Their Brilliant CareersIf you enjoyed Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy (see my review) you’ll probably enjoy Their Brilliant Careers. 

The title is a satiric allusion to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career but the brilliant careers in question are, as the blurb says, invented.  There are sixteen chapter length biographies of Australian authors who never existed, but who apparently bear uncanny resemblance to well-known figures from the Australian books and publishing landscape.  Ambition and ego are common threads in all of them.  Part of the fun is working out whose brilliant, or not so brilliant career is being parodied.

The question is, therefore, is it enjoyable reading if the reader doesn’t know the ‘well-known figures.’  And is it a spoiler to identify the ones I do recognise?

I’m going to tread carefully and stick to a couple that I know are safely dead.  The bio of the sci-fi author ‘Rand Washington’ made me think of prolific authors of pulp like Frank Clune and Ion Idress   who were published by  P R ‘Inky’ Stephensen, who was like the fictional Rand Washington, xenophobic and racist, and notorious for his political views which morphed from communism to the far-right.   ‘Addison Tiller’, an upper-class English twit who wrote countless stories of bush life starting with ‘Hacking out the Homestead’ (featuring Pa and Pete) without ever venturing out of Sydney, is, I think, a parody of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection starring Dad and Dave.  (See my unimpressed review).

Fakery is also a common theme in other bios too.  There is, as you’d expect, a riff on the Ern Malley hoax and there’s a droll story of a customs officer who purloined all the copies of significant works coming into the country and then made a comfortable career by rewriting them as his own (Ulysses/Odysseus and so on).

But I have to confess that even though I’m quite widely read in OzLit, there were some that seemed like an in-joke that I was missing.  These ones I read for what they were: far-fetched nonsense parodying the kind of celebrity ‘dirt’ that trashy magazines offer.  Some of them raised a chuckle, some of them were a bit flat.

That’s not the book’s fault: I obviously know less about the Australian literary scene than is necessary to ‘get’ the jokes.  Maybe you need to know more about editors and publishers than an ordinary reader knows.

So I checked out other reviews to see if others fared better than I did.

Cameron Calwell at The Writers Bloc thought that O’Neill had created a satirical, funny alternative history to Australian literature, an exercise he has achieved admirably and with brilliance.  (Interestingly, he thought that Addison Tiller was Henry Lawson.)

Elke Power at Readings Monthly thought that while the intensely intertextual nature of this collection will reward the well-read, the stories also work as tight, standalone comic pieces in their own right. 

There’s an extract at Meanjin.

Author: Ryan O’Neill
Title: Their Brilliant Careers, The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers
Publisher: Black Inc Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958639
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books

Available from Fishpond: Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers

Black Rock White CityI am delighted to share the news that A.S. (Alec) Patric has won the 2016 Miles Franklin Award for Black Rock White City.

You can read my review of this sensational book here, and find out more about him at Meet an Aussie Author.

Congratulations to Alec and to his publisher Barry at Transit Lounge!

The shortlisted novels and the original longlist, and my reviews of all of them can be found here.

Photo credit: Kip Scott, by permission

Photo credit: Kip Scott, by permission

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2016

The Door, by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix

The DoorThe Door was my choice for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month (a) because it was recently reissued by The New York Review of Books (see the interview with editor Edwin Frank at The Paris Review) and (b) because I read the article at The New Yorker.   First published in Hungary in 1987, but not in English till 1994, the French translation won France’s Prix Femina Étranger in 2003, it was nominated for the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and in 2015 it was first on the NYT’s 10 Best Books List.  And Magda Szabó has the distinction of being the only female Hungarian author included in Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (my new bible for international fiction).

But I read it all wrong.  I should never have tried to read it in spurts on the Kindle.  My father had a nasty infection for a while and I read it holding his hand while he drifted in and out of sleep during the worst of it at the hospital.  A kindle is easy to read one-handed (something I never appreciated before!)  but I should have read something less demanding…

(He’s back at his aged care home now, thankfully on the mend.  Well enough to be concerned about me and my chest infection! Yes, I did keep away while I was infectious.  It nearly broke my heart, but The Spouse visited him instead until I was given the ok by the doc.)

The Door is a very intense reading experience.  The book begins with a melodramatic prologue in which the narrator says that she has ‘killed Emerence’ but the confessional tone isn’t borne out by the testimony that follows.  The narrator, who isn’t named as Magdushka until near the end of the book, is a self-absorbed middle-class writer who (like many authors in communist-era Hungary) has had her work censored but with the relaxation of restrictions is now becoming so successful that she needs some domestic help.  But from the moment Emerence comes into her life, she begins to develop an obsession with this quixotic old woman, and she vacillates between exasperation and craven submission to her whims.  So the narrator takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and irrational (and sometimes violent) actions, one feat of oneupmanship after the other.   The Door is not easy to follow when one’s mind is not fully engaged.

The characterisation of the two interdependent women reminded me of those grotesque European fairy tales, where the women are either horrible old peasant crones or princesses.  There is a vast social gulf between these two, but communism has inverted relationships.  Magdushka thinks she’s interviewing Emerence, but Emerence is actually assessing her potential employer.  And when she accedes to Magdushka’s request, it’s on Emerence’s terms.  It’s always on her terms. She will come when she likes; she’ll clean where she will; she insists on bringing horrible bits of broken bric-a-brac to decorate the home; and she makes them take in a dog inexplicably called Viola (it’s a male) which neither of them want.  If challenged, she sulks or throws tantrums, and in a panic over losing her, Magdushka always gives in.  Along the way she rationalises her own behaviour with a mixture of amateur psychology and self-doubt.  Is uneducated Emerence really as clever as the narrator thinks, or is she just rationalising her own meekness in caving in every time for fear of having to do her own laundry when she is so busy?

Over twenty years the relationship vacillates between peace and drama, both of them manipulating each other.  At the same time, Magdushka betrays Emerence time and again, right down to upstaging her at the hour of her death.  For all that Hungary had been under Communist rule since the war, class distinctions are never far from the surface, and *SPOILER ALERT* most readers will probably enjoy the delightful moment when Magdushka beholds her valuable inheritance which is in such impeccable good taste – only to see it crumble before her eyes.

Still, given the rave reviews, I feel that I haven’t really done this book justice.  And alas, I didn’t really enjoy reading it enough to want to re-read it…

I found an interesting review by Juliana Brina at The Blank Garden who makes much better sense of it than I did. Claire at Word by Word reviewed it too though likewise I didn’t read her review until after I’d finished writing this.  And hey, Claire, I agree, The Door is indeed an overwrought, neurotic narrative!

Author: Magda Szabó
Title: The Door (Az ajtó)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Publisher: Vintage Digital 2012, first published in 1987

Don’t do what I did… you can buy paperback copy from Fishpond for $13.57 (The Door) and that’s what I should have done.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2016

After the Carnage, by Tara June Winch

After the CarnageLast night as I was idly watching the ABC news, I was struck once again by the contrasts in the worlds we live in.  There was a report about some footballers being pensioned off for new blood… a disproportionately long report, I thought, featuring a lot of hand-wringing by the decision-makers and some desolation by fans.  Normally I just glaze over during sport reports and read whatever’s on the coffee table while I wait for the weather report, but when one of the people behind this decision used the word ‘horrific’ to describe the emotion of wielding the axe, I took notice.  Because in the same news bulletin there was a report about the earthquake in Umbria and further news about the deteriorating situation in South Sudan with a young woman telling us she was raped within eyesight of UN peacekeepers supposed to be providing a safe haven.

Well, of course, the footy guy didn’t know about Umbria when he was interviewed, and possibly not about Sudan either, (though the news editor obviously did) and all things are relative anyway, aren’t they?  But still, it is a real pleasure to pick up a book by an Australian author who’s been and seen a bit of the world and knows what the word ‘horrific’ really means.

A Wiradjuri woman, Tara June Winch burst onto the Australian literary scene with the publication of her award-winning first novel Swallow the Air.  (See my review). Aged only 20 when she wrote it, she showed that she already knew more about horrific situations than most Australians do, but as the recipient of the international Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Award in 2008-2009, she has been mentored by Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.  (I have his memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood on the TBR).  This is what he says about her writing:

The quality of her writing, her eye for the miniature of life, fleshes out both place and persona, and ultimately guides the reader into her action.  She is gifted.

Short stories are not my thing, but this collection overcame my reservations for the same reason that Family Room by Lily Yulianti Farid did. (See my review).  These stories have serious intent.  They challenge thinking.  They demand attention to the issues raised.  Where Farid was wrestling with feminist issues in the context of a corrupt patriarchal society, Winch is dissecting the displacement that disrupts the lives of individuals as well as the wider society.

In ‘The Last Class’ some refugees bond together as they learn French, but they struggle to understand why they must leave their culture behind when there is little prospect of them being admitted to the wider society anyway.

The afternoon classes were taught by Martine.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked her.  She’d always start conversations that often turned into arguments among the students.  She brought up polygamy, racism, brought up politics and homosexual parenting – I was open-minded, I thought, but many of the other students weren’t and often someone’s homophobia, rightly perhaps, lost them friends. One girl, Alia, seemed nice enough when I first met her, but after she started to say in class how disgusting homosexuals were, how horrible, I could never look at her again.  I’ve always thought, if you don’t have something worthwhile to fight about, don’t fight at all.  Another student, Sufjan, had got angry one day too; he’d stood up and yelled, ‘We don’t f—– fit in here, yes we are here, yes there is no war in the street, but it isn’t our home, we aren’t really welcome. My wife can’t find a job, after school I can’t find a job.  What will we do? Watch television? Our children will hate this country of France because they’ll see we never become nothing here. We stay as nobody here.’ (p. 29)

In one paragraph Winch has nailed an international dilemma: how to absorb an incredible diversity of people and respect their identities and yet retain national principles about diversity and gender equity – when at the same time the unskilled jobs that used to ease the transition for migrants have markedly declined in a technologically advanced society?  Even if he is a skilled worker, Sufian is part of the human wreckage…

Before long the students discover that a change in philosophy is to sabotage the number of lessons they can have.

…Martine told us the news.  She took the whiteboard marker out and drew numbers on the board as she explained. She said, ‘Now you were all able to get 350 hours in total, okay.’ She drew a big 350 on the board, put a slash through it, that universal code again.  After this class, she explained, there was no more funding, no more money for the program, and she said ‘Fifty hours maximum,’ and she drew a bigger 50 on the board, circled it with the marker. She explained that after this class, we couldn’t come back and ask for more help with French.  She was disappointed about it, and explained her disappointment then: ‘After this, there’ll be students, but they will be Americans, Canadians, Australians and British, and others; students will have to pay a lot of money for these classes. (p.31)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The title story ‘After the Carnage, More’, humanises the aftermath of an explosion in Lahore:

I look up and I remember a veneer of redstarts and house crows, the birds leaving the slip of clear sky, sky rapidly remodelling itself in ash.  I’d wondered if it was the first time I’d seen the birds of Lahore from that angle.

I’m conscious, alert enough to know that I’m in a hospital corridor, lying on my back still, which means either that I am relatively unharmed according to the order of triage, or worse – and more likely – the hospital is understaffed and too many were hurt. (p.35)

His first question to harried staff is about his wife…

Winch takes on the baby trade in China, (‘Baby Island’); the racism inherent in employment in corporate America, (‘Failure to Thrive’); and the intransigent sexism of men who leer at women’s bodies so that some women might well welcome the anonymity of the niqab. (‘Meat House’).  I’m not entirely convinced by that… it seems to me to be like swapping one kind of abuse for another, but that’s why these confronting stories might be an excellent choice for bookgroups or classrooms – there’s plenty to think about and discuss.

Apparently there is a new novel in the pipeline.  I’m really looking forward to that…

PS Although there is a distinctly international flavour to these stories, Winch hasn’t lost her essential ‘Australian-ness’ as can be seen in her very first story, ‘Wager’

I remembered the taste of coins, house keys, zipper ends – sometimes I could lick a brass key and all of my childhood would return.  I remembered I used to pry conch shells off the reef, collect hot wattle flowers and suck out the honey inside; I used to feed the possums that came near my bedroom window at nights.  They’d scratch at the fly screens until you pushed a bread crust out, I’d save them from school lunches.  (p.3)

I’ve added this book to the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List.  If anyone else reviews it and would like their review added to the list, please let me know in comments below.

PPS I’m a bit disappointed in the book cover design.  It doesn’t seem to contribute anything at all to the book, in fact, given that it’s a somewhat sombre collection, it’s deceptively cheery IMO .

Author: Tara June Winch
Title: After the Carnage
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016
ISBN: 9780702254147
Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Available from Fishpond: After the Carnage or direct from UQP.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2016

Text Classics reaches its 100th title milestone

It seems like only yesterday that I was getting all excited about the launch of the Text Classics series, and yet here we are in 2016 and Text is about to launch its 100th title in the series.  It’s called The Dyehouse, and it’s the debut novel of author Mena Calthorpe (1905–1996).  Wikipedia tells me that The Dyehouse was  shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, but as the WP article for the Miles Franklin doesn’t include shortlists prior to 1987, I don’t know who the other shortlisted authors were, only the winner, who in 1961 was Patrick White for Riders in the Chariot, and he was stiff enough competition all by himself, eh?

Anyway, along with the publication of this book there are all sorts of goodies in store – and I know all this because Text have very kindly sent me some of the loot:

100 Faber Postcards frontText’s blurb tells me that there will be

  • celebratory events and writers’ festival sessions
  • advertising, giveaways and reader competitions
  • a revamp of the Classics website, including (hurrah!) a new literary map of Australia and New Zealand
  • boxed sets of 100 Text Classics Postcards: these use the Classic Texts bookcover designs by W.H. Chong, and you all know how much I love his designs!  (I’ll confess, I toyed with the idea of doing a giveaway with the set they sent me, but no, I like them too much, sorry, I’m keeping them!
  • special offers, and
  • Text Classics tote baga beaut free yellow tote bag for customers who buy Text Classics from participating bookshops (Yes, I’m keeping that too. Unlike a lot of totes, this one is really well made, solid and sturdy).

All this is terrific, but really, the best thing is what a gift it has been to have these classic texts made available again.  I’ve read and reviewed a stack of them here on the blog but I’ve actually read 52 from the catalogue.  But many of those are books that I was previously only able to read by tracking them down through second-hand bookshops, sometimes at considerable expense, especially when compared to the $12.95 RRP for the Text Classics edition.   It’s fantastic to have five novels by Randolph Stow, and four by Elizabeth Harrower (whose The Watch Tower, the blurb tells me is the best selling title with sales approaching 20,000 copies).  Can those of us who love books now imagine not having them?  And Madeleine St John, all but forgotten until The Women in Black got a new place in the sun and has just recently been made into a musical?  Patrick White’s Happy Valley was another stunning discovery – I was quite sure I was never going to be able to read it because all my efforts to get a copy had failed, and lo! there it was in a beaut new edition with an introduction by Peter Craven, no less!

And coming in October there are three novels by Christina Stead to add to my wishlist: The Beauties and Furies;  A Little Tea, a Little Chat; and The Puzzledheaded Girl, plus The Little Hotel which I’ve already read (see my review).  (It cost me a fortune to buy a second-hand copy from AbeBooks, though I was very pleased to get hold of it at the time).  I predict a little binge reading of Christina Stead, maybe over the long, lazy days of summer….

Amber keeping me company PS Thank you all for your good wishes for my recovery.  You know you’re really crook when you can’t even read.  But I am on the mend, and am now happily romping through Christopher Koch’s Out of Ireland.  (Amber is looking forward to getting out for a walk again soon, she has been a good, patient little pooch, but she is getting a bit restless after four days confined to barracks.  The Avenue had better watch out when she’s back on patrol!)

Denny Day

Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman is popular history written by a journalist, so you can expect a lively retelling of the life of ‘the forgotten hero of the Myall Creek Massacre’.  Day (1801-1876) was the lawman who brought the perpetrators to justice at a time in Australia’s history when the frontier was a lawless place, but he has been so comprehensively forgotten that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry of his own.  I found his birth and death dates at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  The ADB doesn’t have much to say about this pivotal moment in Australia’s legal history, just this:

In June 1838, under instructions from Governor Sir George Gipps, a party of mounted police led by Day was sent to arrest white men said to have killed at least twenty-eight Aboriginals at or near Henry Dangar’s station at Myall Creek on the Liverpool Plains. Eleven men were caught, tried and found guilty; seven were hanged.

Smyth is Denny Day’s champion, and he tells the story in much more detail.  Although Myall Creek was certainly not the first massacre of Australia’s Indigenous People, those men who were hanged were the first to be executed for killing Aborigines.  Denny Day was up against colonial attitudes so outrageous that a corrupt association was formed to pay for the defence of the men who were charged, and the third of three trials never took place because a crucial witness ‘disappeared’ and was never heard of again.

As a police magistrate in those days, Day found his role more like a US sheriff: he rode out to gather evidence, make arrests and prepare the indictment.  He didn’t sit on the bench as a magistrate does these days, he was a witness in the trials.  On the one hand the case was doubly difficult because the unarmed Aborigines could not be identified; on the other hand the murderers were so sanguine about what they had done that they admitted it, because they were confident that there would be no penalty, and that they could expect to be admired for what they had done.  Frontier violence in NSW in the 1830s was commonplace because colonial stockmen regarded the Kamilaroi people as fair game – even though British Law was quite clear that murder of any kind was punishable by death.  Aborigines were hung for crimes of violence against white men, but white men were not even charged with violence against Indigenous People, much less sanctioned in any way.

Until Denny Day…

I’m no historian, but the book appears to be well-researched from original sources and there are plentiful endnotes.  (I was interested, however, to see that there was no reference to Henry Reynolds, who is Australia’s preeminent historian of frontier violence.)  There are photos, too, including a poignant one of Denny Day’s neglected grave, and the imposing monument to one of the murderers.

(For copyright reasons, I can’t share the image of Denny Day’s neglected grave, but you can see it in this article about the book in The Australian. )

Books like this serve a useful purpose.  Denny Day is written for the general public in an engaging way, and the heroism of Day against formidable odds makes a highly readable story.  And that, hopefully, will make it the sort of book that people will pick up at the airport or a chain store, and learn the truth about the fierce resistance of the Kamileroi People, and how, until Denny Day had the courage to confront the hunting parties, British justice was impotent to deal with the vigilantes who were intent on exterminating the indigenous people altogether.

Author: Terry Smyth
Title: Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman
Publisher: Ebury Press, published by Penguin Random House Australia
ISBN: 9780857986825
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia

Available from Fishpond: Denny Day

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2016

2016 Readings Prize shortlist

I have been down with an awful chest infection which came with a bonus blinding headache for the past four days so this is going to be brief.

This is the shortlist for the 2016 Readings Prize (links are to Readings Bookshop):

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane

Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison (on my TBR)

Wood Green by Sean Rabin (on my TBR)

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa (see my review)

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (see my review)

To read more about the prize, the books and the authors, visit the Readings Blog.

I’m going back to bed…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2016

My Women in Translation Month Wishlist…

Inspired by 5 Books for Women in Translation Month by Kim at Reading Matters, I thought I’d do a similar post, but with a twist.

The LoverSecondhand TimeI’ve read two books for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month:

So far, there is a total of 44 reviews of books by women in translation on this blog (see here), but this month I’ve also read some enticing reviews from my favourite bloggers around the web.  These ones have made it onto my wishlist:

But first, I should read a few that are already on my TBR!

  • The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
  • Nobody’s Home, Essays by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
  • The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Michael Hofman
  • The Happy City by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

Those of you with good memories can remind me about this next year when it’s #WIT Month….


Firing LineDid you know that in 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott not only sent 200 of our special forces to Europe to help with the MH17 recovery operations, but also seriously – very seriously – also considered sending a battalion? (That’s 1000 troops from our small Australian army).  Fortunately he was talked out of it.  Citing a report in The Australian, the man who brings matters military to the long-overdue attention of the Australian public, former Australian Army officer and author James Brown says:

“Australia’s leading military planners … argued against that proposal, telling Mr Abbott there were serious problems with the plan: Australian soldiers would not be able to speak either Ukrainian or Russian, and the Australian troops would have difficulty distinguishing between the Ukrainian and the Russian militia”.  Beyond these concerns, the response of Russia to having an armed formation from a NATO partner country dropped near a sensitive border was a major issue.  The potential for harm to Australian troops was all too real.  The logic of deploying large numbers of troops into an active war zone alongside the border of a major global military power was entirely shaky.  (p. 51)

And that’s not all.  When it comes to assessing our capability to deploy troops, Australia has only the capacity to operate on a rule of three.  It’s called mathematactics.  That is, divide whatever our military strengths are by three, because while one third of our army, navy or air-force is on operations, one third is in for maintenance or repair, and the other third is working up the skills and procedures necessary to head out on operations next.   It’s obvious, when you think about it: maintaining a unit in the field soon exhausts people and equipment.  So plans to deploy a whole battalion or 200 of our special forces to anywhere for any purpose leaves Australia vulnerable if things go wrong elsewhere.

It is tempting to dismiss Abbott’s grandiose proposal as just another example of the embarrassing folly of the man who knighted Prince Phillip, but it’s more serious than that.  James Brown, now research director and adjunct associate professor at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, uses it as an example of how we in Australia don’t have satisfactory processes for determining when, how or why we should go to war, nor how to analyse whether the success of our military objectives, if there were any clear ones to start with, can be evaluated.  If Abbott had not been dissuaded, he could have made this colossal blunder as easily as John Howard committed Australia to deployment in Iraq.

Abbott’s stewardship of the ADF presents the clearest case in recent times of a prime minister struggling to grasp the limits of Australian military power. As much as overreach, Abbott’s thinking also reflects the flaws in Australia’s military model of the last decade.  Ours have been niche, discrete, tactical contributions, particularly of special forces, made to assist US coalitions.  That model may no longer be appropriate for a world of strategic rivalry among major powers.  In a world in which the United States and China are in prolonged competition, the decisions Australia makes on the alliance and the use of the nation’s military will be more complex, more deliberate, and involve combinations of responses rather than just the despatch of one or two units.  A better system for deciding to go to war will be needed – one that fosters long-term strategy, that can manage simultaneous crises, and in which prime ministers are well advised, but also have their power balanced. (p. 54)

Like most Australians, I am not interested in military matters, but if pressed, I would admit that I expect my government to keep me safe from external threats.   To have an adequate military force, and to have proper processes for determining when and how and why it gets used.  Although I’ve been opposed to nearly all wars since WW2, I’m not a pacifist, and I think some wars can be justified if they pass the Principles of a Just War.  I expect my government also to have smart people predicting potential scenarios, and analysing past deployments.

Well, according to Brown, we don’t have that, and he also says that government has lost public trust in the decision to go to war and we need better public accountability about it.   He argues that we have an Iraq war template that is past its use-by date, and although we’re beefing up our defence forces, we haven’t thought enough about what goes on in our region.  Our economy depends on access to the South China Sea, yes, that place where the Chinese are building militarised islands.  The US is clearly tense about China’s ambitions.  North Korea is going to threaten our neighbours in Asia with more nuclear capability; states in the southwest Pacific and New Guinea are unstable; Thailand is in a major political mess.  And technology in matters military is ahead of policy.   Australia is not ready for any of this…

I was pleased to see that a book Two Futures (see my review) written by my local member Clare O’Neil and fellow MP Tim Watts gets a mention as being on top of defence issues, but it’s important to get this conversation going.  If your eyes didn’t glaze over at the title of this post, and you’re still with me, get a copy of this Quarterly Essay or nag your library into getting one, and then read it.  You can also read an excerpt at the QE website.

Update: 26/8/16 A bunch of parliamentarians and former military chiefs are demanding action on the PM’s power to take us to war!  See the ABC report here.
Author: James Brown
Title: Firing Line, Australia’s Path to War, Quarterly Essay 62
Publisher: Black Inc,  June 2016
ISBN: 9781863958417 (pbk; also available as an eBook or to read online)
Source: my subscription to Quarterly Essay.
Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2016

The Dinner, by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

The DinnerI know, I know, everybody else read this when the English translation came out in 2012.  Herman Koch’s The Dinner was an international bestseller and it won a prize in the Netherlands too.

The ‘dinner’ is a vehicle for two brothers and their wives to meet up at a restaurant, and the book parts are named  ‘Appetiser’, ‘’Main Course’, ‘Dessert’ and ‘Digestive’, with short chapters breaking up the text in each part.  It doesn’t take long for an alert reader to decide not to trust the narrator Paul Lohman, because, apart from his supercilious commentary about pretentious restaurants, his brother Serge, his brother’s wife Babette, their children and almost everyone he comes into contact with, he betrays a monstrous ego almost right from the start.  An ego not concealed by what looks like an inferiority complex about his more successful brother, who’s a likely candidate for high political office.  Paul also has an unnerving habit of presuming that his wife Claire understands and agrees with everything he says and does.

Eventually, it transpires that the meeting has arisen because these couples need to discuss what to do about their teenage sons’ behaviour.  An aspiring politician can’t, in the modern world, have any dark secrets, and Rick and Michel have been up to no good.  (Well, more than that, but #NoSpoilers, I can’t say what).   Consistent with the psychological thriller genre, The Dinner doesn’t really explore the issue it raises (parents protecting their children from the consequences of their actions), it merely raises it, and makes an entertaining novel out of it.  An appetiser, if you like…

Some reviewers have objected to the lack of credibility in the ending, but IMO it’s intentionally lame.  The narrator has established himself as self-deluded, and I think that he is self-deluded about the inevitable consequences of what occurs.  Anyone reading it will close the book thinking, ‘but what about….?’ ‘surely, such-and-such would happen’ and so on.  Well, yes, but think how lame the book would have been if the author had written his final chapters with such an entirely predictable resolution, one which any reader could foretell.  Much better to leave threads dangling in the air, with Paul thinking he has been so clever and readers arguing about whether he has succeeded or not.

One small detail impressed me.  This author has used the ubiquitous mobile phone and other social media to great effect.  I wasn’t so impressed by the satirical commentary on modern dining.  It’s been done before, and it’s like satirising the fashion industry or the male fetish for the motor car – unless there’s some purpose to it (such as exposing the selfishness of the West) there’s no point in doing it.

But the amoral parenting of teenagers, and the extent to which parents who want to be friends with their children ultimately betray them, makes for an interesting theme, even if the plot lacks credibility here and there.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too.

Author: Herman Koch
Title: The Dinner
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012, first published in 2009
ISBN: 9781921758522
Source: Purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Dinner

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2016

All the Buildings in Melbourne, by James Gulliver Hancock

All the Buildings in MelbourneAlthough I love travelling to world cities like Paris and London, and I enjoy a jaunt to a regional city like Bendigo or a weekend away in a rural B&B, I love my city, Melbourne, and would never live anywhere else.  So of course I was enchanted at the prospect of All the Buildings in Melbourne, *that I’ve drawn so far, by artist James Gulliver Hancock.  It arrived with a pile of other self-indulgent goodies from Readings today*, and my only disappointment is that there isn’t more of it than the 64 pages of wonderful drawings of buildings in my city.

You can get some idea of his style from the cover, and also from this video of his drawing of Curtin House, but really, you just have to buy the book.

It has drawings of the famous buildings you’d expect to see, like the Arts Centre (from a quirky angle); and Parliament House and the Eureka Tower, and so on, and there are interesting snippets about the buildings too.  Did you know that Flinders Street Station was designed by railway employees James Fawcett and HPC Ashworth?  Did you know that the decorative ceramics in the Majorca Building at 258-260 Flinders Lane are called faience? And I bet you don’t know which building had the first escalators in Melbourne… the answer is on page 11.

The book shows off the European ambience of Melbourne, our heritage as one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities because of the Gold Rush, and the way the city is a great place for discovering all kinds of architectural treasures tucked away in alleyways and lanes.  But there are also drawings of buildings in our suburbs: the Glen Eira shopping strip that I haunted as a girl, and the St Kilda City Library which was so modern and new when I was a teenager.  There’s the Esplanade Hotel a.k.a. the Espy that I was too young to venture into when in complete naïveté I strolled the St Kilda streets with my schoolfriend (later the actor) Sue Arnold, and there’s the Palais Theatre and the wonderful shop facades in Chapel St South Yarra.   (And the Prahran market, of course, as well as the more famous Vic Market in the city). Como House always makes me smile because we visited it not long after we arrived in Australia, and guilelessly sent a photo taken in front of the house to my grandmother – who thought that it was our own house!

The book is marketed as a travel/gift book, but I bought it for me.

If you love Melbourne too, you’ll probably want your own copy as well.

Author/Artist: James Gulliver Hancock
Title: All the Buildings in Melbourne *that I’ve drawn so far
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781743791936
Purchased from Readings (who are also giving away a free tote bag with the book during August, while stocks last)

Also available (cheaper, and freight free) from Fishpond: All the Buildings in Melbourne

*Also in the stash was Jean Rhys’s Quartet, ready for Jean Rhys Week; Tracks by Robyn Davidson because I read it ages ago and now it’s been made into a film; China Miéville’s irresistible The Last Days of New Paris; Thirst by Benjamin Warner (because the moral dilemma sounded interesting) and Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood (a book I referred to in my review of My Sister Chaos by Lara Fergus).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2016

The Long Haul, Lessons from Public Life, by John Brumby

The Long HaulPeople often tell me that I should have gone into politics, and sometimes I think I might have made a good politician, but reading John Brumby’s book The Long Haul reminds me why I never made that choice.  Teaching, especially in disadvantaged schools where you can really make a difference, is enormously satisfying work: it is a privilege to be in a position where the work you do can change a child’s life, and if you are a good teacher, you can feel a sense of achievement many times over in a day.  But politics – as the title of Brumby’s book warns us – is a long haul.  It’s an enormously complex business, inextricably dependent on dealing with people with whom you must find common ground.  For good people who want to make a difference, it looks like a very frustrating job, even when in government instead of Opposition…

The Long Haul is a sort of handbook for good politics, written by a Victorian Premier who was part of a successful government.  John Brumby was Premier from 2007-2010, but before that he was part of the core leadership of the Bracks government which unexpectedly unseated the seemingly indomitable Kennett government  in 1999.  He is also the man widely credited with having put the Party in a position to have had that unexpected win because of the work he did as Opposition Leader.  This book is (of course) partly about legacy building, but it’s also about how they achieved what they did, and why.

But why should we read it?  Why, if not interested in a political career and not likely to have anything to do with political processes, should any reader be bothered?  Well, I think the answer to that question lies in the worldwide political mess that threatens to derail us all.  Here in Australia we have a government riven by Conservative/Moderate factions so much so that they have almost no coherent policies, and we don’t know what they’re going to do now that they’ve scraped back into government.  Equally worrying is that populist malcontents hold the balance of power in our senate.  Overseas, which affects us too, there is Brexit in the UK; in the US there is the frightening spectre of Donald Trump, and in Russia there is Putin.  The electoral success of people who don’t deserve it happens because ordinary citizens don’t assess the readiness of parties to govern.  We fall into the cynical trap of despising all politicians as being in it for themselves and we think ‘they’re all the same.’  And some people, the sort of people who vote for political malcontents, think that all a politician needs is an armoury of strong opinions and that they will get what they want merely by shouting their slogans.

The Long Haul shows that there’s much more to it than that.  In Chapter 2, Brumby talks about the Four Ps:

  • the Parliament: everyone in the team needs to be committed to the goal of winning a majority of seats in the parliament, and thus the government.  Well, of course, you might say, but that implies a willingness to compromise with others in order to govern.  Shouty slogans or lofty idealism don’t achieve much.  (As an aside, Anne Summers at the Bendigo Writers Festival compared the long term achievements of purist American feminists and their more pragmatic Australian counterparts, and came to the conclusion that Australian women have had more gains long term because they built incremental change instead of demanding major change from the outset).
  • the Party: a healthy party is one that is perpetually opening itself up to the world around it: to new people and to new ideas.  This means persuading long-standing members with nothing left to contribute to move on; it means having mechanisms to find good new people to bring in.  (Anne Summers noted that all the vacant safe seats in the Liberal Party went to young men,who will thus be there for decades, entrenching the gender inequity in the Parliamentary Liberal Party).  It’s also essential to engage the wider party membership especially in regional areas.
  • the People: it’s self-evident, but too often ignored.  Political parties need to listen to people outside the party.  There is always something to learn from an election loss or a long period in Opposition, but you have to get out to the people to learn it.  You have to move past the media noise and opinions of the commentariat, and reconnect with those whose votes you need and whose interests you are elected to serve.  This means seeking out those who are geographically or socially hard to reach.
  • the Policy: Politics is a battle of ideas: beneath the sound and the fury they are the real currency of our system.  Parties need to develop a culture that is open to new ideas, and to seek out sources of expertise such as universities while also listening to everyday people like parents at a local school.  What Brumby doesn’t say, because it’s not a blaming sort of book, is that ordinary voters don’t often look beyond presidential style campaigns to evaluate policies before an election.  Sure, voters will kick a party out if they don’t like surprise policies, (witness the demise of the Democrats after they reneged on their GST policy) but IMO we could as an electorate save ourselves a bit of pain if we scrutinised policy offerings before an election.  #JustSaying…

Brumby also lists Mark Madden’s Seven Deadly Sins of Government (originally attributed to Mike Kaiser from the Qld ALP)

  • disunity
  • arrogance
  • defending the indefensible
  • governing bureaucratically
  • failing to communicate your achievements
  • running out of ideas
  • underestimating your opponent. (p. 63)

So true, eh?  And yet we the electorate see ’em commit these sins time after time.  That is because politics is a human business, and it’s a lot more difficult than we give politicians credit for.

The chapter on reform is interesting. There is what Brumby calls ‘housekeeping’, not glamorous, but essential:

Over time, legislation accumulates, and unless it’s regularly reviewed, redundancies begin to emerge, duplication occurs, and a drag is felt on both the economy and the broader society.  This drag can be measured both in terms of efficiency loss and missed opportunities.  (p. 64)

And then there’s the more interesting stuff, the strategic reform that introduces new directions.

Either a government is reform-minded, has its finger on the pulse of change in the world and determines to take a forward position based on anticipated needs and opportunities; or else reform becomes imperative due to economic circumstances beyond the government’s control.  (p. 65)

Negotiating the barriers to reform is the tricky part.  The reform has to get past the party and its constituent groups (power bases such as unions or business); past the parliament (which has a vested interest in making the government look bad); past the media (which is increasingly tabloid) and past vested interests, who are advantaged by leaving things as they are.  The mining tax is a classic example of that, but Brumby gives an example closer to home.  To cover the cost of transport, schools and health services in new suburbs, his government brought in an infrastructure charge on land newly zoned for urban development.  The people who campaigned against that new tax are the ones now demanding more investment in urban infrastructure…

Brumby thinks that meaningful reform might be becoming more difficult today.  The things that were easy to do are done, and we are moving out of a period of unprecedented prosperity making it harder to cushion the impact of any negative effects.  Yet as Australia confronts the end of the mining boom we have to make changes in how we do things. Sharing information, responsibility and the benefits of reform makes public support more likely, and that’s not just a lesson that politicians need to learn, the electorate needs to learn it too.  (Another reason why I would have been no good at politics is that I have no patience with NIMBYs!)

The chapter on leadership is especially instructive in the light of our revolving prime ministerial door, and there’s a lot of wise advice.  What most of us forget is that the make-up of a parliamentary party has more in common with a team of volunteers running an association or club: the leader doesn’t get to choose the best people for the team, he or she has to work with a motley bunch, in the case of a parliamentary party, as elected by the voting public. Over time, a leader can steer his team towards gender equity or diversity or more like-minded souls but may have to work with a bunch of troglodytes in the mean time.  (*chuckle* That’s my word, not Brumby’s!)

I particularly liked the chapter titled ‘Frank and Fearless’ and not just because once long ago I worked in the Victorian Public Service.  For as long as I can remember I’ve been listening to politicians bleat about culling the public service as a cost-cutting measure and it is refreshing to read that the public service is not a disposable commodity. 

Waste should always be avoided, but those who dedicate their careers to serving their state or country should not be used to score political points…[…]

In an ideal world, the public service transcends politics and adopts the good of the country as its sole concern.  It is not beholden to electoral cycles; it takes a long term view. It holds the corporate memory of a nation or state, and it is the repository of the accumulated wisdom of many decades of policy success and failure.  But in fact none of this helps much unless the public service is allowed to be what it was intended to be: frank and fearless in its advice, and unbiased and impartial in its actions. It is up to governments to encourage this. (p. 83)

And if these days there’s not enough of them to answer the phone or respond to requests from ordinary people like you and me, it’s because politicians have used them as cheap targets in cost-cutting!

There is lots more in this excellent book including a chapter on conscience votes that is especially thought-provoking in view of the forthcoming plebiscite, a chapter about governing the whole state and decentralisation (especially interesting after a weekend in the vibrant city of Bendigo) and of course my favourite chapter, about education, even though there’s quite a bit with which I strongly disagree.  Even if you think you’re not interested in politics, you might surprise yourself by reading this book because a lot of it is about bringing the common sense of ordinary people to bear on government.

And I think we’d have much better governments everywhere if we were all willing to invest a bit of effort into making sure that we get good ones…

Author: John Brumby
Title: The Long Haul, Lessons from Public Life
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2015
ISBN: 9780522868531
Source: personal library, purchased at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival where John Brumby was a speaker in a selout session called ‘The Politics of Power’.

Available from Fishpond: The Long Haul: Lessons from Public Life

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2016

My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus

My Sister ChaosMy Sister Chaos is a remarkable feat of creativity.  Set in an unnamed country with three female characters known only as the cartographer, the sister and the mathematician, it tells a story of love that transcends a chaos that few of us could possibly imagine.  The novel won the 2012 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and was nominated for Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Debut Fiction (2012), and the Dobbie Literary Award(2011).

The story begins with the cartographer obsessively mapping her house.  She has been separated from her sole surviving relative, her sister, since they fled civil war in their home country and her sister abandoned her in the motel where they had been placed as refugees.  The cartographer had been employed on a high level project mapping her country, but now she works at a lower level because even though she has learned the language of her new country, others have made assumptions about her competence.  (See a Sensational Snippet here). She makes sense of traumatic experiences that are gradually revealed by bringing order to her house.  Nothing can be disturbed because that would interfere with the mapping process.   It becomes clear to the reader that the cartographer has a warped sense of reality because of all that she has been through.

What complicates her mapping process is that her map is rather like the kind of maps I heard about this weekend at the Bendigo Writers Festival in a session with Kim Mahood.  Mahood has just published what sounds like a fascinating book called Position Doubtful (which I have on order from Readings so I haven’t read it yet).  In conversation with Susan Martin, she talked about the complexity of maps which incorporate both space, time and story.  At its most simple, a topographically correct map can show using colour as a legend the shifting edges of a lake at different times in its flood cycle.  Mahood develops her maps through negotiation with the indigenous owners of the land, and you can see one of these maps which depicts a fire path here.  The map takes into account the intensity of the fire, and it also depicts a spiritual being.  Although it’s topographically correct, it’s not about horizon and perspective…

In My Sister Chaos the cartographer’s map is not just a scale drawing of her house.  She has set up a drafting table as her Point of Beginning in an otherwise empty room and using compasses she draws from that point to create her map.  Theoretically, this means that, from her Point of Beginning, she will measure every little distance and angle to map the entirety of the house, nothing added, nothing omitted.  She is determined to include every change, level and movement, and as the story unfolds, she encounters conceptual difficulties in accommodating chaotic change she wasn’t expecting and which threatens her fragile sense of security.

Because her twin sister turns up, disturbing the sterile impersonal atmosphere of the house.  The cartographer responds by confining her to a drop sheet in a corner of the room.  She fears spills, object displacement, disturbances of dust.  She cannot now concentrate on the task that has absorbed her every waking hour.  The sister accepts this apparently unreasonable behaviour because there is no alternative.  The cartographer has to be in control, it’s how she staves off madness.  The sister paints, strange, incoherent pictures, because she too has suffered trauma in the civil war, compounded by the loss of her lover, and her lover’s child, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

As this harrowing story plays out, the reader can’t help but think of refugees in our cities, struggling to make sense of horror and displacement, perhaps alone just as the cartographer is because the system for resettling refugees has failed them.  The reader becomes drawn into the cartographer’s strange world while the sister’s narrative bleeds into the story in ways that are all the more horrific because of the author’s restraint.

The mathematician plays only a small role in the plot, but it is significant because she overcomes her doubts about the cartographer to offer a highly significant moment of kindness, which changes everything.  In an inhumane world, she suggests a chance for optimism and hope.

Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year!

Author: Lara Fergus
Title: My Sister Chaos
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2014
ISBN 9781876756840
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

You can buy a copy from Fishpond: My Sister Chaos
or direct from Spinifex Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2016

Sensational Snippets: My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus

My Sister ChaosI was reading the award-winning novel My Sister Chaos by Lara Fergus, when I came across a superb evocation of loss…

The unnamed cartographer, like everyone else, was unprepared for war.  She was leading a unit working on an international project, the Global Map…

On the day that they told us that they were closing up the building and we had to evacuate I was stunned.  I was still working, the project wasn’t finished, there was no way I could leave it.  In the end someone got a security guard to stand in my office doorway. That was enough.  I didn’t wait for him to come any closer, my horror of being touched by strangers being stronger than my desire to stay.  And I could see that it would seem ridiculous to listeners, when told later, as a story.

But I saved it all.   I was the only one who possessed the data in its entirety.  The people working for me only had access to the small areas for which they were responsible, and the UN agency that funded the project only got the summarised versions I sent them in reports. I took the data without the programs that would enable me to read it, to save space.  It took up surprisingly little memory: a single USB stick which I hung around my neck, tucked into my clothes.

I did it for safety’s sake, as a backup, thinking I’d return in a few weeks to continue.  I had no sense of heroism, otherwise I would have been more methodical; insisted colleagues save the data on their own projects, made more backups in different forms. We could have emailed the most important files to each other, or ourselves. But we were all sure we’d be back, and it was all still there on the server, in the basement. It was still there as I tidied my desk, filed away the documents I’d been working on, washed my coffee cup in the office kitchen, the security guard shadowing me. It was all still there as I swiped my way out of the building.

It was all still there until I heard, two days later, exiled in my apartment, that the building had been bombed to rubble. The weight of it collapsing in on the basement and its blinking servers, full of irreplaceable data.  Lost, of course.  Except what I have, still on the USB stick. My country on a scale of one to one million; my country the way it was before the war anyway.  It hangs weightless around my neck.

(My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus, Spinifex Press, 2014, ISBN 9781876756840, p. 27)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of Syria and those buildings bombed to rubble, of UN maps of the Middle East that bear no relationship to reality at all, and of countries that can never be the way they were, if they can be countries at all…

You can buy a copy from Fishpond:My Sister Chaos or direct from Spinifex Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2016

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray

The LoverIt’s a perfect cover, this one.  An intense, provocative gaze, daring the reader… and how fascinating to discover that it’s an image of the author herself when she was a young woman!

Written when Marguerite Duras was 70 years old and superbly translated by Barbara Bray, The Lover is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die for good reason.

With its shifts between the first and third person, the use of flashbacks and its impressionistic disrupted style, Duras’ writing is very cinematic, influenced as she was by the French nouveau roman of the 1950s.  (p.724)

*chuckle* Call me cynical if you like, but perhaps the book was fêted as much for its provocative theme as for the brilliance of its style! It is the story of a transgressive love affair between a fifteen-year-old girl and a Chinese man ten years older.

Wikipedia tells me that it was first published in 1984 by Les Éditions de Minuit, and has since been translated into 43 languages.  My edition was translated by Barbara Bray for the first English edition in 1985 so it didn’t take long for the novella to reach its international audience.  The book was awarded the 1984 Prix Goncourt, (the most prestigious of French prizes and the one which is for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”).  The book was adapted for film in 1992 as The Lover.

The story is set in Sa Dec on the Mekong Delta in French Indochina in the 1930s,  where Duras lived as a girl.  But that is not the only autobiographical element.  Like the mother of the girl in the story, Duras’s mother ran a school, and like the nameless girl* in the story, Duras had an inter-racial affair with the son of a wealthy Chinese family.  (These days, the entrepreneurial Vietnamese have opened the house of that lover, Huynh Thuy Le, to the public for literary pilgrimage!)

The novella, it seems to me, is primarily about power.  On her way back to school after a holiday, the girl tests her own power of sexual allure by dressing provocatively in a silk dress, gold lamé high heels and a man’s fedora hat.  The 21st century reader attuned to the prevalence of child abuse fears for the naïveté of this girl when she gets into a car with a man she does not know.  He is not only older than her, he is also a member of the wealthy Chinese community and she is the daughter of a woman who’s lost control of her life.  This mother has no power: after the death of her husband and some bad investment decisions she is poor by white Indochinese standards, and her elder son’s sadism and criminality has made her a pariah in her own community.  She is also subject to fits of depression and drifts about from one place to another, managing only to have the luxury of declining to eat if they didn’t like the cheap meals cooked by their houseboy. Her clothes are cobbled together by the faithful Dó but they are shabby and by inference not sexually alluring.

But the girl, as it turns out,  has sexual power.  From the outset, it is she who is in control.  Her Chinese lover hesitates when she is naked before him but she takes charge.  She doesn’t love him and he knows it.  She tells him that she desires him because of his money, but he isn’t repulsed. Indeed, he maintains his love for her long into old age…

The girl also has power within her own dysfunctional family.  She has no intention of fulfilling her mother’s ambitions for her to do well in mathematics so that she can become a teacher: she knows that she is her mother’s only hope left – but she wants to be a writer.

The inversions of racial power are a repudiation of colonial racism.  While the impoverished mother thinks that she is superior to the Chinese lover because she is white, his wealthy, respectable family is never going to let him marry the little whore.  When he dines with her family at an expensive restaurant in a grotesque parody of ‘meeting the family’, they gorge on his hospitality – he pays for everything – but they ignore him completely.  But it’s a meaningless insult: they are powerless to prevent the relationship.

Despite the celebration of a young girl’s sexual power, the novella is melancholy in tone.

Very early in my life it was too late.  It was already too late when I was eighteen.  (p. 4)

But the glimpses of life in Sa Dec are illuminating: I was fascinated by

those Chinese restaurants on several floors, they occupy whole buildings, they’re as big as department stores, or barracks, they look out over the city from balconies and terraces.  The noise that comes from these buildings is inconceivable in Europe, the noise of orders yelled out by the waiters, then taken up and yelled out by the kitchens.  No one ever merely speaks.  On the terraces there are Chinese orchestras.  We go up to the quietest floor, the Europeans’ floor, the menus are the same but there’s less yelling.  There are fans, and heavy draperies to deaden the noise.  (p.47)

The story of the Chinese lover’s wealth is interesting too.  He has built 300 ‘compartments’ i.e. cheap semi-detached dwellings let out for rent.  Owns several streets.  And he justifies conditions in the ‘compartments’ by saying that

They cost much less than either apartment blocks or detached houses, and meet the needs of working-class people much better than separate dwellings.  The people here like living close together, especially the poor, who come from the country and like living out of doors too, on the street.  And you must not try to destroy the habits of the poor. (p.48)

In the dry season there is a celebratory cleaning of the girl’s house:

The house is built on a raised strip of land, clear of the garden, the snakes, the scorpions, the red ants, the floodwaters of the Mekong, those that follow the great tornados of the monsoon.  Because the house is raised like this it can be cleaned by having buckets of water thrown over it, sluiced right through like a garden.  All the chairs are piled up on the tables, the whole house is streaming, water is lapping around the piano in the small sitting room. The water pours down the steps, spreads through the yard towards the kitchen quarters.  The little houseboys are delighted, we join in with them, splash one another, then wash the floor with yellow soap. Everyone’s barefoot, including our mother.  (p.61)

There’s a lot to like about this book, but its impressionistic style won’t suit everybody.  It’s definitely a book that needs re-reading in order to discover all its riches.

*1001 Books and some other reviewers name the girl as Hélène Lagonelle but while I concede that it’s possible that the narrator is disassociating herself by inventing another persona, I don’t interpret it that way.  Rather, I see the presence of the 17-year-old school-friend Hélène in the novella as a desire for another transgressive relationship:

I am worn out with desire for Hélène Lagonelle.
I am worn out with desire.
I want to take Hélène Lagonelle with me to where every evening, with my eyes shut, I have imparted to me the pleasure that makes you cry out.  I’d like to give Hélène Lagonelle to the man who does that to me, so he may do it in turn to her.  I want it to happen in my presence, I want her to do it as I wish, I want her to give herself where I give myself.  It’s via Hélène Lagonelle’s body, through it, that the ultimate pleasure would pass from him to me.
A pleasure unto death.  (p.74)

Kim at Reading Matters liked The Lover too. But it’s not without its critics, see The Paris Review.

PS I can’t see that the introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston contributed much to this edition…

Author: Marguerite Duras
Title: The Lover (L’amant)
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Publisher: Pantheon, an imprint of Random House, 1997
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $25.95

Available from Fishpond: The Lover $14.82, delivery free

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2016

The Things We Keep, by Sally Hepworth

The Things We KeepThe Things We Keep is a feelgood love story that has a pertinent message for our age.

With the ageing of the population in Australia, sooner or later each of us will have a friend or a relation with memory loss, and/or know someone who’s coming to terms with its effects on a loved one.   We’ll come in contact with professionals working in the field, and we’ll need to develop a repertoire of strategies for maintaining relationships with people who can’t remember things that are important.  It’s easier to understand the impact if we have some understanding that the person with memory loss is still the same person inside.

There’s probably a whole industry devoted to this theme, but I haven’t come across much of it.  I read John Bayley’s moving tribute to his wife, the great English novelist Iris Murdoch (Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, 1998) and through this beautiful love story, I learned that although she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996, he cared for her at home and took pleasure in her company till her death in 1999.  And I saw the film Still Alice on a long-haul flight to Europe, and learned that smart people can do a lot to support someone with this disease, and that accepting that person as they are can make for a fulfilling relationship.

In some ways Sally Hepworth’s novel deals with the same territory, but the story takes place in the context of someone else’s messy life.  There are multiple narrators, beginning with Anna Forster who at the start of the novel has just moved into Rosalind House, an assisted-living facility for senior citizens.  But Anna isn’t a senior citizen.  She is thirty-eight years old and has early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Eve Bennett’s life has fallen apart in a different way: she is working as a cook/cleaner at Rosalind House because her husband misappropriated other people’s money and then committed suicide.  Her daughter Clem, not coping very well at school, also narrates some of the story.

The narration allows us to see that Anna, despite gaps in her vocabulary and her own acknowledgement that she loses her way and forgets the names of people, still has self-awareness:

Dad isn’t an attractive man/  He has height, but the skinny kind, rounded at the shoulders so he curves forward like a wilting flower.  He eyes are pale blue and his grey-orange fuzz is combed to hide a bald spot.  All this information is apparent to anyone in the room, though.  The things that I should know about Dad – the day of his birth, his baseball team, whether his stoop is old or new – are not there.  Or perhaps they are, but deep down, hazy, as though he were a character from a novel I read a few years ago rather than the man who gave me life.  He looks at me closely, perhaps for signs of dementing.  I wonder if he’s finding any.

‘Anna’, he says, ‘I can’t believe it.’

At the sound of his voice, my brain releases a select few, seemingly unimportant memories.  The way he used to eat ice cream with a fork.  The way he used to drink his … morning caffeine drink … so hot, it should have taken the skin right off his mouth.

‘What are you doing here?’ I ask.

‘What do you think?’ he says.  I came to see you.

Jack walks out from behind me, reminding me that he is here, too.  Young Guy and his sister are here too, but they stand now, muttering something about going to the garden.

‘Dad,’ Jack says, ‘I’m not sure this is a good idea.’

Another memory is niggling at me, but just out of my reach like an itch I can’t scratch.  It’s as if my brain has pulled a curtain over the memories area.  And not even the VIPs are getting in. (p.207-8)

Foreshadowed early in the novel is that there are two desirable males to attract the attention of the female central characters.  There’s a sexy gardener, and there’s Luke a.k.a. Young Guy, who has a different form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Both relationships flounder, for obvious reasons in Anna’s case: too soon after the husband’s suicide, jealous daughter, and of course the whole issue of workplace relationships.  But for Anna, the problem is that her family finds the idea of a relationship confronting, and the manager of Rosalind House puts more weight on the desires of a resident’s family than on hers.   Eve – who intuits that the relationship with Luke is critical to Anna – is destined for big trouble when things go pear-shaped…

Some aspects of the plot are a bit predictable, and I was a little uneasy about the ‘life-is-always-worth-living’ agenda but I liked the focus on it being the responsibility of carers to identify reasons for distress and to be empathetic about meeting needs.  Hepworth has achieved this without preachiness by creating characters with a sense of humour, and an engaging plot.

Update (later the same day): If you or anyone you know is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia or memory loss, I can’t recommend highly enough the advice you can get from the Alzheimer’s Australia website.  It’s not just for people with Alzheimer’s, there is information about all kinds of memory loss including dementia as well.  (The first thing I learned was that dementia is a symptom, not necessarily of Alzheimer’s and there are lots of causes of memory loss.)  There is heaps of information in user-friendly language, and also a help line.  If this is an issue for you, I would suggest getting yourself a coffee and a supply of chocolate biscuits, and allow yourself plenty of time to browse through what’s there.  Don’t forget to look at the page About You if you are a carer, or a family friend or relation because there are good tips about how you can maintain a satisfying relationship for as long as possible.  And if you can, attend one of the courses that are available, I went to one about the role that music can play and it was just fantastic.

2016 National Bookshop DayAuthor: Sally Hepworth
Title: The Things We Keep
Publisher: Pan Macmillan,2016
ISBN: 9781743535752
Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham

PS Don’t forget it’s National Bookshop Day this coming Saturday.  Visit any real bricks-and-mortar bookshop, preferably an indie one, and buy a book!

Available from Fishpond: The Things We Keep

Secondhand TimeSvetlana Alexievich was an unusual choice for the Nobel Prize because her work is investigative journalism, whereas the prize is supposed to be in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.  Her win is a further blurring of the definition of literature to mean almost any kind of writing, her citation simply saying that it’s for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.

In Secondhand Time, the last of the Soviets, an oral history this polyphonic writing refers to the assemblage of multiple voices from Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations to form a commentary on the end of the Soviet era.  Part One is called ‘The Consolation of Apocalypse’ and it consists of ‘Ten stories in a Red Interior’ covering the period 1991-2001.  Part Two is called ‘The Charms of Emptiness,  from the period 2002-2012.  The title comes from the introduction called ‘Remarks from an Accomplice’ where Alexievich says that she’s trying honestly to hear out all the participants of the socialist drama…

Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand.  (p.11)

Most of us know feelgood stories about the collapse of the USSR.  Soviet people were captivated by opportunities to travel and by the sudden plethora of food choices in supermarkets.  Queueing up to buy McDonalds was fun – not like the soul-destroying queues for basic consumer goods which often ran out before the queue did.  (See my review of Vladimir Sorokin’s sly satire The Queue, published  in 1985 as Gorbachev came to power).  But what Alexievich does is to put a human face on the legacy of that collapse, which led to an economic crisis and a fall in living standards that was catastrophic for some people.  The book amplifies Wikipedia’s claim that

According to a 2014 poll, 57 percent of citizens of Russia regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, while 30 percent said they did not. (Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union could be expressed in nostalgia for the politics of the Soviet Union, society, lifestyle, culture, or simply the aesthetics of the Soviet epoch. (‘Nostalgia for the Soviet Union’, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)

Secondhand Time is uniformly grim reading.

There are multiple threads to the book, but an early one intrigued me.

– For me, it’s more of a concrete question: Where do I want to live, in a great country or a normal one?

– I loved the empire … Life after the fall of the empire has been boring.  Tedious. (p.35)

This made me think: what makes a people think they’re entitled to consider their country great?  It’s actually quite a strange thing when you think about it, that we in our separate nations have a sense of entitlement about this, or not.  Tossing thoughts around, I suppose that the US thinks it’s great because of its democracy and its military and economic might.  Perhaps the UK thinks it’s great because of its history of empire, the Enlightenment and the peaceful development of universal suffrage.  Germany and Japan wanted greatness in the 20th century, cast the globe into bloodshed and are now humbly just concentrating on being respectable.  Middle ranking countries like Australia take pride in stuff like *sigh* sport; lots of countries that are, well, insignificant, probably only resent the greatness of others, if they think about it at all.  And the Chinese?  What are they thinking about this now?  And India?  Do they have ambitions to be great… and would they define it?

When you read Secondhand Time you can see that the people of the USSR took great pride in the social experiment of socialism and having a social equality different to anywhere else.  They also won the space race and they were a great economic and military power.  They had a vast empire, and (maybe they were deluded) they felt a sense of unity and security about the network of Soviet states. They were a rival to the greatness of the USA.  They did not have expensive consumer goods and they had to work incredibly hard, but you get the impression from the testimony in this book that they despised people who thought that luxury goods were important, and that they felt they were working hard to accomplish something significant.  And then it fell apart, and while the rest of the world cheered them on, the Soviet people felt like catastrophe was at hand. (p.73)  It seems like a similar blow to national pride to the way the British felt when their Empire collapsed after WW2, but the impact on ordinary people was entirely different because all the infrastructure of Russian social security collapsed as well.  But it wasn’t just that oligarchs got rich and poor people starved.  It was that beliefs held for decades, and aesthetics such as valuing reading, were invalidated overnight.

All kinds of issues fester.  Families were split when the various republics hived off; free travel throughout the USSR has been replaced by the need for a visa, and in the new republics people don’t speak the lingua franca – Russian – any more.  Russians have found themselves to be foreigners overnight, and in some places they are targeted for violent reprisals.

Treasured memorabilia of the soviet era are labelled relics of totalitarianism and sold as trinkets on the street. Nobody’s interested in memories of Soviet achievement, and they don’t want to hear about repression under Stalin either.  An entire value system – imposed from above but internalised by many all the same – has vanished and been replaced with individualism and consumerism.   The sense I get from Secondhand Time is that the change in individual consciousness is as overwhelming as it was after the Revolution.  I remember reading Doctor Zhivago (see my review) and getting some idea of it when a middle class family suddenly had to share their house with complete strangers.

There was no referendum on the changes, and some resent this:

What a country they surrendered.  An empire!  Without a single shot fired … The thing I don’t understand is, Why didn’t anyone ask us?  I spent my life building a great nation.  That’s what they told us.  They promised. (p.87)

It’s an interesting question: what would the result have been if there had been a vote?

It’s surprising to read that some who suffered terribly under Stalinism still regret the end of the USSR.  One man, a hero of WW2, was

imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary, but released to go to war …

I came home twice wounded, with three decorations and medals.  They called me into the district Party committee, “Unfortunately, we will not be able to return your wife to you, she’s died.  But you can have your honor back…” And they handed me back my Party membership card.  And I was happy!  I was so happy! (p. 184)

One woman says

In reality, for me, I’m just a twit, freedom of speech would have been enough because, as it soon turned out, at heart, I’m a Soviet girl. (p. 157)

Another says:

Under socialism, I was promised that there was a place in the sun for everyone. Now they’re singing a different tune.  If we live according to Darwin’s laws, we will enjoy abundance.  Abundance for the fittest.  But I’m one of the weak.  I’m not a fighter…. There was a plan for me and I was used to living according to plan: school, college, family.  My husband and I will save up for an apartment in a cooperative, and after the apartment, we’ll save up for a car… Then they cancelled that plan. Threw us to the wolves of capitalism… I have a degree in engineering, I worked at the design institute that everyone called the “women’s institute” because it was all women… […]… but then they started downsizing… They didn’t touch the men, there weren’t that many of them, or single mothers, or women who only had one or two years left before retirement.  They posted lists, and I saw my last name on one of them… (p294).

She’s now given up hope of getting a job.  She talks about a colleague who’s now a servant, walking a businesswoman’s dog.  Today, it’s embarrassing to be Russian.

And so it goes on.  The multiplicity of voices is fascinating, and much of it makes very sobering reading, but I found it frustrating that there was none of the journalistic analysis that I’m used to.   Its main value, it seems to me, is in raising awareness that for many people socialism remains an ideal, if it’s implemented without Stalinism and repression.  But since there’s nothing to indicate how widespread these attitudes are – not even a very clear indication of generational differences – the book floats in a bit of a vacuum.

That makes it interesting, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s Nobel-worthy.

Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Title: Secondhand Time, the Last of the Soviets, an Oral History
Translated by Bela Shayevich
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355567
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets or direct from Text

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2016

Book giveaway: Cleaning the Stables, by Morris Lurie

Cleaning the Stables

As you know if you read my recent review of Rappaport (in Rappaport Compleat), I am a fan of the late Morris Lurie, so I am pleased to be able to offer another Giveaway, this time for a most interesting work called Cleaning the Stables. also published by Hybrid Publishers here in Melbourne.

This is the publisher’s blurb:

Shortly before his death in 2014, an elderly man brought his publisher friend a crumpled purple folder filled with type-­‐written pages. Cleaning the Stables he called it: a selection of stories, poems and a recipe that he didn’t want left behind. In this posthumous collection we are given a feast of mostly unpublished treasures from the great literary life of Morris Lurie. Written in the wry and ironic style he was celebrated for, these pieces are sometimes odd, always clever, and at times profoundly moving as they give us insight into a man who had a truly unique way of interpreting and writing about the world around him.

Author Info Morris Lurie  (1938  – 2014) has written more than thirty books including Flying Home, selected by the National Book Council as one of the ten best Australian books of its decade; The Twenty-­‐Seventh Annual African Hippopotamus Race, voted by the schoolchildren of Victoria their favourite young storybook by an Australian author; and the Bicentennial Award-­‐winning autobiography, Whole Life.  Morris Lurie was the recipient of the Patrick White Award in 2006.

“one of the most significant Australian writers of his generation” – Peter Pierce, editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

“a sharp, rare writer with an acerbic wit”  –Kevin Childs, The Guardian



Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round about the end of this month.

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 Hybrid Press and they will post the book to the winner.

BTW I’ve had people tell me that they are shy about entering if they’ve already won a giveaway.  Please don’t feel bashful, you can enter as many giveaways as you like!

CoranderrkI don’t review theatre: I don’t have the expertise.  But today I saw a very special play at the La Mama Courthouse and since it’s only on for a short time, I owe it to my Melbourne readers to spruik it.

Coranderrk We Will Show the Country is the name of the play, and it’s also the name of the book.  The book consists of:

  • an historical introduction to Coranderrk which includes some remarkable photographs showing the achievements of the Kulin people on the Coranderrk reserve.  It covers the period up to the 1881 Inquiry which is the focus of the play;
  • the script of the play, including biographies of the significant historical figures;
  • the aftermath of the Inquiry and the events leading to Coranderrk’s closure;
  • an explanation of how the historical record was transformed into the play.
  • a timeline, maps and archival photos.

The play is unique because it’s based entirely on transcripts from the 19th century paper trail of an heroic struggle for Aboriginal self-determination.  Having been dispossessed of their ancestral lands by European settlement, a small band of survivors from the Kulin Nation petitioned the colonial government for a land grant to set up the Coranderrk Reserve.  There they created an award-winning farm and an impressive settlement.

Following the reservation of the land, the Kulin together with John and Mary Green, enthusiastically embarked upon the task of making Coranderrk their new home. Their vision was to make the station fully self-supporting.

They started by clearing and draining the land, grubbing, ploughing and preparing it for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees.  They erected a storeroom and a schoolroom, a dormitory for the children, and bark huts for the adults, each with a fireplace. Within ten years, 32 cottages were built in two straight rows forming a central road along a terrace that overlooked the alluvial flats. They built yards, a stable, a bakery, and a brick kiln, erected 4.6 miles (7 kilometres) of fencing to demarcate some of the reserve, placed 160 acres under cultivation, and introduced 450 head of stock to pasture.  (p.13)

The authors of this book refer to this period as a kind of Golden Age.  It was not a return to pre-Colonial ways of living:

Coranderrk residents knew that their ability to survive required them to adapt to, and raise their children according to, European ways.  Their traditional patterns of land use, lifestyle and many other cultural practices had to be replaced to a large extent by agricultural work, and by Christian and European customs. But in doing so Coranderrk residents were able to adapt to the new while continuing to practise and maintain key elements of their own culture. (p.14)

But all too soon there were plans by vested interests to move them off this land, and so began a sustained, sophisticated campaign for justice, land rights and self-determination.  In collaboration with white supporters, the Kulin people used the legal and political system to force a Parliamentary Inquiry, and the play I saw today is based on the records of that Inquiry.

It’s very good theatre.  To the left, the MP chairing the Inquiry; and Anne Bon, a Commissioner of the Inquiry and an indomitable woman with a passion for justice.  To the right, a succession of white witnesses: the Coranderrk managers past and present; a police officer; a journalist; and a missionary.  In the middle, a row of Aboriginal witnesses: a stockman, a teacher; a washerwoman; a 13 year-old post boy; and William Barak, the clan leader, played with great dignity by Uncle Jack Charles.  I found myself squirming with embarrassment as one white witness after another betrayed their racism by their patronising language and offensive labelling.  It was authentic, of course – the words they were using were straight from the dusty archival materials from the Inquiry – but I felt the awkwardness of the Aboriginal actors having to hear it.

Do read the review at Troublemag and get yourself a ticket to see it if you can.  At only $15 a ticket, it’s the bargain theatrical event of the year, and a story every Melburnian should know.

Authors & playwrights: Giordano Nanni and Andrea James
Title: Coranderrk, We Will Show the Country
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922059390
Source: personal library, purchased from La Mama Courthouse Theatre, $30

You can buy a copy of the book ($30) at the venue, or from Fishpond: Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country

Many thanks to Glenice Whitting for organising the jaunt!

Update August 13th 2016: To answer Bill’s question about what happened afterwards, you can’t do better than to visit Glenice’s blog:)

Gang of Three

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2016

Six degrees of separation, from Year of Wonders to….

I don’t always have time to contribute to Six Degrees of Separation, but inspired by Jenny (The Secret Son) Ackland and Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best, here goes:

We start with Geraldine Brooks’ best-selling debut that is still her best work IMO, Year of Wonders. As I’m sure many readers know, it was the story of how a small village coped with the arrival of the plague in the 17th century.

Quite different in style and preoccupations is The Plague by Albert Camus.  No, I haven’t reviewed it here at ANZ LitLovers, but I can certainly recommend it as a brilliant (and painless) introduction to French existentialism.

Also a painless example of French existentialism is Sartre’s The Age of Reason, which sounds heavy, but isn’t.  It’s the story of a rather hopeless bloke’s efforts to help his girl organise an abortion. He doesn’t have any money, so it’s a bit tricky for him, but no, The Modern Woman is unlikely to feel much sympathy for him.

On the subject of blokes The Modern Woman feels little sympathy for, I am still exercised by the narrator of In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar.  Maybe I expect too much of people living under totalitarian regimes, maybe I want to naively believe in the essential goodness of man, but I was deeply depressed by the cruelty of this narrator, child and adult.

That brings me to another book that’s a warning against totalitarianism: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.  I read it before I went to Russia and it made me understand why Russians were so proud of their hero cities.

A different kind of Russian heroism was on display in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It took courage just to write it because it shows how ordinary middle-class people were impacted by the Russian Revolution.

And that brings me to my final book, which I’m reading now.  It’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by the 2015 Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich.  It’s grim reading, depicting the harrowing years of the dissolution of the USSR from multiple points of view…

PS (later the same night) I have just realised that this is an #EpicFail for #WIT Women in Translation Month.  All but one of my five books are coincidentally translations, but only one is by a woman.  (And #duckingforcover she is the only woman author out of the lot!)


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