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Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookswapping

September 18, 2017
Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @ clker.com)

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about bookselling for/by charities. As I was writing it, I realised that there was another way of acquiring books that is worth writing about – book swap arrangements. Not surprisingly, it came up in comments on that post, so is clearly something of interest to many readers. It’s an area that I’m aware of – how could you not be – but not one I use with any regularity, so I’ve enjoyed researching it beyond my limited knowledge. I’m sure commenters will add even more information, for which I thank you in advance!

Book swapping as an informal activity is practised by most readers in some form or another. We share books – sometimes lending them to be returned, other times asking for the book to be passed on. It may not always be exactly one-to-one, but something more informal where we press loved books on each other as we read them. A little bit more formal is that practice in places like youth hostels where travellers leave a book behind that they’ve read, in a communal bookcase, and take one in its place. I still have a book that I picked up that way back in the 1970s. It’s Mordecai Richler’s Shovelling trouble. I love it – and the memories it carries.

In other words, book swapping as I’m describing it here is a pretty loose activity. It happens in multitudinous ways, ranging from the highly informal to the very controlled, from sharing books locally (in just a street, for example) to sharing across and between nations. Some swapping is simply about ensuring we always have something to read – what I’d call reader-to-reader sharing – while other schemes have bigger literary and social justice goals. These aims and styles aren’t always mutually exclusive, but the emphasis tends to fall more into one camp than another, if that makes sense. The activities I list here all fall into the somewhat organised end of the spectrum.

BookCrossing

BookCrossing is the first big “organised” system that I came across – and that was back in the early 2000s when I found a book in my workplace cafe. Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” It started in the USA but has become a huge international community, supported by a website and social media platforms.

Markus Zusah, The book thiefAustralia is 7th on the list of the world’s top 10 bookcrossing country according to the BookCrossing website, which is not bad given our size (unless that was measured per capita).   (If you are interested, the top three countries are USA, Germany, United Kingdom.) I won’t say more about this, but if you’ve never heard of it do check out their website. It’s rather fun to see the list of recently released, recently caught, most travelled and most wished for books. I loved seeing, when I checked, that the top book in “the most wished for” list was Markus Zusak’s The book thief (my review).

The Great Book Swap

Coordinated by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the Great Book Swap is a very different kettle of fish. Its aim is to raise money for the Foundation. The idea is for organisations – workplaces, schools, any group at all – to host a book swap, which this year was on Wednesday 6 September. (But, really, you could do it any time. The ILF won’t reject your money). The principle is that people swap books for a gold coin donation. That is, participants bring a book (or books along) and for the right to take a book or book/s away, pay a gold coin donation. So, you get a book to read and the Foundation gets some money. In 2016, the ILF raised $160,000. The money is used to buy books to send to remote indigenous communities.

ILF Ambassador, children’s author Andy Griffiths, describes it thus:

The Great Book Swap is a win-win. Not only does it help raise money to improve literacy levels in remote communities, but the excitement and fun…helps improve literacy levels in your community or organisation…

The Little Big Book Swap

Another literacy focused event is the Little Big Book Swap run by The Little Big Book Club at Raising Literacy Australia. It runs along the same lines as the Great Book Swap, with money going “to support literacy programs and resources for SA families”. Raising Literacy Australia seems to be an Australia-wide organisation, with its vision being “Enriching Australian lives and building communities through literacy”, but this Little Big Book Swap, currently anyhow, says the money is for South Australian families. Hmm … maybe this is just a start of a program they plan to expand.

Street Libraries/Little Free Libraries

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, about street libraries. They are neighborhood book exchanges where passers-by can take a book to read or leave a book for others to find. The Little Free Library is one manifestation of these. It started in the USA in 2009. According to Wikipedia, there were 50,000 registered libraries world-wide. I bet there are many more that are not registered. In Australia, we have an organisation called streetlibrary.org.au . I love their description of what they do:

Street Libraries are a beautiful home for books, planted in your front yard. They are accessible from the street, and are an invitation to share the joys of reading with your neighbours.

Street Libraries are a window into the mind of a community; books come and go; no-one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends.

If anyone has a book or two that they think others would enjoy, they can just pop it into any Street Library they happen to be walking past.

They are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness.

“A tiny vestibule of literary happiness”. I mean, what more could you want? You can register your library on the site, which enables others to find you. You can build your own little library, or you can buy a kit from the website. According to the website, there are 9 in my city. (I should have gone out and photographed one today, shouldn’t I?) The one closest to me is Books for the World (and it just so happens that one of my ACT-litblogger mentees is involved in it!) Another is the Mighty Fine Book Swap in Brisbane. Click on these links to see gorgeous pics, and read about them.

Other

These are some of the “big” initiatives, but I know there are all sorts of book swap arrangements around (including the hostel ones I mentioned in my introduction). Commenter Jeanne on last week’s Monday Musings wrote that

Recently Mildura Library has started a new venture: provide a book swap at Mildura Airport: http://milduraairport.com.au/books-on-the-fly/. Are there any other airports that have something similar?

Are there? Anyhow, what a lovely initiative. It’s called, delightfully, Books on the Fly. Being a small regional airport, Mildura Airport does not, I’m guessing, have a bookshop in the terminal, so this provides a lovely service for air-travellers.

Do you use – or contribute to – any book swap arrangements? I’d love to hear about them, whether or not I’ve mentioned them here already. 

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 1

September 15, 2017

Jane Austen, PersuasionMy Jane Austen group is reading Persuasion – eleven years since we last did it – because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of its publication. Of course I’ve read it several times, so, as you’ll know from my other Austen re-reads, my aim here is to focus on reflections from this read rather than to write a traditional review.

You’ll probably also know that my group often does slow reads of her novels, a volume at a time. Persuasion was published in two volumes, so last month we read Volume One. It finishes at Chapter 12, just after Louisa Musgrove has her fall at Lyme. This post is about this volume.

But first, I want to say something my relationship with Persuasion. I first read it in 1972 when the second TV miniseries was screened in Australia. I was reading it in tandem with the screening, and the night the last episode screened I sat up late to finish the last chapters. I’ll never forget my emotional response to it. I can’t remember whether the miniseries was a good one, but I sure thought the book was. Why?

Persuasion doesn’t have the sparkle of Pride and prejudice, nor the  young spoofy humour of Northanger Abbey, nor even the heroine we love to laugh at in Emma, but it is quiet, emotional and deeply felt. Its heroine Anne, at 27 years old, is Austen’s oldest. She’s caring, intelligent, but put upon by her unappreciative family – and yet we don’t feel she’s a pushover. The novel’s romance, when it comes, feels right and well-earned. No-one ever says that Austen should not have married Anne to her man the way some do about some of her other heroines such as Marianne in Sense and sensibility, and Fanny in Mansfield Park. No, when it comes to Persuasion, Austen fans are generally in agreement: it’s a lovely book in which the hero and heroine belong together. But, it’s about so much more too …

I’m not going to provide a summary, so if you need to refresh yourselves on the plot and characters please check Wikipedia.

A specific setting

I’m not sure why it is, but on this my nth (i.e. too many to count) reading of Persuasion, I suddenly noticed that it was the only book, really, that gives us a very specific date and that is set pretty much exactly contemporaneous with when Austen was writing it. It starts in “this present time, (the summer of 1814)” and ends in the first quarter of 1815. This period pretty much covers the hiatus in the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon was exiled to Elba – and is why Naval Officers are out and about, on land and available for appearing in Persuasion! Sir Walter’s friend and advisor, Mr Shepherd tells him:

This peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will all be wanting a home.

It is the appearance of the Navy and Austen’s contrasting the substance of naval officers with the superficiality of the aristocracy that gives Persuasion its particular interest – beyond its lovely story, I mean. It is very much a book about social change. (I should say, here, that Austen was partial to the Navy, having two successful Naval brothers)

Two themes

Anyhow, this idea and that relating to persuasion are developed in Volume 1 through various themes, two of which I’ll discuss here.

Appearance and Social status

That social status is a major concern is heralded on the book’s first page when we are told about Sir Walter’s favourite book: “he was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage”. The narrator tells us soon after that:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.

However, he has not been sensible with his money, and needs to rent out his home Kellynch-hall, hence my earlier quote. But, Sir Walter doesn’t like the Navy, and his reasons convey two of the novel’s themes – the focus on status and the cult of appearance. His response to the idea of renting his home to a Naval officer is:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man …

This is of course ironic, because the naval officer, Admiral Croft, to whom he eventually agrees to rent the place is a thoroughly decent man (who removes Sir Walter’s myriad “looking glasses” when he takes residence). Croft also, Anne “fears”, looks after the Kellynch estate and its people far better than her family did. However, for Sir Walter, the only thing that matters is status.

As the novel progresses, the difference between the Navy and the aristocracy is further developed, but more on that anon.

Anne’s sister Mary is highly aware of her status as a Baronet’s daughter, and the “precedence” due to her. That she stands on this demonstrates her superficiality and lack of decent human feeling. She complains when she goes to her in-laws’ home that her mother-in-law does not always give her precedence. One of her sisters-in-law complains to Anne:

I wish any body could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious; especially, if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma. Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.

Later, after Louisa’s fall at Lyme, when it is suggested that calm, capable Anne remain behind to care for Louisa, Mary objects:

When the plan was made known to Mary, however, there was an end of all peace in it. She was so wretched, and so vehement, complained so much of injustice in being expected to go away, instead of Anne;—Anne, who was nothing to Louisa, while she was her sister …

Here again is Mary’s misplaced sense of “precedence”. It is also a lovely example of Austen’s plotting, because only a few chapters earlier Mary had refused to stay home from a family party to look after her own injured little boy, preferring Anne do it. Austen had set us up nicely to see the superficiality of Mary’s desire to care for her sister-in-law. The more you read Austen, as I’ve said before, the more you see how fine her plotting is.

Strength of character versus Persuasion (or the influence of others)

Another ongoing issue in the novel concerns strength of character. Captain Wentworth reflects on Anne’s lack thereof in refusing their engagement when she was 19:

He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

A little later, he praises Louisa Musgrove’s strength of mind, but we, the reader, realise her pronouncements are theoretical. She had not been put to the test. She says:

What!—would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person?—or, of any person I may say. No,—I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it.

Meanwhile, Louisa shares gossip about Anne, suggesting that Lady Russell, who had discouraged Anne from marrying Captain Wentworth, had also discouraged her from marrying Charles Musgrove (which of course reinforces for Wentworth the idea of Anne’s weakness of character).

… and papa and mamma always think it was her great friend Lady Russell’s doing, that she did not.—They think Charles might not be learned and bookish enough to please Lady Russell, and that therefore, she persuaded Anne to refuse him.

In this case, though, the decision was all the then 22-year-old Anne’s – but Wentworth only hears the gossip.

Henrietta adds to the chorus about Lady Russell’s persuasive power:

I wish Lady Russell lived at Uppercross, and were intimate with Dr. Shirley. I have always heard of Lady Russell, as a woman of the greatest influence with every body! I always look upon her as able to persuade a person to any thing!

You can see Austen building up the plot here, leading us to see Wentworth as unlikely to be interested in Anne again.

Persuasion, Lyme fall, CE Brock

Oh God! her father and mother (CE Brock, 1893?)

Anne, though, sees that firmness of character can go too far, that Louisa’s wilfulness against the advice of others had resulted in her potentially life-threatening fall. She wonders

whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.

Will he see it her way? We’ll have to read Volume 2 to find out!

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think I’ve said enough. Next post I plan to take up the Navy issue a bit more …

Truth, Truthfulness, Self, Voice: Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture

September 13, 2017
Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres, NLA, 2017

This week Mr Gums, Brother Gums and I went to one of the highlights of Canberra’s literary calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia.  It’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. This is the third one Mr Gums and I have attended, the first in 2015 being given by Robert Drewe, and last year’s by David Marr.

Raimond Gaita is best known to Australians as the author of the award-winning Romulus, my father, which, he informed us, is not-a-biography-nor-an-authobiography. He’s not, he said, a writer like those other Seymour speakers such as David Marr and Robert Dessaix. If we thought he would then go on to expound his theory of biography/autobiography/memoir, as might be expected for a “biography lecture”, we were mistaken, because philosopher Gaita had other plans.

And here is where I come a bit unstuck, because philosophy is not really my thing. I am therefore going to simplify – hopefully sensibly – what was a seriously philosophical argument that I tried to follow while also taking notes. I am going to limit my post to a few points that grabbed me – and that I believe I got right! I must say, though, that even if I didn’t catch all his arguments, I was thrilled to finally see this thoughtful, considered man in person.

“a tragic poem”

Raimond gaita, Romulus my fatherWhile Gaita didn’t engage, in the expected way anyhow, with the theory of his subject, he didn’t ignore it either. He explained that he doesn’t see Romulus, my father as biography or autobiography because it doesn’t contain “the critical psychological probing” you expect (or, perhaps, that he thinks we expect) in biography. He sees the book, rather, as “tragic poem”, as being about “broken lives” but not “diminished” ones. His described his book as tragedy, which he defined as reflecting “calm pity for the suffering it depicts”.

He wrote it “truthfully” as witness to the values by which his father lived, the father who, he said, gave him his “lifelong moral compass”. He discussed criticisms of his book, those arguments that had he been more ethically critical or more psychologically probing, he would have presented a more understanding picture of his mother. Don’t you love the way people are so ready to criticise what writers don’t do, rather than focus on what they do do? After all, the book is called Romulus, my father! I know, I’m being a bit ingenuous, since writing about his father does necessitate writing about his mother, but I stand by my point nonetheless.

Now, back to Gaita … to explain himself, he quoted Iris Murdoch’s statement that understanding another person is a work of “love, justice, and pity”. However, he said, he was 12 years old when his mother killed herself. He did not know her as an adult, had not conversed with her as an adult. He can, for example, speculate about what his father and his father’s friend Hora might have thought about things, but he didn’t know his mother: she doesn’t have an “individuated presence” for him. He sorrows for his mother (and admits that in writing about her he has put her under “intense scrutiny”) but he knew her only as a boy would.

At this point, he referred to Freud’s describing biography as being “vulnerable to psychological distortions”. Were Christine and Romulus really as he depicted them? Well, not, I understood him to say, in an absolute sense (but yes, he hoped, in his own sense). You ask seven people, he said, to describe a person and you’ll get seven different descriptions. You cannot match/judge these narratives against a single (simple? absolute?) notion that would guarantee “truthfulness” about that person’s life.

Truthfulness, et al

Gaita then went on to say that he is currently writing essays about people who have mattered to him. These essays have to be truthful but they can’t say everything. He hopes, however, that what is left unsaid will not compromise the truthfulness of what is said. He’d like to think that this is a justified hope. I think, in the right hands, it is!

One of his essay subjects is Martin Winkler who taught him German at school, and with whom he maintained contact long thereafter. Winkler is, he said, the wisest man he’s known. Around half of his lecture drew, in fact, from this essay on Winkler. I’m not going to repeat all he that said in detail here, but the essay, from what he shared with us about Winkler’s beliefs and ideas, would be well worth reading when it’s published.

So, just a couple of points. German-born Winkler loved German language and culture, but he was not blind to what Germany did during the war, which “lacerated his soul”. Winkler knew the dangers of following tradition which enables hiding behind respectability and which, in effect, enabled the Holocaust. However, he did not believe this had to diminish his love of Bach, or of German culture. Later in the lecture, Gaita commented that who would have thought that we would be now placing our faith in the Germany of Angela Merkel. (It just goes to show, doesn’t it, that people and/or nations can change. We live in hope!)

Another idea Gaita shared relates to love, ethics and values. For instance, he said, a feeling or emotion such as enthusiasm is ethically neutral, but love is “good”. It, in showing what people love, can be revelatory of value. He quoted Plato’s statement that love never proceeds by force or submits to force. Gaita also shared Winkler’s view that the core of responsibility is to be responsive to the needs of others in the lived context, which I assume means understanding people in terms of their lives rather than via some idea of absolute values.

Around here, if I remember correctly, Gaita returned to Romulus, his father, and in particular to Romulus’ compassion for his wife and her lover, which was evidenced, for example, by his providing financial support for them. Some of Romulus’ friends did not understand this (did not understand his father’s “goodness”). They felt his behaviour – his foolish heart – led him to dishonour himself. In other words, Gaita pointed out, another person would tell a different story about Romulus. So, the question is, was he a good man or a cuckold? There is no ethically neutral ground by which you can weigh the facts of his life to give one right answer or another. (Again, I think I’ve understood his point correctly. At least, what I’ve written makes sense to me, so that’s perhaps good enough!)

(Later, in the single-question Q&A, Gaita elaborated on his ideas of goodness and character. His father’s “goodness”, he said, was completely absent of condescension or superiority, something which many of his compatriots did not see or accept. Gaita, though, believes there should be more of such “goodness” in the world.)

For Gaita, growing up with such a man, seeing such compassion, was a gift. And it’s largely because of this that he did not grow up bitter. To be able to love, he said, is as important as being loved. You can, he said, be morally clear-sighted and at the same time love clear-sightedly. (I like this.)

Around here, we got into a discussion of facts and their meanings. You need, he said, to be truthful about the meaning of facts, which is more important, or relevant, than the facts themselves. (Regular readers here will know how much I liked this idea.) By example, he talked about the final sentences of Romulus, my father and of language choices that can convey different meanings. He could, for example, have written that his father was buried “not very far from” or “close to” or “near” his mother. He eventually chose “close” for its layered meaning – but he worried for a long time about whether the world also conveyed “sentimentality” (which emotion he sees as antithetical to truthful or authentic feeling). In the context, I think he made the right choice.

So, a very different biography lecture to the previous two we’ve attended. But, when you ask a moral philosopher to speak, that is, I suppose, to be expected. In other words, although we got a lecture which did address ideas regarding “truth” in writing about a life, it was also one that extended way beyond this to a discussion of values. My mind was certainly stretched – and is probably the better for it.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookselling for charity

September 11, 2017
Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @ clker.com)

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about the current, relatively positive, state of play for bookshops in Australia. Responding to that post on Facebook, one of my longstanding friends, and an original member of my bookgroup, reminded me of the Lifeline Bookfair which is held regularly in Canberra, and to which I have donated many books. I didn’t mention Lifeline because that post was about shops selling “new” books. However, she made me realise that while I have also written about secondhand book shops before, I have never specifically written about those organisations which sell books to raise money for charity (or good works). Now is that time …

First, though, a brief comment. A few years ago, knowing that bookselling is the prime fundraiser for some charities, such as Lifeline, I wondered what would happen to their fundraising goals in the new world of digital books. Well, I needn’t have worried. Books are still raising plenty of funds for charities. I’m not the only one, it appears, who still loves the printed book!

Lifeline Bookfair (Canberra)

The most visible seller of books for charity in my city is Lifeline. Lifeline is a national organisation providing 24-hour crisis support, particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of suicide prevention. It relies on volunteers to staff the support phones, and to raise money for the work of the organisation. A major fundraiser in my city – and I think in other parts of Australia – is the Lifeline Bookfair, which is held three times a year. It is hugely successful, and a big-ticket event on Canberra booklovers’ calendars. (Not mine, though. I donate to it, but I stay away! If I ever start to run out of books to read, however, I know where to go!) For Lifeline Canberra, these bookfairs are “the cornerstone” of their “financial strategy”, and currently bring in between $1 to $2 million for the organisation.

As well as the physical book fairs, Lifeline also runs an online service. I should add that besides books, they also sell records, DVDs, CDs, jigsaws and related products. For Mr Gums, Lifeline is a good source for the foreign language books (German, to be precise) that he likes to read.

There are Lifeline organisations throughout Australia and many, if not all, raise funds through booksales. We donated, for example, many books from my Aunt’s estate last year to her nearest Sydney operation.

Brotherhood Books

This is a social enterprise run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence which aims to tackle poverty in Australia. Its bookselling, mainly carried out online but also available through their physical stores in Victoria, is also volunteer run. They say that when you buy books from them

you also keep them out of landfill, reduce your carbon footprint, and support the many worthy charitable programs run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Vinnies and Salvos

St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies) and the Salvation Army (Salvos) run secondhand shops throughout Australia, and sell books at these shops along with clothing and household goods. Both organisations aim to reduce social injustice, particularly poverty.

Vinnies, and probably Salvos, also give books to families in need.

Other

And of course, there’s an array of smaller charities which sell books to support their activities, starting with school, church and hospital fetes and stalls.

Also, the Australian online donations platform, GiveNow, lists a number of organisations which accept donated books, some of these to sell for fundraising (such as Brotherhood Books) and others to distribute to those in need (such as the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation, which is particularly interested in children’s books).

Do you buy from, or donate to, charity booksellers? Please give a shout out to your favourite/s – particularly if I haven’t mentioned them here.

Phil Day, A chink in a daisy-chain (#BookReview)

September 6, 2017

Phil Day, a chink in a daisy chainYou’ve “met” Phil Day, author of A chink in a daisy-chain, here before. He illustrated co-publisher Julian Davies’ Crow mellow (my review) and Hartman Wallis’ Who said what, exactly, which I reviewed very recently. This time, though, Day is author as well as illustrator.

It’s a fun, mind-bending book – with the fun starting on the cover page in which the illustration, as befits a story inspired by Alice I suppose, is upside down. On the back cover is a simple statement: “If there is a perfect book, Alice is it”. This is the question – oops, statement, really – to which Day returns regularly throughout his short book. But, before I talk more about that, I’ll share publisher Julian Davies’ description of the book in his covering letter:

The book is a creative essay, cum personal reflection, on the relationship between Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, personal identity and argumentative opinion. It is the first in a three-book series Phil plans to write on the embattled nature of individual intellectual and creative autonomy.

So, now, are you any the wiser? Perhaps not? And I’m not sure that I can enlighten you, but I’ll try.

The essay could also – perhaps – be described as a memoir, except that I would be hard-pressed to say hand-on-heart which of what Day tells us really happened, if any of it did? Or perhaps all of it did, just not quite the way Day tells it!

The essay starts with Day and his wife sitting on the minimal furniture left in the lounge-room of the Shillams (look at that name upside down and see what you get!) who are moving to Grafton (as you do!) They had been invited for farewell dinner and drinks and, over a mocktail called Clancy of the Overflow and Gin-and-Tonics served in teacups from the piano-doubling-as-a-bar, Day makes his pronouncement concerning Alice. “Can’t see why, Mr S said” – and we’re off, following Day’s weird and wonderful mind just as Alice followed weird and wonderful creatures down the rabbit-hole.

What makes Alice so good, poses Day’s foil, Mr S? Well, besides the fact that Day didn’t say it was “good” but that it was “perfect”, he doesn’t want to get into discussions of “the meaning of good”. And then Mr S asks him to “look at the man”, but, quite rightly, Day isn’t interested in the man either:

I didn’t want to look at the man. I don’t care about the man. I wasn’t drawn to the man, it was the book itself that made me say–If there is a perfect book, Alice is it.

You are probably following this ok right now – the ideas and the language – and it does make sense. It continues to make sense as Day embarks on a critique of teaching, of

the state government syllabus–a deformed thing that devalued the one-off self-directed realisations that a student might naturally become conscious of through their own curiosity. But because the state government syllabus was created by teachers it had no chance of being anything more than an approved state government syllabus, and because of the approved state government syllabus, I instructed my students not to be curious …

And of course curiosity is why Alice is so special. Not that Day says this specifically, but we know this is what he means.

From here, though, the connections and word associations become increasingly bizarre or absurd, just like in Alice. They are not the sorts of associations that make sense in the telling. You have to read it yourself. You have to follow Hobbes the cat, and the peppered oysters, the trees and the warrens, not to mention red-painted bedrooms and nursery rhymes, to find your own meaning … Beyond that my lips are sealed.

I wonder what Phil Day will come up with next in his personal odyssey into curiosity and creativity. Whatever it is, it will be original, probably absurd, definitely cheeky, and very likely a cri-de-coeur for the freedom to think unbound by rules and approved state government syllabi.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.

Phil Day (author and illustrator)
A chink in a daisy-chain
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2017
61pp.
ISBN: 9780994516527

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookshops, 2017

September 4, 2017

It’s been sometime since I’ve talked about bookshops. I missed this year’s National Bookshop Day (now called Love Your Bookshop Day). However, I have been thinking about bookshops. After a flurry of closures, particularly of bookshop chains, in our town, things seem to have settled down. My local mall, in fact, went from losing its two stores, several years ago, to now having two stores again. And, our independent stores around town seem to be holding their own. Is this indicative of something positive happening?

Well, I came across a recent article in The Conversation which suggested that things aren’t as desperate as we were feeling a decade ago. The article, by Nathan Hollier, the Director of Monash Publishing, is titled “Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism”. It opens with the following sentence:

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news.

How nice, eh?

I’ll come back to the article, but of course I wanted to find out more about this year’s Australian Bookseller’s Conference. I didn’t find a lot of substance – in my brief Google search – but I did find some advance notification which listed some of the topics to be discussed:

a session on strategies for sustainability; the launch of National Bookshop Day 2017; a session on how small and independent publishers can work with bookstores to offer customers ‘something different’; a panel on children’s bookselling; and sessions on the state of the industry, ‘analogue marketing’, stock mix, and issues affecting small businesses.

Interesting, particularly given Hollier’s statement that children’s booksales are doing particularly well. He also says that “store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding”. Hmm … the number of stores is stable but these stores are expanding.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

However, as Hollier points out, there’s a new threat on the horizon, Amazon, which, as most Australian readers probably already know, has bought a big distribution site just outside of Melbourne. Local booksellers, says Hollier, will need to adjust (once again) in an environment “in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.”

In the face of a megastore which can carry huge stock, local booksellers need, as they always have done, to carefully curate their holdings. They will also need to beef up extra services. “Community building will be the order of the day,” says Hollier. However, this curating is harder at a time when review pages in broadsheet newspapers are reducing, because these pages provide booksellers with “a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.” Certainly, in the heyday of newspaper review pages, our local bookshop would be inundated with requests for books which had been reviewed, particularly in the weekend lift-outs.

Hollier also discusses the challenge of lower prices, saying that:

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

He goes on to talk about the challenges for regulation when large firms follow “determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation”.

Muse bookshop

Muse bookshop (before an event)

So, what can local booksellers do? Well, mainly it must be to continue that age-old strategy of customer service. They can stock the books their readers want, “curate” their collections (with new release shelves, local author shelves, genre highlight shelves, and so on), and, as I’m seeing increasingly in my area, offer more author events and talks. While for some readers, the cheapest book is all that matters, for others of us (and perhaps we are the lucky ones who can afford it), the experience of browsing beautiful bookshelves and talking with the owner (or staff) is worth the extra few dollars the books might cost. It feels good to support a bricks-and-mortar shop.

Anyhow, Hollier says that the bottom line is for people to have the desire and time (oh yes) to read. This desire, he says,

rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society.

Oh boy, isn’t this true! In this sense, he concludes, we get “the books and bookshops we deserve”. If this is so, then it seems that readers are turning things around, are showing that it is real bookshops that we want. May the current apparently positive state-of-play continue and grow, eh?

Have you noticed changes in the bookshop landscape in your neck of the woods?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Wild swans TO Family skeleton

September 2, 2017

Jung Chang Wild swansAs you are sure to know by now, I am becoming rather addicted to the Six Degrees of Separation meme currently run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Please click on the link if you want to find out more about this meme, because I’m moving on with my selections! Our starting book this month is Jung Chang’s three generation biography-autobiography, Wild swans. This book is on my TBR. I missed it when my reading group did it, because I was living in the USA at the time, and I always meant to rectify that …

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka sistersNow, I could link to a book my reading group did while I was away that I did read, but instead I’m going to choose a book that I read instead of books they were reading (even though, unfortunately, it was way before blogging so I have no review to link to). I’m choosing it because it was such an eye-opener for me, and I love to recommend it whenever I get the chance – and, it is set in Asia, albeit Japan, not China. The book is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka sisters, and is set in Osaka between the mid 1930s and 1941. It’s about a wealthy Osaka-based family and its attempts to marry off the third sister.

Haruki Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping womanThis is the book that introduced me in a big way to Japanese literature, a major contemporary exponent of which is Haruki Murakami. I’ve read a few of his books, but not many since I started blogging. One, though, that I have reviewed is his collection of short stories, Blind willow, sleeping women (my review). If you’ve never read Murakami, these short stories – 24 of them in fact – would provide an excellent introduction to his somewhat strange but fascinating world view.

Kazuo Ishiguro, NocturnesMy next link is to another collection of short stories, but to make the link a bit meaningful, I’m choosing a collection by a Japanese-born English writer – Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall (my review). These five stories touch the theme of music in some way. They also feature a typical Ishiguro device, the unreliable narrator (or at least a narrator who is not completely across what is going on in the story s/he is telling.

Dorothy Porter, On passionNow, many writers, talk about being inspired by music, but the one I’m going to link to here is our wonderful late poet Dorothy Porter, and her little book On passion (my review). Porter dates her passion for music back to her introduction to the Beatles in 1964. She writes that she has written “virtually all [her] poems to rock riffs and rhythm – the catchier, the darker, the louder, the gutsier the better.”

Gillian Mears' Foal's breadPorter died too young, from breast cancer at the age of 54. We Aussies have lost a few of our favourite women writers, too young, in recent years. Another is Gillian Mears, who suffered from multiple sclerosis for nearly two decades before dying last year at the age of 51. I have reviewed her Foals bread here. It’s a novel about a passion in fact, the passion for the sport of horse high jumping. I loved the way Mears conveyed that passion through her characters Noah and Roley.

Carmel Bird, Family skeletonAnd now for my final link, I’m going to return to my reading group. Gillian Mears was one of several Australian women writers we discovered in the year of our formation, 1988. Many of them, though not Mears, we found in the anthology, Room to move, which was our first book. It had stories by Glenda Adams, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Elizabeth Jolley, and many others, including Carmel Bird. It is her latest novel, Family skeleton (my review) that I’m going to use for my last link. Family skeleton seems the perfect book to end a chain that started with a book about three generations of women. I’m sure Chang dealt with a skeleton or two!

So there you have it … we started with one sort of family in China, then visited Japan and England, before coming to Australia and ending with a different sort of family.

Have you read Wild swans? And whether or not you have, what would you link to?