From the press release:

The 2020 International Booker Prize Shortlist has been revealed. This year, the titles are translated from five languages and the shortlisted authors hail from six countries.

These books examine humanity’s need to understand the world through narrative, either through sharing our own stories, through understanding our histories and origins, or through processing trauma and grief.

Please note that while the publisher in the longlist is named Europa Editions, it was in fact first published by Wild Dingo Press here in Australia, and I reviewed it in 2017.

The 2020 International Booker Prize shortlist is:

  • The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated anonymously. Europa Editions, see my review.
  • The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh. Charco Press.
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin. Quercus.
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes. Fitzcarraldo Editions.
  • The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder. Harvill Secker.
  • The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchinson. Faber & Faber.

This is the first time an Australian author has been shortlisted for the Booker International.  Shokoofeh came here as a refugee from Iran and has made this country her home.  What an achievement to be shortlisted for this prestigious prize!

The contribution of both author and translator is given equal recognition, with the £50,000 prize split between them. Each shortlisted author and translator will receive £1,000, bringing the total value of the prize to £62,000.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2020

Vale Bruce Dawe (1930-2020)

It is with sadness that I share the news that the Australian poet Bruce Dawe, OA, PhD has died aged 90.

Dawe came from a working class background, but he rose to become one of our best-loved and most influential poets.

He was born in Fitzroy in 1930, (not the fashionable suburb it is now) and, the only one of four siblings to attend secondary school, was educated at Northcote High until at the age of 16, he went out to work.  He studied part-time to achieve Matriculation in 1953 while holding a succession of blue- and white-collar jobs, from labourer to factory hand to copy-boy at The Truth and The Sun News-Pictorial within a varied history of employment.

Dawe served in the RAAF from 1959 to 1968, where he transitioned from telegraphist to an education assistant.   He then began a teaching career in Toowoomba, and went on to become an academic with a distinguished career in Queensland universities.  He retired in 1993 and was awarded numerous honours including honorary doctorates from USQ in 1995 and UNSW in 1997.

Just recently I wrote about my love of Bruce Dawe’s poetry when I reviewed Poetry and Ideas, Text and Images, by Raffaella Torresan. His two poems in the chapter ‘Keep It In The Ground’ —’The Way to Chernobyl’ and ‘Going to the Ball’—reflect his abiding interest in environmental issues, but his collections reflect his social concerns as well.

Like thousands of young people across Australia, I came to his poetry first through his 1971 collection Condolences of the Season when it was a set text for secondary school students.  I don’t remember now which ones we studied, but this one had an enduring influence on my attitude towards modern media:

burial ceremony Hungary 1956-62

Bury them deep
under the muffling weight
of six years’ trivia

Heap over them
the shining excrement of those
who feed on forgetting.

Under the bright
inconsequence of headlines
shut them up good.

Under the recurring
tragedy of the football star’s
slipped cartilage,

Under the ticker-taped
processionals of beauty-queens, all
gloriously living,

Under the fretful barrage
of politicians breaking public wind
to ease the embarrassment

Of breathing when so many
better men lie
elsewhere breathless

Under the brute siesta
of nation-states where freedom
remains a quaint local custom…

(Condolences of the Season, Cheshire Publishing, 1971, ISBNL 0701513063, p.50-51)

It’s impossible not to connect the anger and grief which erupts in the rest of the poem with headlines from the tabloid newspapers where he worked at a copy boy.  I can’t imagine what he thought of the media landscape now, where even the ABC and the once venerable Age newspaper resort to tabloid and so-called lifestyle topics in order to lure a fractured readership…

Dawe’s poetry was always uniquely Australian yet it spoke to the experiences of a shared humanity:

the not-so-good earth (This is an allusion to the film of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, which is set during the Japanese advance on China in the 1930s.)

For a while there we had 25-inch Chinese peasant families
famishing in comfort on the 25-inch screen
and even Uncle Billy whose eyesight’s going fast
by hunching up real close to the convex glass
could just about make them out—the riot scene
in the capital city for example
he saw that better than anything, using the contrast knob
to bring them up dark—all those screaming faces
and bodies going under the horses’ hooves—he did a terrific job
on that bit, not so successful though
on the quieter parts where they’re just starving away
digging for roots in the not-so-good earth…. (p.55)

The ‘not-so-good earth’ is also included in the anthology in The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, along with ‘How to Go On Not Looking’, ‘Life Cycle’ and ‘A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love’ and ‘Homecoming.’

This is the beginning of ‘Life Cycle’, dedicated to Big Jim Phelan:

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.

Car, they cry, Carn… feebly at first
while parents playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he’s a little Tiger!

(The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, edited by Harry Heseltine, Penguin, 1972, ISBN 0140421629, p.389)

Unfortunately there is none of Dawe’s poetry at the Australian Poetry Library. 

You can see his substantial body of work at Wikipedia:

  • Dawe, Bruce (1962). No fixed address : poems. Melbourne: Cheshire.
  • — (1965). A need of similar name. Melbourne: Cheshire.
  • An Eye for a Tooth (Cheshire, 1968)
  • Beyond the Subdivisions : Poems (Cheshire, 1969)
  • Heat-Wave. Melbourne (Sweeney Reed, 1970)
  • Condolences of the Season : Selected Poems (Cheshire, 1971)
  • Just a Dugong at Twilight: Mainly Light Verse (Cheshire, 1975)
  • — (1978). Sometimes gladness : collected poems, 1954-1978. Hawthorn, Vic.: Longman Cheshire.
  • Selected Poems. (London, Longman, 1984)
  • — (1986). Towards sunrise : poems, 1979-1986. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
  • — (1988). Sometimes gladness : collected poems, 1954-1987. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
  • This Side of Silence : Poems 1987–1990 (Longman Cheshire, 1990)
  • Mortal Instruments : Poems 1990–1995 (Longman, 1995)
  • A Poet’s People (South Melbourne, Addison Wesley Longman, 1998)
  • The Headlong Traffic : Poems and Prose Monologues 1997 to 2002 (Longman, 2003)
  • Towards a War: Twelve Reflections (Picaro Press, 2003)
  • Sometimes Gladness : Collected Poems, 1954–2005, 6th Edition (Longman Cheshire, 2006)
  • Blind Spots (Picaro Press, 2013)
  • Kevin Almighty (Picaro Press, 2013)
  • Border Security (UWA, 2016)

Bruce Dawe won awards too numerous to list here (see Wikipedia) but more importantly he won the hearts of Australians with his incisive, accessible, powerful poetry.

Sources:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2020

For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

I encountered For Whom The Bell Tolls first in 2007, when I borrowed the audio book read by Campbell Scott from the library, and I liked it so much that I bought my own copy and have listened to it two or three times since then.  It’s my book of choice for long haul flights, because it doesn’t matter if I nod off—I know every word of the plot by now and it’s the timbre of Scott’s voice and his masterful rendition of the thoughts of Robert Jordan that I love to listen to.

That made it the perfect choice for bedtime ‘reading’ during my recovery from eye surgery.  In the beginning I was taking heavy-duty painkillers so I did indeed nod off,  and I listened to more than one of the sixteen CDs two or three times, savouring every word of the story yet unable to stay awake to the end of them.  Which is why it has taken almost four weeks to finish the book…

There are many things to love about For Whom The Bell Tolls.  It’s a story about high idealism, and about the doomed courage of the people who fought against Franco’s militarily superior fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).  The central character Robert Jordan is a young academic who teaches Spanish, and he joins the defence of the democratically elected Second Spanish Republic, which was supported by workers, peasants and by the Soviet Union because of its land reforms.  (I owe some of what I know about the Spanish Civil War from a most informative short course run by Graham Pratt at the Hawthorn U3A).  The novel traces Jordan’s journey both literal and psychological as he follows orders to travel behind enemy lines and destroy a bridge in order to frustrate a forthcoming offensive.

Under the command of the Soviet General Golz, Jordan joins up with a band of local anti-fascist guerrillas to undertake his mission.  At the beginning of the story he has no fear of danger because he places no great value on his own life.  He is fighting for a greater good, the principle of democracy and an equitable division of a nation’s wealth, and is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the cause.  But although at the beginning of his mission he tells General Golz he has no time for girls, when he falls for Maria in the guerrilla camp his perspective shifts.  His life—and hers even more so—begin to matter.  Through his internal dialogues, the novel traces Jordan’s transition from dispassionate acceptance that lives must be sacrificed to an emotional epiphany that it is not so simple.

In contrast to Jordan’s idealism is Pablo, the leader of the guerrilla camp. He is brusque and rude, and is prepared to frustrate Jordan’s operation because it poses a risk to the surviving forces in the mountains.  He knows that if the bridge is blown up, the fascists will hunt them down in retaliation.  He knows that the Republic is doomed, and there are few places of safety left.  Anselmo, a much older guerrilla fighter, scorns him as one who was once a great warrior but is now only concerned with himself, but it is Pablo who speaks the truth about the war. Whereas General Golz complains that their problems are lack of coherent organisation and a fractured command structure, Pablo articulates why the Republicans failed: it was because they were militarily inferior in every way.  They were outclassed in the air, their weapons were pitiful, and even the beautiful cavalry horses they stole from the enemy had injuries.  As the novel progresses, we see that the enemy has tanks and artillery; the guerrillas do not even know what these weapons are.

Within the guerrilla band, Jordan has to rely on illiterate men who cannot read identity passes, or record the movement of enemy personnel or remember passwords.  Their hope and naiveté is charming and often droll, but some of them—like the light-hearted gypsy Rafael—do not understand what is at stake and are unreliable in critical ways.  Surprisingly—since Hemingway has a reputation for hyper-masculinity and his representation of Maria’s seemingly premature resilience after gang-rape by the fascists is problematic—his characterisation of Pilar, the mujer [woman] of Pablo, is impressive.  From the outset she displaces Pablo as the leader of the guerrilla band.  Like a model for a granite monument, she is fiercely loyal and utterly reliable.  A patriot who has supported the republic since the beginning, she runs her unruly ‘household’ in the cave with a firm grip; and while she performs housewifely duties like cooking and mending and the mothering of the traumatised Maria, Robert Jordan trusts Pilar from the moment he meets her and recognises her authority.  She understands tactics, and she knows the risks, but she never hesitates to cooperate with Robert Jordan’s orders from above.  She is astonishingly brave.

A word about the language: the narrative is written in third-person limited omniscient mode, but in two very different narrative styles.  Robert Jordan’s inner thoughts are rendered in everyday American English, but all the dialogue amongst the guerrilla band takes place in Spanish.  To achieve this Hemingway renders Spanish singular forms with the archaic English thee and thou and very formal grammatical structures.  What seem like quaint grammatical forms—such as the possessive with the woman of Pablo rather than ‘Pablo’s woman’—reinforce that Jordan is an outsider translating from one language to another.

You can see the somewhat stilted effect here: I have quoted this excerpt from Wikipedia since I was listening to an audio book, not reading the book.  (Though I do have a first edition, which I found in a country bookshop.  It’s the most expensive book in my collection).

‘It is possible.’
‘Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.’
‘Yes, we will have to fight.’
‘But are there not many fascists in your country?’
‘There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.’  (Wikipedia cites this from pp. 207-8 of the edition they were using, published in 1940 by Charles Scribner).

Another stylistic feature of note is that while some of his characters swear vociferously their blasphemies and oaths are rendered using the words ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscenity.’  (You can read more about this at Wikipedia.) This may have been a way of rendering the authentic crudity of the peasants without running foul of censors, but the overall effect is to give the text a somewhat Biblical feel, or perhaps an allusion to John Donne’s 17th century Meditation XVII, from which the novel takes its name.

No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne, 1624, see Wikipedia.)

I love this book, and I love this narration by Campbell Scott.  When I can’t sleep, I’m listening to it all over again, and I’m also listening to it while I work on my ‘lockdown project’, scrapbooking my 2019 trip to New Zealand…

 

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Title: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Publisher: Simon Schuster Audio, 2006
ISBN: 9780743564380
Personal library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2020

Symphony for the Man, by Sarah Brill

Sarah Brill’s second novel Symphony for the Man is an exquisite book — do not let it slip under your radar because life is not as usual at the moment!

It is a deceptively simple story.  Narrated from the perspective of the two main characters in alternating brief ‘chapters’, the novel is about two lonely people whose paths cross in the busy city of Sydney.  What I really liked about it is that both have mental health issues, but that is not the focus of the story.  The last time I read a book that tackled mental illness as perceptively as this one was Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S. A. (Sarah) Jones (see my review): what I admired about that book was that it showed that Isabelle’s condition is only part of her, and it doesn’t define her.  And this is true of the characters in Symphony for the Man too.  In different ways, both make a life on their own terms.

This is the blurb:

1999. Winter. Bondi. Harry’s been on the streets so long he could easily forget what time is. So Harry keeps an eye on it. Every morning. Then he heads to the beach to chat with the gulls. Or he wanders through the streets in search of food, clothes, Jules. When the girl on the bus sees him, lonely and cold in the bus shelter that he calls home, she thinks about how she can help. She decides to write a symphony for him.

So begins a poignant and gritty tale of homelessness and shelter, of the realities of loneliness and hunger, and of the hopes and dreams of those who often go unnoticed on our streets. This is the story of two outcasts – one a young woman struggling to find her place in an alien world, one an older man seeking refuge and solace from a life in tatters. It is also about the transformative power of care and friendship, and the promise of escape that music holds.

An uplifting and heartbreaking story that demands empathy. Amid the struggles to belong and fit in, we are reminded that small acts of kindness matter. And big dreams are possible.

Of course reading this book at this time in history is a heartbreaking reminder of the vulnerable people who are struggling to survive the lockdown.  Harry has an obsession with knowing the exact time, and his daily schedule involves approaching people to ask for it.  His meals come from ransacking bins, and sometimes from the everyday kindness of the local restaurants and cafes.  How homeless people are getting on in deserted shopping precincts where the hospitality industry has shut down, I can’t imagine.  Launch Housing in Melbourne is appealing for donations—no doubt there are other support organisations doing the same thing in other states—but what this crisis has taught us, I hope, is that our society should never have let homelessness become so devastatingly widespread.  I grew up in an era where the only homeless people were the ‘derros’ in the park, and the police came round each night and took them back to the City Watchhouse for a feed and a bed for the night.  Well, it isn’t like that now.  There is a horrible moment in the book when Harry discovers that  his bus shelter is modified to stop people from sleeping there. The cruel indifference of that beggars belief.

If any good comes out of the pandemic, it will be that societies reform existing social and employment structures that have left so many people vulnerable to instant joblessness and the Centrelink queue; sudden poverty with literally no money for food or anything else; escalating levels of unpayable personal debt; and the risk of eviction from rental properties for some of our most at-risk families. The nameless girl in Symphony for the Man would be in exactly that situation…

So, do you want to read a troubling story like this right now?  I would say, yes you do.  Because, like Philip Salom’s novels about Australia’s underclass, Symphony for the Man will lift your spirits.  No author could write such books without witnessing the kindness of strangers, and that is exactly what we all need right now.

The young woman who pays attention to Harry is alone and friendless in the city of Sydney.  She has a family from whom she is estranged, and a brother called Mark who does practical things, but is out of his depth when it comes to offering her the kind of emotional support she needs. Nevertheless, she has the capacity to feel empathy for one who is even more vulnerable than she is, and her ambition to do something for him is a beautiful gesture.

Sydney is an expensive city.  People flock to Sydney because here can earn a lot of money.  But what Sydney gives with one hand it takes with the other.  To survive on nothing but what the government gives her she has learnt to be careful.  She controls her money.  Nothing is spent without thought and reason.  Control, she has decided, is power.

Most of her money goes to pay her rent.  The little bit left is for bills, food, travel and extras,  It’s the extras that have got her interest now.  Everything is written down in a notebook.  She doesn’t need to look in that book to know how much has in her extras fund.  She looks anyway though.  It’s the rules.  And there it is.  $40.  Enough.  (p.17)

Enough for her to take the all-important first step towards writing the symphony for Harry.  She needs to buy a book to help her get started…

Because she recognises that she needs to educate herself about music in order to achieve her goal.

It is ridiculous. She knows that. her musical skills don’t extend past a shonky version of Für Elise she learnt around the age of ten. Her knowledge of musical theory relies on the fact that Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit and All Cows eat Grass. So it is ridiculous. She acknowledges that. But impossible? She doesn’t think it’s impossible. (p.23)

She thinks of the bookstore at the bottom of the hill.

She’s spent a lot of time in this bookstore.  Never bought anything but spent a lot of time there browsing the shelves, sheltering from the weather.  She likes the smell and feel of the shop.  When she is lonely she likes to go there and feel the press of a stranger’s body against hers as they negotiate the narrow aisles.  Some days she misses the touch of other people.  It’s been a long time since she’s felt two arms around her body, holding her, letting her know she’s not alone. (p.17)

Reading this book has made me more aware of the places people go when they are alone and lonely…

She’s been jobless for a while, but she takes the bus to Mark’s place to get some help with her CV:

Mark is an excellent liar because Mark doesn’t lie.  He uses truth in a strange way, a way others may not think to, but he doesn’t outright lie.  Through Mark’s fingertips on the keyboard her two years of working for the local video store, her six months in the mail room of an accounting firm, her café work, her failed film career and all of her other half-finished pursuits become the reason why she is the perfect candidate for work.  Low-level customer service or admin work.  But still, work.  (p. 44)

And with what she earns in an unexpectedly satisfying clerical job at a music school, she has money for extras:

The CD she leaves in his bus shelter is her first purchase with the money she’s earnt from her new job. (p.76)

It’s Beethoven’s Eroica.  Harry doesn’t have a player to play it on, but he finds a kindly librarian.  She not only brings him headphones, but hot soup too.

 

Carmel Bird has described the novel as simple, rippling, meditative prose that details a miracle of kindness, and it’s been optioned as a film by Sparkplug Films.

Author: Sarah Brill
Title: Symphony for the Man
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950069, pbk., 225 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Available direct from Spinifex Press, who have a special offer on print editions: 20% off and free delivery for Australian orders till the end of May.  Or support your bricks-and-mortar bookshop during the pandemic.

Update 1/4/20 This information about availability internationally comes from the publicist Rachael McDiarmid:

The book is distributed in the UK by Gazelle and they probably have May release. Same with ebook as it gets distributed worldwide by IPG in the US. It will be in all the ebook vendors then but it should also be available now via Booktopia (who can also ship internationally and Spinifex has 20% discount and can ship to UK but it’s pricey).

Well, it’s time to draw the giveaway from Scribe Publishing.  It’s called Parlour Games for Modern Families and it’s by Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras.

This is the blurb

Winner of the 2010 Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year for Older Children (age range 8 to 14 years) Parlour Games for Modern Families sets out to revive the tradition of indoor family games: push aside the consoles, turn off the telly, and bring some mental stimulation, silliness and laughter, joy and connection back into your living room.

This book is bursting with games of logic and memory, wordplay, card games, role-play, and rough and tumble. Not a single game requires equipment that you won’t find in your average home: a pack of cards, a dictionary, an hourglass, dice, paper and pen.

Games are organised thematically and referenced for age appropriateness. All are set out with clear rules and instructions. There are games that will challenge and stimulate you, and games that will have you in fits; games that can last all night, and games to fill that empty half-hour before tea; games for adults and older children, and games for your four-year-old’s birthday party.

Parlour Games for Modern Families, a book for fun-lovers aged four to 104, winds back the clock to remind you of games you’d forgotten and then a whole lot more. Whether you dip into it as the urge takes you or read it from cover to cover, a very good time is guaranteed.

We have only two entries, Teresa and Sue, so without further ado, I have consulted the random number generator at random.org, and Sue you are the winner!

Please contact me with your postal address at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom by next Friday April 3rd and I’ll forward it to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Authors: Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras
Title: Parlour Games for Modern Families
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781921372995

If you want to buy a copy for yourself or a friend, neighbour or a relative, it’s available from Fishpond, Parlour Games for Modern Families direct from Scribe Publishing, or any of the bookstores still delivering.

You can find reviews of The Trespassers, The Glad Shout and Daughter of Bad Times on my blog:)

Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large

Australia’s premier speculative fiction awards

Source: Aurealis Awards | Australia’s premier speculative fiction awards

Scrolling down to the BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL section, I can recommend those in bold. I need to read the others.

The Subjects, Sarah Hopkins (Text Publishing)

Aurora Rising, Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) 

The Trespassers, Meg Mundell (UQP)

The Year of the Fruit Cake, Gillian Polack (IFWG Publishing Australia)

The Glad Shout, Alice Robinson (Affirm Press)

Daughter of Bad Times, Rohan Wilson (Allen & Unwin

Congratulations to the nominees!

View original post

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2020

Dragon’s Gate, by Vivian Bi

As I said the other day with my virtual launch of Dragon’s Gate this story set during the Cultural Revolution in China, turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the times we are now living in.  The central character finds consolation in books, and reading as consolation is helping many people now too.

Vivian Bi was a small child when the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) began and her experience gives this novel impressive authenticity.  Many of us have heard stories of families suffering discrimination because of real or confected breaches of Mao’s determination to control thought in China: Vivian Bi experienced this herself because her father was denounced as a ‘Rightist’ (i.e. suspected of harbouring capitalist or traditional sympathies).

Dragon’s Gate is a coming-of-age novel in a unique context.  The central character is a Beijing teenager called Shi Ding, an enthusiastic participant in Mao’s call for young people to lead the denunciation of others even if they are family, friends or neighbours.  His interventions lead to some terrible consequences, including the very severe punishment of a nine-year-old boy and the suicide of his own father.  When this is followed by the suicide of Ruan Qiling, a university professor who was his father’s close friend and the only person who could explain this tragedy, Shi Ding is ordered to guard her house—where he discovers a cache of banned world classics, hidden from detection by his father’s ingenious carpentry.

The details of how the Cultural Revolution impacted on everyday life are astonishing.  Many of us have seen images of the drab uniformity of men wearing the blue Mao suits that were worn as a symbol of proletarian unity but I had not realised that this drabness extended to the family home.  Shi Ding’s father Shi Wangcai was a gifted tailor who made beautiful outfits for his wife, and magnificent tapestries and wall-hangings for the home.  But colour was condemned as one of the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas, and Shi Wangcai’s wife Lin Guiru is concerned that her husband is not in tune with the times.

Shi Wangcai had been a good husband.  He was the most skilful at work and the handiest in the home.  Apart from his mechanical inventions, he did exquisite work with wood and fabric, so their house was well equipped and decorated with beautiful things.  He was also a good cook who could create sumptuous banquets and turn radish skins or outer leaves of cabbage into delicacies.  His skills had brought honour, extra money and comfort to his family.

But lately, Lin Guiru felt there was something lacking in her husband.  While everyone else tried hard not to be left behind by the rapidly unfolding revolutionary situation, he had actually gone backwards.  In order to avoid the weekly political study sessions in the factory, Shi Wangcai had asked to be put on permanent night shift.  (p.21)

Shi Ding comes home one day to find that their Long March wall-hanging is no longer there:

The wall-hanging was the Shi family’s treasure.  Inspired by the musical The East is Red which recounted China’s history in the twentieth century…

 

…Shi Wangcai had spent weeks creating his masterpiece, a double bed-sized patchwork quilt.  He had skilfully sewn hundreds of red stars around the edges to give a three-dimensional effect. In the background were a towering snowy mountain, tall firs, sweeping grasslands and a flowing river.  In the foreground, Red Army troops, hailed by civilians, marched here and there.  Shi Wangcai had used different fabrics to create the colourful and stylish costumes of minorities. He had placed clouds, a rainbow and golden canaries above the human figures.  It was too beautiful to be used as a quilt so they had hung it in their living room.  (p.47)

Lin Guiru, thinking that kind of ostentatiousness was bourgeois, had dyed this exquisite quilt into the approved dingy blue…

Shi Ding’s path to redemption begins with reading Ruan Quiling’s collection of classics.  The universality of literature means that he can become a storyteller to people deprived of all arts except the approved ones, by applying universal themes such as justice and love in his retellings of great works.  Part One begins with The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s coming-of-age story of Julien Sorel, a rather priggish young man with analogous intellectual and social pretensions to Shi Ding’s. Part Two is titled Crime and Punishment, alluding to Dostoyevsky’s novel about the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of his character Raskolnikov.  Shi Ding is also racked with guilt, and as he spends his time in Ruan Qiling’s house, he devours her library, and begins to think for himself:

After Crime and Punishment and Red and Black, he had read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Scarlet Letterm Les Misérables, Pride and Prejudice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and many more.  He had immersed himself in a world far removed from his daily reality.  He could be in the French Revolution one day, at a high society ball the next; strolling though an English country lane or marching in a Siberian blizzard; escaping from Chateau d’If into the dark era, or wandering around a mysterious Thornfield.

Shi Ding had been a keen reader since a very early age.  A stream of modern fiction, the Communist Party stories, had been published before the Cultural Revolution and he had read them all.  He knew the party’s every struggle against the Japanese, the Kuomintang, the landlords and the right-wingers.  He understood well that the purpose of literature was to represent the lives, will and feelings of the proletariat and to promote the revolution.  This meant heroic themes, high standards regarding class, and clear distinctions between good and evil characters.

But Ruan Qiling’s books did not sit well with this understanding.  (p.125)

Part Three is titled Great ExpectationsDickens’ famous coming-of-age story which shows Pip’s betrayal of his origins but also love and rejection, and the triumph of good over evil.  In this part Shi Ding travels to remote parts of China, telling stories to entertain others while attempting to bring justice not only to those he has wronged but also to those wronged by corruption and greed.

But since Dragon’s Gate is not a fairy-tale, Shi Ding also has to find a way to reconcile his emerging estrangement from the society he lives in.  The Cultural Revolution lasted for ten long years, and although Part Four is titled The Count of Monte Cristo there is no real escape from Mao’s tightly controlled world.

Except into the world of books.

PS The title is based on a Sichuan idiom for telling a story: “scaffolding the dragon’s gate”.

PPS The book includes helpful maps of the Beijing district where Shi Ding lives, plus diagrams of his residential district and the layout of the principal houses.  There’s also a map of China showing the remote places to which Shi Ding travels.

Image credit: Mao Suit: by User:chrislb – Erstellt nach Image:Chiangs and Stilwell.jpg, Image:Mao1949.jpg, Image:Mao.jpg und Eduard Kögel: Der Maoanzug. In: archplus 168. Februar, 2004, Ausgabe 168, archplus Verlag GmbH, S. 24–25, ISSN 0587-3452, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=947505

Author: Vivian Bi
Title: Dragon’s Gate
Cover design by Gittus Graphics, illustrations by John Huang and Michelle Zhang
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2020
ISBN: 9781925736328, pbk, 347 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond with free delivery in Australia: Dragon’s Gate, direct from Hybrid Publishers where you can buy it as an eBook, and good bookshops everywhere.  Remember, most bookshops are still in business and are offering various forms of home delivery.  See my post for Melbourne booksellers who need your support here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 24, 2020

Donate to the Writers’ Benevolent Fund

Right now, we’re all getting bombarded with messages from all sorts of sources, from government to local retailers scrambling to tell us how they are continuing to seek our business.  If you’re like me, you’re a bit overwhelmed…

So I’ll keep this short.

If you are in a position to help, consider donating to the Writers’ Benevolent Fund managed by the Australian Society of Authors.  They do not offer income support, but they offer help to writers in trouble, and you can be sure that your gift will go to writers who right now are in need.

From their website:

Whether large or small, your donation can make a difference.
Donations are tax deductible. Click here to download the form, print out and send to:

The Trustee Administrator
Writers Benevolent Fund Trustees
Suite 43,  61 Marlborough Street
Surry Hills, NSW 2010

Enquiries:
phone (02) 9318 2900 or email writersbenevolentfund@gmail.com

Dragon’s Gate is the book that I am reading at the moment, and it turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the times we are now living in.

Readers may remember that I reviewed Bright Swallow last year, and found that nothing I’d previously read compared with the insights from this memoir from Chinese-born Vivian Bi.  She was a small child when he Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) began and she suffered from years of discrimination because of her father’s denunciation as a ‘Rightist’ (i.e. suspected of harbouring capitalist or traditional sympathies). Dragon’s Gate is a novel which brings to life the experience of this awful period of Chinese history, and yet her central character finds consolation in books.  I think many of us are finding that reading is consolation for us now too.

Vivian (Xiyan) Bi is a published author of several novels (including Bright Swallow, 2019), short stories, translations and textbooks. She is the Chinese Coordinator in Ascham School, Sydney, and was a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. She has received four grants from the Australia Council for the Arts. She lives in Sydney.

I expect to finish reading Dragon’s Gate in a day or two, and will share my thoughts about it in due course, but for now, this is the blurb.

Beijing teenager, Shi Ding, is thriving during the Cultural Revolution. He has won acclaim for his storytelling and for his clever entrapment of class enemies, especially those seeking to escape punishment through suicide. Suddenly, his father kills himself. Grief-stricken and now the son of a suspicious suicide, Shi Ding finds himself ostracised. Why did his father do it? Did it have something to do with that attractive neighbour, the university professor? Before he can learn more, the woman kills herself too. Ordered to guard her home, Shi Ding becomes enthralled by her library of banned world classics. He devours their stories, obsessed with finding a way to share them with a story-starved populace. But how, when doing so is dangerous?
The title is based on a Sichuan idiom for telling a story: “scaffolding the dragon’s gate”.

Early readers had this to say:

Dragon’s Gate is a superb book, a fascinating story written from the heart and woven into a complex cultural and historical tapestry – a modern classic in the making.”  – Robert Macklin, author of Dragon and Kangaroo

The unique interweaving of fascinating tales set in exotic places with familiar and much-loved western classics makes this book a page turner from beginning to end. – Jane Sydenham-Kwiet

I’m finding it fascinating!

Author: Vivian Bi
Title: Dragon’s Gate
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2020
ISBN: 9781925736328

Available from Fishpond with free delivery in Australia: Dragon’s Gate, direct from Hybrid Publishers, and good bookshops everywhere.  Remember, most bookshops are still in business and are offering various forms of home delivery.  See my post for Melbourne booksellers who need your support here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2020

2020 Indie Book Awards winners

The ceremony may have been a bit subdued because of social distancing rules, but there was plenty of jubilation for the winners when the 2020 Indie Book Awards were announced.

Winners are in bold.  There Was Still Love was the overall winner as well as winner of the Fiction category.

Fiction

Nonfiction

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

Debut fiction

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

Illustrated nonfiction

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

Young adult 

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

Children’s

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

For more information about the awards, visit the website.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2020

Virtual launches: Unsettled, new fiction from Gay Lynch

 

With launches and author events cancelled around the country, a virtual launch is a good way to introduce new fiction to readers of ANZ Litlovers.

So I am pleased to introduce a new novel by author Gay Lynch, an associate in Creative Writing and English at Flinders University who publishes essays, hybrid memoir, novels, articles and short stories. Her first novel, Cleanskin, was published in 2005. Long-time resident of rural SA, she now lives in Melbourne.

This is the blurb:

The unsettled South Australian frontier near Mount Gambier is a strange and difficult place for a Galway family trying to make sense of their new world.

Rosanna and brother Skelly long to escape. Their older brother Edwin races against poets in steeplechases and schemes over cattle, carts and cards to get ahead. They are all half in love with a visiting priest and a disturbing Irish play about their ancestors.

When she goes to work at a nearby station, Rosanna is caught up in a string of events – throwing a horserace, the allure of a visiting actor, violent threats to her Boandik friends, and the wreck of the Admella – that lead to a reckoning with the land, its histories, its religions and its ancient and recent cultures.

Unsettled is fearless and exuberant, playful and erudite, an Australian classic in the making.

Early readers have this to say:

  • ‘Spellbinding historical fiction, offering fresh insight into a 19th century past which unsettles our present’ —Laura Bloom
  • ‘Passionate and uncompromising … brilliantly evoking the complexities of early Australian settlement.’ — Danielle Clode

You can also read the review by  Professor Frances Devlin-Glass for Tintean.

Unsettled is available now from Fishpond: Unsettled and direct from Ligature.
AUD$34.99 Paperback + E-book; $11.99 E-book
ISBN: 9781925883237

With perfect timing for families in quarantine, self-isolation or just playing it safe at home, I am pleased to offer a giveaway from Scribe Publishing.  It’s called Parlour Games for Modern Families and it’s by Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras.

Published in 2011, I’m sure its authors never envisaged that there would one day be families confined to base and suffering from cabin fever or an overdose of their beloved children.  I think the book’s origins lie in nostalgia for the kind of games we used to play before the TV took over the loungeroom and before the advent of separate screens and headphones personalising the media we consume but also keeping us separate from one another.

Now, however, families and housemates are facing an existential crisis and we know that it’s important for mental health to maintain connections with each other.  So this book has a very useful purpose at this time.

This is the blurb:

Winner of the 2010 Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year for Older Children (age range 8 to 14 years) Parlour Games for Modern Families sets out to revive the tradition of indoor family games: push aside the consoles, turn off the telly, and bring some mental stimulation, silliness and laughter, joy and connection back into your living room.

This book is bursting with games of logic and memory, wordplay, card games, role-play, and rough and tumble. Not a single game requires equipment that you won’t find in your average home: a pack of cards, a dictionary, an hourglass, dice, paper and pen.

Games are organised thematically and referenced for age appropriateness. All are set out with clear rules and instructions. There are games that will challenge and stimulate you, and games that will have you in fits; games that can last all night, and games to fill that empty half-hour before tea; games for adults and older children, and games for your four-year-old’s birthday party.

Parlour Games for Modern Families, a book for fun-lovers aged four to 104, winds back the clock to remind you of games you’d forgotten and then a whole lot more. Whether you dip into it as the urge takes you or read it from cover to cover, a very good time is guaranteed.

I’ve pinched part of a review at Goodreads, to give you an idea.  Jasper Smit in his review writes:

My favourite so far: Spot the Difference! All players but one go out of the room. The remaining player now changes five things in the room: like the hands on a clock, the way a lamp is positioned of the placement of ornaments. The other players return and the first to spot all five differences declares them. If right, the player wins, if not, others get to try to find all the differences.

See?  No equipment needed.  And having just discovered how to use Skype because my French classes are going digital, I reckon you could play this game using Skype or similar, which could be amusing for grandparents keeping contact with small children who tend not to be great at remote conversation.  What’s the one difference in these two photos?  (No, it’s not the expression on my face.)  If I can figure out how to get the camera to focus properly, it would be a whole lot better of course, but I’m on a steep learning curve with this stuff.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Yes, that is the TBR in the background.  And yes, one of my Ten Bookish Things to Do is to tidy it up.)

HOW TO ENTER
Interested? Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winner at the end of next week.  All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Authors: Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras
Title: Parlour Games for Modern Families
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781921372995

If you don’t want to wait for the giveaway, you can buy a copy for yourself or a friend, neighbour or a relative from Fishpond, Parlour Games for Modern Families direct from Scribe Publishing, or any of the bookstores still delivering.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2020

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2020 shortlists

Thanks to Brona from Brona’s Books and Books and Publishing for the heads-up…

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2020 shortlists announced

The shortlists for the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards have been announced.

The shortlisted titles in each category are:

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000) 

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)

  • Growing Up African in Australia (ed by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Black Inc.), see my review
  • Room for a Stranger (Melanie Cheng, Text), see my review
  • White Tears/Brown Scars (Ruby Hamad, MUP)
  • Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia (Samia Khatun, UQP)
  • The Pillars (Peter Polites, Hachette)
  • The Lost Arabs (Omar Sakr, UQP)

NSW Premier’s Prize for Indigenous writing (biennial award of $30,000)

  • Alfred’s War (Rachel Bin Salleh, illus by Samantha Fry, Magabala)
  • The White Girl (Tony Birch, UQP), see my review
  • Too Much Lip (Melissa Lucashenko, UQP), see my review

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5000)

  • Lucky Ticket (Joey Bui, Text)
  • Dolores (Lauren Aimee Curtis, W&N)
  • An-Tan-Tiri Mogodan: Short stories (Florina Enache, Adelaide Books)
  • The House of Youssef (Yumna Kassab, Giramondo)
  • Little Stones (Elizabeth Kuiper, UQP), see my review
  • Real Differences (S L Lim, Transit Lounge), see my review

Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction ($40,000)

  • The Seventies (Michelle Arrow, NewSouth)
  • The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A rodent history of Australia (Tim Bonyhady, Text)
  • Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the future (Alice Gorman, NewSouth)
  • Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia (Samia Khatun UQP)
  • Tiberius with a Telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon (Patrick Mullins, Scribe)
  • The World Was Whole (Fiona Wright, Giramondo), see Jonathan’s review at Me Fail? I Fly

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000) 

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000)

  • Detention (Tristan Bancks, Puffin)
  • One Tree (Bruce Whatley, illus by Christopher Cheng, Puffin)
  • Catch a Falling Star (Meg McKinlay, Walker)
  • Wilam: A Birrarung Story (Aunty Joy Murphy & Andrew Kelly, illus by Lisa Kennedy, Black Dog Books)
  • Young Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe, Magabala)
  • Ella and the Ocean (Lian Tanner illus by Jonathan Bentley, A&U)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature ($30,000)

  • How it Feels to Float (Helena Fox, Pan)
  • Lenny’s Book of Everything (Karen Foxlee, A&U)
  • The Little Wave (Pip Harry, UQP)
  • It Sounded Better in My Head (Nina Kenwood, Text)
  • This Is How We Change the Ending (Vikki Wakefield, Text)
  • Impossible Music (Sean Williams, A&U)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000)

  • ‘Banging Denmark’ (Van Badham, Sydney Theatre Company)
  • ‘The Feather in the Web’ (Nick Coyle, Griffin Theatre Company)
  • ‘The Mares’ (Kate Mulvany, Tasmanian Theatre Company)
  • ‘THEM’ (Samah Sabawi and Lara Week, in collaboration with La Mama Courthouse)
  • ‘Counting and Cracking’ (S Shakthidharan and associate writer Eamon Flack, Belvoir and Co-curious), see Jonathan’s thoughts at his Reading/Watching Diary
  • ‘City of Gold’ (Meyne Wyatt, Queensland Theatre) 

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000) 

  • On the Ropes episode 1 (Tamara Asmar, Lingo Pictures)
  • Missing (Kylie Bolton, SBS)
  • H is for Happiness (Lisa Hoppe, Happiness Film Productions)
  • The Cry episode 2 (Jacqueline Peske, Synchronicity Films)
  • Buoyancy (Rodd Rathjen, Causeway Films).

The winners will be announced on 29 April. Voting for the People’s Choice Award is open now.

For more information on the awards, see the State Library of NSW website.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2020

Yarra Valley Writers Festival goes digital…

Please note: the situation with COVID_19 is changing day by day, in Australia with more news of closures, and welcome news about support services and nimble organisations which are adapting with digital alternatives.  I have tagged all my posts with #COVID_19 so you can follow developments, and for a single authoritative voice offering the latest information and advice listen to theABC Coronacast podcasts delivered by Dr Norman Swan, which is accessible to international visitors as well.


Yesterday I received welcome news that the forthcoming Yarra Valley Writers Festival is going digital.

Amongst other disappointments, booklovers all over the world are confronting the cancellation of what is often a highlight of the reading year: their favourite reading festival.  (As regular readers know, last year we planned an entire holiday in NZ for the Auckland Writers Festival.  That’s another one that’s sadly been cancelled.)  However, nimble organisations are reconfiguring their activities to take account of the new reality, and while the Yarra Valley Writers Festival is, as far as I know, the first of them to go digital, I expect that others like the SWF and the Bendigo Festival will follow suit.

What follows is reproduced (with permission from festival director Brook Powell):

TONY BIRCH | CHRIS FLYNN | ROBERT GOTT | TOM GRIFFITHS | ELIZA HENRY-JONES | ELIZABETH MCCARTHY | MEG MUNDELL | AILSA PIPER | HANNIE RAYSON | ANGELA SAVAGE | JOCK SERONG | MICHAEL VEITCH | DONNA WARD | DAVID WILLIAMSON | CHARLOTTE WOOD  + MORE …

We are not cancelling the Festival – we’re simply changing the way we share the stories. YVWF are celebrating authors and their incredible stories in a full day of live streamed talks, conversations and performances May 9 2020.

Due to COVID-19 playing havoc with our lives, this festival in its inaugural year will be presented digitally. Our community need to lead the way with physical distancing, not social distancing.

Book-lovers are invited to tune in from their homes and experience keynote speeches, performances and beautiful (at times hard) conversations from some of the brightest minds in Australian literature.

Programmed by playwright Hannie Rayson (Hotel Sorento, Inheritance) the Festival presents contemporary authors but in a new, digital format.

‘’The way audiences experience art, culture and conversations has changed. For now. This is the time to be supporting Australian authors and celebrate writers who are prepared to challenge, enlarge and humanise our experience of the world,’’ said Hannie.

[LH: The list of presenters includes many who have been featured on this blog: this is my kind of festival, where I am spoiled for choice! Click the links to find out more.]

Writers and presenters featured in the livestream include Tony Birch (The White Girl), Chris Flynn (Mammoth), Eliza Henry-Jones (How to Grow a Family Tree), Robert Gott (The Holiday  Murders), Vicki Hastrich (Night Fishing)Elizabeth McCarthyMeg Mundell (The Trespassers), Ailsa Piper (The Attachment: Letters From A Most Unlikely Friendship)Hannie Rayson, Angela Savage (Mother of Pearl), Jock Serong (Preservation), Michael Veitch (Hell Ship, Turning Point), Donna Ward (The Whole Bright Year), David Williamson (Don’s Party), Charlotte Wood (The Weekend) and more to be announced.

This first for the Yarra Valley, live streaming an entire day of creative activity, is being made possible by our partnership with Yarra Ranges Council.

There will be a small charge to view the day, which will enable the Festival to pay the authors, technicians and performers.

Current ticket holders will be contacted by Yarra Ranges Council to refund their purchases. Online viewing tickets will go on sale in early April.

For the revised program (ready by early April) visit yarravalleywritersfestival.com/

If you haven’t already please take a look at our Facebook page and Instagram page and do share information as often as you can.

Onward and upward! (with a book in hand)

Brook Powell
Festival Director
yarravalleywritersfestival.com

For more information contact words@yarravalleywritersfestival.com

Brook has confirmed that the livestream will be available internationally and payment will be through PayPal.  

#MoreFreeAdviceFromLisa: I suspect that other festival organisers will be watching this closely to see if going digital is economically viable.  If you were going to attend, and you’re financially viable yourself, please consider buying a digital viewing ticket.  If you weren’t going, but you like the idea, please try to support it too.  Sue from Whispering Gums has attended digital versions of the Sydney Writers Festival live-streamed to the ACT and reported on them on her blog, and you can see here how much she enjoyed being able to ‘attend’ in this way.

PS For those of you who don’t know the area, the Yarra Valley is one of the most beautiful spots in my world.  It is a mecca for wine lovers, with wonderful vineyards to visit and restaurants to dine in, and the scenery is sublime.  if you’ve never been there, bookmark this link, and add it to your bucket list for when things return to normal.  Which they will…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2020

2020 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship winner

Shamelessly copied and pasted from the press release:

2020 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship winner

Matthiessen at WNYC New York Public Radio in 2008 promoting his novel Shadow CountryThe 2020 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship winner is Lance Richardson for his proposed biography of Peter Matthiessen.

Peter Matthiessen was an acclaimed writer, naturalist and Zen Buddhist, perhaps best known for his book The Snow Leopard, an account of his trip through the Dolpo region of Nepal. He was also the co-founder of the Paris Review in the early 1950s.

This year the judges also gave a Highly Commended award to Gabrielle Carey for her work on writer Elizabeth von Arnim.

You can view the Press Release and a video clip of Lance Richardson talking about his project on the Writers Victoria website.

Due to the current public health circumstances, we cancelled the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture, scheduled for Friday 20 March at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne. We hope to hold the lecture later in the year.

The lecture, ‘Making Characters: biography and memoir’, was to be given by biographer Jacqueline Kent, who won the 2018 Hazel Rowley Fellowship for researching and writing the life story of Australian pioneer suffragist Vida Goldstein. This biography is due to be published by Penguin Random House in September 2020.

Visit the website for more information on this announcement and fellowship activities. The next round of applications opens on 1 October 2020.

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Hazel Rowley Fellowship. We look forward to seeing some of you at Adelaide Writers Festival where we will be celebrating 10 years of supporting biography writing.

All the best,
Della Rowley, Lynn Buchanan and Irene Tomaszewski

Image credit: Photo of Peter Mattheissen by Melissa Eagan, WNYC New York Public Radio – https://www.flickr.com/photos/wnyc/2565449584/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6267169

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2020

Support your bricks-and-mortar bookshop during the pandemic

Please note: the situation with COVID_19 is changing day by day, in Australia with more news of closures, and welcome news about support services and nimble organisations which are adapting with digital alternatives.  I have tagged all my posts with #COVID_19 so you can follow developments, and for a single authoritative voice offering the latest information and advice listen to the ABC Coronacast podcasts delivered by Dr Norman Swan, which is accessible to international visitors as well.


Whatever your situation, quarantined or self-isolated or just anxious about being out and about, now is the time to shop local to support bricks-and-mortar business.  Your decisions contribute to whether or not that business will survive to make your life a pleasure when this is all over.

So, without further ado, these are the Melbourne bookshops that have emailed me to advise that they will take online or phone orders and deliver to your door.  The links go to their website.

Benn’s Bookshop Bentleigh: I was in there yesterday acquiring some beaut additions to the TBR, among them a new release called Melting Moments from Anna Goldsworthy and a bargain copy of Caroline Chisholm’s biography by Sarah Goldman.  It was a bit eerie to think that it could be the last time for a while that I could wander among the books, but the service was wonderful as always.  I love this bookshop and the people who run it, and they have a great range of books.

Beaumaris Books: This is the bookshop that hosts author events in my local area and you have read about their launches and author talks here on the blog e.g. Enza Gandolfo talking about her brilliant book The Bridge.  You can’t order online, but you can contact them by phone or email, and if you live in Beaumaris, Black Rock, Cheltenham, Mentone, Parkdale, Highett, Hampton & Sandringham Cheryl and Andrew can DELIVER to you. Yes, with freshly hand sanitized hands, they will place your book in a paper bag and drop outside your door! Phone +61 422 522 007; Email read@beaumarisbooks.com.au

Readings Bookshop:  Melbourne’s iconic bookshop, which heroically fought off the corporate interloper Borders (yay!) and has the best schedule of author events in the city.   They are still ordering books, reading them, reviewing them, recommending them, selling them, and sending them out. You can contact each of their branches from here and they have one of the best websites for online ordering, complete with a blog and reader reviews about many of the books.  Check out their bargain table as well.

I took this photo at Readings Hawthorn (I think)

Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham: This bookshop is always on my circuit for National Bookshop day.  Their website says that you can contact them here and they will get your books to you.  You can sign up here for newsletters about new titles.

Of course there are lots of other bookshops, these are just the ones that get my regular custom and I’m on their email contact list.  Feel free to add your favourites in comments below, and I’ll add them to my list.

There are also *Australian* online stores who will benefit from your custom.  #CorrectMeIfI’mWrong They don’t support authors with author talks and launches, and I don’t think they sponsor litfests either, but buying from them is a much kinder thing to do than buying from That Big Greedy American Behemoth that contributes nothing to Australia, not even tax.  I used Fishpond the other day to get a toy voucher to a friend, but I also use Booktopia occasionally.

Because I’m not interested in fashion, posh cars, the Female Appearance Industry or endlessly renovating my house and putting New Stuff in it, my disposable income mostly goes on books.  Yes, I spend *a lot* of money at my favourite bookstores, but even my profligate book buying is not going to keep them afloat unless other readers spend money too.  If you’re ok, and you’re still in work and getting your salary or your superannuation or whatever, please spend it thoughtfully.

And when you’ve finished your book, spare a thought for people doing it tough.  I usually take my retired books to OpShops, but if they’re not closed yet, they may be soon because they are usually staffed by elderly volunteers who are vulnerable to COVID_19.  But you can find a Street Library here and share the love, or start your own. (In our street, everybody puts surplus fruit and veg from the backyard in boxes on the nature strip; we recycle unwanted goods that way too so I think a box of pre-loved books would work the same way.  Just watch out for Melbourne’s capricious weather).

Finally, advice to stay off social media is emerging.  Well, that’s expert advice, and I’m not one to quarrel with experts.  However, there is social media that *isn’t* toxic, and *isn’t* peddling misinformation.  As I said in my previous post Ten Bookish Things to Do While Self-isolated At Home, there is a friendly and welcoming bookish community that will help you feel less alone in these anxious times.

Update: thanks to Kim from Reading Matters for this info: Books+Publishing have put together a great list of book stores and what they’re doing here: https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/03/18/147865/australian-bookshops-respond-to-covid-19/

Update, thanks to Nick (see comments below) for two more suggestions:

  • The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville My local bookstore, The Sun in Yarraville, will deliver free the same day if you live locally and don’t want to venture out. They are great at supporting writers,
  • The Eltham Bookshop is also offering free delivery.

Nick BTW is Nick Gadd, author of Death of a Typographer.  Find out more about him here!

Update 21/3/20 Thanks to Mary (see comment below) for news that the Avenue Books chain in Albert Park, Richmond and Elsternwick are home delivering locally. She received Hilary Mantel’s latest within 2 hours.  Great service and helps keep their part time staff who are usually students in work.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 17, 2020

Ten Bookish Things to do while self-isolated at home

Please note: the situation with COVID_19 is changing day by day, in Australia with more news of closures, and welcome news about support services and nimble organisations which are adapting with digital alternatives.  I have tagged all my posts with #COVID_19 so you can follow developments, and for a single authoritative voice offering the latest information and advice listen to the ABC Coronacast podcasts delivered by Dr Norman Swan, which is accessible to international visitors as well.


The Reader by Fragonard (Wikipedia*)

First of all, remember this: you are not alone.  You may be by yourself, but you do not have to be lonely.  There is a vast army of readers out there who love books and will happily chat about them and anything even remotely bookish.  If you’re not already part of the virtual bookish community, you can find people via social media, especially via Book Blogs and at Good Reads or Library Thing where you can search groups who share your tastes.  (There are also sites at Instagram but I don’t play in that sandpit).

And if you are here reading this, then you’re already on your way… say hello in comments below!

Here are ten suggestions that will keep you busy if you have to stay home for 14 days.

1. Join a reading group.  There are thousands of them.  You can find them at Goodreads or Library Thing where with varying degrees of formality, keen readers host challenges, read particular books, or types of books.  Find someone bookish at Twitter, and follow them, soon you will know heaps of people.  (BTW Twitter for booklovers is generally a safe space.  People who read books are usually nice people, something to do with the development of empathy through reading about the lives of others.  Exceptions exist, but you can easily block them.) Make friends: don’t lurk, just drop into a conversation and you will find that people are delighted to have you join them.

2. Find blogs that focus on the kind of books you like.  Search online or use my blog roll in the RH menu, most other bloggers have them too. You will find bloggers who host various ‘weeks’ or ‘months’: at the moment there is Irish Reading Month at Cathy 746, and Welsh Reading month at Booker Talk. Here in Victoria there is the Autumn Book Binge hosted by the State Library of Victoria, and you can win prizes.  If you don’t have the book that you need to join in, and you can’t afford to buy an eBook or one that can be delivered—hunt around online for free alternatives that you can read online. Try Project Gutenberg, and Gutenberg Australia.  Often just typing in the name of the book you want +”read online” will find other sources too.  PS You can also borrow eBooks from your library, see advice from the Public Library Network here.

3. Which brings me to… explore Project Gutenberg and Gutenberg Australia. Thousands of volunteers have scanned and edited classic works of literature that are out of copyright and made them free for anyone to read on screen. If you’ve never read Dickens, or Austen, or George Orwell or the short stories of Maupassant, this is where you can find them all.  Project Gutenberg Australia has a dedicated Australiana section on their home page, but they also have dedicated lists of C20th Women Writers, Nobel Prize winners, SF, fantasy, Crime and so on.  Never read Miles Franklin, who founded our most prestigious literary prize?  Just type her name into the search box, and you will find not only the book that launched her career as a writer, but heaps more besides.  If you find you really like OzLit from times past, then check out Bill’s blog at The Australian Legend and chat with like-minded people there.

4. Make a dedicated shelf of books you want to read at Goodreads.  Suppose you want to read all six of Jane Austen’s novels that you’ve found at Project Gutenberg. Find the titles at Goodreads, mark them ‘want to read’ and then refresh the page.  Below the info about the book you will then find your ‘review’ of the book, and if you open that you will find a section for your own private notes.  Copy the URL of the free copy you’ve found online, and save it to your Want to Read Austen shelf. Then you can always find it again easily.

5. Join a Readalong.  Just type Readalong into Twitter’s search box, and you will be spoilt for choice.  But be aware that this can be a marketing strategy for brand new books and you may not want to get sucked into that, especially since it usually means that you have to buy the book*.  OTOH you can also find ZolaAddiction which is hosting reading the works of Emile Zola, and the bonus of that is that you can find Zola’s books, in French and in translation into English at Project Gutenberg.  Just type Zola into the search box.

6. Subscribe to the Library of America’s Short Story service. Sue from Whispering Gums and I both subscribe to this, and have enjoyed all kinds of interesting short pieces.  My most recent discovery was from a beekeeper who witnessed the first flight of a plane, but Sue has read heaps of them, check out her reviews here.  (Sue BTW writes a weekly Monday Musings, where all kinds of wonderful bookish conversations take place. Check it out).

7. Tidy up the TBR.  Karen at Booker Talk has excellent strategies for reducing the number of books you have, but if you’re like me, it’s not that you want to get rid of them, you want to be able to find the one you want.  You can catalogue what you have at Goodreads or Library Thing, you can make an Excel file, or you can just behave like a librarian and sort them into NF by subject, and Fiction by author surname.  You can even order in some smart indexed notebooks and list the books alphabetically, ticking them off as you read them.  There are people who sort them by colour so that they look pretty but I don’t recommend this unless you have the kind of memory that remembers what colour each title is.  There are no end of online bookish conversations about the TBR… from people who want to be Kondoish about it, who want to reduce it, who can’t store it, who don’t see what the problem is. Maybe now there will be people who wish they had one, so that they something to read.  No matter, just join in.

8. Make a scrapbook of your ten favourite books.  These could be childhood favourites, or books that influenced you, or books that you will never forget.  Journal anything and everything about the books: who gave/lent/recommended it to you and why.  What you remember of the story and why it made such an impact.  Think of this scrapbook as your testament of reading that will be treasured by your heirs and successors as a window into your reading soul.  Just imagine how excited family historians of the future would be to find something like this. This is something that I’m going to do myself because I can do it while my eyes are still recovering from surgery. Update 19/3/20 People who like to do things digitally could make the scrapbook using a service like Momentum.  You can probably find an image of the exact edition you remember reading at Goodreads too.

9. Make maps or storyboards or some kind of digital creation about the book/s you read.  There are clever people who do this with Google Maps, for example this one of War and Peace, more artistic ones like this for Huckleberry Finn and this one which shows the settings for multiple books, which of course you could adapt for the particular books that you’ve read. (There are blogs by people who have set themselves a challenge to read a book from every country in the world, so you can chat about what you’re doing with them.)  There are sites that teach you how to do it.

10. Start a reading journal.  Paper or digital, it doesn’t matter.  A journal of what you’ve read during this time will have historic value to you, and your family, and maybe people of the future.  Your journal can be shared online (start a blog, why not?) or intensely private, because everything you read right now will trigger your thoughts about what we are experiencing.  Writing them down, as indeed making a narrative out of any traumatic experience, is good for the soul.

The point of all this, is that we know that people can feel anxious and lonely during the pandemic, and it will be harder for people who live alone, or don’t have anyone in the house to share things in common.  It’s important to know that you are not alone, there is a virtual bookish world which will welcome you, and the bonus is that it is almost inevitable that you will one day, when this is all over, as it will be, meet f2f someone you’ve met online.

PS: You will notice that my suggestions are not much use if you have children underfoot during the day—it’s been a long time since I was alone at home with a small child, and I mostly remember being too exhausted to do anything when finally he went to sleep.  Of course you can do bookish things with your children.  But all of us need adult conversation as well.  If you are a sole parent there will be times when they are in bed or (hopefully) otherwise occupied and then you might find that some adult conversation is a better option than collapsing in front of the TV.  Feel free to add suggestions of what works for you to comments below.


Oh yes, and if you need a laugh, check out Theresa Smith Writes: each week she writes The Week That Was, which is of course bookish, but also features a Joke of the Week.  For beautiful photos to brighten your day visit Travellin’ Penguin; for curated articles of interest about all kinds of stuff plus book reviews visit Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large; for Six degrees of Separation see Books are my Favourite and Best;  for insights about children’s books see Me Fail? I Fly! and for inspirational insights from an activist who has worked all her life to make the world a better place, visit Mairi Neil Writer. Update, an hour or so later: right on cue, Mairi has just published a post called Ease the anxiety and boredom of isolation or insulation with creative writing. 

* Re getting sucked into marketing campaigns for books: I don’t say this to discourage people from buying books.  Readings in Melbourne will deliver books to your home, so will The Bookshop at Queenscliff, and they’re just the ones I’ve heard from so far.  Just be wary of getting sucked into buying heaps of stuff online generally, and please, think about who you are buying it from. Marketers are already working hard at sucking in what they see as a captive audience for their products.  The most aggressive marketers of books are the conglomerates with plentiful financial reserves, not the small indie publishers that are the lifeblood of Australian publishing and operate on a shoestring.  Of course we want to support business so that it survives, and of course we want to support authors whose book launch got cancelled, but just be careful and try to avoid global online suppliers who contribute nothing to the Australian economy.   My inbox today and yesterday is full of cancellations of all sorts of things and every one of them impacts on people’s incomes.  If your spending is thoughtful, after this is all over, you will have money to spend on the service industry—the people who make our way of life a pleasure and yet have only casualised work conditions.  If you can, and you haven’t lost your income during the this time, you will have disposable income, to kickstart the little cafes, to support the roadie who does the sound for the band at the pub or the violinist who hasn’t had a gig for the duration, and of course to buy books from the bricks and mortar stores that support the book industry.

PS I almost forgot: for reliable up-to-date info about #COVID_19 listen to ABC Online’s daily Coronacast.  You can subscribe as a podcast, or you can listen to it from the ABC’s website. The presenter is  Dr Norman Swan, and his co-presenter is from the ABC’s Science unit.  I suggest that you listen to it from the beginning, because not all advice is repeated every day.  I believe that it’s accessible internationally, please let me know if this is not correct.

Image credits:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2020

Autumn Book Binge 2020

The State Library of Victoria has, with perfect timing, come up with an activity to amuse us during the social distancing period for COVID_19. It’s their Autumn Book Binge 2020.

Ok, I know, there are some places in the world where it isn’t autumn.  That’s a pity, it’s a most beautiful time of the year here in Melbourne, but you can still join in if you like, and (I know I’m going to regret this, because the postage will be spectacular) for one lucky participant who blogs their reviews, I am going to draw a winner from those who complete the challenge to win my surplus-to-requirements copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.  (Readings sent me a free copy along with my copy of The Mirror and the Light, but I already had it).

You can read about the Autumn Book Binge here, and pick up your Challenge Card from any participating library, or download it here. The card looks like this:

For Victorian participants, there are monthly prizes of book vouchers from Readings.

To complete a line (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) on the challenge card, you need to read or listen to a book of your choice from any of nine book categories, and here are some suggestions:

Set in Victoria: Click here to see reviews of 162 books set in Victoria: these are some of the most recent ones.

Recent releases (books published in the last 12 months): Click here for more books published in 2020 and here for more books released in 2019.

Other lives: biography about someone who inspires you: Click here for literary bios; here for musician bios; and here for all kinds of other interesting people.

In translation: Click here for more translations, and you can also filter by gender by using the drop-down category widget in the RHS menu if you want to.

Fact to fiction (works of fiction based on true stories)

Book to screen: This was hard—I hadn’t classified books by this criteria.  I’ve probably missed heaps of possibilities because I don’t watch much film. Click here to see suggestions from the NFSA.

Beastly titles (books with an animal in the title)

Other worlds (books set in an alternate world to your own) Click here for more speculative fiction, but you can also include books from societies very different to our own, e.g. the USSR or the Middle East.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. Click on the ANZLL Indigenous Reading List for a wealth of choices. These are IMO must-reads:

So there you are: lots to choose from!

Join in the conversation and share your book reviews and recommendations on social media, using hashtag #AutumnBookBinge.

Happy reading!!

It takes a special sort of skill to represent an underclass in fiction.  There is the difficulty of knowing the subject well enough, and having the empathy to represent the sub-culture fairly and without being judgemental.  And then there is the problem of writing the story so that it engages the better-off, the ones most likely to buy the book.  Authors take on this task because, it seems to me, that they want to bring attention to the inequities that bedevil society.  All the way from 19th century authors like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola; to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906); John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939); James Kelmann’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) and Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (2010).  Closer to home there are the great chroniclers of the Depression: Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) and Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers (1941), and more recently Paddy O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust (2012) writing about a single mother in a depressed country town. All these authors have cared about the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, and the forgotten, and have used the power of the pen to draw attention to the essential humanity of the underclass.

Dutch author Tommy Wieringa writes about people on the margins of society in his new novel, The Blessed Rita. His central character Paul Krüzen, lives with his ageing father in an old farmhouse, not far from the German border, in the era when there are no borders in Europe any more*.  The village he lives in is the kind of dying village that’s common all over the world as corporate agribusiness takes over the small farms that were a way of life for centuries.  For Paul the world outside the village burst into his young life when his father rescued a Russian pilot from a burning plane in their maize field.  The Russian, escaping the USSR, repaid him by debunking with Paul’s mother, who yearned for a wider world and took the opportunity when it came.  But Paul has never taken any opportunities that came his way.  For all the inadequacies of his circumscribed life, he gets homesick and wants to return to the father who took care of him when he was young.  He takes care of his father now, and he makes his living selling WW1 and WW2 memorabilia on the internet…

…Including Nazi stuff to neo-Nazis, who he seems to think are pathetic rather than the scourge they really are. Wieringa does not shy away from depicting aspects of his central character in ways that are distasteful, but he does so in a rounded portrait: a motherless boy who became a man who can’t have a relationship with a real woman his own age—because he has succumbed to a version of womanhood that can be bought in an brothel offering pert Asian women.  A man in his fifties who yearns for companionship but is ill-fitted for it: his only fond relationship is with the father he cares for with dogged devotion, and he fears the loneliness of the future when his father dies, an inevitability which seems imminent.  He is a friendless man who is envious of the expensive cars of his sleazy peers from school who lord it over the locals with the Russian thugs that facilitate their ‘business’.  Hedwiges, another misfit, is a companion rather than a friend.  He presides over the failing grocery store that’s been displaced by the supermarket, and his only topic of conversation is death.  They take short sex-tours in Thailand together, but they do not share confidences or even common interests.

Tragedy, when it comes, reveals to Paul the futility of his own life.  It forces him to confront the emptiness of his future. The Chinese who came, unwelcome, into the village and set up a café, are now leaving for more profitable ventures elsewhere.  The borders, whatever protection they once offered, are fluid now, and Paul knows that all the expensive security technology in the world can’t protect him from theft and thuggery.  Religion is no solace in an era of declining congregations and even the priest is an outsider from the globalised world.  The police, quick to enforce traffic violations, take an hour to turn up after a crime, and they’re afraid of the Russian thugs too.

Paul is a weak man, physically and mentally.  Which makes his heroic stand at the end of the book all the more remarkable.  He knows the risks, but from within the sanctuary of a church no longer protected by long-held custom, he speaks the truth that the whole village denies out of fear. And then he waits for the penalty.

It’s a disconcerting conclusion.

Theresa Smith reviewed it too.

*I am mindful that, as of yesterday, borders are being resurrected all over Europe to contain the pandemic.

Author: Tommy Wieringa
Title: The Blessed Rita
Publisher: Scribe, 2020, first published as  De heilige Rita in 2017
Cover design by Scribe
ISBN: 9781925713268, pbk., 241 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: The Blessed Rita


It’s Reading Ireland month hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, and I’m getting in a week early with a short story collection because I’m back under the knife tomorrow and who knows how long it will be before I can read properly again after that!

So as not to mess up completely, I’m going to list some of my reviews that fit into Cathy’s ‘weeks’, which are:

  • Monday 2 March – Sunday 8 March– Contemporary Irish Novels
  • Monday 9 March – Sunday 15 March – Classic Irish Novels
  • Monday 16 March – Sunday 22 March – Irish Short Story Collections
  • Monday 23 March – Sunday 29 March– Irish Non-Fiction

So, for last week’s Contemporary Irish novels, let me suggest:

I have reviewed more novels than these four, and you can find the others here.

For Classic Irish Novels, yes, you guessed it:

Irish Non-Fiction? I thought I’d never read anything NF by an Irish author, but I surprised myself:

So, now to my contribution to Short Story Collections Week:

Valda Johnstone at Broadcast House, (ABC Studios) Melbourne

I haven’t had time to read the whole book, so to whet your appetite I’m just going to tell you about the first story ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’.  It features Trevor’s trademark ambiguity, with an unexpected twist.  I think this story engaged me so much because of my own piano teacher Valda Johnstone, who was a child prodigy and a concert pianist, but in some ways had a life not unlike Miss Nightingale.  Like Trevor’s character, Valda’s widowed parent was likewise her lifelong companion, and the other similarities I know about because my curiosity about a composer who dedicated piano pieces to Valda led me to research in the NLA…

Over many weeks in the nursing home where she spent her final years, I interviewed Valda about her remarkable life and turned the interviews into chapters for a memoir covering childhood to retirement.  After her death, as Executor I had to pack up her house, and to transfer her papers and memorabilia to the State Library.  But amongst the concert programmes and photos of famous people, there were her work diaries, which revealed to me for the first time the drudgery of lessons that could only be taught before and after school and trapped her at the weekends; the unpaid pupil accounts including some owed by very wealthy people; and the dreariness of her professional life once her career as a concert pianist was behind her.  She was such a vivacious, cheerful person, I found it chastening to realise that there was a courageous struggle beneath the mask.

She didn’t just conceal the daily grind beneath the love of music that she bequeathed to her pupils.  Valda was mostly frank, but occasionally circumspect about other things too.  Like Miss Nightingale, Valda was contentedly single all her life, but as I discovered in the NLA, she knew what love was.

Now in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considered that she was fortunate in her life.  She had inherited a house on the death of her father, and managed without skimping on what she earned as a piano teacher.  She had known the passion of love.

She might have married, but circumstances had not permitted that: for sixteen years she had been visited instead by a man she believed would one day free himself from a wife he was indifferent to.  That hadn’t happened, and when the love affair fell apart there had been painful regret on Miss Nightingale’s side, but since then she had borne her lover no ill will, for after all there was the memory of a happiness.

Miss Nightingale’s father, a chocolatier, being widowed at the time of her birth, had brought his daughter up on his own.  They became companions and remained so until his death, although he’d never been aware of the love affair that had been conducted for so long during his daily absences from the house.  That love and her father’s devotion were recollections that cheered Miss Nightingale’s present solitude and somehow gave shape to her life.  (p.2)

In this story, Miss Nightingale has a new pupil, the kind of pupil that every piano teacher dreams of: from the first notes he plays she sensed genius in a child.  She has other pupils of course, dull Francine, Diana who weeps, the one with a sore finger, Angela who gives up, and Graham who (just like me, I must confess), talked about his pets to delay his unpractised piece.  But this special boy is her delight.

However, something that he does, and does repeatedly, makes her doubt herself.  Her unease makes her wonder whether she has allowed herself to be taken advantage of by the other people in her life.  Maybe her father’s loneliness was a strategy to keep her there instead of letting her live an independent life, maybe the love of her life had been like so many other exploitative men with a mistress.  Has she been a victim of her own credulity?

In his beautiful review at the Guardian, Julian Barnes points out a feature of Trevor’s fiction: his characters lack agency.

Trevor’s characters rarely choose what happens to them; life chooses for them. What they want, or feel they want, does not govern what they get – or only for a brief, illusory time. After that they are delivered back into emotional marginality, glancing non-relationships and the dubious certitudes of memory.

In this respect the stories, it seems to me, owe a debt to Dubliners. Very little happens, but life is very closely observed.  While paralysed uneventfulness and aching loneliness in Joyce’s stories derive from the religion that dominated Irish life in the 20th century, in Trevor’s stories the sense of life is circumscribed by lack of money (‘The Crippled Man’), and lack of opportunity (At the Caffé Daria).

The review by Kim at Reading Matters is what prompted me to buy the book in the first place.  Kim has reviewed countless Irish novels, so do visit her blog to discover more.

Author: William Trevor
Title: Last Stories
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2019
Cover design: not named, but the photo is by Jaques Henri Lartigue by permission of the Ministry of Culture in France.
ISBN: 9780241337783, pbk., 213 pages
Source: personal copy.

Available from Fishpond:Last Stories

 

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