ones in the recipes.  There’s also the infamous Banoffee Pavlova Roulade, not one I will ever make but I’m sure many people will.   There’s two trifle recipes, an old-fashioned sherry trifle and a delicious chocolate one with Frangelico and raspberries.  There’s a stunning Christmas wreath (if I ever master the art of making choux pastry) and six different cheesecakes, including the New York style version.  But the star of this section is, with Easter approaching, the Hot Cross Bun and Butter pudding, which is basically HCBs in a custard – what a clever idea!

Update: 9/4/17 Well, I did say that I was a novice in the baking department.  The chocolate cake was not a success.  I followed the recipe exactly, as you do when you are making a recipe for the first time, except for one thing.  I didn’t have a cake tin that measured 30 x 40, and I didn’t buy one because I didn’t think I would ever want to make a cake as big as that (30cm is the size of a ruler, and 40cm is one-third bigger again.  It wouldn’t have fitted in my cake storer either).   So I used the largest round pan I had.  I don’t have a photo of the mixture oozing out of the sides of it all over the oven, nor do I have a picture of my dismay as I kept putting it back in ‘for another five minutes’ until over an hour later it was finally cooked in the middle. I am not sure that I will put a ganache on the top of it, because although it tastes quite nice, I think the crispy side bits that are a bit dry are better chopped off and made into a chocolate trifle, maybe with the Frangelico and raspberries as suggested in the book.  BTW I would be very careful if doing this recipe with small children: the cocoa powder has to be mixed with boiling water and then set aside till it cools so there’s a potential for burns.

Julie Goodwin cake, icedUpdate, the next day: I recovered my equanimity and decided to try the chocolate ganache.  I think it must be fool-proof because it turned out perfectly and although I dripped some of it onto the work surface, that was my fault and not because it was too runny.  I put crispy choc balls on top instead of the suggested peanuts.  Yum:)

BTW One point I forgot to note in my review is that the text for the ingredients is a hard-on-the-eyes pale blue or other pastel colour.  Anyone with colour blindness of the grey/green/blue variety would probably not be able to see it.

2017 Julie Goodwin's Hot Cross Bun and Butter puddingUpdate: after Easter

My Hot Cross Bun and Butter pudding doesn’t look as neat and tidy as Julie’s does (slightly different sized pan and maybe bigger HCBs)  but the recipe is dead easy, not messy or time-consuming to make, and it tastes delicious.  We had it for pudding for Easter Sunday lunch with friends.

PD Just in case you’re wondering, that beautiful hand-made lazy-Susan made with Meakin bone china comes from a craft shop in the Huon Valley in Tassie.

Author Julie Goodwin
Title: Julie Goodwin’s Essential Cookbook
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733637117
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available postage free in Australian and New Zealand from Fishpond Julie Goodwin’s Essential Cookbook – but if you want it for Mother’s Day you might need to order it promptly.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2017

Where the Light Falls, by Gretchen Shirm

At school, it was always the quiet ones who concerned me.  In whole class discussions – even in small group discussions with carefully chosen participants with empathy and patience – the students who would take forever to make any contribution used to worry me.  These were smart, thoughtful children, often capable in non-verbal activities of producing original ideas in creative ways.  But in the rough and tumble of a classroom or a playground, their habit of thinking long and hard while we waited for what seemed to be a forthcoming response only to have them lapse into an impenetrable silence, made things difficult.  What would become of them in a workplace, I used to wonder, and how would their relationships work out?

Gretchen Shirm’s debut novel Where the Light Falls features a character like this. Andrew has solved the workplace problem by becoming a notable photographer.  He works his own hours – free from routines, suits and deadlines – and by moving from Australia to Berlin he has been able to build a career that doesn’t have to include photographing cat food or weddings.  He’s not wealthy, but enough art lovers buy his photographs for him to have solo exhibitions.

He has a nice girlfriend too.  She’s a dance teacher called Dom (Dominique) and she wears bright and colourful hats that are a cry of protest in the grey Berlin streets.  But – consistent with Andrew’s interest in the honesty in broken things – she is wounded by her experience as a dancer never having quite got the break she wanted.  Andrew admires the way she can talk about failure.  He doesn’t seem to be able to talk about anything.


We learn as the story progresses that Andrew hasn’t been able to communicate about anything that’s important to him.  He gets an email about the unexplained disappearance of an old girlfriend called Kirsten that he had abandoned without explanation, and – without really explaining to Dom, or to the gallery about to mount a major exhibition of his work – he flies back to Sydney to find out more about it.  The reader learns that, in childhood, Andrew never asked his mother how his father died, and he had never told her that he had continued to see this girlfriend for sex even after they had split up.  So he doesn’t really explain to her why he is there, and he doesn’t tell her about his inconclusive contacts  with Kirsten’s family.

Something else he hasn’t told the art gallery is that he doesn’t yet have enough photos for the looming exhibition, but by chance in a Sydney playground he comes across a child with a lopsided smile and (somewhat unconvincingly) the mother agrees to let him take photos of her.  Andrew realises that he has caught something special in his photos of Phoebe, but then hesitates (as we knew he would) to use them in the exhibition.  By now he’s not just putting his career at risk by messing around the gallery manager, he’s risking his relationship with Dom who is (understandably) puzzled and irritated by his enigmatic silences about why he has deferred his return to Berlin.

The story hits another credibility hurdle when the inquest takes place six weeks after Kirsten’s disappearance.  For reasons that are obvious, coronial inquests don’t take place a mere six weeks after a disappearance, especially not when there was no witness who saw what happened and no body has been found.  Even less likely is that a memorial service would be held so soon; families tend to hold onto hope long after it is rational.  As it became more clear that Kirsten was a disturbed young woman, I kept expecting her to turn up after having faked her disappearance as an attention-getting device.  Or perhaps contacting her mother with news that she had found a new man, one with a more decisive personality and more cheerful to live with.

As a portrait of a certain type of personality, Where the Light Falls succeeds with clear insights.  Behaviours that look inexplicable are revealed to have reasons, and a man who seems to be thoughtless and cavalier about the emotions of other people is shown to be anything but.  Shirm’s use of metaphor is beautifully controlled, with examples that reinforce the ‘broken things’ theme: Andrew walks on a carpet the colour of eggshells (p.224) and the heavy thud of a jackhammer working through cement (p.123) is in the background as he has a conversation with an old friend.  Shirm writes evocatively about the way Andrew frames what he sees as an artist does, and she shows the longing Australians often have, to see the great works of art that are for us so far away:

Since he’d been back in Sydney he’d already visited all the galleries he used to see in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. He’d been to the museums but he’d found nothing he could stand in front of and lose himself inside.  What he would give now to see a Rembrandt.  On his last visit to the Rijksmuseum, when he’d travelled to Amsterdam from Berlin for a group show, he had finally worked out what it was he loved about Rembrandt’s paintings.  It was his sparing use of light.  He spent hours standing in front of paintings, perfectly still, allowing them to seep inside him.

The darkness of them, the paint thick, coating the canvas like molasses, the emphasis placed on people, on their expressions, the way they looked at one another and out of the frame.  The artist had used light to illuminate people’s faces and offer a glimpse into their thoughts.  A painter he’d met at an artist’s residency had said the reason Rembrandt’s paintings had that darkness to them was because he primed his canvases with black paint.  He wondered sometimes what Rembrandt would have made of a camera.  He had the sensibility of a photographer, the same feeling for light.  (p. 254)

Nevertheless, the book suffers from its rather maudlin storyline and claustrophobic characterisation.  Death and damaged people permeate the atmosphere.   Andrew’s frailty dominates the characterisation so much so that few of the other characters seem more than shadows.  His quest to interrogate his past at the risk of his present doesn’t seem fully resolved – and that’s the risk with a novel like this.  Having invested so much in one character, the reader is torn between wanting him to sort himself out and knowing that with his personality it’s unlikely that he will.  The writing about photography as art was engaging, but ultimately I found myself waiting for more, as I used to do with those kids at school.

The cover?  Don’t get me started…

See also Candida Baker’s review at the SMH.

Author: Gretchen Shirm
Title: Where the Light Falls
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760113650
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Where the Light Falls

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2017

Billy Sing, by Ouyang Yu

Billy Sing is a novella from Ouyang Yu, a multi-award-winning Chinese Australian author and poet whose work I have read and (mostly) enjoyed before.  Ostensibly the story is based on the real-life story of the famed Gallipoli sniper, William Edward Sing who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ and the Belgian Croix de Guerre for his service on the Western Front.

As in much of his other fiction and poetry, Ouyang Yu in this first-person narrative focusses on bi-racial identity in this fictionalised version of Sing’s life.  Born in the late 19th century to a Chinese father drawn by the gold rush to Australia from Shanghai, the fictional Sing has a complex identity forged by two cultures.  His mother was English, proud of the fact that she was born ‘near’ Shakespeare’s home town, as if that conferred some kind of prestige on her own birthplace.  His father’s stories – and his frequently cited advice – derive from his ancestry, and are passed on orally.  His mother’s stories come from the rich tradition of English literature, but Sing is not interested in reading.  Bookended between the accounts of racist incidents in his lonely childhood and adolescence, and a brief account of his post-war life and a troubled marriage, is Sing’s account of his war service.

Appropriately for a story that is focussed so much on the death and destruction of WW1, Sing lives between a world of ghosts and of nightmare.  He finds that he is accepted on the battlefield, because he is so skilled at killing and so blasé about the lives he has taken.  The author Ion Idress makes an appearance (though I wouldn’t have recognised the allusion if I hadn’t come across ‘the old fraud’ Idress in Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran).  It wasn’t until I read Peter Pierce’s review at The Australian (paywalled) that I understood the significance of this:

Idriess’s notebook describes the sniper as ‘‘a picturesque looking mankiller’’, whose story he eventually published as Lurking Death in 1942.

It isn’t always easy to follow what’s going in terms of reality, especially in the latter part of the book when in an apparent delirium Sing makes a surreal journey to his ancestral village in China.   Accompanied by his wife Fenella who is disgusted by the superstitious behaviour of the villagers, he finds that although there are numerous members of the Sing family, he still doesn’t have the acceptance he craves.  He is shamed when, through a medium, the voice of his grandfather calls him a demi-devil, one who had lost half the content of his original Chinese blood. 

Sing’s relationship with the Scottish Fenella suggests a different kind of racism.  Fenella is scornful about Australia, not wanting to go with him to a place full of convicts.  (This is in the early 20th century, well after transportation ended.)  Nevertheless he persuades her to come home with him to Prosperine, but his post-war life is not a success, partly because he is in ruins, my body riddled with wounds and partly because his role as a spectacularly efficient killer has no currency in post-war Australia.  So his life reverts to the old racism.

Yu includes three Chinese recipes that Sing acquired from his father’s recipes, signalling that for many Australians, multiculturalism just means exotic food…

I’m open to correction on this, but I have a quibble about Yu’s twice-stated reference to the corpses brought home from the battlefields.  My understanding is that the dead were not repatriated, because of the numbers involved and the costs.

Update: 17/4/17 Janine has reviewed Billy Sing at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

Author: Ouang Yu
Title: Billy Sing
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 201y
ISBN: 9780995359444
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: Billy Sing

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2017

Old Growth by John Kinsella

I don’t have time to read everything I’d like to, but I’d like to spread the word about Old Growth by John Kinsella – so follow the link to Nathan Hobby’s review:)

Nathan Hobby, a biographer in Perth

old-growthJohn Kinsella Old Growth 254pp Transit Lounge, 2017. Review copy supplied by publisher.

John Kinsella’s new short story collection, Old Growth, is a wondrously Western Australian book, centred on the wheatbelt with regular trips to Fremantle, the suburbs around Bicton on the south of the river, and up to Geraldton. Yet its pleasures are not just in its sense of place, but its capturing of so many different ordinary lives lived in these places.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2017

Return to Moscow, by Tony Kevin

If a school is a microcosm of society, then the travel itineraries of teachers are probably typical.  In the staffrooms I frequented, there was always chat about travel plans: to the UK and US and all over Europe, especially to France,  Spain; Italy, Ireland and Germany.  Closer to home, to Bali, to Thailand, to Fiji, China, Vietnam and Japan.

But not Russia.  In all my years of listening to (and envying) dinner party and staffroom travel plans and post-mortems, I’ve only ever once met someone who’d been to Russia.

Well, we all know why. We grew up during the Cold War, and we (thought we) knew what Russia was like because we watched James Bond movies and we read the dissident literature of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler.  So we knew there was nothing touristy to see.  Nothing but propaganda soviet art or perhaps intimidating parades of military might in Red Square.  Bad food, bad service, woeful hotels, and scary grey-faced officials poised to frogmarch us off to Siberia if we infringed on the rules of the totalitarian state. Nobody I knew ever wanted to travel to the USSR…

Return to Moscow confirms these depressing Cold War images.  When author Tony Kevin went there as a junior diplomat during the Cold War it was tagged as a ‘hardship posting’ because of the bleak conditions, and Kevin makes it clear that it wasn’t just the weather that was bleak. He also tells us that the reason Russians weren’t keen to socialise with Westerners was because of the risk of being sent to the gulags for fraternisation.  Diplomats lived in a bubble of embassy life, for everyone’s safety…

Well, things change, yet even when The Spouse and I went to newly capitalist Russia in 2012, every time I made my pathetic attempts at speaking Russian, the response was an incredulous and delighted “Avstrarlya? Long way!”  The people I met in the cafés, shops, restaurants and museums in Moscow and St Petersburg had never met an Australian before.  Even the immigration officials at the airport seemed a bit startled to encounter Australian passports, and from what we could make out in the empty echoing hall we two were the only tourists on our flight: all the rest were locals coming home or transit passengers en route to the US, shuffled off to a transit lounge somewhere else.

While tourists and locals alike struggle with summertime hordes in the rest of Europe and the UK, Russian tourism is low-key indeed.  Yet Russia could be a popular tourist destination: it’s an art-lover, lit-lover and history-buff’s paradise, the weather (in August-September) is mild, there are lots of good restaurants and hotels, public transport is excellent and the people are friendly and helpful.  The only time we encountered ‘Soviet’ service was in St Petersburg when we went to the hilariously retro Kvartirka Soviet Café  which deliberately recreates the Soviet era with a very rustic menu and gloomy waitresses barking orders.  It was one of many examples of the Russian sense of humour.

But Russia’s potential as a tourist destination looks doubtful these days. Putin’s Russia is demonised on a daily basis and Russian relations with the West have deteriorated spectacularly.  Even when Russian air support helped to liberate the historic heritage city of Palmyra from ISIS, nobody had a good word to say about it.  Because I’m interested in Russia, and because I think we owe our freedom from the Nazis to the Soviets turning them back at Stalingrad in 1943, I was curious about this disdain.  When I heard on the ABC that Tony Kevin – former diplomat and author of Walking the Camino had written a new book about just that, I asked my library to get me a copy of Return to Moscow…

In this fascinating and informative book, Tony Kevin delves into Russian history and the evolution of the ‘Russian soul’.  With serviceable Russian language skills at his command, he talks to people and reads their newspapers.  He goes to the new museums which memorialise the 20th century past of gulags and repression against Jews.  A keen reader of great works of Russian literature, he analyses the works of Pasternak, Tolstoy and Pushkin in the context of Russian history and culture.

And he traces the gradual – sometimes heroic – 20th century movement away from totalitarianism towards freedom, much of which has never been properly acknowledged by the West.

Perhaps we should now in the West begin to give more credit to the huge liberalisation in Soviet life that began soon after the death of Stalin in 1953, a theme which comes through clearly in [the] Gulag Museum.  [It’s amazing: Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry about this museum!] It was Stalin’s politburo member Nikita Khrushchev, aided by a few key allies, most importantly, World War II hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who in the first tense days after Stalin’s death, and at great risk to their own lives, arrested and quickly tried and executed the powerful secret police chief Lavrenty Beria.

Khrushchev then started as fast as he could to pardon or amnesty large numbers of Gulag prisoners and petty criminals, to close down most of the camps, and to cancel orders for compulsory exile.  In his ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, he denounced the damage done to the Soviet Union by Stalin’s  cult of personality and his repressive purges. He initiated a wave of legal rehabilitations that officially restored the reputations of many millions of innocent victims who had been killed or imprisoned under Stalin.  He made tentative moves to relax restrictions on freedom of expression held over from the rule of Stalin.  Khrushchev introduced and oversaw a cultural ‘thaw’ that humanised Soviet life in many important ways.

Khrushchev, like Gorbachev thirty-two years later, was trying to humanise communism, while keeping it communist.  Cold War tensions eventually discredited and defeated him, but the Soviet Union never returned to the harsh horrors of Stalinism.  Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev – all ran regimes under which people felt it safe at last to criticise Kremlin leaders.  (p.194)

In the last chapters of this well-researched book, Kevin takes on the comic-book caricature of post-Communist Russia that has emerged in the West.  He sees it as

… a reasonably decent political society, which is trying to move forward with dignity and civility, and in conditions of peace and security, to repair the damage of an unimaginably traumatic past hundred years, and to contribute positively as a major Eurasian regional power and United Nations Security Council Permanent Member to a stable and improving world order of sovereign states, in accordance with the UN charter.

The other Russia is a corrupt, kleptocratic, often brutally malevolent and vengeful, sometimes incompetent and ridiculous, kind of Mordor, a sham democracy, a mafia state that spends much of its time and energy scheming to gain strategic advantage over the civilised world upon which it borders, and which it threatens.  (p.226)

He makes a persuasive case for Russian concern about its own security after the West reneged on agreements not to militarise the ex-Soviet republics on its borders.  And he seems prescient about the dangers:

Some might say that I am picturing here conflicts of views in a policy-wonk world of international security rivalry which has little relevance to real life.  But it does.  The attempts since the early 2000s to push Russia away from normal human and commercial exchanges with the rest of Europe are real, vicious in their intent, and have already been far-reaching in their strategic and human consequences.  The mass military destruction since 2014 of cities, homes and lives in eastern Ukraine, as carried out by the West’s reckless and irresponsible protégés in Kiev, is a real war.  The still unsolved tragedy of MH17 was a real criminal shoot-down of innocent international passengers.  The burnings to death by Ukrainian Nazis of peaceful protesters deliberately trapped in an Odessa trade union building, as Ukrainian police looked on doing nothing, were real.  These are all crimes against humanity.  There are grave dangers of more of the same if East-West relations continue to worsen.  (p.255)

If Tony Kevin is right, Australian tourists like us might not have been so welcome if we had travelled more recently.

When a Russian civilian airliner was sabotaged and exploded over Sinai by Islamic State terrorists in November 2015, killing some 224 mostly Russian holiday-makers on their way home, including many women and children, the Australian Foreign Minister incredibly did not bother to send a condolence message to her Russian counterpart – something several NATO foreign ministers including US Secretary of State John Kerry to their credit promptly did, despite continuing poor East-West relations over Ukraine. No one in the Australian Government, opposition or media thought the Australian Foreign Minister’s indifference to this major tragedy worth commenting on: a stark measure of how desensitised some governments in the Western alliance have become in recent years towards the need to observe normal international decencies towards Russia. (p.245)

How has it come to this? Why is our government abandoning the usual rules of diplomatic civility, why is the media relentless in its negativity towards Russia, and why are we witnessing the rhetoric of a Cold War V2? Such demonization might have made sense in V1 – the Soviets were keen to spread their economic system around the world and there were two nuclear-armed superpowers in competition for the hearts and minds of working people everywhere.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was for real.  But Russia isn’t trying to inflict communism on anyone any more.  It’s a capitalist state in a capitalist world.

International relations are a complex matter, and mostly much too complicated for ordinary mortals to comprehend.  Nevertheless if we’re going to get involved in US/Russian squabbles that may become more serious, we should at least have some idea of the Russian point-of-view. Return to Moscow is both entertaining reading as a travel memoir and a thought-provoking book that deserves to be widely read.

Update 4/4/17 I am pleased to see that the ABC is reporting that our prime minister is offering condolences to the victims of the St Petersburg metro explosion.  That’s an indication of improved observance of normal diplomatic relations.

Author: Tony Kevin
Title: Return to Moscow
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2017
ISBN: 9781742589299
Source: Kingston Library, who acquired it at my request (though I bet they would have got it anyway).

Available from Fishpond: Return to Moscow

PS It’s not yet available as an eBook, but I hope it becomes available in the US, UK and Europe soon too.
PPS You can read a generous extract of 32 pages at the UWAP website.


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