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Monday musings on Australian literature: Currawong Publishing Company

May 22, 2017

Currawong First Novel logoAs regular readers know, I’ve been involved in much clearing out of houses over the last eighteen months. I have, as a result, accumulated a small but interesting collection of older books, several of which I have already posted on. Today’s post is inspired by another such book, And all the trees are green (1944) by A.E. Minnis, who’s unknown to me. However, my post is not so much on Minnis but on the book’s publisher, Currawong Publishing Company.

It captured my attention for a couple of reasons, starting with the little logo on the plain front cover which reads “Currawong First Novel”. Inside, there is a publisher’s Foreword which says that the novels in the series are all “first novels” (obviously) by “young Australian authors”. That made me sit up. I wondered how many authors whom we now know got their start with Currawong – the way many contemporary authors got their start with publishers like McPhee Gribble (such as Helen Garner and Tim Winton) and Fremantle Press (Elizabeth Jolley). Anyhow, the Foreword goes on to set out its philosophy, which is that their authors are chosen mainly for three reasons:

Each author has a story to tell, and tells it. [Haha, love that “and tells it” bit]
Each author’s style shows more than a promise of developing into a powerful literary instrument.
Each author is Australian, either by birth or adoption.

They continue to say that they invite manuscripts from authors who have not had a novel published in Australia or overseas, that “the setting of the plot of any novel submitted need not be Australian”, and, something most authors would love, that “each author whose work is accepted will be placed under contract to The Currawong Publishing Company for his or her next three literary works”.

You can see why I wanted to find out more about them. The AustLit database, which is, unfortunately, only fully accessible by subscription (which I don’t have) says this

The Currawong Publishing Company was a war-time success, active from about 1942 to 1951. Currawong issued a wide variety of fiction – including mysteries, westerns, romances, and fantasies – under the slogan ‘You can’t go wrong with a Currawong’; with a few exceptions, Currawong’s authors were Australian. Currawong also issued a series of ‘Unpopular Pamphlets’, advancing left-wing economic and socialist ideas for post-war reconstruction.

I was also able to read, before I hit the paywall, that the most referenced work relating to this entry is Kylie Tennant’s award-winning debut novel, Tiburon, albeit Currawong’s edition was a later “pocket” one.

Anyhow, Currawong sounded interesting, so I decided to research further, but they aren’t listed in my copies of The Oxford companion to Australian literature, nor The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, nor the index in the Annals of Australian literature. I could find them in Trove, of course, though mostly as the publisher of books being reviewed. That’s better than nothing!

I found, for example, a review of a novel by Ailsa Craig, If blood should stain the wattle (1947). The reviewer calls it a “fine first novel by an Australian author” and says:

Her style is impressive and she writes convincingly about country scenes with which she is familiar … It is rather a sombre story of a modern tyrant who rules the lives of his family in almost mediaeval style. You will find it an enthralling study of human relationships handled simply yet vividly.

The Courier-Times reviewer was a little less glowing, saying “There is quiet talent here but a little too much of the Daphne du Maurier technique to give it its own personality” though does admit that “the story is a good one, well-told”. Meanwhile, over at The Age, the reviewer says that the book was highly commended in the competition won by Ruth Park’s Harp in the south! Ailsa Craig, according to AustLit, was “a writer, journalist and scholar. She was also the first female London correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald” and she won the prestigious, in Australian journalism circles, Walkely Award.

After Trove, I turned to Professor Google. I didn’t find a lot but did find, in Google books, a reference in History of the book in Australia, Vol. 3: Paper empires, edited by Craig Munro. The reference, which appears in the essay by Ian Morrison titled “Case study: Pulp fiction”, explains that Currawong was one of the leading publishers of pulp fiction – those mysteries, westerns, fantasies, etc – during the war years.

Unfortunately, in all this research, I couldn’t find much about the reason I decided to write this post, their “first novel” series, but I did find this little anecdote in one of those end-of-year articles newspapers like to write about books. The Sunwrote this in its article, “Tastes in books were changing”:

Oddity of the publishing year has been the fact that two books on taxation became bestsellers almost overnight. Earlier in the year Currawong Publishing Company issued “I Can Get It For You Tax-Free!” by E. Kellie, with an introduction by Sydney taxation expert J. A. L. Gunn. In quick time three editions of the book were sold. Currawong has now published, at 10/6, a sequel entitled “Farmers, Bushrangers, Businessmen,” by B. Hall, curiously with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. The title is drawn from the indiscreet remarks made about Australia in London last year by Dr. C. E. M. Joad. B. Hall’s book is as witty and as shrewdly informative about taxation affairs as E. Kellie’s book. Chapter headings range from “How to Jack Up Your Director’s Remuneration” to “Don’t Go Shop Crazy Till You Get Your Provisional Assessment.” ‘The publishers’ claim that Mr. Hall can teach Mr. Kellie a thing or two about income tax legerdemain is amply confirmed and must be causing Treasurer Chifley some concern. Taxpayers can confidently anticipate a companion book next year by Capt. Starlight with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. (14 December 1947)

There is a joke here – besides the fact that a book on tax went quick-smart into three editions! –  in that the books were, in fact, written by J.A.L. (John Angus Alexander) Gunn. The so-called authors, E Kellie and B. Hall, allude to bushrangers Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, hence the reviewer’s reference to the next book being by Captain Starlight! I’m not sure that all the contemporary reviewers got this. (By the way, Gunn was a highly respected accounting practitioner and was elected into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame.)

During all this research I found a wide variety of books published by Currawong, in addition to pulp fiction – a book on Indonesia and one by A.O. Neville on Australia’s coloured minority; a book on Australian art, and one containing plays; an autobiography by tennis player Dinny Pails, and much more. They were clearly an active publisher in their time.

As for A E Minnis, I could find little about him – though I did discover that it’s a him. The only review I found starts with “Mr Minnis writes interestingly concerning the odyssey of his young hero, Dick Radford” but it then goes on to just describe the story. I wonder if Mr Minnis ever got his next two books!

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, app-style

May 20, 2017

Back in 2011 I wrote a post, a few in fact, on Touchpress‘s wonderful iPad app for TS Eliot‘s poem The wasteland. I love that app. It’s an excellent example of how interactive digital media can enhance learning about or enjoyment of literature, for a start, though Touchpress has applied its approach to a wide range of scientific and historical topics, including the solar system and Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Touchpress has also done one on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the whole 154 of them. It was released back in 2012 but I only bought it a year or so ago, when I decided it was time I became more familiar with this part of his oeuvre. So far I’ve only dipped into it, but have decided it’s worth posting on it now, rather than wait until I’ve finished it.

SHAKESPEARE SONNETS APP MENUSo this is an introduction rather than a proper review. The app follows a similar format to that used for Eliot, with some variations due to the work itself, and its age and particular history. It comprises the following menu items:

  • All 154 Sonnets in text form
  • Performances, by different people, such as Jemma Redgrave, David Tennant, and Stephen Fry, of each sonnet (filmed performances with the text synced to it)
  • Facsimile reproduction of the first published edition of the sonnets in 1969
  • Perspectives, that is, commentary on the sonnets, including their form, history and Shakespeare’s use of them, by various academics/Shakespearean scholars, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, James Shapiro, Don Paterson – filmed talks, with transcript of the text.
  • Notes, that is, Arden’s detailed notes on each sonnet, including notes on individual lines.
  • Arden’s scholarly Introduction
  • Favourites, which as you’d assume allows users to save and share – yes – their favourites.

There is a Home icon so you can quickly return to the menu screen to navigate around the app. And there are also well thought through navigations. For example, on the screen containing the straight text of the sonnet are icons linking directly to the Notes, the filmed reading of the sonnet, and the Facsimile version. If you then  choose Notes, you get three tabs – Arden Notes (explanation of allusions and idioms, definitions of obsolete words, and the like), Commentary (critique) and My Notes (make your own notes).

As with all Shakespeare – given the unfamiliar-to-us language of his time – the sonnets come to life when read by people who know what they are doing.  You can read them in order, or navigate easily to particular sonnets. You can also read/hear them by performer, as when you touch a performer’s image up pops a windows listing the sonnets they perform.

Anna Baddeley, reviewing the app for The Guardian says

The Sonnets app, like its older sister The Waste Land, has the power to awaken passions (in my case, Shakespeare and poetry) you never knew you had. Reading outside and trying vainly to shield my iPad from the glare, I prayed the sun would go in so I could see what Don Paterson had to say about Sonnet 129.

Paterson’s commentary is the best thing about this app. It’s like sitting in the pub with a witty, more literary friend, who uses language such as “mind bouillabaisse” and “post-coital freak-out”. Most fascinating is his emphasis on the weirdness and borderline misogyny of the sonnets, a view echoed by the other academics interviewed for the app.

I don’t know Don Paterson, whom Wikipedia tells me is a Scottish poet, writer and musician, but Baddeley is right – in the sense that his commentaries are fresh, engaging, personal, funny and yet also meaningful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the best thing about the app, because it’s the whole that is important, but they certainly give it life.

This is not something to read in a hurry, and it is a BIG app, but how wonderful it is to have these sonnets so readily available on my iPad wherever I go.

Have you used this app, or would it interest you?

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s sonnets
iPad app
The Arden Shakespeare, Touch Press and Faber and Faber, 2012

Monday musings on Australian literature: Sisters in Australian fiction

May 15, 2017

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blyYesterday I posted my review of Sara Dowse’s novel As the lonely fly, which centres on the lives of three sisters (well, primarily, two sisters, and the daughter of the other sister), and today, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith mentioned another book about sisters, Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, when giving her Top Shelf on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily program. It got me thinking about novels which feature sisters – and I realised that some of our best-loved classics deal with them. Think Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little women, for a start. And, I can’t resist mentioning, though it’s not a novel, that infamous play, King Lear!

So, I thought it would be fun to talk about sisters in (Australian) fiction, about novels in which the sister relationship plays a significant role in the story. I have read all the books I mention here, but most of them before I started this blog, unfortunately.

Ada Cambridge’s Sisters (1904), which I read over three decades ago, now tells the story of four well-to-do sisters at a time when marriage was seen as women’s only option. She explores – unsentimentally – what this means for the sisters, who have to decide whether to marry for money, for love or not at all. By focusing on the experience of women from one family, by setting their decisions against each other, Cambridge is able to keep her exploration of matrimony tightly focused. I like Cambridge for similar reasons that I like Austen, her clear, somewhat acerbic eye on how social conventions can limit people’s real options.

In Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (2017), the three sisters, Frieda, Clara and Manya, have a somewhat awkward relationship, but then they face awkward times. They represent different responses to the same problem, increasing anti-Semitism and the resultant pogroms in their homeland. All migrate, but at different times and/or to different places, and with, significantly, different goals. They have a sense of responsibility for each other, but don’t always understand each other’s decisions. Their sisterly relationship provides a natural, organic basis upon which Dowse can explore various responses and outcomes. This might sound mechanistic, but it isn’t. The sisters live and breathe too – and I cared deeply about them, particularly Clara!

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerA different sisterly relationship occurs in Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (1966) (my review). Laura and Clare are effectively abandoned by their parents when they are young. There’s seven years between them, so the relationship is driven partly by Laura feeling a sense of responsibility for her sister and also by her not having some of the opportunities afforded her younger sister. It’s a close relationship, and as Laura’s life starts to unravel, Clare tries her hardest to make Laura see what is happening, while not getting caught up in it herself. It’s a chilling study of misogyny, of power and control, but one in which the sisterly relationship provides a source of support.

Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus (1980) also deals with two sisters, Carolyn (Caro) and Grace Bell, and follows them for several decades. Orphaned when young, the girls move to England where they form relationships, and marry. The story mainly follows Caro, and I’m afraid I can’t recollect a lot about how their relationship is depicted, though I seem to remember it is supportive but also reflects those frustrations between sisters who choose different courses in their lives. Joanna Murray-Smith in her Top Shelf statement talked about loving the way Hazzard tells how the sisters’ lives “intersect over a lifetime”.

Elizabeth Jolley, An accommodating spouseElizabeth Jolley’s An accommodating spouse (1999) deals with a relationship that’s a little odd, which won’t surprise you if you know Jolley. It’s about a rather eccentric professor who is married to a woman, Hazel, who happens to be a twin. The twin sister, Chloë, lives with them, and the situation works, largely because there is an accommodating spouse (though who this is and how might not be what you think). Towards the end, after a disturbing event, the Professor

is sorry that his own agitation during the party will have been a burden on Hazel and on Chloë. He comforts the thought with the real fact that Hazel and Chloë always shared misfortune, so only shared half each, of any difficulty.

This is so Elizabeth Jolley to have a character justify himself that way!

Olga Masters’ Loving daughters (1984) reminded me, when I read it back in the 1980s, of Jane Austen – not just because it has a traditional marriage plot-line but because it is set in a small community and has some of Austen’s wicked wit. I remember laughing at the image of the young curate riding around town, while he pondered which sister should he marry – the lively, fun one or the practical, nurturing one. The book, though, is more serious than this comment suggests – and deals, like Austen does, with the way social rules and expectations impinge upon lives and the decisions people make. The sisters’ relationship is affected by both their different personalities and the pressures they find themselves under.

It’s interesting – though perhaps not surprising – that these books, with the exception of Sara Dowse’s, deal in some way with marriage. These are not romances so it’s not because the authors are focusing on marriage as the goal of women’s existence. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite, it’s that they question, in some way, society’s assumption that getting married and being a wife is the nub of women’s lives, or they tease out the implications for women of being married. I wonder if we’d find any trends in a selection of books about brothers?

Anyhow, do you have any favourite books about sisters?

(Oops, I finished this in time for a Monday post, and forgot to hit the SCHEDULE button! So, most of you anyhow have this week’s Monday Musings on Tuesday)

Sara Dowse, As the lonely fly (#BookReview)

May 14, 2017

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blySome books grow out of their author’s desire to engage the reader in an issue they feel passionate about, such as Jane Rawson on climate change in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Charlotte Wood on the scapegoating of women in The natural way of things (my review). Sara Dowse’s latest book, As the lonely fly, falls into this category, but for Dowse the issue is the Israel-Palestine problem, the “rightness” or otherwise of establishing a Jewish state. This doesn’t mean, however, that books so inspired are boringly earnest or stridently polemical. It’s a risk, of course, but in the hands of good writers, like the three mentioned here, issues are turned into stories that engage us, while simultaneously raising our consciousness.

Unlike Rawson and Wood’s more dystopian novels, Dowse uses historical fiction, with a hint of mystery/thriller, to explore her ideas.  The novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish sisters, Clara and Manya, and their niece, Zipporah. We start, theoretically at least, with Clara (who changes her name to Chava when she arrives in Palestine), but are immediately introduced to her younger sister Manya (who had migrated to the US with their parents and who becomes Marion).  Niece Zipporah, the committed Zionist who followed Clara to Palestine, opens Part Two.

The story is divided into 6 parts in fact, the first labelled “Clara begets Chava 1922-1925” and the last “Tikkun? 1967” (“tikkun” being, significantly, a Hebrew word for “fixing/rectification”). The narrative has an overall forwards momentum, but the chronology is not linear and the perspectives change. Following all this requires an alert reader, but it enables Dowse to fill in backstories at the relevant moment (such as Clara’s experience of the 1905 Odessa uprising) and to link various characters and ideas. Her goal is to explore the difficult situation confronting Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century and the concomitant creation of Israel. In so doing, Dowse raises bigger questions about idealism and justice, and exposes the challenges of migration, particularly of migration that is politically charged.

While Part One is labelled 1922-1925, the first chapter is headed “Marion 1967”, ensuring an important, comparative, role for the American experience. However, the bulk of this part tells of socialist Clara/Chava’s early days working to create a new Jewish state. It’s not long before the hard-working Chava starts to question what they are doing, to see the difference between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural (or spiritual) one of Ahad Ha’am. She starts to agree with Ha’am, as she writes to Marion,

that there shouldn’t even be a state like the one Herzl advocated, but a centre in Palestine where Jews reconnect with our culture and from there would disseminate it through the Diaspora. That the land wasn’t empty as Herzl had us believe, that it would be difficult to find land that wasn’t already cultivated, and the Arabs wouldn’t be overjoyed about the space we’d taken up in what happened to be in their land too. Or ecstatic about losing their jobs. The Marxist in me is increasingly uneasy about this … (Pt 2, Ch. 11, Uncorrected proof copy)

If you are an Australian, this idea of taking up space that’s not empty will resonate, as I’m sure Dowse intends it to do!

… too much head …

Eventually Chava finds occupying this already occupied land too difficult and, after supporting an Arab uprising, willingly returns to Russia where, unfortunately, she finds anti-semitism on the rise. Meanwhile, Zipporah provides a foil to Chava, retaining her commitment to the Zionist ideal, albeit seeing the trauma that can be caused by commitment to a political idea. The story of her student, Talli, provides this insight. Dowse, in other words, provides no easy answers, but forces us to face, through stories of real human beings with whom we fully engage, the complexity of the situation.

Chava meets in Jerusalem, a cobbler, Ha-Kohen, a spiritual rather than a political Hebrew man. He says to her:

You and your chaverim, those pals of yours, can you really believe all those things you read? It’s all from the head. And the source of all evil on this earth is too much head, my dear, and not enough heart. (Pt 2, Ch. 10, Uncorrected proof copy)

A little more empathy, in other words, is what is needed.

As the lonely fly could be described as a family saga. There are many characters besides the three women I’ve introduced here – including another sister (Zipporah’s mother) and her family, various friends and colleagues, and a love interest or two – and the novel spans six decades from 1905 to 1967. There’s also a thriller element including some espionage, and a nod to the mystery genre too. What is wrong with Talli, and what does happen to Clara? Through these Dowse explores her themes while involving us in real lives – via lovely domestic details of rooms, meals and close relationships, and vivid descriptions of place. By the end of the novel I was deeply engaged with her characters and their dilemmas, whether or not I agreed with all their decisions.

… the passion for justice …

Manya/Marion is a somewhat more shadowy character than Clara and Zipporah, and yet, as the one who migrated to America, the land of the free, she provides an important counterbalance to the lives of the other two. On the surface, her ambition to be an actor, and her oh so western focus on colouring her hair, on “the showering, the creaming, the makeup’, are as “exasperating” to us as they are to Zipporah, but she is the character who opens and closes the novel, so we need to heed her. Her idealistic, bookish husband, Sidney, dies a very American death, and leaves her with two young sons. It provides a counterpoint to the high drama that was occurring in Israel.

In the loneliness of her later years, she finds herself still struggling to understand him, but she comes to see that both his and Clara’s idealism was really “a passion for justice”. In the book’s final chapter, she and Zipporah, whom she visits in Israel, attend a Hebrew performance of a favourite play of hers, O’Neill’s The iceman cometh. Now, I don’t know this play – besides knowing of its existence – but I presumed Dowse had chosen it for a reason, so I checked Wikipedia. It told me that the play’s main themes are the self-deceptions, the pipe-dreams – the lies, in other words – that we tell ourselves to keep going. The play references, apparently, political ideals such as anarchism and socialism. Certainly, Clara discovers her socialist ideals being undermined when the factory managers in Soviet-era Moscow start employing capitalist techniques to increase production. However, I’m sure Dowse intends us to read O’Neill’s theme in terms of how we behave today – in relation to Israel/Palestine and to all the other injustices that we see around us, but try to justify away.

The past is not, in fact, the burden we thought, says Zipporah to Marion. It’s the future we need to worry about. Like all good ideas novelists, Dowse has not bombarded us with answers but, instead, has intelligently and compassionately given us plenty to think about.

aww2017 badgeSara Dowse
As the lonely fly
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2017
327pp. (Uncorrected proof edition)
ISBN: 9780994448576

To be published: June 2017

(Advanced review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: NLA Publishing, and some free e-Books

May 8, 2017
Enlighten 2014, NLA

Enlighten 2014, National Library of Australia

I was idly following links around the ‘net over the weekend and somehow ended up at NLA Publishing’s site. For those of you who don’t know, they are the publishing arm of the National Library of Australia. I first mentioned them back in 2011 when I referred to publisher Alec Bolton as the person who established the Library’s publishing program. That would have been over 40 years ago. He was a lovely man, and would surely be thrilled to see that his “baby” is still going today.

NLA Publishing is a small publisher, producing around 18 books a year. As you’d expect from a cultural institution publisher, their books draw on the Library’s collections – and they accept submissions from writers who have an idea that uses these collections. Their publications, they say, contribute to their

aims of nourishing the nation’s memory, of supporting the vitality of Australian culture and heritage, and of demonstrating a strong national focus in all of the Library’s services, products and programs.

These works “selectively interpret the Library’s collections in order to contribute to an understanding of Australian history and culture”, and are also seen as a way of disseminating and promoting the Library’s collections and services. Collecting and preserving, interpreting and disseminating is, of course, the prime function of cultural collecting institutions.

“Australian history”, defined broadly I’d say, is their main subject area, but they also cover “natural history, art, photography and literature”, and a range of children’s books including “picture books, novels and historical ‘faction’”. Their books have won, or been shortlisted for, a variety of awards.

Dymphna Cusack, A window in the darkI have bought many of their books (for myself and as gifts) over the years, and have reviewed at least one on this blog, Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark. Other bloggers have also reviewed their books, such as Janine’s (Resident Judge of Port Philip) review of Craig Wilcox’s Badge Boot Button: The story of Australian uniforms and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of Clive Hamilton’s What do we want: The story of protest in Australia. These are just of few of the many reviews of NLA’s books out there in cyberspace!

The exciting thing, however, is that many of their older books are now available free from the website in eBook form. Now that’s a bargain. I’ll share just a few here – literary-focused ones, naturally – to give you an idea:

  • Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the darkCusack, who also wrote novels, tells of her time as a teacher, including some of the controversies she became embroiled in while trying to offer the best, most appropriate education for her various students.
  • Rosemay Dobson: A celebration: There are several books in their Celebration series, covering such authors as Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, and Ruth Park. These small books comprise “tribute” essays on their subjects and can provide an excellent introduction to the writers. I’ve chosen the late Rosemary Dobson as my example here because as well as being a well-regarded poet, she was Alec Bolton’s wife.
  • David Foster’s (selected and introduced) Self-portraits: A selection of oral history interviews from the National Library’s wonderful Hazel Berg oral history collection. The authors Foster selected include Wilfred Burchett, David Campbell, Ion Idriess and Charmian Clift. (PS Just noticed, 10 May, that autocorrect had made her Chairman!)
  • Ann Moyal’s Alan Moorehead: A rediscovery: A biography of author, journalist, war correspondent Moorehead, who, Moyal claims, was “one of the most successful writers in English of his day” but under-recognised in his own country.
  • John Shaw Nielson’s The autobiography of John Shaw Nielson: Never published in the poet’s lifetime, the biography was included in the papers of one Harry Chaplin, a collector and “connoisseur of literary Australia”.

Presumably, over time, the list of eBooks freely available will grow, so I’ll be checking the site every now and then.

A short post this week, but I hope a useful or, at least, an interesting one.

Six degrees of separation, FROM The slap TO Persuasion

May 6, 2017

Christos Tsiolkas, The slapAnother month, another Six Degrees of Separation meme. My how quickly the months are passing! The meme is, as most of you know by now, currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Each month she nominates a book from which we try to create a chain of seven books, linking one from the other on whatever excuse, flimsy or otherwise that we can come up with. And, guess what, this month I have actually read the nominated book, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap (my review). As always, I have read all the books I select for my chain.

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbiaTsiolkas’ The slap is about an extended family, of migrant background, and friends, living in suburban Melbourne. Its author, Tsiolkas, is Australian-born of Greek immigrant parents. This reminded me of Hanif Kureishi’s The buddha of suburbia (my review) to which I admit I’ve linked in this meme before. Kureishi is English-born of a Pakistani father and English mother, and his book is about the life of a multicultural family in a London suburbs. More satirical than Tsiolkas’ The slap, and more closely focused on the challenges of race and ethnicity, but both reflect the experience of immigrant generations in the ‘burbs.

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book coverLinking now on content more than author similarity, The buddha of suburbia’s exploration of multiculturalism took me back to Australia and Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review). It is set in the ladies fashion section of a classy department store in the 1950s, a time when the post-war influx of European refugees saw Australian society challenged by new foods not to mention new values and attitudes to life and family.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouseMy next link draws on multiple aspects – content, location and period. I’m talking Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (my review) which is also set in 1950s Sydney, and which, like The women in black, deals with the lives of workers in one business. However, Mena Calthorpe’s intention is more strongly focused on labour conditions. Her business is the textile industry, a dyehouse, and she exposes how workers are poorly cared for, poorly paid, and have little power to do anything about it. Towards the end of the novel, though, there are intimations of the workers starting to organise.

Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town (my review) is set a little earlier, from the mid 1920s to late 1934, in Adelaide’s port district. It tells of the struggles of wharf labourers to survive as unemployment and hunger took hold. It explores the ensuing political unrest and the growing attraction of leftist political ideologies like communism and anarchism, alongside unionism, in such a volatile environment. It is also, like the books by St John and Calthorpe, historical fiction.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable creaturesAnd so, my next link is on form (genre) rather than content. I’m going to change country and era, and pop over to early 19th century England in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable creatures (my review). You’ll realise soon why I’ve chosen this particular piece of historical fiction, but first a little about its content. It tells the story of two women who were fossil hunters in Lyme Regis in the first half of the nineteenth century: Mary Anning (1799-1847), a poor working class woman whose fossil finds helped change the course of paleontology, and Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857), a gentlewoman who befriended Anning and who was particularly interested in fossil fish.

Jane Austen, PersuasionAnd now, for the first time since I started doing this meme, I get to link to one of my very favourite authors, Jane Austen (1775-1817). I could link to any of her books because they are all set in early 19th century England, and I’d love to link to one I’ve reviewed here. However, I’m choosing one that I haven’t posted on yet, Persuasion, though I expect to write on it later this year. If you know your Austen, you’ll know why I’ve chosen this one: she set a critical scene in Lyme Regis for that novel. In fact, the Lyme Regis connection is the main reason I read Remarkable creatures.

And so, I started with an unruly, messy family in The slap and ended with another one, albeit of a different sort, in Persuasion. In between we went to England, back to Australia, before returning to England again. We must travel elsewhere next month!

Have you read The slap? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

William T Hornaday, The bird tragedy of Laysan Island (Review)

May 4, 2017

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), whose article “The bird tragedy of Laysan Island” was a recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, is a tricky man to write about. Originally a taxidermist, he became one of the pioneers of the wildlife conservation movement in America after he realised, around the 1880s, the dire situation regarding the country’s bison population. In this LOA article,  published in 1913, he chronicles the bird massacre on Laysan Island and the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt in helping to end the plumage trade. But he wasn’t without controversy, of which I’ll write more a little further on.

Laysan Island

Laysan Island. By Robert J. Shallenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“The bird tragedy” is a powerful piece which starts by describing the island as “sandy, poorly planted by nature, and barren of all things likely to enlist the attention of predatory man” but as the home of many varieties of birds, including the “Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, sooty tern, gray-backed tern, noddy tern, Hawaiian tern, white tern, Bonin petrel, two shearwaters, the red-tailed tropic bird, two boobies and the man-of-war bird.” It was a “secure haven” for them, and, since 1891, had been viewed as “one of the wonders of the bird world”.

But, along came “man, the ever-greedy” looking for ways to make money, first via guano and egg collecting, then feathers for the plumage trade. The culprit was Max Schlemmer, who also introduced rabbits and guinea-pigs which multiplied and started to destroy the vegetation. Hornaday describes the horrendous massacre in 1909 of 300,000 birds for their wings. According to LOA, Hornaday is somewhat wrong in ascribing the massacre to Schlemmer. The say a biography of Schlemmer argues that he was ‘”cash-strapped” and sold the rights to the island to a Japanese entrepreneur. Whatever the situation, the destruction of the birdlife was massive in number and horrific in cruelty. Fortunately, it was stopped before complete destruction by a Zoology Professor who called the Government who in turn sent in the Navy – as you do!

Hornaday’s language makes clear his disapprobation of what happened and of the people who carried it out. His description of the massacre is horrifying, some of it quoted from a report by a 1911 scientific expedition to the island. This report notes that their “first impression” was that the island had been stripped of its birdlife:

Only the shearwaters moaning in their burrows, the little wingless rail skulking from one grass tussock to another, and the saucy finch remained. It is an excellent example of what Prof. Nutting calls the survival of the inconspicuous.

Hornaday says that if the Government had not intervened

it is reasonably certain that every bird on Laysan would have been killed to satisfy the wolfish rapacity of one money-grubbing white man.

Fortunately – albeit a little after the horse had bolted – Roosevelt, in 1909, created “the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds” which includes Laysan and which, Hornaday writes, will ensure that

for the future the birds of Laysan and neighboring islets are secure from further attacks by the bloody-handed agents of the vain women who still insist upon wearing the wings and feathers of wild birds.

However, as Bill McKibben, the environmentalist whose memoir Oil and honey I’ve reviewed, writes in the headnote to the article, Hornaday had his own controversy. He became, in the late 1890s, the head of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo), but, as McKibben writes,

a rough sense of the reasons why the social justice and environmental movements have often parted ways may be garnered from the fact that he saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a live African pygmy, named Ota Benga, in the zoo’s monkey house, later remarking that it was the “most amusing passage” in the institution’s history. His 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life … has a strongly nativist edge: immigrants and negroes are singled out as villains for their hunting of indigenous fauna.

According to Wikipedia, he was criticised, including by African-American clergymen James Gordon, who said that “Our race … is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” With the controversy, Benga was released to roam the zoo, even though Hornaday did not see anything wrong with what he’d done. Benga was later released to Gordon’s custody, but eventually committed suicide at the age of 33 when the start of World War 1 prevented his return to Africa.

Another wonderful LOA offering in a genre I always enjoy reading – nature or environmental writing.

William T Hornaday
“The bird tragedy of Laysan Island”
First published: Our vanishing wild life, 1913
Available: Online at the Library of America