Nonfiction November 2022: New to my TBR

Week 5 on Nonfiction (November 28-Dec 2) is all about what’s New to My TBR, and is hosted by Jaymi (The OC Bookgirl). To be honest, I wasn’t going to play along for this week in which we are supposed to list the books that have made it onto our TBRs from those bloggers have been shared over the month. This is because Last year, for example, I listed EIGHT books in my “New to my TBR” post, and have so far read just one, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (my review). I rest my case …. However …

Newly found on my TBR

In Week 1, two books were recommended to me on my post, that I knew I would want to read. Indeed, they sounded a bit familiar, one in particular. Funny that, because when I returned home from Melbourne in the middle of the month, and looked at the TBR next to my bed – you know, those books that you hope you’ll read soon – there these two were.

The one I was fairly confident I had was recommended by Australian novelist and feminist Sara Dowse, who has herself appeared several times on my blog. The book she recommended was Susan Varga’s Hard joy: Life and writing. I have reviewed a couple of Susan Varga’s books too – her memoir Heddy and me, and her poetry collection, Rupture – so I am confident that with Sara Dowse’s recommendation and my past enjoyment of Varga’s work, that I will also like this.

The other I was less sure about, but had started to suspect I might have it too. It was recommended by another Australian writer who has appeared several times on my blog, Carmel Bird. She recommended an author I’d never read before, but the topic of his book sounded right up my alley, as Carmel Bird knew – books, nature and words. The book is Gregory Day’s Words are eagles: Selected writings on the nature & language of place. Nature, language and place … this book of essays looks perfect for me.

The reason I have both books is that I advanced ordered them from the relatively new publishing company Upswell. Their inventory is so appealing and I’ve ordered/subscribed to several over the two years of their existence, but have not managed to read them because of the backlog of review copies I have. So, here I’m going to say that I’ve decided that I am going to find a better balance in my reading between the review pile – albeit there are many there I want to read – and those books I have bought because I have specifically chosen them. My next twelve months is going to be very busy as I prepare to downsize and sell our family home of the last 25 or so years and move into something smaller, but, after that, I am very hopeful of having MORE time to read. Yay that!

Eyes bigger than …

Otherwise, I must admit that I’ve jotted down very few other bloggers’ nonfiction reads – not because I wasn’t interested but because I knew I could not justify adding them to my list. However …

Melanie (Grab the Lapels) made these recommendations, with comments, on my Stranger than fiction post:

  • Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’sSounds like Titanic: this one is a hoot
  • Lee Israel’s Can you ever forgive me?: this one made me hang my mouth open
  • Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 tiny deaths: The untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics: this one surprising because I thought there were more forensic pathologists
  • Janice Erlbaum’s Have you found her?: this one I would love to tell you about but do not want to spoil it.

There were several books in the Worldchangers week, in particular, that also grabbed my reluctant attention, but I’ll just bring a couple to your attention:

Symeon Brown’s Get rich or lie trying, which Liz Dexter described as “an exposé of the world of internet influencers, or rather those who try desperately to monetise their lives for various reasons, including hauling themselves out of poverty, and who are used and abused by companies who know their desperation”.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant: Confessions of cooking for one and dining alone, a collection of essays edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, which Lou said “helped me to see cooking and eating alone as a privilege and a mark of independence, not a lonely activity”. Many of us either live alone or could very well one day find ourselves alone … this is a great thing to appreciate.

If you are doing Nonfiction November, I‘ll probably see your recommendations. But, if you’re not, do share if any books recommended by bloggers have grabbed your attention this month.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List

The Grattan Institute is an Australian non-aligned, public policy think tank that was established in 2008. Since 2009 it has published, at the end of the year, their Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List. This list, as they wrote on the inaugural 2009 list, comprises “books and articles that the Prime Minister, or any Australian interested in public debate, will find both stimulating and cracking good reads”.

The first two lists contained 8 titles, but since then it has been 6. A curious number, but then, any number would be arbitrary, so why not? Literary editor, Jason Steger, shared the 2022 list last week, and provided some interesting background. This included sharing Grattan’s chief executive Danielle Wood’s explanation that they “try to pick books that have something interesting, original, or thought-provoking to say on issues that are relevant to the Australian policy landscape. The books don’t have to be by local writers or about Australia … but they do have to address issues that have relevance in an Australian policy context.” 2022’s list, which will be formally launched on 8 December, has two books by Americans.

Steger says that no-one knows, usually, whether the Prime Minister reads any of the recommendations. Grattan rarely receives a thank-you letter from the PMs, which is poor. Don’t they have minders to do those things? Isn’t it good manners to thank people for gifts? One Prime Minister, though, has shown interest. Wood told Steger that:

We did hear from one. It was Malcolm [Turnbull]. He asked for the books to be couriered to his holiday home rather than the Lodge and I think he read at least some of them that year. He was probably the most receptive PM to the idea of the list.

Here is the 2022 list in their order, with a small excerpt from their reasoning:

  • Career & family: Women’s century-long journey toward equity, by Claudia Goldin (American researcher on gender economics; nonfiction): “essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the barriers to gender equality – and how we got here”.
  • We come with this place, by Debra Dank (First Nations Australian writer; memoir): “As Australia contemplates a Voice to Parliament, this book reminds us to listen. Listen when the land tells her story. Hear the voices of the traditional owners”.
  • My father and other animals, by Sam Vincent (Australian journalist/writer; memoir): “about regeneration, sustainability, and legacy… a story of how a son learns about his own family, just as much as how he learns to become a farmer”. 
  • Cold enough for snow, by Jessica Au (Australian author; novella): “an inner journey, arriving at the realisation that some gaps can never be bridged, some people will never be fully understood, and some baggage will never fully be shed. And that whether we are ready or not, time carries us forward, forcing our roles to adjust to new circumstances”. (On my TBR; Reviews by Lisa and Brona.)
  • Buried Treasure (in Griffith Review, 77), by Jo Chandler (Australian journalist; essay): on Australia’s million-year ice core project, “a beautiful and hopeful essay about building a collaborative understanding of the rhythms of our planet”
  • Healing: Our path from mental illness to mental health, by Thomas R. Insel (American doctor; nonfiction): “offers a hopeful vision of how we can remake our mental healthcare system”.

So, one work of fiction, one essay, two memoirs and two works of nonfiction.

Here are links to all the lists, by year: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. There are some interesting books in there, of which I’m sharing one or two from each year, in listing year order:

  • Chloe Hooper’s The tall man (2009, creative nonfiction) 
  • David Malouf’s Ransom (2009, novella) (my review)
  • Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (Quarterly Essay 35) (2009, essay) 
  • Andrew Leigh, Disconnected (2010, nonfiction)
  • Judith Brett’s Fair share (Quarterly Essay 42) (2011, essay)
  • Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (2011, novel) (my review)
  • Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 (2012, creative nonfiction) 
  • Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (2013, novel) (my review)
  • Joan London’s The golden age (2014, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s Love poems and death threats (2015, poetry collection)
  • Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (2016, nonfiction/memoir) (my review)
  • Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017, political biography) (Nathan’s review)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (2017, novel) (my review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s Flames (2018, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018, memoir)
  • Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (2019, nonfiction) (my review)
  • Alex Miller’s Max (2020, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Alison Whittaker’s Fire front: First Nations poetry and power today (2020, poetry anthology) (Brona’s review)
  • Paige Clark, She is haunted (2021, short story collection)
  • Rick Morton’s On money (2021, nonfiction)
  • Henry Reynolds’ Truth-telling: History, sovereignty, and the Uluru Statement (2021, nonfiction) (Janine’s review)

I’m particularly interested in the fiction choices, because they have often gone for non-mainstream, more reflective works, and they have also, on occasion, included poetry. I like that. But, why these particular choices?

Well, for Ransom, they write “it’s a tale of transformations” and “if only government reports were written in language like this”. For Cold light, a more obvious choice, they say it’s “about power, secrecy, the mortal struggle between capitalism and communism – and urban planning” and conclude with:

Frank Moorhouse once lamented the fact that, despite all their riches of human experience, Australian novelists had disdained the realms of government and business as ciphers too corrupt and foul for their art. But writing by journalists, academics and policy wonks cannot provide a complete understanding of our society. Fiction also has a vital role; for some readers, the vital role…

For readers like us, I’d say.

The other comment I’d like to make concerns themes and subject matter. Equality – gender equality, yes, but also more broadly – features often. First Nations authors and issues appear regularly, as they should while so much remains unresolved. Books about democracy and how it is faring also keep popping up, unsurprisingly. On the other hand, climate change and the environment, while they do appear, seem to have a relatively low profile in the list by comparison.

If you had the opportunity to make one recommendation to the leader of your country, what would it be? My guess is that Bill’s would be Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony. Let’s see if I’m right. Meanwhile, what will Albo read?

Heather Rose in conversation with Sally Pryor

As I’ve written before, Muse Canberra, a restaurant-cum-bookshop or vice versa, offers a wonderful program of book events, year after year. I don’t get to many, but today I attended a conversation featuring Tasmanian author Heather Rose with local journalist Sally Pryor.

The participants

Heather Rose has written three children’s books and five novels, of which I’ve reviewed two, The Museum of Modern Love (my review) and Bruny (my review). Her latest book, the subject of this event, is different, a memoir, Nothing bad ever happens here: A memoir of loss and recovery.

Sally Pryor is the Features Editor of our newspaper, The Canberra Times, which is now part of Australian Community Media. Since that company changed hands in 2019, it is now publishing local reviews once again, after some years in the dark when most of the arts reviewing we got was syndicated from the big city newspapers.

The conversation

After Dan did the usual intros, Sally spoke a little more about Heather and her book, explaining that while Heather had always planned to write a memoir, she hadn’t planned to publish one, for several reasons, one of which was that she was wary of outing herself as a spiritual person and of putting her views onto others. Sally described the memoir – which Heather has indeed published – as the “least predictable and most enticing memoir” she’d read. Heather then read the book’s first chapter, “Sky”. It places herself as a 6-year-old at school, and then concludes with

I could write a memoir about travelling, the writing life, or my love of making cakes. But I’m still that girl under the tree who wants to get to the big conversations, to the heart of things. So here are some stories about life and death. About experiences that have no easy explanation, but which happened, nevertheless. The unknown, that 95% – maybe it’s an invitation for compassion. Life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves.

On what started it all 

Sally suggested they start with the tragedy that, says the back cover blurb, set her on “a course to explore life and all its mysteries”. Heather commenced by describing her idyllic childhood in Tasmania. It was beaches, paddocks and orchards; days spent outside; a “glorious, wild childhood”. There was the family home on the edge of Hobart and a shack on the Tasman Peninsula, built by her maternal grandfather built the shack. He also taught Heather to appreciate nature, telling her, “Look Heather, that’s what beauty is”. But, just after she turned 12, her grandfather and older brother died in a boating accident. It destroyed the family, and by the time she finished year 12, she found herself alone in the family home. She decided to go overseas, to live her life “very fully” because her brother hadn’t.

On life being “a process of forgiveness for the choices we make”

Sally shared a little of that overseas trip, that “thrilling life”, which had it all, from meeting celebrities, including the Queen, to staying in a Buddhist monastery, not to mention romance, drugs and alcohol. But, asked Sally, what did she mean by life being “a process of forgiveness”?

One of the things I enjoyed about this conversation was Rose’s comments on writing memoir, and one of the places she discussed it was here. One of the most challenging things about writing a memoir, she said, is revisiting who you were in the past. Memories are tough to go back to. She was reckless, but didn’t realise then what dangers she’d put herself in. She made many mistakes, and revisiting all those things is “a hollowing out experience”. She wrote a lot, and then had to decide what to leave out to hone it to the things that shaped her. She needed to confront what she’d inflicted on herself, and to not blame others. It was her life she said, and she was going to own it, hence life being a process of forgiveness for all we’ve done. I found this moving – and something worth thinking about a bit more for myself!

On the book’s spiritual journey

Sally then turned to the spiritual journey aspect of the book, calling it a “very religious book”. She asked, in particular, about Heather’s taking part in a Native American ceremony that lasted several years. I won’t detail it here as it’s all in the book, but it was the Sun Dance. The point is that it changed her world-view entirely because after this she did not see herself as separate. She felt connected to everything (animate and inanimate), and “did not see world as a fixed reality”. She writes in the book, “everything was permeable, malleable, responsive” (p. 132).

Sally, continuing this theme, mentioned that she understands Heather always asks people if they’ve experienced anything they can’t explain, and everyone has! Most are post-death experiences – messages from the recently dead that all is ok – but others include warnings (like “don’t go that way”) that people feel have served them, sometimes to the point of saving their lives. For Heather this is reassuring, the idea that we have other senses, while Sally said she finds it frightening, which resulted in Heather teasing her ideas out a bit more.

Heather’s point is that the hardest thing is to think our lives are meaningless. She goes back to Descartes, but instead of “I think therefore I am” she sees it as “I am, therefore I feel”, “therefore I think”, etc. Life is a finite thing, she continued, and our fear is that maybe it’s all for nothing. Perhaps, she said, but we could also think that maybe it’s all for everything. Don’t we all love people, she said, who are vibrant, alive, who give of themselves?

On the book’s title

Sally suggested that the book’s title was “a way of reframing the narrative”. Heather said that in her 50s she visited the place, Lime Bay, where the tragedy had occurred and “felt nothing”, which brought her to think that “if everything just is, maybe nothing bad ever happens”. (Me: Not sure about this.) She then threw out that she “likes being un-evolved”. In my experience, the idea of being “un-evolved” is usually seen as a bad thing, but I like her understanding of the idea, her sense of never being finished, of always being curious and open.

Q & A

There was a brief Q&A, which I’ll summarise:

  • On what she wanted her children to take away from the memoir: Heather shared that her 22-year-old daughter had said that most of her readers were older, but she thought it was a good book for people HER age 22 because it will make them braver. Heather added that it’s not bad for kids to see their parents 360°.
  • On her family’s response to the book given they were not allowed to talk about the tragedy at the time: This was hard, particularly how her parents would feel about it, but she also felt that it was her story, not theirs. Her sister read various drafts, and said she felt it completed her life. Heather was most concerned about her father, who has been a great supporter of hers but whose grief had been “enormous but unvoiced”. His reaction was “I think we all needed you to write about it”. Heather also commented that writing memoir is hard, because you can’t avoid writing about people who are alive, and then quoted Hemingway’s, “writing is easy, you just sit down and bleed”! Sally commented here that most people can’t get their feelings onto a page, so she can see what it meant for Heather’s dad, at which point, Heather observed that she was relieved to be returning to the novel!
  • On whether characters get away from her: Yes, for example her The butterfly man character “didn’t tell her the truth for two and a half years”! She kept stitching up the end to give him redemption, but had to let that go because it wasn’t him, it was her, the writer. That’s what makes good writing, she said, when the writer stops trying to intervene. She also gave a Bruny example.
  • On her reluctance to wear a “spiritual tag”: This was partly because things go very badly when women put themselves out in the world. It can be a “very vicious world” if you stand up and align with a specific perspective. But, she also wants people to take on their own perspective, rather than imposing her own point-of-view. The questioner appreciated that Heather is still exploring, which she saw as the “heart of spirituality”.
  • On the process of writing, particularly re fiction vs nonfiction: With fiction there are rules, responsibilities, and voice. We know, for example, that with Murakami we will get a “distant, hapless” voice, and with Kingsolver, “heart”. There is so much you can build on in fiction. With the memoir, she had to start with nothingness to find who she was, and she found she is still that 6 year old girl looking for the big conversations. Writing the memoir was “harrowing, and hallowing” but she feels braver, and now owns all she is.
  • On returning to the novel: Heather loves writing fiction because she loves her characters, and she also enjoys the research.

Closing the session, Dan commented on the level of attention he’d observed in all our faces! I’m not surprised. It was such an engaging, different and, at times, surprising discussion – and that always gets my vote.

Brona has reviewed this book.

Heather Rose: Nothing ever happens here (with Sally Pryor)
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday, 26 November 2022, 4-5pm

Nonfiction November 2022: Worldview changers

Week 4 of Nonfiction November(November 21-25) is themed Worldview Changers, which is a new one I think for the month. I like this, as it is always good to have a new challenge. It is hosted by Rebekah @ She Seeks Nonfiction and is described as follows:

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

Second question, first. The book I think that everyone should read for a better understanding of the world we live in is …

Jess Hill’s See what you made me do: Power, control and sexual abuse (my review). This was a powerful read that I took many, many months to read, after it won the 2020 Stella Prize. It wasn’t so much a worldview changer, for me, because I knew (who doesn’t?) that domestic abuse was going on, but it was certainly eye-opening. While I knew, for example, a lot of it in theory, and had seen many news reports of abuse and violence, the actual stories were gut-wrenching – particularly in the discussion of coercive control, in the levels of abuse of First Nations women, and in the way children are used. The most eye-opening thing was the court system and how the courts too often focus more on the parents’s needs than the children’s and on how men (mostly) can manipulate the system to make it look like the already-controlled wife is incapable of being parenting. This book needs to be read – I thought I knew all this but I didn’t appreciate just how deeply into our systems the problem goes.

As for books that had a strong impact on me, I’m going to name three. They didn’t necessarily change how I view the world, but they certainly enhanced my understanding of it and/or of myself. They are, in the order I read them:

  • Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru (my review) for its no-holds-barred investigation into some challenging and hidden stories of Australia’s past. Every new correction to Australia’s history, as we learnt it, has value.
  • Carmel Bird’s Telltale (my review) for its intelligent and revealing insights into how her reading affected her, which in turn contributed to my thinking about my own reading and its impact on my intellectual, emotional and social development.
  • Biff Ward’s The third chopstick (my review) for its portrayal of an activist who fearlessly confronted those most affected by that activism and/or the war they were protesting.

While all these books made an impact on me, I also need to say that, overall, the books that most impact me are, really, fiction. That is where the real punches mostly are!

For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your Worldview Changers I’m sure, but, if you’re not, would you like to share any or some of yours?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Canberra’s children’s picture book creators

Who would have thought that my little capital city of Canberra would have such a rich children’s picture book community, but over recent years I’ve been discovering just how much is going on here. So much so that I thought it might be a worthwhile topic for Brona’s AusReadingMonth.

There’s no way I can be comprehensive, so I’m going to briefly introduce ten children’s picture book creators to give a flavour. How to do this though, given picture books comprise both words and pictures, usually created by different people. We rarely know which came first, but mostly, I believe, it’s the story. So, my list here focuses on Canberra’s authors, but I will reference illustrators they have worked with. The books mentioned range from those for toddlers to primary school-aged children.

I draw heavily on Marion, the newly rebadged ACT Writers Centre, for background info on the authors.

Emma Allen

Allen was a trained early childhood speech pathologist before turning to literature. Her book The terrible suitcase, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, won the 2013 CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood award. It has been translated into several languages, including Japanese and Korean. Since then she has written several picture books, with her last, The great book-swapping machine, illustrated, cartoon-style, by Melbourne-based Lisa Coutts.

Nicole Godwin

Godwin is “an award-winning author with a passion for the environment, animal rights and social justice”. Her two books, Jelly-Boy and Swoop, have different illustrators. Jelly-Boy, a cautionary tale about plastic featuring a jellyfish who falls in love with a plastic bag, was illustrated by Sydney-based Christopher Nielsen. In 2020, it won the Conservation Awareness for Children Category in the Whitley Awards. Swoop was illustrated by Canberra illustrator Susannah Crispe. It speaks closely to Canberrans who, every year, brace for swooping magpie season, that is, spring! Like some other picture books I’ve read, it includes information at the end, here on magpies, which adults can share with children.

Godwin has also collaborated with Wiradjuri man Duncan Smith on We are Australians, with illustrator Jandamarra Cadd, a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung descendent.

Irma Gold

Gold is no stranger to this blog, as I’ve reviewed a wide range of her works including two of her three children’s picture books, Megumi and the bear (my review), Where the heart Is (my review) and Seree’s story. The illustrators are, respectively, New Zealand-based Craig Phillips, Susannah Crispe (again) and Sydney-born Wayne Harris. She is “passionate about childhood literacy” and is an Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge.

Tania McCartney

Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, The Gum Family finds home

McCartney is described as “a book creator” because she has covered the whole gamut of creation from writing and illustrating to editing and design. She has won many awards, and her books have “reached the hands of children in more than 20 countries”. She is also Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, and founded Kids’ Book Review and The Happy Book podcast. She has created too many books for me to list, but I did review her The Gum Family finds home, which was illustrated by Tasmanian-based Christina Booth. She is also the author/illustrator of the Plume travel series and I Heart the World.

Amelia McInerney

McInerney is a “humorous picture book author”. Her books have won various awards Her titles include The book chook, My bird, Bertie, and the internationally published Bad crab, illustrated respectively by Connah Brecon, Shane McG and Philip Bunting. Her fourth book, Who fed Zed?, is about food allergy and intolerance and is illustrated by Queensland-based graphic designer and animator, Adam Nickel.

Stephanie Owen Reeder

Reeder is the award-winning author of over 20 books for children, “ranging from picture books to historical novels”. She writes, illustrates, edits and reviews books. She received the Laurie Coping Award for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature in the ACT in 2019 and is also an Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. Again, she has written too many for me to list them all, but two of her latest books, Australia’s wild, weird, wonderful weather and Ghostie were illustrated, respectively by Tania McCartney and New Zealander Mel Armstrong.

Barbie Robinson

Robinson is an “arts journalist, photographer, writer, designer, arts marketing/events manager” who has published two children’s picture books, Grandma’s knicker tree and Charles the gallery dog, both published by For Pity Sake Publishing and illustrated by the now Shoalhaven-based Ian Robertson. Robinson and husband Richard Scherer run the not-for-profit website and internet radio station Living Arts Canberra.

Krys Saclier

Saclier “believes children’s literature has the power to shape the future” and among other things is the creator of the Kids Only podcast. She has published three picture books, Vote 4 me (2020) and Camp Canberra, both illustrated by Cathy Wilcox who is also an award-winning political cartoonist, and Super Nova, illustrated by Rebecca Timmis. Vote 4 me explains preferential voting to children. Love it.

Samantha Tidy

Tidy is an award-winning author of adult, young adult and children’s fiction. Her picture books include The blue polar bear and The flying dream, with her most recent being Our bush capital, illustrated by Canberran Juliett Dudley. Marion’s website says it “offers a beautifully illustrated narration of a child’s funfilled life in Canberra”. Tidy has a new book coming out in 2023, Cloudspotting, illustrated by the clearly busy Susannah Crispe!

Shelly Unwin

Unwin is the author of the age-focused You’re… series, the non-fiction picture book Blast Off!, and There’s a baddie running through this book, illustrated, respectively, by Katherine Battersby, Ben Wood, and Vivienne To. Some of Unwin’s books are being published in the USA. Her latest book, Hello Baby, published in 2021 and geared to the very young, was illustrated by Victorian-based Jedda Robaard.

These ten authors – all women, interestingly – are just some of those working in the children’s literature field in Canberra. Their illustrators – which include some men – are more widely located, but they include Canberra-based ones like Susannah Crispe, Juliet Dudley and Cathy Wilcox. The subject-matter is wonderfully diverse – from books dealing with children’s lives (like You’re one and Hello baby) and life in Canberra (like Our bush capital) through informative books (like Blast off!) to issues-based ones (like Jelly-boy addressing environmental concerns). There’s something for everyone. I already have a few of them, and I’ll be buying more.

Elizabeth von Arnim, Expiation (#BookReview #1929Club)

I cannot remember when I last laughed out loud – a lot – when reading a book. The book that broke the drought is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Expiation. Even in her darkest, grimmest novel, Vera (my review), Von Arnim managed to make me splutter several times, albeit ruefully. Expatiation, though, caused no such qualms.

I have loved Elizabeth von Arnim since I read Elizabeth and her German Garden in the early 1990s when Virago started publishing her. I went on to read several more of her books over the next few years, but then had a big gap until this year, when I read Vera. It reminded me how much I enjoy her. So, when I saw she had one published in 1929, I selected it for Karen and Simon’s 1929 Club. I finished it more or less on time, but the last couple of weeks have been so busy that I didn’t get to post it until now.

The edition I found was published by Persephone. They describe publishing it as first for them, because “it’s a novel by a well-known writer that has been entirely overlooked”. While most of Von Arnim’s books are in print with other publishers, Expiation, which they were now publishing ninety years after its first appearance, had been ignored. Why, they ask? Good question. I admit that, not having seen it around, I did fear it might be lesser.

Persephone offers some reasons. Firstly, the title “is not very catchy”. True, it’s not. They also suggest that its adultery theme would have been “faintly shocking” in 1929, and further that, although we now read it as a satire, at the time “the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame”. Would the satire have been missed? Anyhow, they quote from the novel’s opening chapter, which describes the novel’s central family and the London suburb they live in:

That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.

This last sentence, Persephone says, “was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us”. I am so glad they did because from the first few pages I could tell it was a book for me too. It truly is delicious.

So now, the book. As you’ve gathered, the plot centres around adultery, which is made clear in the opening chapter. Milly has just been widowed, and her wealthy husband, Ernest Bott, has only left her £1,000 of his £100,000. The rest he has left to a charity for fallen women, with the cryptic note that “My wife will know why”. She does, of course, but thought she had got away with it. What is remarkable about this book, which chronicles how both Milly and the Botts react to the situation, is that we remain sympathetic to Milly. She’s a sinner, she knows she’s a sinner, but she wants to expiate. How, is the question?

The Botts, meanwhile, don’t know what to do. They do not want scandal to ruin their good name, and, anyhow, the male Botts in general rather like round, plump Milly versus their “bony” wives. Moreover, they are not known for meanness: “The family had always behaved well and generously in regard to money, and it would never do for Titford to suspect them of meanness.” Hmmm, a bit of appearance-versus-reality going on here. So, having decided, Jane-Austen-Sense-and-sensibility-style, not to give Milly some of their money, they agree to take her into their homes, in turn, until it all dies down, after which she can go live with Old Mrs Bott, who is perfectly happy to have her. Old Mrs Bott is the voice of reason in the novel. Experience has taught her

that in the end it all wouldn’t have mattered a bit what Ernest had meant or what Milly had done, and that they might just as well have been kind and happy together on this particular afternoon, as indeed on all their few afternoons, and together comfortably eaten the nice soup and sandwiches.

However, a spanner is thrown in their works when the shocked and mortified Milly disappears the day after the funeral. To say more about the plot would give too much away – even though the plot is not the main thing about this book.

What Von Arnim does through this plot is take us on a journey through humanity. Milly’s attempts at expiation often fall flat, either because she doesn’t manage to do what she plans or because others don’t behave towards her as she expects, even wants, them to do. For example, on one occasion, she has “no doubt at all that here at last she was in the very arms of expiation” and yet it comes “to her so disconcertingly, with a smile on its face”. Can this really be expiation? Milly’s not sure. One of the book’s ironies – and points – is, in fact, that the greatest sinner, technically, is among the kindest in reality.

The thing I like about Von Arnim is her generosity. It is on display throughout this novel as Milly, seeking expiation (but also to survive) moves between people she knows, from her previously sinning sister and her obliviously self-centred lover to the various Botts who range from the puritanical and pompous to the warm and lively. Most of these characters, like Austen’s, may come from a narrow realm of society but they represent a much wider spectrum of human behaviour. Like Austen, too, Von Arnim’s targets are not just the personal – greed, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, silliness, pride, self-importance, ignorance, and so on – but the societal, particularly gender, marriage and money. “Too much worldly prosperity”, she writes for example, “deadens people’s souls”.

So, in Expiation, Von Arnim skewers human nature and her society much like Jane Austen does. Sometimes the situations may be a little dated as they can also be in Austen, but human nature itself doesn’t change much – and this is so knowingly, so inclusively, and so generously, on display. There are some less than stellar people here, of course, but as in Austen, they are treated with respect for their humanness by the author, while also being exposed for exactly who they are. I’m going to – with difficulty – choose just a couple for you, one touching on the theme of sinning and morality, and the other on money.

Here is the eldest Bott, Alec, trying to avoid hosting Milly first, because of his wife’s puritanical approach to life:

He stopped, an undefined idea possessing his mind that Milly might be purer after having passed through the sieve of other visits, and more fit to stay with his wife …

Von Arnim’s language – so fresh and funny. And here is another Bott, Fred, telling his sons they will be helping Milly:

“Do you mean financially?” inquired Percy, his eyes still on his paper.
“Kindness,” said Fred.
“Kindness! Well, that’s cheap, anyhow,” said Dick.
“And easy,” said Percy, turning the pages. “I always liked Aunt Milly.”

Finally, I will leave you with one more bon mot from Old Mrs Bott who reflects, at one point during the novel:

It seemed as if these poor children had no sense whatever of proportion. They wasted their short time in making much of what was little, and little of what was much.

With a wit and a sense of humanity that is a joy to read, Expiation encourages us to think about what is important to living both a good life, and a kind and fair one.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Expiation
London: Persephone Books, 2019 (orig. pub. 1929)
314pp.
ISBN: 9781906462536

Nonfiction November 2022: Stranger than fiction

Week 3 of Nonfiction November (November 14-18) focuses on “all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic” and is hosted by Christopher (Plucked from the Stacks).

Last year, introducing my post on this week, I wrote that what the idea of “stranger than fiction” brings to my mind are those coincidences (and the like) that happen in real life that a fiction writer could never get away with. This week’s topic host, Christopher, though, takes a broader view, including things like “overcoming massive obstacles”, “scams” and “natural wonders”. My interpretation is a bit different again.

I’m starting with an essay I read via the Library of America’s Story of the Week program, James Weldon Johnson’s “Stranger than fiction” (my review). Johnson wrote one of those trickily titled novels, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912). It was inspired by his own experiences, and has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Its protagonist is a young unnamed biracial man, who, because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The novel chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

In 1915, Johnson wrote his essay “Stranger than fiction” about his novel’s reception. To summarise what I wrote in my post, he basically found that for many Northern reviewers, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction, whereas Southern critics asserted that the work was unbelievable because, Johnson wrote, they didn’t believe African Americans could “pass” as “the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority.” For Johnson, this was “laughable”, as most people, he said, know of people who are “passing.”

There are so many “stranger than fiction” layers to this essay and situation but I will leave it here. This essay would, of course, have been another great Week 2 pairing for me with Nella Larsen’s Passing.

What can be stranger than families?

Families, of course, are the stuff of fiction, particularly unhappy ones (as Tolstoy famously shared), but they can also be found in non-fiction, particularly in memoirs, so here I’m going to share three families which were/are strange for one reason or another:

  • Alison Croggon’s Monsters: A reckoning (my review) chronicles a sister-relationship that went badly sour. It’s always sad – and yes, a bit strange to me – when families fall apart. The collapse of siblings relationships is particularly devastating I think.
  • Jane Sinclair’s Shy love smiles and acid drops (my review) chronicles the author’s parents’ difficult relationship. There is much that is “strange” here for most of us, starting with the family’s bohemian lifestyle.
  • Cindy Solonec’s Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (my review) is strange in a different way. The relationship here is a positive and productive one, but the press release for the book makes its “strangeness” clear when it says the book is about “the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” (near Broome). Debesa is also a little strange in form as it is one of those hybrid biography-memoirs in which the writer is part of the family she’s focusing on.

None of these families are probably stranger than anything you’d find in fiction, but they do prove that the strange families you find in fiction can indeed be realistic!

For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your strange offerings I’m sure, but, if you’re not, I’d love to see what strange nonfiction you’ve read.

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 20/40, a new publishing prize

We all like to see a new literary or publishing prize. That is, most of us do, because I do appreciate that prizes in the arts are problematic, and that some do not, for perfectly valid reasons, like them. However, for most, the positives outweigh the negatives. These positives include – in different combinations – kudos, money, time, publication.

Carmel Bird, Fair game

Last week, I received a press release about a new prize being offered by one of our wonderful local-ish, independent, and non-profit, publishers, Finlay Lloyd. I have reviewed many Finlay Lloyd publications over the years, and I also reported on their 10-year anniversary back in 2016. Their output is small in quantity but the quality, both in content and in the physical product itself, is high. Their design aesthetic is carefully considered and I love handling, as well as reading, the results. Like many small publishers, they are not afraid to publish the books and forms others eschew. Take their FL Smalls, for example. These are tiny books – smaller than a traditional novella, even – written by emerging and established (like Carmel Bird) writers. Finlay Lloyd also publishes short story collections, illustrated novels, and nonfiction on difficult subjects, like their Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).

Given this background, it’s to be expected that if they came up with a prize it would be a bit left-field, and it is. Called the 20/40 Publishing Prize, it aims to “encourage and support writing of the highest quality”, but writing that meets certain criteria. Here is how they describe it:

In an environment where writers find it increasingly difficult to find an audience, Finlay Lloyd is branching out to offer a publishing opportunity for fiction and non-fiction prose works between 20,000 and 40,000 words through the 20/40 Publishing Prize.

Finlay Lloyd’s publisher and commissioning editor, Julian Davies, is quoted in the Press Release as saying:

‘We’re incredibly excited to be able to encourage writers to submit pieces of this length, a scope which has proven itself through time to be particularly engaging and rewarding for writers and their readers.

‘It’s long enough to allow the rich development of a concept but tight enough to encourage focus and succinctness.

‘Each year we plan to select two winning authors, closely supporting them through the editorial process with care and enthusiasm, and publishing their entries in line with Finlay Lloyd’s innovative design standards.’

This length is, of course, novella length – but Finlay Lloyd has not used the term “novella” because this term refers to short prose fiction, while the prize encompasses fiction and nonfiction. They say on their website that “all genres of prose writing are welcome, including hybrid forms”. 20/40 is, I should clarify, an unpublished manuscript competition with publication being the prize.

The press release goes on to explain that Finlay Lloyd is “dedicated to identifying and encouraging good writing free from external pressures such as reputation and the undue influence of market forces”. Consequently, the judging panel will read the submissions “blind”, and will focus on “creative inventiveness and quality”.

Their hope is that 20/40 will “offer an incentive for writers to get down to work and hone their expressive skills”. They believe that readers are “hungry for writing of quality that is published with care and flare as well-designed and engaging paper artefacts”. See what I mean? The content AND the object are both important to them. I know many readers, myself included, who are so hungry.

Anyhow, submissions can be made between 1 January and 10 February, 2023. They will announce the shortlist in October and publish the winning books – one fiction, one nonfiction, I think – in November. The prize is being overseen by their “expert advisory board”:

Book cover
  • Dr Christine Balint, whose novella, Water music, I’ve reviewed
  • John Clanchy, novelist and short story writer whom I’ve reviewed a few times here
  • Donna Ward, writer, publisher, and editor
  • Dr Meredith McKinney, academic, translator – including of Mori Ôgai’s The Wild Goose on my TBR – and daughter of Judith Wright
  • Emeritus Professor Kevin Brophy, whose recent short story collection is on my TBR

I must say that I’m tickled about the timing of this announcement, given its relevance to Novellas in November.

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
154pp.
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Nonfiction November 2022: Book pairings

Week 2 of Nonfiction November and hanging in. This meme/blog event/reading month/challenge (what do we call it?) is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 2: (November 7-11) – Book Pairing, being hosted by Rennie (of What’s Nonfiction). The challenge is to pair a nonfiction book with something else – a fiction title, another nonfiction work, or even a podcast, film, documentary, TV show, etc. There just has to be some link in terms of subject matter or topic. I really enjoy this week of the challenge, because it’s such fun to do and is also fun to see what other bloggers come up with.

The no-brainer

Since much of my nonfiction involves literary topics – literary biographies or memoirs, for example – this pairing challenge is really very easy. Take, for example, Carmel Bird’s bibliomoir Telltale (my review). There are so pairing possibilities, because in it she discusses books she’s read and written. So, for this year’s no-brainer – I did one last year too – I will pair her bibliomemoir with… Hmm, with what? Because here’s the challenge: she mentions so many books. However, if I limit it to those I’ve reviewed, which is my preference, that narrows the field. And, if I narrow it even more to those books by her that I’ve reviewed, I’m getting to something quite manageable.

Book cover

So, after a little consideration, the one I’ve chosen for my pairing is her Field of poppies (my review), because, as I wrote in my post, it has many of the hallmarks of her writing, including “all manner of allusions and digressions, underpinned by a clearly-focused intelligence”. This, of course, we also find in Telltale. Unfortunately, though, I am away from home, so I don ‘t have my copy of Telltale with me to share some of Bird’s comments about this novel. However, I do remember her discussing mining, and how she had referenced it in her work, including in Field of poppies.

This year I have also read several literary essays, and each of these could be paired with their source novel or story, such as Ellen van Neerven’s essay (my post) on Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review).

But, rather than list all those, I’d like, as I also did last year, to give myself something that’s more of a pairing challenge, so here is …

Another pairing

My most recent nonfiction read was Biff Ward’s part memoir, part social history, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (my review). This book covers both her experience as an antiwar protestor and her later decision to meet and understand the men who went to war – the Vietnam Vets. In those meetings, she comes face-to-face with the traumas (the PTSD) many of them suffered on their return and, with their permission, she shares some of this experience with us.

Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animal

Not a lot of fiction, comparatively speaking anyhow, has been written about this War, as I discussed in my recent Monday Musings – and I’ve read only a little of that. However, I have read a little, and one of those is Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (my review), which deals very specifically with PTSD from this war and its intergenerational impact. It’s a strong, and unforgettable novel and worthy of pairing with Biff Ward’s book.

For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your pairings I’m sure, but, if you’re not, I’d love to see what you would pair – if you’d like to play along.