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Monday musings on Australian literature: Random thoughts from the mid-1930s

December 9, 2019

I’ve written a few posts in recent months about Australian literary culture in the 1930s – on moving beyond “gumleaf and gonna”, on setting vs character, and two (here and here) on where Australian literature was heading. This week, I’m returning to the topic to share a random selection of comments made about Australian fiction in the newspapers around the middle of the decade, a time when life was still pretty tough due to the Great Depression.

Writing from real life

Book coverC.H. Wales (whoever s/he is) was inspired by the death of John McCarthy, who inspired ‘Irish Mac’ in Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s 1907 novel, We of the Never-Never, to write about the frequent use made by Australian authors of people from real life in their novels. Writing in Adelaide’s Chronicle in June 1934, Wales comments that “the ways of life in the outback are accepted as a commonplace by people in the Commonwealth, but are learned of with amazement by people overseas” and suggests that it is therefore “no wonder, then, that our authors weave the romance of this life into their novels”. A life, he says, that includes cattle stations as big as Surrey and more, that involves using a flying medical service, and in which children who are five years old have “never seen a shower of rain”.

Wales names some contemporary writers continuing this tradition – William Hatfield’s Sheepmates (1931), which is dedicated to “the real life characters in the book”; Myrtle White’s evocatively titled No roads go by (1932); and, more famously, Ion Idriess’ Lasseter’s last ride (1931), which “adds another illuminating but tragic page to the annals of Australian exploration, which in years to come will supply a useful link with literature dealing with the history of the foundation and development of our Commonwealth and Empire”.

Interestingly, the two male writers here have Wikipedia articles, but not Myrtle White. However, like them, she does have an ADB entry (linked on her name), which includes this:

When her three children were older and she had some leisure, White began writing. At Wonnaminta, despite endless interruptions, she worked meticulously on her drafts which she typed with one finger. The result was No roads go by (Sydney, 1932), an account of life at Lake Elder, rather in the tradition of Mrs Gunn’s We of the NeverNever. With humour and resilience, White described the remote station surrounded by sand ‘insidiously creeping up the six-foot iron fence, which was our frail barrier against all that moving country’. Drought, flood and near death were presented in intense but restrained prose.

Stories about the past

Historical fiction, it seems, was as popular then as it is now. My random reading of “new fiction” columns revealed a goodly number of novels about Australia’s past, including:

  •  John K. Ewers’ Fire on the wind (1935) is, says the reviewer in Melbourne’s Leader, “a story of Gippsland nearly forty years ago, culminating in the disastrous bush fires of February, 1898”. Ewers, says the reviewer, was a school teacher in Perth who “has not lived in Gippsland, but he has derived his local color from relatives who spent part of their lives there, and lived through the terrible experiences of Black Thursday […] although the author is not a Gippslander he knows the bush and the settlers, and on that account the background of his story has the note of realism”.
  • Alice Meagher’s The moving finger (1934) was published to coincide with Victoria’s centenary. The South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus reviewer writes that “while not a history, the story gives an interesting outline the early days. There is a brief mention of the Eureka stockade, and a realistic description of the heart-breaking work in the mallee country. The graphic story of a bushfire helps to make one realise what the pioneers of this country had to go through.” The West Australian reviewer (below) says that it shows “the growth of the State in a comparatively brief period of time”.
  • Book coverBrian Penton’s Landtakers (1934) is described as being among “other readable novels published in Australia”! Damned with faint praise? This West Australian reviewer describes it as “the usual type of tale that deals with Penal Settlement days, whereof Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life is the great and abiding examplar”. Penton, who has a Wikipedia page like Ewers above, was an Australian journalist and novelist. Landtakers, his first novel, apparently sold well.

It’s interesting to see the specific mention of Ewers’ lack of personal experience about Gippsland and how he overcame that. I also liked the inference that fiction can tell us about who we are.

Other stories

Book coverTrove revealed many other books of different genres and styles, so I’ll share just a few, the first group coming from the West Australian (linked above):

  • F.E. Baume’s Burnt sugar (1934), described as “a powerfully-written romance of North Queensland, and of Italian settlers, slightly at variance over their racial divergencies”. Baume was a journalist, author, and radio and television broadcaster, well-known to some boomers!
  • Winifred Birkett’s Three goats on a bender (1934), described as “a highly farcical story, which has, however, its amusing moments”. I’ve mentioned Birkett here before, as she won the ALS Gold Medal in 1935 for another novel, Earth’s quality.
  • J. J. Mulligan’s A gentleman never tells (1934), described as “the surprising adventures of the versatile Lord Gerrard Fitzgerald in London, Paris, on the Riviera, in Egypt and elsewhere”. The reviewer calls it “a modern picturesque story” and “remarkably entertaining”. S/he also says that it’s “none the worse for getting away from the conventional and often tedious setting of the ordinary Australian novel”. But, Mulligan doesn’t appear in Wikipedia or the ADB.
  • Robert Waldron’s The flying doctor (1934), described as “the first romance — so far as we are aware — in which the leading motive is that admirable movement for supplying medical aid to persons in isolated districts of Australia by means of flying machines”. As with Mulligan, I can’t find him in Wikipedia or the ADB.

From the above-linked Leader article comes the comment that “there are few Australian novels ‘with a purpose’ in these distressful days” but that Ambrose Pratt “has attempted one in his new book, Lift up your eyes.” (1935). The reviewer wonders, however, whether the book

will add to his reputation as a writer or really further the causes of the ideal life and social and moral reconstruction which, it is to be presumed, are part of its justification. It is a Melbourne story, and some of its pleasantest passages describe hill-scenery and touch on life in and around the Victorian metropolis. But the strain upon the credulity of the reader is excessive and there appears to be an almost complete disregard of the “unities.”

S/he finds it hard to reconcile “the idealism and the religious intensity of feeling attributed to the leading male character” with his “Machiavellian conduct of a gigantic gamble in wheat”, but suggests the book “will excite curiosity and discussion”. Pratt was a prolific novelist who appears in both Wikipedia and the ADB. ADB says that in 1933 he founded “a League of Youth dedicated to the ‘protection and preservation of the flora and fauna of Australia’ and ‘the development of ideals of citizenship in the minds of young Australians'” and that the latter aspiration was reflected in Lift up your eyes.

Book CoverThose versed in the period will know that I’ve not included some of the better known writers. This is partly because some have been mentioned in previous posts, but more because they didn’t pop up in my random search of this mid-30s period. One did, however, appear – Christina Stead’s The Salzburg tales. However, I have decided to hold it over for a future post as she’s worth a special focus.

Notwithstanding the above, the most notable observation to make, of course, is how few of these books and authors we know now. That may not be a bad thing, given the reviewers’ comments, but I love that Trove enables us to obtain a picture of what was being written and read at the time, and what the commentators thought. It all contributes to our knowledge of Australia’s culture and literary history.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Sanditon TO …

December 7, 2019

And so we come to the last Six Degrees of Separation meme of the year, and Kate has chosen a special book (for me anyhow) as our starting book. However, first, I need to tell you that if you are new to blogging, and don’t know what this meme is about, please check host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonLast month’s starting book, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, is of course a classic. This month’s would have been a classic I’m sure, if only the author had managed to finish it. The book is Sanditon (my review) and it was written – well, 11 chapters anyhow – by Jane Austen. Kate chose it, as you probably know, because Andrew Davies’ television adaptation (of his version of the completed story) is currently being broadcast. Of course I have read it, more than once …. making five the number of starting books I’ve read this year.

Thea Astley, DrylandsFor my first link, I’m choosing Thea Astley’s Drylands (my review) which might sound surprising, though, like Austen’s book it is set in a small (non-urban) community. However, the reason I’m linking to it is not that, but because Drylands was Astley’s last novel (albeit she managed to finish hers before she died.)

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airNow, Drylands has an unusual form. It is a novel, really, but it can read like a collection of short stories, which are written by someone called Janet. Another novel that can also be described as a collection of short stories, though not quite as tricksy in form as Astley’s, is Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review). Coincidentally, it is a debut novel (as opposed to Astley’s swan song one!)

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterAnd here I’m going to change tack and move from Australia to France. Tara June Winch now lives in France, and has for some years. An Australian author who sells very well in France is, in fact, local Canberra writer, Karen Viggers. Her novel, The orchardist’s daughter (my review), has, like her previous novels, been translated into French. Its title is Le Bruissement des feuilles, which is, in English, The rustle of leaves. Hmm… I could link to another book published with a different title overseas, but we’re going to (sort of) stay in France …

John Clanchy, Sisters… and link to a book by an Australian writer (another Canberran in fact) that was drafted at a writer’s retreat in France and published by the people, La Muse, who are behind that retreat. The author is John Clanchy and his book, Sisters (my review).

So far I’ve been a bit nationalistic in my French links, so next I’m linking to a book by – an English writer! Did I trick you there? However, it is about French people, Caroline Moorhead’s biography Dancing to the precipice: The life of Lucie De La Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an era (my review)which is set before, during and after the French Revolution.

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAnd finally, because of course I had to do it, a book actually written in France by a French writer. I’ve read a handful of French writers since I started blogging, so the choice was a bit of a challenge. However, given the flamboyance of some of the French aristocracy covered by Moorehead in her book, I thought perhaps Pierre LeMaitre’s novel,The great swindle (my review), with its damaged but flamboyant character, Édouard Péricourt, would be the best match. (These last two books could also be linked by the fact that I probably wouldn’t have read them had they not been chosen by my reading group!)

So, we started in England with Austen, before moving to Australia. We then dallied a little longer in Australia, but with French connections, before finally landing in France. We have covered over two centuries in our travels, and have, as often seems to be the case with my Six Degrees, met four women and two men authors.

And now, my usual questions: Have you read Sanditon? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Monday musings on Australian literature: Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

December 2, 2019

We all know that a writer’s life is not a well-paid one. One way that writers keep going, that is, that enables them to continue writing, is through winning awards and grants. I report often on awards, and they also regularly appear in the media, but how much do we know about grants? And what exactly is a grant?

I’m not sure what the official definition of an artist’s grant is, but I’d define it broadly to encompass any monies or, other in-kind products or services (like residencies), intended to support creators doing their work. Grants tend to be offered by government bodies, foundations, trusts and non-profit organisations, with the best-known ones in Australia being, probably, those offered by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency. However, there are many other grants – big and small, general and specific – that writers can apply for. Darned if I know how they find out about them all, but their state writers centres, most of which I’ve now covered in this blog, are probably a good start.

I don’t want to get into the politics of funding artists. There’s the politics involved in grant-making (as anyone who has followed the Australia Council over the years knows only too well) but there’s also the bigger issue of how (or if, some would say) we should, as a society, support artists in the first place. Instead, today, I just want to share one specific grant, as an example of the sort of support artists (in this case writers) need and can get.

Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

The Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund was established in 2017 by Writers Victoria, with funding from the Myer Foundation, in the name of poet, novelist and short story writer Neilma Gantner (1922-2015). Gantner was the daughter of businessman and philanthropist Sidney Myer. The Fund recognises, says the Writers Victoria webpage, “the unique value of travel in the development of new writing and literary careers”.

The grants, which range between $2000 and $10,000, are “intended to support emerging, midcareer and established Australian writers and literary sector workers. This includes writers, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers, employees and associates of literary organisations and journals, and other literary professionals currently living in Australia”.

Last week, Books + Publishing advised that Writers Victoria had announced the fifth round of recipients for the Fund. This round was the second offered in 2019. The judges change for each round, with those for Round 5 being writer Eugen Bacon, podcaster Astrid Edwards, and Black Inc. publisher Kirstie Innes-Will.

Here are the recipients (in grant amount order), showing the sorts of activities the fund supports:

  • Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk ($9656): to research Aboriginal and settler–colonial literary and cultural relations in England and the Czech Republic. Araluen is an Indigenous Australian poet, educator and researcher, while Dunk is a poet, critic, fiction-writer and academic.
  • Cate Kennedy ($7000): to attend writers’ festivals in Ireland and Jamaica, and residencies and reading events in the US. I’ve read some of Kennedy’s short stories, and have reviewed the excellent anthology Australian love stories which she edited.
  • Ruhi Lee ($6850): to research her memoir in India. Lee is a Melbourne-based writer, and was, in fact,  part of this year’s HARDCOPY program, run by the ACT Writers Centre (about which I wrote in 2015).
  • Mirandi Riwoe ($6062): for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. I’ve reviewed her powerful novella, The fish girl.
  • Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's TroppoMadelaine Dickie ($4374): to research a proposed biography of Wayne Bergmann in Broome. I’ve reviewed Dickie’s debut novel, Troppo, and will be attending the launch of her second book, the intriguingly titled Red can origami, this month. Dickie won the T.A.G Hungerford Award for Troppo, and it was also shortlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award.
  • Fiona Hardy ($3920): to research and begin her middle-grade fiction book on Christmas Island. Hardy is a children’s book writer, reviewer and bookseller.
  • Robert Lukins ($3473): to research a novel in Carter Lake, Iowa–Nebraska, US. Lukins’ debut novel, The everlasting Sunday, was short or longlisted for some major literary awards this year.
  • Maria Takolander ($3177): to attend the Arteles artist-in-residency in Finland. I have Takolander’s short story collection, The double, on my TBR, but keep not getting to it! My bad.
  • Sara Saleh ($3100): to take part in the inaugural Arab–Palestinian literature festival in New York. Saleh is an Arab-Australian poet, creative artist and activist.
  • Tamara Lazaroff ($2723): to research her memoir on De Witt Island, Tasmania. Lazaroff is a Queensland-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, who took part in last year’s HARDCOPY program.

Books + Publishing referred to “eleven successful writers, booksellers and publishers” but in fact all these grants have been given to writers and/or for writing projects. This is not surprising really, given their generally insecure funding base, but it would be interesting to know how often other literary professionals have been given grants.

It’s darned hard work applying for grants, I know. The above 11 (for ten projects) were selected from 99 applicants, which is probably not a bad ratio. Still, writers must have to juggle the time spent on writing grant applications against writing their books. I congratulate the above 11 on their success, and hope they find spending their money both fruitful and enjoyable!

Elizabeth Kuiper, Little stones (#BookReview)

November 30, 2019

Book coverAnnouncing their 2019 longlist back in February (see my post), the Stella Prize judges said that they “wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference”. Elizabeth Kuiper’s debut novel, Little stones, may not exactly fulfil this wish for subversion and difference, but it is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s certainly a start.

The main story concerns 11-year-old Hannah’s life as the daughter of divorced parents – and what ensues when her mother decides to leave Zimbabwe, wanting to take her daughter with her. Her father’s up till then somewhat controlled anger against her mother intensifies, and he does all he can to prevent this happening, despite the fact that he has shown little commitment to the real business of loving and rearing a child.

It’s not a particularly new story, but this one has an added layer; it’s the early 2000s and Hannah and her parents are middle-class white Zimbabweans living under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly violent regime. Life is not easy for her family, which includes her tobacco-farmer grandparents, with African nationalism ramping up against what Hannah comes to recognise as “crushing colonisation”.

The story is told first person by Hannah, and this is both its strength and weakness. Strength because Hannah, though intelligent and observant for her age, is a naive narrator. She can only see through an 11-year-old’s eyes, while we, of course, know or can guess what is really happening, whether this is the political violence and corruption happening in the background (and sometimes even closer) or the more personal conflict happening between her parents. So, for example, early in the novel she hears her mother and grandparents talking, yet again, about the Warvets, whom she understands to be “a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe”. Finally, she insists on being heard:

Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
‘The Warvets.”
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They are a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

The naive narrator voice achieves a few things. It conveys how unsettling it is for children to be living under stresses that they don’t fully understand, but it can also keep the tension down a little because the full horrors are not made explicit to us (albeit we can guess them.) Hannah is a lovely character, whose special and sustaining relationships with her best friend Diana Chigumba and the family’s Shona housekeeper (not “maid” says her mother) Gogo, are delightfully conveyed. She can, being 11, be naughty, but she’s at heart a sensitive, loving, well-adjusted child.

However, this voice can be a weakness too. It’s difficult to sustain the voice of a child – and unfortunately, perhaps, I’ve just read Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut which does it extremely well. Here, I felt that at times Kuiper’s Hannah used language and concepts that an 11-year-old would not use. We are told she’s intelligent, and good with language, but still I wasn’t always convinced. Here, for example, she talks about the guardianship court case her mother is fighting:

In the past, I would have tried to offer whatever morsel of advice I could manage, but as the court case progressed I came to realise that most of the time she was talking about herself, and so I absorbed her rhetorical questions as a necessary and cathartic part of the process for her.

This, and examples like it, seem rather sophisticated to me in both expression and idea. The question is, are we supposed to believe that this is 11-year-old Hannah telling the story as it happened or older Hannah telling the story? I’m not sure it’s always completely clear, but I felt it was intended to be the former.

All this brings me to the question of whether Kuiper’s story would have been better told as a memoir, because I understand that the novel is, like most debut novels, autobiographical. Of course, I don’t know where the facts of her life end and the fiction begins, but it’s a question that I pondered as I read. And, also of course, memoir would bring its own challenges for Kuiper that she may not have wanted to confront. I don’t blame her for that.

Anyhow, this is a minor quibble if you are prepared to go with the flow, which I decided to do. Kuiper handles well the challenge of conveying the difficulty of the situation for Hannah’s family as white Zimbabweans in an increasingly tense and dangerous atmosphere. She shows that it’s not all about race, or simply about race. There’s the issue of different races – Shona versus Matabele – and there’s class. Hannah’s best friend Diana, for example, comes from a well-to-do black family. Kuiper also handles convincingly the parallel, and perhaps most significant for Hannah, issue of separated parents wrangling over their daughter. The descriptions of Hannah’s father’s increasing manipulation of the system to get his way are infuriating if not chilling – but oh so real. Hannah, in fact, has to grow up fast if she is to survive this dual personal and political unrest she finds herself in.

Little stones is, then, essentially, a coming-of-age story, which also works as a Young Adult-Adult crossover novel. It offers something special to readers in both these areas because its perspective is a rare one for us to read here; because it is told with a lovely vitality and attention to the details of a life lived under complex political and personal circumstances; and because it manages to tread that fine line that shows rather than judges. And that, I think, is impressive.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeElizabeth Kuiper
Little stones
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
264pp.
ISBN: 9780702262548

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Tim Winton, The shepherd’s hut (#BookReview)

November 27, 2019

Book coverTim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas have to be Australia’s foremost contemporary writers about men and boys, Tsiolkas doing for urban/surburban males what Winton does for small town/rural ones. Winton’s latest novel, The shepherd’s hut, continues his exploration of males in extremis. It’s strong, gritty, page-turning, and yet reflective too, which is not easy to pull-off.

The shepherd’s hut is the story of a teenage boy who goes on the run after finding his violent father dead, crushed under the car in the garage. He thinks he’ll be blamed, and he’s not hanging around to find out. With the exception of Lee who lives in Magnet – she’s symbolically and literally his magnet – he’s friendless, so it’s to Magnet that he heads, on foot across the Western Australian desert. And thus the adventure begins, except that the novel starts at the end of that adventure – or the beginning of the next adventure – take your pick. Here are the last few sentences of the opening two pages:

For the first time in me life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.

What an impressive opening. The tone, and thus the character, is defiant. There’s the hint of trials that have been confronted. There’s the in-your-face vernacular language. And there’s the sense of something ending and something else beginning. Where is this book going to go, we wonder, so we turn the page – and we find ourselves in the past, at the beginning, we suspect, of whatever it is that he has just come through.

Soon enough, we learn that our boy is Jaxie Clackton, that his mother had died not too long ago from cancer, and that he is living with his violent father. Jaxie himself is, not surprisingly, prone to bullying and violence himself, but, really, all he wants is peace:

all a person wants is feeling safe. Peace, that’s all I’m after.

Can this angry boy, can anyone who has grown up surrounded by violence, really remake themselves? That is the question.

The shepherd’s hut is, essentially, a road story, albeit one done on foot. Jaxie heads out into the wheatbelt, steering clear of the highway. The exposed, pared-back landscape provides the perfect backdrop for Jaxie’s emotions as he struggles to survive in the wheatbelt-mining-desert country in which he finds himself. It’s not easy to hide out there where “you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake”, let alone find food and water, but Jaxie has to survive, physically, mentally and spiritually, if he is to achieve his goal. Winton’s descriptions of Jaxie’s journey – the landscape, what he needs to do to sustain himself – are graphic and visceral.

Eventually, Jaxie finds another human being out there, exiled Irish priest Fintan MacGillis. Jaxie is naturally suspicious – given all he’s heard about “pedos” and “kiddy-fiddlers” – but gradually a bond, sometimes uneasy but nonetheless strong and mutually beneficial, forms between these two outsiders. Jaxie’s energy and passion provide a foil for Fintan’s wiser more experienced understanding of the world. There is a sort of biblical feeling to all this – a forty-days-in-the-desert vibe – as these two serve out their “exiles”.

There is a lot we are not told. Exactly why Fintan is there is never fully explained (but it’s not for kiddy-fiddling), and whether anyone is really after Jaxie is never confirmed. This information is not important to the story being told, which is … well, what is it about?

“I know what I am now” (Jaxie)

On the surface, it is about violence – particularly about domestic violence and its impact on those so abused, like our Jaxie. But, this is Winton, and while his novels chronicle social conditions, exposing society’s failings, his main interest tends to something deeper – call it biblical, theological, or spiritual. So, to focus on Jaxie, our protagonist, I’d argue that his time in the desert – both alone and then with Fintan – do result in some spiritual  growth for him. One of the motifs running through the book concerns goats – why? Well, we could read Jaxie as a scapegoat. Literally, and perhaps even symbolically. We know he’s on the run because he believes he’ll be blamed for his father’s death, but is it going too far to also read him, damaged young man that he is, as a scapegoat for the violence enacted by society? We can certainly read the outcast, somewhat flawed priest Fintan, who, significantly, lives in the titular shepherd’s hut, as his spiritual guide. Indeed, Fintan describes the landscape in which they find themselves as “penitential”.

In the novel’s opening two pages, Jaxie, on his way out of the desert, describes himself as having “hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months”, but, he says, “I’m no kind of beast anymore”. It is both his time in the desert and the, dare I call it, ministrations of Fintan, which bring him to this new sense of self. Late in the novel, before the final drama that brings their time in the desert to its conclusion, Fintan says to Jaxie, “I suspect that God is what you do, not what or who you believe in”. When the crisis comes, Jaxie sees himself as an “instrument of God”, but my, it’s not a particularly pretty one!

In other words, none of this is as neat as we might like. Fintan is a complex shepherd, and Jaxie a problematic subject of his shepherding. There are no simple solutions, and there are no perfect beings, but there are people who are prepared to go through fire (or the desert, as the case may be) in order to come to a better understanding of themselves. “I know what I am now”, Jaxie says at the end, but whether he achieves the peace he believes is coming, whether he, with his “for fucksake don’t get in my way” attitude, is truly capable of achieving it, is the question we are left with. I’d like to think so.

Jaxie, then, is an original, compelling character whose edgy energy wins you over despite yourself. He challenges us to consider how violence plays out in contemporary society, and forces us to confront what this violence does to us. Through him, Winton asks whether redemption is possible and, more importantly, what that might look like. The shepherd’s hut is a book I could read many times and find something new to consider every time. That makes it a special read.

Tim Winton
The shepherd’s hut
Penguin Random House Australia, 2019 (orig. ed. 2018)
266pp.
ISBN: 9780143795490

Monday musings on Australian literature: University of Canberra Book of the Year 2020

November 25, 2019

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyI wasn’t necessarily planning to announce the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year again this year, having written about it three times already – in 2012 when it was initiated, in 2014, when I checked to see how the program was going, and in 2018 to announce this year’s book. However, next year’s book is such a good choice that I felt it worth reminding you again of this initiative, which is now in its 8th year.

The program involves the University providing a selected book, free, to all commencing students across the five faculties. It is “required reading”. The book is “integrated into the curriculum and provides a common conversational topic on campus”. You can see the main goals in my 2018 post, and there is more about the program at the UC Book page. I had to laugh at one of the FAQs on this page. The question is:  “What does ‘required reading’ mean? Do I have to read the book?” And the answer:”Yes, all commencing undergraduate and postgraduate students in 2020 are required to read the Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms…” I would love to see more on the site about how this actually plays out.

It’s an inspired and inspiring initiative, though I’ve had some quibbles. I wrote last year that it was a shame that the books haven’t always been Australian, because it provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to Australian literature. I also note that while the genres and subject matter have varied somewhat, there’s not been much diversity in terms of writers. No indigenous writer, no writer from a non-white/non-English language background, for example. Well, that has changed this year!

First though, here are the books to date:

2013: Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey (my review)
2014: Room, by Emma Donoghue
2015: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (my review)
2016: The strays, by Emily Bitto (my review)
2017: The white earth, by Andrew McGahan
2018: Do Androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick
2019: The natural way of things by Charlotte Wood (my review)

UC Book for 2020

In October, the University announced the shortlist, which comprises, this year, all recent Australian books. But, not only are they ALL recent Australian books, they are ALL by indigenous writers! What a wonderful message that sends.

Here’s the shortlist:

  • Tony Birch’s Ghost River (my review): “The highly anticipated new novel from the Miles Franklin-shortlisted author of Blood … The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure…
  • Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review): “The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, re-education is enforced…”
  • Anita Heiss’ Barbed wire and cherry blossoms: “In 1944, over 1,000 Japanese soldiers break out of the No.12 Prisoner of War compound on the fringes of Cowra. In the carnage, hundreds are killed, many are recaptured, and some take their own lives rather than suffer the humiliation of ongoing defeat. But one soldier, Hiroshi, manages to escape. At nearby Erambie Station, an Aboriginal mission, Banjo Williams, father of five and proud man of his community, discovers Hiroshi, distraught and on the run…”
  • Melissa Lushenko’s Mullumbimby“When Jo Breen uses her divorce settlement to buy a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland, she is hoping for a tree change, and a blossoming connection to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors…”
  • Kim Scott’s Taboo: “From Kim Scott, two-times winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, comes a work charged with ambition and poetry, in equal parts brutal, mysterious and idealistic, about a young woman cast into a drama that has been playing for over two hundred years…”

While I’ve only read two of these books, I have read books by all of these authors, and am thrilled to see them represented here because each has something to offer to the program.

Book coverAnd the winner is: Anita Heiss’ Barbed wire and cherry blossoms.

The judges have chosen, probably, one of the less challenging reads from the list, but that’s sensible given the diverse readership they are choosing for in interest, skills and background – and it will serve the purpose of raising some necessary issues regarding indigenous history and lives. Sure, it’s about the past, but it can lead from there to discussions about How much has and hasn’t changed since then, and why …

Responding to the news of her win, Heiss told CityNews:

To have the UC community engaging in the story of the Cowra Breakout, and life of Wiradjuri people living under the Act of Protection during wartime, will add to a greater understanding of a significant moment in Australian history.

What do you think about the book choices, or the program itself?

Non-fiction November 2019, Weeks 4 to 5

November 23, 2019

Meme logoAs for my first Nonfiction November post this year, I am concatenating my last two posts, and posting them in the middle of the two weeks.

The meme is jointly hosted by Julz (Julz Reads) (Week 1), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves) (Week 2), Katie (Doing Dewey) (Week 3), Leanne (ShelfAware) (Week 4) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) (Week 5).

Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) Leann (Shelf Aware) Nonfiction favourites:

What makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? 

I’ll start with what I don’t look for, which is tone. That is, I don’t look for any particular tone over another. The important thing is that the tone matches the subject. I am not put off by serious, sad or confronting tones, but I can also enjoy (who doesn’t) a humorous tone. I also don’t gravitate to memoir, though I do read a select few each year. This year, for example, I’ve read Ros Collins’ Rosa: Memories with licence (my review), Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics (my review),  and Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love (my review).

What I do look for are subject matter and author’s approach or style. My favourite subject matter would have to be literary biography (and to a slightly lesser degree, literary memoir) but none of this year’s books have been such. I like essays, of which I’ve read a few this year, some stand-alone, some in collections. And I particularly like reading authors who explore form, who don’t stick to the tried-and-true. This doesn’t mean I don’t read and enjoy the tried-and-true if it’s well-written and a topic I’m interested in. Two standout non-fiction books this year for me were:

  • Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (my review), which she says is not a collection of essays, though I’m not sure what else to call it. This is a humane, provocative books that forces us to rethink those axioms, those cliches that we too often resort to in an effort to not confront uncomfortable truths and situations.
  • Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (my review) for its well-researched but highly readable history of the women’s suffrage movement in that late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, and Australia’s significant role in it. Wright has done a wonderful job of bringing a hidden history to the fore.

Note: I have only included books I’ve read from November 2018 to October 2019. Any read this month will be in the running for 2020’s meme!

Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) New to my TBR:

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

I’m afraid that I haven’t really had time to take note of many books posted by other meme posters, though I have read several posts. So, I’m listing here a small selection of non-fiction books I am keen to read, not just ones that have appeared via this year’s meme:

  • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling, which is in fact old on my TBR but which I’m going to make a concerted effort to read by next Nonfiction November.
  • Peter Carey’s Wrong about Japan, because I love Japan and am interested in what Peter Carey has to say. Brona (Brona’s Books) posted about this in her Be the Expert post.
  • Annie Cossins’ The baby farmers, because I’m interested in colonial Australian women’s history. Shelleyrae (Book’d Out) included this in her Be the Expert post.
  • Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell’s Half the perfect world: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, which won this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. It’s about the post-war international artist community on the Greek island of Hydra, which included our Aussie literary couple, Charmian Clift and George Johnston.
  • Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist, which has been shortlisted for several awards and has been on my TBR most of this year. It seems an absolute must given the early start to this year’s bushfire season here down under.

And there you have it. Another Nonfiction November completed in two posts. I apologise for not giving it the attention it deserves, but I am glad I was stimulated by the meme to spend a little time thinking about nonfiction this month.

Any nonfiction favourites you’d like to share? (Not that my TBR pile needs them, mind you, but other readers might like to hear of them!)