Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by M. Barnard Eldershaw

Oh, dear, it feels disloyal to The Sisterhood and the feminist Virago publishing project to say this, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a really dreary book.  I’m not surprised that the censored (1947) edition wasn’t popular with the reading public, and now, having read the uncensored (1983) version, I’m inclined to think that the rejection of this novel had little to do with the censor’s scissors.  There are two reasons why I persisted with it: I wanted to contribute to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week at The Australian Legend; and the book is very rare now and hard to get hold of, and it’s part of Australia’s literary history.

Alas, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow has a history more interesting than the story within its pages…

Firstly, it is a work of collaborative writing, by Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.  Both born in 1897 into middle-class professional families, they met at Sydney University but established themselves as independent of their families before turning to writing.  Flora Eldershaw became a teacher, and eventually Head of PLC in Sydney.  Margery Barnard, who had been offered a place at Oxford after winning the University medal, reluctantly became a librarian because her father would not let her take up the place.

In 1928 The Bulletin offered a prize for an Australian novel, and this was the catalyst for them to begin writing together.  Barnard and Eldershaw’s A House is Built shared first prize with Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and they went on to write five more novels during the turbulent 1930s.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was their last novel, and it suffered from the hands of the zealous Australian censor.  (To see just how zealous he could be, see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore.) However, the censor’s cuts weren’t made because of prudery as I had first thought, it was because it ruffled political feathers during the emerging Cold War.

To quote from the introduction by Anne Chisholm:

It is a deeply political book and a brave one, considering that it was written at the height of World War Two.  At the heart of it is the story of how the aftermath of the First World War—the Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe—impinged on the lives of a group of working-class families in Sydney, in particular on Harry Munster and his family and circle.  But Barnard Eldershaw do not stop the story at the outbreak of World War Two.  Writing before the war was half over, they postulate a series of events leading to the invasion of Australia by a right-wing international police force, a revolutionary uprising by left wingers and the destruction and abandonment of Sydney.

It is hardly surprising that the book, when it came to the attention of war-time censors, caused them concern.  Although they confined their cuts to the fictional ending and the build up to the rising, the whole book is in fact provocative in the extreme.  It reveals Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  (p.xii)

Well, you can see the potential for the authors to lose control of their material, and IMO they did.  The story of Harry Munster and his circle is Misery 101, piled on with a trowel and with a surprisingly unsympathetic portrayal of his feckless, selfish wife as the source of most of his troubles.  At first the representation of Harry as the Everyman had my sympathy: he endured the two world wars, the Depression and the inability to escape from poverty in an unfair economy. But then he ceases to be poor, and any moral authority has vanishes because a quixotic (and not very credible) bequest of £200 pounds is hoarded, kept secret from his family, and not used to enable the brightest of his children to get an apprenticeship, because she is a girl.  The opportunity for Barnard’s autobiographical experience of this kind of sexism is wasted because Wanda’s point of view about it is never explored. IMO the characterisation of women is surprisingly weak, reverting to easy stereotypes like female jealousy over a man and portraying the lives of working-class women with a loftiness that contrasts unfavourably with Ruth Park’s authentic stories of slum life in Sydney.

But what really kills this novel is its unwieldy structure.  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is structured as a novel within a novel, and it was the framing novel that really tested my resolve to finish the book.  It’s set in the future in the twenty-fourth century, centuries after the demise of Sydney and all that it represented within Harry’s story.  In this dystopia there is rule by an elite, threatened by a movement for democratic participation in the decision-making process.  None of the characters are well-rounded, and the plot trajectory is painfully obvious even though it keeps being interrupted by the ridiculous device of Knarf reading aloud his entire novel i.e. Harry’s story, to fellow historian Ord.  What these polemic punctuations in the framing novel mainly achieve is to make the reader lose track of the vast array of characters who form Harry’s circle in the ‘historical novel’.  But they also sabotage the power of what is sometimes great writing:

In the middle of the book in the section called ‘Afternoon’, there is a stunning summation of the war.  It’s not entirely accurate, but when you consider that it was written during the war when propaganda and censorship blurred knowledge of the war, it is remarkable that it conveys so powerfully both the big picture of events and their consequences, and also the mood of the people.  After five pages it concludes like this:

The strange old-new life of the armies seeped back to the people at home, altering too the minds of those who waited.  The lives of civilians were regimented.  They learned the value of bread.  They formed new habits.  They learned new tempos and rhythms of work.  In danger they went back to mother earth.  They shared fear and emotion.  A clarification was taking place in the confusion of men’s thinking, sides took more distinct shape, the crisscross faded, the main divisions deepened.  The Right must call Russia ally, however unpalatable the word, the Left must support the war, for the Socialist Fatherland was at stake.  So some of the fissures were closed for the time being, and war became more real, peace more remote.

In Australia war was more than an echo, it was a vibration under foot.

But the impact of these words is promptly undercut by a reversion to Knarf and Ord pontificating in the 24th century:

Knarf paused and looked across at Ord, something more than thought struggling in his eyes.  ‘I can see the pattern of those days clearly enough, an iron framework laid down on the soft tissues of life, and within that framework, like tender, necessary, human breath in an iron lung, life springing anew, under the name of adjustment, repeating its ancient design.  Beyond this again I see an enormous sweep of event, not mechanic, not planned, but the logical outcome of the vast aggregate of human planning.  Beyond its authors’ control, probably beyond their apprehension. We can see it because the astringent of time has simplified and stilled it.  World events in the making must be like a mountain range in the making. Only after centuries is the outline plain and set.  The turmoil of the rock is stilled, the heaving strata fixed.  One is as logical a process as the other, as fore-ordained by the law of cause and effect, as much in ease at one moment as at another.’ Knarf stopped and frowned.

‘Plenty of heaving strata in mind,’ Ord thought, watching him, waiting to see how he would extricate himself from his own thoughts. (p.270)

As does the hapless reader.  There’s another whole half page of Knarf’s frustration that he can’t recapture or even imagine the emotion of living among events raised to the nth.  This happens again and again: occasional fine, purposeful prose that recreates the world of wartime Sydney, is steamrollered by polemics.

Taken as a whole, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow IMO is an unmitigated mess.

But, hey! no less than my literary hero Patrick White admired it. In The Burning Library Geordie Williamson, devoting a chapter to M Barnard Eldershw, tells us that White…

…thought so highly of their final novel, a blend of social realism and science fiction called Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow published in 1947, that he recommended it to his US publishers. ‘I…am amazed it is not better known,’ he wrote to his editor, Ben Huebsch. ‘It is one of the few mature Australian novels, and at the same time it is of universal interest.  The shell is, admittetdly, a little tough, but do get inside it, and I think you will be surprised.  It is full of passion and truth.’

A tough shell, full of passion and truth: here White captures something of the contradictory spirit that animates Barnard’s and Eldershaw’s lives and work.  (The Burning Library, p. 19. See my review of this book here.)

Williamson is an admirer too, though he isn’t blind to the novel’s flaws:

If the monologic intensity with which Barnard attacks economic determinism, militarism and technological modernity in these pages seems overly earnest, a kind of orgasmic Fabian Socialism, it’s worth asking how well irony, our current detault setting, has worked to analyse similar phenomena in the present.  Frantic notation of the everyday, horrified recoil from the inorganic, a sense of community atomised and individual spirit crushed: remove the phonograph crackle from this passage and you can hear Ginsberg’s Howl and Saul Bellow’s Augie March anticipated. From the corporate autists of David Foster Wallace to the poetic diatribes of London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Barnard stands firmly in a tradition as old as William Blake and as contemporary as Michel Houellebecq: writers who stand against the virulent strains of the modern. (p.30)

Monologic intensity… orgasmic Fabian Socialism…yes indeed. But I also disliked the portrayal of helplessness:  Harry’s story is more than an individual spirit crushed.  He is Everyman. Having made his daughter aware of the risks she’s taking by hiding ‘Red’ pamphlets for her friend, this veteran of WW1 muses on the balcony:

Harry wasn’t satisfied, but he knew he couldn’t go any further now.  Ruth felt it too.  She withdrew her hand and walked quickly into the dark room behind them.  Harry stayed, looking out at the houses across the street, but seeing nothing.  Himself, Gwen, Ruth.  Oh hell.  Softly, with the lilt of strong emotion, he began to swear as he had not sworn since he was in the army, words like an unconscious incantation, smooth and natural, for all their ugliness, as the springing of natural sap.  He could do nothing but beat frantically in the web that held him, unable to free himself from his own nature, from the ceaseless entanglement of lives not his own, and conditions to which he did not consent, unable to reach others caught like himself.

The web of a thousand million flies. (p.262)

Harry represents all the trapped and helpless victims of what Anne Chisholm in the Introduction recognises as Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  As in the characterisation of the women, there is a middle-class loftiness about this representation that has as its fundamental premise, that these helpless working-class victims have no agency, and no capacity to change anything — this, in a democratic country that had had universal suffrage since Federation, that had repulsed conscription twice, and that was internationally famous as an egalitarian social laboratory in its earliest years. (I am not referring to the characters’ inability to change anything in the 24th century; as in the conclusion of Orwell’s 1984, that is part of the authors’ point about totalitarian regimes).

Since this post is very long already, there’s no harm in sharing one more opinion that’s different to mine.  The anonymous reader who borrowed this book before me, has annotated her thoughts: on the frontispiece, she has written: Why does a major work remain virtually unknown?  Hmm, I think I know why…

I know that I ought to admire this book, but instead I found it graceless, heavy-handed and boring. It took considerable effort of will to plod on with it. I have A House is Built on my TBR and I’m hoping that it will be a different experience!

The cover art is a detail from ‘Mirmande’ by Dorrit Black, reproduced by permission of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Author: M. Barnard Eldershaw (the collaborative writing duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw)
Title:  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Publisher: Virago UK, first uncensored edition 1983, first published 1947, 456 pages
Introduction by Anne Chisholm
ISBN: 0860683834
Source: Port Phillip Library

Availability: this library copy is the only copy available in the Victorian public library network, so Victorian readers can only get it by inter-library loan.  AbeBooks is advertising just one copy in Australia, and it’s priced at $75.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2019

Author event: The Journey to Publication. What happens next?

Tonight I had the great pleasure of attending an author event in our local Kingston Arts Centre, and I hope it’s first of many:)

The topic under discussion was The Journey to Publication. What happens next? and the panel consisted of Claire Halliday (chair); Eleni Hale; Amra Pajalic; and Anna Spargo-Ryan. And these are their current books:

(See here for my review of Stone Girl, and here for my review of The Gulf. See Goodreads reviews of Things My Father Taught Me here and  Things Nobody Knows But Me here.

Claire (who was an excellent chair and led the discussion really well) began by asking about the moment when these authors decided they were going to be authors.  Their stories varied a great deal but what they had in common was that none of them had a straightforward path towards a clearly articulated goal.  They all loved writing, but in a working-class family like Amra’s she didn’t even know how to become a writer.  For Eleni, growing up in state care, writing was an emotional escape from a harsh reality and disrupted schooling, but she never thought she could do anything with it until as she said, she ‘came out the other end’ and became a journalist.  For Anna, her writing lapsed during her years as a young mother, and didn’t re-emerge until she was divorced.

The general consensus was that first novels tend to be autobiographical, because it’s hard to be open about the truth as a debut writer.  Anna talked about writing as a means of purging oneself of troubling matters, and whether it gets published or not, it’s good to do it and then be able to move on.  (Andrea Goldsmith once said at a workshop that I went to that first novel/s are practice novels).  It’s aso very important not to get discouraged by rejection: as Amra said, there are many writers more talented than she is but she has books published because she did not give up.  Anna reminded us that rejection is often not about the writing at all: it could be because the publisher’s list is full; because he’s already got a book in a similar vein, or because another publisher has.

But what is crucial is that aspiring writers do their research: find out what kind of books the publisher works with; follow the submission guidelines; and whether you’re sending it to an agent (highly recommended, for debut authors) or direct to a publisher, make sure that the book is the very best it can be, because there are no second chances. And be aware that the process can take a very long time, a wait of 10 months in one case!

(One tip worth knowing is that if a publisher’s website states that they are not accepting submissions, it doesn’t hurt to send a query letter.  If you pique their interest with a brief letter that gets quickly to the point, they may write back and ask you to submit your MS.  Also, check out pitch letters online; there’s an art to writing these pitches and the recipients are busy people so long-windedness is a bad idea!)

What kind of writing leads to a book deal?  Non-fiction pieces, short stories submitted to writing competitions, publication in journals and so on.  You’ll probably have to content yourself with payment for some of it, and not for others.  If the exposure is valuable, not getting paid may be worthwhile.  There was general agreement that it’s a bad idea to publish your work-in-progress on your blog: publishers won’t want to invest in it if people have already read it for free. OTOH building your social media networks is as important as what Claire called ‘the A-team around you’: your beta-readers and supporters.

Of course you can get your family to read your MS, but they’ll probably think it’s amazing.  That’s not what you want.  You want constructive feedback that helps you to identify the flaws and fix the problems.  For that other writers are wonderful, but be aware that they need time for their own writing. Paid mentorships are great, and these are available via Writers Centres, and sometimes through grants from Arts Victoria (or their interstate equivalents). Treat every bit of feedback as a gift because that’s how you become a better writer.

Equally important is self-care.  Rejection hurts.  Amra said that while writing might be your life, it’s important to ‘have a life as well’ to keep a sense of proportion. Eleni said that the best thing about writing her book was the connections she had made.  Writing groups can be a great support but they can also be destructive so find people who uplift you and that you can trust. And Anna reminded us that the best thing is to keep going.  No one will care if you give up: the ones who get published are the ones who work really hard at it.

This was a beaut session, and from conversations with aspiring authors afterwards, I could tell that it was very worthwhile for all of them.

My thanks to the organisers at Kingston Arts Centre – more please!


This drop-dead gorgeous book came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award.  I asked my library to get a copy, and they did:)

These are the books with which it is in contention for the Tasmania Book Prize for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre (worth $25,000 to the winner):

  • Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary, (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Island Story: Tasmania in object and text* by Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane, (Text Publishing)
  • Towards Light & Other Poems by Sarah Day, (Puncher & Wattmann), see the review at Australian Poetry Review

Clearly the judges have a difficult task ahead.  If you haven’t already done your Christmas shopping, Island Story should be on your radar as a beautiful gift book for the thinking person in your life.

You might remember that I posted the description of Island Story: Tasmania in object and text from Goodreads, because I thought its title made it sound like a dry academic text about postmodernism.

A handsome full-colour book pairing unique items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with selections of original writing about the southern island.
Indigenous dispossession, a cruel penal history, gay-rights battles; exceptional landscapes, unusual wildlife, environmental activism; colonial architecture, arts and crafts, a thriving creative scene—all are part of the story of Tasmania. And they find their expression in the unparalleled collection of Hobart’s TMAG.
In Island Story, Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood select almost sixty representative TMAG objects: from shell necklaces to a convict cowl, colonial scrimshaw to a thylacine pincushion, contemporary photography to a film star’s travelling case. Each is matched to texts old and new, by writers as diverse as Anthony Trollope, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Helene Chung, Jim Everett, Heather Rose and Ben Walter.
This is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the island everyone is talking about.

There are sixty objects but I’ll start with the one on the frontispiece. It’s a painting by Harry Buckie, an artist whose works seems mainly to be Tasmanian landscapes, but this one is a domestic interior: a kitchen with a stone flag floor and a combustion stove, with cast-iron pots and a bellows hanging nearby.  A freestanding cupboard and a chair are made of wood, and there’s a shelf with a candle and some boxes that look like the kind of tins that biscuits used to be packed in. Through the doorway we can see that the house is weatherboard and has a water tank: it suggests that this kitchen is of the old type that was built separately to the house because of the danger of fire.

This thoughtful painting is accompanied by a poem called ‘The House Shorn in Two’, by Barney Roberts, a poet born in 1920 and brought up on his parents’ farm in Tasmania.  The poem is an homage to these parents:

The house, now shorn in two,
as if a cruel wind had cut its swath
through my old bedroom.
The chimney, tall, naked, pointing finger,
a token of the warmth that fed us around its hob;
where the old man sat
with a taper made from rushes;
and sucked the red flame
into the black bole of his pipe;
and talked of war in Spain,
and Ruskin.

And your mother,
yours and mine, who bore five children;
and loved them all with a joy,
and lived with a joy,
and gave to us all
the joy she found in flowers,
in early mornings,
in rain on the hill,
in Spring and bird-song,
in God knows what.

I saw it all today
forty years after I lost my front tooth
with a Swannie whistle, off the back step.

The poem goes on to show us parents who once tended a neat flower garden along with their cows, and a kitchen that once smelled of home-baked bread and breakfast bacon, where a woman with eyes as tragic as a dream, or gay, as a coloured scarf upon the line, nursed sick bodies and minor hurts.  She recited Shakespeare to them, and Shelley and Browning and Yeats, only to have the war, her second, /that cut her life /like the hand of Fate /that destroyed the house. The poet knows that next time he comes to see this place of childhood memories, there will be nothing to remain but a grass paddock, as progress strives to hide /the traces of a man and wife /who died.  

These relics of houses are scattered all over Australia, battered by the winds and sinking into the soil, but this combination of image and text is a reminder that a rich intellectual life in some of these houses confounds any stereotypes we might have.  This one painting and poem is reason enough to have this book on your shelves.

But there is more.  Accompanying a photo of a museum collection of skulls, there’s a wonderful account from a Mrs Mary G Roberts about ‘The Keeping and Breeding of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisi)’ in which she tells a surprising fact to those of us who’ve seen these ferocious creatures: she tells us how gentle and still a mother is when nursing her little ones, and even lets a trusted human fondle her head.  This article comes from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1915.

Accompanying images of molten plates and a serving plate is a harrowing story called ‘Ash Tuesday’ from Joan Woodberry.  It’s especially poignant now, with the fires ravaging NSW and Queensland.  Equally distressing is the poem about road kill that accompanies a photo of a stuffed wombat.  It brought to mind Death of a Wombat by Ivan Smith and Clifton Pugh; wombats are such lovable creatures, but so slow, and so vulnerable to speeding vehicles…

A sweet sampler embroidered by Hannah Dyer is accompanied by an excerpt from The Broad Arrow by Caroline Leakey, evoking the horrors of the Cascade factory for female servants; while that infamous Proclamation Board to the Tasmanian Aborigines—yes, the one that promised them British justice—is paired with Jim Everett’s ‘A Short Trip with Shorty O’Neill’, which begins with a protest involving burning a New Zealand flag that’s been mistaken for the Australian one. The ingenuity with which images are paired is amazing…

There are texts from contemporary authors I’ve reviewed on this blog: Helen Hodgman, Carmel Bird, Heather Rose and Christopher Koch; from historic documents; and by authors new to me.  It’s a marvellous collection.  I don’t want to give the book back to the library so I’m going to drop hints to Santa. If you want to do the same, availability details are below.

Authors: Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane
Title: Island Story, Tasmania in Object and Text
Publishers: Text Publishing, 2018, 256 pages
ISBN: 9781925603965
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Island Story: Tasmania in Object and Text or direct from Text Publishing 

PS The winners of the Premier’s Prize will be announced on 5 December.  For more information see their website.

PPS You can read more about the book at The Conversation.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 17/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 3 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre was great.  I went to three sessions, all totally different to each other but they were equally enriching experiences.

My first session featured Katherine Johnson, author of Paris Savages, in conversation with anthropologist Heather Threadgold.  Katherine had the distinction of being the only novelist appearing at this year’s festival, included because the story she has written — like all her other novels — is so closely based on factual events.

As you will know if you have read my review, Paris Savages is the story of three Badtjala people who went to Europe in the 19th century as exhibits in a human zoo.  The catalyst for this novel was a report by Daniel Browning of ABC Radio National’s AWAYE about the discovery of a human body cast in France.  This program piqued Katherine’s interest in the way that people were being taken as living exhibits for display in Europe, and that this was taking place during the Enlightenment.  Her research showed that the exhibition narratives fed into ideas about eugenics and racial superiority, and that the language used persists to this day in the shameful abuse of Indigenous man Adam Goodes.

The conversation also covered Katherine’s narrative choices which allow for insights into these events without appropriating the Indigenous voice.  Her choice to use the fictional perspective of the adolescent missionary’s daughter Hilda allows for insights more perceptive than Müller’s narrow ‘scientific’ perspective, and she also occasionally uses a ‘ghostly’ omniscient narrator who points out the ‘holes’ in the historical record.  She is acutely conscious of the problems associated with telling stories such as this, but she referenced both Peter Carey who says it’s disrespectful not to include the Indigenous presence in our storytelling, and also Indigenous woman Marcia Langton (a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations in Queensland) who says that one way of ‘othering’ is to make people invisible.  There’s another angle to this issue too: telling stories such as this is delicate, and needs to be done respectfully, but it shouldn’t just be Indigenous people doing all the work of bringing these stories to light.

My next session had potential for controversy too, but it turned out to be good-natured and congenial.  A Twitterstorm arose over John Marsden’s new book The Art of Growing Up, and from my observations of the body language of some audience members, I was expecting some hostility to erupt, but it didn’t happen.  Marsden was disarming and chatty, and poked fun at himself and the dangerous art of commenting on contemporary parenting.  His interviewer Mark Smith didn’t shy away from asking the difficult questions about the aspects of the book that caused controversy, and the answers were straightforward.  If there were people there who were unconvinced, they stayed quiet.

In a nutshell, Marsden thinks most parents do a good job, but some parenting is toxic and does the child no favours.  Obviously this is going to arouse defensiveness but he feels that his years of experience as a teacher and principal of his own school means that he has something to contribute and he doesn’t think parenting is sacred territory where no one can go.

He talked about parents who say that their child is their best friend or their hero, and how he thinks this is a fundamental error because the first requirement of a parent is to be an adult. It involves setting limits, showing a child what is acceptable and what isn’t, and it’s important to make it clear how to react to problems and to include a variety of solutions to those problems.  Parents have a responsibility to set their children on the right path: the path to knowledge and the path to wisdom, understanding and insight.  This all seems pretty harmless to me, but he was scathing about parents who rationalise not seeing much of their children with the excuse of ‘quality’ time.  He says it’s ‘quantity time’ that matters because relationships grow out of the time that you spend with the child and that’s a foundation for everything else.

He also talked about ‘curling parents’.  I think this is a reference to some kind of football, because he meant that these were parents who scraped away every obstacle in their child’s way.  In small families this can mean that the child’s landscape is restricted to home, school, the local shopping centre and a few weekend activities and this can be suffocating for children.  Children need to be guided towards readiness for adulthood, and he reminded us that they can have sex at 16 and join the army at 17, and yet there’s no gold pass that turns a child into an instant adult the day they turn 18.

The most controversial aspect of his book is apparently what he has to say about bullying and he’s been accused of victim blaming.  What he says is that he and his staff investigate every accusation of bullying, interviewing the perpetrator, the victim and the witnesses.  (There’s nothing unusual about that, it’s standard procedure in any responsible school, and yes, it’s extremely time-consuming).  But what he nearly always finds is that the victim’s account is rarely the full story.  Kids, he says, are not sophisticated enough to handle conflict maturely, and sometimes the bullying is a response to unacceptable behaviour on the part of the victim.  There is, he acknowledges, capricious, relentless and racist bullying in schools and in society, but it’s a mistake to generalise about all bullying being like that.

I haven’t read his book, because my days of worrying about parenting are over, but I think what he is trying to say is that it doesn’t help when parents can’t hear uncomfortable truths about their children because it makes it even harder to resolve the child’s problems.  I certainly met my share of parents like that when I was teaching, and I used to feel very sorry for their children because it made everything harder for the child.

My third session was fascinating.  Titled ‘Neoliberalism and the Rise of the Right’, it featured Maria Rae interviewing two authors: Dominic Kelly whose book is provocatively titled Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia and Jane R Goodall whose book is called The Politics of the Common Good, Dispossession in Australia. Both authors are very concerned about the way the ideology of neo-liberalism has disseminated itself through economic ideas.

Jane Goodall explained what neo-liberalism is not: it isn’t a laissez-faire, free market, free for all.  It’s actually highly controlled and ideologically driven.  Its central idea is that human intelligence isn’t adequate to discern all the complexities of global interactions, so it should be left to the market to sort everything out.  Dominic Kelly added to this by saying that all the talk that we hear about economic ideas such as privatisation, free trade etc being the best way to run an economy are sold to us as common sense economics, when in fact it’s a political project.

And the way it has come to dominate the discourse began with think tanks and advocacy groups, like Quadrant, the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs), the H R Nicholls Society, the Samuel Griffith Society, and the culture warriors associated with these groups.

Jane Goodall put all this in context by explaining that in the postwar era an Austrian economist called Ludwig von Mises saw the alarming phenomenon of socialist governments turning to totalitarianism and his writings were intended to prevent other governments falling into the same trap.  He wanted to avoid hostile legislation, the abuse of power and the curtailment of freedom of the press. But he was an ideologue too, and these problems have likewise arisen under neo-liberalism.

The talk surveyed economic policies under governments since Whitlam leading to the present situation where the Banking Royal Commission hasn’t punished any unconscionable behaviour in comparison to the punitive provisions of Centrelink’s Robodebt.  Where we have sold our public utilities to make some people very rich, but it hasn’t turned out to be better or cheaper for us.  And where the average citizen remains so captive to misunderstandings that he votes against the reform of franking credits when he doesn’t even get them…

Well, I’m as naïve about economics as the next person, so I left this session wondering whether what I’d been hearing was sound common sense, or left wing ideology equally irrational as the right wing version.  What I do know is that our society is more unfair and meaner than it was when I was young, and that these days it’s easier for people to get stuck in a poverty trap not of their own making.  I would like to see it change, and I’d like to see a genuine contest of ideas over a better way.


Congratulations to the organisers and all the volunteers who contributed to the running of the festival.  There was something for everyone in the program, and everything ran super smoothly. I’ll be putting the 2020 dates into my diary as soon as they become available because this festival is one of the highlights in anyone’s bookish year.




Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 16/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 2 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre continued the theme of Nyaal, which is Wadawurrung for ‘open your eyes’.  In my first session of the day Geelong author Sue Lawson began her conversation with Professor Ron McCallum OA about his book Born at the Right Time by first listing his stunning list of achievements and then addressed ‘the elephant in the room’ by asking how the theme applied… because Ron McCallum has been blind since birth.

The session was indeed an eye-opener.  Sue Lawson is a highly skilled interviewer and it was a warm, funny, laughter-filled session.

McCallum says he was ‘born at the right time’ because he’s among the first generation to be able to take advantage of new technologies that support people with vision disabilities.  When he was a child in kindergarten at the RVIB school in St Kilda Road, he was once tactlessly told that he would end up making baskets in the sheltered workshop, but he had a remarkable teacher called Evelyn Maguire who recognised that he was gifted and told him was special and that he would have a different future.  Indeed he did: as you can see in his profile at Wikipedia, he is the first totally blind person to be appointed by any university in Australasia to a full professorship in any field or as Dean of Law. He has worked for the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; been an ambassador for the European NGO confederation, Light for the World, and he worked on the official review of the Fair Work Act 2009, along with publishing 10 books and numerous professional articles and research papers.

McCallum ascribes his different future to the influence of three women, to whom his book was dedicated: his mother Edna McCallum; his surrogate mother Lois Doery and his wife, confidante and life companion, Professor Mary Crock. His mother nourished his love of reading by reading to him when he had exhausted the small number of Braille books at his school.  He met Lois when he was 25, and she became the reader who read everything to him for 15 years. (It was in this period that technology began to play its part because she could read books onto cassette tapes so that he could listen independently and when he wanted to).

His wife Mary came into his life when he was 37 and had never dated because it was all too complicated.  Instead he had spent all his adult life working 14 hour days, sublimating sexuality and relationships, but she transformed his life.  He told some funny stories about her discovery that there were no mirrors in the house and his discovery of hand cream in the bathroom instead of toothpaste.  But he also said that his career as an academic really took off after he was married because colleagues perceived him as ‘normal’ instead of ‘a nice guy who was no competition’.   Relationships, he said, bring people into the central vortex of society, and maybe people should be more tolerant of people outside it, but that’s how it was in the 1990s.

He has a phenomenal memory.  It’s not as good as it used to be, he said, drawing a laugh when he said he used to know dozens of phone numbers and now he doesn’t because of his mobile phone. He thinks there’s an element of intelligence in having a good memory, but there are also strategies such as sequencing and rehearsing that enable remembering complex strings of information.

The arrival of computers has transformed life for the blind.  In the US there are audio descriptions built into films, so that what’s happening on screen can be heard by the vision impaired using headphones.  This is not mandatory here in Australia, but it can be accessed on Netflix.  To stay informed about current affairs in print, the blind used to have to rely on Radio for the Print Handicapped (3RPH, here in Melbourne, where I used to work as a volunteer reading newspapers, and 2RPH in Sydney) but now there is an App which will read any newspaper or journal aloud.  And the books that McCallum so loves to read can be scanned and read aloud using computer technologies as well.

My second session was an eye-opener too. Chaired by Harrison Tippet, it featured Meg Mundell who was the editor of the world-first collection We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, and contributors Claire G Coleman and Rachel Kurzyp.  Tippet began with some stats about Geelong: there are about 1500 rough sleepers in this city, and there is a shortfall of 7200 places for housing.  Since Geelong is Victoria’s second largest city, these stats give you some idea of the enormity of the problem.

As I said in my review of this profoundly moving book, the theme is ‘place’.  Meg said that though the book grew out of workshops where homeless people were supported to tell their stories, she didn’t want the whole book to be stories of homelessness.  What she wanted to do was to disprove the stereotypes and to show that homeless people do have something to offer.

Claire (who is a Noongar woman) added that there was emotional catharsis in telling a story, and that there were added complexities for Indigenous people.  Home for them is their ancestral land on country, and the place where they live might not be a ‘home’.  Often they can’t live on country, because it’s inaccessible (e.g. it’s mining country), or because it’s too expensive in contemporary cities.  There was great empathy for Behrouz Boochani now in New Zealand because it’s a terrible thing to be afraid to live in your own country, in the way that Kurds under siege are now in fear for their lives.

But the most impressive moment in this session came in question time, from a member of the audience. When a middle-aged women got up and said she was going to make a brave disclosure, I’m sure everyone thought she was going to brave the stigma of admitting that she herself was or had been homeless, but no.  The panel had made some brutally critical comments about Centrelink and this woman then admitted that she worked there.  I think it was sobering for everyone to see that it’s not just a job for the people at Centrelink: there are people who do genuinely care, and who work there doing the best they can because they want to help.

(When I was dealing with Centrelink on behalf of my father, I saw some staff exercising great patience and compassion in the face of outright belligerence and aggression, and while I understand that such behaviour is born of frustration and fear, I can still see that it must take courage to get up and come to work in the morning when you know that you’ll be facing that kind of unremitting hostility.)

My final session wasn’t about a book: it was about a passion project called Tony Wilson, who also writes children’s books and is a football fanatic, has set up a website to showcase the World’s Greatest Speeches.   It features speeches ranging from the political to the satirical, and includes speeches from the everyday: birthday and wedding speeches; eulogies, lectures and acceptance speeches.  What is most revelatory is that it provides the speech in full, so that you can see and hear the context often not obvious from the stellar moments that we tend to remember.

Wilson started out by analysing the features of a great speech like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’.  He identifies repetition, simile and metaphor, allusions and alliteration, antithesis, conduplication (repetition of words or phrases such as ‘I have a dream’) and parallel phrasing (as in ‘We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to gaol together, to stand up for freedom together.)

What makes a speech great is ‘the moment’: Redfern; the Dismissal, the Challenger disaster, and 9/11.  There is also the delivery: using the rule of three and the modulation of emotion.  Of course there must be something to say, as Greta Thunberg says so powerfully in her ‘How dare you’ speech., and a speech needs a good title, such as ‘I am Somebody‘.  The language and writing is crucial (think of Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’); and often humour, originality or surprise are important too.

Wilson welcomes submissions to his site.  If you have a suggestion, get in touch with him at his website.

More from the festival tomorrow…




Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, Opening Night

Well, here I am at Rydges Hotel in Geelong for the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre. The theme this year is Nyaal, which is Wadawurrung for ‘open your eyes’.

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Proceedings began with a cocktail party, and then it was upstairs in this gorgeous building to the space called Wurdi Youang on Level 5.

The keynote speaker was Tyson Yunkaporta, in conversation with Harriet Gaffney about his book Sand Talk, How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World.

I’d bought the book from the festival bookshop, so I was looking forward to this session, but truth be told I found the discussion rambling, incoherent and ultimately mystifying. I could not get a grasp on the basics of the idea because of the random way it was presented.  (And I know from talking to another audience participant, that I wasn’t the only one.)

This is the blurb for the book:

This remarkable book is about everything from echidnas to evolution, cosmology to cooking, sex and science and spirits to Schrödinger’s cat.

Tyson Yunkaporta looks at global systems from an Indigenous perspective. He asks how contemporary life diverges from the pattern of creation. How does this affect us? How can we do things differently?

Sand Talk provides a template for living. It’s about how lines and symbols and shapes can help us make sense of the world. It’s about how we learn and how we remember. It’s about talking to everybody and listening carefully. It’s about finding different ways to look at things.

Most of all it’s about Indigenous thinking, and how it can save the world.

Fortunately, the wonders of the internet meant that, back at the hotel, I could find a coherent explanation of Yonkaporta’s interesting ideas.  Follow this link to ABC RN’s All in the Mind. 

I’m looking forward to reading the book.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2019

2019 Voss Literary Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the 2019 Voss Literary Prize has been announced, and I’m a little bit disappointed to see that some of my the most interesting books didn’t survive the cull.

Gone from the list are:

Still in contention for the prize are

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Launched in 2014, the Voss Literary Prize is dedicated to the memory of historian Vivian Robert Le Vaux Voss. Last year’s winner was Bram Presser for The Book of Dirt.

For more information about the Voss Literary Prize prize, please see here.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2019

Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, by Ian Lowe

The irony about this book is that there isn’t really a debate about the size of the Australian population.  There may be mutterings in the pub about rapid population growth in Sydney and Melbourne, but seven years after the publication of Bigger or Better? Australia still doesn’t have a population policy… though this article argues that we don’t need one.

My interest in this book was triggered by another book that I’m reading.  I’m about half way through Tim Watts’ recently published The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity and there’s a fair bit in that about the impact on population of the Howard Government’s changes to immigration policy, and how Australia has mostly fudged the question of population policy.  More about that later when I’ve finished it, but it’s been interesting to companion-read Lowe’s book, even though some of it is now out of date.

This is the blurb:

When Kevin Rudd responded to a government forecast that the Australian population could reach 36 million by 2050 by saying he believed in ‘a big Australia’, there was a strong public reaction. One insider said that ‘the focus groups went ballistic’. Julia Gillard renamed the relevant minister’s portfolio ‘sustainable population’, implicitly criticising pro-growth policies of previous governments. Tony Abbott vowed to ‘stop the boats’ if elected (thus limiting immigration), despite generally supporting a population growth agenda and clearly having no way of stopping the boats. The Murdoch press attacked both major parties, accusing them of pandering to base prejudice by discussing the social impacts of immigration or suggesting that population growth had negative environmental impacts. It urged politicians to champion what it claimed were the self-evident economic benefits of rapid population growth. The issue is clearly a political hot potato.

This book clarifies the subject, as the debate has been confused by serious misconceptions. It provides an historic account of Australia’s population growth and an analysis of the data. It looks at the components of the growth, such as birth rates and immigration, as well as the more recent trend of our ageing population. It also analyses the motives of different interested parties, both those who promote population growth and those who argue against it.

Bigger or Better? makes the complex and controversial issues around population accessible to general readers and will contribute to public debate about this important topic.

Well, I remember this flurry about ‘big Australia’ but it’s not a topic in the media at the moment.  There seem to be two reasons for this: one is that the nexus between population growth and economic growth is ‘settled’ dogma, and the other is that it’s a complex subject easily subverted into prejudice about migration.  Lowe’s book is useful for clarifying the issues, and it appears to me to be reasonably even-handed, but he is upfront about being a patron of Sustainable Population Australia so it’s clear where his opinion lies.

The book consists of a brief history of population growth in Australia, tracing the years when it was generally accepted that Australia needed to grow its population, through to the early 1970s where there began to be world-wide concern about the earth’s capacity to support an ever-increasing global population.  But nothing much happened.  Then there was another flurry in the 1990s but immigration and the national birth rate went on increasing under the Howard government’s policies anyway.

There’s a longish chapter about the economic arguments for and against, most of which suggest that we’ve been led up the garden path about the benefits of population growth—but what I found most interesting of all was the chapter titled ‘Who’s Who in the Population Debate, and What are their Agendas.’ Whether it’s intended to or not, this chapter goes a long way to explaining why in fact there is so little discussion about the future of our population.  It’s very complicated indeed.

Lowe begins by profiling the ‘Traditional Expansionists‘.  These are the people who think that a bigger country means a bigger economy and it makes us a country likely to be taken seriously by other nations. There is also a belief that it would make us more secure and better able to defend ourselves. Amongst these proponents, Bob Hawke, for example, thought that a bigger population led to economies of scale and would make Australian business more competitive.  An extreme example of this position is held by Phil Ruthven who thinks we should aim for 200 million people. (Yikes!)

Then there are the ‘Minority Expansionists’.  These groups are often not keen on some of their bedfellows, as you can see from their varying positions:

  • Pro population growth but anti migration;
  • Pro migration if certain criteria are met, i.e. if migrants conform to religious, ethnic or political ideological criteria.  The White Australia Policy was a version of this position;
  • Anti migration altogether because they’re anti-multiculturalism, and since it’s politically and legally unacceptable to discriminate, they’d rather not have any migration at all and would prefer to encourage the birth rate;
  • Migrant organisations wanting family reunion;
  • Growth-orientated state and territory governments, i.e. SA, NT and WA;
  • Humanitarians wanting a more generous refugee policy.  Within this group there are sub-groups who:
    • want an open-door policy, allowing in anyone who applies
    • want to restrict a more generous refugee intake to people in fear of their lives but excluding ‘economic refugees’ i.e. people who want a better life.
  • Economic libertarians, i.e. ‘evangelical’ free traders who think that restrictions on migration are inconsistent with their ideology, and that restrictions on the movement of workers protect the less productive.  They want the Australian workforce to be challenged by competition from foreign workers, so that they are forced to become more productive or accept lower wages.
  • Vested interests (who are rarely explicit about how they benefit directly from a growth in population):
    • entrepreneurs with direct economic interests (migration agents, estate agents, lawyers);
    • the housing industry, the retail sector and employer groups.

Then there are ‘Majority Protectionists‘ opposed to population growth:

  • Mainstream environmental groups like the ACF who are concerned about the pressure on the environment and argue that continued growth puts biodiversity at risk because of over-consumption.  They want the population stabilised;
  • Urban residents concerned about their quality of life because of the growth of cities;
  • Infrastructure providers who argue that limited resources can’t cater for increasing needs e.g. Sydney’s water supply problem.  [LH: A problem apparently persisting despite the desalination plant that opened in 2010].
  • People (including politicians from both major parties) who think that migrants come here wanting handouts instead of to make a contribution to Australia
  • Unemployed and under-employed people who argue that migrants take their jobs so they object to importing skilled workers. This argument waxes and wanes with the state of the economy i.e. the unemployment rate.
  • Humanitarians who object to importing skilled workers from poor countries that need them.  An example given is the shortage of doctors in South African hospitals e.g. in Soweto, because doctors trained in South Africa have migrated to wealthy countries that should be training enough of their own doctors.
  • Cultural protectionists opposed to multiculturalism i.e. One Nation and its bedfellows.  Their objections are overtly racist.

There are also ‘Minority Protectionists‘:

  • Groups who think that further growth will reduce their political influence, i.e. Indigenous groups, because their culture and lifestyle has been destroyed by migration since 1788;
  • Offshore humanitarians, who think it’s better to help people in their own countries because you can help more people with foreign aid than you can by allowing relatively few of them to migrate here. The argument is that the annual increase in India and China is more than the entire population of Australia so there’s no way we can really help many out of poverty with any realistic migration program. [LH: Our meanness with foreign aid is a pet peeve of mine.  The UN target is for 7% of GDP to go to foreign aid, but Australia spends $4.044 billion dollars – that’s just 0.22% of our gross national income, or 22 cents in every $100. See the article at The Conversation about our misconceptions, and how the budget keeps cutting it year after year.]

Finally, there are professions that are Pro-Growth:

  • Economists who think that growth is a virtue in itself (with notable exceptions like Ross Gittins);
  • Engineers and physicists who are optimistic about the potential of technology to solve problems (compared to biological scientists and ecologists who are less confident about the carrying capacity of the planet in general and Australia in particular). Engineers and physicists, Lowe says, would rather genetically modify crops than try to fix unfair distribution systems, or promote nuclear power than reduce overconsumption. And he says, we ought not to hold future generations hostage to possible inventions to solve our problems.

These groups who are for and against population growth make for a complex political dynamic, and Lowe tackles a lot of their arguments, especially the economic arguments as simplistic.  If you’re interested, I recommend reading the book.  But I will share his rather alarming conclusions (bearing in mind that this book was published in 2012, seven years ago:

  • The annual difference between births and deaths was then about 150,000 and the migrant intake was 200,000+ so growth has been set in train for decades to come.  Even if we cut migration to balance those who emigrate (a radical step in itself, he says), our population would reach 30 million before stabilising.  Our population would be 40 million by 2050.
  • The Treasury projection of a population of 36 million would, if it follows current trends, locate 70% of people in the cities.  Our population is now 26 million, but Lowe bases his projections on 14 million more than the 22 million population in 2012.  Using those figures, he projects 10 million more people in our cities, that’s 3 million more in each of Sydney and Melbourne; one million more in each of Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, and the remaining million in the rest of our cities.  (The rest of the increase i.e. 4 million people would be in rural and regional areas).
  • Both Sydney and Melbourne would need one-and-a-half million more dwellings, impacting both on urban sprawl and ‘improbable levels of infill housing’ in the inner suburbs.

Imagine that!

PS (the next day) By coincidence, I discovered this article about micro-apartments at the Guardian.  (I wonder where they put their books?)

Author: Ian Lowe
Title: Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012, 208 pages
ISBN: 9780702239090
Source: Kingston Library

Available from UQP (also as an eBook) and from Fishpond (there were second-hand copies available on the day I looked): Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2019

The Museum of Broken Promises, by Elizabeth Buchan

I won’t spend much time on this review: The Museum of Broken Promises was a disappointment, and I spent more time reading it than I should have, given that I have other more enticing titles beckoning from the TBR.

This ‘cold war’ novel is what it is, commercial fiction, edited to a budget not to a standard, and it shows.  Apart from the messy plot, the weak characterisation and shallow grasp of the complexities of Cold War history, there are elements of it that are absurd.  A woman who has been tortured herself by the Czech security services, seeks reassurance that her lover wasn’t given the same treatment or worse?  Really?? Is she still really that naïve?? And a man who knows about a rape, is relieved to see that the victim’s ‘sweetness and trust’ hasn’t been beaten out of her.  Really??  That’s a male fantasy, if ever I heard one…

There are little irritations too.  What is the point of going out of the way to describe in one scene a character’s dress as badly cut, when much has been made of her acquisition of Parisienne elegance after many years living there?  In another scene, this same woman wears a French beret pulled down over her ears. (You can watch a tedious video here if you want to know how to wear a beret properly.)

I was dismayed by the jaunty tone in describing the work of the ‘puzzle’ women in post-Soviet Germany:

During the last days of the GDR, the Stasi tried to destroy their mountains of files and paperwork recording the decades of surveillance.  The joke ran that for the most efficient surveillance system in the world, they hadn’t been very efficient.  Left behind was a paper mountain, from which rose (as Petr well knew) a miasma of spite, vengeance and oppression.

In the new democratic dawn, these had to be investigated and teams of ‘Puzzle Women’ patrolled long tables on which were arranged thousands and thousands of paper fragments from which they were bidden to construct a new story of Germany from the old ones. (p.199)

Notice anything?  This novel is mainly set in Prague — in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet years, now the Czech Republic.  Its bad guys are from the StB, the plainclothes communist secret police who conducted surveillance on its citizens and worse.  But this snippet, sourced from Anna Funder’s Stasiland (which the author says in the Afterword that she has read) brings in the Stasi in the GDR.  (Well, if you’ve got a useful snippet from your research, shove in a scene in Berlin so that you can use it, eh?) But it’s the scale and purpose ascribed to this mammoth task that caused my dismay.  It’s so disrespectful and insensitive.  Salvaging these shredded Stasi records is not about ‘constructing a new story’ and it’s not about ‘thousands and thousands’ of fragments: it’s about hundreds of millions of fragments and it’s about reconstructing the records of people who ‘disappeared’ under the Soviet regime, and no trace of them has been found.  Their families yearn to know what happened to them; it’s a matter of justice and accountability.

Funder, whose book comprises a series of interviews with citizens who lived through the Stasi years, focusses her poignant chapter on the hopes of a woman called Miriam. This is how she writes about this project, with compassion and sensitivity, and it’s testament to her powerful writing that the details of it are seared into my memory:

I am as nervous as a cat.  I am in an unaccountable hurry.  I have been thinking about this place for so long as the focus of Miriam’s hopes; I want there to be stainless steel benches and people wearing hair nets and white cloth gloves. I want security guards on the entrances and cameras in the workrooms.  I want the completed puzzle pages to be scanned into computers, correlated to the files they belong to and for the people they affect to be called up by sensitive, trained personnel and informed about the new links in their lives.

I want them to find out what happened to Charlie Weber. (Stasiland, by Anna Funder, Text Publishing, 2002, p263)

You can see that Funder is worried that the project could be sabotaged by ex-Stasi people looking to destroy evidence, her previous chapters having established that there are still unrepentant Stasi at liberty.  But she is aghast when she sees the enormity of the task being undertaken.   The work of the team piecing together the 15,000 sacks full of an estimated 600 million shredded documents isn’t a case of ‘patrolling’ tables; it’s meticulous, painstaking work in the service of the only recompense there can be: an end to the torture of soul-destroying uncertainty. (You can see how it’s done in this report about the potential use of new technology.

The irony of the title seems to have been lost on the author.  The most cruelly broken promise of the Cold War era wasn’t among the detritus of interpersonal relationships in Laure’s museum, but rather that repressive regimes from one end of the Soviet Union to the other, betrayed the promise of a better life for their people.

Enough already.  I have better things to do…

Author: Elizabeth Buchan
Title: The Museum of Broken Promises
Publisher: Corvus (a division of Atlantic Books), 2019, 410 pages
ISBN: 9781786495303
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin



Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2019

2019 Queensland Literary Awards winners

I’m a bit busy today, so the following comes verbatim from the press release…

Winners of the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards announced

Outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction were celebrated tonight as winners of the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards were announced at a ceremony at State Library of Queensland.

Miles Franklin Award winner Melissa Lucashenko received the coveted $25,000 prize for the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance. Judges described the winning title, Too Much Lip, as gritty and clever storytelling which tackles serious issues.

The Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards (two $12,500 packages) were awarded to Brisbane poet Ella Jeffery and Mununjali Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven. Predicted to take her place as one of Australia’s most vital poets, Ella was praised by the judges for her exceptional vocabulary of imagery while Ellen – a past recipient of the David Unaipon Award – was noted for their command of language and storytelling that reveals a long-standing dedication to craft.

Exploded View, by Carrie Tiffany, received The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award, while An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorell Arnold by Mary Hoban was awarded The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award. Hoban was also honoured with the University of Southern Queensland History Book Award for the same title – a project which originated from the inaugural Hazel Rowley Memorial Fellowship awarded to her in 2012.

High school English teacher Rhiannon Ratcliffe Wilde was awarded the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer for her charming coming-of-age novel Henry Hamlet’s Heart.

First Nations writers were well represented across the award categories, featuring as winners in three of the 12 award categories. Queensland writers took home eight of the 15 prizes.

The Queensland Literary Awards, managed by State Library of Queensland, honour outstanding books by Australian authors and champion new writing from emerging Queensland writers. $253,500 in prizes are awarded for published and unpublished works.


You can see the shortlisted titles here.


This is the full list of winners:

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, Prize: $25,000

  • Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards Prize: two awards of $10,000 plus career development support to the value of $2,500 each

  • Ella Jeffery
    Ellen van Neerven

Queensland Writers Fellowships Prize: three Fellowships of $15,000 each, plus professional development support to the value of $4,500

  • Claire Christian, The Invisibles
  • Sarah Holland-Batt, Spiral Separator
  • Emily O’Grady, Feast

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer Prize: $15,000, plus publication with UQP

  • Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Ratcliffe Wilde

QUT Digital Literature Award Prize: $15,000

  • V[R]ignettes (Mez Breeze Designs) by Mez Breeze

Griffith University Children’s Book Award Prize: $15,000

  • The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars (Allen & Unwin) by Jaclyn Moriarty

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award Prize: $15,000

  • Lenny’s Book of Everything (Allen & Unwin) by Karen Foxlee

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award Prize: $15,000

  • Exploded View (Text) by Carrie Tiffany

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award Prize: $15,000

  • An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorell Arnold (Scribe) by Mary Hoban

University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection Prize: $10,000

  • Zebra: And Other Stories (Pan Macmillan) by Debra Adelaide

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award Prize: $10,000

  • An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorell Arnold (Scribe) by Mary Hoban

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award Prize: $10,000

  • Adani, Following Its Dirty Footsteps: A Personal Story (Spinifex) by Lindsay Simpson

Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection Prize: $10,000

  • Blakwork (Magabala) by Alison Whittaker

David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer. Eligible entrants will receive author development activities through State Library including mentorship, editorial advice, and guidance on opportunities, pathways and artistic development, in consultation with the Award partners, Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and University of Queensland Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2019

Aussies and Kiwis on the 2020 Dublin Literary Award longlist

Twelve books by Australian authors and three by New Zealand authors have been longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

I’ve read and reviewed about half of the Australian titles:

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  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, see my review
  • The Making of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane
  • Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
  • A Stolen Season by Rodney Hall, see my review
  • The Lost Man by Jane Harper
  • Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, see my review
  • Shell by Kristina Olsson, see my review
  • The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
  • The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review
  • The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
  • Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

I’ve read and reviewed all three of the New Zealand titles:

The longlist comprises156 books, nominated by libraries from 40 countries. There are 50 translated titles and 51 debut novels. The book that received the most nominations this year was Tommy Orange’s There There.

The shortlist will be announced on 2 April 2020 and the winner on 10 June.  The prize is worth €100,000 (A$157,760).

For more information, visit the award’s website.

I don’t like to criticise the organisers of this award because it seems like a ginormous task for a library to undertake, but alas, this year, they have not published a copiable list, much less a sortable one, only a web page of book covers.  I have done my best to harvest this list, but it’s a work in progress.  Translators names have (at the time of writing) only been included when they were named on the cover of the book, and many names should be spelled with diacritics… so I would appreciate advice about any information that needs to be added or corrections that need to be made.   I’m also aware that I may have missed Australian or New Zealand writers if I’m not familiar with their names, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if there are more than the 15 I’ve identified.

Nominees from elsewhere around the world.  (I have kept the Aussies and Kiwis in this list (in Italics) to keep the numbering correct, but links to my reviews for those are in my lists above.)

  1. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
  2. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
  3. A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood
  4. A Stolen Season by Rodney Hall
  5. All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy
  6. All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan
  7. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  8. An Image in a Mirror by Ijangolet Ogwang
  9. The Orphan’s War by Molly Green
  10. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
  11. Begotten Not Made by Conal Creedon
  12. Berta Isla by Javier Marias, on my TBR
  13. Bird Cottage by Ava Meijer
  14. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuiller
  15. Blue Jewellery by Kalharna Winker
  16. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
  17. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
  18. Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf
  19. Burning Cities by Kai Aarelid
  20. Catching the Light by Susan Sinnott
  21. Children of God by Lars Petter Sveen
  22. Circe by Madeline Miller, see my review
  23. Comemadre by Roque Larraqut
  24. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
  25. Convenience Store Women by Sayuka Murata
  26. Damnation by Peter Beck
  27. Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, see my review
  28. Don’t Skip Out on me by Willy Vlautin
  29. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
  30. Elefant by Martin Suter
  31. Eternal life by Dara Horn
  32. Flames by Robbie Arnott
  33. Fox by Dubravka Ugresic
  34. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, see my review
  35. French Exit by Patrick deWitt
  36. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, see my review
  37. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  38. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  39. Hanumans Travels by Andrei Ivanov
  40. History of Violence by Edouard Louis
  41. Hotel Silence by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
  42. Immigrant Montana by Amitav Kumar
  43. In Half by Jasmin B Frelih translated by Jason Blake
  44. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
  45. Jasmine Days by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib, see my review
  46. Killing Commendatore by Murakami
  47. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
  48. Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
  49. Latitudes of Longing by Shubhamngi Swarup
  50. Letters to God by Norharsah Hamid
  51. Little by Edward Carey
  52. Lullaby by Leile Slimani
  53. Matei Brunul by Lucian Dan Teodorovici
  54. Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
  55. Middle England by Jonathan Coe, see my review
  56. Milkman by Anna Burns, on my TBR
  57. My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water by Michelle Steinbeck translated by Jess Calleja
  58. My German Brother by Chico Buarque
  59. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  60. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Otessa Moshfegh
  61. Name of the Dog, by Elmer Mendoza
  62. Nameless Serenade by Maurizo de Giovanni
  63. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  64. Ohio by Stephen Markley
  65. OK, Mr Field, by Katharine Kilalea
  66. Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt
  67. Oraefi the Wasteland by Ofeigur Sigurdsson translated by Lytton Smith
  68. Orchid and the Wasp by Caolinn Hughes
  69. Painter to the Kind by Amy Sackville
  70. Peach by Emma Glass
  71. Piranhas by Roberto Saviano, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
  72. Pobeda 1946, a Car Called Victory by Ilmar Taska
  73. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer, on my TBR
  74. Resin by Ane Riel
  75. Resistance by Julian Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn
  76. River, by Esther Kinsky, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith
  77. Second Chinese Daughter by Shirley Fung
  78. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
  79. Severance by Ling Ma
  80. Shell by Kristina Olssen
  81. Sight, by Jessie Greengrass
  82. Skin Deep by Liz Nugent
  83. Small Country by Gael Faye
  84. Sonka by Ignacy Karpowicz, translated from the Polish by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim
  85. Sophia, or the Beginning of All Tales by Rafik Schami, translated from the German by Monique Arav & John Hannon
  86. Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
  87. Story of a Marriage, by Geir Gulliksen
  88. Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale
  89. Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams
  90. The Arid Sky by Emiliano Monge, translated by Thumas Dunstead
  91. The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nunez
  92. The Best of Kukuyo by Kevin jared Hosein
  93. The Boat People by Sharon Bala
  94. The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
  95. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti
  96. The End of Loneliness, by Benedict Wells
  97. The End of Sunset Grove, by Minna Lindgren
  98. The Ensemble by Aka Gabel
  99. The Farm, by Héctor Abad, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
  100. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
  101. The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
  102. The Gold Diggers, by Sue Nyathi
  103. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
  104. The Great Believers, byu Rebecca Makkai
  105. The Great Fall, by Peter Handke
  106. The Gunners, by Rebecca Kauffman
  107. The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd
  108. The Hum of the Sun, by Kirsten Miller
  109. The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy
  110. The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke by Tina Makereti
  111. The Language of Birds by Norbert Scheuer, translated by Stephen Brown
  112. The Last of Our Kind, by Adelaide de Clermont-Tonnerre
  113. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
  114. The Lost Man by Jane Harper
  115. The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen
  116. The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau
  117. The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane
  118. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
  119. The Ones with Purpose, by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele
  120. The Only Story by Julian Barnes, on my TBR
  121. The Overstory, by Richard powers
  122. The Perfect family, by Shalini Boland
  123. The Plotters by Un Su Kim, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
  124. The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra
  125. The Sacco Gang, by Andrea Camilleri
  126. The Saturday Night Ghost Club, by Craig Davidson
  127. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
  128. The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton, on my TBR
  129. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, on my TBR
  130. The Taiga Syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine & Aviva Kana
  131. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
  132. The Toymakers, by Robert Dinsdale
  133. The Trick to Time, by Kit de Wal
  134. The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken
  135. The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh
  136. The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey
  137. The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly
  138. Theory of Bastards, by Audrey Schulman
  139. There, There by Tommy Orange, see my review
  140. This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman
  141. Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko
  142. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson
  143. Transparent City by Ondjaki
  144. Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park
  145. Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver
  146. Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger
  147. Vox, by Christina Dalcher
  148. Waiting for Tomorrow by Nathacha Appanah
  149. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
  150. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, on my TBR
  151. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
  152. Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson
  153. Woman at 1000 degrees, by Hallgrimer Helgason
  154. Woman at Sea, by Catherine Poulain
  155. Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated by David Brooksman
  156. Woman Talking, a Novel, by Miriam Toews

Did you know that

  • homelessness in Australia increased by 14% between 2011 and 2016?
  • some 116,000 people go to sleep without a secure home on any given night?
  • around 16,000 of these are children under 12?
  • 8000 of them are the most visible of the homeless community, sleeping rough on the streets?
  • Older women—those aged 55 and over— was the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians between 2011 and 2016, increasing by 31%? (See why, here).

And yet we hear very little from the people experiencing this situation…

Edited by former Big Issue editor Meg Mundell, (whose latest novel The Trespassers I recently reviewed) We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging gives a voice to 42 diverse artists who have experienced homelessness.  Some contributors are well-known names that will surprise you, while others are emerging writers.  There are also four visual artists whose artwork is placed among a profusion of photographic images which complement the four themes of the collection:

  • Home Truths
  • City Streets
  • Cast Adrift and
  • Belonging.

In the foreword by Tony Birch, he reminds us that any one of us, regardless of our economic and social status, could easily find ourselves homeless.  In a supposedly egalitarian society such as Australia, many people live only a few absent pay packets away from poverty.  (p.x)  Meg Mundell’s Introduction tells us that the stories in this collection reveal just how easily, if our own luck turned bad, we might find ourselves unhoused.  (p.xiii)  She also tells us that

Homelessness is often seen as a result of bad choices made by flawed people.  This convenient myth supports the illusion that it could never happent to ‘us’, ignoring the well-documented structural causes and unforeseen life events that can render people homeless.  These include a dire national shortage of social and affordable housing, punitive welfare policies, inadequate social security, poverty, unemployment, rental stress, gentrification, family violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, injury, disability, mental illness and traumatic incidents. (p.xiv)

Mundell also says that it’s a common perception that homeless people have nothing to offer, which causes a parallel reluctance to disclose membership of this maligned group. The sheer quality of the contributions to this collection gives the lie to that assumption…

One of the stories shows us that there is an all-too-predictable path to homelessness for young people in state care.

I was evicted from state care and became homeless before my eighteenth birthday.  Not many people know that in all Australian states, except Tasmania and South Australia, we cut off all kids in state care, including those living with a foster care family, when they turn eighteen.  For me, and other kids like me, that means no ongoing emotional or financial support.  No case manager.  Nothing.  Within one year, thirty-five percent of these kids will become homeless.

While most of my friends were celebrating their eighteenth birthdays, finishing high school, or getting their driver’s licences, I was trying to figure out where I was going to sleep that night and searching for my next meal.  It felt like a nauseating spiral with no end.

The extreme sense of anxiety, social isolation and fear I felt as a young homeless man was terrifying.  These were meant to be some of the most memorable and formative years of my life.  Instead I was just trying to make it through each hour and each day desperately holding onto what was left of my sense of pride and self-worth.  That got harder the longer I was on the streets.

There continues to be a crushing stigma around young homeless people, that it’s somehow our fault we don’t have a roof over our heads.  That we have a criminal history or substance abuse issues.  That we’re out of control and dangerous.  But most of us have suffered trauma, neglect, abuse — homelessness is just the result of it all.  For me, there isn’t a family to turn to when something goes wrong. There never was. (p.201)

Breaking out of that cycle is really difficult.  Turning up for job interviews when you haven’t showered or eaten results in superficial judgements about the applicant’s capacity or potential.  And even those with a job find that landlords are averse to offering a lease to a youth with no rental history or references.  Clearly young people in this situation need extra support if they are to avoid permanent joblessness and homelessness.  We ought to be doing better than this.

Some of the stories will move you to tears.

I’ll be hearing contributors Claire Coleman and Rachel Kurzyp in a panel discussion with editor Meg Mundell at the forthcoming Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong in November, see here for further details).

BTW All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to charities that work with people experiencing homelessness. The writers and visual artists featured in We Are Here have been paid for their contributions.

Editor: Meg Mundell
Title: We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2019, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925870619
Source: Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Since We Are Here was sent to me courtesy of Affirm Press, I have donated the equivalent purchase price of this book to Launch Housing.

It says on the receipt that in a country as wealthy as Australia, no one should be without a home.  If you would like to donate, follow this link to make sure that your money goes to agencies that offer a range of services and can help people find long-term solutions and pathways out of homelessness.  But don’t just do that, make sure that your local MPs know that you care about this, especially if you live in a marginal seat!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2019

The River Capture, by Mary Costello

A novel that pays glorious homage to Joyce? Of course I was always going to read Mary Costello’s The River Capture!

(For those new to this blog, James Joyce’s Ulysses is my desert island book. I don’t think I could ever get tired of reading it. See my Disordered Thoughts).

I haven’t read Mary Costello’s debut novel Academy Street but from the description at Goodreads, I think it shares the same preoccupations as The River Capture.  The central characters are defined by the deaths of their loved ones; love, when it comes, is calamitous; and fate is catastrophic. (See the review of Academy Street at Jacqui Wine for other similarities, notably the mute child and the retreat to a solitary life).

The setting, however, is not America, and the central character of The River Capture is not a young women but a solitary Irishman, come home from Dublin to the family farm.  Luke O’Brien is a schoolteacher, obsessed by Ulysses, so much so that he identifies with its famous characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.  He teaches the book to his students, more so, it appears, than is warranted by the curriculum, and the boys indulge him, (as schoolboys are wont to do when a teacher’s eccentricities combine to provide amusement and to reduce their workload).

However, it is not these eccentricities which caused his departure from the school, but rather his determination to nurse a much loved aunt through her terminal illness. Luke has an unusual devotion to his family, visiting his elderly Aunt Ellen nearly every day, and still mourning the death of Aunt Josie who was ‘a bit slow’.  She was thought to have had normal intelligence until one day her sister fell down the well and died, and the shock of that, followed by her father’s death a short time later, made her mute for a long time.  People in the village say that she was a bit odd, a bit mad but Aunt Ellen demurs.  Unaware that Luke himself is not always well, she says that while this whole area has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the whole country, Josie was perfect before the accident.  Aunt Ellen idealises the perfection of childhood, and thinks that Una was lucky to die as a child and didn’t have to suffer the struggles of growing up and growing old. 

Aunt Ellen’s bitterness about her own life is held in check until Luke falls in love and hidden events of the past rise to the surface.  Ruth comes into his life via a dog that needs a home, and they are instantly attracted to each other.  They are able to transcend the issue of Luke’s bisexuality, but not Aunt Ellen’s hostility.  This calamity triggers Luke’s latent instability.

From a conventional novel that seems primarily about the cultural predisposition for holding onto long-ago betrayals instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, The River Capture changes direction. (As a river does: a river capture is a geological event that occurs when two rivers merge and both change direction).  This allusion is a metaphor for the way Luke’s fate is the catalyst for his brain to fall into disarray, while the stylistic shift into interrogative Q&A mode of the Catholic Catechism, as in the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, signals the persisting power of conservative Irish culture.

Much of this second part of the novel seems bizarre until the reader realises that Luke is having some kind of ‘episode’.  Some of it illuminates Luke’s high intelligence, obsessions and quandaries; some of it seems extraneous, irrelevant and sometimes overwrought. For example, down in the cellar, he comes across Una’s satchel… untouched since she fell down the well.

Why were his hands shaking?

At the realisation that hers — his child-aunt’s — were probably the last hands that touched those pages.  That she had probably arrived home from school on the day of the Christmas holidays in December 1940, and flung the satchel under the stairs, not needing it again until a few weeks later.  Molecules of her sweat, her touch DNA, still detectable on the strap.

Did he read the contents of the jotter or copybooks that morning?

He leafed through a mix of essays, sums, grammar exercises and a night-time prayer in the jotter.  Neatly written joined handwriting, the capital letters extending to the top line, the ticks and corrections marked up in a teacher’s red pen, now faded to pink.  Essay titles, in chronological order: The Wood in Winter, St Rita, Sun Down, Lourdes and Bernadette, History of the Danes, Oíche Shamhna, Rubber, Eight Sentences on Diarmuid.  In the copybook, a mix of English, Irish and geography exercises: meaning of the poem ‘Adare’; Counties of Ireland, Lessons We Learned, Ports of Ireland, Pattern day; an Irish grammar exercise on the Tuiseal Ginideach; a letter to a friend dated 5 December 1940; a second essay on Winter. (p.168-9)

What impression of his child-aunt did he form from her writings?

That she was a child of earnestness, innocence, sincerity, obedience, compliance, adherence to religious practice; one who possessed an average intelligence and a certain formality; neat handwriter.  (p.169)

This sequence concludes with Luke’s realisation that Una died on the same day as James Joyce in January 1941, and this leads to a meditation on the last days of Joyce in Zurich, the unpredictability of death, and souls passing each other in the stratosphere, finally clasping hands and orbiting the earth over Dublin.

You have to be in the mood for this kind of stream-of-consciousness dressed up in a formulaic Q&A …  and though I was impressed by how clever this writing is, I wasn’t always in the mood.

Perhaps Aunt Ellen was on to something when she mused on the prevalence of mental illness in their village, but she may not have realised that she and others like her with inflexible attitudes are part of the problem.  Her hurt is real, but by refusing to let go — even by telling her story — she is passing on its power to hurt and inflicting it on the next generation. The River Capture suggests that though the power of the church is waning, Ireland’s social conservatism is still pervasive and sour memories of the past still have the power to damn the happiness of people who don’t fit the mould.  Luke’s preoccupation with Irish literary history makes Irish intellectual culture seem benign but still, it looks to the past.  By subverting it in this novel, Mary Costello is, I think, suggesting that it’s time to move on.

Author: Mary Costello
Title: The River Capture
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 257 pages
ISBN: 9781925355314
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:The River Capture


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2019

In Love with George Eliot, by Kathy O’Shaughnessy

Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of George Eliot’s birth, Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s debut novel In Love with George Eliot is a real pleasure to read, even if you haven’t read any of her novels.

I’ve read them all, and also her short stories Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) (the only title, alas, reviewed here on this blog).  I have lost count of how many times I’ve read my favourites, Middlemarch (1871-2); Silas Marner (1861); and The Mill on the Floss (1860).  I liked the others too: Adam Bede (1859); Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and Daniel Deronda (1876); I just haven’t got round to re-reading them yet.

The only one I wasn’t keen on was Romola (1863), and now, thanks to O’Shaughnessy’s novel, I know why.  But I also now know more about the guiding principles and common themes in all Eliot’s books.  I knew the basic outline of her biography from the introductions to the Penguin editions I’ve read, and you can see this too at Wikipedia, but IMO the WP summary focusses overmuch on the political aspects of Eliot’s fiction.  It gives entirely the wrong impression of it, which is a shame if it puts some people off because the novels are often very amusing in the way that Jane Austen’s are. Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s intimate knowledge of Eliot from her reading of her letters and journals, and from the welter of biographies, brings a different George Eliot to light.

What I have always loved about Eliot’s fiction, especially the novels set in provincial England, is her portraits of human dilemmas.  People struggling with everyday life; people making heroic choices even when things go wrong and other people misunderstand; people making judgements based on gossip or societal mores instead of seeing the need to see people in the round.  In this novel, O’Shaughnessy shows how thoughtful Eliot was, not in the sense of being kind to others (though she was), but in the sense that she thought deeply, whether she was in conversation with those around her or at other times in contemplation about the relationships she had. Without the benefit of modern psychological insights, Eliot was brilliantly observant of the way people behaved and their motivations for doing so.  She was mostly so restrained and tactful in her responses, that when on reflection she thought she had not quite meant what she said or might be misconstrued, she dashed off letters to her friends to clarify and apologise if necessary.

There were, of course, good reasons why she was so circumspect with her friends.  George Eliot’s real name was Marion Evans, and though she took the name ‘Mrs Lewes’ she was never able to marry the love of her life.  The scandal of her life with the married George Henry Lewes meant that her place in society was compromised, and relationships that mattered to her were gravely affected.  She was estranged from her brother Isaac, and he saw to it that her sisters broke off contact as well.  The loneliness of her early years with Lewes made her miss the companionship of women; it was typical of the hypocrisy of the era that men could visit without compromising their reputations or setting a ‘bad example’ to the detriment of conventional marriage, but women of her own class could not and would not be seen to associate with her.

The revelation that ‘Mrs Lewes’ was the mysterious author of Adam Bede changed everything, and (with the exception of her brother Isaac) people who had kept away came flocking.  Lewes was more than Marion’s partner and lover, he was her agent as well, and he shielded her from the occasional negative review, he stage-managed the ‘at-homes’ so that her work wasn’t interrupted, and he encouraged her when the work wasn’t going well.  (He was a writer too, and the fact that Marion finished his magnum opus after his death is an indication of the extent to which he put her work first.  Not to sentimentalise this behaviour or to give it a feminist slant that would probably have surprised them both, Lewes was well aware that her phenomenal success made her the breadwinner.  Since he was not only supporting his children by the wife who wouldn’t divorce him, but also those she’d had by another man (and his best friend at that!), providing practical support to Marion so that she could write was a pragmatic decision.  Nonetheless, this stance was uncommon at the time and all credit to him.  (The novel shows Marion’s belated discovery and appreciation of how much he’d always done for her, after his death.  It’s very poignant, but also so true.  In the midst of great grief, we often find ourselves at sea because we have lost the one who shared the domestic responsibilities, and then we feel guilty and ashamed for missing the loved one for these practical reasons.)

Through her characters’ impressions of Marion, O’Shaughnessy shows her ambitions and doubts about her writing, even when she was celebrated as one of the greatest authors of her time.  Late at night, her sleepless partner George Henry Lewes stole into her study and feeling like a trespasser read her notebook:

…it was her scope, the wideness of her searching eye, roving from ancient to modern, from historian to historian, that struck him with a flame-like clarity, then; that to understand history was her driving object — to understand, even, what might constitute history of progress. He read on: what was she chasing, with her reading?  Was she meditating the idea that each perspective called history was in time superseded by another?  Was no perspective, in short, the essential perspective?  The drive, the eye, her remarkable eye, had a probing intention that was nothing short of majestic.  In woman or man.

He continued turning the pages.  But slowly he was aware of another realisation.  She, novelist that she was, must incarnate her thoughts into human drama.  No wonder she was dazzled by this challenge! (p.159)

One of the aspects of this novel that I liked was that the frontier between the known facts of Marion Evans’ life and her imagined thoughts and feelings is always clear because Marion is the character, and George Eliot is the historical personage.  In Love with George Eliot will enhance any reader’s appreciation of this great English author!

PS, the next day: I realised, when I was writing about something else today, that I was so absorbed by the George Eliot story, I had completely forgotten to mention the parallel story in this novel! In our own time, there are two women organising a conference about George Eliot, to be held in Venice. They are academic competitors, and though neither of them realise it at first, they are also competitors for the same man and there are other complications too. This aspect of this sub-plot is a parallel to the Eliot story and Lewes’ relationship with his wife, but it also enables other, more contemporary reflections on Eliot’s oeuvre and her place in literary history. Ann wants to shoehorn George Eliot into her feminist perspective, while the narrator has a more nuanced view (which is less marketable as a keynote address). Which goes to show also that George Eliot is an ‘industry’ now, and people build academic careers around her…

George Eliot by François D’Albert Durade (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

One other thing I wanted to mention.  I feel as if I’ve always known that George Eliot was a woman, and my mental image of ‘George Eliot’ has always been the 1849 portrait by François D’Albert Durade.  To me she was not a woman who had a ‘man’s name’, she had made her pseudonym her own i.e. it was the name of a very special woman, a literary hero of mine.  Prior to reading O’Shaughnessy’s novel, I couldn’t have told you George Eliot’s ‘real name.’  It simply didn’t register with me.

But in this novel, ‘my’ George Eliot’ is referred to as Marion or ‘Mrs Lewes’, and ‘George Eliot’ is merely the pseudonym, made necessary not just by the sexism of the era which consigned women’s writing to silly romances (as lampooned by Marion herself in an early essay for the journal Westminster Revierw), but also because she did not want her novel ‘tainted’ by the scandal of her relationship with Lewes.  So O’Shaughnessy’s reclaiming of the name Marion in the novel made George Eliot a different being, for me.

Image credit:

George Eliot c 1849 by François D’Albert Durade, (1804-1886) – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1405, Public Domain,

Author: Kathy O’Shaughnessy
Title: In Love with George Eliot
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2019, 400 pages
ISBN: 9781925849103
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing

Available from Fishpond: In Love with George Eliot

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2019

The Sea and Us, by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine de Saint Phalle is the author of five novels published in France, and in Australia, a novel called On Brunswick Ground  (2015) and a memoir titled Poum & Alexandre (shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017).  Her new book The Sea and Us (2019) is also published by Transit Lounge, in a beautiful hardback edition with gorgeous Greek Island blue boards and cover art by John Durham for Design by Committee. I mention this because it’s a pleasing sign of confidence in the book-as-object when publishers bring out titles in hardback; I think we have moved on from those depressing forecasts that the book was dead.

Anyway, the book has those Greek Island blue boards is because ‘The Sea and Us’ is the name of the fish-and-chip shop in Brunswick where a young man called Harold comes to live after a failed relationship in Seoul.  The reasons for the breakup are not revealed until later in the novel, but it’s clear that he is in a mess, psychologically.  He comes across Verity’s room for rent upstairs via Gumtree, and he takes it even though, in marked contrast to the pristine shop downstairs, it’s filthy.  And even though he’s listless and at a bit of a loose end, the reader knows he is a man of some initiative because he transforms his grotty room with elbow grease and whitewash.  Not paint, because it’s whitewash that his mother always used, and though they’ve been estranged for a very long time, he still hears her voice in his head.

A loose community that’s representative of multicultural Melbourne begins to form.  Harold is of Czech heritage and Verity is Irish.  In the charity shop, Harold meets Ben, who’s a Kiwi, when he offers to help Ben lug the bed and mattress back to Verity’s.  An Asian woman with the rigid eccentricity of an English duchess runs the pottery with Syn, who’s Nordic.  Harold signs up there because he longs to make pots, the way he did in Seoul.  This is the natural diversity of our city where people come together from all over the world to form new friendships and find a sense of belonging amid familiar suburban landmarks: a Bunnings, a Brotherhood of St Lawrence shop, and The Quarry Hotel.

Making pots is a consolation, but it comes with memories of betrayal in Seoul by his lover Ha-yoon and his teacher, the master potter Do-yun.

Flashbacks to Seoul also introduce a character called Maryann.  She’s a sex-worker, but Harold’s longstanding friendship with her is based on affection and a shared love of books.  She calls him Marlowe (and Philip, when she’s cross) after the character in Raymond Chandler’s noir fiction, and they emulate the dialogue of Chandler’s hard-boiled characters.  He looks out for her in case her clients are troublesome. but he’s not her pimp.  Leaving, as Harold has, leaves her vulnerable once again.

These estrangements accumulate.  Harold is estranged from his mother because of something she did when he was too young to interpret it without judgementalism; he is estranged from his Korean lover because he does not understand the complexities of her needs; and he is estranged from Maryann because she is collateral damage from his sudden departure. There are also barriers to forming new relationships in Melbourne: Verity isn’t ready to explain why she never goes upstairs, and although Harold is pleased to hear Ben call him ‘mate’ he’s hesitant to get closer because he doesn’t feel settled enough to belong.  Melbourne may have been Harold’s home once, but he’s a stranger to it now, and it takes time to settle.

The Sea and Us is a gentle book of redemption and belonging.  The motif of maritime debris recurs: the flotsam, jetsam, ligan and derelict that inhabit the ocean or lodge in the unconscious mind wash up or are recovered eventually.  Harold’s longing to ‘only connect’ leads to a sharing of long-repressed memories and tentative currents of redemption.

Author: Catherine de Saint Phalle
Title: The Sea and Us
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 185 pages
ISBN: 9781925760415
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: The Sea & Us and direct from Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2019

Nonfiction November 2019: Fiction Nonfiction Book Pairings

This is the week in Non fiction November that I always struggle with:

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.  (See Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

Karen at Booker Talk has done it here (and #It’sACompliment I’ve copied her format) and Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best has done it here but *sigh* as usual I couldn’t think of anything until I realised that I had already done it, quite by accident, in my review of The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard. 

Life amid unimaginable hardships in the Soviet gulags

The Diary of a Prison Guard by Ivan Chistyakov (translated by Arch Tait) is an authentic account of a soldier assigned to guard prisoners at work on one of Stalin’s infrastructure projects in Siberia.  Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov (translated by John Glad, see my review here) is fiction from the other side of the wire: it’s a series of short stories based on Shalamov’s real life experience in the gulags.  Unlike many, he lived to tell the tale and was released in 1956,  but his book had to be smuggled out of the USSR.  Zuleikha, a novel, by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C Hayden, see my review here) on the other hand, is post-Soviet writing, based on the real-life experiences and opinions of the author’s grandmother—which is what makes it so interesting because being deported to Siberia is shown to be an experience not entirely negative.  It’s a rare example of a ‘gulag’ book by/about a woman, and it shows that the life of a brow-beaten kulak wife could be transformed into a life of agency and independence.

Inspiration struck again as I scrolled down my list of what I’d read this year:

The singular malevolence of apartheid for women with long-absent husbands

As I said in my review of Sisonke Msimang’s The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela: If you hold an opinion about Winnie Mandela and you’re not afraid to have your assumptions challenged, I recommend reading this book, alongside The Cry of Winnie Mandela, a novel, by Njabulo Ndebele. This novel tells the story of four descendants of Penelope in Homer’s Ulysses who share the same plights: they have long-absent husbands because of the pernicious effects of apartheid, and they are expected to put their own lives on hold for indeterminate lengths of time out of loyalty and fidelity to their man and the institution of marriage.  Winnie’s response to them challenges this view of these expectations that any feminist would recognise as unreasonable.  As I said in my review: ‘She is different to them anyway because her waiting is over, but she is also different because she refuses to play the role assigned by society.  She will not be what other people need her to be.  She has been shaped by Nelson’s commitment to a great cause and like him, wonders if it was enough to justify leaving her.   She denied culpability at the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission because she won’t take responsibility for things that have multiple causes’. As Sisonke Msimang says, ‘We like our heroines to be courageous, but we don’t want them to be messy‘.

Finally, my reading of a non-fiction book about art in my own city takes me to Italy and New Zealand in fiction.

Art commissioned to commemorate famous people and sculpture which comes from the heart

I discovered Mark Holsworth’s Sculptures of Melbourne quite by chance and as you can see in my review I enjoyed his take on sculptures old and new in my city.  But for a glimpse into what’s involved in the creation of sculpture rather than the finished product up for judgement, there are two novels I read this year that had quite an impact.  Both are by Kiwi authors and both come from the same micro publisher Cloud Ink in New Zealand, but Alana Bolton Cooke’s A Splendid Sin is subtitled Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair and as you can see from my review, it illuminates how Michelangelo’s relationships with young men informed his art practice, (and caused him some trouble too.) Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (see my review) features a sculptor in distress after the death of her lover. She sculpts his image endlessly and forms a one-way attachment to another man, equally vulnerable, because of his resemblance to her lost love.  These novels demonstrate the difference between art commissioned to commemorate famous people and sculpture which comes from the heart.

So… much to my own surprise, this year I’ve managed to come up with three pairings, two of which are trios!

Thanks to Sarah for hosting.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2019

Storytime, Growing Up with Books, by Jane Sullivan

Storytime is literary journalist Jane Sullivan’s answer to a slew of nostalgic memoirs of childhood reading, but it transcends the genre that began for me with Frances Spufford’s The Child that Books Built, a Life in Reading (2003).  I wrote pages and pages about that one in my journal, pleased by his analysis of the books he’d read but disappointed by his account of the way his reading diverged in adulthood.  It was more of a memoir about coming of age than about the books.

Sullivan takes a different tack, a little like David Denby’s Great Books in concept (though he tackled the Western canon via enrolling at Columbia University as a mature student)).  Sullivan revisits the books she had read, sharing her nostalgic memories and analysing why she liked them — and then reading them again as a mature adult with a lifetime of reading and life experience behind her.  It’s an interesting approach and, pleasingly, it includes an Australian children’s book, though only one…

Sullivan is a little younger older than me, but we read many of the same childhood books, and they were mostly British because that was the era.  So though she read Edith Nesbit and I didn’t (until The Railway Children in 2009), we both read (toned-down) British versions of Greek and Roman myths, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Enid Blyton and The Wind in the Willows.  Sullivan diverged a little into Europe with Finn Family Moomintroll while I read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Heidi.  From America, we both read Little Women and What Katy Did but she disliked them and I didn’t.  Sullivan also read books I didn’t discover until I went to Teachers’ College and studied Children’s Lit: the Narnia series by C S Lewis and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I never got round to reading The Magic Pudding until late in my career when I was a teacher-librarian so I don’t have childhood memories of these.  There were a few others that I had never heard of (The Silent Three by Horace Boyton and Stewart Pride; The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery; and Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Wagner & Wise) so I shamelessly skipped those chapters.

The nostalgia component, that is, Sullivan’s memory of the book, is both intoxicating and illuminating.  Sullivan’s evocation of the feelings we shared as child readers enables us to rediscover our long-ago reading selves.  It’s a journey into those magical days beneath the bed covers or under the desk-lid at school. But—and this is what I liked in the case of Blyton and (yes, perversely) disliked in the case of Alice—there can be a darker side when she revisits these books in adulthood.  I know there are questions about Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell but I didn’t want them to spoil my love of his book.  OTOH I enjoyed reading Sullivan’s masterful analysis of everything that’s wrong with Blyton…

Like Sullivan, I read countless Blytons as a child and was quite taken aback by the criticism I learned about at Teachers’ College. Sullivan feels the same confusion.  When she reads the books with an adult sensibility she is appalled, just as I was.  Disconcertingly, it turns out that neither of us was the ‘fondly imagined’  child of impeccable literary taste. Blyton’s writing itself is terrible, the characters are stereotypes, the plots are predictable and the implicit values of sexism and racism are awful.  Why did we like these books so much that we spent months or years of our childhood lives reading this dross?

The answer to that is the most interesting part of this lively book.  In the final chapter, Sullivan sums up of what she needed from the books she read in childhood, and she also lists what may have been desirable but were not necessary.  These include the missing ingredients in Blyton, and the female heroes that made the goody-goody girls and heavy duty moralising in the American books so disappointing.  What she wanted, and mostly got (or she wouldn’t have been the bookworm she was), was to be transported into a different world; to have vicarious adventures; to use her imagination and ‘become’ the characters she admired, to feel emotions including a pleasurable sense of longing, and to confront [her] deepest fears and summon the trust and hope I could overcome them.

Are today’s children getting those needs satisfied from screens? There are plenty of adults old and young who grew up bookless, so I suppose one can get by without the magic of books, but it seems a shame to me.

PS It’s not why I pounced on this book at the library, but hey! it ticks two boxes in this busy reading month: Brona’s AusReadingMonth (though of course every month is AusReading Month here at ANZLitLovers) and NonFiction November.

Author: Jane Sullivan
Title: Storytime, Growing up with books
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925384673
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Storytime


Let me say at the outset, this is not a book that anyone would read for pleasure.  The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard is raw and confronting, written by a man struggling to maintain his mental health in an environment designed to brutalise him.  I read it for Vishy’s Red October Russian Reads, and it is indeed a very salutary reminder of the extremes of the Soviet experiment…

It has relevance today because there are, no doubt, similar situations in repressive regimes such as China’s, but also in places like Australia’s detention centres where we know from media reports that it is not just the detainees who suffer mental health problems.  (But we only know this about Australian guards, there are only hostile media reports about PNG local guards and yet it would be surprising if some of them were not also gravely troubled by their work and what they witness.)

Not much is known about the author of the diary, Ivan Chistyakov.  As it says in the Introduction by Irina Shcherbakova, it is a miracle that somehow this text survived until the fall of the USSR: all through Stalin’s Terror and the successive regimes, that somehow it did not fall into the hands of the NKVD officials, that it was not discarded and destroyed, and that somebody managed to send it to Moscow.  It is now held for safe keeping in the Memorial International Human Rights Society in Moscow and its translation and publication was supported by an organisation to which I belong: PEN International.

What we can surmise from the text is that Chistyakov was an educated man in his thirties, well-read and fond of poetry.  He was probably a teacher, perhaps a teacher of engineering, but conscripted into the army and then assigned to serve as a prison guard in Siberia.  There’s no word about wife and children, but someone sent him much-valued parcels and letters.  It seems to me also that this diary was intended as testimony of a witness.  Not yet knowing the extremes to which Stalin’s Terror would extend, perhaps he hoped to share it in some way.  But there is no doubt that it was kept covertly by its eventual recipient until after the fall of the USSR.

The period of time covered by this diary is from October 1935 to October 1936, i.e. before Stalin’s Terror really began.  But Stalin’s ambitious plans to modernise the USSR with extensive rail links to service ports could not be realised without a massive labour force, and nobody was volunteering to go to Siberia.  The cheapest, most pliable work force was the forced labour of prisoners, and prisoners had to be guarded, so conscripts like Chistyakov, who had been expelled from the Communist Party during the purges of the 1920s and 1930s, were despatched into appalling conditions to meet the construction deadlines that Stalin had set.

I’ve read Solzhenitsyn, and more recently Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov and also Zuleikha, a novel by Guzel Yakhina so I had some idea of the conditions that Soviet prisoners endured in forced labour, but it had not occurred to me to feel any sympathy for their guards.  But this diary makes it clear that Chistyakov had no choice in the matter, and he suffered privations not dissimilar to the zeks he was guarding.  His clothing, accommodation and equipment is atrocious: he is often cold, hungry and unwell, and whereas both Kolyma Tales and Zuleikha show that it was possible, though always risky, for some kind of camaraderie to assuage loneliness and despair among the zeks, The Diary of a Prison Guard shows that this was never possible in Chistyakov’s position because he had to keep his distance from the zeks in order to maintain authority, and amongst his fellow guards there was always suspicion and the risk of being denounced under one of the punitive laws against dissent.  There is no one who is his intellectual equal, or even as educated as he is, and the system is designed so that guards are always blamed for anything that goes wrong, with an extension of their service as punishment.  Since the zeks are forever escaping, and deadlines are rarely met because of the incompetence of the administration causing delays in supplies and so on, Chistyakov’s fear of being stuck in this nightmare forever is well-grounded.

A cultured Muscovite, he yearns for his old life:

I want to play sport, to learn about radio, I want to work at my real profession, study, keep up with metals technology and try it out in practice.  Live among educated people, go to the theatre and cinema, to lectures and museums and exhibitions.  I want to sketch.  Ride a motorbike, and then perhaps sell it and buy one of those catapult-launched gliders and fly.  (p.167)

His only succour is the coming of the thaw in February after the long gruelling misery of a Siberian winter:

Sun, sun! What joy you bring us! how life-giving are your rays! We can sometimes forget our misfortunes.  How much lovelier you would be in freedom, or have people there forgotten you?  I have always thought of you as a god. You give life to the natural world, reconcile people and make them kinder and happier.  You inspire and bring us joy.  You are the wellspring of life and my only happiness. Many of my closest friends have stopped writing to me. They have forgotten me, but you do not. Every morning and evening you sustain my soul with beauty. During the day when your radiant disc is high in the sky, I am in love with you. Your warm, caressing rays play on my cheek and gladden me and I am alive again and filled with energy.  (p.64)

This kind of optimism is rare in the diary.  A good deal of it consists of railing against the privations, and the pointlessness of so much of what he does.  He catalogues the stupid ways in which the zeks are deprived of any motivation to work, and while he despises them as uneducated boors with only a couple of years education, he doesn’t think much of his colleagues and superiors, whose incompetence and corruption make things worse for everyone.  He argues forcefully that treating everyone better and providing them with proper clothing, food, heating, accommodation and equipment would result in much more effective work.  The rates at which escapees die in the snow is shocking, and there’s evidence too that at least some of the women prisoners were subjected to rape.

As the months pass, his loneliness and frustration lead to despair. He thinks of suicide, and how easy it would be to use his pistol.  He thinks his life is half over, and that there may never be an end to this misery.  He realises that the best way to achieve escape is to commit one of the numerous offences which lead to expulsion from the army and a set term of punishment.  The diary breaks off abruptly after a year, which suggests that that’s what he does.

No more is heard of him until he dies aged only 41, at the front in Tula in World War II.

Author: Ivan Chistyakov
Title:The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Introduction by Irina Shcherbakova
Publisher: Granta Books 2016, 250 pages
First published in Russia in 2014 by Corpus Publishers
ISBN: 9781783782567
Source: Xmas gift from The Offspring

Availability: it appears to be out of print.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2019

Nothing New, A History of Second-Hand, by Robyn Annear

Nothing New, a History of Second-Hand is a beaut book, perfect for Christmas gifts or a present at any other time.  It is a comprehensive history lightened by quirky details and fascinating trivia, and Robyn Annear’s off-beat sense of humour will have you chuckling over all sorts of things while you wonder about a story you were never told before.  But if someone doesn’t give the book to you this festive season, then you will have to buy a copy for yourself because it is also an insight into how we have created our current waste problem.  It took the ABC’s TV program War on Waste coupled with China’s refusal to accept imports of Australia’s waste for us to realise that our buy-now-throw-away economy has created a massive problem that we have to solve.  If the system could manage waste in the past, then we with our superior technologies can surely manage it now.  But what it will take, as Annear shows us, is not merely for individuals to take responsibility for their own domestic behaviours, but for corporate Australia to redesign its processes so that nothing is wasted.  And that involves a much bigger change in attitudes and values.

As well as all that, Nothing New is also an indispensable reference for writers of historical fiction.  Read it from cover-to-cover to catch the atmosphere of domestic life in past times, and to discover not just the minutiae of what Robyn Annear rightly describes as the circular economy’ but also the values of the times, and how nothing—nothing!—was wasted.

This is the blurb:

‘Given the way we live now,’ writes Robyn Annear, ‘it would be easy to suppose that newness has always been venerated.’ But as this wonderfully entertaining short history makes clear, modern consumerism is an aberration. Mostly, everyday objects—from cast-off cookware to clothing worn down to rags—have enjoyed long lives and the appreciation of serial owners.

Nothing New is itself an emporium: a treasure store of anecdotes and little-known facts that will intrigue and enlighten the devoted bargain-hunter and the dilettante browser alike.

There’s just so much here that’s interesting!  For example, people had no problem with the idea of second-hand until the discovery of germs.  Germ theory was a game changer.  It is for me too.  I can come at the idea of items that couldn’t possibly still be hosting germs, but then there are bugs: I know that you can come a cropper with second-hand furniture if it’s got woodworm in it.

And then there’s a fascinating discussion about the role of charities.  Annear is a social historian, and she’s alert to all kinds of patronising kinds of charities such as the missionaries who were only willing to help the ‘deserving’ poor with their second-hand gear.  Prior to the rise of consumer culture, barter was how many people got along, but now charity shops are part of the waste collection system and in many places they sell ‘vintage’ clothes at high prices to people who consider themselves ‘custodians’ of the article.  The charity then uses the profits to supply the needy with food and other services rather than make the goods available at low prices.

Did you know that there are over 2500 Op Shops in Australia, one in nearly every suburb?

For those of us with nostalgic memories of the ABCTV program Collectors there’s a whole chapter called ‘The Antiquarian Thicket’.

As the past—or a romantic ideal of it—was commodified by consumer culture, the antique endowed status on its acolytes.  With the exception of a few parson-antiquarians who dug up their own treasures, it was the moneyed and aspirational who were the collectors to begin with.  (p.170)

Then the middle classes took it up, even inventing the whatnot, a spindly stand with shelves specially designed for the display of bijou ornaments.  But however modest, collecting was a still a luxury until it became popular in the 20th century.  Annear says that the rise of collecting in the 1920s and 30s gave value to second-hand goods, and may have been a reaction to the soullessness of the times.

Religion was on the wane and urbanism on the rise, while mass consumerism promoted homogeneity and change for the sake of it.  Collecting things ‘old and beautiful’, on the other hand, satisfied ‘a deeply held need for enchantment, glamour and poetry in everyday life.’ And by valorising the old over the new, the collector was asserting nonconformity, rejecting the easy and the ordinary in favour of self-expression.  (p.173)

(I’m not sure that the books I collect are a symbol of glamour… more a sign of nerdiness, I suspect!)

The chapter about clothing is a real eye-opener.

The world and its op shops are swamped with cheaply produced and easily shed goods—clothing, homewares, toys, you name it—as well as the casualties of technological change, often in the shape of books.  [Ouch!] Over the past twenty years, China’s industrialisation and economic engagement have brought down the price of many if not most goods.  At the same time, fashion has picked up speed.

Across the globe during the 1990s and 2000s, import quotas on textiles were relaxed as part of the liberalisation of markets.  Imports from low-wage countries were far cheaper than garments manufactured locally in places like Europe, America and Australia: people could afford to buy more of them, and they did.  While clothing prices fell by more than twenty per cent, consumption rose by as much as a third.  But it wasn’t just about affordability.  The internet, along with innovations in production and supply chains, made it easier than ever to stimulate and satisfy consumer desires.  Traditionally, new fashions would be released each season—summer, autumn, winter, spring.  Now, mass-market clothiers like Zara and H&M can introduce new short-run fashion lines every few weeks.

A cheap garment produced by the fast-fashion complex made not be made to last, but it will certainly outlive the fleeting trend it was meant to embody. With replacement far outpacing dilapidation, the result is ‘fashion pollution’. (p.250)

Did you know Australians buy double the global average of new clothing?  Only Americans outdo us.

Did you know that 60% of an Australian woman’s wardrobe is inactive? I was shocked to learn that each garment is worn on average just seven times before being retired.  And yet I remember a segment from War on Waste which featured young women who wore things only once before chucking them out.  I thought they were an extreme being featured for shock value…

It can’t go on…

I’ve read nearly all of Robyn Annear’s books, and loved them all especially Bearbrass, but I think I like this one best.

PS: I think Robyn Annear needs her own TV show…

Author: Robyn Annear
Title: A History of Second Hand 
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781922268303
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Nothing New: A History of Second-hand and direct from text Publishing (where you can also buy it as an eBook).


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: Alice in Wonderland, to …

Cover of the first edition, illustrated by John Tenniel, Macmillan 1865

This month’s #6Degrees starts with a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland.  I loved it, and I also loved the recording by Joyce Grenfell, the details of which I’ve never been able to locate online but was possibly a spin-off from the 1949 film in which she starred as the Ugly Duchess.

Our family has ‘history’ with Joyce Grenfell.  We once lived in Chelsea, and Joyce Grenfell lived in the same apartment block.  She took exception to my mother hanging out my sister’s nappies on the roof garden.  No doubt there were ‘words’.  So when I saw in the OpShop My Pleasant Places, book 2 of Grenfell’s autobiography, I bought it out of curiosity to see if her ‘pleasant places’ *wink* include Chelsea…

I have nearly a hundred ‘opshopfinds’ listed at Goodreads: my most recent is Vigil (2001) a novel by Nadia Wheatley.  I’ve read, in the course of my career as a teacher, many of her children’s books and I read with interest Sue’s review of Wheatley’s memoir My Mother’s Daughter at Whispering Gums. Wheatley’s award-winning The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001) has been on my radar for a while too but my all-time favourite is the children’s book My Place (1987).

Illustrated page by page by Donna Rawlins, and winner of multiple awards, My Place is the story of an inner suburban plot of land in Sydney and its surrounding milieu.  It starts in 1988 (yes, the Bicentennial year) and goes back generation by generation 200 years to the Indigenous child who lives there with her people.  It gives a snapshot of life during WW2, the Depression, WW1, and the emergence of Sydney as a city in the 19th century, all depicted from a child’s perspective, with a favourite tree to climb, and a milk bar for buying lollies, and a route to walk to school and so on.  Many readers recommend it for teachers to read in class, but I think the best way for a child to love it — and get the most from it — is to have a copy to pore over the brilliant illustrations in detail, and to flick backwards and forwards in time.  That’s the way a child will come to love and value Australian history, IMO.

Update, the next day: Thanks to a comment from Mary Daniels Brown (see below), I was prompted to find a video of this great book:

My Place brings immediately to mind Sally Morgan’s ground-breaking memoir with the same title.  For many of us, My Place (1988, again the Bicentennial year) was the first book we’d ever read by an indigenous author, and it was a revelation.  I read it when it first rocketed onto the best-seller lists, and I ‘read’ it again more recently as an audio book read by Melodie Reynolds.  It has, as I said in my review, lost none of its impact.  Some books are like that.

Another book with a shattering impact is Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale. This novel tells the story of a teenage life as a ward of the state, and it’s a book our decision-makers should be reading.  It’s partly autobiographical and it also draws on incidents that the author knows about from the people she met while in state ‘care’.  I heard about it at an author event at the Bayside Library (the event was blogged by my friend Mairi) — and that was all I needed to read the book for myself.  You can read my review here.

I love the way libraries are now hosting author events on a regular basis.  Just recently I attended an author event with Emily Goddard at Parkdale Library.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, the play she wrote ‘This is Eden’ is not a book (yet?) but the sellout performance last week at the Kingston Arts Centre was stunning.  The students who were there in droves went away with a strong sense of Australian history as it hasn’t been delivered before.  Likewise, the audience was impressed at the MTC performance of Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui which The Spouse and I attended a week or so ago.  I’d read and reviewed the play during #IndigLitWeek but it was brilliant to see it brought to life. They’ve put on extra shows so there are still tickets for next weekend if you are quick.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a classic children’s book to a play that deserves to become a classic!

Next month’s book is the only novel by Jane Austen that I didn’t like: her posthumously published Sanditon, which I reviewed here.

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

Image credit:

Alice in Wonderland cover of 1865 ediiton By Lewis Carroll –, Public Domain,

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