Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2019

2019 Indie Book Awards shortlist

Thanks to Readings Bookstore, here’s news of the 2019 Indie Book Awards shortlist.  Links on the titles take you to the Readings site where you can buy the book.  Other links go to my reviews or those of other trusted reviewers.



Debut Fiction

Illustrated non-fiction


Young Adult

Winners will be announced on Monday 18 March, 2019. Find out more here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2019

The Book Thieves, by Anders Rydell

The Book Thieves was an impulse loan from the library.  I’d heard a lot about the Nazi theft of artworks and their burning of books, but I knew nothing about the systematic theft of books…

But it takes only a moment’s thought to realise that of course there would have been precious collections of books all over Europe, and of course they would have been looted by the Germans, just as the precious artworks and other collectibles were.  Invaders have always looted the possessions of the vanquished, and all the major museums of the world have treasures that originally belonged elsewhere.  In some cases, perversely, that’s turned out to be a good thing: many of Afghanistan’s ancient treasures were smuggled out of the destructive hands of the Taliban and even if they’re in the hands of private collectors now, at least they still exist.  OTOH in the case of the Baghdad Museum, there are irreplaceable losses because the US failed to put a strategy in place for the protection of the collection.  All over Europe, there are heroic stories of collections being hidden away from the invading Germans in WW2, but many treasures fell prey to the looting all the same. (Geraldine Brooks wrote a book about an example of saving a precious book: it’s called The People of the Book. I read it before I started blogging, but Ursula Le Guin reviewed it here),

However, the German plunder was not confined to collections in museums and art galleries.  The Nazi regime systematically dispossessed Jews of everything they owned as part of their genocidal intent, and that included stealing books in private collections.  But book theft also applied to any of the ideological enemies of the Third Reich— Communists, Freemasons, Catholics, Roma, Slavs and dissidents.   And what is not widely known is that there were two purposes for the theft of books.  The obvious reason is that ancient texts, manuscripts, first editions and complete collections of serialised books are valuable both from a monetary point of view and for their historical and cultural importance.  The less obvious reason is that the Nazis had a more malevolent purpose: the systematic extinction of anything that was in opposition to their ideology so that they could rewrite history and culture according to their own warped beliefs.

The Nazis were not going to destroy their enemies by eradicating the literary and cultural inheritance of Communists, Social Democrats, liberals, homosexuals, Jews, Rom, and Slavs.  Nazis were not, properly speaking, the sort of “cultural barbarians” they were purported to be, nor were they anti-intellectual.  They intended instead to create a new sort of intellectual being, one who did not base himself on values such as liberalism and humanism but rather on his nation and race. (p.12)

The chapter titled ‘Goethe’s Oak’ explains the complex process by which Germany’s most esteemed writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, came to be used to bolster Nazi ambitions.  Anders then goes on to tell the story of one very special remaining tree after a forest was cleared to build the Buchenwald concentration camp.  It was the tree under which Goethe was said to have written some of Faust.  There were beliefs that this tree represented Germany’s destiny and that the nation would endure for as long as the tree lived.

… the oak eventually took on two entirely different symbolic realities, one for the SS guards who had decided that the oak had to be preserved, and another for the prisoners of the camp.  For the SS, the oak was a link to a great Germanic cultural tradition, of which they felt they were the true inheritors.  […]

For many of the camp prisoners, this oak, in the middle of this infernal world, took on a representation of dreams, fantasies, and hopes that were still keeping them alive.  For prisoners who were rooted in German culture, the tree symbolised another, bright, and more enlightened land than the one that kept them incarcerated.


For [camp survivor] Ernst Wiechert, Goethe personified the true German cultural tradition, like a beautifully illuminated path, although the people had lost their way and strayed into darker parts of the forest. […]

Not everyone shared Wiechert’s perspective.  Rather, they viewed the oak as a symbol of the inherent evil of Germanic culture, of oppression and cruelty.  These prisoners kept alive the myth of the oak being tied to the fate of Germany.  And it gave them hope.  The oak in the camp started slowly withering and dying.   (p.38-9)

Rydell (who is Swedish) explains in some depth this paradox, describing it as the Janus face of Germany.  

Some have wished to see these two sides of German culture as wholly separate, in order not to besmirch the radiance of the classicist’s era.  This has been the predominant approach in Weimar for most of the postwar period.  Others maintain that this is a historical simplification, even a falsification, for the plain reason that these two sides are interlinked by cultural, philosophical, and literary roots.  Not directly related, perhaps, yet National Socialism grew and mercilessly exploited some of these ideas, which sprang from the same root: German nationalism and the rejection of Enlightenment ideas.

High German romanticism was strongly resistant to the emotional paucity of the Enlightenment era.  (p.41)

As Anders says in the introduction:

In this war, books would be not so much a casualty as a weapon.  The Nazis wanted to defeat their enemies not only on the battlefield but also in thought.  This victory would endure long after the grave, after the genocides and the Holocaust.  Not only to wipe out, but also to justify their actions.  It was not by destroying the literary and cultural heritage of their enemies that the Nazis intended to prevail—rather by stealing, owning, and twisting it, and by turning their libraries and archives, their history, inheritance, and memory against themselves.  To capture the right to write their history.  It was a concept that set in motion to the most extensive book theft in the history of the world. (p.13)

The identification and repatriation of books to their owners or their descendants is much more difficult than returning artworks. The sheer scale of numbers is one thing: there are a quarter of a million books in one library in Berlin alone.  But locating the owners is another: while some valuable books have beautiful book plates inside, other more ordinary books have only the sort of inscriptions that gift-givers write, or no trace of ownership at all, other than, sometimes, an arcane library accession notation or something like that.  And while Anders gives examples of descendants cherishing the return of what is perhaps the only memento of a loved one, there was also a photo of a book stamped with Nazi insignia:

On the flyleaf of a book entitled Polnische Juden (Polish Jews) I find black-stamped text: “Reichsinstitut fur die Geschichte des neuen Deutschland” (National Institute for the History of New Germany, headed by the historian Walter Frank).  This text runs around the Nazi state crest, an open-winged eagle with its talons gripping a wreath decorated with swastikas. (p.60)

Would a survivor or descendant want the return of a book mutilated like that?  Even if the page were torn out, the memory of seeing that stamp would be indelible.  Nevertheless that decision should be the survivor or descendant’s choice.  So while it is a mammoth [and probably expensive] task, IMO it is a good thing that there are attempts at restitution.  Dedicated teams are working diligently to try to trace the provenance of the books and to offer them for return.  Each book can take months of painstaking research, and there are libraries all over Europe that house these millions of books.

The Book Thieves is extraordinary in its entirety, but the chapter about Paris deserves special mention.  It wasn’t just Jewish books that were stolen, but also what Rydell calls émigré libraries.  Political immigrants from the east during the entire revolutionary period that began in the 1800s set up libraries which eventually became centres of exile, organising readings, concerts, exhibitions and celebrations.  The Turgenev library became a nursery for several generations of Russian revolutionaries and had an extraordinary collection of works representing the full spectrum of political opinion, from revolutionaries, to White Russians and Socialists, Communists and Social Democrats who were exiled once the Bolsheviks took over. (Lenin worked there for a while).  It was one of the world’s leading Russian libraries, and it also had prized possessions such as first editions of Voltaire, and Tsar Ivan IV’s lawbook from 1550.  There was also an émigré Ukrainian library and one for the Poles.

These libraries also symbolised an alternative version of written history.  They pointed to the other Russia, the other Poland, and preserved the stories that would otherwise have been lost.  In the exile libraries, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian literature could keep evolving and be read, debated, and criticised.  For the poets, authors, and journalists that had not only lost their home countries but also their readers, this was especially important.  Yet a catastrophe lay in wait for Paris’s flourishing émigré communities, and it would come from an enemy that did not merely intend to stifle and censor Russian, Polish and Ukrainian culture, but raze them to the ground and utterly extinguish them  (p. 147)

The Book Thieves is a comprehensive and detailed account of the history of the book theft, and the efforts to redress the wrong.  The translation is fluent, and Anders begins his chapters gently, as if to remind the reader that we live in the present before encountering the perfidy of the past:

With a soft swaying shudder the ferry leaves its berth in the harbour below the village of Prien.  I have taken a seat at the far end of the stern, on the sundeck, so I can get a good view.  The deck has quickly filled with retirees in neon-coloured clothes and school-age adolescents sitting on top of each other, vying to get a place in the sun.  Hundreds of small white dinghies on the lake are doing their best to catch the faint breeze.  (Ch 5, en route to Chiemsee in Bavaria, p.71)

Wout Visser carefully places a small brown box on the table and opens the lid, then takes out a light brown, leather-bound book with worn edges.

The cover, decorated in a printed pattern of foliage within a rectangular shape, reveals little about its contents.  It looks like a small and not especially rare book from the turn of the last century, something that could be fairly easily be found in a secondhand bookshop—apart from the distinguishing feature of an almost half-inch hole near the top left corner of the book. (Ch 6, in Amsterdam p.93.  The hole was made by a bullet, the slug still inside the book).

From the bridge I can see the light brown backs of the fish against the sandy bottom.  From time to time one of them swivels, turning its scales toward the sun and projecting a silvery reflection. On the other side of the bridge I see families with children, lying on an exposed sand spit reaching into the river Ohre.  It is high summer and the water level is low.  The children throw themselves into the current and let themselves be pulled along to a calmer section.  Farther down, where the trees along the riverbank stop, the ashes of 22,000 camp prisoners were dumped in the river.  (Ch12, at Theresienstadt, p. 218)

This is an impressive book, and I suspect that the author felt that documenting this story thoroughly was vitally important.  I agree: at the very least, the original owners and their descendants are owed that.

In 2018 the Library of Congress hosted a talk by Anders Rydell, about this book, and it’s available on You Tube.  (There’s also a nice homage to the importance of libraries in Sweden). But right at the very end (45:30, before the questions) he explains the importance of returning a book that has no monetary value.  He tells the story of the book’s owner and how the book now in the hands of his granddaughter is the only evidence she has that he ever existed.

Author: Anders Rydell
Title: The Book Thieves, the Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance
Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2017, first published as Boktjuvarna in 2015, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780735221222
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2019

The Fragments, by Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan is a versatile writer, equally adept at romcoms, farce, historical fiction and now a literary mystery-thriller.  She is also equally adept at witty repartee, lyrical descriptions of Brisbane in all its moods, and the compelling cliff-hanger.  But it’s not like The Da Vinci Code where the reader doesn’t really care where the cliff-hanger leads because the characters are so wooden.  Jordan has always been good at creating compelling characters and in The Fragments she shows that she can also portray the bone-crunching realism of domestic violence.  So much so, that when the alternating chapters of her new novel The Fragments leave the reader on a cliff-edge, wondering if a character in America is to survive the latest brutality, violence hangs like a dark cloud over the next chapter, set in the sunny Brisbane of the 1980s though it may be.

Geordie Williamson in his (paywalled) review at The Australian suggests that The Fragments is like a locket, with two images separate but clasped together, and the reader knows that this is true from the beginning.  From the moment that, in 1980s Brisbane, Caddie—awestruck by the sell-out exhibition about the iconic author Inga Karlson—meets a mysterious woman called Sarah who quotes a tantalising snippet from Karlson’s lost book which has spawned decades of scholarship, it is obvious that this Sarah is the key to Caddie’s obsession with finding out who else might have read the lost manuscript.  Caddie’s quest, intersecting with her own quest for identity and a satisfactory love life, alternates with Sarah’s hard-scrabble childhood half a century ago in America and her flight from an abusive father.

Along the way Jordan pokes fun at literary pretensions, scurrilous academics who appropriate the ideas of others, and the commodification of books especially antiquarian books which never get read by their well-heeled owners.  1980s Brisbane is well-realised, though I did wonder if a sly reference to ‘Jana’ would mean much to anyone not around when Jana Wendt was a prominent journalist on one of the commercial networks.  I don’t like to play interstate rivalry games but Brisbane had the reputation of a cultural desert during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years, so the mere idea of there being any funding for a literary blockbuster exhibition in 1980s Brisbane is quite remarkable.  There are other elements to raise a wry eyebrow, not the least of which is the stilted too-correct English of the Austrian émigré Inga Karlson in a café, compared to her later easy use of Americanisms like I’m full up to here; those beauties; I guess; and her angry response to Rachel’s gentle reassurances on p 272:

Inga’s nostrils flare.  She unfolds her legs and one knee strikes a table leg, making everything rattle.  ‘And you know that for certain, do you?  All hail, Rachel, the psychic waitress, teller of fortunes, seer of mysteries.  What do you know about it?  Honestly you speak such rubbish when you choose.’

That Inga could well be the author of an iconic novel.  This Inga would need a great deal of editing:

The girl opens her mouth.  ‘I do beg your pardon, Madam?’ Her accent is European, her voice is low and guttural.
‘A foreigner,’ says Bridget, in her brogue. She and Maureen are standing behind Rachel, eyes agog.  ‘I shouda known.’
‘Don’t you madam me and all,’ says Mrs O’LKoughlin. ‘There’s a cell waiting for the likes of you.’
‘Forgive my English,’ the girl says.  ‘But to what do you refer?’

Mrs O’Loughlin is referring to shoplifting a box of cherries…

‘My mind, ‘the girl says, and her voice softens now to become crystal-thin and lace-edged.  ‘It wanders.  I cannot keep it fixed to its work. I can only offer a thousand apologies.’ (p.172.)


‘You are too kind,’ she says to the room, and she gives a small, stiff bow.  ‘I will never forget.’ And to Mrs O’Loughlin, ‘Again, I can only apologise for my oversight.  But I think now I have interrupted.’ (p.174)

If Inga is faking shy foreignness and halting English to evade being charged, Sarah doesn’t notice it when a few pages later Inga’s exasperation flares in confident, idiomatically correct English.  It’s Sarah’s perspective that the reader shares, and Sarah doesn’t comment on this remarkable transition at all, though she was taken in with pity for the pathetic émigré and had risked her job to protect her:

‘Honestly, you should be under glass. No I’m not ready for a quack just yet. The zoo?  There’s a tiglon or maybe a liger or something.  Half of one thing, half of another, poor pet*.  Or the Museum of Modern Art.  We could catch something at the Roxy or, I don’t know, have you been to the Argosy?  We could browse the maps.  Or shopping.  I could take you shopping for a hat.’ (p.184)

It’s a small issue, but along with the not-quite-convincing coincidences and the ease with which one can suss out the twist in the plot too soon, it’s not one which will detract from enjoying the novel.

*Hybrid offspring of parents in the same genus but of different species.  Like the hybrid nature of this book!

The Fragments is also reviewed at The Saturday Paper, the SMH, and at Kill Your Darlings.

Author: Toni Jordan
Title: The Fragments
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 308 pages
ISBN: 9781925773132
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2019

The Pioneers, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Bill is hosting AWW Gen 2 over at The Australian Legend, and The Pioneers is the book I promised to read for this important literary week in the Australian Literary calendar. Bill defines this second generation of Australian writing as the period between 1890 and 1918.  To my surprise I didn’t have a single book by a woman writer for that period, so I decided to chase up Katharine Susannah Prichard’s output for these years and found her debut novel The Pioneers.  Bill distinguishes post WW1 Gen 3 writers from Gen 2 writers by their preoccupation with social realism in urban settings, and thus places Prichard in Gen 3, but as we shall see, The Pioneers belongs with Gen 2 writing because it features the myth of the Pioneers, men and women working together to carve out a space for themselves from [so-called] virgin country.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was born in 1883 and died 1969, and she wrote 13 novels.  In the Preface to The Pioneers, KSP tells us that:

Notes for The Pioneers were made about 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland.  But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story which had been simmering in my mind for so long.

The book’s blurb tells us that The Pioneers went on to win the Australian section of the £1000 Dominion Competition for fiction in 1915.   More properly known as the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia, (see here) this prize launched KSP’s career as a creative writer.

This is the blurb:

Set in Gippsland, Victoria, this powerful story tells of early settlers and of their unwelcome neighbours – escaped convicts who crossed to the mainland from Van Diemen’s Land. Davey Cameron, son of a stern and narrow-minded Scots settler, becomes entangled with cattle-duffing convicts and an unscrupulous shanty-keeper. With the growth of his love for Deirdre, the daughter of a convict, the lives of the characters become more involved, and clouds of tragedy begin to form.
The book, a masterly study of human relations, conveys all the excitement, hard work and despair of pioneering days, and the story comes to life against a background of bushfires, scrub-clearing, home-building and the handling of cattle under semi-primitive conditions.

These days, marketers might promote The Pioneers as Rural Romance, which you might guess anyway from that excruciatingly bad cover art by D.L. Allnutt.  Poor Deirdre looks as if her arm is dislocated, like a doll with its arm screwed on back-to-front. Davey Cameron’s awkward grimace, and her pert expression hints at Difficulties in the Relationship, but the body language suggests that eventually all will be well.  Also, there are ‘secrets’, a trope so clichéd in contemporary commercial ‘women’s’ fiction that the mere mention of the word in a blurb is enough for me to decide that the book is not for me.

However, KSP being KSP, there’s a bit more to this novel than a rocky relationship and a secret withheld to the end of the story. Vernay, in A Brief Take of the Australian Novel features KSP in one of his ‘Panoramic Views’ and while noting that she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1932, points to three categories in her assorted publications:

  • Iconoclastic novels containing risky heretical topics: (lustful desire (Working Bullocks, 1926); desire for an Indigenous partner (Coonardoo, 1929); and female eroticism (Intimate Strangers, 1937);
  • Neo-nationalist novels in the romantic tradition and concerned with the wealth that the continent had to offer its settler and indigenous populations: The Pioneers (1915); Black Opal (1921, see my review) and Moon of Desire (1941);
  • Politically inspired novels [which] can be read as a diatribe against corrupt capitalism: her trilogy about the mining industry in WA: The Roaring Nineties (1946); Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950).

#OffTopic: Vernay also notes in passing that Haxby’s Circus (1930, see my review) might be an exception to a body of work emphasising many significant aspects of Australian life. Alas, he does not go on to explain how it is that the exploitation of women within family businesses (which are a staple in the Australian economy) is not a significant topic. But A Brief Take is only 200+ pages long, so I suppose he could not cover everything. Still, this irks me.  What’s more, Haxby’s Circus is revisiting a topic first raised in The Pioneers by the character Donald Cameron exploiting his son, making him work long hours with no pay and denying him any decision-making in the business.

Anyway, as we see, The Pioneers falls within the Neo-nationalist novels, which brings up (of course) the problem of ownership of the land on which the pioneers were pioneering.  We can’t read this book today without this awareness, and the depiction of an Aboriginal stockman—the only character who isn’t named in the novel—isn’t KSP at her best.  There isn’t any way around this: neo-nationalist novels are by their very nature triumphalist in tone, dismissive of prior ownership of the land, and lofty about Indigenous people, history and culture if they mention them at all.   But as KSP tells us in the Preface, this story is based on yarns and gossip [that she heard] at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville [now Tarraville] and the wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. And the era that KSP’s sources were yarning about was a time when The Convict Stain was a real secret, suppressed not just because of the social implications, but also because in some cases there were escapees with outstanding sentences living surreptitiously in remote communities.

KSP contrasts one of these unrecognised escapees as a good man, a man who becomes a well-loved school-teacher when the community wants a school, with a free man who has no redeeming features at all, and in league with a corrupt policeman to boot.  It is the schoolteacher’s daughter who falls in love with the son of the dour and rigid Scots settler, Donald Cameron who was the first to take up land in this area.  Donald and his wife Mary are acutely conscious that Port Albert—the supply port for Gippsland’s pioneers until the railway was built—is a destination for escapees coming across Bass Strait from Van Diemen’s Land, and although Mary has some sympathy for such escapees, their presence in a remote place is a constant fear.  However, as their little community grows, knowing the dubious history of some stockmen becomes a means of blackmail.  So while the story does feature the obligatory bushfire, clearing of the land, home-building and the planting of subsistence crops, plus a proud declaration that It’s all ours, this land about here, the focus of KSP’s theme is redemption and the creation of a new society in which there were second chances for people who had fallen foul of unjust laws.

Finally a #LittleKnownFact: Vernay includes The Pioneers in his ‘Literary Milestones’, a timeline of significant events in Australian publishing.  The Pioneers was the first Australian novel brought to the screen, in 1916, the year after it was published. A search with Google brought me to the SUP (Sydney University Press) edition (with a much nicer McCubbin artwork on the cover), which in its blurb tells me that in fact The Pioneers has been filmed twice, once in 1916 and once in 1926, and that a one-act dramatic version was first performed in 1923.  Alas, I didn’t find anything at Screen Australia.  Perhaps the films have been lost to time.  (Nathan Hobby who is writing a bio of KSP may be able to help us out with that?)

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed The Pioneers back in 2010.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: The Pioneers
Publisher: Rigby, 1963, 256 pages, first published 1915.
ISBN: none
Source: personal copy, purchased from M&A Simper Bookbinders, Warrnambool Vic, $20 plus $10 postage.

Availability: Goodreads seems to have all manner of reprints available, including a Kindle edition. Try to see what you can find.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 7, 2019

Living in Hope, by Frank Byrne

  Cultural warning: Indigenous readers please be aware that this post contains content about, and weblinks to video images of, a deceased person.

The Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) is designed to unearth literary treasures that might otherwise have been overlooked – and the 2018 winner is certainly an example of that.  The MUBA award judges,  Sarah L’Estrange, Megan O’Brien and Toni Jordan said that Living in Hope, by Stolen Generations survivor Frank Byrne is an important story of survival and hope and that the award, coming just after the death of the author aged 80, offered some measure of comfort to his family. But Living in Hope is a very small book, published by a very small non-profit community publisher based in Mparntwe Alice Springs, and it’s a title that had not crossed my radar at all until the MUBA shone a light on it.  And yet it’s a book, like Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss, which has revelatory power.

The book is co-authored by social workers and Bringing Them Home counsellors Frances Coughlan and Gerard Waterford who have played a similar facilitative role to the people behind the Makor Write Your Story program for Holocaust survivors at the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia. As you can hear at this site, Frank spoke Aboriginal English, and as well as facilitating the recording of his story, Coughlan and Waterford have rendered the text into Standard Australian English to make it ready for publication.   But as I know from conversations with Lamm Library staff, facilitators perform much more than a technical or editing role.  Telling a story of survival involves confronting painful memories, so supportive listeners are needed to provide comfort and encouragement, even when there is a steely determination to set the record straight.

Reporting on the MUBA win, the Alice Springs News quotes Coughlan and Waterford as saying

“Frank wrote this story to have an impact on what is happening in the current world. He wanted his own kids, his grandkids and the families around him to actually know what happened to the Stolen Generations. He wanted it recorded for history. He was absolutely outraged by [former Prime Minister] John Howard and others making claims that children were being rescued not stolen. That was painful for him to hear. That denial of truth was a reason why he was driven to have this story out. His story and stories like this are really important.”

This memoir of childhood from one of the Stolen Generations reminded me of A B Facey’s A Fortunate Life in style.  Byrne offers a straightforward telling of events, without a trace of self-pity, and yet no reader can remain unmoved by the cruel hardships of his young life.  The story concludes when he is 15 and about to start life as a working man.  But the story beforehand is heart-wrenching because he vividly remembers the life he had with his parents at Christmas Creek in the Kimberly, and—though he needs to consult written records to find the exact date—he remembers the day a truck arrived to take him away to Moola Bulla.

I did not know a calendar then so I did not know how old I was.  But the documents I’ve looked at tell me it was 17 November 1943.  I was six years old.  And that is the day my life changed forever.

They just loaded us up like cattle — my mother, my stepfather and me — on the back of a truck.  I did not know what for.  But I could see my parents were very frightened, and that made me very frightened.  We just drove off, heading somewhere.

We went through Halls Creek and out to a place called Moola Bulla, about 220 kilometres away.  I think we got there that same day, and the three of us camped together that first night at Moola Bulla in the yard of a house.  I remember my parents were sad, silent, my mother was crying.  I was frightened but I did not really get what was going to happen. (p.11)

It is distressing to read about the impact on this very small boy, of being taken away from his family—for no reason other than the colour of his skin.  But to read about the criminal neglect of these children at Moola Bulla is absolutely shocking.  To take a child away from where he is loved is bad enough, but to remove him from where he is well-fed and educated for his future, and put him into a paddock like a poddy calf where there were no proper arrangements for his care and protection is appalling.  For this little boy, eventual removal to a mission came as a relief.

The brevity of Living in Hope means that it is a perfect size for secondary school students studying Indigenous history.  Perhaps John Howard could spare an hour to read it too…

You can hear Frank telling his story at this site.

Frank Byrne is an Indigenous man of Gooniyandi and Irish descent.

David Stephens reviewed it at Honest History too.

Author: Frank Byre, with Frances Coughlan and Gerard Waterford
Title: Living in Hope
Publisher: Ptilotus Press, 2017 54 pages
ISBN: 9780648062905
Personal library, purchased from the NT Writers Centre $17AUD includes postage within Australia.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2019

Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

It’s only a week or so since I watched the film based on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and I was conscious of its chilling ending as I turned the pages of the last few chapters of Glimpses of the Moon, wondering how Wharton was going to resolve the conundrums of its failing marriage.  Improbably, I had become fond of the characters…

The House of Mirth and Glimpses of the Moon have a theme in common: how to live amid high society and flamboyant wealth when you have no money.  Money—the absence of it, and the need to get and keep it, has long been in a theme in literature, and the social novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries tackled it in a variety of ways.  Catherine Helen Spence in Mr Hogarth’s Will wrote  about the structural reasons why middle-class women wanted to be financially independent but could not earn a dignified living if they did not marry, while hordes of British writers had concerned themselves with the problem of younger sons and the inheritance laws.  Wharton—coming from great wealth herself—seems to have been on a mission to expose with a sympathetic eye the parasites who sponged off the wealthy because they had no alternative but an uncongenial poverty. The House of Mirth (1905) shows the invidious position of women in a morally corrupt American society: it tells the story of an intelligent and self-aware unmoneyed socialite called Lily Bart.  At 29 she has been brought up to marry into money but she wants to marry for love.  Glimpses of the Moon, (1922) however, features an unmoneyed couple: Nick Lansing, a man of culture and literary ambition and his socially-ambitious wife, Susy—for whom the four cornerstones of existence were money, luxury, fashion, pleasure.  This later novel shows that men could be unwilling parasites too.

The plot is deftly summarised by the blurb:

Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are young, attractive, but impoverished New Yorkers. They are in love and decide to marry, but they realise their chances of happiness are slim without the wealth and status that their more privileged friends take for granted. Nick and Susy agree to separate whenever either encounters a more eligible proposition. However, as they honeymoon in friends’ lavish houses, from a villa on Lake Como to a Venetian palace, jealous passions and troubled consciences cause the idyll to crumble.

In this beautiful novel, Edith Wharton perceptively describes the seductions and temptations of high society with all her trademark wit and irony.

As the novel begins, the couple are honeymooning at Lake Como, in one of five homes offered to them by their generous friends.  They could have stayed at Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, an aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo, Fred Gillow’s unspecified moor, or a flat in Chicago, and when their sojourn at the lake concludes, they are off to Nelson Vanderlyn’s palace in Venice.  It is all very congenial and Wharton writes vividly about the world of luxury that she knew so well.  However, Lucy and Nick soon discover that accepting that generosity comes with a price, and in negotiating unwelcome and compromising obligations, they discover that their moral principles are not quite the same.  Both of them also have a niggling worry that the other might too soon find a more congenial proposition than their current peripatetic dependency on others: they had started out with a fantasy that with Susy’s skills at ‘managing’ their hosts, they could at least have a blissful year together before other opportunities arose.   Fate, however, ensures that both of them encounter the attention of wealthy others and a series of misunderstandings ensues.  (Wharton keeps the reader on the hook over 300+ pages, leading to my anxiety about an ending like The House of Mirth!)

This nicely packaged Pushkin Press edition* doesn’t state the date of its first publication so I read the entire book not quite able to place it in time.  There is mention of travelling in motors, there are photogravures on the walls, but unless I missed it, there was no mention of phone calls.  Although there is mention of ermine cloaks and fashionable hats, the dress styles seem deliberately vague.  I didn’t notice any mention of political events or momentous happenings to date it at all.  Most significantly, although the book—set in Europe—was published in 1922, (two years after Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence), there is no mention of WW1, or its aftermath, neither the dearth of young eligible men nor the profound national grief about the casualties.  Wharton (who was living in France since her divorce from Edward Wharton) was awarded the French Legion of Honour for her indefatigable war work, so there is no question that she knew and cared about its effects.  So why the curious absence of WW1 from a novel published in 1922?  Was it written before the war but not published until after the Pulitzer win, or was it written after the war but consciously set in a vague period at the turn of the century so as to avoid writing about it?  Or was Wharton obliquely making the point that wealthy Americans in postwar Europe were oblivious to the sufferings of Europe and the UK?

All day he wandered, avoiding the fashionable quarters, the streets in which private motors glittered five deep, and furred and feathered silhouettes glided from them into tearooms, picture-galleries and jewellers’ shops.  In some such scenes Susy was no doubt figuring: slenderer, finer, vivider than the other images of clay, but imitating their gestures, chattering their jargon, winding her hand among the same pearls and sables.  He struck away across the Seine, along the quays to the Cité, the network of old Paris, the great grey vaults of St Eustache, the swarming streets of the Marais.  He gazed at monuments, dawdled before shop-windows, sat in squares and on quays, watching people bargain, argue, philander, quarrel, work-girls stroll past in linked bands, beggars whine on the bridges, derelicts doze in the pale winter sun, mothers in mourning hasten by taking children to school, and street-walkers beat their weary rounds before the cafés. (p.285, Italics mine)

Some scholar will know, I expect, but it certainly intrigues me..

Glimpses of the Moon is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Update, later the same day: see also Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations.

Author: Edith Wharton
Title: Glimpses of the Moon
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2018, 328 pages, first published 1922, RRP $21.99 AUD
ISBN: 9781782274469
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia.

So… this month’s #6 Degrees starts with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles…

I haven’t read it, but it’s on my TBR courtesy of a 2009 sale of Vintage books at Readings: $12.95 each, if I remember correctly.  I bought quite a few, half a dozen of which are waving at me from the F-G shelf of the TBR.

I fancy Stella Gibbons’ Here Be Dragons might be the first of them I might eventually read. Here Be Dragons is set in Bohemian postwar London, in smoky jazz bars where the central character Nell searches for romance.

Music features as  a backdrop in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, also on my TBR. This quotation from two reviewers at Goodreads, suggests that the romantic idyll hasn’t happened for Morrison’s characters either.  (Not that we would expect them to, given Morrison’s confronting subject matter).

“I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is a shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things.”

Romanticism and its Discontents is the enticing title of Anita Brookner’s work of literary criticism, also on my TBR (though today it defies my efforts to find it.  But Goethe: A Very Short Introduction by Richie Robertson is in plain sight.  Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther is the quintessential sturm und drang story of a discontented romantic.  It’s ideal for young people mired in what they are yet to learn (hopefully not the hard way) is not really tragedy at all… Been there, done that myself!  The Sorrows of Young Werther is a story we grow out of, like the steamy novels of D H Lawrence and the falling-in-love-with-a-Black-Sheep theme of Gone With the Wind.  Apparently Goethe hated this book when he was older, but too bad, it’s the one that most of us begin with, I bet!

In his latter years, Patrick White was none too keen on his debut novel either.  But moi, his devoted fan, was delighted when Text reissued Happy Valley.  I am happy to read anything written by White, even his unfinished novel The Hanging Garden which was published by Knopf  in 2012.  I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a disappointment like Beethoven’s much-hyped 10th Symphony was…

Next month’s book is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.  I’ve never heard of it, but that hasn’t stopped me before, has it?

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2019

House of Stone, by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

It took longer than it should have to read House of Stone by Zimbabwean author Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.  Weird, confusing, but fascinating too, it seems to be grounded in an oral storytelling tradition with a narrator who’s pulling the strings in an anarchic sort of way.  Zamani is definitely in charge of the narrative, breaking in every now and again to confide in the reader that he is orchestrating events in the present while extracting from unwilling witnesses their stories of the past.  But he is also manipulating the reader in order to gain sympathy for himself…

The story begins with the disappearance of 19 year-old Bhokasi.  His parents, Abed and Agnes are distraught (as any parents would be in the chaos of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) so they are vulnerable to Zamani’s upbeat assurances that all will be well, even though he knows full well that Bhokasi was hauled into a police van during a demo.  He doesn’t tell them that because he is scheming to become their adopted son…

According to the Bantu philosophy of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing involves a communal pedigree.  Each person, Zamani tells us, needs a hi-story, and must be able to trace his lineage through two generations, to a grandfather.  And as the would-be revolutionary Thandi explains to her would-be lover, their stories should be told:

“And now, the valour of our people and the glory of the Mthwakazi Nation lives on not in any history book, or in any official account, where we are nothing but savages without culture, without history or glory or anything worth mentioning or passing on,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest.  “I heard the stories from my father, passed down to him by his father, my grandfather, and which I shall one day pass down to my children.” (p.53)

But Zamani does not know his lineage.  He was brought up by Uncle Fani after the death of his mother, and the imposed collective silence about the atrocity in which she died means that he does not even know how she died, or more ominously, who his father was.  Abed does not know who his father was either, and the suggestion that it might be a neighbouring white farmer sends him into alcoholic rages and violence against his wife Agnes.  These people are emblematic of the way Zimbabwe’s violent pre- and post-colonial history is at odds with its ancient tribal traditions.

The past was an overwhelming presence, too present and not past, as it should have been, cannibalising our present, mutating our future. (p.321)

Zamani’s scheme to become part of the Mlambo family means that he has to learn their long-suppressed secrets. (And keep his own).  Wangling his way in as a lodger, he lurks like a spider spinning a web in his room, plotting and planning ways of persuading or bullying or tricking Abed and Agnes into revealing their traumatic memories.  Tech-savvy, he stores their information on his Mac and in a Red Album; cunning as the leaders he despises, he blackmails almost everyone into giving him what he wants.

It was hard work reading this novel, especially since it also has scenes of confronting violence and appalling cruelty.  It’s not the light-hearted book implied by its opening pages. Yet I liked the cheeky upbeat voice of the narrator even though he was up to no good, and I felt for him each time he uncovered some of the ghastly events in his surrogate family’s history.  He succeeds in generating the reader’s sympathy because he has no family, and he so desperately wants to be part of one.  Representing the uncountable number of peoples around the world who have been left isolated and adrift by war and armed conflict, Zamani does not know how to make a new family and his society has no process for reintegrating people like him, who do not belong to anyone, anywhere.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with events in post-colonial Africa that Tshuma is caustic about contemporary Zimbabwe: through her intemperate and hyperbolic narrator, she excoriates government corruption and thuggery, shambolic services, enduring poverty and the sanitising of the past.  This trenchant criticism seems rather brave to me because even though Mugabe has at last been replaced, the new President Emmerson Mnangagwa had some involvement in the Gukurahundi genocide which is referenced repeatedly in the novel.

House of Stone is a stunning book which deserves to be widely read.

PS 5/1/19 By coincidence RN’s Big Ideas broadcast today a Reith lecture which included discussion about how hard it is for countries to reconcile after civil war.

Author: Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Title: House of Stone
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2018, 374 pages
ISBN: 9781786493620
Source: Bayside Library

I don’t like reading military combat histories and though this blog has a category called ‘War, Armed Conflict and its Aftermath‘ many of the reviews are of novels, and most of the other non-fiction books in this category are about aspects of war other than combat.

So I might not have read The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman which won the 2018 Mark and Yvette Moran NIB (Waverly Library) NIB Award it if I hadn’t heard the author interviewed by Sarah Kanowski on ABC Radio, in Conversations (Jun 18, 2018).  I realised then that Helen Lewis’s account of her father’s war was significantly more than military history.  And now that I’ve read it, I’ll repeat what I said in my review of Tobruk 1941: sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  The Dead Still Cry Out ticks both boxes.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written recently about changing aspects of life writing (and I’d reference her post if I could remember which one it was!) so I think she’d be intrigued by the method used in The Dead Still Cry Out.  It is a blend of autobiography, biography, memoir and autoethnography, which is:

a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.  (Source: Wikipedia)

What this means in practice is that the book contains the author’s own experiences both before and during her research; her father’s own words from his visual diary and from interviews with him; memories of her father from a variety of sources; an exploration of the intergenerational trauma of witnesses to atrocity; and her own reflections about how, why and even if, his story should be told.  The result is that the reader gets a strong sense of Mike Lewis the man, the soldier, the cinematographer and the father.  It is not a hagiography but it is written with a daughter’s empathetic eye.

The book also canvasses wider issues.  Reflecting on military operations in North Africa, the author notes how Great Powers intrude into the lives of people who have no idea what the war is about, and how it is the soldiers on the ground who requisition or simply take what they need, who trample over crops with troops and equipment, and who destroy homes and livelihoods. The fact that WW2 was a just war against fascism does not negate the suffering of an civilian casualty in North Africa who had never heard of the Nazis…

The blurb for this book focusses on the importance of the photographs taken by Mike Lewis which traumatised the author when she found them as a little girl.  Those photos were the trigger for Helen Lewis’s research after her father died.  They were photos of what the British found when they liberated Bergen-Belsen and they are first-hand witness evidence for the Holocaust.  But while this excoriating experience affected Mike’s entire life because he could not ever forget it, this aspect of the memoir comes late in the book as the devastating culmination of the cost of bearing witness to other aspects of war.  It is not the whole story of Mike Lewis’s war…. Combat cameramen parachuted into the theatre of war (an innovation in WW2) saw and recorded horrific episodes from the battlefield.  Prior to the shock of Bergen-Belsen for which no one was prepared, Mike Lewis had been a paratrooper in Northern Africa, and after being wounded there had seen an opportunity to join the new British Army Film and Photographic Unit.  He was parachuted into a disastrous Allied operation at Arnhem in the Netherlands, and his daughter’s account of the dangers faced by cameramen armed only with a pistol makes gripping reading.

There are not many histories about war that are written by women, and perhaps it is partly the daughter’s perspective which makes this book so compelling.  But Helen Lewis also writes in the Sources section at the back of the book that

When I began work on turning my doctoral thesis into a book, I took a decision to use dramatic reconstruction for parts of my father’s story, drawing heavily on the primary resources available to me, and using secondary sources to provide the historical context. (p.319)

So the narrative reads like a story, and there are no footnotes, though the photographs with Mike Lewis’s own accompanying captions provide authenticity and she is careful to note when she is quoting or paraphrasing from his archive or from reports or other sources.

For those interested in pursuing the authenticity of her sources, she provides the link to an digital version of her thesis at UTS. This is the abstract that guided the trajectory of the book:

As a member of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit, my father Mike Lewis, took some of the most important images of the Second World War including those of the battle for the bridge at Arnhem and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Though these iconic images have been repeatedly used in books and documentaries he and his fellow Sergeant Cameraman have remained largely unacknowledged and anonymous. The focus has been on the images without a sense of the photographer, the framing and the photographer’s role in the cultural production process or, indeed, the technology used to create them. Using my father’s personal archive as a pivotal point of reference, I seek to re-engage these images with their original purpose and meaning through their creators; and explore how this re-framing changes our reading of them, particularly in relation to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Helen not only contextualises the images and their creator, she also investigates the equipment they had.   It is sobering to read about the DeVry camera:

There is a photograph of [Mike Lewis] operating a DeVry, which I suspect was taken in the early days of his training in North Africa.  He is standing in an unlikely pose for a combat cameraman, behind a tripod and without any cover.  When I was allowed to hold a DeVry at the Imperial War Museum in London, I was surprised at how heavy and unwieldy it was—just an oblong box with a lens and a mechanical winder, no grip to help you hold or steady it.  Mike referred to it as a ‘coffee grinder’; another nickname I came across was ‘the lunch box.’

It looks like a medieval relic against the digital cameras of today, but even back then there were complaints about the equipment. (p.170-1)

The Americans had a focus lens of 20 inches, while the longest of the Brits was only 6.  You can see footage of one of these here starting at 5:25.

The Dead Still Cry Out is a compelling insight into the courage of unsung heroes whose story is not often told.

See also:

Author: Helen Lewis
Title: The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 321 pages
ISBN: 9781925603620
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond The Dead Still Cry Out: The Story of a Combat Cameraman and direct from Text Publishing where it is also available as an eBook.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2019

2018: ANZ LitLovers stats

I got this idea from Annabookbel, who does a very comprehensive series called Year in Review  and I tried it for the first time last year.  It was quite a lot of work, (and my graphs are not as smart-looking as hers!) but I decided to do it again this year in the interests of transparency. (Could it be that I miss analysing data like I used to do at work? Surely not! But I do like playing in the Excel Sandpit…)

Once again (as you’d expect!) there are lots more Australian authors, and again Indigenous authors make a quite respectable showing.  This year I’ve read more from the US than from the UK (which surprised me too).  But still, you can see that I read widely from around the world.

The picture is clearer in a pie graph, grouping the countries by region. You can see that I read more books from Africa this year but hardly any from the Middle East or Latin America:

Once again there were no surprises when I came to look at the Year of Publication.  My focus is mainly contemporary literature: I read a lot of new releases especially Australian ones, but I also try to keep up with some of the books nominated for international prizes, even if I don’t quite get to them in the year of the award.  However, you can also see a (feeble) effort to tackle the TBR in the C20th books…

Next up was Gender, and although I can’t get the graph to label it that way, what it shows is that in 2018 45% of my authors were male, 51% were female, and 3% were co-authored by male and female authors.  (One was unspecified because it credited no author/s.)  Overall, the percentages for male/female reviews on this blog over ten years have this year inched a little closer to equity at 54%/46%.  (Up till now, over the years I’ve been monitoring gender, it stayed steady at 55%/45%.)

This graph shows the heritage/diversity of the Australian authors I read. As I’ve said on my Diversity page the potential for getting this wrong is obvious: please let me know if there are any errors or omissions there.  (I know from my own untidy heritage just how messy it can be).  Last year there were twelve nationalities in this heritage category; this year there are 15, but although it seems to me that Australian publishing is more diverse than it was, it might just be that it’s the books I’ve come across and chosen to read that are more diverse.  Note BTW that authors of Indigenous heritage make a fine showing here!

It was Annabel’s idea to track whether one is reading familiar authors or venturing into new territory… I track this just with Australian authors and including those authors that who were making a debut in 2018.   Last year new and familiar were roughly equal but this year I’ve read a lot more authors new to me and I’ve doubled the number of debut authors I’ve reviewed.

Now for non-fiction and fiction: 69% of my reading is fiction, a smidgeon less than last year.  What’s interesting is that the gender balance between male and female authors is pretty close, and much better than I had expected for non fiction.  (I’m actually quite surprised to have read so much non fiction.)


I decided to analyse gender patterns in Non Fiction.  (I omitted titles by joint M&F authors). I’m not sure what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from this, but still, it’s interesting.  It’s often said that male authors dominate the history genre and maybe they do, but I read a dozen histories this year, and the gender balance was 50/50.  (Purely by accident, I should add, not by design.  My choices are entirely haphazard).


There was no point in graphing the types of fiction I read.  Apart from a dozen classics, a couple of speculative fiction novels, half a dozen short story collections, everything else I read was a modern novel of one sort or another.

Then, translations: 17% of the books I read were translations, and all but two of them were all novels.  I read more from France, Germany and Russia/USSR than anywhere else, which means my translations are Eurocentric, but that’s hardly surprising because Europe provides a lot more support to translations and there’s more variety in what’s available.

As you can see I read fewer female authors in translation this year…

Last of all, where do my books come from?  38% come from my own personal library, a mixture of books I’ve bought this year and in previous years; 31% come from publishers, mainly small indie Australian publishers; 28% from my lovely local libraries, and there were a few on loan from friends or from the journals I subscribe to.

So (assuming my data collection and maths is all ok), there it is for 2018!  Don’t forget to visit Annabel’s version of stats for the year as well.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2018

My Name is Revenge, by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

It’s not that I hadn’t kept up with the inaugural Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award: it’s just that two of the three finalists were short story collections and I prefer novels.  But a chance ‘like’ on one of my tweets, led me to a novella among the finalists, and although IMHO the novella turned out to be more of a short story at only 48 pages, I wasn’t disappointed, because it’s very good indeed.  And as a bonus, there’s also a very thoughtful essay about historical denial, pragmatic politics, political radicalisation and the dilemma of truth-telling about the past without fostering resentment and vengeance.

Set in Sydney in 1980, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man of Armenian origin.  Named as a reminder of the Armenian genocide in 1915, and intensely resentful of his school’s insistent denial of authenticated history, Vrezh idolises his older brother Armen and naively becomes involved in planning an act of terrorism.  The story is a good example of historical fiction being used for serious purposes.  I have previously referenced this essay about the value of historical fiction as an activist’s tool by Zulu author Fred Khumalo: he thinks that bringing untold stories alive in well-researched fiction can have political weight, revealing a history otherwise unknown and featuring voices otherwise silenced.  My Name is Revenge is a perfect example: the international silence around the Armenian Genocide is a story that should be known by a wider audience, (and certainly by school teachers!) and the sensitive portrayal of risks associated with adolescent resentment about the denial is something we all need to understand.  Writing this story as historical fiction gives it a potent immediacy and trust me, it’s compelling reading.

As the author explains in the Reflective Essay that follows the novella, the plot is based on true events:

The assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard in Vaucluse, Sydney, in December 1980 was part of a series of international terrorist attacks. The Justice Commandoes of the Armenian Genocide were a real group. They and similar groups committed dozens of acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s. The details about the Sydney assassination […] all come from newspaper reports at the time. The assassins were never caught, though there are faint whispers in the Armenian Australian community about who they might have been. A second attack, a car bombing, took place in Melbourne in 1986. The bomb went off early, and only the bomber was killed.

But the author, of Armenian heritage herself, is certainly not an apologist for terrorist violence:

Armenians have long been the underdogs of history. In the decades after WWI, the ongoing denial exacerbated the sense of rage and loss experienced not only by survivors but their children and grandchildren. For some, these feelings grew into frustration and disenfranchisement. Many Armenians feel persecuted. Can anyone blame them for wanting, even just for a moment, to take justice into their own hands?

A few of them did, of course, forming the Justice Commandoes of the Armenian genocide and targeting Turkish diplomats around the world. The Justice Commandoes were the grandchildren of survivors. They wanted to ensure justice would happen while their grandparents were still alive to experience it. They wanted Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, to apologise and pay reparations. Political diplomacy had done nothing, and besides, it was the 1970s, so Armenia was still trapped under the boot of the Soviet Union, unable to voice its own opinions, unable even to tell its own history.

I’d been researching the genocide for years before I first learned about the Justice Commandoes. Only a few history books mention these attacks, generally with a mere paragraph or two. I’d been so accustomed to reading about Armenians as victims, but now this handful of Armenian perpetrators – violent murderers – leapt off the page, shocking me. I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately.

Unless I read and finish another book in the last five hours of 2018, My Name is Revenge is my last book for the year.  I like to think that there is a new maturity in Australian publishing and that this book will be one of many more new voices forged from within our diverse multicultural identity.

The cover design is by Bettina Kaiser.

Other reviews are by Karen Chisholm at the Newtown Review of Books and by Dasha Maiorova at her blog 

Author: Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Title: My Name is Revenge, a novella and reflective essay
Publisher: Spineless Wonders, 2018, 48 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle from Amazon Australia, $2.84



Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2018

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather

I’d never heard of Willa Cather until Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed some of her work, and I read a couple of her stories digitally via Library of America as she suggested.  So when I spied The Song of the Lark at the library, I whisked it off home with me, and have just romped through it in 24 hours.  Sometimes it’s a real pleasure to read an undemanding old-fashioned novel and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way.  There’s plenty to think about in The Song of the Lark and the writing is beautiful but there are no complex plot structures to sort out and everything is tidily chronological.  Perfect for leisurely reading in the lazy aftermath of Christmas!

Set near the turn of the 20th century, The Song of the Lark tells the story of Thea Kronborg and her quest to transcend humble beginnings in small town (fictional) Moonstone in Colorado to become a singer of opera.   This coming-of-age story is said to be semi-autobiographical because it traces a life not unlike Cather’s own, but its themes of ambition and alienation are perhaps not unusual to anyone in pursuit of life as an artist of any kind.  Thea begins the story as a thoroughly likeable child, a bit of a loner in a large family, but good-hearted, generous, and comfortable with people different to herself.  But as opportunities come her way and her ambition grows, she becomes judgemental and condescending to others if they fail to meet her standards.  Scornful of other singers around her, she doesn’t even like her New York audiences, who prefer popular artistes of mediocre talent because unlike their sophisticated European counterparts, they don’t recognise great talent when they hear it.


The weakness in this novel is that Thea is let off the romantic hook by her author.  In childhood Thea earns the devoted affection of the local doctor, only about ten years older than her, and burdened by a disagreeable wife.  This relationship is sustained into adulthood so a May-September love affair is dangled before the reader.  Thea also has the love of the wealthy Fred Ottenberg, but he turns out to be married too, estranged from his wife but unable to divorce her.  Thea is thus spared the dilemma of any young woman wanting to pursue a career in that era.  Marriage before birth control inevitably meant children and as we see from events in the novel, opportunities for roles in the world of opera occur at the most inconvenient times.  Since she can’t marry either of the men she loves Thea is free to pursue her dreams, though there are still sacrifices to be made: she has to choose between coming home to visit her dying mother and her first big break in Dresden.  The novel makes it very clear that there is a personal cost to single-minded ambition and that it can alienate the artist not just from people who don’t share the same ideas and standards, but also from those who have helped and supported her along the way.

Cather is justly famous for her lyrical descriptions of America in this pivotal era.  The settings range from the railway town of Moonstone, to cities familiar from film and TV: Denver, Chicago and New York.  But there are also scenes at a ranch in Arizona which are fascinating for those of us who have never been there.  There are a couple of unsettling moments when American Indians are written off as a vanished people whose artefacts can be looted: these scenes put me in mind of some early Australian writing which assumed that Aborigines were a dying race if not extinct already.  And while racism is acknowledged by the way Thea is criticised for associating with Mexicans in her home town, (unless I missed them) there seemed to be no African-American characters in the novel at all, which struck me as a bit odd.

These quibbles aside, The Song of the Lark is entertaining reading which has convinced me that I should read the others in the trilogy, O! Pioneers, and My Antonia.

Author: Willa Cather
Title: The Song of the Lark
Publisher: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 539 pages, first published 1915.
ISBN: 9780803245723
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2018

The Bletchley Girls, by Tessa Dunlop

It’s not possible to read a book like this without being a little awestruck at what ordinary people endured in Britain during WW2.   This remarkable history of the unsung women of Bletchley is an eye-opener into working conditions that none of us would tolerate today…

Bletchley Park, immortalised in films such as The Imitation Game and the TV series The Bletchley Circle, was the centre of intelligence gathering in Britain.  As the war progressed, Bletchley grew from modest beginnings in 1938 to employing thousands of people engaged in the complex work of decoding enemy transmissions, and was the birthplace of modern computing.  Today the site is a heritage tourist attraction but during the war it was top secret and the people who worked there were all bound by the Official Secrets Act.

For the young women recruited into the service—from the ATS, the WRENS, the WAAF and civilian life—their work was a complete mystery.  Because it was vital that the Nazis (and later, the Japanese) not know that their transmissions were being intercepted, each cog in the mighty machine did not know what others were doing.  The women did not know and they were not allowed to ask.  Only the men at the very top of the organisation knew how and why seemingly mundane tasks fed successfully into the massive code-breaking machines which, some say, shortened the war by two-to-four years.

The Bletchley Girls doesn’t tell the stories of the eccentric geniuses who invented the information technology that broke the Enigma and Lorenz Ciphers: Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry.  Their stories have been told elsewhere.  This book tells the story of the thousands of young women on whom the entire enterprise depended.  Although it’s true that very few of them were involved in high-level tasks, nevertheless their work was vital, and it required intense concentration, patience, and care.  What was most extraordinary was the extent to which these hand-picked jobs went to better-educated and highly intelligent women, who then had to work at mind-numbingly tedious tasks that were in no way commensurate with their intellectual abilities:

In early 1942 Lady Jean arrived in Hut 8.

‘It is little use asking where, what or why but for the next year I marked the letters in the German messages then perforated those same marks and then compared one message on top of the other that I had marked.  If three holes were on the top of those other marked ones these were put through the hatch to the next room.  Doing this for a year sent me nearly crazy.’ (p.114)

Y-station listener Betty spent her war recording messages in Morse code and passing them on to Bletchley—though she didn’t know that’s where they went or what for.  Some shifts were hours of listening just to static, while others meant frenetic activity to record accurately what had been heard, guesswork absolutely forbidden.  Her colleague Charlotte was also hand-picked to listen in for this component of espionage because she spoke German.  (In 1938, 72,000+ pupils sat for School Certificate French, while there were less than 10,000 doing German).  It was interesting to read that as the Allies closed in during the last phase of the war, frantic messages ceased to be coded; it was also interesting to read that for some weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped, the Americans knew the Japanese had been extending peace feelers via Russia, courtesy of their own decrypts.  In other words there might have been another way to end the war but the Americans chose not to pursue it. (p.255)

The women worked long hours without breaks in arduous shifts, in cold and uncomfortable workplaces.  They were billeted in all sorts of places, some of them very disagreeable indeed, and many of them had to cycle to work in Britain’s deplorable weather, including during the blackout at night.  Like everyone else, they had to put up with rationing, and while some landladies became lifelong friends even across the class divide, some were atrocious cooks.

The author Tessa Dunlop interviewed 15 of the women still alive and in their nineties and brought their stories together to form a fascinating and highly readable book.  What stands out, apart from their vivacious personalities and the individuality of the postwar lives, is their acceptance without complaint, of their wartime lot.

This generation of young girls had been brought up to do what they were told and ask no questions.  According to Lady Jean, ‘it was made clear that once I had started work it would be very difficult to leave.’ But the finality of the situation does not seem to have put her off.  At the beginning of 1942, she simply collected her rail warrant and headed towards a ‘terribly secret’ place called Bletchley Park.  It was wartime; the country was being governed on a ‘need to know’ basis and the Bletchley Girls, exhibiting a level of trust that would be considered extraordinary in today’s world, made that job much easier. (p. 95)

I always thought that my mother, (who served in the ATS), with her flair for languages and her extraordinary skill in doing word puzzles and cryptic crosswords, would have been a natural for Bletchley Park, but now I know better!

Author: Tessa Dunlop
Title: The Bletchley Girls
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, 341 pages
ISBN: 9781444795721
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2018

Shackles, by Armijn Pane, translated by John H. McGlynn

This book is a bit of a treasure, lent to me by an Indonesian friend, and probably not easy to source from bricks-and-mortar bookshops.  Published in the hardback first edition, it was (after a book of poetry) the second title produced by the Lontar Foundation, set up in 1987 with these aims, as expressed on the Title page:

Yayasan Lontar, the Lontar Foundation, is a non profit organisation whose aims are fostering a greater appreciation of Indonesian literature and culture, supporting the work of authors and translators of Indonesian literature, and improving the quality of publication and distribution of Indonesian literary works and translations.

Lontar was founded by the American John McGlynn, along with four Indonesian writers, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and Subagio Sastrowardoyo, and it is safe to say that since those early days McGlynn has been a major contributor to Indonesian works available in translation.

Shackles is ostensibly a rather melodramatic love triangle.  This is the blurb from the Lontar website:

Shackles is the story of a love triangle. Dr Sukartono and his independent-minded wife, Tini, are facing marital problems when the singer Rohayah enters into the mix. Unlike Tini, Rohayah is ready to provide Sukartono with the devotion he lacks at home. This story illustrates the confusion experienced by many Indonesians of the pre-independence generation as they struggled to overcome problems stemming from their tradition-bound society.

However, (unless you are keen on melodramatic romance) to make satisfying reading out of Shackles, it is essential to contextualise the story.  Firstly, it is set in the 1930s (when middle-class educated Indonesians had telephones and cars) but Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, Jakarta was still called Batavia, and the Independence Movement was still being firmly repressed.  (Sukarno, who became President of independent Indonesia in 1949 i.e. a decade after this book was written, gets arrested and imprisoned twice during the story).   But as you might know from a reading of This Earth of Mankind (The Buru Quartet #1), by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (translated by Max Lane) activists in the independence movement were frustrated by the ineffectual urban Indonesian elites, and all three of the characters in the love triangle can be seen to be more obsessed with their personal relationships than with casting off the colonial yoke.

Feminists will probably bristle at Dr Tono’s assessment of his wife Tini’s discontent, but read it instead as an allegory of how a Dutch colonist might be puzzled by demands for independence when, from his PoV, there is nothing to complain about because subservience is the natural way of things, just as male dominance is:

What was it she had said before?  What was it?  Yes, that women today are asking for equal rights with men.  But what is it they want to be equal? It is a woman’s right to care for her husband’s children and the house in which they live.  Today, however, it seems that the only thing a woman is good for is making demands.  Maybe she will meet her husband at the door when he comes from work, but does she ask him to sit down?  Does she take off his shoes for him?  Women of today don’t seem to know that to kneel before one’s husband, to take his shoes off for him, is a woman’s way of showing her devotion and loyalty.  But what do women do now?  And what is a woman’s right, if not taking care of the man she loves? (p.2)

But this and other passages dismissive of women are also intended to show the characters’ difficulty in adapting to inevitable change.  Dr Tono wants to pick and choose which elements of adat (customs and tradition) to retain as the country transitions into modernity.  He wants the respect and status of an educated, middle-class Indonesian, but he doesn’t recognise that his wife Tini is a dynamic and entrepreneurial woman with an amazing capacity for organising major events.  She, attracted by the freedoms of emancipation but not recognising its incompatibility with either the society she lives in or the respectability she thinks she deserves, doesn’t see why she should wait on him.  Yet at the same time, she resents the demands of his work and the emptiness of their marriage.  They both still want to be loved, but they want respect and status as individuals as well, in a society where status is rigidly codified and based on community—not individualism.

Into this fraught relationship comes an old school friend of Dr Tono’s: the predictably beautiful, enigmatic and irresistible Yah, happy to serve Dr Tono’s needs but not respectable enough for divorce and remarriage to be an option.  While Tini represents the slavish adoption of Western mores about emancipation, Yah represents the emancipation that’s needed.  She was forced into an arranged marriage and having fled it, finds herself unable to support herself in a respectable way.  She has to hide from Dr Tono that she is a singer of kroncong – defined in the glossary at the back of the book as popular Indonesian music, distinctive for its blend of Western orchestration and indigenous rhythms once considered lewd and ‘low class’. 

There isn’t anything at Wikipedia about the association of kroncong with a disreputable status, excerpt to say that it was brought to Indonesia by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century and that it was enjoyed by lower-class citizens and gangs. You can hear a contemporary example of it here (female) and here (male), and a raunchier (by Indonesian standards) example here. When you listen to the elegance and complexity of the traditional gamelan you can see that the reaction to kroncong was not unlike the disapproval of jazz, pop or rock and roll by classical music lovers in the West.  (I used to play in a gamelan group: my instrument was one of the little ones at the front of the group in this video.  I had little notation cards hidden on the floor beside me… though I could play an entire Beethoven piano sonata off by heart, there was no way I could remember long pieces like these players do!)

The representation of the crass kroncong compared to the grace and beauty of the gamelan is another example of imported cultures displacing tradition, but there is also a scene where Tini plays a Beethoven sonata to an audience that would rather listen to the popular kroncong, emphasising that middle-class intellectuals were out of touch with ordinary people.

Shackles (Belenggu) is said (in the Introduction by William H Frederick and at Wikipedia) to be the first modern Indonesian psychological novel.  It is a departure from traditional themes, and focusses instead on the psychology of the conflict between the characters.  It wasn’t well-received at first because of its ‘immoral’ depiction of prostitution and adultery, and others disliked its fatalistic ending.  Readers today may find the internal musings and sometimes stilted dialogue tiresome and occasionally repetitive.  Nevertheless, it’s an important milestone in the development of the modern Indonesian novel.  Belenggu has been translated into multiple languages and in 1969 was awarded the inaugural Indonesian Literary Prize, along with Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya (1922), and Achdiat Karta Mihardja’s Atheis (Atheist) (1949) (both of which are scheduled for reading with my Indonesian bookgroup in 2019) and also Abdul Muis’s Salah Asuhan (Never the Twain) (1928), on my TBR.

Author: Armijn Pane
Title: Shackles (Belenggu)
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, 1988, first published 1940
ISBN: 9798083106 (hbk)
Source: loan from a friend, thanks Lendriani!

Available from the Lontar website (pbk, ISBN 9789798083815) and from Amazon US (print or kindle), and Amazon Australia (kindle only)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2018

Comfort Zone, by Lindsay Tanner

Lindsay Tanner is the former finance minister in the Rudd Government during the Global Financial Crisis.  He and his colleagues were the ones who devised the strategies for staving off the GFC in Australia, so I have a soft spot for his writing.  Not enough, alas, to like Comfort Zone much…

Tanner took up writing after retiring from the parliament, and wrote a splendid book called Sideshow (which I reviewed here) but I think he should stick to writing about the political scene. Comfort Zone is a well-intentioned but too-didactic would-be comic mystery with a wildly-convoluted plot.

The central character Jack Van Duyn is an unprepossessing middle-aged taxi-driver who resents the preponderance of rival drivers from other countries.  Despite being of refugee origin himself, he is overtly racist, joining in when passengers sound off in his cab.  He is particularly down on Somali cabbies, but lo! all that changes when he encounters the enigmatic (and, natch, beautiful) Somali single mother called Farhia.  Led (more from embarrassment than by heroism) into rescuing Farhia’s sons from being beaten up, Jack (who hasn’t had a relationship in years, and not a successful one, ever) becomes enamoured of Farhia and engineers reasons to see her. One of these reasons to see her includes returning a mysterious blue notebook with Somali script in it. Jack, for no apparent logical reason, photographs these pages with his phone, which draws him into trouble with those who were menacing Farhia to get possession of it. Oh yes, and also with ASIO.

His co-rescuer, Matt, misinterprets Jack’s ‘heroism’ and thinks he might be a handy man to know.  An investment banker on his way up, he does deals for his boss, who has a drug habit, and therefore an anonymous cabbie is an ideal courier.

Sucked into all sorts of murky enterprises which he doesn’t understand, Jack gets into various punch-ups in murky Carlton old-style pubs, yet despite being overweight and unfit, he always manages to make unlikely escapes into the back lanes.  And he also, despite being overweight and unfit, attracts the interest of Emily (in her forties) who is down on her luck with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.)

Comfort Zone is a bit like Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist without the flair.  Deliberately written as commercial fiction pitched at a target audience, by an author working out of his usual genre so as to convey a social message, Comfort Zone has an overt moral.  It’s meant to be, that if racists have contact with the people they despise, they will change their ways.  However, the worst failing of this book is that undercuts its own message with its clunky plot.  The Somalis in this novel are mixed up in thuggery and violence, and they have brought their political and criminal problems with them.  Grist to the racists’ mill…

Author: Lindsay Tanner
Title: Comfort Zone
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2016, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925321029
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2018

Ho ho ho, another meme: EOY Memento Mori

Stuck in a Book is at it again, sharing another meme from Rick who keeps putting out memes/tags on a vlog somewhere.  Ignore this if you are still racing around doing Christmas, join in with your own suggestions if you are all organised already!

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

I only read three chunksters (450+ pages) in 2018,  and the longest of those was The Brothers K by David James Duncan.  It was 645 pages long and it took eight days to read, from May 11 to May 19.

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset is taking the longest to finish – I started The Wreath in early December and moved onto The Wife, and then I re-read them both because I was confused by the huge cast of characters.  But I have stalled on reading the next one – partly because I have a stack of library books that are all due back in January and partly because I am not really excited by the prospect of Book 3, The Cross…

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

That has to be Dancing Home by Paul Collis.  It’s the story of an Indigenous man on his way home after a stint in prison, and I didn’t like the violence.  But it just won the ACT Book of the year, because it’s an important book which won the 2016 David Unaipon Award.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

One, unless you count re-reading the Kristin Lavransdatter books in order to write my review, which would make it three.

4) What’s my favourite re-read of 2018?

Swann in Love, by Marcel Proust, in a new translation by Brian Nelson.  If you’ve never read Proust, this is the edition to start with.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

You know the answer to this one if you’ve checked out my 2018 Best Australian and New Zealand Books.  It’s Shell by Kristina Olsson.  I just loved it, and I know I will revisit it.

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

The Bed-making Competition, which was joint winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella prize this year.  A light-hearted, tender and hilarious tale about two sisters, from debut Kiwi author Anna Jackson who shared the award with Avi Duckworth-Jones for Swim.  (This is the first time New Zealand authors have won this prize).

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper.  Because everybody needs to know about the dangers of unsupervised arsonists.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane. Murnane is a conceptual writer, not a teller of tales.  I love his work, and if you are prepared to immerse yourself in a unique style of writing, you will too, but not everyone likes this kind of challenge, I know…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2018

Under the Visible Life, by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life was published in 2016, the same year that identity politics went mainstream in Australia.  Authors on opposite sides of the cultural appropriation argument got airspace in the mainstream media and there was much sturm und drang.  But if the same thing was happening in Toronto where Canadian author Kim Echlin lives, then this book was a challenge to the debate.  Who gets to write the stories of people with mixed heritage?  The two central characters in Under the Visible Life are Afghan-American; and Chinese-Canadian.  The Afghan-American girl marries a Pakistani; and the Chinese-Canadian marries an African-American.   I see at the back of the book that there are thanks to consultants on these cultures and perhaps this is the respectful way an author can write such a story. I leave it to others to judge:  I am firmly on the fence with this issue…

Under the Visible Life is the story of two women who negotiate the US jazz scene when everything was against the participation of women.  Both are talented, but have to make hard choices in an era when women are expected to stay home in the kitchen, and sometimes they choose unwisely.  One chooses an unsatisfactory  marriage because it offers life in a less repressive country but finds that the repression travels with her; the other chooses a relationship with a gorgeous musician who turns out to be an unreliable man. Both find that having children compromises the choices they can make and the independence they need.

So it’s a well-worn theme but what makes it different is the liveliness of the jazz music scene, and the author’s dissection of the enduring power of cultural traditions even when they are transplanted to new settings.  It’s not a great book, but it held my attention to the end, and I’m looking forward to reading The Disappeared which is on my TBR because it was nominated for the 2009 Giller Award and was recommended by Kim from Reading Matters and the late, great Kevin from Canada.

Author: Kim Echlin
Title: Under the Visible Life
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2016, 348 pages
ISBN: 9781781256381
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2018

The Last 10 Books Tag

Yes, it’s that time of the year when we all do memes!

This one comes from  Rick’s latest video at Another Book Vlog via Stuck in a Book  and it goes like this:

The last book I gave up on

Frieda: A Novel of the Real Lady Chatterley by Annabel Abbs.  I have no idea why I bought this, and I should have known better.  I really struggled to get to the obligatory 50 pages and turfed it out. You have been warned.

The last book I re-read

I think this is The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, one of my favourite NZ authors.  I think I might have read it three or four times…

The last book I bought

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, which I bought on Monday. I actually bought three on the same day, (from The Avenue Bookshop in Elsternwick) but Middle England was the last one I found there. It appealed because Brexit had been so much in the news this week, and maybe this book will explain Britain’s mystifying politics…

  1. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I have never pretended to read a book – why would I? So I don’t do this, not even when someone lends me a book I disliked.  I either grit my teeth and read it, or I abandon it.  And because I don’t want to hurt the friend’s feelings, if I’ve read it, I will try to find something positive to write in my review, though my regular readers would recognise that I’m not actually recommending it.  But if I abandoned it, I confess that I may lie about why I’m returning it unread.  “I’ve had it so long, I feel guilty”, or some such…

5. The last book I wrote in the margins of

I don’t do marginalia.  The last time I did this was in my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and that was a decades ago when I was doing my BA.  I have learned the error of my ways because when I look at those notes now, I have no idea what they mean.  These days I jot down my thoughts in reading journals. (Though there is no guarantee that I will remember what I meant if I read them 40 years from now either).

The last book I had signed

I mostly don’t bother with this because I dislike queues, and I suspect that all but debut authors would probably rather not do them at all.  Many authors are introverts and are uncomfortable making small talk.  (I was asked a couple of times to autograph my own little book Indonesia and it felt really strange. I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say).  But I hung around for Kristina Olsson to sign Shell, because I hope it’s going to win the Miles Franklin, and then it will join my MF collection, the best of which are signed.

The last book I lost

That’s Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and Other Writings which I reviewed here. I was very fond of that book, but good manners prevents me from telling the story of how I came to lose it.

The last book I had to replace

I couldn’t remember how I came to have misplaced Anita Heiss’s Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, but I bought a replacement copy (and a couple of copies for giveaways) at the Word for Word Non Fiction festival in Geelong.  And then a week later the friend I’d lent it to, returned it!  My fault entirely: I should keep a record of books I lend.

The last book I argued over

I think that was Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev.  One of my dear friends is in favour of capital punishment.  If I could persuade her to read the book, maybe she might change her mind.  But she isn’t a reader so I earbashed her instead… (Yes, we’re still very good friends).

The last book you couldn’t find

That one is the one I’ve promised to read for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 2 in January.  It’s The Pioneers by Katherine Susannah Prichard.  I bought it specially and then (because I’d reorganised my TBR shelves) I not only couldn’t find it, I also couldn’t even remember what it was called.  Fortunately it has turned up now:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2018

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

Most of the time, I vaguely despise the concept of ‘rewriting’ a famous book.  Ok, Margaret Atwood famously did it with The Penelopiad, but she was a well-established author making a feminist point, and obviously not compensating for an inability to think of her own story.  I want to read books that give me new ideas to think about, not recycled versions of other ideas even if they are beautifully written.

But the chutzpah of The Borrower is something else again.  Of all the books to choose to parody, surely Nabokov’s Lolita is the most audacious!

I chanced on The Borrower at the library, lured by the cover image.  The blurb told me only that the central character Lucy Hull is a children’s librarian, who finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when she sets out on a road trip across America with her favourite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake.  I knew before I started that there was a moral dilemma, and that the author was out to subvert the clichéd stereotype of librarians, but I was not expecting an absurdist parody of Lolita and a critique of Bush-era America and the emergence of the Christian Right.  I just thought this was going to be summer reading.

Ian’s fundamentalist Christian parents suspect that he is gay, and they send him to weekend classes to ‘save’ him.  These weekend classes are run by a charlatan called Pastor Bob, and they are premised on the religious belief that being gay is a choice and therefore amenable to pressure to change.  Lucy (who’d had an adult gay friend who committed suicide under pressure like this) is appalled by the psychological damage being inflicted on this bright and lively boy.  And Lucy is a rebel: already she is complicit in letting Ian read whatever he likes despite his mother’s list of prohibited books: Witchcraft/Wizardry; Magic; Satanism/Occult Religions; Adult Content Matter; Weaponry; The Theory of Evolution; Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry; Harry Potter and similar authors.  (And no sweets either, she tells Lucy).

It wasn’t so much good manners or restraint as a sort of paralysis of the tongue.  I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of the First Amendment, if she was aware that Harry Potter was not an author, if she thought we had books about Satanism lying around in the children’s section, if she was under the impression that I was Ian’s babysitter, reading tutor, or camp counsellor. Instead I took my pen and added another line to her list: “No candy.”

Every teacher has been in this situation, appalled by some aspect of parenting that is just plain wrong.  I have wanted to remove children from parents who’ve spent their pension on drugs and booze so that the child comes hungry to school.  But it’s a difficult issue when it’s a case of conflicting values rather than criminal neglect or abuse.  Lucy finds herself in this quandary when she finds Ian in the library after hours because he’s run away.  When she gets him into the car to take him home, he blackmails her by saying that he will accuse her of kidnapping him.

The Borrowers is not realism. The parody is intentionally bizarre and there are many droll allusions to well-known children’s books and aspects of American popular culture.  But Lucy’s deferral of decision-making has to be resolved somehow, and so, always seeing the situation from Lucy’s point-of-view, there are some meditations on her moral dilemmas.  As they travel from Missouri to Vermont with pitstops at cheap hotels, her crazy Russian émigré father’s house, and his eccentric friend’s, Lucy struggles with her feelings.  In Vermont, just over the border from Canada, she explores her romanticised idea that it’s a Promised Land:

What was so special about Canada in my mind, I wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t as if they had no extradition treaty.  It wasn’t as if they were any freer, any happier.  A little less inclined to religious extremism, maybe.  A little more welcoming to the Ians of the world, a little less welcoming to the Pastor Bobs. But not much.

And she realises that if Americans flee there because they are uneasy about how things are, it will become just like the place they’ve left behind.

I already knew what would happen.  We settlers would proclaim ourselves a city on a hill.  We’d slowly push the native Canadians onto reservations in the Yukon.  The friendlier ones would teach us how to drill for oil.  They’d trade us Montreal for a handful of beads.

Within a few generations, the sight of a real Canadian would be rare.  Our children would dress like them for Halloween.  We’d name our country clubs after their fallen chiefs.

Our brave little nation would grow.  Global warming would make our weather tropical. America, scorched and obsolete, would fall into disrepair.  Other countries would come to envy New Canada.  But could we help it if our children had beautiful teeth?  Could we keep from shining our glorious light for all nations to see? Someone has to dominate the world. (p.265)

Using America’s most transgressive novel as a road map, author Rebecca Makkai is waving a flag for an end to moral relativism:

I was no moral relativist.  I couldn’t have been, or I’d have believed that Pastor Bob was entitled to his opinion, that the Drakes should raise Ian however they saw fit.  It had always bothered me that fundamentalists would assume, when you argued with them about gay rights or abortion or assisted suicide, that you were arguing that there was no absolute right.  When really I do believe in an absolute right; I just don’t believe in their absolute right.  I don’t believe that the universal truths are encoded by a set of ancient Aramaic laws about crop rotation and menstrual blood and hats. (p.288)

Plenty for book groups to argue about then, eh?

Author: Rebecca Makkai
Title: The Borrower
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2011, 324 pages
ISBN: 9780670022816
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2018

The Inheritors, by William Golding

The Inheritors is an astonishing novel.  I picked it up from the library shelves on the strength of William Golding’s name because Lord of the Flies is unforgettable and Pincher Martin took my breath away.  But even so, the imaginative power of The Inheritors floored me.  I’ve never read anything like it.

This is the blurb:

When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. Seen through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals whose world is hanging in the balance, The Inheritors explores the emergence of a new race — ourselves, Homo sapiens — whose growing dominance threatens an entire way of life.

I had thought that this was going to be a kind of First Contact book, and in some ways it is. But what I had not expected was that Golding tells the story through beings so like and yet unlike ourselves, that the narration is like reading not just a language that I only poorly understand but of a being who does not think as we do.  Golding has not just imagined a language which, as John Carey says in the Introduction, incorporates gesture, dance and a kind of telepathy, but also a different way of thinking.  The small, fragile band of Neanderthals think in pictures which they can share; they scent like animals do; but they can’t connect thoughts or sequence ideas.  Carey explains it better than I can:

The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend, however, on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like.  It depends on the language he fashions to express it.  He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view.  By feats of language that are at first bewildering he takes us inside a being whose senses, especially smell and hearing, are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought.  This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive.  Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures — and the pathos and the tragedy — of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything.  (John Carey, Introduction, p xi)

This, in Chapter One, shows the reaction to a log bridge rotting in the middle and floating away:

The onyx marsh water was spread before them, widening into the river.  The trail along by the river began again on the other side on ground that rose until it was lost in the trees.  Lok, grinning happily, took two paces towards the water and stopped.  The grin faded and his mouth opened till the lower lip hung down. Liku slid to his knee then dropped to the ground.  She put the little Oa’s head to her mouth and looked over her.

Lok laughed uncertainly.

“The log has gone away.”

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log.  It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting.  When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder.  The water was not awake like the river or the fall but asleep, spreading there to the river and waking up, stretching on the right into wildernesses of impassable swamp and thicket and bog.  So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone. (p.2)

Ha is more thoughtful than Lok, the man for an emergency, but when Fa and Nil share a picture of what Ha is thinking, it was this:

He had thought that he must make sure the log was still in position because if the water had taken the log or if the log had crawled off on business of its own then the people would have to trek a day’s journey round the swamp and that meant danger or even more discomfort than usual. (p.4)

Only the elderly shaman Mal has a solution, retrieving a childhood picture from his mind.  It is not like remembering: it is just an image of a ‘wise man’ who ‘makes men take a tree that has fallen.’ But he cannot convey this image to the others.  They follow his instructions blindly.

So you can just imagine their bewilderment and admiration when they encounter Homo Sapiens with his paraphernalia of trinkets and tools.  The Neanderthals have not made the evolutionary steps towards inventing containers so they can’t carry or store food and water.  They can’t make fire, only carry it and protect it when lightning strikes start it.  They have no tools, except a stick to convey food to Mal’s mouth when he is so ill he must be fed.  But the new people not only have pots for food and water, and fire to cook with, they also have clothes, and necklaces to confer status, and they can make paintings on the rock walls.  And — unfortunately for the Neanderthals — they also have spears, bows and arrows for hunting.

And as we saw in Golding’s merciless depiction of savagery in Lord of the Flies, these new people already have no compunction about taking what they want and killing the innocent…

William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Author: William Golding
Title: The Inheritors
Introduction by John Carey
Cover illustration by Neil Gower
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011, 223 pages, first published 1955,
ISBN: 9780571273584
Source: Kingston Library


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