Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright

I read this because Anne Enright is a guest at the forthcoming (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival.  I read The Gathering when it won the Booker Prize and really liked it, and I have The Green Road on the TBR.  But Actress , longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, struggled for my sustained engagement…

Is it the book, or is it me and the psychological impact of the Stage 4 Lockdown announced yesterday here in Melbourne? I can’t really say. I enjoyed the introductory chapters, which feature the narrator Norah’s response to a researcher’s intrusive questions about her mother, the (fictional) celebrity actress Katherine O’Dell.  We learn about the close and loving bond between mother and daughter, and it was interesting to read about the child’s behind-the-scenes experience of her mother’s career.  But by about a third of the way through the book my interest was waning, and I started reading Small Town Rising by Bill Green instead because I want to post it along with another book to Bill from The Australian Legend.  (More about that later).

But a book by Anne Enright is too good to abandon, so I came back to it, and it did pick up.  She has a wonderful way with words: a funeral was like a bad matinee in Bognor, she said — the hall was empty and the stage was full. (p.127)  She’s perceptive about racism too, but not in a way you might expect. Putting paid to the current mantra that white people never experience racism, Katherine recalls how she hated London…

… hated the way they sneered at an Irish accent, the racism, she said, was awful.  No Blacks No Dogs No Irish that was the sign you saw still around the place. As far as the English were concerned we were all just dirty-lazy-drunk-and-stupid.  You have no idea what it is like, sitting next to someone at dinner who thinks they are superior to you, that they have been superior to you for centuries, no matter what you achieve and what they fail to achieve, not just in the world but in their horrible little hearts.  Some stunted failure of a human being, looking down his nose at you, because he is English. (p.129)

Talbot street bomb Dublin

Enright’s evocations of the impact of the Troubles are powerful.  While I remember my mother’s anxiety about the possibility of family being caught up in the IRA bombing campaign in London the 1970s, I had thought that the Troubles on Irish soil were all in Northern Ireland.  I hadn’t known that there was a coordinated bombing attack in Dublin, for which in 1993 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group from Northern Ireland, belatedly claimed responsibility.  This is how Norah, then in her twenties, experiences it on a bright sunny day in Merrion Square (just like the day when I visited myself in 2010, so this passage sent a chill down my spine) …

One bright evening in 1974, I was walking home along Merrion Square and I heard the sound of something falling, not very disastrously, in the distance and this was followed by a sharp crack.

‘Did you hear that?’ I said to a passing man, as though we had known each other for years.

‘I think I did,’ he said.

Dubliners talk to each other very easily.  We talk as though getting back to it, after some interruption.

‘Mind how you go,’ he said, and we both hurried up a little, trying to get away from the centre of town.

At the corner of Holles Street, I felt a huge sound.  I thought it had happened under my feet but, when I looked down, nothing beneath me had changed.  I glanced back the way I had come and saw a woman on her hands and knees up by the Mont Clare Hotel.  I knew she was a woman by the handbag still attached to her wrist, flat on the ground, and also by her hat which was hanging on by her hairpin, about to fall.  I had an impulse to catch it. I don’t remember running back to her — those forty seconds or so dropped out of my mind, never to be regained — but by the time I arrived, a man had pulled her upright. (p.161)

That’s brilliant writing, the way she captures that sense of disorientation and the way, in moments of trauma, we focus on irrelevant details like handbags and hatpins.

Kate Kellaway at The Guardian loved Actress more than I did, and you might be able to read this review at the New Yorker if a paywall doesn’t kick in. Both of them focus more on the depiction of celebrity, which — since celebrity culture has passed me by — was of less interest to me.  That might be why, for me, the novel paled a bit in places.

Or I might just be a bit discombobulated…

(The only good thing about the pandemic is that I get to use that word ‘discombobulated’, of which I am rather fond.)

Image credit: Talbot Street bombing Dublin: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30578471

Author: Anne Enright
Title: Actress
Cover design by Suzanne Dean
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020
ISBN: 9781787332072, pbk., 264 pages
Source: purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from How to Do Nothing, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with How to do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival month.  I can see the book’s merits for people who suffer from FoMo (Fear of Missing Out) but it’s not one that I think I need to read because I am already so good at ignoring branding and influencers and advertising of all kinds.

#Digression: Mostly because I research all kinds of weird stuff for my reviews, Google, Twitter, Goodreads and Facebook (to which I have briefly and reluctantly returned for the duration of the pandemic) all have a confused idea about what I might like to buy.  I don’t need to tell you about what reviewing Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has done to my feeds, but at the moment Goodreads is promoting WW1 digger teddy bears and military medals to me presumably because I read A Train in Winter, while Facebook thinks I’m interested in Slow Stitching because I liked a friend’s post about her new grandson and the quilt she made for him.  I get travel ads for the places I visit in my reading: this month I have ‘been to’ Algiers and Krishnapur in India but of course (like any other sensible person’s) my travel plans are on hold.   Twitter thinks I want to know about digital aids in the corporate workplace (huh?) because I’ve got a new computer and had to buy new software; and Google thinks I’m interested in Google because I use Google translate for languages I don’t know.  (There were German phrases in A Train in Winter).  And all of these tech giants think I’m older than I am because of course I have a fake birthdate to prevent identity theft.

Moving on…

Ok, let’s start with another self-help book. There are just four reviewed on this blog, and I’ve chosen A Good Life to the End, by Ken Hillman because having had so recently my father and mother-in-law in aged care and my mother in palliative care at an aged care home, I am so acutely aware of the catastrophe besetting the aged care sector during the pandemic.  There are no easy decisions in this space, but the take-home message I got from reading Hillman’s book is that quality of life matters much more than quantity of life, and I let that principle guide me in all the decisions I had to make when I was Power of Attorney for my father.  It was an affirming message for me, because that was the principle that my parents had expressed well in advance of the difficult decisions that had to be made.

Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning The Sense of An Ending features an older man reflecting on whether he has made the most of his life.  This is something we are all starting to ponder as the pandemic continues.  I’ve seen a lot online about people feeling so discombobulated that they can’t read, write, or think and are just drifting through the days.  (NB I’m not referring to people with genuine mental illness, nor to people struggling with working at home with or without children underfoot or needing home schooling.)  Sometimes these people paralysed by inertia amuse themselves by ‘hating on’ people who are using their lockdown time purposefully, but more often they are just making idle contributions to social media.  I’m seeing a lot more pictures of cats in my Twitter feed, and pictures of books bought but not read. But as the days mount up, that inertia begins to have a cost… a sense of wasted time and opportunities, and accompanying guilt.  By the end of this second Lockdown in Melbourne, if it ends when it was predicted to end, our lives will have been suspended for 10 weeks altogether.  That’s a long time.  When we look back on this time, I wonder, how will we feel about how we handled it? (I know that I’ve spent a lot of time doing online jigsaws!)

Well, the Booker Prize judges have been busy all the same, and they’ve longlisted Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. If Mantel wins it, that will make her the only author to win the Booker three times…

… which is a nice lead-in to Thea Astley Week which I’m hosting this month from the 17th to the 25th, dates which coincide with her death and birth.  Thea Astley never won the Booker (and no, I won’t rehash the way the Booker so comprehensively ignores large swathes of world literature in favour of US and UK books), but Astley won the Miles Franklin four times, for The Well-dressed Explorer (1962); The Slow Natives (1965); The Acolyte (1972) and Drylands (1999), which is the only one of these four that I haven’t reviewed because I read it before starting this blog.

#Digression 2: If you fancy joining in, click this link… Thea Astley’s books are all a good deal shorter than Hilary Mantel’s chunksters!

Reviews missing from this blog lead me onto a little project of mine… I have been resurrecting some old reviews of Booker winners that I posted to The Complete Booker in case the now inactive site ever disappears. The latest one is The Siege of Krishnapur which won the Booker in 1973.  Most of these reviews are rather naïve because I reproduced them from my reading journals written when I was a less experienced reader.  But I’ve had some pleasing feedback all the same, so there are more in store.  It is interesting to me to look back on myself as a reader: I began keeping a reading journal in 1997 but the earliest entries are very scrappy, (as are some of my earliest blog posts here).

Inspiration for #6Degrees deserted me here, so I looked up my Excel file to see what else I’ve read from 1973.

#Digression 3: I may have whinged before about losing my files in The Great Computer Catastrophe: I am painstakingly recreating my Excel files and have so far got a new NF TBR and Fiction TBR, but as you can imagine it is taking a great deal longer to resurrect my Books Read file. I do about an hour a day, but there is still a very long way to go).

In its present incomplete state my file tells me that I read In the Fog of a Season’s End by Alex La Guma, first published in 1973.  As it happens, I’ve reviewed that one here on the blog, and I wonder, did the Booker judges consider that one?  It wasn’t even shortlisted.

That title brings me easily to a book I’ve read and reviewed this week: Luke Horton’s debut novel, The Fogging, and that me brings me back to thinking about how people with anxiety are coping in the pandemic.  Horton shows with great care and perception how debilitating extreme anxiety can be, so it’s a book that enlightened me.   And is a good one for our times…

Next month’s book is Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2020

Untethered, by Hayley Katzen

I’m not very keen on reading memoirs, but Untethered is a good example of why I should never say ‘never’!

Hayley Katzen was a 30-something gay academic lawyer when she met Jen, a cattle farmer in remote NSW.  Uncertain about the longevity of the delight she feels in Jen’s company because of their intellectual and social differences, and conflicted about the geographical constraints of a Sydney v The Bush relationship,  Hayley nevertheless chucks in the unsatisfying career in law and takes up studies in acting… which enables them to have a two-household relationship for a while.

They are very different people.  Jen is eleven years older, rugged, physical, capable with practical things, confident and secure in herself, and not given to introspection. Hayley OTOH is a muddle of neuroses stemming from a difficult childhood and estrangement from her family.    She has a fraught relationship with her mother in Sydney, and no contact at all with her siblings.  She still has an affectionate relationship with her stepmother and some extended family in Johannesburg, but while she’s sustained that with regular visits since emigrating after her father died, over time the distance begins to affect the extent to which she feels part of that family with whom she had been more connected than with her own.

Although this is a memoir marked by rigorous candour, she is circumspect about the reasons for this estrangement and hostility, which is something I respect.  We can only guess at her reasons, but with family still alive, she has chosen to focus instead on her own story and what she has made of her life on her own terms.

Hayley doesn’t feel that she belongs anywhere geographically, psychologically, or professionally.  So it took courage to decide, eventually, to move in with Jen at Tiwieh (tie-a-wire), her property out beyond Casino.  As you’d expect, there is culture shock, about all the things that city people find difficult about bush life.  Hayley wants to do something purposeful with her life but (quite apart from mostly being hopeless at most of it,) she isn’t comfortable living Jen’s life of castrating calves, shovelling manure, fighting fires and getting involved in local community life.  She tries volunteering at the local school, running a drama class, and preserving tomatoes — there’s even a half-hearted attempt to have a baby — but none of it is satisfying.  She takes up writing — but even then, she flounders around trying to find a form of writing that suits her.  (A problem that this beautifully constructed memoir suggests has been resolved).

If this sounds at all like a giant whinge, it’s not.  This memoir is written with humour and self-awareness.

In winter housework included another job: splitting firewood for the stove that heated the house and the ‘water jacket’ that boosted the solar hot water.  After driving in among older trees and regrowth, after finding an appropriate dead tree, after Jen chainsawed the log, after I tossed sawed-up logs onto the truck’s tray, after we unloaded those logs beside the chopping block, they had to be split to fit the stove.

‘Can you teach me how to chop wood?’ I asked one day.  I felt cocky: I’d once been a crack tennis player; I had good hand-eye coordination.  How different could splitting wood be?

Jen anchored her feet shoulder-width apart, placed her left hand near the handle’s top, right hand lower down.  ‘Aim away from knots or growths, preferably where there are cracks.’ She swung in a fluid motion, allowing her hands to move and the axe to fall with its own power.

‘Mmm, nice,’ I said, enjoying the poetry of how her body moved, the leanness of her hips, the firm muscles of her shoulders.  Bad feminist.

‘Go round the edges if it’s too hard,’ she said, ‘Just keep chipping away.’

I groaned — another bloody lesson in tenacity and patience.

I set myself up, looking down at my boots hip-width apart, feeling the weight of the axe, getting my eye in.  I was in character: the countrywoman. I pulled the axe back and swung — to an anticlimax. The point of the axe speared the wood but made barely a dint.  I wrestled it free from the log.  Again I tried, and again.  No thwack, no crack — just a dull thud and a long decorated with a Morse code of gashes. (p.114)

(This reminded me of my own efforts with logs for a combustion heater during my fifteen long months in the bush.  Even now, decades later, I still appreciate the simplicity of flicking a switch to get instant warmth!)

The memoir takes a different tack when bushfire claims the house and they have to negotiate the emotional and practical challenges that entails.  The universal challenges of migration and belonging, the urban-rural divide, and living as a gay couple in a conservative community are tested in the aftermath of the fire, bringing new tensions to the relationship.  There are further tests ahead when the prospect of fracking propels the community into activism.   Fracking is a big issue in Qld and NSW, especially in the northern rivers area, and the battle to fend off Metgasco made national news in its day.  Hayley’s not a practising lawyer, but she has expertise and a role to play.  But even then there’s a chasm between Jen’s passion for the cause, and Hayley’s different attitude to the land.  And like any straight couple dealing with ageing parents, they also find that Jen’s frequent absences to care for her dying mother adds strain to their relationship.

There are not many memoirs where I have read late into the night, unable to put the book down because I had to know whether Hayley and Jen survived it all!

Author: Hayley Katzen
Title: Untethered
Cover design by Deborah Parry Graphics
Publisher: Ventura, 2020
ISBN: 9781920727444, pbk., 367 pages
Review copy courtesy of Ventura via Anna Lensky at Pitch Projects

Available from Fishpond Untethered: A Memoir and wherever good books are sold.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2020

Notes on Nationalism, by George Orwell

My next (NF) book was going to be Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson, A Life, (because I am still peeved by Brenda Niall’s representation of HHR in Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, see why, here) but Orwell’s essay in the Penguin Moderns series was on top of the NF pile… I was sure that his thoughts about nationalism were bound to be pertinent for our age… so HHR will have to wait. (But not for long because these mini-books can be read in a day.)

Orwell writes in his usual acerbic way, starting with his definition of nationalism: the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  But more importantly, he says, he means the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good or evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.  

He distinguishes nationalism from patriotism because patriotism means devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. (I wish I’d read this essay before I read Paul Daley’s On Patriotism).  

Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.  Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. (p.2)

(Which is why, I suppose, that the most rabid nationalists, the ones who wave the flag to try to deny Australia’s multiculturalism and are represented in parliament by That Awful Woman, seem to be resentful disempowered yobboes.)

But Orwell goes on to extend nationalism to include

… movements and tendencies such as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.  It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government of a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist.  To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat, and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.  (p. 3).  (No doubt we can think of more recent movements to which this kind of nationalism applies).

Nationalist feeling can be purely negative too.  People can be hostile to an ‘enemy’ without feeling loyal to any other unit.

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.  He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations.  (p.4)

And he will cling, says Orwell, to his conviction that his side is the best, even in the face of facts which refute it.  Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Orwell offers, as an example of this, the question of which of the three WW2 allies, the USSR, the UK or the US, did most to defeat Germany?  There should be a reasonable and logical answer to this.  But [#Moi, guilty as charged] we start our thinking by deciding in favour of whichever one we prefer, and then we assemble our arguments to support the case.

I was fascinated to read Orwell’s thoughts about G K Chesterton’s political Catholicism.  Yes, that Chesterton, whose Father Brown Mysteries have been turned into a cosy period detective series set in the 1950s.   I read The Man Who Was Thursday much too long ago to remember much of it, but Orwell says of Chesterton that every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.  Who knew??

Orwell writes that the principal characteristics of nationalism are

  1. obsession (which can extend even to feeling a duty to spread their own language and suppress others);
  2. instability (that is, loyalty can be transferred: a country worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable); and
  3. indifference to reality, (referring to the way an assessment of ‘good or ‘bad’ is adaptable even in the face of outrages which do not change their moral colour such as torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians). 

There is so much to think about in this essay, and so much of it has resonance today.  He gives examples of Positive Nationalism:

  1. Neo-Toryism, i,e, the desire not to recognise that British power and influence have declined, still so relevant today, eh?
  2. Celtic Nationalism, which has points of difference among Ireland, Scotland and Wales but are alike in being anti-English.  Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian […] Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism.  The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish. […] One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection; and
  3. Zionism, which flourishes amongst Jews themselves. Orwell distinguishes the American variant of this from the British.

Examples of Transferred Nationalism include:

  1. Communism;
  2. Political Catholicism;
  3. Colour Feeling (of which he says Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it). 
  4. Class feeling (a belief in the superiority of the proletariat often coupled with vicious hatred of the bourgeoisie, often co-existing with snobbery in everyday life);
  5. Pacifism (mostly those who belong he says, to obscure religious sects, or are humanitarians who object to taking human life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that. But there’s a minority with a hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism.  Amongst the young (Orwell was writing in 1945), disapproval is not impartial but directed almost entirely against the UK and the US.)

And then there are examples of Negative Nationalism:

  1. Anglophobia.  (Orwell’s style can be amusing but his scorn for English leftwing intellectuals sometimes risks overdoing it: Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases. They did not, of course, (he says) want the Axis powers to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated. […] In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong.
  2. Anti-Semitism. Orwell is clearly uncomfortable about saying that the Nazi persecutions have made it necessary for any thinking person to side with the Jews against their oppressors.  But he says although British ant-Semitism has never had the same racial or religious fervour as elsewhere, nor any murderous intent as manifested in Europe, it is still widespread despite claims to the contrary, and he goes on to devote 14 pages in the ensuing chapter to illustrate anti-Semitism in Britain.  They make uncomfortable reading.
  3. Trotskyism: Well, Monty Python has ensured that none of us can take the internecine squabbles of the Soviets seriously again.  (Just Google The Cycling Sketch).

The last chapter is called ‘The Sporting Spirit’, in which Orwell demolishes the idea that ‘sport creates goodwill between the nations’.  Australia and the Bodyline series gets a mention, but writing in 1945 he was yet to see the infamous 1956 USSR v Hungary water polo match nor the obscene amounts of money spent on sporting one-upmanship between China, the USSR and the US.  Needless to say I enjoyed this chapter…

Orwell acknowledges (on p.25) that he has exaggerated, oversimplified, made unwarranted assumptions and left out of account ordinarily decent motives.  He’s trying to make a point and has used extremes to illustrate it. Fair point, I don’t think that overall his arguments are diminished by a bit of heavy-handedness here and there.

If you can put up with reading online, you can read this essay for free here and probably elsewhere as well.  But the print edition only costs $2.95 AUD, and publishers need encouragement to find and make available these gems, so buy a copy to read and keep if you can.

Image credit: Father Brown TV series image: By Source,  Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38235550

Author: George Orwell
Title: Notes on Nationalism
Series: Penguin Moderns: 07 (Mini-books, 160mm x 110mm)
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241339565, pbk., 51 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at Benn’s Books $2.50

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2020

The Fogging, by Luke Horton

The unusual title for this novel derives from the author’s experience of it in Bali: ‘fogging’ is the routine spraying of pesticide to eradicate mosquitoes and other unwanted nasties such as cockroaches, from beachside resorts.  In the novel, it’s the catalyst for a relationship breakdown…

Tom and Clara are 30-something academics living a life of delayed adolescence, taking their first holiday together in ten years though they can’t really afford it.  At home, they’re still living in a ‘student-digs’ atmosphere of squalor, and it’s taken them both of them ages to get settled into steady employment.  The issue of having children has been postponed, (though after they meet another couple at the resort, there are signs that Clara might want a child).  (Horton doesn’t address the structural reasons for their situation i.e. insecure employment in the university sector.  That’s not his focus.)

At first Tom resents Clara’s interest in this other family at the resort, then he bonds with them too.  The days drift by in the claustrophobic heat, while Tom is plagued by his doubts and fears and petty jealousies.  The novel is told entirely from his point of view, and from the outset it’s clear that he is a very troubled man. What seems like narcissism, endless self-questioning and a preoccupation with analysing everything and everything, are symptoms of his extreme anxiety.  He has a panic attack on the plane despite using the strategies he’s been taught to control the anxiety, and these panic attacks — which have been more-or-less under control — seem to be triggered by his introspective responses to ordinary events and interactions, and since the narration is all about him, his wife Clara’s attitude to his behaviour remains opaque.

Flashbacks from Tom’s memories illuminate some of his issues, as, for example, when he suffers extreme anxiety in the early days of his teaching career.  The novel is extremely perceptive in depicting how debilitating this condition can be.  It demonstrates that it’s not a condition that can be easily concealed, which makes the reader wonder whether Tom was actually successful in concealing his panic attack on the flight, and what Clara thinks about it.  Because there’s no doubt that it’s embarrassing for both of them.

The novel also shows how isolating extreme anxiety can be, and how it impacts on relationships.

Both my parents suffered from anxiety as a consequence of WW2: they lived through the Blitz; and they lost friends and family to the war, especially my father who was orphaned by the time he was nineteen and had lost his brother and an aunt too.  My mother was claustrophobic all her life after being trapped underground in a bombed building, and my father was bombed out of his childhood home, which meant he lost — along with his home — all contact with his childhood friends and his teachers because he had to move away.  He had a terrible time as an evacuee too.  My earliest memories are situations in which my mother suffered anxiety that in retrospect seemed irrational and melodramatic — until as part of my professional development at school, I learned how ‘catastrophising’ is an aspect of anxiety and that the fear of losing loved ones was an entirely rational response to their traumatic experiences.  Helicopter parents probably don’t realise that they pass on their anxiety to the children, but our school trialled a program to teach children self-help strategies to control it.   I’m not ashamed to say that I benefited from learning these strategies too.

Aspects of Tom’s characterisation are irritating, but there’s purpose in his representation.  I found it strangely compelling but I’m not sure that everyone will.

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large reviewed The Fogging too. 

Author: Luke Horton
Title: The Fogging
Cover design by Scribe
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781925849592, pbk., 213 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing.

 

This essay with its evocative title is a comprehensive survey of how Australia came to have its current paralysis on the matter of climate change.

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival is offering two sessions on this topic, and I have tickets for both of them.  The first one, on Saturday August 8th and titled ‘A Matter of Fact’ features Ketan Joshi and Judith Brett, focusing on how this critical issue has been hijacked.  This is the session description on the MWF website:

As certain branches across politics and the media push mistruths, half-truths and lies about the cause and severity of the climate crisis in Australia, identifying reliable, science-backed information is increasingly a challenge.

But how do we identify misinformation in the battle against climate change, and what can we do to counter it? Academic Judith Brett (The Coal Curse) and renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi (Windfall) join Graham Readfearn in conversation.

(I’ve also got tickets for ‘Australia’s Response to Climate Change‘, more about that later.)

I haven’t been able to get a copy of Joshi’s book because it’s not due for release till September, but The Coal Curse was already on my TBR because I subscribe to Quarterly Essay.  This is the blurb:

Australia is a wealthy nation with the economic profile of a developing country – heavy on raw materials, and low on innovation and skilled manufacturing. Once we rode on the sheep’s back for our overseas trade; today we rely on cartloads of coal and tankers of LNG. So must we double down on fossil fuels, now that Covid-19 has halted the flow of international students and tourists? Or is there a better way forward, which supports renewable energy and local manufacturing?
Judith Brett traces the unusual history of Australia’s economy and the “resource curse” that has shaped our politics. She shows how the mining industry learnt to run fear campaigns, and how the Coalition became dominated by fossil-fuel interests to the exclusion of other voices. In this insightful essay about leadership, vision and history, she looks at the costs of Australia’s coal addiction and asks, where will we be if the world stops buying it?

Judith Brett is a professor of politics so she is well placed to illuminate the sad and sorry story of our coal curse.  She begins with an invidious comparison:

The term ‘resource curse’ was first used by the British economist Richard Auty in 1993 to explain why some resource-rich countries suffer from slow development and corrupt, authoritarian political elites: for example, Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela.  At worst, the country embarks on a spending spree, using the export income earned to buy expensive imports, and is left with little when the limited resources run out, as happened most notoriously with Nauru.  For a few decades, the money flowed from its phosphate deposits, but when the phosphate ran out, the economy collapsed.  (p.9-10)

What should protect us from this fate is a strong civil society, functioning democratic institutions and the rule of law, working together to prevent corruption and nurture a diverse economy.  Byt what has happened instead is that our advantage in mineral and agricultural commodities has been wasted, and worse, cynical operators in big business and in politics have propped up an industry which is a declining sector of world trade, and damaged Australia’s international reputation into the bargain.  When Harvard University’s Centre for International Development ranked economies by their diversity and complexity in order to assess their potential for growth, Australia came in at number 93 of 133 economies among countries that we used to call the ‘third world’.  Worse, our position is falling.  New Zealand came in at 51, and all the other OECD countries were at the top of the pack.  The cause is the resources boom which made us rich but also made us reliant on other countries buying our minerals.  Brett is blunt: from the Harvard perspective, we are a dumb country with a weak industrial base and poor prospects. 

Well, it’s not as bad as that.  Before COVID-19 we had thriving tourism and education industries which brought in foreign income. But as we now know, our weak manufacturing base has made us vulnerable, and our lack of capital-intensive, value-added industrial products is going to make it harder for our economy to survive the post COVID recession.  And this dependence on the resources boom hasn’t even produced enough jobs because despite the rhetoric, mines don’t employ a lot of people.  4.4% of our workers are in industries that produce almost 70% of our export income.

The chapters explaining how both the major parties fell captive to the resource industries is deeply depressing.  Time and again, attempts to reform our economy have failed.  Even though the Labor Party sold its soul over the controversial Adani coal mine, Queenslanders fell for the jobs rhetoric in the last election to deprive the country of a new government that despite its flaws would have been progressive in other ways.  (Brett doesn’t say that, I do.)

The essay ends on an optimistic note.  Brett describes economist Ross Garnaut’s 2019 Superpower: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity as a brilliant strategy (read a summary here), and she feels some hope that the bipartisanship of the COVID crisis may signal a different way forward:

Faced with the crisis of a global pandemic, for the first time in more than a decade Australia has had evidence-based, bipartisan policy-making. Politicians have listened to the scientists and not hesitated to inflict economic pain on their advice.  A Liberal prime minister has worked effectively with both Labor and Liberal premiers and together they have achieved remarkable results, protecting us from the trauma COVID-19 has brought to other countries.  To do this, they put ideology and the protection of vested interests aside and behaved like adults. Can they do the same to commit to fast and effective action to try to save our children’s and grandchildren’s future, to prevent the catastrophic fires and heatwaves the scientists predict, the species extinction and the famines? After all, governments are our risk managers of last resort.  (p.75)

I certainly hope she’s right.

Author: Judith Brett
Title: The Coal Curse, Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future
Quarterly Essay #78, published by Black Inc 2020
ISBN: 9781760642297
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future: Quarterly Essay 78 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Sea, The Sea, by Irish Murdoch, won the Booker Prize in 1978.

July 19th, 2003

The narrator of The Sea, The Sea is Charles Arrowby, an unreliable narrator extraordinaire! He’s an aging actor/director, who decides to retire to peaceful solitude by the sea, a fantasy beloved of so many. He buys a horrid little house called Shruff’s End which is besieged by damp and void of amenities such as electricity and heating. Still, in summer the sea is lovely, and the weather is warm, and all seems well…

Murdoch’s specialty is irony, and before long the reader becomes aware of Charles’s egocentric view of the world. It takes only a little longer to realise that he is subject to delusions and powerful obsessions. He thinks that the whole theatrical world will be at his door disturbing him – and when they fail to turn up – he goes up to London to invite them!

Alas, they all come at once, the very weekend he plans to abduct his childhood sweetheart from her husband. Hartley Smith, now Mary Fitch, was as innocent childhood love (or so he tells us), and when she ‘just happens’ to live in the same village, his love for her is rekindled and he determines to rescue her from her ‘brute’ of a husband (who turns out to be handsome, and rather heroic, having done something very brave in the war).

By now, about half way through the book, the reader isn’t sure whether any or all of the visitors are an illusion. Is Hartley real? Is she some other woman he has attached his fantasies to? Absurdity piles up on absurdity. Are we really meant to believe that Charles keeps Hartley locked in one room while he sleeps in another, content with minor fondlings? That James, Gilbert, Lizzie, Peregrine and Titus are all sleeping in serious discomfort in this bizarre household so that they can help him in his crazy conspiracy? And mad Rosina, is she real?

Well, finer minds than mine may make something else of it, but I don’t think so. I think that Charles is down on his luck and can’t afford his old lifestyle as work dries up. He has a romantic view of solitude but loneliness, drugs and cheap wine work together to form a soup of wild delusions. I think he’s incapable of having a relationship with anybody and that it’s significant that most of the characters (if they ever did actually exist) ‘disappear’ one way or another.

Did I like the book? I think it’s a bit long and could have done with some of the editing that Murdoch reputedly resisted. I became rather weary of Charles (as I think I was meant to do) but the interminable conversations with Hartley were irritating, and the ending was disappointing. I’d have liked Charles to get his comeuppance!

I finished reading and journalled this book on 19.7.03

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 28, 2020

Revenge, Murder in Three Parts, by S. L. Lim

Revenge, Murder in Three Parts, is author S.L. Lim’s follow-up to her debut novel, Real Differences, (which won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and which I reviewed here).  Revenge is a very dark novel indeed.

The central character, Yannie, spends a good deal of her life nursing resentments from family life which favours the male, and when she gets the opportunity to ‘overcome the monster’ she doesn’t hesitate.  The novel debunks the stereotype of Asian family unity, and reinforces the preconception that Asian males are favoured.  Along the way the reader recognises that progress in acceptance of  gay relationships has a long way to go in Singapore.

The third person limited narration means that the reader knows only Yannie’s perspective.  The story begins with the narrator describing the physical abuse that her brother Shan dishes out, and her parents’ refusal to do anything about it.  (It’s more than just sibling rough-and-tumble, much more).  Yannie’s gender means that she is not only expected to endure her parents’ favouritism, but also to defer to their decisions that lead to him having a great career while she has to give up ambitions for further study and has to work in their shop.  He gets to go to Oxford, she stays with her parents and takes responsibility for supporting them until they die.  It’s an old story, and still common to many women around the world, and it still happens sometimes, even in liberal western societies that have embraced women’s rights.

Yannie’s unhappiness is exacerbated by her inability to form supportive relationships.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the most difficult one to resolve is that she is not interested in the attentions of a young man called Jun… but can’t have a satisfying gay relationship either.  Shuying, who is the love of Yannie’s life, opts for traditional marriage with husband and children instead.  Loneliness, a mundane job, lack of money and nursing her grievances make it impossible for Yannie to have a satisfying life.

Well, as the title implies, she gets her chance at vengeance… and she exploits the bonds of family to achieve it.

An audio book will be released at the same time as the book  on September 1st  by Wavesound.

Author: S.L. Lim
Title: Revenge, Murder in Three Parts
Cover image by Piyapong Sayduang, cover and book design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760583, pbk., 236 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 27, 2020

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is, despite its silly name, a book with serious intent.  It’s a story of rebirth for women whose lives have been compromised by persisting with the traditional values of their homeland.

The Punjabi widows of the title are not all old, but they are nearly all illiterate and they are expected to dress and behave as if they are in mourning for the rest of their lives.  But they are not in India, they are in London, and so it happens that when their community centre hires a young woman to teach creative writing, they enrol in her class because they think she is offering lessons in literacy.

Nikki has her own troubles.  She’s a law school dropout, struggling to make her mother understand that they do not share the same ambitions.  This relationship is so fraught that she moved out of home to work as a barmaid, barely a week after her father had died.  She’s not getting on well with her sister either, because Mindi has set her sights on a traditional arranged marriage because so far her own attempts to find Mr Right have failed.  Nikki was only at the community centre in the first place because Mindi asked her to post her advert on the community’s notice board.  (Mindi’s not that silly, she knows that if she uses an App, she’ll mostly get approaches from men in India who just want a British visa.)  And in another of those ‘sliding door’ moments, Nikki only approaches Kulwinder about the teaching job to get away from an attentive man who thinks she’s the one who posted the notice on the marriage board.

Narrative tension is maintained by two strands: the mystery of the death of Kulwinder’s daughter Maya, and the potential danger of the ‘morality police’ (called The Brothers) if they find out that, encouraged by Nikki, the widows are actually telling erotic stories instead of having writing lessons.  The ‘erotic’ stories are actually quite mild, but they wear thin after a while and I skipped most of them. The point of including them in the story is to show that the widows do not necessarily grieve for their husbands at all, and that they have fantasies about passionate love affairs despite their status as widows.  This novel gives them a voice, and suggests that there is some hope for a brighter future for them.

Balli Kaur Jaswal was a guest of the recent Perth Writers Festival, and you can hear her in conversation along with Marcus Zusak and Amy Sackville at RN’s Book Show.  Her most recent novel is The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters while previous novels include Inheritance, which was one of the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists Awards, (and which I have had on my TBR for ages), and Sugarbread, a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the Singapore Literature Prize.

My thanks to Leanne from our local Golden Triangle Facebook group for recommending this book while we were sharing lemons from the garden!

Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Title: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
Cover design by Holly MacDonald
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2017
ISBN: 9780008209896
Source: Bayside Library, collected *phew* the last day before the 2nd lockdown!

 

 

This afternoon I listened to the final episode of the Auckland Writers Festival Writers Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Ann Patchett talking about The Dutch House; NZ author Rose Lu, discussing All Who Live on Islands, British travel writer Colin Thubron talking about Shadow of the Silk Road, and British author Maggie O’Farrell talking about her Women’s Prize nominated novel Hamnet. 

From the website:

MAGGIE O’FARRELL (Ireland / Scotland) Acclaimed Irish-British novelist Maggie O’Farrell has won numerous awards for her books including the Betty Trask, the Somerset Maugham and the Costa Book Awards. Her latest novel Hamnet, a recreation of the story of the death of Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her memoir I am, I am, I am reached number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list.

COLIN THUBRON (England) Travel writer Colin Thubron is considered one of Britain’s finest wordsmiths and was ranked by The Times as one of the 50 greatest post-war British writers. Colin has written 15 travel books, largely focussed on Russia, Central Asia and China, including Mirror to DamascusShadow of the Silk Road, and To A Mountain in Tibet’ He is also an accomplished novelist.

ROSE LU (Aotearoa New Zealand) Rose Lu has a master’s in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington, winning her year’s creative non-fiction prize. Her work has been published in SportPantograph PunchTurbine Kapohau, and Mimicry and she has recently published the essay collection All Who Live on Islands.

ANN PATCHETT (United States) Beloved American author Ann Patchett has written three non-fiction titles and seven novels, including the Orange-Prize winning Bel Canto and her latest The Dutch House. She is the co-founder of indie bookstore Parnassus Books and in 2012 was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

HOST: PAULA MORRIS (Aotearoa New Zealand) Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whātua) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist. The 2019 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, she teaches creative writing at The University of Auckland, sits on the Māori Literature Trust and is the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature.

 

Maggie O’Farrell was up first.  Everyone knows about Hamnet (on my TBR) and how it’s been nominated for the Women’s Prize, it needs no introduction.  And yet, as Paula noted, few novelists have dared to conjure fiction about Shakespeare and his family. Maggie was fascinated by the possibility and took years to do it, confessing to a superstition that she couldn’t do it until her own son was past the age that Hamnet the boy dies.  She was also astonished by how much, in the research that she did, Anne Hathaway has been vilified by scholars and authors… (But not in Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, which I recommend everyone to read, see my review here).  In Maggie’s novel the Shakespeare marriage is a partnership, and she notes that at the end of his life when he was a very rich man, he went back from London to Stratford which implies that, contrary to the idea that he hated her, he wanted to be with his wife. She also mentioned Greer’s point that scholars who ask why 18-year-old Shakespeare married a 26-year-old (probably) illiterate woman, when they should be asking why did she marry him?  Despite the plethora of books about Shakespeare, there is actually very little known about him, and this leaves the novelist free to create a plausible story.

Colin Thubron is celebrated as a travel writer and a novelist, a man who says that to travel is his profession, even though it brought him into danger sometimes.  Paula asked, will travel writing still be possible in the COVID_19 world?  Thubron says it might seem as if the pandemic is going on forever, but it will end.

Shadow of the Silk Road (2007) isn’t his most recent book, that is (as far as I can tell) To A Mountain in Tibet. But he read from Shadow of the Silk Road, and most of the discussion and the reading was about that. He pointed out that the Silk Road is a recent name and it isn’t just one road, it is many, and it traverses countries in Asia from the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey.  There was discussion about the Uyghurs  in China, an ethnic group that is very different within China, which is anathema to the Chinese authorities who don’t like difference.  What he found overall in his travels that the people he met just don’t conform to the lines drawn on the map and which have changed over time for geopolitical reasons.

I was very interested to hear that Thubron believes that it is essential to speak the languages of the places he goes to.  He speaks Russian and Mandarin, which must be the two hardest languages for an English speaker to learn! He was also interesting on the topic of why he travels: it seemed like an obligation, in a way.  He was brought up in an era of fearing Russian and China, and it seemed important to go and see them for himself. Paula says that it’s this that makes his books so interesting: going across borders and walls.

Paula asked Rose about the political issue of Mandarin versus other languages in China, which are considered dialects.  She didn’t realise it was until she went to China herself, and she compared it to English which is usually written one way but spoken in many ways.  Rose’s writing is often about ‘home’ and she has said she was surprised at how quickly she felt at home in China… it might be because now ‘home’ is where you want it to be and where you feel comfortable.  But it was also because (although the Chinese in China soon knew she wasn’t from there), she didn’t ‘look different’, which is not the case in NZ.  In her essays she explores cultural differences such as the preparation of food, and the notion of being fat, which can be affectionate in China, but isn’t in NZ. She read an excerpt about taking her grandmother to a supermarket for the first time.

Paula introduced Ann Patchett by saying that she couldn’t put The Dutch House down… The house which figures so much in the story seemed like an enchanted place, Paula said, so what came first, the house or the characters?  The characters, Ann said. In her first draft, the story was all about the mother, and then she rewrote it because the story turned out to be more about the children… what happens is that as you write, things change.  (You could hear the sense of wonder in her voice, that this happens!) There are fairy tale elements:  the children are thrown out of the home by the stepmother and she is a terrible mother — but It’s not a ‘bad mother’ book. The narration is limited to Danny’s voice so we only hear about the stepmother from one PoV, so this is something the reader has to work out for herself.

The discussion about the cover of the book was interesting, Ann wanted the cover not to include any architectural elements because she wanted people to imagine the house without any preconceived idea… the painting on the cover was commissioned for the book because it’s referenced in the novel, and she insisted that it be on every edition.

I enjoyed this session, but I think I prefer it when there are fewer guests.  Four of them meant that there was less time for discussion.  (As an occasional chair of literary panels, I much prefer having one writer in conversation or two at the most… it’s actually very hard to juggle equal time and shared purpose with a panel of three or four.)

My thanks to the organisers and the tech support for this entire series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well. It was lovely to hear her thank her husband for his support, so a big shout out to him, and to Norman Mailer, whose big thick books propped up her laptop!

PS All the sessions are available at the festival website, so do check them out.

 

I was a real fool not to read this essay when it first landed in my post box in March 2019.  I had a quick look at it as I usually do with Quarterly Essays, felt encouraged about the prospects of the then impending election, and put it aside for later.  And of course got distracted by other things.  Then the election came along and for reasons that even the experts aren’t too sure about, Australians didn’t vote for change. I was depressed about that, so I left the book on the shelf, where it might have stayed forever except that Rebecca Huntley is featuring in the upcoming Melbourne Writers Festival, discussing her new book* in a session called “Australia’s Response to Climate Change”. (Get your tickets here, with a change of director the MWF has an excellent program and it’s all digital this year so you can ‘attend’ wherever you are).

So…

I remembered I had this book, and took it down off the shelf. It turns out that — whatever the result of that peculiar election — I am a lot like other Australians. I don’t really care which party wins government, I just want a government that will do things.  Huntley is a social and market researcher, and this essay is about the un-silent majority, whose views are plain to discern.  This is the blurb:

For some time, a majority of Australians have been saying they want change – on climate and energy, on housing and inequality, on corporate donations and their corrupting effect on democracy, to name just a few.

Recent attention has focused on the angry, reactionary minority. But is there a progressive centre? How does it see Australia’s future? And what is to be learned from the failures of previous governments? Was marriage reform just the beginning, or will the shock-jocks and their paymasters hold their ground?

In this vivid, grounded essay, Rebecca Huntley looks at the state of the nation and asks: what does social-democratic Australia want, and why?

She starts by stating her credentials in the much maligned field of market and social research, and then goes on to demolish the idea that our politics are poll-driven — because:

If such polls were influential on policy and politics, we would have made big investments in affordable and social housing, banned foreign donations to political parties and further curtailed corporate donations to political parties, invested much more in renewable energy, maintained and even increased funding to the ABC, and made child care cheaper. We would also have made marriage equality a reality through an act of parliament, without an expensive and hurtful postal survey (the most wasteful piece of market research in the history of Australia).  We may already have made changes to negative gearing and moved towards adopting elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We would have made euthanasia legal across the country and started the process leading to a republic.  We would have put more funding into Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  We would have taken up the first iteration of the Gonski education reforms.  We would be installing a world-class national broadband network.  (p.5)

Research surveys show that 60% of Australians want these things.  I hadn’t realised that I was part of such a majority!

Huntley also debunks the widely held view that Australians have lost faith in politics, government, even democracy itself.  This is a messier argument, muddied by the well-established lack of faith in politicians.  But apparently we’ve never trusted them at any time in our history.  But we do, as a mob, like democracy, and we vote willingly and we say that we would even if we didn’t have to.  And this is because Australians expect governments to do stuff that makes Australia a better place:

Unlike Americans, Australians want an active government that boosts equality and protects the most vulnerable.  Australians believe government can be a “productive partner”.  Australians have consistently believed essential services like health, schools, social service payments to the elderly, and economic infrastructure are under-resourced.  They value these services because of their community benefit, not because of any personal dividend.  (p.16)

(There could be no clearer picture of that than the ugly pictures coming out of America where individualism has led to the worst response to COVID_19 in the world.)

The fundamental value that underpins our democracy is our belief in fairness both for individuals and the collective.  

The essay, written in the expectation that the ALP would win the election, goes on to argue that we the people want our governments to solve the big problems:

These are the issues, naturally enough, that they feel have been left to drift too long or where there has been political gridlock: addressing the challenges of an ageing population, investing in infrastructure, transitioning to renewable energy, ensuring access to affordable housing and making sure the economy benefits everyone.  (p.18)

Huntley identifies housing as the clearest example of how successive governments and their belief in the market have let us down:

Over fifteen years of focus groups, I can’t think of a topic that has provoked more comment across generations, genders, states, city versus country, or class lines.  The decline of the great Australian dream of home ownership has taught us not only that the market can’t be trusted to deliver fairness and equality, but also that government needs to do more and not less to fulfil democracy’s promise.  (p.22)

For proof of Huntley’s assertion we only need to look at the howls of outrage that accompanied the recent announcement of a government stimulus package for the building industry.

To qualify, people need to be intending to build a new home as a principal place of residence valued up to $750,000 including the land, or planning to renovate an existing property, with the upgrade valued at between $150,000 and $750,000. (The Guardian, Renovation grants, 3/6/20).

With homelessness at crisis proportions, and the problem of people sleeping rough during a pandemic, this misdirected $688m program is a disgraceful waste of public money that could and should have gone into public housing.

Huntley has more to say in this interesting essay, with whole chapters on housing, climate policy, immigration and racism, and the need to reform politics (election funding &c).  Although in many ways the essay hasn’t aged well because of the election result, if Huntley’s research is valid, it gives some hope about the fundamentals that Australians really want.  All we need to do is get involved and demand it.  Because the last time Australians were really fed up with inequity, they formed the grass roots movements of the 1970s, which gave the ALP the courage to align itself with those demands.  And that’s how we got the reforms of the Whitlam government.

*I have ordered Huntley’s new book, it’s called How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation
Quarterly Essay #73, published by Black Inc 2019
ISBN: 9781760641399
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation: Quarterly Essay 73 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.

As you will know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I am interested in Australia’s early botanists, many of whom were women… and so I was delighted when Glen Eira Library offered a session featuring zoologist Danielle Clode and her biography of Edith Coleman, The Wasp and the Orchid.

This is the blurb:

‘Have you met Mrs Edith Coleman? If not you must – I am sure you will like her – she’s just A1 and a splendid naturalist.’

In 1922, a 48-year-old housewife from Blackburn delivered her first paper, on native Australian orchids, to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria. Over the next thirty years, Edith Coleman would write over 300 articles on Australian nature for newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. She would solve the mystery of orchid pollination that had bewildered even Darwin, earn the acclaim of international scientists and, in 1949, become the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion. She was ‘Australia’s greatest orchid expert’, ‘foremost of our women naturalists’, a woman who ‘needed no introduction’.

And yet, today, Edith Coleman has faded into obscurity. How did this remarkable woman, with no training or connections, achieve so much so late in life? And why, over the intervening years, have her achievements and her writing been forgotten?

Zoologist and award-winning writer Danielle Clode sets out to uncover Edith’s story, from her childhood in England to her unlikely success, sharing along the way Edith’s lyrical and incisive writing and her uncompromising passion for Australian nature and landscape

Danielle’s books are about natural history and science and she’s written some for children as well.  She has had 10 books published (see them here) and has an 11th coming out soon.  It’s called In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World, and it’s about the first woman to circumnavigate the world, who did a lot of botany on the voyage.  (I can’t wait to see that one!)  Danielle started out as a scientist but then she had a job at Museum Victoria which turned out to be working as a ‘research essayist’, a sensational job which was the catalyst for her career in science writing.

The Wasp and the Orchid comes from that time at the museum, and she did a reading which brought back memories of the good old days when Museum Victoria was at its old site in Swanston St and was what I call a real museum, you know, one where you can actually learn about taxonomies and so on.

Anyway…

It was while she was doing that job that Danielle encountered Edith Coleman, mentioned as an afterthought as the discover of pseudo-copulation, which is a technique by which a plant tricks an insect into pollinating it.  Edith was an authority on orchids but also echidnas, spiders and birds, and she wrote the first systematic booklet about wattles in Australia.  Overlooked and underappreciated and omitted from books about natural history, Edith fascinated Danielle and that interest became this book.

It’s tempting, Danielle said, to assume that she was overlooked because she was a woman, but it was also because she was an amateur; because she wrote for newspapers; because she was a naturalist not a scientist; and because she was Australian but not Australian enough.  But fortunately for us, Danielle found out about a grant from the orchid society, to provide the funding to write the book.  Interest in the topic grew: she had students who joined her, they did a stint on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor about it, and then there was the hunt for a publisher, but scholarly publishers weren’t interested.  But, she said, writers should never give up because quite by chance she had a conversation about it on Facebook and thus found a publisher who was very keen to publish it!


Edith Coleman was born in 1874 in Old Woking in the English countryside near Guildford.  She grew up with the usual classical influences but also not far from Gilbert White, the famous naturalist who influenced her interest in the natural world. In 1887 her family emigrated to Australia, possibly to join her brother who had previously migrated here due to ill health, and the catalyst was probably when her sister died and perhaps the family hoped for better health in the Australian climate.  As a teenager Edith went to school here and then became a pupil teacher, which was then the pathway to becoming a teacher.  She later went to Teachers’ College after Frank Tate’s reforms to the Victorian education system and teacher training.  Frank Tate also loved nature study and literature and he made sure that they were an important part of the school curriculum.

Edith met her future husband in a bike shop where he was a salesman.  He was quite an interesting bloke too, a pioneering motor enthusiast and successful as an entrepreneur in motoring sales.  They had two children and moved from the inner suburbs out to Blackburn, known as the garden suburb on what were then the outskirts of Melbourne, where Edith was surrounded by paddocks and bushland. (No, it’s not like that now, though it is a green and leafy suburb, with a magnificent lake).

Edith became notable quite suddenly at 48 when she presented her paper on orchids to the Victorian Field Naturalists Association. It caused a bit of a sensation and it became her first foray into print when it was published in their journal, where her writing comes across as authoritative even though it was her debut.  But in 1927, what put her on the map was her discovery of pseudo-copulation.  This discovery derived from observations when her daughter Dorothy had picked some orchids at their holiday house at Healesville.  She noticed that there was a wasp hanging around this orchid, and this was was odd because orchids don’t produce nectar.  She found that the wasps would still hunt out the orchids even if she hid them, and she also noticed that all the wasps were male.  (This is apparently easy to spot if you get close enough to a wasp which is something I have never been tempted to do).  For Edith, the question was, what was in it for the wasp when it mated with an orchid?  The orchid gets pollinated so that’s a benefit to the plant but what about the wasp?  The answer seems to be that attracted by the pheromones, they were (a-hem) enjoying themselves… vigorously… and LOL we were treated to a video of orchid ‘porn’ to prove it!

The orchids achieve this with deception and mimicry, and Australia is apparently a hotbed of these tactics in the animal and plant world.  It’s probably because the continent was so isolated for millennia.  Edith was not the only one working on this theory of pseudo-copulation but as an Australian she had an advantage: our longer period of warm weather offered more time and opportunity than others had when they were working on the same thing in Europe.

Edith was also an indefatigable promoter of her work: she was great at networking; she wrote to people every day; she talked to collectors; and she sent out papers here and overseas.  (Including sending her work off to a Professor Poulton at Oxford.  He was very influential in the world of biology, and he made her name known in the UK when he — albeit in a somewhat patronising way when he didn’t wait for her permission to do it — republished her paper.  He did at least he did acknowledge her work along with his own. She very quickly became known as Australia’s leading naturalist and was compared to Darwin.

In 1949 she was awarded the Australian Natural History medal, which cited not just her research but also her brilliance in communicating it with allusions to classical and Australian literature.  She published in The Age (The Argus) and women’s magazines because she liked to share her discoveries with everyday people.  She was prolific too: she published over 300 articles after the age of 50… and a lot of this output is unique. Yet she did all of this while living with a severe form of Meniere’s Disease, which incapacitated her for days, enduring chronic dizziness and nausea.   Indeed, her very last paper, published posthumously, was written when she was in palliative care, dying from bowel cancer but still observing nature in the garden.


Danielle is a great communicator and held my interest throughout the hour: she told droll anecdotes, for example, about Edith’s husband adjourning to sleep in the sleepout when Edith was researching the mating habits of huntsman spiders inside their house.  (Huntsman spiders are apparently ‘stoic’ in their efforts to mate!)  I like the sound of the structure of The Wasp and the Orchid too, clearly separating fictional elements from the facts. Edith was not a person who wrote much about herself, and whereas nature writing today tends to be lyrical and person-orientated, Edith wrote as an observer and a philosopher, leaving herself out of the picture. So Danielle has used her imagination to bring her to life.  Each chapter begins with a fictional reconstruction of events derived from Danielle’s research, followed by the non-fiction section which also includes some of Edith’s own writing.

I definitely want to read this book. (It was shortlisted for the National Biography Award).  I don’t know how I missed seeing it at the time, but Theresa Smith reviewed it here.

Thanks to Reilly from Glen Eira Library for organising this session.

These are some of the books about naturalists and botanists that I recommend if you’re interested in this topic too:

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been really slack in my quest to read 1001 Books before I die, so it seemed like a good idea to choose one of those to read for #SpanishLitMonth at Winston’s Dad. A Heart So White by Javier Marais has this citation in the 2006 edition:

The novel opens with an almost documentary account of a suicide and ends with a meditation on the untranslatable mysteries of the gender divide.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, ISBN 9780733321214, p. 814)

Indeed it does.  It’s a strange, discursive work, more about the difficulties of truth-telling in life and relationships than the plot… which is really only a mild mystery that carries very little in the way of narrative tension.

Juan’s father has made a mystery of having been married three times.  The suicide which so graphically begins the novel is that of Ranz’s second wife, and as the child of the third marriage, Juan knows very little about either his mother who also died young, or her predecessor, her older sister.   From the outset the reader knows that the suicide isn’t a murder because Ranz wasn’t even there at the time, but there is something odd about it.  By the time Juan is old enough to know about things, the first wife, the predecessor of the woman who shot herself, is never spoken of.  Juan begins to be curious because of a slip of the tongue, but when he asks his father his question is brushed off.  Ranz is one of those annoying people who likes to be enigmatic: his one piece of advice to Juan on the occasion of his marriage to Luisa is to tell him never to reveal his secrets to his wife.

But the puzzle of these marriages has only secondary importance in the novel. A Heart So White is more about Juan’s musings about the problem of truth in his relationship with his new wife.  He ponders the change in his identity as it changes from ‘I’ to ‘We’ and ‘Me’ to ‘Us’. He is uncomfortable with the loss of his own place to a shared place; and he is uneasy with having things that are not his but theirs.    He makes much of the fact that as a translator he is always thinking about how to say things and to interpret the things that are said to him. Words are rarely able to be directly translated… there are always nuances of meaning that defy correspondence in another language.

To complicate the intricacies of imperfect translation, Juan also overhears strange conversations through barricades: hotel walls, bedroom doors.  In Cuba on his honeymoon he overhears a bizarre conversation between a Cuban woman and her Spanish lover.  She wants him to kill his wife because their relationship is going nowhere; he fobs her off.  Juan becomes very preoccupied by this conversation, but he doesn’t explain how he came to overhear it to his wife.  There are a lot of things he doesn’t tell his wife, and he muses over memories half-shared and not, so many things unsaid.  (He certainly doesn’t tell Luisa about his father’s marital advice, not that he has any secrets anyway).

Then there is a bizarre situation in New York, where Juan is translating for an inter-governmental talkfest and staying with an old friend and former lover called Berta.  Berta’s love life has been compromised by a car accident which left her slightly scarred and with a limp, so she’s exploring the possibilities of the personals.  Yes, this is before Tinder, and also before Sexting — but the shared raunchy video has become part of the matchmaking process and Berta needs Juan to film it for her.  (Which, unsurprisingly makes him feel very uncomfortable indeed).  What narrative tension there is in this book occurs when Berta meets up with ‘Bill’ and Juan becomes very worried about her safety.  Thinking about the complexities of this relationship and Berta’s acquiescence to Bill’s demands for a video, Juan says:

Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliation. (p.89)

Juan sees a side of Berta that he hadn’t known about, and when he gets back to Spain, he discovers a side of Luisa that he hadn’t known about either.  A couple of incidents make him vaguely suspicious, including of his own father who has a rather flirty relationship with his daughter-in-law.  And Luisa, who has by chance caught a whiff of the mystery of The First Wife, decides to use her wiles to winkle the truth out of Ranz.

The Big Reveal made me think of David Malouf’s book On Experience, and also of Edith Wharton’s The Reef.  Once you know something, you can’t un-know it; you can never regain that lost innocence.  In The Reef a promising relationship is irrevocably damaged by revelations about the past.  Sometimes, you’re better off not to know…

PS You might be interested to visit this post by Jonathan Gibbs at Tiny Camels, in which he discusses Marais’ ‘dilatory’ style.

Author: Javier Marais
Title: A Heart So White
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Vintage, 2003, first published as Corazón tan blanco, 1992
Cover photo: L’Espagnole by Man Ray
ISBN: 9780099448525, pbk., 279 pages
Source: personal library, purchased back in 2014…

 

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, won the Booker Prize in 1975.

October 13th, 2005

1975: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

It took less than a day to read this – 180 pages long and easy to read – but it’s a rich and fruitful book. It comprises two stories in parallel: the tale of Olivia who abandons her British husband when she goes to India; and of her un-named relative who goes to Satipur some fifty years later to solve the mystery of what became of Olivia. She ends up becoming ‘seduced’ by India too.

Olivia is naive but adventurous, and she doesn’t like the other British wives and their disdain for Indian religion and culture. She is bored by their vapid lifestyle, and she outrages ‘society’ by visiting the local Naweb, an impoverished rogue in league with the Dacoits (bandits). The Naweb seems to exert a strange magnetic influence on those around him, including Harry, Olivia’s only discerning friend and the one who helps her out when things go awry.

In the process of discovering these scandals about her great-aunt , the narrator finds herself following in some of her footsteps. However, whereas during the British Raj Olivia was isolated from the ‘real India’ by class, caste and custom whatever her wishes may have been, in post-independence India her successor lives amongst Indians, and can make different decisions about how to live her life. Once again India is depicted as a place that attracts those interested in its ‘spirituality’ but the dropout Chid’s distaste for life as a mendicant shows just how silly it is for affluent outsiders to hanker for a life of poverty and hardship.

The title shows that Jhabvala had no illusions about the reality of life for most Indians.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 13.10.05.

In the leadup to #WITmonth hosted by Meytal at Biblio, I chose a book celebrating the importance of books by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi.  A Bookshop in Algiers  is a short book which you can read in a day, but it is rich in ideas — and for Australians and others who may not know much about French colonialism in Africa, it paints a different picture to the romantic France of tourist brochures.

A Bookshop in Algiers begins in 2017, inviting the reader to go in search of the bookshop.  The sombre tone is foreshadowed by one word in the last sentence of the first paragraph.

As soon as you arrive in Algiers, you will have to tackle the steep streets, climb and then descend.  You will come out onto Didouche Mourad—so many alleyways off to each side, like hundreds of intersecting stories—a few steps away from a bridge that is favoured by suicides and lovers alike.  (p.1)

So, no, this is not another sentimental or nostalgic book about the romance of bookshops.  The bookseller who features in this book does have a passion for books but he’s also a subversive and heroic publisher. This is the blurb:

In 1936, a young dreamer named Edmond Charlot opened a modest bookshop in Algiers. Once the heart of Algerian cultural life, where Camus launched his first book and the Free French printed propaganda during the war, Charlot’s beloved bookshop has been closed for decades, living on as a government lending library. Now it is to be shuttered forever. But as a young man named Ryad empties it of its books, he begins to understand that a bookshop can be much more than just a shop that sells books.

A Bookshop in Algiers charts the changing fortunes of Charlot’s bookshop through the political drama of Algeria’s turbulent twentieth century of war, revolution and independence. It is a moving celebration of books, bookshops and of those who dare to dream.

Edmond Charlot (1915-2004) was a real person, with a substantial Wikipedia entry which pays homage to his remarkable career as a publisher and editor.  Adimi tells his story through short chapters summarising his activities from when he scrounged together the money for his bookshop in 1930, and edited entries from his notebooks from 1936 onward.  As in real life, the Charlot of the story names the premises Les Vraies Richesses (True Riches) which was the title of a book by the famous writer Jean Giono.  He also operates a subscription library of great value to disadvantaged readers (many of whom have had heroic struggles to achieve literacy under the discriminatory French administration).

The parallel story of Ryad, an engineering graduate employed in a phony internship in 2017 to clear out the shop ready for redevelopment, reveals him to be the antithesis of Charlot.  Ryad is shallow, impatient, and ignorant, and he hates books.  He represents a future I do not want to see, and I confess to a most enjoyable schadenfreude reading about how the character of Abdallah has Ryad’s measure and the local community gangs up on him so that no one will sell him the paint that he needs to tidy up the shop.

Charlot loves books.  He publishes a literary magazine, and he publishes many now famous authors, some unfamiliar to me but others I know such as André Gide and Albert Camus, who can often be seen sitting on his doorstep doing some editing.  He publishes Gertrude Stein, who repays the favour by mouthing off about him in an interview, describing him as a dynamic and resistant editor she was proud to work with.  Vichy France, of course, reacted to the word “resistant” and her careless words bring Charlot the unwelcome attention of the French authorities, who thought he was a Gaullist and a communist sympathiser.

So Charlot does a stint in prison.  And when he gets out he struggles with paper and ink shortages, a catastrophic decline in sales and the general chaos of war.  But he also fights with the allies against Hitler, expecting that France would honour its promise to give Algeria its independence afterwards.

Which they didn’t do.  Which led to the messy, brutal Algerian War from 1954-1962.  Somehow the bookshop survives the chaos and the terror until it is reduced to being a government lending library with declining usage, and its demise is inevitable.  There’s more to the story than this: there are professional conflicts and betrayals; there is Charlot’s inadequacy with finances; and there is a branch office in France as well.  It’s surprising how much is packed into this novella of only 146 pages.

In a book about books, there are always going to be allusions to unfamiliar authors but I had a lucky moment of synchronicity during my reading.  Adimi refers to a book published by Charlot in Algeria during the Occupation of France: it was called le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) and it was written in Paris in 1942 by Jean Bruller under the pseudonym “Vercors” as an act of resistance.  Widely circulated undercover by the Resistance, le Silence de la mer is about a German soldier billeted with a young woman and her uncle in Occupied France, and how they refuse to acknowledge his presence.  They never speak to him, and he, a former composer, is worn down by their contempt and hostility and gradually realises the real intentions of the Nazis, and decides that the only way he can retain his integrity is to depart for the Russian Front, which meant almost certain death.  The book as a symbol of resistance is explained in the book I have read just two days ago: Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter (see here) — without which I would have known nothing about it or why it was so brave of Charlot to publish it.

In the long run, the pen has always been mightier than the sword, but A Bookshop in Algiers is a salutary reminder that we need to guard against the demise of books, reading and writing.

Author: Kaouther Adimi
Title: A Bookshop in Algiers
Translated from the French by Chris Andrews
Cover art by Sam Kalda and art direction by Steve Panton
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2020, first published as Nos richesses, 2017
ISBN: 9781788164696, hbk., 146 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Availability: A Bookshop in Algiers should be readily available in the UK and for Australian buyers, at the time I looked, Readings had copies of this in stock (RRP $27.99AUD).

 

This afternoon I listened to Episode 12 of the Auckland Writers Festival Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Patrick Gale, Julia Ebner and Michelle Leggot.

From the website:

PATRICK GALE (England) Patrick Gale is the author of the award-winning BBC drama Man in an Orange Shirt as well as 16 novels, including bestsellers Notes From An Exhibition, (see my review) A Perfectly Good Man and the Costa shortlisted A Place Called Winter.  (See my review). His latest novel is Take Nothing With You, an elegiac story of coming of age and the transformative power of music. (See Davida’s review at The Chocolate Lady here.)

JULIA EBNER (Austria) Julia Ebner is a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a consultant on counter-terrorism to the UN. For her latest book Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, Julia went undercover for two years, investigating the online lives of extremists; hanging out in the alt-right networks.

MICHELE LEGGOTT (Aotearoa New Zealand) NZ’s inaugural Poet Laureate, Michele Leggott, has been the recipient of a Prime Minister’s Literary Award and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of NZ. She coordinates the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) and has recently published Mezzaluna: Selected Poems.

HOST: PAULA MORRIS (Aotearoa New Zealand) Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whātua) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist. The 2019 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, she teaches creative writing at The University of Auckland, sits on the Māori Literature Trust and is the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature.

 

 

Patrick Gale was up first.  This is the blurb for his book.

1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.

When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection, and humility are added to daily practice.

Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives.

The first topic for discussion was why he chose the setting Weston-Super-Mare, a place that should be lovely but has become a place of old people’s homes, half way houses for drug addicts and people with troubled lives.  Gale found it the perfect place for the young boy Eustace to learn dark truths about life.  Paula asked about the ‘godparents of the book, the novel The Go Between, by L P Hartley and the children’s book Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield — how did these books influence the story?  Gale had a childhood ballet bug before music hooked him, but interested now in resilience, he thinks that both ballet and music teach learners resilience, strength of purpose and character which will serve them in life even if they don’t continue with these pursuits into adult life.

Although the book is about Eustace’s pathway to discovering that he’s gay, it’s not about the difficulties of that, but other difficulties.  Paula quoted a reviewer whose name I didn’t catch who said that the novel is not melodramatic or sentimental, and it balances light and dark in the representation of characters who are sometimes benign and sometimes not.  Sometimes Gale uses the comedy of pain of embarrassment to lead the reader into the dark places.  Paula suggested that many feel that pain of embarrassment in the teenage years.  Indeed.

Paula asked a very interesting question: What is the difference between keeping secrets and having discretion? Gale thinks that there are generational differences to this, and also that discretion goes to the heart of the British character.  (I reckon that reply is a rich topic for discussion in itself, eh?)

Julia Ebner has an impressive CV including being an adviser to the UN on issues to do with terrorism and extremism around the world.  Her research involved deception and manipulation in order for her to observe the world of neo-Nazis and others, and she talked about how creepy and dangerous it was to operate with a fake identity in this horrible cyber world.  She talked about ‘doxing‘ (which means to publish online private or identifying information about an individual with malicious intent) and the creation of instability which extremists use to intimidate and to create chaos.  Her book has become a bestseller in Europe, this is the blurb:

By day, Julia Ebner works at a counter-extremism think tank, monitoring radical groups from the outside, but two years ago, she began to feel that she was only seeing half the picture. She needed to get inside the groups to truly understand them. So she decided to go undercover in her spare hours – late nights, holidays, weekends – adopting five different identities, and joining a dozen extremist groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Her journey would take her from a Generation Identity global strategy meeting in a pub in Mayfair, to a Neo-Nazi Music Festival on the border of Germany and Poland. She would get relationship advice from ‘Trad Wives’ and Jihadi Brides and hacking lessons from ISIS. She was in the channels when the alt-right began planning the lethal Charlottesville rally, and spent time in the networks that would radicalise the Christchurch terrorist.

In Going Dark, Ebner takes the reader on a deeply compulsive, terrifying, illuminating journey into the darkest recesses of extremist thinking, exposing how closely we are surrounded by their fanatical ideology every day, the changing nature and practice of these groups, and what is being done to counter them

Paula asked about ‘The Great Replacement Theory’ which is the most prominent conspiracy theory at the moment.  It argues that white populations are being replaced by non-white populations, and it’s dangerous because it inspires many extremist atrocities (including at Christchurch). It was very interesting to hear about which books these extremists ‘approved of’, and also how they deliberately try to distance themselves from the Nazis because they know that they would never get support if they were associated with Nazism.  Paula also asked about sub-cultures, which use gamification as a form of terrorism.  That is, they modify and create digital games for recruitment and to spread their messages.  ISIS does this, for example, with video-game scenarios which they pasted onto the video game  ‘Call of Duty’ and called it ‘Call of Jihad’. With Christchurch the perpetrator used gamification for the purpose of the atrocity itself. (I’m not sharing anything she said about this because of what she said about Copy Cat Terrorism and because I don’t care to give this perpetrator any air).

This was a most disconcerting segment of this session, especially when there was talk about moving into a new era of extremism, but Ebner did have some ideas for positive action to deter it. She talked about the conspiracy theories being spread during the pandemic and how disastrous they have been, but she is optimistic about tackling this issue through education, starting in schools. Digital citizenship and digital literacy (which I taught even in primary school years ago now) but there hasn’t been enough teaching about the psychology of these sub cultures and how online group dynamics can escalate the difference between what’s real and what’s not, leading to radicalisation.  She says there are ten suggestions in the last chapter, but there wasn’t enough time to talk about them all, but she said she was impressed by the way New Zealand reacted to the Christchurch atrocity and acted as a catalyst for change.

Michelle Leggot has an impressive CV as a poet.  She has published nine books of poetry, and Mezzaluna is her latest collection:

Mezzaluna gathers work from Michele Leggott’s nine books of poetry. As reviewer David Eggleton writes: “Leggott shows us that the ordinary is full of marvels which . . . stitched, flow together into sequences and episodes that in turn form an ongoing serial, or bricolage: a single poem, then, rejecting exactness, literalism, naturalism in favor of resonance, currents, patterns of ebb and flow.” In complex lyrics, sampling thought and song, voice and vision, Leggott creates lush textured soundscapes. Her poetry covers a wide range of topics rich in details of her New Zealand life, full of history and family, lights and mirrors, the real and the surreal. She focuses on appearance and disappearance as modes of memory, familial until we lose sight of that horizon line and must settle instead for a series of intersecting arcs. Leggott writes with tenderness and courage about the paradoxes of losing her sight and remaking the world in words.

It was lovely to hear this eminent poet talking about the importance of bringing poets from the 1920s and 1930s out of oblivion and into the light of contemporary times. They discussed Emily Harris, (1837-1925) for example, who in NZ is primarily known as an artist, not as a poet, and Leggot’s quest to rediscover her poetry because much of it is missing.  (They know this because they have her diaries, which shows you the value of keeping them.  None of us expect our archive to disappear!)  What they have is valuable because so much of what she wrote then is still relevant today, for example, her concern for endangered plants.

(And of course, Harris’s oeuvre is part of NZ’s cultural history.)

I was interested to hear Patrick Gale talk about the demands made of writers these days… so many author appearances at festivals and other events, which take time away from writing and thinking which is what they should be doing.  I remember Louis de Bernieres saying the same thing after the success Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.  (It’s not, of course, a problem unless you’re a very successful author, and I imagine that many debut and middle-ranking authors would be only too pleased to have that problem, but still, many of those very successful authors are the ones we would like to write more than they do.)

My thanks to the organisers of this series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well.

Next week’s session is the last one.  I’ll try not to miss it: Ann Patchett talking about The Dutch House; NZ author Rose Lu, discussing All Who Live on Islands, British travel writer Colin Thubron talking about Shadow of the Silk Road, and British author Maggie O’Farrell talking about her Women’s Prize nominated novel Hamnet. 

 

This promo session titled ‘Milk Bars, Mixed Lollies and Memories’ hosted by the Glen Eira Library network is a good example of how offering an accessible author talk on You Tube can generate interest in a book. Even if I’d heard of it, I would never have thought of reading this book on the title Milk Bars alone. But hearing Libby Gorr chat with the author Eamon Donnelly changed my mind about that. I’m really disappointed to see that this self-published book with a small print run is already sold out, but there’s bound to be a reprint. (See the author’s website).

Libby Gorr, who confessed to ‘being new at this kind of thing’, turned out to be really good at asking engaging questions and it was really clever of Eamon to include slides of the signage from milk bars now closed, in and around his part of Geelong — his quest to record these vanishing aspects of urban history was the catalyst for the book.   We also saw pages from the book, which works perfectly of course for such a visual book.  (LOL Not going to be successful for the text in novels).

If you’ve ever wondered why ‘milk bars’ are called by that name when they sell much more than milk, Eamon explained the origin of the name.  An entrepreneur in Sydney opened the first one of what became a chain in all our capital cities in 1932.  Modelled on the American concept, it was called the ‘Black and White 4d Milk Bar’ and it sold milk shakes…for 4d (4 pence in the old currency).  There aren’t so many of the original milk bars left now, but they still have the name.

Libby asked about the role of the milk bar in sticking together a multicultural society.  Refugees and new migrants to Australia were an opening other than factory work, for families to set up a new life in Australia and be part of a community.  Although adults often had limited English skills, their children helped with serving and translating, because (as many of us remember) the family lived behind or above the milk bar.

There was some nostalgia for the days of one and two-cent lollies, when you could choose your own.  Now they’re all sold in prepackaged bags, but in my childhood and Libby’s and Eamon’s we could take ages to choose what to spend our pocket money on, and as Libby said, they were always so patient while we chose.

Milk bars were also social places.  It was where you met your mates and sometimes got up to mischief, (and in my case, where I went as a schoolgirl with my friends for a milk shake after work with the pay from my Saturday job at Coles in Chapel St.)

Included in the talk were women who’d grown up in milk bar families, who shared a little about how hard it was to start up these businesses when they didn’t have English.  Vasy Petros told how her parents came out under the assisted migrant scheme (and her mother was a ‘Greek bride’ who came out separately).  They started a milk car in Elsternwick, which means I’ve almost certainly shopped there in my childhood.  Her father went off to do factory work while her mother with no English to run the café on her own.  She learned it all on the job, and I’m pleased to hear that she found the neighbourhood so supportive.

There were very long days: up at 3:00AM for the milk delivery, opening at 6:00AM seven days a week, and the only business that was open in those days on Saturday afternoon and Sundays.  Her sister Phyllis di Palma told us how her mother had to organise someone to take over in a hurry when she was pregnant and her waters broke, and Vasy told us how she hated serving because of the maths, especially in the era of changing over to decimal currency.  They also talked about the advent of plastic packaging and the ‘freebies’ to entice child customers, and how before that marketing was much ‘greener’.

Milk bars faced a slow death when supermarkets and 7/11 stores opened in the 1970s and squeezed out the trade, especially since more people had cars and could drive to the supermarket.  So this book is a valuable contribution to the urban history of Melbourne.  But there are still milk bars which survive… Libby mentioned some in her Bayside suburb, and we have one within walking distance though we lost the one that was really close by some years ago.  The local small supermarket began selling meat, fruit and vegetables and undercut the prices on everything the milk bar sold, and that was the end of the milk bar, along with our butcher and Vince Ferrucio’s greengrocery which sold the best and freshest produce I’ve ever been able to buy.  I used to buy my fruit and veg fresh daily, but if I was held up at school I could ring Vince and ask him to deliver what I needed to cook dinner, and it would be on my doorstep, on trust, and I would go and pay for it on Saturday.  He would tell me in advance when Seville oranges were in season for my marmalade, and get some specially for me because (not being sweet, which is why they make great marmalade) they weren’t good sellers in the shop.  Ironically, that supermarket now under different ownership, now needs the local community to support it in the face of online shopping…

I really hope that one of my libraries has bought a copy of this book!  There’s nothing in the catalogues that I’ve searched, but maybe there’s a copy being catalogued somewhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2020

A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead

I was in two minds about posting this review.  It’s a grim subject, and maybe readers would rather hear about escapist books.  But I was in the mood to read about courage and resilience, and this book almost fell into my hands when I was re-shelving after the marathon effort to reconstruct my lost TBR file.  Reading it has certainly put our current troubles into perspective.

I heard about A Train in Winter from Marg at The Intrepid Reader, and I was lucky enough to win her giveaway at the time.  In her review, Marg said that she had been reading a lot about the experiences of people during WW2, and that this book was something different because it was about a group of women in the French Resistance who were sent to Auschwitz.  It must have been a groundbreaking book when it was first published in 2011; Moorehead has since followed it up with what is now called The Resistance Quartet, comprising A Train in Winter (2011); Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (2014);  A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism (2017);  and A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism (2019).

(Although the theme of the quartet is obviously the role of women in the resistance movements, I’d like to read this last one because one of our neighbours and proprietor of a local trattoria was a 15-year-old partisan in WW2 Italy, a man who transcended the brutality of his adolescence to become one of the best-loved people in our community.  I’d like to know more about the role of the Italian partisans).

Caroline Moorehead (b.1944) is the daughter of the Australian author Alan Moorehead.  On the TBR, I have Thornton McCamish’s 2016 biography of this remarkable man, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead. Many Australian readers of my generation will have read Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle at school, but what he is most famous for is his work as a war correspondent, described at Wikipedia as having the great virtue of widening the local story to include its global implications.  This is a skill that his daughter Caroline also shows in A Train in Winter….

She sets the scene with a preface about the small number of women who made it back home after the war and how she was able to discover their story.  Only a very few were still alive by the time she came to interview them in 2008.  Charlotte Delbo, one of the few to document her experiences, had written a play about it in the 1960s, but she had died of cancer in 1985. One of the saddest aspects of this book comes at the end, when we learn that France did not want know about what these survivors of Auschwitz had to say.  Like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, they had retained the will to live despite the horror, because of the need to bear witness.  But France’s determination to ‘move on’ after the war denied them a voice.

Mado, captured and deported when she was 22, was haunted by the ghosts of the women who died.

‘The life we wanted to find again, when we used to say, “if I return” was to have been large, majestic, full of colour.  Isn’t it our fault that the life we resumed proved so tasteless, shabby, trivial, thieving, that our hopes were mutilated, our best intentions destroyed? ‘ Her husband, she said, was sensitive, thoughtful, and wanted her to forget, and she did not want to hurt his feelings.  But all she could think was that to forget would be an act of betrayal.  (p.317)

Like many Jewish Holocaust survivors, they found that they could not convey the enormity of the experience, and people did not — perhaps could not — understand.

What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through.  Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent.  Often, as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to. ‘It wasn’t food we wanted,’ Cécile would say.  ‘It was talk.  But no one wanted to listen’.  When she returned to work for her former employer, a Jew who had survived the Parisian round-ups, he made it clear he wanted to hear nothing about the camps.  Strangers asked questions, then quickly changed the subject and began to recount their own hardships of the war.  At a village fête, soon after her return, Hélène Bolleau talked a little about the camps.  A farmer interrupted.  ‘It can’t be true.  If it was, you wouldn’t have survived.’  She cried for three days; then she stopped talking. (p.308)

Decades later there was someone who did want to hear.  Moorehead was able to talk with Betty Langlais aged 95, Céecile Charua aged 93, Madeleine Dissoubray aged 91, and Poupette Alizon, aged 83, because she was just a teenager when she boarded that train to unimaginable horror.  Three survivors were too frail to interview, but she met their children, some who were babes in arms at the time of their mothers’ capture and others who were old enough to know that their mothers had disappeared and for a very long time no one knew where they were.

It was not only the women who found life so hard in 1945.  Their children were confused and upset.  This applied both to those whose mothers returned and those who only had a letter or a final parting to remember them by.  Many grew up torn between a desire not to be overwhelmed by their mothers’ stories, yet at the same time needing not to forget the memories so crucial to their identities.

[…]

Some grandparents and surviving husbands found it easier not to tell children where their mothers had gone.  Jaunay and his sisters waited, day after day, for news of their mother, Germaine, who had been part of a passeur network in and around Amboise*, all of them denounced and arrested in the summer of 1942 and not one of whom returned.  Their father said nothing.  Germaine’s name was never mentioned.  The weeks, then the months, passed.  Finally Jaunay’s sister went to friends and found out the truth.  But his father refused to speak about their mother and never referred to her again.  All his life, Jaunay lived with the pale memory of a woman who had loved him, and at the age of 80 he still found it impossible to talk of her without crying.  (p.311, *The passeur network guided Jews, downed allied airmen and resisters across the demarcation line.)

The first part of the book charts the extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and initiative of French women in the Resistance.  They worked undetected for a long time because it didn’t occur to the Germans that women could be involved.  They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, they printed subversive newspapers, they hid resisters and they escorted Jews across the demarcation line to (unoccupied) Vichy France and beyond.  They carried weapons and coded messages, and above all they conveyed the sentiment that accepting the Occupation was morally wrong.

It was when the Resistance moved into a violent phase, killing German officers and derailing trains, that the Germans intensified surveillance.  Resistance activity meant that more soldiers had to be diverted from the front to suppress it, and their initial strategy was to take and execute hostages who had nothing to do with it.   But instead of discouraging resistance, this had the effect of increasing hostility, and so they devised a policy called nacht und nebel (night and fog):

…sending enemies of the Reich into ‘night and fog beyond the frontier…totally isolated from the outside world’…[…] … these ‘disappeared’ people would have no rights and receive no letters; nothing at all would be known about them, neither their whereabouts nor whether they were even still alive.  Such uncertainty, it was argued, would serve to terrorise and deter their families and comrades from further activities.  In France, the new measure began with Schutzhaft, protective custody, which meant arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial; the detainee would be handed over to the Gestapo before being ‘disappeared’ in the east. (p.111)

Fatefully, they set up a methodical surveillance system and eventually rounded up 230 of these courageous women.  Without telling them anything about their destination, and consistent with their treatment of Jewish deportees, they inflicted a nightmare journey on them, to Auschwitz in Poland.  As the title of the book conveys, it was winter, and the conditions were bitter, but not as bitter as the way they were treated.  I have read a fair bit of Holocaust literature, and I am always ashamed that I find it so hard, when nothing about the experience of reading it is as ghastly as the actual experience of living it.  But Part II of A Train in Winter is very difficult to read. At one stage I poured myself a restorative brandy because I was so overwhelmed by it.

So, yes, this is a confronting book.  But like all books about the Germans in World War II, it is an important book that reminds us that even the most sophisticated and cultured people can degenerate into monsters, and that we should guard against any resurgence of their ideology.

PS, the next day: I would like to thank all the readers who have ‘liked’ this post.  I was, as I said in the first paragraph, ambivalent about posting it, and your ‘likes’ are a welcome affirmation that I made the right decision.

Author: Caroline Moorehead
Title: A Train in Winter
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins), 2011
ISBN: 9780061650710, pbk., 374 pages (317 pages of text, the rest is Appendices, an Index and Author notes.
Source: personal library: won in a giveaway from The Intrepid Reader, thanks, Marg!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2020

Expressions of Interest: Thea Astley Week in August

Thea Astley (Wikipedia)

Every other year, I run a ‘week’ to celebrate the work of iconic Australian writers.  So far I’ve hosted Christina Stead Week (2016) and Elizabeth Jolley Week (2018).  This year I have chosen Thea Astley who is one of my favourite authors, and since she was born and died in August, (25 August 1925 – 17 August 2004) those dates seem like an appropriate time to celebrate her remarkable oeuvre.

So Thea Astley Week will run from August 17th-25th (though of course readers can contribute reviews outside those dates, of course.)

As it says at Wikipedia, Thea Astley…

… was a prolific writer who was published for over 40 years from 1958. At the time of her death, she had won more Miles Franklin Awards, Australia’s major literary award, than any other writer. As well as being a writer, she taught at all levels of education – primary, secondary and tertiary.

Astley has a significant place in Australian letters as she was “the only woman novelist of her generation to have won early success and published consistently throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the literary world was heavily male-dominated”.

But as Karen Lamb’s bio, Thea Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather, reveals, there is much more to Thea Astley.  As I said in my review:

In telling the story of Astley’s life as a writer, the book traverses Queensland’s emergence from a cultural backwater,  the massive social changes stemming from the Whitlam years, the dynamics of the Australian publishing industry and most importantly of all, the story of Astley the ‘anti-feminist’ who fought all her life for women’s writing to be accorded respect, recognition and adequate remuneration.  They should have named the Stella Prize the Astleys, it would have been so much more apt, IMO.

Now, as you know if you’ve read my previous posts about Thea Astley and her work, she was the multi award-winning author of fourteen novels and three short story collections.  Amongst other prizes, she won the Miles Franklin four times, Premiers’ awards, the Patrick White award and the ALS medal, not to mention an OAM (Order of Australia),  so it seems bizarre that she was constantly badgering her publishers to do more for her and complaining about a lack of recognition.  But Karen Lamb makes a very convincing case that this seemingly perverse behaviour stemmed from a deep insecurity and from an acute awareness that male writers were supported differently both in terms of sales-generating publicity and with promotion of their books into international markets.  Especially in the early years of Astley’s writing career…

I’ve read more than the novels reviewed here on the blog — see the list below to see my reviews — but I have five on the TBR, and although I am making no promises because my priority at the moment is to review Aussie authors publishing new novels at this difficult time, I will read at least one of them and more if I get time.  But I am also hoping that hosting Thea Astley Week will encourage other readers to revisit and review her works, or to discover her writing for the first time.  The plan is to grow a Thea Astley page, similar to the Elizabeth Jolley page here, and the Christina Stead page which harvested all the reviews that grew out of those weeks. (Update, the next day, the Thea Astley page is now live, and it has additional reviews to mine listed below, thanks to Bill from The Australian Legend and Sue from Whispering Gums. )

The good thing about Thea Astley’s books is that if you are a bit discouraged about reading at the moment, she (like Elizabeth Jolley) eschewed the chunkster and her novels are concise, though of course you can read her short stories or the posthumously published collection of her poetry if you are time poor.

If you are interested and you think you’d like to join in, please comment below, and tell us what you’ve chosen to read if you’ve already decided.

Most of Astley’s books are readily available (see the selection (which includes inexpensive reissues from Text Classics, Popular Penguins and A&U House of Books) at Readings Books here, and you can try Brotherhood Books for secondhand copies here).  There are new and secondhand copies at Fishpond: if you search from them please use the link in the RHS menu of this blog to get there so that I get a miniscule commission on any sales.  And of course if your libraries are not locked down, you should be able to find plenty of Astley’s books there too.

Titles to choose from are:

Novels (links on the titles go to Wikipedia)

Short Stories

  • Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979)
  • Collected Stories (1997)

Poetry

Selected Poems (2017, posthumous UQP edition)

*The image of Thea Astley is from Wikipedia where it appears to be available for Fair Use.

The winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award is Wiradjuri woman Tara June Winch for her novel, The Yield.  

It’s a stunning novel (see my review) so I’m pleased the judges thought so too.

The $60,000 prize is awarded to an Australian work for literature about “Australian Life in any of its phases”, thanks to the bequest of the author Miles Franklin.

Tara June Winch, a Wiradjuri woman, is the fourth Indigenous winner of the prize in its long history since 1957.  Previous indigenous winners are

  • 2007: Alexis Wright of the Waanyi people in the Gulf region of Queensland, for Carpentaria.
  • 2000 and 2011: Kim Scott of the Noongar people of the southern coast of Western Australia, co-winner in 2000 for Benang (see my review) and in 2011 for That Deadman Dance (see my review) and
  • 2019: Melissa Lucashenko  of the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people of northern coastal New South Wales for her novel Too Much Lip, see my review

But there’s some fine reading in the shortlisted titles, so make sure you check them out as well.  The other shortlisted titles were…

 

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