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Monday musings on Australian literature: June Wright, Crime novelist

January 18, 2016

Regular readers here may be surprised to see this subject for a Monday Musings given I’m not known as a crime aficionado, but never let it be said that I’m not open-minded. I came across June Wright last year in my role as convener of the Literary and Classics area of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and was reminded of her again when I wrote my 2015 wrap-up for the challenge. It occurred to me then that she was worth introducing to you!

Dorothy June Wright, née Healy, was born in 1919, and died only recently in 2012. She wrote six crime novels in the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s obituary, she was born in Melbourne, and went to school at Kildara Brigidine and Vaucluse convents, Loreto (in Adelaide), and Mandeville Hall (in Toorak). She worked from 1939 to 1941 as a telephonist at Melbourne’s central exchange – a significant fact as you will soon see – before marrying Stewart Wright in 1942. They had six children.

WrightTelephoneExchangeHutchinsonNow, here comes the significance of her job: her first novel, published in 1948, was Murder in the telephone exchange. Wright told a reporter at Melbourne’s Advocate that one of her co-telephonists at the Exchange had once said to her “‘You know you could write a book about this place!” The Advocate goes on to tell her publication story:

June Wright wrote her novel in the midst of busy household duties and a toddling, growing family. When the English publishers, Hutchinsons, announced a £1000 detective story competition Mrs. Wright sent along her manuscript, with a sceptical and open mind on its chances. The competition closed on June 30, 1944, but no manuscript, of the thousands submitted, was awarded the prize. Several, however, were recommended for publication by the judges … Among them was June Wright’s “Murder in the Telephone Exchange”. The publishers are evidently so impressed with her gifts as a story-teller that they have not only signed a contract with her for the immediate publication of the competition manuscript, but have also signed options on her next two novels.

Hmmm … not good enough for a prize but they chose to publish? Still, I’m sure the authors were happy to be published. The next two novels were So bad a death and The devil’s caress. Wright went on to be, apparently, more popular in Australia than Agatha Christie – and yet died pretty much unknown.

Reissued in 2015

The reason Wright has come to our attention now is that her novels are being reissued by US publisher Verse Chorus Press under their Dark Passage imprint, with three published in 2015. That’s not how I learnt about them, though, as I don’t have my ear to the crime genre ground. I heard about Wright through Karen Chisholm’s article on her in The Newton Review of Books.

However, before I tell you about Chisholm’s article, I want to share an excerpt from an article in Perth’s The Daily News. It describes an address June Wright made to the Housewives’ Association:

‘Yes, I have four small children, do my own house-work, and am now writing my third book,’ she told association members. ‘I began my telephone exchange murder story when my first child was a year old, entered the novel for an English competition and was delighted when it was selected for publication.’ Mrs. Wright thinks that housewives are well qualified for writing. They are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony — three excellent attributes for the budding writer.

Haha, love it!

I shared this first because it provides a good lead-in to Chisholm’s article. Chisholm, unlike fraudulent me, has read the three reissued novels, and she makes some interesting comments. She says, for example, of Murder in the telephone exchange that the protagonist, Maggie Byrnes “is the first of Wright’s strong female protagonists and we can’t help but assume that there is much of the author herself in Byrnes”. Nagaisayonara, writing at the Crime Fiction Lover website, argues that “it’s a complex, dark novel with a female detective who was far ahead of her time”, and believes that Wright is more like Dorothy L Sayers than Christie. Moving on to So bad a death, Chisholm tells us that Maggie is now married and looking for housing. She writes:

Wright’s family of six children is often remarked upon in interviews when she talks about the workload of writing she maintained, as are the connections between the life of her first character, Maggie, and her own life. Certainly that search for housing during the post-war shortage, and the slightly desperate search for distraction from the day-to-day sameness of childraising and housekeeping, is informed by experience.

Chisholm adds that the new Foreword for So bad a death states that Wright “would joke with interviewers how writing bloody murders was a good way to avoid infanticide”! She sounds like a woman with confidence and presence, doesn’t she?

Adelaide’s The Mail reviewer writing in 1952 about her third novel, The devil’s caress, says that

Mrs. Wright’s new and third work, which concerns odd doings on a Victorian peninsula, is outstanding in one respect. It has a powerful character study of a woman doctor — a commanding, aloof, and in some ways completely misunderstood person, who is married to a surgeon, the antithesis of herself. …  Mrs. Wright’s reportage is as ever brisk and competent. But I eagerly await the day when she concentrates more upon genuine, plausible detection and less upon melodramatic situations.

I wonder if this is why this book was not the third to be re-released last year, although I understand all will be eventually?

Meanwhile, Chisholm writes that in all the three books released so far, the third being the previously unpublished Duck season death, “there has been an underlying sense of fun being poked” and “hints at a wicked, very Australian sense of humour”. She concludes that June Wright was “one of the writers who forged the way for an Australian crime fiction scene that’s vibrant, varied and extremely engaging” and argues that she deserves to be “better remembered and more accessible”.

I must say I’m tempted … are you?

Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

January 15, 2016

Emma Ayres, CadenceAlthough Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence had been passed around my reading group with much enthusiasm over the last year or so, I wasn’t intending to read it – not because I wasn’t interested, but because there were other books I wanted to read more. However, when I found the audiobook at my aunt’s house while we were clearing it out, Mr Gums and I decided to listen to it on our trips to and from Sydney. It proved to be a great car book. However, a warning: we listened to it intermittently over two months, so this will be more a post of reflections than a coherent review.

Emma Ayres is probably known to most Australian readers of my blog, but perhaps not to others so let’s start with a potted bio. Born in England in 1967, Ayres is a professional musician – a viola player in fact – who has also worked as a radio presenter. She lived in Hong Kong for eight years, playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but in 2000 she rode a bicycle, fundraising for charity, from Shropshire, England, through the Middle East and central Asia, to Hong Kong. She moved to Australia in 2003, and worked as an ABC Classical Music radio presenter for eight years, from 2008 to 2014.

Now to the memoir. Cadence is ostensibly a travel memoir, but it covers a lot of ground within its seemingly narrow construct of chronicling her year-long bicycle journey. The ground it covers, besides the story of her travel, which is exciting enough given the regions she rode though, includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, and her analyses of classical music. Some of her technical descriptions went over my head, but I found her discussions of composers to be not only accessible and eye-opening, but deeply interesting. And it’s all told with a thoughtful philosophical underpinning.

Cadence is an excellent title for a musician’s memoir, and she plays with its meanings throughout, referring, for example, to a “perfect cadence”, or a “slow cadence”, or more frequently to  “interrupted cadences … moments when the direction is changed”. Indeed, the memoir could be seen as comprising almost continuous interrupted cadences because, although the bicycle trip provides her memoir’s chronological backbone, she skips around frequently, going backwards to her childhood and early years as a musician and forwards to her life after the trip when she briefly toyed with being a cellist. It can take a little concentration to keep track of exactly which part of her life she is writing about at any one time, but it’s not too hard. After all …

Cadences are waypoints in the music, places where you can take a breather, readjust your instrument and hurtle on to the next bit of the adventure.

I greatly enjoyed Ayres’ reflections on life and travel. The book is full of her insights, many learnt on the road. For example, regarding the challenge of deciding whether to do the trip she says:

If you are not sure whether or not you should do something, ask your ninety-year-old self.

At another point she discusses how much she loved Pakistan despite all the nay-saying she had received when she was planning her trip. She was treated, she writes, almost without exception, with kindness and generosity everywhere she went. “Do we make our own welcome?” she wonders, and goes on to suggest that before we criticise another country, we should perhaps look at ourselves first.

Being a woman cycling alone is risky business, particularly in some of those male-dominated countries through which she travelled. She frequently took advantage of her androgynous look, helping it along by keeping her hair very short and wearing non-feminine clothes (where she could). Consequently, she was regularly taken for a man. She discusses gender often, commenting on how we are ruled by it and its associated expectations. She sees herself as “a border dweller in the world of gender”, writing:

I do admire people who are by birth penumbral but have the courage and desire to be firmly one or the other and go through a sex change, but I like the fluidity of being able to float around the middle. I really to think that the basic this or that of male and female is shallow and limiting. How simplistic to think, with all those opposing hormones flowing in each of our bodies, that we are one and therefore not the other. And how much better in countries like India and Thailand that they recognise more than two sexes. More variations in the octave, more variations in gender.

Another theme that runs through the book is the idea of being in the moment. She tells the story of being taken to task for reading Anna Karenina when on a bus in Pakistan. Her young seat-mate is mystified by her passionate rendering to him of the story, saying to her “but you are here!” She genuinely sees his point, and puts the book down. Later in the trip, she regrets not spending more time with a fellow-traveller who crosses her path because “I was too focused on destination and again forgot the importance of the here and now”.

Cadence is a generous, warm-hearted book which abounds with travel anecdotes to delight any lover of travel literature. There are scary moments, and funny ones, and others that are just plain interesting. It also contains intelligent, considered insights into music, some of which I plan to share in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll conclude with a comment she makes early in the book:  “Travel”, she says, “goes inwards as much as outwards”. That is exactly what she demonstrates with this book. I can see why all those in my reading group who read the book urged it onto the next person.


Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir
Sydney: ABC Books (by HarperCollins), 2014
ISBN: 9780733331893

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir (audio)
(read by Emma Ayres)
ABC Commercial, 2014
8 hours (approx) running time (on 7 CDs)

Delicious descriptions: Stephen Orr’s farm family

January 13, 2016

When I reviewed Stephen Orr’s farm-set novel, The hands, last week, I didn’t share many quotes as the post was getting rather long. I decided I’d use my Delicious Descriptions series instead! So, here are three excerpts to show you more of what I so enjoyed about Orr’s writing.

One aspect I really enjoyed was his dialogue, but it’s tricky choosing something that works out of context. However, here’s a discussion between parents Trevor and Carelyn, and their eldest son Aiden about whether he continues school to Year 12. Young brother Harry is there too:

‘Maybe there’s no point starting Year Twelve,’ Aiden suggested, looking at his parents.
‘Why not?’ Trevor asked, not entirely surprised.
‘Not if I’m gonna fail things.’
‘Why are you going to fail?’ Carelyn asked.
‘Maybe not fail, but get through with Cs.’
She crossed her arms. ‘You’re not a C student.’
‘It’s getting harder.’
‘So? You work harder. Year Twelve is minimum for anyone now.’
‘But what’s the point if —’
‘You. Will. Continue.’ She decided  against the lecture. How he (Yes, you, look at me when I’m talking to you) was, for seven years, the best student in his School of the Air class; how he used to finish maths worksheets in minutes and spend half an hour waiting for others; always scored an A on tests and had a spelling age five years above his actual age.
‘It’s only another year,’ Harry said to his brother.
Aiden gave him his shut up, Shit-for-brains look. ‘It’s none of your business.’
‘You’re meant to set a good example.’

I don’t know about you, but I love this. It’s so “true”. I love the “gonna” for Aiden, and the “going to” for his Mum; I love big brother’s condescending-irritated-but-love-you-all-the-same “shit-for-brains” response to  his brother; and I love the whole set up of the argument regarding the importance of education.

And here, without spoiling anything, is a description of what comes after an affair:

… It was more a case of what came next: the small wedding, in a small park; the moving van; the bathroom reclaimed by lavender soap and fresh towels; her, inserted into his life like a deep splinter; opinions floating through the air and settling on the floor like talc; fine words butter no parsnips; her laugh; bright dresses on the line beside their overalls and pyjamas …

A little north of Orr's "Bundeena" but you get the picture.

A little north of Orr’s “Bundeena” but you get the picture.

But finally, of course, you need a description of the land:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man — following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor — had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they may as well have been living in New Zealand.

So evocative.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Regional differences in Australian English

January 11, 2016
Thredbo Village

Thredbo Village

While dining in Thredbo this weekend, we were served by a waiter who, when I asked for a certain ingredient to be excluded from my dish, repeated it back with the order, “and no to-mAY-to” she said. Her accent wasn’t strong but this stood out, so when she returned to our table, we asked whether she was from North America. Yes, Vancouver, she said, but sixteen years ago. She thought she’d covered her origins up but, when we explained, she realised she’d make a slip and pronounced that she would not make that mistake again! What a shame I thought …

When we watch movies or television programs from countries like England and the United States, we tend to be very aware of accents and linguistic differences. Is this set in the north of England, we ask? Or, oh, she’s a New Yorker, we’ll say. The accent is a big part of it, but vocabulary and expressions also contribute. Interestingly, despite Australia’s geographic expanse, with some populations quite remote from others, such differences are far less pronounced.

There are some differences, of course. Indigenous Australians can often be distinguished by a particular way of speaking, as can country versus city people. Traditionally, South Australians have had a reputation for sounding more English, for rounding their vowels in words like “dance” and “branch”. (South Australia was not a convict colony like most of the other states!) These differences tend to be subtle, and are probably not well noticed by those from other countries.

Linguistic differences in Australia are, though, something I’ve been aware of, largely because I’ve experienced the impact. You see, as an early teenager, I moved from living in northwest Queensland (Mt Isa to be exact) to the big smoke in New South Wales (aka Sydney). I learnt very quickly to say “recess” at school, not the childish sounding “little lunch” for the first break of the day. I learnt that the bag I took to school was a “case” or “bag” not a “port”. (These days I suppose it’s a “backpack”!). And I learnt that my “togs” were “swimmers”.

I was therefore fascinated to read a recent article titled “Togs or swimmers: Why Australians use different words to describe the same things”. It was written by three linguists at the University of Melbourne, Jill Vaughan, Katie Jepson and Rosey Billington. They provide some maps showing different word usages around Australia, swimwear being one. (If you are interested, they include a link to more maps on their Linguistic Roadshow site).

What is particularly fascinating about this from my point of view is not so much the differences but the fact that different states agree on different words. For example, with some words there’s general agreement in Queensland and New South Wales (“ice-block”) but not Victoria (“icy-pole), while for another word Victoria and New South Wales will concur (school “canteen”) with Queensland (the “tuckshop”) the odd one out. How did/does this happen? The authors don’t cover it – though perhaps they do in a longer academic article.  They do, however, note that some usages align quite closely with state lines, and that this can be observed in border towns, like Albury-Wodonga. Words, they say, become part of one’s regional identity and so Wodonga residents are more likely to use the Victorian-preferred “bathers”, while those from Albury will use the New South Welsh “swimmers”.

The thing is, of course, that vocabulary usage varies (and changes) over time as well as space. When we read Australian novels, it’s the change over time that I suspect we notice, more than the regional ones. One of the aspects I enjoyed in Madeleine St John’s 1950s-set The women in black (my review) is St John’s recognition of new words being introduced to Australians via post-war European immigrants, words like “salami” for example! She also used the word “reffos” which was contemporary Australian slang for “refugees”. Salami is here to stay, but “reffos” has been replaced by new slang.

Current writers like Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas very self-consciously, I think, closely reflect contemporary vernacular in their novels. It’s important to the milieu they are describing. Kristen Krauth’s just_a_girl (my review) is replete with contemporary teenage vernacular, including Americanisms like “skanky”, reflecting America’s influence on contemporary Australian English (if not on contemporary English!). In indigenous Australian writing, we hear the different rhythms and language of (to generalise somewhat) indigenous people. “Deadly”, meaning “great” (and similar), is an obvious example.

Hmm … I’ve moved a little away from what inspired this post but it did get me thinking about how I read Australian writing and what I notice. Works which use contemporary language – words, expressions, grammatical constructions – can seem fresh and alive, and very specifically of their place and time. Historically, but I’m generalising here and it’s a matter of degree rather than being absolute, the vernacular was (and is?) more common in genre writing than in literary works, that is, the works that go on to become “classics”. There are exceptions, of course. Some of Barbara Baynton’s stories in her Bush studies collection are nigh impossible to read for the vernacular she uses, and yet are deemed classics. And CJ Dennis’ Songs of a sentimental bloke remains popular despite its colloquial language.

I’d love to know what you think about the use of vernacular – as against more formal writing – in the fiction you read. When does it engage you, and when not?

Stephen Orr, The hands: An Australian pastoral (Review)

January 9, 2016

OrrHandsWakefieldAs promised, here is my review of a farm novel, Adelaide-based Stephen Orr’s The hands: An Australian pastoral. It is his sixth novel but the first that I’ve read. Where have I been? The hands is such a good read I wonder why I haven’t read him before.

Among the review excerpts for his previous novels provided at the beginning of my edition is one for his fourth, Dissonance. It says the book prompts us “to ponder the deep nature of familial relationships and their hold over one’s life”. This must be Orr’s milieu because I could write exactly the same about this book. It is set on a remote cattle property called Bundeena, in western South Australia. At the start of the novel, six people live there: 74-year-old Murray who holds the deed to the farm; his sister Fay and her not-quite-right son Chris; and Murray’s son Trevor, his wife Carelyn, and their 11-year-old son Harry. The seventh member of the family, 17-year-old Aiden, is at boarding school. In the first of the novel’s three chronologically titled (2004, 2005, 2006) parts, we shift between the third person perspectives of those at Bundeena, and that of Aiden at school.

Like most farm novels I’ve read – such as Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review) – The hands, depicts the hard life of the farmer, the struggle to survive, and the uncompromising emotions that often attend such lives. You have to be tough to survive is the implication. But, do you? Sometimes, perhaps, you can be too tough. Orr’s characters have to contend with much – not just ongoing drought and debt, but grief that is layered upon layer through the generations, from the World War 1 related suicide of Murray’s grandfather, through the farm accident which damages Chris, to another accident which rocks the family and sparks the tension that finally brings it all to a head. Secrets will out and truths, emotional and practical, must be faced.

This sounds pretty thickly laid on, doesn’t it? World War 1, suicide, farm accidents, drought, and more. How believable is it all? Fortunately, Orr’s control of his plot is sure, and the tone never shifts into melodrama. The story elements fit logically, with the necessary groundwork carefully laid. It pays to notice the details. Is there a hint, for example, in the first film we find movie-mad Chris watching, The Great Escape?

The hands is not a challenging novel to read, and it doesn’t break ground in terms of the form, but from the first page I was fully engaged – because it’s authentic. We reviewers can throw that term around rather loosely, but you’d better believe me when I use it for this novel. Orr’s ability to capture characters and the way they interact with each other is truly impressive. The uneasy relationship between Trevor and his unbending father, the love and loyalty between Aiden and Harry that lies behind the teasing and bickering, Trevor’s conversations with his sons. It’s pretty darn perfect.

Orr’s control of his story starts with the title. “It’s all in the hands” we read, and hands feature consistently throughout the novel – working on the farm, driving, sculpting. Sculpting? Yes, Trevor sculpts son Harry’s hands. Fittingly, the novel concludes as the sculpture is completed. And then there’s the subtitle. I love the use of the word “pastoral” and its multiple connotations. There’s the literal meaning relating to land used for grazing sheep and cattle. That describes this book. Then there’s the Christian church sense of providing spiritual guidance. Hmm, there’s a dearth of good guidance (spiritual, emotional, however you like to frame it) offered in this novel, particularly by patriarch Murray. In the end it’s Murray’s powerless, down-trodden sister Fay who comes good. And then there’s “pastoral” used to describe works of art which portray country life in a romantic or idealised way. But, this is not a romantic or idealised story, making the subtitle pointedly ironic.

This is a novel about a lot of things. Specifically, it’s about farms and farm families, about how farms and the responsibility for them are handed down through families. It’s about the expectation that succeeding generations will farm, and it’s about one generation letting go to allow the next to continue. The trouble is that at Bundeena, Murray will not let go. He holds the deed, and Trevor feels trapped. More than that, he feels unvalued and without autonomy. Aiden notices it too:

The word was with Murray, and Murray was the word … There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Talking with him, feels Trevor, is like “arguing with a rock”.

The specific farm themes, though, encompass bigger themes to do with familial love and responsibility, choices and autonomy, guilt and shame. It is these that lift The hands from a good, but exotic to most of us, farm story to something that applies to us all. In this context, though, it must be said that women play only a small role, and the role they play could be seen to be a little idealised, in that much of the warmth or perception comes from them. However, this is not overdone. They are not sentimentalised, and their relative absence is not a flaw: this is a book about men, about generations of farming men, their lives and their decisions.

Still, it’s to Fay that I’d like to give the last word:

Family, she realised, was the most difficult thing of all. It never reached a point of completion and what was there never seemed satisfactory. But one thing, she realised: there was always a pivot, one person at the centre holding it all together.

In The hands, this turns out to be Trevor. It is he who must make the tough decisions for himself and his sons. This novel is satisfying on so many levels – story, style and subject matter. I comment it to you.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved the novel too.

Stephen Orr
The hands: An Australian pastoral
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053430

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Mark Twain, How to cure a cold (Review)

January 6, 2016

I haven’t reviewed anything by Mark Twain on this blog, though I have posted on an interview with him by Rudyard Kipling, so when his story “How to cure a cold” appeared in December as a Library of America Story of the Week, I figured it was time.

Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

According to LOA’s notes, “How to cure a cold” was written in response to a serious cold followed by bronchitis that Twain suffered through the summer of 1863 – during the American Civil War, in fact, though you wouldn’t really know it from the story. He wrote several letters and reports detailing his experiences to newspaper editors in Virginia City (Nevada) and San Francisco, but didn’t write this dedicated piece until he arrived in San Francisco in September of that year. LOA says that this is one of the few pieces from his early years that he republished, revising and polishing it several times. He included it in his first book, The celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County (1867), and in a collection of his sketches published in 1875.

As you can probably imagine, given the topic and the Mark Twain factor, the piece – barely 6 pages in my version – is replete with all sorts of weird and wonderful cures. LOA tells us that the editors at the University of California Press,  which publishes Twain’s writings, say that ‘the remedies described by the author, although they seem ludicrous today, “were standard prescriptions of folk medicine …”‘.

I’m not going to write a long post about this piece, because it is short enough that you can read it quickly yourselves – at the link below, if you are interested. But, what I particularly love about this article – besides Twain’s trademark humour, and its careful construction – is that whole plus ça change thing. After taking a page to tell us how he got the cold – a page full of tongue-in-cheek humour – he tells us:

The first time I began to sneeze, a friend told me to go and bathe my feet in hot water and go to bed.

I did so.

Shortly afterward, another friend advised me to get up and take a cold shower-bath.

I did that also.

You can see where this is going can’t you? What follows is a chronicle of remedy after remedy that he tries – “feed a cold and starve a fever”, take the waters, apply a mustard plaster – and so on. He tries them all, to no avail, but the telling is entertaining. Some remedies are pretty harmless, some are rather enjoyable (like gin, and gin and molasses, not to mention whisky), but some are downright unpleasant, such as the warm salted-water one. He writes:

It may be a good enough remedy, but I think it is too severe. If I had another cold in the head, and there was no course left me but to take either an earthquake or a quart of warm salt water, I would cheerfully take my chances on the earthquake.

He did not like the warm salted-water much!

But honestly, nothing has changed has it? As soon we get sick, our family and friends are ready with remedies. All very kindly meant, but the offerings can be confusing, contradictory, and often ineffective. And if it’s not advice from friends and family, we do it to ourselves by finding concoctions over the counter or natural health remedies over the internet. I love the universality of this – the urge to help, the wanting to get better, and the desire to not offend one’s loving advisers. I’m not surprised Twain kept this story, and that LOA chose it as one to share.

I will leave it there, but before I finish I can’t resist sharing a comment on that opening page where he describes a house fire in which “I lost my home, my happiness, my constitution and my trunk”. He discusses the relative import of these, saying of losing his happiness that

I cared nothing for the loss of my happiness, because, not being a poet, it could not be possible that melancholy would abide with me long.

Ya gotta love it (no offence to poets intended). I do recommend this article.

Mark Twain
“How to cure a cold”
First published: In the San Francisco Golden Era, September 20, 1863.
Available: Online at the Library of America

NB I did say that my first review of 2016 would be for a farm novel. I lied! But it will be coming soon …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best books of 1975

January 4, 2016

Given we’re all looking at best reads, I thought it might be fun to look at best reads of a past time? My initial thought was 1965, a neat 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find any appropriate lists. Google found a 1965 New York Times bestseller list on Wikipedia and a couple of 1965 lists in GoodReads, but they weren’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted Australian lists, but my first port of call, Trove, wasn’t helping. However, not being quite ready to give up, I thought I’d try ten years later, 1975, which is the year I moved to Canberra. Eureka! This time Trove produced two lists …

And they are nicely representative. One is by classics collector, “book reviewer and litterateur”, Maurice Dunlevy, writing in the Canberra Times (woo hoo!) on December 26. Dunlevy wrote a book review page for the paper for 30 years, to 2000 apparently. The other is by one Nina Valentine. A brief search hasn’t turned up much about her except that she was clearly a writer for the Australian Women’s Weekly, which is where I found her December 31 article. Given their different publishing environments, you won’t be surprised to hear that their styles, not to mention their recommendations, are rather different. Both, though, focus on books for summer reading – and, although this post is dedicated to Australian literature, I’m going to break my usual rule and include some non-Australian picks. After all, they were writing for Australian readers.

“… books to help you enjoy lazy, long summer days to the full”

Let’s start with Nina Valentine. Her circa 700-word article focuses on books that tell a strong story, though not all are fiction. Since there’s only five of them, I’ll list them all:

  • Evelyn Anthony, The Persian kingdom (an error, I think, for Persian ransom) A British writer, Anthony is, she says, “one of my favorite writers of sculptured novels”. Sculptured novels? That’s a new term for me, but she does define it. They are novels which – wait for it – have “form, character and situation”. Hmmm. Anyhow the novel has an interesting setting, Iran. It’s about the oil crisis, the Palestinian Liberation Army, and a secretary who, Anthony’s heroine knows, threatens her marriage. “Thrilling holiday reading”, Valentine says. According to Trove, many Australian libraries hold it, so there’s no excuse for not adding it to your summer pile!
  • Kenneth Harrison, Dark man white world. This, however, is something completely different. It is a biography of famous indigenous Australian tenor, Harold Blair. In addition to singing, he became an Aboriginal activist fighting, she writes, “for better education, better understanding and a better lifestyle for his people”. I love that Valentine chose this as a holiday read.
  • James Quartermain, The diamond hostage. Part of a series, this book she says is “tailor-made for holiday escapist fare”. Set in Frankfurt, it features Raven, who is security chief for Mrs Diamond, a very wealthy “diamond-hard business woman”. She’s kidnapped (as is the heroine’s child in Anthony’s book), setting up, presumably, an exciting read.
  • ReyTheGreekAmazonPierre Rey, The Greek. Translated from French, it’s about a “Greek shipping magnate whose affair with a concert singer finishes when he marries the widow of an American who has been assassinated”. Ring a bell, anyone? Rey swears it’s fiction, says Valentine, but for her the point is that it’s “racy” in the style of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Sussan. (Love the cover.)
  • The Saturday Book sounds a little more interesting (to me). It’s an “elegant, gift-boxed collection of stories, poems, drawings, photographs and nostalgia”. Annually published, it may, she writes, be the last due to production costs. She describes it as “a book to beguile you while on holidays, and to enchant you at all times”.

So, overall, an interesting mix of the usual beach holiday plot-driven fare combined with a couple of other options for those looking for something a little different. Minimal Australian content, but interesting to see a translated – genre – book in the mix.

Doing “your bit in the grit to further your cultural education”

Dunlevy’s article is the same length as Valentine’s but he packs more into his by spending less time describing the books. He discusses his selections under categories, recognising his (surely) more diverse set of readers than Valentine’s.

  • IrelandBurnLiterary fiction: I love that he starts with Australian literary fiction naming Xavier Herbert’s doorstopper Poor fellow my country, David Malouf’s autobiographical novel Johnno (the only one I’ve read), Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the forest, David Ireland’s “fine novel about the Aborigines” Burn, Michael Wilding’s The short story embassy, and Laurie Clancy’s A collapsible man. I haven’t in fact heard of these last two. His foreign literary fiction choices are the last volume in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time sequence Hearing secret harmonies, Iris Murdoch’s A word child, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s gift.
  • Poetry (or Verse, to him): This is his second category! Love it. His selections are all from established poets he says: A. D. Hope’s A late picking (which I actually have), David Campbell’s Deaths and pretty cousins, and Gwen Harwood’s Selected poems.
  • Australian literary criticism: If I was surprised by poetry being his second group, this third one made me really sit up. He recommends poet Judith Wright’s Because I was invited and poet Douglas Stewart’s The broad stream, describing them as fine successors to poet A. D. Hope’s Native companions, published in late 1974. The final critical work he names is again by a poet, Vivian Smith’s Vance and Nettie Palmer. I know a couple of these – but am mightily intrigued by the others.
  • Biographies: Here we move away from a focus on Australian works. He lists several books, including Hilary Spurling’s Ivy when young: The early life of I. Compton-Burnett, describing it “as a fine re-creation of the Victorian family life of an oddball novelist”; Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John; R. M. Crawford’s life of fellow English-Australian historian G. Arnold Wood A bit of a rebel; and Scottish-born Australian Mary Rose Liverani’s autobiography The winter sparrows. According to AustLit, this last book “has been acclaimed as a landmark in Australia’s migrant literature”. Onto the TBR list it goes.
  • Histories: Dunlevy says he’d read so many good popular histories in the year that he “would not know where to begin if I were not now reading the most diverting of all, William Manchester’s narrative social history of the United States 1932-72, The Glory and the Dream”. He describes it as “a huge journalistic history which reads like a massive newspaper written by a single brilliant journalist”. He offers two other social histories suitable for holiday reading: John Ritchie’s Australia as once we were and Michael Cannon’s “third volume about Australia in the Victorian Age, Life in the Cities“. I don’t know any of these historians.

Having gone to the trouble of listing all these worthy works, he then admits that he doesn’t “very often see people reading high quality fiction or poetry or criticism or biographies or history on the beach”! Not sure I do either. The “best-selling paperback” is probably the better bet, he thinks, and to that end he suggests P. Benchley’s Jaws, Harold Robbins’ The Pirate (‘which includes lots of stirring sex scenes, including one in front of a mirror”!), Frederyk Forsyth’s The dogs of war, and Irving Wallace’s The fan club. Personally, though, I’d be looking at those books in his first category. I reckon they still make perfectly good recommendations today.


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