Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2017

A New England Affair, by Steven Carroll

A New England Affair is a melancholy book, but it’s beautiful.

Emily Hale, muse to TS Eliot but never his wife or lover, returns in this, the third book of Steven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet.  Reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, the story takes place on a single day in 1965, as Emily – now aged 74 and in extremis after learning of Eliot’s death – mulls over the tragedy of her life.  On a fishing boat heading for treacherous rocks Emily slides between past and present, reliving the scenes of her wasted life, while the reader wonders what’s inside the satchel that she clutches and what she plans to do.

It’s a small tragedy as tragedies go, but it’s real nonetheless.  The couple fell in love in 1913, in New England, and with exquisite tact Carroll depicts Emily’s memory of the moment when both realised that their destiny lay with each other but they failed to say what they were really feeling.  The moment passed and Eliot set off for what was meant to be a year of study overseas but became a new life in London.   He achieved prestige and fame as a great poet, but he also made a hasty marriage which he regretted, as depicted in The Lost Life.

Emily transcended this betrayal and they maintained a relationship through letters and her regular trips across the Atlantic, but she never became his lover.  As she relives this time in her life she is convinced that all his poems contain coded allusions to their love, and she rationalises the way she was always kept secret except with a very small circle of his friends.  But she’s no fool really: she knew only too well that Virginia Woolf despised her and that the Bloomsbury set would never really accept Eliot as the Englishman he yearned to be.

Eliot promised that they would marry when he was free, but as we know, he betrayed Emily then too.  Emily Hale spent her whole life waiting, living out a script from a previous century where women of her class had their lives circumscribed by what was proper, was expected, and was dignified.  It’s a splendid moment in the novel when she casts off this role and hurls his ring across the room!

She claws at the ring on her finger.  But it’s wedded to her skin and won’t budge.  Wedded to her very being.  She pulls on it again and again, finally dragging it over her knuckle and wrenching it free.  In tears of utter misery, she throws it across the room so that it ricochets from floor to wall and back to the floor, ringing hollow, hollow and empty, like all the promises and unspoken deals.  Like all the hollow years that never amounted to anything.  It settles, rattling to a stop.  She rubs her finger, her whole body aches for what has been wrenched from her, what sustained her all these years… She’s been used.  Used all along.  And all the talk of pure love was as hollow as the sound of the ring bouncing from wall to floor, like a ten-cent toy, a ten-cent love, a cheap imitation of the real thing. (p.175)

As in The Lost Life there is a young couple who represent the less constrained world of the middle 1960s.  By the time that Eliot dies, Miss Hale has made a life for herself in Concord as a teacher of drama, and one of ‘her girls’ is Grace who comes to the cottage for her lessons.  On the cusp of a new life away from small-town Concord, Grace is toying with a young man not worthy of her.  She knows he is not the right man for her, but he’s fun.  And while she patronises him in her heart, she feels sorry for him too because she knows that she will move on and he will be stuck in a small town going nowhere. And so, in scenes reminiscent of the way a young couple profane a sacred moment in The Lost Life, Grace and Ted intrude on Miss Hale’s privacy, just at the time when she is most vulnerable.

A New England Affair is bound to its time and place by its representation of Emily’s life as a lost life, but in real life, Emily Hale was an independent modern American woman.  She was a successful teacher, actor and theatre director at Scripps College until she abandoned her career to be with Eliot after he separated from his first wife.  While the facts of Eliot’s two marriages (in life and in the novel) suggest that he exploited her devotion, she must have found satisfaction in her role as muse or she would have moved on, surely…

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: A New England Affair
Book 3 in the Eliot Quartet
Publisher: Fourht Estate (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9781460751091
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Available from Fishpond: A New England Affair

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2017

Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction, by Christopher Butler

My recent reading of  Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt was a reminder of how much literature has changed in the years since I first began reading adult literature.  I can’t think of anything that I read from my parents’ bookshelves that was a blend of fiction and non-fiction, nor can I ever remember then discussing the idea of truth in books being a relative concept.  Books were unambiguously fiction or NF, and librarians did not have to struggle with which section of the shelves to put it in.   Yet now, after almost a decade of blogging my reading here at ANZ LitLovers, I have become used to, and comfortable with, all kinds of what I now recognise as postmodernist aspects of literature.  So although I’ve dabbled in Postmodernism before, now seems like a good time to investigate Christopher Butler’s Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction and also Introducing Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt.

Starting with Christopher Butler’s VSI (because I’ve read his Modernism before and found it illuminating) I see that the chapters are:

  1. The rise of postmodernism
  2. New ways of seeing the world
  3. Politics and identity
  4. The culture of postmodernism
  5. The ‘postmodern condition’.

Chapter 1 begins by talking about the hostile reception to postmodernist art, specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966).  Searching for an image of it, I found a contemporary example of the 1966 reaction  – with which I have some sympathy, when it comes to the visual arts.  Butler acknowledges this:

Now enshrined in the Tate Modern, it doesn’t resemble much in the canon of modernist sculpture.  It is not formally complex or expressive, or particularly engaging to look at, indeed it can soon be boring.  It is easy to repeat. Lacking any features to sustain interest in itself (except perhaps to Pythagorean number mystics) it inspires us to ask questions about its context rather than its content: ‘What is the point of this?’ or ‘Why is this displayed in a museum?’ Some theory about the work has to be brought in to fill the vacuum of interest, and this is also fairly typical.  It might inspire the question, ‘Is it really art, or just a pile of bricks pretending to be art?’ But this is not a question that makes much sense in the postmodern era, in which it seems to be generally accepted that it is the institution of the gallery, rather than anything else, which has made it, de facto, a ‘work of art’.  The visual arts are just what museum curators show us, from Picasso to sliced -up cows, and it is up to us to keep up with the ideas surrounding these works. (p.1)


Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide
begins in a similar way, noting people’s discomfort with postmodern visual arts.  It goes on at some length about art movements that exemplify aspects of PoMo, such as altering realism to include the uncertainty principle (that is, that something can be seen simultaneously from different viewpoints); cubism (simplifying the human form to geometry); disposing of the ‘fetish of scared uniqueness’ (because original works of art can be reproduced en masse (through photography); and (the one many people scorn) presenting the unpresentable, i.e. to make visible that there is something that can’t be seen e.g. the empty room stuff.  There are other -isms, (constructivism, Dadaism, the ready-mades, pop art, conceptual art, installations etc.) but I scampered over these pages to get to the stuff about theory (and hopefully, books).

Whereas the cartoon-style graphics in ‘The genealogy of postmodern art’ were useful, I found that in Part Two, ‘The genealogy of postmodern theory’ the graphics were just distracting, and the text was (by contrast with Butler’s book) unnecessarily complex. Things which needed more clarification were hampered by the limitations of the layout, and I didn’t cheer up until I got to the page titled ‘The death of the author’ in which it is explained that Barthes (1967) made this statement in support of his idea that readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever shifting, unstable or open to question.’ 

*chuckle* Theoretically, then, in my reviews I can interpret books any old way I like, regardless of what the author or anyone has to say about it.

But overall, although it has interesting things to say about fundamentalism being a panicked response to the postmodern assault on the sacred,  Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide has too much gobbledygook for me and I just scanned it before going back to Butler’s VSI.  What he says about scepticism made sense to me.

Deconstruction, deeply academic and self-involved though it mostly was, supported a general move towards relativist principles in postmodernist culture.  It left postmodernists not particularly interested in empirical confirmation and verification in the sciences.  They often saw this as contaminated by an association with the military-industrial complex, the use of a rigid technological rationality for social control, and so on.  It also meant that the followers of Lyotard and Derrida tended to believe in ‘stories’ rather than in testable theories. Postmodernists, having abandoned their belief in traditional (‘realistic’) philosophy, history and science under the influence of French thought, thus became more and more the theorisers of the (delusive) workings of culture… (p.29).

And thus we get anecdotal, untested evidence posing as research in books promoting pet conspiracy theories about Big Pharma et al.  IMO postmodernism has a lot to answer for…

This PoMo hostility to any overarching philosophical or political doctrine, is by definition also hostile to ‘dominant ideologies.’  Postmodernists don’t like aesthetic privileging and they are alert to every instance of what Butler calls the hidden debt of any work or text to its predecessors:

… it came to be thought that any text, from philosophy to the newspapers, involved an obsessional repetition or intertextuality.  Just as much as philosophy, which since Plate has worried away at the same old problems, the novel will inevitably reproduce or re-present earlier positions, earlier ideas, conventional modes of description and so on.  (p.31-2)

Disconcertingly, this means that

…no text ever finally establishes anything about the world outside itself.  It never comes to rest, but merely, to use Derrida’s term, ‘disseminates’ variations on previously established concepts or ideas.  (p.32)

History and science get a hard time from the postmodernists.   History becomes just another narrative with stories competing for our attention and our assent.  And while Butler concedes that PoMo has some value in making us more sceptically aware, more relativist, more attentive to the theoretical assumptions which support the narratives produced by all historians, a PoMo perspective on history means that the notion of objective reconstruction according to the evidence is a myth.  But Butler says that

Postmodernist relativism needn’t mean that anything goes, or that faction and fiction are the same as history.

[…]

An exact correspondence between narrative and ‘the past’ is not possible.  WE can describe the ‘same’ event in many different ways, our access to the evidence is always mediated, nothing is simply transparent, and there are always absences and gaps and biases to be dealt with.  But narratives can still be more or less adequate to the (interpreted) evidence, and new evidence can overturn narratives. (p.36)

Butler is brutal when it comes to PoMo attacks on the objectivist claims of science.

The claims of science were to be called into question.  And yet who could now seriously deny the ‘grand narrative’ of evolution, except someone in the grip of a far less plausible master narrative such as Creationism?  And who would wish to deny the truth of basic physics?  The answer was ‘some postmodernists’, on the political grounds, inter alia, that the hierarchising logic of scientific thought is inherently and objectionably subordinating.  For example, Bruno Latour’s (absurd) contention that Einstein’s relativity theory is a ‘contribution to the sociology of delegation’ since it involves the writer, Einstein, of the scientific paper imagining the sending out of observers, to make timed measurements of events, which are then shown by the theory to be relative to one another; for Latour, it seems, social concepts can explain basic science.

Most of us think of scientists as those who really know how things are: they reveal the nature of nature; their knowledge of causal laws enables us to produce inventions that make a difference, like microchips; their standards of evidence, of verification and general consensus, which ultimately control the paradigms or conceptual frameworks within which they work, are (or should be) the best we know (far better, for example, than those current amongst economists.)  That is what a Nobel Prize means.  (p.37)

Butler has no truck with the idea that science is just ‘one story among many’.  He thinks it is an extreme view of the relativism already encountered to object to the ‘privileging’ of scientists, and to claim that rather than discovering the nature of reality, scientists are just constructing it

…and so their work is open to all the hidden biases and metaphors which we have seen postmodernist analysis reveal in philosophy and ordinary language.

PoMo would have us centre on political questions aroused by [science’s] institutional status and application, shaped as they are by the ideological agendas of powerful elites.  But Butler thinks that this questioning of the motivations for and the consequences of scientific discovery in moral and political critiques is peculiar:

There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’ or even ‘militarist’.

This is, partly at least, because the truths of science, rather than those of politics or religion, seem as a matter of fact to be equally valid for socialist, African, feminist, and pacific scientists (though some people in those categories deny this).  For empirical scientists only accept truths that have this universalisable character.  Aspirin works everywhere.  (p.39)

Butler thinks that PoMO is on firmer ground when applied to ethical and social problems, such as tackling patriarchy and colonialism.  The chapter on Politics and Identity is excellent.

This VSI is a terrific book.  If you’ve ever had doubts about post-modernism and its manifestations in art, literature and identity politics, yet wondered how intelligent people came to be influenced by it… if you are open-minded enough to consider whether there is anything worthwhile about postmodernism rather than just be mocked or dismissed out of hand… this VSI is the book for you.

Author: Christopher Butler
Title: Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series, 2002
ISBN: 9780192802392
Review copy courtesy of OUP

Authors: Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, with Ziaddin Sardar and Patrick Curry
Title: Introducing Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide
Publisher: Icon Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781840468496
Personal library, purchased from the University of Melbourne Co-Op Bookshop, $12.99

 

 

Available from Fishpond: Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) and so is Introducing Postmodernism: A Graphic Guide to Cutting-Edge Thinking

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2017

Denial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt

I’m a bit hesitant about reviewing Denial because I don’t care to give conspiracy theorists any air on this blog and the fellow who unsuccessfully sued the author Deborah Lipstadt for libel is one of the most egregious.  But the movie-tie in edition of the book was there at the library and I had heard about the win in court because it was front page news all over the world.  What interested me, was how could the author contrive to make the story interesting, given that anyone who was paying attention already knew what the outcome was?

Well, whether it was intended or not, what made Denial fascinating for me was Lipstadt’s own account of herself…

Lipstadt is an American historian and professor of Holocaust Studies, but the trial took place in Britain.  This was a deliberate tactic by the plaintiff because in Britain, unlike in America, the onus of proof is on the defendant in a libel case.  Lipstadt’s defence had to prove that what she had said in her book was true, and it took her a while to come to grips with this, and with the British legal system in general.  She’s uncomfortable with wigs and gowns and bowing to the judge.  She’s also (like most of us) not au fait with courtroom tactics, so although she respects her legal team, she keeps badgering them about what she thinks they should be doing and how they should run the case.

She’s totally frustrated by the instruction not to talk to the press because it gives the plaintiff extra ammunition if she says anything critical of him.  We’ve all seen how journalists report on cases in America, each side out on the doorstep delivering a carefully staged proclamation about why their side is going to win.  But that is Just Not Done in Britain.  Judges in particular apparently do not like it if a defendant who has chosen not to testify in court then goes outside and mouths off.  And Lipstadt’s counsel had decided that she would not testify: they would rely on expert witnesses to refute the claims made by the plaintiff, and thus prove that what Lipstadt had said in her book was true.  So Lipstadt had to stay mute and she did not like it at all.

As part of the research in the pre-trial stage, Lipstadt visits historical sites with her legal team, and she doesn’t like the way they do things there.  She is annoyed with her barrister because he cross-examines one of her expert witnesses, not realising that what he’s doing is preparing him for a likely rugged time in the witness box.  Barristers have to do this; there’s no point in calling an expert witness who can’t stand up to cross-examination.  It’s not until much later in the book that she understands why her barrister was right to do it.  (You’d think he might have explained there and then, but maybe there was too much tension in the air?)

As most of us would in the same situation, Lipstadt keeps trying to second-guess the reactions of the judge, telling us about her anxiety when he appears to take the plaintiff’s side.  This situation arose because the plaintiff chose to represent himself.  Any time one of the parties doesn’t have legal representation, a judge has to bend over backwards to make sure that he gets a fair go.  People representing themselves usually make a hash of it: they mount irrelevant and inadmissible arguments; waste the court’s time with excessive detail and red herrings; and often breach the rules of the court because they don’t know what they are (though they think they do, from watching TV courtroom dramas and Judge Judy). But the judge, who would deal with such behaviour severely if legal counsel tried it, has to take account of the situation.  He can’t treat as equal, a lone plaintiff with no legal expertise at all, and an entire legal team consisting of silks representing Penguin and Lipstadt and their accompanying solicitors and research assistants.  If the judge doesn’t allow the unrepresented party a bit of leeway, that’s grounds for appeal.  So the judge was obliged to exercise a great deal of patience and to intervene sometimes, and Lipstadt’s counsel had to be patient and let things go sometimes too, knowing full well what the judge was thinking.  But time and again Lipstadt (to herself, and sometimes in exasperated notes to her legal counsel) expresses her frustration about it.  Surely her counsel would have explained it to her? Maybe not, professionals sometimes make false assumptions that their clients understand everything…

But that’s what made this book so interesting to me.  It’s a case, a high-profile case to be sure, but still like many others in some ways, where someone has had to jettison her normal life, and for years on end* deal with the unfamiliar culture of the legal system and its rules and procedures.  Knowing that you are ‘right’, and ‘fighting the good fight’ doesn’t help with the uncertainty about the outcome, the anxiety about costs, the doubts about the legal tactics, and the concern about the impartiality of whoever sits in judgement.  And in this case, it was exacerbated by the stress of the case taking place on the other side of the Atlantic away from friends and family, and – much worse – by the need to nit-pick through a ghastly, emotionally confronting history and also by the paparazzi outside.  The stakes were very high indeed.

*The first threat to sue came in 1995; the writs were issued against Lipstadt and Penguin in 1996; judgement was given in their favour in 2000 and the third and final appeal was resolved in her favour in 2001.)

I was surprised to find an Australian connection in Denial.  A notorious former Hunter Valley beauty queen sat beside the plaintiff in a show of support, and Australia’s best-known living literary hoaxer did an interview with him for a Queensland magazine.  That puzzled me: not that she did it, but that the publication chose to run with an interview such as this, penned by this particular writer.  (I’m not suggesting that she be censored, but I draw my own conclusions about the choices publishers make).

You will have noticed that at no time have I named the unsuccessful plaintiff, nor have I discussed the ways in which his claims about a certain aspect of C20th history were demolished in court.  That’s because it’s not possible to discuss them without saying what they were, and I don’t care to repeat them.  As Lipstadt says, the trial imposed great harm on Holocaust survivors by giving this man a forum for his views even though his methods were proven to be deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of historical evidence.  Given his profile – and that he had sued her – he had to be taken on and she had to mount that gruelling defence, but the process of establishing the truth involved necessarily sordid calculations and analysis of confronting documents in the historical record.  So please be aware if you comment that I will edit out anything that names the plaintiff or involves evidence one way or the other.  (And let’s not mention the hoaxer or the beauty queen either, eh?)

Besides, I’m more interested in the lived experience of being a defendant in a court case like this.  Lipstadt obviously didn’t intend it to be so, but it’s a cautionary tale both for anyone considering representing themselves in court, and also for anyone in contest with an unrepresented party.  Because you can bet that the case is going to take a whole lot longer when the other side isn’t paying umpty-squillion dollars a day like you are, and that person has no idea how a case should be run and rambles on getting all their grievances real and imagined, relevant or not,  off their chest.  And even if you win, of course the chances of you getting your massive costs paid are not very good at all.

And yet, given the costs of representation, sometimes people have to choose whether to represent themselves, or give in and settle as best they can.

It’s also a cautionary tale for authors of all kinds, not just historians… Penguin stood with Lipstadt for the high profile trial, but paid for their costs not hers, and they had drifted away altogether by the time of the appeal.

Author: Deborah E. Lipstadt
Title: Denial
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2016 (movie tie-in edition, first published 2006)
ISBN: 9780062659651
Source: Kingston Library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2017

Small presses dominate 2017 PM’s Literary Awards shortlists

I have permission Michael Webster to blog this press release (22/11/17) from The Small Press Network.  

I’m sharing it because, under the pressure of slow hotel Wi-Fi while I was at the Word For Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, I did not notice the remarkable predominance of  Australian small independent presses in the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists.  I’m going to speculate here about possible reasons:

  • Transit Lounge’s Miles Franklin win with AS Patric’s Black Rock White City, has encouraged entries from small publishers;
  • There have been reductions in entry fees after UWAP made public its decision to withdraw from some literary award competitions because the entry fee and other requirements were too expensive for a small press to afford;
  • Judges, administrators of literary awards and reviewers for the print media have become aware of the growing evidence that much of the best, most innovative and rewarding fiction comes from small independent presses which have adopted risk-taking now that the large conglomerates have (mostly) abandoned the field in favour of ‘safe’ ‘commercial’ fiction, and readily-marketable fiction from authors who have already established a reputation.

I’ve been reviewing books from small indie presses almost since I began this blog in 2008, and just yesterday I put in a request for my library to get a copy of As the Lonely Fly by Sara Dowse, published by For Pity Sake Publishing, because I read a review of it in The Weekend Australian’s Books Review pages.  Just last week I promoted an initiative from Grattan Street Publishing, a micro-press for students to learn the publishing game and which is reissuing forgotten books from Australia’s early days.  (I heard about that one on Facebook).  Without getting too precious about stats because (a) I don’t always know which imprints are actually owned by conglomerates or when they were taken over, and (b) some small ‘publishers’ are really just masks for self-publishing, still, I reckon there are about 500 reviews of Australian small press titles here at ANZ LitLovers, compared to about 300 from large conglomerate publishers.  (You can see for yourself if you check the Publishers-Australia category in the RH drop-down menu).  That is why I blather on about small presses, because I read such a lot of what they produce, and most of what I read is good to read.

But I was very pleased to see from this press release that my personal experience is more widespread than I’d realised!

Australian small presses dominate 2017 PM’s Literary Awards shortlists

The shortlists for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced late Friday afternoon 17 November 2017. Remarkably, nineteen of the 20 shortlisted adult books were produced by Australia’s independent small press sector.

Only one was published by a global conglomerate – The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam, published by Hachette, the largest publishing company in France. The Easy Way Out is Amsterdam’s third novel. His previous two novels Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed were published by small press and founding Small Press Network member Sleepers Publishing.

The other four novels nominated for the fiction prize were from small Australian publishers: Melbourne-based Black Inc, Sydney-based Puncher & Wattmann, and the presses at the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia.

[LH: You can see my reviews of all of these titles here.]

All of the nominated poetry books were from small Australian publishers – one from Giramondo, a press based at the University of Western Sydney and, remarkably, two each from specialist poetry publishers Hunter Publishers and Pitt Street Poetry.

In the non-fiction category, again all five nominees were from small independent presses: University of West Australia Press again, and two each from Black Inc and Text, both based in Melbourne

NewSouth press, based at UNSW Sydney, dominated the Australian History category with three nominations, with Monash University Press and Australian Scholarly making up the balance.

Turning to the children’s books nominated, again Australian publishers dominated, taking seven of the 10 places.

Data shows increasing proportion of book reviews and sales going to Australian independent publishers
The announcement of the award shortlists coincided with the annual conference of the Small Press Network at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Among the presentations at the conference were academic papers showing that books published by independent Australian publishers are increasingly dominating the reviews columns of Australia’s mainstream newspapers; and a paper reporting that the final arbiter of performance – book sales – also showed a steady increase in the proportion of the market representing sales by Australian-owned independent publishers.

The Australian book buying public is increasingly seeking out Australian stories, told by Australian writers and published by Australian owned and operated publishing companies – many of them proud members of the Small Press Network.

The shortlists of this year’s PM’s Literary provide a fascinating cultural snapshot of the types of books which are currently valued by the Australian literary community, and capture a sea change as the era of the dominance of large multinational conglomerates draws to a close.

For more information or comment, contact SPN chair Michael Webster
Small Press Network · 176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia · Melbourne, VIC 3000 · Australia

What do readers think?

Have you noticed more reviews of small press books in the mainstream newspaper press? (Do you still read print press reviews?)

Are you among the throngs buying more books from indie Australian publishers?  If so, why is that? What is it about Australian books that you love?

Is Michael right when he says that the Australian book buying public is increasingly seeking out Australian stories, told by Australian writers and published by Australian owned and operated publishing companies ?

 

I bought this short story by Narcís Oller (1846-1930) after reading about him in Spanish Literature, a Very Short Introduction by Jo Labanyi.  I actually wanted Gold Fever (La febra d’or) but couldn’t find it in English, so I settled for The September Revolution (La Revolució de Setembre) instead.

It’s only about 6000 words, but it’s powerful stuff.  The story is narrated by a youthful idealist who’s captivated by the idea of a revolution but events force his disenchantment.  At first (because by the time I came to read the story, I’d forgotten Oller’s date of death, 1930) I thought I was reading about the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the one that was the catalyst for the Civil War, and when it dawned on me (via harness bells, coaches and carriages) that I was reading about a revolution in the 19th century, I had to find out more about it.

Wikipedia  to the rescue!

The Glorious Revolution (Spanish: La Gloriosa or Sexenio Democrático) took place in Spain in 1868, resulting in the deposition of Queen Isabella II. Leaders of the revolution eventually recruited an Italian prince, Amadeo of Savoy, as king. His reign lasted two years, and he was replaced by the first Spanish Republic. That also lasted two years, until leaders in 1875 proclaimed Isabella’s son, as King Alfonso XII in the Bourbon Restoration.[Page viewed 21/11/17, lightly edited to remove their excessive links].

I gather that the impetus to remove Queen Isabella had more to do with disputing her rule because she was a woman than because of a desire for democracy…

However, the young narrator is an idealist:

My family’s liberal mentality, the generosity of feeling we all had in our early youth, theories picked up in the classroom, readings that privately nourished me, and the very air we breathed in academies and student centres had made a steadfast democrat of me. I couldn’t have been even twenty years old, and it had already been at least four [years] since I’d been getting into constant arguments with my uncle, a prototypical progressive,[1] a very well educated man, unusually knowledgeable, and endowed with extraordinary clairvoyance. (Kindle Location 13-18)
[1]: his uncle is a member of the ‘Progressive Party’, i.e. a moderate, but supporting Queen Isabella.

He delineates the difference between his defence of the democratic credo and his uncle’s gradualist dogma.

I would say that the individual has natural, inalienable rights, rights not subject to legislation. He, that natural rights are limited by those that, for its part, society has, and hence the absurdity of the theory of individualism.

I, that one of the rights the State should never trample on is that of free association. He, that freedom of association would fill Spain with monasteries and workmen’s associations run in bad faith by a handful of pilferers, creating nothing but disturbances and threats to the progress of a poor and backward country like ours.

I, that the middle class (the backbone of the country, as people, in a tone of praise, called it then) would suffice to stand up to monks and workmen and keep them in their place. He, that the middle class, still overly occupied consolidating its foundations and with little experience of the insidious struggles of politics, would lack the cohesiveness, foresight, leaders, and shrewdness to act as a counterweight to the enemies of its progress.

I, that freedom of speech, that freedom of assembly. . . . He, that that right, freely exercised, would benefit only revolutionaries of the two extremes, agitators, and the usual parasites; not at all the real patriots.

I, that universal suffrage. He, that, exercised in good faith, it would bring us Charles VII on account of the clergy’s influence over the rural masses,[2] the largest population group.   (Kindle Locations 18-30).
[2] Charles VII was the Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne.

Although all seems calm when the rebellion begins, his uncle bustles him out of Barcelona to their country estate, only to find that rumours of chaos and confusion follow them along the train line and there is a mobilisation of troops.  Still, he is confident that there will be no bloodshed because he believes that everyone supports revolt:

The futility of any resistance was already so deeply rooted in people’s spirits that the supposed danger didn’t frighten anybody: on the contrary, everybody trusted that the cry of freedom would be unanimous, and the people were waiting to echo it and to mill boisterously behind the military bands to give vent to the excitement that was already spilling out of their eyes.  (Kindle Locations 55-58).

Like an old friend who once said to me that she believed in the redistribution of income, as long as none of it was hers, the narrator does not realise his own vulnerability.

I believed that once the house was cleaned from top to bottom, we would necessarily be happy, since all of the good liberals would strive to govern us well, to restore the justice banished from courtrooms and the morality expelled from government offices; and I believed sincerely in the possibility of class harmony and of patriotism in the army, since all of us would be free, all of us would be equals, all of us would look at each other and respect each other like brothers, the children of one mother alone, the motherland. Now, now, my uncle will see if my political credo isn’t a redemptive credo!  (Kindle Locations 76-80).

Well, that’s not what happens.  The story erupts into irony as events cascade out of control…

Although this Fario edition contains a couple of copy-editing errors, I’ve downloaded Novena for the Dead as well.  At $1.05 AUD, I’m hoping this will encourage Gregory López de Górgolas to translate the one I really want!

Author: Narcís Oller
Title: The September Revolution (La Revolució de Setembre)
Translated by
Gregory López de Górgolas
Publisher: Fario, 2013
ASIN: B00FVDN940
Source: Purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2017

Storied Lives, Griffith Review 58, edited by Julianne Schultz

As you know if you read my post about the Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, I spent some of my between-sessions time reading the latest Griffith Review.  This is the blurb, which shows why even though this issue is part of the novella project, it was a good choice for idle moments at a Non-Fiction festival:

This month we launch Griffith Review 58: Storied Lives, the stunning fifth edition in the novella project series. Graced by Del Kathryn Barton’s beautiful wild carrot dream, this is a vivid collection of stories about remarkable and reimagined lives. Featuring non-fiction work for the first time, Cassandra Pybus reinterprets Truganini’s harrowing journey across Tasmania, while Frank Moorhouse examines the complex layers of Henry Lawson’s ambivalent masculinity, and Krissy Kneen attempts to trace her family history through her body and DNA. Other stories emerge from the imagination of the writers – Chris Somerville, Kris Olsson, Laura Elvery, Biff Ward and Heather Taylor Johnson – and are brought to life by reading.

So there is interesting stuff whichever form floats your boat – fiction, non-fiction or creative non-fiction – but for me, the pick of the bunch is Frank Moorhouse’s essay, and yes, as I have already confessed, I couldn’t resist Moorhouse’s new book The Drover’s Wife: A Collection. And this is the blurb for that:

Since Henry Lawson wrote his story ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in 1892, Australian writers, painters, performers and photographers have created a wonderful tradition of drover’s wife works, stories and images.

The Russell Drysdale painting from 1945 extended the mythology and it, too, has become an Australian icon.

Other versions of the Lawson story have been written by Murray Bail, Barbara Jefferis, Mandy Sayer, David Ireland, Madeleine Watts and others, up to the present, including Leah Purcell’s play and Ryan O’Neill’s graphic novel.

In essays and commentary, Frank Moorhouse examines our ongoing fascination with this story and has collected some of the best pieces of writing on the subject. This remarkable, gorgeous book is, he writes, ‘a monument to the drovers’ wives’.

The essay in the Griffith Review, entitled ‘Effeminacy, mateship, love’ is captivating reading because it subverts the masculinist image that we might have of Henry Lawson.  Moorhouse puts it like this:

As in the process of the making of all fiction, the author’s personality is backstage.  The person ‘Henry Lawson’ as a flawed, hapless man is there with his demons while his imagination strides onstage to take over, forming itself as the storyteller, the narrator, voice of the nation, a persona with a very masculine moustache.  In the case of Lawson, the living person backstage has another precarious personality, distinct from the assured writer of strong stories and, sometimes, overwrought, high-flown, drum-beating voice.  (p.220)

What Moorhouse finds to his surprise as he analyses ‘Lawson the story’ is that

 … Henry Lawson had a precarious sense of his own gender-personality.  This is revealed by contemporary descriptions of his personality and manner, and his descriptions of himself (‘sex’ being the anatomical identity of a person and ‘gender’ being the culturally created identity.  (p.220)

Moorhouse makes a convincing case, one that shows the contrast between the way that Lawson was viewed in his own time, and in the way that a certain iconic male image of Lawson was fostered.  He was often appropriated for other causes, essentially of a strident male culture and an emerging male-dominated nationality.  And I think today, when we are all becoming aware that sexuality and gender are much more varied than we knew, this essay is an important contribution.  Lawson, our iconic poet, deserves to be known in all his complexity.

In the interests of being honest, there were some stories I did not like in this issue.  I thought that the fictionalisation by Cassandra Pybus of the Truganini’s journey in Tasmania with Robinson and Wooreddy was overwrought, and I became tired of the crude language and crude ideas in the piece fictionalising an episode in Van Gogh’s life.  But the issue is worth it for the Moorhouse essay about Lawson.

Editor: Julianne Schultz
Title: Storied Lives, Griffith Review #58
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498424
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing via Brendan Fredericks

Available from Fishpond: Griffith Review 58: The Novella Project V: Storied Lives or subscribe to the Griffith Review here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2017

A World of Other People, by Steven Carroll

Egged on by Naomi and Travellin’ Penguin after I read The Lost Life, I decided to continue onto Book 2 of Steven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet instead of reading something else.  And I’m glad I did, it’s a wonderful book.

TS Eliot is both a major and a minor character in A World of Other People.  His appearances are brief and he is aloof and remote – but his poem ‘Little Gidding’ (from Four Quartets) is more significant than he knows.  It is a decade since the events of The Lost Life and now he is a firewatcher on the roof of Faber and Faber, where he is joined for the nightly vigil by Iris, a young woman with a boring job in the army but who also does her duty by night during the Blitz.

Duty is a key theme in the novel.  Iris has been gently manipulated into becoming engaged to a young man called Frank.  It’s a sign of the times: he’s a nice young man, but she’s not in love with him.  She just didn’t know how to say no when he was about to report for duty and produced the ring.  He wants someone to wait for him, to be his girl and to sustain him through danger.  She knows that, she knows he might get killed, and she knows the situation is because of the war.

It’s the war.  It’s the war doing that.  It’s one of those phrases going round.  And she doesn’t like it. For she is trained in language and this phrase is sloppy.  There’s something wheeled out and mechanical to it.  A substitute for thinking.  She swears she’ll never use it again.  The war may reduce her to using beetroot juice for lipstick when the occasion arises, but she is determined it will not reduce her to cliché. (p.19)

But before Iris knows it she is trapped in the cliché of the eternal triangle.  In a park in Bloomsbury, she sees a young pilot sitting still like a statue, and she goes to see if he is alright.  Jim is suffering from what we now call PTSD and survivor guilt, after his bomber crashed with the loss of all his crew.  And though she’s initially wary of getting involved, and he thinks he is doomed never to rejoin the world of other people, they fall in love.

Carroll is much too good a writer to reduce this to a slushy wartime romance.  The novel is narrated from the point of view of Iris, whose thoughts we know in detail, and of Jim, whose mental state is depicted in fragments which alternate between hope and despair.  Iris forgets about Frank’s ring in her drawer at home, and lives for the moment.  But then there is news that Frank is missing, and she becomes conscious of her place in a reproving society, a society of ‘good’ girls who wait for their missing men, and the ‘bad’ ones who don’t.

And then TS Eliot does a public reading of his poem ‘Little Gidding’ – which references the bomber that Jim was flying.  It’s not quoted in the novel, but this is the passage, the ‘dove’ being the dove painted on the side of Jim’s doomed bomber as it flew low over London past the firewatchers, and the lines ‘the only hope, or else despair’ alluding to either the end of Berlin, or the end of London, a prospect that seemed very likely in 1942 when Eliot wrote this poem:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

(‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets by T S Eliot, in Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber & Faber, 1963, p.221)

The allusion to the dove breaks through Jim’s suppressed memories, and he relives the horror of the final moments in the plane.

A World of Other People is a heart-breaking book, reminding us how it is always the young who bear the brunt of wars.  And it’s also passionately human.  Here is Jim,  silently confronting Eliot’s dispassionate demeanour (the narration becoming more vivid as it slides between third and first person):

Jim stares directly back at him.  And in that moment they are equals.  They are one and the same, for they each, Jim immediately recognises, inhabit a world of other people.  For you and me the world is other.

[…]

That was my plane.  That was my kite.  We died that night, but you saw only an idea.  A useful idea.  A way of saying things you hadn’t known how to say until we burst from the clouds and showed you.  We weren’t real, were we?  None of it is real, is it?  Ash, old men, houses with the life burned out of them.  None of it.  And will the applause, the applause you nod in recognition of, will the applause sting one day?  Will it sting when you know, and I know, that when you should have been moved to care, you were taking notes instead?  (p.209)

It’s an old dilemma, one that we feel whenever journalists bring us stories of disasters, and we wonder how anyone could stand there taking notes and shooting pictures of human suffering instead of trying to help.  Iris, who finally learns the truth about what Jim has been through from Eliot’s poem, because she was there on the roof with him, thinks about it too:

And drifting, floating back along the wide street, vaguely aware of the sandbags and the soldiers on guard at the occasional public building, it’s the power of words that she’s dwelling on: to bring pleasure, to bring pain, to bring comfort, or to bring the terror of hard truth.  (p.254)

Steven Carroll’s new novel is called A New England Affair.  The blurb tells me that it’s set in 1965 when TS Eliot is dead, and Emily Hale from The Lost Life, the muse who never was his wife or his lover, hears the news.  I’ll read that soon too.

BTW I know I’ve moaned about the cover before, but honestly, the person who designed this (and the ones who approved it) have no idea.  It’s derived from a morning scene where Iris has left her lover in bed and stands in front of the open window wrapped in  blanket (because it’s London in September and it’s cold).  And what do we have?  Iris déshabillé and no sign of the blackout curtains that were mandated during the Blitz.   I am trying not to be too literal about this and to allow for some artistic licence, but I can’t escape the conclusion that the designer has no idea.  No idea at all.

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: A World of Other People
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2013
ISBN: 9780732291204
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $24.99

Available from Fishpond: A World of Other People

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2017

2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival Day #2

I went to just two sessions at the Word for Word Non Fiction Festival today but both were so good, they on their own would have made the weekend worthwhile.

First up was Paul Daley in conversation with Nick Brodie about his new book The Vandemonian War.  You might think that so much as been written by terrific historians like Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and James Boyce, that there can’t be much more to know about the colonial conflict in Tasmania.  But you’d be wrong.

Australians who are otherwise obsessed with commemorating the First World War with national, state and town war memorials, are apt to ignore the wars that took place on our own land.  But Nick Brodie thinks that eventually the Australian War Memorial – whose refusal to acknowledge the resistance wars is the most egregious – will have to capitulate eventually because the evidence is becoming more and more compelling.  The AWM is clinging to a definition of war that enables it to exclude the Black Wars, but it’s inappropriate: the idea of two large political entities declaring war on each other is actually very rare in history.  And Brodie’s exploration of documents that were under the radar has located shocking evidence that makes it clear that Lieutenant-General Sir George Arthur knew he was fighting a war, and so did the Colonial Office. 

The mid 1820s was what Brodie calls an ‘archival horizon’.  Prior to this records are a bit scanty, but Arthur was good at record-keeping and the archives from his era are reliable.  And what can be seen from his records is that he took the advice of his predecessor Colonel William Sorell to form a militia.  He got weapons, including large ones like cannons, and he sought permission from the Colonial Office to build an overwhelming force.   He partitioned Van Dieman’s Land, sectioning off the settled districts, so that Indigenous people could only enter their lands if they had passes.  He sent out troops to establish military posts, and there’s lot of attention to administrative matters that show that he was attending to sporadic conflict.  And, Brodie says, if you can decode the euphemisms and the ‘weasel words’ you can see that he had the full support of Imperial Britain.

Crucial to Brodie’s research about the ensuing Roving Parties and the Black Line, is the way he has been able to match up outgoing correspondence with what was coming in.  It seems incredible, but no one had actually done this before because researchers tend to be looking for evidence of some event or happenstance rather than reconstructing events from the top down.  These records, and Arthur’s private diary show that Arthur was intentionally using ‘salutary terror’ as a strategy…

I have bought the book of course, and also one called 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings, (2016) and I am looking forward to reading them both.

Next up was Matthew Sharpe in conversation with Simon Longstaff from The Ethics Centre in Sydney, talking about his book Everyday Ethics, The daily decisions you make & how they shape the world. I really like books like this, that bring philosophy into the everyday affairs of ordinary mortals like you and me.  It’s not, as Sharpe said, a book about philosophers talking to other philosophers about other philosophers.  It’s about thinking through the decisions that you make, with clarity.

The layout of the book is simple.  There’s an introduction in layman’s language, and then there are about a hundred topics listed in alphabetical order, ranging from Abortion, Adoption and Ageing, to Work colleagues social behaviour, Workplace bullying and harassment and Workplace etiquette.  Each entry had different perspectives laid out, informing the reader about what he/she needs to know before making an ethical decision.  There are no technical terms, just guidance to help us to undertake an examined life.

This is an example that comes from the question I asked him about ethics and voting in a democracy.  When many people are disillusioned and some people see our major parties as indistinguishable from each other, they don’t want to vote.  So – leaving aside the issue of compulsory voting because people can always vote informal if they want to, what are the  factors that impinge on thinking about this ethically?  I should ‘fess up that I feel passionately that people should vote, because people have died for us to have the right to vote and there are still plenty of places around the world where the right to vote is denied.  But Longstaff says that, ethically, we need to establish their reasons before making a judgement.  If electors don’t want to vote because they don’t want to be complicit in wrong-doing, that might make a strong case. But if they’re just saying that all politicians are no good, just out for themselves, then that’s a critique of democracy itself, because democracy sets no threshold for the suitability of parliamentarians.  There’s no requirement that they be educated, intelligent, decent people or anything else. (*chuckle* Except for Section 44, of course.)

However, (and I immediately liked this, and plan to use it, of course!) if the choice not to vote is a form of conscientious objection, then there is a prerequisite.  Conscientious objection requires not just that you object, but that you are prepared to pay the price.  It’s not conscientious objection if you quietly slip your ballot paper into your pocket and discreetly exit, or even if you tear it up in a melodramatic tantrum in the polling booth and earbash the hapless electoral officials or anyone else that will listen.  No, that’s not good enough.  Remember the draft resisters who publicly burned their draft cards, immediately making themselves liable for arrest and prosecution?  The non-voter needs to make a declaration that states the refusal to vote, and why, and should hand it in to the electoral commission, and should pay the fine that will ensue…

The introduction clarifies the structure of human choices which the ethical person views through the prism of values, purpose and principles.  It’s less than forty pages long, and it’s a valuable way to look at the decisions we make.  I’ll be reading this book cover-to-cover as well.

I had a great time at this festival and my thanks go to all the authors and facilitators, the organising committee, the staff of the Geelong library, and to the amazing team of volunteers who made sure that everything ran smoothly.  Well done!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2017

Does Cooking Matter? by Rebecca Huntley

Does Cooking MatterI picked up this little book at the festival bookshop and read it last night over an excruciating room service lasagne.  So yes, I can tell you, cooking does matter…

In her Introduction, Rebecca Huntley writes about Christmas, quoting the British guru of food and cooking Elizabeth David’s heartfelt plea for a simple meal instead of the fuss and bother of the turkey et al.  Her point is that even if you like doing it, first and foremost cooking is labour, and a chore, and that we need to understand that better.  She thinks we might be less wasteful (see my recent post about The Art of Frugal Hedonism) if we recognise that, (though I have my doubts).

Huntley talks about the need to have a sophisticated, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food and that if it seems too difficult then people disengage. We who like cooking shows and experimenting are a passionate minority.  What’s more important is

…how you get the majority of Australians – regardless of age, gender, family formation or socio-economic class – to do the following: cook regularly, develop a varied repertoire of dishes that includes vegetarian options and animal protein options, use seasonal ingredients, know what to do with leftovers, minimise  food waste, eat out less and entertain at home more.  (p. 4)

You might be wondering about the last two: the author cites evidence that shows that we eat less healthily when we eat out, and not just if it’s junk food.  But there’s also important research that shows that families that eat together around the table are more stable and less dysfunctional.  Instinctively, I know this to be true.  It’s not just the sharing of news of the day and discussing stuff like future holidays &c, so that a sense of being a family is maintained.  It’s also better for resolving the conflicts that are inevitable in any family.  We’ve all had our rows around the family table, but when you have to come back next time because that’s where dinner is, that forced contact makes it harder for hostilities to resume.  (My mother had a firm rule: we were not allowed to flounce out of the room.  We could sit there and sulk, but we could not leave until everyone had finished dinner.  It was a forced cooling-off period, and I can remember being amazed when I saw American TV shows where kids routinely flounced out, usually slamming a door behind them!)

Chapter 1 is called The Masterchef effect, and it seems it’s true that the show does actually encourage people to be more adventurous in the kitchen and to learn new techniques.  But Huntley discusses with the judges the problem of the woman (and it’s usually the woman) who has to conjure the meal at the end of the day, often for ungrateful children.  She points out the disconnect between the cooking that the judges say they want (fresh, simple, healthy) and the drama of the haute cuisine that the contestants produce.  I would sometimes see evidence of this disconnect on the Masterchef Facebook page: some people complaining that they wanted to see contestants cook ‘everyday food’ and others saying that they wouldn’t want to watch a cooking show about the sort of food their granny cooked.  What I’ve noticed is that contestants who produce delicious everyday food often get through the early episodes, but that they have to master some very difficult techniques at the end.  How else could they find a winner?

Chapter 2 had some surprising statistics about the limited range of recipes that most people know.

Many of us eat the same dishes from week to week: spag bol, egg dishes, roasts, stir fries, meat and three veg, and stews and soups in the colder months.  We choose these meals because they are tasty as well as quick and easy to make.  They often require us to use only one pot or pan, minimising clean up afterwards.  Family members will eat these dishes uncomplainingly and so we haven’t wasted our effort and resources on food that gets scraped into a bin or a Tupperware container to be forgotten at the back of the fridge… (p.18).

Most people don’t actually know a lot of recipes and do this tried-and-true, pragmatic cooking. We don’t plan, we tend to think about what we’d like, or do something with what we’ve got in the fridge. (I think this why people on diets often say they’re enjoying their food more: it’s because good diets make you plan ahead and then you have nicer food).

The book goes on to talk about cooking in the media, getting men into the kitchen and about kids and cooking.  It’s well worth reading, and *chuckle* provides fodder for chat around the dinner table.  It would be a good stocking filler for the cook in your life too.

I did a cake making course at William Angliss a week or so ago, and my partner was a young newly qualified pharmacist who had literally never broken an egg before. Her friends had clubbed together to buy this day in the kitchen for her as a birthday present because she really, really did not know how to cook.  When he lived in Fitzroy as a young man, The Offspring (who is – and was then – a more-than-capable cook) dined at his local pub every night, enjoying the roast of the day for a song.  Does it matter, if you live in the inner city where you can eat cheaply and well at a variety of places on a day-to-day basis?  Is that just modern life, or do we lose something when that happens?

Rebecca Huntley was a presenter at the festival in a session I didn’t get to.  She’s a Director at Ipsos Australia, and she researches social and consumer trends.

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: Does Cooking Matter?
Publisher: Penguin Specials, 2014
ISBN: 9780143570868
Purchased from the festival bookshop.

Available from Fishpond: Does Cooking Matter?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2017

2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival Day #1

It’s been a stimulating day at the first full day of the 2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival.

I started off at a session with Anna Broinowski and John Safran in conversation with Lisa Waller.  Both these authors are having a tilt at explaining political extremism…

Broinowski’s book is called Please Explain, The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson and while it’s certainly about this unlovely aspect of Australian politics, the book is apparently more about how Australia has changed than about Hanson.  In explaining the genesis of the book, Broinowski explained that it began as a doco for SBS, when Hanson was a washed-up politician and it was intended to be a black satire showing her destructive effect on Australian politics during her first stint in the House of Representatives.  The doco never happened but Broinowski persuaded SBS to make a new one to coincide with the 20th anniversary of that inflammatory maiden speech, and so they had traipsed around on the campaign trail with Hanson and Co when she was unexpectedly elected to the Senate in the last ill-advised election.  The book attempts to explain how Australia has changed so much that this could happen.

John Safran says it’s his business to come up with stories, because #CueAudienceLaughter there is no Plan B for paying the bills.  He says he likes to follow his instincts about what he personally finds fascinating.  He likes what’s curious, bizarre and dangerous, and he’s particularly interested in religion and cultural identities.  He acknowledged that being Jewish is relevant because he’s interested in how the rise of the Right might affect him.  He became interested in a group called Reclaim Australia because he saw skinhead promotional photos on Facebook, and because he had never seen anything like that in Melbourne before he was taken aback by the sight of police in full riot gear when out of curiosity he went along to their rally.  (He’s too young to have witnessed violence at demos against the Vietnam War and the Springbok Tour.) He was also surprised to find a Sri Lankan there, screaming hostilities against Islam and multiculturalism, and he wondered how this could be.   This bizarre conjunction seems to have come about because there is a sub-group of immigrants who have hooked up with people from Christian churches who are anti Muslim.

Both these authors had interesting things to say about how social media has altered the landscape.  Press releases don’t work any more because the internet savvy use social media, blindsiding the mainstream media who are out of touch with these new forms of politicking.  That’s what makes them so difficult to deal with.  The people who follow these extremists have their own reality and they’re resistant to any other kind.

My next session was called The Truth of the Matter, and it featured Alice Pung and Maria Tumarkin in conversation with Lee Kofman.  She began by asking the authors for a definition of creative non fiction, and there turned out to be an interesting contrast between their approaches.  Tumarkin said she came to writing via history and had never studied literature, and she is particularly interested in how people survive impossible situations.  Her book Courage is not about heroes, it’s about how ordinary people continue to love, and how they sometimes manage to maintain a semblance of normal life under extreme conditions.  For her, it’s a question of treating the material ethically, because she feels she owes her subjects care and protection, and she is always transparent about her role in the process.

Alice Pung quoted Tagore, who said ‘Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease’.  She has written about grandparents she’s never met, in order to tell the truth of their story.  She writes both fiction and non fiction, but she is more cautious now that she is a more experienced writer, taking more time to reflect than she did with her first book when she wasn’t conscious of readers and reviewers.

My next session was Julian Burnside in conversation with Sue Noonan, but I was disappointed to find that I had heard a very similar presentation on the radio as I drove down yesterday.  Of course I understand that authors will inevitably repeat themselves one way or another, but I was not expecting to hear the exact same anecdote about one’s conception of justice.  I don’t think it’s fair to the person doing the interview either.

#SmacksForehead I mucked up my timeslot for Maria Takolander with Frank Moorhouse and Catharine Lumby, and made myself half-an-hour late.  I was really cross with myself about this because I’ve just read Moorhouse’s fascinating essay in the latest Griffith Review #58, Storied Lives.  I cheered myself up by buying Moorhouse’s book, The Drover’s Wife: A Collection from the festival bookshop, and… oh… a couple of other books while I was there, necessitating the purchase of a beaut new tote which is sold by the Geelong library.

Tonight there is a debate on the topic of ‘Fiction is just a fancy word for lying’!

Last night was the opening night of the 2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, and my first event of the festival was Peter Carey in conversation with Maria Takolander.

Carey has a connection of sorts with Geelong: his parents sent him to board at Geelong Grammar, where, he said, he had a good time but didn’t realise until afterwards that he’d been holed up with the ‘ruling class’.  But apart from occasional ventures to the bookshop and the beach with his grandfather (to collect shell grit for the chickens), he doesn’t feel a strong connection to the city; it was more of a place to drive through en route to his parents holiday house in Torquay.

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

(That’s my experience of Geelong too, on weekend trips to Ocean Grove and the Surf Coast, but Victoria’s second city is actually a lovely city, with a beautiful foreshore and lots to do and see.  It’s a bit foggy early this morning so I’ll take a picture of the view from my hotel room later, but I have a view of the bay and the city lights at night are very pretty.  And their new library is a stunner. I’m going to explore it properly this morning between sessions, when I’m not in festival bookshop, that is…)

Carey says he is a contrarian by nature.  His school reports suggested that he should concentrate on maths and science, and he says he did ok at school.  He loved his year at Timbertop (the school’s bush camp) where he discovered a world unlike the landscape between Bacchus Marsh and Geelong, and fell in love with the bush.   But when he went on to do chemistry … the misfortune of having a bad car accident meant that he had an excuse to fail his exams – and he did. They gave him a second chance with a supplementary exam, and he failed that too.   (Just imagine, had the fates not decreed otherwise, he might have had an entirely different life…)

When Maria Takolander asked him why he writes about Australia when he lives so far away, Carey said that his early opinion of Australian literature was that it wasn’t very good.  He admits that he hadn’t read much of it, but he was motivated to see the world in a different way.  Liberated by the influence of Marquez, he wanted to make a new and different world, and that’s what he did with the magic realism of Illywacker (1985).

When it came to talking about his delicious new book A Long Way From Home (see my review), you could hear in his voice that Carey has fond memories of what he called the national car madness.  His father had a Ford dealership but he says that Irene in the novel is not his mother: while she was in charge of the spare parts department and often knew more about the products than the men she was dealing with, his mother was not a good driver (and neither is he).  Still, for a woman to be in the car business was unusual in the 1950s .  (Perhaps she was a contrarian too?  That’s one for a future biographer to ponder).

Although I’ve been (necessarily) cagey about it in my review of A Long Way from Home, the indigenous issues in the novel are central to Carey’s concerns.  He says that like everyone else of his generation, he was ignorant about Indigenous issues, but when he was thinking about writing about the Redex trials, he watched some of the old newsreels on YouTube and began to wonder about the hidden stories.  Whose land was it, that the cars were hurtling along?  Who spoke all those languages?  What other stories were there?  He wanted to bring these different ‘maps’ together.

Before reading an excerpt from the novel, Carey paid homage to the reader.  He said that readings can do a disservice to the book… When a reader reads a book, she will imagine aspects that aren’t there but a reading can interfere with that.  In reading aloud an excerpt about Irene, one of the main characters in the book, he reminded us that she is a woman, and he can’t portray a woman’s voice.  What we heard was a man’s narration, which good as it was, was not the way I had imagined Irene speaking.  It didn’t matter to me because I’ve already read the book, but I wonder if when other readers come to it, will they hear Carey’s voice instead of a woman’s?  (BTW just in case you’re wondering, Carey still sounds like an Aussie, no American accent or mannerisms).

Carey says that he was motivated to write about aspects of Australia’s Black History because it’s fundamental to who we are.  We are here on this land, and lots of people were killed in the wars over it.  An ancient culture was and still injured.  He was emphatic – we have to think about that.  Australia was built on the lie that the country was empty, but he had been hesitant about telling this story because he’d been warned off writing about Indigenous people by Aboriginal activist Gary Foley

Carey thought that Foley had a point – about colonising the imagination of the people that had been colonised – but that he is a writer, whose role is to imagine being another person.  You’re useless as a writer, he says, unless you’re doing this.  In his novel Parrot and Olivier in America, (see my review) he had to imagine being a French aristocrat – a comment that made the audience laugh, because anyone less like a French aristocrat than this down-to-earth Aussie is hard to imagine.  But the crucial distinction is that in A Long Way from Home he does not attempt to provide the inner thoughts of his Indigenous characters, he shows them talking and teaching the other characters.  And although he doesn’t usually do this, he had the novel read by Indigenous authors Stephen Kinnane and Stan Grant – they liked it, and he found that reassuring.  (That shows humility, doesn’t it?  A writer of Peter Carey’s international stature, feeling anxious about his book’s reception in his homeland.  I really liked him for this).

Finally came the inevitable question about the relationship between Carey the writer of fiction, and a festival about non-fiction.  He said that there are things about history that we don’t know, and can’t know because history doesn’t tell the stories of marginalised people.  He mentioned Ned Kelly, the subject of his True History of the Kelly Gang.  We only know about poor people like Ned Kelly from what the judges and the police wrote about him in their records.  He was only 26 when he was hanged, so most of his life was childhood.  So there is a large part of his life that is unknown.  The facts, Carey says, are like spotlights and the other parts of the story, the imagined parts, are not arguing with what’s in the spotlight.  Instead they fill the dark parts of the story, the unseen, with the writer’s imagination.  A nice metaphor, eh?

Maria Takolander handled this session very well.  Her questions localised the presentation not just for her Geelong audience, but also gave Carey the opportunity to talk on fresh topics.  (Which must be refreshing when a writer is on a speaking tour like this).

More about the festival later…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2017

2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist

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

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

Fiction

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

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

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

Waiting by Philip Salom (see my review)

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (see my review)

Poetry

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong

Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane

Content by Liam Ferney

Fragments by Antigone Kefala

Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence

Non Fiction

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

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

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

Quicksilver  by Nicolas Rothwell

The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Grattan Street Publishing – a new publisher on the block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy a copy of Force and Fraud here.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week

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

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

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

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2017

Tony Birch wins 2017 Patrick White Award

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

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

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

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2017

The Lost Life, by Steven Carroll

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

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

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

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

Alas, my copy doesn’t have the dustjacket…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available from Fishpond:The Lost Life

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2017

A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel is full of authentic nostalgia like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available from Fishpond: A Long Way from Home

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2017

Meet an Aussie Author: Rachel Leary

Photo by Kirsty Argyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was born… in Hobart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I keep my published works… on a shelf.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Giramondo website:

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

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

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

 

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