Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2022

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Book of Form and Emptiness, to ….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which has just won the Women’s Prize.  I confess to having sent it back to the library unread: I’d reserved it before it won the prize, and other, more enticing books were calling me and I thought it was unfair not to return it when it was so obviously in demand.

Anyway, it’s an easy segue to the Women’s Prize winners that I have read.  I’ve read nearly all of them because the prize winners are usually the kind of books I like though they can be a bit middlebrow, depending on who the judges are. Kate Grenville famously won it with The Idea of Perfection in 2001. Kate Grenville used to be one of my auto-buy writers, but she lost me with Sarah Thornhill (see my review) and a tiresome book about her allergy to perfume.  (I didn’t review it because I only scanned it, enough to know that if I want to know about allergies, I’ll read one by a medical expert.)

After that she compounded my irritation with a fictionalised life of Elizabeth Macarthur.  FWIW Elizabeth Macarthur was IMO an Australian pioneering woman of sufficient importance in our history to warrant reading about her real life, interrogated from a 21st century perspective that explores how the work of pioneering women farmers has been overlooked.  Margaret Scott Tucker’s wonderful biography, Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World is the book to read for that.  As you can see in my review, the bio places Elizabeth Macarthur where she belongs as the pioneer of the wool industry, displacing her tiresome husband who got all of the credit for it even though he wasn’t the one making the crucial decisions that led to their success. And as you can see from the cover of the second edition, the cover blurbs my judgement that the bio is unputdownable. 

Most of the biographies that I read are literary biographies, (though I make an exception for anything that Brenda Niall and Hazel Rowley have written).  The LitBios I like best are the ones that show how the writing emerges from the life, such as Nathan Hobby’s recent bio of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch. (See my review.) These bios enrich my reading of the author’s work and often stimulate me to seek out more of the author’s work.  The Red Witch made a serious dent in my book budget because of Nathan’s enticing analysis of titles I didn’t have—but it also warned me off being a completist with KSP because Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  A good literary biographer can save a reader from making unwise purchases!

Which leads me to…

Just recently in the #54321 meme, I listed four auto-buy authors, but I didn’t list Richard Flanagan.  I love all his novels, except for the potboiler The Unknown Terrorist.  Flanagan is a writer after my own heart, he’s a man of strong opinions and he is fearless about expressing them.  But after my disappointment with that novel, I hesitate before I part with my money. The Unknown Terrorist, as it says at Goodreads:  is a relentless tour de force that paints a devastating picture of a contemporary society gone haywire, where the ceaseless drumbeat of terror alert levels, newsbreaks, and fear of the unknown pushes a nation ever closer to the breaking point.  I read it before I started this blog, and this is what I wrote at Goodreads:

This book is utterly unlike Richard Flanagan’s other literary fiction novels. If this is the first and only book you have ever read by this Australian writer, don’t make the mistake of dismissing him as a writer of polemic not-very-convincing thrillers. His other books, Death of a River Guide, Gould’s Book of Fish and Wanting are brilliant, intriguing, complex novels that will reward every millisecond you put into reading them.

Clearly, I must segue to one that I found rewarding, but oh! which one of Flanagan’s multiple novels which have stayed with me as indelible memories?  Perhaps with one not reviewed on this blog, because I read it back in 2002: Gould’s Book of Fish, famously canned by the literary critic Peter Craven before it hauled in a mass of prizes, including the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (2002), the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal (2002), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (2002), and a nomination for Miles Franklin Literary Award (2002),

Well, Peter Craven is not the only literary critic to be out of step; *chuckle*, while not in his league, I’m out of step myself often enough. (Most recently with Sarah Winman’s Still Life!) Everyone’s a critic these days, but I am mindful of the wise advice from Angela Bennie in the Introduction to Crème de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews.  As I wrote in my review:

What matters, according to Bennie, is that criticism should ‘judge well.’  She cites a number of harsh reviews which demonstrate that the reviewer didn’t know anything about the theory behind the work  – notably A.D. Hope’s excoriation of modernism in Patrick White’s Tree of Man, labelling it ‘illiterate verbal sludge’, which must have amused the author when he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Paul Haefleger’s dismissal of Sidney Nolan.  You can’t , for instance, pretend to be an critic of the visual arts today if you don’t know anything about post-modernism – after all, the artist has probably studied post-modernism at tertiary level and it’s to be expected that they’d be influenced by it.  But some of our reviewers pander to shock-jock attitudes and simply write scornful stuff instead of trying to educate their readership about new ideas.  If you’re going to be a critic, Bennie says, you ought to be informed about the media you review.

I also noted Bennie’s summation of the current state of reviewing:

Bennie, in her decade-by-decade analysis of how arts criticism has adapted over the years, says that in general, literary criticism is in decline.  Constraints of space, pandering to popular taste, dumbing-down: it’s all downhill from here, and at a time when more and more books are being published.

That was back in 2007…

From the winner of the Women’s Prize to a book about literary criticism, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!


Well, well, I just finished my draft and visited this meme’s host Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best to see what the next book is to be and it looks like I’ll be revisiting Bennie’s book!

Next month (September 3, 2022), we’ll start with the book you finished with this month (and if you haven’t done an August chain, start with the last book you read).

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa

    I think that I can step through the same six books that you have, with some different reactions to you and many that concord with your thoughts.

    Like you I have not yet read (or acquired ) Ruth Ozeki’s prizewinner; I must say I was a bit foolishly put off by the title but have now added it to my “to be read” list. I would step on to Kat Grenville, who like you, I gave up on at Sarah Thornhill, having enjoyed pretty much everything that she has published from Lillian’s Story to The Writing Book. I did read One Life and found it rather disappointing, and somewhat confirming of my view of KG.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Margaret Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur, which my wife bought after hearing Margaret talk about the writing of the book during her promotional rounds. Having strong spousal encouragement to read a book is always rewarding as it provides a basis for mutual engagement and discussion around the text. A though we sometimes disagree very strongly and have quite different reading tastes, we both were enthusiastic about Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur that I felt a reinforced need to avoid KG’s effort!

    I am a huge fan of The Red Witch having purchased and read it due to your review. It has encouraged me to add more to my KSP collection recently, including a 1st UK edition of The Black Opal (Heineman 1921) which had belonged to the little known Australian critic and writer on women in Literature, Elvie Williams, and a first edition of Coonardoo, complete with its scarce dust jacket. I have just finished reading The Black Opal (1921), which differs from the Australian first edition (Black Opal, 1946) in several places as Nathan Hobby has pointed out.

    Unlike you, I did enjoy The Unknown Terrorist, although I do agree it is an atypical Richard Flanagan. I can only say that I quite liked Gould’s Book of Fish; I read it shortly after it came out and had been nominated for the Vance Palmer prize and mainly remember feeling that it was a bit pretentious and clearly was not going to be a major prize winner! Fortunately I did not publish that thought. My favourite Flanagan remains The Sound of One Hand Clapping, closely followed by The Narrow Road to the Frozen North.

    I then come full circle with Angela Bennie’s Creme de la Plegm, which I have not read, but which I nearly bought because of the great title! Perhaps I will try to find a copy although I would guess it would now be out of ptint.

    Thanks for another stimulating post Lisa.

    Best wishes
    Chris

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    • Hi Chris, I did enjoy reading your thoughts… and am delighted to have influenced the size of your TBR! What a treasure to find that first edition, which sent me searching for Elvie Williams online because (I thought) I’d never heard of her. but in fact I had, thanks to Sue’s Monday Musings on a Women’s LitNight in 1922, (see https://whisperinggums.com/2022/06/06/monday-musings-on-australian-literature-on-1922-3-als-womens-night/ ) I would like to know more about her, so I hope Sue sees this and notes my interest. (I am not very clever at searching Trove, and wouldn’t have a clue where else to look.)
      I just looked, Dromana Books (via AbeBooks) has a second-hand copy of Crème de la Phlegm for $15, and Grants in Cheltenham has one for a little bit more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Challenge accepted … I would like to know more about her, particularly given this extra little excitement of someone buying a book once owned by her!

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        • Excellent! I will have a bit of a hunt through my reference books but not tonight, we have guests for dinner and #FirstWorldProblems! I have dessert choc souffles on my mind and can’t concentrate on much else. I have done my mise-en-place so as not to conflict with The Spouse who is making garlic prawns and duck a l’orange, but I have to keep stirring the base batter? custard? (I don’t know what to call it) so that it doesn’t set before I add the egg whites later on.
          #NoteToSelf Do not drink too much champagne beforehand…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I thought I could do it this Monday but I’m in Melbourne and have decided that I should check my reference books too. I don’t imagine we’ll find a lot from my recollection of that post of mine, but if you find something let me know. I did have another idea for this Monday anyhow.

            Good luck with the mousse … have a lovely dinner.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, I think you can go anywhere from your last book. I enjoyed your links which all made good logical sense, unlike my all over the place ones.

    I think you are a bit tough on Flanagan for two reasons ie re not having him as auto-buy. One is, I think an author is allowed the odd not so good book in such a career. And two is that while I agree with you that The unknown terrorist is not a great book and was also disappointed given the quality and diversity of his other books, I love the heart behind it. I do think he was trying to write a book about ideas that he was passionate about for people who might not get to read those ideas in more popular fiction. For that I applaud and have long ago forgiven him!!

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    • O I am cut to the quick!
      I forgave him long ago too, and I’ve acknowledged elsewhere that he was trying to reach a different audience. I just didn’t want to rehash the whole John Howard conservative right-wing misery of those years in this post.
      But he’s still not auto-buy, as in Buy Everything. I did not want to read his book about salmon farming in Tassie!

      Like

      • Haha Lisa… I’m glad you took my comment in the vein intended. I hoped you would.

        I think auto-buy is allowed to have a “within reason” rider. I didn’t not want to read the salmon farming book, but I felt I’d seen and read enough about it to not need to read it over other books on the tbr.

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        • Ooh, I think we could need to debate auto-buy. To me, it means Everything. As in, I would even read a shopping list by that author…

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          • Haha … Lisa, I’m never prepared to be absolute! I always like an out because you never know. Still, if we were talking Helen Garner … says she cheekily!

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  3. I like it when we start with our last book. Enjoy revisiting Benny!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa
    Further info on Elvie Williams.

    I am trying to find out more about her. Here is the little I know, She was the wife of the also little remembered novelist Vernon Williams, who was born in Queensland but lived in Melbourne with Elvie in the 1920s. They were stalwarts of the Australian Literature Society, and Elvie published two papers in their journal Corroboree in July and August 1922, They were both about Australian Women writers and appeared as Part 1 in July and Part 2 in August. You will disappointed to learn that she published them under the name of Mrs Vernon Williams. They were based on a talk she gave to the Literature Society on Australian Woman writers and she also apparently gave a parallel talk on Australian Women Poets. Corroboree only ran from 1920-1923 and many libraries, including Monash which is my first port of call, do not have it. I found out on Thursday from friends at the SLV that the SLV does have a full set, but no-one has currently digitised them. UQ has digitised the contents page of each issue, and I was tantalised to find out that the two pages that proceed Elvie Williams July article are an anonymous review of The Black Opal. Could this, I wonder, have also been by Elvie Williams, using her copy of the book of which I am currently the custodian?

    Vernon Williams died in 1930 in Canberra, but I have now further info on Elvie, other than that the couple were apparently childless, so I have no further info on the provenance of the book. More research is clearly required.
    Chris

    Like

    • More on Elvie Williams

      Hi Lisa
      After an hour on Ancestry.com, I have discovered that Elvie Williams was born Elvie Ellen Lester in 1893 at Eganstown, which is a few miles west of Daylesford in Victoria. Her father was a John Lester who was born in London in 1847 and who came out to Victoria around 1855 with his parents (and his grandparents) for the Gold Rush. Elvie was one of five children of John Lester and Margaret Ellen Young born at either Musk Vale or Eganstown between 1885 and 1894 when Margaret died in childbirth. Elvie had two brothers who survived to adulthood and who stayed in the Daylesford area. Elvie married Vernon Seymour Darvall Williams in 1913 in Victoria and in 1914 they were living in Wattletree road, Malvern. Vernon was a draughtsman who also wrote novels. They lived in Newport in 1917 and then back in Malvern from around 1922-1925. From 1928-1931 they lived in Dorset Road Croydon, where Vernon died in July 1931. At the time he was working as a draughtsman for the government in Canberra and they had a Reid address in the ACT in 1930. After Vernon’s death, Elvie stayed in the Croydon house until 1934, when she moved back to Malvern and worked as a librarian. By 1942 she had moved back to Eganstown where her brother William was living (he died there in 1945) and she stayed there until her death in Eganstown on 7th January 1955, although she was listed as living in Ascot Vale in 1954. Both Elvie and Vernon are buried in the Box Hill cemetery.

      Now I need to find out more about their literary lives.
      Chris

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      • I don’t even know if such a body exists, but I wonder if municipal historical societies would have anything about her. It’s a long shot, because the historical society where I live has just about folded primarily because young people just will not join up and lend a hand but also because the distinct societies lost their identity when LGAs were combined under Jeff Kennett. Still there are some that are thriving, Ivanhoe (where Janine, the historian from The Resident Judge of Port Phillip is a volunteer) and the Sandringham Historical Society where The Spouse has been known to give talks about his childhood hero who’d had dogfights with The Red Baron in WW1. Maybe there’s a Malvern society, which would be under the aegis of the Glen Eira council, I think…

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    • Oh, that is a very tempting conclusion to jump to!
      I pulled out my treasured copy of Nettie Palmer’s Modern Australian Literature (1900-1923) but the index lists no Williams, neither Mrs Vernon or Vernon himself. Nor is there any Lester. So despite this high profile, they had both flown under Nettie’s radar.
      Or, they published under noms-de-plume.
      But what I find more interesting than them as individuals, is that there was this emergence of a literary sub-culture, even when nearly everyone got published by English publishers, which influence the type of books they might write.
      Will the SLV digitise the Corroboree now that You’ve enquired about it?

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      • Hi Lisa
        Yes I have asked the SLV Rare Books librarians to see if they can get Corroboree digitised. It also seems to me that the Australian Literature Society is worthy of some proper academic research, with perhaps a PhD in it… unless of course that has already happened and slipped under my radar.

        Elvie is a fairly uncommon name and I found that one of Elvie Williams’ grandparents came from Kent in England. One of my grandmothers also came from Kent and in her family there are several Elvies (female) and Elveys (male). Perhaps it is a traditional Kentish name.

        Chris

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        • Marvellous! We’ll see what happens next!
          Elvie might also be short for Elvira?

          Like

          • Possible, but it is her official name on her birth marriage and death records.
            Chris

            Like

            • That’s interesting…
              If it’s on all three, it sounds like that’s the right one.

              Like


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