Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2018

Shackles, by Armijn Pane, translated by John H. McGlynn

This book is a bit of a treasure, lent to me by an Indonesian friend, and probably not easy to source from bricks-and-mortar bookshops.  Published in the hardback first edition, it was (after a book of poetry) the second title produced by the Lontar Foundation, set up in 1987 with these aims, as expressed on the Title page:

Yayasan Lontar, the Lontar Foundation, is a non profit organisation whose aims are fostering a greater appreciation of Indonesian literature and culture, supporting the work of authors and translators of Indonesian literature, and improving the quality of publication and distribution of Indonesian literary works and translations.

Lontar was founded by the American John McGlynn, along with four Indonesian writers, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and Subagio Sastrowardoyo, and it is safe to say that since those early days McGlynn has been a major contributor to Indonesian works available in translation.

Shackles is ostensibly a rather melodramatic love triangle.  This is the blurb from the Lontar website:

Shackles is the story of a love triangle. Dr Sukartono and his independent-minded wife, Tini, are facing marital problems when the singer Rohayah enters into the mix. Unlike Tini, Rohayah is ready to provide Sukartono with the devotion he lacks at home. This story illustrates the confusion experienced by many Indonesians of the pre-independence generation as they struggled to overcome problems stemming from their tradition-bound society.

However, (unless you are keen on melodramatic romance) to make satisfying reading out of Shackles, it is essential to contextualise the story.  Firstly, it is set in the 1930s (when middle-class educated Indonesians had telephones and cars) but Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, Jakarta was still called Batavia, and the Independence Movement was still being firmly repressed.  (Sukarno, who became President of independent Indonesia in 1949 i.e. a decade after this book was written, gets arrested and imprisoned twice during the story).   But as you might know from a reading of This Earth of Mankind (The Buru Quartet #1), by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (translated by Max Lane) activists in the independence movement were frustrated by the ineffectual urban Indonesian elites, and all three of the characters in the love triangle can be seen to be more obsessed with their personal relationships than with casting off the colonial yoke.

Feminists will probably bristle at Dr Tono’s assessment of his wife Tini’s discontent, but read it instead as an allegory of how a Dutch colonist might be puzzled by demands for independence when, from his PoV, there is nothing to complain about because subservience is the natural way of things, just as male dominance is:

What was it she had said before?  What was it?  Yes, that women today are asking for equal rights with men.  But what is it they want to be equal? It is a woman’s right to care for her husband’s children and the house in which they live.  Today, however, it seems that the only thing a woman is good for is making demands.  Maybe she will meet her husband at the door when he comes from work, but does she ask him to sit down?  Does she take off his shoes for him?  Women of today don’t seem to know that to kneel before one’s husband, to take his shoes off for him, is a woman’s way of showing her devotion and loyalty.  But what do women do now?  And what is a woman’s right, if not taking care of the man she loves? (p.2)

But this and other passages dismissive of women are also intended to show the characters’ difficulty in adapting to inevitable change.  Dr Tono wants to pick and choose which elements of adat (customs and tradition) to retain as the country transitions into modernity.  He wants the respect and status of an educated, middle-class Indonesian, but he doesn’t recognise that his wife Tini is a dynamic and entrepreneurial woman with an amazing capacity for organising major events.  She, attracted by the freedoms of emancipation but not recognising its incompatibility with either the society she lives in or the respectability she thinks she deserves, doesn’t see why she should wait on him.  Yet at the same time, she resents the demands of his work and the emptiness of their marriage.  They both still want to be loved, but they want respect and status as individuals as well, in a society where status is rigidly codified and based on community—not individualism.

Into this fraught relationship comes an old school friend of Dr Tono’s: the predictably beautiful, enigmatic and irresistible Yah, happy to serve Dr Tono’s needs but not respectable enough for divorce and remarriage to be an option.  While Tini represents the slavish adoption of Western mores about emancipation, Yah represents the emancipation that’s needed.  She was forced into an arranged marriage and having fled it, finds herself unable to support herself in a respectable way.  She has to hide from Dr Tono that she is a singer of kroncong – defined in the glossary at the back of the book as popular Indonesian music, distinctive for its blend of Western orchestration and indigenous rhythms once considered lewd and ‘low class’. 

There isn’t anything at Wikipedia about the association of kroncong with a disreputable status, excerpt to say that it was brought to Indonesia by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century and that it was enjoyed by lower-class citizens and gangs. You can hear a contemporary example of it here (female) and here (male), and a raunchier (by Indonesian standards) example here. When you listen to the elegance and complexity of the traditional gamelan you can see that the reaction to kroncong was not unlike the disapproval of jazz, pop or rock and roll by classical music lovers in the West.  (I used to play in a gamelan group: my instrument was one of the little ones at the front of the group in this video.  I had little notation cards hidden on the floor beside me… though I could play an entire Beethoven piano sonata off by heart, there was no way I could remember long pieces like these players do!)

The representation of the crass kroncong compared to the grace and beauty of the gamelan is another example of imported cultures displacing tradition, but there is also a scene where Tini plays a Beethoven sonata to an audience that would rather listen to the popular kroncong, emphasising that middle-class intellectuals were out of touch with ordinary people.

Shackles (Belenggu) is said (in the Introduction by William H Frederick and at Wikipedia) to be the first modern Indonesian psychological novel.  It is a departure from traditional themes, and focusses instead on the psychology of the conflict between the characters.  It wasn’t well-received at first because of its ‘immoral’ depiction of prostitution and adultery, and others disliked its fatalistic ending.  Readers today may find the internal musings and sometimes stilted dialogue tiresome and occasionally repetitive.  Nevertheless, it’s an important milestone in the development of the modern Indonesian novel.  Belenggu has been translated into multiple languages and in 1969 was awarded the inaugural Indonesian Literary Prize, along with Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya (1922), and Achdiat Karta Mihardja’s Atheis (Atheist) (1949) (both of which are scheduled for reading with my Indonesian bookgroup in 2019) and also Abdul Muis’s Salah Asuhan (Never the Twain) (1928), on my TBR.

Author: Armijn Pane
Title: Shackles (Belenggu)
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, 1988, first published 1940
ISBN: 9798083106 (hbk)
Source: loan from a friend, thanks Lendriani!

Available from the Lontar website (pbk, ISBN 9789798083815) and from Amazon US (print or kindle), and Amazon Australia (kindle only)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2018

Comfort Zone, by Lindsay Tanner

Lindsay Tanner is the former finance minister in the Rudd Government during the Global Financial Crisis.  He and his colleagues were the ones who devised the strategies for staving off the GFC in Australia, so I have a soft spot for his writing.  Not enough, alas, to like Comfort Zone much…

Tanner took up writing after retiring from the parliament, and wrote a splendid book called Sideshow (which I reviewed here) but I think he should stick to writing about the political scene. Comfort Zone is a well-intentioned but too-didactic would-be comic mystery with a wildly-convoluted plot.

The central character Jack Van Duyn is an unprepossessing middle-aged taxi-driver who resents the preponderance of rival drivers from other countries.  Despite being of refugee origin himself, he is overtly racist, joining in when passengers sound off in his cab.  He is particularly down on Somali cabbies, but lo! all that changes when he encounters the enigmatic (and, natch, beautiful) Somali single mother called Farhia.  Led (more from embarrassment than by heroism) into rescuing Farhia’s sons from being beaten up, Jack (who hasn’t had a relationship in years, and not a successful one, ever) becomes enamoured of Farhia and engineers reasons to see her. One of these reasons to see her includes returning a mysterious blue notebook with Somali script in it. Jack, for no apparent logical reason, photographs these pages with his phone, which draws him into trouble with those who were menacing Farhia to get possession of it. Oh yes, and also with ASIO.

His co-rescuer, Matt, misinterprets Jack’s ‘heroism’ and thinks he might be a handy man to know.  An investment banker on his way up, he does deals for his boss, who has a drug habit, and therefore an anonymous cabbie is an ideal courier.

Sucked into all sorts of murky enterprises which he doesn’t understand, Jack gets into various punch-ups in murky Carlton old-style pubs, yet despite being overweight and unfit, he always manages to make unlikely escapes into the back lanes.  And he also, despite being overweight and unfit, attracts the interest of Emily (in her forties) who is down on her luck with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.)

Comfort Zone is a bit like Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist without the flair.  Deliberately written as commercial fiction pitched at a target audience, by an author working out of his usual genre so as to convey a social message, Comfort Zone has an overt moral.  It’s meant to be, that if racists have contact with the people they despise, they will change their ways.  However, the worst failing of this book is that undercuts its own message with its clunky plot.  The Somalis in this novel are mixed up in thuggery and violence, and they have brought their political and criminal problems with them.  Grist to the racists’ mill…

Author: Lindsay Tanner
Title: Comfort Zone
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2016, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925321029
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2018

Ho ho ho, another meme: EOY Memento Mori

Stuck in a Book is at it again, sharing another meme from Rick who keeps putting out memes/tags on a vlog somewhere.  Ignore this if you are still racing around doing Christmas, join in with your own suggestions if you are all organised already!

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

I only read three chunksters (450+ pages) in 2018,  and the longest of those was The Brothers K by David James Duncan.  It was 645 pages long and it took eight days to read, from May 11 to May 19.

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset is taking the longest to finish – I started The Wreath in early December and moved onto The Wife, and then I re-read them both because I was confused by the huge cast of characters.  But I have stalled on reading the next one – partly because I have a stack of library books that are all due back in January and partly because I am not really excited by the prospect of Book 3, The Cross…

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

That has to be Dancing Home by Paul Collis.  It’s the story of an Indigenous man on his way home after a stint in prison, and I didn’t like the violence.  But it just won the ACT Book of the year, because it’s an important book which won the 2016 David Unaipon Award.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

One, unless you count re-reading the Kristin Lavransdatter books in order to write my review, which would make it three.

4) What’s my favourite re-read of 2018?

Swann in Love, by Marcel Proust, in a new translation by Brian Nelson.  If you’ve never read Proust, this is the edition to start with.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

You know the answer to this one if you’ve checked out my 2018 Best Australian and New Zealand Books.  It’s Shell by Kristina Olsson.  I just loved it, and I know I will revisit it.

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

The Bed-making Competition, which was joint winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella prize this year.  A light-hearted, tender and hilarious tale about two sisters, from debut Kiwi author Anna Jackson who shared the award with Avi Duckworth-Jones for Swim.  (This is the first time New Zealand authors have won this prize).

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper.  Because everybody needs to know about the dangers of unsupervised arsonists.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane. Murnane is a conceptual writer, not a teller of tales.  I love his work, and if you are prepared to immerse yourself in a unique style of writing, you will too, but not everyone likes this kind of challenge, I know…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2018

Under the Visible Life, by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life was published in 2016, the same year that identity politics went mainstream in Australia.  Authors on opposite sides of the cultural appropriation argument got airspace in the mainstream media and there was much sturm und drang.  But if the same thing was happening in Toronto where Canadian author Kim Echlin lives, then this book was a challenge to the debate.  Who gets to write the stories of people with mixed heritage?  The two central characters in Under the Visible Life are Afghan-American; and Chinese-Canadian.  The Afghan-American girl marries a Pakistani; and the Chinese-Canadian marries an African-American.   I see at the back of the book that there are thanks to consultants on these cultures and perhaps this is the respectful way an author can write such a story. I leave it to others to judge:  I am firmly on the fence with this issue…

Under the Visible Life is the story of two women who negotiate the US jazz scene when everything was against the participation of women.  Both are talented, but have to make hard choices in an era when women are expected to stay home in the kitchen, and sometimes they choose unwisely.  One chooses an unsatisfactory  marriage because it offers life in a less repressive country but finds that the repression travels with her; the other chooses a relationship with a gorgeous musician who turns out to be an unreliable man. Both find that having children compromises the choices they can make and the independence they need.

So it’s a well-worn theme but what makes it different is the liveliness of the jazz music scene, and the author’s dissection of the enduring power of cultural traditions even when they are transplanted to new settings.  It’s not a great book, but it held my attention to the end, and I’m looking forward to reading The Disappeared which is on my TBR because it was nominated for the 2009 Giller Award and was recommended by Kim from Reading Matters and the late, great Kevin from Canada.

Author: Kim Echlin
Title: Under the Visible Life
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2016, 348 pages
ISBN: 9781781256381
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2018

The Last 10 Books Tag

Yes, it’s that time of the year when we all do memes!

This one comes from  Rick’s latest video at Another Book Vlog via Stuck in a Book  and it goes like this:

The last book I gave up on

Frieda: A Novel of the Real Lady Chatterley by Annabel Abbs.  I have no idea why I bought this, and I should have known better.  I really struggled to get to the obligatory 50 pages and turfed it out. You have been warned.

The last book I re-read

I think this is The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, one of my favourite NZ authors.  I think I might have read it three or four times…

The last book I bought

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, which I bought on Monday. I actually bought three on the same day, (from The Avenue Bookshop in Elsternwick) but Middle England was the last one I found there. It appealed because Brexit had been so much in the news this week, and maybe this book will explain Britain’s mystifying politics…

  1. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I have never pretended to read a book – why would I? So I don’t do this, not even when someone lends me a book I disliked.  I either grit my teeth and read it, or I abandon it.  And because I don’t want to hurt the friend’s feelings, if I’ve read it, I will try to find something positive to write in my review, though my regular readers would recognise that I’m not actually recommending it.  But if I abandoned it, I confess that I may lie about why I’m returning it unread.  “I’ve had it so long, I feel guilty”, or some such…

5. The last book I wrote in the margins of

I don’t do marginalia.  The last time I did this was in my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and that was a decades ago when I was doing my BA.  I have learned the error of my ways because when I look at those notes now, I have no idea what they mean.  These days I jot down my thoughts in reading journals. (Though there is no guarantee that I will remember what I meant if I read them 40 years from now either).

The last book I had signed

I mostly don’t bother with this because I dislike queues, and I suspect that all but debut authors would probably rather not do them at all.  Many authors are introverts and are uncomfortable making small talk.  (I was asked a couple of times to autograph my own little book Indonesia and it felt really strange. I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say).  But I hung around for Kristina Olsson to sign Shell, because I hope it’s going to win the Miles Franklin, and then it will join my MF collection, the best of which are signed.

The last book I lost

That’s Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and Other Writings which I reviewed here. I was very fond of that book, but good manners prevents me from telling the story of how I came to lose it.

The last book I had to replace

I couldn’t remember how I came to have misplaced Anita Heiss’s Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, but I bought a replacement copy (and a couple of copies for giveaways) at the Word for Word Non Fiction festival in Geelong.  And then a week later the friend I’d lent it to, returned it!  My fault entirely: I should keep a record of books I lend.

The last book I argued over

I think that was Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev.  One of my dear friends is in favour of capital punishment.  If I could persuade her to read the book, maybe she might change her mind.  But she isn’t a reader so I earbashed her instead… (Yes, we’re still very good friends).

The last book you couldn’t find

That one is the one I’ve promised to read for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 2 in January.  It’s The Pioneers by Katherine Susannah Prichard.  I bought it specially and then (because I’d reorganised my TBR shelves) I not only couldn’t find it, I also couldn’t even remember what it was called.  Fortunately it has turned up now:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2018

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

Most of the time, I vaguely despise the concept of ‘rewriting’ a famous book.  Ok, Margaret Atwood famously did it with The Penelopiad, but she was a well-established author making a feminist point, and obviously not compensating for an inability to think of her own story.  I want to read books that give me new ideas to think about, not recycled versions of other ideas even if they are beautifully written.

But the chutzpah of The Borrower is something else again.  Of all the books to choose to parody, surely Nabokov’s Lolita is the most audacious!

I chanced on The Borrower at the library, lured by the cover image.  The blurb told me only that the central character Lucy Hull is a children’s librarian, who finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when she sets out on a road trip across America with her favourite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake.  I knew before I started that there was a moral dilemma, and that the author was out to subvert the clichéd stereotype of librarians, but I was not expecting an absurdist parody of Lolita and a critique of Bush-era America and the emergence of the Christian Right.  I just thought this was going to be summer reading.

Ian’s fundamentalist Christian parents suspect that he is gay, and they send him to weekend classes to ‘save’ him.  These weekend classes are run by a charlatan called Pastor Bob, and they are premised on the religious belief that being gay is a choice and therefore amenable to pressure to change.  Lucy (who’d had an adult gay friend who committed suicide under pressure like this) is appalled by the psychological damage being inflicted on this bright and lively boy.  And Lucy is a rebel: already she is complicit in letting Ian read whatever he likes despite his mother’s list of prohibited books: Witchcraft/Wizardry; Magic; Satanism/Occult Religions; Adult Content Matter; Weaponry; The Theory of Evolution; Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry; Harry Potter and similar authors.  (And no sweets either, she tells Lucy).

It wasn’t so much good manners or restraint as a sort of paralysis of the tongue.  I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of the First Amendment, if she was aware that Harry Potter was not an author, if she thought we had books about Satanism lying around in the children’s section, if she was under the impression that I was Ian’s babysitter, reading tutor, or camp counsellor. Instead I took my pen and added another line to her list: “No candy.”

Every teacher has been in this situation, appalled by some aspect of parenting that is just plain wrong.  I have wanted to remove children from parents who’ve spent their pension on drugs and booze so that the child comes hungry to school.  But it’s a difficult issue when it’s a case of conflicting values rather than criminal neglect or abuse.  Lucy finds herself in this quandary when she finds Ian in the library after hours because he’s run away.  When she gets him into the car to take him home, he blackmails her by saying that he will accuse her of kidnapping him.

The Borrowers is not realism. The parody is intentionally bizarre and there are many droll allusions to well-known children’s books and aspects of American popular culture.  But Lucy’s deferral of decision-making has to be resolved somehow, and so, always seeing the situation from Lucy’s point-of-view, there are some meditations on her moral dilemmas.  As they travel from Missouri to Vermont with pitstops at cheap hotels, her crazy Russian émigré father’s house, and his eccentric friend’s, Lucy struggles with her feelings.  In Vermont, just over the border from Canada, she explores her romanticised idea that it’s a Promised Land:

What was so special about Canada in my mind, I wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t as if they had no extradition treaty.  It wasn’t as if they were any freer, any happier.  A little less inclined to religious extremism, maybe.  A little more welcoming to the Ians of the world, a little less welcoming to the Pastor Bobs. But not much.

And she realises that if Americans flee there because they are uneasy about how things are, it will become just like the place they’ve left behind.

I already knew what would happen.  We settlers would proclaim ourselves a city on a hill.  We’d slowly push the native Canadians onto reservations in the Yukon.  The friendlier ones would teach us how to drill for oil.  They’d trade us Montreal for a handful of beads.

Within a few generations, the sight of a real Canadian would be rare.  Our children would dress like them for Halloween.  We’d name our country clubs after their fallen chiefs.

Our brave little nation would grow.  Global warming would make our weather tropical. America, scorched and obsolete, would fall into disrepair.  Other countries would come to envy New Canada.  But could we help it if our children had beautiful teeth?  Could we keep from shining our glorious light for all nations to see? Someone has to dominate the world. (p.265)

Using America’s most transgressive novel as a road map, author Rebecca Makkai is waving a flag for an end to moral relativism:

I was no moral relativist.  I couldn’t have been, or I’d have believed that Pastor Bob was entitled to his opinion, that the Drakes should raise Ian however they saw fit.  It had always bothered me that fundamentalists would assume, when you argued with them about gay rights or abortion or assisted suicide, that you were arguing that there was no absolute right.  When really I do believe in an absolute right; I just don’t believe in their absolute right.  I don’t believe that the universal truths are encoded by a set of ancient Aramaic laws about crop rotation and menstrual blood and hats. (p.288)

Plenty for book groups to argue about then, eh?

Author: Rebecca Makkai
Title: The Borrower
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2011, 324 pages
ISBN: 9780670022816
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2018

The Inheritors, by William Golding

The Inheritors is an astonishing novel.  I picked it up from the library shelves on the strength of William Golding’s name because Lord of the Flies is unforgettable and Pincher Martin took my breath away.  But even so, the imaginative power of The Inheritors floored me.  I’ve never read anything like it.

This is the blurb:

When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. Seen through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals whose world is hanging in the balance, The Inheritors explores the emergence of a new race — ourselves, Homo sapiens — whose growing dominance threatens an entire way of life.

I had thought that this was going to be a kind of First Contact book, and in some ways it is. But what I had not expected was that Golding tells the story through beings so like and yet unlike ourselves, that the narration is like reading not just a language that I only poorly understand but of a being who does not think as we do.  Golding has not just imagined a language which, as John Carey says in the Introduction, incorporates gesture, dance and a kind of telepathy, but also a different way of thinking.  The small, fragile band of Neanderthals think in pictures which they can share; they scent like animals do; but they can’t connect thoughts or sequence ideas.  Carey explains it better than I can:

The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend, however, on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like.  It depends on the language he fashions to express it.  He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view.  By feats of language that are at first bewildering he takes us inside a being whose senses, especially smell and hearing, are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought.  This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive.  Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures — and the pathos and the tragedy — of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything.  (John Carey, Introduction, p xi)

This, in Chapter One, shows the reaction to a log bridge rotting in the middle and floating away:

The onyx marsh water was spread before them, widening into the river.  The trail along by the river began again on the other side on ground that rose until it was lost in the trees.  Lok, grinning happily, took two paces towards the water and stopped.  The grin faded and his mouth opened till the lower lip hung down. Liku slid to his knee then dropped to the ground.  She put the little Oa’s head to her mouth and looked over her.

Lok laughed uncertainly.

“The log has gone away.”

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log.  It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting.  When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder.  The water was not awake like the river or the fall but asleep, spreading there to the river and waking up, stretching on the right into wildernesses of impassable swamp and thicket and bog.  So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone. (p.2)

Ha is more thoughtful than Lok, the man for an emergency, but when Fa and Nil share a picture of what Ha is thinking, it was this:

He had thought that he must make sure the log was still in position because if the water had taken the log or if the log had crawled off on business of its own then the people would have to trek a day’s journey round the swamp and that meant danger or even more discomfort than usual. (p.4)

Only the elderly shaman Mal has a solution, retrieving a childhood picture from his mind.  It is not like remembering: it is just an image of a ‘wise man’ who ‘makes men take a tree that has fallen.’ But he cannot convey this image to the others.  They follow his instructions blindly.

So you can just imagine their bewilderment and admiration when they encounter Homo Sapiens with his paraphernalia of trinkets and tools.  The Neanderthals have not made the evolutionary steps towards inventing containers so they can’t carry or store food and water.  They can’t make fire, only carry it and protect it when lightning strikes start it.  They have no tools, except a stick to convey food to Mal’s mouth when he is so ill he must be fed.  But the new people not only have pots for food and water, and fire to cook with, they also have clothes, and necklaces to confer status, and they can make paintings on the rock walls.  And — unfortunately for the Neanderthals — they also have spears, bows and arrows for hunting.

And as we saw in Golding’s merciless depiction of savagery in Lord of the Flies, these new people already have no compunction about taking what they want and killing the innocent…

William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Author: William Golding
Title: The Inheritors
Introduction by John Carey
Cover illustration by Neil Gower
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011, 223 pages, first published 1955,
ISBN: 9780571273584
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2018

Before the War, by Fay Weldon

In the 80s, my favourite authors were Mary Wesley and Fay Weldon.  Mary Wesley began writing in her seventies, and she died in 1997 so there are only ten novels listed at Wikipedia–which is still amazing, when you consider she was only writing for 14 years, beginning in 1983 with Jumping the Queue and ending with Part of the Furniture in 1997.  I’ve only got four of these novels because I read all the others via the library.  I’ve also got the BBC series based on The Camomile Lawn (1984), and somewhere, also the biography Wild Mary written by her son Toby Eady…

Fay Weldon (born in 1931) started writing in 1967 and is still going strong, with 42 books to her credit at Wikipedia.  Last year I read and reviewed Death of a She-devil published in 2017, the same year that she published Before the War.  She was 86 but her wit is as sharp as ever.

This is the blurb:

From a lioness of British literature, an absorbing, inventive novel of love, death and aristocracy in inter-war London.

Consider Vivien in November 1922. She is twenty four, and a spinster. She wears fashionably droopy clothes, but she is plain and – worse – intelligent. At nearly six foot tall, she is known unkindly by her family as ‘the giantess’.

Fortunately, Vivien is rich, so she can travel to London and bribe a charismatic London publisher to marry her. What he does not know is that Vivien is pregnant with another’s child, and will die in childbirth in just a few months.

Fay Weldon, with one eye on the present and one on the past, offers Vivien’s fate to the reader, along with that of London between the wars: a city soaked in drizzle, peopled with flat-chested flappers, shell-shocked servicemen and aristocrats desperately clinging onto the past.

Inventive, witty and empathetic, this is a spellbinding historical novel from one of the foremost novelists of our time.

I romped through Before the War in no time, admittedly enjoying Parts 1 & 2 more than the fallout from the hapless Vivien’s death.   I would have liked Vivien to surge triumphantly through life, leaving a trail of foolish people behind her.  But Weldon has never opted for the happy ending: it wouldn’t be true to her world view, nor—given the historical period of the setting—to real life.

However, the characters who underestimate Vivian all come to a messy end, and serves them right.  And while Weldon intrudes into the narrative to tell us that

‘I will not distress you with Vivien forever. It is not normal in books, films or on TV for much attention to be paid to unattractive women of any age…Why should I break the rules?’ (p.7)

in fact Weldon is, as she always is, being ironic.  She breaks those rules, and not just by demanding the reader’s attention on Vivian, but also on a period which, she says, is neglected in fiction:

We like to dream the costume drama of Edwardian times, all fine clothes, glittering jewels and clean sexy profiles — but we are less drawn to the twenty years between the wars.  Understandably.  Limbless ex-servicemen beg for alms on hard-hearted city streets while hysterical flappers, flat-chested, dance and drink champagne in Mayfair night clubs.  Shell shock, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse — what we now call post-traumatic-stress-syndrome — still stalks the land.  Life expectancy for the poor is forty-five; for the rich, sixty-five.  (p.4-5)

It’s not entirely true that the era is neglected, I think.  R F Delderfield (1912-1972) is an author whose social history novels exemplify not just a tendency to romanticise the pre-war years in A Horseman Riding By (1966) but also one who acknowledges the miseries of shell shock in To Serve Them All My Days (1972).  (Both of these were made into BBC series).  Wikipedia tells me that he apparently also wrote The Avenue, which follows middle-class life over a few decades, from after the end of World War I with the Spanish Flu epidemic making an appearance.  Here in Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote books that cover this interwar era, and so did Christina Stead.  But if we judge by TV series, it seems that the producers do seem to be attracted to the glittering costumes of the flappers, especially in class-conscious London.

Weldon, however, demolishes any fanciful notions about upper-class life by sabotaging the genealogical tree of her characters.  There’s so much sleeping around going on that anyone would be hard-pressed to claim any superior ancestry because any parentage is a dubious claim.  It’s not just fathers who are ascribed children they haven’t fathered, but with splendid sleight of hand, Weldon’s twins Mallory and Stella can’t even be sure who their mother is.  Any snobbery is misdirected, though of course the characters try.

Vivian, who loves and admires her tiny mother intolerably, takes much comfort from the fact that at least Adela doesn’t have to suffer the pangs of envy so many other mothers feel as their own beauty fades and that of their daughter grows, and of rage as the daughter takes the affection from the father that was once his wife’s by right.  And some comfort in that at least her mother has risen up the social ladder now that her husband has been dubbed a Knight of the Realm by a grateful monarch and at last has a title, ‘Lady Adela’.  She no longer feels bereft at being so well born on her father’s side and yet a mere Mrs, and actually a Princess on her mother’s side had not so many European titles been abolished over the years by revolution and the fall of empires. (p.123)

Adela is a bit of a monster, actually….

Author: Fay Weldon
Title: Before the War
Publisher: head of Zeus, UK, 2016, p.298
ISBN: 9781784082079
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2018

2018 A Year in First Lines, a meme

I see from Jane’s post at Beyond Eden Rock, that it’s time to play a particular game:

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

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

So, let’s see what happens…


2017: ANZ LitLovers stats

I got this idea from Annabookbel, who does a very comprehensive series called Year in Review which made me wonder what I could discover with the data that I had.


Pereira Maintains, by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Patrick Creagh

Pereira Maintains was a fortuitous find on the New Books shelf at the library, and it was not until I visited Goodreads when drafting this review that I discovered it was one of the 1001 books I’m supposed to read before setting off for The Great Library in the Sky.


Gwen, a Novel, by Goldie Goldbloom

Just recently, a dear friend of mine said to me that Jews always travel with the Holocaust in their suitcase, which is why, I think, I understand what Goldie Goldbloom is trying to do in her most recent novel, Gwen.


Debut Mondays: new fiction from H C Gildfind

This month I am pleased to introduce debut author H.C. Gildfind who lives in Melbourne and has been published in Australia and overseas.


Coming up in June: ANZ LitLovers with Shokoofeh Azar at the Williamstown Literary Festival

I’ve been busy, busy, busy over the last twenty-four hours and now I can tell you why: I’m going to be interviewing Shokoofeh Azar at the Williamstown Festival on Sunday 17th of June.


Announcing 2018 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (8 to 15 July).


What the Light Reveals, by Mick McCoy

I had mostly great reading while on holiday on Norfolk Island, and I’ve got a few reviews to catch up on but I’m going to start with this one because it’s such an interesting book.


1939: The Last Season, by Anne de Courcy

Yes, I’m having a bit of a binge on books from the B-C shelf, but I’m a bit bemused about whyever I bought this one with my hard-earned dollar.


Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Time to read another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die…


Songwoman, by Ilka Tampke

Songwoman, Ilka Tampke’s second novel, is the sequel to her remarkably successful novel Skin which has had international rights sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, UK and Vietnam.


Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

The stars aligned nicely when it was time for another title from 1001 Books and news came my way of a Margaret Atwood Reading Month at Consumed by Ink.


Six Degrees of Separation: From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to …

O what a lovely starter book for #6Degrees this month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol tra-la-la-la la, la-la-la!


So, what does this tell us about my blog?

  • I pillage ideas from other bloggers and join in the occasional meme or reading week;
  • I read books by both men and women and also in translation;
  • I make desultory efforts to read books recommended by 1001 Books;
  • I mainly read fiction, mostly but not only Australian;
  • There are so many books on my shelves that sometimes I can’t fit in any more, but even so, I still borrow from the library;
  • I ran a little project to give exposure to debut authors (but it fizzled out)
  • I run an annual project to shine a light on Indigenous authors (and it hasn’t fizzled out)
  • The Williamstown Lit Festival kindly asked me to do a session this year; and
  • I like reading when I’m on holidays.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 18, 2018

Sculptures of Melbourne, by Mark S Holsworth

I stumbled on Sculptures of Melbourne at the library—and what a treasure it is!

Mark Holsworth is a Gen-X art and culture critic and this book grew out of the part of his blog that deals with public sculpture.

There are five chapters:

  1. Classicalism Forever 1780-2015
  2. Monuments and More Memorials 1864-2012
  3. Modernism Postponed 1957-2015
  4. Melbourne by Design 1989-2015
  5. The Temporary Present 2001-2015.

Vault, by Ron Robertson-Swann 1981, at its 3rd site at Southbank (Wikipedia Commons*)

There’s a timeline too, which starts in 1780 when Farnex Hercules was copied from the one in the Vatican; notes the first of countless war memorials in 1901; traces the movements of Vault a.k.a The Yellow Peril from 1980 to 1981 and 2002; and finishes up with the Plinth Projects in the Edinburgh Gardens.

In the Introduction, Holsworth makes the point that public sculptures are part of the surface archaeology of the city.  If you wander the streets as he does, you will see a wide variety of public sculptures, created at different times and for different reasons, but always from a desire to do public good, whatever ‘good’ and ‘public’ might mean. He says it’s not so hard to define public sculpture, but there are many more problems in trying to define the public:

There is the public who, in their oft-repeated words, ‘don’t know much about art but know what they like’.  There is also the public that does know about art.  The public is contradictory.  It consists of young and old, locals and visitors, ignorant and savvy. It is a public that sometimes sits on the plinths, renames the sculptures, writes angry letters to the newspaper about them and even steals them.  But it is also a population that looks at public sculptures, sometimes every day.  People identify with the city they live in.  Parts of the city are familiar to some people who then don’t want them to change.  Other areas are unfamiliar to us and we are simply visitors.  (p.7)

Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop statue in the Domain (Wikipedia Commons*)

Pastor Doug Nicholls and Lady Gladys (Wikipedia Commons*)

And that’s the thing about public sculpture.  If you are in the mood for an argument, just flourish some photos of it, and #guaranteed there will be a chorus of opinions from all sides of the cultural divide!  What makes such an argument even more interesting is that though Holsworth has done some sterling research, many of our sculptors are unknown names, and alas, often the sculptures are not exactly world class.  And I’d hazard a guess that some of the ones we like best are not great works of art: they are statues of people we admire like the POW medico Weary Dunlop and the first Aboriginal to be knighted Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls and his wife Lady Gladys.  Sportsfans will favour the statues of footy legends and cricketers, and I myself am fond of Joan of Arc outside the State Library.

Well, as you’d expect, Melbourne is full of classical sculpture dating from its early days, but never having looked at them closely, I hadn’t realised that there is classical statuary all over the Shrine of Remembrance and the Houses of Parliament.  But classicism is all very well, and we have our share of equestrian statues looking rather splendid, but the style faltered when it came to doing a statue of Sir Thomas Blamey and his jeep.  You can see it in the Domain, near the corner of Government House Drive and Birdwood Avenue and I’m afraid it’s rather awful.

The style of the Blamey Memorial is realist, similar to the National Socialist Realism of Nazi Germany or the Socialist Realism of the Stalinist Soviet Union.  The realism promoted by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union cast a long shadow across sculpture in Europe but had little impact in Australia.  The style of public art does portray the politics of those who commission it but it would be a mistake to conclude anything about an artist’s political beliefs from their style. (p.35)

Moving on from sculpture of recognisable people and things, the chapter on Modernism features all kinds of odd things, some of which I like, such as Deborah Halpern’s Angel which used to be in the moat at the NGV and I wish they’d bring it back because it was a splash of sassy colour against the grey brick walls.  I like the whimsy of ‘Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle‘ by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn, and I also like Public Purse by Simon Perry. But while I can quite see that children like to climb over strange whorls of metal or clamber over obscure bits of symbolism, they don’t do much for me.  There’s quite a bit of sculpture along our toll roads, and while I like the cheery colours, it’s the whimsy of Callum Morton’s Hotel on EastLink that I like best of all. It looks just like a hotel marooned in the middle of nowhere!

I love books that guide me to look at my city with fresh eyes, and this one inspires me to get out there with my camera and photograph my favourites just as Holsworth has done.

Sculptures of Melbourne is a beaut souvenir book for tourists, and an enlightening book for people who might not know much about sculpture or the history of the public art we have in our city,

Just one minor point: the sculptures on pages 90 and 91 are of Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer (not Hammer) and Pentridge chaplain Father Brosnan (not Bronson).

Photo credits:

Author: Mark S Holsworth
Title: Sculptures of Melbourne
Publisher: Melbourne Books, 2015, 220 pages
ISBN: 9781922129697
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Sculptures of Melbourne


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 18, 2018

Book signing: What Empty Things Are These, by J L Crozier

Today The Spouse and I ventured into the CBD for a book signing at Mary Martin’s bookshop at Southbank.  Melbourne—as locals know—is no place for the faint-hearted at the moment because there are infrastructure works all over the city and the traffic is unbelievable.  We all complain, of course, but we shouldn’t… because we have just voted back in a government that likes loves to build things and these long-overdue infrastructure projects are bringing our city into the 21st century and secretly we love it all.  (Though maybe not quite so much when the weather is not congenial.)

Evan Walker Pedestrian Bridge, named in honour of the visionary architect who created the Southbank precinct (Wikipedia Commons*)

Prudently therefore, and on a glorious day of benign sunshine, we took the train and—alleluia! there were no pesky track works involving changing trains, so it was stress free and I read a good bit of the book I’d picked up from the library en route.  (Toni Jordan’s Fragments).  From Flinders Street we strolled over the Evan Walker pedestrian bridge on the Yarra, mooched around the posh Southbank shops and then wandered into the Mary Martin bookshop.

The debut author of What Empty Things Are These, J L (Judy) Crozier, is a friend of The Spouse from 40 years ago when he was Mayor of Fitzroy, and while she lives in France these days, she’s currently on a book tour in Australia and today was an opportunity for some nostalgic chat and of course to buy her book and get it signed.

This is the blurb:

In 1860’s Britain there is nothing unusual in a man beating his wife. When George Hadley’s aggression triggers his own stroke and coma, his wife discovers all she thinks of as hers is to pass to her young son Toby. Adelaide seems as powerless as her ladies’ maid, Sobriety.

Beyond the strictures of domestic and social expectation, these two women of different class remake the rules to discover what lies beneath the drapes and tassels of Victorian Britain. Life, they find, is urgent, exciting… but cheap. Even as they adventure into alleyways, a tunnel and a séance, their innocence is gone.

What Empty things Are These is about what happens to women who look into the face of this newly industrialised and still patriarchal age. Change is everywhere, exhilarating, corrupt, terrifying.

Fraud and farce abound. Spiritualists prey on the confused; women are encased in clothing that imply both modesty and sexuality; the powerful prey upon the weak. Adelaide and Sobriety, in their way, show us that every era has secrets that must be uncovered for real social progress.

But the truth of the age is encapsulated for them, in the underlying tale of the vulnerable urchin girl, the nameless victim of this pitiless society.

Exhausted by our travels and the rigorous investigation of the bookshop in case there were more books we needed (and there were*), we then repaired to a very fine Southbank restaurant called Pure South for lunch.   Pure South’s niche is that the produce all comes from Tassie. (Yes, even the gin for the cocktails).  It’s all very scrumptious and I have discovered a very simple dish for using up the occasional bit of asparagus in the garden.  My plating, of course, is never going to be as elegant as theirs, but (always remembering that less is more) I reckon it’s easy enough to steam some young asparagus spears, dot them with 4-5 small knobs of goats cheese, sprinkle the asparagus with crushed walnuts and launch them onto a little lake of leatherwood honey thinned with a splash of a good dry sherry and some truffle oil.

So all in all it was a very pleasant day.

PS Tim says he’s going to read the book first so I’ve said he has to write me a guest review….

*Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and a travel guide for our trip to NZ next year (Auckland Writers Festival, yay!)

Author: J L (Judy) Crozier
Title: What Empty Things Are These
Publisher: Regal House Publishing, USA, 2018, 329 pages
ISBN: 9781947548121
Purchased at Mary Martin Bookshop, Southbank

*Photo credit of the Evan Walker pedestrian bridge: By Donaldytong – Own work, Public Domain,


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 18, 2018

Deep Night, by Caroline Petit

*chuckle* I think that ‘Deep Trouble’ might have been a better title for this book than Deep Night!

A sequel to The Fat Man’s Daughter (2005), Deep Night is the story of attractive, sexy Leah Kolbe, who runs her Hong Kong antiques business according to the somewhat dubious principles of her father, who died in mysterious circumstances.  In this sequel, the Sino-Japanese War, under the radar of great powers preoccupied by the war in Europe,  suddenly escalates in significance with the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the start of the Pacific War.  Hong Kong is a British colony, not then thought to be at risk from the Japanese who have occupied Manchuria, while China, beset by internal struggles, is trying to ward off territorial ambitions that threaten its independence even further.  It’s not a good time to be in a business that depends on exports to wealthy westerners.

It’s also not a good time to rush into an engagement but Leah decides to stop fending off Jonathan (who is also sexy and attractive but is undesirably more interested in settling down with a family than in her business), only to have him captured by the invading Japanese and sent off to an uncertain fate.  Using her contacts, Leah decamps to Macau, now part of China, but then a Portuguese colony and at this stage of the war, the sole remaining European possession in Asia. Its status, however, is tentative, as a translator explains to Leah:

“Macau is only free because there is a large Japanese community in Brazil (a Portuguese colony in the 19th century).  Portugal threatened to freeze the bank accounts of these wealthy Japanese. Japanese officers are crawling all over Macau. They swagger about like they own the place. We are still afraid that they might blockade Macau or take us over.” (p.75)

Leah arrives, like so many other refugees, with nothing, because (conveniently within swimming distance of Macau) she was unceremoniously dumped out of the junk she’d hired and loses everything from her passport to her shoes.  She is taken in by the British Consul Stephen Albemarle (who is middle-aged but fancies her) and he invents a job for her at the consulate, which is (as you’d expect) involved in transmitting intelligence.

Before long Leah is invited to become a spy too, and the reader needs to keep her wits about her to follow the tangled threads of her activities.  Negotiating the competing agendas of undercover operatives from the west (UK and US); communist and nationalist Chinese; a Russian (not very convincingly) purporting to be British; and the swaggering, malevolent Japanese, Leah takes a Japanese lover who is an arms dealer and passes on his unsuspecting bedroom chatter to her contacts.  But she’s no James Bond: people get killed, and she is lucky to escape assassination herself.  (That’s not really a spoiler, it is obvious that she’s a survivor, and I suspect that there might even be a Book Three one day).

This kind of historical novel/political thriller is not my usual reading fare, but the book was interesting because I knew next to nothing about this aspect of the Pacific War. The setting is a convincing representation of colonial life, complete with its stratified society and the social changes that emerged as European power waned.

According to the blurb, Caroline Petit is an American living in Australia but the book was published ten years ago and her website (which says she is working on her third novel) needs updating.

Author: Caroline Petit
Title: Deep Night
Publisher: Soho Press USA, 2008, 276 pages
ISBN: 9781569475300 (hbk).
Source: Kingston Library

You can buy the book from Amazon.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2018

Three Decades On, Lake House and Daylesford by Alla Wolf-Tasker

Now that I’ve published my Best-of lists for 2018, I wasn’t going to read any more Australian books because I have a swag of library books by overseas authors to get through.  I was going to browse through this one in the new years and (maybe) try some of the recipes but it’s due back tomorrow and I can’t renew it.  Needs must.

Three Decades On, Lake House and Daylesford is a drop-dead, totally gorgeous, coffee-table book of food porn.  I’m sure author Alla Wolf-Tasker won’t mind me saying that because she’s aware that it’s not an everyday cookbook.  This is what she says in her introduction:

Is this a cookbook?  It depends on who you are.  I’m sure there’s enough use of dehydrators, iSi guns and sous vide in the recipes to put off all but the most dedicated domestic cook.  Some of our guests, on the other hand, are accomplished cooks and regular attendees at the Masterclass weekends in our cooking school.  I would like to think that for them this book will, at the very least, provide some inspiration.  The brilliant photography by Lisa Cohen should provide more of the same.

I hope that for some of you this book shares time with you in your kitchen.  But I also hope that it has a place at your bedside or on your coffee table, that you take the time to enjoy the stories and imagery of this place we live and work in — of this place we love. (p.008)

(If, like me, you have to look up iSi guns to know what they are, then you know which group you belong in!)

I’ve been to Lake House three times: once back in the late 1980s when we were flush with funds and stayed overnight, and twice just to the restaurant.  It was an unforgettable experience only partially conveyed by the photo gallery at their website and this lovely book. The restaurant-hotel is situated in a lovely part of Victoria within easy reach of Melbourne, and no expense has been spared in making Lake House a luxury destination that’s internationally famous, winning these awards: Tatler’s 101 Best Hotels, The Conde Nast Gold List & Australia’s Best Regional Hotel.   The book celebrates this beautiful area and the philosophy of the restaurant: a rarity in Australia — a family-owned restaurant, highly regarded for its culinary and service standards, which has continued over many decades to stay abreast of things and prosper.  But staying at the top is obviously hard work:

…food has become part of pop culture like never before, in the way it moves and fragments.  With the rampaging speed of knowledge transfer nowadays, there’s a fair bit of culinary FOMO that happens both for cooks and diners.  I’ve got to say I have the occasional moment of it myself.  Self-doubt driven by looking at too much breathless social media perhaps?  But a recent tremendous restaurant review by one of Australia’s senior food writers definitely had me reaching for Google to find out about fermented gochuchang and ddeokbokki, a “delicious little talisman you’re going to want.” Reviewers by nature are bound to be driven by a bit of FOMO themselves.  We all feel the influence of new and different culinary thought.  In today’s highly connected world we’d be daft not to take up the opportunity of relevant new techniques, new ingredients or innovative cultural influences.

But can we maintain a singular and recognisable passion in the face of all this?

From day one at Lake House, long before it became a marketing mantra or even remotely fashionable, we have trodden the seasonal route.  This, at a time when being able to afford to acquire out-of-season ingredients was often seen as a sign of wealth and heightened gastronomic appreciation. (p.050)

Well, it’s been 10 years (alas) since I was at Lake House, but (based on the photos in their website gallery and the photos in this book) I would still say that they have a recognisable style.  There is a delicacy about their plating and an original use of locally sourced ingredients like their pullet eggs and heirloom tomatoes that is quite distinctive.

However, it is the arrangement of the food photos and the recipes, completely separating the glamorous presentation of dishes from the process (and work) involved in creating them that makes this more of a book of food porn, as defined by the feminist critic Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire:

“Cooking food and presenting it beautifully is an act of servitude. It is a way of expressing affection through a gift… That we should aspire to produce perfectly finished and presented food is a symbol of a willing and enjoyable participation in servicing others. Food pornography exactly sustains these meanings relating to the preparation of food. The kinds of picture used always repress the process of production of a meal. They are always beautifully lit, often touched up.” (p. 103) (Wikipedia, viewed 17/1/218).

From page 52 to page 163, there is nothing but photos of plated food and their ingredients (often on idyllic-looking farms), with just four pictures of serene, unflustered chefs (or their hands) at work.  The recipes are in a separate chapter right at the back of the book.  I don’t have a problem with this, except to say that I’m the kind of cook who needs a picture of the finished dish to inspire me and keep me on track when I’m working through a complex recipe.  I would have found it exasperating to be experimenting with Heston Blumenthal’s recipes without the photo there in front of me as I worked through all the different elements because I don’t like turning the pages of an expensive book with sticky fingers.  It’s especially irritating that neither the recipes nor the index in Three Decades On tells you which page the picture is on, so you have to look through pages and pages to find, for example, how mustard ice cream is served with the carrot tasting menu along with seed and nut granola, carrot puree, carrot balls, soused carrots and microwave carrot sponge.  (All of which look easy enough to make as separate elements, just tricky to bring together all on one plate).

I was intrigued by the chapter ‘Good Food Matters’, which profiles the local suppliers who produce a mouth-watering range of ingredients for the Lake House menu.  Restaurants growing their own produce has, as Wolf-Tasker says, become a fascinating turn of focus among the industry and dining public.  Posh restaurants brag about growing their own produce, and the Royal Mail at Dunkeld is not the only regional restaurant to base its cuisine around what’s in season on their own land.

How did this suggestion slip in, that restaurants firstly could, and secondly would, grow their own food?  And I’m talking beyond a few token bunches of beetroot.  Yes, there will be some for whom the proposition might be relevant and even essential.  But how did it ever eventuate as a possible business model for an industry already struggling with a roller coaster of skill shortages and financial challenges?  A high-profile colleague of mine, establishing a regional resort-style outpost for his restaurant group, added a substantial potager to supply his outlets.  ‘The most expensive potatoes in the world’ was how he described one of the outcomes.  The economics of the proposition remain interesting. (p.166)

(I wonder if he was the high-profile restaurateur whose entire (expensive!) would-be crop of truffles, we heard, had to be pulled out because they had some disease?)

I think the distinction between cooks and farmers/producers is a valid one.  A restaurant needs to have mutually beneficial relationships with local producers supplying sustainable quality and freshness, and that is what enables consumers to have the very best because dishes aren’t then limited by what’s in the paddock and the chef can give full rein to his/her creativity.  Reading this chapter, it occurred to me that I have never come across any political party offering a policy about supporting small, niche farming practices…

… we do need to look beyond the bucolic scenes of farm life portrayed on social media and in magazines.  Relentless hard physical labour and the vagaries of Mother Nature are things we tend to understand and respect.  Most of us, however, remain unaware of many other hurdles.  Already strangled by red tape, small sustainable farmers also struggle with planning and infrastructure requirements that favour large-scale intensive farming.  Somehow consumer demand for good food, grown with concern for ethical animal husbandry and positive environmental outcomes, does not appear to be on the radar of regulatory bodies.  The disconnect is most apparent in the continued promotion of the clean green image of Australia’s best produce.  If we really want to be enjoying some of this hugely celebrated and much lauded food, produced in the best circumstances, we really could be doing something to make things a little bit easier.  (p. 167)

No wonder many country folk feel that ‘their’ National Party has abandoned them.

Am I going to try any of the recipes?  Most of the meat dishes and the desserts are much too complex, but some of the recipes are variations on what we do already:

  • Marinated olives
  • Mustard ice cream (as a savoury accompaniment to something)
  • Truffled pecorino tart (when we have enough kale in the garden)
  • Compressed cucumber (when (hopefully) we have a glut though there is no sign of the bees we need just yet), and
  • The recipe for oxtail without using it to make tortellini (because they always fall apart)
  • Kangaroo with black trompettes (or some other mushroom) and mountain pepper, cooked in a sous vide and
  • the sauce that goes with the smoked quail (but the deboning and the polenta are just not going to happen).

But I wish there were instructions for how long vacuum-packed items like compressed lemons can be kept, and if they need to be in the fridge or the pantry!

This is a lovely book. Buy it for the Foodie in your life:)

Author: Alla Wolf-Tasker
Title: Three Decades On, Lake House and Daylesford
Publisher: (Self-published) Lake House, Daylesford, 2018, 276 pages
ISBN: 9780646982397
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Readings and the Lake House online store.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2018

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

Melmoth was an impulse choice, on display at the library and I’d seen it online somewhere amongst the blogs I read.  Sarah Perry is the author of The Essex Serpent which won multiple awards, and I had hovered over that one at the library too, ultimately deciding that I probably wouldn’t like it.

What I had forgotten about Melmoth is that it has antecedents in 1001 Books You Must Read.  Wikipedia reminds me that Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by an Irish Protestant clergyman called Charles Robert Maturin is a classic Gothic horror story on a Faustian theme, and Honore de Balzac wrote a (rather liverish) follow-up story called Melmoth Reconciled (which I’ve summarised at Goodreads, if you are so inclined).

Well, Perry’s Melmoth is moralistic too, despite its blurb which claims the book to be:

a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

First of all, the entire premise of the book is flawed.  Perry’s Melmoth is a woman condemned to walk the earth for centuries because she refused to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ.  Now, if you know the Jesus story at all (and most people surely do), you know that he was the poster boy for redemption, not Old Testament or Sisyphusian punishments for eternity.  And unlike the original Melmoth who knowingly bought into his Faustian pact for personal gain, this female Melmoth gained nothing for her ‘sin’.


The central character, Helen Franklin, has been mortifying the flesh for twenty years in suitably Gothic Prague. While not actually self-flagellating, she has been denying herself the pleasures of good coffee, scrumptious European cakes, sheets on the mattress in her dingy room, and yes, even the magic of music, and all because of her sin, which is (tiresomely) withheld until well into the book.  Her sole solace is a lukewarm friendship with Karel and Thea, and he *spoiler alert* turns out to be a cad because he deserts Thea in her hour of need.  (Men are so shabby about older women when they stop being sexy, aren’t they? Serves him right if Melmoth haunts him, eh?)

But before Karel bunks off to London he thoughtfully leaves Helen with all the docs she needs to learn about an assortment of sightings of Melmoth (Perry’s female one).  All of these are refusals to bear witness, and Perry being the exceptionally good writer that she is, the book manages to transcend its silliness with depictions of human wickedness that are extremely confronting.

But it’s not enough to redeem the book for me, I’m afraid.  And the ending, which has apparently reduced some at Goodreads to tears, looks like a cheap, manipulative trick to me…

Author: Sarah Perry
Title: Melmoth
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2018, 271 pages
ISBN: 9781788160667
Source: Kingston Library

As in previous years, these are the books I really liked and admired during 2018.  They are books that I read this year, not necessarily published this year.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, there are plenty of other sources singing the praises of books published elsewhere.  All links go to my reviews.

Fiction Longlist

I rated all of these Australian and New Zealand books 4-stars at Goodreads, and I felt a surge of pleasure remembering them when I looked at their covers at Goodreads See What You Read in 2018 (which doesn’t, due to some glitch, I suppose, actually record everything I read in 2018 but I’ve found a way round that).  (NB I reserve five stars for a work of genius such as James Joyce’s Ulysses).  I have been brutal, removing some beaut books to get this list to a maximum of 40.  Here are my books in alphabetical order… 8 authors from New Zealand are in italics.

  1. Relatively Famous (2018) by Roger Averill
  2. Book of Colours (2018) by Robyn Cadwallader
  3. The Beat of the Pendulum (2017) by Catherine Chidgey 
  4. Shadow Sisters (2018) by Shelley Davidow
  5. A Sand Archive, (2018) by Gregory Day
  6. The Sweet Hills of Florence (2018) by Jan Wallace Dickinson
  7. The New Ships (2018) by Kate Duignan
  8. The Earth Cries Out (2017) by Bonnie Etherington
  9. Salt Picnic (2017) by Patrick Evans
  10. The Bridge (2018) by Enza Gandolfo
  11. Gwen, (2017) by Goldie Goldbloom
  12. A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline (2018) by Glenda Guest
  13. Heloise (2017) by Mandy Hager
  14. A Stolen Season (2018) by Rodney Hall
  15. The Year of the Farmer, (2018) by Rosalie Ham
  16. The Last Garden (2018) by Eva Hornung
  17. Stories from Suburban Road, (1983, reissued 2018) by TAG Hungerford
  18. The Bed-making Competition (2018) by Anna Jackson
  19. Dustfall (2018) by Michelle Johnston
  20. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981, reissued 2015) by Elizabeth Jolley
  21. Swim, (2018) by Avi Duckor-Jones
  22. Paint Your Wife, (2004) by Lloyd Jones
  23. A Perfect Stone (2018) by S K Karakaltsas
  24. Too Much Lip (2018) by Melissa Lucashenko
  25. The Everlasting Sunday (2018) by Robert Lukins
  26. Big Rough Stones (2018) by Meg Merrilees
  27. A Superior Spectre, (2018) by Angela Meyer
  28. Dyschronia, (2018) by Jennifer Mills
  29. The Fireflies of Autumn, (2018) by Giovannoni Moreno
  30. Border Districts (2017) by Gerald Murnane
  31. The Biographer’s Lover (2018) by Ruby J Murray
  32. The Children’s House, (2018) by Alice Nelson
  33. Shell (2018) by Kristina Olsson
  34. We Are Not Most People, (2018) by Tracy Ryan
  35. The Day They Shot Edward (1991, revised edition 2018) by Wendy Scarfe
  36. Half Wild, (2017) by Pip Smith
  37. Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865, reissued 1988) by Catherine Helen Spence
  38. Poor Man’s Wealth (2011) by Rod Usher
  39. Welcome to Orphancorp (2015) by Marlee Jane Ward
  40. Nyarla and the Circle of Stones, (2015) The Fethafoot Chronicles #1, by Pemulwuy Weeatunga

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories (BTW my original list was closer to 30.)

  1. A Coveted Possession, the Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, (2018) by Michael Atherton
  2. Trump in Asia, The New World Disorder, (2018) Australian Foreign Affairs Vol #1
  3. The Big Picture, Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, (2018) Australian Foreign Affairs Vol 2
  4. The Forgotten Notebook (2015) by Betty Churcher
  5. Letting Go, How to Plan for a Good Death, (2018) by Dr Charlie Corke
  6. Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender (2018) by Richard Davis
  7. On Rape, (2018) by Germaine Greer
  8. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, (2018) edited by Anita Heiss
  9. Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman (2014) by Bronwen Hickman
  10. The Arsonist, a Mind on Fire (2018) by Chloe Hooper
  11. How to Be Deaf (2016) by Rosie Malezer
  12. On Borrowed Time, (2018) by Robert Manne
  13. Vodka and Apple Juice (2018) by Jay Martin
  14. Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, (2018) by Peter Monteath
  15. Always Another Country (2018) by Sisonke Msimang
  16. Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries (2018) by Barbara Santich
  17. Bella and Chaim, the Story of Beauty and Life, (2017) by Sara Rina Vidal
  18. Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, (2018) by Michelle Scott Tucker
  19. Without America: Australia in the New Asia (2018) by Hugh White (Quarterly Essay #68)
  20. You Daughters of Freedom, (2018) by Clare Wright

The shortlists

Now, how to whittle them down? Gosh, this was hard this year.  Once again my criteria was: keep the books that have I banged on about most to people in my f2f life, but that meant some really absorbing, interesting or innovative books went by the wayside, which is testament to the quality of Australian and New Zealand writing.  However, I still think it’s a good criteria, because it goes to the longevity of a book.  Once again I have read 200+ books this year and I am always talking about books online, but the books that made their way into everyday conversation with family and friends had something special about them. These books weren’t just good to read, pleasurable, entertaining, or absorbing.  I earbashed f2f people about the themes and issues and insights in these books because they discuss significant ideas. (And note Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will—published in 1865 and still relevant today). 

For publication dates, see the longlists.

Best ANZ LitLovers Fiction Books of 2017 

  1. Relatively Famous by Roger Averill
  2. The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey
  3. The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington
  4. The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
  5. Gwen, by Goldie Goldbloom
  6. The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham
  7. Dustfall by Michelle Johnston
  8. Paint Your Wife, by Lloyd Jones
  9. Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
  10. A Superior Spectre, by Angela Meyer
  11. Border Districts by Gerald Murnane
  12. The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J Murray
  13. Shell by Kristina Olsson
  14. Half Wild, by Pip Smith
  15. Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence

Best ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction Books of 2017 

  1. The Big Picture, Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, Australian Foreign Affairs Vol 2
  2. Letting Go, How to Plan for a Good Death, by Charlie Corke
  3. On Rape, by Germaine Greer
  4. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss
  5. The Arsonist, a Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper
  6. Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, by Peter Monteath
  7. Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang
  8. Bella and Chaim, the Story of Beauty and Life, by Sara Rina Vidal
  9. Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, by Michelle Scott Tucker
  10. You Daughters of Freedom, by Clare Wright

And finally…

The ANZ LitLovers Book of the Year is… 

*drum roll*

(no surprise really, because I have raved about this book, but this has been a great year for both fiction and non-fiction!)

Shell by Kristina Olsson.  




Over to you

Your thoughts on my choices?  What was your best book of the year?

PS 17/12/18 An email newsletter from The Wheeler Centre tells me that

A too-relaxed festive season is like a too-sweet cup of cordial: sickly and ultimately unsatisfying. You don’t want that. No, the Christmas break must contain just the faintest sour note – a hint of anxiety; a dash of disquiet – to make it extra delicious…

So here’s my sour note:  just one of the mishmash of recommendations from Wheeler’s Centre staff also features on my 2018 List of Bests.  Bouquets to the well-read receptionist Harry Reid, who recommends The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper which was one of my Top Ten NF list, and also The Town by Sean Prescott, a fine book which I reviewed in 2017.  Unless I failed to notice it, the only other Australian novels recommended by staff of Melbourne’s City of Literature Wheeler Centre (which one might have expected would take the opportunity to promote Australian literature with enthusiasm), are Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee; The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland (see Theresa Smith’s review here); YA titles Nevermoor and Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend; and Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina’s Catching Teller Crow.  There’s Blakwork, a collection of poetry by Alison Whittaker,  The World was Whole, a collection of essays by Fiona Wright; Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin; Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Marcia Langton and Jessie Cole’s memoir Staying.  But where are the novels for grownups??  Not many: Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, and Toni Jordan’s Fragments (on my TBR)…


But enough of disappointments and wasted opportunities, this, at Overland, cheered me up immensely.  Overlanders recommended a generous sprinkling of Australian fiction along with must-read NF.  Mentions include Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic and SJ Finn’s praise for books I’ve loved too: An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire, Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn, Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills, and her very best favourite, Some Tests by Wayne Macauley.  Other recommendations included Judith Brett’s brilliant biography of Alfred Deakin (see Nathan Hobby’s review); and Clementine Ford’s Fight like a Girl plus also The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser.

And there was this:

2018 was also a year of black excellence in literature, with Alexis Wright taking out the Stella Prize for her phenomenal biography of Tracker Tilmouth, Claire Coleman’s harrowing speculative fiction novel Terra Nullius winning the Norma K Hemming Award, and the shortlisting of four fantastic releases for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – Tony Birch’s Common People, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, Kim Scott’s Taboo, and Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork – each highly anticipated releases from writers working in the height of their powers.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

You see, best-of book lists around the world are only ever going to include Australian writing as an afterthought, and mostly only high-profile award winning books.  That’s not because our books don’t compete, it’s because people don’t know about them.   It’s up to us to give a shout-out to what we know are great books, by great Aussie writers.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2018

The Biographer’s Lover, by Ruby J Murray

Just as well I don’t do my Best Books of the Year until it’s almost the end of the year…If it’s not too late, put this one on your list for Santa.  Or beg for a book voucher to buy it…

The Biographer’s Lover is Ruby J. Murray’s second novel and I think it’s even better than her first, Running Dogs (2012) which was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s awards and earned Murray the accolade of SMH Best Young Novelist.

Judging by its ubiquity in blurbs for commercial (so-called) women’s fiction, ‘secrets’ and The Big Reveal are a mainstay in publishing and there is a well-worn route to the kind of ‘secrets’ on offer.  I would not have bought this book if ‘secrets’ had featured in its blurb so let me reassure readers that The Biographer’s Lover is not that kind of book, not at all. However I am going to be evasive about aspects of this most absorbing novel.  When you read it you will understand why.

Carefully constructed in alternating short chapters as part biography, part story of how the biography came to be written, the novel tells the story of a forgotten (entirely fictional) woman artist called Edna Cranmer and her nameless biographer.  When Edna dies, her daughter Victoria hires a ghost writer with a Master’s in art history to tell her story: the intention is to have Edna’s work recognised and the biography is part of a strategy to generate interest in the artist.

The biographer is down on her luck, writing dreary self-help books of the inane variety (’16 Tricks with Scarves’) and her agent sets up this project as a backdoor way of getting to write a sporting bio of Edna’s son Percy who is famous for playing football in AFL-mad Geelong.  The Sydney Olympics are in sight, and the market for books about (male) sporting heroes is about to take off.  Anne-Marie surmises that there would be more sales of a footy bio than one about a forgotten woman artist, and she is not best pleased when the biographer becomes intrigued by the project and sticks with it despite all kinds of problems, not the least of which is not having any money.

Murray’s descriptions of the art works convincingly establish this fictional Edna Cranmore as a great artist.   The first painting the biographer sees in Edna’s old studio is disappointing in its ordinariness, and she nearly turns away.  But then she sees ‘Morning II’:

… a bright, wild crash of empty field. Scattered red poppies in the rolling green, bursts about to move in an unseen wind. Delicate but violent, beautiful.  So detailed, so nearly real. Broken stones that disappeared into the long grass, and in the deep and shifting shade of the tree line, I thought I could make out figures, observing me observing them.  (p.19)

The paintings fall into two categories: controlled, jewel-like images.  Portraits and landscapes. Soldiers and nurses in uniform, people at work, in factories, on farms. And then there are dreamscapes: sprawling images that looked much closer to the work of the Antipodeans, paintings that held stories and hints and allusions.

Edna’s sketchbooks reveal a preoccupation with war:

I did not immediately recognise what I was looking at. Then the lines began resolving into torn bodies.  She had filled the whole sketchbook with them. […] There were no notes in the sketchbook, only the endless shredded men in her beautiful lines. (p.20)

Edna, whose work had been rejected by the Archibald Prize, whose application to be a war artist had failed, whose work had rarely been exhibited and had sold very little is a major talent. She could be the next Grace Cossington Smith, the biographer tells Edna’s husband Max.  This is the story that Victoria wants told, the story of a great artist unrecognised because she was a woman.

But biography is a slippery art.  Some members of the family are garrulous but ultimately unhelpful, while others are evasive and won’t even agree to be interviewed.  There is more to Edna’s experiences and preoccupations than the desired image of her as an artist neglected because of her gender.  In Nathan Hobby’s review of this novel, he describes the biographer’s purpose: a quest for truth of the subject’s life, often involving the recovery of lost letters or diaries but here the letters are embargoed and diaries don’t exist.  Victoria wants her mother’s life told through her artworks, and she puts up road blocks to steer the biographer in the intended direction.

Curiosity, however, is part of a biographer’s armoury, and with the sale of her few treasured possessions, the biographer gets to France to discover a crucial part of the jigsaw.  There is then an ethical question to be tackled, one which bedevils every biographer and memoirist.  Truth often leaves hurt victims in its wake, and the deteriorating relationship with the members of Edna’s family muddies the biographer’s motivations.  Part of this excellent novel’s trajectory is the biographer’s coming of age: coming to terms with her childhood and adolescence in a provincial city; her limp relationship with her widowed mother; her habit of judging other women by the clothes they wear; her own failed marriage and her denial of her Ex’s perfidy.

But in a nation obsessed with selective remembrance, it is the denial of certain truths about war that Murray exposes through Edna’s artwork with startling clarity.  The narrative references events in the 1980s (which I remember) that have since been wholly suppressed by the remembrance industry.  Our national myths are sacrosanct.  Ultimately, it is the question of why we have allowed that to happen, and what we should do about discomfiting truths, that will engross book groups, I suspect!

Helen Sullivan at the SMH admired it too.  See also Nathan’s review at A Biographer in Perth

Author: Ruby J. Murray
Title: The Biographer’s Lover
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781863959421
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore $29.99
Available from Fishpond: The Biographer’s Lover and you can also buy the eBook for $12.99 from Black Inc Books where there are also book group questions.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2018

2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists

The 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced today.


Flames by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review
Ironbark by Jay Carmichael (Scribe Publications)
The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese by Moreno Giovannoni (Black Inc. Books) see my review
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (Text Publishing)
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (University of Queensland Press) see my review
The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Faber & Faber)

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Picador Australia)
Staying: A Memoir by Jessie Cole (Text Publishing)
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin)
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Brow Books)

The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver (Currency Press, in association with Griffin Theatre Company)
Going Down by Michele Lee (Malthouse Theatre)
Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine (Currency Press, in association with Belvoir)

Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada (Giramondo Publishing)
Tilt by Kate Lilley (Vagabond Press)
Milk Teeth by Rae White (University of Queensland Press), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker

Writing for Young Adults
Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
Between Us by Clare Atkins (Black Inc. Books)
Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (Allen & Unwin)

Indigenous Writing
Common People by Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press) see my review
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (University of Queensland Press) see my review
Taboo by Kim Scott (Picador Australia) see my review
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)

Unpublished Manuscript
Wedding Cake Island by John Byron
Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
Frontier Sport by Wayne Marshall

Highly commended

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (Brow Books)

Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc. Books)
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton (Melbourne University Publishing)
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Text Publishing) see my review
Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law by Kate Rossmanith (Hardie Grant Books)

Lethal Indifference by Anna Barnes (Sydney Theatre Company)
In the Club by Patricia Cornelius (State Theatre Company of South Australia)

Body of Work by Elena Gomez (Cordite Publishing)
Subtraction by Fiona Hile (Vagabond Press)
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)

Young Adult
After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin)
Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza (Penguin Random House Australia)
Unpublished Manuscript
The Fogging by Luke Horton
This Wasn’t Meant To Be Me by Allee Richards

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers.

Winners will be announced on Thursday 31 January 2019.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2018

On Patriotism, by Paul Daley (Little Books on Big Ideas)

By coincidence, I’d just read Paul Daley’s latest piece in The Guardian: it’s called ‘The moment that forever changed my perspective about Anzac mythology‘… when on the same day when I called into the library, Daley’s contribution to MUP’s Little Books on Big Ideas series had just come in on reserve.  It’s called On Patriotism, and this is the blurb:

Serving the country beyond the battlefield

How has militarisation come to define Australian valour? Why has commemorating the centenary of World War I dominated our sense of patriotism? On Patriotism explores what it really means to love and serve your country. Paul Daley contemplates ways to escape the cultural binds that tie us to Anzac, British settlement and flag-waving.

I’m sure Daley would have appreciated the irony of my optometrist’s question when he saw me reading it in the waiting room: is it from a conservative point-of-view? he asked.

Well, hardly.  Daley’s essay is a passionate rebuttal of what passes for patriotism in Australia today, and it’s fair to say that conservatives probably won’t like Daley’s derisive views on the costs and extent of Anzac commemorations and the forthcoming Captain Cook memorial, or his scornful opinion of John Howard and his attitude to Indigenous dispossession.  Daley rejects the idea that national identity began with Gallipoli, and seems disappointed that even Donald Horne identified Anzac—’the Festival of the Ordinary Man’—as an understated but critical tenet of national identity.   (This was despite Horne in 1964 having noted the ‘very lack of any definite nationalism’ in Australia.  He thought that in the shadow of ‘an age that [had] seen so much horror and cruelty unleased in the name of nationalism’, this was no bad thing).

But Anzac day was very different in Horne’s day:

…25 April 2018 represented peak Anzac—three-quarter time in a 51-month, $600-million carnival of Australian World War I commemoration that ended on 11 November: Remembrance Day.  What was, when Horne wrote his 1964 book, a day of folksy, thoughtful reflection has been transformed into a permanent commemorative sound-and-light show.  Any capacity for quiet reflection on the 62,000 who died in World War I, or the 102,000 defence personnel who’ve perished in all of this country’s overseas operations, has been drowned out amid the type of boisterous jingoism and exclusive you-flew-here-we-grew-here style of nationalism that has imbued Australia Day with even greater potency since the 1988 bicentenary.  (p.12)

More to the point in terms of Daley’s quest to interrogate contemporary Australian patriotism, Anzac Day is now considered ‘sacred’:

In 2015, the historian Peter Cochrane wrote ‘Drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’.  (p.13)

It seems to be true. An excerpt from The Australian newspaper (26/4/2013) pours scorn on any challenge to the idea of Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism:

‘The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion.  They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac.  It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism.  Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking.  They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.’ (p.20)

However, I am not entirely convinced by Daley’s interpretation that this excerpt implies an accusation of treason.  While I am most certainly not, as my readers would know, an apologist for The Australian, Daley’s claim seems a bit excessive to me:

By this rationale, those who questioned Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism during the centenary would be at best unpatriotic.  By implication, challenging or undermining the national sentiment built around Anzac would seem to be treasonous. (p.20-21)

However, Daley has only just over 100 pages to make his case, which makes nuance a difficult thing to achieve.  (For my money, James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow is the best book to read on the subject of  Anzac, and since Brown is a defence analyst and former army officer, he has impeccable credentials).

Instead of focussing on overseas events like Anzac and 1788 as defining moments in our nationhood, Daley suggests that a genuine reconciliation with Indigenous Australians offers a better way.  We could be drawing meaning from country itself.

Alas, On Patriotism is pitched, it seems to me, at the converted.  Referring to Hawke as celebrant in chief for the 1988 bicentennial exclusive party for non-Indigenous Australia or to ‘Khaki Howard’ visiting Gallipoli in 2005 and to Barnaby Joyce as oafish and obstreperous like some sunstruck bunyip sage isn’t going to win any converts to the cause.  A more temperate approach might have been more effective.  We do not want to see our country divided in the way that the US and UK are, and we need discourse that builds bridges from the territorial aggression of Cronulla and the jingoistic flag-wavers, not more fuel on the fire.

There are many of us who would like to see a treaty, who were dismayed by Turnbull’s hasty dismissal of Uluru Statement from the Heart, who would like the War Memorial to acknowledge the Frontier Wars and who agree that reflecting on the cultural depths of this ancient land is a good basis for generating a new kind of national spirit.   There is much to reflect on:

… the extraordinary elements of our continent and its history—the enduring civilisation and remarkable survival against the odds of Indigenous people; Australia’s global precociousness on women’s suffrage and workers’ rights; the tension between our multiculturalism and treatment of refugees; a wilderness that’s the envy of the world and the pioneering activism to protect it; and our country’s early role as a global multilateralist… (p.95)

And yes, forging a consensus about what kind of republic we might have is important too.

But unfortunately, I don’t this inflammatory little book is going to help in the quest.

Fiona Capp at the SMH feels more optimistic about it than I do. 

Author: Paul Daley
Title: On Patriotism
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2018, 126 pages
ISBN: 9780522874389
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:On Patriotism

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2018

2018 Deborah Cass Prize winner

The winner of the 2018 Deborah Cass prize has been announced.  This prize was set up to help emerging migrant writers towards publication: the winner receives $3000 and a three-month mentorship, plus an introduction to Black Inc publishers and an opportunity to be published in the Mascara Literary Review.

The Prize honours the life and work of the late legal academic and occasional writer, Deborah Cass. The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Deborah became a prize-winning professor of International Law at the London School of Economics before her death to cancer in 2013.  (Deborah Cass Prize for Writing website).

The following is from the press release, with thanks to Dan Cass and James Button on behalf of the Deborah Cass Prize committee:

The 2018 Deborah Cass Prize for migrant writing has been won by Karina Ko for her story, Things I Used to Believe.

Judges Christos Tsiolkas, Nyadol Nyuon and Tony Ayres described Karina’s story, a prose poem about the ghosts who stalk the lives of children and adults in a family divided between two cultures, as “coherent and captivating, the work of a natural writer.”

Karina, whose parents migrated from Hong Kong before she was born, is an arts-law graduate from Sydney who is working on a collection of short stories in her spare time from her job. Karina told us:

“As with most pursuits that we care about, I experience some self-doubt with my writing. This is one of the first times that I’ve shared my writing outside my little circle. It has also connected me with other writers so that we can encourage and motivate each other.

Thank you so much to everyone involved for making this prize happen.”

Second prize was won by Emily Sun for her story, ‘Dying’ from Maybe it’s Wanchai, and third prize by Su-May Tan for her story, The Origin of Things.

All three finalists received their awards from ABC presenter and Meanjin editor Jonathan Green at a well-attended and lively presentation of the fourth Deborah Cass Prize at Abbotsford Convent last Wednesday night.

The judges described this year’s shortlist of nine as the strongest of the four years of the prize’s existence. Unlike in previous years, when the winners and finalists seemed clear-cut, this year, little separated the top seven or even eight stories.

Many guests at the event were struck by the great goodwill towards this prize that exists among a growing and increasingly large body of writers and their supporters. Writers who have entered the prize are building an online alumni network to support each other and share opportunities to promote their work.

ANZ LitLovers is part of that groundswell of goodwill for this prize and I look forward to hearing more of these writers and those who were shortlisted too.  My previous experience with a Deborah Cass prizewinner was The Fireflies of Autumn by Moreno Giovannoni, which won in the first year of the prize in 2015, and has been noted as one of the Best Books of 2018 at the SMH.  (See my review here).

Watch out for these shortlisted authors in the future!

  • Shannon Anima (Canada) “Bread of the dead”
  • Lyn Dickens (Singapore) “The resurrection of Tuesday Goodman”
  • Zoe Ghani (Afghanistan) “Pomegranate and fig”
  • Karina Ko (China) “Things I used to believe”, first prize
  • Nasrin Mahoutchi-Hosaini (Iran) “Taking care of eggs”
  • Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga (Rwanda) “Fell our selves”
  • Marianna Shek (China) “The lady on the dark side of the moon”
  • Emily Sun (Malaysia, Vietnam, China) “Maybe it’s Wanchai”, second prize
  • Su-May Tan (Malaysia) “The origin of things”, third prize

If you value the work this prize is doing and are in a position to donate towards the continuation of the prize, click here.

Following on from my previous post about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), I turn now to Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue).  It was starting Book 3 The Cross (Korset) that made me decide to reread both Books 1 and 2 because there is such a plethora of characters that I had lost track of who some of them were, and the author didn’t always signal their previous roles and relationships.  This may have been because the books were bestsellers in their time, and were released so soon after each other between 1922 and 1924, that Undset could assume that her readers didn’t need reminding.  Whatever about that, my journal is full of ever-expanding family trees and cross-references.  Not all readers may need this, of course, but I think it would be helpful if someone added a tree or two to the Wikipedia entry for this book, as some thoughtful person has done for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle.


Book 2, The Wife, is all about the chickens coming home to roost for wilful Kristin Lavransdatter who married her lover against the counsel of all the wiser heads around her.  Motherhood and the management of a neglected estate is a challenging coming-of-age for her, and though we see some growth in maturity for her impulsive husband, fatherhood is not accompanied by much of a coming-of-age for him, because he remains a perpetual adolescent in many ways.  Other characters have to come to terms with events as well: Lavrans learns that he was wrong to judge as harshly as he did; Erlend’s brother has to acknowledge his own dubious motives; a king has to recognise the limits of his power. They all learn that the truth will out and that secrets can’t be kept for long.

The book begins with everyone gradually realising that Kristin was some months pregnant when she finally marries Erlend.  At the time of the marriage at the end of Book 1, she knew, but had concealed it from everyone else, even her mother.  But Kristin knew full well that the pomp and ceremony of the splendid wedding would become a source of mockery when the truth was revealed, and everyone would then know that she had had no business wearing the golden wreath that symbolised virginity for a well-born maiden.

In her new home at Husaby, there are poignant scenes where this teenage bride hides herself away to sew the layette but the servants know before long, and Erlend learns the truth as she thickens round the middle.  From the first, it’s not a marriage built on trust or confronting shared problems together, and his first words to her about it are not kind. He berates her for keeping her pregnancy secret, but she says ‘You of all people should know that I have followed forbidden paths and acted falsely towards those who have trusted me most’.  She might also have added that she always hurts those she loved the most too.

Though he slaps her during one of their arguments, Kristin isn’t afraid of Erlend: she is becoming aware of his weaknesses and because she loves him she seeks to protect him from the humiliation as much as possible.  In this medieval world, he has treated her like a peasant girl and while he feels no shame she knows how it will be viewed by their community.  His care of her is so lax that one of his friends has to prod him into calling in the local women to help with the birth.

There is nothing much Kristin can do to salvage things except to try the best she can to earn their respect by being a good wife.  And her first task is get the neglected estate in order.  It is filthy.  The servants are slack.  farm husbandry has been neglected and the bad harvest has made things worse.  Erland has an extravagant lifestyle that is reliant not on his own hard work but rather on rents from tenants, but he mocks her knowledge of the tenant laws when she tries to remonstrate with him.  There is a ghastly scene where his drunken relations poke fun at their hypocrisy of the ‘virgin’ marriage and Kristin is appalled at the vulgarity of the people at her table.

It is not until the child moves within her that they are reconciled.


Kristin’s parents Lavrans and Ragnfrid don’t learn that they are grandparents until some weeks after the baby is born (after an excruciatingly long and painful labour).  Erlend at least has the courage to go and tell them, and is shamed into admitting that he didn’t know about the pregnancy at the time of the wedding either.  Lavrans takes the news with dignity, and accompanies Erlend back to Husaby where he discovers that Erlend, at least, is a skilled traveller over a hostile landscape.  Whatever anger Lavrans feels about the treatment of his cherished daughter, he suppresses it and does his best to forge a relationship with his son-in-law.  And then he is angry with himself for liking Erlend…

Kristin sheds many tears of self-recrimination when she sees her father.  Indeed Book 2 suffers IMO from a surfeit of guilt, self-recrimination and religious torment as Kristin tries to regain her self-esteem.  (One stretch of heavy-duty guilt about the fruits of her sin lasts for six whole pages, with another lasting eleven pages). Her spiritual adviser panders to her pious desire for repentance, and sends her off on a 20km barefoot pilgrimage to seek absolution from the archbishop.  (But Erlend, of course, does not have to do a similar pilgrimage. He’s confessed, paid for a mass or two, and that’s enough for his absolution). On her way, there is the added humiliation of meeting up with Simon, the Very Nice Man that she dumped for The Grand Love Affair with the more dashing Erlend.  He has married and lost a wife to childbirth, and his sadness makes Kristin feel guiltier than ever.

Though the gossip gradually dies down, the consequences of their youthful follies keep coming.  Erlend’s brother Gunnalf, who as the less-favoured son became a priest so that Erlend could inherit everything, harangues Erlend about driving Kristin into sin.  Gunnalf is shocked when he learns more about their scandalous behaviour, and he savages Erlend for the way he left it to others to face up to Lavran’s wrath about his daughter.  And typically, Erlend takes no responsibility for this or any other of the problems he causes, someone else is always to blame, not him.  Kristin gradually realises that although Erlend’s military bravery brings him some respect but not among grown-up or sensible men

People liked him, humoured hm, and boasted of him—but he was never considered a fully entitled man.  And she saw how willingly he accepted the role that his peers wanted him to play.  (p.475)

This awareness of Erlend as an unreliable man turns out to be disastrous when he gets mixed up in treasonous activities and no one will vouch for him for fear of being dragged into the same peril.

Simon and Kristin are their own worst enemies, and although the narrative is more sympathetic to Kristin, she is still shown to be a bitter woman, unforgiving of herself and others, and spectacularly good at holding a grudge for a very long time.  Her obsession about her own guilt is tedious, not just to the other characters, but also for the reader.  Undset devotes many pages to Kristin brooding over her sins with her spiritual advisers, and I am wary of Book 3 because she apparently becomes ever more religious.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #2)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 406 pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)


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