Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2017

The Town, by Shaun Prescott

I first heard about this book back in September when I saw a review of it in The Weekend Australian, and it intrigued me because The Australian doesn’t often review books from micro publishers like Brow Books.  Ed Wright’s review of The Town ran to two whole columns, and it began like this:

Riffing off authors such as Gerald Murnane, Shaun Prescott builds an idiosyncratic vision that is simultaneously banal and powerfully moving. The Weekend Australian, September 6-17

So I bought a copy.  Gerald Murnane is, after all, unique, so I was interested to see if Ed Wright knew what he was talking about.  Since then, however, The Town has been reviewed all over the place, the SMH, the Sydney Review, and the ABR and probably elsewhere as well.  That’s quite a splash for a debut novel…

But much as I love the enigmatic writing of Gerald Murnane, I suspect that for some readers, the comparison is like the kiss of death.  So I am here to reassure you that The Town is not as weird and strange or abstract as The Plains to which it is being compared and I don’t think it’s like the fictions that Murnane himself describes as conceptual literature.

For a start, The Town has characters.  Murnane, in A Million Windows repudiates the idea of characters, and indeed he is somewhat patronising about undiscerning readers who expect more in the way of narrative conventions.  But The Town has some quite engaging characters – all of them with names except for the narrator.  And in The Town, the bricks-and-mortar realism of recognisable settings littered with Woolworths and BP, Golden Arches and Michel’s Patisserie, is nothing like the dreamy landscapes of The Plains where the concept of a plot is equally foreign.  Whereas I can tell you what happens in The Town, no problem.

The narrator is a wannabe author who wants to write the history of disappearing towns in the central west of New South Wales.  He makes his way to an unnamed town marooned somewhere between the city (later revealed as Sydney) and the vast emptiness of the inland.  He gets casual work stacking shelves in the local Woolworths, and he shares a house with Rob while he sets out looking for material for his book.

What he finds is lethargy, stagnation and inertia.  Nobody knows anything about the history of the town because nothing of any significance has ever happened there.  Whereas he had assumed that there must be some kind of intellectual or artistic sub-culture, everyone he meets seems banal.  The disconcerting elements of this novel arise when the reader meets the fatalistic characters who signpost the futureless destiny of the town: Tom who drives the only town bus along a route so interminable that no passengers will use it because it takes so long to get anywhere.  Ciara – having an experimental relationship with Rob – who can’t find any local bands to support so she invents her own weird and strange recordings, strewing cassettes around the town for people to discover – but no one can play them because they’re recorded on obsolete technology.  The Town Extremists with their innocent appetite for destroying things who predictably vandalise the Town Day at the end of proceedings.  The languor of the town lifts only during the annual disco fight.

And then there’s Steve Sanders who wants to bash the narrator despite his efforts to appear meek and harmless around people of the town who might be curious or offended. 

I told Rob that he must be joking.  Or else there was a misunderstanding, that Steve Sanders had mistaken me for someone else.

He definitely means you, Rob said.  Steve Sanders wants to bash you, probably because you’re writing a book about the town.

I explained again to Rob that my book was not about this town, but other towns – most of which did not verifiably exist.

He shrugged and took a can of beer from the fridge.  You don’t come to a new town expecting not to be bashed, he said.  (p.32)

Jenny at the pub is equally laconic:

Just get bashed, Jenny suggested.  Get it over with.  He’ll bash you then it’ll be done.  Have you never been bashed before?  I told her I hadn’t.  Then it’s about time you did, she said.  (p.33)

As the narrator discovers, the meaninglessness seems to have no origin or logic:

During the moments when I peered into the windows of the main street pubs I wondered whether anyone was truly part of the town.  Every weekend had the mood of a last hurrah; everyone drank as though they were departing for far-off destinations the next morning.  That’s how it seemed – and what else could they be drinking to?  They drank like it was their duty.  I suppose they were drinking to the fact that they were there.

In books and songs people and gather for reasons, and their lives bull-rush towards moments of importance.  In these books and songs, meaninglessness is depicted too deliberately and often hinted to have an origin or logic.  The people in the town lived as if they would never die, but they were not heroic or foolish like in books or songs. They were only there.  They seemed to understand better than anyone else that they were only there.  (p.85)

Eventually, the town starts to disappear.  Literally.  Huge fathomless holes too nebulous to be sink holes (or anything else that’s geologically recognisable) appear overnight; things and people disappear into them, never to be seen again. The bus has to be rerouted, but Rick who spends his days in the supermarket aisles for entertainment, is quite sure that Woolworths is safe because

… they were still cycling through this quarter’s sales.  Prices on a particular brand of muesli were scheduled to plummet next week.  He told me that he knew this because the supermarket always left obscure hints about its future sales: breadcrumb trails for the dedicated bargain hunter. If the powers that be at Woolworths suspected something sinister as complete disappearance, Rick surmised. they would not bother planning a major sale. (p. 186)

[Those of us watching Big Business and the federal government comprehensively ignore the warning signs of climate change might not share Rick’s confidence].

The narrator’s futile efforts to rescue his friends from the inevitable see him journey to Sydney with only Ciara by his side.  The novel falters a little in Sydney.  The city is equally dispiriting and fatalistic, just in different ways, but Ciara’s descent into utter nihilism leaves the narrator with little to do and the novel just seems to fade away.  It’s a bleak view of the world, these disappearances seeming to be not only a metaphor for rural population decline, passing without a sense of occasion, but also a portent of an apocalyptic ending for cities.  Despite the insouciance of the tourists, the sun-seekers and the patronising real-estate agents in Sydney, Ciara recognises the message of impending doom in the claims that not only is the city full, so is the country:

Ciara said that everyone in the city was frightened about the future, more so than in the town.  They didn’t admit it explicitly, but they all seemed to know that big things were about to happen.  They knew that the fewer people around them, the fewer people there would be to attack and loot them when everything collapsed.  She gestured towards the water.  They only want to protect themselves and their property, she said.  (p.220)

Another interesting aspect of the characterisation is the age of the central characters.  They are (I think) all millennials and they have no confidence in anyone…

Everything about the town rested on belief, Ciara believed, but whose belief could they trust?  Certainly no one older than us, she said.  (p.92)

Author: Shaun Prescott
Title: The Town
Publisher: Brown Books, 2017
ISBN: 9780994606822
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Available from Fishpond: The Town


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2017

Afterwards, by Rachel Seiffert

Just a quick review for this one: having recently read Seiffert’s new novel A Boy in Winter, (see my review) I decided to hunt out a copy of her 2007 novel, Afterwards.  Like A Boy in Winter and The Dark Room, Afterwards explores guilt and moral responsibility, but the context is different to Seiffert’s WW2 novels.  Former soldier Joseph is struggling with the aftermath of events in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and David, the grandfather of his girlfriend Alice, is haunted by what happened in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–60).

Alice is surrounded by people who keep their secrets to themselves.  Her mother never married her father, and Alice has had no contact with him.  It’s not something they talk about.  Her grandfather is also reticent, not just about his service in Kenya but also about the circumstances of his marriage – which was a scandal at the time because his wife had been married before and there was stigma attached to divorce at that time.  And Joe, slowly forging a comfortable relationship with Alice, has learned to manage what is surely PTSD by withdrawing from everything – including his work and his friendships.  Alice is remarkably patient when Joe suddenly disappears out of her life without explanation: she spends a lot of time mulling over the best ways to get these secrets out in the open.  She really wants to make this complicated relationship work.

So this is a quiet, meditative sort of novel, with a slow build up of tension.  It is obvious that without some kind of professional intervention, Joe is going to explode in some way, but what he’s done in the past when he hasn’t been able to control himself, is not made clear.  When he takes on some house-painting at Alice’s grandfather’s place, David begins to unburden himself, as he used to with his wife, when she was alive.  But Joe’s capacity to be a listening post is clearly compromised and the reader feels a mounting sense of anxiety about what might happen.

There are many undercurrents at work.  Alice’s mother has married Alan, and the class differences are exacerbated by the impenetrability of Grandfather’s manner:

-I never know what he’s thinking.  Not just about me, about anything.  I can’t be around someone like that for too long.  It makes me nervous.
-Maybe that’s your problem then, not his?
-He’s such a stuffed shirt.
-Do you have to be so rude about my Dad.

Alan blinked at her. Then went on.

-I’m sorry, Sarah, but I think he’s rude.  It’s arrogant to think you’re above conversation.
-You’ve got him all wrong.
-Well, he doesn’t give me much to go on.  Maybe he should risk an argument with me.  At least we’d get to know each other that way.

Her mum didn’t respond, just shifted an awkward box from the boot to the back seat, and Alice wondered if she was swallowing something: the risk of this argument turning serious was too great for her to take. Alan was quiet too, shoving their rucksacks over to make more room, and it seemed as though he might be regretting what he’d said, or at least how he’d said it.  Her mum got into the driver’s seat, and Alice picked up the last of the bags from the path, finished packing the boot with Alan in silent solidarity.  Hard to love someone if you don’t know much about them.  Her grandfather didn’t dislike Alan, she was sure of that: he could be just as offhand with her and her mother, but at least they knew he was fond of them too.

What plays out in the novel is the conflict between Alice’s very human curiosity about the people in her life and the repressed memories of the damaged people she loves. Her anxiety about them is exacerbated because they seem to be withholding something important, and although she’s not naïve, she can’t guess what it might be and is determined to know.  Other characters make it clear that Seiffert isn’t suggesting that all soldiers are damaged by their experiences in war, but rather that some individuals don’t have the resources to keep a lid on things.  However David and Joe, separated by a generation, seem to represent a continuity in unexpressed guilt, along with the need to take moral responsibility for the impact of government policy on the ground.

An interesting novel but the fractured style may not suit everyone’s taste.

Author: Rachel Seiffert
Title: Afterwards
Publisher: W.H. Howes, 2007
ISBN: 9781407401072 (Large Print Edition)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Afterwards


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2017

Reading Bingo 2017

Emma at Book Around the Corner is first up with Reading Bingo this year. Can I find the books I’ve read this year to complete the bingo card?

A Book with more than 500 pages : My longest book was the feminist classic Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers. It had 772 pages. Young feminists might do well to find the time to read it because too many of them have obviously forgotten how things were, just a short while ago.

A forgotten classic : The Dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe was a forgotten classic until it was released in the Text Classics series to celebrate the release of their 100th title in this brilliant collection of previously out-of-print Australian books.  I wish there were more writers tacking issues like exploitative working conditions today.  You’d think they would be, wouldn’t you, since so many writers are supporting themselves in casual jobs?

A Book That Became a Movie: Does a mini-series count?  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  Mind you, it’s a slow-moving novel, so I don’t know how they padded it out to make a series of it.  I liked the book but I wouldn’t be bothered watching the TV series…

A Book Published This Year: I’ve read 63 new releases so far this year (64 when I finish reading The Town by Shaun Prescott) so I have lots to choose from, and there have been so many wonderful books this year it’s very difficult to choose.  But I’m going to go with Storyland, by Catherine McKinnon.  It’s one of the most imaginative and cleverly constructed books I’ve read for a while, showing that the best writers of Australian fiction are confronting our real history in a creative and respectful way. It’s on the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist and the 2018 Indie Book Awards longlist but it ought to be on more.

A Book With A Number In The Title: One-Two by Igor Eliseev. Ok, that’s two numbers but they are hyphenated.  And that’s because the story is about how conjoined twins find ways to survive in the cruel world of the new Russia.  As I said in my review, the resilience of these two girls who suffer appalling insults, neglect and exploitation in the Perestroika period in Russia is emblematic of the resilience of the Russian people and the suffering they have experienced during the 20th century. 

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty:  I reckon this one is really hard because I rarely know the age of the authors I read, and *chuckle* all emerging authors look young to me. But this year, I’ve found one because Google has given me the birth date of Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Booker with her debut novel ElmetShe’s 29.  (And it’s an exceptionally good novel.  It tackles, amongst other things, the casualization of the workforce in Britain).

A Book With Non Human Characters: I’m going to go with Pincher Martin by William Golding because the malevolent sea is a character in that one.  I still feel cold, just thinking about it.  Proof positive that William Lord of the Flies Golding was not a one-hit wonder.

A Funny Book: Death of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon.  The follow-up to the original Life and Loves of a She-Devil which had us all in stitches in the 1980s. Sharp incisive satire, but not quite in the same league as her early work, or maybe the world has changed.  Or I have…

A Book By A Female Author: The female/male percentage of books I’ve blogged remains steady around 45%/55%.  Of the new releases I’ve read, 29 are by women and 30 by men; but of the debut authors I’ve read 13 are women and only 5 are men.  So obviously I have lots to choose from.  But I’m going to skip all the new releases and go with a classic from the 20th century that I was prompted to read by Nathan Hobby who is writing a biography of its author.  Haxby’s Circus, by Katharine Susannah Prichard is great reading with its unforgettable central character Gina and its vivid descriptions of the Australia of small towns and the travelling entertainments that came their way – often at great cost to the performers.

A Book With A Mystery: Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn.  Her Emmanuel Cooper series is terrific and the thoughtful portrayal of apartheid-era South Africa manages to break through my lack of interest in this genre.

A Book With A One Word Title: I have three in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series that qualify for this one: Existentialism, Postmodernism and Goethe. but I’m going to go with the most recent one I’ve read because it was so good, so very, very good. Goethe, a Very Short Introduction by Richie Robertson.  It just makes me want to read Goethe’s books, and IMO that’s what a VSI should do.

A Book of Short Stories: Easy. Karenlee Thompson’s collection of short fictions titled Flame Tip.  Unforgettable stories and poems in commemoration of the 1967 Tasmanian bushfires.

Free Square: ooh, decisions, decisions… I think I’ll brag about my second attempt to read a book in French.  La Rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant.  It’s one of those stories of a departed relative who turns out to be different to the carefully curated image cultivated during a lifetime.  A lovely book, and you can read it in English too: Rendezvous in Venice is translated by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit and published by Pushkin Press.

A Book Set on a Different Continent: This year’s Vogel winner was The Lost Pages by Marija Peričić, set in the Czech Republic.  As I said in my review it’s a brave reimagining of the relationship between Franz Kafka and his literary editor Max Brod, and it develops an unstoppable momentum as the pages fly by towards an ending that I definitely did not foresee.

A Book of Non-Fiction : Return to Moscow by Tony Kevin. It appeals to my iconoclastic nature, and I like books that unravel the rubbishy stereotyping that gets fed to us by politicians and the media.  As I said in my review,  if we’re going to get involved in US/Russian squabbles that may become more serious, we should at least have some idea of the Russian point-of-view.  I would hope that our foreign minister and her counterpart in the Opposition at the very least have read this book by now, but it’s not just a must-read for politicians, it’s one that we all should read because it shows you how demonising of The Other takes place.  So it’s relevant to the current anti-Chinese rhetoric as well.

The First Book by a Favourite Author: Home by Larissa Behrendt.  Behrendt has only written two novels, Home (2004) and Legacy (2009) and has gone on to write some must-read non-fiction notably Finding Eliza but I would buy another of her novels in a heart beat.

A Book You Heard About Online: And that would be most of them, thank you to all by book-blogging friends without whom my reading would be much less interesting.  (You know who you are!) But I’ll choose the most recent, which was A Boy in Winter by Rachel Sieffert, thank you to Tony from Tony’s Book World. 

A Best-selling Book: This is usually a tough one for me because the label best-seller usually means I won’t like it, but Peter Carey’s new novel A Long Way from Home will of course be a best-seller not to mention under many a Christmas tree, and I really, really liked it.  (And not just because I went rallying in my misspent youth.  Though not, I hasten to add, in a before-my-time Redex trial.  We rallied an R8 Renault Gordini).

A Book Based on a True Story: Billy Sing by Chinese-Australian author Ouyang Yu is a WWI centenary novel with a difference.  The story is based on the real-life story of the famed Gallipoli sniper, William Edward Sing who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ and the Belgian Croix de Guerre for his service on the Western Front.  But Ouyang Yu being the author he is, there is more to the book than the bi-racial identity issues you’d expect…

A Book at the Bottom of your To Be Read Pile: This one makes me feel as if I ought to feel guilty, but (apart from the second-hand ones) every book in my nearly 900-title TBR has been a sale for an author whether I read it or not, so I don’t feel even the least little bit guilty.  I think the book that had the longest wait this year was The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and I read it after reading the VSI on Italian literature. by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey.

A Book Your Friend Loves: Kim from Reading Matters reviewed The Peculiar Life of the Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault (translated by Liedewy Hawke) and I couldn’t resist it.  Every bit as interesting as she said it was.

A Book That Scares You: What’s Yours is Mine, Against the Sharing Economy by Tom Slee.  This book showed me what we risk losing if we let the sharing economy run on unchecked.  I wish lots of people would read this, especially (a) our state politicians who need to know what exactly they are belatedly trying to regulate and (b) our federal politicians who need to gang up internationally and make the billionaire owner-predators pay their share of tax.

A Book That Is More Than Ten Years Old: The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar.  Technically the book is a new release but the stories are from the 20th century, they just hadn’t been collected in one title until Hybrid broke the jinx and successfully published the book this year.

The Second Book in a Series: Usually a difficult one for me because I tend not to read series, but Steven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet captivated me, and the second in the series, A World of Other People was great reading.  (Mind you, I was not impressed by its cover.  As usual this year, I have gone out of my way to pontificate about bad cover design and this one really annoyed me because it is such a stupid representation of a scene in the book, a woman wrapped in a blanket looking out of a wartime blackout curtain.)

A Book With a Blue Cover: Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Barry, a book which has changed the way I look at my environs as I take my daily walks with the dog.

Oh, gosh, how about that, another opportunity to share a picture of my dog!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2017

Goethe, a Very Short Introduction, by Ritchie Robertson

This Very Short Introduction does exactly what a VSI should do.  It introduces the reader to its subject and explains why it is significant, and it’s pitched at a non-academic audience in accessible language and with a coherent organisation of the content.  Ritchie Robertson’s Goethe, a Very Short Introduction made me want to drop what I’m currently reading and find out more about this great German writer.

Goethe (Wikipedia Commons)Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a celebrity novelist at the age of 25! His debut novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (see my review) was an early example of the Sturm und Drang literary movement, but today its passionate evocation of hopeless young love would place it on the YA shelves (and the film studios would option it and he’d have a mega advance to set him up for life).  But as Robertson explains in the preface, there is a lot more to Goethe than Werther.

Writing on the great issues of his time…

… Goethe produced masterpieces in almost every genre: poems on the largest and smallest scale, plays and novels in varied kinds, autobiography, aphorisms, essays, literary and art criticism.   (p.xiii)

Goethe looks like a respectable German intellectual in this portrait but he was actually quite the non-conformist in some ways.  Robertson says that it’s wrong to think of him as a distant and, nowadays unexciting Victorian sage, and also as a serene Olympian figure above ordinary human passions. [*chuckle* Robertson, being an Oxford scholar, does not mean athletic; he means Olympian as in the Greek gods].  Goethe had to work hard at controlling his turbulent emotional experience and #scandal! he shacked up with his lady friend for many years instead of marrying her.  But politically he was deeply conservative, and indeed his refusal, when he was in a position of power, to reform the death penalty for infanticide, led directly to the execution of a young woman.  His literature, taken as a whole, reveals these contradictions, his irritation with petty restrictions, his questing nature and his reflections on the rapidly changing world he lived in.  Robertson says that he was:

… deeply marked by living through the French revolution and the twenty-plus years of war that followed it.  Intellectually, he was shaped by the Enlightenment, and by its commitment to understanding the world by means of empirical and historical study, though he rejected the egalitarianism and irreligion of the Enlightenment’s radical wing.  (p. xiv)

Lionised in Germany now, Goethe was not so popular in his own day.  He was against trends like Romanticism and German nationalism, and his more difficult later works made him a marginal figure.  He was attacked for having a questionable domestic life, for being detached from Christianity, for being politically conservative and for taking employment at court.  He also outraged his contemporaries with his tolerance for same-sex relationships.  It wasn’t until well after he died that German intellectuals of the German empire massaged his image and turned him into a cult figure.  (Robertson says that criticism of him sometimes arouses fury which made me wonder if these were just academic spats or a prevailing attitude, akin to criticising sacred cows here in Australia).   

Chapter 1, titled ‘Love’ analyses The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and it’s excellent.  It places the novel in its historical context and explains why it was a Big Deal:

Goethe went further than any previous writer in presenting his hero as a union of mind and body.  In doing so, he extended the range of experience that literature could express.  And since literature is not just a commentary on life, but interacts with it, he also extended the range of what people could experience in their lives.  (p.6)

Robertson also says that Goethe extended these literary frontiers in poetry: he shares an uninhibited frankness with John Donne, but the feverish intensity of Donne’s poetry is different to the happy fulfilment in Goethe’s because he evokes a mutual relationship rather than Donne’s use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’.  

This chapter also tests the biographical aspects of the novel i.e. its confessional aspects and it identifies the recurrent theme of Goethe’s need for someone to calm his turbulent emotions.  It goes on to discuss some poems unpublished in his lifetime but which show Goethe’s achievement in adapting classical metres not only to a modern language but to the rhythms of the speaking voice.  (But as Robertson’s translations show, some of this is inevitably lost in translation.)

Which is why I’m more interested in what Robertson has to say about the novels.  Elective Affinities (1809) has gone straight onto my wishlist.  Victorian readers in England were apparently shocked: they were used to Austenish comedies, which resolve in marriage, but Goethe’s novel apparently explores the difficulties after marriage (predating Madame Bovary by half a century).  I was fascinated to learn that the novel treats marriage, not as a sacrament or a lifelong bond, but as a pragmatic social arrangement.  Unlike in Britain where divorce was difficult and expensive to achieve and carried a social stigma – in Germany it was quite the opposite.  No wonder the Brits deplored a novel which explored the idea of two couples forming different relationships!

Chapter 2 is called ‘Nature’ and it goes into some detail about Goethe’s somewhat eccentric conceptions of science and philosophy.  It sounds as if, from a reader’s point of view, it’s a bit like Zola’s theories of hereditary stains within a family, not to be taken seriously in the 21st century.  When Goethe dabbled in geology and mineralogy, his conviction that nature worked in a slow continuous manner (Neptunism) influenced works like Faust II where he satirised Vulcanism (a theory attributing the formation of mountains to violent changes in the earth’s crust).

But as Robertson says:

Whether such writing is scientifically accurate hardly matters: it enriches our awareness of the world around us. (p. 37)

Mind you, by the sound of it, I’m not in a hurry to tackle Goethe’s longest work On the Doctrine of Colours (1810) – which was an attack on Isaac Newton’s theory about the origin of colours.

Newton’s account of the spectrum remains substantially valid.  Goethe’s essay is a quixotic reargaurd action against the mathematisation of science. (p.39)

*chuckle* He’d be a climate change denier today, I guess… but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6) which is a Bildungsroman’ or coming-of-age story.  I do like the sound of that one.

Chapter 3 covers ‘Classical art and world literature’, tracing Goethe’s remarkable talents as an artist as well as a writer and reader.  He was a classicist who thought that Greek art (as he saw it in Italy) could not be surpassed and with Friedrich Schiller (you know his Ode to Joy if you hum along with Beethoven’s 9th) developed an aesthetic theory.  This section of the VSI is too long to summarise here, but it’s especially interesting to read so soon after reading the VSI on postmodernism.  Although Goethe (wisely) did not take up art as a career because he was good at it but not great, his love of art influenced his writing.  He looked at the world with a painterly eye, and his essays also influenced opinion about architecture, transforming the attitude towards ‘barbarous’ Gothic architecture into admiration for its harmony and proportion.  (Although he was wrong about Gothic architecture originating in Germany.  It evolved in 12th century France.)

When it came to reading, Goethe was famous for saying that national literature no longer means much, the age of world literature is at hand.   He could read easily in French, Italian, and English as well as Latin and Greek not to mention scraps of Gaelic and an enthusiasm for reading translations of the Asian texts that were becoming available as well as Arabic and Persian poetry.  Just imagine!  He was an enthusiast of Shakespeare’s plays, but preferred reading them to seeing them performed and he was hesitant about the emerging Romantic movement (even though today Werther is considered a foundation text).

But despite his fondness for classical texts, he recognised that recreating them was a bad idea:

… in adopting classical forms, one had ironically to acknowledge one’s own modernity and hence one’s distance from the ancient world. (p.58)

What he did instead can’t (says Robertson) be disparaged as ‘appropriation’ today.  To write his collection of poems published recently by Wakefield Press as The West-Eastern Divan of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe he first explored Persian and Arabic poetry and then wrote his own Orientalised poems.  For although he thought that he was a kindred spirit of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz (also spelt Hafez) he did not identify with him, nor profess knowledge of the Orient or exert virtual power over it.

Rather, he explores the Middle East, feeling his way into it and suggesting analogies with his own world. (p.62)

I think I’ve given a fair idea of how valuable this VSI is for anyone wanting to make a start with Goethe, but this post is already long enough.    Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are titled ‘Politics’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Religion’ respectively.  The complex story of Goethe’s political attitudes affirms that this VSI is no hagiography: some of his actions do deserve criticism. To give just one example, he disapproved of upward mobility but made himself upwardly mobile himself by accepting a position at court – and then wrote plays whose theme is keeping the peasants in their place.

There is a chronology of Goethe’s life and works, references, translations and suggestions for further reading, and an index.  I can’t recommend this VSI highly enough.

Author: Ritchie Robertson
Title: Goethe, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press)
Publisher: Oxford University Press,2016
ISBN: 9780199689255
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

I am reading a marvellous new ‘coffee table’ history of Acland Street St Kilda, and I came across this gorgeous snippet, typical of the idiosyncratic characters who populate this book:

The last and greatest of Acland Street mansions was Halcyon (aka Myrnong Hall) built between 1886 and 1890 by Annie Dudgeon, the recent widow of Melbourne tobacco manufacturer John Dudgeon.  John Dudgeon arrived in Port Phillip from Tasmania, where he had spent seven years as a convict for the crime of horsehair theft.

Dudgeon was a ‘horsehair curler’, or manufacturer, from a long line of men in the same trade from the Bermondsey district of St Mary Magdalene Parish.  Bermondsey, just south of where Tower Bridge now crosses the Thames, was at the time the centre of London’s leather trade.  Horsehair, a by-product of this trade, was used for stuffing upholstery and making wigs.  A horsehair manufacturer would collect the tails and manes of slaughtered horses and process them into these products.

Dudgeon, who was working at Fresh Wharf near the southern end of London Bridge, stole three bags of horsehair from a warehouse at Bermondsey, and was charged at the Old Bailey, he was twenty-one years old. After serving his time he got a ‘conditional pardon’, meaning he’d behaved himself, and in the next thirty years made a fortune as a tobacco manufacturer and retailer.  He had a factory in Lonsdale Street and four shops in Elizabeth Street.  His wife, Annie, who he married in 1872, was three decades his junior, having married him when she was just seventeen and he was fifty.  Her children with John inherited an estate of £80,000.

Acland Street, The Grand Lady of St Kilda, by Judith Buckrich, ATOM, (Australian Teachers of Media), 2017 ISBN 9781760610661, p.38

A horsehair curler – who knew such a trade existed?  But I can see why he switched to tobacco manufacturing once he was in Australia – not so much call for wigs here!

For those interested in this book as a Christmas present, this is the blurb:

Unique in Melbourne’s history, Acland Street has been the home, playground and business address for millionaires and paupers, members of parliament, creators of the culture, sex workers, criminals, migrants from Europe and Asia and the most staid and most ‘out there’ people in the city. It was the first named street in St Kilda in 1842, and until the 1880s, Melbourne’s most desired address.

From the 1890s, when many of the mansions became boarding houses, and certainly after World War 1, it was a magnet for European migrants, single men and women and those from less acceptable sub-cultures including artists, musicians, writers, the LGBTI community and anyone who was poor but wanted the joys that life near the sea could provide. It has been and remains impossible to pin down economically and socially. Acland Street has, for more than a hundred years, conjured fun, food and good times and continues to be one of our city’s most loved places.

Acland Street was one of my haunts when I was a teenager.  I hung out there with my best friend from school, (who became the actor Susan J. Arnold) because she lived round the corner on the Esplanade.  So, like thousands who have some kind of personal connection with Acland Street, I love this book, which was funded by a Pozible campaign, with support from ATOM, (Australian Teachers of Media, the City of Port Phillip, Readings, the St Kilda Historical Society and heaps of other people, all thanked within the pages of the book.  It’s lavishly illustrated with gorgeous reproductions of streetscapes, buildings, vintage ads and eccentric people like Mr Dudgeon.

The book begins as you’d expect it to in chronological order, tracing the early days of the street since its beginnings in 1842.  There are fabulous reproductions of grand old buildings, crusty old gents and plans and subdivisions.  But I headed first to the chapter titled ‘the 1950s and 1960s’ because it’s from the late sixties that I remember Acland Street best.  One of my first dates with the Ex was at the famed Scheherazade restaurant, which we thought was terribly exotic because it served Eastern European food.  (Some readers might know the place from Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade).  But there’s also a vignette about Bill Armstrong, a pioneer of the Australian recording industry who ran Telefil Recording Studios in Acland Street from 1954.  It was Bill who first recorded The Spouse’s Australian Cotton Club Orchestra right at the beginning of its pathway to becoming Melbourne’s leading society jazz orchestra in the 1980 and 1990s.  That first recording on cassette was on Bill’s Jazz&Jazz label but the three CDs after that were part of the Bill Armstrong Collection on the WEA label.

The Cosmos Bookshop (now Readings) opened in 1963 and later on there used to be a Mary Martin’s too, one of the first shops to sell remaindered books that I know of.  It took over the old Coles Variety building where you could buy all kinds of things at the counters and the girls and women (always girls and women) would ring up your purchase at the till at each end of the counter.  They counted the coppers into your hand very carefully, because (as I knew from when I had a Saturday morning job at Coles in Prahran) no staff could leave at closing time until every last penny was accounted for.  Mary Martin’s became the Metropolis Bookshop in 1997, specialising in art and design books.  It moved to Curtin House in the CBD in 2004.

Since the Acland Street shop is our closest Readings, we are regularly confronted with the difficult problem: which cake shop to go to for refreshments afterwards?  The Europa, the Monarch or Le Bon? Acland Street remains for me the best only place to buy cheesecake in Melbourne.  Postwar Jewish refugees opened cafés, delicatessens and cake shops up and down the street but some of the cake shops predate that, baking with recipes that are over a century old.  And as the book notes in the next chapter, Acland Street was designated a ‘tourist area’ in the 1970s, so it was open for Sunday trading when everything else was closed.  Where else would you go for coffee and cake in those days?

The final chapter, ‘Cosmopolitan Life’ is the Acland Street we know now.  Raffish and lively, it’s home to a wonderful diversity of people, especially the arts community.  It’s much more expensive than it used to be but gentrification is held at bay by community groups such as the Community Alliance, though a stoush over turning the street into a mall couldn’t stop it from being built.  There’s some fabulous photos of the street in its current incarnation!

Available from Fishpond: Acland Street: The Grand Lady of St Kilda and Readings has it too.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #17 Chapter 16

It seems like a good idea, as I near the end of this long journey with Finnegans Wake, to go back to Joseph Campbell’s thoughts about the structure and fluidity of the book:

Appropriately, the first word of Finnegans Wake is ‘riverrun’.  Opening with a small letter, it starts the book in the middle of a sentence.  ‘Riverrun’, however, is not a beginning, but a continuation – a continuation among other things of the ecstatic, swiftly slipping, and abruptly interrupted sentence with which the volume ends.  For the book is composed in a circle; the last word flows into the first, Omega merges into Alpha, and the rosary of history begins all over again.

‘Riverrun’ is more than a clue to the circling plan of Finnegans Wake; it characterises the essence of the book itself.  For in this work, both space and time are fluid; meanings, characters and vocabulary deliquesce in constant fluxion. The hero is everywhere: in the elm that shades the salmon pool, in the shadow that falls upon the stream, in the salmon beneath the ripples, in the sunlight on the ripples, in the sun itself. Three men looking at you through one pair of eyes are not men at all, but a clump of shrubs; not shrubs either, but your own conscience; and finally, not your private conscience, but an incubus of the universal nightmare from which the sublime dreamer of cosmic history will awaken, only to dream once more. (Campbell, p.23)

Someone must have done a diagram of this, I thought, and indeed someone has:

Structure of Finnegans Wake by László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). Click the image to visit the source.

Unfortunately Signal v Noise where I found this doesn’t say where the original diagram is to be found, and comments are closed so I can’t ask.  In the absence of any attribution, I’ve assumed that it’s out of copyright.  It’s very clever: even with my limited grasp of what’s going on in FW I can see genius in the way that Moholy has shown the four Viconian Ages and the shifting identities of the main characters.

So, to chapter 16, the penultimate chapter, and circling onto the ricorso, the period of confusion after the third age has destroyed itself.  In this chapter I should see what happens after the disintegration at the end of chapter 15.  Campbell tells me that the dreams dissolve with the dawn, and that there is a moment of marital union between the drunken HCE (Here Comes Everybody a.k.a. Earwicker) and his wife ALP (Anna Lavinia Plurabelle), interrupted by a wail from Jerry (Shem), one of the twins, upstairs.  The parents have another try. There are four dumbshows, presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:

all four of them, in their quartan agues, the majorchy, the minorchy, the everso and the fermentarian with their ballyhooric blowreaper (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 555).

and one of these involves a sordid glimpse into a sort of Roman orgy, apparently showing the way parental love deteriorates into a sick sea peopled by monsters of incest and perversion.  What’s that about, Mr Joyce??  Campbell thinks it illuminates the darkest pits in the unconscious of the parents, and it’s also a parody of the literature of romantic love.  I guess we should have known this because the structure of the book warns us that the human age destroys itself…

Fortunately it’s all so obscure and there are so many digressions that most of us wouldn’t recognise the obscenity without Campbell to tell us so.

Tindall notes that Joyce features not very successful bedroom scenes in three of his works: the first (from Dubliners) involves Gabriel Conroy at the Gresham Hotel in ‘The Dead’; and the second, more discouraging attempt is Bloom’s failure in the famous last chapter of Ulysses.  But both of these, says Tindall offer some hope: Molly after all, says ‘yes.’  But while HCE in FW fails too

in their bed of trial, on the bolster of hardship, by the glimmer of memory, under coverlets of cowardice, Albatrus Nyanzer with Victa Nyanza, his mace of might mortified… (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 558).

… there is at least proof, in the form of the children, that he has been successful at some stage…

Tindall, actually, is none too sure whether this bedroom scene is dream or real, an interruption of a dream or part of it.  Is Earwicker dreaming that ALP gets up to comfort the child? Tindall is inclined towards the whole chapter being a dream because the Four Old Men from Chapter 15 are back again and What would they be doing – and ‘whenabouts’ would they be at all – outside a dream?  Fair point.

OTOH, this bedroom seems very real.  It’s one of the clearest passages in the entire book.

House of the cederbalm of mead. Garth of Fyon. Scene and property plot. Stagemanager’s prompt. Interior of dwelling on outskirts of city. Groove two. Chamber scene. Boxed. Ordinary bedroom set. Salmonpapered walls. Back, empty Irish grate, Adam’s mantel, with wilting elopement fan, soot and tinsel, condemned. North, wall with window practicable. Argentine in casement. Vamp. Pelmit above. No curtains. Blind drawn. South, party wall. Bed for two with strawberry bedspread, wickerworker clubsessel and caneseated millikinstool. Bookshrine without, facetowel upon. Chair for one. Woman’s garments on chair. Man’s trousers with crossbelt braces, collar on bedknob. Man’s corduroy surcoat with tabrets and taces, seapan nacre buttons on nail. Woman’s gown on ditto. Over mantelpiece picture of Michael, lance, slaying Satan, dragon with smoke. Small table near bed, front. Bed with bedding. Spare. Flagpatch quilt. Yverdown design. Limes. Lighted lamp without globe, scarf, gazette, tumbler, quantity of water, julepot, ticker, side props, eventuals, man’s gummy article, pink. (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition pp. 558-559).

Tindall also has interesting things to say about the lack of narrative structure in this chapter:

…this chapter is an arrangement, closer to music, poetry, the cinema, and dream than the three simpler chapters that precede it. Chapter XVI is a sequence of matters, put side by side without apparent connection, that differ, one from another, in feeling, rhythm, diction, sense and tone. That Joyce had the movements of a musical composition in mind is suggested by reference to two of his favourites, the Elizabethan lutanists William Bird (556.17-18) and John Dowland (570.3)  Chapter XVI also brings to mind the structure of the long modern poem – The Bridge, for example, where matters alien to one another in rhythm, shape and tone are juxtaposed without transitional device. (Tindall, p.286)

Never heard of them?  Neither had I.  This is William Bird…

and this is John Dowland:


And The Bridge?  I think this one by Hart Crane (1930) is the one that Tindall means:

The Bridge comprises 15 lyric poems of varying length and scope. In style, it mixes near-Pindaric declamatory metre, free verse, sprung metre, Elizabethan diction and demotic language at various points between alternating stanzas and often in the same stanzas. In terms of its acoustical coherence, it requires its reader, novelly, to follow both end-paused and non end-paused enjambments in a style Crane intended to be redolent of the flow of the Jazz or Classical music he tended to listen to when he wrote. Though the poem follows a thematic progress, it freely juggles various points in time. (Wikipedia, viewed 10/12/17)

But I have to say that this chapter doesn’t seem any more chaotic than usual!

In amongst the confusion I found this, which I rather liked:

Retire to rest without first misturbing your nighboor, mankind of baffling descriptions. Others are as tired of themselves as you are. Let each one learn to bore himself. It is strictly requested that no cobsmoking, spitting, pubchat, wrastle rounds, coarse courting, smut, etc, will take place amongst those hours so devoted to repose. Look before behind before you strip you. Disrobe clothed in the strictest secrecy which privacy can afford.


This is a homelet not a hothel.  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition pp. 585-586).

I wish some of my neighbours would retire to rest without misturbing me!

Well, that’s the end of Part III.  My Folio edition says I have 30 pages to go, and then I’m done!


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 | December 10, 2017

Mirror Sydney, by Vanessa Berry

Most of the reviews I’ve seen of Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney are written by Sydneysiders, or by people familiar with the city if not the alternative city she evokes.  Bradley Garrett at the SMH is a recent arrival from London, so for him the book offers an opportunity to explore his new home.  Louis Nowra in The (paywalled) Australian finds the book Proustian; Tom Patterson at The Newtown Review of Books is unabashed about the homage to the city he loves.

But what if the reader isn’t a Sydneysider?  What does the book have to offer someone not familiar with the city?

I think what it offers is a different way of looking at the built environment.  Berry is a rebellious flaneur, presenting ragtag and piecemeal suburban Sydney, most often in dingy and abandoned places off the beaten track.  She’s interested in the recent past in suburban ‘ruins’ where change and development swamp, but don’t entirely obliterate, what was there before.  She finds these places disruptive…

Think of everything that makes up a city like Sydney.  The land underlying it, the hills and valleys and waterways, then the buildings and the infrastructure, the roads and the railways.  Then the living beings which animate the urban scene, the people, the animals, the trees.  Then think of the details in between, all the layers, all the particulars, intricate and ever-changing.

This is a practically impossible exercise.  Cities are complex entities, made up of details in unlimited abundance.  (p.209)

It’s these details that explain why the book is illustrated with hand-drawings for each chapter, not exactly maps, but not collages either.  (You get a sense of them from the cover design).  Taking photos simply wouldn’t work.  The book celebrates its idiosyncratic focus with highly selective images for each chapter.  The reader begins to see with Vanessa Barry’s eye.

In a chapter titled ‘Magic Kingdom’ she seeks out Sydney’s old Luna Park; its failed Reptile Park and African Lion Safari; the King’s Cross Wax Works and a Sea World that only lasted four years.

Abandoned places bring about dystopian fantasies, the sensation of picking over fragments of something long vanished.  The weirdness of abandoned theme parks makes them particularly enticing.  Empty houses are still domestic even when they’re in ruins.  Abandoned industrial sites, while often dramatic in scale, still contain traces of their past usefulness.  Amusement parks were dreamlike from their inception, and in their abandonment they provide a different kind of fun.  To encounter the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is like climbing inside childhood memories or inside a dream. (p.83-4)

In the chapter about Bankstown, she writes about its central role in Sydney’s defences during WW2, noting that it used to be called ‘Yankstown’ because of all the US servicemen based there.  But it’s what she writes about its development as a suburb afterwards that interests me:

Before the war it had been a mixture of urban and rural land, but with the pressures of population growth – between 1940 and 1960 the population grew threefold – there was a boom in house construction and the suburban streets of Bankstown took shape. This was the heyday of the fibro cottage.  Thousands of such houses were constructed on bald blocks of newly subdivided land. Fibro – thin sheeting made from fibrous asbestos and cement – was a cheap, versatile building material.  A timber frame could be quickly clad in sheets of fibro, and a house swiftly assembled.

[…] I pass by some of these postwar houses. […] These fibro houses, like members of an expansive family, have gone on to different fates.  Some are as neat as the day they were built, their pale walls bright in the sunlight, a perfect lawn in front.  Others are surrounded by dismantled cars, their gardens unruly.  In the 1960s these streets had a regular appearance, row after row of small white houses.  Now this uniformity is gone.  Cottages sit alongside the brick McMansions that are slowly replacing them.

This suburban scene is one of aspirations, new and old.  The McMansions reflect a preoccupation with size and prestige, but the cottages they replaced were no less proudly thought of.  In the 1950s and 1960s these cottages were the first home many people had owned.  They symbolised a new, safe, suburban life, relief from run-down homes in the inner-city or from wartime unrest.  Their details have been for some the comforting, the others the alien, features of a new landscape.  (p.177)

That’s a changing landscape that could be duplicated in Melbourne, and perhaps in other cities as well.

Mirror Sydney has made me think about changes in my local built environment in a different way.  There used to be a small shopping centre called Thrift Park within walking distance of my place.  It was opened in 1958 after heated objections from local residents.  Like the shops in the chapter called ‘Penrith Arcades Project, Thrift Park was an arcade hosting all kinds of interesting shops: a scrapbooking supplier that ran classes helping unartistic people like me to make beautiful memory books; a gemstone shop that didn’t cater to loopy New Age fantasy cures; a bakery where I used to buy the best-ever fresh scones to contribute to birthday morning teas at work; a pet shop with a really knowledgeable owner who just loved talking about dogs; a cranky butcher who objected to selling cheap cuts of meat, as I discovered when I wanted to try a Chinese recipe for ‘red beef’.  Contrary to the cheery reassurances from the developers, these idiosyncrasies are all gone: now the centre is dominated by a large supermarket, and the usual suspects: Baker’s Delight and other chains.  (But the coffee’s better, I’ll give them that!)

The other big change in my local area is going on all over Melbourne because of the Level Crossing Removal Project.  My strip shopping centre is going to be revamped around the new station and its plaza and the council is taking the opportunity to jazz up the entire area with planning for new residential and retail developments, improved parking and traffic management and so on.  And – unlike the Thrift Park development – the community is being asked what it wants.  We’ve been able to comment on plans and designs, make suggestions about what to do with the heritage-listed old railway station, and attend public meetings if we’re really keen.  #FingersCrossed It looks as if it’s going to be an improvement.

If I’d read Mirror Sydney beforehand, I would have made sure that my local historical society had documented what was lost at Thrift Park, and I’m going to contact them to check that it’s being done for the level crossing works.  Because although I don’t share Berry’s enthusiasm for dingy old places, I’m interested in the urban history they represent.  That’s what makes this such an interesting book.

Author: Vanessa Berry
Title: Mirror Sydney
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336252
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.

Available from Fishpond: Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2017

A Year in First Lines (2017)

Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has reminded us to take part in the annual Year in First Lines meme!

These are the rules:

“Take the first line of each month’s post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.”

It’s an idea that started with The Indextrious Reader a few years ago, and I remember that that it really is an interesting way to look back at a year.


Change Is the Only Constant: Writing from Macedonia by Will Firth (with thanks to Words without Borders)

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might remember a guest post by Australian translator Will Firth who works these days in Europe.


Fables, Queer and Familiar, by Meg Merrilees

I discovered Margaret Merrilees, a writer from Adelaide, when Wakefield Press published her first novel, The First Week. 


Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, read by Michael York

Listening to an audio book is a good way to revisit a book read a long time ago.


Tomorrow, by Graham Swift

*pout* I’m not having much luck with my fiction reading at the moment.


2017 Australian Book Industry Awards shortlist & winners

I have no idea what the judging criteria might be for this book industry award, but IMO there is something deeply depressing about books titled The Bikini Body 28-Day Healthy Eating & Lifestyle. 


Sensational Snippets: Waiting, by Philip Salom

I am reading Philip Salom’s novel Waiting with my admiration increasing page by page, and I am starting to think that this is the one that ought to win the 2017 Miles Franklin.


2017 Rare Books Week

I’ve had a lovely day today, the first of many adventures with Rare Books Week for 2017.


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Adrien Kijek

This novel is an exciting development in Australian publishing.


The Lady of the Realm, by Hoa Pham

This new title from Hoa Pham would make a great choice for Novellas in November*.

Wilde in the dock, from The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)


The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde

As Australia trudges through the sordid process of conducting a government sponsored poll of popular opinion on gay marriage, I read a collection of Oscar Wilde’s poems in a collection titled after his most famous poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.


First Person, by Richard Flanagan

It has taken me ages to read Richard Flanagan’s new novel First Person because there is so much to think about within its pages.


The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller

I’m going to keep this short because Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors and it pains me to write that I am disappointed by his latest work.

Sooo…. what do these First Lines tell me about my year in blogging?

  • It’s been a big year in Australian literature, with new releases from Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan and Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller.  And they weren’t the only Big Names to release a new novel – which is going to make the awards season a very interesting one indeed.  I’ve read 62 new releases from Australia this year, eleven of them debut novels, and some of them non-fiction.
  • My reading was influenced by the Marriage Equality debate.  That’s because I care about social issues.
  • I’m interested in diverse Australian voices: Hoa Pham is of Vietnamese descent and Shokoofah Azar is an Iranian author now living here in Australia, writing her first novel in Persian and having it locally translated for publication here in Australia.
  • I’ve been out and about a bit more than when my father was alive and I was visiting him in Aged Care every day.  As well as Rare Books Week, I went to the Bendigo Writers Festival, the Williamstown Literary Festival, the Woodend Winter Arts Festival and the Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, and I’ve also been to some author events, book launches and a symposium on translation.
  • I am no good at picking Miles Franklin winners.  Still, I was pleased to see that Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions won the prize!
  • I’m intolerant of book titles that pander to a preoccupation with body image.
  • I will tell you if I didn’t like a book.  (And I don’t keep my promise to provide a positive review to balance my …um…unenthusiastic one, if a quick search doesn’t unearth one).
  • I’ve only listened to five audio books this year, and most of those were when I was having trouble with my eyes.  That’s because I do very little driving these days now that I’m retired #HappyDance, and I only ever listened to audio books on the daily commute.
  • Influenced by Stu at Winston’s Dad, I’m interested in translated books and translation issues. I’ve read 33 books in translation this year, ten of them by women.

But what these First Lines don’t show is my fascination with weird, strange, experimental and challenging books!  I started Finnegans Wake in March, and I’ve almost finished it.  It is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever read, and – even with the help of my two trusty guides William York Tindall and Joseph Campbell – I don’t pretend for a millisecond that I have understood more than a fraction of it but it’s been incredibly good fun.  I think that’s because there’s no pressure to say anything wise and wonderful about this reading journey – nobody else really understands FW either.

The other focus of this blog that doesn’t show up is my support for Indigenous writing.  I hosted Indigenous Literature Week for the sixth year this year, and I read nine books by Indigenous authors, including four new releases.  There were great contributions from other participants, making eighteen new reviews altogether of books by Indigenous authors on the 2017 Reviews page  and they were all added to the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Reading List which is a permanent resource accessed by schools and universities, and archived by Pandora.

What do you think?  Are these first lines indicative of why you read my blog?

Update (the next day): I’m not fishing for compliments when I’m asking if you think these 2017 First Lines reflect the reasons why you read my blog. Let me explain:  I read Sue at Whispering Gums because I like her articles about aspects of Australian writing; I read Bill at The Australian Legend because I’m intrigued by his reviews of early Australian fiction.  I read heaps of other blogs as well, of course, but I’m just using these two as an example. Now, they both write about other topics as well, of course, and I read those too, but it’s that particular niche that brings me to their blogs whenever they post anything new.

So, to sample just one month from Bill’s blog, if I look at his First Lines for December, that’s exactly why I read his blog:

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) is Miles Franklin’s second published novel.

But if I sample just one from Sue’s (for December):

If you are a fan of professional tennis you will probably have heard of Jelena Dokic who hit the world stage during the 1999 Wimbledon Championships.

No, that’s a review, encompassing two of my pet hates, celebrity bios and sport!  Not indicative of why I read Sue’s blog at all!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2017

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert

Who should I thank for bringing this excellent book to my attention?  I know I read about it somewhere online, but I forgot to note down whose review it was…

I first read Rachel Seiffert when she was nominated for the Booker for her debut The Dark Room, a powerful trio of novellas that tackled the moral responsibility of ordinary Germans under the Third Reich.  Seiffert has continued to tackle confronting themes… Though I’m going to leave it for a little while before I read it,  I’ve just borrowed her next book Afterwards which explores the aftermath of service in the British Army in Northern Ireland and in Kenya.  I need a bit of space after reading A Boy in Winter, in which Seiffert returns to the topic of The Holocaust, this time, in a small village in Ukraine, beginning in November 1941 as the German Operation Barbarossa makes its way across the Soviet Union.

Some might think, why another book about the Holocaust?  People my parents’ age watched in horror as the postwar newsreels showed them what had happened, undiluted by any attempt to explain why or how.  But it’s beginning to look as if successive generations have become desensitised to grainy B&W images, and the rise of the Far Right and Neo-Nazi groups suggests that there is a place for vivid fiction to counter it.  But what Seiffert is interested in, is the ways in which ordinary people grapple with what’s right and wrong when they are caught up in the tide of events.  This theme has an applicability to the present, in so many contemporary contexts…

Otto Pohl is a German engineer who has evaded military service for a regime he and his wife consider contemptible.  Although he is in charge of building a road to further the German advance, he thinks that he is not implicit in the moral culpability of war.  But far from any battlefield he has just heard the gun shots of an atrocity – and realised that he perhaps had had it in his power to have saved some of the victims.  Out of compassion, he had refused to take them as a labour force because they were unused to hard labour in the icy weather.

The first shock has passed, leaving a leaden feeling.  All day he has found himself incapable of working, unable to rid himself of this morning.  Pohl can think of nothing but leaving, and he has sat down at his desk any number of times to write his reasons.  He wrote in rage first.  But what he put on the pages was little more than a tirade.  No one would take such ravings seriously; even he, in all his anger, could see that.  And then, after he’d redrafted, Pohl hit up against doubt and distrust: who to send this to?  He could think of no one he was sure of.

Pohl had to force himself to think clearly, and more cleverly: his request for transfer had to have solid ground to stand on – any accusations he made all the more so.  But this was no day to find clarity, or assurance, and page upon page ended in shreds in his wastepaper basket.  (p.95)

He is not the only one who is shocked.  Mykola is a deserter from the Red Army, now a reluctant assistant in the German police force.  His family, who farm on the marsh, is aghast that he should work for the occupiers, but he thinks he has no choice.  The retreating Reds destroyed the crops and all their farming infrastructure.  Unless he works for the Reichsmark, his family like many others will starve and there will be no money for seeds.  Seiffert shows how over a single chaotic day he is acclimatised to obey orders.  At first unwittingly, and then with increasing dismay, he becomes part of the apparatus with which Ephraim, a Jewish lens-maker, co-operates too, gradually accepting one humiliation after another because he thinks it will help to ‘get it over with’ more quickly and then they will be on their way to resettlement.

Yasia, a young peasant girl in love with Mykola, doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on at first.  She’s come to town, as she usually does, to sell the family’s produce.  Like the rest of the village, she is not much bothered by the registration processes for the Jews.  She’s never had much to do with them, and her life is circumscribed by the slow rhythm of the working day.  She is not a city girl who has witnessed the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in Germany since the rise of Hitler, and she doesn’t even recognise as Jews, two boys who are out after curfew.  What she sees, is a couple of hungry kids and she has no idea that harbouring them brings peril to her family as well as herself.

Calmly and in dispassionate prose, Seiffert lays out the ways these characters, Pohl, Ephraim, Mykola, Yasia, and the older boy Yankel, all have choices to make, and yet in some ways they have no choice at all.  It’s impossible to read this novel without thinking of the choices faced by people caught up in contemporary events: the war on ISIS; Israel and the Palestinians; the North Korean military; Guantanamo Bay; Manus Island and the Trump administration.   In the novel the existential choice is immediate for some: Mykola takes to stealing because where was the right any longer, where was the wrong in staying alive?  In the real world, well, perhaps the young Australian wife and mother who went with her husband to fight for ISIS recoiled in horror when she saw her son dangling a butchered head, but what choices did she and her children have after that?

In Australia, time and again we have seen former workers such as teachers and doctors from Manus come home, unable to reconcile their attempts to help with the reality of the workplace they’re in.   When they leave, a bit of humanity goes with them, yet their protest is powerful. But we live in a world where speaking out is increasingly dangerous, and even democracies are curtailing freedom of expression in the name of ‘keeping us safe’.  A novel like A Boy in Winter can’t change the past, but by encouraging us to think about ordinary people caught up in these dilemmas, it might help to change the present…

You can read an interview with the author at The Guardian.

Author: Rachel Seiffert
Title: A Boy in Winter
Publisher: Virago Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780349010397
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Boy in Winter

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2017

Meet a Kiwi Author: Michalia Arathimos

Michalia Arathimos is a writer of Greek descent from New Zealand currently living in Melbourne. She won the 2016 Sunday Star Times Short Story Prize, and is the Fiction Reviewer for Overland Magazine.   I discovered Michalia’s novel Aukati (published by Mākaro Press) via the review at BooksellersNZ) and as you can tell from my own review, I was very impressed.  At a time when Nobel Laureate Kasuo Ishiguro is calling for more diversity in literature, Michalia has woven a story about an important contemporary issue with a diverse cast of characters who are negotiating the multicultural world they live in.  This is exactly the kind of writing that I find exciting.

So I was very pleased when Michalia took time out from work and parenthood and writing, to contribute to Meet a Kiwi Author!

  1. I was born in Wellington, Aotearoa, pronounced ‘Ouellington’ by my Greek grandmother, into a tight migrant community that was very good at assimilating whilst secretly keeping up their Greekness.
  2. When I was a child I wrote… this poem:
    ‘In the sparkling morning comes the blessing of the sun,
    spreading brilliant branches out: light for everyone!
    Birds sing tunes, so sweet to hear,
    waking things are everywhere.
    Shadows of the night, it seems,
    are but strange, forgotten dreams.’
    Yes, I remember it.
  3. The people who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write were my family and teachers.
  4. I write in… bed, at the kitchen table, in cafes, and occasionally at my writing desk!
  5. I write when… the baby is asleep, or with someone else!
  6. Research is… excellent, but also a very good excuse for not writing.
  7. I keep my published works in …some kind of order in a file somewhere on my computer. But should you check on this, it would be scatty and incomplete. I keep my debut novel on my bookshelf, where at the moment it sits brazenly alongside Black Marks on the White Page by Witi Ihimaera and Atlantic Black by A.S. Patric.  (LH: Two of the most notable authors in Australasia! Good company to keep, IMO, and I hope you’re loving Alec’s one, Michalia, as you can see from my review I thought it was wonderful!)
  8. On the day my first book was published, I… was very sleep deprived because of my young child, surrounded by family and friends, and entirely too overwhelmed to process it. (Update: have processed it now; it’s great, thanks!)
  9. At the moment, I’m writing …a kind of scaffolding for my next novel, consisting of maps of interweaving narrative arcs, and fragments about characters. I’m also editing an article for Overland about ‘terrorism’ in Aotearoa, and writing my next round of Overland fiction reviews.
  10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I … go for a walk, or write a dialogue between myself and the character at hand. You’d be surprised what they can tell you; sometimes they are quite rude! But they always know what to do.

When I suggested that Michalia might like to include a photo of her muse, this was her reply!

And here are some excellent muses (with me in the middle): The NZ women writer’s of the Ladies Litera-tea, from left: Dame Fiona Kidman, Fiona Farrell, Sue Wootton, Annaleese Jochems, Tina Makereti, me, Carole Beu (owner of the Women’s Bookshop), Kirsten McDougall, Heather Kidd, Diana Wichtel, Courtney Sina Meredith, and Lisa King.

Photo credit: The Women’s Bookshop

You can buy Michalia’s novel from Fishpond: Aukati

Photo credit: Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons

In his Nobel Prize lecture (7/12/17) Kasuo Ishiguro made a number of interesting points, but what stands out to me is the following:

But let me finish by making an appeal – if you like, my Nobel appeal! It’s hard to put the whole world to rights, but let us at least think about how we can prepare our own small corner of it, this corner of ‘literature’, where we read, write, publish, recommend, denounce and give awards to books. If we are to play an important role in this uncertain future, if we are to get the best from the writers of today and tomorrow, I believe we must become more diverse. I mean this in two particular senses.

Firstly, we must widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first world cultures. We must search more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in far away countries or within our own communities. Second: we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.

You can read the lecture in full on the Nobel website.

Update 16/12/17 And read this too: Kasuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Performance at the (always interesting) Inside Story.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2017

Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

One theme I’ve been studiously avoiding in my reading over the last couple of years is the subject of grief.  I’ve had my own mourning to do (because of this, and this) and I certainly haven’t wanted to read about anybody else’s. But Billy Bird by New Zealand author got under my radar because it was nominated for the 2018 Dublin Literary Award longlist, and although it took a bit of fortitude to finish it I can see why it’s a popular book.

It’s not just about grief, because it’s about parenthood too: it’s about a young family falling apart because of successive bereavements and (like most of us) not having the resources to deal with it.

This is the blurb:

Liam and Iris have one son: Billy, a bright ‘toddler puddling about [. . .] leaving surrealist art installations all over the house— a tiny cow in a teapot in a hat on the doorstep, of course! A stuffed crocodile in a silk camisole perched beside a woollen chick in a beanie on the bread-bin, why not!’

Just as they are despairing about being able to conceive another child, Jason comes into their family. He arrives under fraught circumstances, but might just make a perfect sibling for Billy. Jason is a ‘ lovely, poor, sad, unfortunate, ordinary, annoying, delightful nuisance of a ratbag of a hoot of a kid ‘ and the boys grow close over the ensuing years. But after a terrible accident, Billy turns into a bird. He utterly believes it: and as his behaviour becomes increasingly worrying, Liam and Iris must find a way to stop their family flying apart.

Liam and Iris are young, and very young at heart, when they have to cope with a death from disease, a suicide and a traffic accident fatality. Life conspires to make this harder with a move from Auckland to Dunedin, leaving familiar routines and friends behind.  Neither of them have family to speak of, only each other.  And like most of us, they are flawed human beings with character traits that make grieving more difficult.  Iris has major anxiety issues which are tiresome for her family, while Liam (the major breadwinner) is bottling up his emotions because he fears what might happen if he cracks.  On top of all of that is the residual fear that apparently haunts many New Zealanders after the Christchurch earthquake and its ongoing aftershocks.  For Iris, Liam’s business trip there is a major stressor because she catastrophises everything even when there isn’t anything much to worry about.  And she is, of course, a classic helicopter parent anyway…

‘What do you think Billy’s up to?’
‘Learning birdanese, I guess.’  Liam used the tone of a man on a diet of pickled onions and tripe.  ‘Leave him to it.’
‘Okay.’  Iris actually managed ‘okay’ for half a minute.  Then she said, ‘I better go and check.’
Liam watched her tuck her shirt back into her skirt waistband as she stood up.
‘Iris’, he said.
‘Come here.’ He moved over to sit on the couch.  She stayed where she was.
‘You’re a good mother.’
They locked stares.  She gave a small shake of the head.
‘Please. Sit down.’ She did.  He put a hand to her forehead: ran his thumb over the skin between her eyebrows, the way it bunched into a small knot.  Her worry-cep, as he called it: big from carrying the weight of the world.
‘Look.  You’re the one going to check on him, right? When he’s perfectly safe, in his very own bedroom, doting over what’s probably going to be his new obsession.  I’m the one trying to get you to come and sit back here,’ he patted the gap between them on the couch again, ‘shuffle your pretty rump up close, drink another wine, and let me play-act seventeen again.  Get in some heavy petting while no one’s watching.’
His eyes did seem rather swilly. ‘How many drinks have you had?’
He shrugged.  ‘A couple.  Look, I’d let him stay in there and eat birdseed for a day if it meant you’d relax.’ (p.187

Billy, their precocious and very bright child, is sensitive to all this, and his obsession with being a bird starts to cause trouble at school.  Still, it takes this couple a while to get the professional counselling help they need (and Liam is especially resistant).  Almost inevitably, they think Billy’s the one who needs help, not realising the fault lines in their own relationship.  The novel (at 327 pages) doesn’t shoehorn the counselling process into an unrealistic timeframe, which is appropriate, but it loses a bit of momentum because the optimistic ending is so foreseeable. The novel also risks being sentimental here and there but most of the time it’s poignant rather than twee, and I guess that goes with the territory for this sort of book…

See also the review at Booksellers NZ.

Author: Emma Neale
Title: Billy Bird
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand), 2016
ISBN: 9780143770053
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $25.90

Available from Fishpond: Billy Bird

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2017

Authors from Tasmania (Australian Authors #2)

It’s ironic… I was working on a draft of Authors from Tasmania (Australian Authors #2) when a crisis in WA arts funding prompted me to jump ahead to publish Authors from Western Australia (Australian Authors #3).  And now the Tasmanian Writers Centre (TWC) is itself struggling with funding cuts, which will affect their capacity to support their authors.  What can a blogger who loves TasLit do about this?

Well, make a donation first of all.  I have, and you can too.  Here’s the link.

Next, I can raise awareness of Tasmanian writing, so that you too might want to do something else I have done: I wrote a cross extremely polite letter to the Premier and Cabinet, copied to the Leader of The Opposition.  If you don’t have time to write a letter, get a postcard and write #FundTheTWC on it.  It’ll cost you 50c to post it. Perhaps if the Tasmanian government realises that they will earn the opprobrium that still attaches Queensland for its cuts to funding for the literary arts, they may reconsider.

But the most important thing to do is to make people aware of the value of Tasmanian writing, so here’s my tentative list of beaut Tassie writers.  Tentative because I’m sure there may be more.  Tasmania as a state punches well above its weight in terms of literary talent, but it’s true that many authors who hail from Tassie have made their way across to the mainland or beyond so there may be others who could be on this list.

First up, let’s start with authors I’ve reviewed on this blog.  (Links are to my reviews, to Meet an Aussie Author profiles, and sometimes to the TWC Writers Database)

Rachel Leary is a debut author whose historical novel Bridget Crack is getting rave reviews, (including mine).  It’s the story of a female bushranger, set in the period of Tasmania’s colonial history – which has always been a great source for fiction, starting with Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874).  His Natural Life paints a sorry picture of convict life in Van Dieman’s Land, but you can’t fault its value to tourism and the Port Arthur Historic Site!

Rohan Wilson has written prize-winning and unforgettable novels also set in this period, including The Roving Party (2011 and To Name Those Lost (2014).  These novels bring to life the stories of Tasmania’s Black History, as I’ve read about it in works of non-fiction by authors who must surely be considered as honorary Tasmanians: Lyndall Ryan, for Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803; and Rebe Taylor for Into the Heart of Tasmania which won the 2017 Tasmania Book Prize.  And although I haven’t read any novels by contemporary Indigenous Tasmanian authors, the TWC includes in its Writer Database poet, playwright and short story writer Jim Everett, who also goes by his Aboriginal name, puralia meenamatta, and I hope to source some of his short stories soon.  Through the TWC database I’ve also discovered Grease and Ochre: The Blending of Two Culture at the Colonial Sea Frontier (2011) by Patsy Cameron from Flinders Island, who can trace her Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage through her mother’s line to four ancestral grandmothers.

Some Tasmanian writers are imports from other states.  But Peter Timms has been a Taswegian so long now that he sounds like a local in In Search of Hobart.  He’s also written a novel set in the 1950s, called Asking for TroubleHis partner Robert Dessaix has written some exquisite books, but I haven’t reviewed any of them on this blog because I read them so long ago.  His novels include Night Letters: A Journey Through Switzerland and Italy (1996); Secrets (1997); and Corfu (2001); but I also liked his non-fiction A Mother’s Disgrace (1994) and I have Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (2004) on my TBR.

Secrets was co written with Drusilla Modjeska and fellow Taswegian Amanda Lohrey.  I’ve been following Lohrey’s career ever since I read Camille’s Bread (1995); The Philosopher’s Doll (2004); Reading Madame Bovary (2011); and most recently A Short History of Richard Kline (2015).  But my favourite of them all is Vertigo from 2008. Very few writers have written about bushfire so compellingly, though Tassie-born Karenlee Thompson’s collection of short fictions called Flame Tip (2017) commemorates the 1967 fires in ways that will break your heart.

Heather Rose has been writing for a while, but she sprang to prominence with her prize-winning novel The Museum of Modern Art (2016).  For a while there it was on shortlists everywhere, but I bet it’s winning the 2017 Tasmanian Margaret Scott Prize that means the most, although it’s not the most money.  It’s knowing that your local community values your work that means a lot, I am sure.  Another notable novel that I really liked was Sean Rabin’s Wood Green which was nominated for the Readings Prize in 2016.  Set in the misty hills beyond Hobart, it has a cunning twist that took me entirely by surprise.

Set in an even more isolated environment is Robyn Mundy’s Wildlight (2016) which features the travails of a young person marooned without her c21st communication devices on a remote island off the southern coast of Tasmania.  I loved this book because it treads a fine line between YA preoccupations and a more satisfying story that explores the impact of tragedy on the adults we become.  It also explores issues of trust and betrayal, themes which feature strongly in the novels of the late, great Christopher Koch whose novels Out of Ireland (1991) and Lost Voices (2012) are for me, quintessentially Tasmanian.

But Tasmanian authors range far and wide in their preoccupations.  In The End of Seeing (2015) Christy Collins wrote a beautiful mediation on grief which situates her characters in the wider world.  By contrast Helen Hodgman in Blue Skies (1976) is more domestic in her concerns, capturing the inertia of suburban life for women in the 1950s.  Favel Parrett (who now lives in Melbourne but will always be thought of as Taswegian because of her vivid settings in Hobart) has a focus on disadvantage in her novels Past the Shallows (2011) and When the Night Comes (2014).

Carmel Bird lives in Melbourne now too, but she was born and educated in Tassie.   Her aptly-named novel Cape Grimm (2005) is set on Cape Grim on the north-western point of Tasmania, but here on the blog I’ve only reviewed Family Skeleton (2016) and Child of the Twilight (2009).   And although it’s not reviewed here, I should mention Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark (2006), a lovely novel set on Bruny Island and which brings together family and colonial history in an unforgettable way.

I haven’t mentioned non-fiction authors!  The most prominent is James Boyce whose history 1835, The Founding of Melbourne (2011) is as much about Tasmania as it is about the settlement in Victoria. He is also the author of Born Bad (2014), and Van Diemen’s Land (2008). which won the Tasmania Book Prize and the Colin Roderick Award and was shortlisted a swag of other awards.  Stephen Dando-Collins is the prolific author of many books, but the one I’ve reviewed here is his biography of Henry Parkes (2014).  And then of course there is former leader of the Greens Bob Brown whose many publications are focussed on environmental issues, while Ron Brooks deserves mention here because he is a brilliant illustrator of children’s books, and I loved his quasi-autobiography Drawn from the Heart when I read it in 2011.  I recommend that you check the list of his children’s books at the Tasmanian Writers Centre site and make sure you buy them all for the little people in your life.

The most prominent of contemporary Tasmanian authors is Richard Flanagan: highly regarded internationally and winner of international prizes including the Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Flanagan is the author of Death of a River Guide (1994); The Sound of one Hand Clapping (1997); Gould’s Book of Fish (2001); The Unknown Terrorist (2006); the exquisite Wanting (2008); his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and First Person (2017).

The honour roll of Tasmanian authors no longer with us includes

There are of course also numerous other authors writing plays and poems, children’s literature and commercial fiction but it’s outside the scope of this blog to name them all!




Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2017

2018 Indie Book Awards longlist

The Longlist for the Indie Book Awards 2018 has just been announced (in time for Christmas shopping or hint-giving!)

Thanks to Brendan from BFredericksPR for the heads-up:)

FICTION LONGLIST: I’ve read all of these, except the ones I don’t want to.   Links are to my reviews.   Note the absence of small publishers except for Text…

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey (Penguin Random House)
The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
First Person by Richard Flanagan (Penguin Random House)
Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia)
The Choke by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)
The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham (Hachette Australia)
Taboo by Kim Scott (Pan Macmillan Australia)
On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong (Text Publishing)
City of Crows by Chris Womersley (Pan Macmillan Australia) (I did make a start on this one, and I think for people who like fantasy it would be a winner).

NON-FICTION LONGLIST: Here, small publishers have done better: Scribe, Text, UQP and Giramondo have nominations).

Danger Music by Eddie Ayres (Allen & Unwin)
Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (HarperCollins Australia)
The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain (Scribe Publications)
Saga Land by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
Mrs Kelly by Grantlee Kieza (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (Text Publishing)
Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy (University of Queensland Press)
Detours by Tim Rogers (HarperCollins Australia)
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Tracker by Alexis Wright (Giramondo Publishing) on my TBR

DEBUT FICTION: For this category the only small publishers are Text and Black Inc.

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey (Allen & Unwin)
Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette Australia)
Australia Day by Melanie Cheng (Text Publishing)
Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman (Hachette Australia)
The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover (Black Inc.)
The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green (Hachette Australia)
To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson (Allen & Unwin)
Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (HarperCollins Australia)
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Hachette Australia)
Half Wild by Pip Smith (Allen & Unwin)


Maggie’s Recipe For Life by Maggie Beer with Professor Ralph Martins (Simon & Schuster Australia)
Ostro by Julia Busuttil Nishimura (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Ferment by Holly Davis (Murdoch Books)
Cornersmith: Salads and Pickles by Alex Elliott-Howery & Sabine Spindler (Murdoch Books)
Native: Art & Design with Australian Plants by Kate Herd & Jela Ivankovic-Waters (Thames & Hudson Australia)
Paris: Through a Fashion Eye by Megan Hess (Hardie Grant Books)
Beyond the Rock by Janelle McCulloch (Bonnier Publishing Australia)
Hummus & Co by Michael Rantissi & Kristy Frawley (Murdoch Books)
Dreamscapes by Claire Takacs (Hardie Grant Books)
Flowersmith by Jennifer Tran (Hardie Grant Books)


Pig the Star by Aaron Blabey (Scholastic Australia)
Mopoke by Philip Bunting (Scholastic Australia)
I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox & Ronojoy Ghosh (Illus) (Scholastic Australia)
The Very Noisy Baby by Alison Lester (Affirm Press)
I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon (Allen & Unwin)
Tales From a Tall Forest by Shaun Micallef (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The Extremely Inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty (Allen & Unwin)
Polly and Buster: The Wayward Witch and the Feelings Monster by Sally Rippin (Hardie Grant Egmont)
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Hachette Australia)
Florette by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House)


Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Fiona Wood & Simmone Howell (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian (Text Publishing)
Wilder Country by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell (University of Queensland Press)
Sparrow by Scot Gardner (Allen & Unwin)
The Silent Invasion by James Bradley (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin (Walker Books Australia)
Draekora by Lynette Noni (Pantera Press)
My Life as a Hashtag by Gabrielle Williams (Allen & Unwin)
The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)

The Shortlist will be announced on 15 January 2018, with the Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner being announced at the Leading Edge Books Annual Conference Awards Dinner on Monday 26 March, 2018 in Hobart.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #16 Chapter 15

Well, after a gap of a fortnight due to my struggles with Existentialism, I am back here with Finnegans Wake and starting to entertain ambitions to be done by the end of the year.  Tindall says Chapter 15 is one of the easier ones though this may be contingent on being a hardened reader as noted in my previous post.

Before I started, as usual, I read the chapter summaries of Tindall and Campbell, but this time found Campbell’s a neater summary of what transpires in this chapter and what Joyce is on about.  Alluding to the Viconian Ages (See Chapter one if mystified), he explains that Shaun is a long-winded sentimentalist who merely parodies his father Earwicker.

After the solemnities of the Theocratic Age and the pomp of the Aristocratic, Shaun represents the frank vulgarities of the demagogue (Bk. III, chap. 1).  After the pious seed-sowing of the Patriarchs and the gallant love-play of the heroic Lords and Ladies, Jaun is simply a Victorian lady-killer bachelor, prurient, prudent, prudish, and didactic (Bk. III, chap. 2). In the present chapter we find him already exhausted, grandly sprawling across a hillock in County Meath, which is the umbilical centre of the Green Isle of the World.  Known now as Yawn, he has carried into full decline the ageless dynastic line of his fathers.  (Campbell, p.287)

He is interrogated by Four Old Men, starting with questions about his relationship to a criminal (i.e. his father who has been accused of sexual assault).  Significantly, Campbell makes it clear that Shaun is being evasive while he is being questioned:

He evades with indirections and sophistries, pretends that he cannot speak English, and seizes upon irrelevant aspects of the question under discussion.  By the stubborn quality of his resistance we gather that he is being threatened in the profoundest part of his soul.  (Campbell, p. 293)

Campbell goes on to say that these Four Old Men represent an archaic form of Catholicism dating back to Medieval Europe and the Catholicism of the Book of Kells.  Through the Four, Campbell says, Joyce is forcing Shaun to acknowledge the pretensions not only of Henry VIII, but also of Henry VII…

(Well, I know how Henry VIII used religious reform for political reasons, but what did Henry VII do?  Perhaps someone can enlighten me?)

There are also many allusions to British imperialism in Ireland, India and elsewhere. (New South Wales (Noo Souch Wilds) even gets a mention!)

Campbell divides the inquest into seven stages:

  1. Words of Yawn himself
  2. Words of ALP [his mother]
  3. Exagmination
  4. Silence
  5. Confustication
  6. Brain Trust Questions Kitty the Beads [LH: these are younger investigators, reminiscent of the BBC radio Brains Trust]
  7. Brain Trust Hears from HCE himself

Tindall shows Yawn to be a slothful no-hoper too, while offering lots of helpful detail to interpret the chapter.  When I get started I find that I am charmed straightaway by discovering the word metandmorefussed which has to be the best pun ever for ‘metamorphosed’.  Sleepy Shaun, formerly floating down the Liffey in a barrel is now metamorphosed into Yawn and he’s resting on a mound like a psychiatrist’s couch so that he can be interrogated by the four old men (who have previously been Earwicker’s judges, customers in his pub and the annalists of Tristan).  And it will come as no surprise to you who are still sticking with me on my journey that lurking within Yawn are many selves, a host of a multitude.  Tindall warns me that within each layer of selves there are members of the family: Isabel, Anna and Kate, and Earwicker too of course.  As he says a little later on, Earwicker’s favourite son and successor has himself has been at different times Kevin, Shaun, Chuff, Taff, Tristan, Yawn or What’s His Name …

To name is to fix, define or identify; and nothing in the Wake is certain enough for naming.  (Tindall, p.255)

Yes.  Indeed.

The four judges have other identities too.  As mamalujo they are the gospellers Matthew Gregory, Marcus Lyons, Lucas Tarpey and John McDonald from Chapter 12) and they also represent the four provinces of Ireland (north, south, east and west i.e. Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught).  Then they are also the four ages of Vico: Matthew the divine age; Mark the heroic age (Lyons = leonine, gettit?); Luke from Dublin is the human age, and John the ricorso. These variations have surfaced before, and while I confess to being pleased to recognise some things from previous chapters, Tindall seems to lose patience a bit …

… the Wake like life itself, repeats the same old things again and again.  Their endless variations are funny sometimes, sometimes instructive, tiresome sometimes, sometimes poetic.  (Tindall, p. 269)

Joyce himself might have sensed this exasperation because towards the end of the chapter he writes:

That’s enough, genral, of finicking about Finnegan and fiddling with his faddles.  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 531).


The Four Old Men arrive…

… by the first quaint skreek of the gloaming and they hopped it up the mountainy molehill, traversing climes of old times gone by of the days not worth remembering; inventing some excusethems, any sort, having a sevenply sweat of night blues moist upon them. Feefee! phopho!! foorchtha!!! aggala!!!! jeeshee!!!!! paloola!!!!!! ooridiminy!!!!!!!  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition pp. 474-475).  fhoahlm

Tindall, bless him, is a bit put out by these strange words:

Although the first three of the seven words suggest a fearful giant [LH: Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum from Jack and the Beanstalk?  But why??], the sequence is puzzling.  Of no common tongue, the words may be Swahili or Eskimo for all I know, or, like the ‘nebrakada femininum’ of Ulysses (242), the nonsense of a spell or incantation.  (Tindall, p257)

Well may we say

Are we speachin d’anglas landadge or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?! (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition p. 485).

It occurred to me that maybe this was one of those codes where you select the letter that corresponds to a number, so using the number of exclamation marks (they must mean something, right?) the first letter of Feefee and the second of phopho and so on, but this leads to fhoahlm, which …um… no … doesn’t seem to clarify anything at all.

Tindall, writing in 1996, did not have the (dubious) benefit of Google Translate.  It confidently identified foorchtha as Dutch; aggala as Corsican; paloola as Finnish; ooridiminy as Somali, (all without actually translating the words into anything) and #excitement! jeeshee also as Somali and translating it as ‘check it out’.   I’m not sure that this exercise has left me any better off, and anyway I’m leaning towards horrid ignominy for ooridiminy which would suggest that these four bode ill for Yawn a.k.a. Shawn.  

The inquisition of the inquisitive four takes the form of a fishing, a hunting, a séance, a trial in court, an analysis in depth, and the sounding of an ocean.  (Tindall, p.253) They are looking for an epiphany but what they get is Earwicker’s trousers falling down.

When Earwicker finally gets to have a say in this chapter, he boasts about the rebuilding he’s been doing: because it’s the Viconian human age in this section of FW, the rebuilding follows war in Amtsadam, Dublin, Brussels and so on.  He sings ‘Home Sweet Home’ before refuting the charges of indecency but he apologises for other grubby misdemeanours.  The chapter concludes with Earwicker bragging that he has built universities and churches and a democratic government, not to mention Coney Island and five of the seven wonders of the world, and many of the loveliest streets in Dublin.

Click here to see the illustration in the Folio edition.  You can see Yawn sleeping in the middle, and the four men down on the left hand side.  There are three Kings from a pack of cards representing the kings who visited a manger to see an infant, and there are the large buildings erected by HCE.

On to Chapter 16!

Update, the next day: something has been niggling away in my brain in connection with Feefee! phopho!! foorchtha and Tindall’s suggestion of a fearful giant.  Joyce references Swift a lot in FW and Gulliver’s Travels features Gulliver as a fearsome giant when he’s among the Lilliputans.  Shaun/Yawn lying on a mound reminds me of those anthropomorphic paintings that I saw in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Old Masters) in Brussels…


Landscape man

These are anonymous C16th paintings and are obviously in the Public Domain now.  But the museum is closed for renovations till 2019 so I sourced these images from The Public Domain Review.


… but they are not the only examples of this type of art. See ‘The Art of Hidden Faces’ at the Public Domain Review. What is Shaun if not an example of hidden faces among the complex layers of his persona, eh?


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 | December 4, 2017

2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes winners

This is old news, I’m afraid, but I didn’t know about the winners of the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes winners until the Tasmanian Writers Centre newsletter hit my inbox tonight. I have a horrid feeling that funding cuts are limiting the activities of the TWC: a pinned Tweet @TasWriters  from May 5th says Our Comms Team is in transition so we’re not as active on here as normal and there’s been nothing there since October 14th.  If I’m right about that, (and I’ll be only too delighted to be told that I’m wrong) this is a bad omen for Tasmanian authors, which has been a powerhouse of Australian literature for a very long time.

Anyway, at the incongruously named Tasmanian ‘Industry Development’ website, the news is that the winners of the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes are as follows:

Tasmania Book Prize

For best book with Tasmanian content in any genre – $25 000.  This award is supported by the Tasmanian Government.

Margaret Scott Prize

For best book by a Tasmanian writer – $5 000. This award is supported by the University of Tasmania.

Winner: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, published by Allen & Unwin, see my review

University of Tasmania Prize

For the best new unpublished literary work by an emerging Tasmanian writer – $5 000. This award is supported by the University of Tasmania.

Winner: Brodsky Dies by Adam Ouston

I’m posting the summary from the website because I can’t find a review of it anywhere:

Brodsky Dies is a dark comedy—you might even call it a slapstick nightmare—that follows ageing professor of European literature, Bruce Brodsky, from Australia to Austria and Germany where he has been invited to interview the reclusive author Georg Winter. Nobody knows who Winter is; speculation about his identity is rife. There have been hoaxes before. Brodsky, in declining health and put out to pasture by his university, accepts Winter’s invitation and decides to go, fearing all the way that the whole thing is a joke at his expense being played on him by his old academic rivals. The novel is about contemporary travel, tourism, and the quest for authenticity, Australian visions of Europe, cultural exchange, the literary life and, at the end of it all, love.

Tasmanian Young writer’s Fellowship

This award is supported by private philanthropists and is awarded to a young writer (aged 30 years and under) – $5 000.

Winner: Erin Hortle

… a Hobart-based writer of fiction and essay and a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Tasmania. Her writing has been featured in many publications throughout Australia, including Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Island, White Horses and Transportation…

2017 People’s Choice Awards

People’s Choice Winner – Tasmania Book Prize: Losing Streak by by James Boyce (Black Inc.)

People’s Choice Winner – Margaret Scott Prize: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

People’s Choice Winner – University of Tasmania Prize: A Guide to Bushwalking in Tasmania by Ben Walter

PS If you can afford to do so, please make a tax-deductible donation to the TWC.  Tassie is our smallest state, and the least wealthy.  Click here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2017

Whipbird, by Robert Drewe

It crossed my mind more than once as I read this beaut book that 2017 has been an extraordinary year for Australian fiction.  So many of our best writers have released wonderful new books, I’ve been hard-pressed to keep up with the best of what’s new*.  Whipbird has been on my TBR since July, and I’m only just getting to it now…

I romped through it in two days, and loved it.  It’s a witty satire of contemporary Australia that will make you laugh and wince at the same time.

The ‘Whipbird’ of the title is a winery, named by its aspirational owner Hugh Cleary after the extinct Gosse’s Mottled Whipbird which used to range over his land near Ballarat.   A Melbourne barrister yearning for silk, Hugh has decided that climate change makes this site suitable for the growing of pinot noir, and in honour of the presence at Eureka of his Irish ancestor Conor Cleary, he intends to name his wine ‘Conor’s Rebellion’.  The trouble is, Hugh’s grasp of his ancestor’s activities at the stockade isn’t quite accurate…

The plot unfolds over the weekend celebrating the 160th anniversary of Conor Cleary’s arrival in Australia in 1854 during the Gold Rush.  Over a thousand of his 3000-odd descendants gather at Whipbird, but fear not, dear readers, you will not need to keep track of all the Hanrahans, Kennedys, O’Donnells, O’Learys, Donaldsons, Opies, Fagans and Sheens: the cast of characters is about the usual size and an interesting lot they are too.  As you can tell from the clan names, neatly distinguished amongst the guests by T-shirts of different colours, the first generations of Clearys intermarried with other Catholics of Irish descent, but by the time Hugh and his aspirations reached the altar a Protestant bride was good for his finances and his career and his son Liam goes to Scotch College not Xavier.  Multiculturalism has penetrated the clan as well, and indeed, Craig Cleary has married Rani who is a Muslim from Aceh, while Mick Cleary’s niece Amanda has married Dr Nigel Hu.  But as 4th generation patriarch Mick gloomily notes, names are no guide any more anyway: the children of his son Sly (Simon) are called Lulu, Oris and Willow.

As the day progresses on from Hugh’s hamfisted welcome and his sister Thea’s gauche interruption to his speech, barbecue stoppers erupt all over the place.  As the booze flows, there are rants about the banks, the ‘benefits’ of global warming, electric hand-dryers in public toilets, Chinese investment in the property market and the Nanny State.  Women are sidelined from these controversies as if feminism never happened yet Thea is a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières and Rani runs her own successful Indonesian restaurant in the absence of her husband Craig.  (He’s a FIFO conservationist working for a mining company, a classic example of bad faith if ever there was one).  When Claire Opie interrupts Craig moaning about the defibrillator he has to lug about on his desert expeditions (in case he has a heart attack from carrying his GPS, EPIRB, a first-aid kit, sunscreen, insect repellent and five kilograms of water) there is consternation:

As if surprised she was also present, the men all turned to look at her.

And her husband tries to shut her up:

‘Yes, Claire,’ Warren sighed.  ‘We know.’

Also present, but not really there is 5th generation Sly.  He’s a former keyboards player with a band called Spider Flower, but suffers from a rare psychiatric condition causing the delusion that he is dead.  He is just a spectral figure on the sidelines of everything, his musical achievements forgotten by the snarky teenage private-school band who prefer to do their own material than numbers from a band that backed The Stones.  Sly is dismissed by Hugh’s teenage twins as uncool and judging by his scabby clothes obviously depressingly poor.  But – in an unexpectedly effective narrative device –  within this skeleton in a coat lurks the spectre of the original Conor Cleary from the 19th century, inhabiting Sly’s body and observing proceedings with a wry eye.  Stricken with guilt about his past, Conor retells events of his inglorious career, which is Drewe’s sly dig at the legions of family historians who assume a glorious military career on flimsy evidence.   There’s a gatecrasher too, who adds an inglorious branch to the family tree in which they take such pride.

Complacency isn’t entirely the order of the day.  Padre Ryan Cleary, not long returned from Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan, and Thea, with memories of atrocities in far flung places, have had their share of personal tragedy too, as do a couple of the other characters.  But the younger generation, heirs to complacency and strangers to misfortune, strike a pessimistic note.  With the exception of Willow who is her father’s selfless carer, none of them seem to have any good points, and the resentment of one of them beings the celebrations to an abrupt halt.  While the children of the Baby Boomers seem to be the main target of Drewe’s satire, perhaps he’s a bit more disappointed by the younger generation…

Whipbird is a terrific novel, don’t let it slip under your radar.

*While I was writing this review the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist was announced, and mildly peeved by some surprising omissions, I’ve listed the ones I would have fought for (including Whipbird) if I’d been a judge. See here. 

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Whipbird
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House), 2017
ISBN: 9780670070619
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.

Available from Fishpond: Whipbird $24.87

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2017

2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist were announced today. There are some surprise omissions (links are to my reviews):

Well, ok, they can’t shortlist everything.  But still… I’d have fought hard for some of these if I’d been on the judging panel!

Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on 1 February 2018.

The shortlist


  • A New England Affair by Steven Carroll (HarperCollins), see my review
  • Australia Day by Melanie Cheng (Text Publishing)
  • The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • The Choke by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Restorer by Michael Sala (Text Publishing)
  • Taboo by Kim Scott (Picador Australia), see my review


  • The Museum of Words: A Memoir of Language, Writing and Mortality by Georgia Blain (Scribe Publications)
  • Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness by Kate Cole-Adams (Text Publishing)
  • The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (Text Publishing)
  • For a Girl: A True Story of Secrets, Motherhood and Hope by Mary-Rose MacColl (Allen & Unwin)
  • No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson by Jeff Sparrow (Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Tracker by Alexis Wright (Giramondo), on my TBR


  • Rice by Michele Lee (Playlab)
  • Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui (Sydney Theatre Company)
  • The Rasputin Affair by Kate Mulvany (The Ensemble Theatre)


  • Argosy by Bella Li (Vagabond Press)
  • The Metronome by Jennifer Maiden (Giramondo)
  • redactor by Eddie Paterson (Whitmore Press)

Writing for Young Adults

  • Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren (Allen & Unwin)
  • Ida by Alison Evans (Echo)
  • Because of You by Pip Harry (UQP)

Highly commended


  • No More Boats by Felicity Castagna (Giramondo), see my review
  • Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman (Hachette), see my review
  • Atlantic Black by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge), see my review
  • Plane Tree Drive by Lynette Washington (NewSouth Books)


  • They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention edited by Michael Green, André Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope (Allen & Unwin)


  • I Love Poetry by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)
  • Reading for a Quiet Morning by Petra White (GloriaSMH Press)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2017

Existentialism, a Very Short Introduction, by Thomas R. Flynn

Oh dear, it looks as if I’ve been bandying around the term ‘existentialist’ without really knowing what it means…

In the Preface to my latest adventure with the Very Short Introductions series, Thomas R. Flynn tells me that most people associate existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the  Left-Bank Parisian cafés where they hung out.  And the problem with that is that existentialism tends to get ‘packaged’ as a cultural phenomenon of a certain historical period which tends to get linked to the problems of that era and not really relevant to our own.  Flynn is on a mission to correct that because he says that existentialism is a way of doing philosophy that is still current.

So his first chapter, ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ is about demolishing the idea of philosophy as a doctrine or system of thought.  Philosophy, he says, and I agree with him in principle, is about addressing the issues in our lives and examining the human condition. (The problem is, IMO, that some philosophy is very difficult to engage with incomprehensible, (yes, Wittgenstein, I’m looking at you) and some of it is dead boring and long-winded (yes, Rousseau I’m looking at you too.)  But philosophy can be illuminating and helpful as I’ve found by reading Peter Singer, Damon Young, Alain de Botton, and more recently Simon Longstaff.  It can also be very annoying when it seeks to justify political or economic ideas I disapprove of. 

There are five themes of existentialism, nicely summarised in a chart on page 8.  These are

  • Existence precedes essence.  What this means is that what you are is not your destiny.  You are what you make yourself to be.
  • Time is of the essence.  We are time-bound, and lived-time (‘not yet’, ‘already’ and the ‘present’) is not the same as clock time.
  • Humanism.  Existentialism is person-centred. Though not anti-science, its focus is on the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning amidst the social and economic pressures of mass society for superficiality and conformism. 
  • Freedom/responsibility.  Freedom is paramount, but with freedom comes responsibility. [This is the theme of Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason which I read a while ago. See my thoughts here].
  • Ethical considerations are paramount. You can understand ethics and freedom in your own way, but the underlying concern is to invite us to invite us to examine the authenticity of our personal lives and of our society.

Existentialism sometimes gets a bad press for being anti-science.  Flynn rebuts that like this:

The existentialists are not irrationalists in the sense that they deny the validity of logical argument and scientific reasoning.  They simply question the ability of such reasoning to access the deep personal convictions that guide our lives.  As Kierkegaard said of the dialectical rationalism of Hegel: ‘Trying to live your life by this abstract philosophy is like trying to find your way around Denmark with a map on which that country appears the size of a pinhead.’ (p.9)

Who knew that Kierkegaard could be so pithy?

I think my most common use of the adjective ‘existential’ has been to raise some dilemma where a character faces an ‘existential choice’.  But if I understand Flynn correctly (and I’m not sure that I always do) an existential choice, the ‘fork in the road’, implies something more than an impersonal question.  There has to be some kind of fateful consequence.

That is what makes the option for subjective reflection an ‘existential’ choice.  Were it simply a question of an impersonal claim about a fact or a law of nature, we would be dealing with ‘objective certainty’ and the wager of one’s personal existence would be irrelevant.  (p.10)

In other words, it’s not just a dry argument. When Socrates’ continued to teach his students in defiance of the State, his life was at stake but for him it was crucial that his life was in harmony with his beliefs.  His focus wasn’t theoretical, but about reflecting on the proper way of acting.  This is the painting chosen to accompany the text, annotated as ‘Socrates discourses over personal immortality as he is about to take the poison as commanded by the state’.  (In the book, the illustrations are all only in B&W).

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787) Wikipedia Commons.

It’s easy to see why existentialism, with its focus on moral truth, had resonance in Europe after WW2.

I was especially interested in what Flynn has to say about Sartre’s 1948 essays What is Literature?  (I have this on the TBR).

… Sartre develops the concept of ‘committed literature’.  His basic premise us that writing is a form of action for which responsibility must be taken, but that this responsibility carries over into the content and not just the form of what is communicated.  The experience of the Second World War had give Sartre a sense of social responsibility that, arguably, was lacking or at least ill-developed in his masterpiece Being and Nothingness (1943).  In fact, the existentialists had generally been criticised for their excessive individualism and apparent lack of social consciousness.  (p.13)

Later on in the book, Flynn emphasises the close relationship between existentialist philosophy and imaginative literature.  Sartre and Camus are the best-known existentialists to use literature to explore the dilemmas of life, but Flynn also cites the example of Saul Bellow’s Herzog:

But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago.  Perhaps it should be stated Death is God.  This generation thinks – and this is the thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have nay true power.  Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.  The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that.  And this is how we teach metaphysics on each other.  (Herzog, by Saul Bellow, cited by Flynn on p.54.)

By 1948 Sartre was addressing the moral responsibility of the prose artist which is interesting given the social novels that were gaining prominence in Australia.  Though obviously not as intellectually lofty as the novels of Camus and Sartre which were written for the purpose of elucidating an existential position, nevertheless the social preoccupations of Dickens obviously pre-dated this concept, and between the wars those of Australians Christina Stead and Katherine Susannah Prichard did too.  (You can read more about Prichard at Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth).  During the war Eve Langley and Kylie Tennant spring to mind as well.  By the postwar era there were plenty of Australian novelists writing social novels bringing attention to inequity – Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, Eleanor Dark, Vance Palmer and Mena Calthorpe are some that I have read.  But were they influenced by Sartre’s ideas, or were they continuing an Australian literary tradition that was focussed on progressive politics?  In the biographies that I’ve read about these authors I don’t remember reading that any of them were influenced by Sartre, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t.  Or have I missed some crucial point?  Maybe I’d better read What is Literature, eh?

The rest of this chapter gets a bit technical, using terms like ‘phenomenological’ without explaining clearly what it means, and I was a more than a bit puzzled by the explanations of the principle of intentionality and eidetic reduction.  (The first two are in the glossary at the back, but eidetic isn’t).  At one stage I got out my trusty The Philosophy Book to re-read the section on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, because I needed a simpler summary of what they were on about.  I struggled with Chapter 3 ‘Humanism: for and against’ as well… and found the beginning of Chapter 4 ‘Autonomy’ almost incomprehensible until I had read it three times.  Perhaps this is just indicative of existentialism being ‘difficult’ anyway, or maybe I’m just not up to it, but for me this raises again the occasional problem with these Very Short Introductions. They are all written by academics, not all of whom can communicate clearly enough for the generalist reader, for whom they are presumably intended.  Chapter 6 ‘Existentialism in the 21st century’ continues the project of showing the relevance of existentialism to our own time, but the discussion about Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, not to mention Hermeneutics went right over my head.  My university education (mercifully) predates all these theories and the explanations given were too scanty for me to make much sense of any of it.

Still, I did learn a fair bit from this VSI: I enjoyed reading about Simone de Beauvoir and I now understand more of the intellectual foundations of The Second Sex  than I did I read it back in the 1980s.  And I was interested to discover a new-to-me philosopher called Karl Jaspers who (in the wake of WW2 which he was lucky to survive because his wife was Jewish) wrote a book called The Question of German Guilt (1947) which seems to me to have applicability to Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers.  He said there are four categories of guilt:

  • criminal guilt (the violation of unambiguous laws);
  • political guilt (the degree of political acquiescence in the actions of the Nazi regime);
  • moral guilt (a matter of personal conscience formed in dialogue with one’s ethical community); and
  • metaphysical guilt (based on the solidarity of all humans simply as human and resulting in a condition of co-responsibility, especially for injustices of which one is aware and which one does not do one’s best to resist. (p.87, dot points are mine).

This conception of guilt as collective was new to existentialist thought, but it was entirely consistent with Sartre’s view of bad faith, i.e. that you can’t just cop out of responsibility by saying ‘that’s just how things are’ and ‘I can’t do anything about it.’

And from now on, I’ll be more careful when I bandy around terms like existential and angst!

Author: Thomas R. Flynn
Title: Existentialism, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series, 2006
ISBN: 9780192804280
Review copy courtesy of OUP

Available from Fishpond: Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation: From Stephen King’s It, to…..

I’ve skipped a couple of #6Degrees, but inspiration for this one comes quite easily. The starter book is Stephen King’s It, which is (as you can tell from the cover) a book of horror.  I haven’t read it … but I do have a book by Stephen King on my shelves.

The one I have is On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft.  It was given to me as a Christmas gift by a dear friend who knew I was interested in writing.  I still recall him saying somewhat anxiously that he knew I wasn’t a fan of King, but that this book was a how-to manual about how to create characters and so on.

It’s not the only book that I have about the craft of writing.  I have twelve of them, including Kate Grenville’s widely praised The Writing Book, a workbook for fiction writers.  This is because, having had a few things published here and there, I thought I might write a novel (as you do) and then when I actually undertook a writing course it included units on writing history so I have a couple of books about that too.  The upshot of all this industry is a collection of short stories mostly unpublished, drafts of three histories long untouched, and draft chapters of the novel lurking on my hard drive.  I persisted with the course until they tried to make me learn how to write for tabloids, and then I abandoned it.

The writing manuals are, like some other books on my shelves, a testament to good intentions.  In this same category is The Other End of the Leash, why we do what we do around dogs by Patricia B. McDonnell.  Somewhat like the exercise books and the -how-to-do-your-own-upolstery books, this one was intended to be an exercise in self-improvement, in this case a futile attempt to outwit a Silky Terrier. I should have known better.

I was reminded, when I was hunting at Goodreads for the correct name of the dog training book, of a much more well-thumbed book about dogs.  Steven Miller’s Dogs in Australian Art is one of my favourite art books of all time.  See my review about this one, and if you haven’t bought a copy of this for a dog-lovin’ friend yet, well Christmas is coming, eh?

Talking of Christmas, I’ve recently received a review copy of a beaut coffee table book which would make a lovely Christmas gift.  I’ve only browsed it so far, but Acland Street, the Grand Old Lady of St Kilda by award-winning historian Judith Buckrich and published by the Australian Teachers of Media is a lovely book for any devoted Melbournite.  You can buy it at Readings.

Another book about my home town is Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham.  It’s one of the New South City Series (see others in the series that I’ve reviewed) and as you can guess from the sombre cover it’s not a tourist guide but more of a meditation on its history, with a focus on the river at its heart.

I could go on because the allusion to Melbourne’s river reminds me of Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River, by Kristin Otto – but that would make seven degrees, which would be a departure from the #6Degrees meme!

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





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