ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (2 to 9 July).

This is a week when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is Our Languages Matter.

2017 National NAIDOC logo ( Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-N4 4.0).

ANZ LitLovers’ contribution to NAIDOC Week is to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing, and I hope that many of my readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.

If you would like to participate,  your choice of indigenous literature isn’t restricted just to Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori literature.   Participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me.

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous years of ILW  the reading list is growingFor reasons of space and time and personal preference my reading list is mostly literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form you like – short story, memoir, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  There’s lots to choose from: there are more than 75 books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and nearly 30 Maori authors reviewed on this blog alone.  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other useful reading lists) is on the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List in the top menu.

Thanks to all those who joined in last year and have encouraged me to host the week again.


  • If you’d like to participate simply say so in comments below.  Tell us what you think you might read in the comments box to help spread awareness of what’s available. .  You never know, you might encourage someone else to try the book too! (You can always change your mind later if you want to).
  • Bookmark the page for Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers 2017 so that you can use the comments box there either
    • to provide the URL of your review on your blog, your Goodreads page or your Library Thing page, or
    • to share your thoughts as a comment and then I’ll add it to the reading list.
  • If you would like to write a guest review of your book for ANZLL I will happily host it here too.

From the TBR I will be reading some titles I’ve been hoarding for a while.  From Australia, I’ll be choosing from:

and from New Zealand

All of the above titles can be purchased using the links to fishpond, but publishers don’t generally make it easy to find (or find about) indigenous writing.  I find the most useful sources for indigenous titles are

  • UQP – use their Browse Books menu to find David Unaipon Award winners, titles from the Blak & Bright Festival, and Black Australian Writing;
  • Wakefield Press – choose browse by category from the top RHS side of the home page (under the search box).  Not all these titles are by indigenous authors so choose carefully;
  • and indigenous publishing houses Magabala Books and Jukurrpa/IAD Press

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC hashtags on Twitter.

Too busy to read a whole book for Indigenous Literature Week this year?

Here are some short inexpensive suggestions for the time poor.

Links on the titles take you to where you can buy the book.

These ones are all from the Australian Review of Fiction: they are digital editions that come packaged as two stories, one by an established author and the other by an emerging author.  They cost only $2.99, and come in Kindle and other digital formats to suit iPads etc.

These are short story collections and anthologies:

Or, if a bit of sassy chicklit appeals, you can romp through these novels by Anita Heiss in no time!

  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms
  • Tiddas
  • Paris Dreaming
  • Not Meeting Mr Right
  • Manhattan Dreaming
  • Avoiding Mr Right.

Indigenous Literature Week starts July 2 2017 (but of course you can read these any time of the year)!

Sign up here

Joiner Bay and Other Stories is a collection of seventeen stories on the theme of finding oneself and others, selected by editor Ellen Van Neerven from 200 entries in the 2017 Margaret River Short Story Competition.  I’ve read the winning entry by Laura Elvery.   Laura’s work has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Kill Your Darlings, Award-Winning Australian Writing and Griffith Review, so hers is a name to keep an eye on, eh?

Please note that this review discusses teenage suicide.  If it raises any issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue or Kids Helpline or Sane Australia or your local services.

Elvery’s story, ‘Joiner Bay’, tells the tale of a schoolboy who runs to make sense of his best friend’s suicide, and I can see why it won.  With first person narration of this boy’s interior world, she has captured the pseudo-laconic speech that so often characterises adolescent male behaviour.  Here in her opening paragraph you can see him using distractors to make it look as if he doesn’t care, and trying to exercise control of others by deciding what is and isn’t important, and judging others by deciding in advance whether they care or not.  And then he makes his demand: they will be made to care…

I’m a runner.  I don’t get pocket money for jobs or just because.  Dad tells everyone how if I run 10 ks he’ll give me five bucks.  If I get a PB I get five dollars more.  We have the rowing machine and the weights and a bench press in the spare room now.  I’ve been running more lately, and someone else, like a psychologist, might say it’s because my best friend died recently.  But people can say what they like, and they still won’t know the truth, even if they believe it.  Even if they tell other adults while I’m in the room.  My best friend’s name was Robbie.  You don’t need to know his last name, because nobody cares about that.  But what you will care about is that he killed himself, and you’ll care how he did it: with a cord and a beam to hang from, which means he probably broke his neck, and then he probably stopped breathing.  That’s the order of things.  (p. 226-7)

In a story of less than ten pages, the characterisation is economical.  There is the narrator, his father, a teacher and the dead boy.  Yet Elvery manages to convey important elements: we know that Dad is a loving father because he sits up all night beside his son, knowing that he must break the news in the morning.  We know that the teacher is the right blend of business-as-usual and concern because he respects his student’s space.  And we know Robbie through memories of shared activities and from the way his love for his little sisters is manifested.  We see hints of misplaced guilt about ‘missing the warning signs’ too:

The week before it all happened, he followed me around the library at the end of lunch, bored, slipping books out and putting them back spine-in.  He found a hardcover about celebrities who died young and he kept coming back to the shelf to read it.  He showed it to me.  I think I thought it was funny. (p. 231)

The Introduction by editor and Mununjali woman Ellen Van Neerven makes it clear that there are plenty more good stories in this collection.  I’ll mention just two from the blurb:

Second prize winner Else Fitzgerald’s work has appeared in Visible Ink, Australian Book Review, Award Winning Australian Writing and Offset. Her story ‘Sheen’ leaves the reader questioning what it is that makes up humanity.

The South West Prize winner Leslie Thiele has had her short fiction commended and shortlisted in various competitions. Her story ‘Harbour Lights’ details the emotional turmoil created by a painful confrontation.

Interested?  Margaret River Press is offering a copy for a giveaway.

Be in it to win it!  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random number generator round about the end of next month.  Previous giveaway winners are welcome!

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).  I will pass on the postal address to Margaret River Press and they will post the book to the winner.

Author: Laura Elvery
Title: Joiner Bay and Other Stories
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780648027508
Courtesy of Margaret River Press.

If you can’t wait to see if you are a winner, you can buy a copy from Fishpond Joiner Bay and Other Stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition: 2017, or direct from Margaret River Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2017

Heat and Light, by Ellen Van Neerven

To whet your appetite for Indigenous Literature Week, here’s my review of a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while…

If all goes well, I’ll be reading two winners of the David Unaipon Award during Indigenous Literature Week 2017.  (Click here to see others that you can buy).  It’s an important award because as well as a prize of $10,000, the winner receives a publishing contract with category sponsor University of Queensland Press (UQP).   Ellen Van Neerven won the award in 2013 for Heat and Light, and I have finally – at last! tracked down a copy of Larissa Behrendt’s Home which won in 2002.  I’ve read quite a few of the recent winners, and they’ve all been interesting reading (links go to my reviews):

As it happens, I brought home another interesting book from Bayside Library today.  It’s called Black Writers, White Editors, Episodes of collaboration and compromise in Australian Publishing History, (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009 ISBN 9781921509063) and the author is Jennifer Jones, whose research explored the editorial relationship for three foundational Indigenous women writers, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Margaret Tucker and Monica Clare.  I’m unlikely to read it all because … a-hem… it is indeed a scholarly work, but it made me realise for the first time that the process of publishing indigenous narratives can significantly alter what is eventually published.  Jones’s analysis shows (amongst other things) that for the three authors that she researched, there were numerous alterations which were not just spelling and grammar, including

  • changes that increase political impact in a passage;
  • insertion of alternative colloquialisms;
  • minimisation of character’s emotional expression; and
  • standardisation of colloquialisms.

More importantly the editing changed the nature of the writing.  She gives an example of where editing one of Noonuccal’s stories

  • made it conform to the dominant cultural viewpoint on  Aboriginality and Aboriginal sovereignty;
  • messed with the structure to shift it into a Western understanding of chronology;
  • recontextualised it to make it about a bygone Dreaming rather than about the consequences of contact history; and
  • whitewashed some aspects of Aboriginal experience, such as scavenging in the tip or stealing, to make it palatable for the projected white mainstream readership. 

What Jones has to say about the toning down of Aboriginal perspectives in the presumed interests of marketability in the 1970s-1990s, made me wonder whether this still happens at all today, or whether these practices have faded away along with old ideas about assimilation.  I certainly hope things have changed.  I want to read the unfiltered voices of Indigenous authors, no matter what they have to say.

The catalyst for me to make this this digression about editing is the way that Ellen Van Neerven has structured her stories in Heat and LightEverybody is playing around with form and chronology these days, it’s just part of the contemporary writing scene.  But Van Neerven asserts a shared concept of time: in a book written in three distinct sections, the middle section called ‘Water’ has Western time in which  she projects forward into the near future with what is deemed to be progress, and this ‘progress’ is confronted by life forms ancient beyond imagining so that ordinary linear time seems irrelevant.  In the sections titled ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ which bookend this central, (most political) part of the book, linked short stories from the near past tell us about concepts of kinship, memory and storytelling which have been fractured but remain resilient and powerful over generations.

I can’t help thinking how the short stories might have been sanitised in a past era.  Amy Kresinger initially rejects the information that her biological grandmother was a Bundjalung woman called Pearl, a woman who was gang-raped by local thugs and who abandoned her child to be brought up by her sister, Marie.  Amy’s sense of identity is rocked:

My thoughts are running wild as I drive to my place.  If I didn’t know my grandmother, then I could I know myself?  My grandmother as I had always known was Marie Kresinger, Aunty Marie to everyone.  She’s spent most of her life as a domestic.  She died from heart failure at the age of seventy-two.  People said her heart was too big.  (p.5)

Her father can’t face up to it either.  He would tell her nothing of their history, whether he knew it or not.

Yet Amy’s voice remains strong and resilient, and she grows in wisdom and confidence, discovering her sexuality along the way.  This is a lively book, where the narrators of have distinctive voices and usually a laconic sense of humour.

There was a picture of it in one of the magazines, I remember.  We’d made a stack of the mags up high in the office.  I hadn’t read them yet.  I wasn’t ready to commit to weight loss and crosswords and Sudoku. (p.150)

Heat and Light won the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize.  It was also shortlisted for The Stella Prize, the Queensland Literary Award for State Significance, and the Readings Prize.

Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali woman from South East Queensland.   She’s an editor, mentor and advocate for First Nation writers, and she was the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Australian Novelist in 2015.

ILW 2017I read Heat and Light was my first book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Ellen Van Neerven
Title: Heat and Light
Publisher: UQP, (University of Queensland Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.95

Available from Fishpond:Heat and Light
Check out Sue’s review at Whispering Gums too.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2017

Some Tests, by Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley is an entertaining satirist who mercilessly exposes Australian follies, and I like his novels very much.  I’ve read Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe (2004, satirising our obsession with home ownership); The Cook (2011, it parodies foodies); Demons (2014, which exposes the inane narcissism of middle-class Melbourne ); and I have Caravan Story (2007) somewhere on the TBR.  (Links are to my reviews). Macauley’s latest target, in Some Tests, is the medicalization of normal life…

Beth is a nice, ordinary woman with a husband and a couple of kids, living in an ordinary Melbourne suburb.  She works in aged care, and David, her husband is an accountant.  They are muddling through life as most people do, planning a renovation that they can’t really afford, occasionally worrying about infidelity without apparent cause, and coping with the vagaries of parenthood.  Until one day when Beth wakes up not feeling very well, and David calls in a locum because their usual doctor isn’t available.

The locum’s diagnosis is a bit vague, but Beth is feeling seedy so she agrees to go for some tests.  And from this innocuous beginning, she finds herself on a merry-go-round of doctors and specialists and referrals, with a patient file that grows ever larger but never records a diagnosis.

On the first day, Beth seems to be experiencing what is familiar to all of us, but soon events take a more surreal turn.  Her case acquires a sense of urgency, and she is squeezed in for further appointments on the same day, going from Dr Yi to Dr Twoomey and then on to Dr Kolm.  The doctors’ room are located further and further away across Melbourne, necessitating long trips to the more remote suburbs, and the passengers on the trains and buses are all – every one of them! clutching referral slips for ‘more’ tests.  There are so many of them that kindly bus drivers call out the stops and give the passengers directions to the ever-lengthening roll call of doctors.  The time and distance involved means that Beth spends all day getting there and ends up staying the night – in rooms that are thoughtfully prepared in advance for her, complete with fresh undies and toothbrush.  It is as if she is on a conveyor belt and there is no getting off once she gets on.

She is –  of course – prescribed some drugs at PharmComm: they are precautionary … to some extent prophylactic – but in a certain sense palliative too, and she is docile about taking them.  Her passivity and self-absorption will be eerily familiar to anyone who has been shunted around the medical system… it’s all so tiring and confusing, in the end we just go along with things, eh?

There is, in trademark Macauley style, a suitably macabre ending.

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Some Tests
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN:  9781925355932
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Some Tests

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2017

Ache, by Eliza Henry-Jones

Ache is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities.  It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowledge that the author has qualifications in psychology and grief counselling, and wrote her Honours thesis about the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction.

The story centres around thirty-something Annie, who shot to tabloid fame by escaping with a small child from the burning mountain on a horse.  (Need I say, this is a classic example of highly risky panic? So many people die trying to escape at the last moment. If you live in, or visit, anywhere at risk of bushfire, including the urban fringe, have a bushfire plan and rehearse it.)

Annie’s grandmother dies, as do other people in the small community. Her mother’s home is ruined, and her daughter is traumatised.  And Annie, who lives and works in the city with her husband Tom, feels the urge to return to the mountain to help her mother and her uncle.  She also needs to sort out her marriage and deal with her own grief.

The characterisation of the child, Pip, is painful.  Quite honestly, if it were not for the author’s qualifications which show that she knows much more about this than I do, I would find it hard to believe that any parent could survive the bratty behaviour of this child and still love it.  I won’t catalogue the things this child does, I’ll just confine myself to the observation that the burden on Annie is exacerbated by the expectation that she should tolerate her child’s appalling behaviour.

What Jones does well is to show how the demands of family can impact almost beyond endurance on a fragile personality.  Annie has a city career as a vet and her husband is a city person.  But she feels she is needed back up on the mountain and so she abandons both the job and the husband and feels guilt about that too.  There is also an old lover vilified for having started the fire, and Annie herself  is the result of a teenage pregnancy and was always closer to her grandmother than her mother, so there are those resentments to deal with as well.  It seems a crowded palette of characters and psychological issues but it’s probably close to real life for some people.

Ache is only 260-odd pages but it seems longer because I found it dreary.  (It feels unkind to admit this because of its sincere attempt to explore trauma).  But I think the urge to show how awful the aftermath of bushfire can be has overwhelmed the author’s capacity to tell a good story, and commercial fiction needs to tell a good story.  That’s the risk an author takes in writing about grief and loss, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Karenlee Thompson’s collection of short fictions, Flame Tip explores the terrible Hobart fires, and some of them will break your heart, but they’re not dreary.  (See my review).

Karenlee, however, really admires Ache (see her review) which just goes to show that the same book can elicit very different responses!

Update, a mere half an hour later:

Well, well, look what Radio National is talking about today!  ‘The evolution of emotion in literature’, that’s what.  And you know what, *sigh* their promo images are all but one of women emoting.   I couldn’t put up with listening to all of it…

Update, later that evening: I nearly forgot: Lexi Landsman wrote an absorbing book called The Ties That Bind which also explores the impact of bushfire.  See my review.

Author: Eliza Henry-Jones
Title: Ache
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9781460750384
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Ache

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2017

Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, by Brian Castro

Isn’t that the most splendid cover image?  It’s a cartoon called Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of Goethe University in Frankfurt.  It graces the cover of Brian Castro’s latest book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, a novel in thirty-four cantos.  Like much else in this book, the cartoon is droll, and captivating, and probably opaque if you don’t get the literary allusion.

Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that.  Quoting here from my own review of Drift:

England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So

Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns. (Introduction, ix)

And what she says about Drift, IMO applies equally to Blindness and Rage:

if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you. (Introduction, x)

Castro suggests in this book, however, that it might not just be a case of whether you like a challenge or not… maybe people are losing the ability to play his games.  Here in Canto XIII he’s talking about police giving up on their surveillance but they’re obviously not his only target:

… since it take a lifetime to encode high
literature they grew disinterested
when the digital age began to lose
close reading skills and treated all this seeding
and dissemination as something trite;
too intellectual… (p. 145)

But he also acknowledges that allusions can be very sly.  Poor Gracq misses one entirely because it’s based on a coded message with an address and time that an Australian would be unlikely to know:

‘But there is no time… [to meet]
there is always no time.’
Lucien started to complain.
‘It’s in the poem by Verlain,’ she said,
on this occasion broadcast
on 5th June 1944 to signal
the Normandy invasion.
Je me souviens [I remember]
des jours anciens [the old days]
It was a quarter past eight
in the evening, Lucien.’ (p. 152

Anyway… if you’re still with me…

Amongst the literary allusions are some I recognise and others to chase up: Bataille, (1897-1962) Leiris (1901-1990), Caillois (1913-1978) and Klossowski (1905-2001) from the French Collège de Sociologie, none of whom died young except their lovers and who sound like a very interesting bunch who (Wikipedia tells me), believed that surrealism’s focus on the unconscious privileged the individual over society, and obscured the social dimension of human experience.  I didn’t look them up when I was reading the book in bed, and I didn’t discover that many of them are listed at the back of the book until I found them there after I’d reached the end, but anyway, my adventures with Finnegans Wake are teaching me to read on, and to sort out the mysteries later.  But Caillois sounds particularly relevant to Castro’s writing because he was very interested in play as an essential pre-condition for the generation of culture.  You can read about it here if you are keen, but the point is that Castro makes many intellectual propositions palatable through the playfulness of his writing. Would a reader like me ever have discovered Klossowski and Co had Castro not penned this allusion to tempt me off to Wikipedia?

his nephew screwing Colette.
Pierre Klossowski, Jesuit friend and fellow traveller,
would write this version of his jealous joie
and call it Roberte ce soir.

(The Dalkey Archive has a translation if your interest is piqued too).

Blindness and Rage also offers an extra challenge for me because it’s a verse novel that made me think I should get round to reading Dante first.  But I didn’t do that, I confined myself to reading Clive James’ introduction to his translation of  The Divine Comedy which reminded me of university things I’d forgotten about poetry and why I do not have the expertise to comment on the poetic qualities of the work.  Never mind, I love the book and I’m going to tell you about it anyway…

First of all, here is the blurb from Readings:

Blindness and Rage is a novel told in 34 cantos, somewhat in the manner of Pushkin’s great Russian novel in verse, Eugene Onegin.

Castro’s hero Lucien Gracq is a townplanner from Adelaide who is writing a book-length poem, Paidia. Doubtful of its reception, he travels to Paris to join a literary club which guarantees its members anonymity, by having their books published under someone else’s name, while the authors themselves are encouraged to commit suicide if they are not already, as in Gracq’s case, facing death from a terminal illness.

Castro’s novel is a part-serious, part-comic fantasy on the present fate of literary authors, who might as well be anonymous, or dead, for all the recognition that they are likely to receive for their writing.

And here, making its erudition more explicit, is the blurb from Giramondo:

Suffering from a fatal disease, Lucien Gracq travels to Paris to complete the epic poem he is writing and live out his last days. There he joins a secret writers’ society, Le club des fugitifs, that guarantees to publish the work of its members anonymously, thus relieving them of the burdens of life, and more importantly, the disappointments of authorship. In Paris, Gracq finds himself crossing paths with a parade of phantasms, illustrious writers from the previous century – masters of identity, connoisseurs of eroticism, theorists of game and rule, émigrés and Oulipeans. He flees from the deathly allure of the Fugitives, and towards the arms of his beloved – but it may be too late.

Written in thirty-four cantos, Blindness and Rage recalls Virgil and Dante in its descent into the underworld of writing, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with its mixture of wonder and melancholy. The short lines bring out the rhythmic qualities of Castro’s prose, enhance his playfulness and love of puns, his use of allusion and metaphor. Always an innovator, in Blindness and Rage he again throws down a challenge to the limits of the novel form.

And here is a little excerpt from Canto 1, which I liked because it mocks the pretentions of poetry so deliciously.  There have been three verses of 16, 14 and 15 lines beforehand which defied my attempts to identify any kind of recognisable poetry pattern (which is not to say there isn’t one, of course.  In fact I am sure there must be some Oulipo somewhere, if I only knew what to look for).  Whatever, there are half- and inline-rhymes and half- and inline-rhythms in free verse and then we get this:

But how to write now in such gloom
in the face of real impending doom?
Should the work be given every attention
to become the focus of constriction?
His heart’s regret
was his life’s invention: to beget
lying and exaggeration
in exchange for deep imagination
when it was a sign of the times
to pretend to the truth,
even if it smacks of youth
to force some easy ABBA rhymes,
without relying on Pushkin’s Onegin
for good taste
after pulp fiction had laid waste
to innocence in the nursery,
pushpins inserted into favourite Teddy
and every friend a Fagin. (p.2-3)

A pun on ABBA!  I love it:)

Castro has written about the lack of literary recognition in Australia before, and in Blindness and Rage he plays with all kinds of mock-possibilities for redemption.  In Canto VII he tells us how For several years after the death/ of his first wife Gracq devoted himself/ to working for refugees and he writes movingly about their escape from the lees of life only to find their dreams of a better life corrupted:

… But then they
still owed people smugglers and had to pay
with dope and vice and soon
reality replaced the dream with
rat-infested kitchens, piecemeal porting
at railway stations while skinhead racists
were jimmying their windows
to steal the one precious memory
of a vinyl record not heard in a decade thick
with dust for want of a gramophone (p. 51)

But himself a kind of refugee in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  *chuckle* He finds that Victorin, the hero of Restif’s novel, a flying man, had plans to inseminate/ the South, improving the human race/ through ingenuity/populating the earth with his progeny/ […] with a blindly French civilising succour.  There is a reproduction of a quaint frontispiece from Restif’s book facing the last page of this canto, showing us Victorin setting off with his flying apparatus to rescue us from our antipodean mediocrity … in 1781! (No, I’m not getting into a discussion about cultural imperialism or identity politics here.  If you’ve read Drift you know that Castro can’t be accused of that, he is being playful).

But *amused frown* I might myself become the subject of Castro’s mischievous pen if I don’t stop soon.  Though he wouldn’t have been thinking of an obscure litblogger like me, he warns reviewers off when Gracq, hanging out with his fellow authors at Le club des fugitifs, finds that:

In the hubbub Gracq realised
the shades had surrendered their work
to the general public who were eager
to seek out secrets in the meagre seam
almost exhausted.
There were others he did not recognise –
writers without compromise; unmolested –
it was clear to him they had retired here
to flee from any interpretation;
not like the rest, their aura lost
through constant quotation.  (p. 95-6)

I’d better not quote any more then or offer my interpretations, eh?

For a proper review, see the SMH.

Author: Brian Castro
Title: Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336221
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria or direct from Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2017

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

I wanted to read this book as soon as I read the review at A Life in Books so I asked my library to buy it and they did.  #BigBouquetForKingstonLibrary!

It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in the heart of England.  She was there on holiday, and she simply vanished.  We have all heard stories like this in the media, and we know that these unsolved disappearances resonate long, long after the event.  The names of Eloise Worledge, the Beaumont Children and Linda Stilwell are known to everyone my age, and never forgotten.

And yet…  the saddest moment in this story comes when, years after the disappearance, one of the characters sees an item of the missing girl’s clothing, and doesn’t recognise it for what it is.

The story is written not as a crime novel nor from the parents’ perspective but as a chronicle of how life goes on, as it must.  The villagers are good people: they turn out for the search, and they are respectful, cancelling long anticipated events and time-honoured traditions because they feel it would be inappropriate to hold them.  But as the narrative progresses we see the endless natural cycle of life with the birth and death of wildlife and the progress of the seasons, and although they are haunted by the disappearance people grow older and make changes in their lives as people do.   Amongst the other narratives, the story traces the growth and development of the teenagers who knew the girl, who is always referred to in a kind of refrain, as Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex.  These teenagers are the ones who knew her best, though they didn’t know her very well at all.  So there is no real sense of her as a person – which is what happens when a person becomes a ‘case’ to the police and to the media, who rustle up renewed interest at anniversaries which occur over the 13 year span of the novel.

Despite its sober storyline, this is a beautiful book which becomes impossible to put down.  Do read Susan’s review – it’s irresistible.

Author: Jon McGregor
Title: Reservoir 13
Publisher: Fourth Estate UK (Harper Collins) 2017
ISBN: 9780008204860
Source: Kingston Library (who got this book in for me, because I implored them to!)

Available from Fishpond: Reservoir 13

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2017

2017 Miles Franklin Award shortlist

The Miles Franklin Award shortlist has been announced:

Emily McGuire: An Isolated Incident, Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016, see my review

Mark O’Flynn: The Last Days of Ava Langdon, UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016, see my review

Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers, Black Inc Books, 2016 see my review

Philip Salom: Waiting, Puncher and Wattman, 2016 – see my review, and yes, this is the one I think should win.

Josephine Wilson: Extinctions, UWAP (University of Western Australia Press, 2016), see my review

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

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This weekend I went to the Williamstown Literary Festival.  I went to some beaut sessions, and bought some nice books, and in due course I will read them and tell you all about them.  For now, suffice to tell you that I bought these three, and on the basis of the author’s sessions and having read the first chapter during festival lulls, I recommend that you get hold of them too:

But what I really want to tell you about is something that will interest anybody who’s interested in Australian books and writing.  Insiders will already know it, but I am not an insider, and nor, I suspect are a good many of my readers.  So read on…

The WLF is a festival supported by Victoria University (who run writers courses, as many universities now do) and this support manifested itself in a number of sessions pitched squarely at aspiring writers.  I went to two, not as an aspiring writer looking for tips but because I had read the authors and wanted to support their sessions.  At ‘Pathways to Writing’ with Enza Gandolfo and Sherryl Clark, there was a whole lot of advice about writers’ groups and courses – obviously useful to the aspiring writers in the audience –  but my ears pricked up when there was a question about the Faber Writing Academy.  It costs thousands, apparently, but they offer useful editing experience (and contacts in the industry), which led on to the wisdom of hiring an editor before pitching to a publisher.  Investing $5000-6000 for a structural edit can mean that your book is the best it can be and has a much better chance of evading the slush pile.  Because once your book is in that pile, you can’t resubmit it after you’ve improved it, with a note to say it’s better now…

The penny didn’t drop until the afternoon when I went to a session called The Age of Experience, chaired by Jane Rawson.  This session featured writers who hadn’t been published until after they were 35, and it included Jenny Ackland, Christy Collins and Paul Dalgano.  At one stage Jane began a question by saying that it was fair to say that none of them had been hugely successful: they hadn’t won a major prize and they hadn’t had their book optioned for a film.  My jaw dropped.  I hadn’t read Dalgano, but I had read Ackland’s The Secret Son and Christy Collins The End of Seeing, and I knew that Jenny’s had been chosen as a Summer Read by the State Library so multiple copies had been sold to lots of libraries and that her second novel will be out soon, and I knew that Christy’s had won the Seizure Prize and been longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal.  This seemed like success to me! Jane’s question went on to tease out what these authors were hoping for if ‘hugely successful’ wasn’t on the horizon, (and Jenny, for example, went on to talk about the pleasure and satisfaction just of being published).   But Jane’s question lingered.  And eventually it dawned on me, even if it’s not what Jane was fishing for or what these authors thought, that there are authors out there who are at least hoping for a return on their investment in themselves.

I’m not in a position to have an opinion on whether Australia’s economy is able to support writing as a income-producing career, though I think few of our current crop of really good writers are prolific enough for that, and prolific has its hazards for the quality of an author’s work (as we see with the variable quality of Tom Keneally’s work from a literary PoV).  But now *penny drops*  I can see that writers who’ve invested years of tertiary fees and/or thousands to Faber and/or a privately-hired editor might have an expectation that they’ll at least get their money back, and hopefully much better than that.  That’s what ‘success’ would mean.   Again, I’m in no position to know how realistic that is.

But – as an outsider empathising with the PoV of a writer who hasn’t spent that kind of money – I can also now see that at the publisher’s submissions desk, the competition is with people who have made that kind of professional investment.

In other words, the gatekeeper’s gates have shifted further back, and this worries me.  It might mean that what gets published is drawn from a pool of writers who can afford that kind of investment, and that might make our writing rather dull.

I think that the best writing comes from authors who’ve seen a bit of the world and care about it, and who know and listen to a wide variety of people.  Sure, they need to hone their craft, and work with other people to make it really good, but not at the expense of living the rich and varied life which is what makes writing great.  Only a genius like Jane Austen could make a very restricted life into a brilliant novel, and genius is by definition very rare indeed.   The more our books and writing are peopled by the middle-class and the tertiary educated, people who can afford to live in the inner suburbs of capital cities, and people who do not know what it is like to be homeless or unemployed or undereducated or have just $7.00 in the bank, (yours truly, circa 1969), the greater the risk that our Australian books and writing will become impoverished.

This is not to suggest that books by authors who fit the profile I’ve sketched haven’t written terrific books or that they can’t empathise with the experiences of others.  If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that I have read and loved authors from all kinds of backgrounds.  But I think it is a risk we run if the pathway to publication becomes crowded by people who can afford to invest in themselves to the exclusion of others that can’t.

What do you think?


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2017

Datsunland, by Stephen Orr

The lead story in Datsunland, a new collection of short stories from Stephen Orr is a great conversation starter…

Titled ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’, it’s about a clash of cultures on an epic scale.  Dr Singh is an Indian doctor who has agreed to work in a remote location in the hope of bringing his family here to Australia for a better life.  He is an educated, cultured, rather formal man who is used to being treated with respect.  To say that the casual mores of Coober Pedy come as a shock is a bit of an understatement.

Waiting in the airport terminal for the car that was supposed to meet him…

He sat on a loose seat, took a freshly ironed handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.  He remembered the brochures the Health Commission had sent him: Barossa Valley vineyards, fishing off white beaches on the Eyre Peninsula and marvelling at the Naracoote Caves.

Yes, some of this please, he’d written back.  He was tired of living in the most densely populated place on the planet.  A swarm of humans that just kept coming, filling his waiting room, his days, his nights, his dreams with broken bodies, malaria, typhoid and TB, floating through the small, hot room he worked in for sixteen hours a day.

Yes, some of this please.

But then came the next letter.  We have shortages in remote locations.  Very considerable financial incentives are involved.

Yes, some of that too.

So, sign here, Dr Singh, and we’ll pay your airfare, accommodation – the whole lot.

Almost.  (p.5)

Well, we Aussies can just imagine it, can’t we?  It’s Wake in Fright with indifferent racism instead of drunken violence.  It’s Singh’s ‘failure’ to ‘see the funny side of things’ that will generate discussion.  I think this would be a great story for secondary school students to unpack…

The stories in this collection are sombre: the characters are, as the blurb says, outsiders peering into worlds they don’t recognise, or understand. 

Completely different to ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’ and nightmarishly chilling is ‘The One-Eyed Merchant’, a salutary reminder that workplace safety practices used once to be non-existent. ‘A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia’ doesn’t have the most enticing title, but it’s a powerful story, again about outsiders and how we perceive them.  ‘Miss Mary’ is a tale that aches with loneliness and a wasted life.

Two stories pack a most uncomfortable punch.  Most of the stories are set in small outback towns  but ‘The Confirmation’ is a story of sectarian violence in Ireland.  The other one that really shocked me was ‘The Adult World Opera’, a gut-wrenching story of a child struggling to survive a situation that no child should have to endure.

I have previously reviewed the novella in this collection, Datsunland when it was published in the Griffith Review.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Datsunland
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054758
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Datsunland

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2017

No More Boats, by Felicity Castagna

As aspect of Australian policy that has long irritated me is that apparently it’s anti-refugee sentiment in the ethnically diverse western suburbs of Sydney that drives our unconscionable refugee policy.  These electorates are crucial to electoral success and so both political parties kowtow to their hostility to refugees who come to Australia by boat.  The irony is that these loud, unfeeling and disproportionately influential voices come from people who themselves came to Australia by boat.  (Who, perversely, take no notice at all of refugees who arrive by air and then seek asylum, and apparently have no objection to the hordes of people who overstay their visas either).

Felicity Castagna, winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award in the Young Adult Fiction category for The Incredible Here and Now, explores this phenomenon in her new novel No More Boats.  It’s uncomfortable reading, but it’s an important book and it shows how fiction can shine a light on contemporary issues in society.

Antonio Martone is a product of the Populate or Perish immigration programs of the 1950s.  With his good mate Nico, he has been a hardworking success story in the construction industry, building good solid houses with craftsmanship and care.  He owns his own home and has others too, as investments.   But things are unravelling: he has been badly injured in the workplace accident that killed Nico; he is alienated from his wife and children, and he feels that his security is compromised because of the hysterical media response to the Tampa crisis.

Castagna builds her story slowly, weaving the narratives of Antonio, his wife Rosa, and his children Clare and Francis.  Rosa, facing the empty nest and anxious about Antonio’s strange behaviour, is plagued by regret.  She left Antonio once before, and wonders if she could have made a more interesting life for herself like her neighbour Lucy did when the 1970s came along and there were opportunities for women to reinvent themselves.  Rosa’s life as a housewife is empty and unfulfilling, and she is disappointed by the ingratitude of her kids.  They don’t share her ambitions for them and they don’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s made.

Castagna has been a high school teacher and it gives authenticity to her characterisation of the adolescent Francis and his mates Jesús and Charbel.  Francis is a source of constant frustration to Antonio and Rosa: he is bone idle, he oozes foul language, and in a marijuana-induced haze, he drifts in and out of the family home with no apparent purpose in life and no respect for anyone.  Rosa and Antonio think that they can take some satisfaction in Clare’s achievements, but they are rudely awakened when they find out that months ago Clare gave up her job as a teacher without telling them, and is working in a bookshop…

There is a claustrophobic atmosphere of inertia in this novel.  All the characters conceal their thoughts, and conversations slide past each other:

In the kitchen Francis and Jesús took beers out of the melting ice in the sink.  John Farnham asked questions from the stereo speakers:

What about the world around us?
How can we fail to see?
What about the age of reason?

‘Francis.  Jesús.  You’re here.’ His mother had appeared from nowhere.

She ignored her son completely, turned to Jesús and gave him a kiss.  ‘I hear you are doing very, very well for yourself. Worked hard.  Almost an accountant now.  Your mother will be able to visit you in your office one day.

Jesús smiled and nodded.  But Francis knew his mother was not really speaking to Jesús.  She was speaking to him.  She wanted him to be more like Jesús.  To have dreams of offices too.  Never going to happen.  Francis smiled at her.  He knew his mother well enough.  He knew that she’d had just the right amount of sherry and was enjoying herself just enough to smile back at him eventually, if he kept on smiling.  (p. 51)

This party for Antonio’s premature retirement is the catalyst for the collapse of Antonio’s life.  All his old securities have gone, and now he wonders if he was wise to come to Australia by boat.  He tells himself that in his era Australia wanted people like himself to come here, but like Clare’s ex-student Paul whose parents came by boat from Vietnam, Antonio has a fragile sense of belonging.  He is plagued by the raucous media and the Prime Minister’s infamous mantra ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’  The promised land is not what he thought it would be.

The reader isn’t sure if Antonio’s bizarre behaviour is triggered by prescription painkillers or the early signs of dementia, but when the ghost of Nico commands him to paint ‘No More Boats’ in giant letters across his concrete front yard, it provokes a predictable response.  Both sides of the refugee debate camp out in the street, with megaphones blaring slogans and fisticuffs among the hotheads.

In my review of Max, I pointed out that there are topics that need sensitive handling by authors.  Castagna has explored the underbelly of a vexed social issue without endorsing or condemning it, leaving the reader to form her own judgement.  I’d like to see more of this kind of writing about contemporary life in Australia… it’s illuminating and it’s thought-provoking.

Update 16/6/17 For a European angle on the world refugee crisis, see Emma’s billet about Elorado by Lauren Gaudé.

Author: Felicity Castagna
Title: No More Boats
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336306
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: No More Boats and direct from Giramondo

Well, there’s been a bit of a break since my last post about Finnegans Wake – but I’ve been busy – re-reading what I’ve read so far, making links with what has gone before …

And now we’re up to Chapter 6.  And straight away I am reminded of those bizarre ABC quiz programs where only the nerdiest of nerds could possibly know the answer.   There are twelve riddles set by Jockit Mic Ereweak and Shaun (son of Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle) misunderstands three and gets four right:

Shaun Mac Irewick, briefdragger, for the concern of Messrs. Jhon Jhamieson and Song, rated one hundrick and thin per storehundred on this nightly quisquiquock of the twelve apostrophes, set by Jockit Mic Ereweak. He misunderstruck and aim for am olio of number three of them and left his free natural ripostes to four of them in their own fine artful disorder.    (Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 126)

As far as I can tell this chapter doesn’t advance the trial of Earwicker but just tells us more about some of the characters.  In considerable and comic detail…

Joyce plays with the ancient form of the riddle by going into overdrive.

You know what you are looking at here?

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These ten pages (twelve in the Penguin edition) are the first riddle.   Here’s a little bit of it:

I. What secondtonone myther rector and maximost bridges-maker was the first to rise taller through his beanstale than the bluegum buaboababbaun or the giganteous Wellingtonia Sequoia; went nudiboots with trouters into a liffeyette when she was barely in her tricklies; was well known to claud a conciliation cap onto the esker of his hooth; sports a chainganger’s albert solemenly over his hullender’s epulence; thought he weighed a new ton when there felled his first lapapple; gave the heinousness of choice to everyknight betwixt yesterdicks and twomaries; had sevenal successivecoloured serebanmaids on the same big white drawringroam horthrug; is a Willbeforce to this hour at house as he was in heather; pumped the catholick wartrey and shocked the prodestung boyne; killed his own hungery self in anger as a young man; found fodder for five when allmarken rose goflooded;   (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 126).

It’s a great long catalogue of comings and goings, deeds both minor and major, and the answer, when it finally comes is Finn MacCool. But it’s also HCE because (it seems to me) the default character is HCE.  If you can’t work out who someone is, it’s probably HCE hounded become hunter; hunter become fox; harrier. marrier, terrier, tav.  But why should we feel he is Vespasian yet … think of him as Aurelius?  Aurelius (as in Marcus Aurelius Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180) is my favourite Emperor, and I like to read his Meditations at bedtime, as some people might read The Bible.  Vespasian was a military man, not a thinker.  Neither Campbell nor Tindall enlighten me on this point…

There are parts that one simply must read aloud:

… die king was in his cornerwall melking mark so murry, the queen was steep in armbour feeling fain and furry, the mayds was midst the hawthorns shoeing up their hose, out pimps the back guards (pomp!) and pump gun they goes;  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle) (p. 134-5).

see attribution below

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

Other bits are just plain incomprehensible: the cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata in his exprussians.  Oh well…

I think that one of the riddles that Shaun solved was No 4 because I guessed it too:

4. What Irish capitol city (a dea o dea!) of two syllables and six letters, with a deltic origin and a nuinous end, (ah dust oh dust!) can boost of having a) the most extensive public park in the world, b) the most expensive brewing industry in the world, c) the most expansive peopling thoroughfare in the world, d) the most phillohippuc theobibbous paùpulation in the world: and harmonise your abecedeed responses?   (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 140).

Well, the answer is Dublin, but Joyce plays games with this too, with four old men naming (in obscurantist ways)  the four cities (Belfast,  Cork, Dublin and Galway) of their four provinces Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught.  (This is where it helps to have familiarity with the Irish accent: only saying it aloud transforms Dorhqk into Cork, eh?)

Riddle No 10 is mainly a very long answer, given by Isabel, sister to Shaun and daughter of Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle.  Isabel seems to be having a light-hearted incestuous relationship with her brother.  She also seems to be an airhead.

Riddle 11 is in verse, and it’s answered in a long-winded roundabout way by a pedantic schoolmaster, who digresses every now and again to tick off his students.

As my explanations here are probably above your understandings, lattlebrattons, though as augmentatively uncomparisoned as Cadwan, Cadwallon and Cadwalloner, I shall revert to a more expletive method which I frequently use when I have to sermo with muddlecrass pupils. Imagine for my purpose that you are a squad of urchins, snifflynosed, goslingnecked, clothyheaded, tangled in your lacings, tingled in your pants, etsitaraw etcicero. And you, Bruno Nowlan, take your tongue out of your inkpot! As none of you knows Javanese I will give all my easyfree translation of the old fabulist’s parable. Allaboy Minor, take your head out of your satchel! Audi, Joe Peters! Exaudi facts! (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition) (p. 152).

The schoolmaster’s lecture, says Campbell, is in three phases:

  1. discussion in abstract terms of the general principles involved
  2. a fable, The Mookse and the Gripes, translated from the Javanese and quoted by the professor to illustrate the main drift of his argument
  3. a more complex classroom illustration, the story of Burrus, Caseous, and the cowrymaid Margareen, to clarify the more abstruse of the professor’s implications and to carry the argument forward to its main point. (Campbell, p109)

The introduction to my Folio edition says that Joyce claimed not to have read Lewis Carroll, but I thought of Alice and the Mock Turtle and the Griffin straight away when I came to the crazy logic of the Mookse and the Gripes. The illustration shows Pope Adrian IV  (the Mookse, and also Shaun) sitting on a stone, while the overripe gripes (grapes, and also Shaun’s brother Shem) are winding around a tree by the side of a stream (the River Liffey) while Nuvoletta is looking down on them from a balcony (and being ignored).  This sequence is about the old conflict between the authority of the Catholic church and those who reject it.  The argument descends into a volley of insults, as sibling arguments do, and the scene ends, apparently, with them metamorphosing into an apron and a hankie, but I couldn’t identify the part where that happens!

So on to Chapter 7!


Sing a Song of Sixpence image: Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2017

Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated by Penny Hueston

Text Publishing sent me this book last year, but it’s taken me ages to get to it because I had misgivings about it.  Max purports to be the narration of a child born under the Nazi Lebensborn program, which aimed to breed perfect specimens of the Aryan race.  The book has been awarded a number of prestigious French prizes including the Prix Sorcières, but I had an uneasy feeling about its distasteful subject matter.

It’s not that I think there are no-go areas for writing fiction, but I do think that authors ought to tread very carefully when fictionalising sensitive topics.  The Lebensborn (now in their sixties) are – through no fault of their own – biologically a product of racist eugenics, and socially, educated in Nazi ideology for a significant formative period of their lives.  As individual people they deserve to be treated and judged on their own merits, but as a group they represent a loathsome ambition. Humanising them in fiction needs to be handled with delicacy, because a sympathetic portrayal runs the risk of validating the ideology that spawned them.

The press release heightened my unease:

This rewarding and thought-provoking novel is captivating, chilling and surprisingly tender.


“I hope that as I did, you will be able to feel indulgent towards Max’s flaws, and that you will love him, defend him, and adopt this orphan of evil.” (Sarah Cohen- Scali)

Well, I took Max to Woodend with me, and I read it.  And found my sense of unease justified.  The narration by Max did not arouse any feelings of tenderness: this character as concocted by Cohen-Scali is a pitiless, violent, arrogant and utterly repugnant being.  Others have noted that the child narration is unconvincing: at four years of age at the start of the book, Max is far too young to have the vocabulary and awareness that he is purported to have.  But more troubling is the portrayal of a youngster made sociopathic by his upbringing who tries to enlist the reader into his world view.

The book is apparently marketed as YA.  Goodness knows what they make of it…

Author: Sarah Cohen-Scali
Title: Max
Translated from the French by Penny Hueston
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781922182852
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Max

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2017

2017 Woodend Winters Arts Festival

You might not have noticed but I’ve had a weekend offline.  We’ve been away and I decided to take a break.  No laptop, no internet, no email, and not even Facebook on my phone until I had a photo to post: Amber looking rather regal while enjoying her holiday at a neighbour’s place.  (It doesn’t take her long to commandeer a sofa!)

But now we’re back home after a wonderful time at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival, which is always held on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  Woodend is a delightful little town and although it’s early winter and the weather is crisp and cool, the venues are warm and welcoming and so are the people.  The festival is an excellent blend of musical, arty and bookish events.  We attend it every year if we can.

This is not a music blog, so it will suffice to tell you that the festival showcases classical music and jazz along with chamber music.  The musical program takes place in the beautiful St Ambrose’s Church and the (not-quite-so-beautiful) hall where we heard

  • a sublime concert titled Vivaldi Vespers and performed by Ensmble Gombert and Accademia Arcadia conducted by John O’Donnell, with soloists Katherine Norman, Kristy Biber, Christopher Roache, Daniel Thomson and Jerzy Kozlowski;
  • An impressive  recital by young piano virtuoso Tony Lee;
  • A program of Telemann,  Graun and Bach, performed by the brilliant Accademia Arcadia; and
  • the surprising classical recorder quartet, Quinta Essentia from Brazil.

The Spouse also went to hear some classical guitar performed by the Australian Guitar Trio, and we had a splendid Saturday night dinner at Café Colenso who can be relied upon to dish up a delicious meal and get us to an 8pm concert on time:).

The bookish events were excellent.

On Saturday we started with ‘Political Apathy: a disaffected community’, featuring Troy Bramston, James Button, Lisa Chesters and chaired by Michael Bachelard.   The agenda was to look at issues behind the rise of marginal political groups and disasters like Brexit and Trump.  James Button talked about a group called Open Labor.  I had never heard of this group, which seeks to redress political apathy by reforming the Labor Party, so this was very interesting indeed.  He said that young people today are more interested in identity politics, single issue politics and (the big one) climate change and they are not interested in party politics because they are turned off by internal politicking.   Lisa Chester said that the problem is worldwide, but she thinks it’s not apathy but more a case of engaging in politics differently and a disconnect between the modern electorate and Canberra being out of touch.  But she also said it’s often a case of people not being interested in politics except when it affects them (and I don’t have much patience with that attitude because I think that’s selfish.  Do we not care about the rest of the world any more?  Do we not care about people in need because it doesn’t affect us?)

Troy Bramston thinks people have good reason to be cynical and disaffected, and he listed a litany of broken promises from our recent crop of Prime Ministers.  He thinks that current leaders are loathed by most people and that they worry about the way both sides of politics have given up on fixing the budget.  He says that people are willing to accept budget cuts if they are fair (but I think that their definition of ‘fair’ mostly depends on whether cuts affects them).  He also went on about unions having too much power, (which was an odd thing to say on the very weekend that cuts in penalty rates started to take effect for hospitality workers, a clear example of unions being powerless to protect vulnerable workers).

There was also talk about people doing politics on social media and how people are sick of scripted speeches workshopped by focus groups – but I thought the most interesting snippet was from Lisa Chester who reminded us of the live cattle exports debacle where the ALP responded to social media outrage about the mistreatment of animals – and then had to backtrack because of the farmers’ outrage over the value of the trade.  She said that now parties look much more closely at the keyboard warriors to see where they’re coming from, and they recognise that at the end of the day, it’s good policy that guides decision-making. So, no, clicking ‘like’ or sharing #hashtag is not taken seriously as political input.

I noted that none of the speakers ‘fessed up to the role of the media with its conflict-ridden agenda and its gotcha moments in our current political climate.  See my review of Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow if you want to know about that.

On Sunday we went to hear Troy Bramston in conversation with Mary Delahunty about his book Paul Keating, the Big Picture Leader.  She is such a good interviewer, with pertinent questions and a comprehensive grasp of issues, and even though we know quite a bit about Keating, and had heard all the quoted Keatingisms before, it was still an interesting session because of her questions.  (The Spouse has got this book at home, but I’m going to read Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart first because it’s been on the TBR for ages.)  What was most pertinent in the context of the previous session, was what Bramston said about how Keating differs from contemporary politicians: he had a clear vision, determination, conviction, authority, and courage and imagination.  And that is why we miss him.

I also went to a session called ‘Australia at the Crossroads’ with Sally Warhaft and journalists from Crikey: Bernard Keane, Josh Taylor and Sally Whyte.  This covered some of the same territory as ‘Political Apathy’ but they also talked about how hard it is for young journalists: they can’t specialise because staff cuts mean that now they have to cover so many different areas.  They were scornful about professional politicians and their obscurantist ways of talking, but they did acknowledge the role of the media in the problem.  Sally Whyte talked about how media coverage of comparative trivia obscures the real politics that matter – that goes on behind the scenes and we don’t hear about it.  She gave the example of the furore over the Safe Schools program while immigration policy rated barely a word.  Bernard Keane also made the point that it’s easy now to be oppositionist, with the classic example being the way the mining industry sabotaged the mining tax with a highly effective TV ad campaign.  I didn’t note who it was who offered the most contentious snippet – about terrorism.  We have given up freedoms, we have more surveillance than ever before, but we are still not safe.  And, it was said, it’s because defence companies – who lost a lot when the Cold War ended but are now making lots of money out of anti-terrorism security – don’t want the ‘war on terror’ to end.  ASIO does, and copped a lot of criticism when they debunked the link between refugees and terrorism.  An interesting if not entirely convincing PoV.

Photo credit: Mish Mackay

The highlight of the whole festival for me was Sheila Drummond in conversation with one of my favourite authors, Jacinta Halloran.  The topic was ‘Inspiration!’ and Jacinta talked about her journey from medical career to being an author, making the point that the arts and science are not mutually exclusive because both involved creativity and thinking laterally.  At school she had found it hard to choose between literature and science and it was when she was in her thirties and a friend was seriously ill, that she realised you only get one chance at life and she should try writing because she had always wanted to do it.

Jacinta credits the RMIT creative writing school with her success.  She started at diploma level and loved it.  It was a different way of learning, compared to medical school: it was nurturing, and the feedback she received was constructive.  She ended up doing a Masters degree, and says she would never have written her first novel Dissection (see my review) without the structure and the deadlines of the course.  The inspiration for the book – exploring a ‘crisis of the self’ – came from the widespread fear among doctors that they will inevitably make a mistake and may be sued.  Doctors are notorious for not seeking help when their lives are falling apart in the way that the character’s life in Dissection disintegrates, and it was fascinating to learn that some medical curricula actually include this novel as required reading.

Jacinta had a Catholic education, and she made the point that Catholic culture can impose some values that are negative for women – who are taught to be dutiful, modest, good and guilty. Pilgrimage (see my review) is another example of negotiating faith in a scientific world.  She was interested in what people do when Western medicine fails, and she chose Motor Neurone Disease for her character because it is the disease that doctors fear most.  (If this is a disease that terrifies you too, donate here because you will be giving practical help to sufferers now while there is still no cure. One of our friends has recently died of this awful disease, and his partner tells me that it was MND that supported them in practical ways throughout the final dreadful years).  Jacinta says that the process of writing can be a way of facing up to your fears, and these two novels do that: facing the fear of doing harm to a patient and getting sued, and confronting the fear of getting a diagnosis of a fearsome disease.

Jacinta’s most recent book The Science of Appearances is partly set in Kyneton, not far from Woodend, and she told us how she researched it by staying in a cottage there for a few weeks, riding around on her bike to get a feel for the place, and poring over old editions of the local newspaper.  I commented in my review that Halloran describes the punishing daily bike ride to Romsey as if she’s done it herself – well, now I know how this authenticity came about!

My only disappointment is that there isn’t yet a new novel under way!

Congratulations to Jacqueline Ogeil, the WWAF artistic director and all the wonderful volunteers and sponsors on another terrific festival.  We’ll be back next year – we’ve already booked our accommodation!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2017

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

When an author of the stature of Colm Tóibín decides to rewrite an ancient myth, it must be because he feels he has something new to say about it, but I have to confess that I read quite a bit of this book thinking that it was a mere retelling.  Written in beautiful words, but held captive to a plot that could only be reworked in insignificant ways.  And worse – am I really writing this about Colm Tóibín? – I felt that the master of empathy had failed utterly to create a convincing portrait of Clytemnestra. It was only in the last third of the book when Tóibín began telling the story of Electra and Orestes, that I felt the author’s voice wrestling with the issue of vengeance versus justice, and what separates the two…

For those unacquainted with the story, here is the blurb:

Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, the murderess Clytemnestra tells of the deception of Agamemnon, how he sacrificed her eldest daughter – her beloved Iphigenia – to the Trojan campaign; how Clytemnestra used what power she had, seducing the prisoner Aegisthus, turning the government against its lord; plotting the many long years until her beacon fires announce the king’s return…

Electra, daughter of a murdered father, loyal subject of the rightful king, watches Clytemnestra and her lover with cold anger and slow-burning cunning. She watches, as they walk the gardens and corridors of the house of Atreus. She waits for the traitors to become complacent, to believe they are finally safe; she waits for her exiled brother, Orestes, for the boy to become a warrior, for fate to follow him home. She watches and she waits, until her spies announce her brother’s return

(It used to be, when everyone learned classics at school, that everyone knew this story.  Then it became a story only known to those who studied classics at university.  And now, when all the classics (especially murderous ones like this) are reworked for computer gaming, the story is well known to many again.  Strange, eh?)

In the last week or so, the world has seen some terrible murders.  Teenage kids at a concert in Manchester, pedestrians on London Bridge, and closer to home in Brighton, a man just doing his job in an apartment building.  And the media being the intrusive beast it is, we have seen the bereaved react in various ways, from refusing to hate the perpetrators to hating them very much indeed.  And while we know that these short term responses are made in shock and that the loved ones of the victims have a long road ahead and that all of them will at some time or another probably swing back and forth from a desire for vengeance to a desire for justice, we in our respective societies share this dilemma. The ancients knew it too, and this is the story that Tóibín has chosen to tell.

As I said, Tóibín’s Clytemnestra is unconvincing.  A mother used to lure her daughter to be sacrificed by her own father would surely suffer a torrent of emotions, but Tóibín’s retelling fails to convey them.  His Clytemnestra, telling the story from her perspective, is restrained by his prose.  When the narration shifts to the boy Orestes, that is pedestrian too, and waylaid by the coy story of his growing love for Leander.

But Tóibín’s Electra is passionate: she hates her mother with an implacable hatred because Clytemnestra sought no permission from the gods for her vengeance.  Agamemnon, in modern eyes, is a savage who gives in to superstition and kills his own daughter to win a war.  But in the eyes of the ancients, he was abiding by the rules of his society, a society in which the gods ruled supreme and must be placated in order to achieve victory and bring peace and order to the realm.  Clytemnestra’s crime is magnified because she has killed a sovereign and in her arrogance has consulted no one about her vengeance.  She has also embroiled her other children by silencing them:

I wanted to go to her room and insist that she hear me as I told her clearly once more what she had done to my brother and to me so that we would not be witnesses to the fact that she, with no permission from the gods, having consulted no one among the elders, decided that my father would die.  I wanted to make sure that she heard me when I repeated what Mitros had said so that it would be heard by the gods themselves: that she alone had wielded the knife that killed my father.  (p.162)

Justice is sanctioned by the gods, vengeance is not.

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: House of Names
Publisher: Picador, Pan Macmillan, 2017
ISBN: 9781760551421
Source: Personal Library

Ismail Kadare (b.1936) is one of my favourite authors: he writes stories about the use and abuse of power in allegorical form, setting his stories in an indefinite past so that they have a timeless significance.  The Traitor’s Niche is an early work from his Ottoman Cycle: first published in 1978, it was Kadare’s eleventh novel but it has taken 40 years for it to be published in English.  Kadare is a prolific author and it is taking the Anglosphere a while to catch up with his oeuvre since he won the inaugural Man Booker International in 2005, when The Siege (see my review) and other novels were hastily translated from French editions into English in order to get them into bookshops.

The Traitor’s Niche has been widely reviewed, not least by the members of the MBIF Shadow Jury (see their combined reviews from here on this blog) but it didn’t make it into either their shortlist or the official one.  But I was always going to read this novel, whether it won any plaudits or not… Kadare is a master storyteller and I am fascinated by the history of Albania as he tells it…

The Traitor’s Niche is set in Constantinople (now Istanbul) when it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  This is where power resides, power that is enforced through brutal repression and grotesque propaganda.  The sultan displays the severed heads of any who dare to betray him in a special niche in the city square, and there is a whole apparatus of flunkies whose job it is to manage the display of heads for the entertainment and edification of the people.

Far, far away, so remote from the sultan’s decrees that most of them can be ignored, is Albania, powerless against the Empire but a place given to rash attempts to free itself.  In his dotage, Ali Pasha Tepelena a.k.a.Black Ali Pasha, dreams of achieving glory like his legendary predecessor Scanderbeg who had a quarter-century of rebellion behind him but died an ordinary death in his bed.  There is no prospect of him succeeding, but it’s not about that.  Black Ali  wants to leave a legacy and a symbol that will inspire others.  So, will he cheat the sultan of his vicious vengeance? 

But of course it’s not just about what might happen to Black Ali.  The ordinary people of Albania, peasants who grumble as they till the soil, have more to lose though they may not know it.  Because the sultan imposes his system of control on any region that dares to rebel, depending on how vengeful he is feeling and on the likelihood of it happening again.  The physical crushing of the rebellion is just the beginning: it is followed by strategies used by totalitarian regimes everywhere.  Stamping out any idea of rebellion is succeeded by the destruction of culture, art and tradition, then by the eradication of the language, and finally by the extinction of the national memory.  (Turkey is still trying to do this to the Armenians, but has failed miserably.  These days they are held in contempt as much for their suppression of memory about the Armenian Genocide as for the genocide itself.)

The perspective of various characters carry the story.  The story begins with Abdulla, fussing over the present incumbent of the niche, the vizier Bugrahan Pasha who lost his head because he failed to suppress Black Ali’s rebellion.  Like many a minor civil servant, Abdulla is peeved that despite the importance of his job, (the preservation of the heads in the niche from decay), he is anonymous.  He faces the wrath of the sultan should anything go wrong, but nobody knows who he is.   There is Tundj Hata, the odious imperial courier whose job it is to enact the sultan’s execution decree and transport the heads back to Constantinople, making a bit of sly money by showing the trophy to villagers en route.  There is Vasiliqia, Black Ali’s young wife, fond of him in her way but baffled by his preoccupation with death.   (Ironically, given their roles, both Black Ali and Abdulla are impotent sexually as well as politically.)

And there is Hurshid Pasha, sent as a replacement for the failed Bugrahan Pasha to vanquish Albania.  Will his head fill the niche, or will it be Black Ali’s?

Black humour laces this surreal story.  Kadare represents Everyman in clever dialogue, in gossip and in the anxious thoughts of his characters.  He pokes fun at the bureaucracy which sabotages the powerful more so than outright rebellion.  But he never loses sight of the historical truth of the Albanian people, pawns of totalitarian empires for so much of its history.

This is a fine translation by John Hodgson, who has also translated The Accident, (see my review) The Fall of the Stone City, (on my TBR), A Girl in Exile and The Three-Arched Bridge.

Author: Ismail Kadare
Title: The Traitor’s Niche
Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Publisher: Harvill Secker 2017, first published in Albanian as Kamarja e Turpit 1978
ISBN: 9781846558450
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Traitor’s Niche

 Indigenous Literature Week 2017 at ANZ Litlovers


Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

For information about ILW 2017, click here.


Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2017 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of our indigenous writing!

You are welcome to add your review/s early. I will be monitoring this page until the end of July.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:


  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodReads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

  • If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
  • Or, if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the permanent Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, click on the link at the top of this page.

2017 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors

Jack Davis, a Noongar man from the Southwest of Western Australia

Ruby Langford Ginibi, A Bundjalung woman from New South Wales

  • Don’t Take Your Love to Town, my ANZ LitLovers review scheduled for July 2 2017.

Ellen Van Neerven, a Mununjali woman from South East Queensland

Maori Authors

  • TBA

And from elsewhere…

  • TBA
Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2017

Waiting, by Philip Salom

Well, I said so in the Sensational Snippet from this book that I posted a couple of days ago: I think that Philip Salom’s novel Waiting should win this year’s Miles Franklin award.  It was also short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award in Fiction, and I think it should have won that too.

Waiting is a richly rewarding story, with characterisation and plot that made me see the world differently.  Salom has an astute poetic sensibility that makes his sharp observations politically deft and often very amusing, but it’s his empathetic portrayal of misfits that stole my heart.

Four characters test the meaning of love in modern Melbourne.  Jasmin is an academic with an inside mind who works abstractedly in a fixed firmament of alliterative and tautological shifts.  Her field is semiotics, (which most of us have never heard of).  She finds herself becoming fond of Angus, who likewise knows nothing about semiotics.  He is a man who works with his hands and doesn’t fit in with her intellectual circle, but he is ruggedly sexy, and she always knew she fancied that…

He is a man who looks like a man used to look like.  Shoulders lumpy from real work and arms muscular and hairy and scuffed, to be honest, not decorated with neat little muscles and waxed skin.   […] Angus is a landscape designer, and his sandy skin is believably of the earth, and he stands upright in his outside body and his outside mind.  (p.9)

A world away from academic elites and an economy with work for landscape designers is a chaotic microcosm – a rooming house for people with ‘barriers’ to participation in the everyday world.   This hostel is home to Big and Little.  Little is small and shy and battered by life, but newly optimistic because she anticipates receiving an inheritance from her mother who might die soon.  Big is a beefy cross dresser devoted to the welfare of Little, but well aware that the world looks at him askance.

There are times one simply has to face oddities in oneself. One must accept that people do not always feel relaxed or generous.  Or talkative.  Some of us are destined to be disliked without good cause, destined to be laughed at forever, left out of the fun, taken as fools, considered lesser or smellier, and without good cause.  Looks, perhaps, appearances, certainly expectations of safety – the world is made up of timid people, after all, people who are fearful of the cuckoo in the nest.  Big is a cuckoo.  No God could have invented him but then no God presides over this misaligned place.  (p. 198)

(An author not afraid to use the impersonal pronoun when it’s needed.  Be still, my beating heart!)

Big and Little are a dignified if weird couple.

Little walks on a tilt forwards and up to the shops, she is a skier leaning through the wind and the cold, like the pain in her kidneys.  Her kidneys are not funny, her kidneys are as dark and unhappy as a cruel poem, all present tense and no story and cold as snow.  They are loopy, her own name for the Lupus that assails their shape.  Lupus erythematosus.

Little is just that – diminutive, somewhat withered – but Big thinks she has a nice round bottom and has been known to say as much, in private, of course.  Beside her, inseparable, he stamps in his big-legged big-calved way and from a distance someone might look at them and see two women, a small woman and a big woman… or a very large man in a faded dress.  Sometimes he wears skirts but mostly he wears dresses.  His man-boobs are bigger than Little’s, they are more than considerable, they are alarming, and he dresses them tightly outlined.  He is a 60 year old show-off.  (pp.1-2)

While Angus disrupts Jasmin’s social circle and her ideas about herself, the hostel is disrupted by an inevitable breach of its rules.  Julia with her fading Pretty Girl smile disrupts the fragile ambience of the hostel by bringing in Ray – a silent man made of muscles with tatts as quickly seen as a shudder is felt.  He doesn’t belong in this unusual family, a family which offers more to Little than the madness of her own awful relations. 

Any house has its status quo and their hostel is no different, in ways vulnerable to strangeness as much as strangers.

Just one nutcase can blow it all down.  They don’t talk about this.  But every new voice in the corridor could be the end of it.  Might walk in behind that voice and turn out to be an utter bastard.  It’s not a house full of irritating students.  Innocents.  Nearly everyone here has been hurt and maybe hurt a great deal and that brings a serious look to their faces… (p.246)

Julia, with a black eye too obvious to ignore, fails to reassure Little, and Salom hints with economy at a world of pain that most of us have never imagined from the safety of our comfortable suburbs:

Violence always alarms her.  Even after years in this rooming house, and what she has seen and became accustomed to in earlier houses, and more of it than she ever imagined.  (p.247).

Paths cross when it turns out that Angus is Little’s cousin, one of her Adelaide relations no less.  He has come to Melbourne to escape something, a spoiler not to be revealed here, but it’s a perspicacious thread which reminds us that we cannot outsource our own safety.  Angus is dispatched by his mendacious mother to persuade Little to forego her inheritance, and it doesn’t take him long to find her.  Adding to Big and Little’s troubles is a council decree that the hostel’s common room is to be subdivided into two extra rooms, bringing Jasmin’s expertise and contacts into play.  I am very tempted to quote the hilarious sequence when the man from the works department finds that the residents are not the low bunch of the feeble and the stupid that he had expected, but this review would never end if I quoted all its wonderful scenes…

But just because I can’t resist sharing it, here is another excerpt about The Sheriff who featured in my Sensational Snippet.  On the day Big and Little borrow a car to go on a wishful-thinking house-hunting expedition, The Sheriff does the driving.  After all, he has had experience:

… sure thing, he used to be a driver.  And that means, get-there, turn off the key, go inside, hurt the man, get back in and get-away fast without even nodding to the suit in the back seat, the neck and wrist with gold and rings, and the mobile phone murmurings to some bigger boss man of the job done.


They drive in erratic shoves of speed as The Sheriff re-acquaints himself with the artistry of steering, and changing gears, and accelerating or not.  Stopping at red lights is straightforward but Big and Little notice his indifference to stop signs.  Big tells him that these hexagonal things in red require the car to be stationary before… but The Sheriff is not wasting time stopping for no good reason, he is used to getaways, and sign or no sign the car hurtles ahead whenever the road is clear.  Life is short.

At the first house, he stands outside smoking while they go inside.  Just like in the old days, if there was dress-up business among the bosses, the suits, not the knuckles.  And he doing the movie role thing, standing out there keeping guard.  The driver.  The man.  This is good.  (p.243-4)

You don’t have to have watched gangster movies to love this!

My only sour note about this book is that the standard of proof reading is poor.  If it does win the MF as I think it should, it will be the only winner in my collection to be defaced by marginalia – my spelling corrections on far too many pages.  More importantly, the novel will become an ambassador for Australian fiction internationally, so they’d better fix up the reprints before sending it out to the world in its present embarrassing state.

Author: Philip Salom
Title: Waiting
 Puncher and Wattman, 2016,
ISBN 9781922186836, p.168.
Source: Personal library.

Available from Fishpond: Waiting.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 3, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation, from Shopgirl, to….

Eddard of House Stark Source, Fair use, Wikipedia

Winter is coming and it’s time for  #6Degrees!  Hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best this month’s starter book is  Shopgirl by Steven Martin, a book I’ve never heard of, made into a film I’ve never heard of.   (And the name of it sets my teeth on edge: change the gender and you can see why.  Would a book called Shopboy ever get traction?  No.)

But I can still do this, I thought to myself, because everybody’s talking about the film of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleApparently it’s an excellent adaptation, and if I haven’t missed the screening of it like I so often do, I’m going to check it out. I read The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) years and years ago long before the Taliban showed us that much of its dystopian future could become reality.  I’m really glad it’s reaching a new generation of readers now, and I hope they get the message: the freedoms we take for granted in progressive countries need to be guarded assiduously.  Always.

Thinking about the freedoms we take for granted leads me straight to my recent reading of Kruso by Lutz Seiler and translated by Tess Lewis.  (See my review). Winner of the German Book Prize, this book is the first novel I’ve read about life in the pre-unification GDR when Berlin was under Soviet control, and it was a reminder amongst other things that Nazi book-burning was followed by Soviet restrictions on reading choices.

What I knew about the GDR was largely formed by my reading of  Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall from 2003This book won the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and was nominated for the 2003.  Guardian First Book Award.  Everyone I knew had read it, and it was the sort of book that cropped up in conversations all over the place.  One of the most vivid images I have of the book was the chapter about the women trying to reassemble shredded Stasi files so that perhaps missing people could be located.  The immensity of the task beggars belief, and yet the desperation to know what has happened to a loved one kept these women at the thankless task long after any realistic hope could be maintained.

But on the subject of images, what were the good folk at Text Publishing thinking of with that cover?  Yes, I know this is a hobby horse of mine, but still… Compare that cover – which still seems to me to be entirely irrelevant to the book’s content – to Mary Callahan’s clever subtlety in the cover of Damon Young’s The Art of Reading which has just won the Best Designed Non Fiction Book in the 2017 Australian Book Design Awards.  I think the book should have won some other award too, because I loved reading it, so much so that I did two posts about it, a Sensational Snippet and a reflection on the chapter about patience in reading. I don’t know why some really beaut books just get ignored while others that seem quite ordinary get a lot of media attention and sometimes the prizes too.

I was surprised to see that Patrick Holland’s wonderful novel One (Transit Lounge) missed out on a nomination for the Miles Franklin this year.  It was such good reading, (see my review and Patrick’s follow-up article about its unusual title), I was really disappointed.   I hope it wasn’t a casualty of the cost pressures on small publishers having to fork out $75 for each entry and provide 7 copies of the book as well – this has been a topic of conversation around the web, and – given the importance of prizes as funding time-to-write, it’s important that small publishers and their authors get a fair go.  Small, indie publishers are, after all, publishing most of the really interesting books IMO.  Anyway, if you haven’t read One, get yourself a copy.  You won’t regret it.

So who’s going to win the Miles Franklin this year?  The wait for the shortlist will be over on June 18th, but I had already privately made up my mind between the longlisted books I’d reviewed. And then I started reading Philip Salom’s Waiting and although there are some terrific books on the longlist and although I haven’t finished reading Waiting, I think I’ve found the winner.  Have a look at a Sensational Snippet from this novel and see what you think.  I’m just loving it: I’m reading it slowly because I don’t want it to end.  Thank goodness for the MF because without it most of us would probably never hard of Waiting without the longlisting.

From a book everyone else has heard of except for me to a book that’s burst out of obscurity onto the Australian literary scene because of a prize nomination, that’s my #6Degrees this month!


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