Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2017

The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin

the-boat-rockerBorn and educated in China, Ha Jin completed post graduate studies in the US and has made a career of writing about China in English.  I read his A Map of Betrayal a while ago, and came to the conclusion that the plentiful awards this writer has won, are more in sympathy with his relentlessly anti-Chinese position than for his skill in writing.  I found aspects of A Map of Betrayal unconvincing, and The Boat Rocker similarly flawed. 

The occasional awkwardness of Ha Jin’s writing is signalled by the title.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a native speaker of English call someone who ‘rocks the boat’, a ‘boat rocker’.  It sounds wrong, IMO, and a misuse of an idiomatic expression, though I’d have to concede that maybe American usage is different.  But the author’s style is generally very plain and ordinary, and it’s not IMO salvaged by occasional florid passages describing food or clothes.

But the main problem with this book is its absurd plot.  Feng Danlin is a US-based hack journalist who writes about Chinese issues for the local Chinese community, hoping that his work will be syndicated to other journals both American and international (including China).  One day he is assigned the task of unravelling the strange promotion of his ex-wife’s book by Chinese authorities, who have made extravagant claims about its merits.  His boss dismisses any concerns about there being a conflict of interest in Danlin attacking Yan Haili, and he is only too pleased to be able to smear her reputation, sabotage her relationship with her new husband and enjoy the inevitable sexist and offensive trolling that arises, glossing his relentless pursuit of her in his columns with the argument that journalists must seek out the truth.  

None of this is the slightest bit convincing, but it soon becomes apparent that this novel is a vehicle for Ha Jin to expose the corruption of the press in China, its plans to infiltrate the free press in the US, and American complicity in not ‘rocking the boat’ for their own realpolitik purposes.  Danlin’s lofty tone as he lectures the reader doesn’t compensate for the lack of sophistication in his argument, and his position is irretrievably compromised by the fact that he’s taking his revenge on his wife.

Many readers at Goodreads seem to think highly of this novel, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom at the NY Times was impressed by its savage satire.  But I’m not impressed at all.

Author: Ha Jin
Title: The Boat Rocker
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf , 2016
ISBN: 9780307911629
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2017

2017 Indie Book Awards Shortlist

#EpicFail: I’ve only read one of these.  Either I am reading all the wrong books, or they are.

(If you look at my post about the longlist, you can see why I am disappointed on behalf of some very fine authors omitted from the fiction shortlist: Georgia Blain, Steve Amsterdam, Emily Maguire).  But maybe we should just rename these The Bestsellers Awards and be done with it.)

All links are to Readings bookshop.




Debut Fiction


Young Adult


I finished the first of these short fictions in Landscape with Landscape last night, and I’ll read another one tonight.  This collection of  Gerald Murnane’s fictions is irresistible.

First published in 1985 to reviews labelled ‘cruel’ by the collection’s new publisher Giramondo, these six fictions consist of

  • Landscape with Freckled Woman;
  • Sipping the Essence;
  • The Battle of Acosta Nu;
  • A Quieter Place than Clun;
  • Charlie Alcock’s Cock; and
  • Landscape with Artist.

None of them are very long, and five of them, the blurb tells me, trace a journey through the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s, as the writer negotiates the conflicting demands of Catholicism and sex, self-consciousness and intimacy, alcohol and writing.  ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’ imagines a Paraguayan man imagining a country called Australia, while his son sickens and dies before his eyes.

At the risk of simplifying a complex and intellectually sophisticated piece of writing, ‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ tells a story of a writer trying to explain the conceptual basis of his writing.  The narrator is the only man on a committee of ten, being introduced to the rest of the committee as its new treasurer.  He tells us that he has never given up hope of being recognised as the aspiring writer of his youth.  Avoiding direct eye contact with the women:

… I wanted each woman to wonder, when the president introduced me and they learned I was a writer, whether I might have been quietly observing her for some time before she caught me at it.

The women were all a few years younger than me – in their early or middle thirties.  But they were not too young to have been, fifteen or twenty years before, the young women I had tried to impress by telling them I was going to become a writer.  These young women had always stopped listening – sometimes politely, sometimes not – when I reached a certain stage of drunkenness and began long, elaborate sentences and then could not finish them.  Yet I had never been wholly discouraged when some young woman turned away and left me talking to myself; she added one more to the number of women who might meet me years later and learn I had become a published writer after all and regret she had not listened more closely to me. (p.4)

(And here I think, what if the Nobel Committee comes to its senses after its absurd choice in 2016, and gives the Nobel Prize for Literature to our Gerald Murnane?  Would the cruel reviewer of 1985 cringe in shame?  Would there be a young woman who remembers Gerald Murnane talking about his landscape?)

Murnane can’t resist a little irony: the president tells the committee that they can contact their new treasurer any time because he’s a writer, who works from home.  I won’t be the only reader-writer who hisses a sharp intake of breath at this.  But the narrator moves on, only to tell us some pages later about his resolute quest to find a writing space where he will not be distracted, and not by crass committee members, but by vistas that would interfere with his imagined landscapes.

As he talks (or maybe he dreams he talks) to the freckled woman (to whom he is attracted because freckles and moles make skin unique) he recalls with embarrassment how his concept of landscape has changed.  As a young man he boasted that he was privileged to see what no one else could see:

that all I had to do as a writer was to describe the far-reaching vistas and the intricate topography continually before my eyes: that I need not be curious about what were called real people because I had already made out certain dim figures in my landscape. (p.5)

But now, he had taken to dreaming not because the world I saw by daylight was not enough for me but because it was too much.  He moves from one bleak vista to another, he wants a suburb ot Melbourne that offered nothing to the eye: a suburb from which a writer could see only what he himself devised.

And sometimes the tale of this writer’s quest is droll indeed.  Of his room in inner city Fitzroy he tells us:

He had not been able to pass in and out of the kitchen downstairs without speaking to the woman who seemed the chief tenant of the house.  (He was never sure which of the several men who drank with her every evening actually lived in the house.)  He drank in his own room every night, but having no refrigerator he was forced to keep flagons of cheap wine instead of the beer he preferred.  On Melbourne Cup eve the woman climbed the stairs and called out to him to come down and be sociable.  The young man sat in the kitchen with the woman and her men-friends and accepted their beer.  When they asked him what he did for a living he said he was a teacher by day and a writer in the evening.  They became uneasy, and he wondered which part of his answer had not convinced them.  He said he had moved to their suburb to be among real people.  They sat and looked at him.  He thought they might have resented his coming empty-handed to drink with them, so he climbed up to his room to bring back what he called his grog.  When the woman saw his flagon of hock she ordered him to get it out of her house that minute.  Paint was what she called it. No one, she said, had ever insulted her by bringing paint like that into her house before.  He explained that he only drank wine because he had no fridge for beer.  She wanted to know why he hadn’t asked to keep his beer in her own perfectly good fridge in the kitchen.

He took the wine outside and poured it down the gully-trap.  One of the men told the woman to take it easy and offered the young man more beer, and he stayed drinking with them until after midnight.  But from that day he could no longer write in Fitzroy.  For two weeks he went on drinking wine – taking his flagon to work each morning in his bag in case the woman broke into his room and searched it while he was out.  But each night instead of working on his landscape he lay with his ear to the floor trying to hear what was being said in the kitchen.  He no longer walked through the kitchen to the toilet in the backyard but urinated into a bottle and poured it out of the window onto a patch of weeds.  But he began to believe that the woman in the kitchen could hear his water splashing on the ground in the lulls of the television. (p.18)

There is both dry amusement and poignancy in this image of a young primary school teacher carting his flagon to and from school each day.  Only those who have had their capacity to think and to imagine destroyed by the unwitting interference of others can really understand how awful it is.  It’s not momentary; it persists for as long as the fear of its repetition.  It’s not writer’s block, it’s worse than that because the desire to write is overwhelming, but one just can’t do it knowing that the interruption will come.

In the introduction to this edition, Murnane tells us that he began writing short fiction or novellas because in 1980 he had become a teacher of fiction writing, and he saw the incongruity of exhorting his students to write short fiction when he had written hardly any himself.  This story began as a piece he then wrote called ‘The president was freckled’ but ultimately it took fourteen drafts and was the last to be written and almost defied me to find its final shape.  For those of us who’ve read Inland and The Plains, it makes perfect sense, from beginning to end.

The next story is ‘Sipping the Essence’….

Update (the next day)

‘Sipping the Essence’ is a story of courtship.  An awkward, inhibited young man, a writer, has his first painful experience of courting, and losing, a girl (an experience which he thinks might be an auspicious start to [his] career as a poet of the lonely spaces of Australia).  For his brief time as her boyfriend he maps out how to fill the intervals between meeting and the first kiss:

Each week I would talk about the life and work of a writer I admired.  The four writers were Raymond Roussel, Mikhail Artsybasheff, Leonid Andreev, and Jack Kerouac.  (p.53)

He has a drinking partner called Kelvin Durkin, whose wisecracking style seems utterly unlike a friend an aspiring poet of the lonely spaces of Australia might have, but like the landlady of the Fitzroy house in ‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ Durkin shows Murnane at his economical best with characterisation.  (And yes, I know he would disapprove of my use of the term because elsewhere in his writing he has been at pains to explain that he doesn’t do characters!)

Update (the day after that)

I’ve just finished ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’.  Ostensibly, it’s a story about a Paraguayan man who believes he is Australian, who struggles to preserve this identity while his son is gravely ill.  Like the other stories it is written in first person, revealing innermost thoughts that are not shared with anyone else because no one else understands and it causes discord if he tries to explain.  It is terribly, terribly poignant and made me realise that there can be moments of crisis in some lives that don’t just involve enormous loss but also a struggle to defend a reality that isn’t shared by anyone else.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Landscape with Landscape
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2016, first published 1985
ISBN: 9781925336115
Review copy courtesy Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Landscape with Landscape

Or direct from Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2017

The Dyehouse, by Mena Calthorpe


Mena Calthorpe’s debut novel The Dyehouse (1961) has a special place in Australian publishing history: it’s the 100th reissued title in the Text Classics collection, which is in itself a remarkable success story.  It seems like only yesterday that I was reading Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library –  a plea for the rescue of Australia’s forgotten literary achievement, a book which I feared would have very little impact despite his eloquence.  I am delighted to have been wrong about this: the Text Classics series has done more than reissue some long-forgotten titles, it has introduced new generations to some of Australia’s finest authors, and even resurrected the long dormant writing career of Elizabeth Harrower.

IMO The Dyehouse is the perfect novel for the Text Classics centenary.  It’s a shining example of a book ‘we’ve never heard of’ that is very good reading indeed.

(I can assert that it’s a book we’ve never heard of with some authority: it’s not listed in The Burning Library, nor is it in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics.  It doesn’t get a mention in Jay Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel or his The Great Australian Novel, a Panorama. Michael Orthorfer doesn’t include it in The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, (though to be fair, Australia only gets 10 pages in that, and we have to share them with New Zealand and the Pacific). And although The Dyehouse was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, you won’t find it listed on Wikipedia because the records aren’t comprehensive for that era and so the shortlists are only included after 1980.   I think there’s probably a very interesting story in how this particular book was (a) rediscovered and (b) chosen for the honour of being the 100th title…)

According to the Text Classics website: Mena Calthorpe  (1905–1996)

was born in Goulburn, New South Wales, in 1905, and grew up there. After marrying, Calthorpe moved to Sydney and lived for most of her life in the Sutherland Shire. Working in office jobs and writing in her spare time, she was active in literary groups and in the Labor Party—for some years she was a member of the Communist Party, and she opposed B. A. Santamaria’s attempts to stop communism in trade unions.

The Dyehouse (1961) was followed by The Defectors (1969), which dramatised unions’ internal power struggles. Mena Calthorpe’s third and final novel was The Plain of Ala, an Irish migrant story, which was published in 1989.

The Dyehouse is a vivid picture of postwar Australia.  Today this era is often portrayed as a kind of Golden Age, when there was peace, prosperity and full employment and everyone bought their own home (complete with new Holden) in the emerging suburbs of the big cities.  But as Calthorpe shows, there was in 1956 also real poverty for the working poor, and security of employment was a myth.  For women workers, sexual harassment could have tragic consequences, and benefits such as sick leave that we take for granted today were only grudgingly approved. But while the novel has a social conscience, the story comes alive through lively characterisation and an absorbing plot.

It begins with the arrival of Miss Merton:

Miss Merton came to the Dyehouse one windy afternoon when smoke from the railway yards drifted darkly over Macdonaldtown. More smoke rose from chimney-stacks and mingled in the surging air, against which all doors had been tightly shut.  To Miss Merton, walking slowly, Macdonaldtown seemed deserted.

She was a precise maiden lady, well into middle age.  The skirt that swirled around her legs was neat and unpretentious.  Her hair was smoothed, parted in the centre, and she wore a bun – not the kind of thing that one could call a chignon, but a plain, neat bun, firmly pinned at the nape of her neck.  On the back of her head was fastened a small, sensible hat of fine black straw.  (p6)

Miss Merton is another victim of war and the Great Depression, because the love of her life was a man damaged by it.  She works in the office, as an intermediary between the workers on the factory floor and their predatory boss Renshaw.   She is also a compassionate observer of Renshaw’s seduction of naïve young Patty Nicholls who believes his line about marriage, only to see herself replaced by the next pretty young thing.  Modern feminists will be pleased to see how this issue is treated.

Renshaw himself is subject to the chain of middle management in the form of Larcombe and Cuthbert and at the top there is the Chairman of Directors, a man called Harvison whose sole goal in life is to make money, avoiding any costs that he can.

Sick pay was always a contentious matter.  There were fixed rules.

  1. Employees must report sick within twenty-four hours.
  2. Employee must fill in and sign statutory declaration, duly witnessed by a JP.
  3. Employee must state reason for absence from employment.
  4. Employee must ask that this absence might not jeopardise his continuity of service (i.e. that he should not be penalised by losing proportion of his holiday pay, or lose long-service privileges).
  5. He must claim payment for the day. (p.62)

Miss Merton in the office makes it part of her job to remind workers to do this onerous paperwork, and to help recent migrants deal with its incomprehensible language.  This kindness to the workers on the factory floor ultimately makes her job vulnerable because an efficiency drive identifies that this is ‘unnecessary’ work.

In the tough world of The Dyehouse, the rules are that the statement of claim is paid only for the worker’s own personal illness. Barney Monahan is docked two hours pay for visiting his wife when she has a baby late in life.  This couple and the perilous state of their finances are a poignant portrayal of the working poor:

The house was remote from the Dyehouse.  Barney had bought the land – rough, isolated and scrubby, on the edge of a sweeping reserve near where the train came round the loop from Sutherland.  It was cheap, but it took every penny of his carefully hoarded money to pay for it.  There was nothing left over for luxuries, and he and Esther had started in a tent bought second-hand in Oxford Street.

That was a long time ago.

Tenaciously, after his day’s work at the Dyehouse, he had worked on the block with Esther, clearing the rough undergrowth but keeping the trees.  Then the slow job of pegging out, digging, splitting stone for the foundation in order to save money; the period of scraping, economising, going without.  And gradually the small timber-framed cottage was raised.  Into six squares they had fitted two bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry, a kitchen-cum-living room.  And there was his shed made from odds and ends of material and plain junk.  It housed the tools, the tent carefully packed and tied to the ceiling, and the stretchers.

This was his home, the best he could afford, and he had struggled hard to get it. (p.41)

As an aside, Calthorpe lets the reader know that their adult daughter in Perth can’t possibly afford to make the expensive trip across the country to be with her mother at this difficult time.

The most tragic figure is Hughie Marshall, a man who takes genuine pleasure in his job, mixing the dyes to create new colours and experimenting with techniques to manage the new synthetics.  But Hughie is in Renshaw’s sights and Renshaw undermines him at every opportunity.  His plans to move Hughie out of the work that he loves so that he can promote his young protégé are hampered by Hughie’s many years of loyal service and the strength of his reputation with senior management.  Cuthbert is briefly uneasy about rubber-stamping events:

But he didn’t settle down as he should have done.  He had known Hughie for over twenty years himself.  Not intimately; but then, how few men he knew intimately.

He was a quite little man, this Hughie, puddling about with dyes and bottles, working contentedly for thirty-odd years in the damp laboratory.  He remembered a winter’s day when he had gone unexpectedly to Macdonaldtown.  He had been appalled at the wet, cold atmosphere in which Hughie Worked.  He had thought, fleetingly, that something could be done to improve it.  He would have something done.  But the time passed and nothing came of it. (p.111)

Hughie’s eventual fate comes as a shock, which will leave few readers unmoved.

I started reading The Dyehouse last night when I went to bed at 10 o’clock.  I became so absorbed in it, that I didn’t turn the light out till four o’clock in the morning.  That speaks for itself, I think!

Author: Mena Calthorpe
Title: The Dyehouse
Publisher: Text Classics, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355758
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Dyehouse (Text Classics) and from the Text Classics website.



It’s been ages since I read anything by German author Bernard Schlink.  Like everyone else I read The Reader when it was published in 1995 and was impressed, and then (although he published other things in between) wasn’t very excited about Homecoming (2006).  And now I’m not very excited about The Woman on the Stairs… unless…

Unless this rather slight, rather dull, and rather implausible story is a metaphor for something else.  It’s quite possible I’m seeing something that isn’t there out of a desire to make more of the book than it deserves, but bear with me…

At surface level, the book is about three men and a woman who come together to reflect on what they’ve made of their lives.  It begins with a German lawyer’s chance discovery of a painting in the Art Gallery in Sydney, a painting of a woman who used him to play off between two other men who both wanted her and the painting.  The rich Frankfurt businessman who commissioned the painting of his wife wants her back when she goes off with the painter because he is the sort of man who thinks a woman is his property, and the painter wants his painting back because he’s the kind of man who obsesses about the things he’s created.  The lawyer, then a young man, is hired to sort out the matter, and he falls for the woman too and – uncharacteristically for such a law-abiding, pompous and professionally respectable person – gets involved in her heist of the painting.  All this comes together when she manipulates the situation so that they all turn up in Australia to confront each other.

(Here is the place BTW to say that I wish when authors lob into Australia to set their books here, that they would – out of respect and courtesy – do some rudimentary homework.

#1 The narrator reads a history of Australia to while away the hours and to familiarise himself with our country:

I read about the history of Australia, the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died first from infections, then from being massacred, and then had their children taken away. The taking was well intentioned, it brought tremendous suffering to both parents and children.  (p.38, Italics mine.)

Wrong, Herr Schlink.  ‘Well-intentioned’ is an inappropriate word to use to describe the intention to ‘breed the colour out’ and it is not for you to sanitise our history.

#2 He reads on…

The history of Australia is short, so the book quickly reached the present day. (p.62, again, Italics mine)

Wrong, again.  The human history of Australia began 60,000 years ago.

While I’m digressing from the main game, there is also this extraordinary unchallenged generalisation made by one of the characters when he is talking about how the world hasn’t changed:

“History goes on.  But our world doesn’t change.  Nothing threatens it now, no communism, no fascism, no young people who want to turn it upside down.  Since the end of the Cold War there’s no alternative to our world. Name one country that doesn’t live under the laws of capitalism – even China’s communism is capitalism now. The word of the prophet, for which the Muslims kill and die, is no alternative – it’s a task for the police and the military. (p. 141, again, Italics mine)

This took my breath away.  The Muslims, not ‘extremist Muslims’ or even ‘some Muslims’.  No, by implication, he means all of them.  Is this Schlink’s character being Islamophobic, or is it the author? And no editor or translator picked up this generalisation so unfair and insulting to moderate Muslims who live peaceably among us? Didn’t anybody stop to think that an author from the nation that vilified the Jews as a prelude to the Holocaust ought to choose his words carefully?? No editor suggested that perhaps one of the characters might well have challenged this statement to make it quite clear that it’s the opinion of a bombastic man and not a ‘fact’.



Once these four characters are together in an isolated spot on the NSW coast, they begin the blame game, and the unnamed narrator starts searching his soul too.  He considers that his part in the heist of the painting is the one exciting thing he’s done in his life.  He’s been very respectable, he’s always done the right thing, but his life has been dull and meaningless.  He’s never taken any risks.  He hasn’t actually achieved anything except to merge companies and to have a family.  And this is where I began to think, could this sense of aggrieved discontent conceivably be a metaphor for postwar, post-Holocaust Germany? Is there a yearning in Germany to slough off its dour, respectable, economy-driven persona and do something interesting even if it’s a bit risky?  *chuckle* Do they perhaps envy France with its risqué presidents, its outrageous flouting of international norms to achieve its nuclear arsenal, its repudiation of multiculturalism and its proud assertion of its Frenchness?  None of this is in the book, I hasten to add, but if The Woman on the Stairs is just a rather clumsy examination of a mid-life crisis, then it’s got nothing much to recommend it at all IMO.

PS In an author note Schlink tells us that a postcard of Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) has been on his desk for many years, but that that the painter and the painting of this novel is purely fictional.

Author: Bernard Schlink
Title: The Woman on the Stairs
Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett & Bradley Schmidt
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, 2016, first published 2014
ISBN: 9781474604994
Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2017

Vale Jill Roe A.0. (1940-2017)

stella-miles-franklinIt is with a heavy heart that I pass on news of the death of Professor Jill Roe, A.O, historian, biographer and academic.  There are others who knew her that will write the tribute she deserves, but as a reader of her magnificent biography of Miles Franklin, I can only say that this is a great loss.  Stella Miles Franklin, a Biography (2010) is a book to make readers fall in love with biography as a genre.  It is the model of a literary biography for would-be biographers to follow.

The Encyclopaedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia profiles Jill Roe’s life and achievements, noting that

Among the works which established her as a leader in women’s history in Australia are Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (1986) and her definitive biography of Miles Franklin, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008; US edition: Her Brilliant Career: The Life of Stella Miles Franklin, 2009), which won the Magarey Medal for Biography, the SA Premier’s Non-Fiction Prize, and the award for best Historical Book in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. In 2013, Macquarie University granted her the Higher Degree of Doctor of Letters.

Macquarie University, where she was a founding member of staff, also profiles her academic career on their website noting also that she was Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University 1994-95, and later head of modern history at Macquarie, a position she held until retirement in 2002.

In recognition of her significant contribution to the writing, teaching and public communication of history in Australia and abroad her work is honoured annually by the Australian Historical Society with the Jill Roe Prize for the best unpublished article-length work  of historical research in any area of historical enquiry produced by a postgraduate student. 

Jill Roe was the author of numerous books, some of which are listed at Goodreads, but I am not sure that all the books there are by the same Jill Roe, so I leave it to readers to consult the list on the Goodreads site. Her most recent book is Our Fathers Cleared the Bush (2016) published by Wakefield Press.

It is very sad to think that there will be no more from this gifted writer.

Update: 17/1/17  Historian Yvonne Perkins has written a comprehensive tribute to Jill Roe at Stumbling Through the Past.



The Leopard (1958) is a classic work of Italian literature, noted in 1001 Books as having received unexpected international success.  It was widely translated and made into a film starring (of all people!) Burt Lancaster in 1963.  (I’ve seen this film, probably the restored version of 1980, and it’s been hard not to have Lancaster’s image interfering with my imagination as I read the book at last.)  But I didn’t find any mention of The Leopard in Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction because as 1001 Books notes, The Leopard was outside the prevailing postwar Italian neorealist narrative tradition, both stylistically and thematically. 

While neorealism centred on low-class characters and unveiled the crude reality of fascist Italy, The Leopard is the saga of the aristocratic Sicilian family of the Salinas (whose coat of arms bears a leopard). (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 edition, p. 520)

So why should a family saga, a piece of historical fiction about the decline of an aristocratic family during the Risorgimento (the C19th unification of Italy), have the gravitas that it does?


From 1860 to 1910, a series of events affects the microcosm of the protagonist, Prince Fabrizio, and his relatives, as well as the macrocosm of the Italian nation.  In Italy’s south, the Bourbon kingdom is crumbling under the impetus of Garibaldi, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies is being joined with the rest of the country; however the end of Spanish colonisation coincides with the death of the aristocracy, which had long been supported by the feudal system and which is being supplanted by the bourgeoisie. The Leopard portrays the melancholy of that loss. (1001 Books, again)

What 1001 Books doesn’t mention, is the humour in the book. The Prince has a problem: his favourite nephew Tancredi, impoverished by his father’s gambling, needs to make a prudent marriage, i.e. not to the Prince’s daughter Concetta (who is in love with him) but with money.  Prudently, he falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of – alas – Calogero Sedàra, a ‘new’ man of the times, enormously wealthy but despised as a low-class opportunist even by the Prince’s notary.  Fabrizio finds himself having to gently reprimand Don Ciccio for his forthright opinions, because the Prince has resigned himself to the inevitable and given his consent to the marriage even though his consciousness of petty status indicators is mortally offended.  He knows that everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same. 

Before long he also finds himself revising his own opinion:

As meetings due to the marriage contract became more frequent, Don Fabrizio found an odd admiration growing in him for Sedàra’s qualities.  He became used to the ill-shaven cheeks, the plebeian accent, the odd clothes and the persistent odour of stale sweat, and he began to realise the man’s rare intelligence.  Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero; free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners, he moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed.  (p.113)


It is only fair to mention that more frequent contact with the Prince had a certain effect on Sedàra too.  Until that moment he had met aristocrats only on business of buying and selling or through their very rare and long-brooded invitations to parties, circumstances in which this most singular of social classes does not show at its best.  During such meetings he had formed the opinion that the aristocracy consisted entirely of sheep-like creatures, who existed merely in order to give up their wool to his shears and their names and incomprehensible prestige to his daughter.  But since getting to know Tancredi during the period after Garibaldi’s landing he had found himself dealing, unexpectedly, with a young noble as cynical as himself, capable of driving a sharp bargain between his own smiles and titles and the attractions and fortunes of others, while knowing how to dress up such Sedàra-ish actions with a grace and fascination which he, Don Calogero, felt he did not himself possess, but which influenced him without realising it and without his being in any way able to discern its origins. (p.114)

(And here is as good a place as any to say that the translation by Archibald Colquhoun is impeccable.  Flawless.  He used to work for Oxford University Press on their project to publish Italian classics in translation, and if The Leopard is anything to go by, I’ll read anything this man translated.  I can see from the list at Wikipedia that I have Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, but he translated other Calvinos that I want to read too.)

There is so much to say about this book.  It’s a wonderful book to read just for the pleasure of it, but it’s also rich in symbolism, including a dog called Bendicò whose fortunes mirror those of the family, hanging on to history and tradition long after the forces of the wider world have made its decline inevitable.   For those of us who learned simplistic scraps about Garibaldi at school, there’s the story of the unification from a Sicilian point-of-view, suggesting that rule from remote Rome is not much different in effect to rule from Spain.  There is the poignant comedy of a class system facing decline – but written in an affectionate style largely missing from British books about the same theme (though perhaps I should exempt Henry Green from that).

And the overarching theme of death, sterility and and decay, contrasted with the vigour of a rising class that shows itself capable of adaptation, is handled with such exquisite delicacy, even an old Bolshie like me can empathise with the nostalgia!

PS A big thank you to Dagny a.k.a Madame Vauquer from the Vauquer Boarding House and Jonathan from  Intermittencies of the Mind who nudged me into reading this book along with them.

Author: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Title: The Leopard
Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun
Introduction by David Gilmour
Published by Collins Harvill, 1986
ISBN: 978002714649
Source: Personal library, purchased for $4.00 from Diversity Books

Available from Fishpond: The Leopard

Along with Dagny a.k.a Madame Vauquer from the Vauquer Boarding House and Jonathan from  Intermittencies of the Mind  I am reading The Leopard (1958) by Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, so I thought I’d take a look at another VSI.  But it’s not really surprising that Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction doesn’t mention Lampedusa because he was so very much out of step with postwar developments in Italy.  In the wake of fascism, Italian literature was generally brutally realist, while Lampedusa’s book is a nostalgic novel set in pre-unification Italy.  It doesn’t fit into the characteristics of Italian literature in this period at all.

This VSI is not like the mostly chronological structure of the French VSI which I read a little while ago.  After a useful four-page introduction, the book is framed as general discussions of problematic trends and issues:

  • History
  • Tradition
  • Theory
  • Politics
  • Secularism
  • Women

(Women get a chapter all of their own because (Ferrante Fever aside) they have been almost invisible in Italian literature.)

As you might expect from the country that brought us Dante and Petrarch, there is a lot about poetry in this VSI, and interesting as it was, (and will be again when I get round to reading The Divine Comedy) it was less useful for my purposes than the French VSI.  This is because there isn’t really much in the way of an Italian 19th century novel, which is where my interest in literature began as a teenager.  Nothing like an Austen, or a Dickens, or a Zola.  The great 19th century Italian novel is The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) (1840) by Alessandro Manzoni and it’s notable as a milestone in the development of the modern, unified Italian language, but it sounds rather dull and didactic to me.

The main reason for this failure to engage with the 19th century novel (and for the dearth of women’s writing) was illiteracy.  There wasn’t a mass market of readers impatiently waiting for the next serialised chapter, and what persisted was an elite intellectual tradition that was more interested in theory than in writing a story.  This intellectualism persisted into the 20th century too.  I was rather startled to see that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is as much about his pet theory of semiotics than the labyrinthine detective story I enjoyed when I read it years ago. 

One of the central tenets of Eco’s semiotic theory is that the meaning of signs, including language, can be understood only by reference to other signs, never to things in the ‘real’ world. The rose of the novel’s title refers to a Latin verse, quoted at the end, which says precisely this: names are all that we possess of reality.  Our knowledge of reality is also fundamentally disordered: the world of signs is a labyrinth through which there is no single path, in which there is an infinite variety of possible connections. This central tenet of Eco’s semiotics contrasts with the stable ordered world of the monastery in which the story of serial murder and detection is set.  (p.58)

Yes, alas, all that passed me by… As the authors point out, the tendency of Italian authors to withdraw into the world of literature and abstract ideas, and the tendency to engage in the world of concrete reality can co-exist in the same author and the theory that underlies Eco’s novel is integrally bound up with his thinking about political issues and the writer’s social responsibilities. (p.59)

[But the humble reader may miss it entirely].

Politics impacts on the Italian novel in a big way.  (Even in The Leopard, or so it seems to me).

How to bring politics and literature into alignment, and how to reconcile the political and the ethical, have been recurrent questions in Italian literature, always against a backdrop of classical reference and thought. (p.64)

From what I know of 20th century Australian literature there is a similar preoccupation, but rather than a backdrop of classical traditions, there is a preoccupation with trying to differentiate a distinctive Australian identity instead.  And while there was censorship in Australia (see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore) it was focussed on obscenity and religious offence; homosexuality and race-relations; and birth control, abortion and childbirth without pain.  Concern about sedition was comparatively minor.  Italy under Fascism was a different thing altogether…

Fascism was well-established in Italy where Mussolini was elected in 1922 and maintained widespread popular support until it became obvious that the social revolution he promised was never going to happen.  (A bit like trickle-down economics today, eh?) Authors had to be careful, (much like Chinese authors in our time) and a novel like Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily) by Elio Vittorini could be published in 1938 without repercussions because any anti-Fascism is concealed or coded.  Postwar, and in line with the moral values of the Resistance authors steered away from ideological propaganda.  The Resistance was a moment of political awakening for Italo Calvino and I am tempted to find a copy of his first novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, 1947) which is about a boy’s life as a partisan among the Communists.  But I should read his The Baron in the Trees first, because it has been on my TBR for 10 years or more), and then if I like that I might read the other two in his Our Ancestors series.

the-complete-review-guide-to-contemporary-world-fictionUnlike the French VSI, however, I haven’t ended up from this Italian Literature VSI with a long list of books to add to my wishlist, and I think that is perhaps because of the preoccupation with poetry, the emphasis on intellectualism and the minimal attention to the 21st century.  Well, you can’t have everything in a VSI of only 128 pages!  But I am more interested in contemporary Italian writing and I’d like to widen my knowledge beyond Diego Marani, Umberto Eco, Niccolo Ammanati and Elena Ferrante. For that I think I’ll find Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction more useful.

Author: Peter Hainsworth & David Robey
Title: Italian Literature, a very short introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199231799

Review copy courtesy of OUP.

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


adventures-in-the-slavic-kitchen I have been fascinated by Slavic cuisine ever since we decided to visit Russia in 2012.  It has been our habit to explore the cuisine of the countries we visit before we go, but Russian cuisine turned out to be more interesting than most.  After an exhaustive hunt to find a cookbook of any kind, we learned what we should have realised beforehand: that the Soviets had a major impact on food and cooking just like everything else.  When the aristocracy faded into history or exile, their adaptations of French cuisine went with them, and what was left was a rather rudimentary cuisine.

It would be nice to think that people did not go hungry in the USSR, but it was not so.  There was a long history of drought and famine prior to the Revolution, and there were famines even before the disastrous collectivisation under Stalin. But that’s not all that impacted on Slavic cuisine: as I learned from this most interesting book, there was also a program to get women out of the kitchen so that they could join the workforce, which soon gave rise to those horror stories we’ve all heard about Soviet cafeterias:

Let’s remember the background – to promote female cooks to the status of Deputies of the Supreme Soviet! Let’s remember the policy of the elimination of women homemakers as a class, a huge expansion of the Soviet system of public cafeterias, the enlargement of food production factories – huge industrial complexes and plants, and the phantasmagorical impoverishment of product variety when not just some products but even their classes and kinds disappeared without a trace, and only generic types remained: “kielbasa” (ringed sausages) in general, “meat” as such, or simply “fish.” One of the possible definitions of Socialism is precisely this “impoverishment of product variety,” which, in the world of food, means “nothing extra,” only the necessary stuff, preferable in that it is commonly accessible.  (p.27)

It wasn’t all bad, apparently.

It must be said that there were some positive achievements on this path: thanks to rigid state standards, we had good bread, tolerable vodka, ice cream for everyone (thanks to the ambitious Mikoyan and his 1937 Program)*, very decent candies and cakes, and those kinds of vegetable oil, sour cream, mustard, mayonnaise, and herring to which we have become accustomed and therefore have not needed any others.  (p.27)


Let’s forget all the cellulose ringed sausages, sour beer, deteriorated kinds of vegetables that can only pass as cattle feed, watered down milk, and it would be better left unmentioned, “schnitzel with garnish” and “Thursday is fish day” (remarkable for the anonymity of its inventor).  (p.28)

*Anastas Mikoyan was put in charge of the food industry and, fired by the spirit of rivalry with the capitalists of the USA, came back from a trip there to dramatically increase the production of ice cream!

As you can see from these excerpts, the author Igor Klekh has a sense of humour and a philosophical attitude towards ‘Soviet Times’.   But he also has some interesting observations to make about food and cooking in general.  In the essay titled ‘The Origin of the Kitchen’ he notes the triumph of fast food:

In terms of the effectiveness of food, its convenience, and accessibility in the modern world, McDonalds and pizza parlours (those, figuratively speaking, unpretentious culinary Kalashnikov machine guns), or to put it differently, the almost universally established system of fast food and the use of pre-prepared food, which more and more is ready for consumption, beat everything else.  In proportion to the disappearance of the peasantry with the traditional kitchen, it could not be any different from what might be expected. (p.22)

But he goes on to divide cuisines into two types:

  • the ‘Imperial, continental, totalitarian’ kitchen, exemplified by French and Chinese kitchens – which achieve maximum power over the base product – in the transformation of its taste and appearance (to feed a goose to the point it dies, to let mould eat through cheese, to bury eggs in lime for a year.
  • the ‘island’ kitchen, exemplified by Britain and Japan, with their minimal interference over the taste of the original raw material.

The Russian Kitchen of the last two centuries, he says, is also an Imperial, continental kitchen that went through the school of the best French chefs after the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. They then appropriated the cuisines of the Russian Empire (and subsequently the Soviet Empire) so that it became supra-national. And these days, you can certainly see that this is true if you look at the slide show of our meal at Gogol’s Restaurant in St Petersburg.  Gogol was apparently a noted gourmet who spent 12 years in Italy, hence the ravioli on the menu!

William Pokhlebkin (1923-2000) is a hero of Slavic cuisine, and Klekh bestows upon him the epithet one of those last Knights of the Kitchen Table.  Labelled a dissident in 1968, he was denied publication under the Soviets, and the books he worked on as a hobby weren’t published until the post-Soviet era.  He was against the concept of ‘usefulness’ but made it his credo to promote tasty cuisine and the return of the happiness of life and the poetry of food.  He also empowered cooks by teaching the basic principles of the kitchen so that they had the ability to improvise and create new dishes.  (These basic principles are not known, alas, to many young people in the West these days.  I have seen Masterchef contestants who don’t know how to make pastry!)  Murdered in his apartment in the year 2000, Pokhlebkin lives on in his very popular books which are in every big bookstore in Russia. 

Klekh is baffled by the prevalence of tasteless food in the modern world.  You would think that when the iron curtain fell, a gigantic gastronomic world would have opened before us.  But no, nowadays gourmets have become conspirators and misfits and underlying processes force more and more people to eat tasteless and unhealthy food and pay quite a lot for it.

Nowhere in the world have I met such a great number of unbelievably obese people as in American provincial cities, and I looked at them with a mixture of horror, rapture, curiosity and repulsion.  It would be fine if they ate with delight for the sake of pleasure, but they swallow everything in quick succession in their fast food restaurants with pseudo Chinese and Mexican buffets as well as cheap pizza, chasing everything down with iced drinks at any time of the year, turning any food into alimentary garbage with their gluttony. (p.34)

bliny-and-caviar-kitezh-grad-on-petrovka-st-moscowYes, Klekh is opinionated in an amusing way, and he can’t help himself when it comes to comparing Russian with Ukrainian food. (No, I’m not going down that controversial path!) In Part II, ‘Cultural Dictionary of Eastern Slavic Food, he explains that ‘salo’ (pig lard) is the same for Ukrainians as Manna is for the Jews, a transcendental and earth-shattering dish… both public and sacred, polemically sharpened and consuming it resembles gliding on skis.  The Russian blin, on the other hand, is a matter of theatre, at their most intense at wakes where they are served with caviar: an inversion and a shroud that conceal the hyperbole of cornucopia.  Death pregnant with life.  (I can’t vouch for that, but you can see here the same dish that I shared with The Spouse in Moscow. It was the most expensive entrée I’ve ever had in my life, but hey, you only ever get one chance to eat real Russian caviar; it is utterly unaffordable in Australia.  No, I can’t quite see myself shelling out a similar amount for pig lard.)

Some of Klekh’s humour is a little … a-hem …  ‘earthy’ as when discussing the erotic qualities of kielbasa, a type of sausage.  And perhaps his snippet about vodka and ‘the metaphysics of a hangover’ together with ‘hangover cookery’ doesn’t acknowledge the seriousness of alcohol abuse in Russia.  (Our guide was quite upfront about the cause of her marriage breakup, and its prevalence amongst her friends and family.) But perhaps in Russia as elsewhere, black humour is one way of dealing with serious matters…

Having established his scorn for processed food (I’m with him there), he then proceeds to offer recipes, everything from chicken liver pate to sardines in tomato sauce (which does sound rather nice, though I don’t suppose I can buy Black Sea Sardines here in Melbourne).  There are admonitions against buying washed potatoes, and he shares his doubts about the whole idea of salads because they are ‘heretical’ for Russian cuisine.  He complains that it’s no easier to get the right fatty pickled herring under capitalism as it was under Socialism, because only the waste of the catch ends up in Russia.  Well, we know about that in Australia.  All our best seafood is exported to Japan and China these days, and the pub crayfish is just a nostalgic memory…

Goodness, I’ve just looked at my word count!  Enough already!

Part III is called Seasonal Culinary Art and Part IV is Cities and Dishes, both delivered in his chatty style rendered in a somewhat idiosyncratic translation into English.  I just wish it had pictures of the dishes, though I suppose that would add greatly to the cost.

Author: Igor Klekh
Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen, a book of essays with recipes
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski and Michael M. Naydan
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781784379964
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.

Available in Australia from Fishpond: Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen: A Book of Essays with Recipes ($33.99 AUD, cheaper than the Book Depository)

Or direct from Glagoslav Publications where you can get it for a song as an eBook or €21.00 for the paperback.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2017

The Beachcomber’s Wife, by Adrian Mitchell

… you can’t escape to paradise.  The old story is right: paradise is what you lose.  It is not where you get to, it is what you might have had. (p.143)

the-beachcombers-wifeSo says the unnamed narrator of this intriguing new book from one of my favourite authors, Adrian Mitchell.  And she should know, because she and her irascible husband lived alone for decades on Dunk Island at the turn of the twentieth century while he wrote his Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908). 

Well, not quite.  I have misled you.  I blame the author because he has done such a convincing job of creating the unheard voice of Edmund James Banfield’s wife, Bertha Golding.

The real Edmund Banfield did exist, he was originally a newspaperman and you can read about him at Wikipedia.  And he did decamp to Dunk Island after he was diagnosed with TB and a nervous breakdown.  He leased the then ‘uninhabited’ island for 30 years, had a plantation there and made a living by writing newspaper columns.  Of course Dunk Island was not uninhabited, it was the home of the Bandjin and Djiru people, and indeed the WP entry for Dunk Island tells me that Banfield’s writing described the customs and legends of the people who lived there.  The curious thing, as Adrian Mitchell discovered, is that Banfield in his writings said almost nothing about his wife and sole companion on the island.

Well, the author has given her a voice.  Drawing on Banfield’s writings he has fictionalised a life, making it clear that it’s fiction by giving Banfield the new name of Edward, and drawing attention to Banfield’s shameful failure to acknowledge her by leaving his narrator un-named.

The novella is artfully constructed.  The reader begins to have questions almost right from the start, but the narrator’s thoughts drift as she waits for help from the mainland after Edward has died so the answers come in their own good time as she looks back over her life: her courtship; her husband’s perilous health; their early years on the island; their survival of a cyclone and so on.  It becomes obvious that this isolated life was no idyll, but that there were marital differences of no small consequence.  Now that he is dead, she feels that she might be able to read ‘his’ books.  Imagine that! So much for the wedding vow that ‘with all my worldly goods I thee endow’!

Initially, their sojourn was to be a palliative for Edward’s health, but as he responded to the climate, the outdoor life and the lack of stress, their stay became long term.  The relationship of this mismatched couple, however, came to be enhanced by her encroaching deafness.  It was easier for her to keep her thoughts to herself, and after a brief trip to the mainland when they separated for a while, she comes to realise that her deafness isolates her from people anyway:

What I found was that I seemed to be living more and more inside a kind of envelope, the equivalent in sound of a darkening room. My friends were all very caring and concerned.  They took to looking right into my face, and exaggerated their enunciation; much as we used to do in the church choir.

I did not care for their hot breath, however, and preferred to step away to a more comfortable distance.  Which contradicted their good intention.  (p.42)

Her realisation that she disliked having to sit in a room full of lumpy tiresome women unable to hear their jokes or share their conversation enabled her to prefer her own company.  With the use of an ear trumpet she isn’t entirely deaf but hers is mostly a silenced world where she enjoys her memories of sounds, finding that the world inside her heard is no void, but comforting and familiar.  Indeed, she comes to realise that Edward is not interested in conversation anyway…

Just look at me, sitting here with my hands in my lap, basking in the warmth of the oven and wandering about after my private thoughts, wherever they lead me.  I would not agitate Edward about such matters. I have seen how excitable he could get whenever he was opposed, or a different point of view was put to him.  You could never predict when it might happen, but sometimes he was wholly unable to listen, totally unreasonable.  He did not want his own views disturbed.  Which of us then was deaf? (p. 99)

The question that becomes urgent in the reader’s mind is what will she do, now that he has died?

What about me now?  What am I going to do? What should I do?  Here I am, helpless, and I don’t care to be that kind of woman.  It doesn’t fit well with my idea of myself. (p.16)

They had a rigid separation of gendered roles: she cooked, cleaned, sewed and looked after the chickens and the cow, while he planted, pruned, caught birds and fish for the table and although not a natural handyman attended to building repairs (permitting her to assist when he needed it!)  He also brought in their small income, and indeed it was partly her inability to fend for herself on the mainland that kept her stranded on the island with him and forged her uneasy accommodation to it.

Adrian Mitchell has written a thought-provoking fiction in The Beachcomber’s Wife.  These ‘beachcombers were a couple.  We do not know what he thought about her either because he hardly mentions her:

Those essays, these books.  It hurts that I am not mentioned, in twenty-five years of his beachcombing. Twice, I think, there is a roundabout acknowledgement that he had a life companion, meaning me, though I cannot think what is so difficult about saying he had a wife.  Just once he managed to set that down in so many words, in a dedication, which pleased me very much. But a reader would be hard put to it to find anything more than that; indeed one has to go looking for that particular page.  Nothing of the companionable walking along the beach together.  nothing of the plants I brought to his attention, nor the birds frisking in among the bushes on his blind side.

It is almost as if he was ashamed of me, or embarrassed by me. (p.68)

I wonder if Banfield’s original readers, reading his book in a different age, noticed the absence of a companion, or if they romanticised him as a Robinson Crusoe or a Henry Thoreau. Perhaps, as his wife muses, that was his intention…

You can read Confessions of a Beachcomber as an eBook from the University of Adelaide.  Speaking for myself, I’m pleased that Adrian Mitchell has waded through its pomposity to give us this intriguing novella instead.

PS That whimsical cover art is a detail from ‘Another Coral Sea’ by Jim Olsson.

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: The Beachcomber’s Wife
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054550
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: The Beachcomber’s Wife 
Or direct from Wakefield Press



Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2017

The Choir of Gravediggers, by Mel Hall

the-choir-of-gravediggersThe Choir of Gravediggers was a serendipitous discovery via Nathan Hobby who not only blogs his progress towards a monumental biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard but also writes The Annotations of Nathan Hobby.  A short story deriving from family history research, the book appealed to me because the central character is Charles Truelove, the author’s great-great grandfather who was manager of the East St Kilda Cemetery.

Now as it happens, I know this cemetery well.  Upon the death of one of the nuns at school, we would have an afternoon off to form a guard of honour for her funeral, and (as I said in my comment on Nathan’s blog) we were a sort of rent-a-crowd at the burial.  Since the nuns were mostly very old indeed, we didn’t know any of them, but I still think it’s a good thing to give a respectful send-off to these ladies who’d spent their whole life in the service of others.  But since this cemetery was established way back in 1851, it is also a very interesting cemetery and so I used to saddle up the dog  at weekends and mooch around looking at the historic graves.  (I often had to carry the dog (a dachshund) most of the way home because she only had little legs and got too tired to walk any more).


East St Kilda Cemetery (Source: Google Maps)

The most notable grave is Alfred Deakin’s. Deakin was a notable leader of the movement to federate the Australian colonies, and he was our second prime minister (1903-4, they didn’t last long in those days either).  But there are also four premiers,  Albert Jacka VC, and Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist who set up our magnificent Botanic Gardens here in Melbourne, and who you may remember from my review of Collecting Ladies by Penny Olsen.  (You can see some of the other notables at Wikipedia). But it was mostly the long-forgotten pioneers who captured my interest, the families who lost their children in infancy, and the ones whose headstones gave a place of birth far away.  (I’ve also been known to explore the Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery which also has many poignant headstones from the years of early settlement.  I used to give a lift to a friend visiting the doctor across the road, and the cemetery was a more congenial place to wait for her than a germ-laden waiting room).

What I did not know all those years ago at the East St Kilda Cemetery was the curious history of Mr Truelove.  Mel Hall’s short story is one of those fictions based on a true story – with the gaps filled in by the author’s imagination.  After her mother’s death, the narrator discovers some old documents in a hatbox and learns the reason why family history has been suppressed.  As the blurb says:

The Choir of Gravediggers takes us back to late nineteenth century Melbourne; a cemetery and a church, choral singing, grave-trafficking, pet incineration, a shipwreck, competitive flower arranging and one man struck by lightning.

Quite a lot to fit into only 48 pages!   I read it while waiting in the car for The Spouse to collect his mother from her aged care home for a Sunday excursion.  (The wait takes a while, because she forgets we’re coming, but she’s always very pleased to see us and we enjoy taking her out for a cup of tea and cake.)  Some of the story is amusing, but there are, fittingly, poignant episodes as well:

It was 1905, and I was seven when he disappeared.  I walked downstairs and saw the empty space on the hatstand.  Only a small space, but empty all the same, carved and set like a question mark in time.  It was just the first stage in a process of vanishing. (p.33)

It might have been easier to vanish to avoid a scandal in those days, but Truelove left enough traces for contemporary research to tell his remarkable story.


Author: Mel Hall
Title: The Choir of Gravediggers
Publisher: Ginninderra Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781760411459
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $16.90

Available from Fishpond: The Choir of Gravediggers


I rather like the British novelist Patrick Gale: I like the way he thinks ‘outside the box’.

The Whole Day Through is, at first glance, about a relationship of missed opportunities and the obstacles imposed by family obligations.

Forty-something Laura isn’t very good at relationships but she’s been reasonably contented living in Paris (and who wouldn’t be, eh?) but she’s had to come back to Winchester to look after her elderly mother after she started having falls.  And Ben, an old friend from Oxford with whom she had a very brief relationship, has had to move from London after his mother dies, to take on the care of his adult brother Bobby who has a mild form of Down’s Syndrome.

What complicates things even more for Laura is that her mother is a naturist, that is, she gets about at home without any clothes on.  Professor Jellicoe is a former academic, once influential in Ben’s career, and she still has all her marbles.  Although she knows that professional care is probably inevitable, she wants to enjoy the freedom to do her own thing as long as possible, and that constrains the choices that Laura has.

Ben, on the other hand, has an estranged wife called Chloe who is still fond of him, and as an HIV consultant in a local clinic, he knows just what Bobby is risking when he starts exploring his gay sexuality.   So yes, it’s complicated, even though Laura and Ben are both quite sure that they were made for each other.

It’s not a long book, only five CDs which makes it under 300 pages in a print edition.  Gale writes empathetically as he alternates between Laura’s and Ben narratives, and the characterisation of Professor Jellicoe and Bobby avoids the sort of stereotyping you might expect.  Will Ben and Laura sort things out?  The ending is not what I expected…

Author: Patrick Gale
Title: The Whole Day Through
Read by Sandra Duncan and Ed Stoppard
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC, 2010
ISBN: 9781407447247
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2017

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

the-adventures-of-augie-marchSaul Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) was the one that propelled him to fame when it won the (US) National Book Award for Fiction, and it’s been on my 1001 Books I Must Read wishlist for a while, so I was quite pleased when it turned up on the display shelf at my library.  (The only other Bellow I’ve ever read was his last novel Ravelstein, (2000) which didn’t really excite me, so I hadn’t exactly been hunting for Bellows to read).  #TrueConfession: I borrowed it expecting not to like it very much, perhaps to eliminate it after 50 pages if it didn’t engage me as Ravelstein had failed to do.  How nice it is to be so wrong about a book!

The Adventures of Augie March gets its place in 1001 Books because:

This lavish, bustling narrative written in the picaresque tradition reinvents the hero as a modern day Huck Finn.  Augie is a handsome and contemplative character who becomes embroiled in a series of increasingly exotic escapades.  In an odyssey that takes him from Chicago to Mexico, from Europe to an open boat in the mid-Atlantic, the footloose hero is recruited to a series of crackpot scams that include book stealing, arms trading and being appointed the task of guarding Trotsky.

(1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall, 2001  ABC Books edition, p.475)

In the Penguin edition that I read, Christopher Hitchens hesitates in the Introduction to bestow the title of The Great American Novel, but he admires Augie March for its scope, its optimism and its principles:

… ‘the universal eligibility to be noble’ (eligibility connotes being elected as well as being chosen) is as potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered. (p. viii)

Augie’s ambition to be noble on his own terms, like his quest to be an educated man on his own terms, seems like an anachronism in the proudly ignorant amoral era of Trump, but the expression of an ideal, even though largely unrealised, seems refreshing even though the book was written more than half a century ago.  The Sensational Snippet that I posted about the possibilities of sharing the great moments of nobility through reading tells us that a triumphant life can be real, even for a poor boy living in Depression era Chicago.

The nobility Augie aspires to can seem lost in the murk of what he actually does.  Most of Augie’s enterprises, right from when Grandma sends him out for part-time work when he’s barely into his teens, involve dishonesty at the least.  As a boy he creams off small amounts from a Christmas lucky-dip stall; as a man he’s involved in all kinds of shonky business, though he would say that he gets manipulated into it by others.  But there are moments: he stops his all-powerful brother kicking a dog; he rescues his mother from a sordid old age; and he loses the prospect of marrying a rich woman when he shoulders responsibility for a girl (who’s not his girlfriend) when she needs an abortion and then it’s assumed he’s the father.  She’s a friend, and she needs support, and he doesn’t just risk criminal prosecution when things go badly wrong for her, he also risks the one relationship that sustains him, the love of his brother Simon.

A critical moment occurs when he finds he admires an American eagle that won’t cooperate with his girlfriend’s plans for it.  He’s a man who keeps his thoughts very much to himself, but he can’t conceal his dismay about her behaviour with the creatures she wants to exploit, and that’s the catalyst for another failed relationship.   We see this inclination towards nobility in extremis too, when in the Merchant Marines his ship is blown up by a torpedo and he finds himself stranded in a lifeboat with a madman.  It’s a gripping episode in an episodic book, probably the one that I will best remember…

The aspiration to be an educated man is curious.  He has numerous opportunities to get to college, (and perhaps then to a professional career) and he doesn’t take them.  He could have been a teacher, but passes that up too.  But he reads voraciously, and the book is full of all kinds of allusions, some of which, I bet, made the book frustrating to read in the days before we could Google “wise old man walking in empty fields”, +”Netherlands painting” + “Italian gallery”…

The Misanthrope by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Misanthrope by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

There’s an old, singular, beautiful Netherlands picture I once saw in an Italian gallery, of a wise old man walking in empty fields, pensive, while a thief behind cuts the string of his purse. The old man, in black, thinking probably of God’s City, nevertheless has a foolish length of nose and is much too satisfied with his dream. But the peculiarity of the thief is that he is enclosed in a glass ball, and on the glass ball there is a surmounting cross, and it looks like the emperor’s symbol of rule. Meaning that it is earthly power that steals while the ridiculous wise are in a dream about this world and the next, and perhaps missing this one, they will have nothing, neither this nor the next, so there is a sharp pain of satire in this amusing thing, and even the painted field does not have too much charm; it is a flat piece. (p. 190-1.)

This painting is held at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples and once I found it at Wikipedia I realised that I’d seen it before somewhere, because it’s a famous painting with a moral still very relevant for our times.  Vanity tries to steal from a man who wants to relinquish the world.  He’s not aware of the thief behind him, and he hasn’t noticed the caltrops in front of him.  But when he finds his purse is gone and he stumbles into those traps, he’s going to have to face up to the world he lives in and is part of.  He (and we) can’t abandon responsibility for the world’s difficulties.  Like the shepherd guarding the sheep in the background, he has to do his share.

Bellow doesn’t just reference paintings: Augie laments that his brother Simon had gotten hold of some English schoolboy notions of honour and that Tom Brown’s Schooldays for many years had an influence we were not in a position to afford.  Well, most people my age would be familiar with that book.   But other allusions are not so obvious.  Grandma doesn’t want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didn’t trust him as a family man because the countess had such trouble with him. Would I have known what this meant if I hadn’t read War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong, a reimagining of Countess Sonya Tolstoy’s relationship with her exasperating husband?  And this one, selected at random as I write this?

School absorbed [Simon] more, and he had his sentiments anyway, a mixed extract from Natty Bumppo, Quentin Durward, Tom Brown, Clark at Kaskaskia, the messenger who brought the good news from Ratisbon, and so on, that kept him more to himself.  (p. 12)

I’ve looked these up now that I’m online but I didn’t recognise them when I was reading the book in bed and I certainly wasn’t going to crank up the laptop in the middle of the night to find out.  I just let them (and others) wash over me with a vague idea that I might look them up later but of course I haven’t because I didn’t write them down. I don’t think it matters: I enjoyed the allusions I recognised and I passed on the ones I missed.

I liked this book very much, and will one day get to the rest of the Bellows listed in 1001 Books. (He’s got seven novels listed in my edition).  A good start to my reading year!

Author: Saul Bellow
Title: The Adventures of Augie March
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001
ISBN 9780141184869
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond (and probably everywhere else as well): The Adventures of Augie March (Penguin Modern Classics)




the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattooOur first #6Degrees for 2017!  Hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best this month’s starter book is The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson, one of those international bestsellers that is still selling by the gazillion every day.  Me, I wasn’t going to waste my money on a book I suspected that I wouldn’t like so I borrowed it from the library – and yes, it’s a crime novel – the genre I least like after romance – and I duly abandoned it after 30 pages.

girl-with-a-pearl-earringBut the title reminded me of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  This too is a popular book which has been made into an enjoyable film – but in fictionalising the story of the painting, Chevalier’s book suggests that the painting is a portrait.  It is not…

The painting is a tronie, the Dutch 17th-century description of a ‘head’ that was not meant to be a portrait. It depicts a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and an improbably large pearl earring. (Wikipedia, viewed 7/1/17)

I know this because I have seen the actual painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where we had one of the best guides ever!

Cape AridI really enjoy books about art, and I have a particular fondness for botanical art.  I like to have these books on the coffee table and just browse through them when I have an idle moment.  It’s a way of having beautiful things in my everyday life.  One of my favourites is Cape Arid by Philippa and Alex Nikulinsky which not only has exquisite art works but an accompanying texts about the joys and travails of painting in the solitude of the remote bush.

Georgiana Molloy the mind that shinesThe other thing I like about these books is that they showcase the contribution women make towards scientific knowledge about botany.  In the days of early settlement the women who studied local flora may not have known that they were continuing a gendered indigenous tradition that goes back 60,000 years or more, but their collections and paintings formed an invaluable contribution to the growing body of botanical knowledge which informed the work of people like Ferdinand Von Mueller at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.  One of my favourites of these women is Georgina Molloy.  I read a profile of her first in Collecting Ladies by Penny Olsen, and then in a biography of her own: Georgiana Molloy, the mind that shines by Bernice Barry.

StellaMilesFranklinRoeJ9523_fBut excellent as the Molloy biography is, my favourite kind of bio is literary biography.  I’ve reviewed 18 of them on this blog and I have another half dozen on the TBR.  My favourite is Jill Roe’s award-winning biography Stella Miles Franklin which is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the woman whose name graces our most prestigious literary award, but I also recently enjoyed Nettie Palmer’s study of Henry Handel Richardson.

trouble-in-lotus-landAlong with her husband Vance Palmer, Nettie Palmer was one half of a writing couple, and that brings me to George Johnson, who won the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 for My Brother Jack. His wife was the inimitable Charmian Clift whose essays I reviewed a while ago and whose novels I really must find and read.  I don’t think I’ve read the best of Charmian Clift because this book was not really essays, it’s a collection of her newspaper columns of only about 1000 words each.  I want to see her work in long form, and in fiction.l

Found in TranslationOver the past year, I’ve really been impressed by the essays I’ve read through my subscription to Quarterly Essay.  I named two of them in my Non-fiction Best Books of 2016 but my all-time favourite from this series is Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, in praise of a plural world (QE #52) because she makes such a powerful case for reading widely from books in translation.  And this is a good place to pop in a plug for Stu’s Pushkin Fortnight at Winston’s Dad in February.  It’s easy to join in this initiative because Pushkin’s list includes lots of novellas that don’t take too long to read.

From a translated novel about tattooed ladies to an essay asserting the value of translation…  that’s my #6Degrees this month!


reading-the-gardenReading the Garden was first published in 2008, but somehow I missed it and only discovered it when Emma Ashmere, author of The Floating Garden revealed in Meet an Aussie Author that she had been a researcher for the book.  I tracked it down at my local library that day and reserved it.  I have been fascinated by the history of gardening in Australia ever since I read Holly Kerr-Forsyth’s Remembered Gardens.

Alas, Reading the Garden turned out to be a disappointment, nothing to do with Emma’s research but rather everything to do with the use that’s been made of it.


This is my garden in Autumn, looking out from our French windows. L to R: the edge of a small garden shed, and behind that (where you can’t see it) there’s one of our three water tanks.  There are citrus trees, lemon & lime, obscuring the BBQ; a grape vine on the pergola and citrus tubs and wall art in our outdoor eating area (which we call The Lower Belvedere in homage to our first European trip); vegie patch No 1 (no 2 is out of the line of sight on the LHS); an olive tree; and a sorrel patch.  There is some lawn, and some paving, and a deck with herbs and a bay tree, plus what’s left of the pumpkin harvest.  On the deck you can also see the edge of another table, which is a nice spot for a cup of tea on winter afternoons.  You can also see our neighbour’s pear tree overhanging the washing line which is discreetly behind that brick wall. Nothing special, really, though we love it, but this one simple photo tells you a lot about 21st century gardening in the suburbs of Melbourne.

In concept, I now realise, it is much like the earliest gardens planted by settlers in the colonial era of Australia.  It is fenced, to declare that it’s “mine”, reinforcing the dispossession of the Bunerong People whose land it originally was.  Nearly all of the plants are not indigenous to Australia, and a kitchen garden augmenting food supply is what nearly all gardens had in colonial Australia.  My front garden, although it has a banksia and a bottlebrush to keep the honey-eaters happy, has even more overt symbols of the imported garden: there are roses, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and violets thriving under the shade of a massive lilli-pilli tree.

This photo also tells you that I don’t live in the inner suburbs because there’s so much land, nor the outer suburbs…

Living in suburbia had traditionally meant living in a house with a garden.  The new outer suburban developments are located on the fringes of urban development, where the land is cheap but the blocks are comparatively small.  Some have names like Parkwood Estate or Springback Waters or Greenview Grove but there are few gardens to be seen.  The front ‘yard’ comes ready landscaped, and there is not room for anything but the smallest backyard.  The houses have no eaves so they can be placed close together.  Most require airconditioners to counter the intensity of the western sun which comes unfiltered by trees or absorbed by greenery, and in place of outside play areas, there is ample indoor space, secure from anything threatening which may be found outside.  The fortress mentality reflected in what have been called ‘McMansions’ suggests a desire for homogeneity, conformity and security.

With houses so close together, ‘privacy’ can only be maintained by keeping windows shut and tinted, or blinds and curtains drawn.  Without a garden, there is no space for children to play outside and they must be taken, usually driven, to other locations for their outdoor recreation. (p.225)

Well, yes, the tone is disapproving.  ‘McMansions’ are an easy target: nobody likes them except (presumably) the people who buy them.  But the rather scornful tone extends to other chapters too.  From the chapter about suburban gardens of the 1950s, where I learned that Australian suburban gardening culture, governed as it was by a set of cultural assumptions, must have seemed impenetrable to new migrants, I gather that my garden is too ‘Anglo’ and that there is somehow something different, more praiseworthy and more ideologically sound about immigrant families having a vegie patch to grow Asian greens or rocket than if I do the same thing.  Aren’t we both creating gardens that carry memories? Aren’t we both doing ‘home’ and ‘belonging’? Aren’t we both growing produce to suit our culinary interests?  (Thai basil, anyone?)  Surely ours is not the only community in Melbourne that shares its produce with the neighbours, putting our excess limes, lemons and grapefruit in boxes on the nature-strip with an invitation to ‘help yourself’?

This horticultural interplay of class and race reiterates the point that the apparently uncomplicated space of the garden belies the complexities planted within.  It is a place where settling is enacted, and ideas of home and belonging, in both intimate and national dimensions, are made and re-made.  Themes of belonging and difference emerge in the ways different groups in Australian society use garden space, and in the manner in which these uses are discussed and analysed.  Most obviously, while the gardens made by non-Anglo migrants are almost invariably read as displaying ethnicity and cultural difference, gardens worked by Anglo-Australians are rarely scrutinised for signs of the ‘whiteness’ of their makers. They are much more likely to be viewed and judged in terms of an allegedly universal garden aesthetic rather than as a racial, or even ‘ethnic’ expression.  Any ‘Englishness’ in the garden is similarly interpreted as conforming to a garden style, rather than appealing to its ‘particularly valorised position in the field of Whiteness.’ (p.216)

I defy these authors to take a stroll around the streets where I live to pick out the ‘ethnic’ gardens and the ‘valorised’ White ones.  Our street has a beaut miscellany of residents from here there and everywhere, and our gardens are splendidly idiosyncratic.  Some are more landscaped than others, some are tidier than others, some are a lively muddle of native and exotics, and some folks who’ve got better things to do shamelessly neglect their gardens altogether!

At the beginning of the book it is acknowledged that settler gardens

carried meanings of loss and grief, hope and affirmation.  In the act of their planting, colonists sought to provide not only food for their survival, but sensory and emotional sustenance as they began to create a home in this unknown land.

But from this empathetic beginning, the authors pile on the criticism.  Having appropriated the continent,  gardeners are never let off the hook at all.  Colonists were not just gardeners, they were pastoralists, appropriating land by rendering it ‘productive’.  Settlers saw the land as wild and uncivilised, almost indistinguishable from the Indigenous inhabitants.  Clearing the land was also a form of protection against these threatening strangers.  What’s more, art historian Caroline Jordan is quoted as saying that the response from women like Louisa Meredith who objected to clearing of the land

was both classed and gendered, a ‘protest against the direct actions of their masculine counterparts.’  Jordan suggests that while white women were excluded from the masculine frontier pursuits such as killing and clearing, they sought to position themselves as ‘aestheticizers and civilisers, the natural champions of the picturesque and through it, of environmental and species conservation.’

The presence of melons in a colonial garden alerts us to the fact that [it] was an imperialist garden, harbouring plants from around the world, an expression of global exchange. 

Oh, ok… that makes my garden imperialist as well…

The discussion about parks and gardens such as Botanic Gardens becomes an opportunity to link their purpose to morality:

On the one hand, there was a desire to make a space for the general public to find health and recreation, but on the other there was the desire to control the forms and limits of that recreation. (p.130)

So policing the rules comes in for criticism too:

… Formal policing has been a constant and controversial issue in Australian public gardens.  In the settlement’s very early stages soldiers were used to police the Sydney Gardens and Domain.  Melbourne public gardens towards the end of the nineteenth century, though open to all, had strictures against lying on the grass or on seats, drunkenness, and unrestrained dogs and children.  Garden historian Georgina Whitehead points out that these limits had the effect of enforcing demure middle-class behaviour in the gardens.  (p.131)

Speaking for myself, while I don’t mind people lying on the grass or the seats, I can do without drunkenness or dogs and children ruining the garden beds, which in Botanic Gardens contain significant plant specimens and have educational value too.  This makes me a middle-class wannabe enforcer, I suppose!

Moving on to the patriotic gardens of the war years, school gardens are in the frame:

The patriotic dimension of school gardening had clearly intensified in response to World War I.  Both children and adults were encouraged in their response to this conflict to display the success of the white settlement of Australia by contributing selflessly to the defence of the nation and empire. During World War I, members of the Young Gardeners League grew produce in their home gardens to sell in support of the Department’s war effort, thus bringing ‘even the private garden into the public education system.’ (p. 117)

When Londoners did the exact same thing for the war effort, were they displaying the ‘success of white settlement’?  Or were both societies simply trying to offset the difficulties of rationing?

Dear me, even the Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden scheme which aims to improve nutrition by teaching children to grow the food they then cook and eat, doesn’t seem to garner the authors’ approval:

Collingwood College, where Stephanie Alexander set up her high-profile kitchen garden and cooking program, which has now spread to other schools, uses its website to promote the school’s extensive gardening activities.  This connection between new technology and the traditions of productive gardening challenges the assertion in the Oxford Companion to Australian Gardening that with ‘the advent of the Information Age, the idea of using gardening as a tool for moral and economic advancement has become passé.’  Here the Information Age itself is enlisted to advance the cause of children’s gardening in schools, if not for moral and economic advantage, then to address the issues generated by economic disadvantage and/or problems of modernity, such as alienation from the natural source of food. (p.124)

From what I can see on the Collingwood College website, this authorial commentary is pompous nonsense, looking for negatives to suit an ideological viewpoint.

First and foremost, we want to enchant and engage the children. Children are unimpressed by lists or pyramids that separate the ‘good for you’ from the ‘not good for you’ foods’.

But get them digging and planting and picking, or get them mixing or rolling or chopping, or get them around a table with their own freshly baked pizza topped with their own tomato sauce, liberally scattered with herbs from the garden, and the result is enthusiasm, real learning and great flavours.”

Stephanie Alexander

What made me crossest of all was this snipe at Remembered Gardens… of course the garden activities of men and women were gendered in the past, but really… this stuff about contemporary stereotyping is absurd:

Men’s and women’s activities in the garden and their expectations of this space are also influenced by several factors: child-rearing, paid work, their own class backgrounds.  Many women find gardening a creative and rewarding pursuit, unlike housework.  Once the demands of young children have lessened, the time available for gardening often increases, and with it the pleasure obtained.  Gardening can be enabling for women, but the connection between women and gardens is still prone to pervasive stereotypes.  We can see this in the publishing industry, where books such as The Englishwoman’s Garden, The Virago Book of Women Gardeners and Remembered Gardens: Eight Women and Their Vision of an Australian Landscape all suggest, through both text and image, some innate link between women, femininity and gardens.  Images of men continue to consign them to the most practical of gardening tasks, and there has been little attempt to establish a special publishing market for their consumption.  Reading about gardens is clearly considered a more feminine pastime as well. (p. 190)

Having seen Jane Edmonson up to her elbows in compost, and likewise seen male presenters on the same Gardening Australia Show wax lyrical about scented flowers, I find it depressing that publishing efforts to be inclusive of women’s contributions to gardening are being diminished in this way.

It’s a shame.  This is a book with so much promise, but its ideological blinkers destroy all pleasure in reading it.

Authors: Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin & Kylie Mirhomamadi
Title: Reading the Garden, the settlement of Australia
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2008
ISBN: 9780522851151
Source: Kingston Library

australian-women-war-reportersSynchronicity!  On Tuesday as I read more of Australian Women War Reporters, Boer War to Vietnam by Jeannine Baker – a fascinating book I discovered from Carolyn Holbrook’s review at Inside Story – I came across the name of Louise Mack, in the chapter called ‘War from a Woman’s Angle’.  The women featured in this chapter include Agnes Macready and Edith Dickenson who reported on the Boer War; Katharine Susannah Prichard whose subsequent writing was apparently very much influenced by having witnessed the wreckage of war near the front in WW1, and Janet Mitchell who reported on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931-32.  All these women have interesting stories, but it was Louise Mack who grabbed my attention because she was so unconventional…

Then, to my surprise, the name of Louise Mack cropped up again in Sue’s Monday Musings at Whispering Gums!  As Sue says, Louise Mack is hardly a household name so this is synchronicity indeed.  Well, like many bloggers Sue is tackling her TBR, and her first book of 2017 is a novel by this same Louise Mack (1870-1935).  Sue’s introduction to this enterprising woman is full of all sorts of interesting snippets, but Jeannine Baker’s profile is a bit different because her focus is on the experiences of Australian women war reporters during World War II.  Baker’s PhD – which won the Dennis-Wettenhall Prize for the best Australian history postgraduate thesis at the University of Melbourne – is the subject of her book, and so it is Mack’s experience reporting on WW1 which is the focus of her attention.

Baker’s account begins in an interesting way:

The first published memoir or war corresponding by an Australian woman journalist was the purportedly eyewitness account of the German invasion of Belgium and the fall of Antwerp in 1914 by Louise Mack, an unconventional and adventurous writer and poet.  (p.25)


The biographical details are more or less the same as in Sue’s article, but there appears to be some doubt about Mack’s claims to have been an eye-witness.  Here’s what Baker’s research has revealed:

Initially unable to get a foothold in Fleet Street, Mack found herself hard-up in London and living in the clichéd attic in Bloomsbury, where she kept the wolf from the door by writing formulaic serial romances.   Her publisher was Lord Northcliffe, who happened to own the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sunday Observer and The Times.  This gave her an entrée into contributing to periodicals and writing reviews of theatre, concerts and social events, and her success extended to editing the Italian Gazette in Florence for six years until she returned to London in 1910 and went back to writing romantic novels.  And then came the war…

Just after the outbreak of war in August 1914, Mack persuaded a newspaper editor to send her to Belgium.  She later clamed that she carried papers given to her by Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, even though Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, had banned all correspondents from the Western Front.  In the face of threats that if they were found, correspondents would be arrested and expelled from the country, and [despite] the imposition of a severe system of censorship, several determined male and female reporters relied on subterfuge to get to the front, avoid detection, and dispatch their copy. (p.27)

In addition to these difficulties, all sides apparently considered women to be spies who were therefore adding to the dangers for other journalists as well. Still, Mack managed to get hold of a vehicle, and then made her way by train ‘into the very heart of German ruin and pillage and destruction’ and on to the ransacked town of Aerschot.  She travelled through the German lines to occupied Brussels where she visited the devastated town of Louvain and eventually returned to Antwerp.  And like her fellow Australian journalist Frank Fox she was determined to stick it out rather than head for safety.

However, while there’s no doubt that she was in Antwerp in October 1914, some of her account of events is unclear and hard to corroborate.  By October 7th, most of the press had debunked because of the forthcoming German bombardment, but

Mack, Fox, and Lucien Arthur Jones of the Daily Chronicle took shelter in the cellar of the Wagner Hotel. According to Fox and Jones, all three escaped Antwerp on Friday 9 October, just as the Germans entered the city – Fox and Jones in a motorboat, and Mack via a Red Cross motorcar.

Mack’s version of events departs dramatically from the others’ accounts.  She frequently insisted that she had been ‘the last war correspondent to leave the city’ – a claim that was as important to a journalist as having been the first to arrive.  (p.28)

In her book A Woman’s Adventures in the Great War, Mack claimed to have walked the empty streets, the only noise the terrified howling of deserted dogs.

The whole city was mine.  I seemed to be the only living being left.  I passed hundreds of tall, white, stately houses, all shattered and locked and silent and deserted. I went through one wide, deadly street after another.  I looked up and down the great paralysed quays.  I stared through the yellow avenue of trees.  I heard my own footsteps echoing, echoing. The ghosts of five hundred thousand people floated before my vision.  (p.29)

According to her account, she then disguised herself as a mute maid to avoid detection by the occupying Germans while she witnessed the invasion, eventually being smuggled out, disguised as a peasant,  on a false passport, arriving in January 1915 back to England via Holland.

Well, we all know that there have indeed been brave/foolhardy actions by all kinds of people who miraculously survived in war, but Baker the historian is unconvinced.  She says that

Mack’s book and her subsequent public lectures contained exactly the sort of anti-German propaganda commonly printed in Northcliffe’s newspapers, with emphasis on the bravery of the Belgians, the ‘companionship and comradeship’ at the front and the Germans’ brutal desecration of churches and women. The events Mack depicted did not reach the depths of some of the commonly repeated atrocity stories of the time, but she undoubtedly embellished events and her participation in them to whip up patriotic fervour, encourage volunteering and ensure publicity.

During a subsequent series of lectures in Australia and the Pacific, Mack and her promoters shamelessly mythologised her role in the war.  (p.30)

Later on in 1919 she even dressed in a nurse’s uniform and claimed to have been in Belgium as a worker for the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Mack also claimed to have met with wartime heroine Edith Cavell in prison in Brussels in 1915 when it could not possibly have happened – because Mack was back in England in January, many months before Cavell was arrested in August 1915.

Baker seems disappointed in Louise Mack, and so am I.  At a time when women were struggling to get recognition as serious journalists, she seems to have let her gender down.

Mack’s sensationalist writing style, her uncritical repetition of anti-German stories that were typical of the popular press of the time, together with her later embellishments of those events and exaggeration of her participation in them, has diminished the validity of her account of her war reporting, which has never been properly scrutinised by previous historians. (p.31)

Mind you, she would probably have been an overpaid star in today’s commercial tabloid news programs…

Australian Women war Reporters is a terrific book.  I’m about half way through and hope to be able to write more about it before the book is due back at the library in *oops!* three days time.

Update 8/1/17: There is so much more to say about this book, but it has to go back to the library today.    The best I can do is to alert you to the stories of

  • Adele (Tilly) Shelton-Smith, who unwittingly caused a furore when she reported on the AIF based in Malaya before the Fall of Singapore.  Officially restricted to reporting only on non-operational issues, her story for the Australian Women’s Weekly offended the troops because it didn’t conform to the Anzac Myth.  She praised their physicality and stressed their exemplary behaviour (which wasn’t entirely true since there were widely reported allegations of offensive conduct and a ‘generally boorish attitude’ towards the local Asian population).  But her stories intended to reassure families back in Australia that the troops had ‘all the comforts of home’ and were in good spirits backfired when they were accompanied by photos of soldiers with taxi-dancers and there was an unholy uproar, which influenced future reporting considerably.  (See her entry at Trove).
  • When Dorothy Jenner reported from Singapore, she was sure to distance herself from the Women’s Weekly brouhaha, and the army, having thought better of their rules for reporting, allowed her to go out on rugged training exercises which earned the respect of the troops.  She was subsequently interned in Hong Kong and at the risk of her life, kept a clandestine diary about military developments in the area as well as observations of life in the camp.  (See her entry at the Australian Women’s Register).
  • Accredited female war correspondents from 1942 onwards, and the restrictions on their movements.  There were three categories: those in operational areas (men only); Lines of Communication Correspondents who worked at the HQ of their newspaper (nearly all women), and Visiting Correspondents with temporary accreditation and forbidden to travel to operational areas.  The women in this group reported on women in the services which had been formed in 1942 because of the critical shortage of men.  (It’s easy to forget that Australia had a population of only about seven million at this time).  Much of this reporting had propaganda value in encouraging more women to join the services.  While reporters such as Rita Dunstan felt a bit miffed that they were restricted to reporting from the home front, they also felt privileged by being allowed to travel interstate when there were restrictions on internal travel.  More importantly, these reports showed women succeeding in occupations that were hitherto ‘men’s jobs’, such as helping to guard the coastline and operating anti-aircraft instruments.  Connie Robertson refuted the sexist notion that women couldn’t be trusted with sensitive information while Patricia Knox similarly stressed the reliability of women plotting the movements of RAF aircraft.  Censorship meant that the style of reporting in final copy tended to be a bit anodyne and it’s not surprising that they were satirised by Iris Dexter alias Frenzia Frisby’.  (You can read more about her in this edition of the State Library of NSW magazine).
  • Lorraine Stumm was the one Australian war correspondent who made her way close to operational areas, and she did it via London.  She was a reporter for Daily Mirror and working on an equal footing with the men when her husband – an Australian pilot flying with the RAF – was posted to Singapore.  She went too, though she didn’t have any luck getting near the front.  Evacuated with her baby daughter in January 1942, she got nowhere with Australian authorities so she bypassed them and got accreditation through the Daily Mirror office in London. But even when she made her way to New Guinea, she had to sit back at base cooling her heels while male correspondents accompanied Allie Forces on their missions.  Still, she paved the way for Alice Jackson but she was the last woman accredited during WW2 because Blamey abolished the licensing system.  (See her entry at Trove).

There is a whole chapter on correspondents in Europe where they faced similar restrictions until December 1941 when the US belatedly joined the war.  They allowed women to be accredited, providing access that the Brits had denied.  In 1944 the British finally caved in but no women were supposed to go anywhere near D-Day (though two American women did). This is a really interesting chapter showcasing the battle between official attitudes and the determination of women to be treated as equals. There is also discussion about the complexities of writing from the ‘women’s angle’, i.e. ‘human-interest stories (because that’s often all they could get access to) as against political stories about the impact of war on civilians. They came into their own when reporting on the post war refugee crisis and the Holocaust, humanising it in a way that more ‘objective’ male reporters tended not to do.

Further chapters include

  • Narrowing the Gap, reporting from Asia, 1945-46.  This covers conflicts from Burma to the Korean War and Vietnam, and the tensions that arose as women gradually moved into forward zones.  Baker also reveals the story of Dorothy Cranstone whose work in Burma has largely been unrecognised because she had no by-line for her reports and wasn’t officially accredited.
  • Cold War Conflicts… and Beyond – which includes the emergence of women reporting on radio, and the appointment in 1983 of Helene Chung as the first female foreign correspondent (in Beijing) for the ABC, and Monica Attard’s world-renowned reportage of the fall of communism in Moscow in 1991. This chapter also explores more recent reportage by women, such as Irris Makler in Afghanistan and the particular challenges of reporting in a culture where women are ‘invisible’.

This is a really interesting book which will be of interest to journalists, historians and anyone interested in women’s writing.

Author: Jeannine Baker
Title: Australian Women war Reporters, Boer War to Vietnam
NewSouth Publishing, 2015
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam



the-adventures-of-augie-marchMy first book for 2017 is Saul Bellow’s Great American Novel, The Adventures of Augie March, and if this is an omen for my reading year, then I am in for a wonderful time!

I am savouring this book.  There have been so many examples of brilliant writing I have wanted to share in a Sensational Snippet, but I haven’t wanted to stop reading to do it.  But this one must be shared because it speaks to the very reason why we read…

Augie is getting by in Depression era Chicago, and his ‘job’ for the time being is to steal books to order.  It’s not working out well because he’s supposed to offload them the day he steals them but he reads them first.  It would have been better if he were asked for books about mathematics, thermodynamics, mechanics because he wouldn’t have been tempted by them, but the books on theology, literature, history and philosophy threaten to derail the enterprise.  He hadn’t realised he was a reader, and now he is…

Anyhow, I had found something out about an unknown privation, and I realised how a general love or craving, before it is explicit, or before it sees its object, manifests itself as boredom or some other kind of suffering. And what did I think of myself in relation to the great occasions, the more sizable being of these books? Why, I saw them, first of all.  So suppose I wasn’t created to read a great declaration, or to boss a palatinate, or send off a message to Avignon, and so on, I could see, so there was nevertheless a share for me in all that had happened.  How much of a share? Why, I knew there were things that would never, because they could never, come of my reading.  But this knowledge was not so different from the remote but ever-present death that sits in the corner of the loving bedroom; though it doesn’t budge from the corner, you wouldn’t stop your loving.  Then neither would I stop my reading.  I sat and read.  I had no eye, ear or interest for anything else – that is, for usual, second-order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal, snarled-shoelace-carfare-laundry-ticket plainness, unspecified dismalness, unknown captivities; the life of despair-harness, or the life of organisation-habits which is mean to supplant accidents with calm abiding. Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and all the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vault-like rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everyone knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there’s a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.

from The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, ISBN 9780141184869.

Do yourself a favour and get a copy: The Adventures of Augie March (Penguin Modern Classics)

Will Firth 2010If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might remember a guest post by Australian translator Will Firth who works these days in Europe.  Multilingual, he has an impressive list of publications in Macedonian, Serbo-Croat and Russian.  His post for this blog was called ‘The Perils of Translation’ and it came about because I had read A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koscel which Will had translated and we had got into conversation behind the scenes.

Well, Will has just published a most interesting post about the state of Macedonian literature, at Words Without Borders.  Words without Borders is one of the most interesting sites I subscribe to, because they provide background information about translated fiction from all over the world, and especially from places that we tend not to hear so much about.  They also provide stories that you can read for free, stories that you are unlikely to find anywhere else.  For example, I have read some stunning works by women behind the veil, for whom WBB provides a safe place to publish, and (as you’ll know if you follow the ANZ LitLovers Facebook page), I spent some happy hours over this Christmas break reading articles from their 2016 Wrap up.   (Who cares if Christmas TV is banal if you’ve got lots of good stuff to read on the web, eh?)

Will’s article, Change Is the Only Constant: Writing from Macedonia  tells us about the challenges facing Macedonian writers, and then there are links to fiction pieces that he recommends:

  •  “Nectar” by Rumena Bužarovska (1981), a story from her third and latest collection of short stories, My Husband (Mojot maž), published in 2014;
  • “Fog” and “Fire” by Nenad Joldeski (1986), one of the winners of the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature;
  • an extract from the novel The Lighter (Zapalka) by Natali Spasova (1989). Spasova is a relative newcomer and one of the few female voices in Macedonia’s male-dominated literary scene; and
  • “The Bird on the Balcony” by Petre Dimovski (1946) from his latest book of short stories entitled Dawn in the Painting (Zora vo slikata), 2015

So, if you’re like me and you’ve never read any Macedonian literature, now’s your chance!

Thanks, Will!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2016

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

the-round-houseI was not expecting to feel like this, but I felt a deep sense of unease when I turned the last page of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.  (2012)

Let me say at the start that it is a very fine book.  Louise Erdrich, a Native American author of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is, Wikipedia tells meacclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance.  I can see why. The book is a superbly crafted coming-of-age story, with a compelling plot and fine characterisation, especially of the teenage boys with their wisecracking humour.  And if a book works so well that it bothers me to the extent that this one does, then it’s a very powerful book indeed.

Let me cut to the chase:  As she makes plain in the Afterword, Erdrich is on a mission with this book, a mission to make people aware that jurisdictional issues to do with native title on reservations mean that perpetrators of violent crime, especially rape against women, go unpunished.  However, implicit in the storyline is a belief that justice requires capital punishment, a barbarity which places the United States out of step with Western values and conflicts with a strongly held value of mine.


The crime is appalling.  Joe’s mother Geraldine is abducted, brutally assaulted, and raped, and when by chance she was able to escape she reeked of gasoline because her rapist was going to burn her alive.  The crime is clearly race-related and it was deliberately committed on the reservation so that he could not be prosecuted.  She knows who he is; he is clearly identifiable.

Joe’s father is a tribal judge, but he fails to bring the prosecution.  The rapist goes free, gloating.  Joe’s thirteen-year-old sense of justice is outraged, and he determines to get justice for his mother.  Which means, to him, and probably to millions of Americans who would see nothing wrong with this book, that the rapist must be killed.  If the crime had taken place outside the reservation – if Geraldine had lied, and said it did – then he would have been executed.  The logic is faultless; that is what justice means in the US.

But not here in Australia.  Nor in any other Western nation.  No matter the crime, we do not ever impose the death penalty.  And after the judicial murder  of Australian drug smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in Indonesia last year, it is clear that it is no good trying to advocate for the lives of individual Australians when we stay silent about capital punishment in America, our ally and a long-standing friend of Australia.  There is no better advocate for the position we hold in Australia than Tanya Plibersek MP,  in a powerful speech to parliament that showed moral clarity even when – as it is for her – the issue is personal.

Tanya Pliberek MP 12 Feb 2015, source ParlView

A sombre note to end the year.  But 2016 has not been a good year for the world.  We could, if we could begin to influence our friend and ally in this matter, perhaps make 2017 a better one, despite the odds, and despite a novel which is clearly on the wrong side in this matter.

Author: Louise Erdrich
Title: The Round House
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2012
ISBN: 9780062065254
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2016

Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes, by Helen Bennetts

willunga-almonds-stories-and-recipesOh, look what arrived in the mail today!

The now not-so-humble almond is very fashionable at the moment: almond milk is the latest fad (though it’s not a fad for genuine lactose-intolerant folk) and the gluten-free crowd (who include genuine sufferers of coeliac disease) use almond meal as a substitute for flour, so I have no doubt that Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes will be a very popular title indeed.

But for those of us who’ve just always liked almonds, this is a lovely book beyond fads, fashions and life-saving specialty diets.  It tells the story of Willunga in South Australia as an almond growing district, reminding us that there are different varieties of almonds although they are rarely named when we buy them in the supermarket.  And as author Helen Bennetts tells us, they have a proud history in myth, symbolism and folklore:

Greek mythology tells of the Thracian princess Phyllis, who fell in love with Demophon.  He had to leave her to fight in the Trojan wars.  When Troy fell, Phyllis returned time and again to the seashore awaiting Demophon’s return until she finally died of a broken heart.  In sympathy, Athene, the goddess of wisdom, transformed Phyllis into an almond tree. When Demophon, who had been delayed at sea, returned to find Phyllis changed into a leafless tree he embraced the tree and it burst into bloom. (p.14)

That is indeed what almond trees do.  They are a beautiful harbinger of spring, and they celebrate blossom season in Willunga with an Almond Blossom Festival each year.   We would love to have an almond tree in our garden but the book tells us that the trees are picky about where they will grow: they need good drainage, no humidity and most importantly, frost-free conditions.  Where once we could not grow one in Melbourne because of the occasional frost, now with climate change upon us we can’t grow one because of the increased humidity.  The trees mostly don’t self-pollinate, so they need to have companions and orchardists plant more than one variety, often in alternate rows, choosing varieties that blossom at overlapping times.  And once the almonds start to develop the battle with the birds begins:

In Australia, great flocks of corellas, parrots, galahs or cockatoos descend in the early morning and at dusk, turning the orchard into a battleground between farmer and bird.  Over the years many methods have been tried to scare them away: scarecrows, kites, loud noises, shooting.  Now people are trialling drones. (p.26)


Almonds are splendidly healthy (except for a small minority of people who are allergic to tree nuts).  The Romans, it seems, believed that eating bitter almonds could counteract drunkenness, but perhaps it’s best not to rely on this when confronted with a breathalyser.   But there is modern research which claims that all kinds of health benefits, though I suspect that weight loss may not be one of them if you binge on the choc-coated variety of almonds which are so very moreish.

Almond trees were planted in SA even before it was proclaimed a colony, many people raising trees with nuts that originally came from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  Most of these were for domestic use and (strangely, since they’re deciduous trees) as windbreaks.  But by the 1890s there were commercial plantations and by the 1930s almost 70% of Australia’s almonds came from the Sturt River area.  The hero of commercial almond growing is Charles Ragless and his son Kenneth who developed an almond cracker to reduce the labour-intensive business of hand-cracking the almonds.  I Googled Ragless, and found mention of him and his still-standing farmhouse on a site about the Tonsley Park Redevelopment, (a project to develop Tonsley as a new educational, industrial and retail hub now that car manufacturer  Mitsubishi has gone).  The book includes some interesting photos from the 20th century including a photo of Land Army girls at the harvest and some quaint tourism posters as well.

Enough already! if I tell you more you won’t buy the book, and you should because it’s gorgeous, and because you need the recipes.  Not just recipes, also guidance about storing and cooking almonds, and how to make the basics like almond butter, paste. flour, milk etc.  If you are lucky enough to have a Kenwood Triblade (and I say lucky because this brilliant kitchen appliance is, incomprehensibly, now no longer available) you can make your own almond meal in a millisecond and it’s much cheaper, not to mention better-tasting, as anything fresh-made is.  There is probably a cheaper Chinese-made version of a mini food processor that you can buy, but it won’t be as good as a Kenwood, I bet.  (I am still using my Kenwood K-mixer that I got for my 21st birthday!)

Here are some of the recipes, to whet your appetite:

2017-jan-2-spicy-cauliflower-and-almond-soupStarters and soups:

  • Dukkah (have it with some fine SA olive oil and crisp artisan bread, eh?)
  • Olive and almond tapenade
  • A to-die-for soup called Ajo Blanco, also known as white gazpacho (I’m going to try this one for our next heat wave)
  • A #PerfectTiming cauliflower and almond soup (we have caulis ready for harvest in the vegie patch) Update2/7/17 : I cooked this today (see the photo) and it was delicious!
  • a dip called Romesco sauce made with capsicum
  • Salsa all’algresto, adapted from one of Maggie Beer’s recipes with her trademark verjuice, so we know it must be good.

Meat, fish and vegetables

There are variations on the usual stir-fry, pilaf and curry dishes but also:

  • Sicilian rabbit with almonds, adapted from Spring in Sicily by Manuela Darling-Ganssar.  Rabbit is a delicacy these days, but our local paddock-to-plate Berties Butcher can get it for us.
  • an intriguing Escabeche of tommy ruffs – apparently a fish from the southern coastline, it’s also known as Australian herring but I don’t think I’ve ever come across it
  • Smoked Trout, almond and potato salad, perfect for lunches outdoors in the garden
  • Almond Vegetable Tagine made with sweet potato, which looks like a very useful dish when you have vegetarian friends coming for lunch.

The highlight of the recipe section is of course Desserts, cakes and biscuits:

  • Almond blancmange.  No, not like the blancmange we had for school dinners in London.  It’s got Amaretto in it.
  • Almond pannacotta, Almond tart, Pear and frangipane tart.  The photos are irresistible.
  • Almond semifreddo and Almond granita (the semifreddo doesn’t need churning, but you’ll need an ice-cream machine for the granita)
  • Autumn fruit crumble (when quince is in season, yum!)

Then there are the cakes:

  • Sephardic orange and almond cake, yes the one you eat in cafés!
  • Almond sponge with orange syrup
  • a scrumptious-looking Harvest cake but I will have to find somewhere to source shiraz or Grenache grapes (though she says you can use seedless table grapes if all else fails)
  • Almond ricotta cake, LOL obviously ideal for weight watchers
  • Torta de Santiago, a traditional Easter recipe
  • Andrew’s chocolate indulgence cake, only six ingredients!  (I might make this one first) and
  • Apple sauce fruit cake, baked in a loaf tin and with legendary keeping qualities.

Biscuits include

  • Amaretti and Almond bread (swoon!)
  • Almond shortbread, perfect for Christmas baking
  • Chocolate broyage, little choc-flavoured meringues sandwiched together with brandy butter cream or fresh berries and cream
  • Almond fingers, made with filo pastry
  • Finika, a syrupy biscuit of Greek Cypriot origin
  • Almond honey squares (adapted from The French Kitchen Cookbook by Patricia Wells which we have in our recipe book collection.)

There are also other delights like Almond and orange seed bark and Crunchy granola.

Recipes are presented with a clear layout, easy to follow instructions and tempting photos by Ben McGee.  There is also an index though it’s laid out under the chapter headings, which I dislike.  I much prefer an cookbook index to be a straightforward alphabetical index…

I will try to remember to take photos of my efforts in the kitchen!

Author: Helen Bennetts
Title: Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes
Photos (mostly) by Ben McGee
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054482
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Willunga Almonds: Stories + Recipes
and direct from Wakefield Press.

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