ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature
Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2021

2022 Indie Book Awards Longlist

The 2022 Indie Book Awards Longlist was announced today.


  • After Story by Larissa Behrendt (University of Queensland Press), see my review
  • The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks (HQ Fiction, HarperCollins Australia)
  • Plum by Brendan Cowell (Fourth Estate Australia)
  • Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Treasure and Dirt by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin)
  • Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of Dreams by Anita Heiss (Simon & Schuster Australia), see my review
  • Devotion by Hannah Kent (Picador Australia)
  • Love Objects by Emily Maguire (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy (Hamish Hamilton Australia)
  • The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson (Hachette Australia)



  • Whole Notes by Ed Ayres (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
  • Love Stories by Trent Dalton (Fourth Estate Australia)
  • Who Gets to Be Smart by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin)
  • Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry by Richard Flanagan (Penguin Australia), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
  • How We Love by Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin)
  • Larrimah by Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent by Gideon Haigh (Scribner Australia), on my TBR
  • FunkyTown by Paul Kennedy (Affirm Press)
  • So You Think You Know What’s Good for You? by Dr Norman Swan (Hachette Australia)
  • My Adventurous Life by Dick Smith (Allen & Unwin)


  • When Things Are Alive They Hum by Hannah Bent (Ultimo Press)
  • Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Tribute by John Byron (Affirm Press)
  • The Curlew’s Eye by Karen Manton (Allen & Unwin)
  • We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson (HarperCollins Australia)
  • Permafrost by SJ Norman (University of Queensland Press)
  • The Stoning by Peter Papathanasiou (Transit Lounge)
  • She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (Tor), see my review
  • Love & Virtue by Diana Reid (Ultimo Press)
  • The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart (Viking Australia)


  • Where the River Bends by Jane and Jimmy Barnes (HarperCollins Australia)
  • Still Life by Amber Creswell Bell (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • Garden Like a Nonno by Jaclyn Crupi (Affirm Press)
  • Costa’s World by Costa Georgiadis (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
  • A Room of Her Own by Robyn Lea (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • The Great Forest by David Lindenmayer, with photographs by Chris Taylor, Sarah Rees & Steven Kuiter (Allen & Unwin)
  • Old Vintage Melbourne by Chris Macheras (Scribe)
  • The Good Life by Hannah Moloney (Affirm Press)
  • Wild Mushrooming: A Guide for Foragers by Alison Pouliot & Tom May (CSIRO Publishing)
  • Country Dogs on Doorsteps by Suzanne Stevenson (Affirm Press)


  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature by Sami Bayly (Lothian Children’s Books)
  • Tomorrow is a Brand-New Day by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (Scribble)
  • The Boy and the Elephant by Freya Blackwood (HarperCollins Australia) Walk of the Whales by Nick Bland (Little Hare)
  • The World’s Most Pointless Animals by Philip Bunting (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing) Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin Children’s)
  • Somebody’s Land: Welcome to Our Country by Adam Goodes & Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy (Allen & Unwin Children’s)
  • Down the Road, Little Bee by Sarah Jane Lightfoot (Affirm Press)
  • Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia) >Wandi by Favel Parrett (Lothian Children’s Books)


  • self/less by AViVA (Pan Australia)
  • The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks (Lothian Children’s Books), see Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  • 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze by Clayton Zane Comber (HarperCollins Australia)
  • The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough (Allen & Unwin Children’s)
  • Terciel and Elinor by Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin Children’s)
  • The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni (Penguin Australia)
  • Dark Rise by C S Pacat (Allen & Unwin Children’s)
  • If Not Us by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
  • House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland (Penguin Australia)
  • Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Wilde (University of Queensland Press)

The Shortlist will be announced on 19 January 2022, with the Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner being announced at a virtual awards event on Monday 21 March 2022.

The Indie Book Awards are sponsored by: Shawline Publishing Group, Pan Macmillan, Affirm Press, Penguin Random House, Thames & Hudson, Simon & Schuster, Text Publishing and Awards partner Hachette.

Congratulations to all the authors, illustrators, editors and publishers!

I know, I shouldn’t do this, but along with Australia Post, booksellers are warning us not to delay with orders for Christmas gifts, and so I’m going to tell you about a book I haven’t finished reading because I just know there are readers out there who will want to give or hint for this book.

Harlem Night, the Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age is a book for anyone interested in yes, of course, jazz, but also the history of Australia’s entertainment industry; the delayed take-up of modernism in the arts in Australia; the pernicious influence of the White Australia Policy beyond immigration issues; the impact of an unholy alliance of unionism and opportunist politics; and the surprising difference that could be made by just one man.  And for anyone interested in the politics of race and power…

And that’s just what I’ve absorbed from reading one-third of it.

This is the blurb from the back cover:

The 1920s were a time of wonder and flux, when Australians sensed a world growing smaller, turning faster-and, for some, skittering off balance. American movies, music and dance brought together what racial lines kept apart. A spirit of youthful rebellion collided with the promise of racial perfectibility, stirring deep anxieties in white nationalists and moral reformers. African-American jazz represented the type of modernism that cosmopolitan Australians craved-and the champions of White Australia feared.

Enter Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea. Snuck in under the wire by an astute promoter, the Harlem-style revue broke from the usual blackface minstrel fare, delivering sophisticated, liberating rhythms. The story of their Australian tour is a tale of conspiracy-a secret plan to kick out and keep out ‘undesirable’ expressions of modernism, music and race.

From the wild jazz clubs of Prohibition-era LA to Indigenous women discovering a new world of black resistance, this anatomy of a scandal-fuelled frame-up brings into focus a vibrant cast of characters from Australia’s Jazz Age.

Some may not know that I have a (very) minor role in broadcasting jazz on a community radio station.  The Spouse (whose impressive professional CV includes what started as a hobby i.e. being leader and arranger of the Australian Cotton Club Orchestra) has been presenting Swing and Sway on 3CR for decades, and he has recently stepped into the shoes of the late Ralph Knight who presented Steam Radio for over forty years. Since he’s also presenting a jazz program on Radio 3RPP in Mornington, and all this has to be prepared offsite since the pandemic, I have resumed doing the very occasional program to give him a break.  I mention this because my interest in jazz is specific to big band jazz of the 20s, 30s and 40s, and although this is heresy to aficionados, I prefer the melodic style and rhythms of British Dance Bands to hot jazz from America.  One of the aspects that I’ve found interesting in Harlem Nights is the way these differences have been framed in terms of race.

This fantasy of Blackness found voice in the literary prose of a generation of White bohemians and cosmopolitans who experienced Black music as a psychodrama where primitive ‘African’ musicians rescued ‘over-civilised’ White dancers from generations of Victorian sexual repression.  Black rhythm, in this formulation, was a brand of bodily and psychic liberation— a Freudian antidote for a generation of Whites crushed and constrained by the narrow rules of ‘correct’ behaviour.  But what felt and looked like ‘the new’ reprised old familiar themes, grounded in dubious theories of biologically inscribed racial difference.

Music critic Roger Pryor Dodge, for instance, believed that ‘Negro’ jazz players did ‘not consciously’ plot and compose, but derived their musical inventiveness from ‘uncontrolled frantic moments of ‘subconscious improvisation’.  In other words, an ability independent of artistry and skill but contingent on the spontaneous outpourings of an inescapably primitive Black essence.  (p.31)

Sonny Clay Band, Australia, 1928 (See image credit)

As O’Connell explains further in the chapter ‘The Jazzing Spheres’, when the Australian promoter of Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea subscribed to the fashionably cosmopolitan view that ‘jazz as played by a European’ and a ‘real Negro’ were ‘entirely different’ he was conforming to this primitivist fantasy.

‘It’s all in the syncopation,’ he explained.  ‘One, brought to America by the original African Negroes—is natural—the other, as acquirement, is artificial’. (p.76)

Today, we can see how racist that framing is.

As jazz made its way to Australia, entertainment promoters offered what they could get, constrained then as now by the cost of getting a large group of artists here and their willingness to travel so far.  In the 1920s, rivals Harry Muller and Bob Conkey had supplied two jazzy bands that generated money, created personal memories and deepened cultural engagement. 

But the cold economic truth of the Tivoli’s bottom line told a different story: shilling for shilling, the Southern [Black] Revue was just as popular but far more profitable than Henry Santrey’s [White] Syncopated Orchestra.  A paying audience was hungry for jazz music and dance, no matter […] if the performers were Black or White.

The revelation solved Henry Muller’s American conundrum.  The economic logic that made ‘Australia-time’ so unappealing to White vaudevillians did not apply to Black musicians who worked longer hours for less money and enjoyed fewer opportunities. With a Black review, Harry Muller could secure an up-to-the-minute, quality act, prepared to undertake the long journey across the Pacific.  (p.57)

And so he brought Sonny Clay and his band to Australia along with vocalist Ivie Anderson (who later sang with Duke Ellington).  But there was trouble.  Muller did not tell Clay that hostile officialdom was alert to their impending arrival; that the racial rhetoric had hardened under Prime Minister Billy Hughes, then broadened under his successor, Stanley Bruce; that there had been some fudging on the visa applications because the Musicians Union in an unholy alliance with some politicians had led to a situation where comedians, jubilee singers, and dance troupes toured Australia but not dance band musicians. Musicians of colour, that is.  The visa applications were for ‘colored theatrical artists’, not musicians.

O’Connell writes an engaging account of how it all went so horribly wrong.  It’s a broad brush, superbly researched account that takes in the social and political history of the period, and the book is an excellent accompaniment to Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library in the way that it shows how moralists and paternalists impacted on the messy contest of ideas at play in Sydney over the contours of modernity in Australia.  Isolated by geography and the limitations of communications in that era, Australians were denied access to international developments in entertainment and the arts, creating a cultural backwater that took decades to wash away.

Harlem Nights is not just a book about jazz…

Other reviews, from people who’ve read it all?  Although I haven’t read it yet either, the book was reviewed in a generous spread by Richard King in The Australian (which sent me on a so-far fruitless search at the library for his book On Offence, the Politics of Indignation, one for my post-Xmas wishlist if nobody gives it to me.) Alas, the review in the Australian Book Review is paywalled too.

The book is available direct from MUP including as an eBook, and from good bookstores everywhere.

Image credit: Sonny Clay Band, Australia, 1928, by Sam Hood, from vintage print, Hood Collection part II State Library of New South Wales, PXE 789 (v.8) 1.,  via Wikipedia Public Domain,

Author: Deirdre O’Connell
Title: Harlem Nights, The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877649, pbk, 408 pages with some B&W reproductions of photos and texts; including an extensive index, notes, bibliography and acknowledgements.
Review copy courtesy of MUP.

Do read Mairi Neil’s account of our recent outing to the Bayside Art Gallery to see The Toy Library. Her photos are great!

Up the Creek with a pen ...

Shakesbear and his Complete Works by artist Cat Rabbit

I could count on my one hand the creative events and exhibitions I’ve been to in the last two years and I know I’m not alone.

There was attendance at talks, videos and workshops online, but that’s not the same as the sensations experienced walking around, sometimes touching, smelling, hearing and seeing and most importantly feeling the buzz from emotional connections.

Attending events and exhibitions in person triggers memories and ideas and occasionally controversies. If you have someone to share the experience: to reminisce, laugh, cry, debate merits, discuss the impact and celebrate the success, it is a bonus.

Until last Thursday, the “live” events I’ve managed to experience have been with family – and all this year (the least said about 2020 the better!):

  • a Hannah Gadsby Concert at Sydney Myer Music Bowl with daughter Anne enabling great exercise of…

View original post 1,357 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2021

Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy

Just last week I was toying with the idea of joining Marina Sofia in her December reading project ‘Russians in the Snow’ because I thought that settings in snowy wastes would be consoling in the extreme heat of an Australian summer.  Little did I know that within a day or two I would be reading a book that sent a chill down my spine, and not just because it’s set in the polar region of Norway!

This is the blurb about Robyn Mundy’s new novel Cold Coast:

Inspired by the story of Svalbard’s first female trapper, Cold Coast is a gripping portrayal of survival within the stark beauty and perilous wilderness of the high Arctic.

In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work, is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

Mundy is brilliant at capturing the sensory immediacy of her characters’ environment.  She knows it well from her own experience in wild places.  Her first novel The Nature of Ice was set in Antarctica where she has wintered and summered; and she has worked seasonally in Svalbard, Greenland, Antarctica, the Norwegian Coast and wild Scotland as a ship-based tour guide.  This is the moment when it is too late for Wanny to change her mind:

The clanging of the anchor chain reverberates across the water to the shoreline where she stands beside Sæterdal.  Sjefen, Chief, the men call him. They watch as the boat swings out, three warbling blasts to signal farewell.  A year before they will see another ship.  A year away from those she holds most dear.  She draws herself firm, raises her arm, imagining how, from out there, she and he are two stick figures, barely human, marooned in frozen vastness.

When the ship motors from view, too late to change her mind, a man’s voice comes to her as sharply as the wind that shimmies down the mountain and knocks a fist between her shoulder blades. (p.29)

Summer is making a belated start here in Victoria, so it was comforting to read this novel under the warmth of the doona, but Cold Coast is not a book to read at bedtime because the narrative tension is constant.  It is not just foxes that break into the hut in search of food, bears do it too, and neither Sæterdal nor Wanny can relax their scrutiny of the landscape for long.  Every venture means risk, and there are heart-stopping moments when survival is touch and go, not least because they can rarely trust the ice beneath their feet.

Their New year trip to Fuglefjell has been delayed thanks to a second inscrutable week of heavy snow, then showers of rain, then freeze and hail, the only constant a fierceness of wind which jams new rafts of ice and logs of driftwood up along the shoreline.  Out in the fjord, bergs locked in the sea split and topple, issuing a booming thunder and opening up the ice until the gash refreezes.  When snowdrift eases enough to see out the back door, to make headway on skis beyond the Signal, they slip and slither on patches of black ice.  Their dogs slide on their haunches in a knot of harnesses, the sledge toppling when it hits the snow.  Wanny loses count of the trigger locks she pulls apart, the wooden pieces doused with rain then frozen in place, all along the trap line.  She struggles physically and mentally at the thought of twenty traps — the kilograms of stone to be offloaded, each trap cleared of snow before it can be rebaited, the aching effort of gingerly reloading thirty, forty kilograms of stone back onto a frame… (p.147)

Mundy does not shirk the confronting issue of hunting and trapping in this fragile environment.  Indeed, this novel is a powerful argument for why such places should be protected.  Wanny and Sæterdal are not evil, greedy people, but they are there to make money.  Some of what they kill is for food, but they prey on animals with a valuable pelt, because of human desires. When Wanny asks why a bearskin is worth less than a fox, Sæterdal taunts her:

The Chief scoffs. ‘Next time you are hobnobbing in your taxi, ask your own fair sex why they squander their husband’s savings to wear a fox’s coat.’

He dismisses women so harshly.  ‘Perhaps because it is practical,’ she retaliates.  ‘Because fox is warm and light as air to wear.  Because it is soft and utterly beautiful.’

‘Beautiful it may be.  Nought to do with practicality.  There are plenty of other options to keep a person warm.  ‘With ladies’, he says, ‘it is all about fashion and vanity.  The gentle art of persuasion that wives excel at with their husbands’ wallets,’ he says.  ‘You can be sure it is not you or me to reap the reward.  Fur traders are the ones growing fat on the profits.’ (p.147)

That, for Sæterdal, is a long speech! It takes great authorial skill to sustain a narrative about just two such reticent characters.  Wanny’s interior thoughts are predominant, but there are frequent glimpses of Sæterdal’s insecurities as well.  As the year progresses they share edited versions of their backstories, but neither is willing to go much beyond a precis.  Much of their time is spent in silence, but this wild place is not silent — there is the barking of their three dogs, the bird calls,  the rattle of the stovepipe in the hut, the hail on the roof drowning out any attempts at speech, the thunder of an iceberg calving, the howling of the wind or the deadening effects of a lethal fog.

Parallel to the story written from the human perspective is the story of the Blue Fox, runt of the litter and cheeky in its scorn for their plans to trap it.  It is a reminder that the polar regions belong to the wildlife there and that the humans are interlopers whose survival depends not on the resources of the natural world but rather what they bring with them.  However Sæterdal and Wanny do share some aspects of the fox’s survival arsenal.  What they bring with them, is not just the paraphernalia of guns, knives, tools, food and warm clothing, it is also courage, determination, skill, and a capacity to adapt and learn.

Cold Coast is going to be one of my Best Books of the Year.

PS Many thanks to Amanda Curtin for bringing this book to my attention.

Author: Robyn Mundy
Title: Cold Coast
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Ultimo Press (Hardie Grant), 2021
ISBN: 9781761150210, pbk., 277 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2021

2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists

The 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have just been announced.  Here they are:


  • After Story by Larissa Behrendt (University of Queensland Press), see my review
  • Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (Text Publishing)
  • Echolalia by Briohny Doyle (Penguin Random House)
  • The Dogs by John Hughes (Upswell Publishing), see my review
  • Smokehouse by Melissa Manning (University of Queensland Press)
  • Permafrost by S.J Norman (University of Queensland Press)


  • Coming of Age in the War on Terror by Randa Abdel-Fattah (NewSouth)
  • Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future by Danielle Celermajer (Penguin Random House)
  • Black and Blue: A Memoir of Racism and Resilience by Veronica Gorrie (Scribe Publications)
  • The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Buried Not Dead by Fiona McGregor (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego (University of Queensland Press)

Indigenous Writing

  • Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen (University of Queensland Press)
  • Black and Blue: A Memoir of Racism and Resilience by Veronica Gorrie (Scribe Publications)
  • The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough (Allen & Unwin)
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego (University of Queensland Press)


  • Return to the Dirt by Steve Perie (Queensland Theatre)
  • Archimedes War by Melissa Reeves (Darebin Speakeasy)
  • Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg (Currency Press)


  • How Decent Folk Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
  • Human Looking by Andy Jackson (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Trigger Warning by Maria Takolander (University of Queensland Press)

Writing for Young Adults

  • Girls in Boys’ Cars by Felicity Castagna (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Gaps by Leanne Hall (Text Publishing)
  • Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim (Allen & Unwin)

Unpublished Manuscript

  • Fauna of Mirrors by Keshe Chow
  • Lead Us Not by Abbey Lay
  • The Albatross by Nina Wan

Highly commended


  • The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Hachette Australia)
  • In Moonland by Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss (Simon & Schuster Australia), see my review


  • Currowan by Bronwyn Adcock (Black Inc. Books)
  • The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy (Text Publishing)
  • Design: Building on Country by Alison Page & Paul Memmott (Thames and Hudson Australia)

Indigenous Writing

  • Permafrost by S.J Norman (University of Queensland Press)
  • Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki (Magabala Books), see my review


  • Dogged by Andrea James and Catherine Ryan (Currency Press)


  • Gravidity and Parity by Eleanor Jackson (Vagabond Press)
  • m//otherland by Asiel Adan Sanchez (Revarena)
  • Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki (Magabala Books)

Young Adult

  • The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni (Penguin Random House Australia)

Unpublished Manuscript

  • Orangutan Ballet by C.J. Garrow
  • The Echoes of George Street by Elliot J Han
  • Strange Intersections by Soja Pitt

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

To find out more visit the awards website.

In other awards news, I have seen a Tweet from poet Adam Aitken that he has won the Patrick White Award.  See a profile of him here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: from Ethan Frome to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. You can see my review here, where I mention that the book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. (Mine is the 2006 edition.)  And although there are only 142 books from that canon reviewed here on this blog, I’ve read 380 of them and that gives me heaps of scope for a link!

How to start? Let’s go with L’Assommoir by Émile Zola, because I have just received a brand new translation of it by my favourite translator, Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French at Monash University.  Published by Oxford World’s Classics, it has the same Introduction by Robert Lethbridge as the 1995 Margaret Mauldon translation, but (of course) the Notes on the Translation are new, referring to the difficulty of translating C19th French slang and to a change of approach.  Where Mauldon writes that she aimed for an English equivalent not of recent vintage to convey the vigour of the original, Nelson asserts the importance of writing for a contemporary audience, aiming to use vigorously colloquial contemporary language.  So I am looking forward to see how these differences are manifested in the new translation.

From a recent translation of an 19th century novel, let’s go to a more recent one.  First published in 2016 and in English in 2019, I am God by Giacomo Sartori, translated by Frederika Randall is an irreverent satire, starring God as a lovelorn narrator who’s fallen in love with a human.  This book also gets my nomination for the best cover of the year, with the glitter alluding so perfectly to the creator of the stars in the universe.  (Or so he says.)  You can see my review here.

That irreverence reminds me immediately of Cain, the last novel by José Saramago, (1922-2010) the great Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998.  (Cain isn’t listed in 1001 Books, but there are three that are, including The Double, which I’ve reviewed here).  There are a surprising number of novels with Biblical settings, and I’ve read six of which my absolute favourite is Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, (see my review here).  But the one I want to remind you of today is a feminist tale, also derived from the New Testament.

It’s The Book of Rachael (2011) by Leslie Cannold. It’s an imagined life of the sister of Jesus, and as I said in my reviewNothing is known of her, not even her name, and to right this wrong that insults all women, Cannold has created a rich and turbulent life, almost as messianic as Jesus’ own.  As far as I know, Cannold hasn’t written any further fiction, but I’d be delighted to be corrected on that because The Book of Rachael was a really beaut book.

“The Book of…” is a common title, and there’s half a dozen books that use it reviewed here on the blog.  Let’s go to The Book of Fame (2016) by NZ author Lloyd Jones, which was about a rugby tour in 1905.  Winner of the Tasmania Prize and the Deutz Medal for fiction, the novel (as I said in my review) is a meditation on celebrity, and how the ordinary blokes from a football team learned their strange new place in a world remote from everything they knew.  This was one of a number of books which overcame my lack of interest in sport because it was really about something else, as was The Family Men by Catherine Harris. In my review, I wrote that Harris is interested in how people misbehave, especially in the workplace compared to the home — and, given recent reports of unparliamentary behaviour by some very prominent people, what fertile ground there is for more fiction on that issue!

The workplace Harris exposes is the world of football.  While The Book of Fame is to some extent more about the naïveté of the amateur sportsmen in the novel, The Family Men, is about the ugly celebrity culture of professional sport.  It explores misbehaviour on a grand scale and offers an intense study of internal moral conflict.  The novel was published in 2014, and I do hope there will be a new novel from this author before long.

So there we are, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Next month’s starter book is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  And I’ve read it!

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2021

Breakfast with the Nikolides, by Rumer Godden

Well, I jumped the gun a bit with my previous post about Rumer Godden’s The River, but this time I’m on schedule for #RumerGoddenReadingWeek at Brona’s This Reading Life…

Breakfast with the Nikolides is, according to Rosie Thomas who wrote the Introduction for this Virago edition, one of three early novels that reflect the themes and settings that are central to [Godden’s] works.

Godden was a writer who continually drew on her own life experiences, frugally mixing and recasting the elements to give them fresh significance, but always relating her work back to the the people, places, human passions and frailties that she knew and understood best.  Here, the place is Northern India, the people are pre-Partition British and the Indians they governed, and the themes are sexual desire, treachery, the conflict of cultures and the loss of innocence. (p.vii)

The central character of Breakfast with the Nikolides is Emily Pool, taken by her mother from India when young but brought back in panic because of the Nazi invasion of France.  Her mother hates India and everything about it, and although there are hints that Emily glimpsed something of her mother’s trauma, the novel is an uncompromising depiction of a child who feels torn between her warring parents, and who judges her mother harshly.  Louise’s faults are many, and Emily is aware of them all, especially Louise’s blatant preference for the younger child, Binnie, who is pretty and biddable (and surprisingly, given Louise’s preference for this child) the product of marital rape).  The characterisation of Louise, from the child’s point of view—even when Louise is the narrator—is vivid and entirely unsympathetic.

Emily’s father treats his problematic wife with indifference, salted by occasional acts of spite.  Louise has two Pekingese lap dogs,  but he gives Emily a dog of her own called, Don.

I asked Charles not to give the children a dog.  I asked him not to give them Don.  He gave them Don…

He gave him to Emily.

‘Why Emily? Why not Binnie?  Why Emily?’

‘I think,’ he said, ‘that that little girl needs love.’

In her surprise Louise had stared.  ‘Emily! Why, Emily won’t have love.  That shows how little you know of her.  She is hard.  She is completely oblivious of everyone but herself. She doesn’t care an atom for anyone.  She is almost unnatural.’

‘You don’t like her, do you?’

She answered icily, ‘I love Emily more than you could begin to understand.’

‘You may love her, you don’t like her.’

‘I love her and I know her better than she knows herself.’ And she said, ‘I must ask you not to interfere with the children.’ (p.63)

There is an authenticity about this dialogue that suggests auto-fiction, from Godden’s own disastrous marriage.

Don is not cossetted in the same way as the Pekingese, and Emily is only too well aware that her mother resents the dog. To annoy Louise, she openly defies the rules about keeping it confined due to the risk of rabies.  The time comes when it displays alarming symptoms and Louise packs the children off to the nearest neighbours, the Nikolides, so that she can make her decision about the dog unimpeded by Emily’s hostility and stubbornness.

The marriage of the Indian vet who becomes complicit in Louise’s treachery, is a complete contrast.  The ‘Untouchable’ Narayan Das, who can’t reconcile his wife’s faith with the westernised science that has enabled him to somewhat transcend his caste, is married to the uneducated, superstitious but deeply religious Shila, who knows that her rival is not another woman but a young Brahmin called Anil, a bromance that is quite surprising given the era in which this novel was written.

Anil is married to a fourteen year old girl to please his father though (mercifully) the marriage is unconsummated; his mental health is fragile because of his father’s expectations.  And whereas Louise is shrill, demanding, arrogant, unkind and often irrational, Shila is humble, subservient, and too intimidated by her husband even to speak to him most of the time.  Brought up in the countryside, she is terrified even of answering the phone, one of many timidities which exasperate Narayan.  Whereas Charles has no respite from domestic warfare, Anil is a sparkling conversationalist, and Narayan escapes the dull atmosphere at home whenever he can.  The sexual tension within these fraught marriages is understated but palpable.

The characterisation is not the only strength in the novel.  The settings show Godden’s awareness of the great differences between the governing class and the governed while also showing that privilege does not mean happiness.  Charles runs a model farm with an attached agricultural college where he teaches farming, but his house is still full of broken, badly mended furniture from when his violent rage precipitated the separation.  The children, privileged as they are, are easily lured into visiting the Nikolides because they are wealthy and extravagant.  Narayan’s house OTOH is bleak and empty, bereft by his decree of the vibrant religious symbols that make up an Indian home. And then there are the Indians who live on the street…

The ending is tragic, and utterly unexpected.

Author: Rumer Godden
Title: Breakfast with the Nikolides
Introduction by Rosie Thomas
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 2013, first published 1942
ISBN: 9781844088454, pbk.,220 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2021

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

There was lively discussion at the blog of the late Kevin From Canada when The Sentimentalists was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize, much of it focussing on the difficulty of Skribsud’s poetic prose and her way her layered text often demands re-reading.  Undaunted, I bought it when it went on to win the Giller,  and then kept hesitating over whether to read it or not.

Well, now I’ve read it, and I think the difficulty has not been overrated but the novel is worth it.

It’s a novel about the after-effects of service in the Vietnam War, narrated by a daughter who struggles to understand her parents and herself.  But in the course of caring for her father Napoleon as he slides into dementia, she learns that questing after the unknowable is a lesson in personal growth.

Initially, she believes that truth is never really buried:

…I find it difficult to believe that anything is ever buried in the way that I had once supposed.  I believe instead that everything remains.  At the very limit: the exact surface of things.  So that in the end it is not so much what has been subtracted from a life that really matters, but the distances instead, between the things which remain.  (p. 81)

In the aftermath of a soured relationship, the narrator recognises, however, the flaw in her quest to know:

Once my father said, women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened.  This was in dismissal of a question that I asked him once about his experiences in the war.  He told me that in my curiosity I was just like my mother, and in the tone that he said it I knew at that moment it was the worst thing of all.

So I never mentioned the war to him again, until those many years later, when he told me himself.

I did believe that, I guess.  That I could make sad things go away.  Believed that if I knew what had happened to Henry (he had never spoken till that summer of his accident) that I could prevent an accident like that ever happening to myself, or to any of the people that I loved.

Believed, I suppose, that if there was a precise reason that I could get hold of to explain why Henry, and both of my parents ended up so very much alone, that I could prevent, for myself, an equivalent loneliness.  (p.83)

This is so true, I think, and yet I have not come across it expressed so clearly before.  People search for reasons and answers in the aftermath of all kinds of personal tragedies, in the belief that they will get ‘closure’.  Often we see them on TV expressing a wish that knowledge of the causes of a tragedy will prevent it from ever happening to someone else, so that the loved one has ‘not died in vain’.  It’s a very human reaction, to try to cushion oneself against grief and pain, and to want to protect others from it too.

The boat featured on the front cover of my edition is an important symbol of love in the novel.  Napoleon’s two daughters retrieve it from years of neglect in their grandmother’s barn when they move their father from America to Canada, to spend his last years with his friend Henry, whose son Owen did in the Vietnam War.  These daughters got it horribly wrong.  Because their father had built the boat, and talked about it so much, they assumed it was his.  Not understanding that it was a gift of love for their mother that endured despite their parents’ estrangement, they wanted to make up for having removed him from his home.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The way we always position ourselves at the centre of our own stories, and that even from some distance — even relegated to the third person, and from the present tense at least two times removed — we continue to imagine ourselves in that way.  It shouldn’t for example, have taken me so many years to realise that what I had for so long referred to as my father’s boat was indeed my father’s boat; far more so anyway than it ever had been — or would be — mine.

Or taken still more years to realise that it was far less his than it was my mother’s; built as it had been out of an extraordinary love for her, which had continued, throughout everything, and was why, after all those years, he had thought of the boat at all. (p.87)

Our parents’ relationship is so often a complete mystery to their children.

You can see from the excerpts that I’ve quoted (especially that discursive third one) that Kevin was right when he said in his review that…

While it is a relatively short book (218 pages of decent-sized type), its narrative style and structure make it a very challenging book to read. Skibsrud’s only previous published books were poetry and she has brought that poetic skill to the novel — but added to it both a complexity and uncertainty of story that requires (at least for me) frequent rereading at the sentence or paragraph level to gain some understanding of just what is going on, and even the result of that tends to be murky. This is a book that demands to be read in chunks of 40 pages or so and then put aside for some contemplation.

The last part of the novel is written in the style of court transcript, which is presumably deliberately ironic, in the sense that an Enquiry intended to uncover the truth about what happened in Vietnam — an Enquiry written in the flat, unemotional, logical dialogue of courtrooms everywhere — is just as ‘murky’ as the rest of the novel.

I’ve read some other winners of the Giller Prize:

  • 1995: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, read pre-blog
  • 1996: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, see my review
  • 2001: Clara Callan by Richard Wright, read pre-blog
  • 2002: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke, read pre-blog
  • 2005: The Time in Between by David Bergen, see my review
  • 2007: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, see my review

And I have some still on the TBR: Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyen; Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien; and Anil’s Ghost (2000) by Michael Ondaatje.  I have some of the nominees too, thanks to the team who manage the Shadow Giller every year in Kevin’s memory.

Author: Johanna Skibsrud
Title: The Sentimentalists
Publisher: Windmill Books, 2012, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780099558361, pbk.,244 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from the Book Depository, $11.22

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2021

The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers

Just scraping in for #AusReadingMonth at Brona’s This Reading Life, Evelyn Juers’ magnificent bio of the dancer Philippa Cullen (1950–1975) is a book that will, I think, appeal to different kinds of readers.  Readers who are interested in the arts, especially dance; readers who are interested in the art of biography; and readers who are interested in Australian innovation and creativity.

For me, the middle section of this biography is the most intriguing.  The book begins with an explanation of Juers’ personal relationship with Philippa Cullen, relevant partly because she died so tragically young at 25, and partly because it explains the biographer’s approach to the task.  Part One is about Cullen’s family history, on both her mother’s and father’s side. Part Two is about her childhood in Beaumaris and Sydney and her coming of age, and I posted a Sensational Snippet from this part about Juer’s inclusion of the history of the Cullen house in the bio.  But it’s Part Three that transfixed me…

At the risk of provoking howls of dismay, I should preface my thoughts with the truth about my lack of experience with dance as an art form.  As a child I was taken to the ballet where I hated the way the beautiful music was drowned out by the thumping of the ballet-shoe blocks on the floor.  (We had seats near the front.) Much later, I saw a doco about the damage done to the feet of ballerinas from dancing en pointe, and decided then and there that I would never pay to watch women ruin their feet like that.  We wouldn’t do it to animals, but it is done to women (but not men, of course) in the name of art.  So much for ballet…

I do like the kind of dancing that Hollywood made famous in toe-tapping musicals.  I could watch Fred and Ginger all day, but that kind of dancing is not popular any more.  Those magnificent dancing troupes depended on dozens of underpaid young women putting in hours of practice to get the choreography perfect, and nobody is willing to pay the real cost of that kind of perfection these days.  I also occasionally like watching competitive ballroom dancing with the jazzy costumes on TV, but I’ve never seen it live.

But modern dance — reeling and writhing or physical jerks? Call me a philistine if you like, but it doesn’t interest me at all.  Juers’ achievement with this book is to make a bio of a dancer who I’ve never heard of, compulsively readable to someone like me.  For anyone interested in dance, it will be unputdownable.

I was fascinated by Philippa Cullen’s conception of dance… what she wanted to do was to integrate the movement of the body with the music of the theremin.  Her aim is for the dancer to have precise control of volume, duration, pitch, timbre and location, and for dancers to be able to control each other’s sound. 

Now, if you’re not familiar with the theramin, watch this video of Celia Sheen’s rendition of that eerie theme for Midsomer Murders, and pay particular attention to the tiny movements of her fingers which produce variations in tone, pitch, duration and volume.  What Philippa Cullen wanted to do was to achieve similar effects using the whole body. If only there were a video of one of her performances!

Notice at the end of the video too, the credit for the designer of the theremin, Tony Henk.  You can’t just buy a theremin and take lessons like you can with a guitar or a clarinet.  It has to be built, by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But, barely out of her teens, Philippa applies for a travel grant from the Australia Council and sets off alone for Europe where (despite not speaking German and having awkward, demoralising and sometimes disturbing relationships with some horrible men as well) she undertakes incredibly theoretical studies to achieve her ambitions.

Her studies are intense.  She explores mathematical possibilities, tying them to inter-disciplinary fields, electro-acoustics and voltage dividers.  Learns about the relationship between charge and voltage.  Network Theory.  Kirkoff’s Law.  Systems Theory.  Open loops and feedback loops.  Books on algebra.  Robert E. Ornstein on time perception.

She wants to understand the science and concepts of electronics and writes notes on electronic equipment, octave filters, reverberation.  (p.291)

She even wants to create floors that interact with movement — with dance — and so make music. She wants equipment with built-in random switches, not with the rigidity of a computer program.  As she builds her own equipment, she has specific requirements:

Dancers need a sensitive spot in the centre where they can dance solo.  Another at the back of the stage where they create silence.  They need peripheries.  What’s important is the dancers’ awareness of the anticipation and delay of sound. (p.292).

She is disappointed to find that in the field that interested her, Australia was more advanced than Europe, but she persists. She attends performances of Noh theatre in Munich, discovers the gestural language in Spenser’s Faerie Queen,  and traditions of chivalry and courtly love.  She abandons classical dance classes and switches to mime, and starts an electronic dance workshop which attracts about a dozen students. She visits museums and art galleries and reads voraciously, everything from Baldwin to Steinbeck, biographies, histories, histories of dance, and Manford L. Eaton’s Bio-Music: biological feedback experimental music systems. She makes notes on labyrinths and mandalas after reading Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala.  (As a girl, she was impressed by Patrick White’s Voss. His faith in Australia and a sense of a higher purpose in life inspired her to stop wasting her energy and concentrate on dance.) 

In an essay titled ‘Towards a Philosophy of Dance’ in 1973, she…

…argues for the curious correspondence between the rhythms of the body and the rhythms of nature, where early music — the tambourine, African drums — is a kind of reaction or interjection, and dance — for her — is not communication but an act of rejoicing.  She surveys dance in other and older societies, as a ritual of birth, initiation, marriage, harvest, war, and death, until those functions changed and dance became a form of entertainment.  But she believes we can rediscover — repossess — the social function and power of dance.  (p.344)

In Rotterdam, Philippa’s Electronic Dance Ensemble performs Floor Piece No 1 and Homage to Theremin No 3. She introduces the work like this:

This evening…by showing a wide variety of movement detectors, will reveal…different aspects of dance, such as speed, tension, pressure, position, direction.  Each of which has a different function in the music, such as frequency, volume, timbre, duration. The quality of the sound depends on the precision of the movement.  She explains that it is not multimedia, but rather in the realm of intermedia.  The items evolve with the situations of control becoming more complex and the effect becoming more simple. Each item will show a different use of the movement-detecting instruments — including video cameras and tapes (which require a special light condition), a muscle potentiometer, theremins with aerials, accelerometer, breath detectors, floor vibrators, voltage control sound equipment — all of which have had to be built. (p.336)

The creativity and innovation involved in this project is just amazing.

To get some idea of how this worked, you can see some photos here, and there’s a video of a contemporary performance inspired by Cullen’s work here.  Unfortunately they’ve concealed the techno-gadgetry behind the curtain so you can’t see any of it.

About the author:

Evelyn Juers wrote her doctorate on the biographies of the Brontës. A biographer, essayist and critic, she has contributed to major Australian and international publications. Her collective biography House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann won the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction. It was published in the US, UK, France, Spain and Italy. Her biography of Eliza Donnithorne, The Recluse, was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the Magarey Medal for Biography.

Book details:

Author: Evelyn Juers
Title: The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2021
Cover design by Jenny Grigg
ISBN: 9781925818727, paperback with flaps, 592 pages.
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo, but I also had a copy through my prose subscription.

You can buy a copy direct from the Giramondo website, or good bookshops everywhere.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2021

Missus, by Ruth Park

Missus was the last novel of Ruth Park (1917-2010).  By this time in 1985, she was calling a spade, a spade.

The old Queen was dead, and King Edward well settled on the throne of England.  In far away New South Wales, in the town of Trafalgar, Hugh Darcy and Margaret Kilker were born.  There were but a few months between their ages, Hugh being the elder.

Trafalgar was first settled by a veteran of that battle.  He used his prize money to go out to New South Wales with a cargo of sheep and horses.  He applied for a grant on the well-watered tablelands, and was assigned thirty convicts as slave labourers.  It was his fancy to give them Jack Tar uniforms to remind him of his glorious days in Nelson’s navy.  He called his property Trafalgar, and the four creeks that ran through it Victory, Copenhagen and Nile.

The natives were a trouble at first, believing the sheep to belong to everyone, and much more easily speared than kangaroos. But the master of Trafalgar made short work of them, by inviting them to hang around waiting for white man’s titbits, and then feeding them flour cakes primed with strychnine. The survivors did not connect the deaths with the white men; they believed the water had gone bad, as it sometimes did after a dry season.  One old woman tried to warn the white people not to drink it, but they did not understand.  She went away with the two or three others and that was the end of them.  (Opening lines, Chapter One, p.3)

So there it is, an object lesson in how to write respectful Australian historical fiction, penned in 1985 and breathing scorn for the so-casual dispossession and massacre of Australia’s Indigenous people.  It’s not the only time in this book that Park acknowledges Australia’s Black history, and if I had my way, every creative writing school would begin by teaching the protocols and then make this short novel a set text for critique.  Missus is not a novel about Australia’s Black history, but that history IMO is part of the story of almost any historical novel set in Australia.

Missus is the love story of Hugh and Mumma Darcy, those much-loved Depression-era characters from The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949). There’s no disappointment in reading it, but this prequel relies to some extent on affection for these characters because the reader already knows that Margaret marries Hugh, and the rest is padding.  So there’s not much narrative tension; it’s the story of the ne’er do well that Hugh Darcy turns out to be in the other novels. And the story of how passionately Margaret loves him all the same.

There are the fates of others to interest the reader: Aunt Alf who’s spent her life as devoted housekeeper to the parish priest; Delia, the dishonest estranged sister in Sydney milking Aunt Alf out of her inheritance; and Josie, who recovers from foolishly marrying a gambler and embezzler, to educate herself and set up in business, only to find discrimination because she’s a woman.

It was a stark world, built on social deceptions.  As a girl, she had been shielded from the vulgar and wicked.  She had to wait until marriage to learn about that.  She had thought in her trustful idiocy that during their long engagement Noel had been as faithful to her as she to him.  It was only when he attempted to practise on her the gross arts he had learned in the town’s several badhouses that she understood his values were different from hers.  The factory manager had persecuted and harassed her, yet she was the one who had to resign.

Now she sat alone with her intelligence and skills in an office, as good an accountant as any in Trafalgar, and nobody came.

She went at last to the woman owner of the drapery shop, a competent brusque personality, and asked if she might handle the shop’s books for a reduced fee.

The proprietor said instantly, ‘I would never take my business to a professional woman.’

‘But why?’ asked Josie desperately.  ‘You’re a professional woman yourself.’

The older woman did not know.  She echoed tradition.  (p.119)

No sisterhood there, then!

Jer, (Jeremiah), Hugh’s younger brother, exemplifies the fate of the disabled.  More intelligent than Hugh, he never has the opportunity for real work, and is reduced to ad hoc entertaining and cooking in shearing sheds despite his crutches.  He’s a grand storyteller, and he sings beautifully with self-taught guitar accompaniment.  But he depends on Hugh for a living, and there’s a flaw in Hugh’s character which makes Jer very vulnerable.

He loved him devotedly, but he knew himself superior in intelligence and foresight.  Hugh had cheek and courage; you’d never come to the end of his charm.  But somewhere in his character he was flimsy.  Jer saw him bowling forever around the State, like one of those uncanny bundles of dry grass and thorns, a rolypoly, rolling this way and that before the wind until it fetched up against barbed wire and fell to pieces.  Wherever he and Hugh had worked there were jokers like that, in all stages of disintegration.  Drifters, they called themselves, free men, sons of liberty.  Jer knew how they felt.  Their way of life provided them with one long open door; whenever responsibility threatened they ducked through it.  But the barbed-wire fence was always there, always.  They came up against it because of age, failing health, too much booze.  That’s when they looked around for someone to go home to, and found there wasn’t a soul in the world.

Besides, marriage wouldn’t keep Hugh at home, if he wanted to remain a seasonal labourer.  Jer knew the routine of too many of those: hard workers, but free and easy, back home three or four times a year, get the wife in pod, teach the boy how to pass a football correctly, dig over the garden, tell the young daughter she’ll get her teeth kicked in if she goes too far with the boys, lay some new lino in the kitchen, kisses all round and off again grape picking, cane cutting, fencing or whatever the game might be.  (p.81)

Margaret doesn’t know it yet, but venturing out to work to save for her marriage is just the beginning of it.  Though her mother (Granny Kilker in the other novels in this trilogy) has the measure of the man, and wishes she could deter Margaret’s love for him, she never dreamt that their daughter would need to work.  But Hugh’s pay checks are irregular, and mostly blown on booze.

Margaret put a good face on it, but she feared Hugh might vanish from Trafalgar overnight.  She saw plainly that he was made uneasy by order and system.  He was like a wild dog coaxed briefly into becoming a pet.  The moment backs were turned, over the fence with him. (p.82)

For his part, Hugh is panic stricken by the thought of marriage.  His own parents’ relationship was dreadful, and his childhood was fraught.  He doesn’t want to be lonely, but though he can see that the marriage of John and Eny Kilker is not like that of his parents’, he fears it might be.

I read Missus for #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books and for #AusReadingMonth at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Ruth Park
Title: Missus
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1993, first published 1985
ISBN: 9780140176018, pbk, 179 pages
Source: Personal library, found in a Street Library in Sandringham

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 26, 2021

Caravan Story, by Wayne Macauley

I’ve been ‘saving’ this novel.  I really like Wayne Macauley’s biting satires, but he’s only published six of them and his second novel Caravan Story,  was the last one left on my TBR.  Now *sigh* I have to wait until he publishes a new one…

(You can see my review of the others here.)

Nominated for the Readings Prize, Caravan Story was first published in 2007, but reissued in 2012 by Text Publishing.  This novella skewers the commodification of ‘culture’ in Australia, deftly exposing the way that it’s only the arts administrators who can make a living in this country, and not the artists, actors, writers and musicians on whose work they depend…

This is the blurb from the Text website:

The first caravans arrive in a convoy. Wayne Macauley’s narrator, Wayne Macauley, is in one of them. He’s one of the artists removed from his home, given a new place to live and the chance to ‘give back to society’. In his strange new community, housed on a footy oval in a faraway country town, he is given his task. To create and be useful. To be thankful for the opportunity. He decides he will not give in to his misgivings; he will write. Then he finds out about the rejection slips already written for the work he has yet to submit…

One morning, the narrator, (whose name is Wayne) is asleep with his girlfriend in a squat, when he’s woken by a bulldozer which has begun demolishing the house.  Unperturbed, he makes love to her quietly and goes back to sleep, only to wake up later in a nightmare.  Along with a crowd of other unsuccessful arts-funding applicants, he is expelled from the city by caravan, and ends up in a sports oval repurposed as a caravan park, where Polly the sexy arts administrator pulls them all into line.  The actors are hived off into one group, the artists are another; there’s a group of musicians, and then there are the writers.  Polly knows that the writers are going to be difficult because they are the only group for whom she has to set up a game to help them break the ice…

Under her instructions we arrange our chairs in a circle and then one of us is given a ball, a medium-sized plastic ball with a tropical fruit motif on it.  The person must throw the ball to someone else in the circle, but only, as we realise after two false starts, only after saying the first sentence of a story.  The person who catches the ball must then provide the next sentence and so on.  It’s a story game, says Polly.  The first player is an elderly man with a grey beard and his sentence is: As I walked out that day the air was crisp and clear.  When it gets to me my sentence is: She took me by the hand and led me down the steps.  It seems to go on forever.  Polly has left us to our own devices and and gone over to the painters, we don’t know whether we are supposed to find our own ending or wait till she comes back. (p.17)

Wayne can see that his partner is having a fine old time with the actors, when Polly comes back to marshall the writers into order.  She provides them with a list of topics to write about, with instructions to choose a second preference in case their first choice is taken, and Wayne selects ‘A Short History of Laburnum’, a suburb not far from where he grew up.  (This is typical of the kind of lame subject that writers (or arts administrators) without much experience of reading tend to think will be interesting to other readers.  I am pretty sure that the only people conceivably interested in the history of Laburnam are people who live/d there. And even then, there won’t be many of them.)

But they don’t all cooperate like sheep:

Some people take a long time over their choices; others, not many though, seem to be treating the whole thing as a joke.  Polly has already made a mental note of these people and deliberately distracts herself when one of them giggles over the list.  If the game had created a sense of camaraderie then already it is dissipating; sideways glances are being exchanged, some older members have become deliberately aloof, they fill in their name and pass on the sheet without looking at their neighbour, while still others look confused and afraid they may do the wrong thing. (p.18)

Wayne, who is dreamy and vague, christens his fellow-conscripts with the names of famous authors to help him remember who they are: Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Elizabeth Jolley,  Jorge Luis Borges, and Georg Buchner.

Wayne’s girlfriend initially goes along with this charade along with the rest of the actors, and gets quite testy with Wayne because he doesn’t get anything done.  So that they can be together, she wangles a role for Wayne as a dramaturg for the theatre group which is soon to go on tour in regional areas.

But Wayne, like me, doesn’t know what a dramaturg is supposed to do.  Unlike me, he didn’t have access to Wikipedia:

A dramaturge or dramaturg is a literary adviser or editor in a theatre, opera, or film company who researches, selects, adapts, edits, and interprets scripts, libretti, texts, and printed programmes (or helps others with these tasks), consults authors, and does public relations work.

But even when enlightened as to his task, he drifts off into other thoughts instead of paying attention, and then puts everybody offside by making an impassioned speech about how scripting is not in the spirit of improvisation. This does not endear him to his partner.

Truly, I loved this book, and although it was written nearly fifteen years ago, it’s more relevant than ever.  There are still hordes of wannabe writers who don’t actually have anything to write about (some of whom cheerfully admit that they themselves don’t actually read books); the writing schools are still churning out endless graduates (some of whom, if they’re lucky will get jobs teaching other people to be writers or running writers’ festivals); and the market for Australian books is still far too small to support the number of people who are fruitlessly applying for grants from an arts council with ever declining sums of money to dispense.  I have boundless admiration for the authors and publishers, who somehow rise above all this to produce wonderful books which bring pleasure to readers like me.

I read Caravan Story for #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books and for #AusReadingMonth at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Caravan Story
Cover art: Untitled, 2006, by David Ralph, cover design by Gail Hannah
Publisher: Black Pepper, 2007*
ISBN: 9781876044534, pbk., 145 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $24.95.

*This title, and all of Macauley’s other novels are now published by Text.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 26, 2021

2021 Small Press Network’s Book of the Year Award winners

The  winners of The Small Press Network’s Book of the Year (BOTY) Award 2021 was announced today.  That’s not a typo, this year the judges have awarded two winners.

(This used to be the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award but they re-named it in 2020).

From the press release:

BOTY aims to recognise and award some of the most significant and ground-breaking books being produced by Australian publishers and authors today.

The winners are Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua and We Are Speaking in Code by Tanya Vavilova (Brio Books). (Links in this post all go to the Small Press Network site.)

From the press release:

The judges said: ‘Both titles exhibit beautiful and engaging writing, genuine and heartfelt examinations of identity and culture, and nuanced explorations of their themes. Each winner also showcases experimental forms and the power of small presses to bring unique stories to the world.’

Read interviews with Tanya and Shu-Ling on the SPN website.

The  judges were Dr Alexandra Dane, Jess Gately, Penni Russon, Marina Sano Litchfield, and Jing Xuan Teo:

The award is sponsored by the Australian Booksellers Association, ArtsHub and Bibliotheca, and by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

About the Small Press Network:

Established in 2006, the Small Press Network is a representative body for over 200 small and independent publishers around Australia. It presents the Book of the Year Award (BOTY), previously the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award (MUBA), and has run the Independent Publishing Conference since 2012.

Finer minds than mine have raved about the brilliance of this book, and Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winner and all, but … it took ages for me to read this book and even now I’m not sure that I’ve made sense of it.

So here are some reviews from expert reviewers:

You will have noticed that both Okri and Habila are Nigerian, which means they are ‘closer to home’ so to speak, about some of the satirical elements in the novel, elements which might pass some of us by.  But then there’s this one by

  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the NYT: Vásquez is from Colombia so he also knows what it’s like to live under poor governance.  He writes that the novel is a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation.

He also identifies the problem that I had with keeping track of proceedings:

The plot — convoluted, obscure at times, often tying itself in too many knots — turns on the aptly named Human Resources, a sinister online business that sells human body parts for private use in rituals and superstitions. As often happens in satire, the outrageousness of the fictional premise comes from its proximity to the truth: The belief that human organs have magical properties, leading to business success and political power, has been known to lead to ritual murders in Nigeria…

But, he says, the real interest in the novel lies elsewhere: it interrogates the state of a nation where these kinds of things can happen. That makes Chronicles more than just a satire, but for me, it got lost along the way.

The plot, such as it is, focusses on the fate of “The Gong [sic] of Four”, idealists educated in England who wanted to ‘give back’ to their country.  Dr Menka who specialises in amputating the limbs of suicide bombing victims and the engineer Duyole Pitan-Payne are all that’s left of this student bond, and they are hopelessly compromised.  They are, what’s more, no match for the country’s leaders, the pseudo spiritual leader Papa Davina and and Godfrey Danfere for whom I can find no more appropriate word than slimy.  These two preside over circuses without the bread, ignoring poverty, corruption, Boko Haram and the complete failure of the nation to transcend its colonial period because of poor governance.

The trouble is, that although it’s often very funny in a macabre and sometimes undergraduate kind of way, Soyinka’s style is so baroque, discursive and verbose, that it’s hard to follow the thread of proceedings.  There’s an overlong section about the conflict over one of the four who dies in Austria: his family wants him buried there and Dr Menka wants him buried in his homeland, and for quite a while I wasn’t sure exactly who it was who had died and how, nor did I understand why his family didn’t want to repatriate the body. (The Vasquez review explains how this is personal for Soyinka, but I didn’t know that when I was reading it, and it just seemed interminable.)

Keishel Williams at the NPR, is a Trinidadian American book reviewer.  He sums up my problem with the book:

Chronicles is largely inaccessible to non-intellectuals, and florid beyond reason at times. More than that, the story’s complexity makes it easy for readers to disengage if they’re not intimately familiar with the inner workings of Nigerian politics.

Still, I’m not sorry I read it.  Soyinka has been ruthlessly honest about the shortcomings of his country; he’s not into blaming colonialism for its flaws.  If the prominence of this novel makes Nigerian readers more aware of what needs to be done, perhaps some lasting beneficial change might come of it.

Author: Wole Soyinka
Title: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2021
ISBN: 9781526638236, pbk., 444 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

I knew nothing about this book when I bought it.  I was buying a small(ish) pile of books at The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood when the bookseller noticed they were all translations and pulled out this brand new arrival and said it was very funny.

I took one look at the cover and….

(You know the rest).

This is the blurb:

Diabolically funny and subversively philosophical, Italian novelist Giacomo Sartori’s I am God is the diary of the Almighty’s existential crisis that ensues when he falls in love with a human.

I am God. Have been forever, will be forever. Forever, mind you, with the razor-sharp glint of a diamond, and without any counterpart in the languages of men. So begins God’s diary of the existential crisis that ensues when, inexplicably, he falls in love with a human. And not just any human, but a geneticist and fanatical atheist who’s certain she can improve upon the magnificent creation she doesn’t even give him the credit for. It’s frustrating, for a god.

God has infinitely bigger things to occupy his celestial attentions. Yet he can’t tear his eyes (so to speak) from the geneticist who’s unsettlingly avid when it comes to science, sex, and Sicilian cannoli. Whatever happens, he must safeguard his transcendental dignity. So he watches—disinterestedly, of course—as the handsome climatologist who has his sights set on her keeps having strange accidents. And as the lanky geneticist becomes hell-bent on infiltrating the Vatican’s secret files, for reasons of her own….

A sly critique of the hypocrisy and hubris that underlie faith in religion, science, and macho careerism, I Am God takes us on a hilarious and provocative romp through the Big Questions with the universe’s supreme storyteller.

God, who narrates the story, much like many an insufferable male, is a tad pompous and more than a little self-obsessed, plus very opinionated — but then, why wouldn’t he be? He is after all #InsertCharacteristicsOfGod, e.g. omnipotent, all-seeing, etc etc.  Unfortunately he is bored with his creation, and disappointed in humans, having a poor opinion of them in general, and feeling peeved about particular things that they have done.  Indeed, when things become too difficult for him on Earth, he takes a break in the other galaxies, rather like a stress day off work.  And there he gloats: Just look at all the gorgeous galaxies I’ve created!  He savours that feeling you get contemplating something you’ve made with your own hands, the satisfaction of a job well done, of time well spent. 

He compares his efforts with creation with that of contemporary artists…He created and created, nonstop, with no cigarette breaks, no union hours, and is proud of every single component:

Sleek panthers, enchanting palms, hieratic giraffes, proud plovers, gorgeous orchids, the softest, greenest moss, shiny ladybugs, adorable daisies.

His work (apart from humans, who would be a mistake, except that God doesn’t make mistakes), belongs in the best art galleries. But…

Contemporary so-called artists display washing machine parts, driftwood, bodies that have been run through, scrap iron, photographs of genital organs and aged corpses, polystyrene chips, medicine bottles, naked women, even just their own excrement, and the public pretends to be mildly interested.  In this age of screens and globalised idiocy, nobody seems to know how to hold a brush. (p.79)

He is irritated, for example, by the effrontery of Big Bang Theory.  He wryly notes the pathetic spectacle of early man’s efforts to barter their absurd sacrifices for help with their problems from every type of spirit apart from that of yours truly… but the scientific theory that he was not involved at all makes him cross.

An eternity went by before they realised that their blessed Earth is a mere speck in the Solar System, in turn a piddly little mite in the Milky Way, one negligible molecule in the vastness of the universe.  Only my great patience kept me from taking serious umbrage.  And to top it off, rather than finally recognising my merits, rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, (that boy of mine, the one reputed to be my boy at any rate, had a knack for catchy sayings), now they’re spreading the rumour that the universe created itself.  That it sprang forth from nothing, like a mushroom: Big Bang,  and there’s your rabbit, folks. (p.13)

He is not, as you will have noticed, overly impressed by ‘that boy’.  He thinks that his offspring has wasted the opportunity for radical change…

… I thought to myself: if I were ever to try incarnation, I certainly wouldn’t imitate my self-proclaimed offspring.  I wouldn’t go round proselyting barefoot, or pronouncing shamanic catchphrases, as often as not false, or perform miracles.  No, the appeal — I started to say the thrill — would lie in a radical transformation.  No more bottomless profundity, no definitive word on things.  I’d immerse myself in the partial and the finite. Do normal things: squeeze onto the bus at rush hour, shop in shopping centres mobbed with people, watch a TV series sprawled on a sofa.  (p.140)

Humans annoy him so much that he muses on the possibility of vengeance with climate change so that the earth will be a toaster in no time or perhaps with the Andromeda asteroid, just to put science in its place, you understand, because he thinks he is a benevolent god despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

All these musings take place as he tries to deal with the problem of falling in love with a human.  Naturally, one begins to speculate as to how this might be resolved.  The solution, when it comes is *chuckle* a lesson in humility, which even a god needs sometimes!  Daphne is well out of it!

Author: Giacomo Sartori
Title: I Am God (Sono DIo)
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
Publisher: Restless Books, 2019, first published 2016
Cover design by Adam B Bohannon, cover illustration by Eugenia Loli
(That glitter is real, BTW.  You can feel it under your fingertips as you read.)
ISBN: 9781632062147, pbk, 206 pages
Source: Personal library, Purchased from The Grumpy Swimmer, Elwood $24.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2021

Farmer Giles of Ham, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Farmer Giles of Ham has been in my house for a very long time, but for most of that time it was shelved among children’s books, under the misapprehension that that was where it belonged.  But as the dust-jacket attests, Tolkien did not write it for children in particular, though many will enjoy it all the more for that. It is best read aloud, when it will live with all the force of “a tale that holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.”

Wikipedia quotes Tolkien himself about the story’s origin:

[Farmer Giles of Ham] was, in fact, written to order, to be read to the Lovelace Society at Worcester College [Oxford]; and was read to them at a sitting. For that reason I should like to put an inscription to C. H. Wilkinson on a fly-leaf, since it was Col. Wilkinson of that College who egged me to it…

Dedication to Colonel Wilkinson, in Farmer Giles of Ham, illustrated by Pauline Diana Baynes

Further hunting reveals that this first outing of this story is one of the Treasures of Worcester College, and in this blog post you can see the minutes of the Lovelace Society when it recorded the proceedings on 14 February 1938. The author of the article, Emma Gudrum points out that

During his lifetime J. R. R. Tolkien published only a few of the stories originally written for his children (though several have appeared posthumously). That he considered Farmer Giles of Ham worthy of publication must be partly down to the laughter and appreciation of the Lovelace Club and the support of their patron Colonel Wilkinson.

Farmer Giles of Ham is a story that resonates with the era of reading as an entertainment for adults rather than as a private solitary activity.  Accordingly, I read it in company with Amber, and read out the bits that involved Farmer Giles’ dog Garm…

Farmer Giles had a dog.  The dog’s name was Garm.  Dogs had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters.  Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in.  Bullying was for beggars and trespassers, bragging for other dogs, and wheedling for his master.  Garm was both proud and afraid of Giles, who could bully and brag better than he could. (p.10)

The mock-serious tone of this fable is established from the first paragraph where we learn that our hero rejoices in the name Ægidus Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo:

for people were richly endowed with names in those days, now long ago, when this island was still happily divided into many kingdoms. There was more time then, and folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished.  However, those days are now over, so I will in what follows give the man his name shortly, and in the vulgar form: he was Farmer Giles, and he had a red beard.  Ham was only a village, but villages were proud and independent still in those days. (p.9)

Briefly, the story is this: when Garm raises the alarm about a giant ransacking the neighbourhood, Giles, armed with a never-used blunderbuss, goes to see if it’s true. A lucky shot is interpreted by the giant as a bite from a horsefly, and taking a couple of sheep to eat on his way, he goes back home. This makes Giles a hero far and wide, and the king presents him with an ancient sword.  Unknown to anyone because the king is basically offloading to a mere villager something he thinks is of no value, this sword is Caudimordax (a.k.a. Tailbiter), once owned by Bellomarius, ‘the greatest of all the dragon-slayers’ in the Middle Kingdom.  It cannot be sheathed if a dragon is within five miles.

Well, one day a dragon called Chrysophylax Dives turns up in the area wreaking death and destruction, because the giant has spread the word that there are no dragon-slaying knights around, only horse flies. So Giles, now a rather reluctant hero (not unlike Bilbo Baggins), is despatched to deal with it.

Tolkien the great medievalist, set his story in Britain in an imaginary period of the Dark Ages. He parodies the great dragon-slaying traditions with knights who are supercilious, useless and cowardly, obsessed with etiquette at the expense of taking note of evidence that a dragon is nearby. Indeed, it is years since anyone has seen a dragon, and the king’s chef has taken to making a dragon-tail cake as a substitute for the real thing for celebrations.   Giles, however, (like Bilbo), grows in stature during his quest, and he turns out to have the measure of the dragon after all, and the king too, for good measure.

The book concludes with some witty nonsense about the etymology of place-names near Oxford.

I read Farmer Giles of Ham for ‘Short Classics’, the fourth week of #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books.

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: Farmer Giles of Ham
Publisher: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London; Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1949
ISBN: 0048230685, hbk., 79 pages
Source: personal library, purchased some time in the 1970s

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2021

Wilderness Tips #2, by Margaret Atwood

Over at Buried in Print, it’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month a.k.a. #MARM, and I promised another venture into Artwood’s short story collection Wilderness Tips (1992).

‘Hairball’ is a deliciously spiky story.  I should have read it last week  because it would have matched the opening lines:

On the thirteenth day of November, the day of unluck, month of the dead, Kat went into the Toronto General Hospital for an operation.  It was for an ovarian cyst, a large one. (p.41)

The cyst turns out to be benign, and Kat, who likes to make an impression, keeps it in a jar of formaldehyde on her mantelpiece.  She calls it Hairball.

It isn’t that different from having a stuffed bear’s head or a preserved ex-pet or anything else with fur and teeth looming over your fireplace; or she pretends it isn’t. (p.42)

Her squeamish lover tells her that she has a tendency to push things to extremes, to go over the edge, merely from a juvenile desire to shock, which is hardly a substitute for wit. 

But that is exactly what attracted him to her, and what prompted him to lure her from London to a new job as a magazine editor.  Ger (short for Gerald and pronounced Gare to rhyme with dare and flair) is scouting for someone who could make readers believe that you knew something they didn’t know yet.

What you also had to make them believe was that they too could know this thing, this thing that would give them eminence and power and sexual allure, that would attract envy to them — but for a price.  The price of the magazine. (p.45)

Kat has reinvented herself multiple times to suit the changes in women’s role:

During her childhood she was romanticised Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases.  By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad.  At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat.  It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.  (p.44)

As you’d expect, she doesn’t fit in, in England.

She had an advantage over the English women, though: she was of no class.  She was in a class of her own. She could roll around among the English men, all different kinds of them, secure in the knowledge that she was not being measured against the class yardsticks and accent-detectors they carried around in her back pockets, not subject to the petty snobberies and resentments that lent such richness to their inner lives. The flip side of this freedom was that she was beyond the pale.  She was a colonial  how fresh, how vital, how anonymous, how finally of no consequence.  Like a hole in the wall, she could be told all secrets and then be abandoned with no guilt. (p.46)

But now she is thirty, she is tired of her upmarket job that comes with a downmarket pay packet, and she’s fed up with the way the English don’t acknowledge winter and refuse to install pipes that don’t burst in the freeze.  So she goes back to Toronto, and seduces Ger, unzipping him in full view of the silver-framed engagement portrait of his wife that accompanied the impossible ball-point pen set on his desk. 

Despite Ger’s promises, the editor’s job comes with constraints she doesn’t like. She tries to convince the board to change:

“It’s simple,” Kat told them.  “You bombard them with images of what they ought to be, and you make them feel grotty for being the way they are.  You’re working with the gap between reality and perception.  That’s why you have to hit them with something new, something they’ve never seen before, something they aren’t.  Nothing sells like anxiety.” (p.49)

These days, it’s called FOMO, Fear of Missing Out.  Whatever it’s called, the board isn’t interested.

Before long, five years have gone by and she is dismayed to discover that she might not mind having a husband, a child, and a house in the ‘burbs.

As the time to reinvent herself again arrives, she finds a splendid use for Hairball…

She has done an outrageous thing, but she doesn’t feel guilty.  She feels light and peaceful and filled with charity, and temporarily without a name. (p.56)

What kind of woman will she be now? Back in the 1990s, feminism didn’t have an answer for her.  Atwood is a feminist, but she’s also realistic about the pitfalls…

Title: Wilderness Tips
Cover image: The Little Deer, by Frida Kahlo
Publisher: Virago, 1992, first published 1991
ISBN: 9781853813955, pbk., 247 pages
Source: personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2021

Lucky’s, by Andrew Pippos

It’s a curious thing: nothing about the marketing of Lucky’s appealed to me, and I abstained from reading it even when it was nominated for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister’s awards. But Sue’s post about migrant stories that are not memoirs, plus the book winning the Readings prize for new writers prompted me to check it out.  I took a library copy away with me to Beechworth for a couple of days and found that there’s more to it than the marketing suggested.

Just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the blurb:

Lucky’s is a story of family.

It is also about a man called Lucky.
His restaurant chain.
A fire that changed everything.
A New Yorker article which might save a career.
The mystery of a missing father.
An impostor who got the girl.
An unthinkable tragedy.
A roll of the dice.
And a story of love, lost, sought and won again, (at last).

What I liked about it was that there’s a moral dilemma that lies at the heart of the novel.  ‘Secrets’ are an overworked trope in contemporary commercial fiction, and there’s rarely any attempt to grapple with the problem of what to do about secrets kept not because of shame or pride, but because a vow was made to keep it that way for ethical reasons. There is an untested assumption that every secret ought to be uncovered, and that anyone who wants to know, is entitled to know it. That having everything out in the open is universally A Good Thing.

Pippos complicates the dilemma a little by conflating a daughter’s desire to know about her father with her being a journalist in pursuit of a story to write, but essentially she wants to know why she is not being told about him because she is curious.  So this is not a case of wanting to know one’s medical history or wanting to meet extended family or possible siblings.

So, should Lucky tell Emily that her father paid some random thug to vandalise his café, but it went too far because the thug had issues of his own?  Should Lucky break his promise to his ex-wife Valia because someone else is being blamed for the tragedy that ensued? Who decides whether it’s important to keep a secret or not?

Along the way there is the story of Lucky’s rise and fall, his flaws and failures, and his attempts at redemption.  It’s not great literature, but it is a jolly good story.

See also Alison Huber’s review at Readings, where you can also buy it at a special price.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Andrew Pippos
Title: Lucky’s
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
Cover design by Nathan Burton
ISBN: 9781760787332, pbk., 368 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2021

In Translation, by Annamarie Jagose

Winner of the Pen Award for Best First Fiction and the NZSA Best First Book Award in 1994 In Translation, at 190 pages only just scrapes into my definition of a novella as between 100-200 pages.  It’s the debut novel of Annamarie Jagose, who subsequently wrote that marvellous novel Slow Water which won multiple awards in 2004 including the 2004 Deutz Medal for Fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards;  the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. (See my review here). Alas for her readers, these days Professor Annamarie Jagose is the University of Sydney’s Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor and as far as I can tell she has published extensively in academia, but there have been no more novels.

Unfortunately, it may be hard to get hold of In Translation.  It seems to be out of print.

Moving backwards and forwards in time and place, In Translation is the story of a love-triangle.  A young woman called Helena arrives in Wellington fresh from a scandal involving her high school teacher.  Her parents have offloaded her to her aunt , a woman who shares a smell with her house, a mustiness of old carpet and thighs clenched shut for too long.  This aunt soon departs for overseas travel, sending Helena postcards of herself, and (imprudently) leaving Helena to reconstruct the house to please herself.  Helena shoves most of the furniture in the back of the house, sells the rest and then repaints the front rooms and carpets them with sand in the style of a Japanese garden…

The neighbours, Lillian and Navaz, invite her to a party.  Lillian is an artist who stages artistic photographs while Navez is a translator.  Helena embroiders the story of the scandal which brought her to her dreary work in Wellington as a bank teller, and before long they invite her to move in.  And In due course, Helena displaces Lillian as Navaz’s lover.

The women fly out to India where they are shown the sights by a guide called Prakash, and then, when they are in London, Navaz abandons Helena.

Navaz did not leave cruelly, exactly, but there is no such thing as a kind leavetaking.  As if I were the owner of lodgings, she gave me two weeks notice.  At first those fourteen days seemed like a hoard, one or two might slip past but there were still a dozen remaining, then there were only four, three, two, and these last ran out like thieves disturbed.  It seemed to take a long time, that departure: there was the last visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the meal with Navaz’s family, the last night in bed, the last breakfast, the last kiss, the sight of Navaz through the taxi’s rear window as it pulled out of the courtyard and into the street.  By my reckoning, however, a departure is never a stretch of, but a point in time.  There is all that preparation, those sad separations and packings, the bestowal of some small item of remembrance but then she is gone, and there can be no preparation for that moment, that calculable second, when you are suddenly, and unarguably, alone. (p.43)

Up to this point, the novella is reasonably straightforward.  But after her abandonment, Helena who in the pursuit of what she wants has demonstrated a sometimes cursory attitude towards the feelings of others (her parents, her aunt, Lillian) Helena is devastated.  And she tries to hang on to her lost love by appropriating Navaz’s work as a translator…

Navaz has been translating a novel by a Japanese author called Nishimura.  Their method is unusual.  He has apparently worked out the whole thing in his head, and is writing it out bit by bit, and it is these bits that he sends to Navaz for translation.  Navaz has been reading these instalments to Helena in bed, and so when the first envelope arrives after Navaz has gone, Helena opens it to find out what happens next.  Of course, it’s in Japanese, so she buys a dictionary and translates it herself, and sends it on to Navaz only when she is satisfied with her own translation.

However… The time comes when Nishimura’s letters stop coming.  Helena doesn’t realise straight away that the novel has ended, and she is not content with the ambiguous ending.  So she, with her rudimentary Japanese, continues the story herself, sending her contributions onto Navaz as if they were the author’s.  To do this she needs some help, and so she develops a most curious relationship with Professor Mody, who likes to share erotic Japanese haiku with her.

The characterisation of the central character of Helena is intriguing.  On the one hand she is a young woman who invokes the reader’s sympathy.  She has been treated badly because of her sexuality, all but abandoned by her parents and wilfully misunderstood by her aunt.  As narrator, however, her caustic observations of other people are not endearing: she is judgemental, dismissive and hypercritical.  She is blasé about Lillian whom she displaces, and is dismissive and cruel towards Professor Mody.

I really don’t know what to make of her!

BTW The VUP edition of the novel has a much more interesting cover: it’s a representation of Professor Mody in one of the more bizarre episodes in the novel!

Author: Annamarie Jagose
Title: In Translation
Cover art: ‘A Man and a courtesan watching a young man write’ by Masanobu
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 1995, first published Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1994
ISBN: 9781863739627, Paperback, 190 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Woodend Secondhand Bookshop during the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2014


As usual, I am hopelessly behind with my reading of The Australian Foreign Affairs journal to which I subscribe.  Alas, Issues 11 & 12, The March of Autocracy and Feeling the Heat are languishing on the shelf, and there are three Quarterly Essays to be dealt with too.  However, there is a case to be made for leaving them there and reading the most recent one first.  India Rising is not only highly relevant to Australia’s geopolitical concerns, it’s also a topic about which I know very little.  I suspect that the preoccupation with China means that I am not alone.

In the Introduction, Editor Jonathan Pearlman makes the point that Australia has never had much of a relationship with India, despite being two democracies, having a shared colonial heritage and bookends in the Indian Ocean.  Tony Abbott when PM promised a free trade deal after India’s PM Narendra Modi visited Australia in 2014.  We still don’t have one.  Our two-way flows of trade and investment are paltry, and India favours foreign policy non-alignment and autonomy, whereas Australia celebrates its alliance with the United States. 

In the first essay ‘Pivot to India’, Michael Wesley expands on the theme, showing how Australia was unsympathetic to India’s claim for Independence, is still judged racist because of the White Australia Policy, and was highly critical of India at the time of the nuclear tests in 1998.

The 1998 Pokhran tests represent the nadir of Australia’s relationship with India.  Both sides drew on decades of misunderstandings and irritations.  For Australian officials, the tests showcased India’s tendency to buck international consensus and to hide self-interest behind condescending moral principle.  For Indians, Australia’s hectoring arose from a privileged, white, probably racist attitude, talking down to others while cowering under America’s strategic skirts. (p.7)

Yet, surprisingly, within a couple of years our PM visited India; the Indian defence secretary visited us; and bilateral trade expanded from $3billion in 2000 to more than $20 billion within ten years.  Moreover, strategic partnerships have emerged.  In 2020 India’s PM Narendra Modi and ours signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, that has…

…an ambitious agenda of collaboration on science, technology, defence, counterterrorism, regional diplomacy, innovation, agriculture, water, governance, education, tourism and culture. (p.8)

Plus, there is the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) with the US and Japan as well.

Why the sudden enthusiasm?  China, of course.

Whereas Australia’s strategic gaze has long been to the north and east, away from India, India focusses northward, to unremittingly hostile neighbours: Pakistan in the west and China in the east.  

The partnership between Beijing and Islamabad means that India has long faced the German dilemma: the possibility of a two-front war against capable and coordinated enemies.  (p.12)

But just as Australia has had to reassess its blithe trade-based relationship with China, India had to reassess its foreign and economic policies after the end of the Cold War.

 The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived India of both its major backer and the bipolar world order that had made non-alignment possible. (p.13)

They had an economic crisis too, and had to be baled out by the IMF.  In the 1990s the Congress Party was defeated, and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), along with abandoning the commitment to secularism and developing nuclear weapons, also forged a new relationship with the US and its key allies.  Successive governments also saw India develop as a maritime power in the Indian Ocean, where it holds the strategic position that was so attractive to Britain in the days of Empire.

China comes back into the picture when we recognise that their most serious strategic liability is their dependence on energy from the Gulf.  India’s strategic position at sea means it has the potential to interrupt energy flows across the Indian Ocean with enormous consequences for the Chinese economy, not to mention the possibility of depriving its armed forces of significant capabilities to fight a conventional conflict. 

Of course the US and its allies are very interested in limiting Beijing’s capabilities and ambitions.  And India now sees value in Australia’s close relationship with the US too.  However there are significant challenges to be overcome, not the least of which is that India — although beginning to look like a conventional great power — will never be a great power of the sort that Australia has become familiar with.

Britain. the United States, imperial Japan and communist China have all been effective at concentrating and deploying power.  India, and probably later Indonesia, will be a different proposition.  Vast internal diversity and the absence of what Russians refer to as a “power vertical” — a clear and authoritative hierarchy of control over society and economy — will always make the power India can wield outside its borders disproportionate to its size. (p.24)

(Though, you might well wonder how well the US is going to manage control of its divided nation…)

For us, with the US ceding its pre-eminence in the Pacific, it means we will have to adapt to a multipolar regional order — perhaps the greatest challenge its institutions and policymaking processes have ever faced. 

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Aarti Betigeri explores the fast-growing Indian Australian community and its potential to reshape Australia’s ties to India.
  • Snigdha Poonam examines rising anti-China sentiment in Narendra Modi’s India.
  • Harsh V. Pant reveals how India views Australia and how Canberra can supercharge relations.
  • James Curran uncovers the origins and ambitions of the Australia–Indonesia security deal under Paul Keating.
  • Elizabeth Buchanan looks at Australia’s options as China expands its Antarctic operations.

There are also reviews of new books:

    • Don Greenlees analyses Peter Job’s A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian violation of East Timor.
    • Dennis Altman interrogates John Ikenberry’s A World Safe for Democracy and the rise of liberal internationalism.
    • Jane Perlez analyses China Panic by David Brophy, and Red Zone by Peter Hartcher

This journal is always good value!

Update 1/12/21: I’ve now finished reading the journal:

  • Aarti Betigeri’s ‘New Wave’ article was interesting on many points but was most surprising to me was the way the Indian community in Australia is said not to be cohesive.  Indians come here, overwhelmingly, because they are well-educated and ambitious but there is too much competition for jobs in India.  Once here, however, they quickly hive off into social groups that align with where they come from: from north or south India, the state, the sub-region, the religion. They are said to have the habit of siloing into niche communities which is ultimately detrimental.  There was also disturbing acknowledgement of the rise of domestic violence in the Indian community, with Indian women being the second-highest group of callers to the 1800RESPECT helpline.
  • ‘TikTok Wars, why India’s youth are hating on China’ revealed how the long-standing animosity over border wars including Indian casualties in the Galwan River conflict is played out with vicious demonstrations involving a mob carrying a wooden gallows to ‘hang’ Xi Jinping.  The government, for its part, has banned Chinese apps such as TikTok, with Indian substitutes represented as being an alternative loyal to India and its interests.  Fuelled by Covid 19, anti-Chinese sentiment is increasing, , but the India-China trade relationship is still strong despite India’s repeated efforts to economically “decouple” from China.  It would be interesting to know how China reacted to these events…
  • ‘Seeing China Coming’ shows how far-sighted Keating was in pursuing the security agreement with Indonesia.  “You get your chances with history… your chances at the window of opportunity”, he said, and although the pact didn’t survive the conflict in East Timor, President Widodo is apparently not averse to restoring it.  Do any of our current political leaders, I wonder, have Keating’s courage to try it?
  • I didn’t like the proposal put forward in ‘The Fix’, that Australia should approve the Davis runway in Antarctica in order to deal with its strategic problem.  It’s protected under the current treaties, but climate change, resource insecurity and renewed great-power competition are weakening that agreement, and Buchanan thinks that Australia should build the first paved runway there in order to take advantage of the opportunities that offers to protect against territorial claims from China.  She may be right, but I’d rather there were some alternative that doesn’t involve despoiling Antarctica’s pristine environment.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  India Rising? Asia’s Huge Question
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 13, Oct 2021
ISBN: 9781760642129
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2021

Wilderness Tips, by Margaret Atwood

Over at Buried in Print, it’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month a.k.a. #MARM, so it’s time to dip into a short story collection that I’ve had on the TBR since 2008. Wilderness Tips contains ten stories, which I’ll list here in case anyone is looking for a specific title from among her ten collections of short fiction.

  • True Trash
  • Hairball
  • Isis in Darkness
    The Bog Man
  • Death by Landscape
  • Uncles
  • The Age of Lead
  • Weight
  • Wilderness Tips
  • Hack Wednesday

For #MARM, I’ve read the first one, the ironically named True Trash.  It’s set primarily in a summer camp, and it begins with an arresting scene.  A group of waitresses are sunbathing while the young male campers are competing for a turn with the binoculars, hoping that the young women will turn to skinny-dipping which would make the itchy crouching in the mosquito-infected bushes across from their small private dock a great deal more worthwhile.

Immediately, we are plunged into a different era.  Boys don’t need to suffer such discomforts for a glimpse of flesh these days, do they? (Let’s not go there…)

Donny — already showing signs of entrepreneurship — is the owner of the binoculars, and he rents them out for a nickel or a chocolate block from the tuckshop.  He doesn’t eat the chocolate, he on sells it at twice the price.  He gets away with this because of the limited supply of chocolate on the island.  He has already seen what there is to see, but he likes to look at Ronette.  And though he would never admit this to anyone, he knows he’s supposed to feel lust for her, but this is not what he feels. 

The girls (who know they’re being watched) are reading a True Romance magazine.

Tricia has a whole stack of them, stowed under her mattress, and Sandy and Pat have each contributed a couple of others.  Every one of these magazines has a woman on the cover, with her dress pulled down over one shoulder or a cigarette in her mouth or some other evidence of a messy life.  Usually these women are in tears.  Their colours are odd: sleazy, dirt-permeated, like the hand-tinted photos in the five-and-ten.  Knee-between-the-legs colours.  They have none of the cheerful primaries and clean, toothy smiles of the movie magazines: these are not success stories.  True Trash, Hilary calls them.  Joanne calls them Moan-o-dramas. (p.11)

Which one of the girls named so far will be in tears? There are few men at the camp to break anyone’s heart.  There is Mr B. who owns it, but since there are only two young men, Darce and Perry, they can have their pick of the girls.

Joanne, quietly musing about the attractions of the other girls, doesn’t understand Ronette’s appeal.

Nobody bawls her out or even teases her as they would anyone else.  She is a favourite with them, though it’s hard to put your finger on why.  It isn’t just that she’s easygoing: so is Liz, so is Pat.  She has some mysterious, extra status.  For instance everyone else has a nickname. […] Only Ronette has been accorded the dignity of her full, improbable name.

In some ways she is more grown up than the rest of them.  But it isn’t because she knows more things.  She knows fewer things; she often has trouble making her way through the vocabularies of the others, especially the off-hand slang of the private-school trio.  (p.18-19)

Joanne concludes that Ronette knows other things, hidden things.  Secrets. And these other things are older, and on some level more important. 

And then Atwood promptly undercuts this tantalising scrap of information about Ronette:

Or so thinks Joanne, who has a bad habit of novelising. (p.19)

In this short story of only 26 pages, we see Joanne’s PoV, and Donny’s, both at the camp and eleven years later in Toronto.  Have there been tears?  Probably. But here’s the twist: Joanne realises that in the space of a decade, social mores have changed so much that what used to be shocking and ruinous, now barely raises a shrug.

Everything is cool.  A line has been drawn and on the other side of it is the past, both darker and more brightly intense than the present.

She looks across the line and sees the nine waitresses in their bathing suits, in the clear blazing sunlight, laughing on the dock, herself among them; and off in the shadowy rustling bushes of the shoreline, sex lurking dangerously.  It had been dangerous, then.  It had been sin.  Forbidden, secret, sullying. (p.37)

The alternative had been the sugary safety of marriage.

But nothing has turned out that way. Sex has been domesticated, stripped of the promised mystery, added to the category of the merely expected.  It’s just what is done, mundane as hockey.  It’s celibacy these days that would raise eyebrows. (p.37)

Joanne, so fond of storytelling, understands that the story of that summer in camp is a story that can’t be told because that would never happen now.

Except by a master of her craft, Margaret Atwood!

Title: Wilderness Tips
Cover image: The Little Deer, by Frida Kahlo
Publisher: Virago, 1992, first published 1991
ISBN: 9781853813955, pbk., 247 pages
Source: personal library

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