Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie writers name their pick reads of 2016

December 5, 2016

December is, or has certainly become in recent years, the month of lists. As always, I’ll be saving my lists until the end of 2015, which means you won’t see them until January. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t share other people’s lists, does it?

I’ve gleaned the list I’m sharing here from a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, a list I particularly enjoy because they ask a wide range of Aussie writers who come up with books crossing a variety of forms and genres. In my report on it, I’ve only included Australian books. I hope that, because of this and because my order of presentation is completely different, I haven’t broken copyright. If I have, I hope they forgive me, in recognition of our shared goal of promoting books and reading.

So, here’s the list of books, with the nominating author/s in parentheses at the end. I’ve used asterisks to denote those books nominated more than once, with the number of asterisks identifying the number of nominations.:

  • Randa Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael met Mina (YA fiction) (Maxine Beneba Clarke)
  • ***Steven Amsterdam’s The easy way out (fiction) (Maxine Beneba Clarke, Abigail Ulman, Charlotte Wood)
  • Melissa Ashley’s The birdman’s wife (historical fiction) (Robert Adamson)
  • Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (fiction) (Jacinta Halloran)
  • **Georgia Blain’s Between a wolf and a dog (fiction) (Toni Jordan, Charlotte Wood)
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign soil (short stories) (Clare Wright).
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (memoir) (Zoe Morrison)
  • Stephanie Bishop’s The other side of the world (fiction) (Katherine Brabon)
  • Stephen Daisley ‘s Coming rain (fiction) (Clare Wright)
  • Robin Dalton’s Aunts up the Cross (classic memoir, repub. by Text) (Tim Flannery)
  • Catherine de Saint Phalle’s Poum and Alexandre: A Paris memoir (memoir) (Helen Garner)
  • David Dyer’s The midnight watch (historical fiction) (Malcolm Knox)
  • Sarah Engledow’s The popular pet book (non-fiction) (Chris Wallace-Crabbe)
  • Richard Flanagan’s Notes on an exodus (non-fiction) (Katherine Brabon)
  • **David Francis’ Wedding Bush Road (fiction) (Abigail Ulman, Don Watson)
  • Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm (fiction) (Clare Wright)
  • Alice Garner’s A shifting shore (non-fiction) (Gregory Day)
  • Helen Garner, Everywhere I look***Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look (essays) (Lisa Gorton, Jacinta Halloran, Joan London) (my review)
  • Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (non-fiction) (Maxine Beneba Clarke)
  • Tom Griffiths’ The art of time travel (non-fiction) (Clare Wright)
  • Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of fall and other stories (short stories, orig. pub. 1963) (Helen Garner)
  • Toni Jordan’s Our tiny useless hearts (fiction) (Graeme Simsion)
  • Gisela Kaplan’s Bird minds (non-fiction) (Tim Winton)
  • Hannah Kent’s The good people (historical fiction) (Malcolm Knox)
  •  Lee Kofman and Maria Katsonis’ Rebellious daughters (short story anthology) (Clare Wright)
  •  Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities (short stories) (Maxine Beneba Clarke)
  • Anthony Lawrence’s Headwaters (poetry) (Robert Adamson)
  • Micheline Lee’s The healing party (fiction) (Helen Garner)
  • Cassie Lewis’ The blue decodes (poetry) (Robert Adamson)
  • Tim Low’s Where song began (non-fiction) (Tim Flannery)
  • Thornton McCamish’s Our man elsewhere (biography of Alan Moorehead) (Helen Garner)
  • Adrian McKinty’s Rain dogs (historical crime fiction) (Michael Robotham)
  • ***Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful (memoir) (Lisa Gorton, Jacinta Halloran, Tim Winton)
  • Robert Manne’s The mind of The Islamic State (non-fiction) (Alex Miller)
  • Zoe Morrison’s Music and freedom (memoir) (Graeme Simsion)
  • **Ryan O’Neill’s Their brilliant careers (fiction) (Toni Jordan, AS Patric)
  • Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (novel) (Hannah Kent)
  • Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animal** Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (novel) (Jacinta Halloran, Fiona Wright) (my review)
  • **Baba Schwartz’s The May beetles (memoir) (Helen Garner, Joan London)
  • Sybille Smith’s Mothertongue (memoir) (Helen Garner)
  • Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the sea (classic fiction) (Jacinta Halloran)
  • **Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort food (poetry) (Maxine Beneba Clarke, Lisa Gorton)
  • Dave Warner’s Before it breaks (crime fiction) (Michael Robotham)
  • Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the chicken wire (poetry) (Fiona Wright)
  • Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (fiction) (Charlotte Wood)
  • Peter Wohlleben’s The hidden life of trees (non-fiction) (Tim Flannery)

As last with last year’s smh list, there are books and authors I haven’t heard of, but I’m thrilled to see some books appearing multiple times, including a couple of books I loved this year – Garner’s Everywhere I look and Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal – and Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful which I know I’ll be reading next year.  Tim Winton says of Mahood’s book:

If anyone’s written more beautifully and modestly about this country and its people I’m not aware of it. I think it’s a treasure.

A book I should clearly consider reading is three-asterisked Stephen Amsterdam’s The easy way out. Charlotte Wood describes it as “a sharp, snappy novel about assisted dying. Blackly witty but never glib, it’s humane and moving.”

It’s lovely to see Patrick White award-winner, Carmel Bird, in the list with her new novel Family skeleton, alongside older books by Shirley Hazzard and Randolph Stow. And it’s interesting to see the variety of memoirs admired by our authors.

While this year there are several books with two or three recommendations, last year had a runaway winner with five recommendations – Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things. I noted then that I clearly needed to read it – and I did. In fact, I reviewed, in 2016, 7 books in last year’s list. I wonder if I’ll do something similar in 2017.

Meanwhile, do you enjoy end of year lists – and, more significantly, do they guide your reading choices in any way? If they do I’d love to know how.

 

Six degrees of separation, FROM Revolutionary Road TO Fateless

December 3, 2016

Richard Yates, Revolutionary RoadSix Degrees of Separation is a monthly “meme” hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Each month, she nominates a book, and then those who choose to play create a chain of six books, linking one from the other as the spirit moves. Now, I hadn’t planned to play this time because I haven’t read Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (nor did I even see the movie), but I need to make an embarrassing confession. I’ve cheated on the last two “memes”. I’ve only done SIX books, not SIX degrees of separation from the chosen book making SEVEN. Where was my brain? Well, wherever it was, I have it back now, so have decided to prove it by playing this time after all …

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov PoemsYates’ Revolutionary Road is set in suburban America in the 1950s. Wikipedia quotes Yates saying he intended the book to be an “indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price”. It was much like this in Australia too – and it’s understandable given people’s very real memories of World War II – but not everyone dreamed these suburban dreams. There were, for example, the Communists who had a different vision of how life should be. Lesley Lebkovicz’s verse novel The Petrov poems (my review) tells the story of a very different couple to Yates’. They were Soviet intelligence agents posted in Australia, and their lives derailed badly as their spying was uncovered.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby MoonlightThere are many places I could go from here, but I’m keen to encourage more people to try verse novels, so I’m going to link by form and choose Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (my review). Like Lebkowicz’s novel, Ruby Moonlight is historical fiction, but set in a very different world. Indigenous author Eckermann tells the story of early contact between indigenous people and white settlers in remote South Australia around 1880. It’s a beautiful (and accessible) read, one that is both uncompromising in identifying the wrongs that have been done, and yet also open to seeing pain and loneliness among the settlers. I do admire such generosity.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverSomething else I’m keen to encourage is for us (myself included) to read more books by indigenous writers. I’ve read a few here over the years, but the one I’m going to choose is Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review). This is one of those books which defies definition in terms of its form, but I’m not going to engage in that now. What I want to draw from here is its middle section, “Water”, which is an edgy dystopian story set in the near future. It manages to addresses contemporary political issues regarding environmental degradation and indigenous ownership through a clever story about “plant-people”.

RawsonWrongTurnTransitAnother edgy dystopian book set in the near future is Jane Rawson’s gorgeously titled, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists (my review). Actually it shifts a bit between a sort-of imaginary 1997 San Francisco and a 2030 Melbourne, and belongs to that new genre, cli-fi, though it crosses other genres too, including time-travel. It’s a rather mind-bending (as well as genre-bending) read, because Rawson has one of those quick-witted imaginations that can address something very serious while maintaining a playful edge. And I do like playful writers, so next I’m going to choose …

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler questionA non-Australian book, to give all my non-Australian readers a bit of a fighting chance with this list. How about Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler question (my review)? I am a bit of a sucker for Jewish humour, and this book, as my family will tell you, really tickled my funny bone. I mean, whoever heard of a Gentile wanting to be a Jew. (Well, yes, we all have I’m sure, but I think you know what I mean …) The book is full of wordplays and jokes, all the while addressing personal concerns like identity, love and loss alongside more political ones to do with issues like Zionism and, more broadly, what it means to be Jewish.

kerteszfatelessNow, where can that lead me to for my all important SEVENTH book? Well, I think at this point, I might turn serious, not that playful writers like Rawson and Jacobson aren’t serious, because they are, but having raised the Jewish question (ha!) I think I should continue with it. I have read and reviewed some excellent memoirs by Jewish writers, but I think I’m going to go for the jugular and choose Imre Kertesz’s Fateless (or Fatelessnes, depending on your translation) (my review). I say “jugular” because this is one of those books that needs a bit of nutting out; it engages with some fundamental ideas about the human condition, about what is fate, what is freedom.

And so, we have moved from an American couple in the 1950s, through Australia past and future, taking a little side trip back to America, before moving on to contemporary England and ending up in Hungary during World War 2. If my first 6-degrees meme had a certain circularity, this one seems to be rather more linear.

Where would Revolutionary Road take you – your first step at least?

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindle (Review)

December 2, 2016

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAs I was reading Pierre Lemaitre’s literary page-turner, The great swindle, I started to wonder about the endings of books, what I look for, what I most appreciate. What I don’t look for is neat, happy conclusions. There are exceptions to this of course. Jane Austen, for example, but she was writing at a different time when the novel was in an earlier stage of development. In contemporary novels, I look for something a little challenging, something that suggests that life isn’t neatly wrapped up. Fiction isn’t life, I know, but its role, for me anyhow, is to reflect on, and thus make me think about, life. So, Lemaitre’s The great swindle? How does it end? I’m not going to tell you – it’s not the done thing in reviews – but I will say that it’s satisfying, even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed.

There, that’s an unusual opening for me, isn’t it, to start with the end? Where do I go now? Back to the beginning I think. The novel is divided into sections: 1918, November 1919, March 1920, and Epilogue. It starts in the trenches on 2 November 1918, just days before the First World War ends. One of our two main characters Albert Maillard is there, wanting a quiet, safe time until the war ends, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, has other ideas, setting off a series of events that reverberates through all their years.

This is, in fact, quite a plot-driven novel, despite having many strings to its bow. And you all probably know how much I hate describing plots, so I’m going to keep it simple. After a devastating opening which leaves soldier Édouard Péricourt with a severely damaged face and Albert, for good reasons, taking responsibility for his care, the novel focuses on life in Paris in the immediate aftermath of war. While our two soldiers struggle to survive, Pradelle has been demobbed a Captain, as he’d orchestrated, married a wealthy young woman, Madeleine, who happens to be Édouard’s sister, and is engaged in the business of providing coffins and burying soldiers in cemeteries around France – focusing more on the money he can make than on whether, say, the right soldier ends up in the right coffin. You getting the picture of this Pradelle by now?

There are several other characters – this is a big story that owes much to the 19th century novel – but I’ll just mention a couple more: Monsieur Péricourt, Madeleine and Édouard’s father, a tough businessman who had never had time for his artisitic, effeminate son, and Merlin, the dogged, bottom-rung, about-to-retire civil servant who is given the job of reporting on the cemetery project.

Finally, just two more things you should know before I leave the plot. One is that Édouard did not want to return home after the war, so in the military hospital Albert manages to swap his identity – in a swindle, you might say – with a dead soldier, resulting in Édouard Péricourt becoming Eugene Lariviere. His father and sister, therefore, do not know he is alive. The other is the war memorial swindle concocted by Édouard (Eugene), which he finally manages to convince the “even when well-intentioned, lying was not in his nature” Albert to support.

The novel, then, has a complex plot with a rather large cast of characters, but Lemaitre, who is apparently known for his crime novels, handles it all very well so you never feel lost. One of the ways he does this is through vivid characterisation. Every character, from the main “cast” (it’s to be filmed I hear) to the supporting characters, is so strikingly portrayed that you feel you are there in postwar France – there in the streets where poor, injured returned soldiers struggle to make a living, there in the houses of the well-to-do where money is king, there in the cemeteries where Pradelle’s exploited Arab, Chinese and Senegalese workers do what they can to survive.

Another is through the clever set pieces which illuminate the characters, such as Edouard/Eugene’s increasingly bizarre masks – from horse-head to budgerigar – which he creates and wears to cover his horrendously disfigured face. Or the more gruesome scenes in which the taciturn, not very agreeable, but diligent public servant Merlin tramps around cemeteries investigating coffins. Using these set pieces, many of which border on farce, alongside controlled doses of satire and irony, Lemaitre creates a tragicomic tone – but to what end?

“will this war never be over?”

Early postwar, concerning Pradelle’s cemetery plans, the (mostly omniscient) narrator says:

To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over.

War, then, is the over-riding theme – but war is a big canvas. Lemaitre’s focus is war’s aftermath. What does it mean for those who went and those who stayed, and for the new world they must forge, preferably together. At one point Albert, worn down by his cares and responsibilities, and facing yet another hurdle, wonders, “will this war never be over”. But, as ordinary citizens get back to life, the needs of the returned are forgotten:

ex-soldiers were all the same, forever banging about their war, forever giving little homilies, people had had just about enough of heroes. The true heroes were dead!

A ripe environment, in other words, for cemetery and war memorial scandals, for profiteering – particularly when you add that it was a time of great social change in France, one where the nouveau riche (represented by M. Péricourt) were getting the upper hand over the often money-short aristocracy (represented by Pradelle).

Opposing this almost obsessive focus on money is a sense of resignation. It can be seen in Madeleine who marries the execrable Pradelle. “We each settle down as best we can”, comments our narrator. For many, there is a sense of “emptiness”, this word appearing several times in the novel. They were tough times – the time of “the lost generation” or what the French called “the génération au feu” – for which society was not equipped to cope. So, in the end, what Lemaitre has painted is a picture of a society under stress, a picture which is conveyed most directly through our “everyman”, our struggling returned solider Albert who just wants to make a life for himself but who is also loyal to those who need him:

War had been a lonely business, but it was nothing compared to the period since demobilisation that was beginning to seem a veritable descent into hell …

The novel, as you will have gathered, is replete with swindles, but the greatest of all, Lemaitre is saying, was the abominable treatment, upon their return, of the ordinary soldier.

This is one of those novels which uses a light touch to tell a heavy story. No wonder it won France’s main literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed this book.

Pierre Lemaitre
The great swindle
(trans. by Frank Wynne)
London: MacLehose Press, 2015
ISBN (eBook): 9781848665804

What my bookgroup will be reading in the first half of 2017

November 30, 2016
Woman reading with cushion

Courtesy: Clker.com

You may notice that I sometimes identify a review as being for a book I’ve read with my reading group, but only once before in this blog have I dedicated a post to my reading group’s schedule, so I thought it was time to do it again. It’s particularly appropriate now because last night my group chose our first 6 books for next year.

I recently mentioned in a comment to ANZLitLovers Lisa that my group would be choosing its schedule, and she wished me good luck because she knows reading group selections can be fraught. However, that’s never really been the case in my group (at least I don’t think so. Those who read this blog can correct my rose-coloured glasses if they see it differently!).

This is not to say that there’s not discussion about our selections, or that there aren’t some different reading interests in the group. There is always some lively argy-bargy. But, the group was established on the basis that we wanted to read “good” books – books that challenge us, books that have a reputation for quality, books that have something to encourage discussion. Content is part of it, but sometimes you hear people recommending a book as a “good reading group book” because it’s an “issues book” like, say, a Jodi Picoult. We have nothing against “issues books” – many of us read them – but for our schedule, for the sort of discussion we want, the books we choose need to be more multi-dimensional.

Before you think it, I must clarify that this doesn’t mean that we read only “worthy” award-winning literary fiction. We read all sorts – including non-fiction – and we’ve occasionally had poetry nights. The best way to demonstrate this is to share our next 6 books:

  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s Passionate nomad: this book was chosen as the result of one of the members reading my recent post on 19th century travellers. In the end, we chose a biography of an early twentieth century “lady traveller”, Freya Stark. It’s probably our riskiest selection, but the biography is respected we believe.
  • Grahame Greene’s Travels with my aunt: we try to do at least one classic each year – such as, most recently, Dostoevsky’s Crime and punishment and Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart – so when someone suggested Grahame Greene whom we haven’t discussed before, he was in.
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo: this is a debut novel which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished manuscript in 2014. Of course, it helped that the author is the fiancée of one of our founding members.
  • AS Patric’s Black rock, white city: as this year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, Patric’s book was an obvious choice.
  • Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: there are several McEwan fans in the group, and we haven’t done one of his books since Solar in 2010, so it seemed time!
  • Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful: this is author-artist-mapmaker Mahood’s memoir about her experience of place and landscape in the Tanami Desert area of remote central Australia where she grew up and now spends part of her time each year. This book is particularly interesting to us because of the perspectives she can bring from her very particular history as a white woman working and living in what is now indigenous land.

So, three women writers and three men; four novels and two non-fiction works; three Australian writers and three not. No translated works or indigenous writers in this group, but there’s always the second half of the year to increase the diversity. We did do a translated work, an indigenous writer, and an African writer this year.

If you’re in a reading group, have you decided on your schedule for next year yet? And, if so, what criteria do you use?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the Arts (1)

November 28, 2016

Arnold Haskell, Waltzing MatildaA couple of months ago I wrote a post on British dance critic Arnold Haskell’s book, Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia (published in Australia in 1944). I said then that I’d come back to it, so here I am, focusing this time on his chapter on “The Arts”. It comprises 22 pages covering, according to the chapter subtitle, “The theatre – The cinema – Painting – The press – Literature”. Today, I’ll just discuss the theatre and literature.

“a national theatre is not yet born”

He starts with the theatre, and says that although he knows “from experience that Australia has a vast theatre-going public and a fine theatrical tradition … the theatre is unfortunately in decay”. Performances are more likely to be “Gilbert and Sullivan” or English or American musicals or sensational-type plays with imported stars. When an Australian does show ability “he [of course, it’s a “he”] promptly leaves for England or America”. If he stays he’ll “probably starve, both artistically and financially”.

Serious theatre – performing, say, Chekhov or Gogol – mostly occurs in amateur repertory societies and some of these “reach an extraordinarily high standard”. He blames the lack of development of a national theatre on “apathy and the great national inferiority complex” (aka “the cultural cringe” I’ve often mentioned here). However, when it comes to music, ballet and opera things are a little better, particularly in opera where Melba, who had died in 1931, had “dealt a smashing blow to the inferiority complex”.

“still in the formative period”

Haskell spends more of his chapter on painting than on anything else but let’s get to literature. He says, it has “not produced men who are the equals of Streeton, Heysen or Gruner”. Interesting. I might be wrong but I’d say that now Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Eleanor Dark are at least as well-known as those three artists.

Anyhow, here is his impression:

Those who could write the great Australian novels, who are neither apathetic nor complacent and who correspond in some way to our Bloomsbury, are unfortunately too busy talking to accomplish more than a poem, a pamphlet or a short story. They are dissatisfied, they hate the squatter, despise the ‘dinkum Aussie’ and are well to the left of his traditional labour. Their thoughts are in Spain or Russia. They have both imagination and compassion, but there is more of bitterness in their make-up… They concentrate on the ideal of some vague revolution just as the masses concentrate on sport.

He argues that the “flourishing school of contemporary American literature was started by such minds as these in their magnificently creative intervals from drinking and posing in Paris.” (Don’t you love it?) He’s referring, I presume, to Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, et al. He sees – quite perspicaciously I’d say – that the problem is that Australians were looking to Europe, were seeing the distance between them and Europe “as a handicap” BUT he says “the differences between Australia and England will produce a national art and literature, not the similarities.” In other words, look to your own. America has recognised this, he writes, “and has made her differences a source of pride”. Our own Nettie Palmer saw it too, and argued strenuously for an Australian literature. She pondered in her 1929 article, “The need for Australian literature”, on what recognition the work of Australians had received. “To what extent, ” she asked, “have their efforts been made barren by the ingratitude and even hostility with which they have been met at the outset.” Cultural cringe again? For Palmer, it is the artist (the writer, in her case) who illuminates, or makes understandable, our lives for us.

Anyhow, Haskell does recommend some Australian authors/works which have become “part of the Australia scene”, which I’ll share as I know we all like lists:

  • Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life: Haskell writes beautifully about this book and how Kensignton-born Clarke used his two years’ bush experience to make himself “an Australian writer”. He argues that Clarke’s characters “have a humanity not unworthy of Dostoievsky” and compares him favourably against Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn which he describes as “stilted and old-fashioned” and Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms which is just “a typical boy’s yarn”.
  • Henry Lawson’s While the billy boils, and other works: Haskell says Lawson’s work is universally seen as “honest Australian” and that “no interested tourist should omit reading these sketches of the Australian character”.
  • Vance Palmer and Brian Penton “depict the Australian scene with skill and conviction”, and Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s The little black princess “gives a particularly delightful picture of the aboriginal mind and was highly recommended to me by a distinguished anthropologist”. (Oh dear, but these were different times.)
  • Ion Idriess, who covers “the more adventurous sides of Australian life”, is “not a polished writer” but tells “magnificent” stories from his own experience.
  • Katherine [sic] Susannah Prichard, Helen Simpson and Henry Handel Richardson “are so well known in England that they are accepted as English writers”! What does this mean? And interesting that these are all women writers who are described this way. He says that The fortunes of Richard Mahoney “gives a gloomy picture of Australia but it is surely the greatest contemporary work of Australian fiction”.

Haskell also mentions several poets – Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, CJ Dennis and ‘Banjo’ Patterson [sic] – as worth reading. I’m just going to share, though, what he says about Paterson because Paterson, himself, felt he was just a ‘verse-maker’ not a poet. Here is Haskell:

Patterson, a bigger figure [than Dennis], might be called Australia’s Kipling, though there is little actual resemblance. It might be very easy to dismiss this very hearty verse as being of little account, easy but superficial. When one knows Australia this is altogether impossible. It has a quality of greatness because Patterson has written folk-songs and ballads of Australia. His verse has an extraordinary quality of spontaneity. It is truly indigenous.

Dennis, he writes, “is famous for his amusing doggerel in the Australian vernacular” and “has left behind some humorous journalism. It is more deliberate and sophisticated; it is a tour de force and not a cri de coeur.”

Haskell admits that there are other names he could share. However, his aim has not been, he says, to produce “a study of Australian literature” but rather a “personal account” of his “journey” because his prime goal has been to “see Australia at first hand and not through literature”. I understand that …

George Augustus Sala, The tyranny of pie (Review)

November 27, 2016

When I decide to write about a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week it is usually because it’s by a favourite author (like Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, or Edith Wharton), or by an author I want to read but haven’t yet (like John Updike or Washington Irving) or on a topic that interests me (like the environment or race issues or food). You can guess from the post title, then, why I chose the story I’m writing about today!

I’ve covered a few LOA food stories: Scotsman John M. Duncan’s “A Virginia barbecue” (1823), American George G. Foster’s “The eating-houses” (1849), and Cuban-American Ana Menéndez’s “Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings” (2004). Two are about events and one about restaurants, though they all mention food too of course. Englishman George Augustus Sala’s piece, however, starts from the point of view of food – the pie, which, I’ve just realised, is appropriate for this American Thanksgiving weekend. Sala, like Virginia-barbecue-Duncan, was a traveller to America, so wrote his piece from the perspective of an outsider.

George Augustus Sala

Sala c. 1855-65, by Mathew Brady (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

But, who was this Sala? Aussies will be interested to know that it was he who coined the still-used description “Marvellous Melbourne” when he visited Australia in 1885. He was born in 1828, and is described in LOA’s notes as a “prolific and flamboyant journalist”. He “found fame” as an acolyte of Charles Dickens, and was a regular contributor to Dickens’ journal, Household Words (about which I’ve written before). However, LOA continues, it was public praise from William Makepeace Thackeray which really launched his career. Unfortunately, although Sala published much and earned good money from writing for The Daily Telegraph, he was a spendthrift who was also often drunk, and “died virtually penniless”.

Now, the piece. It comes from his second trip to the States. His first trip was in 1863 during the Civil War, and while he was critical of much he did like American humour. He wrote, says LOA, a three-book series of anthologies, Yankee Drolleries (1866–1870), which introduced British readers to established authors like Oliver Wendell Holmes (whom I wrote about recently) and the up-and-coming writer, Mark Twain.

During his second trip, which resulted in his book America revisited, he found an improved America. LOA quotes this:

The truth is, that in New York there is room enough for Everybody, whereas in London, huge as it is, there is not sufficient room for Anybody.

By the late 1870s, we’re told, Manhattan had become a popular travel destination for the European upper class.

Sala, LOA also says “had a lot to say about American food. His comments range from despair and scorn to grudging, if infrequent, admiration”.  He apparently approved of New York, because its food and accommodation were “what Europeans usually consider to be refinement and comfort.” But on leaving New York, “you must expect nothing better than pork and beans and Indian pudding, or hog and hominy if you go South; the whole washed down by rough cider or molasses and water.” His short “The tyranny of pie” piece appears as a digression in his America revisited chapter about a train trip to Baltimore.

I’m sure you all know the phrase “as American as apple pie”. The Huffington Post provides some background to this in an article titled “Why are we ‘As American as Apple Pie’?” The pie was an English tradition, and brought to American by the Pilgrims, but by 1860, well before Sala’s second visit, the phrase was already in use. Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, says Huffington’s Kimberly Kohatsu, that “the pie is an English tradition, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”

It is partly this variety which captures Sala’s eye. He commences, though, by praising signs of “improvement and reform” in America – in

everything except Pie. The national manners have become softened—the men folk chew less, expectorate less, curse less; the newspapers are not half so scurrilous as our own; the Art idea is becoming rapidly developed; culture is made more and more manifest; even “intensity” in æsthetics is beginning to be heard of and Agnosticism and other “isms” too numerous to mention find exponents in “Society,” and the one absorbing and sickening topic of conversation is no longer the Almighty Dollar—but to the tyranny of Pie there is no surcease.

What is all this about we readers wonder? Soon he writes:

The day before we left New York one of the ripest scholars, the most influential journalists (on the Democratic side) the brightest wits and most genial companions in the States lunched with us. He would drink naught but Château Yquem; but he partook twice, and in amazing profusion of Pumpkin Pie.

Ah, I was thinking, he’s like me. He doesn’t like Pumpkin Pie, and wonders about the taste of this Château Yquem drinker … but, I was disappointed because, within a couple of sentences he writes:

The worst of this dreadful pie—be it of apple, of pumpkin, of mulberry, or of cranberry—is that it is so very nice. It is made delusively flat and thin, so that you can cut it into conveniently-sized triangular wedges, which slip down easily.

He then suggests that the pie is “as important a factor in American civilisation as the pot-au-feu does in France” but that England has nothing equivalent. The closest England has to a dish “by which we nationally stand or fall” is “the roast beef of Old England” but it is expensive and

there are hundreds of thousands of labouring English people who never taste roast beef from year’s end to year’s end—save when they happen to get into gaol or into the workhouse at Christmastide.

This is where his little piece ends. I did enjoy its cheeky humour, and this pointed conclusion.

George Augustus Sala
“The tyranny of pie”
First published in: America revisited: from the Bay of New York to the Gulf of Mexico, 1882.
Available: Online at the Library of America

The Griffyns … wah! wah! wah!

November 25, 2016

Last weekend was the last Griffyns concert of the year – and what a delight it was (except for the wah! moment). It was their 10th anniversary concert and they called it Griffyns Go Wilder. Knowing the Griffyns, as you do by now if you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that that could mean anything but in fact it meant, in its literal meaning anyhow, that the concert would be devoted to the music of the 20th century American composer, Alec Wilder.

Instruments set up before concert

Setting up before the concert

What a great choice it was for an end-of-year-anniversary concert. They have performed Wilder before. I particularly remember soprano Susan Ellis doing a lively, audience-engaging rendition of “Sea fugue mama” in 2013, and I remember being very sad about having to miss their American songbook concert in 2010. Anyhow, it was a great choice because Wilder’s music is versatile, including “classic” chamber work, film music and jazz-influenced pieces. The music the Griffyns chose for this concert had a light end-of-year touch, while also being musically varied.

The concert took place in their “home”, the Belconnen Arts Centre. The room was set up with tables which were decorated with past programs (plus some nibbles to go with drinks we could buy at the bar – and we did!) It was a delightful touch, giving the concert an intimate friendly feel, which their concerts tend to have anyhow. To match the setting, the program was organised into three courses: Entree, Mains and Desserts.

And so the concert started with something a little serious, though not heavily so, Wilder’s Air for Flute and Strings, with Kiri Sollis on flute supported by Holly Downes (double bass), Michael Sollis (mandolin), Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp). A perfect start because Kiri is always mesmerising to watch and hear.

We then moved onto Mains, a selection of jazz-influenced pieces from Wilder’s octets, with wonderful titles like “Her old man was suspicious”, “The amorous poltergeist” and “Neurotic goldfish”. Those of us not in the know were surprised that some of these pieces had been conducted by none other than Frank Sinatra. The things you learn at a Griffyns concert! Anyhow, Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined the ensemble for the Mains, as did Sally Greenaway playing the Canberra School of Music’s beautiful Australian-made harpsichord. They provided the instrumental depth appropriate for these mostly jazz-influenced selections. Not particularly demanding. Just perfect dinner music.

Desserts were something again, but before it the Griffyns announced they were giving us a present for their anniversary. It appeared – a big gift-wrapped parcel – and what (or who, more to the point) was inside, but the always-up-for-it Susan Ellis, complete with champagne glass and a bottle of bubbly. Move over Marilyn! (Why didn’t I get my camera out then!)

And then the final course started – with Susan Ellis leading off in a beautifully soulful rendition of “Blackberry winter”. And oh boy, by the middle of the week, did the opening words sound prophetic:

Blackberry winter comes without a warning
Just when you think that spring’s around to stay

This final course included two more songs, plus a duet, “Suite for flute and marimba”, with Kiri Sollis (flute) and Wyana O’Keeffe (marimba). We’ve seen these two play duets before. Their familiarity with each other always makes these performances special. The concert ended on a piece chosen by the audience, the song “Little Girl Blue”. (I can’t recollect what I voted for from the choices given but this was a very acceptable winner!)

Memories

Quartet performing John Gage's A story

Holly, second from right, performing John Gage

Before I get to “the wah!” moment, I’d like to share what the Griffyns nominated as their favourite memories from the last ten years (and I hope I’ve got this right):

  • Holly: her a cappella debut with John Gage’s “A story” (The Lost Mapmaker, 2014)
  • Matthew: the Pacific Islands concert, 2008, at the NGA, and a piece called “Buwaya (and the crocodile weeps)”
  • Kiri: being asked to play the recorder which she hadn’t done before, and having to play the whole range of recorders
  • Laura: playing in the dark for the Northern Lights concert, 2015, particularly the whale song piece.
  • Wyana: playing the Southern Sky concert, 2013, in the damaged telescope on Mt Stromlo (she snuck in a second choice too, but I’m only giving her one here!)
  • Susan: all the collaborators they’ve worked with over the years (musicians, dancers, to artists and scientists)
  • Chris: the discussions about Susan’s dramatic entrances!
  • Michael: doing the Northern Lights tour in 2014 with astronomer Fred Smith, and discovering that two Griffyn Ensemble subscribers, were, quite coincidentally, on the same tour. “Special”, he said.

For me, there have been many, many highlights. A favourite piece has been Gorecki’s “Goodnight” (performed at least twice by Kiri Sollis, Laura Tanata and Susan Ellis). It’s a beautiful work. And I’ve loved so many concerts that it feels almost a betrayal to nominate one, because others keep popping into my head, but I’m going to say it anyhow, the Behind Bars concert (2012). To hear music composed in POW and Concentration camps really was something else.

… and now, THE WAH!

I was suspicious, and anxious, before the concert that maybe there wasn’t going to be a 2017 season. We’d heard no mention, and their promotion for this last concert did not include the usual reference to a next season announcement. And so it turned out to be. As Michael explained, the Griffyns, in the age-old Australian tradition, would be taking six months long service leave in the first half of 2017. Fair enough, I suppose. They deserve it. Not only have they worked darned hard to present over 200 excitingly diverse and innovative concerts since 2007, but now most of the members no longer live in Canberra. Putting on these concerts is quite a strategic challenge.

But, all is not lost. They will be back in the second half of the year with a new idea, a five-day Griffyn Ensemble Festival. Save the date – 30 August to 3 September – they said. We have.

Meanwhile, thanks for the memories …

Other versions on YouTube of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes) and Chris Stone (violin) with past members Matthew O’Keeffe (clarinets) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion), and special guest Sally Greenaway (harpsichord).