Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2017

2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist has been announced (at last!)

I’m in Geelong for the Word for Word festival with slow hotel WiFi so this is just a quick heads up for the fiction, poetry and NF shortlist, for the others, and for other information visit their website.


The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam (see my review)

The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn (see my review)

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill (see my review)

Waiting by Philip Salom (see my review)

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (see my review)


Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong

Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane

Content by Liam Ferney

Fragments by Antigone Kefala

Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence

Non Fiction

Mick, a Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner (on my wishlist)

The Art of Time Travel, Historians and their Craft, by Tom Griffiths (see my review)

Our Man Elsewhere, in search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McAmish (on my TBR)

Quicksilver  by Nicolas Rothwell

The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Grattan Street Publishing – a new publisher on the block

Today I want to tell you about a new publishing venture called Grattan Street Press

I heard about it from the University of Melbourne’s Facebook page which brings news from its publication Pursuit. (Which is of course a marketing ‘newsletter’ though alumni like me receive it too).  Most of their stuff is about research breakthroughs and so forth, but every now and again there’s something bookish.  And I was very interested to learn about an initiative which is part of their Publishing and Communications program in the School of Culture and Communication.  (I think that’s what we used to call the Faculty of Arts).

Grattan Street Press is a start-up trade publisher based in Melbourne, and is staffed by graduate students, who receive hands-on experience of every aspect of the publishing process. An initiative of the Publishing and Communications program, the Press is run by Aaron Mannion, and supported by Associate Professor Mark Davis, Dr Sybil Nolan and Dr Beth Driscoll.

They aim to publish a range of work, including contemporary literature, trade non-fiction, and children’s books, and to re-publish culturally valuable works that are out of print. 

Their first venture is a reissue of The Forger’s Wife, (1856) by John Lang. This is the blurb (written by the students, of course!):

John Lang was Australia’s first locally born novelist, publishing early work in Sydney in the 1840s and going on to write several bestsellers. The Forger’s Wife (1856) is a lively adventure novel, set in an unruly colonial Sydney where everyone is on the make. The forger’s wife is a young woman who follows her rakish husband out to Australia and struggles to survive as her marriage falls apart. She soon meets detective George Flower, a powerful man with a cavalier sense of justice and retribution. Flower literally controls the fortunes of the colony: taking on the local bushrangers, instructing colonial authorities, and helping himself to the spoils along the way. First serialised in Fraser’s Magazine in 1853, The Forger’s Wife was popular in its day and was reprinted many times over. It is Australia’s first detective novel – and most likely, the first detective novel in the Anglophone world. ‘It is a powerful, if occasionally painful, book. It sells even now in all the colonies and in England by the thousand…’ ‘Rolf Boldrewood on Australian Literature’, The Advocate (Melbourne), 20 May 1893

Well, detective fiction is not my area of interest but I like to support not-for-profit initiatives that give students practical experience and so I bought a copy.  It is a classy production, with nothing amateurish about it at all.  As you can see, the cover is stylish (and some of our big commercial publishers could learn a thing or two about design from these students).  There is an introduction by Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver, and in the appendix there’s a translation by Sophie Zins of the ‘short episode’ in French that was included in the original publication.  There’s also a facsimile of the original cover which is a nice touch. If you were looking for a bookish gift for a detective-fiction enthusiast, The Forger’s Wife is a title they’re not likely to have already.  You can buy a copy here.

Grattan Street Publishing now also have a second title called Force and Fraud, a Tale of the Bush.  If you are considering joining Bill’s AWW Gen 1 Week, I think this title would qualify because the author Ellen Davitt fits into the time period.

Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) is the author of the first Australian murder mystery. Davitt moved to Australia in 1854 and served as the superintendent of the Model and Normal School in East Melbourne. After her husband’s death in 1860, Davitt began writing, and though most of her early work has been lost, her novels and novellas have been recovered from the Australian Journal, including Force and Fraud: A Tale from the Bush. The Davitt Award was created in 2001 in her honour to celebrate crime writing women in Australia.

You can buy a copy of Force and Fraud here.

PS My book came with a handy canvas tote bag as well!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week

Bill at The Australian Legend is running an AWW Gen 1 Week in January to promote the work of the first generation of Australian women writers. There’s a reading list at his blog, so check it out and sign up!



AWW Gen 1 Week, 15-21 Jan. 2018, is an opportunity to discuss the first generation of Australian Women Writers. First though to be clear, I love and support the AWW Challenge, but this is NOT one of their events (though I think they’re happy for me to do it). I hope you will use the period between now and then to read/review works from this period, putting a link in the Comments below. Then on 15 Jan I will launch an AWW Gen 1 page  to serve as a resource into the future.

I guess the definitions of generations or schools in writing, or any artistic endeavour, are arbitrary, especially at the edges, but I define Gen 1 as those Australian writers who began writing prior to the 1890s and the Bulletin. The fiercely nationalist (and misogynist) Sydney Bulletin and its writers were pretty scathing about this…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Tony Birch wins 2017 Patrick White Award

This year’s Patrick White Award is a milestone in the award’s history: it’s the first time the award has gone to an Indigenous author and Patrick White, would have been delighted.  I heard the news today on Radio National’s Books and Arts program with Michael Cathcart, and in the interview the winner Tony Birch reminded us that apart from being a Nobel Prize winner, White used his profile and moral authority to champion a great many environmental and social causes, including Indigenous issues.

The PW award is for authors who’ve made a contribution to Australian literature but haven’t always had the recognition they deserve.  If you want to get to know Tony Birch, you can visit his Meet an Aussie Author page, and you can read reviews of his novels Blood and (my favourite) Ghost River.  

And the good news is that there is another novel on the way:)  In the interview at RN Tony says he’s going to start it on January 1st, and it will be handed over to his publisher in December!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2017

The Lost Life, by Steven Carroll

Is it possible to fall in love with a book?  I think I have, with The Lost Life

This is how it happened.  The publisher has sent me a copy of A New England Affair which is book #3 of Steven Carroll’s The Eliot Quartet (and just happens to have one of the most unappealing covers I’ve seen in a very long time).  And I realised that #SmacksForehead I still hadn’t read not only its predecessor Book #2 A World of Other People, (with a not quite so ghastly but likewise unenticing cover) but also Book #1 The Lost Life, both of which I had bought as soon as they were released because I love Steven Carroll’s novels.  I love his contemplative style, the way he notices the very small things about life, and his extraordinary perceptions about the inner workings of the human mind.

I found the books on the C shelf, tucked away behind a pushy double row of shiny new Ds and Es.  I couldn’t believe it when I opened up The Lost Life and realised it had been sitting there since 2009!  It is such a beautiful little book, the size of the original Penguins, and designed not by the Harper Collins Design Studio but by Sandy Cull of gogoGinko.  The sepia toned image of the paper roses is on a separate half-sized dustjacket on gorgeous textured paper (which I carefully removed to read the book because I didn’t want to damage it).  Underneath, the book boards are imprinted with the faint image of a single large rose.  I was falling in love before I’d even turned a single page.

And then, the book.  Steven Carroll is sheer genius.  With the most intricate of allusions, in a captivating story about different kinds of love, he stirs memories of so many other pleasurable hours of reading other books. It’s like those Winter days at the beach with a loved one when you walk hand in hand remembering all the other seasons when you were falling in love and looking forward to a future together.  The present is all muddled up with the past and the future, enhancing all three.  Which is a very ordinary way of saying what T S Eliot says so elegantly in his poems about Time…

Alas, my copy doesn’t have the dustjacket…

It was late, and I was reading in bed, but next thing, I was up on the library steps peering at the top shelves hunting out my Faber & Faber first edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962.  Carroll’s novel begins at Burnt Norton, a mansion in the Cotswolds, and I remembered the poem of that name.  (You can see a picture of the mansion here, and also an analysis of the poem if you are keen). ‘Burnt Norton’ is the first of The Four Quartets, and it begins like this:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is irredeemable.

(I am ashamed to say that this beautiful book of poetry is marred by inane marginalia, noting such intellectual gems as ‘twist’, and ‘circular not sequential’ and ‘irregular lines’.   These marks (fortunately only in pencil) date from my days at university, and they didn’t stop me re-reading the whole collection before pressing on with Carroll’s novel. But, trust me, you do not need to know a thing about TS Eliot and his poetry to love The Lost Life…

The story opens with Catherine and Daniel, two young lovers, trespassing on the grounds of Burnt Norton, long vacant but still with a glorious rose garden to admire.  They have a lot in common these two, he doing his final year at university and she about to embark on her first.

It is no surprise to either of them that they agree on many things: politics, books, the town and just about everybody in it.  And even when they disagreed, they were united by a shared passion to do so.  The only books worth reading, he’d say, were the ones that shook the world up.  By this he meant, of course, that books – poetry, novels and yes, the bloody doddering theatre – had to be political in some way.  No, no, no, she came back at him, again and again.  Too simple – a charge that Daniel took calmly and happily because he knew they were both on the same side.  Poems, novels, stories, Catherine would say (and Daniel from the start admired her confidence. a confidence beyond her years), give people the lives they will never live and fill them with a yearning for something else, something more.  A way of living in the world that doesn’t yet exist.  Doesn’t yet exist but dreaming about it just might make it so.  And books that speak about these things just might make it so by inspiring people to go out and create their lives, not have their lives imposed upon them.  Isn’t that shaking things up? (p. 15)

Although Daniel is a Marxist and theoretically not submissive to British class consciousness, he just as quickly makes himself scarce as Catherine does when they think they are about to be discovered by the owners.  But the other couple in the garden, though middle aged, are likewise trespassing lovers in search of privacy.   Catherine and Daniel covertly witness a romantic scene between the couple who turn out to be T S Eliot and his would-be mistress Emily Hale.  They exchange rings, and then – because of the need for discretion – they bury his, together with a personal note and some roses, in a tobacco tin in the rose garden.  And after they have gone, Daniel, who’s inclined to be a bit of a prankster, digs up the tin…

As luck would have it, Catherine knows Miss Hale because she cleans the Hale house while she’s on holidays. And so begins a curious relationship in which Catherine is entrusted with certain familiarities despite their difference in age and class.  She becomes, like Leo in L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between, a participant in the struggle between Eliot’s women, his wife who ‘will not let him go’ and The Other Woman, Miss Hale who is tired of being hidden in the shadows.  (She thinks she is Eliot’s muse, his ‘hyacinth girl’ in ‘The Wasteland, lines 35-40).   But Catherine, older than 13-year-old Leo, is alert to her own treacherous shifts in her sympathies and the reader can enjoy observing whether Mrs Eliot’s warning that go-betweens get damaged in the end’ is going to come true.  

The third-person narration offers Catherine’s point-of-view, and Catherine’s highly observant interpretations of the other characters:

This is a different Miss Hale again.  Catherine knows the refined Miss Hale, even the prim Miss Hale.  And she has also glimpsed the blunt Miss Hale who once liked you but doesn’t any more and drops the social niceties, as well as having witnessed the theatrical Miss Hale who lets herself go and subtly alludes to things she can’t possibly tell you. Now there is this other Miss Hale.  Not the Miss Hale who hints at different kinds of love at the different stages of one’s life, but the Miss Hale who seems quite comfortable talking about sheep paddocks and the kinds of girls who use them. (p.122)

(Catherine is not keen on letting her ardour result in grass stains on her skirts, if you take my meaning.)

I have enthused about this book enough.  I must now decide whether to read Book #2 straight away, or let things mull for a little while….

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: The Lost Life (Book #1 of The Eliot Quartet)
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2009
ISBN: 9780732284800
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Books, Camberwell $29.99

Available from Fishpond:The Lost Life


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2017

A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey

Of all the novels I’ve read by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey, this one is the best.  I romped through it, trying fruitlessly to slow down my reading so that it would never end.  Fast-paced, utterly engaging and full of trademark Carey eccentrics, A Long Way from Home is a comic novel which also reveals the slow dawning of Australia’s recognition of its real history.

A Long Way From Home is a story of an Australia long gone.  It’s set in the 1950s, an era of unbridled optimism and prosperity, when there was full employment.  Women were expected to conform to a domestic role, and Australia’s Black History was decades away from being being acknowledged.  Australia’s enduring love affair with the motor car was taking off because ordinary people could afford to buy one, and the branding of cars was beginning to be linked to male identity.

The diminutive Titch Bobs and his feisty wife Irene are a couple determined to get ahead.  Titch is one of the best car salesmen in Australia, and to get away from his overbearing father Dan, he wants to set up his own Ford dealership in Bacchus Marsh, about 60km north-east of Melbourne (and also Peter Carey’s birthplace.)  When those efforts are sabotaged, Irene wangles their way towards Ford’s great rival Holden, and as part of their efforts to raise the profile of their business, they decide to enter the Redex Reliability Trial.

The 1950s was the era of the original Redex Trials which captivated Australia, but these round-Australia endurance events were still spoken of with reverence even in the 1970s when I was first learning to drive on dirt roads.  The trials, following a route of about 10,000 miles (15,000km) through some of the harshest country in the land, were supposed to prove the reliability of the ordinary car when driven in the worst conditions an Australian could ever expect to encounter.  In those early days the competitors weren’t professionals: I could use the term mum-and-dad teams except that female competitors were rare.  Those were the days when the ‘family car’ was driven by dads who considered the car was theirs alone, and women mostly didn’t even have a driving licence.

Although they were allowed to have mesh headlight protectors and bull bars, the cars were not supposed to be modified, and there were strict rules about the kind of repairs that were allowed.  I bet Carey’s depiction of the skulduggery that went on behind the scenes is based on authentic events… having done a bit of rally driving myself (as a terrified navigator) I can certainly vouch for the authenticity of Carey’s breath-taking sequences that take place on outback roads that barely merit the name.  How the drivers managed to stay in their seats on that back-breaking terrain without full-harness seat belts I do not know…

Viewers please be aware that the commentary in this 1954 short film includes a brief snippet which uses archaic words to describe Indigenous spectators.

As we know from his earliest novels, Carey is a genius at quirky characterisation, and Willie Bachhuber is one of his best.  Willie (whose German surname means a peasant who owned some land) is a schoolteacher with a past and present that are equally troubled.  To evade paying maintenance for a child he thinks is the fruit of his wife’s adultery, he has fled from his hasty marriage and his own estranged parent, and is batching next door to Irene and Titch in Bacchus Marsh. A mild-mannered man who participates in a weekly radio quiz show (which is rigged so that he is an unassailable champion), Willie lives an otherwise quiet life with his books and his chooks until (gosh!) he is suspended from his job for hanging an obnoxious student out of a second-storey window.  (Not wishing to malign my own profession, but having worked in close proximity to one of the old-school ‘Tech’ schools where to my dismay I witnessed what seemed to be routine manhandling, I don’t actually find this so hard to believe).

Willie appeals to the Harry Huthnance the headmaster (whose surname is also a joke: it means the high valley, the valley of delusion, or the valley of sorrow or grief), and this excerpt explains something that baffled me when I had to do a deeply tedious school project about wool when we were meant to be learning about the exports of South America:

‘I will have to suspend you, Will.  Please don’t frown like that.’
‘With pay?
He gave me a sharp look and I knew what he was thinking.  Bachhuber is rich.  He gets these big prizes from his quiz how.
‘You wouldn’t believe the bloody paperwork involved in a tribunal.’
‘What sort of suspension is it?’
‘Maybe you could think about the wool syllabus while you’re off?’
It was typical that he would wish to trade with me.  The wool syllabus was his chore, not mine.  It was bureaucratic not pedagogic.  He had been directed to remedy the total ignorance of high school students on the issue of wool and its vital history in the history of the state. The source of this correspondence was the state education department in Melbourne, but what political forces were behind this aberration?  Who would know? (p.28-9)

The novel is full of authentic nostalgia like this.

Anyway, you have to read this hilarious novel to see how it is that Willie comes to join Irene and Titch as their navigator in the Redex Trial.

The narration is inspired.  It (almost entirely) alternates between Irene and Willie, providing both a perspective on a 1950s marriage and the discovery of Australia’s then hidden history.  We see how Titch, who in the beginning knows that Irene is the brains behind the outfit, quickly reverts to ‘type’ when he’s with other men.  She is the one who provides the inheritance money to fund his dreams, but he excludes her from decision-making.

So I drove him to the station and parked the car and walked hand in hand onto the platform and I wrapped his tartan scarf around his neck and buttoned it inside his camel overcoat.  I kissed him.  He kissed me.  It was perhaps not the best occasion to say what I said, but I said it anyhow.  We should not wait for Ford’s approval.  We were better off without them.  We had arrived in the era of ‘Australia’s Own Car’ i.e. General Motors Holden. It was now Holden versus Ford and Ford were set to lose.  We should tell Ford to jump in the lank, snaffle the Bacchus Marsh Holden dealership while it was still available.

Titch listened to my blasphemy.  He did not ask now I could be so confident of getting a Holden dealership.  he said he would think about what I had said but clearly he couldn’t wait to get away from my opinions.  (p.32)

(BTW you can clearly see that Carey has vivid memories of just how cold it can get in Bacchus Marsh!)

Irene is #NoSpoilers much more than a co-driver but when celebrity beckons he sidelines her and just wants her to look decorative in a pretty dress (instead of the overalls that were so practical on a rugged journey).  We see the sacrifice she makes by handing over the care of her children to a sister she’s not fond of, seeking out phone boxes in every small town so that she can make expensive trunk calls to make sure they’re ok.  We share her embarrassment at knowing that every word she says will be relayed round town by shameless telephonists at both ends of the connection.  (I remember that, before STD (subscriber trunk dialling) arrived in the 1970s!)

Willie, OTOH, is in one way a metaphor for an Australia emerging into multiculturalism: he was born in Australia but people are suspicious about his identity because of his German surname and his Lutheran pastor father.  His estrangement from his family means that he is like thousands of rootless young male migrants living a lonely life and yearning for love in a society not ready to accept him.  Other aspects of his identity I will leave for the reader to discover by reading the book…

Willie also has another role in the novel – to reveal Australia’s Black History without didacticism but rather as a natural by-product of his curiosity.  As an autodidact with a vested interest in learning obscure facts (for the quiz show) he discovers anthropological events from his favourite journal ‘Oceania’ that become real for him as he travels the rally route.

This excerpt is from when Willie is trying to discreetly distance himself from the shenanigans in his neighbours’ garden:

I retreated into Oceania No 3, 1953. There I found a proposed survey of the archaeological structure of Melton East, just ten miles from Bacchus Marsh.
An owl cried mopoke.
I might have expected archaeology in Greece or Mesopotamia, never in the paddocks of dreary Melton. But here it was suggested that an investigation of the common or garden Kororoit Creek (which I would cross tomorrow on the train) would unearth ‘relics of the indigenous population in abundance’.  Thus an educated man, a schoolteacher, was surprised.  (p.49)

It’s my usual practice to cite other reviews to complement mine, but I can’t find one that doesn’t reveal a major spoiler.  Seriously, I do recommend that you ignore them all and just let the book unfold and work its magic.

Author: Peter Carey
Title: A Long Way from Home
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House) 2017
ISBN: 9780143787075
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: A Long Way from Home

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2017

Meet an Aussie Author: Rachel Leary

Photo by Kirsty Argyle

As regular readers will know, I recently read and reviewed Bridget Crack, the debut novel of Tasmanian author Rachel Leary…

Rachel Leary grew up in Hobart under the slopes of kunanyi/Mount Wellington and now lives in regional Victoria. In 2014 she received a mentorship from the Australian Society of Authors to develop her debut novel manuscript Bridget Crack which was published by A&U in August this year. She has published and won awards for a number of pieces of short fiction  including the Tasmanian Writer’s Prize in 2015, and The Age Short Story Competition in 2011.  Her writing has appeared in publications such as: Southerly, Island, Forty Degrees South Short Story Anthology, and Allnighter.

In 2011 her one-woman show ‘Everything Must Go’ premiered at La Mama, and over the next three years toured regional Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, playing at over 90 venues.   She has trained extensively in improvisation and physical theatre and works with the Arts Health Institute bringing creativity to aged care.  She holds a BSc with honours in Cultural Geography from the University of Tasmania and a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing from RMIT.

(And just in case you’re wondering what Cultural Geography is, I have consulted Wikipedia and this (edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes) is what it says:

Cultural geography is a sub-field within human geography. Though the first traces of the study of different nations and cultures on Earth can be dated back to ancient geographers such as Ptolemy or Strabo, cultural geography as academic study firstly emerged as an alternative to the environmental determinist theories of the early Twentieth century, which had believed that people and societies are controlled by the environment in which they develop. Rather than studying pre-determined regions based upon environmental classifications, cultural geography became interested in cultural landscapes.

I can see now how this study has informed the landscape and characters of Bridget Crack). 

The release of a novel is a busy time for an author so I am grateful to Rachel for giving up her time to participate in Meet an Aussie Author. Here are her answers to my questions!

I was born… in Hobart.

When I was a child I wrote… poems about Milo and tomato soup.

The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write was… perhaps C.S Lewis.  Not mentored, obviously, but inspired; as did many of the authors I read as a child.

I write in… a variety of places, sometimes on the couch.

I write when… I have read good writing.  Writing that excites me gets me scrambling for a pen or opening a computer file.

Research is… inspiring, and integral to fiction set in the past.

At the moment, I’m writing… lists of things to do!

I keep my published works… on a shelf.

On the day my first book was published, I… did a launch at Readings bookshop in Melbourne.

When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I… stare into space.

And this is the space that Rachel stares into … the Aussie bush is her muse:

You can buy Rachel’s book from Fishpond: Bridget Crack



When I die and someone has the task of doing the eulogy, they will probably say something about how I was a teacher, and how I read a lot of books, and then they will pause and wonder what to say next.  Well, I hope they’ll go on to say something about how I was content with that, because I think contentment is one of my best assets.  Contentment is also a key strategy for spending less while enjoying everything more, which is the subtitle to The Art of Frugal Hedonism.

#BeforeWeStart: you might think, if you have seen my library and its shelves groaning with books, that I am hardly the one to start spruiking frugality.  But (apart from the fact that many of them are from the OpShop) at about 800 books with a reading rate of about 200 books a year, that is only four or five years’ supply (allowing for some that come from the library like this one that I’m telling you about).  And all the time I am reading those books I am not watching commercial TV ads or reading lifestyle magazines that encourage me to feel dissatisfied with what I have.  Reading is the ultimate strategy for saving money and consuming less.

The Art of Frugal Hedonism is not a sober instruction manual for making your own soap and recycling your undies into dusters.  It is funny.  The authors have a droll style, which is very engaging.  In Chapter 9, ‘Stop reading those magazines’, they point out that lifestyle magazines pander to the idea that the people in them are people like you, if only you were doing what they are doing, and then it makes sense for you to throw about phrases like ‘time poor’ and ‘retail therapy’ because they do.

Very few people do much of the stuff that the media implies people do, and those who do work hard to keep up.  But lifestyle journalism makes it easy to feel that there is a world of people out there effortlessly dressing, holidaying, exercising, eating and thinking in certain appropriate ways, and it is human nature not to want to be terribly out of line with what everyone else is up to.  Steer clear of this homogenising influence is your authors’ suggestion. Spend your Sunday morning breakfasts perusing odd facts about breeding piranhas in captivity instead.  (p.57)

The page is accompanied by a strip of photo images of people (and a leopard) smiling.  It is captioned Sample facial expressions you might like to experiment with while declining to read lifestyle magazines.

Chapters are very short.  ‘Create Your Own Normal’ zips through a typical frazzled day, and then shows us a chart with some startling comparisons from the 1950s and nowish:

  • The average house space has more than doubled, from 27m² to 83m²
  • The percentage of single occupant households has gone from 10% to 25%
  • The annual distance travelled in road vehicles per person has more than trebled from 4900 km to 16200 km
  • The percentage of food prepared at home has dropped from 75% to 50% [and I have my doubts about this, because processed food that is heated up at home is not ‘prepared at home’ IMO]
  • The percentage of houses with air-conditioning has leapt from 10% to 87%

There’s more than that, but you get the drift.

Are we any happier?  ‘Normal’ has something to do with what we compare ourselves with…

Chapter 2, ‘Relish’ is about resetting your ideas about what gives you pleasure.  Conversation gets a whole paragraph, because it surely is one of life’s great pleasures.  And the authors cite the peculiar results of one study that showed that the presence of a mobile phone, not even turned on, not the owner’s phone, detracted from the quality of conversation.  One hypothesis is that the possibility of an alternate convo, reduced participation in the here-and-now.

Counterintuitively, Chapter 3 is called ‘Be materialistic’.  That is, cherish the things you have and look after them, instead of chucking them away!

With such an abundance of cheap things to replace broken cheap things , many of us have lost the most basic knowledge of how to care for them, and instead have almost fetishized the pleasure of not bothering.

Chapter 11 is called ‘Beware Fake Frugal’ and it begins like this:

Listen up, this is quite an important bit.  Maybe it should have gone right up at the front.  Right next to the definition of frugality.  Because this is actually a sub-clause of that very definition: if it’s cheap to buy, but at the expense of someone or something else, it’s Fake Frugal, and it’s just not fair.  Factory-farmed eggs, endless brand-new clothes made by tired women in far away countries, ‘value packs’ of disposable razors that end up as bobbing carpets in the North Atlantic.  You get the gist. (p.62)

Their point is that we should pay the real cost of producing foods…

A little while ago the ABC ran a series about reducing waste, so many of us already know this statistic: Australians throw out around 20% of all food brought home – that’s one grocery bag in five. What’s more, almost as much again is wasted by processors and retailers before it even reaches the consumer.  The authors suggest two palatable strategies to reduce this dreadful waste:

  1. Look at anything you’re about to buy and assess if it has high potential to become waste.  Before you go food shopping, check what you already have before you go.  Buy to complement what you’ve got.  Give any leftovers to neighbours (as we do when we cut a pumpkin that we’ve harvested from the garden).
  2. Look at anything you are about to throw away, and assess its potential to be useful.  If it might be valuable to someone, find somewhere to donate it to, or put the word out on the village grapevine that it’s going spare.

A third strategy doesn’t suit everyone, and it doesn’t suit me.  Do your shopping in the waste stream.  That is, scavenge, from the tip, from the junk people leave on their nature strips at hard-rubbish-collection-time.

There’s a useful little chapter about resisting #MyPetHate advertising.  I like to think I see very little of it because I don’t get junk mail in my letter box and I don’t watch or listen to any commercial media (except for Masterchef, of course!).  Ads are all over the roads of course, and I see it in shops, but I think I’m unconsciously using this strategy:

Be more content: […] as author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Coercion, “the more fun you’re having in life, the more satisfied you are with yourself, the harder a target you are to reach.”  You may have observed that people with an air of contentment with life, a mind fascinated by ideas, and strong connections with other people and the natural world are less susceptible to advertising. (p.53)  (In the interests of truth, I had to cross that last bit out.  My idea of communing with nature is too limp and feeble to count as a strong connection. I don’t even watch David Attenborough.)

Here’s a little hint of my own to deal with advertising.  Set up your email to siphon off all those ads that come from online suppliers that make you give them your email address.  All of mine go straight into a folder called Ads Not Spam.  When I open it, I run my eye down the names of the suppliers to check that there isn’t one from Readings, (because I’m not #TotallyImmune) and then delete the lot. Sight unseen.  (For a short while after The Offspring last upgraded my computer, I didn’t have this set up, and I was quite shocked to find myself wasting hours of my life browsing all kinds of online stuff that I Do Not Need!)

The Art of Frugal Hedonism is a beaut book.  I haven’t told you all about it, because I’d like you to read it yourselves.  Even if you have a buy a copy!

Authors: Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb
Title: The Art of Frugal Hedonism, a guide to spending less while enjoying everything more
Publisher: Melliodora, 2016
ISBN: 9780994392817
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2017

‘Big Red’ from Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young

Like most collections of essays, Can You Tolerate This? is a book to dip into from time to time, but I’ve chosen to write about ‘Big Red’, the longest essay in the collection because it’s so much about something I never had: brothers. Perhaps the essay is as much about being the youngest, observing the progress of older siblings in the world, but brothers seem to do things differently. In particular, there’s the problem of negotiating and interpreting the silence of the adolescent male.

The ‘Big Red’ of the essay’s title refers to a jacket worn by her brother JP.  His name is really John-Paul, but in small-town New Zealand he gets razzed about that:

…his name, John Paul, was too much for most people to grasp.  ‘John?’ they would say when introduced. ‘Ah, no – John Paul,’ JP would reply, but they would go on calling him John, as if righting a long-held mistake.  Finally he might say, ‘Most people just call me JP,’ and everyone still calls him that. (p.47)

Despite his father’s exhortations that ‘You gotta have money coming in’, JP is a songwriter, getting by with a series of meaningless jobs.  While her father is immobilised in their town by inertia, refusing to move even when his wife takes a job elsewhere, the boys eventually take off to see the world, leaving Ashleigh behind.  Older brother Neil eventually goes to London where he spent his days typing and nights furtively drinking champagne and red wine at hospitality functions he worked as a waiter.  For Ashleigh, yearning to be somewhere more significant, Neil’s emails are a revelation.

In a way these emails reassured me that the world outside of New Zealand was still just the world.  It wasn’t automatically special by virtue of being far away.  People had jobs and ate meals and got drunk and fell in love out there.  Life continued just as it did here, only with different rhythms and weathers.  (p.75)

But when JP takes off to work as a shuttle driver in Colorado, when JP described where he was it was no longer just the world. 

It really was somewhere else.  Describing Colorado, he wrote about luminous snowy mountains, and days so cold that his keys froze inside his pocket, and going ‘nocturnal show-shoeing’, when he and some others would walk along the top of a frozen river. (p.76)

Ashleigh gradually becomes aware of her brother’s unhappiness. She wonders why the fame she thinks JP deserves has not come to him, She notes that he seemed too tired to take much in.  It was as if the world was slipping over him like water. She thinks that he just needs to position himself correctly for fame – like a gleaming wave, would pick him up and carry him forward.  She believes in a significance of a short film called ‘Change’ made by Neil, which showed that change (from the banal to the frightening) can happen.

For their family, it is important to ‘continue’:

…they made me think about ways to continue, and what continuing meant.  Getting up in the morning was one way.  Getting dressed, facing the people around you – these were ways of continuing that kept your life open to possibility. But there was another way of continuing, and this was the continuing of silence. Our family had always continued to continue through events that we did not know how to speak of to one another.  (p.77)

Big Red, and its fate becomes an important symbol of change to Ashleigh.

The jacket was soft and puffy, with a gathered waist and a high collar with odd tan stripes on it.  It was essentially a bomber jacket.  It had snap-buttons down the front.  Its flight-silk sleeves were full and shiny, but the cuffs were snugly elasticised. A stunt pilot from Reno might have stepped from his plane wearing such a jacket.  It was a true red – a Postman-Pat red, an American sunset red, almost the red of the saveloys our grandmother ladled onto our plates in Ōamaru. And it was warm, which was important, because that winter JP was living in a room underneath a house on Memorial Drive in Hamilton, and it was always cold there.  His room had louvre windows and a puddle under the door.  It was a bit like living inside a log.  (p.40)

I was fascinated to learn about the elusive irony of dressing in a certain way.

No matter its history, or how warm it was, or who might once have worn it, Big Red was ugly.  That’s all it was, and, I thought, all it ever could be.  Neither fashion nor irony had circled back far enough to reach that jacket.  I could not imagine a time when wearing something so terrible would mean that you were pointing and laughing at fashion’s fickleness and that this awareness meant that you looked cool. (p.42)

I don’t think ironic dressing existed when I was a teenager.  You either got it right, or you didn’t.  (I didn’t).

Just as JP was abandoning fashion, Neil and I were finding it, and fashion equipped you with new ways of being embarrassed.  There were so many more ways to be unfashionable than fashionable – and the distinction was always so slight: a glimpse of white socks, an overly tight waistband, sweatshirt cuffs riding high on bony arms.  JP knew them all, the unfashionable ways.  (p.45)

There are undercurrents right through this essay, investing the quotidian with a perception that it’s always more than it seems.  It is later in an essay called ‘Sea of Trees’ that the reader learns the reasons why Ashleigh is preoccupied with her brothers rather than telling anything much about herself.  I loved the essay called ‘Lark’ where she tells the story of her mother – literally – getting her wings to fly.

You can actually read this essay online at LitHub, but if you don’t have the book then you miss out on gems like this:

The beach belonged to us in a way that no place has belonged to us since. A city or a town cannot belong to us. We have decided never to go back to this beach because it will have changed beyond memory, and this will be distressing: or it will be empty and this will be worse. The lagoon gone, signposts now only posts, cabins lifted away to reveal crab grass threadbare in the sand. The sea replaced with a thinning tarpaulin held down by rocks. (‘Witches’, p. 7)

The title essay ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ is a gem too.

From the Giramondo website:

Ashleigh Young works as an editor in Wellington. Her poetry and essays have been widely published in print and online journals, including Tell You What: Great New Zealand NonfictionFive Dials and The Griffith Review. She gained an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009, winning the Adam Prize. Her first book was the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (2012). Can You Tolerate This? is the winner of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for nonfiction, and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Nonfiction at the 2017 Ockham Book Awards.

Author: Ashleigh Young
Title: Can You Tolerate This?
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, Southern Latitudes Series, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336443
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Can You Tolerate This? or direct from Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2017

The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser

One of the most poignant things I’ve ever seen is a matchbox filled with soil in the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick.  Signage explains that this soil from the Nazi death camp where her mother was murdered, is the only token that her daughter has in remembrance.  She has no photos, nothing in her mother’s handwriting, nothing that she ever wore, nothing that she ever treasured, no family recipes, nothing made by her mother’s hands.  In a museum that has an emotional impact on all who visit, this exhibit is powerful: the existence of a woman that the Nazis sought to obliterate, can never be forgotten by anyone who sees that soil.

Bram Presser is a Melbourne author, and he would certainly have seen that exhibit too.  Although his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he also faced the question of an unknowable past, and he has also, as an act of defiance and homage, refused to let that past fade away.  Instead, Presser has used as a literary device the ancient Jewish golem, a clay creature magically brought to life with words – so that his grandparents’ lives can be told.

Within a few generations almost all of us will be forgotten.  Those who are not will have no bearing on how we are remembered, who we once were.  We will not be there to protest, to correct.  In the end we might exist only as a prop in someone else’s story: a plot device, a golem.

But Jakub Rand and his wife Daša are much more than mere plot devices in The Book of Dirt.  When a previously unknown story about his grandfather surfaces after Jakub’s death in 1996, here in Melbourne and shortly after the death of Daša, Presser set out on a quest to find out more.  But the trail eventually went cold so the book blends fiction and memoir to recreate their story.  It is, he says in Chapter One:

… a book of memories, some my own, some acquired and some, I suppose, imagined.

It begins with a warning, almost everyone you care about in this book is dead. (p.9)

As he shows in his choice of epigraph, he writes in full awareness of his own temerity:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously because we recognise at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we correct the correction of this falsification, and we correct the result of the correction of a correction, and so forth…. (Thomas Bernard, Correction)

So.  The book is prefaced by a cast of characters, some of whom are identified as members of the author’s family past and present day, and others – such as Štěpánka Tičková, who turns out to be a garrulous and spiteful tattletale, must surely be a marvellous invention.  And the scene is set like this:

In the region of T, not far from the city of U, there once stood a village that had been in Poland, then Hungary, then Subcarpathian Ruthenia, then Czechoslovakia, then Slovakia, then Hungary again, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, then the Ukraine and now cannot be found on any map.  This village, satellite to a satellite, changed hands like a crumbling heirloom, each time losing a part of its essence, until one day it ceased to exist.  Even its name is forgotten, for nobody is left to lament it.  In its place now there might be a field, or forest, although no animal would dare roam there.  Or perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, erased that tract of land, so the world might be smaller and less full of sorrow.  (p.1)

This mournful introduction is immediately offset by the tale of two villages, long happily ignorant of each other until the wide river is bridged in order to facilitate the expansion of an empire.  A hesitant market develops between the two villages – one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Jew-fearing, shifting the market by common consent from one side of the bridge to the other in order to reduce tithes that were payable. The sombre future is foretold by a narrator who reports on village lore through Mottel D, who would later choke on poisonous gas, the jagged fingernails of those desperate to climb over him clinging to his back, but who is for now, a teacher of schoolchildren; through Karel T, who would later stand guard on a concentration camp watchtower, but for now was also a teacher of schoolchildren; and through the wet-nurse Barbora D, who would later die standing over a ditch, staring down at her shrivelled breasts, embarrassed, counting the bodies of the children she had suckled, but who was, for now, the source of all gossip. But in Presser’s telling, these people are not victims, not until the very end.  They are lively people, trading in scuttlebutt, folklore  and prejudice on both sides. Many in the village believed in the dybbuk under the bridge and blamed it for the misfortunes that befell them. (Yes, there is a glossary at the back of the book: a dybbuk is a ghost that possesses the body of a living person).

The Book of Dirt is not a mournful book.  It’s a combination of homage, mystery, family history and a sepia-toned love story, and a grotesque travel memoir as well because the trail leads to Theresienstadt and to archives in Israel.  Yes, the historical record is sombre.  It’s reproduced not just with text but with photos and images of letters, ID documents and official records.  But the gaps in these documentary records  are filled with lively conversations, meetings, moments of passion, disloyal and resentful thoughts, crazy dreams, frustrated ambitions, stories, gossip, folklore and jokes. The characters are not idealised: a sexy husband turns out to be an unreliable gambler; a mother-in-law is a manipulative snob.

And the mystery that Presser tries to solve is bizarre.  After his death, Jan Randa was reported to have been one of a privileged group of intellectuals who catalogued the looted treasures of the Jews for an intended ‘Museum of the Extinct Race.’  The Nazis, who documented their activities obsessively had no record of such a museum, and Presser, like the rest of his family, had no knowledge of any such activities during the war.  As far as he was concerned, his grandfather had studied law, been a schoolteacher, survived a concentration camp and married Daša after the war.  In Melbourne he was a manual labourer until he was injured and then returned to teaching.  But the story festers.  He has to try to find out, even though as a third-generation descendant of a Survivor he is warned of the costs…

Many of us learn family secrets at a time when it’s not possible to verify them, and have to decide which version to keep.  Presser has chosen to honour the Jewish tradition of storytelling to memorialise his grandparents.  It’s really hard to do this book justice, let’s just say that The Book of Dirt is magnificent.

Author: Bram Presser
Title: The Book of Dirt
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925240269
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Available from Fishpond: The Book of Dirt

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2017

Despite the Falling Snow, by Shamim Sarif


I picked up this book from my shelves on a whim,  knowing nothing about it except from its blurb.

Within two chapters I knew it had been written to be made into a film.  And from the Rotten Tomatoes website, I see that the film is as dire as the book.

  • Writer-director Shamim Sarif… is aiming to create a tragic romance out of this intrigue yet misses her target thanks to her contrived plotting and trite dialogue.
  • A dreary, incompetently plotted and flatly directed Cold War melodrama …
  • … a wearily predictable tale of coincidence and tragedy…
  • (My favourite, deliciously patronising) While it struggles to find rhythm, you can’t fault Sarif’s ambitions.

Picture this.  Estelle is sitting outside a building in Boston.  It’s very cold. A stranger comes by and chats her up.  Gosh, Sasha just happens to be the owner of the catering company that her one-dimensional shark-like daughter Melissa is indoors trying to buy.  Estelle and Sasha go to his place for lunch where she enthuses about his rustic Italian cooking and he soberly tells her that the most important thing is to have fresh ingredients.  [Lisa thinks: oh, yeah, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil in Boston in Autumn.  Fresh asparagus too.  Lisa thinks: #UnknownUnknown: author is so ignorant about seasonal vegetables she has not done a simple Google search. Author does not know that even if Boston flies ‘fresh’ vegetables in from the southern hemisphere where it is Spring, tomatoes and basil will still not be fresh because they are summer produce.  In the off season they will be grown under permaculture or some such, and they will never have the flavour of the tomatoes and basil in season. Lisa also thinks, how come if this character has travelled the world with her one-dimensional professor husband who #FeministCliché frustrated her ambition to be a writer, she’s never had freshly grated Parmesan before?] Prediction: Sasha and Estelle will end up together, director/author earning Brownie points for not being ageist about falling in lurve…

Cut to the flashback in the 1950s during the Khrushchev thaw.  Katya and the young Sasha meet across a crowded room in Moscow.  He is handsome and desirable and works for the Soviet government.  She is beautiful and clever and spies for the Americans because her parents were killed in one of Stalin’s purges.  They bond over winter vegetables in his kitchen [and Lisa struggles with the idea of Russians harvesting beets and potatoes from under four feet of snow cover – which in the long Russian winter forms in November and doesn’t melt till April.]   Katya decides to seduce Sasha so that she can get information.  Her friend and fellow spy Misha and Potential Love Triangle warns her not to fall in love with Sasha.  Prediction: she will.  [To be fair, I knew that already because the blurb told me so.  #SmacksForehead, why did I fall for the blurb?  Answer: because I was seduced by the atmosphere at the Hill of Content bookshop.  They surely wouldn’t sell trashy cliché-ridden books?]

To be (reluctantly) fair, this book has lots of five-star reviews at Goodreads where readers are prepared to overlook the problem with the tomatoes because of its Tragic Storyline.  I guess they overlook the cliché-ridden depiction of Cold-War Moscow too.  Sarif, according to Wikipiedia, has won awards for the film as well.

My advice: read something else.

PS Just in case you’re wondering why I read it:  I am in the middle of reading Bram Presser’s amazingly good Book of Dirt and my copy of the film made from Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin came in the mail and I watched it last night.  At bedtime I was just not ready to go back to reading more chilling stuff about the Nazis so I set aside The Book of Dirt and chose Despite the Falling Snow as a quick-and-easy alternative …

Author: Shamim Sarif
Title: Despite the Falling Snow
Publisher: Metro Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781786061072
Source: Personal copy, purchased at the Hill of Content Bookshop.

Available from Fishpond (if you won’t be warned): Despite the Falling Snow

The first thing to say about this VSI on Russian Literature is that it needs updating.  Authored by Catriona Kelly from Oxford, it was published in 2001 – ten years after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and you only need to look at the Russian category on Stu’s blog at Winston’s Dad and here at ANZ LitLovers to see that not only are there now numerous post-Soviet writers clamouring for our attention but also that books suppressed under the Soviet regime are now seeing the light of day. These recent titles – none of whose authors get a mention in the VSI – include:

But that is not my only reservation about this VSI.  I found the whole approach a bit disconcerting.

In the Introduction, for various reasons (14/11/17, see update below), Kelly rejects the three forms common to introductions to national literatures: the canon; the sketch of literary movements and cultural institutions, and the subjective personal appreciation approach.  (Alas, I was expecting something rather like a combination of those, which I think would have been rather useful).  Unsurprisingly, given the brevity of the VSI series, she also declines to try the strong central thesis or the in-depth analysis approach.  Instead, she decided to centre it on the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare i.e. Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837):

Pushkin’s writings themselves touch on many central themes in contemporary literary history, from the colonisation of the Caucasus to salon culture.  Many different critical approaches have been applied to them, from textology, or the comparison of manuscript variants, to Formalism, to feminism. The development of the ‘Pushkin myth’ (the writer as ‘the founding father of Russian literature’ raises all kinds of interesting questions about how literary history is made, about how the idea of a ‘national literature’ comes into being, and about the way in which these processes made certain kinds of writing seem marginal (writing by Russian women, for instance).

The trouble is, pitching a VSI to Russian Literature via Pushkin is problematic since most of the English-speaking readers to whom the VSI series is pitched won’t have read Pushkin except in translation, which is not usually an encouraging experience.

Kelly begins, in Chapter 1 ‘Testament’ by acknowledging this difficulty of Pushkin for non-Russian readers.  On a pedestal in the Russian literary world as the ‘greatest’ among Russian writers, Pushkin’s position is less secure among readers reliant on translation.  Outside Russia, admiration rests on the great prose writers exploring ideas and moral dilemmas – with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at the pinnacle.  Pushkin didn’t write any comparable novels, and he does not even seem particularly ‘Russian’.  But undeterred, Kelly goes on to explain, in some detail, Pushkin’s intense sensitivity to stylistic register, to the connotations of words especially the opposition between Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy, and those of native Russian origin – well, that’s interesting up to a point, but this genius of Pushkin remains inaccessible to us.  Translations of Pushkin’s style are problematic.  Kelly says that modern linguistic taste has changed in the English-speaking world but not in Russia.  It follows that translations admired by native speakers of Russian tend to go down badly with native speakers of English, and vice versa.  For most us, reading Pushkin in clumsy translation is as close as we’re going to get.  (I did not like Anthony Briggs’ version of Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin at all).  Kelly thinks this problem is best served by multiple translations.  Well, maybe.

(BTW, I may not have liked Briggs’ translation, but I did like his more down-to-earth explanation of why Pushkin is A Big Deal).

Moving on,  Kelly sets out to frame her VSI in her own idiosyncratic design.  She says that Pushkin’s 1836 poem ‘I have raised myself a monument’ (reprinted in Russian and in Kelly’s translation) reveals seven themes of universal resonance in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian culture and she uses them as the basis of the chapters in the VSI:

  • memorials to the famous as expressions of state power and cultural authority;
  • a writer’s ‘monument’ in the sense of his posthumous reputation;
  • other writers as ideal readers;
  • a writer’s role as a teacher to his nation;
  • the writer as a member of polite society;
  • the part played by literature in colonising, or civilising barbarian nations;
  • the relationship between writing and religious experience.  (p.14, writing them as dot-points is mine).

Photo credit: The Spouse

Chapter 2 ‘Writer memorials and cults’  discusses this famous statue of Pushkin in Moscow, (where we duly paid homage when we visited the city in 2012).  It’s an icon that testifies to the lasting hold of Romanticism on Russian literary culture … his pose and expression of fierce concentration suggesting he is gripped by inspiration (when in fact he slogged over his drafts just like ordinary mortals do).  Ok, but the rest of the chapter about the cult of Pushkin and the commemoration of other authors seemed a bit pointless to me.  (It’s rather like discussing British literature through the prism of tourism at Stratford-in-Avon or the tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral…)  I hoped for more in Chapter 3, ‘Pushkin and the Russian literary canon’…

Pushkin’s eventual realisation that he was the literary hero that Russia was looking for, faltered a little under the Soviets who thought he was no more than a supremely gifted member of a reactionary cultural elite but changed their minds under Stalin when he was thought to be an artist of supreme talent and utterly sound opinions. 

The Soviets, as we know, came up with a list of approved writers, filtering out many authors for being too conservative and more likely to pen court odes celebrating autocracy than to attack serfdom:

…keynote speeches at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers emphasised the pre-eminence, alongside the realist fiction of Gorky and of Tolstoy. of ‘progressive’ critics such as Belinsky, Noklay Chernyshevsky, and Nikolay Dobrolyubov.  As late as 1949, a list of required reading for the Soviet masses [included] Lomonosov (as an example of the supreme auto-didact and scientific genius), the ‘revolutionary moralist’ Radishchev, Belinsky, and Dobrolyubov, with the radical poet Nikolay Nekrasov the sole example of an imaginative writer. (pp. 42-3)

The result was that much of pre-Soviet literature went into oblivion during the USSR and has only been republished since the late 1980s. Kelly mentions a ‘masterful’ History of the Russian Empire (1818-29) by Nikolay Karamazin and I looked it up at Goodreads… it appears to be only available in Russian but it has lots of 5 star reviews.   Clearly, contemporary Russian readers are impressed.

However, Kelly seems rather condescending about popular opinion.  She remarks on the deleterious effects of censorship, but says that the quality of readership under the Soviets was worse…

… when education and publishing for the masses created a new class of self-confident, but rather intellectually limited, readers who took their restricted knowledge of the classics as a measure of aesthetic standards in the absolute.


even at the end of the twentieth century, the levels of reverence for classic authors were considerably higher in Russia than they were in Western Europe, let alone America, a situation that was fostered, as well as bedevilled, by the spread of commercially orientated values in Russian society generally, and in the press in particular. (p.60)

What’s wrong with a bit of reverence for classic authors, especially when they’re authors like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?

I didn’t find this chapter helpful at all.  The repudiation of the Soviet canon is pointless, since no one takes it seriously now anyway, and I don’t know what to make of the implication that Russians themselves are no judge of literary merit.

Chapter 4: ‘Writers’ responses to Pushkin’ completely confused me.  Having centred the whole VSI on Pushkin, Kelly goes on to give examples of ways in which he was and then he wasn’t the ‘founding father of Russian Lit’.  Chekhov admired his sparing use of figurative language; Tolstoy liked the directness and immediacy of Pushkin’s opening paragraphs.  But Pushkin didn’t always anticipate future forms, wasn’t the first to streamline syntax,  and left plenty of room for writers to do their own thing independently of him.  He ‘failed’ among his many brilliant excursions into diverse genres, to provide models for the enormous psychological novels that have, since the late nineteenth century, been internationally regarded as Russia’s greatest contribution to world literature. And they are?  We are not told. It is assumed that we’ve read them and that we know what she’s talking about.  I think I do, but of course I might be wrong about that.

Look, I won’t go on.  I read it right through to the very end but this VSI is a disappointment.

Once again (although it doesn’t cover classic Russian literature) I would recommend Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (2016) to anyone with a keen but non-scholarly interest in Russian literature.  Rather than sneering at the Soviets, he says that

… even during the long Soviet period (1917-1991), a considerable amount of remarkable work was written.  (p.159)

He discusses dissident authors published abroad as well as those loyal to the Soviet regime and those who fell foul of it.  Notable authors not mentioned in the VSI include Isaac Babel, (two short story collections on my TBR); Andrey Platonov, (two of his on my TBR); Vasily Grossman (see my reviews) and Ivan Bunin (his Well of Days is on my wishlist and he was the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1933 – yet still not mentioned in the VSI even though his citation was for the strict artistry with which he carried on the classical Russian traditions in the writing of prose and poetry!) 

Orthofer goes on to write specifically of novels written during the collapse of the USSR as well as the period after it.  From Orthofer’s ten pages, the reader can glean a wealth of authors to discover, including Boris Akunin, (who writes historical detective fiction); Victor Pelevin (postmodern SF); Alexander Zinoviev (of quixotic politics, he wrote satire); and  Venedict Erofeevif (black humour).  And if you’re looking for women writers, there’s Olga Grushin; Anya Ulinich, Lara Vapnyar and Ekaterina Sedia.

PS Although I found it a difficult book to read, Moscow in the 1930s, a Novel from the Archives introduced me to the pre-eminent poet Marina Tsetaeva and the tragedy of her literary circle under the Soviets.  You can read some of her poetry here.

Update 14/11/17: Now that I’m reading Christopher Butler’s excellent VSI on postmodernism, I suspect that Kelly’s approach is deconstructionist.  He says:

Deconstruction (particularly as practised by literary critics) was culturally most influential when it refused to allow an intellectual activity, or a literary text, or its interpretation, to be organised by any customary hierarchy of concepts…

(Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), OUP, 2002, p.21)

Author: Catriona Kelly
Title: Russian Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2001
ISBN: 9780192801449
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

I was about half way through All My Goodbyes by Argentinian author Mariana Dimópulos, and a bit baffled by its fragmentary style, when I remembered Michael Orthofer’s indispensable The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World FictionBless him, he is the soul of brevity and tells me exactly what I need to know in less than four short pages.

Short summary: famous South American authors who cast a long shadow – Borges, Márquez, Llosa and Fuentes.  √Yes, I have read ’em all.  Only Isabel Allende broke through the period of repression under Pinochet et al.   √Yes, have read her too).  Then this bit:

… only recently have a post-Boom generation come to the fore.  Many writers have now repudiated magical realism and embraced American pop and consumer culture with as much fervour as the older generation denounced American imperialism.  The McOndo movement – its name openly mocking Garcia Márquez’s Macondo, the setting of One Hundred Years of Solitude – is one of the most prominent recent literary trends… (p. 389)

So, thus armed, I turn to Orthofer’s summary of Argentina’s contemporary literature.  Argentina, in the early C20th was wealthy, culturally aligned with the US and Europe, and with a thriving literary culture.  Borges is the towering figure, distinctive and influential.  There are others but the one that interests me is the one mentioned alongside Borges in the Giramondo blurb for All My Goodbyes: Julio Cortázar (1914-1984).

… Hopscotch (1963, English 1966) is one of the major novels of the Latin American Boom. (p.190) The first section of the novel is a conventional story, and Cortázar said that the nearly one hundred supplementary chapters of the second were expendable.  The protagonist of this soul-searching novel is Horacio Oliveira, who describes his unfulfilled life in first Paris and then Buenos Aires.  As the author explains, the novel’s 155 chapters can be – but do not have to be – read in the order in which they were printed. Cortázar supplies instructions for an alternative sequence, which ultimately leave the reader caught in an infinite loop.  While Cortázar’s presentation might appear to be a gimmick, it is carefully and well done and allows for different readings of the text, including the traditional one of front to back.  His novel 62: A Model Kit (1968, English 1972) builds on Hopscotch, specifically the sixty-second chapter of the earlier novel, putting into practice the theory outlined there, of a new kind of novel.  Melding place – the three locales of the novel: Paris, London, and Vienna – and presenting fragmentary material, this novel also demands more active participation from the reader. (p.390)

[Update (the next day): Synchronicity?  Stu at Winston’s Dad reviewed 62: a Model Kit just last week! ]

Now, I’m starting to make more sense of All My Goodbyes.  I certainly seem to be caught in a loop, and since the narrative is all over the place (just like its narrator, flitting from one place to another with no apparent purpose), perhaps it wouldn’t matter what order I read the pages in.  √Yes, she’s describing an unfulfilling life in places on the other side of the world.  What’s more, the settings (Málaga, Madrid, Heidelberg, Berlin) are indistinguishable from one another as if all cities are the same, signified by universal markers of modern urban life such as Ikea, a bakery, an anonymous auto-parts supplier and the ubiquitous café.  All her jobs are mundane and badly paid and all of them involve unreasonable working conditions.

This is the Giramondo blurb:

All My Goodbyes is a novel told in overlapping vignettes, which follow the travels of a young Argentinian woman across Europe (Málaga, Madrid, Heidelberg, Berlin) and back to Argentina (Buenos Aires, Patagonia) as she flees from situation to situation, job to job, and relationship to relationship. Within the complexity of the narrator’s situation, a backstory emerges about a brutal murder in Patagonia which she may or may not be implicated in, but whether this is the cause of her flight is never entirely clear – she is driven as much by psychological concerns, her relationship with her father, uncertainty about her identity and purpose in life. The novella is, as the title suggests, a catalogue of goodbyes, the result of a decade-long cycle of self-inflicted alienation which the narrator, despite herself, seems fated to perpetuate. In its structure it recalls the rich Argentinian tradition of Cortázar and Borges; its language is by turns stark and elaborate, brutal in its economy and yet poetic in its imagery.

This unnamed narrator is the self-destructive architect of her own alienation.  Her restlessness is not driven by a desire for adventure or self-fulfilment. and she makes no effort to connect with other people that she meets on her travels.  The narrative is equally disconnected too, as she recounts her dissatisfactions from place to place in no particular chronological or geographical order.  She is resentful of European culture and tired of being patronised for being from elsewhere, but she has nothing good to say about her homeland either.

Despite her unconvincing lies, her inattentiveness to the needs of others and her unreliability, people love her.  Julia, mother of a small boy called Kolya, loves her and wants to make a home with her, and is hurt when the narrator sets off again without even saying goodbye to the boy.  Alexander loves her but can’t overcome her hostility to Europe, whose cultural superiority offends her.

One of the party, who apparently hadn’t been informed of my origins (‘aren’t you Turkish?’) was busy disparaging the politics of Latin America.  He’d travelled to several countries in the Americas and had confirmed for himself the backwardness of our ideas and the corruption of our institutions.  He was one of those ignorant know-it-alls who manage to gatecrash every gathering. Spring billowed up in kilometre-high clouds, and we were soiled slowly by a gathering wind that worried the picnic implements.  In the wake of my cultural superior’s comments, a very civilised discussion unfolded on the triumphs of liberty and reason, and although a few of them revealed, like an unstitched hem, the guilt behind their Nazi past and the misdeeds of colonialism, to which Europe still owed a great deal of its wealth and progress, the group as a whole seemed terribly satisfied with themselves and with their cordial, democratic world.  One in particular seemed to consider himself some kind of apostle of social progress, and spent a while trying to convince me of the wonders of European transparency and the international market.  (p. 96)

After a decade away she makes her way back to Argentina and falls in love.  But things go horribly awry.  Her father with whom she had a rather twisted relationship is dead, and the conclusion suggests that she was right to avoid commitment because you end up losing everything anyway.

So, yes, it’s a pessimistic work, but it was interesting.  Whether or not its author identifies with the McOndo movement, I wouldn’t know, but All My Goodbyes seems to bear some of its preoccupations.  It refutes any stereotypical ideas about Latin Americans as gauchos in sombreros in a rural landscape: the narrator is, like so many in the modern world, a global citizen subject to the economic consequences of globalisation, that is, free to work anywhere in meaningless badly-paid occupations – and she doesn’t even need to take the initiative and learn the language because it’s not necessary for the kind of work she does.  The novella has what seems to be a McOndo kind of gritty realism, although the narrator doesn’t seem like a realistic person, but more of a cipher- a person of no importance whose only capacity for agency is to make sudden departures.  The only thing she can do, the only choices she can make, involve getting out and leaving.

I haven’t read a lot of books from Argentina – only Borges’ Labyrinths, Inez by Carlos Fuentes,  Varamo by César Aira, and Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman are reviewed on this blog and it’s been many years since I read Marquez, Allende and Llosa.  I meant to read All My Goodbyes during #WITMonth, but I got sidetracked by other things…

The cover art is an inspired choice.  It’s called ‘The Beginning’ and it’s by Kai Samuels-Davis

Other reviews are hard to find: Kerryn Goldsworthy in The Age.

Author: Mariana Dimópulos
Title: All My Goodbyes (Cada Despedida)
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017, Southern Latitudes’ series
ISBN: 9781925336412
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: All My Goodbyes

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2017

Non-fiction November Week #2

Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best is ahead of me,  in the five weeks of activities for Non-fiction November but I’ll have a go at Week Two.

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Choosing Nonfiction: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I tend to gravitate towards history and politics in my choice of NF, as you can see from this year’s booklist, of which 1947, when now begins; The Art of Time Travel and Return to Moscow are my standout recommendations:

It might sound morbid, but because of personal circumstances and the proposed Voluntary Assisted Dying bill in Victoria, I’ve also taken an interest in issues around death and dying.  (Not grief, I am so over reading about grief!) So I’ve read two very different views of what might lie ahead:

I’m also interested in literary criticism, but I’m highly selective.  (Or you could say middlebrow).  I do not want to read university text books or opaque theorising.  That’s why I like the Oxford Very Short Introductions series:

I usually like anything to do with art:

I like literary biographies too, but surprisingly, I haven’t read a single one this year, not unless you count Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet, by Jennifer Gall.

I think that NF covers influence me more than they do for fiction.  They tend not to fall into cliché as so many fiction covers do.  (Indie publishers are exempt from that last generalisation.  They know they need to do better, and they do).

These NF covers are ones that demanded my attention at the library:

2017’s Nonfiction November is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Julie at Julz Reads, and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

This is one of those books that’s going to change the way I look at the world forever…

To quote part of the blurb:

In 1947, Elisabeth Åsbrink chronicles the creation of the modern world, as the forces that will go on to govern all our lives during the next 70 years first make themselves known.

It’s a remarkable book.  It charts world events – month by month, city by city – for the year of 1947,  as the world recovers from the cataclysm of WW2.  And even if you think you are reasonably up to speed with modern history because you’ve read books and watched films and you know people who lived through it, you will probably find yourself surprised by some of what’s chronicled here.  I certainly was.

The author does include the unsurprising past i.e. the beginnings of Soviet reprisals against its dissidents; the collapse of the British Empire (and blaming Britain for the catastrophe of Partition in India); the emerging Cold War and the Truman Doctrine of two Germanys.  But by personalising these events with the people involved, Åsbrink shakes off the dust of history and makes them vivid.  Mikhail Kalashnikov rewarded with a watch.  Musa Alami’s cautious attempts to influence the fate of Palestine. Christian Dior hounded over the extravagance of his designs in Britain under the bitterness of austerity.  (My mother wasn’t one of them.  She loved Dior).

One of the events that did surprise me was the Dutch expulsion of Germans:

… no one even wants to hear the word ‘Germany’ so strong is their hatred after the Occupation.  Under a new law, 25,000 Dutch nationals of German ancestry are branded ‘hostile subjects’ and sentenced to deportation – even if they happen to be Jews, liberals, or opponents of the Nazis.

The violence takes a well-trodden path.  The Dutch-Germans are given an hour to pack everything they can carry, up to a maximum of 50kg, then they are despatched to jails, or to prison camps near the Dutch-German border.  Their homes and businesses are confiscated by the state.  Operation Black Tulip.  (p.26)

Another element that surprised me was the stats about the homelessness.  I knew about the Blitz, of course, because my parents lived through it.  My father was bombed out of his home when he was a boy, and relations I never got to know were killed.  And as a small child in the middle 1950s I saw unrepaired bomb damage in my grandmother’s house as well as vacant blocks still with bomb rubble so I knew it took many years to sort everything out.  But still, having seen Russian photos of the German ‘scorched earth’ policy, and footage of the rubble in the cities of Europe, I had thought that Britain got off lightly by comparison.  But Åsbrink tells me that more than 4.5 million buildings in Britain are damaged…and 3.6 million apartments in Germany.  I had thought France got off scot-free because they surrendered, but nearly half a million French buildings were in ruins.  What these and other stats reveal is the unimaginable scale of the task ahead of postwar Europe and Britain, and while I’ve always been aware of the human misery, now I’m conscious of the work of the planners, the engineers, and the logistics people.  The mind rebels against it: where to start?  where to source the materials?  how to organise the workforce? And how to reconcile the urgency of the rehousing the homeless with building better living conditions than had gone before?

I didn’t know that a peace treaty wasn’t actually signed till 1947:

Never again, never again, never again.  These words have echoed for nearly two years, from the first day of the German capitulation in May 1945, until the last name is signed under the peace treaty, on 10 February 1947, in Paris.

When I looked it up at Wikipedia, I could see why the terms took so long to negotiate.

I had no idea that Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications inspired leaders of the Hitler Youth, and that he’s the only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf.  I looked that up on Wikipedia too: apparently every customer who bought a car from a Ford Franchise got a copy of ‘The Dearborn Independent.’

That’s creepy, but creepier still is the way Åsbrink carefully unravels the way that Nazi fugitives not only escaped justice but also how the weary allies gave up the pursuit.  These people didn’t just die a comfortable old age, they thrived enough to continue their poisonous work and establish new conduits which persist to the present day.  She documents the origins of Islamic jihad too…

Miraculously, she also unpicks the complicated politics of the foundation of the State of Israel, and she quotes the prophets who foresaw the consequences.  The villains include Britain, whose weariness is a theme throughout the book, as is the theme of US betrayals, and the struggle to achieve a declaration of human rights, and a legal definition of genocide.  Åsbrink notes the omissions too:

What is not said in court dissipates into silence.  The Nazi’s persecution and murder of homosexuals does not even constitute grounds for prosecution, and is not part of the trials.  The killing of Roma people is mentioned by some of the leading Nazis, but no Roma witnesses are called. Although about 650,000 Polish Jews and an unknown number of Roma were murdered in Belzec and Sobibor, neither death camp is mentioned even once in the course of the 13 Nuremberg trials.  The death camp at Treblinka is referred to in passing on one occasion, when it is described as a concentration camp.  The fate of the Jews passes in a black flash, but the racial hatred that forms the core of Nazi ideology is not one of the main issues.  Rather, it is Nazi Germany’s aggression, striving for world domination, and crimes against peace that dominate. (p. 37-8)

There are individuals whose activities thread through the book – perhaps not the names you might expect: George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Billie Holliday, Christian Dior, and Primo Levi.  And also Per Engdahl, the thriving leader of the Swedish fascists, and Hasan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I like Åsbrink’s shrewd awareness of how human nature can influence major events, just because we’re people with all our flaws.  For a while, German children learn no history at all because of the allies’ differing ideas about what the new school curriculum should include:

First of all the Russians come up with a textbook which stresses the material aspects of past times, how societal changes are driven by economic and social conditions.  But that is not an acceptable interpretation of history in the eyes of the Americans, who put together a version of history that they believe takes a broader view.

At the same time, the French prepare their selection of key events from the past, illustrated with reproductions of works by Eugene Delacroix. However, the French version of history is judged to be chauvinistic by the other Allies, and is not approved by any of them.

The British are painstaking in their approach, producing two volumes that are so bursting with detail that the first book only gets as far as humankind’s discovery of the pendulum. (p.92)

And if the past is an open question, the future is equally unclear.  What direction will Germany take?

By the time it is August, Åsbrink writes:

The world continues to fall apart.  In a number of places, at the same time, ideas are taking shape of a third power, a unified Europe: the notion of dismantling borders while nonetheless maintaining them.

That may be feasible.  That must be feasible.  There is no alternative.  If nationalism was the explosive that ignited the First World War, scepticism of that nationalism now seems to offer a possible path to peace.  The word on everyone’s lips is universalism.  The nation-state has had its day.  Europe must unite or perish.  (p.154)

Are today’s convulsions a sign that the world has stepped away from the path of peace that was trodden for decades since the formation of the EU?  Åsbrink doesn’t say but the reader can sense her dismay.

There are omissions, of course there are.  The book would be impossibly long, and perhaps less engaging if it covered everything.  But Åsbrink and her translator Fiona Graham have given us a vivid and compelling vision of a world long gone and yet still with us.  Highly recommended!

Author: Elisabeth Åsbrink
Title: 1947, When Now Begins
Translated from the Swedish by Fiona Graham
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925322439
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: 1947: when now begins and direct from Scribe where you can also get it as an eBook or an audio book.


As usual, the nominations for the Dublin Literary Award are a generous mixture of the great and the good, and as usual I will try to locate all the authors from Australia and New Zealand among the 150-odd names there.  If there’s one I’ve missed, please let me know in comments and I’ll add it to the list.

The prize is one of the most valuable in the world: €100,000, but in terms of international exposure, just making it onto the longlist is a great thing for authors who might otherwise have slipped under the radar, and while I’m pleased to see all our Aussie authors doing so well, I am especially pleased by the inclusion of Patrick Holland’s One because it did not get the attention it deserved in this country.  Bouquets to the libraries that nominated it!


  • One, by Patrick Holland, see my review and Patrick’s explanation for his curious choice of title
  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, by Anita Heiss, see my review
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper
  • Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, by Toni Jordan, see my review
  • The Good People, by Hannah Kent
  • An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire, see my review
  • The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose, see my review
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith, see my review
  • The Sound, by Sarah Drummond*
  • Vigil, by Angela Slatter

New Zealand

Other titles that I’ve read

*Update, later the same day: Thanks to Tracy Farr (author of The Life and Loves of Lina Gault) for identifying two authors I’d missed.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2017

The Half-Drowned King, by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King is one of the books I recently enjoyed for bedtime relaxation while reading more challenging books by day.  It’s the first of what will apparently be a trilogy: a saga of 9th century Norwegian kings during the period of unification.  According to the author’s note at the end of the book, it was ‘inspired by’ the saga of Harald Fairhair in the Heimskingla of the Icelandic historian and poet, Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241). Sturluson’s saga was written from oral sources ca. 1230 and isn’t considered entirely reliable about centuries much earlier, so an author has plenty of scope for invention…

The novel is a big. chunky book of 400+ pages, focussing mainly on two protagonists: Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the betrayed true heir to his family’s lands, and his sister Svanhild, a spirited individual not willing to submit to the role that custom demands of women.  When the story opens, Ragnvald is returning from successful raids on the coastline but is almost drowned (hence the book title) by Solvi, who has been put up to it by his father King Hunthof who’s in league with Ragnvald’s stepfather Olaf.  So Ragnvald starts the novel as a penniless victim who needs to keep out of the way of rivals who would kill him, and Svanhild is about to be married off to a boring old man whose previous wives have all died in childbirth.

As you’d expect in a novel of this type, there are plots and counter plots, and plenty of brutal fights among rival kings and their men.  There are a great many characters to keep track of, but fortunately the author sticks to a chronological narrative, all told in the 3rd person, alternately from Ragnvald’s perspective and then Svanhild’s.  Loyalty is a key issue for both protagonists, and Hartsuyker inverts expectations about the characters by making Svanhild the more adventurous while Ragnvald is more keen to settle on his farm, if only he can retrieve it from the brute Olaf. But he has few assets in this quest: only courage and determination, and a growing capacity to calm the hotheads amongst the rival kings.  In this period of rudimentary politics, it was a man’s personality and capacity for leadership amongst powerful allies that mattered most.

Hartsuyker writes well, recreating the landscape and the social structures with convincing detail and the plots romps along.  She sets up complex personalities with equally complex motives, and they don’t all behave in predictable ways. I doubt if The Half-Drowned King is the next Game of Thrones, but it’s entertaining reading which kept me absorbed to the end.

Author: Linnea Hartsuyker
Title: The Half-Drowned King
Publisher: Little, Brown  (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781408708804
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Half-Drowned King

Oops, I read this last month but forgot to blog it!

The Decision by German-born author Britta Böhler is a book that I discovered last year when Stu reviewed it at Winston’s Dad – and I bought it as a companion to Summer before the Dark by Volker Viedermann (also reviewed by Stu) because they share the same theme.  They’re about famous Jewish authors confronting the perils of Nazi Germany… The works of those authors-in-exile were all exponents of Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.

The Decision is a fictionalised account of three tense days in 1936, when the renowned author Thomas Mann is in Switzerland, weighing up the implications of publicly denouncing his homeland Germany.  At this time he had published, among many other works, Buddenbrooks, (1901, see my review); Death in Venice (1912); and The Magic Mountain (1924, see my review).  He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and – having left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power, he had to decide how best to use his celebrity.

He has written a letter denouncing the regime to the Zurich-German press, that when published would amount to cultural suicide.   It is not just that he cannot ever go back unless things change, it is also that he is tormented by the idea that he shares the same cultural tradition as new regime, and may be tainted by it.  He’s not even sure if he can still enjoy the sublime music of Wagner, now that it’s been appropriated by the Nazis.

He had not realised, when he left Germany, that it would be the last time:

He had not suspected anything, nothing at all. How could he have foreseen that this journey would mark his farewell to Germany? Later he often wished that he had looked out of the train window. He should have imprinted the landscape on his mind – that way he could have taken the images abroad with him. He couldn’t even remember the border crossing between Lindau and Bregenz; half asleep he had let the last impressions of Germany slide by.  (Kindle Locations 308-315).


You go on vacation suspecting nothing, and before you know it your fatherland is gone. With a speed that makes your head spin. (Kindle Location 326).

The novel is prefaced by a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein:  ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one’  and while Wittgenstein wrote a great many impenetrable aphorisms, this one is crystal clear.   He is saying that aesthetics and ethics are inseparable.  Yet what this novel shows, is just how difficult Mann’s decision was.  You can see his torment in his own words, in Dr Faustus, a novel begun in 1943 and published in 1947, (see my review).  But in this novel, Britta Böhler shows Mann under pressure in intimate detail, as a family man, as a writer and as a public figure, trapped in the same dilemma as Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Not that I’m suggesting any similarity between Henry VIII and Hitler, only that public figures sometimes have to make risky public decisions that never confront ordinary folk whose opinions don’t have the capacity to influence events.)

Feeling torn, Mann considers the pressure he has been under from his adult children, Erika and Klaus:

These past three years Erika and Klaus have urged him repeatedly to break his silence, express his opinion, and publicly distance himself from the Nazis. There had been scores of rather nasty fights. Erika accused him of being arrogant; his reserve was presumptuous; it was unseemly to feel superior to everything in these terrible times. Erika and Klaus – both are so implacable in their hatred of Germany. The world is so simple and clear for them.  (Kindle Locations 130-133).

He is suspicious of his brother Heinrich:

That his brother felt so easily at home in his new living situation made him a little jealous. Well, it was of course a fact that in a sense Heinrich had always been on the side of the opposition; that made many things easier.

And he doesn’t get along with Heinrich’s new lady friend:

He had looked forward to Heinrich’s visit, to the joint walks and conversations, but unfortunately Heinrich had not come alone. Why had he brought along that horrible Mrs. Kröger? She was a typical girlfriend for Heinrich, loud and uncultured, like all the actresses with whom he had enjoyed himself while his wife and daughter waited for him. (Kindle Locations 405-410).

And even now, he still clings to some doubt, because he loves the Germany he knew, the Germany that is now so alien to him:

Yet he hadn’t been convinced right away. For days he hesitated over the decision. He was heartily sick of living in a hotel, but renting a house for a year or even two felt final. You couldn’t know whether a return to Munich might not be possible after all; the situation could perhaps change for the better. And even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t he try to return in spite of it all? Staying away permanently from Germany – wasn’t that tantamount to a betrayal of his own country?  (Kindle Locations 441-444).

While he mourns the loss of his home and possessions, he is also confronted by an existential loss:

What is going on inside the people of Germany? What are they thinking and feeling when they take the tram to work in the morning or when they are shopping? Have the events left any marks on their faces as they walk in Herzog Park? He can still not make sense of it. The image of his fatherland is becoming increasingly vague and blurred. He has become an outsider, an observer who knows Germany only second-hand.  (Kindle Locations 485-488).

Stu was right, The Decision is an excellent book!

Author: Britta Böhler
Title: The Decision (originally published as Der brief de Zauberers but my edition is translated from the Dutch De Beslissing by Jeannette K. Ringold
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London, 2015
Source: Personal library, bought for the Kindle from You Know Who.

Available from Fishpond: The Decision (hbk)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #15 Chapter 14

We left Shaun, taking the place of his father Earwicker, floating in a barrel down the River Liffey at the end of Chapter 13…

… and because we have reached the second chapter of Part 3, we are in Vico’s Human Age, (see Chapter One) looking for signs and symbols of burials, cities, laws, civil obedience or popular government; along with vulgar speech, abstract discourse, and (maybe) radio and TV…

… and perhaps we’ll find wheels within wheels, according to Tindall, (see Chapter 13) shaping each chapter within each part, so we may find a divine age, an heroic age, a human age and a ricorso (a period of confusion). #WrySmile Or such Jocyean cleverness may go right over my head, as it mostly does…

Onward!  Tally Ho!

I mention the barrel because had I forgotten it I might well have thought that we had a new character called Jaunty Jaun.  But no, it’s just Shaun with a new name, halting his barrel and delivering another sermon, this time to the twentynine hedge daughters out of Benent Saint Berched’s national nightschool i.e.  the pupils at St Bridget’s nightschool, who made an appearance in chapter 9. (And now I’m remembering something about how the novel turns full circle by the time we reach the end.)  Young Shaun has become a ladykiller, the girls mussing his frizzy hair and the golliwog curls of him, and making a tremendous girlsfuss over him, and (my goodness!)

… feeling his full fat pouch for him so tactily and jingaling his jellybags for, though he looked a young chapplie of sixtine, they could frole by his manhood that he was just the killingest ladykiller… (Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 430).

When I come to Shaun a.k.a. Jaunty Jaun presenting his own version of the Ten Commandments to these young ‘ladies’, that must be the Viconian Divine Age, right?

During our brief apsence from this furtive feugtig season adhere to as many as probable of the ten commandments touching purgations and indulgences and in the long run they will prove for your better guidance along your path of right of way. (ibid, p. 432).

But he gets a bit carried away because there’s a good few more than ten of these commandments:

Never miss your lostsomewhere mass for the couple in Myles you butrose to brideworship. Never hate mere pork which is bad for your knife of a good friday. Never let a hog of the howth trample underfoot your linen of Killiney. Never play lady’s game for the Lord’s stake. Never lose your heart away till you win his diamond back. Make a strong point of never kicking up your rumpus over the scroll end of sofas in the Dar Bey Coll Cafeteria by tootling risky apropos songs at commercial travellers’ smokers for their Columbian nights entertainments the like of White limbs they never stop teasing or Minxy was a Manxmaid when Murry wor a Man.

First thou shalt not smile. Twice thou shalt not love. Lust, thou shalt not commix idolatry. Hip confiners help compunction. Never park your brief stays in the men’s convenience. Never clean your buttoncups with your dirty pair of sassers. Never ask his first person where’s your quickest cut to our last place. Never let the promising hand usemake free of your oncemaid sacral. The soft side of the axe! A coil of cord, a colleen coy, a blush on a bush turned first man’s laughter into wailful moither.  (ibid, p. 433).

My trusty guide Tindall says that as well as laying down his commandments, Shaun is also celebrating a mass (reminiscent of Chapter 1 in Ulysses), signalled by this introit of exordium at the beginning and ite missa est (Latin, usually translated as ‘Go, the Mass is ended’) though here parodied as eat a missal lest.   (A missal is the book of the Catholic liturgy that parishioners take to Mass with them). Tindall says there is also a communion too, but although there’s some eating going on, I can’t see the allusions myself.

(I thought I spied a Baptism when I came across We’ll circumcivicise all Dublin country.  That’s in the section where Shaun is going to rebuild the morals of the city of Dublin, with boulevards, sweepstakes and turning the tip into a park.)

Tindall also says that:

… while preaching to the girls, celebrating Mass, and playing his organ, Jaun is going through the fourteen Stations of the crucifixion of Jesus – not, however, in their customary order.  [See The Way of the Cross,  [refer to Chapter 13].  (A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969, p.236)

He lists all fourteen, which serves only to show me how much I manage to miss in my naïve reading of this amazing book.  (I am cheered only by Tindall’s obvious perplexity in decoding Shaun’s possible ascension and second coming.  If Tindall doesn’t ‘get it’ after multiple readings and a team of fellow scholars to help him, who am I to be worried about it, eh?)

Anyway, here are Stations 1, 2 and 10, which show just how obscurely Joyce is playing with his hapless readers:

Station 1: (Jesus is condemned to death), hinted in Chapter XIII, is hinted again by “privy-sealed orders” (488.29)

Station 2: (Jesus carries the cross), also hinted in Chapter XIII, is now attended to by “gross proceeds”, “load on ye” (431.27-28), and “the Lord’s stake (433.14).


Station 10: (Jesus is stripped of his garments) is hinted by “undraped divine” (435.14-15), “undress”, “overdressed if underclothed”, “Strip off that nullity suit” (441.2–5,30), and “gentleman without a duster” (432.24).  Cf. “Mulligan is stripped of his garments” (Ulysses, 16) (Tindall, p.237-8)

(The numbers refer to the lines of the text of FW so that readers can find them in any edition).

In the sermon there is a warning against literature, (Vanity Fair, and three of Dickens’ novels); against arts; against music.  But his laws of ‘civil obedience’ allow for plenty of sex and food as long as it’s home cooking, everytime. Even incest – to be avoided with his father or brother –  is ok if it’s with him, he tells his sister Isabel.  I’ll be all over you myselx horizontally, he says, and goes on to say:

The pleasures of love lasts but a fleeting but the pledges of life outlusts a lieftime. I’ll have it in for you. I’ll teach you bed minners, tip for tap, to be playing your oddaugghter tangotricks with micky dazzlers if I find corsehairs on your river-frock and the squirmside of your burberry lupitally covered with chiffchaff and shavings.  (Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics, Kindle Edition p. 444).

and he threatens her too, if she should ignore his prohibitions, all for her own good:

Snap! I’ll tear up your limpshades and lock all your trotters in the closet, I will, and cut your silk-skin into garters. You’ll give up your ask unbrodhel ways when I make you reely smart. (ibid, p.445)

But, you may be pleased to hear, Isabel interrupts her loquacious brother, and announces that she’s not going to take much notice of any of this. This might be the Viconian heroic bit, eh?  The human age is surely where Shaun starts talking about food.  Eventually (after a mystifying interlude with trees, Egyptian gods and allusions to a sphoenix resurrection) Shaun sets off again in his pulpitbarrel to exile.  The girls think he’s dead, and there’s a bit of a wake, but off he goes very cheerfully it seems to me.

BTW radio and TV do get a mention: this is when Shaun tells Isabel, a.k.a. Sissybis and Sissytart and Stella (and *sigh* muddled with her mother too, and (so says Tindall) somehow also the two girls in the park that Earwicker may or may not have assaulted.  Campbell says she’s Iseult, whatever she’s called, she’s Shaun’s sister IMO):

 I was pricking up ears to my phono on the ground and picking up airs from th’other over th’ether. (ibid, p452)

AND there’s a clear signal how to look out for Vico: The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin. (That’s assuming you knew who Vico was and what his Viconian ages were all about, of course.  I wonder how long it took for the scholars to recognise that, and what Joyce meant by it?)

This chapter is, as Tindall says, comparatively easy.

However rambling and incoherent, [Shaun’s] discourse to Stella presents few difficulties to the moderately hardened reader. (Tindall, p 242).

So that’s what I’ve become, eh, a moderately hardened reader!

On to Chapter 15!


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

Dragon and Kangaroo, by Robert Macklin

Robert Macklin is a versatile writer: he’s written books with titles as diverse as The Secret Life of Jesus; War Babies; and The Great Australian Pie.  And although he’s not an historian, he’s a journalist,  Dragon and Kangaroo, subtitled Australia and China’s shared history from the goldfields to the present day is highly readable and thoroughly researched.  It provides a political and cultural timeline of our mutual relationship that offers interesting insights.

Australia’s relationship with China is more important than ever because America’s influence and economic power is declining.   Allan Gyngell, writing about Australia’s relationship with the US, in the new journal The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy: Australian Foreign Affairs; Issue 1 (Schwarz Publishing, October 2017) has this to say:

Australia needs to put equal thought into its relationship with China.  In one way or another, China will be central to all Australia’s economic, strategic and political objectives.  It is hard to think of an international issue – from the security of the South China Sea to development policy in Africa – where China’s decisions will not be important.  Inside Australia, the impact of growing Chinese investment, the presence of rising numbers of Chinese students and tourists, and the role of Chinese Australians in politics and public debate will become increasingly significant.  (p. 40)

But it’s probably true to say that most of us know very little about our mutual relationship.  The book begins with not with the arrivals of the Chinese during the Gold Rush, but with the desire for cheap labour after the abolition of transportation.  Squatters got in touch with agents in Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy) and Singapore as well as the British East India Company in Calcutta.  It was the Chinese ‘coolie’ that they wanted because of his ‘untiring industry, frugality and perseverance’ which were ‘the inherited instincts of their race.’ John Macarthur employed at least three Chinese people on his properties as early as the 1820s, and…

…it is highly likely that they had compatriots whose records have been lost to history.  But either way, his family was at the forefront of the new push to engage ‘indentured labour’, a polite term for slave-like pay and conditions in the 1840s.

The Port Phillip settlers were not far behind, and the arrival of the Chinese provoked wonderment on the one hand, contempt mixed with hostility on the other. And so it proved to be for a very long period of Australia’s relationship with the Chinese.  In 1860, there was a disgraceful racist insurrection at Lambing Flat, now known as Young in NSW, which Macklin says affected Chinese-Australian relations for over a hundred years.

The Yass Courier described the terrible scene.  ‘Some 500 Europeans attacked a party of Chinese and maltreated them to such an extent as to cause the death of at least one of their number.  We are informed that the ‘pigtails’ of the unfortunate Celestials were cut off in so barbarous a manner as to detach the skin from the back of the head; and further than the brutality was carried to the length of cutting the ears off several’.

That was just the beginning. (p.48)

A subsequent mob of 2000 men brutally attacked and destroyed a Chinese camp of 300.  The victims included a British mother married to a Chinese and her infant whose cradle was set alight, escaping only just in time.  Needless to say, the attackers commandeered the mining claims of the vanquished and before long they were back again with repeated assaults, killing an unknown number of Chinese with an estimated 250 gravely injured – despite the presence of urgently summoned troopers from Sydney.

It seems that many Chinese put up with intolerable treatment because the Taipeng Rebellion in China had made their homeland into a killing field. 

I was fascinated to learn that in the era before Federation, Britain was embarrassed by the stridency of the White Australia Policy.

[At]…  the Intercolonial Conference of 1896 […] the premiers resolved to extend the 1888 Restriction Bill to include ‘all coloured races’, though the Queensland delegation made an exception for Pacific Islanders.

The British government, anxious about the reaction in its Asian and South Asian colonies, took a more conciliatory stand.  The new colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, told a meeting of the colonial leaders in London the following  year that he ‘sympathised’ with the Australians’ sentiments that ‘there shall not be an influx of people alien in civilisation, alien in religion, alien in customs [who] would most seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labour population.’ However, it would be ‘most painful’ for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee they were celebrating, to be asked to sanction their exclusion by reason of their colour or race. (p.99)

And while the British solution to this dilemma was the infamous dictation test,  it’s still a shameful part of our history that it was the Brits who made our political leaders tone down their racism.

Mind you, Macklin – as you can also hear in this audio presentation at ACRI (the Australia China Relations Institute) in Sydney – makes the claim more than once, that the Chinese were just as racist.

[Early in the 20th century] … In the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal Protector, Baldwin Spencer, an anthropologist, conceived a particular hatred for the Chinese.  ‘There are a few decent ones,’ he said, ‘but 98 per cent are low, depraved beasts who want deporting.’  He was not alone in his racist views.  Many Chinese were totally opposed to ‘mixed marriages’ with Aboriginal women and the children of these unions were not given a Chinese clan name as it would bring ‘shame’ to the extended family.  (p.122)

(Unfortunately, while Spencer’s comments are footnoted, the statement about Chinese opposition to mixed marriages isn’t, so there’s no way to assess the credibility of the source.)

We learn about some interesting characters in the course of Macklin’s survey.  There was the entrepreneur and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903); Billy Sing the military hero and one of many Chinese who enlisted in WW1 despite the rules, (the subject of a fictionalised account of his life by Ouyang Yu); and amongst Australians who worked to forge more respectful relationships there was the journalist-adventurer George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920) noted for his heroic behaviours during the (anti-foreign, anti-colonial) Boxer Rebellion; and the newspaperman Bill Donald (1875-1946) who was a friend and advisor to Sun Yat-Sen and to Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek.

Macklin shows convincingly how Australia lost opportunities in the post-war period.  China in the Pacific theatre of WW2 played the same role in Australia’s interests as Russia did to support the allies in Europe, but has had very little recognition [despite Australia’s enthusiasm for commemorating military history].  But this opportunity for a ‘friendship treaty’ was lost.  In the wake of the Communist Revolution when Chifley considered recognising China in 1949, he was handicapped by domestic support for the White Australia Policy.  New Zealand went ahead, but Australia failed to take the initiative and ended up following the US in recognition of Taiwan instead.  We lost exports to Canada because they recognised China and we didn’t do that until Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971.  The only reason that Australia achieved any agricultural export sales to China in this era was because Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in catastrophic famine and the Chinese government had no alternative but to import grains to feel its starving people.

The failure to develop an independent foreign policy meant that Australia went along with the American theory of linking Vietnam and China as part of a monolithic Communism, thus generating antagonism throughout the Vietnam War.  There has been outright hostility between Vietnam and China for two millennia, because of Chinese territorial claims in Vietnam.  But Australian politicians tried to warn the Russian leaders, to their slight bewilderment, against Chinese expansionism and asked them to restrain the Chinese in Vietnam…as if … Beijing and Hanoi were now joined at the hip. They even went so far as to claim that Australia was at risk of Chinese aggression, when there is no history of Chinese territorial aggression against Australia, ever.

The last 100-odd pages of the book are about the recent history of Australia-Chinese relations during my adulthood, which is particularly interesting.  I would have liked to see a greater variety of Chinese sources from within China, but it’s still illuminating to read about the machinations of the Chinese communist party in the years since Mao’s death.  The chapter about Kevin Rudd’s time in office, and about Barack Obama’s policies in Asia is interesting too.

Now, of course, with the crisis in North Korea and That Man in the White House, who knows what will happen?  I can’t see our chaotic faction-ridden government coming up with an independent foreign policy any time soon…

I found another review by Stephen A Russell at The New Daily 

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