Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2020

Return Ticket, by John Doust

Return Ticket is the third and final book in Jon Doust’s searing trilogy One Boy’s Journey to Man.  Boy on a Wire (2009) is Book #1 of the series and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin  (see my review) and Book #2 is To The Highlands (2012, see my review).  The novels are semi-autobiographical, so they have an authentic rawness about them, tracing in Book #1 an unhappy boyhood despite a privileged background, and in Book #2 a disastrous sojourn in Papua Guinea.  In this third novel the protagonist Jack Muir goes farther afield, seeking a sense of contentment which seems to elude him wherever he goes.

The story shifts across time frames and countries as Jack takes off on a hippie trail, beginning in South Africa under apartheid in 1972 and then to Israel in 1973, finally coming home in 2018 to Kincannup (the Noongar name for Albany WA).  South Africa, not a place I would have associated with the hippie trail in the 1970s, turns out to be a choice more disconcerting than he had expected.  The drugs are good, and since his wealthy family are his financial backup, he has no real money worries, but the real life impact of apartheid appals him.

The Jan Smuts International Airport central hall was full of people all colours and shapes.  Except, of course, the departure queues — there were no black skins there.  All the non-white skins were standing around with brooms and buckets and cleaning, or readying themselves to clean up after the white skins, who made a mess in toilets, dropped lolly wrappers, newspapers, sodden handkerchiefs and even, Muir noticed in one corner, a smelly bundle that looked like a nappy. The whites were flying out and flying in, but the others were staying put, there to tidy up and even if they wanted to fly, there were no queues for them.  And air travel was for the wealthy.

Then he remembered he wasn’t.  Or hadn’t been. The difference between him and the handsome young man standing outside the male toilets with a mop, was that all Jack Muir had to do when he ran out of money was to call his father and ask him to send more. (p.51)

There is a devastating sequence when Jack is chatting with an acquaintance about his schooldays and the multicultural nature of Australian society.  He goes on to mention that there was one kid who was Aboriginal but if there were others, they didn’t say.  His South African companion is gobsmacked:

Didn’t say?  What kind of a country is that?  You have to say if you are Aboriginal?  Do you have to say if you are Greek?

Yeah, because you could be Italian, or Yugoslav, maybe even Lebanese.

No, no, no, you people have it all wrong.  Next you’ll be telling me you only knew the Jews were Jews because they said they were Jews,

Of course.

You mean, you don’t have race police coming to your house and taking hair samples and telling you who you are or what they want you to be? (p.36)

What makes this book unputdownable is the way despite the risks, Jack refuses to comply with apartheid laws.  In his first few days as a colourblind innocent, he found the rules confusing and is confronted by policeman who tells him to move away from the Zulu he is talking to.  If I move away, I won’t be able to hear what he says’ he replies…

In South Africa, said the fat cop, the only time white people talk to black people in the street is to tell them to do something and, if you refuse to move, I will have to take action against your person.

Against my person?  Which person is that?

The Zulu laughed so hard he bent over and held his face, but he also knew the danger and had begun walking away from the two men, one fat with a pistol on his hip and one wiry, with a small pocketknife hidden in a pocket. (p.14)

The reader holds her breath when Jack visits a friend in Soweto without a pass and refuses to hide as they drive along in the car.  He ignores the segregated queues in the post office and joins a parcel queue of non-whites despite remonstrations from the staff and a heavy-handed official.  But the strain of these encounters and his sense of disconnect about how a white skin is an automatic privilege he doesn’t want to have, takes him to Israel.

Israel is also not a place that I associate with the hippie trail, but for Jack, the attraction is the socialist lifestyle of the kibbutz.  Although (as he remarks ruefully later in the book) the nature of kibbutzim has changed, back in the 1970s they were utopian collective communities based on agriculture, where Israelis and international volunteers without pay worked to establish the food supply for Israel.  Jack is not a Zionist, but despite the dangers of the hostilities that bedevil the Middle East, the lifestyle suits him and he works in an obsessive way, seeking to assuage his guilt about his capitalist background.  He also falls in love, but this relationship like so many others in his life, is doomed to fail.

What I found most interesting about Jack’s journey to becoming a man was his inability to settle in any economy or society that offended him.  I’ve read a good many books set in oppressive regimes, from the USSR to China, but I don’t think I’ve read one before where the protagonist has such a profound distaste for a western capitalist state that he could not abide living in it.  He loathes the unfairness of the system, and is burdened by guilt because he is a beneficiary of it.  At the same time, he is also seeking love and contentment, and he takes the loss of the child he never knew very much to heart.  Friends he meets lighten his journey, and these vignettes show that his capacity to value people for who they are and not what they represent, is the key to him becoming a better man, a good father and a loyal friend.

An unforgettable book.

Author: Jon Doust
Title: Return Ticket
Cover design: Kolderal, ‘Man watching sunset over desert landscape’ Getty Images. 
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925816396, pbk., 264 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2020

Red Can Origami, by Madelaine Dickie

Madelaine Dickie is the West Australian author of the award-winning Troppo, which I read last year. Red Can Origami is her second novel, set closer to home in the fictional Kimberley town of Gubinge (actually an Indigenous name for the latest superfood, the Kakadu Plum).  Written on Balangarra country in the Kimberley and at Youkobo Art Space in Tokyo, it’s an ambitious novel, tackling the contentious issue of uranium mining on traditional lands, and pulling no punches when it comes to depicting the complexity of the situation.

The novel is narrated by Ava Kelly, an adventurous journalist from Melbourne who falls in love with the remote country and its way of life.  I didn’t like the choice of a second-person narration, I never do because I find it jarring.  However its use to address the reader has both a confessional aspect, when Ava questions her own behaviour, and also the effect of universalising the experience, as if the reader is also complicit in whatever is going on.

From the safety of the office it seemed kind of crazy, the idea that country can ‘watch’.  But out here…
Maybe you shouldn’t be here.
Maybe it’s time to go back.
Nah, you’re keen to find a pool clear and croc-free for a dip.  So you follow the creek’s curve up through stone, climbing waterfalls, until finally you come across a cave.  (p.12)

As it turns out, Ava is not the only person who has transgressed in this sacred place.

Before long, Ava is fed up with the lazy attitude of her editor, and she is embarrassed when her text is altered to make an Indigenous tragedy into tabloid fodder.  She’s previously spent time in Japan and is fluent in the language, so when the Japanese businessman Watanabe offers her the opportunity to work for the Gerro Blue mining company as a liaison officer, she takes it.  She wants to get ahead financially and the chance to work with Noah, the Indigenous Burrika man she fancies, is a bonus.  But working for ‘the dark side’ entails all kinds of ethical dilemmas.  She justifies it to herself and others by pointing out that if she didn’t take the job, someone else would.  However as the plot progresses, the ethical dilemmas she faces become more and more disconcerting when she finds she has to juggle severe penalties for breaching confidentiality against public safety.

Dickie shows that there are multiple perspectives at play when decisions like this one have to be made.  I’m not familiar with the complexities of native title and traditional ownership in different states of Australia, but in this novel, the traditional owners can negotiate terms of access to their land but not veto mineral exploration.* (See explanation below).  But in Gubinge, rival Indigenous groups are competing for the right to negotiate; and some are in favour of job creation while others don’t want their sacred places touched.  The Gubinge Greens and their out-of-town supporters think that the land (though inhabited by Indigenous people) should be protected as ‘pristine’ wilderness; and the townsfolk don’t think it’s fair that Indigenous people can make a decision that, in the case of uranium mining, could affect the safety of them all.  The Japanese company wants a profitable venture at the lowest cost; and is keen to suppress the damage they have caused with premature exploratory work.  And the government in far away Perth of course wants to encourage investment.  As you’d expect in a small place, things get personal.

For Ava, her relationship with Noah is personal too, complicated by his hostile ex-wife Katherine and his love for his children.  She has a carping mother who tries to make her feel guilty about being far from home, and she has a love-hate relationship with her flighty sister Imogen as well, particularly since Imogen seems to need frequent financial help and isn’t above poaching Ava’s boyfriends either.  But there are much nastier characters than Imogen, who’s really only thoughtless and immature.  The station owner nicknamed The White Namibian is a violent, racist man, but a good many conversations in the pub are racist as well.

Dickie is masterful at striking metaphors: Ava’s sister Imogen wears men down like high heels, grinds them until all you can hear is the sound of conflict, nail on cement. (p.146) OTOH she has an earthy style, reproducing the kind of language that our mothers wouldn’t like us to use.  As to the thorny issue of writing about Indigenous issues, she addressed this in the launch of the book:

Madelaine spoke of her anxiety of writing as a non-Aboriginal about Aboriginal matters. But issues like caring for country, climate change and mining affect us all and there’s space for different voices.  She agreed with author Steve Hawke that The important thing is to write with great respect, write well and with a good heart.  (John Hicks reporting on the launch at Madelaine Dickie’s blog.)

On her About page she also says the  Youkobo Artspace in Tokyo was courtesy of an Asialink residency, and while she was there she travelled through parts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear exclusion zone to witness first hand what a nuclear catastrophe looks like.

The title, and the enigmatic cover, refers to a WA brand of beer that comes in red cans, and the symbolism of 1000 Japanese origami cranes meaning hope and healing (at least, I think so).

*This issue about access for mining is true for all of us BTW. If some valuable mineral is found underneath your land, because it’s under the ground, you can’t stop the exploration but you can negotiate access to it across your land.  Nor do you own the resource that’s under your land. In Australia, coal, petroleum and mineral resources are generally the property of the Crown, rather than the landholder. [Which is why we should have an effective Minerals Resource Rent Tax on profits generated from mining.  What’s under the ground belongs to all of us, not to mining magnates or shareholders in mining companies.] In the case of onshore underground resources, the power to licence and regulate their development lies with the states. See here for general principles, and here for how it works in, e.g. NSW where access over significant improvements such as houses and gardens is denied unless the owner approves it.

There are book group notes at Fremantle Press and you can read a sample chapter here.

Author: Madelaine Dickie
Title: Red Can Origami
Cover design by Nadia Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925815504,pbk., 218 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from all good retailers and from Fremantle Press, including as an eBook.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, 1507, (Wikipedia)

Blaming women for anything that goes wrong has a long history.  In Judeo-Christian cultures it goes right back to Eve being responsible for the Fall of Man, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Not only does the God punish Eve more severely because she tempted Adam to disobey the command that forbade them to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil—he also sets her up to be under the patriarchal thumb for evermore:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (King James Bible, Genesis 3:16)

In countless depictions of this allegory by artists, (see Albrecht Dürer’s above) Eve is a saucy wench while Adam is depicted as a victim of her wiles.

Pandora, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881) (Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology there is the story of Pandora whose curiosity led her to open a jar mistranslated, (according to Wikipedia) as a box by Erasmus in the 16th century), thereby releasing all the evils that beset humanity.  When the Romans appropriated Greek mythology and made it their own, they appropriated Pandora too.  So you only have to spend a cursory amount of time among Roman writers (or Robert Graves’ I Claudius (1934) which I’m currently reading in a desultory sort of way) to find that women cause all the trouble — Livia Drusilla, for example, presiding as arch-villain over generations of Roman emperors, confirms the role of women as interfering, wilful, and handy with poison into the bargain.

From a feminist point-of-view, whenever people seek to vindicate God to answer the question of why a good God permits evil, (theodicy) women are at fault.  Both Eve and Pandora were the first women on Earth; and each is condemned for provoking the transition from a paradise of plenty and ease in eternity to a life of suffering, struggle and death.  Human misery is the punishment for woman’s transgression of divine law, and you can see all kinds of depictions of her perfidy in any number of Renaissance artworks.  All our fairy tales from the Snow Queen to Cinderella to the Sleeping Beauty show any woman with power to be misusing it, and the only way any other kind of woman can triumph is through the power of loving kindness. (And then all she gets as a reward is some prince lording it over her instead).  In the Middle Ages, any woman who knew anything about herbalism was promptly burned as a witch if anything terrible happened, and the modern tragedy of burning and disfiguring women in places like India is just one example for how blaming the woman persists to the present day.

Calon Arang as portrayed by Bulantrisna Djelantik at the Satua Calonarang performance by the AyuBulan Legong Dance Group, 2016

So it comes as no surprise to find that there is a version of Blame the Woman from 12th Balinese and Javanese folklore.  Wikipedia tells us that Calon Arang was a witch and a master of black magic.  This is the WP summary of the story:

In the village of Girah in the Kediri Kingdom long ago, in what is now Indonesia, there lived a very cruel widow named Calon Arang, a witch, a black magician. She had a beautiful daughter named Ratna Manggali. But because of her ruthless nature, the people of Girah are afraid of Calon Arang, and Ratna Manggali had no suitors. Knowing this, Calon Arang became angry, holding all of the people in the village responsible. She decided to place a curse on Girah, so she performed a dark ceremony in the cemetery, offering the sacrifice of a young girl to the Goddess Durga. And Durga came down and granted the request of Calon Arang: the curse came true. A flood engulfed the village, and many people died. Afterwards, many of the survivors became very sick with an illness for which there was no cure.

Word of this finally reached the Kediri King, Erlangga, at the Royal Palace. After learning about the evil actions of Calon Arang, King Erlangga sent his army to Girah to kill her, but she was too powerful. The army had to retreat, and many of the king’s soldiers were killed.

After days of pondering the situation, King Erlangga asked his advisor, Empu Bharadah, for help. Empu Bharadah sent his disciple Empu Bahula to Calon Arang to ask for the hand of Ratna Manggali. The marriage proposal was accepted and Bahula and Ratna Manggali were married in a ceremony that lasted for seven days and seven nights. The celebration pleased Calon Arang very much. Ratna Manggali and Bahula were also very happy. They greatly loved and respected each other.

From Ratna Manggali, Bahula learned that Calon Arang kept a magic scroll and performed ceremonies in the cemetery each night. So, at midnight, Bahula went to the place where Calon Arang lived. Calon Arang slept very deeply because of the seven days and seven nights of partying during her daughter’s wedding. Bahula succeeded in stealing Calon Arang’s magic scroll, returned to Empu Bharadah, and told him all about Calon Arang’s magic and ceremonies. Empu Bharada told Bahula to go back to Girah before he was caught by his mother-in-law.

Bahula invited his master, Empu Bharadah, to visit him in Girah. Empu Bharadah and Calon Arang met in the Girah village cemetery. Bharadah asked Calon Arang to stop practicing her evil magic because it caused so much misery among the people. But Calon Arang would not listen to Empu Bharadah, and, eventually, there was a great battle between them. Because Calon Arang didn’t have the magic scroll, she could not beat Empu Bharadah, and she was finally killed.

When Ratna Manggali found out that her mother had died, she wept, for despite Calon Arang’s evil, she had always been good to her daughter. Eventually, however, Ratna Manggali realized that her mother’s death was for the best. Since then, the village of Girah has been happy and safe and secure.  (Wikipedia, viewed 18/1/2020)

Indonesia’s most eminent author Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote a children’s edition in 1951.  As far as I can make out from the description of the Indonesian edition at Goodreads and from one of the reviews, Toer’s story offers a limited form of redemption for Calan Arang. This is Google Translate’s version of the Indonesian blurb of Toer’s Dongeng Calan Arang which I share as an example of how, while Google Translate has its uses, it should never be relied upon if the translation really matters.  In this instance, the pronoun dia which can mean he or she is mistranslated as masculine.

The story of Candidate Charcoal Calon Arang tells the life of an evil old woman. The owner of black eggs and human bloodsuckers. He She is arrogant. All his her political opponents were cut down. Who criticizes the end. He She likes to persecute fellow human beings, kill, seize and hurt. He She has a lot of magic to kill people … his her students are forced to wash with human blood. When they are partying, they are like a pack of wild animals, afraid that people will see it.

But this crime can eventually be crushed in the hands of the lines of goodness in an integrated opera operation [i.e. a stratagem or a plot] led by Empu Bharadah. This master can restore the lives of people who are struggling to the right path so that life can be better and calmer, not playing games of all kinds of evil.

A reader of this version, Indu Jamtani really liked it, and writing her review* for Goodreads in English, tells us that:

…There are few things to take from this book, like no matter how evil, how power hunger a woman is, if she is a mother, she will always be a mother, hurt when her daughter was done wrong to. Calon Arang (the witch) got really mad when nobody wanted to marry her daughter and thus her curse began.
In it was also shown how one thing written could be use as evil or good depends on the beholder. That everything we know, we learnt have two sides of it, it is upon us which side we chose to act upon.
The other point I took was that when an evil person dies evil, his/her death will never mean anything, but if at the end of life he/she could be purified, then maybe, perhaps, at least in death he/she would mean something to mankind.“ Every good teaching may still end up producing evil bandits who have no principles whatsoever, an outcome even more likely when the teacher is also a bandit.”-Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Cover art: detail from ‘Misogyny and Patriarchy’ by Sri Haryani

So, after all that introduction—phew! we come to feminist author Toeti Heraty’s interpretation, which I am reading with my Indonesian book group.  It’s titled Calon Arang, The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy.  This is the blurb from Goodreads, which I wrote, because there wasn’t a description of the book either for the Indonesian edition or the English one.

First published in Indonesian in 2000, followed by this 2006 English edition in lyrical prose, Toeti Heraty, professor of philosophy at the University of Indonesia, retells the ancient story of the witch Calon Arang from 12th century Balinese and Javanese folklore.

Inspired by the work of photographer Rio Helmi who described Calon Arang as an old woman in sorrow, Heraty’s version asks the question: ‘Do you know what it means to be a widow, what it means to be old?’

Written at a time of massive changes in Indonesia, when gender roles and the disproportionate power of men were being questioned, Calong Arang explores the injustices inflicted upon women by relating the old story to the realities of modern society.

This English edition is beautifully illustrated with cover art by Sri Haryani and paintings to accompany each poem by various Indonesian artists, curated for this edition by Sarita Newson.

The Introduction is by freelance journalist for culture and contemporary art, Carla Bianpoen.  There is a brief retelling of the original story, and then an explanation of the origin of Heraty’s contemporary retelling.  A libretto for a dance performance which premiered in New York, was based on Willem Samuel’s English translation of Toer’s version, The King’s Witch, and it used Heraty’s lyrical prose to present a woman’s voice for the first time.  From this feminist perspective Calon Arang was a threat to the King’s authority and she was therefore made a scapegoat for all disasters that befell the kingdom.  This interpretation is reinforced by the work of Balinese journalist, novelist, playwright, poet, and activist Cok Sawitri, who, through access to sacred lontar scripts, says that Calon Arang in these ancient versions of the story was a priestess whose only intention was to spread the spirit of peace.  Presenting her as an evil character is just slander…

Heraty at the outset presents a Calon Arang in distress, accompanied by a striking artwork called ‘Anti-Pornography’.  I wish I could show this powerful painting but copyright must prevail: it depicts a woman in deep distress, on her knees and head bowed before an encroaching sea of red.  ‘Bali’s Queen of Evil’ is just an old women/a crone with anger overflowing. 

Her story begins with an outbreak of fear
spreading though a village called Dirah
the widow, Calon Arang, her magical powers
so feared, nobody dared to court
her beautiful daughter Ratna Manggali,
so angry the widow
so shamed the widow
Calon Arang in never-ending fury
spits fiery devastation
from eyes, nose, mouth and ears.  (p.1)

The tone changes in Chapter II: ‘The ‘Wicked Witch’ — a Literary Version’.  History is not as simple as that/because we need scholars, who study/at Gajah Mada University, writing theses.  Scholars analysing this myth have earned doctorates and the title of ‘philologist’ but none have explored beyond the tale, it’s as if she, the widow, had no life story. 

The text goes on to describe the humiliation of women’s reproductive biology being hidden in shame, and the loneliness of widowhood.  Calon Arang hopes that even if she is denied love, her daughter will be spared that emptiness, and when that does not happen the widow enacts a gruesome revenge. And the narrator sardonically admires…

mankind’s creativity, crafting
a convincing legend, laden with hidden meaning
designed to protect male hunger for power
hatred and vengeance
against one fearful woman.  (p.9)

The next chapter is titled ‘Misogyny and Patriarchy’ and it’s accompanied by the painting of the same name on the cover.   The tone is angry, expressing ideas about how male envy and fear of women seek to enfeeble women (ideas which feminists who’ve read Germaine Greer will recognise from The Female Eunuch). But Calon Arang is not just a feminist retelling of an ancient myth: it also exposes how the King’s envoy to Bali is symbolic of contemporary nepotism and Javanese domination of the archipelago — in Papua, in Dili and in Aceh.

An aspect of the artwork that strikes me, is how different it is to the paintings offered to tourists in Indonesia.  You don’t have to be in Bali for long, to realise that almost everything you see is a copy of the same artwork.  A visit to an ‘art studio’ is a frustrating experience because what you see is ‘artists’ churning out multiple copies.  It’s like watching children do colouring in, and there’s nothing creative about it. But the original paintings in this book derive from Indonesian myths and legends and expressions of contemporary ideas in the diverse ways that European art depicts religious stories, classical myths and contemporary life: the book showcases a variety of styles and techniques which make it worthwhile for the paintings alone.  For example, there’s a wonderful painting in a style somewhat reminiscent of Grace Cossington Smith‘s squarish daubs of paint in subdued colours from the yellow end of the spectrum: titled ‘The Treachery of a Daughter’, it’s by I.G.P.A. Mirah Rahmawati.  It depicts Calon Arang’s daughter seduced as part of the King’s strategy, unaware that her betrayal enables the theft of her mother’s book of magic, which gives the priest the power to kill her.  But the painting has a contemporary resonance too, representing an aspect of life in a country in transition from tradition to modernity.  The faces of the women also show with cruel clarity the way that young people wholly absorbed in their passion sometimes cast aside the love of their parents and reject their advice, something unthinkable in traditional society.  (A theme also explored in The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja, see my review).

From page 29 onwards, the text diverges from the myth, to Heraty’s observations on contemporary issues.  She comments on how holy books are misused to reinforce male power; how as part of the rituals of courting, women are targeted as consumers of beauty products; how legitimacy seeks its authority in ancient texts but is used to prop up corruption in the bureaucracy; how there are family planning measures to control Indonesia’s burgeoning population but it is the wife who is pursued and hounded; and how a woman’s right to sexual pleasure is denied through genital mutilation in some countries — and it is older women who perpetrate it determined to transform each girl into a perfect offering to her partner. 

She goes on to comment on ‘The Backlash of Feminism’:

A ferocious undertow is dragging
women back down in so many clever ways, to
torture themselves with the demands of tradition
or follow the trends, fashion, making them
targets of advertising condemned to uphold
the myths of beauty.

This backlash is relentless, particularly among the elite
who depend upon media, art, and fashion for celebrity.  (p.44)

The artwork for this page is brilliant: a cartoonish young woman in a mini skirt, with green hair and a tattooed ankle and belly, has arms bedecked with shopping bags, and a mobile phone to her ear plus a cigarette clutched by fake talons.  Dwarfed by this representation of womanhood are three small figures of women in traditional kebaya and sarong, resolutely walking away from her—except for one who turns back with a look of profound distaste and a speech balloon conveying an explosion of anger.

Once more, enmity between mother and daughter
that so often emerges during adolescence
while susceptible to violence and drugs
when other teenage girls are having adventures
yet it is clear, none of them wish to
be trapped and repeat their mother’s fate. (p.47)

Heraty’s interpretation of this ancient tale ends on an optimistic note: the emergence of ‘female bonding’ and networking is beginning to replace the female rivalry which for so long has hampered the progress of women.

The book concludes with Afterwords and an explanation about the artworks:

  • by academic Karlina Supeli who explains how the text is used in contrast with Pramoedya’s version as part of the Women’s Discourse segment of a philosophy course;
  • by Sydney academic Keith Foulcher, who analyses the absence of women’s voices in Indonesian literary history and Toeti Heraty’s pioneering role in placing women’s experience and a female perspective on male-female relationships at the heart of literary developments beginning in the 1960s and spanning three decades; and
  • by art curator Sarita Newson, who provides details about the artists and how the artworks interpret the texts.

It will be interesting to discuss this book with the book group!

* Used by permission from Indu.

Image credits:

Author: Toeti Heraty
Title: Calon Arang, The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy
Translated from the Indonesian by Iwan Mucipto Moeliono and Kadek Krishna Adidharma
Cover painting by Sri Haryani, internal illustrations, various, see pp 61-71
Publisher: Saritaksu Editions (Bali) and Galeri Cemara (Jakarta), 2006, 71 pages
ISBN: 9789799697592, hbk.
Source: On loan from my Indonesian bookgroup.  The book seems to be impossible to source from within Australia.

As the translator Isobel Grave explains in the Preface, Vincenzo Cerami (1940-2013) was an Italian novelist, poet and screenwriter, best known internationally for his 1998 film Life Is Beautiful.  But in Italy, it was his first novel, Un borghese piccolo piccolo, published in 1976 that brought him instant acclaim.  Within a year, it was made into a successful film, and it was subsequently translated into multiple languages.  But not into English.  For that, we had to wait almost forty years—until professional translator and interpreter Isobel Grave was appointed Cassamarca lecturer in Italian language and literature at the University of South Australia, and for the South Australian indie publisher Wakefield Press to publish Grave’s translation as A Very Normal Man in 2015.

Although this trailer is in Italian, it’s worth taking a quick look at it to see Cerami’s comic touch in the scenes where the central character Giovannia Vivaldi joins the Masons and, using secret signs, tries to convey his membership to those who matter.  But the trailer does not convey the horror that descends in the second half of the story.

For, if Giovanni is indeed an ordinary little middle-class man, the world is in trouble.  When the book opens, he is a public servant in Rome, anticipating not just his retirement (with pension attached) but also his only son Mario’s advancement into his vacated place.  To secure this appointment requires some manipulation of the system, but Giovanni knows who to ask, and all goes well.


But on the day that should have been the happiest of Giovanni’s life, Mario is gunned down in the aftermath of a robbery.  Giovanni witnessed this dreadful scene, and to add to his grief his wife subsequently has a stroke and—entirely dependent on her husband—becomes a silent witness to Giovanni’s confession about what he has done.  Able only to flash morse-code messages with her eyes, she is trapped with a man whose belief in the revenge he is entitled to enact, knows no boundaries.  For when he gets the opportunity to identify the gunman in a police line-up, he says nothing.  He follows the man, and exacts his own terrible vengeance.  This revenge involves many days of gruesome torture which—although economically portrayed—is sickening to read.

The reader who presses on on to see how Cerami resolves this situation, will be disappointed.  This is a story of the 1970s Italy we used to hear about from afar: corruption at all levels of society and violent unpunished crime.  Cerami portrays the participation of the petty bourgeois (borghese piccolo) in this world with black humour and savagery.

This theme of vengeance reminded me of Hell’s Gate, by Laurent Gaudé, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce. (See my review).  Also set in Italy, it tells of parents driven mad by grief and explores their different attitudes to taking vengeance when the justice system fails.

That witty cover design is by Liz Nicholson from designBITE.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it too.

Author: Vincenzo Cerami
Title: A Very Normal Man 
Translator: Isobel Grave
Publisher: Wakefield Press South Australia, 2015, first published as Un Borghese piccolo piccolo, 1976, 117 pages
ISBN: 9781743053713
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2020

Life According to Literature Tag

Here’s a bit of fun—a meme from Brona at Brona’s Books

THE RULES: Using only books you have read during the year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. Let Brona (and me) know, if you’ve joined in too. (Links go to my reviews.)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2020

Sugar Heaven, by Jean Devanny

Last week there was a substantial donation from an Australian mining magnate to the bushfire relief effort.  While all donations are much needed, reactions varied, from approval of the philanthropic gesture, to outrage that our economic system enables an individual to be in a position to give away $70 million.   I myself was stunned, that in my lifetime, the society I live in has shifted so far away from the egalitarian Australia of my youth that such extremes of wealth exist here.  And I wondered what kind of person had all that money to spare but in the period before the fires didn’t think of donating that $70 million to redress poverty and disadvantage in our society.

Update 20/1/10 And then there’s this news from the Oxfam report about inequality in Australia and how our billionaires are getting even richer.

Jean Devanny c 1949 (Wikipedia*)

My dismay about how this donation dramatically symbolises how unfair our society has become, coincides with my reading of Sugar Heaven (1936) by Jean Devanny, (1894-1962) described by Editor Nicole Moore in the Introduction as:

…a revolutionary Communist, novelist, feminist, prodigious platform agitator, birth control activist and eugenicist, travel writer, mother, party worker and theorist of the family and ‘the sex life’.  (p.8)

Devanny’s words in chapter 28 are prophetic of today’s mindset, though I doubt that she intended it that way:

The Inspector swelled with indignation.  ‘Don’t come here with your lies.  You take my advice and forget all about this Communism rubbish.  Where do you think it will get you, anyhow? When you’re old men with beards the people will point you out in the street and say, ‘Yes, he was a great old fighter but look at him now.  No use to us.’ You take my advice and try individualism.  Get what you can out of life without bothering about the other fellow.’  (p.212)

According to Jean-François Vernay, in The Great Australian Novel—a Panorama, Devanny’s 11th novel Sugar Heaven belongs in the company of other Australian socialist realist novels:

Imported from the Soviet Union where it originated under the pen of Andreï Zhdanov, socialist realism, fashionable in Australian in the 1940s and 1950s, can be defined as a form of neutral expression — that tries to describe ordinary people.  As an aesthetic theory that has art as a form of social conscience, socialist realism transcends the writer’s individualism, speaks of the people and reproduces historical reality. The Battlers (1941, see my review), Kylie Tennant’s third novel, has documentary value and is perhaps one of the most moving in its description of rejects from the Great War.  This was a period for the proletarian novel with titles such as Upsurge (1943) by John Harcourt, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934, see my review) by Christina Stead, Sugar Heaven (1936) by Jean Devanny, Intimate Strangers (1937, on my TBR) by Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Little Company (1945, see my review) by Eleanor Dark, How Beautiful Are Thy Feet (1949) by Alan Marshall, and Power without Glory (1950) by Frank Hardy.

Jean-François Vernay, The Great Australian Novel—a Panorama (2010), Brolga Publishing, ISBN 9781921596391, p 63)

Cover of the 2002 scholarly edition, see * below re copyright over the first edition cover

Devanny’s novel of Queensland sugar cane country is quintessentially Australian, but she was from New Zealand.  Born Jane Crook in Collingwood in the Nelson Region (South Island), she came from a working class rural family with strong politics, an alcoholic father and a penchant for intensity and artistic expression.  She migrated to Australia in 1929 when she was in her middle thirties, and ended up in Townsville in Queensland where she died aged 68.  Despite some efforts to revive her place in literary history—not the least of which is the 2002 scholarly edition that I’ve just read—Devanny remains little-known today and interested readers will have to do what I did and seek out second-hand copies of her work.

I first heard of Devanny from Jean-François Vernay’s  A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (see here) but I’d forgotten all about that by the time I came across an allusion to her in Kristina Olsson’s Shell where she features as one of a number of forgotten women writers (see here).  I don’t think that Devanny is mentioned in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library (see here) but (annoyingly) his plea for the rescue of Australia’s forgotten literary achievement isn’t indexed so I can’t be sure.  Somewhat acerbically, academic Carole Ferrier remarks in her essay in this scholarly edition that predictably, Devanny isn’t mentioned in the Oxford History of Australian Literature (which I don’t have) and I didn’t find her in Geoffrey Dutton’s The Literature of Australia either, but there is a brief profile and Chapter 4 of Sugar Heaven excerpted in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009 edition).

Devanny herself claimed that Sugar Heaven is the first really proletarian novel in Australia so (as Nicole Moore says in the Introduction) it has historical value.  But does it stand up as a novel that 21st century readers might want to read in its own right?  Well, I found it hard work.  Plodding on with it felt like reading those books you ‘had to read’ for study purposes.  There are elements of it that are interesting, but a lot of it was dull. To balance my opinion, it’s worth sharing what Moore has to say:

Sugar Heaven’s vision of the working lives of rural Australians is a counter to many white nationalist myths about Australia’s past.  Its real success is to realise a utopian, international genre through a regional industrial conflict, at the same time as challenging white Australian certainties about women, race relations, sexuality, community and domestic life. It is a communist book in love with North Queensland, with a strongly internationalist vision for enriching workers’ lives.  It is perhaps ironic, then, to republish Sugar Heaven for its historical interest, as an act towards sustaining a diverse national culture.

The novel’s interest in the emotional details of working class life appeals most to me. Without this, its formal achievements and regional setting wouldn’t make it into a novel; wouldn’t let us into other lives. (p.8)

Alas, I found the emotional details almost as wearying as the way events and dialogue are structured to ‘educate’ the reader about the political agenda.  Sugar Heaven tells the story of the 1936 cane cutters strike through the prism of Dulcie’s political awakening, which, a-hem, does not merely coincide with her sexual awakening, but is actually the catalyst for it.  Dulcie is an ignorant young woman who married to escape the drudgery of menial work, and regrets it when Hefty Lee takes her up to Queensland’s sugar cane country to live in a shabby shack while he does seasonal work.  She is conservative in the way that many ignorant people are, and she dislikes the camaraderie of the town and fights with him over his support for the strike.

But lo! Dulcie eventually has her political awakening, gets into bed with Hefty with more enthusiasm, and along with Hefty’s ex-wife Eileen (who’d run off with Hefty’s brother Bill Lee), she comes to see a role for women that is meaningful and significant.  Amazingly, considering how ignorant she is, she realises that the strike fails because of poor organisation and is recognised by the male leadeship as having an important role to play, not only in educating women but also in strategic management of future strikes.

Readers interested in industrial history may enjoy the portrayal of this strike, though for my money you can find information about that more succinctly at Solidarity or the Queensland Historical Atlas.  OTOH Devanny’s fictionalised account has authenticity because she was there on the ground during the strike.  The issue at stake was the burning of the cane to protect the cane cutters from Weil’s disease which is spread by rats. From what is portrayed in the book, the strike seems to have been sabotaged by competing interests: the farmers who obviously want their cane cut before it rots; the AWU (the Australian Workers Union) who want arbitration not wildcat strikes; the Labor Party in government who want a functioning economy as the country recovers from the Depression; colonial owners and investors i.e. CSR (the Colonial Sugar Company) who care only about profit; the mill hands who can’t work if the cane isn’t cut; the ‘volunteers’ i.e. scabs who just want work rather than being on the Susso; and the women, who want food on the table for their families.

Jean Devanny (1935) with sugar cane workers (Source: Red the Book)

The strike fails when unity between the mill hands and the cane cutters fails and the engine drivers go back to work too.  This makes the strike untenable but there are consequences beyond that. There is victimisation of the leadership and the remnant militants are urged to get their jobs back if they can rather than let them go to scabs —because it’s important to build their organisation for the future.  The cutters are told that although they have lost the strike, they’ve won because of what they’ve learned (e.g. about how picket lines need to be managed in future) and because so many people have changed their way of thinking.  This positive talk about the failed strike is a lot like what we would recognise as ‘spin’.  The book concludes with Dulcie saying that working men and women are the ‘people of the world’.  They don’t get written about except as adjuncts, but they are actually of ‘most account’.  The essay by Devanny that follows the novel develops this idea of ‘worker’s literature’ further.

Side issues that also have historical interest include the love affair between Eileen the ex-wife and an Italian called Tony.  This is depicted through the prism of the workers’ progressive stance towards ethnic minorities.  The AWU (like the rest of Australia) wanted a British Preferred workforce, but the cutters are in solidarity with other workers wherever they come from because of the internationalist stance of communism as a worldwide movement.  OTOH Eileen’s passion for her lover is at odds with the puritanism of Stalin’s desire for communism to be seen as respectable.  Eileen is at risk of having her application to join the party rejected because the Reds want to assert the noble ideal of loyal Soviet womanhood.  The local apparatchiks need the support of women in the town and Eileen’s scandalous behaviour invites their disapproval.

Discussing erotic aspects of the novel, this edition includes an essay by Amanda Lohrey, who is badged in the Introduction as a contemporary reader of the novel…

… whose own novels The Reading Group and The Morality of Gentlemen are significant examples of Australian fiction about working life and industrial conflict, themselves imbued with theoretical questions about how to write about politics.  Writing for this edition, Lohrey talks about her first encounter with Sugar Heaven as a ‘revelation’ in its vitality and generosity of spirit.  Specifically she focusses on what she terms ‘its singular erotic charge’, as a novel about sexuality and relationships.  (p.11)

Actually, I found the novel rather coy, but think this just means I’ve got used to more explicit sexuality in literature.  Whereas I usually *yawn* skip sex scenes, I found myself rereading the ones in Sugar Heaven to try to work out whether they did or they didn’t, and I assume this coyness was intended to avoid the censor’s attention.  Devanny, as a banned writer both in New Zealand and in Australia, gets a fair bit of page space in Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library (see my review).  In the chapter titled ‘Sedition’s Fiction’ (and elsewhere) the banning is ostensibly for being sexually explicit but was really also because of its politics.  The Censor’s Library doesn’t mention Sugar Heaven so perhaps The Butcher’s Shop and Devanny’s other titles were racier. (I say this because The Censor’s Library was published in 2012, a decade after Moore edited Sugar Heaven, so I think we can assume that she had read Sugar Heaven but chose not to discuss it explicitly in The Censor’s Library).

It is not until page 216 that there is any explanation of why the AWU is hostile to the strike.  A farmer’s wife explains it to Dulcie and Eileen: it’s because the AWU, the government and the arbitration courts work together and aim to control extreme elements (i.e. the Communists) in order to retain the support of moderate producers and businessmen.  This unnamed woman also tells Dulcie that the AWU and the government have used the farmers to fight out a domestic quarrel for them.  However, this interpretation of events is not there for ‘balance’.  It’s included so that Dulcie and Eileen both recognise that this woman walked all over them because they had no arguments to counter what she says.  That is not, thinks Dulcie, because there are no arguments.  It’s because she needs to educate herself about the cause.  And not from husband Hefty, who is ‘only a militant’ i.e. concerned with the immediate issue, but from others who can educate her about the world movement.  Eileen has an epiphany too: she exhorts Dulcie to have love ‘for the class’ and not to let love for an individual man get in the way of that.

Even readers with a good vocabulary will need a dictionary to deal with words that suggest over-enthusiastic use of a thesaurus:

  • The most militant among them hopped about and exchanged perfervid argument with the opposition forces. (p.104)
  • Her skin prickled with a recrudescence of her hostile attitude… (p.107)
  • She tried but could not succeed in analysing her own moral obliquity. (p.122)
  • The rashness of her action was lost in the pearl-encinctured mists of her infatuation. (p.127)
  • The sergeant was hortatory. (p.151)

Devanny herself was poorly educated and presumably she was writing for a working class audience that most likely left school at 14, so it’s a bit puzzling that she seems to have gone out of her way to use this type of vocabulary.  And sometimes it misfires: there are some awkward Kath-and-Kim moments —such as Dulcie exclaiming that she didn’t that have the filmiest [flimsiest] notion but wants to try.  The editors explain that they have chosen to retain idiosyncratic spelling such as dont, cant, &c without their apostrophes for reasons of authenticity, and this is a scholarly edition, so ‘filmiest’ is unlikely to be a typo.

For those interested there is biography called Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary (Melbourne UP) by Carole Ferrier, who also contributes an essay in this edition.

To see a piece of Jean Devanny’s journalism, click here for an article about Torres Strait Islanders working in the pearling industry, in The Tribune.

*Re the absence of an image of the first edition: for some reason, the Queensland Historical Atlas in 2013 appears to have claimed copyright on the cover of Sugar Heaven so if you want to see it, you have to visit here — where you can see that they have not paid due respect to the publisher by providing any details about which edition it is.  Why anyone would want to bury it there and prevent its reuse by those who have an interest in the work of Jean Devanny I can’t imagine, and on what basis they claim copyright to this cover I do not know.  The book gets a mention on their Cane fields and solidarity in the multiethnic north page where like all the other images it is plastered with their watermark.  (As a side issue, I took a quick look at their theme of how conflict impacts on the land, and it won’t surprise you to learn that massacres of Indigenous people doesn’t get a mention).   *sigh* Queensland, it sure is different…

Image credit:

  • Jean Devanny portrait: – Tribune (Sydney), National Library of Australia via
  • Jean Devanny with sugar cane workers, from Red, the Book, 1940 — the Ds, the caption there reads: Jean Devanny with cane workers, Mourilyan, 1935, when two thousand cane cutters across north Queensland (most of them from Italy and Yugoslavia) and mill hands (mostly Anglo/Celtic) united to strike for two months. Their claim was that, to prevent further outbreaks of Weil’s disease, the cane should be burnt before it was cut. This book, Red by Stephen Moline, looks fascinating, and Bayside Library has a copy, alas in deep storage till mid 2020 because they are renovating the library, but as soon as it’s available, I’ll be checking it out.

Author: Jean Devanney (1894-1962)
Title: Sugar Heaven, a new scholarly edition
Edited by Nicole Moore, with contributions from Carole Ferrier and Amanda Lohrey
Publisher: The Vulgar Press, 2002
ISBN: 9780958079402, pbk,. 283 pages
Source: Personal library, autographed by Carole Ferrier

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2020

2020 Indie Book Awards shortlists

These are the shortlists for the 2020 Indie Book Awards for the best Australian books published in 2019.


  • There Was Still Love (Favel Parrett, Hachette)
  • Bruny (Heather Rose, A&U)
  • The Wife and the Widow (Christian White, Affirm)
  • The Weekend (Charlotte Wood, A&U)

Hmm.  Let’s take another look at the longlist, announced in December:



  • Your Own Kind of Girl (Clare Bowditch, A&U), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
  • 488 Rules for Life: The thankless art of being correct (Kitty Flanagan, A&U)
  • Tell Me Why (Archie Roach, S&S)
  • Sand Talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world (Tyson Yunkaporta, Text)

I went to the session about Sand talk at the Non Fiction festival in Geelong and started the book when I got home, but it lost me in the Introduction.  I might have another go at it during 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, or I might not, depending on my tolerance for rambling at the time. I haven’t read any of the others, and don’t want to.

Debut fiction

  • Wearing Paper Dresses (Anne Brinsden, Macmillan)
  • Allegra in Three Parts (Suzanne Daniel, Macmillan), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
  • The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone (Felicity McLean, Fourth Estate)
  • Heart of the Grass Tree (Molly Murn, Vintage)

Illustrated nonfiction

  • The Lost Boys (Paul Byrnes, Affirm)
  • Finding the Heart of the Nation (Thomas Mayor, Hardie Grant)
  • The Whole Fish Cookbook (Josh Niland, Hardie Grant)
  • In an Australian Light (ed by Jo Turner, Thames & Hudson)

Young adult

  • The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling (Wai Chim, A&U)
  • Aurora Rising: The Aurora Cycle 1 (Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff, A&U)
  • It Sounded Better in My Head (Nina Kenwood, Text)
  • Monuments (Will Kostakis, Lothian)


  • The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals (Sami Bayly, Lothian)
  • Into the Wild: Wolf Girl Book 1 (Anh Do, illus by Jeremy Ley, A&U)
  • The Tiny Star (Mem Fox, illus by Freya Blackwood, Puffin)
  • Young Dark Emu: A truer history (Bruce Pascoe, Magabala).  Update: I’ve read the adult version of this and am pleased to see a junior edition of it.

The winners will be announced on 23 March at the 2020 Leading Edge Books conference in Brisbane.  For more information about the awards, visit the website.


This novella has been widely reviewed and was nominated for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I am indebted to Tony from Tony’s Book World for his recommendation.

It’s a melancholy book, one that only reinforces my view that societies need to be vigilant about countering anything that fosters the dehumanisation of The Other.  Whether it’s the Rohinga in Burma, or using drones to kill enemies in an undeclared war, or closer to home on Manus Island, we need to guard against desensitising Everyman to the humanity of others.  A Meal in Winter shows you what happens if you turn a blind eye.

Narrated by a German soldier during what is obviously WW2 in Poland, the story traces the day when he and his two mates Bauer and Emmerich go out hunting.  In an ironic nod to the beginning of Solzenhitzen’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the day begins with reveille outside in the snow.  But unlike the men in the Soviet gulag, the men who yearn to stay indoors are not inmates in flimsy clothing leaving icy barracks where the frost lies inches thick on the windowpanes.  No.  These men are warm inside, and they have boots and scarves and gloves and woollen balaclavas to wear outside.  They are perpetrators.

From their point of view, there is no need for the daily briefing to take place out in the bitter weather.  They are irritated by their Lieutenant Graaf who indulges his own sense of self-importance by unnecessary displays of power. So they dawdle their way outside, contemptuous of their fellow soldiers who’ve had to wait for them in the freezing conditions.  And as soon as Graaf’s back is turned, they override his authority by visiting the Commander…

This detachment has the job of hunting out Jews and shooting them, but although anyone reading the book knows this from the blurb, (and hopefully from their knowledge of history) the nature of the ‘work’ is not revealed till later in the story.  The tone of the narration is so blasé that some readers may possibly think that the hunt is for animals, perhaps to eat.  However, this illusion is dispelled once the soldier reveals his reason for wanting to go out on the hunt.  Graaf tells them that will be more ‘arrivals’ later that day and that their company would be ‘taking care of them in the morning.’  The narrator is at first sanguine:

I had the same thought as everyone else: is that all?  Couldn’t he have told us that inside?’ (p.5)

But then he goes on to say that some of the soldiers could be expected to ‘report sick’ rather than show up for duty in the morning, and there would be more of these if there were many ‘arrivals’. And he tells us that they are feeling the pressure of the work they’ll have to do, especially Emmerich.

They tell all this to the Commander who is visibly distraught due to his role in the ‘work’ but the narrator’s main concern is that he should continue being there, lest they end up with a new and less understanding Commander, or worse, with Graaf in charge.

We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings.  We told him we didn’t like the shootings: that doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night.  When we woke in the morning, we felt down as soon as we started thinking about it, and if it went on like this, soon we wouldn’t be able to stand it at all — and if it ended up making us ill we’d be no use to anybody.’ (p. 8)

At this stage what is being hunted and killed has still not been named. The reader has been reminded that as soldiers they have ‘no choice’ — they have to ‘obey orders’ — and there has been an ironic attempt to enlist sympathy by stating that it took courage to go out in weather like that.  The reader knows that it is a different kind of courage that is needed…

So.  They set off on their way, cold and hungry because they skipped breakfast rather than run the risk of Graaf’s intervention.  Their search is desultory and it is not until it dawns on them that they might be able to wangle another day away from the shooting if they find someone, that they head towards the forest, the only place they had a chance of surviving, and we of finding them.

And (as it tells us in the blurb) they do find someone, and when they take shelter in an abandoned house, a Pole turns up, wanting to share their meal.  In contrast to their indifference to the humanity of their captive, he is virulently anti-Semitic, generating the only tension in the otherwise detached tone of the narrative.  For them, ‘hunting’ is a job to be done.  There’s no real malice in it, merely indifference, and it relieves their sense of disquiet about the shootings.  They find the Pole’s loathing for the (nameless) Jew disconcerting, and in an ironic inversion of the ways we have seen Germans bait vulnerable Jews in movies, they bait this Pole in various humiliating ways.  But they’re not doing it to take the moral high ground.  Not at all.

It is only during the meal that they give any consideration to letting the Jew go.  Emmerich’s reason is chilling, and especially so because he has been depicted as the sensitive one.  But it’s not pity, or recognition of the young man’s humanity or any moral compulsion about the evil they’re complicit in… it’s because it would make them feel better.

…Bauer stared into the saucepan as if he were reading something, and said, ‘Why should he go back to his hole?  We went to so much trouble. We left without eating breakfast.  We froze our balls off.  What was the point of it all?’

Emmerich took his time lighting his cigarette.  The he leaned across so he could see us both, Bauer and me.

‘The point is, at least we’d have done it once.’

He took a drag on his cigarette.  He drummed on the table. He fidgeted like crazy.  And then he turned as still as a statue.

‘How many have we killed?  he asked, trying to control his voice. ‘It’s making us sick.  We’ve had it up to here.  We should let him go.  When we think about him, we’ll feel better.’ (p.130)

Mingarelli also uses a conversation between the three soldiers to illustrate their complicity. Early in the day while they are smoking, Emmerich begins to fret about not wanting his son to take up the habit.  The conversation, which then recurs on and off throughout the day, drifts across strategies he and they together might try to sway the boy, but all of them seem hopeless.  This analogy shows us that Emmerich knows that having done what he has already done, he is damned, and that there is no redemption for him or his fellow-soldiers.  But he hopes his son will be different.

That it’s a hollow hope can be seen from the narrator’s reaction to seeing a snowflake embroidered on the captive’s hat.  This symbol of a mother’s love angers him, because it threatens his indifference.  He knows it means that someone loves this man.

See also the brief review in The Guardian.

PS From a visit to another blog review about this book, I noted three comments objecting to the reviewer’s designation of the camp as Polish.   Given the thematic intent of the book, this is IMO misplaced indignation, and well-orchestrated too.  I won’t be hosting any comments that contribute to the whitewash of Poland’s WW2 history.

Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Title: A Meal in Winter
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Portobello Books, 2013, first published in French as Un repas en hiver, 2012
ISBN: 9781846275340
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2020

Niccolo Rising (The House of Niccolo #1), by Dorothy Dunnett

It’s taken a good long while for me to read Dorothy Dunnett’s classic work of historical fiction, and I must confess that what with the bushfire catastrophe absorbing most of my attention, Niccolò Rising hasn’t had my full concentration.  That’s no fault of the author: it’s a fine novel, and I can see why there are legions of Dorothy Dunnett fans. It’s just… well, all Australians understand about the anxiety that has commandeered our thoughts…

Niccolò Rising is the first novel in the series.  The House of Niccolò was written over a 14 year period and consists of

  1. Niccolò Rising, (1986) set in 15th century Europe and introducing the hero of the series
  2. The Spring of the Lamb (1987)
  3. Race of Scorpions (1989)
  4. Scales of Gold (1991)
  5. The Unicorn Hunt (1993)
  6. To Lie with Lions (1995)
  7. Caprice and Rondo (1997)
  8. Gemini (2000)

I was only half way through the book when I wanted to know more about Dunnett (1923-2001), but Wikipedia wasn’t very forthcoming about aspects of the novel that interest me: the themes of transcending the restrictions of class and gender.  However, a talk reproduced at the Dorothy Dunnett website was more illuminating…

The series arose after the success of The Lymond Chronicles (1961-1975) and was inspired by Britain’s swing to the Right under Margaret Thatcher and the rise of yuppies and city wheeler-dealers.  (We remember these people well in Australia, Alan Bond et al.)  Dunnett had a background in business and trade working in the Board of Trade when Scotland’s economy was recovering in the postwar period.  She understood how business worked, and as the website says:

… Dorothy looked at a time period a century earlier than Lymond, when the Renaissance was just beginning to affect Europe and the newly developed Double entry book-keeping systems using the quite recently imported Arabic number system* were revolutionising commerce and trade. Banking in particular was becoming an important aspect of business.

She wanted to explore these developments and look at how for the first time it was possible for someone with the right skills to move up from a lowly position in society to a position of power – just as was apparently happening in the London financial markets of the 1980.

*There’s a witty mention of this when Roman Numerals are noted as much more difficult to fiddle with than their Arabic replacements.

If not for the blurb, one might read for quite a while without the book’s hero being revealed.  Even so, it comes as a surprise:

… none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer’s apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.

The novel is bookended by wild scrapes, the kind of nonsense that immature teenagers indulge in.  These scenes cunningly lure the reader into making premature judgements about the characters, which makes it all the more enjoyable to form a tentative profile of the surprising hero.  He is built like an oak tree with dimples and seems reckless to the core until it becomes clear that some of his adventures are actually calculated risks.  Amongst his fellow workers he is jolly good fun, and his capacity for mischief leads his ‘betters’ (a notary and the son of his employer) into some of his more dubious activities.  When they go wrong, he bears the brunt of the punishment stoically, apparently without grudge and bouncing back from adversity seemingly unscathed.  The qualities that enable his astonishing rise from bastard wastrel to impressive entrepreneur are well-masked for quite some time and even then they are often opaque except to the reader: he is quick-witted though prudent in his responses; he is a whiz with numbers and adept at cracking the codes that merchants used to keep their affairs private; he speaks multiple languages; and he is very attractive to the ladies. Even those socially out of his reach.

His employer is Marian de Charetty, owner of the Charetty company in Bruges and Mouvain.  She runs the business on her own after the death of her husband Cornelis.  Felix, her headstrong, impulsive and often selfish son, is only 17, and too young to manage the business, so she has good men about her as support staff. I liked Marian’s characterisation which seemed authentic to me: Dunnett was writing in the wake of second wave feminism, but though this female character has all the qualities needed to be a successful businesswoman, Dunnett has kept her securely in the culture  of an era which placed women in the domestic sphere and made only reluctant space for a widow in her particular circumstances.  There is never any doubt that when Felix is old enough he will displace her, and her years of experience will be discounted, and there are no fanciful scenes where Marian exhibits a 21st century sensibility about this unreasonable state of affairs.

The way in which the apprentice transcends his class is handled differently.  The social implications of his rise are made explicit in the scene in chapter 25—foreshadowed by the blurb—in which there is a proposal of marriage between social unequals, marriage being the only way that he can rise above his lowly status.  He lists both the impersonal and personal consequences for them both, a catalogue of societal objections still familiar to anyone observing relationships between unequals, whether royals or commoners, though class consciousness is more pervasive in Britain than it is here in Australia.  And it is made clear that the differences are not merely snobberies: despite his capacity to observe and learn, his background and education puts him at a disadvantage in all kinds of contexts.  He has not learned, for example, as his ‘betters’ have, how to fight skilfully against swords, and his uncertain parentage creates ethical dilemmas for him as well.

Niccolò Rising is a lively book, full of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing to the end (though I did predict two marriages, and the fate of one character well before they occurred!)  There is much more to this book than I have outlined spoiler-free here, as repeat readers of this series will attest.

Thanks to Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large for the recommendation!

Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Title: Niccolò Rising (The House of Niccolò #1)
Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House, New York), 1999, first published 1986
ISBN: 9780375704772. pbk., 470 pages
Source: Kingston Library


In the middle of Australia’s bushfire crisis, I wanted to do something to help.

I had this really dumb idea.  I had heard that amongst the evacuees on the beach at Mallacoota since New Year’s Day, there was a mixture of terror and boredom.  They were stuck there with nothing to do….

Some of them, I thought, must be readers.  And I have two boxes of books ready to go to the OpShop.  Maybe?

But no. The scale of the disaster is beyond comprehension: immediate relief, reconstruction and recovery is going to cost billions, but well-meaning but mis-directed donations of goods are causing real problems.  Trucks and cars bearing stuff that is not going to get used are clogging roads that need to be clear for emergency vehicles, and a lot of that stuff will end up in landfill.  The government and bushfire relief charities are asking us to donate money, not goods.  This is the message from the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, yesterday (5/1/20):

I know it’s difficult to watch this all unfold and feel helpless.
I know a lot of people want to get stuck in and lend a hand.
But it’s important to remember that the emergency relief effort is being run by experienced organisations – and they don’t have space to sort or store donations.
It’s also potentially dangerous to have more traffic on the roads and more people in fire-affected areas.
If you want to help, please consider donating to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal. [LH: If other states have set one up, please let me know in comments].
All money raised will go towards immediate support for those who have lost everything.
Practical things like replacing school uniforms. Buying household supplies. And rescuing and caring for local wildlife.
Victorians have been incredibly generous already. After just a few days, the Appeal is sitting at $2 million – and our Government will match the current amount raised.
This recovery will be long. It will be hard.
But we’ll make sure people get the support they need – when they need it.

The ABC (which raised $13.3 million with its NY Eve appeal) is reinforcing the message by reminding us that those who have lost everything want to make their own choices.

We donated to the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund but people can also donate to the following organisations:

Update, later the same day: this is an initiative dear to any booklover’s heart:

Books for Bushfires is a national initiative of the Childrens’ Book Council of Australia recognising that story – and story in books in particular – can effect real change
in both adults and children.
The CBCA has partnered with GIVIT to raise donations for the purchase of books for fire affected families and communities. Using the Australian Booksellers Association’s  Find a Bookshop search, GIVIT will make purchases from stores in these regions, supporting local business as well as the recipents of the books.

Support this appeal by donating money to buy books for children and young adult affected by the bushfire crisis. 
• Donate to the CBCA’s partners at GIVIT
• Click on the ‘Click here to give Money’ section
• Then select ‘Books for Bushfires’ from the drop-down list. 

The CBCA’s Notable and Award book lists will be valuable guidance for selecting books for this appeal.   #booksforbushfires

Last but not least, giving blood can help save the lives of people injured in the fires.

But I was right about one thing: these evacuees from Mallacoota on board HMAS Choules are in the pooch playpen set up by the navy (see the video here) and look what their owners are doing!

Image credit: Mallacoota Community News via Facebook

At the same time, Jakarta has been hit by freak floods affecting thousands of people and causing more than 60 deaths.  The Straits Times is reporting that the Singapore Red Cross has pledged $100,000 for disaster recovery and relief to be shared equally between Australia and Indonesia.  In the midst of our own disaster, let’s not forget that there are other people in poorer countries who are suffering from freakish weather conditions too.

The following is reblogged from the website of Michelle Scott Tucker, author of Elizabeth Macarthur, a life at the edge of the world:

So some of you might know that Kate Grenville has a new book coming out this year. A novel. About Elizabeth Macarthur…

Kate Grenville is, like me, one of Text Publishing’s stable of authors and I’ve known for quite a while that this book was coming, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.

The novel will be called A Room Made of Leaves and according to Books+Publishing,”This extraordinary novel takes as its starting point the story of Elizabeth Macarthur in the infant colony of Sydney, but breaks it open into a playful dance of possibilities.”

Magnanimous me thinks ‘I don’t own Elizabeth’s story – no-one does – so surely anyone who wants to write about her should go right ahead.’

Defensive me thinks ‘What can possibly be said that I haven’t already said?’

Churlish me thinks ‘Now that my little book has had its 15 minutes of fame it will be pushed even further to the back of the shelf.’

Optimistic me thinks ‘Maybe I’ll sell a few extra copies to people who read the novel and want to know more.’

And actual me just thinks there’s nothing I can do about it, so I may as well just watch with interest and see what happens.

To read the rest of Michelle’s thoughts, click here.

To read my review of Michelle’s book, see here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: Daisy Jones and The Six, to …

This month’s #6Degrees starts with a book I’ve never heard of: Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid — it’s about a rock band, and contrary to the blurb at Goodreads, I’d never heard of them either.

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six: The band’s album Aurora came to define the rock ‘n’ roll era of the late seventies, and an entire generation of girls wanted to grow up to be Daisy. But no one knows the reason behind the group’s split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now.

So it’s a memoir?  Curious, I Googled ‘rock music of the 70s’ and found bands I had heard of (and even some that I quite liked): Queen, Sultans of Swing, Elton John, George Harrison, Elton John, Carole King, Pink Floyd, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springstein.  But no Daisy Jones.  Ah ha, the penny dropped: all those bands bar one are male.  The book is a rewriting of rock history to accomplish gender balance… and then I knew where my chain could go.

I’ve read quite a few books attempting to rescue various women from oblivion: women who were married to famous men and never had their contributions acknowledged.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review).

I think that in the case of the Griffins, a joint bio that pays credit to both members of the partnership, works better. Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, by Alasdair McGregor won the National Biography Award and it’s a beautiful book, profusely illustrated with photos of their plans and designs. (Though that cover photo is dreadful, just dreadful. It does no favours to either of them). See my review here.

Another gorgeous book that was profusely illustrated with maps and reproductions and portraits that really enhanced the text was Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby.  I read it when I was developing curriculum about Australian maritime exploration (and a wiki to support it) but it was more than a reference book.  It was captivating, see my review here.

Peter Monteath is also the author of another very interesting book: Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps. So often we have a skimpy knowledge of our domestic war-time history because it doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative.  Monteath’s book is a comprehensive survey of internment from both World Wars, showing that the reasons for and effects of internment policies were much more nuanced than I had realised.  The internees weren’t all harmless old Germans peacefully growing grapes in the Barossa!  See my review here.

I am reminded by that review that Rebecca Huntley’s memoir The Italian Girl offers another perspective, that of her grandmother who ran the family farm alone while her husband was interned…

And that leads me to the story of Australia’s most famous and successful female farmer, who ran the family farm in her husband John’s protracted absences and finally got the biography she deserves in Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur, a life at the edge of the world, see my enthusiastic review here.  If you’ve got the second edition of this unputdownable book, you will see that the publisher has quoted me as one of its blurbers, which pleased me immensely.  (As far as I know the only other publisher to pay me that compliment is Magabala Books was when Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu went into a second edition, see my review here).

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a novel about a rarity — a female rock band — to a bio revealing that female farmers weren’t the rarity we might think they were.

Next month’s book is another one I’ve never heard of: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


Years ago, when I was studying children’s literature at university, there was a fierce debate about Beatrix Potter’s classic stories, of which The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) is best known.  There were American educators who felt the language was too difficult for modern children and so had produced simplified versions, removing, for example, the soporific lettuces from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and the camomile tea from Peter Rabbit.  UK academics were appalled and went into battle over this, producing some amusing satires about the issue, but all in vain: the battle  was lost long ago and although the originals are still what we buy here in Australia, Disneyfication rules supreme.  As it does, alas, with all the fairy tales of our childhood.

I mention this because I stumbled on an illustrated adaption of King Lear at the library.  It has an arresting cover, and more superb illustrations inside.  The artist is Pavel Tartarnikov, and you can see some of his work hereKing Lear is my favourite Shakespeare play. It is the best example IMO of why we read Shakespeare: it enables us to learn about the unchanging flaws in human nature.  King Lear is about the vanity of men and their unwillingness to hear the truth if it doesn’t suit them; and it’s about their blindness towards their own folly until it’s too late.  It shows us how ambition makes men abandon the most basic of moral laws; and how the lust for money and power transcends the bonds of familial love (as financial elder abuse continues to prove today).

Romeo and Juliet by Arthur Rackham, 1909 (Wikipedia)

The Millennial Shakespeare series (which petered out after three editions) is modelled on Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which you can download from Gutenberg — though it doesn’t have the stunning illustrations that I remember from my girlhood. (They were probably by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), the prolific illustrator of children’s books who did as much to make me a reader as anyone else.) The 19th century authors of Tales from Shakespeare, published by the Juvenile Library of William Godwin, had the same intent as the earnest re-writers of Peter Rabbit: the desire to make the stories familiar to the young in accessible prose.

Tales from Shakespeare was first published in 1807 by brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb and became a staple of British childhood.  Beautiful illustrated hardback editions were bought and given to children for birthdays and Christmas, and Penguin was still publishing it in 2007. Charles wrote the tragedies and Mary wrote the comedies, and they omitted the history plays as too confusing, which is probably why their plots aren’t engraved on my brain the way the other plays are.  Apparently Mary didn’t get her name on the front cover until 1838.  (That, I think, would have been the least of her worries, considering her tragic life.)

As the Preface to the Millennium Shakespeare edition of King Lear explains, it is now more than two hundred years since that first attempt to interest and to educate young readers in the colossal scope and splendid diction of Shakespeare’s plays.  And as every secondary school English teacher knows, it gets harder and harder to include Shakespeare even in the Literature curriculum, never mind the Year 12 English that everyone has to pass to earn their certificate. Where people of my age began with Julius Caesar in Form II and progressed to Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, these days it’s apparently thought to be too hard and not relevant.

Stanley Stewart, a professor of English at the University of California presents the dilemma:

From the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the third millenium, Shakespeare’s literary reputation has flourished.  But the competition for the attention of children, who — the experts tell us — are all too often ‘reluctant readers’, is intense.  We don’t need to be hysterical readers of a canon inscribed in stone to want the next generation of students to know Shakespeare; but that knowledge must begin somewhere.  If an introduction to Shakespeare is to be successful, it is unlikely to be in the setting of an academic symposium.  Rather, children need a vehicle like Millennium Shakespeare to prepare them for the adult experience of discovering the work of what many consider the most gifted writer who ever lived. (Preface (p.xiii)

When The Offspring was at school (and he read his first Shakespeare in his early teens after seeing The Taming of the Shrew on TV) another form of Shakespeare began to emerge: cartoon editions (which retained the original language) and graphic novels, (about which I know nothing because I’ve never inspected one). Somebody gave him Macbeth (ISBN 1853046523, you can see it second-hand at Amazon) and I bought King Lear brought to life by Ian Pollock.  This series (published by Ravette UK) appears to have lapsed, but Manga editions seem to be doing very well.

So does anyone still read simplified prose versions?  Is the language of the Lamb edition too hard?

Lear, King of Britain, had three daughters: Goneril, wife to the Duke of Albany; Regan, wife to the Duke of Cornwall; and Cordelia, a young maid, for whose love the King of France and Duke of Burgundy were joint suitors, and were at this time making stay for that purpose in the court of Lear.

The old king, worn out with age and the fatigues of government, he being more than fourscore years old, determined to take no further part in state affairs, but to leave the management to younger strengths, that he might have time to prepare for death, which must at no long period ensue. With this intent he called his three daughters to him, to know from their own lips which of them loved him best, that he might part his kingdom among them in such proportions as their affection for him should seem to deserve.
Charles Lamb; Mary Lamb. Tales from Shakespeare Project Gutenberg #1286 (Kindle Locations 1733-1738).

This is the beginning of the Millennium Shakespeare edition.  (The initial letter T is beautifully illuminated in gold.) :

There comes a time in every man’s life when he feels he has achieved all he can.  That moment arrives even for great men, including those who were once mighty kings and rulers of ancient and powerful nations.  King Lear was just such a man, with a white beard and a steadfast gaze, the lines of his face counting the years.  He was proud and majestic, satisfied with all he had done, and what he wanted most of all was a simple and peaceful end to his reign.

King Lear felt that the time had come to cast off the burden of his responsibilities and to pass them on to the next generation.  Having devoted his whole life to the affairs of state, it was time to step aside and allow others with more energy and desire to rule his kingdom.  It was time to divide up his land so that he could spend his final years on earth in peace.

Proud father to three beautiful and worthy daughters, King Lear had decided to bestow his kingdom and fortune upon them.  So that they could rule as queens with an equal share, he would give a third to each of his trusted and much-loved daughters.  Thus the old King summoned his lords, ladies, courtiers, attendants and followers so that he could make known his intentions.  (pp.1-2)

I have a quibble about the sentence in the second paragraph that begins ‘Having devoted his whole life to the affairs of state, it was time…’ The subject of the sentence is ‘time’ not ‘he’ or ‘the king’, so the clause that begins ‘having devoted’ is a dangling clause that relates to a person never specified in the sentence. Any competent editor should have picked that up, and so should the professor of English who endorses the book in the Preface.   However, overall I enjoyed the way the story is presented, and I think young people would too.  Importantly, the text is probably more readable for the contemporary teenager who would be flummoxed by Lamb’s fourscore — though that does beg the question: at what stage does making a text easy for a teenager to read, prevent them from encountering unfamiliar words and concepts?  Or should we just relax a bit and accept that even if the teenager never moves on to the real thing, they have through this and other ‘introductory’ versions, been exposed to Shakespeare’s ideas and world view — and that accomplishes the aim of teaching them about the unchanging flaws in human nature.

What do you think?

Image credit: Romeo and Juliet at the Cell of Friar Lawrence, by Arthur Rackham (1909), in Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (Wikipedia:

Title: King Lear, an illustrated edition in modern prose
Adapted by Michael J Stewart
Illustrated by Pavel Tartarnikov
Publisher: Millenium Shakespeare series, Wine Dark Press, UK
ISBN: 9780953600410
Source: Kingston Library

For more information about the series, click here.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 1, 2020

2019: ANZ LitLovers stats

I swore I wouldn’t do this again, I could read a whole book in the time it takes to do this analysis, but Annabookbel has done her Year in Review again and I have succumbed to her persuasion!

Which nationalities did I read? Of course there are lots more Australian authors, and again Indigenous authors make a quite respectable showing.  This year I’ve read more from the UK than from the US (which is the reverse of last year).  But still, you can see that although more than half my reading is Australian, I also read widely from around the world.

The picture is clearer in a pie graph, grouping the countries by region. You can see that apart from Australian books, I read mostly from the UK & Ireland; from New Zealand (because I went to the Auckland Writers Festival); from Europe & Russia; and from the US & Canada, but hardly any Latino or Nordic books.

Once again there were no surprises when I came to look at the Year of Publication.  My focus is mainly contemporary literature: I read a lot of new releases especially Australian ones.  However, you can also see a (desultory) effort to tackle the TBR in the C20th books…

Next up was Gender: In 2019, 41% of my authors were male, 58% were female, and 1% were co-authored by male and female authors.  (One was unspecified because it credited no author/s.)  Overall, the percentages for male/female reviews over the life of this blog (i.e. since 2008) have been more or less stable, currently 53% male authors and 47% female.  All I will say about this is that if there are still people claiming that women don’t get a fair go when it comes to being reviewed, then they are choosing to ignore what’s happening online and privileging the prestige of print over digital.

This graph shows the heritage/diversity of the Australian authors I read. As I’ve said before on my Diversity page the potential for getting this wrong is obvious: please let me know if there are any errors or omissions there.  (I know from my own untidy heritage just how messy it can be).  Last year there were 15 nationalities in this heritage category; this year there are 14, but more of them are from Asia.  Once again authors of Indigenous heritage are well-represented.

It was Annabel’s idea to track whether one is reading familiar authors or venturing into new territory… I track this just with Australian authors and including those authors that who were making a debut.   Last year new and familiar were roughly equal but this year I’ve read slightly less authors new to me and there’s a steep decline in the number of debut authors I’ve reviewed.  I don’t have an explanation for this, except that I’ve read more ‘second novels’ — and perhaps also that the debut authors that are promoted to me are writing the kind of books I’m not interested in.


Now for non-fiction and fiction: 72% of my reading is fiction, up a little on last year.  The gender balance between male (47%) and female (53%) authors is pretty close.  ( I omitted books authored jointly by men and women).

About a third of my reading (28%) is Non-Fiction (66% female authors and 34% male).  (Again, I’m quite surprised to have read so much non fiction because I only ever read it in the daytime, whereas I read fiction until all hours of the night).


It’s a bit of a waste of time analysing gender patterns in Non Fiction; the numbers are too small to be significant.  (Again I omitted titles by joint M&F authors). I don’t think there’s much to see here, except that considering that I’m not keen on memoir, I read a fair bit of it this year.


As for last year, I didn’t bother graphing the types of fiction I read.  Almost all the fiction I read is a modern novel of one sort or another. (Of the 1500-odd reviews of fiction here on this blog,  I’ve tagged only 107 of those as short stories. There are not many reviews of classics either, because I read most of those when I was a girl. )

Then, translations: 15% of the books I read were translations, and all but six of them were all novels.  I read more from Europe than anywhere else, but that’s hardly surprising because Europe provides a lot more support to translations and there’s more variety in what’s available.  However, I’ve read more from Asia this year because I joined an Indonesian book-group, and I’ve also read two books in French without needing a translation at all.  (Though that’s not to say I didn’t need a dictionary!)

As you can see I read more female authors in translation this year than last year, and the gap between male and female translations is smaller.  But I read less in translation overall.

Last of all, where do my books come from?  27% come from my own personal library; 29% come from publishers, mainly small indie Australian publishers; 34% from my lovely local libraries, and there were a few loans and gifts or from the journals I subscribe to.

For those who worry about these things (not me!), my TBR has grown: I tallied it in May and found that I had 1158 books.  Now it’s 1171 despite reading some of them.  (I think I’ve added another 73 books to it this year but I think I’ve forgotten to enter some of the OpShopFinds in the lists.)  At about 200 books a year, I have enough to last me five years or so if libraries and publishing go entirely digital.

So (assuming my data collection and maths is all ok), there it is for 2019!  Don’t forget to visit Annabel’s version of stats for the year as well.  (Hers are much classier than mine, I’m a bit rusty with Excel now).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2019

The Little Company, by Eleanor Dark

Though it’s been reported internationally some readers may not know about Australia’s bushfire crisis. Fires in NSW have been burning for weeks, and in the last couple of days here in Victoria, vast swathes of the state are on fire as large out-of-control fires join up with each other to form mega fires with a massive fire front.   Many of us here in not-quite-completely-safe Melbourne have spent the past 48 hours in a state of anxiety: obsessively checking the news on radio, TV and the Twitternet; occasionally weeping over the destruction of well-loved small towns; vacillating over whether or when it might be appropriate to distract ourselves from the almost unbearable stress; and worrying about what catastrophe might happen next.

In The Little Company Eleanor Dark has captured this sense of background anxiety about a different kind of existential threat: the fear of military defeat in Australia.  The novel was published in 1945, but the characters are responding to the advance of the Japanese army into Malaya (December 1941-January 1942); the fall of Singapore (February 1942), the submarine raid on Sydney Harbour (May-June 1942).  While war in Europe seemed no closer to an end, the war in the Pacific was coming ever closer to home.

During these early days of November his first waking thoughts were always of the morning headlines, his breakfast a tasteless something which he swallowed mechanically while his mind fastened on El Alamein and Stalingrad.  Yet though this overwhelming world-worry claimed priority over all lesser worries, the lesser worries were there.  (p.264)

However, as Drusilla Modjeska writes in the Introduction, The Little Company is less concerned with the fact of war than with the meaning of war. It is there every day in its mundane impacts: studying their newly-acquired ration books, writing letters to the papers, taking sides on trivial domestic issues, growing vegetables, practising for air-raids, grumbling, quarrelling, laughing, filling the war loans, going to the movies—but it’s the political, ethical, personal questions [which] are critical.  By focussing on the conflicting experiences and responses of one family and its circle, Dark ensures that the problems posed in the text are political and intellectual.   

The central character is a successful middle-aged author called Gilbert Massey, trapped in an unsuitable marriage with Phyllis, a woman who liked small communities, small problems, small issues, small scandals and small talk.  All the members of his family and circle are in different positions on the political spectrum, ranging from his stolidly conservative wife to his brother Nick who is a member of the Communist Party and sees everything through the prism of Marxist dialectics.  His sister Marty, also a writer, is married to a liberal intellectual.

As we saw in David Day’s biography of Maurice Blackburn, these differences are not merely theoretical: wartime security measures against Communists were harsh, and the presence of ‘incriminating’ books in a home could bring peril down upon their possessor.  What amounts to an almost humorous episode of a Keystone Kops raid looking for subversive books in the library of Gerald’s flat, (the sergeant pouncing on ‘the political works of Shelley’ only to be gently corrected as ‘poetical’) is followed by Gilbert’s musings on the incident:

He hadn’t found it funny.  He had been conscious all the time of this democracy as a fraying rope, snapping strand by strand as they all hung on it over a precipice.  And curiously enough, his main concern had been for the policemen themselves.  Decent fellows, Gerald had said.  But what had happened to the decency of fellows whose minds had never been trained to liberal, analytical thinking, whose education had denied them access to culture, but who had been for years subjected to a discipline with no standard of behaviour save to ‘obey orders’? (p.104)

These musings prefigure Nazi Germany’s defence that they were only ‘obeying orders’.

As you could see in the Sensational Snippet I posted last week, Gilbert is stymied by writer’s block, and one of the central themes of this novel is the importance of literature, perhaps never more so than during a war.

Intelligent people, they resist the simplistic propaganda they find around them.  Marty rails against it, furious that ‘apart from its stupidity, and its vulgarity’ the authorities have no right to assume that we need lectures on morale. Nick’s response is more pragmatic.  Since their leaders are commercially-minded people, he says, they only know about marketing consumer goods, and they don’t understand that morale is like digestion—the less you think about it the better it is. 

Although this is a novel of ideas, Dark never loses sight of the humanity of her characters.  Dear old Aunt Bee, estranged from the family until the death of Gilbert’s overbearing father,  is bewildered by the war:

‘You know, Gilbert, we went to Japan for a trip once, my husband and I.  Such a lovely clean place, Richard, and the gardens so perfect, though somehow not very comfortable gardens, I thought, I mean to lounge about in and for children to romp in, but I may be wrong of course, or perhaps it was just because my own children had such miles and miles of country to ride about in, and it seemed a little bit—well, restricted; and very polite people they seemed, and I always did think The Mikado quite the most charming of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and then there’s Madame Butterfly too, and their wonderful flower paintings, I mean you can hardly imagine that they would…’ (p.145)

The title comes from the medieval epic The Song of Roland.  Two doomed knights, betrayed and trapped are a very little company facing their fate against the Muslim Saracens.  As the Japanese army advances and Batavia and Rangoon fall, there are Japanese landings in New Guinea and Port Moresby is bombed.  The cruisers Perth and Yarra are lost and Darwin is bombed for the fourth time. As this invasion streamed south like a dark glacier, Marty quotes this passage in full awareness of how feeble Australia’s defences were.

This review of The Little Company is my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 (Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020).

Author: Eleanor Dark
Title: The Little Company
Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska
Cover art: detail from’Breakfast Piece’ by Herbert Badham, with permission from the Art Gallery of NSW.
Publisher:  Virago (Penguin), 1986, (first published 1945) 319 pages
ISBN: 0140161503
Source: Port Phillip Library

The Little Company is long out of print, but there were two secondhand copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2019

Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People, by David Day

David Day is the historian who has so memorably written biographies of Australia’s war-time prime ministers Ben Chifley and John Curtin, and more recently of Paul Keating.  His latest book is the remarkable story of Maurice Blackburn, a name well-known as Australia’s leading compensation and social justice firm of lawyers, but perhaps not so well-known as the founder of the firm.

These days when the political class is full of lawyers and economists, it is salutary to read that Maurice Blackburn was the first-ever barrister to be elected to parliament as a Labor MP.  He arrived there at a time when the Labor movement was defined by its working-class and trade union constituency.  But though his origins were in the gentry (and he looks the part in the cover image, eh?) Blackburn had no easy entry to his profession, and struggled financially throughout his life.

Born in Inglewood in 1880 to a father who was a bank manager and an ambitious mother from the squattocracy, Blackburn might have had a comfortable middle-class life, but his father died of typhoid when Maurice was just a boy, leaving his mother Thomasann a widow with four children under seven at a time when social welfare was minimal.  She had something in the way of investments which enabled her to resume life in Melbourne, and to send Maurice to the Toorak Prep school and then to Melbourne Grammar, but from the age of 16, he was expected to support his mother and siblings and so he went to work as a law clerk in 1896.

His journey towards the law degree took some years.  He had to do an arts degree first, which he almost completed but he failed maths and couldn’t graduate.  Day suggests that his unimpressive academic record had a number of causes, not the least of which was that he was working to pay not only his university fees, but also the cost of keeping his brother James in the Kew Asylum after his mental illness escalated beyond his mother’s capacity to manage it.  But from 1901 Maurice left the law firm and worked as a tutor, which enabled him to become more involved in university life and develop his ideals of civil liberty and democratic participation in decision-making.  With a stint teaching at Wadhurst (Melbourne Grammar’s Prep School) and then at the Gippsland College in Sale, Maurice might well have had a career in teaching, but he recognised that even when he was finally able to complete the arts degree, he was never going to be able to compete with the preference for Oxford or Cambridge headmasters.  The death of his brother was the catalyst for him to return to Melbourne and enrol in law school.  He graduated in 1909, and after a year as an articled clerk, he was finally admitted to practise in 1910, aged 30.

This biography is a straightforward chronological account of Blackburn’s life, and Day is scrupulous about acknowledging where the gaps are.  So Maurice’s love life remains opaque until his political activities bring him into contact with Doris Hordern.  What is fascinating about this bio is the historical context that Day provides: the social milieu in a Melbourne very different to today.  These were the early years of Federation, and of the emerging Labor movement, and because Australians felt confident about progressive reforms that made life better for ordinary people, Melbourne had a lively cultural and politically aware milieu.  The Victorian Socialist Party held multiple activities to engage and educate people: lectures and debates with excursions and family picnics to lure attendance.  Maurice had made a name for himself through his advocacy in the Gas Consumers League, making gas prices an election issue in 1911 when the threat of nationalisation was enough to make them reduce prices.  He got to know Doris because although she was from the gentry, she was a feminist and a socialist, and they bonded when Maurice on behalf of the WPA (Women’s Political Association) presented the case for the female franchise in Victoria.*  My only disappointment with this book is that it ends so abruptly with Maurice’s untimely death in 1944—without acknowledging that Doris went on to become the second woman member of the House of Representatives, after she contested and won his Federal seat of Bourke as an Independent Labor candidate in 1946.  The Australian Women’s Register tells me that …

She was involved in the Free Kindergarten movement and numerous campaigns for better education, playgrounds and crèches. Blackburn was a member of the Women’s Political Association in Victoria, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Prison Council and the Save the Children Fund. In 1957, with Doug Nicholls, she was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.

Doris was the love of Maurice’s life, but she had to compete for his attention with his devotion to his work.  These days we would call him a workaholic and talk about work-life balance.  When he buried himself in work after their fourth child Margaret died of heart disease aged only 13 months, Doris consoled herself with the company of a trade union official called Frank Murphy.  It may not have been an affair, but it led to rumours all the same.

So often, great achievements are at the expense of family life.  When Maurice realised that the best way to achieve change was from within parliament, he became a prominent and very popular state MP, and went into federal politics in 1935.  It won’t surprise anyone to learn that there was ongoing political chicanery over preselection, and dirty tricks campaigns by the infamous John Wren whose ‘business interests’ were threatened by anyone honest and idealistic.  Blackburn was expelled twice from the Labor Party because there were long-standing enmities over conscription, and notably, Doris snubbed John Curtin at the funeral because of the way he’d treated her husband.

Nuances are often lost in political scrums, but Day makes explicit the principles by which Blackburn lived.  He was…

a ‘guild socialist’, following an ideology that harked back to an earlier time or artisanal production whose craftsmen were in control of their work.  He looked forward to a socialist society where democratic national guilds would operate within state-controlled industries and join with other representative organisations in a transformed, democratic parliament. (p. 144)

Clearly this was anathema to socialists who supported revolution as a necessary precondition for change, but even after he lost office in 1917, Maurice was influential, succeeding at the Brisbane party conference in 1921, in having passed what has become known as the Blackburn Declaration.  Its provisions were that collective action was necessary only to prevent exploitation; that private ownership was opposed only if it were exploitative; and that the party would not seek to abolish private ownership if it were socially useful and without exploitation.  This declaration signalled that the party was interested in immediate reformist aims, not some remote revolutionary aspirations.

During the Depression, from opposition, Blackburn’s private members bills achieved these reforms:

  • protection for evicted tenants from having their chattels seized;
  • legal assistance for the poor;
  • enabling mothers to have an equal share in the estate of a child who died intestate; and
  • allowing women to stand for public office and to practise in the professions.

Day notes that in his work for the Council for Civil Liberties, Maurice liked to quote Milton’s assertion that there should be the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties. During both wars, he defended people who were caught up in the draconian national security laws   He was out-of-step with many people over this: it was especially risky in WW2 for Maurice to oppose Curtin and Menzies collaborating to legislate provisions that were even more stringent than Britain’s.  Maurice was not anti-war, but he was a passionate campaigner for the No Vote in the conscription referenda of WW1; he rightly predicted that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles would cause another war; and he wanted Australian troops to defend Australia on Australian soil.  His address to a meeting of the Australia-Soviet Friendship League was fatal.  Even though the USSR had by then joined the Allies against Hitler, this gave the Victorian Labor Party grounds to expel him for having an association with any organisation deemed to be a subsidiary of the Communist Party. (Victorian Labor was then dominated by right-wing Catholics who went on to split the Labor Party in 1955 and form the DLP which kept Labor out of government for decades.)

Day sums up this life of achievement like this:

He’d made a unique and lasting contribution to Australian political life.  In the process, he had transformed the lives of countless people, bravely championed a multitude of sometimes unpopular causes and been a notable exemplar for others.  In the end, Maurice Blackburn was a determined individualist with a deep commitment to a movement that eventually demanded a degree of discipline and conformity that he could not give without sacrificing his honour.  And that was always going to be a price too high for him to pay. (p.250)

*BTW Day presents a different side to Vida Goldstein to the heroic role she plays in the campaign for female suffrage in Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom.  Day implies that Goldstein’s interest in the British suffragettes was at the expense of taking an interest in Australian progressive causes, and that her association with extremists like the Pankhursts was detrimental to Australian feminism.  I guess we have to wait for a definitive bio of Goldstein to winkle out the nuances of that.

You can hear David Day talking about his book at ABC Night Life with Philip Clark. 

Author: David Day
Title: Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2019, 339 pages (but the bio itself finishes at p.250, the rest is acknowledgements, notes, and an index)
ISBN: 9781925713787
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the people or direct from Scribe Publications 


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2019

Sensational Snippets: The Little Company, by Eleanor Dark

In the leadup to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 (Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020), I am reading Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (1945). Written contemporaneously  with World War II, it’s a fascinating book, and I’ll have more to say about that later when I’ve finished reading it.

The central character is a successful middle-aged author called Gilbert, and in chapter 5 he irritates his sister Marty, also a writer, by offering misguided optimism about her angst over the writers’ block with which they are both afflicted.  Writers and readers alike will find Eleanor Dark’s representation of writer’s block illuminating:

He knew her danger signs by now.  She was not in a good conversational mood, so he left her to her silence and set his own mind methodically to work on what she had said.  He himself knew to his sorrow the long torment of unfruitful hours, of scribbled pages scored through with rejecting lines, of a room suddenly gone blank and lonely with the departure of the creative impulse.  He suspected that the very simplicity of writing might be its terror.  Along with your sheet of paper, he thought, you know that there are no rules.  Nothing but your thoughts—and words.  Ranks, armies, a whole world of words, but not helping you, not ordered or catalogued, not to be used (except, indeed, by politicians) in groups or sets, but single, elusive, uncompromising, each perfect for its purpose.  From this mass you must somehow extract your thought, not building it so much as finding it, whole and inevitable, so that what you feel as it flows from your pen is not accomplishment, but recognition.  Perhaps, as Marty seemed to suggest, all this talk of ‘technique’ was just a frightened denial of so baffling a simplicity.  Perhaps it was nothing but a pathetic gesture of self-importance.  A buttress of self-respect in a world of technicians.  Perhaps the poor writer, lest he be bereft of the glory which a chemist or a mechanic wears as an undisputed right, must invent his patter and his jargon, make his rules and formulae, classify his plots and climaxes, jabber of characterisation, timing contrast, style, understatement, tension and what have you.

If so, then Marty must be right.  There is no ‘beginning’ and no ‘end’.  To recognise that was, perhaps, to achieve a proper humility—to recognise that ‘your’ art was not yours at all, but merely a minute contribution, possibly inept, possibly abortive, to a continuous human record.  No matter where you begin, someone else has brought the story to that point; no matter where you end, someone takes over from you and carries it on.  All you can do is to record a fragment of human experience—anywhere, any time, for every moment gathers in the past and propels the future.  No moment is more significant than any other moment, for all hold germ and growth, maturity and decay.  No ‘deciding on’ character, for a human being is not  a house to be planned, but an incalculable organism to be twisted and shaped by emotions and events.  Nor can you marshall events to some orderly pattern, for the human beings you create will disorder them, deflect them, rend them.  So you are no clever puppeteer pulling strings, but merely a fragment of human mind, groping in the chaos of ‘your’ art as you grope in the chaos of the life it mirrors.  You see the shadow of a place—what place is it?  How can you know until you give it existence by writing it down?  How can you write it down until you know?  Was this, he wondered, the whole burden of the writer’s art—to hold himself poised, receptive, while words and emotions flowed together in him and fused?  And when among thousands of ghost-ideas, clamorous for the substance of words, none achieve this fusion, the writer lives and moves and has his being in a very special, subtle kind of Hell.  He thought: ‘It’s like that agony of impotence in nightmares—trying to run, trying to climb, trying to hold…’

(The Little Company by Eleanor Dark, Virago (Penguin), 1986, (first published 1945) ISBN: 0140161503, pp.89-91)

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, alas The Little Company is long out of print, but there were two secondhand copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.

Though I doubt I’ll read them all, the other books I have set aside for AWW Gen 3 are:

  • A House is Built, by M Barnard Eldershaw (1929)
  • Jungfrau, by Dymphna Cusack (1936)
  • All That Swagger, by Miles Franklin (1936)
  • Sugar Heaven, by Jean DeVenny (1936), and if I get time, two works of non fiction:
  • Henry Handel Richardson, a Study by Nettie Palmer (1950), and
  • Miles Franklin, (1967) by Marjorie Barnard (Outside Bill’s timeframe, but a bio whose subject is now the best-known author within it!)

Just recently, Twitter brought my attention to a review at The Asian Review of Books: a collection called Our Women on the Ground, Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir. I bought a Kindle edition of it there and then.  Because just as I found Mercé Rodoreda’s fiction set in the Spanish Civil War compelling, I wanted to read women’s points of view about the conflicts in the Middle East.  After all, in modern conflict, it is nearly always women who bear the brunt of it.

The collection comprises nineteen Arab women journalists reporting on their homelands.  The foreword by Christiane Amanpour reminds the reader that the Balkan Wars of the 1990s brought an end to immunity for journalists.  They were no longer considered objective witnesses. Regardless of gender, they became targets.  Journalism has become a very dangerous profession, perhaps especially so when reporting on movements for reform in a corrupt regime or in a murderous genocidal state like Islamic State a.k.a. Daesh.   We are told in the introduction by Zahra Hankir that some of the journalists (sahafiyat) featured in this book have been sexually assaulted, threatened, propositioned, detained or even shot at while on the job.  The book pays homage to those who have died as well.  The Middle East and North Africa is the most dangerous area anywhere in the world for journalists.

It is obviously more difficult for women to be journalists in some cultures than in others.  In the Middle East and other conservative societies, societal norms discourage women from journalism. It can mean defying family and community, and it brings unique challenges and entails sacrifices specific to women.  At the same time, in pursuit of getting a full understanding of a story by including the female perspective, women can sometimes enter places where men cannot go, and they can sometimes access people more freely than men can.  (Geraldine Brooks wrote about this in Nine Parts of Desire, if I remember correctly). The first piece, ‘The Woman Question’ by Hannah Allam, begins by introducing the spaces where she found her stories during the Iraq War: in kitchens without electricity; in a bedroom with a mortar crater in the ceiling; in a beauty salon, or during ‘Ladies Hour’ in a hotel swimming pool.  And then she goes on to say that her reports are more representative because the years of war have resulted in a population where more than half the people are women, and many of them are heads of the household because their men were dead or missing or exiled.  

The footage of car bombings that was on our screens throughout 2006 seems different when you look at it from a woman’s point-of-view.  Daily car deaths often had death tolls of eighty or more, and most casualties were men because of the venues where the bombings occurred.  That meant eighty new widows and dozens of newly fatherless children. Each week 500+ Iraqi women became the breadwinner.

At their most desperate, some women entered into so-called temporary marriages that weren’t intended to last long.  Essentially, these marriage were prostitution with a thin veneer: men with money to spare would pay the women in exchange for sex, but because the couple was technically ‘married’, however briefly, the arrangement was deemed legitimate according to some Shi’a Islamic rulings.

A widow named Nisreen told me her hands shook and her face reddened with shame when she signed a temporary marriage contract in exchange for fifteen dollars a month plus groceries and clothes for her five children.

‘My son calls me a bad woman, a prostitute.  My children have no idea I did this for their sake,’ Nisreen said. (‘The Woman Question’ by Hannah Allam, p. 4)

I think that many Western feminists will bristle at the hypocrisy of this, in a society that forces women to cover up in the name of modesty:

Even in wartime, women in Najaf wear abayas, long billowy robes that leave only their faces, hands and feet exposed.  I remember sweat trickling down my back as I crouched in the courtyard listening to gunfire.  Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover: you use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under yoru chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. (ibid, p.10)

Time and again these journalists refer to ‘before’: the time when Lebanon was at peace; when there were hopes of an Arab Spring; before Syria tore itself apart; before Iraq descended into sectarian violence.  A time when sources were friendly instead of suspicious; a time when the names of friends and colleagues weren’t annotated ‘dead’ in a contacts list; a time before fanaticism and fundamentalism destroyed so many lives.  Hwaida Said has a picture of a cake on Skype to remind her of her dead friends once a year on their birthdays. Her story of a would-be suitor who became a fighter for Daesh is chilling.

Over time, the frequency of Abu Bilal’s Skype messages decreased, until finally they stopped altogether, a few months before his suicide mission.

The last things he wrote were exultations of Daesh’s foreign operations, such as the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.  (‘What Normal’ by Hwaida Saad, p.36-7)

What’s it like, I wonder, to write about a man who was once a friend who carried out a suicide attack that killed more than 30 people and wounded about a hundred others?  And to maintain a WhatsApp correspondence with a confused and frightened young soldier in Palmyra having nightmares about being captured by Daesh? And then to wait, and wait, until finally news of his gruesome death comes through?

Lina Attalah writes movingly about the way her relationship with her father deteriorated after she became a journalist, even to the extent of identifying her as that and not as his daughter, when he was on his deathbed.  She struggles to sort out her feelings about her father with her ideas about societal patriarchy and the violence of parenting. She struggled with the trivia of conflict about curfews and safety and study at home, compared to the importance of the protests against the Iraq War.  She could not reconcile her parents’ interference in her personal life with the significance of contentious politics outside the home.

… I couldn’t live one life.  I had to carry on living these two lives, bouncing between constant negotiation, compromise, and resistance.  One was a life of choice, with an open-ended shimmering horizon, while the other was a life drawn solely in the imagination of one’s parents, an imagination that at times can seem like a prison of some sort. Living two lives meant constantly guarding them from each other, safely insulated, for one risked defacing and assaulting the other.  It was exhausting.  (‘On a Belated Encounter with Gender’ by Lina Attalah, p.48)

Her essay is about her journey towards understanding how identity politics operate on the collective consciousness.  They had to be dealt with, not denied altogether. But I must admit that I found it too chilling to read her Foucauldian analysis of power in relation to the massacre of thousands in Egypt when the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood. It seemed a rather too abstract when there were all those bodies on the ground…

Jane Arraf was the only Western journalist based in Iraq in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As a Palestinian Canadian, I was expected by Iraqi citizens to be more Palestinian than Canadian.  The Iraqi government saw me as a US agent, while the US government saw me as an Iraqi apologist.  I was kicked out of Iraq a few months before the start of the war for coverage that was less sympathetic than the Iraqi government demanded, but made my way back through Kurdish-controlled territory to northern Iraq through Iran to cover the conflict for CNN.

A few months after Baghdad fell in 2003, invasion turned to occupation, and the soldiers on the ground — generally well-meaning guys from small towns in America — realised how far they were in over their heads.


Would it have been equally painful to watch the train wreck unfold had I not been Arab?  I think the tragic miscalculations of the war would have been.  But I might not have been as conscious of the depth of misunderstanding as worlds collided. (‘Maps of Iraq’ by Jane Arraf, p.60)

It is heart-breaking to read how those naïve American soldiers blundered around with a laminated cheat sheet called the Iraq Culture Smart Card as a substitute for interpreters.  It beggars belief that some clown in the Pentagon thought it helpful to include the phrase ‘Ihna Amerkan’ (we are American) as if the Iraqis wouldn’t immediately grasp that when confronted by a GI in uniform…

In one house, a soldier urgently questioned the bewildered Iraqis with a single word from his smart card — mujahedeen or ‘jihadist fighters’ — to try to determine whether any of them had seen al-Quaeda fighters.  In another, the soldiers asked Iraqis whether there were any Palestinians with them.  (There are tens of thousands of Palestinians in Iraq). (ibid, p.61)

One last excerpt, because this post is way too long.  Eman Helal is one of a handful of photojournalists in Egypt:

The irony of being held back from covering ‘hard’ news and forced to work in an office for my own safety was that I sometimes didn’t even feel safe in my place of work, when I took public transport, or when I walked on the streets.  I have found that most Egyptian men do not respect women.  They treat us as if we were their possessions, and therefore have the right to do whatever they please with us. This way of thinking starts and is cultivated at home, where men are taught — even by their mothers — that they are in charge and they are protectors of women.  Their power goes unchecked. (‘Just Stop’ by Eman Helal p.114)

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that harassment doesn’t happen in Australia, but it beggars belief that at the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the Egyptian attitude was that if a woman was protesting, she should expect to be harassed and that the military forced virginity tests on some female protesters.  There’s a confronting photo of a woman who’s been assaulted during a march for International Women’s Day.  Some of the crowd of men around her are her harassers, some of them are trying to help her.  It must have been terrifying.

The most confronting essay was by a Sudanese journalist, whose arrest reminded me about letters that as a member of PEN Melbourne I have sent to the Sudanese government about their treatment of journalists just doing their job.  In fact, over the last decade, my record of letter writing to governments in breach of the UN commitment to freedom of expression includes: Algeria, Bahrein, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE and Yemen.

If you would like to get involved too, you can locate your local PEN here.

Editor: Zahra Hankir; foreword by Christine Amanpour;
Title: Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World
Publisher: Vintage Digital, 2019, 287 pages
ASIN: B07LGM8RPK (Kindle edition)
Purchased from Amazon.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2019

Greetings of the Season from ANZ LitLovers

Best wishes for the festive season to everyone!


As in previous years, these are the books I really liked and admired during 2019.  They are books that I read this year, not necessarily published this year.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, there are plenty of other sources singing the praises of books published elsewhere.  All links go to my reviews.

Fiction Longlist

I read 76 works of fiction from Australia and New Zealand this year. As in previous years, I’ve longlisted the books that I rated 4-stars at Goodreads, if I felt a surge of pleasure remembering them when I looked at their covers at Goodreads See What You Read in 2019.  (NB I reserve five stars for a work of genius such as James Joyce’s Ulysses).  Because I went to NZ for the Auckland Writers Festival this year, I read more Kiwi fiction than usual so I’ve made separate long and shortlists for them.

Australian Longlist

  1. Field of Poppies, by Carmel Bird
  2. The White Girl, by Tony Birch
  3. The Year of the Beast (Glenroy Series), by Steven Carroll
  4. The War Artist, by Simon Cleary
  5. Book Review: Rosa: Memories With Licence by Ros Collins
  6. Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie
  7. Blood Kin, by Ceridwen Dovey
  8. In the Garden of the Fugitives, by Ceridwen Dovey
  9. Water Under the Bridge, by Sumner Locke Elliott
  10. Bodies of Men, by Nigel Featherstone
  11. Invented Lives, by Andrea Goldsmith
  12. Modern Interiors, by Andrea Goldsmith
  13. Minotaur, by Peter Goldsworthy
  14. Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale
  15. The Valley, by Steve Hawke
  16. Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson
  17. Avenue of Eternal Peace, by Nicholas Jose
  18. Little Stones, by Elizabeth Kuiper
  19. Coach Fitz, by Tom Lee
  20. The Flight of Birds, by Joshua Lobb
  21. Black is the New White, by Nakkiah Lui
  22. The Trespassers, by Meg Mundell
  23. A Season on Earth, by Gerald Murnane
  24. Into the Fire, by Sonia Orchard
  25. There Was Still Love, by Favel Parrett
  26. Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman
  27. The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson, by Leah Purcell
  28. The Glad Shout, by Alice Robinson
  29. The Returns, by Philip Salom
  30. Hare’s Fur, by Trevor Shearston
  31. Dinner with the Dissidents, by John Tesarsch
  32. Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar
  33. The Yield, by Tara June Winch
  34. Daughter of Bad Times, by Rohan Wilson
  35. The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood

New Zealand longlist

  1. The New Animals, by Pip Adam
  2. The Naturalist, by Thom Conroy
  3. Beneath Pale Water, by Thalia Henry
  4. The Cage, by Lloyd Jones
  5. This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman
  6. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti
  7. Pearly Gates, by Owen Marshall
  8. A Sister in My House, by Linda Olsson
  9. All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan
  10. A Mistake, by Carl Shuker

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories (I’ve read a lot more NF this year, but only two of those were from NZ and neither made the longlist, so these are all Australian.)

  1. Nothing New, A History of Second-Hand, by Robyn Annear
  2. Bright Swallow, by Vivian Bi
  3. From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett
  4. The Grass Library, by David Brooks
  5. Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edited by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb
  6. Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro
  7. Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan
  8. Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin 
  9. The Dismissal Dossier, by Jenny Hocking
  10. Beyond Words, a Year with Kenneth Cook, by Jacqueline Kent
  11. Through Ice and Fire, by Sarah Laverick
  12. The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis
  13. Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, by Ian Lowe
  14. On Fairness, by Sally McManus (Little Books on Big Ideas)
  15. The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, by Sisonke Msimang
  16. We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, edited by Meg Mundell
  17. Penny Wong, Passion and Principle, by Margaret Simons
  18. Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, by Jeff Sparrow
  19. Storytime, Growing Up with Books, by Jane Sullivan
  20. Hearing Maud, by Jessica White

The shortlists

I could never be a literary prize judge: I hate whittling lists down to some manageable number and casting out some really beaut books in the process.  And what does it really mean to be ‘in’ at number 10 and ‘out’ at number 11?  All it means in some cases is that I prefer novels to short stories…or that I’d rather read about history and politics than memoir and travel.

Best ANZ LitLovers Australian Fiction Books of 2019 

  1. Field of Poppies, by Carmel Bird
  2. The War Artist, by Simon Cleary
  3. Book Review: Rosa: Memories With Licence by Ros Collins
  4. In the Garden of the Fugitives, by Ceridwen Dovey
  5. Invented Lives, by Andrea Goldsmith
  6. Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale
  7. Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson
  8. The Trespassers, by Meg Mundell
  9. A Season on Earth, by Gerald Murnane
  10. Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman
  11. The Returns, by Philip Salom
  12. Hare’s Fur, by Trevor Shearston
  13. Dinner with the Dissidents, by John Tesarsch
  14. Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar
  15. The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood

Best ANZ LitLovers New Zealand Fiction Books of 2019

  1. The New Animals, by Pip Adam
  2. The Naturalist, by Thom Conroy
  3. The Cage, by Lloyd Jones
  4. This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman
  5. All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

Best ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction Books of 2019 

  1. From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett
  2. The Grass Library, by David Brooks
  3. Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edited by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb
  4. Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro
  5. Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan
  6. The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis
  7. The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, by Sisonke Msimang
  8. Penny Wong, Passion and Principle, by Margaret Simons
  9. Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, by Jeff Sparrow
  10. Storytime, Growing Up with Books, by Jane Sullivan

And finally…

The ANZ LitLovers Book of the Year is… 

*drum roll*

A beautiful, gentle book that — without a trace of sentimentality — reminds us that contrary to everything we read and hear in the media, there are good and kindly people in the world.

As the blurb so rightly says: Hare’s Fur offers an exquisite story of grief, kindness, art, and the transformation that can grow from the seeds of trust.

This novel deserves more attention than it’s had: don’t let it slip under your radar.  My review is here.

Hare’s Fur by Trevor Shearston.

Over to you

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

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