Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2018

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

Melmoth was an impulse choice, on display at the library and I’d seen it online somewhere amongst the blogs I read.  Sarah Perry is the author of The Essex Serpent which won multiple awards, and I had hovered over that one at the library too, ultimately deciding that I probably wouldn’t like it.

What I had forgotten about Melmoth is that it has antecedents in 1001 Books You Must Read.  Wikipedia reminds me that Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by an Irish Protestant clergyman called Charles Robert Maturin is a classic Gothic horror story on a Faustian theme, and Honore de Balzac wrote a (rather liverish) follow-up story called Melmoth Reconciled (which I’ve summarised at Goodreads, if you are so inclined).

Well, Perry’s Melmoth is moralistic too, despite its blurb which claims the book to be:

a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

First of all, the entire premise of the book is flawed.  Perry’s Melmoth is a woman condemned to walk the earth for centuries because she refused to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ.  Now, if you know the Jesus story at all (and most people surely do), you know that he was the poster boy for redemption, not Old Testament or Sisyphusian punishments for eternity.  And unlike the original Melmoth who knowingly bought into his Faustian pact for personal gain, this female Melmoth gained nothing for her ‘sin’.

Anyway…

The central character, Helen Franklin, has been mortifying the flesh for twenty years in suitably Gothic Prague. While not actually self-flagellating, she has been denying herself the pleasures of good coffee, scrumptious European cakes, sheets on the mattress in her dingy room, and yes, even the magic of music, and all because of her sin, which is (tiresomely) withheld until well into the book.  Her sole solace is a lukewarm friendship with Karel and Thea, and he *spoiler alert* turns out to be a cad because he deserts Thea in her hour of need.  (Men are so shabby about older women when they stop being sexy, aren’t they? Serves him right if Melmoth haunts him, eh?)

But before Karel bunks off to London he thoughtfully leaves Helen with all the docs she needs to learn about an assortment of sightings of Melmoth (Perry’s female one).  All of these are refusals to bear witness, and Perry being the exceptionally good writer that she is, the book manages to transcend its silliness with depictions of human wickedness that are extremely confronting.

But it’s not enough to redeem the book for me, I’m afraid.  And the ending, which has apparently reduced some at Goodreads to tears, looks like a cheap, manipulative trick to me…

Author: Sarah Perry
Title: Melmoth
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2018, 271 pages
ISBN: 9781788160667
Source: Kingston Library

As in previous years, these are the books I really liked and admired during 2018.  They are books that I read this year, not necessarily published this year.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, there are plenty of other sources singing the praises of books published elsewhere.  All links go to my reviews.

Fiction Longlist

I rated all of these Australian and New Zealand books 4-stars at Goodreads, and I felt a surge of pleasure remembering them when I looked at their covers at Goodreads See What You Read in 2018 (which doesn’t, due to some glitch, I suppose, actually record everything I read in 2018 but I’ve found a way round that).  (NB I reserve five stars for a work of genius such as James Joyce’s Ulysses).  I have been brutal, removing some beaut books to get this list to a maximum of 40.  Here are my books in alphabetical order… 8 authors from New Zealand are in italics.

  1. Relatively Famous (2018) by Roger Averill
  2. Book of Colours (2018) by Robyn Cadwallader
  3. The Beat of the Pendulum (2017) by Catherine Chidgey 
  4. Shadow Sisters (2018) by Shelley Davidow
  5. A Sand Archive, (2018) by Gregory Day
  6. The Sweet Hills of Florence (2018) by Jan Wallace Dickinson
  7. The New Ships (2018) by Kate Duignan
  8. The Earth Cries Out (2017) by Bonnie Etherington
  9. Salt Picnic (2017) by Patrick Evans
  10. The Bridge (2018) by Enza Gandolfo
  11. Gwen, (2017) by Goldie Goldbloom
  12. A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline (2018) by Glenda Guest
  13. Heloise (2017) by Mandy Hager
  14. A Stolen Season (2018) by Rodney Hall
  15. The Year of the Farmer, (2018) by Rosalie Ham
  16. The Last Garden (2018) by Eva Hornung
  17. Stories from Suburban Road, (1983, reissued 2018) by TAG Hungerford
  18. The Bed-making Competition (2018) by Anna Jackson
  19. Dustfall (2018) by Michelle Johnston
  20. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981, reissued 2015) by Elizabeth Jolley
  21. Swim, (2018) by Avi Duckor-Jones
  22. Paint Your Wife, (2004) by Lloyd Jones
  23. A Perfect Stone (2018) by S K Karakaltsas
  24. Too Much Lip (2018) by Melissa Lucashenko
  25. The Everlasting Sunday (2018) by Robert Lukins
  26. Big Rough Stones (2018) by Meg Merrilees
  27. A Superior Spectre, (2018) by Angela Meyer
  28. Dyschronia, (2018) by Jennifer Mills
  29. The Fireflies of Autumn, (2018) by Giovannoni Moreno
  30. Border Districts (2017) by Gerald Murnane
  31. The Biographer’s Lover (2018) by Ruby J Murray
  32. The Children’s House, (2018) by Alice Nelson
  33. Shell (2018) by Kristina Olsson
  34. We Are Not Most People, (2018) by Tracy Ryan
  35. The Day They Shot Edward (1991, revised edition 2018) by Wendy Scarfe
  36. Half Wild, (2017) by Pip Smith
  37. Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865, reissued 1988) by Catherine Helen Spence
  38. Poor Man’s Wealth (2011) by Rod Usher
  39. Welcome to Orphancorp (2015) by Marlee Jane Ward
  40. Nyarla and the Circle of Stones, (2015) The Fethafoot Chronicles #1, by Pemulwuy Weeatunga

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories (BTW my original list was closer to 30.)

  1. A Coveted Possession, the Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, (2018) by Michael Atherton
  2. Trump in Asia, The New World Disorder, (2018) Australian Foreign Affairs Vol #1
  3. The Big Picture, Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, (2018) Australian Foreign Affairs Vol 2
  4. The Forgotten Notebook (2015) by Betty Churcher
  5. Letting Go, How to Plan for a Good Death, (2018) by Dr Charlie Corke
  6. Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender (2018) by Richard Davis
  7. On Rape, (2018) by Germaine Greer
  8. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, (2018) edited by Anita Heiss
  9. Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman (2014) by Bronwen Hickman
  10. The Arsonist, a Mind on Fire (2018) by Chloe Hooper
  11. How to Be Deaf (2016) by Rosie Malezer
  12. On Borrowed Time, (2018) by Robert Manne
  13. Vodka and Apple Juice (2018) by Jay Martin
  14. Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, (2018) by Peter Monteath
  15. Always Another Country (2018) by Sisonke Msimang
  16. Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries (2018) by Barbara Santich
  17. Bella and Chaim, the Story of Beauty and Life, (2017) by Sara Rina Vidal
  18. Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, (2018) by Michelle Scott Tucker
  19. Without America: Australia in the New Asia (2018) by Hugh White (Quarterly Essay #68)
  20. You Daughters of Freedom, (2018) by Clare Wright

The shortlists

Now, how to whittle them down? Gosh, this was hard this year.  Once again my criteria was: keep the books that have I banged on about most to people in my f2f life, but that meant some really absorbing, interesting or innovative books went by the wayside, which is testament to the quality of Australian and New Zealand writing.  However, I still think it’s a good criteria, because it goes to the longevity of a book.  Once again I have read 200+ books this year and I am always talking about books online, but the books that made their way into everyday conversation with family and friends had something special about them. These books weren’t just good to read, pleasurable, entertaining, or absorbing.  I earbashed f2f people about the themes and issues and insights in these books because they discuss significant ideas. (And note Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will—published in 1865 and still relevant today). 

For publication dates, see the longlists.

Best ANZ LitLovers Fiction Books of 2017 

  1. Relatively Famous by Roger Averill
  2. The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey
  3. The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington
  4. The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
  5. Gwen, by Goldie Goldbloom
  6. The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham
  7. Dustfall by Michelle Johnston
  8. Paint Your Wife, by Lloyd Jones
  9. Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
  10. A Superior Spectre, by Angela Meyer
  11. Border Districts by Gerald Murnane
  12. The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J Murray
  13. Shell by Kristina Olsson
  14. Half Wild, by Pip Smith
  15. Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence

Best ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction Books of 2017 

  1. The Big Picture, Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, Australian Foreign Affairs Vol 2
  2. Letting Go, How to Plan for a Good Death, by Charlie Corke
  3. On Rape, by Germaine Greer
  4. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss
  5. The Arsonist, a Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper
  6. Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, by Peter Monteath
  7. Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang
  8. Bella and Chaim, the Story of Beauty and Life, by Sara Rina Vidal
  9. Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, by Michelle Scott Tucker
  10. You Daughters of Freedom, by Clare Wright

And finally…

The ANZ LitLovers Book of the Year is… 

*drum roll*

(no surprise really, because I have raved about this book, but this has been a great year for both fiction and non-fiction!)

Shell by Kristina Olsson.  

 

.

 

Over to you

Your thoughts on my choices?  What was your best book of the year?

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2018

The Biographer’s Lover, by Ruby J Murray

Just as well I don’t do my Best Books of the Year until it’s almost the end of the year…If it’s not too late, put this one on your list for Santa.  Or beg for a book voucher to buy it…

The Biographer’s Lover is Ruby J. Murray’s second novel and I think it’s even better than her first, Running Dogs (2012) which was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s awards and earned Murray the accolade of SMH Best Young Novelist.

Judging by its ubiquity in blurbs for commercial (so-called) women’s fiction, ‘secrets’ and The Big Reveal are a mainstay in publishing and there is a well-worn route to the kind of ‘secrets’ on offer.  I would not have bought this book if ‘secrets’ had featured in its blurb so let me reassure readers that The Biographer’s Lover is not that kind of book, not at all. However I am going to be evasive about aspects of this most absorbing novel.  When you read it you will understand why.

Carefully constructed in alternating short chapters as part biography, part story of how the biography came to be written, the novel tells the story of a forgotten (entirely fictional) woman artist called Edna Cranmer and her nameless biographer.  When Edna dies, her daughter Victoria hires a ghost writer with a Master’s in art history to tell her story: the intention is to have Edna’s work recognised and the biography is part of a strategy to generate interest in the artist.

The biographer is down on her luck, writing dreary self-help books of the inane variety (’16 Tricks with Scarves’) and her agent sets up this project as a backdoor way of getting to write a sporting bio of Edna’s son Percy who is famous for playing football in AFL-mad Geelong.  The Sydney Olympics are in sight, and the market for books about (male) sporting heroes is about to take off.  Anne-Marie surmises that there would be more sales of a footy bio than one about a forgotten woman artist, and she is not best pleased when the biographer becomes intrigued by the project and sticks with it despite all kinds of problems, not the least of which is not having any money.

Murray’s descriptions of the art works convincingly establish this fictional Edna Cranmore as a great artist.   The first painting the biographer sees in Edna’s old studio is disappointing in its ordinariness, and she nearly turns away.  But then she sees ‘Morning II’:

… a bright, wild crash of empty field. Scattered red poppies in the rolling green, bursts about to move in an unseen wind. Delicate but violent, beautiful.  So detailed, so nearly real. Broken stones that disappeared into the long grass, and in the deep and shifting shade of the tree line, I thought I could make out figures, observing me observing them.  (p.19)

The paintings fall into two categories: controlled, jewel-like images.  Portraits and landscapes. Soldiers and nurses in uniform, people at work, in factories, on farms. And then there are dreamscapes: sprawling images that looked much closer to the work of the Antipodeans, paintings that held stories and hints and allusions.

Edna’s sketchbooks reveal a preoccupation with war:

I did not immediately recognise what I was looking at. Then the lines began resolving into torn bodies.  She had filled the whole sketchbook with them. […] There were no notes in the sketchbook, only the endless shredded men in her beautiful lines. (p.20)

Edna, whose work had been rejected by the Archibald Prize, whose application to be a war artist had failed, whose work had rarely been exhibited and had sold very little is a major talent. She could be the next Grace Cossington Smith, the biographer tells Edna’s husband Max.  This is the story that Victoria wants told, the story of a great artist unrecognised because she was a woman.

But biography is a slippery art.  Some members of the family are garrulous but ultimately unhelpful, while others are evasive and won’t even agree to be interviewed.  There is more to Edna’s experiences and preoccupations than the desired image of her as an artist neglected because of her gender.  In Nathan Hobby’s review of this novel, he describes the biographer’s purpose: a quest for truth of the subject’s life, often involving the recovery of lost letters or diaries but here the letters are embargoed and diaries don’t exist.  Victoria wants her mother’s life told through her artworks, and she puts up road blocks to steer the biographer in the intended direction.

Curiosity, however, is part of a biographer’s armoury, and with the sale of her few treasured possessions, the biographer gets to France to discover a crucial part of the jigsaw.  There is then an ethical question to be tackled, one which bedevils every biographer and memoirist.  Truth often leaves hurt victims in its wake, and the deteriorating relationship with the members of Edna’s family muddies the biographer’s motivations.  Part of this excellent novel’s trajectory is the biographer’s coming of age: coming to terms with her childhood and adolescence in a provincial city; her limp relationship with her widowed mother; her habit of judging other women by the clothes they wear; her own failed marriage and her denial of her Ex’s perfidy.

But in a nation obsessed with selective remembrance, it is the denial of certain truths about war that Murray exposes through Edna’s artwork with startling clarity.  The narrative references events in the 1980s (which I remember) that have since been wholly suppressed by the remembrance industry.  Our national myths are sacrosanct.  Ultimately, it is the question of why we have allowed that to happen, and what we should do about discomfiting truths, that will engross book groups, I suspect!

Helen Sullivan at the SMH admired it too.  See also Nathan’s review at A Biographer in Perth

Author: Ruby J. Murray
Title: The Biographer’s Lover
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781863959421
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore $29.99
Available from Fishpond: The Biographer’s Lover and you can also buy the eBook for $12.99 from Black Inc Books where there are also book group questions.

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2018

2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists

The 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced today.

Shortlists

Fiction
Flames by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review
Ironbark by Jay Carmichael (Scribe Publications)
The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese by Moreno Giovannoni (Black Inc. Books) see my review
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (Text Publishing)
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (University of Queensland Press) see my review
The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Faber & Faber)

Non-fiction
No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Picador Australia)
Staying: A Memoir by Jessie Cole (Text Publishing)
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin)
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Brow Books)

Drama
The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver (Currency Press, in association with Griffin Theatre Company)
Going Down by Michele Lee (Malthouse Theatre)
Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine (Currency Press, in association with Belvoir)

Poetry
Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada (Giramondo Publishing)
Tilt by Kate Lilley (Vagabond Press)
Milk Teeth by Rae White (University of Queensland Press), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker

Writing for Young Adults
Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
Between Us by Clare Atkins (Black Inc. Books)
Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (Allen & Unwin)

Indigenous Writing
Common People by Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press) see my review
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (University of Queensland Press) see my review
Taboo by Kim Scott (Picador Australia) see my review
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)

Unpublished Manuscript
Wedding Cake Island by John Byron
Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
Frontier Sport by Wayne Marshall

Highly commended

Fiction
Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (Brow Books)

Non-fiction
Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc. Books)
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton (Melbourne University Publishing)
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Text Publishing) see my review
Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law by Kate Rossmanith (Hardie Grant Books)

Drama
Lethal Indifference by Anna Barnes (Sydney Theatre Company)
In the Club by Patricia Cornelius (State Theatre Company of South Australia)

Poetry
Body of Work by Elena Gomez (Cordite Publishing)
Subtraction by Fiona Hile (Vagabond Press)
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)

Young Adult
After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin)
Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza (Penguin Random House Australia)
Unpublished Manuscript
The Fogging by Luke Horton
This Wasn’t Meant To Be Me by Allee Richards

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers.

Winners will be announced on Thursday 31 January 2019.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2018

On Patriotism, by Paul Daley (Little Books on Big Ideas)

By coincidence, I’d just read Paul Daley’s latest piece in The Guardian: it’s called ‘The moment that forever changed my perspective about Anzac mythology‘… when on the same day when I called into the library, Daley’s contribution to MUP’s Little Books on Big Ideas series had just come in on reserve.  It’s called On Patriotism, and this is the blurb:

Serving the country beyond the battlefield

How has militarisation come to define Australian valour? Why has commemorating the centenary of World War I dominated our sense of patriotism? On Patriotism explores what it really means to love and serve your country. Paul Daley contemplates ways to escape the cultural binds that tie us to Anzac, British settlement and flag-waving.

I’m sure Daley would have appreciated the irony of my optometrist’s question when he saw me reading it in the waiting room: is it from a conservative point-of-view? he asked.

Well, hardly.  Daley’s essay is a passionate rebuttal of what passes for patriotism in Australia today, and it’s fair to say that conservatives probably won’t like Daley’s derisive views on the costs and extent of Anzac commemorations and the forthcoming Captain Cook memorial, or his scornful opinion of John Howard and his attitude to Indigenous dispossession.  Daley rejects the idea that national identity began with Gallipoli, and seems disappointed that even Donald Horne identified Anzac—’the Festival of the Ordinary Man’—as an understated but critical tenet of national identity.   (This was despite Horne in 1964 having noted the ‘very lack of any definite nationalism’ in Australia.  He thought that in the shadow of ‘an age that [had] seen so much horror and cruelty unleased in the name of nationalism’, this was no bad thing).

But Anzac day was very different in Horne’s day:

…25 April 2018 represented peak Anzac—three-quarter time in a 51-month, $600-million carnival of Australian World War I commemoration that ended on 11 November: Remembrance Day.  What was, when Horne wrote his 1964 book, a day of folksy, thoughtful reflection has been transformed into a permanent commemorative sound-and-light show.  Any capacity for quiet reflection on the 62,000 who died in World War I, or the 102,000 defence personnel who’ve perished in all of this country’s overseas operations, has been drowned out amid the type of boisterous jingoism and exclusive you-flew-here-we-grew-here style of nationalism that has imbued Australia Day with even greater potency since the 1988 bicentenary.  (p.12)

More to the point in terms of Daley’s quest to interrogate contemporary Australian patriotism, Anzac Day is now considered ‘sacred’:

In 2015, the historian Peter Cochrane wrote ‘Drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’.  (p.13)

It seems to be true. An excerpt from The Australian newspaper (26/4/2013) pours scorn on any challenge to the idea of Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism:

‘The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion.  They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac.  It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism.  Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking.  They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.’ (p.20)

However, I am not entirely convinced by Daley’s interpretation that this excerpt implies an accusation of treason.  While I am most certainly not, as my readers would know, an apologist for The Australian, Daley’s claim seems a bit excessive to me:

By this rationale, those who questioned Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism during the centenary would be at best unpatriotic.  By implication, challenging or undermining the national sentiment built around Anzac would seem to be treasonous. (p.20-21)

However, Daley has only just over 100 pages to make his case, which makes nuance a difficult thing to achieve.  (For my money, James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow is the best book to read on the subject of  Anzac, and since Brown is a defence analyst and former army officer, he has impeccable credentials).

Instead of focussing on overseas events like Anzac and 1788 as defining moments in our nationhood, Daley suggests that a genuine reconciliation with Indigenous Australians offers a better way.  We could be drawing meaning from country itself.

Alas, On Patriotism is pitched, it seems to me, at the converted.  Referring to Hawke as celebrant in chief for the 1988 bicentennial exclusive party for non-Indigenous Australia or to ‘Khaki Howard’ visiting Gallipoli in 2005 and to Barnaby Joyce as oafish and obstreperous like some sunstruck bunyip sage isn’t going to win any converts to the cause.  A more temperate approach might have been more effective.  We do not want to see our country divided in the way that the US and UK are, and we need discourse that builds bridges from the territorial aggression of Cronulla and the jingoistic flag-wavers, not more fuel on the fire.

There are many of us who would like to see a treaty, who were dismayed by Turnbull’s hasty dismissal of Uluru Statement from the Heart, who would like the War Memorial to acknowledge the Frontier Wars and who agree that reflecting on the cultural depths of this ancient land is a good basis for generating a new kind of national spirit.   There is much to reflect on:

… the extraordinary elements of our continent and its history—the enduring civilisation and remarkable survival against the odds of Indigenous people; Australia’s global precociousness on women’s suffrage and workers’ rights; the tension between our multiculturalism and treatment of refugees; a wilderness that’s the envy of the world and the pioneering activism to protect it; and our country’s early role as a global multilateralist… (p.95)

And yes, forging a consensus about what kind of republic we might have is important too.

But unfortunately, I don’t this inflammatory little book is going to help in the quest.

Fiona Capp at the SMH feels more optimistic about it than I do. 

Author: Paul Daley
Title: On Patriotism
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2018, 126 pages
ISBN: 9780522874389
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:On Patriotism

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2018

2018 Deborah Cass Prize winner

The winner of the 2018 Deborah Cass prize has been announced.  This prize was set up to help emerging migrant writers towards publication: the winner receives $3000 and a three-month mentorship, plus an introduction to Black Inc publishers and an opportunity to be published in the Mascara Literary Review.

The Prize honours the life and work of the late legal academic and occasional writer, Deborah Cass. The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Deborah became a prize-winning professor of International Law at the London School of Economics before her death to cancer in 2013.  (Deborah Cass Prize for Writing website).

The following is from the press release, with thanks to Dan Cass and James Button on behalf of the Deborah Cass Prize committee:

The 2018 Deborah Cass Prize for migrant writing has been won by Karina Ko for her story, Things I Used to Believe.

Judges Christos Tsiolkas, Nyadol Nyuon and Tony Ayres described Karina’s story, a prose poem about the ghosts who stalk the lives of children and adults in a family divided between two cultures, as “coherent and captivating, the work of a natural writer.”

Karina, whose parents migrated from Hong Kong before she was born, is an arts-law graduate from Sydney who is working on a collection of short stories in her spare time from her job. Karina told us:

“As with most pursuits that we care about, I experience some self-doubt with my writing. This is one of the first times that I’ve shared my writing outside my little circle. It has also connected me with other writers so that we can encourage and motivate each other.

Thank you so much to everyone involved for making this prize happen.”

Second prize was won by Emily Sun for her story, ‘Dying’ from Maybe it’s Wanchai, and third prize by Su-May Tan for her story, The Origin of Things.

All three finalists received their awards from ABC presenter and Meanjin editor Jonathan Green at a well-attended and lively presentation of the fourth Deborah Cass Prize at Abbotsford Convent last Wednesday night.

The judges described this year’s shortlist of nine as the strongest of the four years of the prize’s existence. Unlike in previous years, when the winners and finalists seemed clear-cut, this year, little separated the top seven or even eight stories.

Many guests at the event were struck by the great goodwill towards this prize that exists among a growing and increasingly large body of writers and their supporters. Writers who have entered the prize are building an online alumni network to support each other and share opportunities to promote their work.

ANZ LitLovers is part of that groundswell of goodwill for this prize and I look forward to hearing more of these writers and those who were shortlisted too.  My previous experience with a Deborah Cass prizewinner was The Fireflies of Autumn by Moreno Giovannoni, which won in the first year of the prize in 2015, and has been noted as one of the Best Books of 2018 at the SMH.  (See my review here).

Watch out for these shortlisted authors in the future!

  • Shannon Anima (Canada) “Bread of the dead”
  • Lyn Dickens (Singapore) “The resurrection of Tuesday Goodman”
  • Zoe Ghani (Afghanistan) “Pomegranate and fig”
  • Karina Ko (China) “Things I used to believe”, first prize
  • Nasrin Mahoutchi-Hosaini (Iran) “Taking care of eggs”
  • Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga (Rwanda) “Fell our selves”
  • Marianna Shek (China) “The lady on the dark side of the moon”
  • Emily Sun (Malaysia, Vietnam, China) “Maybe it’s Wanchai”, second prize
  • Su-May Tan (Malaysia) “The origin of things”, third prize

If you value the work this prize is doing and are in a position to donate towards the continuation of the prize, click here.

Following on from my previous post about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), I turn now to Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue).  It was starting Book 3 The Cross (Korset) that made me decide to reread both Books 1 and 2 because there is such a plethora of characters that I had lost track of who some of them were, and the author didn’t always signal their previous roles and relationships.  This may have been because the books were bestsellers in their time, and were released so soon after each other between 1922 and 1924, that Undset could assume that her readers didn’t need reminding.  Whatever about that, my journal is full of ever-expanding family trees and cross-references.  Not all readers may need this, of course, but I think it would be helpful if someone added a tree or two to the Wikipedia entry for this book, as some thoughtful person has done for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Anyway…

Book 2, The Wife, is all about the chickens coming home to roost for wilful Kristin Lavransdatter who married her lover against the counsel of all the wiser heads around her.  Motherhood and the management of a neglected estate is a challenging coming-of-age for her, and though we see some growth in maturity for her impulsive husband, fatherhood is not accompanied by much of a coming-of-age for him, because he remains a perpetual adolescent in many ways.  Other characters have to come to terms with events as well: Lavrans learns that he was wrong to judge as harshly as he did; Erlend’s brother has to acknowledge his own dubious motives; a king has to recognise the limits of his power. They all learn that the truth will out and that secrets can’t be kept for long.

The book begins with everyone gradually realising that Kristin was some months pregnant when she finally marries Erlend.  At the time of the marriage at the end of Book 1, she knew, but had concealed it from everyone else, even her mother.  But Kristin knew full well that the pomp and ceremony of the splendid wedding would become a source of mockery when the truth was revealed, and everyone would then know that she had had no business wearing the golden wreath that symbolised virginity for a well-born maiden.

In her new home at Husaby, there are poignant scenes where this teenage bride hides herself away to sew the layette but the servants know before long, and Erlend learns the truth as she thickens round the middle.  From the first, it’s not a marriage built on trust or confronting shared problems together, and his first words to her about it are not kind. He berates her for keeping her pregnancy secret, but she says ‘You of all people should know that I have followed forbidden paths and acted falsely towards those who have trusted me most’.  She might also have added that she always hurts those she loved the most too.

Though he slaps her during one of their arguments, Kristin isn’t afraid of Erlend: she is becoming aware of his weaknesses and because she loves him she seeks to protect him from the humiliation as much as possible.  In this medieval world, he has treated her like a peasant girl and while he feels no shame she knows how it will be viewed by their community.  His care of her is so lax that one of his friends has to prod him into calling in the local women to help with the birth.

There is nothing much Kristin can do to salvage things except to try the best she can to earn their respect by being a good wife.  And her first task is get the neglected estate in order.  It is filthy.  The servants are slack.  farm husbandry has been neglected and the bad harvest has made things worse.  Erland has an extravagant lifestyle that is reliant not on his own hard work but rather on rents from tenants, but he mocks her knowledge of the tenant laws when she tries to remonstrate with him.  There is a ghastly scene where his drunken relations poke fun at their hypocrisy of the ‘virgin’ marriage and Kristin is appalled at the vulgarity of the people at her table.

It is not until the child moves within her that they are reconciled.

BEWARE SPOILERS 

Kristin’s parents Lavrans and Ragnfrid don’t learn that they are grandparents until some weeks after the baby is born (after an excruciatingly long and painful labour).  Erlend at least has the courage to go and tell them, and is shamed into admitting that he didn’t know about the pregnancy at the time of the wedding either.  Lavrans takes the news with dignity, and accompanies Erlend back to Husaby where he discovers that Erlend, at least, is a skilled traveller over a hostile landscape.  Whatever anger Lavrans feels about the treatment of his cherished daughter, he suppresses it and does his best to forge a relationship with his son-in-law.  And then he is angry with himself for liking Erlend…

Kristin sheds many tears of self-recrimination when she sees her father.  Indeed Book 2 suffers IMO from a surfeit of guilt, self-recrimination and religious torment as Kristin tries to regain her self-esteem.  (One stretch of heavy-duty guilt about the fruits of her sin lasts for six whole pages, with another lasting eleven pages). Her spiritual adviser panders to her pious desire for repentance, and sends her off on a 20km barefoot pilgrimage to seek absolution from the archbishop.  (But Erlend, of course, does not have to do a similar pilgrimage. He’s confessed, paid for a mass or two, and that’s enough for his absolution). On her way, there is the added humiliation of meeting up with Simon, the Very Nice Man that she dumped for The Grand Love Affair with the more dashing Erlend.  He has married and lost a wife to childbirth, and his sadness makes Kristin feel guiltier than ever.

Though the gossip gradually dies down, the consequences of their youthful follies keep coming.  Erlend’s brother Gunnalf, who as the less-favoured son became a priest so that Erlend could inherit everything, harangues Erlend about driving Kristin into sin.  Gunnalf is shocked when he learns more about their scandalous behaviour, and he savages Erlend for the way he left it to others to face up to Lavran’s wrath about his daughter.  And typically, Erlend takes no responsibility for this or any other of the problems he causes, someone else is always to blame, not him.  Kristin gradually realises that although Erlend’s military bravery brings him some respect but not among grown-up or sensible men

People liked him, humoured hm, and boasted of him—but he was never considered a fully entitled man.  And she saw how willingly he accepted the role that his peers wanted him to play.  (p.475)

This awareness of Erlend as an unreliable man turns out to be disastrous when he gets mixed up in treasonous activities and no one will vouch for him for fear of being dragged into the same peril.

Simon and Kristin are their own worst enemies, and although the narrative is more sympathetic to Kristin, she is still shown to be a bitter woman, unforgiving of herself and others, and spectacularly good at holding a grudge for a very long time.  Her obsession about her own guilt is tedious, not just to the other characters, but also for the reader.  Undset devotes many pages to Kristin brooding over her sins with her spiritual advisers, and I am wary of Book 3 because she apparently becomes ever more religious.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #2)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 406 pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2018

The Children’s House, by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House is Alice Nelson’s third book: her first was a novel called The Last Sky (2008), which was followed by After This: Survivors of The Holocaust Speak (2015).  I haven’t read The Last Sky, but based on its blurb and my reading of After This, (see my review) it seems to me that Nelson is drawn to the melancholy.  She writes about exile, displacement, abandonment, loss and survival.

Just as After This chronicled the hope and healing of Holocaust survivors, The Children’s House concludes on an optimistic note.  But what lies at the heart of the novel is the contrast between the helping professions and the power of love.  The story is peopled by damaged characters: two children raised in the impersonal world of an Israeli kibbutz and then by a mother too remote to offer love; a boy scarred by his mother’s abandonment when new love took her to the other side of the Atlantic; a Rwandan refugee traumatised by rape and her sad little boy; and an elderly nun uprooted from her community as she cares for the other nuns dying around her.  The unexpected irony of the characterisation is that one of the central characters is a child psychotherapist, specialising in traumatised children.  Jacob is a good man —good-hearted as his mother says— an exiled prince who had succumbed to living in Harlem only because his wife wanted it, and a man who spends long hours helping children whose lives have run aground in some way or another.  And yet, when his wife Marina is drawn into a relationship with refugees Constance and little Gabriel, Jacob discourages it.  His care and concern is compartmentalised into working hours, and he has no faith in the power of love for healing.

Marina, who is childless after a decade of marriage, is an historian.  She has written a successful book about the Romany, and is researching for a new book on Hasidic Jewry.  She and Jacob have a quiet but loving marriage, depicted in lyrical detail.  Marina, adrift after the death of her only brother and the disappearance of her mother, has been welcomed into the orbit of Jacob’s family: she has affectionate bonds with her mother-in-law Rose and Jacob’s sister Leah.  Though she has no religion, the rituals of the Friday night family Shabbat ground her and they come together as a family at Christmas too.  Everyone in that family accepts the presence of the implacably silent, withdrawn Constance and the unloved little boy, except for Jacob, who gravely tells Marina that she will damage him and that she is meeting her own needs, not the child’s.

This conflict between the protagonists is muted, and indeed the resolution of the novel strays towards implausibility because the intrusion of a child into anyone’s quiet routine requires considerable adjustment which is not addressed.  Questions of adopting children out of their culture and community are not addressed either.  It is as if Marina’s quiet stubbornness and Jacob’s willingness to please can resolve all problems, even the way she has deceived him about the extent of her relationship with the mother and child.  When Marina first comes across Constance, she does not even tell Jacob that she paid for the groceries that Constance has no money to buy.  She keeps quiet about visiting Constance’s home in the projects because of his middle-class anxiety about her safety.  While the child is ever present in Constance’s bleak life, and she bathes and feeds him, she does not ever comfort him if he is crying, and Marina does not ever explain to Jacob about the rush of love she feels when Gabriel turns to her for comfort instead of his mother.  Her other interventions—a trip to the bureaucracy in charge of welfare services so inept that they communicate with an illiterate woman by letter; purchases of shoes and warm coats; visits to the museum and the zoo; and even the establishment of Marina as daily child care— all this is kept from Jacob because of his professional disapproval. Were it not all prompted by love of this pitiful child, this secretive behaviour would seem like a betrayal analogous to adultery.

There are strong parallels between Gabriel and his mother incapable of love, and Marina and her mother, displaced from home and family by the kindertransport that saved her from the Holocaust.  Leah, who is a passionate advocate for refugees, tries to enlist Constance in services designed to help her recover after trauma, but Constance is too devastated by a history that remains unknown.  She is an enigma, a survivor of unimaginable atrocities that remain forever indescribable.  Marina reads up on the Rwandan genocide, but she is no wiser because of the implacable silence of Constance.   Just as her own mother is unknowable, so is Gabriel’s.  Nelson’s novel is insistent that some trauma defies all efforts to rescue a damaged soul, and that damage is intergenerational.

All this sounds melancholy, and indeed it is, and yet it is beautiful to read.  The reader becomes drawn into the lives of these characters, and their predicaments linger after the last page.  They seem real, because they are, created by a sensitive imagination from the world of displaced people trying to make their way in the world, and sometimes giving up on it.  The setting is New York, but it could just as easily have been Melbourne, London, Paris or Berlin.  We are living through a time of displacement unlike any other as millions of refugees seek new lives in western democracies.  I think Nelson is trying to tell us with this novel that it is not enough to leave support to the professional agencies.  The children of these damaged people need love, more than anything else.

Theresa Smith reviewed this book too.

Author: Alice Nelson
Title: The Children’s House
Publisher: Vintage, Penguin Random House Australia, 2018, 295 pages
ISBN: 9780143791188
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2018

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, by Sofija Stefanovic

I came across this interesting memoir via Non-Fiction November, when I read the review at What’s Non Fiction. 

Sofija Stefanovic is based in New York, but like me, she’s an Australian with roots elsewhere.  She was born in what was Yugoslavia and is now Serbia, and migrated to Australia to escape the growing instability in the 1980s.  Her father loved it here, but her mother missed home, so (having prudently acquired Australian citizenship first) they went back, only to find that things were worse than before.  And so they returned, to join the community of Yugoslavs in Melbourne, whose numbers were by then swollen by refugees fleeing the violence.

To deflect any sense that this is another misery memoir of discrimination and not belonging, Stefanovic begins with a droll chapter about a beauty pageant that she has organised.  The competitors are all from the now separate countries that used to be Yugoslavia:

The idea of a beauty pageant freaks me out, and ex-Yugoslavia as a country itself is an oxymoron — but the combination of the two makes the deliciously weird Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competition the ideal subject for my documentary film-making class. (p. ix)

She is herself a competitor, but she is struggling with the ‘look’.

It’s 2005, I’m twenty-two, and I’ve been living in Australia for most of my life.  I’m at Joy, an empty Melbourne nightclub that smells of stale smoke and is located above a fruit and vegetable market.  I open the door to the dressing room, and when my eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights I see that young women are rubbing olive oil on each other’s thighs.  Apparently, this is a trick used in ‘real’ competitions, one we’ve hijacked for our amateur version.  For weeks I’ve been preparing myself to stand almost naked in front of everyone I know, and the day of the big reveal has come around quickly.  As I scan the shiny bodies for my friend Nina, I’m dismayed to see that all the other girls have dead-straight hair, while mine, thanks to an overzealous hairdresser with a curling wand, looks like a wig made of sausages.

‘Dodi, lutko,’ Nina says as she emerges from the crowd of girls.  Come here, doll.  ‘Maybe we can straighten it.’ She brings her hand up to my hair cautiously, as if petting a startled lamb.  Nina is a Bosnian refugee in a miniskirt.  As a contestant she is technically my competitor, but we’ve become close in the rehearsals leading up to the pageant.

Under Nina’s tentative pets, the hair doesn’t give.  It’s been sprayed to stay like this, possibly forever. (p. viii)

This jaunty style is maintained throughout the book, transitioning into a more serious tone only when the author explains the political chaos that was the catalyst for her family’s migrations, or when there is personal tragedy.  The story covers her childhood, teenage years and early adult years, adjusting to the differences between a crumbling soviet society and a liberal democracy.  These differences are exemplified by the differences between her constantly-warring parents: her father is a skilled IT professional, whose ambitions flourish in Australia.  Her mother, thanks to the soviet education system and its opportunities for women, is a multilingual professional psychologist-counsellor, and part of an intellectual elite.  She doesn’t adjust very well to being a housewife with limited English in Australia.  All those of us with a cherished network of female friends can imagine how hard this must be.  My own mother lost her networks over and over in my peripatetic childhood, and in most places we lived, there wasn’t a language difference to make things even harder.

Stefanovic makes the point that this is a memoir, not a history, and she also explains how tiresome it was that Australians, through the limited lens of the media, often assumed that Serbs were all supporters of the Serbian leadership in this fraught period.  Her parents were activists against Serbian nationalism, perhaps at some risk to themselves.  Nevertheless, readers who know nothing about the dissolution of Yugoslavia should be aware that Miss Ex-Yugoslavia does not tell the full story.  To understand why NATO intervened in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, and in Kosovo in 1999,  necessitates mention of ethnic cleansing, which is briefly acknowledged, and genocide and mass rape, which is not.   These omissions are authorial choices, made perhaps because of the light-hearted style of the memoir, and implicitly justified by its opening chapter which celebrates ex-Yugoslavs overcoming the hatreds of their history to live peaceably among one another in Melbourne.

I was, however, surprised to read that Bentleigh West Primary School in the 1980s was ‘not used to‘ teaching children for whom English was a second language.  As it happens I taught at that school in the early 1980s, when there were regular ESL classes taught by a specialist ESL teacher.  We had a large community of Greeks, nearly all of whom arrived in Prep, with not a word of English because they spoke their mother tongue at home.  When I refresh my memory with the class photos, I see Italian names as well, and I’ll never forget the Japanese boy who bonded with me over a collage of Japanese consumer goods, because they were the first words we had in common.   It is my recollection that although most of the teachers were of Anglo background, there were at least two who spoke another language at home, and that under the leadership of a dynamic principal the school was a welcoming place for students of all backgrounds. (I myself organised a whole school celebration for Greek Independence Day in 1982.   The night beforehand the Ex and I were up till midnight cutting up lamb for souvlaki for a school of 300+ students!)  So while I don’t dispute that Stefanovic may have had some unhappy experiences, or that the class teachers may not have had much or any training in teaching ESL students, her generalisation about the culture, experience and expertise of the school strikes me as inaccurate.

But this is a minor issue in an otherwise authentic-seeming book, which I enjoyed reading.

Author: Sofija Stefanovic
Title: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia
Publisher: Viking, Penguin Random House, 2018, 264 pages
ISBN: 9780143785453
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2018

2018 Voss Prize winner

The 2018 Voss Prize winner has been announced, and the winner is

*drumroll*

Bram Presser for The Book of Dirt!

I had lost track of how many prizes this remarkable book has won, so I looked it up at the Text Publishing website:

  • Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2018
  • Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, 2018
  • Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: The People’s Choice Award, 2018
  • Longlisted, Nib Waverley Library Award, 2018

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what the prize is worth because I can’t find that information on the Voss Prize website.  But from the photo I saw at Twitter, Bram looks very pleased:)

It was an impressive shortlist—I can recommend every one of the books that I’ve reviewed as very good reading:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

I meant to read this (like a couple of other books) for #NovNov Novellas in November, but like most of my reading plans, that didn’t happen…

A Beautiful Young Wife is unsettling reading.  It’s about the breakup of a relationship, one that was never on a very firm footing anyway, and one that (like so many) doesn’t survive the arrival of the first child.  It is disarmingly honest about its central protagonist, Edward Landauer, an eminent virologist, who at the age of 42 has everything he wants… except a wife.  Julie Myerson at The Guardian describes it as

an examination of the ageing male heart – a dissection as subtle and tender as it is, ultimately, unnerving.

and yes it is, but it’s also more than that, and I’m not sure from her review if we are on the same page when it comes to closer examination:

For this is a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work which, on a second and even a third reading, only seems to grow more expansive and multifaceted while managing at the same time to remain mysterious and tightly furled.

For me, it’s disconcerting to see reviewers focus on the age difference between the couple, rather than other issues.  While Wieringa lovingly sketches the love-at-first-sight romance, my suspicions are that Edward is in love with the idea of a wife, rather than the actual human being he has so fortuitously found.

Ruth is, as she has to be, beautiful.  I don’t know in the age of Tinder if there are still ‘personals’ in the press, but they used to make amusing reading… all those women vaguely looking for companionship and romance, and all those men with a shopping list of attributes, all looking for someone who had to be attractive, shorter, with a specified shade of hair and interested in his lifestyle.  Ruth’s beauty overwhelms Edward who is fifteen years older than her, and as the reader learns from a dinner party autopsy of their early relationship, there were magical moments:

She excites him terribly, but he doesn’t want to ruin it by being too greedy, by revealing his desperate longing.  More than ever, he realises now, being in love connects him with the boy he once was, with the first time, his mouth dry and his heart pounding, the time of all times that followed.  He had never married and had never been with one woman for long; he had always remained a collector of first times.  (p.9)

Hmm.  Are we liking this man?  Ruth’s father cynically sneers at the age difference, saying that he’d hoped that she would take care of [him] some day, but the way things look now, it’ll be your wheelchair she’s pushing.  But it’s not the age difference that alerts the reader to the problems: it’s that Edward is surprised by her sexual experience because he had forgotten that people her age already know everything.  He’s pleased that she has few girlfriends because girlfriends sooner or later turned into a conspiracy—he remembered how they would go to the ladies’ room together, their secret domain; after they came back, his position always felt compromised.  Then there’s the hints of possessiveness, wondering if she’d done it with male friends from college and interpreting a firm handshake as an assertion of power.  He just wants them to go… he wants Ruth all to himself.

And then, fatally, Ruth decides to have a child for all the wrong reasons:

There is another thought inside her that barely owns up to words: with a child, her relationship with this introverted man will gain more meaning—the dynamics of Dritte im Bunde, the third in a chord.  The prospect of being with him all her life, without someone else to disturb the peace, makes her feel trapped.  (p. 54)

Well, they certainly get their peace disturbed because the baby doesn’t sleep…

For me, it’s not so much an examination of the ageing heart, it’s a cautionary tale for women.

Sam Garrett’s translation is pitch perfect.

Author: Tommy Wieringa
Title: A Beautiful Young Wife (Een Mooie Jonge Vrouw)
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2016, first published 2014, 123 pages
ISBN: 9781925321180
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Beautiful Young Wife

Two thirds of the way through this mighty trilogy, I’ve decided to review each of the books separately because I’m reading it concurrently with other books and I might lose the thread if I don’t.  The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Norwegian Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) consists of three books: The Wreath (Kransen); The Wife (Husfrue); and The Cross (Korset), and the whole book in this Penguin Classics edition runs to 1124 pages.

Originally published between 1922 and 1924, before Undset became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1928 ‘principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages’, this trilogy of historical novels tells the story of a scandalous woman in the Middle Ages.  The central character, Kristin Lavransdatter is described in the introduction by Brad Leithauser as a daddy’s girl who refuses daddy’s choice of a husband and marries for love, with often harrowing long-range consequences.  She is headstrong and wilful and she defies the conventions of her age.

Not knowing anything much about Norwegian or indeed Scandinavian literature, (and no, there isn’t an Oxford Very Short Introduction to it either) I’m not able to place this trilogy in context.  In Britain and in France, late 19th and early 20th century authors such as John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola were writing novels that showed sympathetically the consequences of women breaking the conventions of their age (and the way men were judged by different standards).  Sigrid’s literary debut was (according to Wikipedia) a novella set in her own era and about adultery: Fru Marta Oulie (1907) scandalised its readers because it begins with ‘I have been unfaithful to my husband’.  So at 25, Undset clearly wasn’t constrained by any compulsion to have a respectable central character!

BEWARE SPOILERS (though nothing you wouldn’t discern from the Introduction anyway)

Part I of Book I begins on Kristin’s father’s estate, Jørundgaard.  It sets up the social context of a respectable but not highborn family in 14th century Norway.  The parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, are devout Christians but not affectionate with each other.  Lavrans, however, is very fond of young Kristin and in the absence of any sons, he takes her on outings when attending to management tasks on the farm.  Lavrans, who has built up the wealth of his properties, hopes to marry Kristin well, and he succeeds in betrothing her to Simon Darre, who is socially above them.

Ragnfrid is aloof and emotionally distant, blaming herself for the death of three sons in infancy before Kristin’s birth.  A second daughter, Uhvild becomes disabled after an accident when she was three, so she has no marriage prospects.  A third daughter called Ramborg plays little part in these early chapters.  Kristin is established as a strong personality and somewhat wilful, but secure in her place as a cherished daughter with good prospects.

Perhaps because of Lavrans’ egalitarian instincts, or perhaps because there are few other children as playmates, Kristin becomes attached to Arne, a farm boy.  He comes to love her but the betrothal to Simon reinforces that Lavrans would not consider him as a suitor.  Kristin, without her parents’ knowledge, agrees to meet Arne for a final farewell but Arne always treats her with respect.  However on the way home, she is assaulted and almost raped by Bentein, a drunken priest.  Despite her innocence there is some damage to Kristin’s reputation, and Arne dies in a pub fight defending her honour.  Bentein’s mother Gunhild, a servant on the Lavrans farm, reveals in her grief about the impending execution of Bentein what she had previously concealed: that Kristin came to her in a dishevelled state.  In damage control, because Kristin is now thought to have been defiled either by Arne or by Bentein, Lavrans agrees that Kristin should go into a cloister until the time comes for her marriage to Simon.

And, not so’s you’d notice it on a first reading, Kristin feels guilty about Arne’s death.  Although it is not until late in Book I that Kristin comes to realise that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people, this theme of guilt becomes pervasive in the story to come.  At this stage of the story Kristin is a ‘fallen woman’ through no fault of her own except for the imprudence of meeting Arne alone, but at the time this incident happens she is too young to apprehend the risks, and some say afterwards that it was Lavrans’ fault for allowing Kristin to mix too freely with those beneath her…

Part II, The Wreath, is about the loss of Kristin’s innocence.  She meets Erlend Nikulaussøn when he rescues her from a couple of drunks after she and her convent friend Ingebjørg are separated from their chaperone at a village fair.  They are attracted at first sight, and all it takes is for one of the novices, a girl called Helga, to pass on a note from Erlend to Kristin for their acquaintance to be renewed.  Kristin’s initiation into the world of scandal begins when Erlend tells her the salacious story of his aunt Fra Aashild’s liaisons, about which Kristin knew nothing (even though Fra Aashild had only with reluctance been given admittance to the Lavrans household when they were desperate for a healer for the injured Uhvhild). The moral standards of the era come into play as Kristin realises that adultery is one of the worst of sins.  The penalty was severe: excommunication and banishment.  Aashild had only escaped this penalty when she ran off with Herr Bjørn after her husband died, because there was no proof that she and Bjørn had been lovers while the husband was alive.  But still, they had to give up all their possessions and status in society…

Erlend, who seduces Kristin when she is betrothed to Simon, has form.  He has already been excommunicated and banished once, because he ran off to Sweden with another man’s wife, who then bore him two children (who have no legal rights because they are illegitimate).  It is only because of Erlend’s highborn connections and because he was able to use his wealth to pay extensive fines [and of course because he’s a man] that he has been admitted back into society again.  But this woman, Eline Ormsdatter, is ensconced at his manor at Husaby, and she’s hopeful that her (old) husband Sigurd will die soon, and then Simon will keep his promise to marry her.  (As if!)

And it’s not just that Erlend plays fast and loose with women.  The tenants on his farm wouldn’t pay rents because he’d been excommunicated, and when he retaliated he was charged with robbery.  Erlend is established in this chapter as impulsive, imprudent, irresponsible, negligent with his own money and estate, reckless with the reputation of the women he fancies, and blasé about social and religious law.  But obviously a very attractive man!

Part III, titled Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn, is about the loss of everyone’s innocence.  Erlend’s excuse that he was young and foolish at 18 cuts no ice with Lavrans who says that he himself had married at 18, when a man could answer for himself and be responsible for his own welfare and that of others.  He fears for Kristin’s welfare with an irresponsible man, because he knows his daughter is headstrong.   But he still has to abandon his principles and agree to a marriage of which he disapproves.  Ragnfrid has to come clean about her own past in order to make Lavrans understand how passion can overwhelm convention.  These parents have to accept into their family not only someone not worthy, but also his sleazy relations (who have had to lie in order to make Erlend seem acceptable).  Fra Aashild has to agree to facilitate a would-be elopement but then gets caught up in its complications and her husband has to lie to help conceal it.

The consequences of breaking with convention are all spelled out in this part of the book.  The consequences of Kristin’s actions are personal, social, legal and religious but she persists even though she knows there is something unwise and ignoble about Erlend.   She knows that she has no right to wear the golden wedding wreath that symbolises virginity but she does so out of fear that others will know that she is no maiden.  Yes, the guilt trip is starting, even as Kristin sets off on her wedding procession!

A quick tip for anyone undertaking reading this book: keep an eye on the dates of the Holy Days that are helpfully listed at the back of the book…

PS Tony at Messenger’s Booker has also reviewed this novel.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #1)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 291 pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2018

2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards winners

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards winners were announced today, and I couldn’t be happier with their choices because two authors that I really admire have been recognised.

The 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards winners are:

Fiction

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane, see my review and Steven Harmon’s article about this exquisite book at The Guardian. He quotes the judges panel:

The panel judging the fiction category praised Murnane for his “inimitable literary sensibility”, in “a perfectly formed short work” that is “associative rather than narrative”.
“The narrative is an exquisite prism of introspection, in which a life’s experiences are carefully ordered and transformed into art by virtue of the patterns they come to form in the mind and the profoundly evocative qualities they have acquired.
“Rendered in crystalline prose and touched with an elegiac pathos, Border Districts is the crowning achievement of a singular literary career.”

(I couldn’t have said it better myself!)

Australian History

John Curtin’s War: The coming of war in the Pacific, and, reinventing Australia, volume 1 by John Edwards, see the review at the SMH

Young Adult Literature

This is My Song by Richard Yaxley, see Aussie Reviews

Children’s Literature

Pea Pod Lullaby by Glenda Millard and illustrated by Stephen Michael King.  I haven’t seen this, but I know it will be beautiful because these two have been collaborating to create the most beautiful picture books for a long time, and the children I read their stories absolutely loved them.

Poetry

Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria by Brian Castro, see my review

Non-fiction

Asia’s Reckoning: The struggle for global dominance by Richard McGregor, see the review by Anna Fifield at Australian Foreign Affairs

The following is from the press release:

The Australian history and non-fiction books “reflect the diversity of Australia and tell our story in remarkable ways. The books really show Australia’s place in the world and place Australian history in a global context,” said Professor Lynette Russell, Chair of the Non-fiction and Australian History judging panel.

The children’s and young adults categories engage with “issues that profoundly affect humanity… there’s a variety of ideas, of narrative techniques, of illustration techniques, which makes them very, very different, but all equally interesting,” said Margot Hillel, Chair of the Young Adult and Children’s Literature judging panel.

Now in its eleventh year, the Awards celebrate Australian literary excellence and recognise our talented authors, illustrators and historians.

“There were novels that really worked to create an experience for the reader that’s immersive, that you can get lost in— but also transformative, that change us for having read them,” said Bronwyn Lea, Chair of the Fiction and Poetry judging panel.

“The poetry category this year was notable for the sheer breadth of work being done in Australia, it’s quite astonishing and it shows that poetry is very much alive and a vibrant art form in Australia.”

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, and especially to Ivor Indyk at Giramondo who has been a champion of Gerald Murnane’s, and who encouraged him to keep writing when Murnane himself thought it was time to retire.

We’re lucky here in Melbourne that we can eat almost any cuisine in the world: there are Iranian restaurants serving Persian cuisine all over the city, and that’s probably true of the other Australian capital cities too.  But if you like the cuisine it’s not so easy to find a good recipe book to try making your own at home.

Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes (2012) is an ideal introduction to Persian cuisine.  Published in the UK, it is based on the premise that Persian cooking is unfamiliar, so there are explanations about unfamiliar ingredients and techniques, and there are suggestions for substitutes if some of the more exotic items are unavailable.  (Cranberries, for example, can be substituted for barberries, but they are available online from Herbies).

The book includes the family story that seems obligatory for recipe books these days, and there are B&W photos of the author’s family.  What’s missing, however, is photos of some of the recipes, which is a pity.  Although there are plenty of full page, full colour photos, there’s not much point IMO in having a photo of a rose next to a recipe for Pale rice cookies sprinkled with poppy seeds.  Likewise, a photo of a bottle of rose water beside the recipe for Halva; or some sliced radishes next to a recipe for a salad.  And while I understand the sentiment behind the photo of the author’s mother next to her recipe for barley soup, I’d rather have a photo of the soup to see if it looks appetising.  Besides, with an unfamiliar cuisine, it’s good to see a recipe presented with serving suggestions…

Leaving that aside, there are some appealing recipes.  I always have a uselessly small quantity of raisins left over after making the Christmas pudding, so I’ll be trying Biscuiteh Keshmeshi which are delicate raisin cookies; among the other sweet things there are Noon Nokhodchi which are shortbreads made with chickpea flour and cardamom, and a delicious-looking Cakeh Mamani (a yoghurt cake simply flavoured with lemon and vanilla).  Another useful recipe is the exotic-sounding Omeletteh Khorma which is a buttery sweet date omelette, perfect for using up the rest of the dates after making date muffins.  Tomorrow night I might try Sholeh Zard (saffron rice pudding with pistachios) for the weekly Girls Dinner & TV Night with my neighbour from across the road.  (I have another rice pudding recipe which uses blood oranges which is scrumptious but blood oranges aren’t always available. Nothing at all like the rice pudding we had for school lunches in Britain, I can tell you!)

Taachin

I’m not keen on many of the meat dishes, but I like the sound of Khoreshteh Morgh Va Porteghal which is Chicken with Oranges and Saffron, and there is also a scrumptious-looking Taachin which is chicken marinated in yoghurt and garlic, in a saffron rice cake.  And yay, there is a photo of it which is just as well because you’d never guess how nice it looks from the recipe.

Something I have never tried is Seer Torshi (aged pickled garlic).  Apparently it’s best eaten when it’s six or seven years old when the bulbs are black, soft and sweet, and taste a little like aged balsamic vinegar. You can buy it, says Bundy, but it will be young and crunchy.   And though I may be unduly optimistic about the eggplant crop because the possums got to it last year, Morabayeh Bademjoon(aubergine conserve with rose water, lime juice and cardamom) sounds divine, eh?

I will try to remember to take photos when I try these recipes and come back to this page to show off my prowess with Persian!

Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes is not a new title, so although it would be a nice gift for the foodie in your life, you’ll be disappointed if you go searching in the usual places. But if you’re in Melbourne you could try Books for Cooks near the Vic Market, and your local op shop might have a copy if you’re lucky. It’s a lovely book, so it’s worth looking out for it…

Author: Ariana Bundy
Title: Pomegranates and Roses, My Persian Family Recipes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster,  UK, 2012, 225 pages
ISBN: 9780857206909
Source: Kingston Library

Out of print, try an Op Shop or AbeBooks.

 

Ok, it’s time for the draw for the autographed copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia by Anita Heiss and there were 13 entries, in this order:

  1. Sue from Whispering Gums
  2. Janine from The Resident Judge of Port Phillip
  3. Jeniwren
  4. Bill from The Australian Legend
  5. Sharkell
  6. Caroline
  7. China
  8. Valerie
  9. James
  10. Barbara
  11. Meaghan
  12. Sumara and Peta

Now, what I didn’t tell you lovely people was that I actually have two autographed copies to give away and so we have two winners to draw using the random number generator at Random.Org… and they are…

#Drumroll

No 5 Sharkell and No 4 Bill from The Australian Legend!

The book will be on their way to you tomorrow!!

Commiserations if you missed out, but maybe next time:)

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2018

Preservation, by Jock Serong

Preservation was an impulse choice: I saw it at the library and I’d enjoyed Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge (which BTW has won some awards since I read it).

Preservation is quite different in that it’s historical fiction set in colonial Sydney, and it only obliquely tackles the problem of evil in the present day.  It’s basically a detective story but it’s absorbing reading because it’s a howdunit and a whydunit rather than a whodunit…

The novel is derived from the true story of shipwreck of the Sydney Cove.  This is the blurb:

On a beach not far from the isolated settlement of Sydney in 1797, a fishing boat picks up three shipwreck survivors, distressed and terribly injured. They have walked hundreds of miles across a landscape whose features—and inhabitants—they have no way of comprehending. They have lost fourteen companions along the way. Their accounts of the ordeal are evasive.

It is Lieutenant Joshua Grayling’s task to investigate the story. He comes to realise that those fourteen deaths were contrived by one calculating mind and, as the full horror of the men’s journey emerges, he begins to wonder whether the ruthless killer poses a danger to his own family.

The ship which set sail from Calcutta in British India was carrying rum, which was then the currency in the fledgling settlement of Sydney.  Among the Sydney Cove’s passengers is a man soon revealed to be a psychopath called Figge; a naïve entrepreneur called Clark trying to beat the East India Company at its own game; and Srinivas, a Lascar learning the ropes of service from his father who is the unacknowledged leader of the Lascar crew. The narrative gives voice to all three, and also to Lt. Grayling and his wife Charlotte, who discovers that Srinivas speaks English and has witnessed incriminating conversations between Clark and Figge as to the fate of the fourteen companions.  These narratives with their competing versions of the truth build to a climax.

From the outset it is clear that Figge is not what he seems.  He claims to be a tea merchant but lacks the requisite knowledge of teas, and his clothes don’t fit.  Clark’s wounds are odd too, more like stigmata than injuries acquired in battle with the Indigenous people, and his journal of the journey omits details that are obviously significant.   Both Governor Hunter and Lt. Grayling are suspicious but entirely dependent on the stories they are told; it remains to both of them to somehow manipulate the narrators into revealing discrepancies in their tales.  If not for Charlotte’s fortuitous relationship with Srinivas, the officers would be none the wiser about much of what happened.

For anyone remotely familiar with the landscape and rugged environment along the south-east coast of Victoria and the route north to Sydney, the story of the 600-mile walk through the bush is astonishing.  Serong recreates the desperation of hungry men tortured by biting insects and confronted by swamps, rivers and lakes.  They reluctantly learn to take the advice of helpful Aborigines who know which coastal formations turn back on themselves, but not all the Indigenous people are friendly, and especially not after Thompson and Kennedy assault one of their women.

Figge is a seriously nasty piece of work, and a couple of scenes are not for the tender-hearted young.

Author: Jock Serong
Title: Preservation
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781925773125
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Preservation

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2018

Half Wild, by Pip Smith

I thought long and hard before setting up my Gay/Lit LGBTQIA books category, because I like it when authors simply include LGBTQIA characters as part of the furniture, so to speak.  If you’re writing about the modern world, then chances are that your characters ought to include some who are LGBTQIA because LGBTQIA people are everywhere.  In rainbow families with or without kids; in schools, religious communities and the workplace; and lately, openly in our parliament.  Which is all good, and as it should be, and so I shouldn’t really need a separate category.  But it would be naïve to think that discrimination has gone away, or to imagine that some don’t suffer a crisis of identity, so there is also a place for books which explore issues of gender identity rather than treat diversity as a given.  These books serve purposes both for those of us who seek to understand and those who relate to characters facing that kind of existential crisis.

Half Wild shows us the cruel consequences of a time when discrimination was so routine it was not even recognised as such.  Sydney-based author Pip Smith has recreated what was a 20th century salacious scandal to bring to life the humanity of its central character.  Eugenie Falleni was a real person who struggled with transgender identity, and Half Wild fictionalises the story of multiple lives: a childhood defined as a daughter; of an adolescent running away to live and work as a man; of two marriages where the wives did not know about the disguised sexuality of the person they had married; and ultimately of a stepfather —revealed before the courts to be a woman—charged with the murder of the first wife.

The novel is bookended with the memories of an elderly woman in hospital.  Jean Ford was hit by a car in Oxford Street and is drifting in and out of coma.  Her thoughts are incoherent, and then in a new chapter titled ‘Who She’d Like to Be, Wellington New Zealand, 1885-1896’, the story proper begins with the first person narrative of Tally Ho, baptised Eugenia and known to her bemused Italian parents as Nina. When she sees her mother having morning sickness once again, she declares that she doesn’t want to have babies…

Her face went still like the refrigerated pigs I once saw in the bond store at Queen’s Wharf.
Well, what are you going to do? Mamma said. Be a nun?
No, 
I said.  I’m going to be a sailor, or a driver down the West Coast called Tally Ho, or a butcher boy like Harry Crawford.
She ruffled my hair.  She said I was a funny little joker.  Then she said I’d better get my tally ho to school or she’d butcher me herself. (p.12)

School, as you can imagine, is torture, and not just because Nina struggles to learn to read.  There is a Father Kelly who knows the difference between an insolent child and a child who was not meant for the schoolroom but as soon as Nina escapes from his efforts to help she bolts away, feeling good to have that stale school air squeezed out of [her] lungs so nothing but life could flood back in. Her Nonno Buti gives her important advice designated by capital letters, that he has learned in solitary confinement during the Italian wars:

He said, YOU MUST TRAIN YOURSELF TO IMAGINE CHESS MOVES INSTEAD OF TO THINK ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOUR CAPTORS DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, OR THAT IT IS YOUR FAULT YOUR CAPTORS DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, OR THAT YOU SHOULD BE MORE LIKE YOUR CAPTORS.  QUESTO È MOLTO IMPORTANTE.  (p.18)

While those times were never benign for people of ambivalent gender identity, Tally Ho’s adventures are a reminder of times when childhood could be livelier.  (I found myself wondering, what will the children of today’s helicopter parents make of the adventures we had in childhood, adventures inconceivable today?)  The world seemed wide and full of possibilities for Tally Ho, even though Papà eventually finds out about wagging school and said

… if I was going to run around like a boy instead of going to school then I would have to work like a boy and see how I liked it.
I nodded, and looked at my shoes, and tried to act punished. (p.32)

But that freedom doesn’t last, and when Papà thinks there’s been enough of these silly games, Nina is corralled into washing pinafores and mending trousers.  Worse, with puberty comes peril from a man with lips like two leeches searching for warmth which lands Nina in a brief marriage and a sojourn in reformatory for wayward girls when she escapes him…

The next section, only a few pages long and titled ‘As Far as He Can Remember, Sydney, 5 July 1920’, is narrated by Harry Crawford.  He’s in an interview room with the police, carefully answering questions about his life.  This section is followed by ‘To All Outside Appearances, at Least, Sydney, Australia’.  It’s much longer, with multiple narrators listed as ‘Dramatis Personae’ from all over Sydney.  The statement of Detective Sergeant Steward Robson in scraps of typewritten font begins with a reminder that police have to be particularly careful in securing identification and from there on the tale branches out across multiple witnesses that reveal the many selves confronting Robson and the court.  Testimony comes from wives, one dead and one alive; from a stepson and a daughter; and from fellow workers, boarders and landladies.  The press, the gossips and the prurient have a field day.

This section of the novel jars against the insouciant optimism of Tally Ho, revealing to the reader the sadness of a life oscillating between the different roles others expected to see.   As Pip Smith says in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, she doesn’t claim to speak for Falleni.  These voices are imaginings, performances, and attempts at creating an empathetic bridge between then and now, archives and feeling, Falleni and us.  It is remarkably well done, and this book deserves its place on the Voss Literary Prize shortlist, and the 2018 Indie Book Awards longlist.

Theresa Smith liked it too. See her review here. 

PS Grammar 101: Could I just make mention of a spelling error that was one of a few that should not have escaped the attention of the copy-editors of a big company like Allen & Unwin?  One does not pour over anything, unless doing it with liquid which flows continuously.  Rain can pour, and milk can be poured. But one does not pour over photographs, one pores over them, meaning that one is reading or focusing on something intently. I have seen this error so much in print in the last few months that I am beginning to think that the battle is already lost, as it has been with the noun loan in use as a verb…

Author: Pip Smith
Title: Half Wild
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017, 390 pages
ISBN: 9781760294649
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Half Wild

Today I went to the launch of a poetry anthology called Interludes.  I was invited by poet and author Mairi Neal who readers know as an occasional guest reviewer of short stories on this blog.  In a competition open to poets from all over Australia, Mairi had two poems selected for inclusion in the book.

The book was to have been launched by much loved Melbourne poet Judith Rodriguez who passed away last week (see her obituary here) so her place was taken by Philton, another notable Melbourne poet whose work has been published in journals such as Overland and Quadrant, as well as overseas.  He has published a number of collections also published by Poetica Christi Press, and has been a judge of national poetry awards.  After his speech to launch the book there was beautiful music provided by Cathy Altmann and Angela Chandler, followed by an introduction to the poems by the editor Maree Silver, and then selected readings, punctuated about half way through by more lovely music.

Interludes is a beautifully presented book with the design, cover and layout by Cameron Semmens.   The selection and sequencing of the poems allows the themes to follow on naturally from one another, showcasing a variety of different forms but all of them reminders of things we shouldn’t ignore.

Browsing through the poems I found themes of old age and death.  ‘True North’ by Rosalyn Black, (the winner of the competition) features striking images from Kristallnacht:

After the exile
my grandfather wrote
poems stunted and sour
sifted by memory
ash, glass and bones.

‘Your Song’ by Gavin Austin is a meditation on grief:

It has been a year
since you were taken from me;
a year of having to live as one
is like unlearning my name
I am a foreigner in a strange land…
you are everywhere
but do not walk beside me.

Mairi Neil’s poem ‘A Branch of the Green Oak Tree’ speaks of the dislocation when a loved one’s ashes are scattered far from the land of birth and the graveyard of ancestors:

Someone may pause in the future
and celebrate the discovery
of “George died Australia 2005”.

I hear his voice still
fill a pothole in James Road with my ashes
but what meaning has life

if no record of existence?
The etched headstone a remnant
of another uprooted Gael.

‘Between Homes’ by Kerry Harte is accompanied by a triptych of B&W photos of dynamic older women:

I’m reading the shiny brochure
for the nursing home and I want to believe
in the new lease on life they are selling.

Even my walking frame moves in solar flares
of anticipation today, sparked by promises of
freedom.  I can feel the shackles of a lifetime

fall away.  It’s a gentle falling: an airborne
tissue kind of falling, not the heavy thud
of disappointment I’ve grown accustomed to.

I could really relate to the shock of ‘Heartbeat’ by David Campbell (though my medication has matters under control now, thank goodness!)

Atrial fibrillation is a medical term
that slips from the tongue
of avuncular specialists.  Arrhythmia:
a bad                 connection
causing                   distortion
of electrical impulses
that control the beat — beat — beat of a muscle
the size of my fist.

You cannot know          cannot possibly know
that loss of rhythm.  The                   shock
short-circuits the dynamo powering blood
through veins and arteries.             The heart
hammers its message                   suddenly
berserk                                       demented
threatening to escape
its bone-brittle cage.

There is a poem expressing respect for Indigenous lore and law in ‘Angkerle Arrenge (Standley Chasm) by Greg Burns, and there are poems featuring moments of reflection by the sea, the suburbs, the bush and the city.  And there are stunning metaphors that speak to the quality of this collection.  There is

  • the gunmetal grey of a failing marriage in ‘Custodial Visits’ by Richenda Rudman;
  • the pale pigeon grey of the sky in ‘Sunday Evening by Shane McCauley;
  • Princes Bridge smarting with tourists in ‘My Other Melbourne Morning’ by Leigh Hay;
  • the street art of shopping trolleys in ‘(The Interlude of) A Morning Walk in Suburbia’ by Ian Keast; and (my favourite because my library overlooks lush jasmine in Spring)
  • one of those jasmine evenings/ when there’s just flywire/ between you and outside in ‘Melbourne September 2017’ by Wendy Fleming.

It’s hard to choose just a few, but I really liked:

  • ‘Take a moment’ by Janine Johnson, who begins with She loosens the shackles of the clock/allows herself moments…
  • ‘Betwixt’, a playful poem by Bill Rush, that explores a word uneasy in a twenty-first century poem
  • ‘A Pleasantly Plump Dove’ by Catherine Lewis, that contrasts the dove so different from the wattle birds!/Diving/sleek and confident 
  • ‘Crossroads’ by Xiaoli Yang, beset by many voices in this world/ entice me/ to touch/ grab/ hold/ and possess
  • ‘Paths to Mystery’ by Cameron Semmens, so apt after reading Sebastian Smee’s essay just yesterday: Turn off your phone/ silence/ is the screen/ of your subconscious.

And this one, ‘Good Morning’ by Jane McMillan ( I wish I could quote it all):

in the half-life of waking
lie silent and still
willing the dream to return
eyes shut tight against
dawn shapes that creep
between curtains, stealthy
ready to snatch loose
tendrils of sleep

resist their advance
pull the quilt higher
grasp at floating
fragments of night…

Oh yes, that’s me!

Editors: Janette Fernando and Maree Silver
Title: Interludes
Publisher: Poetica Christi Press, 2018, 137 pages
ISBN: 9780994164094
Source: personal library, purchased at the launch, $20.00

Available from Poetica Christi Press.  The book can be ordered from the website. (Or you could use the order form from the bottom of the launch invitation.

O what a lovely starter book for #6Degrees this month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol tra-la-la-la la, la-la-la!

I love Charles Dickens’ novels.  Unlike most people, I didn’t begin with A Christmas Carol or The Pickwick Papers, I began at age ten with A Child’s History of England, set as an eye exercise for me by an ophthalmologist who had specified that I had to read something with small print for 15 minutes every day.  My parents had the complete Odhams set in their distinctive red boards with an impossibly small font (size 8 or 9, I think), so that’s what I read!

(This edition also included under the title Christmas Stories, a rather un-Christmassy collection comprising

  • The Seven Poor Travellers
  • The Holly Tree
  • The Wreck of the Golden Mary
  • The Perils of Certain English Prisoners
  • The Haunted House
  • A Message from the Sea
  • Tom Tiddler’s Ground
  • Somebody’s Luggage
  • Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings and Mrs Lirriper’s Legacy
  • Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions, and
  • Mugby Junction.

This collection did not include A Christmas Carol which has its own volume padded out with ‘Reprinted Pieces’.)

Anyway I went on to read all 14 titles of the Dickens we had, —culminating in the final year of my B.A. with choosing Dickens as the author for my major essay, which meant I read them all twice over that year.  Once over the Christmas holidays beforehand, then steadily during the year as well.  That was a marathon… comparable with my marathon reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake last year, which I read, chapter-by-chapter, recording my (mis)adventures over 19 posts, beginning in March and finishing in December.  It is the longest time I have ever taken to read just one book.  (And no, I don’t pretend to understand it, and feel deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to do so).

Of course, I read other things while reading FW because a book like that needs to be balanced by other less demanding reading.  I’m having the same issue with my current book which is the 1000 page trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset.  I have just finished Book Two (phew!) and am surviving because I’m reading other things as well.  I’ve just finished Pip Smith’s Voss-shortlisted Half Wild (my review on its way is here).

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent Half Wild as being about a transgender person because it’s about more than that, but it is one of the growing number of books which either explore gender identity or include LGBTQIA identity in the characterisation.  So I have included Half Wild amongst my Gay/Lit LGBTQIA books category, where its closest relation is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  That was written from an entirely different angle, but Pip Smith explores some of the same ideas about gender discrimination in Orlando in her novel, when —in an altogether different place and time—her character finds that a man can earn a living wage while a woman can’t.

That reminds me of Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865)by Catherine Helen Spence.  It’s a brilliant novel which exposed with heart-breaking clarity how even when women were educated to take their place among men in satisfying, appropriately paid employment, there were numerous other barriers to prevent it.  That will certainly be among my best books of 2018 because I am always talking about it, whenever I get the chance.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from one 19th century story with a moral to another!

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting, and to Sue at Whispering Gums for the reminder!

Image credit: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Photographer: Heritage Auctions, Inc. Dallas, Texas – http://historical.ha.com/common/view_item.php?Sale_No=683&Lot_No=57424&type=&ic=, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4581655

 

This Quarterly Essay feels as if it’s written just for me.  Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age by art critic for the Washington post Sebastian Smee explores the doubts we are beginning to have about social media.

Not long ago I had a conversation about my remarkable luck at the Louvre, when it just so happened that The Spouse and I were the only two people in the gallery that houses the Mona Lisa.  ‘Did you take a photo?’ I was asked.  There was mutual puzzlement.  Hers was about why I didn’t, so that I could remember it and prove it happened, and mine because it was an unforgettable magical experience and my friends don’t need me to ‘prove’ my story.  This conversation still bothers me because it represents a gulf between the kind of memories I have (and like to share) and those of people who are more connected to their phones than I am.  I think it says something about a wariness of ‘fake news’ too.

This is the blurb for Net Loss, from Fishpond:

What is the inner life? And is it vanishing in the digital age?

Throughout history, artists and philosophers have cultivated the deep self, and seen value in solitude and reflection. But today, through social media, wall-to-wall marketing, reality television and the agitation of modern life, everything feels illuminated, made transparent. We feel bereft without our phones and their cameras and the feeling of instant connectivity. It gets hard to pick up a book, harder still to stay with it.

In this eloquent and profound essay, renowned critic Sebastian Smee brings to the surface the idea of inner life – the awareness one may feel in front of a great painting or while listening to extraordinary music by a window at dusk or in a forest at night. No nostalgic lament, this essay evokes what is valuable and worth cultivating – a connection to our true selves, and a feeling of agency in the mystery of our own lives. At the same time, such contemplation puts us in an intensely charged relationship with things, people or works of art that are outside us.

If we lose this power, Smee asks, what do we lose of ourselves?

To explain what he means by ‘inner life’, Smee quotes Chekhov describing Gurov, a character from his story The Lady with the Dog.  ‘He had two lives’ writes Chekhov,

one open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret.  And through some strange, perhaps accidental conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club … his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open.  And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. (p.3)

Smee sets out to explore this idea that we all have an inner life with its own history of metamorphosis — rich, complex and often obscure, even to ourselves, but essential to who we are.  He thinks this elusive inner self is under threat as companies shape our new reality with their powerful tools.

They promise to connect us on social media; to entertain us on reality TV, YouTube and Facebook; to identify, target and even diagnose us through surveys, questionnaires and tests; to win our votes, enlist our support and market their wares and services.  All this is being done.  New efficiencies are being found.  Meanwhile, the idea of a dark, inner being, silent, inaccessible — the part of us that comes into view while standing by a window at dusk, while walking in the suburbs at midnight or while listening to a melancholy song — has come to seem exotic and unfamiliar, like a rumoured lake in a dark forest, a living body of water which no one has seen for years.  Is this idea of the self, from which whole histories of literature and art have been woven a mere fiction? […] To the extent that it exists at all, it seems to have no place in public discourse.  Even in discussions of art, it is ignored, thwarted, factored out.  The senses with which we could have grasped, recognised and nurtured it are atrophying. (p.4)

A year ago I would have scoffed at Smee’s claim that the obscurity and unknowability of our inner selves is a nuisance, perhaps even a threat, to the social media companies. But back in April of this year 2018 I advised the readers who follow my Facebook page that I was abandoning it.  I haven’t posted on FB since, though I check notifications once a week in case a particular friend who’s important to me gets in touch.  But as the weeks and months went by, the notifications changed.  None of them are from people I know.  They are all from Facebook itself, trying to manipulate me into re-engaging, nagging me about how long it’s been since I’ve posted, and telling me about posts by my friends or scouring my friends’ circles of friends and relations for people I might want to ‘friend’.  What FB doesn’t know is that I’m now more in touch with my f2f friends because I have more time.  And I’m using old media to do it – phone calls, greeting cards, personal emails and lunches and excursions together.  Not that FB cares about that.  FB is just cross that I’m not seeing their ads any more and they can’t sell my out-of-date profile to the highest bidder.

Like Smee, I’ll be honest, I don’t particularly feel like an algorithm. Like Zadie Smith, I feel that we tend to ‘reduce’ ourselves in order to ‘fit’ the software designed by social media companies.  I don’t want to be a disembodied self whose attention is harnessed by Facebook for its own purposes.  I think that now I have enhanced wellbeing because I’m immune to the short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops that […] are destroying how society works.  I no longer see things which used to bother me: the trolls, the lack of civil discourse and cooperation, or the misinformation or mistruth.  I have turned my back on comment threads that show how quickly people fall into abuse, sarcasm and general nastiness.  (My Twitter account is very carefully curated so that I don’t see it there either.)

Jean Siméon Chardin -The Young Schoolmistress (Wikipedia Commons*)

I love the way Smee uses the work of writers and artists to convey his ideas, and I was charmed by what he has to say about the intimacy between teachers and students when the relationship is working [and] something enigmatic is allowed to occur.  We teachers more prosaically call this the ah-ha moment, but it is a special meeting of minds, a bridge from one inner life to another.  One of the things the teacher-student relationship does is establish a formal structure for the hope, the intuition, that you are not alone.  I used to feel this in the library, reading stories, when the children were together with me in the same fictional world.  It is a wondrous thing to have a class in the palm of your hand, when they are equally lost in the world of Sir Gawain and his predicaments, or stifling a tear over the Little Match Girl who has no parents to love her.

Towards the end of this captivating essay, Smee goes some way towards explaining why I didn’t need —or more importantly, want —my Mona Lisa moment immortalised in a photo.  He references art critic Peter Schjeldahl…

…talking about the problem of paintings which have become so popular, so well-known (think Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, or Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’) that they exist more as a shared resource in a communal image bank than as a specific image with any hope of activating an individual’s imagination.  How to get back to the thing itself, before it hardened into a cliché? (p.53)

Well, in the silent privacy of an empty gallery, I think I did as Smee suggests, that is, I lasered in on the painting itself and saw it independently of the thousands of reproductions I’ve seen at other times.  When I see the Mona Lisa now, I see it in my mind’s eye, just as it was on that day, unfiltered by anything else.

And even now, writing this, I cannot really convey how I feel when I think about it.  It’s like reading a wonderful book, like Kristina Olsson’s Shell for example.  I try to write a review that shares the power of sublime writing, I post a Sensational Snippet and I rejoice when another reader like Theresa Smith seems to have shared the same experience but I know that even the very best of reviews can’t really describe what is beautiful and true about a book.  You have to read it for yourself.

Unlike the artificial connectivity of social media, great art, as Schjeldahl wrote, puts ‘you on your own, responsive and responsible in your aloneness.’ (p.53)

PS Just in case you’re wondering, Smee is just as captive to social media as the next person:

Every day I spend hours and hours on my phone.  I have Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.  I have three email addresses.  I watch soccer highlights, comedy clips, how-to advice and random music videos on YouTube.  I download podcasts, which I listen to while driving, and I’m addicted to Waze [a GPS navigation software app] and Google Maps.  I do all this, and much more besides, without much thought, just a little lingering anxiety.

We are all doing it, aren’t we?  It has come to feel completely normal.  (p.1)

*Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain

Author: Sebastian Smee
Title: Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age
Quarterly Essay #72, published by Black Inc 2018
ISBN: 9781760640712
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: Sebastian Smee on the Inner Life in the Digital Age: Quarterly Essay 72 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.

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