This is the session blurb from the AWW website:

Described by The Observer as one of the “world’s leading thinkers”, global economist Noreena Hertz dissects the contemporary epidemic of loneliness in The Lonely Century. This meticulously researched and highly readable book describes how we have become alienated from each other, and analyses the structures, influences and trends that cause and exacerbate our isolation. The Lonely Century is an urgent message about one of the most far-reaching issues of our time.

Streamed from London and Adelaide, this was a most enjoyable session.  Hertz commented (as other international guests have) about how lovely it is to see *people* sitting together outside in the sun.

Why is this the ‘lonely century’? Hertz began being interested in this for three reasons: increasing numbers of university students were approaching her to confide that they were lonely and isolated.  This was something new.  At the same time, her academic research made her interested in right wing populists in office (not just Trump, also e.g. Le Pen &c), and often the supporters of these populists that she spoke to, revealed that they were lonely.  She had also bought an Alexa, and she found herself feeling increasingly affectionate towards it. She was engaging in quasi conversations, greeting it, and being polite to it, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as part of her interactions with it.  She realised there was a whole market full of goods and services to alleviate loneliness that promised a meaningful connection.

Previously research interest had been focussed on the loneliness of the elderly.  Many people in nursing homes never get any visitors*.  Bizarrely, Japanese crime rates are rising for elderly people committing minor crimes in order to be sentenced to prison where they can have contact with other people.  But the data shows that young people are the loneliest, even before the pandemic.  One in five millennials say they don’t have a single friend.

When Hertz herself was visiting Manhattan, she did not have a friend at all.  So she tried out using Rent a Friend: there are 6000 available, from all over the world.  She was a bit dubious about meeting the one she chose (because of the risks) but it turned out to be really just friendship.  She and Brittany had coffee together, they did a bit of shopping.  It was not like an old friendship, but it was like the freshness of a new one, though she realised later that Brittany was laughing at her jokes because she was being paid for it.  C19th British novels are full of paid companions for women, so it’s not a new phenomenon, but when Hertz asked Brittany who mostly used her service, she said it was typically 30-40 year old professionals new to New York who didn’t have time to make friends.  They just wanted some company.

Research during Covid has found a significant rise in loneliness.  In the US, over half the adults feel lonely.  We’re in an acute phase of loneliness, an accelerated trend.  The rise of a contactless existence is part of that.  People are shopping online, ordering take-away online, doing yoga on YouTube… and they are trading off in-person experiences for virtual ones.  Is it just more convenient?  Avoiding the hassle of traffic and crowds etc?  Maybe.  But in the process we’re giving up f2f connection with other people.  Even a 30-second interaction with a barista in a coffee shop can make a huge difference to whether you feel lonely or not, because it makes us feel connected.  If Covid contactlessness persists beyond the pandemic, it will have significant consequences.  Because human beings need moments when we’re physically together, when we practise mindfulness about other people (e.g. not bumping into them in the supermarket, smiling at someone, greeting the checkout operator).  These small social contacts mean that we are also practising inclusive democracy.

Loneliness is part of the story of right-wing populism.  It was during conversations with supporters of right-wing populists across the globe that she started understanding the connection.  Loneliness is a lack of friends and a support network, and she found that Trump supporters, for example, are much more likely to identify being socially isolated and reliant only on themselves.  Some of them miss the brotherhood of the unions after jobs were lost.  (Work brings social opportunities, and many firms used to hold Works Picnics and Christmas parties for the family).  What Trump’s lonely supporters found was a sense of community when they joined in the chanting and wore the same branded gear at his rallies.  Le Pen’s supporters in France found it too when they worked with each other to deliver leaflets, and in Italy, La League would host dinners where people felt connected when they sang traditional songs.

These supporters of right-wing populists mostly feel unseen, disconnected, and unheard by anyone including politicians. They feel abandoned and forsaken. They are the newly lonely, who would have had that brotherhood of unions at work before those jobs were all lost, or would have felt connected at church when everyone went there as part of a community.  This right-wing  community with its nostalgia for a different world is exclusionary e.g. to immigrants, and their attitudes have been weaponised: Populist leaders can do this by exploiting lonely people who often see the world as a hostile place full of outsiders who don’t belong.

Cuddles for Sale is another service you can buy.  Hertz stressed that this service is not sexual, it’s about wanting intimate contact of a different type.  Hertz told the poignant story of a divorced man, very lonely, a software engineer working where it was hard to make friends.  He craved physical touch, and he paid $60 an hour to be cuddled, and this transformed his life.  He was no longer depressed and work became better.  But then he went on to say that he paid for other people to be cuddled because they needed it, and he was paying for it by living in his car.  This is obviously an extreme case, but Hertz tried it herself when she went to a group cuddling session to find out about other users of this service.  She was surprised to find that everyone seemed really normal—and yet they were so desperate for physical contact and intimacy they were prepared to pay to receive it in a safe consensual way.  So there is a real need out there, a problem exacerbated by Covid.

From the questions asked, I got the impression that the book includes a variety of these anecdotes, but the book is also about solutions. I was reminded of Reconnected, a Community Builder’s Handbook, by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell which looked at the same problem, from a slightly different angle.

Cola-theques (sp?) in Japan are like discotheques, where elderly people dance (and there are matchmakers who introduce those who are shy).  These dances have moved outside during Covid, which is important when touch has been toxified. We are creatures of togetherness, and being with others is fundamental to being human.  (Cica also commented about how happy people were to be at the festival… they always are, but it’s especially so at the moment.)

The Neo-Liberal world we’ve been living in for so long has made connectedness seem optional, but it’s not. Economic ideas from Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s led to attitudes signalling that greed is good, and dog-eat-dog  behaviour is ok.  This era brought increasing individualism and society valorised hyper-competitiveness—at the expense of care, compassion and community. Pop songs even showed this shift as lyrics supplanted ‘We, Us, Ourselves’ with ‘I, Me Myself.’  The pandemic has seen a new appreciation and valorisation of health workers, and also the celebration of people doing things for each others.

Loneliness is bad for both mental health and physical health, and this is provable by measuring levels of cortisol and adrenalin in the body.  Loneliness is as bad for our health as obesity and smoking, and it reduces life expectancy.  It also increases the risk of dementia, stroke and heart attack.

Places that nurture and anchor us can be informal like cafés and libraries**.  In places round the world cafés and restaurants and yoga centres have not survived the economic shock of Covid yet these places are very important to our communities, and we need to do more to ensure they survive.  When we support our local stores and eateries, instead of trading off for convenience, it speaks to the importance of physical spaces where we can gather.  Governments also have a role to play in funding libraries, parks and other public places where we can come together.  But we also need to support these places ourselves.

Part of the book is a call to restore the kinds of government action that were routine not so long ago.  Hertz proposes a ‘New Deal’ somewhat like Roosevelt’s after the Depression.  Changes should include a living wage, health standards, government services, funding of community infrastructure, public art works, funding of the arts to bring people together and so on.  There could even a favourable tax status for businesses that take on a role in the community.  In Belgium there’s an empty store tax that incentivises lower rents so that stores don’t stay desolate and empty.

What is the role of social media in all this?  Hertz is blunt: Social media companies are the tobacco companies of our age and there is much that they should be doing and they should be regulated, especially to protect children.

She began her research into the role of social media as ‘agnostic’ but is now convinced that our use of social media has contributed to loneliness. Yes, it’s brilliant during the pandemic, and her ‘presence’ digitally at the festival is good, but not as good as being there in person.  The problem is that screens are displacing f2f communication.  Young people are often in a room together, but they’re on their phones.  And this can lead to some of them lacking interpersonal social skills.  Some universities have had to run a remedial workshop of ‘how to read a face’.  Nursery schools are finding that little kids lack basic social skills because their parents spend so much time on their phones and the children spend so much time on screens.  Of course there are cases where social media is really valuable, for example, an LGBTIQ child in a small community can connect digitally when there isn’t anyone local to interact with.  OTOH people feel lonely because they think everyone has more friends than they do, plus there’s an epidemic of cyber bullying among women.  Social media can be very exclusionary and what’s new now is that this exclusion is broadcast amongst all the peer group.  Often parents and teachers don’t see this because so much social life has migrated to the phone.  The research is clear: these devices are contributing to loneliness.

*This is, sadly, very true.  When my music teacher was still alive and in aged care, I visited her weekly.  When The Spouse and I were about to go overseas for six weeks, I approached people who were supposed to be her friends, but none of them were willing to visit in my absence.  Distraught, I went to the Sister-in Charge to ask if she could help me organise a visitor from an organisation such as Do-Care, which helps people isolated in their homes.  It was inconceivable to me that my dear old friend was to have no visitors for such a long time.  The Sister set me straight: she said that Valda did not realise how lucky she was.  Most of the people in that facility had no visitors, ever, not even on their birthdays or at Christmas.  My behaviour changed after that: I made a point of having a brief conversation with all the old people I encountered as I made my way to where Valda sat in her favourite spot.  (And I made sure that I sent a postcard to her in every city that we visited so that she knew she was not forgotten.)

**Contrary to what was said about libraries in Australia in this session, libraries in my city are thriving, and one of them famously has enhanced its community credentials by ringing every single one of its borrowers during the pandemic to see if they are OK. I belong to four libraries.  My local is in walking distance. All its other six branches, like the other libraries I belong to, are within half an hour’s drive and I visit them all for books, research and bookish events.  All these libraries were active throughout the pandemic, offering author and artist talks by Zoom but also lots of other activities ranging from art and craft workshops to cooking with kids and more.   They offered Digital Story Time for little kids and bigger ones, You Tube book reviews, and chatty newsletters sharing information about all sorts of things.  In normal times these libraries are not just for book nerds like me.  They offer computer access;  story times for children of all ages; book clubs and book chat meetings; community gatherings; community noticeboards; home delivery of books to the housebound; and talks and demonstrations about everything from gardening to cooking with bush foods.  They are places where students gather to study, and some folks come to read newspapers and magazines.  So I would  say to anyone who’s lonely, that a visit to your local library is a good starting point.  Even if the topic is not to your taste, you can chat to other people and make yourself known to the librarian.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2021

From Where I fell, by Susan Johnson

It is so refreshing to read a novel that’s about character!

From Where I Fell comes from the pen of Susan Johnson, long-time observer of the zeitgeist and wickedly funny about human failings.  This novel explores a relationship that’s becoming more common, one that’s entirely digital.  Like the relationship that I have with some of you, my readers, both on- and off-blog.

The relationship at the heart of the novel begins when needy, histrionic Pamela in Australia sends a cry of pain to an email address where she thinks it will reach Christophe Xavier Woods, her estranged ex-husband in Paris. Instead, chrisxwoods@ sent with hope via both hotmail and gmail, lands in the inbox of Chrisanthi Xenia Woods, in upstate New York.  Instead of ignoring/deleting/blocking an unknown sender, Chris sends a kindly response.  Chris is the kind of person who likes to help.

I used ‘estranged’ to describe the status of Pamela’s marriage because when children are involved, a respectful relationship between divorced parents should continue in the best interests of the children. Everybody knows this, but it’s not easy to do.  Pamela’s husband has used geography to opt out.  He calls his children on the phone, but he has obliterated Pamela out of his life.  He remains, however, a character in the novel, one who makes no explanation for his spiteful behaviour.  Which affects his children as well as their mother.  Who, guilt-ridden and anxious about parenting alone, is not exactly ‘together’ anyway.

Pamela responds to the kindness in the reply from Chris and a sustained correspondence develops.  Small elements of cunning in the way this epistolary story unfolds are worth noticing.  The women nickname each other Plato and Socrates, and some of their subject headings are called dialogues, recalling the form of prose known as Socratic Dialogues from the fourth century BC.  Like the ancients, these two women discuss moral and philosophical problems which are eternal.  But dialogues about their particular concerns were absent from the history of literature for centuries…

The two women seem like opposites, but they share common characteristics, not the least of which is that they are lonely.  Pamela has no one else to vent to, and Chris, apparently secure in a marriage of long duration, doesn’t have a BFF either.  The reader can only speculate about this.  Pamela has only recently relocated to Australia, but could easily vent to friends overseas.  Why doesn’t she?  And Chris has lived in the same place all her life—you’d think she had the luxury of supportive friendships going back decades…

Part of the answer has to do with personalities carefully crafted by the author.  Yet another battery of Pamela’s anguished emails (eight, following already hurt feelings) gets a terse response from Chris:

Re: A dream
From: Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time? (p.83)

A subsequent apologetic email is time-stamped almost immediately but not read until after Pamela sends her hurt response a day later:

From: Pamela Robinson
To: Chris Woods

OK, I get it—I finally get  it. It’s over—whatever ‘it’ was.  I wish you all the best.
Pamela (p. 84)

The one-line apology from Chris acknowledges that her response was mean but that Pamela’s email caught her on a bad day.  

Unlike Pamela, who’s a classic over-sharer, Chris doesn’t explain what happened on that bad day.  She thinks America has gone to the dog because everyone reveals themselves:

Do I need to know some Kardashian is fighting with her husband?  Do I care if some crackhead is screaming at his neighbour over the rent on Judge Judy?  I do not.  Keeping some things left unsaid is my preference. (p.92)

It’s not until much later in the novel that Chris indirectly explains what had pushed her buttons that day.  Reticence on the one hand, and a narcissistic deluge of venting on the other. An interesting combination!

Chris seems more sensible and caring but she has a breaking point which makes for poisonous relationships on her home turf, while Pamela flounders around, nagging her three children until the family turmoil erupts into something much more serious.  They both give each other advice that ironically at times might be better suited to themselves, but Chris’s advice is never about feelings.  It’s not until things go very badly wrong for her that she begins to express emotion, albeit in a guarded way.  She has overstepped the mark with people she’s trying to help and they’ve rounded on her, leaving her exposed, vulnerable and hurt.  This is when the reader recognises that all this ‘helping’ is a substitute for what’s missing in her life.

What happens next with a virtual friendship like this?  I didn’t predict the ending, so it came as a shock, and a warning to all of us to invest time in the real world because that is where real love, affection, fondness and support comes from. I’m not talking about using digital tools to maintain existing relationships; we’ve all learned through lockdown just how valuable these tools can be.  I love being able to keep meaningful contact with people overseas and I’ll keep doing that even when the pandemic is over.  But when we engage with people we’ve never known f2f, the interface is between best selves and a lot can be unsaid, exaggerated or deliberately concealed.  Cyberspace allows time between responses that can either exacerbate or soothe tensions; it’s not like real conversation where body language can guide us.  Ultimately, Virtual relationships can be disposable.

Book groups would love this book because there is so much to unpack, it’s a book that rewards re-reading.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too.

Author: Susan Johnson
Title: From Where I Fell
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
Cover design by Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781760876555
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


The Twilight of Democracy is a rather depressing title for a festival session, but I’ll take any opportunity to listen to Sally Warhaft, especially when she’s in conversation with a Pulitzer Prize winner!

This is the session blurb:

Pulitzer prize-winning author and historian Anne Applebaum deconstructs the psychology and motivations of today’s crazed conspiracy theorists and populists in Twilight of Democracy, an incisive examination of the longstanding struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Drawing on experience and high-level relationships forged across Europe and America, and an exemplary understanding of contemporary and historical politics, Twilight of Democracy is a confronting and illuminating analysis of a polarised world.

Warhaft began by asking about Applebaum’s departure in style from her previous books.  She’s an historian, she said, but she could not write this book as a history because it’s not possible to be entirely objective when you’re living through the moment and you’re part of it yourself.  So she wrote it partly like a memoir with a bit of history added, together with reflections about what she’s read, and what’s happening in the world.

Her theme is the transformation of the centre right into the far right, and how she felt as watched some friends go there.  (Not all of those people are still her friends.)

The centre-right was always a coalition of anti-Communists, comprising a wide variety of people.  Some were anti-Communist because they were concerned about the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the balance of power; others because they supported democracy and humans rights; while others were religious anti-Communists because communists were atheists.  But whatever their reasoning, in 1999 post-Soviet Poland everyone would have said they were democrats who were committed to free politics, the rule of law, democracy, free markets in a broad sense, and a set of liberal values.

Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.  Applebaum writes about Poland, Britain and America but she says she could be writing about anywhere.  What was common to these three countries, however, was a similar experience, of winning the Cold War, and of experiencing a ‘high’ about the Centre Right being ‘right’.  After the Cold War ended there was a long period of rearrangement, when sensible people were in power (who she identified as John Major and Ronald Reagan).  The aim was to integrate the old USSR into the world.  But there were some who had thrived on the cultural war and they found the post Soviet world boring.  Things were not angry enough, and there was no path for cultural war politics.  There people liked ‘shouting politics’ and they were asking themselves, is there all there is?  Rebuilding roads in Eastern Poland??

At the same time there was also complacency about democracy in all our societies… There was an assumption that democracy could be taken for granted and we didn’t need to do anything.  We didn’t need to do anything about the institutions of democracy needing modernisation, and we didn’t think about the possibility of an anti-democracy backlash.  We thought we could leave politics to the professional politicians.  But successful democracies involve civic engagement and people who care about it.  Democracies need good people go into politics and it needs trust, and public life needs to be seen as a good thing to do.  But what’s happened is that good people went into business, and politics was shunned because it was ‘dirty’.  Disillusionment arose.

Most people don’t think much about the institutions of democracy at all.  But the nature of the institutions that you have influences the outcome.  If the votes in the recent US election were translated into the institutions of other countries there would be a very different result.  Biden and the Democrats would be more powerful, for example, if that vote took place in the UK.  In the US, however, Congress is basically powerless, and it wasn’t meant to be like that.  They need to restructure elections so they’re not so adversarial, but it’s hard to do that because Americans think their system is the best because it’s old.  The reality is that it needs reform.

Trump was basically elected on a fraud, i.e. the conspiracy theory that Obama was not American (the Birther Movement).  The vote for Trump signifies a fault line in American politics because millions of people really believe that the political system is fraudulent.  All through the election Trump questioned whether there could be a fair election, and has never acknowledged his loss.  he persisted with the constant message that the election was a lie, and now there’s a deep divide about the nature of knowledge and truth itself.

How did he succeed in that?  It succeeded because Trump identified, magnified and amplified levels of distrust and disappointment and cultural despair in America.

The same belief that politics is fraudulent occurs in Poland and the UK.  In Poland, the conspiracy theories are about the plane crash that killed the president, and in the UK it’s about Brexit.  The key component in undermining democracy is an invention of the system having failed and the political system being a lie, and then telling a plausible story that makes people ignore the rule of law and attack democratic institutions. The Capitol riot was not attacking the Democrats, it was attacking the system itself, to stop the new president being declared.  Aided and abetted by Fox News and Murdoch and social media, these forces are now opposed to the system.  

The Centre Right in the US seems short of allies. How can it build its strength back up? There are not many that we can identify as anti-Trump, pro democracy, and in favour of liberal values.  In fact, around the world, people know their names because there’s so few of them.  But there may be more than we know.  There may be republicans who are moderate and independent, and maybe they’ll emerge in the next elections.

Despite the title, Applebaum’s book is not really about democracy, it’s about the propagandists against it.  These are journalists working with intellectuals who work on behalf of extremist politics, who recognise public anxiety and exploit it.  They identify people who feel bombarded by disinformation and the chaos of modern politics, who just want a clear message.  These propagandists (often wealthy, and clever) have thrown in their lot with extremist politicians.  They flood Twitter feeds the way that the ancient Romans spread statues of Caesar everywhere.

Why do elites find authoritarianism attractive?  Sometimes it derives from a philosophy about rejecting the modern world, or a sense of disappointment about how things are.  It can be a dislike of demographic change, and a nostalgic desire to restore an old secure world and the economics that they understood.  But such ‘restorative nostalgia’ needs to be understood for what it is: it involves as act of violence because you have to destroy what exists, and for some people it’s that excitement of wrecking something that appeals.  And for some people, radical politics offers a career path, (such as the example of Lenin, blocked by the establishment and moving to a counter-establishment.)

The pandemic has brought the issue of authoritarianism to the fore.  Everyone wants to have sweeping statements about it but the nature of the pandemic has changed over time.  Early on it did seem that shutting borders and ending international travel might be conducive to the rise of authoritarianism.  (This has happened in some places with previous pandemics which have ended with rulers getting more power).  But it has turned out that countries doing the best at controlling the pandemic achieved it because there was public trust in the leadership, in bureaucrats and in public health officials .  That trust is more often found in democracies.  Populist governments like Trump’s did badly because there was no public trust.  Long term we may learn that in preparing for other disasters to come, building public trust and social solidarity is going to be as important as being wealthy.  Money and science aren’t enough, you need a political system that builds trust.  You also need ‘localness’, i.e. awareness of and connection with your neighbours and the community.

This was such an excellent session!







Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2021

Things We Didn’t See Coming, by Steve Amsterdam

I’ve had this book for ages, and I decided to read it now as part of a slow effort to clear the TBR at Library Thing.  (I (haphazardly) post reviews there, but my TBR is at Goodreads, so the 213 books at LT have been there for a very long time).  I’ve read and liked two further novels by Steven Amsterdam, What the Family Needed and The Easy Way Out, but Things We Didn’t See Coming is his first novel, and it won The Age Book of the Year in 2009 and was longlisted for the Guardian’s Best First Book Award in 2010.

What I was not expecting, because the cover blurb tells very little about the book, was to discover just how prescient it is, in this era of the pandemic.  (I was going to write ‘Year of the Pandemic’, but alas, it’s been more than a year).  Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of nine interlinked short stories, set in an alternative future that loomed when Y2K was on the horizon.  The Offspring (a computer nerd) told me not to worry, but he was at the time doing consultancy for major banks and the prison system, to protect their computer systems from doing anything untoward when the clock rolled over from 1999 to 2000.  Although some people dismissed the Millennium Bug as hype, it caused considerable concern and there was a flurry of survivalists who thought that the disruption was going to be much more serious than it turned out to be.

Steven Amsterdam has imagined a world of things we didn’t see coming.  The first story, called ‘What We Know Now’ is set on New Year’s Eve 1999 when many of the digital clocks in the world’s computers were expected to roll back to 1900 instead of 2000 and no one knew what might happen.  The unnamed narrator is a teenager with attitude.  He doesn’t believe all the Y2K hype:

I’d like to be in a plane over everything.  We’d be flying west, going through all the New Year’s Eves, looking down just as they happen.  I’d have to stay awake for twenty-four hours of night time, but I’d be looking out the little window and watching ripples of fireworks below, each wave going off under us as we fly over it.  I start to talk about this idea, but decide to save it for Grandma.  Dad doesn’t think planes are safe today either.  (p.9-10)

Indeed he doesn’t.  The family are packing up the car to go to the countryside, and the narrator humours his father over his fears.  This is the first hint that there are ethical and social dilemmas to be tested in what turns out to be an horrific future.


‘The Theft That got Me Here’ takes place some years later.  He’s in a city taking care of his grandparents, now that his grandmother has dementia.  The loss of grandpa’s driving licence prompts a jaunt in the countryside, and miraculously, Grandma perks up, hustles them through the checkpoints that barricade urban life from rural and off they go to their old place at Keaton.  But the day trip turns out differently to expectations, and the narrator ends up alone, with a car, setting off out west by himself.

From there what’s left of his ‘nine lives’ traverse different kinds of disaster.  The title of ‘Dry Land’ is ironic: climate change has brought endless rain.  Literally.  Vast swathes of land are uninhabitable, and food is scarce.  The portrayal of starvation is vivid, and the narrator’s job is to ride around issuing relocation orders as the waters rise.  It’s a horrible job, but its ‘perk’ is that he can loot abandoned mansions, limited only by what he can carry on the horse.  In an encounter with two women not really fitted for survival, he tries to persuade one to abandon the other, and he realises how practised he has become at talking people out of everything they care about.

Catwalk’ finds him with Margo, also an accomplished thief.  This is the episode that mimics today’s pandemic.  He and Margo went bush when the quarantine orders were issued, but the narrator encounters an infected man, and he can’t leave their camp because Margo might come back and touch him after he’s died. This story is awful to read: the terrible lonely death of the man, coupled with the abject fear of social contact.  Which we ourselves have also learned to fear because of the pandemic.

In ‘Uses for Vinegar’ he’s been drafted into Rescue work.  Usually he waits for the fires to be out or the floods to abate, but he had nothing else to do after the windstorms.  He’s been reunited with Margo, but she’s taken up with Shane in his absence.  He works in Verification giving out cash grants and Margo and Shane want one that they’re not entitled to: another moral dilemma, and so is the question of whether to ditch Shane or not.  The narrator is very cynical by now, especially about the way the survivors congratulate themselves on their luck.  They don’t know yet that the newborn worry in their faces is permanent.  Rebuilding will be a constant in their lives and the cash grants are meaningless in the long run.

The thought is nice.  You’ll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you’ll never look back.  But nothing heals, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you, and you’re also looking back. (p.91)

In ‘The Forest for the Trees’ Margo and the narrator are in a future life that’s well-organised, compared to the previous chaos.  He’s now living in his ‘second union’ with Margo, and, working for a politician called Juliet, he’s writing a speech about male infertility for her.  Juliet is like a female version of Trump, totally outrageous yet people vote for her even though she does morally dubious things.  However, this job doesn’t last, and in ‘Predisposed’ he’s a kind of youth worker, hired to look after the sole remaining child in the community.  By now he regrets the things he has done in order to survive, but he’s tested once again by Jeph who is fourteen, and a real pain.  He blackmails the narrator into doing what he wants…

In ‘The Profit Motive’ his attempts at self-reform are tested in a bizarre job interview… they want to know if he is honest so the interviewer demonstrates how easy it is to steal valuables that have been impounded.  They want to know if he will succumb, and they also want to know if he will dob her in…

‘Best Medicine’ is the last of the nine lives that have traversed the breakdown of everything that’s safe and familiar.

I don’t often read dystopias, but this is one of the best.

Author: Steve Amsterdam
Title: Things We Didn’t See Coming
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing, 2009
ISBN: 9781740667012
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings (and signed by the author!)

Sleepers Publishing (who I once featured in Profile an Aussie Publisher) ceased publishing new titles in 2016, and they don’t appear to have a web presence any more.  But Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn are still doing bookish things and you can still order the book from bookstores like Readings (where you can also read a review by Martin Shaw).


This is the description of the session from the AWW website:

With her acclaimed BBC radio series just commissioned for a seventh series, broadcaster, author, stand up comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes is celebrated for taking those pillars of our cultural understanding, the Greek myths, and retelling them from the female perspective. Her novel, A Thousand Ships, centres Creusa’s experience of the Trojan War and in her most recent book, the eloquent and witty essay collection Pandora’s Jar, Natalie “gives voice to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.”

Wright began with a quotation from Virginia Wright, about the paradox of the ancients featuring magnificent women in their Athenian plays when in that era women in real life were almost invisible.  Haynes explained that rich women were cloistered while women who needed to earn a living were all around them.  (Men were paranoid about the possibility of some other man fathered a child in his household.)  And yet, in upper class drama, women were very powerful, e.g. Clytemnestra and Medea.  And these women in Greek drama talk about gender issues, e.g. Medea complaining that women’s dowries can buy a man who’s a complete dud.  The irony is that her monologue was written by a man, was performed by a man and the audience were probably all men too.  So Haynes thinks that Euripides was not a misogynist because he was showing men how it was for women in that patriarchal society.

Transgressive behaviour is a constant in Greek drama, for men as well as women, (e.g. Ajax turning on his warriors and being savagely punished for it.)  Transgression of female roles in Greek tragedy is extreme e.g. Clytemnestra killing both Agamemnon and Cassandra is but it takes a good translation to see that it’s revenge for Agamemnon killing her daughter.  The myths are not inherently misogynistic but they have been been transformed into multiple conflicting versions over time.  For example, Emily Wilson’s C19th translation of The Odyssey shows Telemachus stringing up slave women for having conspired with the suitors.  This is an accurate translation of the Greek, but four other subsequent versions transform the women into sluts and whores, when of course the women were slaves and had no agency to refuse the orders of the suitors.  Hippolyta the Amazon’s war belt gets translated into ‘girdle’ in translations, even though this word used about men wearing one is always translated as a war belt.  Haynes thinks that this was not deliberate, just a niche of classical scholars applying their own view of the world.

Sometimes it seems that the ancient world exists for us to ‘mine’ and to feel self-congratulatory about the progress we’ve made from then to now.  But Pandora, for example, is a much more nuanced and interesting character in the ancient world, although she becomes more patriarchally-defined character once Christianity gets hold of her.  The European tradition is what does for her.  

These traditions belong to the culture that they’re from. They also belong to all of us, but we shouldn’t approach them with a utilitarian outlook, as in what can we get out of them, we should look at them in their own context, with a sense of the world that they’re writing about.

The chapter on the Amazons in Pandora’s Jar incudes the epic tradition of the Amazons missing from Homer.  (Homer is not one person, at least two, and probably more.) What is extant is part of a set of poems telling the whole story of the Trojan War… the Trojan horse is the most famous segment and yet it’s not even in The Iliad, which is about only the last two months of a ten year war.  There were poems both before and after The Iliad. We have only fragments of these but there are other later versions of the originals which tell us about the great Amazon warrior queen and the Ethiopian king (the originals of which are now lost).  We’re just unlucky that so much of ancient literature (about 97%) was lost, and lucky that we have what we have.

The Greeks were obsessed with the Amazons, and they feature a great deal in the art and pottery, second most popular to images of Hercules doing brave and manly things.  They were not obscure in the ancient world.  Haynes says that there was some ‘perving’ going on: the Amazons were not shrouded in respectable women’s clothing.—they’re, shockingly, wearing leggings. They’re beautiful, and they have beautiful ornately decorated tunics and armour.  They have stunning boots, when the men in the paintings are always barefoot.  And they’re always a ‘girl gang’ riding into battle together, different to the image of the individual Homeric hero.  Achilles talks about ‘my’ honour; the Amazons are about helping each other out.

The talk moved on to discussion about the ‘Wonderwoman’ film. In the ancient sources, the women are always off to war, but in the film they live on an island and they only know about conflict when it penetrates their world, i.e. when a pilot crash lands on the island and she, Diana, goes to help out in the battle of WW2.  But she goes alone. There are riffs and refractions of the myths in the film, as there are in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The notion of giving up your life for others in these tragic situations is a very ancient tradition.

We think of Orpheus is a great romantic, but Plato thought he wasn’t because he wasn’t prepared to die for his loved one.   Some modern feminist interpretations of this are about Orpheus being a stalker and all Eurydice wants is to be left alone, happy where she is. In some of the ‘original’ versions, she’s a much more interesting character.  Both of them are ‘late’ additions to the epic (1st and 5th century BC).   Today we are all fascinated by Orpheus’s descent into Hades, and that he is almost back from the Underworld when he fatally turns and looks behind him and Eurydice is lost to him forever.  When Virgil tells the story in Aeneid, that part about him so nearly achieving his goal is really short… the bit about going down is what gets treated in much more detail, because that’s what really interested Virgil.  Ovid, OTOH, focusses on the power of Orpheus’s music that makes the souls of the dead flock around him to hear it.  Composers and artists have taken on this element of the story: how can I do this also to invoke the souls of the dead?  It’s only recently that anybody’s taken any notice of Eurydice’s story: she gets raped on her wedding day and then she dies…

It was really interesting to hear detailed analysis of stories we know well, and to realise that there’s much more to it in the book.    Onto my wishlist it goes.

(And how amazing to have the opportunity to hear this session at a time when Greek and Latin have basically vanished out of the curriculum except in elite private schools!  I loved the passion with which Haynes talked about this.)

The state of our media is something I’m always interested in, so I was pleased to sign up for the session featuring

  • Peter Fray from Crikey, with many years of experience with all the major Australian newspapers;
  • Margaret Simons, Walkley award winner and media analyst, also on the board of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative; and
  • Michael West from the independently funded;

They were in conversation with David Washington from In Daily live-streamed from Adelaide Writers’ Week.  (The session was actually yesterday, but the sessions are available for a short time afterwards.)

I’ve reviewed four books by Margaret Simons  but the one most relevant to today is Journalism at the Crossroads. It was published back in 2012, but as I say in my review the book remains relevant because of its basic premise, that quality journalism matters, and that new technologies provide opportunities for it to survive.

The conversation began, of course, with Murdoch and made reference to Kevin Rudd’s call for a Royal Commission into the media, not to mention the battle with the Tech Giants Facebook and Google and the news blackout that Facebook imposed.  Peter Fray talked about the journey from traditional media to independent media, and how the business model of newspapers is broken and has been for a while.  What interests him is that there is an audience for independent journalism.  For years this was not thought to be so, but as Margaret Simons commented, independent media has been rising and falling throughout her career.  (She mentioned The Nation Review.)  What’s different now is that it’s easier to offer independent media, but the issue is assessing the credibility and reliability of what’s on offer.  A massive transfer of power has taken place because these new media are paid for mostly by subscriptions or donations, whereas in the past it was advertising that paid for it.  West said that being funded by audience subs gives him great freedom to write.

It’s only the new tech tools that enable this, but the irony is that the old media is no longer viable because of them.  West is very anti the government’s media code because it affected his traffic considerably.  A sobering reminder of how much power these tech giants have over the distribution of content.  But (he says) we should remember that they don’t ‘take’ the news’, people ‘give it to them.

The conversation then moved to defining what ‘independent media’ actually means.  Independent usually means small and not funded by Channel 9 or Rupert, but nobody is totally independent.  Personal, affiliate and revenue relationships always have the potential to compromise matters.  But the audience is quick to recognise any breach of independence.  There is a cosy relationship between the big players and smaller ones who live off them—this is especially true of the Canberra gallery and major players in Sydney and Melbourne and in part that makes you a propagandist for that point-of-view, often government press releases so the story gets written the way the government wants it.  By the time the actual detail comes out, the next day the agenda has already been set for the 24/7 news cycle by the government.

At the time of writing this, the Australian media is waiting on the cabinet minister at the centre of rape allegations to make his public statement.  That this is going to happen has been headline news all day.  Clearly, the timing is being massaged so that the news breaks at a time that’s favourable.

Ok, back to the festival….

There was discussion about the culture and management of mainstream journalism.  All agreed that, although there can still be good journalism, the model for journalists has been broken.  Commercially these remaining big media businesses are more dependant than ever on their advertising, and the big corporates have major bully power.  Mainstream media won’t go after corporates, and the ABC self-censors. There was mention of a certain female ABC journalist who was thrown to the lions because she dared to tackle one of Australia’s corporates and, under pressure, the ABC didn’t support her.

This benefits indies, because the public knows when this is going on and they want to read outside this protected bubble.

What are we losing?  Margaret Simons says it’s wrong to celebrate the death of mainstream journalism and the loss of its integrity, but the problem is primarily caused by a lack of resourcing. Stories that are wrong, which would have been ‘fixed’ by sub-editors in the past, get through time and again.  What determines trust is the number of sub-editors employed, monitoring getting the names right and the tone of the story.  Everyone makes mistakes, but these gatekeepers against errors have gone.

Not only that: the capacity to take on anyone powerful will always depend on size and revenue.

Diversity?  Margaret Simons demolished recent claims by Newscorp that there is diversity in the media landscape.  Australia has one of the most concentrated media in the world. The rise of indies is now easier, but Australia is no media haven of diverse media.  There is an increasing willingness to pay, because we know we have to pay for it.  The ABC has given us the idea that media is free but it’s not.

How do we explain how much power Newscorp has? It used to be true that you couldn’t win political power without Murdoch, but that hasn’t been true for about  15 years.  Queensland Labor had a good win despite the campaign against them by the Murdoch press.  Not all politicians recognise this and so some of them still enable Murdoch.

But Rupert’s political power is not entirely gone because he still sets the agenda e.g. on climate change.  This happens via The Australia, Sky News and other portals, and the fracturing of rural Australia from the rest of us is a worrying sign.

Michael West talked at length about his disapproval of the recent digital media code to force Facebook and Google to prop up dying corrupt media organisations. But Margaret Simons and Peter Frey while acknowledging some of what he said, have a different point-of-view.  Simons says the issue goes back to the first years of this century.  We haven’t had a proper media policy for decades and most governments have removed regulation to give the big media players a free hand.  There’s a lot wrong with the code,  but anything that helps with funding public interest journalism is better than nothing.  Australia has used competition law and not copyright law as elsewhere, on the grounds that things are not fair.  Google and Facebook do receive a flow in value though that can’t be quantified, and this is all very untidy, but what’s been achieved is that FB and Google have been forced to the negotiating table. The code is not a long term viable solution, and it’s not her preferred solution, but some providers have benefited.  (These include the ABC, The Guardian and other smaller players).  The next natural step is that FB and Google will hire their own journos though that will take a while and that will make Murdoch look puny.  Michael West was very amusing in his rebuttal of this argument, but his body language became hostile (puffing out his chest) and he seemed determined to have the last word.

David Washington got things back on track.  Simons talked about the major issue of how we regulate these new players when they deny being publishers and then when pressured reverse that position.  The rest of the world is watching.

NB: The discussion moved along very briskly and I sometimes lost track of who said what.  I hope I haven’t misrepresented anything that was said, please let me know if I need to correct anything.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2021

When the Apricots Bloom, by Gina Wilkinson

When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson has been widely reviewed and I’ve got a backlog to attend to, so I’ll keep this brief.

Set in the near past of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002, the story explores the fraught nature of female friendship in a surveillance state.  Ally Wilson is an Australian expat, whose husband works at the Australian embassy. She is unable to work as a journalist for two reasons: firstly because of the conditions of her visa as a ‘dependent spouse’ and also because Iraq under Saddam Hussein #Understatement did not welcome foreign journalists.  (They locked them up and tortured them before killing them).  And while most wives in the diplomatic service  give Baghdad a wide berth, Ally wants to be there because she wants to find out more about her mother, who had worked in Iraq as a young nurse, but had died when Ally was very young.

Lo! the staple trope of women’s commercial fiction arrives on the page when the reader learns that yes! Ally has a Secret. One that the Iraqi authorities must never find out.

And it’s utterly unconvincing.  It’s not credible that the Australian diplomatic service would let a wife travel to Iraq as a deputy ambassador’s accompanying spouse when she has dual citizenship through her birth in the US and her through American mother.  It’s not credible that they wouldn’t find out about it.  The novel tells us that there was a blanket ban on American entry to Iraq at that time; it doesn’t tell you that anyone doing any kind of sensitive work involving security clearances not only has to establish a squeaky clean record of their own, but also of their parents and grandparents.  I’m not going to tell you how I know that, but everyone who’s got an Australian passport knows that it carries the place of birth on the identity page.   To get my first adult Australian passport I had to supply my full birth certificate, and my citizenship certificate.

Seriously… would the Australian diplomatic service, already viewed with suspicion by Iraq because of the alliance with Iraq, risk the entire embassy’s security by not thoroughly investigating the background of its personnel and accompanying partners??

Anyway, Ally goes blundering around putting herself and others in danger.  The hapless secretary assigned to monitor and report on her activities descends into a moral quagmire.  Her childhood friendship with a Sheikh’s daughter is resurrected.  The tension mounts when the children of these two Iraqi women are at serious risk and they need to be spirited out of Iraq.

But female friendship triumphs after all…

Six-part TV series maybe?

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large and Shellyrae from Book’d out admired it more than I did.

Author: Gina Wilkinson
Title: When the Apricots Bloom
Cover design by Christaballa Designs
Publisher: Hachette, Australia, 2020
ISBN: 9780733646409, pbk., 320 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2021

2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist

The NZ Ockham shortlists have been announced and I am delighted to see that two of my favourites are vying for the fiction prize.  (But also disappointed that Chloe Lane’s The Swimmers was overlooked).

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction

  • Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press/Giramondo Publishing*), see my review.
  • Bug Week by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press) (short stories)
  • Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press), see my review
  • Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson) (on my wishlist, it’s sold out but will presumably be reprinted now )


Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry

  • Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
  • Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Seraph Press)
  • National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
  • The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)

Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction

  • An Exquisite Legacy: The Life and Work of New Zealand Naturalist G.V. Hudson by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton)
  • Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine by Monique Fiso (Godwit, Penguin Random House)
  • Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press)
  • Nature — Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press)

General Non-Fiction Award

  • Specimen: Personal Essays by Madison Hamill (Victoria University Press)
  • Te Hāhi Mihinare |The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa (Bridget Williams Books)
  • The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, Penguin Random House)
  • This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books)

The Fiction award is worth $57 NZD to the winner, and the General Non-Fiction, Poetry and Illustrated Non-Fiction category winners will each receive a $10,000 prize.

The website also mentions that the winners of the four MitoQ Best First Book awards will each receive $2,500, but I can’t find who the nominees are.

*Nothing to See is published this year by Giramondo Publishing Australia, which brings Pip Adam the exposure that it deserves.  If you want to be one of the first to get your hands on a copy and at a reduced price, take out Giramondo’s new Prose Subscription, details here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2021

Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford is the author of The Child That Books Built (2002) which was one of the first, I think, of the books about books that we readers can never resist.  Spufford is a little younger than me, and his reading diverged from mine when he reached adulthood, but—as I can see from the pages in my reading journal from 2003—I loved reading his thoughts about the books we shared, and I disputed his propositions about why in adolescence he wandered into SF instead of taking the same track as me, reading the classics!

Spufford has written a number of books since then, including the intriguing-sounding Red Plenty, Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream which was nominated for The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2011); and also Golden Hill (2016) which won a swag of awards, including the Costa Book Award for First Novel (2016), the Desmond Elliott Prize (2017), and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2017).  It was also nominated for the  Rathbones Folio Prize (2017).  Light Perpetual is his second or third novel, depending on how one classifies Red Plenty which is apparently a blend of history and fiction.  Light Perpetual, however, is unambiguously fiction.

The novel was inspired by a V2 rocket attack in November 1944 which struck a Woolworths store in New Cross, London and killed 168 people including 33 children.  These V2 rockets were the first long-range guided ballistic missiles, fired from sites in Occupied Europe, and in the last sixth months of the war, they killed nearly 3000 civilians and injured many more.  In Light Perpetual, Spufford imagines the lives that five of the child victims might have had. This is the blurb:

1944. It’s a Saturday lunchtime on Bexford High Street. The Woolworths has a new delivery of aluminium saucepans, and a crowd has gathered to see the first new metal in a long time. Everything else has been melted down for the war effort.

An instant later, the crowd is gone. Incinerated. Atomised.

Among that crowd were five little children. What future did they lose? The only way to know is ‘to let run some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be. still may be’.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting – a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.

The title comes from the Prayer for the Dead:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

The light that Spufford shines on the five invented children of his novel, is to tell the stories of the lives that might have been led.  He starts with the bomb that didn’t kill them in 1944.  Then there are interlocking vignettes about Alec, Vern, Jo, Val and Ben five years later in 1949, 15 years later in 1964, a further 15 years later in 1979, and then 30 years after that, taking them into their seventies in 2009.

Like others who survived the unprecedented bombing of cities in WW2, Spufford’s characters go on to lead lives that are quite ordinary, and the snapshots of these lives at intervals are a bit like episodes of the documentary series 7-Up but without the class consciousness that featured in the TV programs. It follows the five through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and ageing amid the joys and woes of working class life.  It traces marriage, divorce and blended families in an abbreviated social history of England, depicting social mobility along with careers aborted or advanced by technological and political change.


Some of it, alas, was underwhelming.  Spufford piles on the detail, sometimes to excess, and in the middle third of the novel, the momentum falters. Jo, for example, has an abortive career as a songwriter and rock musician, and the pages and pages about the music in her head as she composes are tiresome:

Round and round she goes, and her intuitions of tune begin to take some more shape and to declare themselves.  Something is forming: a structure for the verses (three lines: two short, one double-long) that goes Dee-dee dee DEE, Dee-dee dee DEE-ee, Dee dee-dee dee dee DEE dee dee dee-dee Dee-ee. And a chorus, higher, for which three little sets of call and response will make a wistful, tentative, suspended kind of sound, at least the first time she sings through it, but which can then fill out with a stronger push of mournful feeling on the next visit, before soaring out (both times) into a line that will use her full voice.  (p.133, this is followed by some more Dee-de-dee-dees, but I haven’t got the patience to type them all out.)

The same technique, however, is utterly compelling in the episode where Val, out of gaol after being convicted as an accessory to the brutal crime committed by her skinhead boyfriend, is redeemed by her work as a volunteer telephone counsellor and has a young caller who is suicidal.  Likewise unputdownable is the episode that reveals the innermost thoughts of Ben and his struggle to master the mental illness that torments him, but subsequent pages and pages of god-bothering praise at Marsha’s church are beyond tedious.

The latter part of the book is the most interesting.  Vern, for example, is not a nice man.  He gets his start on the social mobility ladder through property development, conning a dopey but moneyed young football star into guaranteeing his dubious loans.  Of course it all falls apart as the political tides rise and fall and he crashes from a lavish lifestyle into poverty.  There’s grim poetic justice in the way his daughter bullies him into a joyless diet and her reward for him ‘being good’ is a ticket to a football match.  Vern is a man who really, really loves opera, and the football is a kind of well-meant torture for him.  I confess, I did feel sorry for him then.

By late in life, Alec has by his own estimation, failed his union workmates, his marriage and then his school.  A bright boy back in 1949, he went into the printing trade and eventually fought and lost that long and bitter battle in Fleet Street.  He retrained as a teacher, and improbably, rose quickly to become principal because his union background had given him the skills needed to survive the endless applications for grants so necessary for an inner London school.  But by 2009 the tides have turned again and some kind of privatisation is going on—a bit of a mystery to those of us not paying attention to education matters on the other side of the world but clearly devastating for the survival of the school.  Alec, however, has to leave it to a successor to sort out.  He’s past retirement age, and there are matters in his personal life where he also has to stand aside and let the next generation deal with it.

Despite the loss of narrative tension in the middle bits, most of the novel is an absorbing chronicle of London life, and I enjoyed it.

But it seems to me that the book would be much the same without its striking first chapter, about something that didn’t happen.  It hinted at some kind of miracle, which turned out to be mundane.  Unless the point is that all life is some kind of miracle, I suppose.

Author: Francis Spufford
Title: Light Perpetual
Publisher: Faber, 2021
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


It’s Southern Cross Crime Month at Reading Matters, and my choice of Present Darkness by Swazi-born, Sydney-based author, screenwriter and film-maker Malla Nunn is an apt choice, if I do say so myself, because it’s set in South Africa where (except in Spring) they too can see the Southern Cross in the night sky!

I don’t often read crime but I like Malla Nunn’s Detective Emmanuel Cooper series because it’s also an historical novel, offering a deft and devastating portrayal of apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s.  Present Darkness, No #4 and last in the series is set in 1953, just as rigid geographical controls were being legislated to ensure residential separation based on skin colour.

The novel begins in Johannesburg, 1953, with the abduction of a young prostitute and then the action shifts to Detective Emmanuel Cooper’s arrival at a major crime scene.  There has been a break-in at a property where the husband and wife have been very badly beaten.  The husband dies that night, but the murder investigation takes on personal significance for Cooper when the son of his best friend and colleague Shabalala is one of two Zulu boys accused of the crime.  And as if institutionalised racism and the peculiarities of the crime were not enough to deal with, Cooper is very soon taken off the case by a senior officer called Mason, and not because of his personal connection to the accused’s family. Cooper keeps his associations with people of colour very private, including his relationship with Davida and their daughter.

It’s a familiar trope in crime fiction, the ostracised, alienated detective working outside the system and deprived of any available resource.  Cooper has to rely on his own powers of observation, deduction, networking, knowledge of human nature and his intuition. As in previous novels in this series he is also aided and abetted by the inner voice of the sergeant with whom he served during WW2, and by Shabalala and Zweigman, a doctor who survived the Nazi death camps but lost his entire family.  These three survive various encounters with the malevolent Mason and his thugs while slowly the pieces come together, as they do in crime fiction.

For me, it’s the book’s dual identity as a crime-and-historical novel which makes it interesting to read.  Subtle attention to detail and light sarcasm brings the evils of apartheid to grotesque life.  Without being heavy-handed about it, Nunn makes clear the injustices large and small.  In a scene where Cooper has located a covert marijuana farm on the dead man’s property, he tells the ‘garden boy’ (who is a grown man) to leave:

‘I am gone, baas.  No coming back.’ Sipho started to walk away, resigned to the fact that the policemen would steal every plant and strip each sticky resin to fill their own pipes.  No matter.  He’d start again in the New Year with seeds smuggled back from where the whites had moved his people so they could make citrus farms on tribal land. (p.166)

Assumptions about the inherent superiority of the white man are demolished with light humour.  (Please note, this passage contains racist language).

‘You left the girl alone and in danger,’ Shabalala said to Andy.  ‘You who are the elder.  The man.’

Red crept into Andy’s cheeks: that a kaffir should talk to him with such contempt felt worse than an openhanded slap or a bruised windpipe.  He threw his head back and tried to pin Shabalala with a cold stare.

‘Watch your mouth,’ he croaked. ‘A kaffir in a suit is still a kaffir’.

‘I am half Zulu and half Shangaan,’ Shabalala answered with good humour.  ‘And you are not even worthy to be called a man.’

‘Are you going to let him speak to me like that?’ Andy played the white-man-against-the-natives card and got a shrug in reply.

‘I’d let him break your arm if he wanted to,’ Emmanuel said… (p.219)

Present Darkness portrays this society with all the complexity it deserves.  There are good and bad on both sides of the colour bar, but it’s when these worlds collide that the cruelty of apartheid is laid bare.  Cooper can only enjoy his idyll with Davida and his precious daughter if they live in the compound of a wealthy white man who also has a dark-skinned lover.  Despite the luxury, she feels caged, but there are few places that the couple can venture out together, and their daughter’s future is uncertain.  It is these elements that make the book notable within its genre.

I featured Malla Nunn in Meet an Aussie Author a while ago, now, and she has since published some notable YA novels.  You can find out more about her at her website.

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: Present Darkness, (Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4)
Publisher: Emily Bestler Books, (Simon and Schuster), 2014
Cover design by Anna Dorfman
ISBN: 9781451616965, pbk., 337 pages
Source: personal copy, purchased from Diversity Books $4.00

Available from Fishpond: Present Darkness


Whither Australian Leadership?

This was the festival description of the event:

Two of our most incisive political analysts examine the state of leadership in Australia. Drawing on their recent Quarterly Essays, Laura Tingle (Follow the Leader – Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman QE71 and The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand QE80) and Katharine Murphy (The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics QE79) explore whether #scottyfrommarketing offers more than photo opportunities, if Albo missed his moment, and what we want and should demand from those who would lead us.

Both Murphy and Tingle are familiar faces as high profile political journalists, and I’ve reviewed their writing in the journals that I subscribe to (Australian Foreign Affairs and Quarterly Essay).

The session began with a discussion about the current crisis currently besetting the government and how the leadership is dealing with it.  These alleged rapes are extremely difficult issue to discuss because the complainant against a serving minister has taken her own life… we do not know for sure that a crime occurred but we do know that a death occurred.  An inquest will investigate what might have been the catalyst for that death and the circumstances in which her allegations were made.  The best thing, they all agreed, would be for that person to admit to what was done, because every male minister is under suspicion and the matter is paralysing the government.

The other issue that arises from this is the need to reform the employment status of political staffers.  Except in micro and family businesses, employees in Australian workplaces have guaranteed rights to make complaints when things go wrong and there is a process to follow.  But politicians want to maintain the current system where political staffers do not have any rights to protect them against bullying, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment and discrimination and so on.  This tends to affect women more than men, and they are especially vulnerable when they’re trying to network because they do need to be out and about socialising.  Someone needs to take a leadership role in this.

It was good BTW to hear both Murphy and Tingle say that they have never had any trouble themselves but that they should use their platforms to talk about people who don’t have the rights that they do.

It was generally agreed #Understatement that Morrison had handled the matter ham-fistedly.  He can change the culture, and he should change the culture.  But he pitches his discourse to men, not women—an interesting feature of his persona because it’s thought that it’s women who change the course of elections, not men.


The conversation moved on to Morrison’s leadership in general.  Katharine Murphy says he’s grimly fascinating because he constantly shape-shifts, just when you think you’re going to nail him.  (Utterly unlike Trump) Morrison is like an outline in a colouring book… a clear dark line to define him but he leaves it free for you to fill him in, in the colours you choose.    But he can’t keep doing it forever, a politician can’t outrun his record or continue to tweak his persona indefinitely.  Laura examined what makes a leader in her QE. Leaders usually guide us through change, whereas with Covid they’re having to try to keep everything the same.  But whatever the aim, leaders must be able to bring people along, to read the crowd, and must have the skills to articulate why something is a good idea and make people want to follow it.

Political discourse is usually not about policy, it’s been about the two leaders, but national cabinet changed all that because there are multiple leaders with equal powers upfront and contesting the space.  (Much of this was discussed in the ‘The End of Certainty’ (Quarterly Essay #79) so I won’t repeat it here.)

What I really liked about this session was seeing these two journalists being so relaxed and open.  Usually we see a performance, in some manifestation of a current affairs show, but this was a conversation… guided by good questioning, but still a conversation and not constrained by media rules which limit what can be said and how.

The other thing I liked was that they reminded us that the Morrison government is an old government now (it doesn’t look like it because they’ve had three leaders) and that might mean its time is up.  But at the end of the day, we have to be aware that most people are not even remotely interested in politics and are more likely to vote for someone they just like the look of.

This session was so interesting, I listened to it twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

William Gibson, guest of Adelaide Writers Week, is the author of a series of novels which are prescient about the future.  Neuromancer (1984) is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read. 

This is the festival description of the event, which was streamed live on 28/2/21:

The man who invented “cyberspace”, William Gibson is one of the most influential writers of our time. From his ground-breaking debut novel Neuromancer, to his latest bestseller Agency, he was the first to imagine a computer-saturated existence, grounded in an all-too-material world, and to anticipate its implications. The philosophies and practicalities of the near futures of his books stem from a deep and fascinated engagement with the present, as embodied in his most famous aphorism: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Gibson began by reading from The Peripheral (2014).  I can’t say that this was a good idea.  He was not a great reader.  And if it answered the question that Bradley asked, I missed it.

The session was hard work for a listener.  It was slow and ponderous, and Gibson’s answers went on in a monologue for a long time.  We could occasionally see Bradley on stage reading through his notes, perhaps trying to reframe his questions to keep the conversation on track when it wasn’t going the way that was expected.  (I’ve never had this happen to me as a chair but I can see how difficult it must be.)

It looked quite different to Sisonke Msimang in conversation with Maaze Mengiste at the Perth Festival where though in different parts of the world, they seemed to be in conversation, looking at each other and responding to each other as friends do when chatting about books f2f.

Bradley tried to steer Gibson towards an understanding that not everyone in his audience (including me) was intimately familiar with the books.

One thing he said which did make sense to me was that (although SF is not predictive) as technology develops eventually all SF becomes redundant—but becomes instead a way of seeing how people in the past viewed the future.

The other thing that made sense to me was that at the time that Gibson wrote Neuromancer, the Cold War meant that there was always a risk of nuclear war between the US and the USSR and mutually assured destruction of the planet.  For his generation, there was always the fear that the world would end, so writing a book about the future, even a dystopia, was actually an optimistic thing to do.  Gibson feels that young people do not understand this aspect of what life was like then.  I understand why he says this, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally different to the contemporary fear of climate change making our world uninhabitable and the sense of frustration that no one is doing what needs to be done to prevent it.

However, it was obvious from the questions, that enthusiasts enjoyed the session very much.

Oddly enough, though I didn’t find this session satisfactory, it did make me want to read the book…




Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2021

Perth Festival: Maaza Mengiste and The Shadow King

This session from the Perth festival is the last of my ‘watch at home’ tickets.  This session was hosted by Sisonke Msimang in conversation with Maaze Mengiste, talking about her book The Shadow King which was nominated for the Booker Prize.  This is the blurb:

A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore among them—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?

Perth-based Sisonke Msimang (who was festival director) was the right choice to interview Mengiste, because of her own family history as an exile from South Africa.  (See my review of her memoir here). She began by asking about why the story matters at a personal level.  Mengiste said she grew up with family stories about Ethiopian men fighting the Italians, and she thought that was the (factual) story she was going to write.  But research led her to finding that women were involved as soldiers as well, and then when she was almost finished (!) her mother casually told her that her great-grandmother had fought in that war.

The conversation took a slightly mystical turn when Mengiste talked about history colliding or intersecting with memory.  She has, she said, no memory of her great-grandmother but has somehow created a character who has done the same things as her great-grandmother.  These resonances feel uncanny, making her wonder about how the act of creating is somehow remembering things we didn’t know were in us all along.

Msimang wanted to know why her mother didn’t tell Mengiste about her great-grandmother before?  When Mengiste tackled her mother about this, she said it was because she was never asked.  We often don’t think to ask women about things, and we often don’t think to ask about the feelings of those involved.

This untold history about women in the Ethiopian war is not unique.  In every liberation movement in Africa, women were involved, and this is inspiring because Mengiste is not ‘inventing anything’.  But what she has to do is to grapple with the archive, that is, what the written record tells us compared to what actually happened.

Describing herself as a ‘book nerd’ Msimang asked about the characters and the class questions that are raised in the book. Kidani is a high ranking officer and a nobleman and his wife Aster has a complicated relationship with the maid Hirut. Born to be a noblewoman and to rule over people like Hirut, Aster is fiercely hostile to her.  She looks down on the servant and yet she is jealous.  She evens tells Hirut that she was born to fit into the world. Conflict between women is central to the book, and class hierarchy is crucially important to Aster.  She doesn’t want to give that up; she wants her rank to be maintained.  Yes, patriarchy rules over all the women and makes them ‘less than’, but when they are together women’s alliances fail.

Msimang commented that often in African fiction, women are not very complex, and she was impressed by the way this novel tackles these complexities.  The novel is fearless in addressing a complicated issue: Msimang found the character of Kidani likeable despite his acts of violence against women, and—in the context of familiar tropes about African men, that they are overly sexualised, and about what Africa does to women—she felt as if she shouldn’t be.  She felt both sympathetic to and deeply troubled by what happens with Kidani.  Originally, in an earlier draft, said Mengiste, Kidani was a wooden and stereotypical character, but that wasn’t working in the novel.  She wanted to show what cruelty was… people who are cruel are complicated just like anyone else. Cruelty and Kindness are often portrayed as extremes but underneath the layers they have sides they try to hide and they have vulnerabilities.  She wanted him to be greater than what he was doing but not to absolve him.  Msimang commented that he’s also a product of long-held views—and she related it to the political issue now in Australia, i.e. power and sexual violence.  The novel treats this issue in depth beyond the brief reports in the 24 hour news cycle.

The conversation moved on to history’s void: about what gets left out. (Novels that tackle this are classified within the Historical Fiction genre as Hidden History on this blog.) Mengiste said that she had to think about what history actually is.  History is a series of narratives created by human beings— usually by  those who represent power.  But these people are flawed and have their own biases and sometimes their memory is not so good.  So history is not pristine and accurate.  And sometimes what they choose we should remember leaves a vast field for a novelist to roam.

Mengiste said that in her research she had expected to find balanced, complete portrayals of battles and other information, but what she found in some of the accounts was that they contradicted what she already knew from Ethiopian sources.  Her real source was speaking to descendants of Ethiopians who actually fought, and seeing their photos.  That changed everything.

I loved it when Msimang commented that history is often written from the point of view of... and paused for effect to allow us to mentally fill in ‘the victors’… and then continued that history comes from the lion, not from the antelopes that got away. 

History seems like it’s in the past, but we drag our personal memories forward into our lives, and so too do nations carry the baggage of history into each new event.

Msimang asked about the function of the chorus in the book. Msimang said that she wanted to disrupt her own narrative in some ways, and to speak to the bias and fallibility of her own history, and so the chorus speaks back to her.  Aster and other characters want to be remembered a certain way, refusing to acknowledge some things and creating a history of their own lives, and the chorus tells you that actually they are not telling you the truth either.   Because nobody is innocent; nobody is wholly blameless.  The chorus disrupts the author’s own attempt to write the history in a glorious way. Everything is positioned through lens of women and girls, so there were many other things she did not attend to, and the chorus reminds the reader of this.

Also, the chorus of Greek drama is not the only one, Africans have always had a chorus in their storytelling and she wanted to acknowledge that. (I’ve encountered this is another novel from Africa, I will look it up to see which one it was).

Msimang, moving on to the rise of fascism and how it is shown in the novel in the march of the Italian soldiers, noted that the book was also written in the time of Trump. How much of Trump’s America and Trump’s New York influenced the writing of the story?  Mengiste likes to say that she began writing it when America was a democracy and was still writing it when it was moving into fascism.  One day when she was researching online she was struck by eerie resonances between Mussolini’s speech and the US presidential debate between Clinton and Trump.  She thinks that the country is still deeply traumatised —still coming out of four brutal years—and they still don’t understand the layers and the consequences that have to be dealt with.  It felt frightening to see what was happening in real life and be writing a book about fascism.  What gives her hope is that even when the US was at its darkest, (the failed coup), there were good people around, and good people were around back in history too.  So history can give us hope.

Mengiste, whose novel is about to be published in Italian, said that Italy has not dealt with its fascist history in the way that Germany has.  It’s not taught in schools; people still sing songs from that time; the government has become more right wing and there is a resurgence of fascist movements.  So she’s interested to see how the book will be received.  She thinks that these things are uncomfortable to deal with, but it gives right wing extremists a blank slate to work with if it’s not tackled.  She thinks that Italy and the EU need to acknowledge the racism that underpins fascism and needs to be dealt with.

History is about what is worth remembering.

Thanks to the organisers of the Perth Festival for making this session available.  But hey, 36 minutes of nothing at all before the session actually started, is a bit disconcerting. Both the previous sessions began with five minutes of total silence but I was beginning to wonder if there had been a technical fault and I was wasting my time…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2021

Perth Festival: Richard Fidler, and The Golden Maze

This weekend, I’m catching up with ‘watch at home’ tickets I had for the Perth Festival.  This session was hosted by Perth ABC radio presenter Geoff Hutchison in conversation with Richard Fidler, talking about his book The Golden Maze, a biography of Prague.

Hutchinson’s first question took Fidler back to the Grand Hotel Europa and 1990 when the Velvet revolution took place.  The Berlin Wall had come down and Fidler went to investigate this bloodless revolution, led by a writer called Václav Havel.  There was exultation in the streets and the people were very proud of what they had achieved.  This was the catalyst for his interest in Prague.

(I have a colleague who was travelling in Europe when the Wall came down, and when he returned to work, he brought a small piece of concrete to show us.  I have never forgotten that small symbol, and his storytelling from that day. I envied his sense of being there when history was made.)

Fidler told a number of stories in response to Hutchison’s questions, but—it seems a strange thing to say about a professional broadcaster—he seemed a bit rushed and rather discursive.  He was not the calm and thoughtful interviewer who we are used to hearing on Radio National.  He seemed to revel in telling some bloodthirsty tales (a feature I’d noted in his Saga Land) and there was a sense of anti-climax each time he told some anecdote and then concluded by saying that none of it was true.  Hutchison did ask Fidler about this, and the topic of national mythologies becoming true was explored a little, but it had come too late in the session to be dealt with properly.

I’m not criticising Hutchison, but this session would have been an ideal opportunity for a Prague insider who knows the city well.

Thanks to the organisers of the Perth Festival for making this session available.

This weekend, I’m catching up with ‘watch at home’ tickets I had for the Perth Festival.  This session was hosted by Mike Bianco in conversation with Rebecca Gibbs, talking about her book Fathoms, The World in the Whale.

Bianco began by asking how Gibbs got started as a storyteller, in a land of storytellers.  She said that she grew up in Perth aware that she was living under a spell of environmental precarity. Perth is situated on a thin margin that runs down the coast, sandwiched between places of ancient geological time, a huge plate of rock (the name of which I didn’t catch and probably couldn’t spell anyway) and the deepest part of the Indian Ocean.  Influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Gibbs said that she wanted to write a scientifically informed narrative that also has aesthetic and political qualities.  So though the book started out as straight science writing— lucid, consumable and compelling—it morphed into a narrative comprising scenes in more evocative language.

The catalyst for writing this book was the stranding of a a yearling humpback whale in her local area. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere as people expressed a sense of wonder at being so close to an animal that is rarely seen close up, even though it was obviously going to die.  She talked with a wildlife officer about the possibility of euthanising it because it was suffering, and learned about the fundamental dilemma that underlies any prospect of a humane death for a whale: because it’s so big, the death in the brain takes a long time to kill the rest of the whale.  (For me, that is why what the Japanese do when they hunt whales is so wicked.  We know now, as they did not know in previous eras, that there is no humane way to kill a whale. To continue to kill them, for whatever reason, is morally wrong).

In the event, the WA stranded whale died anyway.  When they did the equivalent of an autopsy on it, they found that it had ingested all kinds of foreign objects—mainly plastic, including even a flattened greenhouse, a grotesque symbol of what we are doing to the planet.

The session included revolting slides of people cutting up whales at whaling stations.  Whaling was the world’s first extractive industry, and in previous eras people had as much whale product in their lives as we do with plastics, everything from whale corsets to lamps and all kinds of lubricants. It was also a fixative in paint so it plays a role in the artworks that we consume.  In the 20th century it found its way into soap, margarine, bio pharmaceuticals, and even a role in the space race.  It was astonishing to learn that there are still small amounts of whale oil performing as lubricants in cameras taking photos in space.

Gibbs noted that there is a mismatch between the mystification of the whale and the reality: they can be massive carriers of toxic chemicals.  There are ‘legacy chemicals’ in the air they take in and in the soluble pollutants from the water they swim in.  Because they can be so old and so big, they can still be carrying chemicals from long ago that are now banned.

Food for thought…

Thanks to the organisers of the Perth Festival for making this session available.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2021

Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) by “Vercors”

This extraordinary story came my way via a mention of it in Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter.  The Silence of the Sea is a novel of the French Resistance, written and published underground during the German Occupation.  I read it in French in a bilingual edition that came with additional features:

  • Preface and Acknowledgements, by James W Brown
  • Historical Introduction, by Lawrence D Stokes
  • Literary Introduction, by James W Brown
  • La Silence de la mer (30 pages, including footnotes)
  • The Silence of the Sea (27 pages), translation by Cyril Connolly
  • Select bibliography

The Introductions make the significance of this short story clear.  “Vercors” chose to characterise the German officer billeted in a French home as a handsome, aristocratic, sophisticated and genial man, respectful of French culture and traditions. The point was to show Occupied France that no matter how congenial the occupiers might seem in the early stages, they were invaders who did not share the same culture and values.  It was easy to detest hateful, violent, brutish Germans, but the gentlemanly types represent an insidious threat that must also be resisted.  The story shows a non-violent form in which even the weakest can express that resistance.

There are just three characters, and only one of them speaks.  There is the unnamed narrator, his unnamed niece, and the German officer, Werner von Ebrennac.  Ebrennac’s arrival is marked by courtesy: he introduces himself and apologises for his presence.  He hopes it will not inconvenience them.  But he is met with total silence, a silence that is maintained throughout his sojourn of over a year.  They do not respond to his knocks on the door, and they sit in dignified silence when in the evening he comes into the room where the narrator reads and the niece does her handiwork.  The entire story consists of the narrator’s observations and Ebrennac’s attempts at conversation, with which he persists in good humour even after he has learned the rules by which this silence is maintained.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (though nobody reads this book for the plot, such as it is).

Vercors makes a point of making explicit the differences between Germany and France.  They do not share the same culture and values.  When Ebrennac discovers the shelves of French literature he goes into raptures about how many eminent authors there are.  If I hadn’t read German Literature, a Very Short Introduction, I might have thought that this was just French hubris, but it’s true that there’s only one great name in German literature that springs to mind, and that’s Goethe.  As the VSI explains, political and economic aspects of German history were not conducive to the emergence of literary fiction that took place in the 18th, 19th centuries and early 20th century in England, Russia and France.  Ebrennac attributes it, however, to the climate.  The winter in France, he says, as he warms himself by the fire, is nothing compared to winter in Germany.  There, people have to be strong.  In France, it is possible to be subtle and poetic.

He claims pre-eminence in music, with Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart (who was actually born in Austria).  But now that France and Germany are at war, he thinks this can all be resolved because there will be ‘marriage’ between the two countries.  He had thought at first that French acquiescence was a good thing, then he despised their cowardice, but now he admires the stoic silence of his unwilling hosts because it means dignity. And he tells the story of Beauty and the Beast—a story of reconciliation between the strong and the weak.  When Beauty realises she has misjudged the Beast and ceases to hate him, she becomes able to love him. Ebrennac sees this as a metaphor for the current situation.

Vercors tackles the possibilities of collaboration indirectly.  Ebrennac muses that he loves France, and he had hoped during the Weimar Republic that the nations could be friends. Ebrennac says that he knows all of Europe, because he’s a musician who has visited its major cities, but never France.  This was because he had promised his father, who took German defeat very hard, never to set foot in France unless he was wearing boots and a helmet—an attitude formed in the wake of WW1 after France, he says, was led by iron and steel manufacturers into the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles (though he doesn’t name the treaty explicitly).  Now he thinks that the war will bring good things including reconciliation.  He hopes this does not offend, and he wishes them good night as usual.

All through the winter, the themes were the same.  Ebrennac rhapsodises about discovering France and his grand love for it.  The narrator comes to admire him, and he thinks that his niece has made a prisoner of herself with her silence.  But he maintains his own silence all the same.

In the Spring, Ebrennac travels to Paris for negotiations and comes back a shattered man.  When he does not enter the room after his usual unanswered knock, the narrator breaks his silence to say ‘Come in, Sir’, (and then questions himself about why he used ‘Sir’.)  Ebrennac is grave, and he tells them that he wants them to forget everything he has said beforehand.  His stance about reconciliation was mocked in Paris, and he now knows that Germany has no plans for rapprochement with France.  They are not just going to destroy the country materially so that she can never rise up against Germany again, but are also going to destroy her soul.  Already the other occupied countries are subject to severe censorship—not just contemporary works but also those classic works that he had so effusively admired.  He is devastated.  He recognises that it is Germany’s ‘right’ and its ‘duty’ but he is in anguish.

He leaves the next day to fight on the front, and for the first and only time, the niece speaks.  She says ‘Adieu.’  Farewell, not ‘Till we meet again’ (Au revoir).

Reading this in French intensified the emotions that Le Silence de la mer must have aroused as it spread not just through France but throughout occupied territory, Russia, Britain and America.  The story of its publication is fascinating in its own right, and shows the incredible bravery of everyone involved.  Like Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, and H V Morton’s I, James Blunt, Le Silence de la mer is a classic of wartime literature and shows how sometimes propaganda can outlive its origins.

Author: “Vercors”, the nom de plume of Jean Bruller (1902-1991)
Title: Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, (bilingual edition), 2020 reprint, first published by Berg in 1991, from the first clandestine publication in 1942
ISBN: 9781350106239, pbk, 102 pages
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $26.72

Available from Fishpond: Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer: A Novel of French Resistance during the Second World War by ‘Vercors’



Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2021

Book covers – how much do they matter?

The rather lacklustre 2021 longlist for book cover design has inspired me to resurrect a draft that’s been languishing since late in 2019.

When I was writing my post about the 2019 Goodreads Reading Women challenge, I commented about one of the items: I wrote that I don’t buy books because of the cover, and more often I don’t buy a book because of the sexism inherent in the cover (back view of headless woman; title in sickly pink script, anything with ridiculous high heels &c).

And I’ve been thinking about book covers ever since, and whether what I wrote was actually true…

I’ve been interested in book cover design for years, ever since I filled in an online survey about it, and learned a little bit about the ‘rules’ it plays by.  I have a Book Cover Design tag here on the blog though I don’t always remember to use it, and every now and again I see publicity about design awards, and sometimes share it here on the blog.

But although there is now heaps of online advice for DIY designers for self-published books, it’s more about how to do it, than about how to appeal to a target market.

There are two cover designs below that are from self-published books.  Can you guess which ones they are?

These ones IMHO are examples of effective non-fiction design:


Life stories (biography and autobiography and memoir) are harder to do well, because too often they just feature a portrait of the subject.  It seems to me that they rely more heavily on having an enticing title, unless the subject is well-known and admired (like Magda Szubanski and Gillian Triggs):


I prefer these memoir covers.  (well, ok, Smoky the Brave gets in because it’s got a Yorkie on the front cover).


Art Books are easy IMO:

And then there’s fiction.  There’s a whole vocabulary of signals for different types of fiction, and we all respond to them according to our tastes.  These are covers that tell you nothing at all about the content, except that the book is ‘literary’:

They are ok, but I’d pick those ones out in the bookshop because I know the author’s names.  I admire designs that allude in some way to the content of the book (even if you don’t know that till you start reading it).

And then there are ones that feature great art, mostly—but not always—from long ago.  Many of Patrick White’s novels had cover art by Sidney Nolan.  I’ve added three from the OUP editions of Zola because they all feature details from gorgeous French paintings:

Indigenous fiction deserves a special mention:

What do you think?  Does cover art influence your book choices?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2021

2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Longlist

Thanks to Marg at the Intrepid Reader for the news that four Australians are among the authors longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction…

I’ve read some of these and most of these were on my radar, but there’s a couple I hadn’t come across.

  • Hinton, by Mark Blacklock (Granta)
  • The Tolstoy Estate, by Steven Conte (HarperCollins Australia), see my review
  • The Year without Summer, by Guinevere Glasfurd (Two Roads) — I’ve previously read her The Words in My Hand
  • A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville (Canongate UK, Text Publishing Australia)
  • Mr Beethoven, by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press) (I’ve got this on reserve at the library)
  • Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury) — I have previously read his Admiring Silence.
  • A Treacherous Country, by K L Kruimink (Allen & Unwin Australia), see my review
  • The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate), see my review
  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline), on my TBR
  • Islands of Mercy, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus), see my review
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (Affirm Press Australia, Chatto & Windus UK), see my review

What’s interesting about this is that all these authors, as far as I can tell, are from the UK or from Australia.  The prize is open to titles from the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth, but with the exception of Gurnah (born in Zanzibar but resident in the UK) none of the exciting historical fiction emerging from African countries is on the list, and (unless my quick Google search for the authors is faulty) there’s nothing from Ireland, Canada, India, or New Zealand, or any of the other Commonwealth countries.  I’m pleased Australians have done so well, and I’m also pleased that our small indie publishers are well-represented, and I am confident that the ones I’ve read are very good books…but… I have an uncomfortable feeling about this list.  Anyone else have any thoughts about this?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: the Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

Time to draw the winner of the giveaway for The Morbids!  There were 8 entries, and I drew the winners using

And the winners are:

*drum roll*

Congratulations to Fay, Robyn, Jess and Agnes.

To keep my costs down, I’m having them delivered from Fishpond, so if you are a winner, it is conditional on you providing me with your address by the end of this month so that I can pass it on to Fishpond for delivery.

I’ll contact you  to get your postal address.

Thanks to everyone for entering!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2021

2021 Australian Book Industry Awards Longlist

My goodness, it’s a busy night tonight!

The 2021 Australian Book Industry Awards Longlist has been announced. A shortlist will be released on Monday 12 April, with winners announced on Wednesday 28 April.

Though some are on my TBR, I’ve read only two of them.  But then, I tend not to, with nominees for this award, because read a lot from small publishers, and it’s the big conglomerates that dominate these awards.  But Theresa Smith has read quite a number of them, so visit her site to see her reviews. 

Literary Fiction Book of the Year

  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • A Room Made of Leaves, Kate Grenville (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • All Our Shimmering Skies, Trent Dalton (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • Honeybee, Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Infinite Splendours, Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Song of the Crocodile, Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • The Last Migration, Charlotte McConaghy (Penguin Random House, Hamish Hamilton)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year

  • Fire Country, Victor Steffensen (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • My Tidda, My Sister, Marlee Silva; Illustrated by Rachael Sarra (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987–1995, Helen Garner (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, Julia Baird (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • The Golden Maze: A biography of Prague, Richard Fidler (HarperCollins Publishers, ABC Books)
  • The Space Between, Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald (Penguin Random House, Viking)
  • Un-cook Yourself: A Ratbag’s Rules for Life, Nat’s What I Reckon (Penguin Random House, Ebury Australia)
  • Women and Leadership, Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Penguin Random House, Vintage Australia)

The Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year

  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin)
  • Lucky’s, Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan Australia, Picador Australia)
  • My Tidda, My Sister, Marlee Silva; Illustrated by Rachael Sarra (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • Song of the Crocodile, Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • The Coconut Children, Vivian Pham (Penguin Random House, Vintage Australia), abandoned
  • The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press, Affirm Press)
  • The Happiest Man on Earth, Eddie Jaku (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • The Morbids, Ewa Ramsey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on order

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

  • Glimpses of Utopia: Real ideas for a fairer world, Jess Scully (Pantera Press, Pantera Press)
  • Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books), on my TBR
  • Stone Sky Gold Mountain, Mirandi Riwoe (University of Queensland Press, UQP), on my TBR
  • The Animals in That Country, Laura Jean McKay (Scribe Publications, Scribe Publications)
  • The Rain Heron, Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing, Text Publishing), on my TBR
  • What Is To Be Done: political engagement and saving the planet, Barry Jones (Scribe Publications, Scribe Publications)
  • Where the Fruit Falls, Karen Wyld (UWA Publishing, UWA Publishing)
  • Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja, Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja (Magabala Books), see my review

Biography Book of the Year

  • A Bigger Picture, Malcolm Turnbull (Hardie Grant)
  • A Repurposed Life, Ronni Kahn with Jessica Chapnik Kahn (Allen & Unwin, Murdoch Books)
  • Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave, Mark Mordue (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • Fourteen, Shannon Molloy (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Paul Kelly, Stuart Coupe (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia)
  • Soar: A Life Freed by Dance, David McAllister with Amanda Dunn (Thames & Hudson Australia )
  • The Happiest Man on Earth, Eddie Jaku (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Truganini, Cassandra Pybus (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on my TBR

General Fiction Book of the Year

  • The Bluffs, Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House, Michael Joseph)
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams (Affirm Press, Affirm Press), see my review
  • The Godmothers, Monica McInerney (Penguin Random House, Michael Joseph)
  • The Good Turn, Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Morbids, Ewa Ramsey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on order
  • The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Survivors, Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • Trust, Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin


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