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Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian adventurers

January 23, 2017

Enid Moodie Heddle, Some Australian adventurersRegular readers here may remember that last year I wrote a few posts (this, this and this) inspired by books I found while clearing out my late aunt’s house. Well, here comes another. It’s inspired by a book that was probably a school text because my aunt wrote her name and her school in the front cover. The book is Some Australian adventurers. It was first published in 1944 by Longmans, Green and Co., and was edited by Enid Moodie Heddle.

I’ve never heard of Heddle but she has a Wikipedia page so is clearly of some note (given Wikipedia’s notability requirement). It describes her as “an Australian poet and writer for children”. She moved around somewhat. She was born in Melbourne (in 1904), went to high school in Sydney and university back in Melbourne. AustLit contributes that “As an infant Enid travelled around the world under sail with her Orcadian sea-captain father …”. She taught in South Australia, Victoria and England where she also researched child libraries. She then worked for publishers Longmans and Collins, becoming, after World War 2, Education Manager (for whom?) overseeing the publication of textbooks for schools and universities. So there we have it, the book probably was a school text!

From the title I thought it might comprise mini-biographies of – obviously – some Australian adventurers but, in fact, it’s an anthology of writings by Australians. Its aim, the Introduction explains, is not

to give a comprehensive idea of Australian prose, nor even to picture with any sort of completeness the country, its people, customs and history, but rather, to catch something of the spirit of adventure and joy in discovery which seem to us [who is “us”?] to be not only characteristic of the majority of the writers here represented, but also of Australians as a race.

Hmm … moving right along, the Introduction goes on to tell us that the book doesn’t contain the full stories and is “but a prelude to adventure.”

The book is divided into six sections:

  • In the land of Mirrabooka;
  • The white intruders;
  • Animals and men;
  • Further afield;
  • Strange encounters; and
  • Story and character.

Most sections, except the first one, contain more than one excerpt. Brief biographical details are provided for each writer, plus suggestions for further reading. The authors include those I know, such as Eleanor Dark, Ion L Idriess, Frank Dalby Davison, Vance Palmer and Henry Lawson, and many I don’t such as Elizabeth Bussell, William Hatfield, Hendley Herbert Finlayson. The writings include fiction and non-fiction, including letters. And the non-fiction writers include the famous adventurers, antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. So, a varied bunch.

“infinite variety” (Parnassus)

I will write later about the content, but first I’ll share some contemporary reviews, though “review” is a generous name for what were mostly a paragraph or two. I found them through Trove of course. Although my copy is dated 1944, the book ran into many editions/reprints, and the earliest review I found came from 1946. The reviewer, “Parnassus” of Western Australia’s Western Mail, heads his/her piece with “there is keen interest just now in works of Australian writers”, which is good to hear given the cultural cringe which commonly typified Australian response to cultural fare. Parnassus has a rather funny formal style, commending the book with the following:

One likes the editor’s selection. It is of infinite variety, and while including extracts from recent publications she has given us a timely reminder that Australian writers have not by any means confined their writing to bush lore and descriptions of the inland …

One does, does one!

I am indebted to Parnassus, however, because s/he paid the book more attention, giving it about 6 paragraphs, than most I found. Victoria’s  Argus called it “a handy little volume” and briefly described the breadth of its contents, while Book News, in 1947, found the excerpts “wisely chosen” but said they were “spoiled by an unworthy cover jacket and frontispiece”. I can’t comment on the cover jacket as Google displays many different editions of the book, but my title page does say “with a frontispiece” without identifying who it is. Strange. Queensland’s Courier-Mail, probably describing the same edition, starts its little paragraph with “Once past an excellent, yet misleading, dust jacket to this bright little compilation, you’ll find here a book true to title”. I’d love to know which dust jacket they are talking about. Finally, one more, this time from South Australia’s Advertiser. It is also generally positive but makes this observation:

Although all of the foremost authors of this country are not represented, and the stories themselves are not indicative of the best their writers can produce, the collection as a whole can be said to be a cross-section of Australian literature.

Interesting point about not being “indicative of the best” but perhaps the best don’t represent the “adventurer” theme well. Overall, though, not a bad recommendation for a volume of less than 180 pages.

“riches in experience” (Introduction)

I like that the book starts with an Aboriginal legend. The bio for the first piece’s writer, K Langloh Parker, commences by recognising that “the first adventurers of whom we know in Australia, the land of Mirrabooka, the Southern Cross, were the Australian aboriginals”. Parker, we are told, “did us a great service by collecting their legends and retelling them in English in a way as near as possible to the original”. How did they know I wonder? Langloh Parker started doing this in the late nineteenth century. The legend included in Heddle’s book, “Beereeun the mirage maker”, came from her 1898 book, More Australian legendary tales, which was, we’re told, illustrated by an aboriginal artist.

This recognition of indigenous Australians continues in the book’s second section, The white intruders, which contains excerpts from four writers, beginning with Eleanor Dark. Her excerpt comes, as we’d expect, from The timeless land. In this excerpt, “Breaking the flag”, Dark imagines first contact from the indigenous point of view, something white writers would be unlikely to do today – and rightly so – but Dark must be admired for what she tried to do in her time.

Another excerpt in this section is from a writer I don’t know, William Hatfield, and his 1933 book, Desert saga. It’s about an indigenous man, Grungunja. Hatfield may not be well-known now, but he clearly was in 1930s  and 1940s Australia, particularly among socialist circles in which the rights and plight of indigenous people were being discussed. The last sentence of the excerpt is uncompromising. It occurs after a confrontation with white pastoralists and police. Remember, we are in Grungunja’s head:

All his generalship, all his valour had availed him nothing, then. True, his tribesfolk were unharmed, they were to be left in possession of their country, but only as a subject people.

Hatfield was, I understand, largely a polemical writer. It’s probably why he’s faded from view, but it’s also something that makes him relevant to those of us interested in the past.

Now, my aim was not to review this book but to use it to add to my project of increasing my knowledge about the history of Australian literature: who was around at different times, what were they thinking and what did others think of them? This book – and my related research of Trove – has furthered that. I could very well return to it to explore some of the other authors and topics it covers.


Claire Battershill, Circus (Review)

January 22, 2017

Claire Battershill, CircusMetaphors and allusions can be dangerous. The inside-front-flap-blurb for Claire Battershill’s debut collection of short stories, Circus, concludes that the book “is a beautiful reminder that sometimes everyday life can be the greatest show on earth”. A reviewer on the back cover describes it as “the kind of book you’ll want to run away with”. As I finished it, however, my first thought was that “life is a circus”, meaning it can be disconcerting and unpredictable. Luckily for Battershill, all these work, and are encompassed by her epigraph from ee cummings’ play Him which says “Damn everything but the circus … damn everything that won’t […] throw its heart into tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence.”

A selection of stories from this book co-won the 2013 Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, and, before that in 2008, the title story won the CBC Literary Award for Short Fiction. It has some cred in other words, but you might be wondering how I came to it. It was, in fact, a Mothers Day gift from Daughter Gums (DG) back in 2014. She and I had seen the book on a Canadian authors stand in a Toronto bookshop a couple of months earlier that year, and she noticed that it was one that I had eyed particularly covetously. (It helped that it is a beautifully designed book and is lovely to hold!) I was thrilled when I opened my gift, and apologise to DG for taking so long to complete it.

There are nine stories in the book, with the titular story “Circus” occupying the middle. Two are told first person, the rest third. I do like short story authors to mix their voices up a bit and to not be afraid of third person, as sometimes new writers can seem to be. Battershill uses the voices well. The guide in the Hendricks Memorial Miniature Museum (“Each small thing”) talks to the reader as though we are in her tour group. First person was needed here to effectively convey the guide’s self-absorption. It’s perhaps not so critical in “Two-man luge: A love story”, but the first person voice does enable us to feel the narrator’s uncertainty and longing for connection.

What I love about this collection is the variety of her characters and the often bizarre situations they find themselves. We have Henry Bottlesworth (“A gentle luxury”) who “has given himself  thirty-one days to find love on the internet” after ten years of enduring the matchmaking efforts of friends and family. This is not so unusual a situation, and the ending is probably the most predictable, and yet Battershill injects such warmth into what could be a frustrating character. The next story (“Sensation”) switches gear completely to a story about a single father and the tent he buys for his daughter’s 16th birthday. They pitch it in the living room:

Annie loves it … She loves how the energy saver-light bulb glows like a dying star through the waterproof nylon, how scents from the rest of the house filter in, from time to time, through the mesh windows … She is open to the elements, but there’s no danger of rain or mosquitoes, no need for thermal underwear or finicky gas lanterns. This is camping at its finest.

Haha, love it. From here, the tent becomes a conduit first to a closer relationship between father and daughter, and then with the neighbourhood, and then … well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a gorgeous story that manages to be warm while also having a little dig about art, fads and fame.

And so the stories continue. Here are some more. There’s the couple who buy a house in the country (“Brothers”) only to find that they’ve also acquired two elderly brothers, shepherds, one blind, the other deaf. Or the widowed grandfather who listens to the Northern Lights and wants to share this love with his grandson (“The collective name for Ninjas”). Or the wife who goes to New York with her husband for their first no-children holiday, only to return alone (“Quite everyday looking”).

The stories are warm, and humane, sometimes humorous, but all about relationships (with partners, parents, children, others) and the decisions made and not made. They are written with a lovely eye for those details that can lift them out of the ordinary:

Henry has, with time and experience, learned a thing or two about the culinary ins and outs of first dates. Sushi, for instance, invites a rice explosion. Ordering a saucy noodle dish or a dressing-laden salad is asking for a spill, and Chinese broccoli is impossible to eat all in one bite without losing one’s dignity. (“A gentle luxury”)

Karen has the face of someone who has swan-dived into love and never hit bottom. (“Brothers”)

The New York version of her was slim, with bare, smooth legs rather than thick, sturdy calves in support socks. And surely as soon as the plane touched down at JFK, she would instantly know how to apply liquid eyeliner precisely and her hair would emerge in elegant finger waves when she lifted her head from the neck pillow. (“Quite everyday looking”)

So, “greatest show on earth”? Not if you think this means fireworks and high drama. But if it means for you the idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be surprisingly varied and rich, then, yes, Circus fills the bill – and fills it with confidence and aplomb.

Endings are hard. Everyone knows it – the end of life, the end of a holiday, and of course the end of a novel. EM Forster knew it – and wrote about it in Aspects of the novel. Endings are particularly important in short stories, I’d argue, and Claire Battershill’s endings are good ones. There are no twists or neat resolutions here. Just a sense that characters have reached some point in life, major or minor, and are now moving on – in a direction that is usually clear to the reader but not completely spelled out. I like that.

POSTSCRIPT: It seems that Circus is out of print, but you can read one of the short stories, “Two-man luge: A love story”, online.

Claire Battershill
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014
ISBN: 9780771012785

Friedrich Gerstäcker, Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold (Review)

January 20, 2017

Friedrich Gerstacker, AustraliaFriedrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold was first published in its original German, as Australien, in 1854. Gerstäcker did prepare, at that time, an English language version of his travels, but the section on Australia, at least, was much shorter than his German edition, and is all English readers have been able to access – until now. Amazing really.

You may remember that I mentioned this book back in November, because it inspired a Monday Musings on 19th century travellers. It is a beautifully conceived book. It has a brief note on the text at the beginning, and an afterword at the end. There is also a decent index, and extensive end notes sharing editor Monteath’s in-depth research. These notes added significantly to my enjoyment and understanding of Gerstäcker’s writing.

So, who was this Friedrich Gerstäcker? A German, he travelled around the world from 1849 to 1852, partly funded by a German publisher. Australien was the fourth of five volumes. His writings were loved in Germany and he was, apparently, a household name there for many years – starting when his mother, unbeknownst to him, gave the diaries he was sending home during his 1837-1843 American travels to a publisher!

Now, as I said in my Monday Musings, historical travel writing can provide valuable “primary” insight into different times and places. But the best travel writers are those who, in addition to that, use language well and give us themselves. Gerstäcker is such a writer.  He provides revealing insights into mid-nineteenth century Australia. But, in addition, his writing is engaging: it has touches of humour mixed with deeper reflection, it includes some gorgeous descriptions, and we get a sense of who he is.

“the truly astonishing number of public houses” (p.21)

Gerstäcker arrived in Sydney in March 1851, and left it at the very end of September in the same year. He provides a fascinating picture of Sydney life at the time, commenting on the plethora of drinking establishments (or “public houses”), but also expressing some astonishment that his prejudices regarding visiting a “criminal colony” were ill-founded. It was not, as expected, full of “an indefinite number of murderers, thieves, burglars and other dreadful, horrible, characters”. He then travels, by the Royal Mail, canoe and foot, from Sydney, via Albury and the Murray River, to Adelaide. The chapters describing this trip (Chs. 2-5) are probably the most interesting in the book.

In South Australia, his focus is on visiting some of the German communities there, particularly in Tanunda, in the Barossa wine region. He sees his role partly as providing “real” information about places for would-be German emigrants, and reflects thoughtfully on what emigration means. He notes that Germans had made themselves a living, one that many “would never have been able to establish in Germany in that time and with those means” but he also sees the cost. He writes:

Now the question still remains of course, how much the heart is still attached not only to old habits but also to old friends and loved ones and perhaps even the old homeland itself, and whether it really was so impossible to secure a living back there that one really had to tear oneself away from everything one held dear and transplant oneself in cold foreign soil. Sometimes – and how often! – a slightly better living is too dearly bought through emigration …

He also writes about the practice of religion by the Australian Germans, particularly the tensions between different groups, and he describes in some detail how government-supported education works in South Australia, pointing out some of its illogicalities. This would have been of interest to prospective immigrants, and is now to current readers and researchers. The material most relevant to contemporary Australians, though, was his navigation of the Murray. How navigable was it was the question on administrators’ lips and Gerstäcker was able to provide first-hand knowledge.

He returns to Sydney by boat, in August, and notices a dramatic change there, providing an on-the-ground insight into the impact of the beginning of the gold rush. In his “short absence” Sydney had changed from “a busy city, but otherwise calm, to all appearances perfectly reasonable” to a city in which everyone was “dizzily, yet tirelessly dancing around the glistening false God of the newly found gold”. His departure being delayed for boat repair reasons, he decides to visit some of the goldfields and the picture he draws is one of frenzy, excitement, and loss. He overlays this with common-sense advice, based on his Californian goldfields observations, that it is generally more profitable to work one claim systematically than to be forever upping stakes to chase another chance to strike it rich.

Interestingly, he castigates the media – the newspapers, in other words – on several occasions. He writes, for example, of people’s failure to make their fortunes, and comments:

All of this is not reported in the Australian newspapers: they only highlight the positive elements of the picture and their purpose and goal is easily recognisable. They want people to come to Australia, workers …

Ah, the media … but that’s another whole story.

“indestructible, unavoidable, unbearable gum trees everywhere” (p. 43)

Gum trees

A boring forest of gum trees (Southern NSW)

You have probably realised by now that while Gerstäcker’s writing is generally informative, it is also limited by the perspective of his times, and by his own cultural biases. For example, imagine my horror at his ongoing disparagement of our gum trees! They are “sorry specimens”, “dull, green” or “dun-coloured”.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney he writes that “strangely enough, all the beauty of the scenery is restricted to the sea and to the nearby coast of Port Jackson”. He shows his cultural hand, most obviously, when he heads into the, admittedly beautiful, Blue Mountains region near the end of his trip, and writes of Mount Victoria that

this was the first place in Australia where I have seen real scenery of a quite impressive nature. Mount Victoria is itself a fairly significant mountain, rugged and picturesque, sloping down into a depression that surrounds it on three sides, forming a wide, deep, densely wooded valley. The vegetation is, however [oh dear, here it comes], the same as in all other parts of Australia that I have seen so far. Gum trees, nothing but gum trees, which makes the remaining countryside so terribly monotonous …

He does admit, a couple of sentences on, however, that seen in the distance “decorated … with the sunlight and … draped … in colourful, misty veils” they have a “mysterious aura”. But then he continues that “in reality they are also just plain, dun-coloured gum trees, all with the same leaves”. I could retort that any single-tree-species forest can be monotonous, but it’s not worth it. He won’t hear me!

There’s a lot more to share and enjoy, but I can’t finish this lengthening post without mentioning his descriptions of Australia’s “Indians” as he calls indigenous Australians. Strangely, Monteath only discusses, in his Afterword, the sources Gerstäcker uses for the extensive information he provides about indigenous life and culture in chapters 8 and 9. He doesn’t comment on Gerstäcker’s attitudes to the “Indians” in his travels, attitudes which are mostly derogatory and fearful, often based more on hearsay than on experience. For example, Gerstäcker repeats the stories he’d heard of the “Indians” killing people for their “kidney fat”, a widely-held belief at the time that Monteath explains in his very useful end-notes.

On his first sighting of “Indians”, near Albury, Gerstäcker writes of finding himself

in amongst the eternal dreary gum trees and amongst the black, dirty, treacherous, murderous people of these forests.

Funny how, despite this, he manages to survive his long trip from Albury to Adelaide, with minimal incident even though he did much of it alone and was carrying items of great interest to the “blacks” he met! Most of the time he repeats stories of “their” treachery, and he regularly describes them as dirty and ugly, but he also says that he does not agree with “acts of cruelty against Indian tribes”. It is “right and proper to apply restraint”, he says, but

we can hardly expect that they should immediately conform to rules and practices which, after all, have been imposed on them by the whites.

And right at the end of his trip, while visiting islands in northern Australia, he comments that he is

firmly convinced that the primary cause of all hostility, indeed of all acts of cruelty toward the savage tribes, is the white man himself.

This is an engrossing book that I took some time to read. It’s certainly not a page turner, but it is full of information, observations and reflections that would appeal to diverse interests. For this reason, it’s probably difficult to market. How lucky we are to have publishers like Wakefield Press willing to take a risk on books like this.

Friedrich Gerstäcker
Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold
(Ed. Peter Monteath; Trans. Peter Monteath and his team)
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054192

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction

January 16, 2017

Angela Savage, The dying beach

I have several ideas for my next few Monday Musings, but another one popped up on the weekend as I was perusing my Twitter feed. I don’t check Twitter regularly enough – it’s impossible to keep up with all the social media sites don’t you think? – but when I do I regularly find a treasure or two. Anyhow, this tweet was from Angela Savage promoting the short piece “Take me to a different land” that she wrote for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference being held next month at the Virginia G Piper Centre for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. This is an annual conference for “writers, readers, and lovers of literature”, though it seems to me that the main focus is on writers, as it describes itself as devoted to “the science and art of creative writing, including world building, plot/narrative structure, and character development to more specialized topics like writing about climate change, working with different cultures, and pulling material from fairy tales and myth”.

Saguaro, near Tucson

Beautiful saguaro, near Tucson. (Just because I can!)

I was inspired to delve further for a few reasons: I’m interested in anything to do with the process of writing fiction; I wanted to know what Angela Savage had to say having enjoyed her crime novel The dying beach (my review); and, less relevant to this post, I love Arizona!

Now, setting is one of those aspects of fiction that readers often discuss. And, in fact, Savage starts her piece by quoting a reader from a rejection letter she received for her first Thailand-set novel, Behind the night bazaar:

I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.

Savage says that at the time she was writing the novel she’d been living in SE Asia for six years, including 18 months in Thailand. She realised that it had become too familiar to her. She needed, she said, to step back and remember what it was like when she first arrived, and “try to conjure the little things that made the place unique”. She describes the process she went through to give that first novel the feeling of Thailand, and then says that for her later Thailand-set novels she’s returned to the country “with the express purpose of conducting fieldwork to inform my fiction”.

She goes on to say that as well as working on conveying “the sensory texture of different locations—the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch”, she “walks the streets in the shoes” of her characters, “imagining the landscape as they would see it, based on their state of mind.” Her aim in doing this is to closely relate the setting to the character. She recognises that a “strong sense of place” can transport readers, “adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading” but that the writer’s challenge is to ensure place enhances the story, rather than be a distraction.

I’ve written about setting and place a few times on this blog. In one post, I talked of this sensory aspect, saying that “my favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to feel and see the place and its impact on the characters”. This is largely what Savage is talking about here, isn’t it?

In another post I reported on a panel with the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winners. The chair, Caroline Baum, asked fiction winner Stephen Daisley about writing on place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that this isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he’d not visited all the places he’d written about in Traitor, resulting in Baum asking how one can write about a place without visiting it. Daisley’s answer was Google!

Author Nigel Featherstone, was asked, in an interview he offered to my blog, about his writing on landscape in his novel, Remnants. He said

Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character.

So, that’s what some authors say. What do readers say?

Commenting during a discussion of my 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards post, Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker) wrote:

But if an author chooses to set a story in a real place, and they name it, then I think they should get it right. I want the details to be right, and if they aren’t (and I notice that they’re not, that’s another big step) then it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I don’t necessarily mean it to, but it just does.

Regular commenter on my blog, Meg, agrees, commenting on my recent Spotlight on Georgia Blain post that:

I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question something I know to be different.

And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying:

Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney, he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*…

And finally, Cally73 (a GoodReads reviewer) commented on the abovementioned Stephen Daisley’s Traitor that:

A little more explanation of the New Zealand setting would have been beneficial – as a New Zealander, I was able to work out where it was set, but those unfamiliar with the geography of NZ may find it difficult.

Oh dear, and that’s a place he has been to!

What I sense here – based on both the few examples here and more conversations over the years – is that readers can be very critical if they think authors have got the “facts” about place wrong, whilst for authors, the focus is more on the “sense” of the place and whether it serves their purposes. Many know they will be picked up if they get the “facts” wrong, but that’s not their focus. For authors who like doing research, it’s not a big issue, but for those who don’t it’s probably safer, as Louise above implies, to create a fictional setting, even if it’s based on a real place. Call Canberra by another name, and readers can go with the flow – but that doesn’t help of course if the issues the author wants to explore are place-centric (such as the shrimp-farming industry in Angela Savage’s The dying beach.)

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when setting is discussed at the conference. What issues will concern the authors most?

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (Review)

January 13, 2017

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy TreeAs I explained in my post last year on Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, we are slowly listening to some of the audiobooks we gave Mr Gums’ mother in the last years of her life, and have just finished Olive Ann Burn’s epic-length, Cold Sassy Tree. From what I’ve read in Wikipedia, Olive Ann Burns was another late bloomer (albeit not an Australian one of course). Born in 1924, she didn’t publish Cold Sassy Tree, which was her only completed novel, until 1984. It was so successful that her readers pleaded for more, for a sequel, that is. She started it, but died of a heart attack in 1990 before finishing it. It, Leaving Cold Sassy, was apparently published unfinished, but with her notes, in 1992.

Now, when authors write historical fiction – particularly one that is not about a specific event, like, say, World War 2, or a person, like, say, the ever popular Ann Boleyn – my first question is why have they decided to write about a past time? Cold Sassy Tree is set in the American South in 1906, though if I remember back to the first CD correctly, the first person narrator, Will Tweedy, is telling the story some 8 years later (which would make it on the verge of the World War 1 – not that that is relevant given the USA’s delayed entry into the war.) According to Wikipedia, Burns was a journalist and columnist, and it wasn’t until 1971 that she “began writing down family stories as dictated by her parents. In 1975 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and began to change the family stories into a novel that would later become Cold Sassy Tree”. So, I guess, there’s my answer: she was capturing the stories from her family’s past. Will Tweedy, I believe, is based on her father. And it is, fundamentally, a simple, but charming, family story.

But, like all family stories, there is a little more to it than that. The American South is – or was, particularly, at the turn of the twentieth century – conservative, religious and prejudiced against other (coloured folks, poor folks, and so on). This is the society that Will Tweedy is born into. Luckily for him, he was also born into a family with an independent-thinker, live-by-his-own-rules, grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee. Early in the novel, Cold Sassy Tree (for that’s the name of the town), and particularly Will’s mother and aunt, are thrown into turmoil when 60-odd-year-old Rucker, just three weeks widowed to a wife he clearly loved, ups and marries the 33-year-old Yankee, Miss Love Simpson, who was working as a milliner in his general store.

Will, just entering adolescence, is the perfect narrator in what is, partly, a coming-of-age novel. He adores his grandfather, and becomes a sometime confidant, sometime unwitting but not unwilling eavesdropper, of the newly married couple. He has a mind of his own but is still obedient enough to mostly do what he is told. He soaks up what is going on around him, and is prepared to take risks and listen to new ways of doing things while also maintaining some of that level of shock about change that his parents have.

I’m not going to write a long post on this, partly because I listened to it over a long period of time and partly because, having listened to it, I don’t have good quotes to share. Burns has written the book in southern dialect, but it’s not hard to follow, and she uses some lovely fresh appropriate imagery – similes, in particular – which adds to the enjoyment. The coloured man, Loomis, for example says that religion is “like silver”, you “must keep polishing” it.

Besides the main story of this “shocking” marriage – which has its own trajectory to which Will becomes privy – we see the introduction of motor cars to the small town, the lack of opportunity for the children of the poor working class, the changing role of women, the economic challenges faced by small towns, and the stultifying effect of narrow religious beliefs. It’s not, in other words, all light. There’s drama – a near train accident, a returned would-be lover, a suicide, to name a few. There is also awareness of racism, but Burns glosses over this a little, preferring to show, overall, positive, more humane attitudes. She doesn’t necessarily gild the situation, but she doesn’t draw out the ugliness either.

This is not, probably, a book I would have picked up and read of my own accord, but as a book to listen to during hours on the road it did an excellent job with its engaging characters, its light touch, its warm but clear-eyed view of small-town life, and its sense that although times have changed people haven’t all that much.

Olive Ann Burns
Cold Sassy Tree (audio)
(read by Tom Parker)
BlackstoneAudio, 1993
12H 30M on 11 CDs (Unabridged)

Delicious descriptions: Louise Mack’s dialogue and satire

January 11, 2017

Over Christmas, during one of my conversations with Son Gums, he commented how he tires of meaningless conversations, conversations, for example, in which people discuss a television series they’ve seen but say nothing of note. He mimicked the sort of conversation he meant … well, imagine my surprise when, in one of those surprising synchronicities, I came across exactly that sort of conversation a few days later in Louise Mack’s The world is round (my review). Here is part of it – the two speakers are at a social gathering, and published author Musgrave is eavesdropping:

It was the girl who pushed the ball this time. ‘Have you ever read a book called Lost in the Zodiac?’
‘No, never read it. Who’s it bai?’
‘I don’t know. I never look who a book’s by. Do you?’
‘No. Tell you an awfully naice book. Read it on board coming out, Miss Nobody of Nowhere.’
‘I haven’t read it. Is it good?’
‘Very good. Very er–er–interestin’.’
‘Is it? I must get to that. Do you know who it’s by?’
‘One of those French fellows, I think. Sounds like  a Frenchman. One of those detective plots, you know.’
‘Oh yes, I know. Like that book everyone was reading the other day, I forget the name of it.’
‘Yes. Sort of detective yarn you know. Very good.’
‘There’s a book called A Painted Polyanthus’ – Musgrave gave a sigh for a man he knew who would have revelled in this with a joy as keen as his own. ‘They say it’s very good. I haven’t read it yet.’
‘Neither have I.’
Musgrave was disappointed.
‘Have you read Speech in Passing?’
‘Oh yes, I read that. I cried over it.’
‘No? Did you? Bai Jove!’ leering sentimentally.
‘Yes, I couldn’t help it.’
‘The “sulky man” – he was a rum cove, wasn’t he? He was funny wasn’t he.’
‘I don’t think he was a sulky man at all.’
‘Neither do I. The only called him that,’ boldly.
Her voice changed.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she quoted, in tones that suggested to you that she was just going to burst into tears.
Musgrave turned his head to see how she was looking. Just as he thought. Her head was a little on one side, her eyes were staring sadly straight back in front of her, and her mouth was doing its best to look pensive and full of feeling.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she said again.
That was evidently the one point about the story that had struck her most impressively. Unfortunately hers was not the face to express the feeling she would fain have conveyed …

You can see why those early critics praised her dialogue and satire, can’t you? It’s quite delicious.

Note: The strange spellings, like “bai”, are attempts to phonetically capture the Australian accent – and is clearly being satirised.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some New Releases in 2017

January 9, 2017

This is the last of what seems to have become my set of end-of-year-beginning-of-year posts – and it’s about, as if you couldn’t tell, the books that will be published this year. Obviously, I can’t list them all – even if I could know them all – but it’s fun to share a few that look interesting.

Now, luckily for me, part of my work has already been done by Elizabeth Lhuede who posted coming releases by Australian women writers on our challenge blog. I don’t plan to repeat that here because you can check it out there – though I may highlight one or two of particular interest to me. This means, of course, that my list – mostly drawn, like Elizabeth’s, from an article by Jane Sullivan in the Sydney Morning Herald – will primarily feature men (because, yes, I do read them too.) And, because this is a Monday musings on Australian literature post, the list will be further filtered to include just Australian authors.

Authors I’ve read before

  • Alex Miller’s The passage of love (Allen & Unwin). Miller had said he’d finished writing novels, but clearly not, and a good thing too (though on this blog I’ve only reviewed his Lovesong).
  • Kim Scott’s Taboo (Picador, August). That deadman dance , which I’ve reviewed here, is for me one of those unforgettable books. I wonder if this one will be too? By the way, Fremantle Press is re-releasing Scott’s first Miles Franklin winning book, Benang, in its Treasures series.
  • Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing (Transit Lounge, April). This is about a “half-Chinese Gallipoli hero” so very different I expect to the book I’ve reviewed here, Diary of a naked official.

Authors I haven’t but maybe should have read before

  • Steven Carroll’s A New England affair (Fourth Estate, September). The final book in his six-part Glenroy series chronicling life, from the 1950s, in an outer Melbourne suburb.
  • Brian Castro’s Blindness and rage: A phantasmagoria (Giramondo. April). Castro is one of the shameful gaps in my reading to date.
  • John Kinsella’s Old growth (Transit lounge, February). A short story collection.
  • Stephen Lang’s Winderran (UQP, July). An author I don’t know much about, but I should because he’s won and/or been shortlisted for some significant awards.
  • Adrian Mitchell’s The beachcomber’s wife (Wakefield Press, January). Another  author I’m not greatly aware of but he writes literary historical fiction (and non-fiction), so I clearly should be!
  • AS Patric’s Atlantic black (Transit Lounge, October). By the middle of the year I’ll be able to move this to the “authors I’ve read” category as I will be reading his Miles Franklin award-winning Black rock, white city in a few months.
  • Alex Skovron’s The man who took to his bed (Puncher and Wattman, May). A collection of short stories from a multiply-published poet.
  • Chris Womersley’s City of crows (Picador, September). Hmm, about 17th century witchcraft apparently.

Debut authors – so I can’t have read them before

  • Charlie Archbold’s Mallee Boys (Wakefield Press, May). I’m determined to visit the Mallee this year (I’ve only touched its edges before) so this may be the book for me.
  • Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific room (Transit Lounge, July). It’s about Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa.
  • Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe (Black Inc., July). Another historical fiction about a well-known character, this time it’s Orwell and his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • Tony Jones apparently has a political thriller coming out with Allen & Unwin later in the year. I normally wouldn’t have mentioned this – given there’s no title and it’s not really a key genre for me – but Jones is well-known in Australia (unlike most of these debut authors) for his work on television as a political commentator and current affairs show anchor. (Sullivan lists a number of crime and thriller books coming out, so if you’re interested do check out the article link above).
  • Gordon Parker’s In Two Minds (Ventura, April). Parker is the founder of the Black Dog Institute, and Sullivan describes this book as “a rollicking tale of mental illness”!
  • Peter Polites’ Down the Hume (Hachette, March). He’s described as “the new Tsiolkas or Luke Davies” so this is likely to be urban and gritty.

Some women writers I must mention

  • Bernadette Brennan’s biography. A writing life: Helen Garner and her work (Text, April). A high priority for me. I hope it’s as book as Karen Lamb’s biography of Thea Astley.
  • Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs (Affirm Press). A bit of an anomaly in this list as I don’t know Clarkson, but she is apparently an accomplished short story writer, and I do like Affirm Press.
  • Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (For Pity Sake, May?). Dowse, like Farmer below, hasn’t published for some time so it’s great to see a new work coming out. I’ve reviewed her Schemetime here.
  • Beverley Farmer’s These waters: Five tales (Giramondo, July). I read and loved her back in the 1980s to early 1990s. This is a collection of short stories.
  • Kate Grenville’s The case against fragrance (Text, February). Listed by Sullivan under “politics and big issues”! Sounds interesting.
  • Marilla North’s book on Dymphna Cusack, whom I’ve reviewed here a couple of times, is well due I think.
  • Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (Transit Lounge, March). I so enjoyed Rawson’s imaginative A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists that I’m intrigued to so what she comes up with next.
  • A web of friendship (Miegunyah Modern Library from the University of Melbourne, February), which contains selected letters of Christina Stead, and Loving words (Brandl and Schlesinger, June), containing letters between Vance and Nettie Palmer. Both of great interest.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker Tilmouth: An essayed memoir (Giramondo, October). Essayed memoir? Is that how I should have described Fiona Wright’s and Georgia Blain’s memoirs last year? Anyhow, this is about an indigenous activist.

Do you actively look out for coming releases, or just wait until they appear and you read or hear about them?