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Morris Lurie, Hergesheimer in the present tense (Review)

December 20, 2014
Morris Lurie, Hergesheimer in the present tense Book cover

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Well, well, well, I got to the end of Morris Lurie’s quirky last novel (if that’s what it is), Hergesheimer in the present tense, and laughed. The final paragraph, which seemed to come out of left field, concerns Dostoyevsky’s contract with a “scurrilous publisher” to deliver a novel – The gambler – on an impossible schedule. It resulted in his hiring the stenographer Anna Snitkina, whom he later married. I laughed because my reading group’s next book is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and punishment (the book published immediately prior to The gambler) and because this little anecdote about Dostoevsky manages to bring together in one paragraph the main themes of the book – the writer’s life, relationships with publishers, and finding love.

Where to start? Perhaps with my little aside in that first sentence regarding the form of this “novel”. This book has a very plain cover. In fact, it simply comprises some text on plain white, as you can see from the book cover image. And this text is right: I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like this before. But, I did enjoy it, because this sort of challenge to my reading brain appeals to me, particularly when the challenge involves a writer writing about the writer’s life. Delicious. When I say, though, that the book is about “the writer’s life”, I mean that in its broadest sense. It’s about life lived by the writer – his growing up, his women, his children, as well as the specific challenges of being a writer. This brings me back to the main challenge, its form: 30 little vignettes that criss-cross time within and between each other. There is probably an over-riding chronological arc to the narrative, though this is not particularly obvious, partly due to flashbacks within the chapters and partly because there’s not really a plot. The voice is third person, with the occasional lapse (is it a lapse?) into first or even second person.

This is not Lurie’s first book about Hergesheimer. The first was Hergesheimer hangs in, which comprises 26 chapters and was published in 2011. My curiosity sparked, I found a review of it in the Australian Book Review and discovered that there was a “real” Hergesheimer, who, Lurie writes, was

an American writer of great popularity who fell from favour, couldn’t understand it, didn’t know why, bellyached about it endlessly to his pal Mencken, refused to go gently, if you like, into that good night, is quite forgotten now. I appropriated his name to pass unnoticed, as it were, among you. (Hergesheimer hangs in)

Even Wikipedia knows about him! Him, the “real” Hergesheimer, I mean. We don’t need to know this allusion, of course, to understand the book, but it adds a playful layer to understanding our Hergesheimer, because he too is a writer who has had his successes but who is now struggling to be appreciated, to be recognised in the long-term.

As soon as I finished the book, I checked Lurie’s bibliography and discovered what I was expecting: his twenty or so books were published by around ten different publishers. No wonder Hergesheimer, the fictional one I mean, is generally unhappy with publishers*. It starts in the first story, “Hergesheimer slaps leather”, in which he and another writer discuss publishers – publishers not entering their books for prizes, publishers not promoting their books, and so on. This story, told in Lurie’s linguistically playful and rhythmic style, got me right in. Here is the opening paragraph:

Hergesheimer, found suddenly footloose in the city this sunny midmorning, hears called out from nowhere his name. To stop. To turn. To scan. To see. To spot, waving and weaving in rapid approach through the intervening traffic, McCall, an acquaintance at best, if even exactly that, certainly not bosomy, nothing buddyish, warmth to warmth, heart to heart, nevertheless, as Hergesheimer also, similarly in or of the writing trade.

‘Tom’, greets him Hergesheimer, the safety of pavement by McCall now achieved.

I love such writing – active, compelling, demanding the reader’s full attention. And I found it particularly interesting to read so soon after Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing with her broken syntax and run-along sentences. Very different writers, very different concerns, but both subverting the “rules” to create honest, unforgettable characters.

Anyhow, the stories/chapters continue. We see Hergesheimer giving writer’s talks in schools, attending conferences, being interviewed, winning a prize, finding a new publisher, and so on. Life is never simple, and rarely are his experiences unequivocally triumphant. His dreams of great success (accompanied by wealth and acclaim) don’t come to fruition. In “Hergesheimer prompts the essential question” a schoolchild doesn’t believe he’s a real writer because “Stories are supposed to have love in them … Where’s the love in yours?” And in the title story, he discovers that prizes don’t always mean what you think they do. Some stories are laugh-out-loud funny, such as his battle to save his typewriter in an increasingly electronic world (“Hergesheimer embraces the new technology”). But mostly the levity has a self-deprecating, often sardonic edge, because, as we know, concerns about publishing, editing, prizes, promotion, plagiarism, are real. Lurie gives them flesh in the form of an experienced but now mostly defeated writer, “a lumbering dinosaur, defeated, out of step with the modern world”, a world where, for example, plagiarism can be explained away as “collage”, “montage”, or “homage”!

Hergesheimer, though, is not only a writer. He’s a son, father, failed husband, lover and friend, so we see him, for example, facing the death of his daughter (“The gift of strength”), being sick, dealing with a landlord, and trying to maintain a shaky relationship with a new woman, the indefatigable Valerie. There’s pathos here, like in his writing life, as he shambles from experience to experience.

Because of its disjointed (though not disconnected) form, you can read this book quickly or slowly. With most chapters running to around five pages, it’s a perfect book for busy times, like now, when reading opportunities have to be snatched amongst the Christmas madness. Lurie, sadly, died within weeks of its publication. Reading it now would be the perfect way to honour his memory – but reading it only for that reason would be selling it short. Far better to read it for its verbal gymnastics, self-deprecating humour and, most of all, for its awareness of the absurdity of life’s endeavours.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also read and enjoyed this book.

Morris Lurie
Hergesheimer in the present tense
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000337

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

* It reminded me of poet-novelist Alan Gould, who came to my book group and spoke specifically about the difficulty of finding publishers.

Monday musings on Australian literature: RN presenters’ pick reads of the year

December 15, 2014

I was going to write my Case for post this week, but I think now that I’ll leave it to January. Life is a bit too busy right now to put proper thought into presenting my case (though I’ve pretty much decided which book it will be!) So, instead, since various media outlets are starting to publish “best” or “favourite” books of the year, I thought I’d share those from the presenters of the radio station that I most listen to, ABC Radio National.

Many did not choose Australian books, but given the theme of this post, I’m only going to share those who did. However, you can see the whole list online at Radio National. Here goes:

  • Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

    Courtesy: Text Publishing

    Damian Carrick – presenter of the Law Report – chose Helen Garner’s This house of grief. Not surprising, I suppose, that a presenter on law would choose this book about a murder trial. He was concerned, he said, that he might find it too bleak, but “from the opening page I was hooked. It’s a page turner, and as it should be it’s an aching lament to the loss of three lives”. I hate the use of the word “aching” in reviews but regular readers here will know that I liked it too.

  • Jonathan Green – presenter of Sunday Extra – chose Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. I’m glad someone did! He felt that, given it had won the Booker Prize, “anything I say isn’t much more than licking the spoon that somebody else used to put the icing on the cake. Even so, gosh this is a good book”. I agree.
  • Lynne Malcolm – presenter of All in the Mind – chose comedian Tim Ferguson’s Carry a big stick. Again, it’s not a surprising choice for the presenter of a program about the mind and the brain, as this book is a memoir focusing particularly on Ferguson’s being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Malcolm refers to Ferguson’s progress from denial to eventual admission when he could hide the condition no longer.
  • Rhianna Patrick – presenter of AWAYE – chose Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light. This is a book I have on my TBR. Here’s what Patrick says “Van Neerven is part of what I see as the next wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, who are university graduates in creative writing. What’s clear early on is van Neerven’s exploration of indigeneity and sexuality, and whether the two can coexist”. That intrigues me. Why can’t they coexist? Clearly, I’ll have to read it to find out.
  • Robyn Williams – presenter of the long-running Science Show – chose Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing. He says that “It may be about blokes with beers and rugged times on the land, but the voice is always clear and convincing”. Hmm, blokes with beers do appear but I wouldn’t quite say that’s what it was “about”. However, I like the fact that he appreciates Wyld’s voice. (You can check out my review if you like. I expect it will feature high in my top books – when I do my list in January).

Other choices included Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries, and Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, both of which I’ve reviewed this year. The most interesting choice, from my point of view anyhow, was from Ann Jones, presenter of Off the Track. She chose Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole which she described as “fantastically surreal and brutally real”.

For each of the choices, there is a sound grab (at the link I provided above) that you can listen to which gives you a little more about their reasons. I don’t find them all enlightening, but I do find it interesting at this time of year to hear people’s choices and why they chose them.

Have you chosen your favourite book of the year, or are you, like me, waiting until the year is over? (Even then, I suspect, I won’t be able to choose ONE book to top all the others but I will have some favourites.)

The Griffyns end the year on, hmm, a macabre note

December 14, 2014

Only the Griffyn Ensemble could put together a concert that included Arvo Pärt and Bob Dylan, that started with eerie sounds from a tape and ended with mysterious knockings and bumpings from who knows where to the strains of Silent Night. Intrigued? Then read on …

This year the Griffyns’ theme has been Fairy Stories – loosely defined (and I do love loose definitions). We have wandered though strange maps, worried about what we believe, and thought about our place. In their final concert, “The shearer that could have been”, we were scared witless – well, not really, but they gave it their best shot. It all started with the setting – and a story …

Yarralumla Woolshed, 1925

Yarralumla Woolshed, 1925 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

The Griffyn Ensemble like to mix up their venues – partly because they like to choose venues that add to their music, to the stories they want to tell – and so this last concert of the year was in yet another very new venue for them, the old Yarralumla Woolshed. Built in 1904, and still surviving in what is pretty close to the geographic centre of Canberra, the Woolshed has seen many uses over its lifetime – and one of these, in my twenties, was as Canberra’s most popular bush dance venue. It was this history, and its previous history as – of course – a woolshed, that the Griffyns drew on for their performance. And, as they have done all year, they had a collaborator, this time local author Katie Taylor.

Taylor created an appropriately spooky story, about shearers’ tales, mysterious disappearances, loss and hope, about beginnings and endings, and how endings are found in beginnings and vice versa. It was performed expressively by Kate Hosking who told the tale through and between the music performed by the ensemble. We were warned there’d be exaggerations because, as Taylor’s text told us,

exaggerations are what you want from a story-teller.

And so there were – at least we hope they were exaggerations, though you never know!

The eerie tone was set with Juan Pablo Nicoletti’s electroacoustic “Abismo al Abismo” played via tape. Its weird otherworldly impressions of wind and water were enhanced by the sound of Australia’s favourite cockatoos screeching over the woolshed. We were consequently well prepared for Susan Ellis’ unusual rendition of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas … it may be your last”!

From this, and with the story continuing, the ensemble moved on to play two of my favourite Erik Satie pieces (“Gymnopedie No. 3″ and “Gnossienne No. 3″), followed by “Swamp Song”, composed by Griffyn violinist Chris Stone, and Shawn Jaegar’s “Pastor Hicks Farewell”. Then, in keeping with the venue, we were invited to take part in a bush dance called by Chris Stone and led by Michael Sollis, as the rest of the band played a “Bush Dance Macabre Suite”. Mr Gums and I aren’t unfamiliar with bush dance moves but “the stab”, “strangle your partner”, and “chop, chop like the guillotine”, were new moves to us! We think playing the spoons was a new move for flautist Kiri Sollis too, but, unlike our dancing, we felt she could easily take up a new bush band career. The suite ended with Susan Ellis singing Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” in character, as Ellis always does with aplomb.

We returned after a brief intermission to a dramatic change of pace – from jigs and ballads to Arvo Pärt’s minimalist “Fratres” played by Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp). I’m a bit of an Arvo Pärt fan, so enjoyed their thoughtful rendition. According to Wikipedia, this piece encapsulates Pärt’s “observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us'”. That fits rather nicely, I think, with the night’s theme of beginnings and endings, of moving forwards and backwards. This piece segued nicely to two very moody pieces: “so she moaned, and as she uttered her moans” composed by Michael Sollis, and featuring the double bass (Holly Downes), mandolin (Michael Sollis), violin (Chris Stone) and flute (Kiri Sollis), and  “Ghost” by Myrto Korkokiou and Apostolos Loufopoulos, with Kiri Sollis on alto flute accompanied by more electroacoustic music. These three pieces showed off the ensemble’s musicianship perfectly.

The concert concluded with Jeff Buckley’s “Dream brother” performed with some lovely singing by the whole ensemble:

Don’t be like the one who made me so old
Don’t be like the one who left behind his name
‘Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine
And nobody ever came

Oh dear … And then, as Ellis moved onto “Stille nacht” (“Silent night”), the rest of the ensemble quietly left the stage, and it wasn’t long before we heard the ghosts of woolsheds past (or were they of our future?) a-knocking and tapping beneath us.

It was a beautifully coherent yet quirky concert that gave its audience a night to remember – and, just so we wouldn’t be left too spooked, they served us laminations at the end.

I look forward their Global Chronicles concert series in 2015.

You can hear other versions, online, of some of the music we heard:

Who’s watching our e-reading behaviour?

December 11, 2014

I was intrigued to read in The Guardian app this morning that Kobo has released a report on patterns in e-reading that they have gleaned from more than 21 million Kobo readers (the devices and, therefore, the readers!) across the world! The report says that retailers had been reluctant to share the data they had been gathering for themselves – but Kobo has apparently come clean. And how interesting it is. But first, the main issue implied by my subject line …

I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this data is being gathered. I find data about human behaviour fascinating but, as a librarian/archivist, I ascribe to the principle of reader/user privacy or confidentiality. Librarians don’t tell others what individual people are borrowing or researching, but they do gather data. Librarians running public libraries want, need in fact, to know what their users like. Do their readers prefer crime novels to classics, cookbooks to self-help, and so on? Librarians seek this information via such sources as borrowing statistics, surveys and just by chatting with their users. The public, presumably, thinks this is ok. After all, it is their/our money (our taxes) that is being used to buy the books – and we want that money spent sensibly.

Kobo, though, and all those other e-reader companies are in business. They also want to know what we like to read – because they want to make money. Fair enough. All retailers want to know what their customers want – at least, they should if they want to stay in business. The question is, in our electronic data driven world, what data is collected, how is it collected, and where is it kept? Is it anonymous, is it encoded, how is it used? There’s an interesting discussion about the collection of reader data at Scholarly Kitchen, particularly in relation to a recent discovery that Adobe Digital Editions was not only gathering information about users’ digital libraries and reading patterns, but sending it back to their servers in the clear (unencrypted). You can read more about this (with links to even more articles) at the Digital Reader. Adobe, of course, is not the only company gathering reader data. Amazon, says Scholarly Kitchen, “is notoriously silent about its activities, but it is well known that their use of big data gathering and analytics is profound”.

I’ll leave the discussion here … I have no solutions. In the end, we have two main options – opt out of the electronic world (if that’s at all possible) or trust providers (and do our best to be aware, careful consumers). Oh, and we can support the watchdogs who do their best to protect us and our information, and we can try to use trusted third parties (like, says Scholarly Kitchen, libraries and scholarly publishers).

I will end, instead, where I began – with Kobo’s recent report, and its finding that there is quite a discrepancy between what we buy and what we actually read. Hmm, let me put that more clearly: they found that the books at the top of the bestseller lists are not at the top of the “most completed” lists. Indeed, not one of the top 10 UK bestsellers (such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone girl which ranked 4) appears in the top 10 most completed. (You can see the two UK lists in The Guardian link I provided at the beginning of the post).

What does this say about bestsellers? Clearly promotion (and word of mouth) is extremely powerful – something we surely knew, but this data adds another whole angle to it. An interesting example is Northup’s Twelve years a slave which is ninth on the British bestseller list, due presumably to the  recent film adaptation, but which only 28.2% of British readers finished (or had, by the time the data was gathered). The book that topped the UK’s “most completed” list was

Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core, which doesn’t even feature on the overall bestseller list – although Kelleher has gone on to win a book deal with Amazon’s UK publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer after selling nearly 150,000 copies of her three self-published novels.

Good news for Casey Kelleher.

Besides my intrinsic interest in what people buy versus what they read, my main question is how will Kobo (and other publishers) use this information? They probably don’t care greatly if people don’t read “bestsellers” – after all, they’ve got the money – but, getting their marketing machine behind smaller selling books that people are completing is another whole ball-game. Is this a scary thing or is there a wonderful potential here? For we general-cum-literary readers, it is scary, because the risk is they will start to skew their publishing activity (even more) towards the genres people most complete – which, in the UK, is romance – rather than taking a risk on something new. Sometimes, too much data can be a bad thing.

Thanks be to all those lovely small publishers who hang in there publishing different books. Once more, I “dips me lid” to them.


Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

December 8, 2014

I’ve written about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards before – more than once in fact, as you will see if you click on my link. They were created in 2007 by our then new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. What heady days they were. These were, at the time, Australia’s most lucrative literary awards, and were among the first of the major awards, when they instigated this in 2011, to provide a cash prize for shortlisted books. Awards were initially made in two categories – fiction and non-fiction – but gradually other categories have been added for poetry, children’s fiction, young adult fiction, and Australian history.

I do wonder though about the ongoing support. In 2010 the winners were announced on 8 November, then in 2011, it was 8 July, and in 2012 it was 23 July. Last year the winners were announced on 15 August, and this year they were announced tonight, 8 December. Why such inconsistency? Most major literary awards keep pretty much to a schedule, but this one is all over the place. Does this suggest a lack of commitment? I had started to think this year that they weren’t going to happen – until the shortlist was suddenly announced on 19 October.

I enjoy following these awards – and I’m primarily talking fiction here – partly because there is often something left field about them. Three winners – The zookeeper’s war by Steven Conte (2008), Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (2010) (my review) and Stephen Daisley’s Traitor* (2011) – didn’t win any other major award (as far as I’m aware). And the shortlists have included books that scarcely, if at all, popped up elsewhere, such as Sophie Laguna’s One foot wrong (2009) and Alan Gould’s The lakewoman (2010) (my review). Given that the arts is a subjective business, I like seeing different works being recognised. I can’t believe that there are only 6 or 7 books worth highlighting each year – and yet that’s what often seems to be implied when you look at the shortlists in any one year. (I suppose, though, if you are one of those 6 or 7 you hope that multiple listing will result in your winning at least once?)

Anyhow, it’s now time to announce this year’s winner of the fiction award – and it’s a joint award: Steven Carroll’s A world of other people and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (my review).

And I can’t help giving a special mention to a couple of other winners:

  • Poetry award: Canberra’s gorgeous Melinda Smith with her collection Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (published by the lovely little poetry press, Pitt Street Poetry). I haven’t read this, but I have heard Smith speak and mentioned her in my post on Capital Women Poets.
  • Non-fiction award: another joint award – Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (on my TBR) and Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (my review).

The Australian history award was also made to two books. I have no idea what the authors think about all these joint awards, but as you can imagine, I like that the love was shared.

I do hope these awards continue, and hopefully on a more routine schedule.

Congratulations to all the authors, and their publishers, who won this year.

* I have been wondering about what has happened to Daisley, but I read just today in a catalogue from Text Publishing that he has a new book out in 2015, Coming rain, set in Western Australia in 1955, the year he was born! I’ll be looking out for it.

Helen Garner, This house of grief: The story of a murder trial (Review)

December 4, 2014
Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Well you might ask why you would want to read a book about the trial of a man accused of murdering his three sons by driving his car into a dam and escaping the car himself? Indeed, Helen Garner was asked why she would want to attend such a trial – and write about it. But Helen Garner is made of strong stuff, having previously written The first stone about the sexual harassment of two girls at Melbourne University’s Ormond College and Joe Cinque’s consolation about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her boyfriend via a drug overdose. I’ve read and appreciated both these books, along with novels and short stories by Garner, and so was keen to read this, her latest.

For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of what happened:

… as Farquharson was returning his children to their mother after a Father’s Day access visit, his white 1989 VN Commodore vehicle veered across the Princes Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and came to rest in a farm dam where it filled with water and submerged. His three children, Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2), were unable to free themselves and drowned. Farquharson managed to escape and alerted another driver who took him to nearby Winchelsea. Police divers recovered the boys’ bodies about 2 am the next day. They were still inside the vehicle and unrestrained by seatbelts.

Farquharson claimed that he did not intend to kill his children, that he had blacked out during a coughing fit (a condition known as cough syncope). However, he was tried and found guilty, tried again after winning an appeal and found guilty again, and was then refused leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.

Garner sat through both trials, the first one lasting around 7 weeks, and the second one 11 weeks, and managed to condense it all into 300 pages of lucid prose. One of the reasons I was keen to read the book was to see what approach she’d take. In The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, Garner’s opinion is pretty clear from the beginning – and I didn’t fully agree with her (for very different reasons in each of the books). However, in This house of grief, Garner is more measured. She doesn’t want to believe that Farquharson is guilty – “longed to be persuaded” otherwise – but is gradually swayed by the evidence to believe it must be so. She doesn’t engage emotionally with the participants in the intense way she did in Joe Cinque’s consolation, but she is emotional. How could you not be in such a case? There are two reasons I like Garner – her tight, evocative prose, and her fearless honesty. And so, in this book, she tracks her own response as she listens to the evidence – from her disbelief that a father could do such a thing, and her sentimental desire to believe Farquharson, to her horrified admission that any doubt about it is “no more substantial than a cigarette paper shivering in the wind”.

So, let’s get back to the original question. Why read such a story? There are a few reasons, but I’ll discuss my two main ones. The first is to gain insight into, and understanding of, human behaviour. Why do people do what they do? It’s so easy to judge people out-of-hand, but even horrific events have nuances, and I want to understand those. Not to excuse, because it’s impossible to excuse taking the lives of those in one’s care, but to be able to empathise in some way. Isn’t this what literature is about?

Garner achieves this by not demonising Farquharson. As she watches him in court, and listens to the evidence – professional, personal, expert – she presents a picture of a man who was “emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family”. At the end of the first trial, the judge speaks kindly to Farquharson, and Garner writes:

Farquharson nodded to him, courteous and present. For the first time I saw him as he might have been in ordinary life, at work, at school. It touched me. Again I felt shocked, as if this response were somehow illegitimate.

(Interestingly, Garner did not accord such recognition to Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Yes, different case, very different people, but the principle still stands I think.) A little earlier in the trial, Garner quotes “a tough American prosecutor” who’d said to her:

‘If I were appearing for him, I’d try to make his family see that loving him doesn’t have to mean they believe he’s innocent’.

But, how tough that would be, eh?

My second reason is to understand the workings of courts and justice. I have never (yet anyhow) been called for jury duty. Oh my, oh my, after reading this, I’m even more desperate that I never am. Although it’s pretty obvious that the right verdict was achieved in this case, the process was not reassuring. Garner’s reporting of evidence and cross-examination reads very like those court dramas you see in film and television. There’s drama, police mistakes, twisting of the truth, character assassinations, conflicting expert opinions – and, in this case, a lot of complicated and sometimes obfuscatory technical evidence about cars and tire tracks and steering inputs, about arcs and gradients. And it goes on for weeks.

Garner keeps it interesting by focusing on the people and their reactions, reporting some dialogue, and summarising the critical (which, she makes clear, is not always the most relevant) points of evidence. Her descriptions of the defence and prosecution team are drawn with a novelist’s eye for character. Sometimes Morrissey, the defence barrister, is “as jumpy as a student undergoing an oral exam”, while at other times he’s “less flustered … more in control of the content and tone of his discourse”. His “waxen” appearance at the second trial is quite different from the beginning of the first when he’s presented as a hearty “spontaneous, likeable man” whose “stocks were high”.

She also pays a lot of attention to the jury. Of course we cannot know what they thought or discussed but Garner watches them, noting when their attention flags and when it picks up, when emotions get the better of them. She writes, for example, of one witness that “the jury liked him … he was one of the witnesses they instinctively trusted”. During her report on the second trial, she quotes American writer, Janet Malcolm who wrote that “jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character”.

Partway through the book, Garner comments that the question “Did he do it?” is the “least interesting question anyone could ask.” Later, between the first and second trial, she quotes a grandmother from another murky situation in which a father was suspected of killing his children via a house fire. The grandmother asks:

‘What’s worse? — living with suspicions and various possibilities and never knowing the truth, or living with the truth of something too horrible to contemplate.’

Books like Garner’s enable us – nay, force us – to contemplate such questions. They show us that trials are less about retribution, perhaps even less about justice, but more about the truth. What we are to do with the truths we so glean is another question – but that question, Garner suggests, is our “legitimate concern”, and I agree.

awwchallenge2014Helen Garner
This house of grief: The story of a murder trial
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079206

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: The case for …

December 1, 2014

Back in February, the online journal, The Conversation, about which I’ve written before, started a occasional series they call The case for …. They described it simply as …

If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be?

That’s very open-ended and I did think the intention might have been for contributors to argue for a book of controversial standing or, perhaps, one that has not received the recognition the casemaker thinks it deserves. But neither of these work for the first book, which was …

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, chosen by Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, Associate Professor, English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia. (See my review). It is not controversial, though some readers found it a little hard to read, and it won a swag of awards, as Hughes-D’Aeth tells us at the start of his case. However, he makes a case on the basis of its importance and relevance to the ongoing discussion in Australia about the facts and implications of first contact. And his case has to do with what he calls Scott’s “bold wager” that “he wanted to write a novel from the point of view of Aboriginal confidence” and that he was “inspired [to do so] by history”. Hughes-D’Aeth discusses his surprise at this idea of “confidence”, given that the history is one of “decimation” and “cultural annihilation”. You can read his “case” if you’d like.

I should clarify, before I continue, that The Conversation also says that the work can be “fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical”.

So far there have been eighteen cases put. Several are for books I know or have read (often before blogging), such as (links are to the “case”):

But some cases are for books, I don’t know at all (which probably just demonstrates my ignorance). These include:

Of the eighteen cases listed on the site, the one that stands out as a bit odd to me is Johnny Warren’s book, published in 2002. Warren was a legendary Australian footballer. Casemaker Lee McGowan (Senior Lecturer, Postgraduate Coursework Studies, Queensland University of Technology) admits that the book has its weaknesses, but argues that it’s important nonetheless. He says that “the book’s title refers to what Warren described as a ‘mentality’ that exists around football in its early days in Australia, a mentality he implied was borne of fear.” McGowan suggests this seems outdated now – though I’m not sure exactly what he’s saying is outdated. The words in the title? The mentality? The fear? He doesn’t explore this further, but moves on to say that the book’s main value is that it “remains the best, most insightful account of the Australian game’s contemporary development”. I guess I wouldn’t see the development of football as a critical issue warranting my attention, but to each their own I suppose.

I’m intrigued – though not surprised – to note that several of the books for which cases have been made are by indigenous writers or confront indigenous issues (including Kim Scott, Randolph Stow, Peter Temple, Paddy Roe, and Gail Jones’ Sorry). The cases, in other words, reflect the zeitgeist of our times. Suzie Gibson from Charles Sturt University, arguing for Stow’s To the islands (1958), for example, writes that in it

contemporary readers are confronted with the fruits of Australia’s racist policies concerning Aboriginal peoples.

She argues that, in addition to its literary merit, it is relevant to modern Australia

which tends to function in ignorance of the ongoing cultural disenfranchisement of Australia’s first peoples.

Literature, as we all know, comes in and out of fashion, sometimes for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. I love this initiative by The Conversation – and hope further academics and researchers take up their offer to present cases.

Anyhow, I’m sharing this series for a couple of reasons. One is that it provides yet another list to look at when considering what to read next. And the other is, as you’ve probably guessed, to ask, What book* would you make a case for – and why? I will make a case for a book in a future Monday musings!

* Preferably from your own national literature.




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