Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2017

The Birdman’s Wife, by Melissa Ashley

I wanted to like this novel with its gorgeous cover and superb design, but contrary to my expectations, I made rather heavy weather of The Birdman’s Wife.  It’s been shortlisted for the General Fiction Book of the Year in the ABIA awards, it sounded rather interesting, and it’s had good reviews, but…

The Birdman’s Wife is written in a genre that I’ve christened Rescue-A-Woman-From-Oblivion.  These women have larger-than-life husbands whose fame so overwhelms them that we know next to nothing about them.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review).  It’s a difficult task for an author to undertake because, by definition, these women whose lives were overshadowed by their husbands have very little presence in the historical record.

Well, Melissa Ashley became fascinated by the wife of the famous ornithologist John Gould, and despite the frustrations of disappointing archives, her PhD became this novel, the fictionalised life of Elizabeth Gould, one of the artists who illustrated his magnificent monographs about birds of the world.

Sue Bond at the Compulsive Reader thought it was an outstanding first novel, Dorothy Johnson at the SMH admired its lyrical passages, and Tracy Sorenson at the Sydney Review of Books was impressed by the way the novel tackles the ethical issues of bird collecting while keeping the focus on Elizabeth Gould’s achievements.  It has dozens of five-star reviews at Goodreads too.

But IMO it’s much too long.  It’s nearly 400 pages and a lot of it is repetitive.  Yes, we learn about how Elizabeth Gould met and fell in love with John Gould, and how she mastered the skills to illustrate his wonderful books about birds.  We learn about her growing family, the historically significant people that she meets, the death of two of her children, her anguish about leaving her children to travel with Gould to Australia, and her experiences in Hobart and country NSW in the late 1830s.

But there’s an awful lot about killing birds, the disgusting business of eviscerating them, stuffing them and stitching them back together again, arranging them in cabinets and finally painting them.  We hear about the mess, and the smell, and we hear about it a lot.  There’s a fair bit about childbirth as well, for each of the eight children that Elizabeth bore.  Yes, there’s a great deal of detail about a woman who only lived to be 37, and IMO at times the temptation to include all the PhD research and the author’s experiences as a volunteer taxidermist should have been resisted.

Yet despite this wealth of detail I didn’t find Elizabeth a wholly convincing character.  Elizabeth narrates the novel, and while her ‘voice’ sounds authentic for the era, she has some disconcertingly 21st century moments.  She is coy about the bedroom, but she discusses contraception with her husband.  She forges a satisfying partnership with a man who in the name of science is ruthless about killing huge numbers of birds (both intentionally and also through ignorance about how to care for them), and then expresses tentative and quickly suppressed concerns about it.  She defies convention to go traipsing around the bush for her art but meekly acquiesces to a husband who objects to her portrait depicting her as the artist that she was.  The John Gould of this novel is mostly an insensitive workaholic and yet she is endlessly forbearing.  I would have believed it better if they’d had a flaming row sometimes…

But I am out of step with critical opinion, so you’d better not take any notice of me.

Author: Melissa Ashley
Title: The Birdman’s Wife
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344998 (hbk.)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Birdman’s Wife
Or direct from Affirm Press, where you can also buy it as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2017

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, by Bill Laws

I haven’t finished reading this book, but I’ve got myself all excited and even though it’s a bit self-indulgent, just have to tell you about it.

Yesterday I went to an event at my local library, where Jane Edmonson of ABC TV Garden Australia fame was the speaker (and I learned a trick or two to deal with gall wasps).  The librarians had set up a display of gardening books, and I made off with A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools by Bill Laws.  It’s not a new book, it came out in 2014, but I’ve never seen it in the shops or I would have snapped it up like a shot.

This is the blurb:

A green thumb is not the only tool one needs to garden well—at least that’s what the makers of gardening catalogues and the designers of the dizzying aisle displays in lawn- and-garden stores would have us believe. Need to plant a bulb, aerate some soil, or keep out a hungry critter? Well, there’s a specific tool for almost everything. But this isn’t just a product of today’s consumer era, since the very earliest gardens, people have been developing tools to make planting and harvesting more efficient and to make flora more beautiful and trees more fruitful. In A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, Bill Laws offers entertaining and colourful anecdotes of implements that have shaped our gardening experience since the beginning.

As Laws reveals, gardening tools have coevolved with human society, and the story of these fifty individual tools presents an innovative history of humans and the garden over time. Laws takes us back to the Neolithic age, when the microlith, the first “all-in-one” tool was invented. Consisting of a small sharp stone blade that was set into a handle made of wood, bone, or antler, it was a small spade that could be used to dig, clip, and cut plant material. We find out that wheelbarrows originated in China in the second century BC, and their basic form has not changed much since. He also describes how early images of a pruning knife appear in Roman art, in the form of a scythe that could cut through herbs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts and was believed to be able to tell the gardener when and what to harvest.

Organized into five thematic chapters relating to different types of gardens: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, the orchard, the lawn, and ornamental gardens, the book includes a mix of horticulture and history, in addition to stories featuring well-known characters—we learn about Henry David Thoreau’s favourite hoe, for example. A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools will be a beautiful gift for any home gardener and a reassuring reminder that gardeners have always struggled with the same quandaries.

Ok, it does look as if Mr Laws doesn’t know anything about indigenous tools used on this continent for 60,000 years or more, but he does credit the invention of the lawnmower to The Victa from Australia in 1950.  And let me tell you, although it is quaintly English, this book is fascinating.  Who knew that the humble tape measure had such stories to tell? Did you know that

… the original Imperial yard was based on the hand of the English king Henry I, or more specifically the distance between the distance between the tip of the royal nose and the thumb of his outstretched arm? (p.139)

Those bolshie French revolutionaries *chuckle* had to have something more suitably egalitarian (even if they didn’t quite exactly know where the North Pole was back in 1799)

 to mark the influence of the new regime, and by 1799 the decimalised metre was in place.  Gallic gardeners grumblingly adopted the metre, shrugging their shoulders at the explanation that the new metre represented one ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the North Pole.  (The actual distance was calculated, for the time being, between Dunkirk and Barcelona). (p.140)

And did you know that according to Chinese legend, the serrated edge on the saw was inspired by the edge on a blade of grass?

But I had barely browsed through a tool or two, when I learned something that has puzzled me for ages.  Just yesterday I was chatting with Karen at Booker Talk about The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude, a book that interested me as you can see from my comment:

It seems I must read this one too, though crime fiction is not my thing…
I visited Cheltenham [UK] when I was very small. My older sister and I were offloaded onto a childless step-aunt while younger sister was being born. I have vivid memories of broad beans from my uncle’s garden, of seeing a calf just born, of hot chocolate and biscuits at bedtime, and of splendid cakes baked for our birthdays, blue for her and pink for me. We were sorry to go home, except for the broad beans…
And now I live in Cheltenham in Melbourne. All the streets around us have Cotswolds names: Swinden, Cobham, Evesham, and so on, and many of the houses have cottage gardens, though not so many in these time poor days, alas. But my guess is that in multicultural Melbourne, most of the residents have no idea of the provenance of the names.
We went to Cheltenham when we were in the UK in 2010 but we didn’t do a nostalgia trip, we did touristy things like visiting Gustav Holst’s house and the museum.

(BTW If you enjoy Karen’s blog at Booker Talk, don’t miss her very good news.  It made my day).

Five minutes after this conversation I opened up A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools for browsing over my morning coffee.  Now,  I had always assumed that these streets around us here were named out of someone’s nostalgia for the Cotswolds.  After all, many places all over the world are named after English places.  The Americans even have a London, which is surely ridiculous.  (It’s a town in Ohio of less than 10,000 people.) But now, thanks to Fifty Tools I know the real reason for our street names.  In the chapter about ladders, I discovered that in the 1930s the fruit bowl of England where all the orchards and market gardens were, was known as the Vale of Evesham.  *The penny drops*: and that’s when I remembered that before the land was subdivided for housing in the 1950s, our suburb was all market gardens and orchards too! (And there are still market gardens just up the road, though these days they grow mostly flowers).

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools is a lovely book, and I should point out that it would make a lovely gift for the gardener in your life:)

Author: Bill Laws
Title: A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743317969
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The History of the Garden in Fifty Tools

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2017

2017 Miles Franklin Award longlist

The Miles Franklin Award longlist has been announced, and contrary to my pessimistic expectations, I’ve read most of them!

Steven Amsterdam: The Easy Way Out, Hachette 2016, see my review

Emily McGuire: An Isolated Incident, Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016, see my review

Mark O’Flynn: The Last Days of Ava Langdon, UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016, see my review

Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers, Black Inc Books, 2016 see my review

Josephine Rowe: A Loving, Faithful Animal, UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016, see my review

Philip Salom: Waiting, Puncher and Wattman, 2016 – this one comes out of left field for me.  I haven’t heard anything about it, but the blurb at Fishpond sounds good so I’ve ordered it.

Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were, Hachette, 2016

Kirsten Tranter: Hold, Fourth Estate, 2016

Josephine Wilson: Extinctions, UWAP (University of Western Australia Press, 2016), see my review

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

PS FWIW Assuming they’re eligible, I would have added these two published in 2016 to the longlist:


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Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2017

The Accusation, by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith

Most so-called publishing sensations are IMO not worth reading, but The Accusation, Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea certainly is.  My edition, published with financial assistance from the UK branch of PEN,gives a brief and circumspect explanation about how it is samizdat literature, smuggled out of North Korea.  For safety’s sake, the author has chosen the pen name ‘Bandi’ meaning ‘firefly’, hoping to shine a light on the world’s most notoriously secretive regime.  (A regime which might now be the trigger for nuclear war).

There are seven stories, all of them set during the rule of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un, and each illuminating a different aspect of life in North Korea.  For those of us who grew up reading samizdat from the former Soviet Union, or have read Yan Lianke’s satiric fictions about the Communist regime in China, there is a grim familiarity about it. ‘Record of a Defection’ (1989) depicts one of the worst forms of social control: punishing families and their descendants for petty infringements that happened decades ago.  When the narrator finds a hidden packet of contraceptives he fears his wife’s infidelity, and in a sad parody of official surveillance he spies on her, only to discover that in fact she has been able to access his file and has realised the victimisation that lies in store for any child they might have.  The story relies for effect on the distorted communication between the pair, the narrator’s false assumptions about his wife’s loyalty mirroring the false assumptions that the regime has about his loyalty to the state.  It seems a simple story, but it’s revealing in its depiction of the implacability of a descendant’s position.  It doesn’t matter what the offence was, or how trivial or false it might have been, there is no escape from its effects.

‘City of Specters’ (1993) (sic) reveals the ways in which a citizen can fall foul of the regime.  Han Gyeong-hee has an impeccable record of faithful service and believes herself immune to persecution.  But when her small child develops an aversion to the spectre of Karl Marx in a mega-portrait outside their apartment, she is in a quandary because she’s not getting any sleep and her work will suffer.  Her apartment looks out over the square in Pyongyang where the National Day Celebrations are to be held, and the Party Secretary ensconced in their building takes exception to the curtains she puts up to shield the child’s view, because the blue curtains are not the same as those officially issued and they make her apartment stand out.  There is no place for individuals in this society.  Han Gyeong-hee’s infringement leads to exile for

“Neglecting to educate their son in the proper revolutionary principles, with a negative effect on the National Day ceremony; further, making coarse remarks about the portrait of Karl Marx, the father of communism, and comparing the portrait of our Great Leader to a manhole cover.  The accused are therefore guilty of jeopardising the preservation of our Party’s ideology….” (p. 57)

That’s that.  No opportunity to defend herself, no appeal, and the whole family is condemned.  The speed with which the exile takes place means that their possessions are bundled into a bag by officials, and there is no opportunity to say goodbye.  And we know from the first story that persecution will affect the extended family too.

Disillusionment is a long time coming, for loyal citizens who believed in promises of a better life under communism.  ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ (1993) is the story of a cherished elm tree that grew to maturity while the man who planted it to commemorate the day he joined the party, saw conditions worsen so much that there is not even any firewood for a harsh winter.

The writing style and plot construction is unsophisticated by Western standards – it’s almost childlike if not for the grim subject matter. There are few descriptive flourishes, except to depict the hardships – the paucity of furnishings, the inadequacy of food, the misery of the weather.  The focus is always on the cruel absurdity of the situations that the characters find themselves in, and the difference between how they react internally and when they are under observation by others.   In the story ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ (1993) the emphasis is on how familial duty and the bonds of love can have no importance in this society.  Myeong-chol has been frustrated in his wish to care for his widowed mother for years, and now, denied a travel permit to visit her when she is dying, he cannot even express his grief for fear of sanction:

Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud, to stamp the ground or to shake his fist at the sky.  But, depending on the circumstances, he knew that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome – a swift and ruthless death.  And so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat. (p.98)

The motif of the Great Leader’s travel taking precedence over everything else recurs in the story called ‘Pandemonium’ (1995).  The story opens with the shocking image of a small child with a broken leg, her injury sustained at a train station where everyone was herded into a space too small so that the Great Leader could pass by unhindered.

The station itself wasn’t particularly large and was far away from any built-up areas, but it was one at which various branch lines converged, meaning that even a small change in the service was enough to cause a severe backlog.  That would have been bad enough in itself, but as the station had now been completely locked down for thirty-two hours and counting, crowds and confusion were only to be expected.  The would-be passengers had all exhausted whatever provisions they’d bought for the journey, and the scant handful of basic restaurants were unable to meet their demands.  (p.125)

Mrs Oh was on her way to see her pregnant daughter.  Because of the chaos she decided to leave her husband and grandchild behind and chance the travel without a permit, and on her way she was overtaken by the Great Leader’s entourage.  He – taking advantage of a photo opportunity demonstrating how kind-hearted he is – gave her a lift, and she had been mobbed by journalists afterwards and had to record her good fortune for broadcast.  Back home, confronted by the serious injuries of her husband and grandchild, she is overwhelmed by the image of a demon working black magic to conceal the evil mistreatment of his people and to create the deception that everyone is happy.

… thanks to that demon’s sorcery, the people of this land had been living lives turned entirely on their heads, utterly different from the truth. (p.147)

This story includes also a reminder that food is still rationed, a situation that usually only occurs during war time, but is a lifetime situation in North Korea.

These first five stories are the best, IMO, but ‘On Stage (1995)’ and  ‘The Red Mushroom'(1993) are still powerful stories that shine a light on the desperate situation of the ordinary people of North Korea.  It’s a sobering book to read.  One can only hope that people urging military action against the regime realise that those who will suffer most are people just like those in these stories…

Author: Bandi
Title: The Accusation, Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail UK 2017
ISBN: 9781781258712
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

I have no idea what the judging criteria might be for this book industry award, but IMO there is something deeply depressing about books titled The Bikini Body 28-Day Healthy Eating & Lifestyle.  Still, there’s some good stuff here, and I’ve even reviewed some of it.

Updated 25/5/17 Winners will be were announced on May 25th and you can find out more at the ABIA website.  The winning books are highlighted below in bold.

Literary Fiction Book of the Year

  • The Good People, Hannah Kent, (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith, (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire, (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia), see my review
  • Goodwood, Holly Throsby, (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain, (Scribe Publications), see my review

Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year presented by Simpsons Solicitors

  • The Dry, Jane Harper, (Macmillan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
  • The Midnight Watch, David Dyer, (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
  • Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford, (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Music and Freedom, Zoe Morrison, (Vintage Australia, Penguin Random House), see my review
  • Goodwood, Holly Throsby, (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

  • Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru, Madeline Gleeson, (NewSouth, NewSouth Publishing)
  • Saltwater, Cathy McLennan, (University of Queensland Press)
  • Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories, Kim Mahood, (Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Poum and Alexandre, Catherine de Saint Phalle, (Transit Lounge, Transit Lounge Publishing)
  • The Australian Native Bee Book, Tim Heard (Sugarbag Bees)

Biography Book of the Year

  • Songs of a War Boy, Deng Adut and Ben Mckelvey, (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
  • Life As I Know It, Michelle Payne and John Harms, (Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne University Publishing)
  • The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke, (Hachette, Hachette Australia)
  • Working Class Boy, Jimmy Barnes, (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Victoria, Julia Baird, (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year

  • Talking to my Country, Stan Grant, (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers), see my review
  • Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford, (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Barefoot Investor, Scott Pape, (Wrightbooks, John Wiley & Sons)
  • Girl Stuff 8-12, Kaz Cooke, (Viking, Penguin Random House)
  • The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own Government, Niki Savva, (Scribe Publications)

The Australian Women’s Weekly General Fiction Book of the Year

  • Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty, (Macmillan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Chocolate Tin, Fiona McIntosh, (Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House)
  • The One Who Got Away, Caroline Overington, (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Dry, Jane Harper, (Macmillan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Birdman’s Wife, Melissa Ashley, (Affirm Press), see my review

Small Publishers’ Children’s Book of the Year

  • My Sister is a Super Hero, Damon Young, illustrated by Peter Carnavas, (University of Queensland Press)
  • The Secrets We Keep, Nova Weetman, (University of Queensland Press)
  • Steve Goes to Carnival, Joshua Button and Robyn Wells, (Magabala Books)
  • Crabbing with Dad, Paul Seden, (Magabala Books)
  • Even Mummy Cries, Naomi Hunter, illustrated by Karen Erasmus (Empowering Resources)

Book of the Year Older Children (age range 8 to 14 years)

  • Wormwood Mire: A Stella Montgomery Intrigue, Judith Rossel, (ABC Books, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon, (Lothian, Hachette Australia)
  • Artie and the Grime Wave, Richard Roxburgh, (Allen & Unwin Children’s, Allen & Unwin)
  • Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley, (Pan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • WeirDo #7 Mega Weird!, Anh Do, illustrated by Jules Faber, (Scholastic Press, Scholastic Australia)

Book of the Year for Younger Children (age range 0 to 8 years)

  • Circle, Jeannie Baker, (Walker Books, Walker Books)
  • The 78 Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, (Pan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Mr Chicken Arriva Roma, Leigh Hobbs, (Allen & Unwin Children’s, Allen & Unwin)
  • Charlie and the War Against the Grannies, Alan Brough, (Pan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • What Do They Do With All the Poo from All the Animals at the Zoo?, Anh Do and Simon Mello, illustrated by Laura Wood (Scholastic Press, Scholastic Australia)

Illustrated Book of the Year

  • The Bikini Body 28-Day Healthy Eating & Lifestyle, Kayla Itsine, (Macmillan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Smith & Daughters: A Cookbook (That Happens to be Vegan), Shannon Matinez & Mo Wyse, (Hardie Grant Books, Hardie Grant Publishing)
  • Penguin Bloom, Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive, (ABC Books, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Basics to Brilliance, Donna Hay, (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • New York, Megan Hess, (Hardie Grant Books, Hardie Grant Publishing)

Audiobook of the Year

  • Fight Like A Girl, Clementine Ford (Audible Studios, Audible Australia)
  • Make It Happen: Live Your Best Life, Michelle Bridges (Audible Studios, Audible Australia)
  • The 78-Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, Narrator Stig Wemyss (Bolinda audio, Bolinda Publishing)
  • The Good People, Hannah Kent, Narrator Caroline Lennon (Bolinda audio, Bolinda Publishing)
  • True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, David Hunt (Audible Studios, Audible Australia)

Audible International Book of the Year

  • Commonwealth, Ann Patchett, (Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury)
  • Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, (Little Brown, Hachette Australia)
  • The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, Michael Mosley, (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben, (Black Inc., Schwartz Publishing)
  • The North Water, Ian McGuire, (Scribner, Simon & Schuster Australia)
Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #5 Chapter 4

I didn’t mention it in my previous post (because to mention everything would make this too tortuous a project) but there was a puzzling reference to the theft of a coffin in Chapter 4.

Always and ever till Cox’s wife, twice Mrs. Hahn, pokes her beak into the matter with Owen K. after her, to see whawa smutter after, will this kiribis pouch filled with litterish fragments lurk dormant in the paunch of that halpbrother of a herm, a pillarbox? The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist’s art, at first blench naturally taken for a handharp (it is handwarp to tristinguish jubabe from jabule or either from tubote when all three have just been invened) had been removed from the hardware premises of Oetzmann and Nephew, a noted house of the gonemost west, which in the natural course of all things continues to supply funeral requisites of every needed description.  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition (p. 66, Loc 1873).

I assumed that this was the coffin that would have been used for Finnegan’s body had he not been resurrected by a splash of Guinness in Chapter One.  I should have known better.  Campbell tells me that this coffin alludes to the prehistory of HCE (Earwicker).

Like the Finnegan of the vaudeville song, he suffered a fall, was laid out for dead, and remained in a heavy coma while a noisy quarrel raged among the survivors.  He may be expected to revive.  (Campbell, p81)

Needless to say I am still mystified. It is a relief to know that Campbell says this is the conclusion of the prehistory of HCE, and he goes on to neatly summarise the rest of the chapter:

It falls into three distinct sections.  The first (79-81) publishes the recollections of an old woman, Kate, who professes to be the widow of the great man.  The second (81-96) presents the evidence of a posthumous trial, in which there appeared, as witness and accused respectively, two young men betraying the traits not of HCE himself but of his sons, Shem and Shaun.  Here, for the first time, appear the patterns which are later to become characteristic of these two.  Since the boys enter the stage with a court scene, in which the old history of their father is rehearsed, it is clear that they have inherited not only fractions of the character but even something of the life history and guilt of the fallen patriarch.  The final section of this chapter (96-103) deals with the problem of the disappearance of the body from the grave, its possible reappearance anywhere, and the condition of the plucky little widow, ALP).

Already I have forgotten who ALP is, and I have to look her up in the introduction.  She is the ever-changing Anna Livia Plurabelle. who since her husband Earwicker (HCE) is struggling with Original Sin, and metamorphoses into Adam, Noah, Lord nelson, mountain or a tree she is at different times going to show up as Eve, Isis, Iseult, a passing cloud or a flowing stream.  She apparently gets her say in Chapter 5, so I’d better not forget about her again.

BTW#1 It is mildly annoying that my Folio edition – because of the generous size of its pages – has departed from the page numbering that everyone else apparently uses.  My Chapter 4 starts on page 60, all the others start on page 75.

Tindall’s Guide refers back to the structure from the Viconian Divine Age (see my notes re Chapter One).  He says there are six parts:

… first, a brief introduction (75-76), second, a long meditation on death and burial (76-80), third another story of the Cad (81-86), fourth Earwicker’s trial before four judges (86-96), a fox hunt and flight into exile (96-101) and last, a hymn to A.L.P. and the river (101-02).

From these conflicting summaries, you wouldn’t know that Campbell and Tindall are reading the same book, eh? More usefully, Tindall goes on to talk about the reversals that are everywhere, signifying renewal.

Crowbar” becomes “Rabworc” (86.8, 13); sleeping and dawn become “the dorming of the mawn” (91.24); 1132 becomes 3211 (95.14); and as true as there’s a tail on a cat becomes “as ture as there’s an ital. on atac” (89.35).

Clearly my efforts to solve the anagrams in cryptic crosswords seem now not to have been wasted time!  I must remember that HCE becomes ECH as well…

I am starting to like Tindall’s Guide better than Campbell’s because he so often, so honestly, admits to being baffled. Discussing the tesseract, (a tessera is a curvilinear rectangle and a tesseract is an octahedroid) and Joyce’s claim that his symbol for the Wake is a square or a cube, Tindall says Make of this what you can.  I make little or nothing – but as Samuel Beckett says, nothing is better than nothing. (p. 93)

Tindall is also helpfully straightforward in examples like this:

Though comparatively rational, the constable’s evidence suits the irrational trial that follows.  Of a kind with Bloom’s trial in the Circe episode of Ulysses, Earwicker’s trial is from dream itself.  Evidence makes no more sense that that of the trial in Alice in Wonderland.  The charge is no more certain that that against Kafka’s K.  What is worse, the witness, the lawyer, and the prisoner at his bar, a shifty lot, unaccountably merge and, after merging separate.

By now I don’t have any doubt that if I were not reading the relevant chapters of both Tindall and Campbell before reading the chapter in FW, I would be floundering, not least because the Naxos audio book has for some reason omitted all of Chapter 4.  Just listening to the text in an Irish accent on this audio book has made many words much more comprehensible.  ‘Rowmish devowtion’ immediately makes sense if you hear the ‘ow’ in ‘Rowmish’ pronounced not as ‘how’ but as in Romish i.e. devotion to the Church of Rome, eh?  But alas, I’m on my own in Chapter 4, though #HappyDance I did work out ‘rhumanasant’ as ‘reminiscent’ by myself.

And I discover that Earwicker’s coffin – wastohavebeen underground heaven, or mole’s paradise – was an indestructible edifice indeed!

carefully lined the ferroconcrete result with rotproof bricks and mortat, fassed to fossed, and retired beneath the heptarchy of his towerettes, the beauchamp, byward, bull and lion, the white, the wardrobe and bloodied, so encouraging (insteppen, alls als hats beliefd!) additional useful councils public with hoofd off-dealings which were welholden of ladykants te huur out such as the Breeders’ Union, the Guild of Merchants of the Staple et, a.u.c. to present unto him with funebral pomp, over and above that a stone slab with the usual Mac Pelah address of velediction, a very fair-worded instance of falsemeaning adamelegy.  (Pengguin Modern Classics Kindle edition) (p. 77, Loc 2032).

Coffin or no coffin, Kate Strong finishes her meandering tale and the trial (which Campbell says is posthumous) takes place.

The prisoner, soaked in methylated, appeared in dry dock, appatently ambrosiaurealised, like Kersse’s Korduroy Karikature, wearing, besides stains, rents and patches, his fight shirt, straw braces, souwester and a policeman’s corkscrew trowswers, all out of the true (as he had purposely torn up all his cymtrymanx bespokes in the mamertime), deposing for his exution with all the fluors of sparse in the royal Irish vocabulary. (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition (pp. 85, loc 2155).

There seems to be some evidence that in disguise he attempted an escape but was ambushed – but Tindall reminds us not to believe a word of this, and the cross-examination barked at the witness is hilarious. Referring to the two young women who led Earwicker to his alleged downfall, there’s another 100-letter word using lots of different languages to form ‘prostitute’.   And then it’s all over and the four judges, Untius, Muncius, Puchus and Pylax retire to mull things over and chat about a bunch of other cases, as weird and wonderful as this one was.

BTW#2 Did I mention that I have started learning Irish using Duolingo, naïvely perhaps, to help with decoding FW?  I still can’t speak a word of Irish, but I may have learned something useful already. There is a Celtic feature called Eclipsis which involves adding one or two letters before a word in some situations… for example, the letter ‘g’ can be added before a word beginning with ‘c’ to form ‘gcailín (the possessive adjective form of ‘cailín’ which means ‘a girl’).  They do this with some prepositions + the definite article too, with some words starting with a vowel and after the numbers 7 – 10.  I wonder if this can account for the way Joyce adds seemingly irrelevant letters to words all over the place?

So on to Chapter 5!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2017

The Bonobo’s Dream, b y Rose Mulready

Twenty years ago or so, after the international reading community discovered Danish author Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992),  I went on to read his Borderliners (1993) and The Woman and the Ape (1996).  Both these books were speculative fiction featuring outsiders challenging ideas about what humanity might mean, but it was The Woman and the Ape which I still remember vividly, because, as the blurb at Goodreads says, the woman, Madelene Burden is:

… lonely and disillusioned despite her upper-crust London existence, she’s a modern-day sleeping beauty drowsing gently in an alcoholic stupor. But the prince whose kiss brings her to life is not tall, dark, and handsome. He’s a short, dark, 300-pound ape named Erasmus.

What made the book memorable was the way the initially confronting idea of a woman in love with an animal was transformed into a parable about where the next phase of human evolution might go…

Rose Malready’s novella The Bonobo’s Dream is also speculative fiction exploring the random way in which privileged people meet outsiders and have to confront their denial of reality.   Likewise, it speculates about what the defining limits of humanity might be, but it covers territory both broader and less political in scope.  The book won the 2016 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and was a nominee for the Aurealis Awards, and it is also shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s not easy to discuss without a –


Part one of the story, titled ‘Fishbowl’, opens some time after the End of Days when a sophisticated, technologically advanced society lives in a dubious safety within a dome.  (There may be resemblances to a TV show that had a similar scenario, which featured in Masterchef ad breaks.  Since I never watched it, I leave it to readers to enlighten me).  Wisely, Mulready doesn’t bore with technical explanations: the reader simply accepts a kitchen with an obliging ‘smart waiter’ which hums to itself as it prepares foodshakes with the appearance of food; a ‘thankyou Jeeves’ which deals with their clothing; and a phone just as intrusive as the ones we endure today:

The phone is calling him in murmurs.  A sound like ebbing waves.  He turns his head reluctantly and waves at the lens.  Like everything else in the house it is meticulously styled, fashioned like pooled mercury, hanging on the wall like the cocoon of some high-sheened insect.  It clears to show the caller.

Aquila is an ageing sculptor as famous for his philandering as he is for his art.  His wife Suzanne has nothing much to do except to dull her senses with excessive consumption of The Dose (akin to Orwell’s soma in 1984).  Their young son James, like Aquila, must wear a polymer harness in order to produce art, but he makes drawings of the birch trees outside (which might not actually be there, just as his goldfish are not actually goldfish at all).  All of them are discontented and uneasy without really knowing why, except that strange memories are breaking through their otherwise sanitised existence.  Their relationships are distorted by forces outside their control.

As the story opens they are waiting with some trepidation for a visit.  Their visitor is their daughter Charity whose birthday it is, and who, we soon discover,  is an avalanche, […] a landmine.  You only have to walk near her.  It turns out that she is an athlete, and like athletes from the former communist states she has been ‘selected’ and doped to be spectacularly physically formidable in gladiatorial sports – but the effect of the drugs is to make her irritable and extremely violent (like people who overdose on steroids, I believe).   Imprudently Aquila has promised Charity a cake for her birthday, a real cake made with real ingredients, which Aquila has to source from one of his most demanding girlfriends.  A comic sequence follows which shows that both Suzanne and Aquila are so divorced from reality that neither of them have any idea what to do with the ingredients.

Charity brings her new boyfriend with her, who turns out to be an ape called Edward.

‘Edward is a bonobo,’ says Suzanne. ‘Primarily.  He was telling me in the kitchen.’  She rubs his arm fondly.

‘Primarily?’ says Aquila.

Edward touches his throat.  ‘Bonobo mainly.  A little gorilla.  A little homo sapiens.’

‘What’s a bonobo?’ says James.

‘It’s a simian.’ Charity leans back in her chair, her eyes watchful.  ‘Dwarf or gracile chimpanzee.’

‘Nothing dwarf about Edward,’ says Suzanne.

‘I get my height and heft from my gorilla blood.’  (p.95)

So the reader is confronted by the concept of a chemically engineered human called Charity being in a relationship with an ape genetically engineered to meet human needs.  The technology to do this probably already exists.  Which of them is human?

Before long the tone of the novel darkens and the dome begins to unform … and the reader becomes aware of the others, the outsiders, the people who have been expelled from the dome.

The house is silent.

When they reach the hall, Aquila staggering under the weight of Suzanne, asks Charity to try the touch lights.

‘Nothing,’ she says.  ‘The grid is down.’

‘But they must be doing something.  They must be fixing it.  How could this happen?’

‘There was always the danger that the dome could rupture.  It could be as simple as a container spinning off a ship as it comes into the atmosphere.  Smack.  Or it could be an attack.  Flungouts.’ (p.111)

Part two, ‘Black-beaked birds’ moves from the claustrophobic safety of the dome, to the uncertainties of life outside it.  And here we discover that the technological advancements that have distorted life as we know it, have also enabled an independent life for James which is now lost.  There are no simplistic answers in The Bonobo’s Dream, only compelling questions which most of us ignore.

I don’t read much speculative fiction, but The Bonobo’s Dream, like Jane Rawson’s fiction, makes reading out of my comfort zone worthwhile.

That fabulous cover art is by Sam Paine.

Daniel Young also reviewed it at All the Novellas.

Author: Rose Mulready
Title: The Bonobo’s Dream
Publisher: Seizure by Zoum, 2016
ISBN: 9781925143249
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Bonobo’s Dream: Winner of the 2016 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize or direct from Seizure


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2017

An Accidental Terrorist, by Steven Lang

I am on a roll, as they say.  My last three books have all been great reading, and interesting to me is that all three – The Custodians; Haxby’s Circus and now An Accidental Terrorist  are from the backlist.  In a way it should not be surprising that they are all beaut books because I tend to buy only books that come well-recommended, but still, the contrast between these deeply satisfying books and some more recent publications is intriguing.  Lately I have been reading blurbs and publicity materials and booksellers’ catalogues and prize shortlists – and reviews of the same titles – and finding myself not very interested.  At this rate the Miles Franklin longlist will come out – and I won’t have read much of it.  Oh well…

The reason why I hunted out my copy of An Accidental Terrorist is that in a little while Steven Lang has a new book out called Hinterland.  It’s been a long wait between novels from this fine Australian author, but lucky me, I have a copy though I am not allowed to tell you about it yet because it’s still under embargo.  I really liked Lang’s 88 Lines about 44 Women which was shortlisted amongst some very distinguished company for the 2010 Qld Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction (Brian Castro, Peter Carey, Alex Miller and J.M. Coetzee) and the 2010 NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction  (J.M. Coetzee (again), David Malouf, Richard Flanagan and Cate Kennedy).  Somehow *smacks forehead* I had let Lang’s debut novel slip to the back of the TBR…

An Accidental Terrorist is good, very good indeed, as the judges obviously agreed when it won the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for the Best Emerging Author.  It tells the story of a lost soul called Kelvin who gets mixed up in eco-terrorism, a term I only use to distinguish it from violent religious terrorism, with which we are now only too familiar. I would call Kelvin and his ilk activists, because what they do is not intended to cause terror to anybody but to be an economic irritant.   And as it turns out, it’s the activists who end up being terrified because they fear violent retaliation from the workers in the logging industry.

Years ago, I was in conversation (0ver a wine or two) with the then Minister for Conservation, about the perennial problem of logging in Victoria.  The Labor Party is always caught between a rock and a hard place on this, because they have environmental credentials going back to the Franklin Dam in Tasmania, but they also care about rural employment and the future of an industry that’s important in places where there are few other options.  Kay Setches was a terrific minister, smart, thoughtful and open-minded, and that evening she said she could not understand the attitude of the environmental activists because they would not listen to the facts.  ‘You don’t get it,’ I said (which wasn’t a very respectful way to speak to a minister, I blame the wine), ‘Of course they don’t listen to the facts.  With trees, it’s emotional.  People love trees, it’s like asking them to be rational about killing their children.’   If you’ve ever stood in awe in an old-growth forest with other like-minded people, you know this is true.  Amongst the derogatory labels used for people who care about conservation is the term ‘tree-hugger’ which mocks the urge to reach out and touch the bark of trees so ancient that some of them might predate Christianity.  The very idea of logging such a tree is appalling.

For those of you rolling your eyes (which Kay Setches did not do, in fact she looked startled as if she’d never realised this emotional dimension before though she may just have been surprised that someone she thought was rational, wasn’t), Lang’s novel steers an intelligent path through contentious territory.  The greenies who people his commune are middle-class dope-smoking hot-air merchants who do a lot of talking about the environment but don’t actually do anything useful to conserve it.  The central characters are all flawed in major ways, not a saint or martyr among them.  The bush turns out to be a congenial place for people hiding from their past, while the workers (who are actually planting trees at the beginning of the novel, though not the ‘right’ (i.e. replacement) sort since they are pines for future harvesting) are the sort of easy-going blokes that you meet all over Australia.  They are undereducated, unsophisticated and prone to boozy sexist gaffes, but they are hardworking, generally decent fellows who make up the backbone of the rural economy in places like the fictional Coalwater River near Eden where Lang has set his novel.

Kelvin knew these men.  Or if not them then others like them.  He’d worked with them on fishing trawlers out of Darwin.  Men called Stevo and Anthill, or Davo and Bill, strong men with few brains who yet – and this was the hard part – had lives just as rich as his own.  This being the bit he always had difficulty with: the difference between the mass of humanity, even in the shape of a small town, and the individuals within it, each with their own story.  (p,8)

Kelvin, who has the sort of sordid past that often befalls young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is tentative with relationships with either gender.  Out of place with the team planting the pines, he takes work with Carl, an American with a past that interests the CIA, though it’s only by chance that the Australian authorities discover his whereabouts.  Jealousy, professional territories and ambition lead to a heart-stopping climax deep in the forest that would make a very fine film…

Kelvin ran.  One moment he had been crouched on the ground, the air stolen from his body, and the next he was up and running, following Carl through the trees in a purple glow.  He could not think what the glow was or why the glow was, he only ran, running down, running into the darkness and the trees past dogwood and wattle, past stringybark and grey box.  The deadness in his body which had made it so difficult to move in the logging dump had found life in him, the deadness had been his terror and the terror which had been on him like a cold hand had found in him this strange new automatic life.  He could no longer see Carl, he could only hear him.  The light was gone, they were running together in the darkness, stumbling, he was stumbling, he lost his footing and ran faster to catch himself.  He was right on top of Carl.  He managed to regain some sort of balance but had to stop, had to catch his breath, could no longer run headlong into the darkness with so little knowledge, a mind needs reference points; he held out his hand and his fingers found a tree trunk, smooth-barked, a hand’s width in diameter, and he grasped it, pulled himself up on it, swinging up around it, the tree bending with his weight, this smooth hand’s-widthed tree wrenching his arm and shoulder, darkness in front of him, suddenly silent.  He was hearing Carl’s crashing and then he was hearing nothing, nothing at all, nothing for much longer than it should have been possible to hear nothing.  (p.269-270)

An Accidental Terrorist is excellent reading.  The narrative shifts and twists from one place and time to another, but the tension never falters.  The relationships between the characters are rich and complex, and they defy easy moral judgements.  And the majesty of the NSW hinterland is never far away…

Highly recommended.

Author: Stephen Lang
Title: An Accidental Terrorist
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2005
ISBN: 9780702235207
Source: Personal library, purchased  from the ABC Shop, $22.95

Available from Fishpond: An Accidental Terrorist and direct from UQP.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2017

Haxby’s Circus, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I’d been meaning to read a novel by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) for a long time.  I’d read about her in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Ed. Nicholas José);  the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Ed. Wilde, Hooten & Andrews), and also in Jean-Francois Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel.  Harry Heseltine writes about her extensively in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton).   I’d had various prompts, from Sue at Whispering Gums and from Nathan Hobby who is writing Prichard’s biography.  I’d read her plays Brumby Innes and Bid me To Love in preparation for a workshop at The Script Club at the Arts Centre,  and for quite a while I’d had a copy of Coonardoo that I found in an Op Shop.  But it wasn’t until my father wasn’t very well and I needed a book I could read for long, tense hours by his bedside, that I dug out the much-neglected Kindle from my handbag and chose Haxby’s Circus from 1930.  I could read the Kindle one-handed, you see, while I held my father’s hand in the other.

So my experience of reading Haxby’s Circus is bittersweet.  It was a good book to choose because there are no fancy authorial tricks to cause confusion when my reading was, inevitably, interrupted by doctors and nurses making sure that there was no pain.  It’s a straightforward social realist novel, chronologically coherent, and with an ordinary third-person narrator showing us different points-of-view.  But it was also a good choice to take my mind off things a bit, because it’s an absorbing novel, shining a light on a way of life that still persists in pockets around Australia, though there are now many more rules and regulations surrounding circuses than there were in Prichard’s day.

And that’s a good thing.  Prichard shows in this novel that the cheap entertainment that audiences expected involved dreadful conditions for the caged wild animals, and held grave risks for the performers.  Haxby’s Circus traces the tragic transformation of Gina Haxby from a lithe and confident bareback rider to a life crippled by resentment and disability.  Her father, Dan Haxby is devoted to his circus at the expense of his family, and this is shown in many ways, from the risks to Mrs Haxby and her babies with annual pregnancies and no access to hospital care as she gets older, to the risks faced by the performers asked to undertake ever riskier acts because audiences had come to expect the frisson of danger alongside their expectation of skilled athleticism.  It’s not enough for a dancer to wear glitter and bling, it’s not enough for her to be graceful and svelte, no, she must dance in a cage with lions in order to titillate the audience with the fear that the lions might turn on her.

Max, who had never met a woman so exquisitely finished and fascinating as Lois, worshipped her with school-girlish rapture.

‘Oh, can’t we put her on, Dad?’ she pleaded. ‘She is so sweet … and there’s nothing as beautiful as her dancing in the show.’

Dan, who had watched the dance in the empty tent, with only a few of the artists practising and ring-hands going about their jobs, had nothing but admiration for the dance and dancer.

‘But this is a circus, Max,’ he objected.

‘It’s not enough for work to be beautiful and graceful,’ Gina said, bitterly. ‘It’s got to be hair-raising somehow, freakish, startling or dead funny, for us to put on. The public wouldn’t understand, if we gave it something just beautiful to look at.’

‘That’s right,’ Dan agreed. ‘If she’d do that dance in the lions’ cage now, there’d be something in it.’

‘Dad!’ Max explained. ‘You’d never suggest such a thing!’

‘By God, it’s an idea—’ Dan declared enthusiastically. ‘I’ll see Bach about it. We want to get something new and sensational for Melbourne.’  (Kindle Locations 3839-3847). .

The novel also shows the entrapment of the performers.  The children in a family circus travelling about all over Australia don’t get an education so their employment options are limited.  When Gina decides to earn the money to get her mother into hospital for yet another pregnancy, she has no saleable skills.  She ends up telling fortunes, and when she needs an income after an accident caused by exhaustion brought on by her father’s neglect, she has to do back-breaking housework and laundry – the worst possible work she could do after an injury to her spine.  Worse than her own hardships is her fear that her father will pressure her small siblings into dangerous stunts too. And worse than that is that when eventually Gina takes over the management of the circus from her father, she becomes as driven and uncaring as he was.

I liked the way Prichard represented the clown, Rocca.  Rocca is a dwarf, a highly intelligent, sophisticated and dignified man, who in those unenlightened days has no option but to earn his living as a clown.  There is a wonderful scene where he finally loses his temper and hurls abuse at the audience – but the multilingual Rocca does it in a foreign language so that the audience has no idea what he’s saying and just think it’s part of the act.  It’s significant also that it’s not on his own behalf that Rocca loses his temper.  He is livid because Gina has had a terrible, preventable accident.

There might have been some shame and pity in the laughter which inundated him; but Rocca never caught those notes. He was made to be laughed at, and lived on the laughter he stirred, though he cursed laughter and hated the crowd that laughed, as all men hate the gods whose puppets they are. His face was a suffering mask, under its paint, on nights like this when the hardworking country folk laughed themselves to hysterics and tears. He was Life’s joke at itself, he believed. His mind as fine and straight as the bodies of these people. Their minds as deformed, childish, undeveloped, paddling soft and helpless as his limbs.

But that night as he saw the faces he loathed, blurred and boiling together with laughter across the ring, beside himself with rage and grief, Rocca shrieked and screeched at them in all the languages he had ever heard, one of those tempests of insane fury to which he was liable, shaking and overwhelming him.

‘Is she dead or dying?’ he howled. ‘What do you care? Does it matter to you? You laugh. Devils … mean devils … worms of devils. May you roast in hell! Boil in everlasting damnation. God Almighty blast your putrid souls!’ And the crowd rocked with laughter, roared and yelled at the fury of the little man. It was titanic; but his arms and legs so absurd as he ran about shouting and spluttering.   (Kindle Locations 511-521).

Prichard’s gift for vivid description shows us the Australian of small towns, where people travel in from the farms for the rare opportunity of live entertainment, and where ticket prices must fall when drought bites.  The isolation of the circus lifestyle means that Gina spends many months in hospital miles away from her family, with Rocca as her only visitor.  It was a tough lifestyle, with few rewards other than the sense of community amongst the performers and their pride in putting on a good show.

From what I can gather from Heseltine’s summary of Prichard’s fiction in The Literature of Australia (Penguin 1976), Haxby’s Circus is unlike her other novels in that it doesn’t wear a heavy weight of social protest.  In general Heseltine thinks that Prichard’s political beliefs about socialism directed the resolution of her plots and the reactions of her characters.

Where Prichard goes wrong, it is because she makes her characters behave the way she thinks they should rather than the way they would, granted the whole context of their past, present and actual environment.  (p. 211)

This is true up to a point.  After her accident, Gina spends years and years in drudgery, toiling away for her mother and succumbing to inertia about her own appearance and the possibility of friendships or romance.  Today we might say that a character like this was suffering from depression, but Prichard’s portrayal suggests rather that it is stoic acceptance that her life has been ruined and the only thing that matters now is her love for her mother and her little sister Max.  So in this part of the novel Gina comes across as a bit of a martyr and too selfless to be true.

But whereas apparently in other novels (e.g. Working Bullocks and Black Opal) Prichard’s characters organise in pursuit of better pay and conditions, any solidarity the circus workers feel expresses itself in the way they work together to make the circus a success.  They might gripe a bit, but they don’t agitate for better pay and conditions.  None of the characters are socialists, as far as I can tell.  Gina herself enjoys becoming an employer and a hard taskmaster in the latter part of the story.  Her one attempt to improve things for the circus workers by setting them up as joint shareholders in the business backfires because it doesn’t make any money when there is an economic downturn.

Nathan Hobby in his review discusses this aspect of Haxby’s Circus too.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: Haxby’s Circus
Publisher:  A&R Classics, Kindle Edition,  An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2013
First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, London in 1930
ISBN: 9780732297244 (pbk.) ASIN: B00C4M3SHO
Source: Personal library, purchased from Amazon.

Available from Fishpond: Haxby’s Circus (A&R Classics) and as an eBook from the Harper Collins website.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2017

2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists

Thanks to Tony at Messenger’s Booker, here are the shortlists for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

“Vancouver” #3 in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earles (I read the first two in the series but lost interest after that)

“Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers” by Ryan O’Neill, see my review

“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose, see my review (IMO this is the standout title for the prize).

“Where the Light Falls” by Gretchen Shirm, see my review

“After the Carnage” by Tara June Winch, see my review

“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood, see combined reviews

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

“The Memory Artist” by Katherine Brabon, see my review

“Letter to Pessoa” by Michelle Cahill, see Karenlee Thompson’s guest review

“Dodge Rose” by Jack Cox, see my review and Alys Moody’s at the Sydney Review of Books

“Our Magic Hour” by Jennifer Down, see Elly Verranti’s review at SMH

“Portable Curiosities” by Julie Koh, see collected reviews at Koh’s website

“The Bonobo’s Dream” by Rose Mulready, see my review and Daniel’s review at All the Novellas

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

“Everywhere I Look” by Helen Garner, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

“Talking To My Country” by Stan Grant, see my thoughts here (it’s not really a review)

“The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft” by Tom Griffiths, see my review and Jim Davidson’s review at the SMH

“Avalanche” by Julia Leigh, see Lara Feigel’s review at The Guardian

“Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead” by Thornton McCamish, see Richard Trembath’s review at The Conversation

“Prince of Darkness:The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire” by Shane White, see Elizabeth Elliot’s review at the American Historical Association

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

“Ghostspeaking” by Peter Boyle

“Burnt Umber” by Paul Hetherington

“Breaking the Days” by Jill Jones

“Fragments” by Antigone Kefala

“Firebreaks:Poems” by John Kinsella

“Comfort Food” by Ellen Van Neerven

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

“Elegy” by Jane Abbott

“The Ghost by the Billabong” by Jackie French

“The Sidekicks” by Will Kostakis

“One Thousand Hills” by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe

“The Boundless Sublime” by Lili Wilkinson

“One Would Think the Deep” by Claire Zorn

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

“Magrit” by Lee Battersby, illustrated by Amy Daoud

“Something Wonderful” by Raewyn Caisley and Karen Blair

“Desert Lake” by Pamela Freeman and Liz Anelli

“Iris and the Tiger” by Leanne Hall

“Figgy and the President” by Tasmin Janu

“Welcome to Country” by Aunty Joy Murphy and Lisa Kennedy

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

“The Hanging” by Angela BEtzien

“You and Me and the Space Between” by Finegan Fruckmeyer

“The Drover’s Wife” by Leah Purcell

“Ladies Day” by Alana Valentine

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

“The Code, Series 2 Episode 4” by Shelley Birse

“Sucker” by Lawrence Leung and Ben Chessell

“Down Under” by Abe Forsythe

“The Kettering Incident Episode 1” by Victoria Madden

“Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War” by Victoria Midwinter Pitt

“Cleverman, Episode 5 ‘Terra Nullius’” by Michael Miller

Multicultural Award NSW

“The Hate Race” by Maxine Beneba Clarke, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

“Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru” by Madeline Gleeson, see Fiona Capp’s review at the SMH

“Not Quite Australian; How Temporary Migration is Changing the Nation” by Peter Mares, see Morag Fraser’s review at the SMH

“Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea” by Marie Munkara, see my review

“Promising Azra” by Helen Thurloe, see Natalie Salvo’s review at Natalie Salvo’s Portfolio

“The Fighter: A True Story” by Arnold Zable, I couldn’t find a review of this except at the paywalled Australian.

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

J.M.Q. Davies, translator of (amongst others) Slaves in their Chains by Konstantínos Theotókis, (on order from Fishpond)

Penny Hueston, translator of (amongst others) Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano

Jennifer Lindsay, translator of Indonesian non-fiction and especially Tempo, see this article

Royall Tyler, see this article at Wikipedia for a list of works translated

Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize

Jan Owen

Christopher Williams

Indigenous Writer’s Prize – Biennial prize next awarded in 2018

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #4 Chapter 3

Finnegans Wake (Folio Edition)Chest Cee! ’Sdense! Corpo di barragio! you spoof of visibility in a freakfog, of mixed sex cases among goats, hill cat and plain mousey, Bigamy Bob and his old Shanvocht! The Blackfriars treacle plaster outrage be liddled! Therewith was released in that kingsrick of Humidia a poisoning volume of cloud barrage indeed. Yet all they who heard or redelivered are now with that family of bards and Vergobretas himself and the crowd of Caraculacticors as much no more as be they not yet now or had they then not-ever been. Canbe in some future we shall presently here amid those zouave players of Inkermann the mime mumming the mick and his nick miming their maggies, Hilton St Just (Mr. Frank Smith), Ivanne Ste Austelle (Mr. J. F. Jones), Coleman of Lucan taking four parts, a choir of the O’Daley O’Doyles doublesixing the chorus in Fenn Mac Call and the Serven Feeries of Loch Neach, Galloper Troppler and Hurleyquinn the zitherer of the past with his merrymen all, zimzim, zimzim. Of the persins sin this Eyrawyggla saga (which, thorough readable to int from and, is from tubb to buttom all falsetissues, antilibellous and nonactionable and this applies to its whole wholume) of poor Osti-Fosti described as quite a musical genius in a small way and the owner of an exceedingly niced ear, with tenorist voice to match, not alone, but a very major poet of the poorly meritary order (he began Tuonisonian but worked his passage up as far as the we-all-hang-together Animandovites) no one end is known.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 48). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

Gasp! Who are all these people?  Have I forgotten them already from chapters 1 & 2?

It seems probably not, though Osti-Fosti was in chapter 2.  According to my trusty guides Tindall and Campbell, chapter 3 is notoriously hard and Campbell says that Joyce takes nine pages to drive this fact home – the characters of our piece are very hard to fix and distinguish from one another.  

Throughout the remainder of Finnegans Wake, the reader must watch sharply for incoherent shifts of scene and character; a deluge of gossip has confused the evidence, mixing this story with many another, splitting personalities and recompounding them, mixing centuries, countries, heroes, villains, and tenses, in a great broth.  (Campbell, p. 65)

So really, we come back again to why, why would we want to read this most difficult of difficult books? I don’t have a good answer – I’m just intrigued, and I want to see if I am smart enough to make any sense of it by myself.  I want to test my instincts too: if Joyce deliberately wrote a muddle of characters in a muddle of time frames, then they must not really matter as individuals, right?  They must be symbols of this and that, and maybe at surface level these names are just like a crowd of people in a pub: some you might know, some you might confuse for someone else, some breeze in and out – here today and gone the next.  And if you were asked to testify as to their presence or otherwise in some court case about the guilt or innocence of a person, you’d be hard-pressed to say who was actually there and when.  This jumble of characters are the gossips spreading the rumour about the ruination of Earwicker, and Joyce tells us right at the beginning of this chapter not to take any notice of them:

Of the persins sin this Eyrawyggla saga (which, thorough readable to int from and, is from tubb to buttom all falsetissues, antilibellous and nonactionable).

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 48). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

But of course his readers, me included, take no notice.  Warned not to listen to these gossips, we do it anyway. And everything to do with the facts has changed, though that doesn’t stop everyone from lord and lady to drab and dustman having an opinion anyway. This is supposed to be HCE’s trial but it’s a shambles. (But in an era of fake news, who are we to complain about unfacts).

BTW#1 You will have noticed that while I am reading the Folio Edition, I am quoting my Penguin UK Kindle edition using copy-and-paste.  This is because it’s very hard work to type up excerpts from FW because auto correct keeps wanting to fix it).

Campbell offers a piece of IMO unnecessary advice about reading the passage introducing The Four Old Chroniclers and their donkey. One is from Ulster, one from Munster, one from Leinster and the last from Connaught, and they are counterparts of the Four Zoas of the later visions of William Blake.  These pages, says Campbell, demand strict attention and slow reading.  I can’t imagine anyone trying to read them any other way, though of course it’s more than possible that no amount of strict attention and slow reading is going to be enough.

I can’t remember now which of Tindall or Campbell it was that said he did not know any other languages besides English.  I think that must make reading FW even more difficult, since as well as using languages in common usage amongst educated people (i.e. Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish) Joyce warns us again that he is messing about with all kinds of not-very-well-known languages:

Will whatever will be written in lappish language [i.e. Lappish, from Lapland] with inbursts of maggyer [i.e. Magyar, which is Hungarian]always seem semposed, black looking white and white guarding black, in that siamixed twoatalk used twist stern swift and jolly roger?

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 66). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

BTW#2 I knew that Magyar is Hungarian from my stamp-collecting days.  How strange are the ways that we learn odd scraps of knowledge!

Unlike early readers of FW, today we can enlist Google Translate in the search for meaning, though you still need to allow for idiosyncratic spelling (often approximating an Irish accent) and for tweaking the words apart or together as the case may be.   Here’s an excerpt where the Spanish word Usted alerted me to the possibilities of using it:

Any dog’s life you list you may still hear them at it, like sixes and seventies as eversure as Halley’s comet, ulemamen, sobran-jewomen, storthingboys and dumagirls, as they pass its bleak and bronze portal of your Casaconcordia: Huru more Nee, minny frickans? Hwoorledes har Dee det? Losdoor onleft mladies, cue. Millecientotrigintadue scudi. Tippoty, kyrie, tippoty. Cha kai rotty kai makkar, sahib? Despenseme Usted, senhor, en son succo, sabez. O thaw bron orm, A’Cothraige, thinkinthou gaily? Lick-Pa-flai-hai-pa-Pa-li-si-lang-lang. Epi alo, ecou, Batiste, tuvavnr dans Lptit boing going. Ismeme de bumbac e meias de portocallie. O.O. Os pipos mios es demasiada gruarso por O piccolo pocchino. Wee fee? Ung duro. Kocshis, szabad? Mercy, and you? Gomagh, thak.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 54). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

GT helped me with ulemamen: drop the ‘men’ off the end and lo! ulema is a body of Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology.  Sobran is a conjugation of the Spanish sobrar meaning to remain so the Jew women are still there.  I wouldn’t have guessed storthingboys as being MPs from the Irish parliament at Stormont if I hadn’t recognised the Russian legislative body called the duma in dumagirls.   Once I had that sorted, it was easy to split Casaconcordia into Casa Concordia to get House of Peace, or House of Agreement or Harmony.  But the rest of it?  I only recognise scraps here and there, and am not willing to invest too much time in it because, alas, ultimately none of it makes sense:

  • Huru more Nee, minny frickans baffles me, until I get the disembodied voice of Google Translate to read it aloud, and bizarrely, it sounds a bit like a greeting, more Nee sounding like morning and minny sounds like ‘many’.
  • Hwoorledes har Dee det, according to GT is Norwegian, and it means ‘hence, Dee has it’.  Has what??
  • Mille-ciento- triginta-due scudi is Italian but I’m not sure where the syllables divide and so, huh? I can only get 1000 – 100 -??? – shields
  • The middle word in Tippoty, kyrie, tippoty is Latin: I remember the translation of kyrie is ‘Lord’ from A Portrait of the Artist and Stephen Daedalus in that book was mocking the offering in the communion service.
  • Cha kai rotty kai makkar, sahib? has to be Hindi.  Cha = tea (I think) , and Rotty = roti i.e. flatbread.  Sahib = master.  GT says makkar is ‘tricksy’.  Indeed, yes.
  • Despenseme Usted, senhor, en son succo, sabez must be Spanish because Usted is the formal word for ‘you’; senhor is obvious and sabez means ‘you know’. Google Translate offers ‘have lunch’ for despenseme, which might follow on with some sort of logic from the Hindi food and drink that preceded it, but I am tempted to translate it as ‘dispense with you’ as if this whole passage is a curse of some sort.
  • O thaw bron orm, A’Cothraige, thinkinthou gaily? is Gaelic, and is asking if we think-in it.
  • Epi alo, ecou, Batiste, tuvavnr dans Lptit is, GT tells me, Romanian, and so is Ismeme de bumbac e meias de portocallie, but it doesn’t tell me what it means.  Oh well…

But sometimes, it’s just easy: when the Coldstream Guards (three tommix = three Tommies, WW1 slang for English soldiers) were walking in Montgomery Street, pardonnez-leur, je vous en prie is straightforward French for forgive them, I beg you.  And what they say seems straightforward too, that one of the girls accusing Earwicker actually invited him to go into the field with her – and we might believe it if we hadn’t been warned not to because this whole chapter is from tubb to buttom all falsetissues, antilibellous and nonactionable.

Sometimes, I just love the word play:

  • ’tis pholly to be fortuneflouting
  • unprecise unfacts (how relevant, Mr President!)
  • stenk and kitteney phie in a hashoush

And I like the splendid long list (now feared in part lost) to be kept on file of all the abusive names Earwicker has been called.  It goes for almost a whole page in my Folio edition, which means it must go for two pages or more in an ordinary paperback!

BTW#3 I discovered two new sources today.

  • First up is a blog called Original Positions, which blogged progress chapter by chapter back in 2013.  I was interested to read this one after I’d finished my struggle through the chapter, and found it more comprehensible than either Tindall or Campbell, but it is less detailed.
  • The other is at Project Gutenberg and it has summaries and analysis.  I didn’t read this one, I’m just noting it here in case I want it one day.

So on to Chapter 4!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2017

The Custodians, by Nicholas José

The Custodians, first published in 1997, was Nicholas José’s fifth novel, and it captures my generation perfectly.  Tracing the lives of characters who came to adulthood in the heady 1970s, it depicts the idealism and the optimism, the delusions and pretensions, and the steady disenchantment of adult life in the real world.  It’s a big, heavy book, nearly 500 pages in my first edition, and it’s big and ambitious in its preoccupations.  I’m a bit surprised it wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin, but 1997 was a very strong year with books by David Malouf, Thea Astley, Janet Turner Hospital, John A Scott, Robert Dessaix and Robert Drewe, with the prize eventually going to David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove.  So The Custodians hasn’t had as much attention as I think it deservesdespite a 2012 paperback reissue in the Allen & Unwin House of Books seriesand an impressive blurb from no less than an authority than Simon Schama

A brilliantly vivid tapestry of the Australian predicament, rich in possibility, but shot through with accident and revelation. Through it all breathes the ancient reality of the land: its red earth and bright air painted with the sure hand of a master.’ – Simon Schama, A&U website,  (where, bizarrely, it has been categorised as Popular Fiction.  Have they read it??)

Anyway, I found it very satisfying reading over a number of days…

The main characters start life in Adelaide, and leave it for what they think is a more exciting life elsewhere.  Jane is a painter in love with the light in Sydney; Wendy is an indolent thrill-seeker with a penchant for dubious company;  Elspeth the heiress wants enlightenment but not if it involves parting with her money; and Josie wants to be good and thinks she can be, as a nun.

José fleshes out the characterisation of the men a bit more, especially Alex, clever and ambitious but always wanting to keep his options open.  At ANU he studies economics, Australian history and law, and he won’t commit to a relationship with Jane in case something better comes along.  (He keeps Josie ‘in reserve’ back in Adelaide until – to his chagrin – she joins the nunnery).  Ziggy is a charismatic thespian; and René is an ideologue spouting dialectics and Chinese communism with Alex at ANU.  On the fringes of their childhood group are Aboriginal boys from the Stolen Generations: Cleve, a scholarship boy at a Catholic boarding school, and Danny who stumbles from one institution to another, marginalised further by his reticence and his illiteracy.

While the relationships between these characters hold the book together, the themes of The Custodians unfold as Australia comes of age in the 1970s.  With the finding of Moorna Woman (an event fictionalised from the discovery of Mungo Woman) Australian history turns out to be much older than first thought, and the emerging empowerment of Aboriginal Australians under a reforming government (based on the Whitlam Years) means that the pastoral land on which the bones are found becomes contested.  Chinese investors make an appearance as Australia turns to Asia, and their Australian interpreter, a character loosely based on the communist sympathiser Wilfred Burchett, has to decide where his loyalties lie.

Betrayals are everywhere.  Josie betrays her religious vows, and she betrays the father of her child.  Alex unwittingly betrays Elspeth when, from his lofty position of power in Canberra, he nominates her property in remote NSW for World Heritage.  He also betrays his minister in a political stoush between ministries.  Jane betrays her own art and her feminist ambitions; Ziggy lets grubby sex sabotage his acting career.  Wendy and her lover Alfonzo both abandon their child though in different ways and for different reasons.  In choosing to live a life of luxury with a drug-dealer, Wendy has abandoned ethics altogether.

Wendy thought it bourgeois of Jane to be offended by Alfonzo.  Morality, she thought, was itself immoral.  In all his years Alfonzo had not tripped up.  If people were vulnerable to exploitation, that was their decision, their choice, their risk-taking, their death-wish.  There was big money to be made, and what big money was ever made out of tender regard for other people’s susceptibility?  You could not protect people from themselves.  Wendy’s only problem was with the risk.  She did not want her parents involved.  She delighted in Alfonzo’s cleverness at being able to live with enviable ease.  (p.227)

It’s the system that betrays Danny.  Stolen from his family as a little boy, inarticulate and illiterate, he is an emblem of the damage done by institutionalisation, and his gruesome death symbolises the tragic problem of Black Deaths in Custody.  Without labouring the point, José uses Danny’s twin brother Cleve to articulate the dilemma of not knowing his own identity.   Although Cleve receives instant acceptance from the community, some connections can’t ever be restored, and not knowing is indelible.  Visiting Elspeth on the property that’s been hers for generations, he tells her that his adoptive family dropped him when their ‘goodness’ bargain with God failed to save the life of their biological child.  He doesn’t blame them for this:

‘… No, they’re good people.  I owe them something.  They took me from the Home when I was a kid.  Three of four, I suppose.’

‘You must remember something.’

‘Nuh.  Nothing.’

‘It just seems strange that you came back to this part of the world.  Those Adamses used to have a place down the river from here, according to my mother, near my Masterman cousins.’

Shaking his head, as if to throw off a demon, Cleve turned to her with a forced smile.  ‘I’m not being rude or anything.  It’s just that I don’t know anything about it so there’s nothing much to talk about.  Imagine that, can you, when you know all about your great-grandfather and your cousins and all them.  This place could be my place for all I know.’ (p.203)

At Nulla, Cleve finally hears the story of his abduction by the Welfare from Old Joe who heard it many times from his wife Mary:

Cleve was a smart little three-year-old.  He knew where to run. He had his hiding place in the chook shed.  Little Daniel was more confused.  He wanted to follow Cleve, his older twin, as he did in everything else, but their mother told them always to separate if the Welfare came.  Daniel ran down towards the river to the logs of fallen trees where he hid when they played hide-and-seek.  Rhonda and Arthur ran ahead towards the river.  Mary and the baby followed in the same direction but at a slower pace.

The Welfare car stopped and a man in a navy suit, a lady in a nurse’s uniform and the driver in creased khaki shorts and long white socks stepped out.  They were striding round the yard.  Mary ducked behind the broad trunk of a tree and pressed against its bark.  Then the baby, squeezed against its mother’s heaving bosom, began to cry.  The Welfare man was marching towards the river, his feet crunching the bark and leaves.  Before Mary could gag the baby’s mouth, the man had made a beeline for the tree.  Mary was too frightened to run.  The man came round the tree and gave a smile to discover mother and child at their game.

‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ he asked as he reached out calmly for the infant.  (p.213)

José’s understated style offers many interesting observations about human nature.  In Italy where Elspeth is learning to be an art conservationist, she is befriended by an Australian family, and with her lover Guigi she goes on a picnic with them.  They visit Monterchi in Tuscany, a hilltop village where in 2005 we shared a villa with friends for ten days.

On a spring Sunday the Dales suggested an outing.  Margie took pleasure in preparing a proper picnic with sandwiches that would not fall apart, chicken legs, fruit salad in plastic containers, plates, paper towels, salt and pepper, chocolate cake, wine, wineglasses, and not forgetting a corkscrew to open the bottle.  They took a bus to the nearby village that housed Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto and found the strange monumental painting on the wall of the little church next to the cemetery.  The virgin was standing in a tent with angels on either side of her holding open the flaps.  She was looking down with concern, pointing to a slit in her gown through which her pregnancy swelled as the momentous parturition began.  ‘It’s sliced open by time,’ said Rod admiringly. (p.167)

How cunningly understated is José’s representation of Margie!  This family has been in Tuscany for three years while Rod Dale pursues his artistic ambitions.  Margie has scrimped and saved to enable it, hoping only that her kids would grow up independent and unfussy. She has had occasion to resent Elspeth’s extravagance when she helps herself to more than her fair share of things, but now her picnic menu shows her inability to adapt.  Not a sign of unfussy Italian cuisine – and in a place where a cheap enoteca would have welcomed her children and make a great fuss of them!

José shows Alex’s preoccupation with power, from childhood bullying to manipulation in Canberra.  There are some amusing sequences that I recognised as thinly-veiled portraits of the machinations behind Bob Hawke’s ascent to the prime ministership, and some passages show an intimate knowledge of how power operates:

Life in the capital had taught Alex how political power worked in its several phases: the power of senior politicians channelled through the projects they personally wanted to see realised, or through the people they were loyal to, or who were loyal to them; the power of the bureaucracy, greater than the power of politicians when it came to where the money went and what actually happened, but hedged around by process, complexity, inertia, rivalry, accountability; the sway of public opinion, through media, lobby groups and the unpredictable shifts of community attitudes; all these Alex could manipulate and ride now, to serve his masters one way, the party another, and himself yet another.  He had seen many of his contemporaries bail out because Canberra was not about money of hedonism or the adventure of your own creativity, except in coded ways, but he did not really expect anyone to care that his own faceless successes were, in their own way, as great as Jane’s and Ziggy’s public, self-achieved triumphs.  It was enough that there should be a moment of awed silence when people heard he worked in the Department of the Prime Minister.  Politics depended on the fearful attraction of those close to power.  (p.233)

The Custodians is absorbing reading, especially for people of my generation.  Highly recommended.

Author: Nicholas José
Title: The Custodians
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 1997
ISBN: 9780330352710 (first edition, hbk).
Source: personal library

There were three secondhand copies at Fishpond on the day I looked: The Custodians

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 24, 2017

The Art of War, by Betty Churcher

Last week, with Anzac Day approaching, it seemed a good time to browse through Betty Churcher’s magnificent tribute to the artists who depict war.  The Art of War was written to coincide with a TV program on SBS, produced by Film Australia, and I had not long ago stumbled on my copy at Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton.  But the day after I started drafting this review, my father unexpectedly died, and I forgot about this post until tonight, the eve of Anzac Day 2017.  So for now, I’m just going to focus on what I’ve read of the book, just Chapter One.

The Art of War is a paperback, but it is full-sized and printed on quality glossy paper so  the reproductions of the paintings are superb.  (You need to click the links to see most of them, because of copyright).

This is the blurb:

The wars that have been an unrelenting feature of the past hundred years have left an enduring legacy in the art they have provoked.  Here, Betty Churcher, [1931-2015] one of our leading art historians, explores the range and diversity of art inspired by war.  She explores the work of official war artists in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the war against terror in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.  She looks, too, at lesser-known artists, ordinary soldiers, who were drawing and painting in the trenches during the First World War, the concentration camps of Europe, the prisoner-of-war camps of Southeast Asia, and at artists who have been inspired by peace-keeping missions in Timor, Somalia, and Eritrea.

The Art of War is stunningly illustrated throughout, featuring images as diverse as George Lambert’s dramatic battlefield panoramas, Will Dyson’s political cartoons, Ray Parkin’s prisoner-of-war camp sketches, and Gordon Bennett’s graffiti-influenced works produced in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York. Using works created to inspire patriotic sentiment, to record personal insights, or to protest the senseless loss of human life, Churcher shows that where war has influenced movements in art, art has also changed attitudes to war.

The first chapter is called ‘The Birth of a Legend’ and the first painting shown is Grace Cossington Smith’s Reinforcements: Troops Marching c1917.   Churcher, always so observant about the human aspects of art, notes the strident colours of the mother waving off the troops while she ignores her crying child behind her.  This painting is accompanied by a photo of huge crowds lining Collins St Melbourne to farewell troops in 1914, and she tells us the story of her own father’s disillusionment to amplify what follows:

My father never discussed the war. Everything about the First World War turned out to be repugnant to him, yet there could have been no more ardent recruit. (p.1)

The paintings Churcher has chosen to include are influenced by this family history.  Nothing in this book glorifies war.

The government hadn’t officially appointed a war artist by the time of Gallipoli, but there were men there who made drawings and watercolours to record their experience.  When they ran out of watercolours, they used the red and blue pencils issued for military mapping, and they applied washes with an iodine brush, giving their pictures that distinctive sepia tone.   CEW Bean, then a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, gathered the tales and sketches of the soldiers for a compilation to be called The Anzac Book, which with its famous cover art by David Barker, is still in print.   Bean also lobbied for the appointment of a war artist, eventually getting permission for Private Frank Crozier to make sketches on the Western Front, and finally to be appointed as an official war artist in September 1918.  Many readers will have seen his painting Sausage Valley (1919) at the Australian War Memorial.

It was mainly civilian artists who were appointed as war artists, given the temporary rank of lieutenant and kept firmly behind the lines in safety.  However Will Dyson had wangled permission to go to the front as a civilian artist, and he produced some of the finest artworks of the war, concentrating not on big battle scenes but on the men.  ‘Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60’ (1917) is typical of these: it shows an exhausted soldier, still in all his kit, fast asleep while his mates stand by in the tunnel.  Another one ‘Patrolling in no man’s land on the Somme’ (1918) manages to convey the danger of the exercise in the anxious turn of a head and in the cautious tread of his shadowy figures’ but Dyson also captured humorous moments, as in ‘The batman (compree washing madame) (1920).  Dyson drew anti-German propaganda cartoons as well, such as ‘Freedom of the Seize’ (1915).  His paintings are held at the Australian War Memorial but if this article from 2016 is correct, they are not on display but you can find them if you search online at the AWM.

The big battle paintings were tackled by other artists, but the works Churcher has chosen are not like the heroic battle paintings of the 19th century.  I can show you this one: ‘First Australian artillery going into the third battle of Ypres’ by H. Septimus Power is in the public domain now.

In the book, the painting is accompanied by Betty Churcher’s keen observations, and a full page reproduction of a detail which emphasises the mud and the stoic determination of the men.  ‘Stretcher bearers’ (1922) is a vivid testament to non-combatants.

Cathedral Interior c1918 (Streeton)

Arthur Streeton was appointed as a war artist in May 1918, but most of his paintings are about the aftermath of war.

He painted the landscape of war-ravaged France, the valley of the River Somme and the landscape around Mont St Quentin.  If figures appear in his paintings, they’re there only to give scale to the landscape.

There is only one painting by Streeton in the book, ‘French Siege Gun’ (1918) which shows the monumental size of this monstrous weapon.  It’s such a ghastly contrast to the ‘Golden Summers’ paintings for which Streeton is so famous, that I prefer to show the painting at right, called ‘Cathedral Interior’, painted in 1918 or so.

George Lambert was the most famous of the war artists, but his great epic paintings were all done in the studio.  However, he had visited Anzac Cove with CEW Bean in 1919, where he gathered information for his famous picture (also now in the public domain):

Anzac, the Landing 1915 (George Lambert)

But Churcher also tells us that Lambert chose to ignore some of the facts:

For example, [Bean] remembers telling Lambert that the soldiers had been instructed to roll their sleeves to the elbow, so that in the half-light they would stand out from the Turks.  However, he also remembers that nothing would have persuaded Lambert to depict the landing in that way: his soldiers would be properly uniformed in this official record.

He also told him that the men wore British-style flat caps.

‘I suppose some of them wore hats, Skipper?’ Lambert asked.

‘Certainly,’ said Bean.  And that was enough for Lambert – they all wore slouch hats!  (p. 24)

This painting doesn’t show the courage or bravado of hand-to-hand fighting.  It shows the terrain as enemy.  Like its companion piece ‘The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915’ (1924) it shows the futility of war, and again the book offers a full-page detail so that its emotional impact is profound.

The chapter goes on to show that Lambert’s paintings of the desert in Palestine influenced artists in the post-war period to begin a tradition of inland painting.

Previously the desert had been recorded by exploration artists in topographical studies; never before had it been seen as a landscape subject in its own right.

But that was not the only way in which this wicked, wasteful war influenced art:

… in Europe the soldier-artists who had served in the trenches of the Western Front returned to their studios seething with anger and disgust at the cruelty and mindless waste of war.  They saw themselves as victims of the war who had escaped the shells and bullets but not the trauma, and they introduced dramatic new movements in modern art to reveal their psychological damage.  Neither art nor its audience would ever be the same again. (p.47)

The chapter concludes with Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series, reminding us that he once said that he wanted his Gallipoli pictures to ring like metal – to ‘clang’  as if they’d been beaten into shape at a blacksmith’s forge.  And Churcher once more invokes the personal when she tells us that the figures in the left hand panel of Nolan’s Gallipoli diptych, are Nolan’s father, trying valiantly to prevent his son Raymond, (with his corporal’s stripes) from sliding deeper into death. (p.53) (To see both paintings at that AWM link scroll down below the descriptions and click the blue Gallipoli link).

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: The Art of War
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, 2004
ISBN: 9780522850994
Source: Personal copy, found at Bound Words Secondhand Bookshop in Hampton St Hampton for $25.00

Availability: try your second-hand sources…


I probably would never have read this book if not for Tony Kevin, author of Walking the Camino and Return to Moscow. A retired diplomat who was based in Moscow during the Soviet era, Kevin recommends John le Carré as an author who depicts the intricate world of spies and diplomacy in quite realistic ways.  So, when I saw A Most Wanted Man at the library, I thought why not?  I had liked The Constant Gardener, after all…

A Most Wanted Man turned out to be quite entertaining reading.  Not surprisingly, it has been made into a film.

It’s a thriller, so I’m not going to tell you much about it.  This is the blurb:

A half-starved young Russian man is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse round his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa… Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client’s survival becomes more important to her than her own career. In pursuit of his mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Freres, a failing British bank based in Hamburg. Annabel, Issa and Brue form an unlikely alliance – and a triangle of impossible loves is born.  Meanwhile, scenting a sure kill in the ‘War on Terror’, the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge upon the innocents.

The interest lies in trying to work out whether Issa Karpov is what he claims to be, and whether the covert security services of Germany, England and America are (a) going to cause major grief for Annabel Richter and Tommy and/or (b) sabotage each other in their quest to out-rumble Issa and his protectors.

I found my attention drifting towards the last two or three CDs as Annabel’s attraction to Issa, and Tommy’s conversion to Issa’s cause because of his attraction to Annabel, becomes more overt and Issa spurns both of them.  He constantly proselytises his faith to Annabel (which is very boring to listen to) and she, respecting his faith, can’t even touch him.  The argument about whether Issa would or wouldn’t accept money that had been his corrupt father’s didn’t seem all that convincing when, from the outset, Issa had come to Hamburg to get it.  And the plot becomes harder to follow as Bachmann, the German counter-terrorism operative, makes things more complicated because he’s trying to ‘turn’ to his cause, both Issa and also a Muslim philanthropist called Dr. Abdullah who is funnelling money to terrorists, whether he knows it or not.

However, what the book shows is how hamstrung Germany is in dealing with terrorism.  Their Nazi past makes it imperative that they play by rules which constantly frustrate Bachmann.  OTOH as the climax shows, American exceptionalism suggests that they can do what they like, and they do.

Well, we saw them do that with Guantanamo Bay, and Australia was complicit in it too when – unlike the Brits – we abandoned our citizens to detention without trial.

Michael Jayston does a great job of rendering a diversity of accents in the narration.

John le Carré
Title: A Most Wanted Man
Publisher: Chivers Audiobooks (BBC Audiobooks), 2009, first published 2008
ISBN: 9781408431368
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2017

Another meme: #Book Buying Habits

I came to this meme at Book Mongrel via Booker Talk, and it interested me because of the prevalence of ‘book buying bans’ that have sprung up lately in the LitBlogSphere. I may be a bit evangelical on this topic, but I firmly believe that book culture will die if people don’t buy books because there will be no incentive for authors and publishers to produce them.  This is especially important for authors and publishers of Australian literary fiction because ours is such a very small market always under pressure in a globalised economy.  Yes, there will be authors content to struggle for exposure in Amazon’s self publishing swamp but that is not where the great books of our time will be found.  Yes, shelf space is an issue, and so is the family budget, and yes, we should read the books we have… but I am a Buyer of Books, and always will be.

And since I saw somewhere recently that nobody really knows what makes people buy books, I thought it was worthwhile to share what makes me buy them, even though I might be the only person in the universe who has these reasons.

Where do you buy your books from?

From independent bookshops that I want to stay in business, because they stock and bring me news about my kind of books.   F2F I go to bricks-and-mortar shops like my favourite Benns Books in Bentleigh, but also Ulysses Bookstore in Sandringham.  (I used to go to one in Hampton but they have gone downmarket with lots of trashy books and the place is full of noisy children.)  The Readings chain sends me a monthly newsletter and I buy from them online, but lately their newsletter has been promoting so many misery memoirs and novels derived therefrom, that to my dismay I often can’t find anything to buy.  For other books that I hear about online from my BookBlogging network (mainly translations not available in my bricks-and-mortar bookshops) I used to use the Book Depository but now I use Fishpond because (a) it’s not Amazon and (b) it has free postage and (c) it started in New Zealand and is a source for NZ books, and now it operates in Australia.  (#Transparency I have an affiliation with them here on this blog, see my About page).

Very occasionally I have an impulse buy for the Kindle, but I use it so rarely that #blush I tend to forget about these books and not read them.

Do you ever pre-order books and if so, do you do this in-store or online?

#Blush: not books… but I have been known to put in an online order for the latest Game of Thrones DVD and Un Village Francais as soon as I know the release date.

On average, how many books do you buy a month?

Averaged over the last 12 months, I spent $140 a month.  That’s an average of 4 or 5 books (bearing in mind that it includes the occasional Op Shop Find and an expensive first edition or two.  It equals about 480 coffees, about 40 each month, or about 5 coffees each week.   It’s less than the council rates and the power bills and much more than I spend on clothes.

Do you use your local library?

All the time.  There have been times in my life when I have had no money at all to spend on myself and my library was my sole source of books.  If I were ever to move house, being within walking distance of a library would be one of my essential criteria.  These days I belong to three: Kingston, Bayside and Glen Eira.  Kingston has a branch in my local shopping centre and I go there as part of my routine, hovering around the New Books Shelf for serendipitous finds, and maintaining supplies of audio books which I find expensive to buy and (generally) too demanding of shelf space because I like CDs not digital versions.    If I am a bit hard up, I’ll reserve a book using the online catalogue, and if I’m really hard up and they don’t have it, I put in a request for them to buy it for me.  (Through the Australian PLR (Public Lending Right) authors and publishers still get paid when their books are in libraries.)

I noticed that Book Mongrel kept incurring fines for overdues: all my libraries send me email reminders, and I used to use Library Elf before library reminders became standard practice.

If so, how many do you borrow at a time?

Two or three audio books in case I don’t like one of them; 2-8 novels or non-fiction, it just depends on what I find.  I stop once my arms are full…

What’s your opinion on library books?

They’re essential:

  • for reference, whether you’re looking for a recipe or a history book.  Yes, even in the days of Google, because you can take them home and curl up on the sofa and read them;
  • for serendipitous finds.  Libraries have a responsibility to provide a wide variety of books, for all kinds of readers.  Libraries that focus too much on commercial and genre fiction are letting down people like me.  My library branch has the balance right; I’ve observed that other branches in the same network don’t.
  • for being with people who love books, especially if the rest of your world isn’t interested in them.  They are restorative for the soul;
  • for kids to learn about the world of books and a bookish atmosphere.  This does not mean inviting children to a story time session and allowing them to run around screaming, which is what I experienced to my dismay at the Jasper Rd branch of the Glen Eira library last week.  I left without collecting the book I’d reserved there.  I couldn’t stand it.  (Teachers (including retired ones like me) tend to be intolerant of badly behaved children because children never behave like that at school, only when they are with parents who let them make a nuisance of themselves).

I take even greater care of library books than I do of my own.

How do you feel about charity shop/second hand books?

These places come into their own for backlisted books, the ones culled from the library and no longer stocked online or in bookshops.  They are an essential part of the mix.  The author and publisher don’t make anything from the sale, but Op Shops use the money in worthy causes, and second-hand shops need to make a profit or they don’t stay open.  And we need them to stay open so that we can browse for serendipitous finds and to search for backlisted books by our favourite authors.  My favourite second-hand bookshops are Grant’s Bookshop in Reserve Rd Cheltenham and Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton, and I miss – I really, really miss – Diversity Books which used to be in Mordialloc and then Mentone, but is now only online.  I also use the charity site Brotherhood Books because they have an excellent search function on their website, and I can sometimes find something there that I can’t find anywhere else.

Do you keep your read and TBR pile together/on the same bookshelf or not?

They’re on separate shelves in my own home library, alphabetically by surname for fiction and by topic for non-fiction.  Up to a point.  I thought when I had a library at home that my books would all fit into it, but they don’t.  So some books I’ve read (not TBR books) are elsewhere around the house.  The only rooms that don’t have books in them are the bathroom and the laundry.  The slide show below doesn’t quite include all our books because I didn’t want to disturb The Spouse while he is working.  So you can’t see Biography; Military History; Jazz, Economics or his uni books.  You also can’t see my collection of plays and of foreign language learning books because the bookcase is tucked into a corner of the sitting room and it’s too hard to photograph.  There is also a cardboard box with about 20 books that publishers have sent me, but a box doesn’t make a great photo!

Do you plan to read all the books you own?

Of course.  (But I don’t make reading plans, not any more.  I never kept them anyway so now I just have vague intentions, as to the timing.)

What do you do with books that you own and that you’ll feel you’ll never read/enjoy?

I don’t have any of those.

Have you ever donated books?

I used to keep all my books, and I mostly still do, but because of lack of space now I donate books I know I’ll never read again (i.e. disappointments) to my local Op Shop.

Have you ever been on a book buying ban?
No. I have sometimes been too hard up to buy books, but that’s not a ban on buying them.  See my introduction.

Do you feel like you buy too many books?

I don’t know what this means.  Too many for what?  I have about 860 books on my TBR and at a reading rate of about 200 books per year, that’s 4 years supply if I read nothing else but what’s on my TBR.  If the eBook had succeeded in killing the real book, what I have wouldn’t be enough to last very long.  Since reading is essential to my sanity, my TBR is insurance against a bleak bookless future.

If this question means, is having a big TBR is a problem, my answer is no, it’s not.  It’s like having a well-stocked pantry, or enough clothes to meet your needs.  We make room and time for the things that matter, just as we find the money for the things that matter, or we find some other way to get them (like libraries).

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2017

Tobruk 1941, by Chester Wilmot

Doug Allan 1970

I don’t usually read military history, but I couldn’t resist this latest release in the Text Classics series.  Tobruk 1941 interests me because The Offspring had a great-uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk.  Uncle Doug Allan, who died in 1985, was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, generous to a fault and with the typical laconic Aussie sense of humour, but this apparently ordinary Aussie Bloke was also a hero, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Early in 1941, Australian troops captured Tobruk from the Italians: it was an important victory because it was Mussolini’s stronghold on the Libyan Coast.  Bordered by pitiless desert, Tobruk was a strategic fortress because it had a deep-water harbour on the eastern Mediterranean.   Rommel’s Afrika Corps quickly arrived to reclaim it and so began a 241-day siege beginning in April and not lifted until November of that year.  Germany had successfully stormed through Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, and the Afrika Corps had never been defeated.  Tobruk was the first time they were repulsed and it wasn’t just Rommel who was outraged, the German High Command was livid.  They were especially galled to discover that their crack troops had been stymied by a bunch of volunteers.  As a captured German diary showed:

Our opponents are Englishmen and Australians.  No trained attacking troops, but men with nerves and toughness, tireless, taking punishment with obstinacy, wonderful in defence.  Ah well, the Greeks also spent ten years before Troy. (p 186)

The defenders comprised 14,000 Australian soldiers commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead,  about 5000 men in four regiments of British artillery, and about 500 Indian troops under the command of the British.  For both sides, Tobruk was critical because the Allies wanted to keep Rommel tied up in Libya while they regrouped after their defeat in Greece, and the Axis Powers wanted to get on with having control of the oil fields.

Chester Wilmot was an embedded war correspondent with the AIF, and he wrote this landmark text during 1943 while he was becalmed in Sydney.  (He’d lost his accreditation because he’d offended General Blamey with criticism of the high command supplying the troops in New Guinea).  With the war still raging, Wilmot used this time to write a unique military history of the Siege of Tobruk.

As Peter Cochrane says in the Introduction:

In Tobruk 1941, Wilmot’s roving eye blends coverage of fast-moving events and battle with rich social observation, and melds the local story with its global implications.  His narrative is punctuated with biographical cameos and excerpts from interviews with the men of the garrison, so the vernacular figures prominently in an erudite text.  He is the educated Australian who can lapse into pub-yarn mode, his manner easy, his intellect sharp.  He is both military analyst and social historian, providing eyewitness accounts of combat and conditions in the fortress, covering themes such as food, fleas, health, work, sport, concerts and other entertainment.  He is pioneering a new form of military history, blending a cool dissection of material realities with a record of battle and striking descriptions of everyday life.  (p. xi)

The siege conditions were difficult, to say the least.  It was fiercely hot by day and the nights were cold, but it was the dust storms that were a severe trial:

They were far worse at Tobruk than in the open desert beyond.  Within the perimeter thousands of wheels had churned the baked crust of the earth into a fine powder, and every wind whipped it into a choking cloud.  The men breathed dust, and ate dust.  Every few days the wind raised a storm that blotted out everything.  But regardless of this the troops had to man their posts and guns; drive their vehicles without windscreens; unload ships or lay mines.  (p.206)

The diet was adequate but not nutritious and as the months went by there were cases of ‘desert sores’.  Little scratches took weeks to heal.  The water ration was just eight cups a day – and that was for all uses including washing – prompting a joke that the Diggers couldn’t wave a white handkerchief in surrender because they didn’t have any clean ones.   Wilmot – who knew all this because he was living it too – describes cricket matches to alleviate boredom alongside the casualties from the incessant bombing which could come from anywhere.  He notes that ‘shell shock’ was rare, and malingerers rarer still, and he provides examples of Aussie wit:

There’s militant teetotallers
Who abhor all kinds of drink,
There’s wives who break good bottles
And pour them down the sink;
This place would suit them to the ground,
We’ve searched in every nook,
But booze is rare as hen’s teeth in
This place they call Tobruk. (p.211)

If the Rats were bored and longing for a beer, the crack German troops were seriously disgruntled.  Wilmot had access to the diaries of captured Germans, and they reveal that their pride was hurt by the indignity of their situation:

They had been picked and trained for offensive warfare.  Many of them had been fattened on the quick victories and easy loot of the European campaigns.  They disliked a defensive role: still more distasteful was the task of digging holes in the unfriendly Libyan plateau, working in sandstorm and in heat that often rose to 110 degrees.  (p. 203)

The German rank and file were fed up with having nothing to do and nothing much to eat, because Rommel’s supply lines were dislocated.  They wanted to attack and teach these volunteer Aussies a lesson.  But by contrast morale within the besieged Tobruk was high because the Rats knew how important their role was – because they heard it in signals from the highest levels:

‘Personal Gen. MORSHEAD from C.-in-C.  Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on EGYPT and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive.  You could not repeat not be doing better service.  Well done.’

‘To General MORSHEAD from PRIME MINISTER ENGLAND.  The whole empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of EGYPT with gratitude and admiration.’ (p.188)

In the course of writing this review I visited Wikipedia, and – because I would like young Australians to know the story of Uncle Doug and his fellow Rats of Tobruk – I can’t help but comment on how dull and uninspiring the Wikipedia entry is, compared to Wilmot’s vivid writing.  Sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  But Tobruk 1941 is worth reading because it’s both.  Chapter 2, ‘Break Through’ relates the capture of Tobruk from the Italians, and it begins like this:

Their only weapons were a thin willowy stick, a pair of scissors, a pocket full of nails and a revolver.  Yet they were the advance guard of the 16000 Australian and British troops who assembled on the dark face of the desert on the night of January 20th, 1941, ready to attack Tobruk before dawn.  On the steady nerves and fingers of these men with strange weapons, the waiting infantry relied to clear the maze of booby-traps, which screened the Italian defences.

They were thirty-three members of 2/1st Field Company, led by Lieutenant S.B. Cann.  Several hours before moonrise they moved out into no-man’s land to the accompaniment of jibes from infantry, who little realised how important those thin willowy sticks were.  A stinging wind swept the desert and the sappers were thankful for their army-issue jerkins and long woollen underwear, and for ‘rum-primed’ water bottles, which were some compensation for the greatcoats they had left behind.  To lessen risk of detection  they wore woollen Balaclavas instead of tin hats and their shiny leather jerkins were turned inside out.  (p. 29)

I found it interesting that I developed a different kind of reading skill for this book.  In some ways it was like the experience of learning to read legalese when I was doing a law degree.  It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of getting used to concepts, vocabulary and acronyms that are just not part of an everyday vocabulary.  I did get used to the military acronyms, but it took a bit longer to be able to visualise all the different kinds of weapons, planes and ships.  (There are maps that show events, but I would also have liked one that showed Tobruk’s position in North Africa and the Mediterranean.)

The other thing that happened as I read, was that I became very conscious of the casualties.  Wilmot mentions few heroic deaths by name, but I think most 21st century readers will read between the lines with a keen awareness of the enormous human cost of this one episode in a war that lasted six years.  When Wilmot wrote – not casually, but without lingering over details – about a ship going down during the relief operation, I thought about the people on board, and their families and their descendants.  I don’t think I’ve ever been made quite so aware of the courage of individual men even though Wilmot mostly only names the officers.

I don’t know how this book stacks up against contemporary histories of this heroic story: Tobruk 1941 was written during the war so perhaps we should assume not just that some matters were self-censored, but also that its mildly triumphalist tone was not just asserting a strategic and symbolic enemy defeat but was also intended to sustain domestic morale.  Cochrane notes that Wilmot had little to say about the Indian contribution and local civilian casualties, and my guess is that contemporary military historians would attempt to redress these omissions with research.  Populist historians might be inclined towards being dismissive or critical of the British as they so often are, but Wilmot is at pains to acknowledge the complementary efforts of the Tommies and the Diggers, invoking the Anzac spirit to praise the dashing courage and initiative of the Australians in the vanguard while admiring the Churchillian spirit of the dogged and indefatigable British.  Aware that there was a tendency for some war correspondents to give all the credit to the Australians, Wilmot writes extensively about the British artillery that – without air support – repulsed German aircraft and he acknowledges that nothing could have been achieved without them.

But at heart, he says in the Preface, we are all British, which is not something anyone would suggest today:

A few words of explanation may be necessary on the vexed question of the use of the term ‘British’.  Where I have spoken at large of our forces as opposed to the enemy’s, ‘British’ embraces all the Imperial, Dominion and Allied troops. But wherever I have spoken of particular forces I have used it – lacking any suitable alternative – to refer only to those of the United Kingdom.  This obviously does not imply that Australians regard themselves as any less British than the people of the British Isles.  (p. 8)

Quaint, eh? Well just remember – it’s not all that long ago that Australians had British citizenship and British passports!

Author: Chester Wilmot
Title: Tobruk, 1941
Introduction by Peter Cochrane
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925498455
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Tobruk 1941: Text Classics (Text Classics)
Or direct from Text, where it is also available as an eBook.

Sarah Waters has legions of fans, but I wasn’t expecting much from The Little Stranger, and so I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s quite an enjoyable Gothic/ghost tale, but it’s a bit too long for itself and even the faultless narration by Simon Vance didn’t prevent my attention from wandering a bit.

The story is set in rural Warwickshire, in post-war Britain, where the Bolshie Labour government is taxing the aristocrats out of their Stately Homes so that they can fund the National Health Service.  The narrator, Dr Faraday, is conflicted about this because as a working-class lad made good, he is conscious of his origins but likes hanging about with Posh People.  He becomes the family doctor of the troubled family on the Hundreds Estate, where Roderick is physically and mentally damaged by his time in the RAAF, and where Caroline has had to leave a potentially more interesting life in London to come home and look after him and her widowed mother Mrs Ayres.  (But Caroline is stoic about this, as befits her unmarried status and Roderick’s status as a war hero.  Oh yes, and also befitting her Responsibility to The Estate).

The catalyst for Faraday’s first visit is the mysterious illness of the servant Betty.  (The house is falling to bits, the weeds are miles high, but gosh, they can’t possibly do without a servant, can they?) Faraday, quite capable of patronising people from the same class origin as himself) discovers that Betty thinks there is a Presence in the house.  She is only 14 and she wants to go home, but Dr F dismisses it all as nonsense and promises her that he won’t tell anyone that she was faking as long as she gets back to work.  Which she does, and becomes  A Loyal Retainer thereafter, but she retains the right to mutter about The Presence, of course).


After this forewarning, the Strange Things start to happen.  A placid dog attacks a small child.  There are noises.  Marks on the walls.  Moving objects.  And then a fire.  When Roderick finally cracks up, he is treated more respectfully than Betty, but it’s a dubious honour.  He gets packed off to an expensive ‘rest home’.

It is at this point that the sceptical reader starts to question proceedings.  All these weird things are reported, not seen.  Is Roderick deranged, pretending to be deranged, or is he being deluded by a malevolent person who might be Caroline, Betty, or even the good Dr F? Is there some advantage to scaring off the others, leaving one of them in sole possession of The Estate?  Or is there really a poltergeist?  Really??  Really???

Faraday’s motives get murkier when, having offered his scornful opinions about Caroline’s unattractiveness and poor dress sense, he now finds he fancies her.  He doesn’t ever say so, but any reasonably alert reader will realise that marrying Caroline is his entrée into the gentry.  (We Australians always find this class-consciousness stuff incomprehensible.  We can be snobs too, but not about obsolete pedigrees).   However Caroline – although we suspect that she sees the benefit of Faraday’s income on the weeds and the cracking plaster – gives off rather strong touch-me-not signals- which might mean she is gay, or it might mean that she thinks Faraday is a Creep.  (As some readers are also starting to do).

More Strange Things happen and the reader still wading through the padding might take a mild interest in who benefits from the mayhem.  Or might not.

I was bemused to see that this book was nominated for the Booker.  It’s mildly entertaining light reading, but there isn’t really any point to it.  No less a person than Hilary Mantel said it was ‘gripping’ (really??) and that it combines ‘spookiness with sharp social observation’ but really, the characters are such clichés I can’t believe Mantel was being anything other than kind-hearted.   Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell have the bases covered on class consciousness and it’s been a common theme in BritLit since Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice.  What is the point of ‘sharp social observation’ of the mid 20th century, other than to reinforce class stereotypes?  Was there some other significant theme that I’ve overlooked?

Author: Sarah Waters
Title: The Little Stranger
Narrated by Simon Vance
Publisher: Penguin Audio, 2009
ISBN: 9780143144809
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Little Stranger


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Konstantin, by Tom Bullough

Konstantin was a serendipitous find at the library.  It’s a fairly simple story, but beautifully written, and there are some heart-stopping moments to propel the narrative along.

Based on the real life story of the Russian/Soviet scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, this novella tells the story of the emergence of his interest in rocketry and astronautics, and how he overcame all manner of difficulties to become one of the founders of space travel.  But the book is not a fictionalised biography, it is slices of an imagined life, focussing on the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of its subject.  And Russia, with its magnificent landscapes and brutal weather, is almost a character too.

The book begins with Kostya’s childhood in Ryazan on the river Oka where his father Eduard Ignatyevich is a forester.  He is an adventurous child with an enquiring mind but he falls victim to scarlet fever and is left with residual deafness.  Because he cannot hear properly and his mother Maria Ivanova fusses over him, he is teased by his cousin and almost drowns in the frozen river. It would have been a loss to the world if he had.

Kostya is fascinated by the solar system and loves to make models of inventions like the steam engine, but he falls behind at school.  His father, who believes passionately in the life of the mind, is very disappointed but he supports Kostya with an allowance for self-study in Moscow.  By sheer good luck he becomes acquainted with the librarian at the Chertkovsky library, and it is Nikolai Fedorovich Federov who brings him a copy of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. By now Kostya understands enough of physics to identify the flaws in Verne’s science – and to posit an alternative.  He thinks there might be some way to harness the Earth’s centrifugal force.

The brutal poverty of those pre-Soviet days almost kills Kostya, and his interest in the daughter of a very wealthy aristocrat turns out to be perilous too.  Kostya is headstrong, and passionate about his ideas, but the book concludes with his early career as an inspiring teacher, making experimental models on the side.  In real life it was the Soviets who harnessed his genius and the epilogue reveals his legacy: it tells the harrowing story of Alexei Leonov’s first space walk in 1965 and near-disastrous re-entry.

I can’t help but note here that I remember the marvel of this space walk, which took place before the author Tom Bullough was even born.  But I had never heard of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and I enjoyed reading his story.

Recommended for anyone who’s not blasé about the miracle of space travel!

Author: Tom Bullough
Title: Konstantin
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012
ISBN: 9780670920921
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Konstantin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is such a strange book, I hardly know how to begin.  Marilynne Robinson is world famous, especially after Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but I didn’t much like Gilead so I was in no rush to read this first novel when in 2015 it arrived chez moi with the first release of Faber Modern Classics. (Which has since gone on to become a list of 21 titles).  Housekeeping sat alone and lonely, abandoned in a box marked 2015, but I couldn’t quite make myself take it to the Op Shop which is the fate of books that publishers have sent me but which fail to spark my interest.  I have no such compunctions with thrillers, crime novels, YA and weepy memoirs, but, well, I am in awe of the Robinson name, if not of her books.

Alone and lonely, abandoned in the care of someone not very interested in its fate… without knowing it, I had treated this book just like the characters in this novel!  Lucille and Ruthie are two girls living in Fingerbone, a small village in rural Idaho.  In what looks like a carefully planned suicide, they are abandoned first by their sole parent mother Helen to the care of their grandmother Sylvia, who has herself been abandoned by all three of her daughters.  (Molly has gone off to be a missionary in China, Helen had lost contact when she married, and Sylvie is an eccentric wanderer).  When grandmother dies, two elderly in-laws called Nona and Lily come to care for the girls but they are only too relieved to abandon the responsibility when long lost Aunt Sylvie turns up.

Men are conspicuous by their absence: Grandfather Edmund is killed in a train crash off the local bridge, unburied in the same lake in which Helen suicides.  The girls have never known their father, and there is a mock father figure of the sheriff (who is clearly out of his depth in this dysfunctional situation) but he becomes the catalyst for the breakup of this fragile family.

I haven’t read many reviews but the ones I’ve seen go on about the religious aspects of this novel and its Calvinism.  That’s not what I noticed so much.  This is a novel of the 1980s, a time when many of us were questioning women’s roles and exploring how we could have equal rights and our freedom and manage the impact on our families, our homes, and our children.  It seems to me that in amongst the religious stuff, Housekeeping is asking the same questions, trying to resolve a yearning for freedom and a rejection of the expectation that it’s women who pick up the pieces.  The novel asks: what happens when women just don’t do what society expects them to do.  What happens when they just don’t comprehend the predetermined roles?

First published in 1980, the novel has no clear setting in time, but it has a 1950s feel, the postwar period when women had had to abandon their participation in work and the wartime economy to retreat to housekeeping and domesticity.  These homemakers were also expected to conform in appearance and to sustain a devotion to their clothing and hair.  But the girls in Housekeeping have a free-range childhood.  They are under the nominal care of successive women who – for different reasons – pay no attention to the socialisation or education or appearance of Lucille and Ruthie, and who seem to have no concept of what keeping house might mean.  It’s not just an epic fail in housework, it’s an inability to make a home, a place to nurture two little orphaned girls.

I may have missed it, but I don’t think the author ever uses the term homemaker.  But it is implicit, though it’s not clear what homemaking might mean when separated from the domestic nirvana perpetrated in the 1950s.   Nobody is baking brownies or sewing or knitting for the girls. Nobody is decorating the house or organising playdates, sleepovers or birthday parties.  Nobody is making sure that shoes fit, nobody is reading bedtime stories, nobody is nursing wounded souls or even answering the girls’ questions about their parents.   But which of these aspects of housekeeping matter seems submerged.  I am not sure if Lucille and Ruthie have a sense of home even as they become aware of its limitations, or if what they have is a constrained (or just desperate) sense of family.   But it is also not clear who should be doing whatever kind of housekeeping is ultimately deemed important.  It is not exactly neglect on the part of the adults: I am not sure that the characters reject their expected roles as homemakers, it seems to be more a case of simply not comprehending what it means.  The feminist in me makes me note that nobody is expecting the absent father to make a home for his children.  The reader is left to wonder whether he comprehends housekeeping.


Aunt Sylvie is dramatically eccentric: she hoards empty tin cans and newspapers like Homer and Langley do.  But we can also read this as refusal, the kind of blind refusal to see the trash that needs to be put out by somebody.  The stereotypical 1950s man read the newspaper, and when he finished, he left it where it was, and he did not see it to notice it cluttering up the tidy home thereafter.  The stereotypical woman of the 1950s may have asked him to put it out with the trash – and if she asked twice it was nagging so her timing had to be good.  But if he didn’t remove his newspaper (and it was his) then she had to deal with it or it would have mounted up in stacks like Sylvie’s do.  The tin cans flourish, of course, because Sylvie does not cook except for ad hoc fry-ups, like men who say they can only do an egg or a burger, not cook an evening meal.  (These battles seem won in the 21st century, but some women discover guerrilla warfare when they stop work to have children).

Sylvie also disappears for long periods of time, crucially at night, when grownups are supposed to be there in the house to protect the children and to make them feel secure. Somebody supervises the pyjamas and tooth-brushing, tucks the children in, and deals with night-time terrors or wet beds.  The stereotypical 1950s mother did all this because she was expected to and because the stereotypical 1950s father was ‘tired after being at work all day’.  But Sylvie is as oblivious as he was.  She sleeps outside – on the grass and under trees and in her car.  She is as absent as a father who has gone away for a conference or on night shift, who takes it for granted that somebody is taking care of things.  But there is no somebody.  Society has assumed that Sylvie is the somebody but she is just someone who has moved into the house with the girls.  She has not ‘taken them on’.

Sylvie also has an unreachable personality.  She isn’t brooding or sulking.  Words float past her and there are long silences. She is simply not there for the girls.  She is unavailable to be a counsellor, a guide, a role model or a negotiator on their behalf.  The reader does not know what she thinks, or where she has been, or why she has become a drifter – and neither do the girls. So Lucille and Ruthie depend entirely on each other for love and affection, not to mention many of the practicalities of life.  I am not sure if the novel asks us to believe that these girls are undamaged, as if to say, see, all those brownies and frilly knickers are unnecessary, but as they reach adolescence, Lucille makes an unsurprising choice.  She opts for conformity and abandons Ruthie by going to live with a schoolteacher.  Facing belated pressure from the good folk of Fingerbone, Ruthie and Sylvia abandon things too.

Not since I read Angela’s Ashes, have I read a novel so saturated with water.  (Sorry, the pun is irresistible). It’s not just the fatal lake, the village also floods under torrential rain.  The heavens open a lot. But although the ground level is flooded, the quirky house built by Grandfather is a kind of ark – though why an Old Testament God should visit such punishment on the seemingly harmless wasn’t clear to me. But besides the flood, the girls are always getting wet and sleeping in damp clothes,  as if to compensate for tears unshed.

I didn’t find Housekeeping a very engaging novel, but I liked it better than Gilead.  Housekeeping is no 92 in the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.  (Careful, that review is one of the worst examples of spoilers I’ve ever seen).

Emma at Book Around the Corner reviewed it too: be sure to read the comments as well!

Author: Marilynne Robinson
Title: Housekeeping
Publisher: Faber Modern Classics, 2015, first published 1980
ISBN: 9780571322756
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Housekeeping: Faber Modern Classics

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2017

Vale to the man who taught me to love books

My dear old dad died today.  He almost made it to his 92nd birthday.

It was my dad who nurtured my love of books.  He read stories to me when I was little.  Wherever we lived in the world, he took me to the local library.  He gave me books for Christmas and birthdays.  He introduced me to the great writers of the 20th century.

We spent a lifetime talking about books together and he was still talking about the books we loved just last week.  If ever you’ve enjoyed chatting about books here on this blog, then please raise a toast to the wonderful man who was the catalyst behind every word I’ve ever written here.

He taught me to be stoic too, so the show goes on….

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