Six degrees of separation, FROM The drover’s wife TO …

Spring at last – in the southern hemisphere anyhow. Winter seemed to start early this year so many of us, in my corner of the world anyhow, have been desperate to see its end. Yes, I know many of you have much more severe winters than we do, but it’s all relative! And on that, before I dig myself into a hole, I’ll just confirm that it’s the Six Degrees time again. As always, if you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, but for September she threw us one of those curve balls and told us to use the last book we linked to in our last chain. For me, that was Leah Purcell’s film/book/play The drover’s wife (my post). Lisa reckoned I’m lucky to have that to start with. Perhaps so, and, cross-my-heart, I wrote and scheduled my post before I saw what Kate planned!

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

There are so many ways I could go with this – another multiply adapted work? Another another “wife” title, because there are many of those? Or, a riff on a classic or well-known work? And this last is the way I’ve decided to go, because I enjoy seeing what later writers makes of a loved work, particularly when they look as it from the perspective of a minority or disempowered perspective – as Purcell did with Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. My first link, then, is Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (my review), which looks at Odysseus’ story from the perspective of his wife and the hanged maids.

From here, let’s go to another adaptation of that original work, The Odyssey. This time, I’ve chosen a BBC4 full-cast dramatisation (or, “dramatic retelling”) by Simon Armitage (my post) – which I experienced in audiobook form. (Consequently, my post, like many of my audiobook posts, is more minimal than most).

Sea of Many Returns cover

Odysseus’ goal is, of course, Ithaca, and in my post linked above, I added a little postscript referencing Arnold Zable’s Sea of many returns (my review) which, I said, focuses on Ithaca, and its literal and mythological contexts of “home”.

Sea of many returns is a dual point-of-view novel, with the two points of view being grand-daughter Xanthe and her Ithacan-born grandfather whose journals she is translating. The book is about all the leavings and returnings in their family, for work, adventure, war or, simply, to find a better life. Eleanor Limprecht’s The passengers (my review) is also a point-of-view novel involving a grandchild and grandparent, and leaving and returning. Here, though, both voices are female, and they are travelling together, as the grandmother returns to America after a 68-year absence. She had come to Australia as a war-bride.

Book cover

I’m going to stick to grandchildren and grandparents, and the impact of war, by linking to Favel Parrett’s There was love (my post). In this novel we have two grandchildren and two grandmothers. It revolves around two Czech sisters, one who ended up in Melbourne with the other remaining in Prague, after their lives had been disrupted by the Second World War and the 1968 Czechoslovakian Revolution.

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see

Another dual point-of-view novel – but one in which the stories operate in parallel until near the end – is Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see (my review). It too is a war story, telling of the Second World War through the eyes of a young blind French girl and a young orphan German boy.

This month, we’ve traveled from mythical Greece to modern Australia, via Europe and Greece, but somehow war has dogged us every step of the way, starting with a background of the Frontier Wars in Purcell’s The drover’s wife.

Now, the usual: Have you read or seen The drover’s wife? And, regardless, what would you link to – except, hmm, I asked that last month of course, so let’s choose something else! Do you have any favourite grandparent-grandchildren novels?

Monday musings on Australian literature: The new AWW, six months on

In February, a new AWW (Australian Women Writers blog) team, comprising its founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, Bill Holloway (The Australian Legend) and me, published our first post in our revamped blog. Six months on we have settled into a nice little routine which I’d like to share with you, but first …

Let me recap what I explained in my last AWW Challenge post for 2021. This challenge was, as many of you know, instigated in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. By 2021, things had changed significantly with women writers seeming to be well-established on Australia’s literary scene, at least by observable measures. Because of this and some additional practical reasons, it was agreed that the challenge would change tack in 2022 and focus on past, and often under-recognised or overlooked, women writers from the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The new team decided that we would write articles about and reviews of earlier writers, and publish their actual writings – in full or excerpt form, as appropriate. Our reasoning was that Australia’s rich heritage of Australian women’s writing hasn’t been fully explored and we wanted to nudge it into the limelight.

So, what have we done? We have established the following routine:

  • on Wednesdays we publish essays or articles on relevant writers, works, or topics; and
  • on Fridays we publish actual writings, related, where possible, to that Wednesday’s post.

Bill is our commissioning editor, which means he sets up our posting timetable and approaches others (mostly bloggers we know) to contribute to our Wednesday articles, while Elizabeth schedules the Friday posts, drawing from the work she’s done, and is still doing, on locating and listing online content for past women writers. I have the easy job, being part of the ongoing consultations and keeping an eye on some of the background issues like our category and label policy and practice. Each of us also writes one Wednesday article a month, with the other week/s (given there are three of us) being a guest post.

We have not imposed a structure over the content of the posts. That is, we have not decided to explore past Australian women writers chronologically or geographically or thematically. Instead, we have drawn on contributors’ interests and experiences. This has resulted in an eclectic mix of posts, but, we believe, an interesting one, that should appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.

So, for example, Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!), who contributed many poetry reviews to the original blog, agreed to write articles on past women poets. His first was on Zora Cross. Brona (Brona’s Books) posted on Mary Gaunt, while author and blogger Michelle Scott Tucker posted on the children’s writer Patricia Wrightson and the issue of appropriation. We have also been thrilled to have contributions from overseas bloggers interested in classic Australian literature, like French blogger Emma (Book Around the Corner) on Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s will, and Canadian Marcie McCauley (Buried in Print) on Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfield’s trilogy.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth has focused specifically on our goal of finding forgotten and overlooked writers. Putting her research skills to work, she has unearthed writers we really never have heard of – and, along the way, has discovered some fascinating stories. Netta Walker, for example, took her on a merry chase, as did another wonderful find of hers, the case of Eucalypta (or, Mrs H.E. Russell). As for Bill, in between tracking down guest posters, he has been contributing posts on works by some of his favourite independent women, like Miles Franklin and Ada Cambridge.

Posts on topics other than individual writers and works include guest poster and literature honours student Stacey Roberts on Using the AWWC Archives, and mine on Primary and Secondary Sources.

So, six months in, we seem to be going strong, though there’s not a lot of comment engagement on the blog. More of that would be lovely.

We’d love to know whether you’ve looked at the blog. If you have, what have you liked or not liked, and is there anything you would particularly like to see? (We are open to offers too!)

My literary week (17), musicals, movies and more

Spring is springing

It’s been over two years since my last literary week, which is weird given I enjoy writing these posts that explore the literary content or implications of other parts of my life. I am writing this one, for a number of reasons, prime of which is that I’ve not written a review this week and need to write something! I have been reading, just not enough to write about – yet. There’s been too much going on.

Now, an admission … this literary week is more like literary season, which I hope you agree is fair enough. Who says bloggers can’t invoke artistic licence, after all? By season, I mean winter, which ends this week, here downunder. Thank goodness.

Musicals

Mr Gums and I enjoy musicals and have seen two this month, one this week in fact. The first, which we saw earlier this month, was Hamilton. We must be among the last musical enthusiasts in Australia to see it, but we finally got there. I loved it. Besides its colour-blind casting, I loved its Shakespearean quality. It has the hallmarks of great Shakespearean tragedy, from the great man brought down by his own flaws to the fool (in this case King George III) who provides comic relief while also saying some wise things. And, the political machinations have such relevance to today. I loved, for example, the reference to transparency, or lack thereof: “I want to be in the room where it happens”. A real treat – though we were briefly thrown when, after Interval, the actor playing George Washington changed from an average-build white man to a thinner, younger looking black man. There had been an announcement but in the rustle of everyone returning to seats, we’d missed the crucial piece of information about who was “now being played by”? We worked it out soon enough.

The other musical, the one we saw this week, also has strong literary content, The Girl from the North Country, which, as many of you will probably know, features Bob Dylan’s songs and tells a Depression era story. Given Dylan – albeit controversially – won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, it’s hard to deny the “literary week” credentials of this one. I didn’t engage with it as quickly as I did with Hamilton, mainly because the story and characters were not familiar, but by the end, the characters had won me over with their stories and the actors with their performance.

Movies

I’m just going to mention one of the movies I’ve seen in recent times, Where the crawdads sing. Yes, a popular movie, though I have been to some more arthouse and classic fare too (like John Farrow’s gorgeous-to-look-at The Big Clock just last night). But I want to mention a conversation (by letter) with my American friend Carolyn, on Crawdads. Both of us enjoyed the movie. It’s beautiful to look at, well-cast overall, and the adaptation felt true to the book. Any problems it has, we agreed, are due more to the book – the stretching of credulity and generally stereotyped characterisation – than with the film itself. (My review of the book explains why I felt I could accept some of these challenges in the book.)

Now is the winter of our discontent…

This section is the saddest part of this post, because here I want to pay brief tribute to some special people who died this season and who also happen to have some literary or arts relationship with me.

The first occurred at the beginning of winter and was, in some ways, the most shocking – because it came with no warning, and because she was the youngest of the people I’m talking about. It was my reading group’s fabulous member Janet Millar who died, suddenly, of a heart attack in early June. She had moved to Sydney but, once a reading group member aways a reading group member and we had stayed in contact over the years. A journalist by training, Janet was warm, intelligent, funny, subversive and could be relied on to enliven any group. So sad, so missed.

Then there were two people who were not as close to me personally, but who were meaningful acquaintances, Liz Lynch who was in Mr Gums’ Advance German Conversation class and with whom I’d discussed reading group experiences, and Geoffrey Brennan, who was on our local Musica Viva committee and hosted, with his wife, many lovely musical afternoons in their home. These afternoons were equally about socialising as about music, because Geoff, like Liz, was a people person. They will be so missed too.

And finally, there was ex-work colleague and friend, Richard Keys. The oldest of the four here, Richard was in his 80s. He was a loyal, warm-hearted and fun colleague and friend, whom I met him through work at the National Film and Sound Archive. We quickly connected over literature as well as film, because both were dear to Richard. After he retired, we stayed in contact, and frequently ran into each other at film events, literary events and folk festivals. I would also occasionally find a letter from him in my mailbox – containing some newspaper clipping or other about Jane Austen! Richard could also quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and may or may not have approved of my heading for this section! I’m going to close here, though, not with Shakespeare, but with a quote Richard had over his desk at work. It was from The sentimental bloke which is both an Australian film and literary classic. I used it in my last message to him:

Sittin’ at ev’nin’ in this sunset-land,
Wiv ‘Er in all the World to ‘old me ‘and,
⁠A son, to bear me name when I am gone.…
⁠Livin’ an’ lovin’—so life mooches on.

“so life mooches on” … on that note, I’ll mooch off and try to finish the unfinished books next to my bed, so I can bring you some reviews next week. Meanwhile, vale Janet, Jill, Geoff and Richard. You will all be remembered.

Six degrees of separation, FROM The book of form and emptiness TO …

Last month, as I wrote this post, I had just got back from Melbourne, and this month I am back in Melbourne. Next Six Degrees, I should be in Sydney, all being well. Life is busy at the moment, but we are enjoying catching up with family and friends after two years of limited opportunities. All that’s well and good, do I hear you say, but what about the main point of this post? It’s the Six Degrees meme, of course, and if you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for August it is another book I’ve not read, Ruth Ozeki’s The book of form and emptiness. GoodReads says it’s a “inventive new novel about loss, growing up, and our relationship with things”. Sounds interesting, but that doesn’t help me right now …

When I haven’t read the starting book, I prefer not to link on content because, you know, I might get it a bit wrong. So, for my first link I’m going with title, and another book that starts with “The book of”. My book is Australian author Leslie Cannold’s The book of Rachael (my review).

Book cover

Cannold’s book is about biblical characters, although the title character is a fictional one. Another book about biblical characters, though in this case the protagonist is real, is Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (my review) about Saul who became Paul, in the New Testament.

My next link is weak – I know it – but I’m going there anyhow. Tsiolkas’ Saul became the Apostle Paul, though throughout the novel he remains known as Saul. Garry Disher’s detective in Bitter Wash Road (my review) is Paul Hirschhausen, but throughout the novel he is Hirsch. No-one would ever know he was a Paul!

And now it’s time, after three links, to leave Australia, and the best way I can think of is to go to a much beloved detective of recent decades, Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe from Botswana. I’m choosing one of the two novels I’ve reviewed from this long series, The Saturday big tent wedding party (my review). You’ll have to forgive this very loose link, because Precious is a female private detective whilst Hirsch is a male police detective.

Now, if there is someone who could have done with some of Precious Ramotswe’s common-sense and warmth, it’s Tambu in Tstitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body (my review). Again my link is very loose, based as it is on the fact that the two novels are set in neighbouring African countries, Tambu living in Zimbabwe bordering Precious’ Botswana.

And now, having found myself here, I can’t resist returning to Australia, linking this time on authors who also make films. Tsitisi Dangarembga has an impressive resume, having won multiple literary awards while also being an active filmmaker of feature, short and documentary films. While she’s not as prolific, Australia’s Leah Purcell is also known as a novelist and filmmaker. I’m linking to her latest production, The drover’s wife (my review), which she’d also written as an award-winning play and a novel.

This month, then, we’ve managed to travel through history and place, from biblical times in the middle east to modern times in Africa and Australia. And we have a 50:50 split in authors, three male and three female.

Now, the usual: Have you read The book of form and emptiness? And, regardless, what would you link to?

#54321 Challenge – Just for fun

Lisa posted this challenge, which she got from Lizzy Siddal, who nicked it from somewhere on Instagram! Love the provenance here!

Each of us has interpreted it in ways that suits us. For me, my interpretation is to draw on authors who have died (except for #1) because there are too many living authors that I love for me to choose from. So, with that proviso, here goes …

#5 Books I love

In author’s birth order:

Jane Austen, Persuasion
  • Pick an Austen any Austen, let’s go with Persuasion (my post), which has such a lovely, mature heroine who, nonetheless, had to learn to make her own decisions. 
  • Edith Wharton’s The house of mirth, which I read before blogging, but which has left a lasting impression for its story of a woman who was torn between love and integrity, and (what she thought would be) security.
  • Patrick White’s Voss, which I read in my teens, long long before blogging. It was the book that turned me on to White.
  • Albert Camus’ The plague/La peste (my post) which I also first read in my late teens, which I encouraged my reading group to read many years later, and which continues to resonate with me.
  • Thea Astley’s Drylands (my post), which is just one of Astley’s novels that has stuck with me for its expressive writing and intellect.

#4 Autobuy authors

Albert Camus, The plague

After the 19th century classics, my first autobuy author was

  • Albert Camus

who was followed by …

  • Edith Wharton, whom I discovered in the 1980s during our first posting in the USA, and
  • E.H. Young, who was recommended to me by a Kiama, NSW, bookseller, in the late 1980s. I subsequently bought, or was given, all of her books that were published by Virago.

And then an Aussie, but which one? Perhaps the first Aussie, besides Patrick White, whom I wanted to autobuy was

#3 Genres I love

Most of you could probably guess this:

  • Literary fiction
  • Classics
  • Literary biographies

#2 Places I like to read

Where else but stretched out on a sofa, or in bed.

#1 Book I’m Going to Read Next

I haven’t quite decided, but my next reading group book is Audrey Magee’s The colony. This will not be my next review, however, as I am currently reading a First Nations’ book, and will probably read a couple more before I read my reading group book!

Six degrees of separation, FROM Wintering TO …

Why do I always start these posts with the weather or the seasons? This time I’ll break with tradition and start with the fact that I’ve just got back from a lovely trip to Melbourne where we enjoyed some good family times, albeit interrupted in the middle by COVID isolation. How our lives have changed over the last two to three years, as we take these things, not quite in our stride but, at least, as sort of normal or to be expected? What hasn’t changed, however, is our Six Degrees meme. If you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for July we are back to a book I’ve not read, Katherine May’s Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times. It’s a memoir, and I think the subtitle speaks for itself. I like the concept of “wintering” or lying fallow as you heal.

I thought a lot more than usual about my first link this month, toying with several ideas. In the end I decided to go with a title using a present participle that refers to an action that’s the subject of the book. Jim Crace’s Being dead (my review) is about a couple found dead among the dunes on a beach. As well as being the story of a crime, this novel also details what happens to dead bodies. It’s pretty visceral, but I learnt things I’ve not forgotten! I love it when fiction does that.

Bianca Nogrady, The end book cover

My next link was easy, because I went for the obvious, science writer Bianca Nogrady’s book The end: The human experience of death (my review). As you might have guessed from the title, it’s a nonfiction work that explores death and dying from multiple angles, including physical, psychological, scientific, and legal. I found it so interesting.

Bianca Nogrady, The best Australian science writing 2015

My next link is also pretty obvious, as it’s on the author Bianca Nogrady, except that for this book she’s the editor not the author. It’s The best Australian science writing 2015 (my review). I’ve come to love these volumes for their varied content ranging across all sorts of science from climate to AI, from how the brain works to research into disease, and so on.

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe

And now, unusually for me, I’m sticking with creator for yet another link. It’s interesting how many writers of fiction are also journalists and essayists. Trent Dalton, to whose book Boy swallows universe (my review) I’m linking, is an example. He had a piece in Bianca Nogrady’s anthology called “Beating the odds” about a driven Australian man who developed an artificial heart.

Rabih Alameddine, An unnecessary woman

But now its time to branch out, and I’m going personal this time. Trent Dalton’s book was my reading group’s first book in 2019. Our first book the year before, 2018, was Lebanese American writer Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review). This was a great read on many levels, including the fact that the main character, a 72-year-old woman is a great reader who comments frequently on the books she reads, including Australian authors like Patrick White and Helen Garner.

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the crowd

I nearly linked on one of those authors, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Australia this post, so I’m linking on something different. Alameddine’s protagonist Aaliya spends her time translating books, even though they will never be published. It’s an exercise for her. Another novel that features a translator – though in this case it is her job for a while – is Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd (my review).

I don’t see any obvious link back to the starting novel. The meme doesn’t require there to be, but it’s fun if there is one. As is common for me, four of my books are by female writers (or editors) and two by male. While we’ve spent quite a bit of time in English-speaking countries, we have also been to Beirut and Mexico City, which are places I rarely take us to.

Now, the usual: Have you read Wintering? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Sorrow and bliss TO …

What a cold, cold start we’ve had to winter here in the nation’s capital. We have already had a few maximums under 10°C, and winter has barely started. I hate it, but I am lucky to have a warm house, so I’ll stop complaining and be grateful. And, anyhow, we have hope that our new Government will follow up on its promises on big issues like the Uluru Statement from the Heart, climate change and resolving some long-standing asylum seeker/refugee issues. We wait to see what happens. Meanwhile, let’s get onto this month’s Six Degrees. As always, if you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for May we are back to a novel I’ve not read, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss about a woman, and the aftermath of her separation from her husband. What else can I say about it? I haven’t read it, as I said, but those who have are impressed.

I don’t like linking on content of books I’ve not read, so I’m not going there. Instead, I’m linking on titles comprising opposite concepts – taking us from Sorrow and bliss to Lost & found, by Western Australian-based author, Brooke Davis (my review). Like Sorrow and bliss, Lost & found deals with a sad subject, but both books do it with humour (at least I understand Mason’s does).

Humour, however, is not my next link. Instead I’m linking on the idea of a mother disappearing at the beginning of a novel. This is what happens in Lost & found, and it also happens in Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), albeit under quite different circumstances. It had been on my TBR for decades, so I was really pleased to find time to read it this year.

My next link is not at all clever. I read Margaret Barbalet in January, and in April I read (actually, listened to) another Margaret – Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection Dearly (my review) which covers a range of subjects dear to Atwood’s heart, including women’s rights and environmental issues.

Another poet whose political passions are well-known is Australia’s John Kinsella, so it is to his prose memoir, Displaced: A rural life (my review) that I’m linking next. He was born in and has now returned to the Western Australian wheatbelt. He writes so evocatively of the place – and of the challenges wrought by the long tail of colonisation.

My next link pays homage to the author, Katharine Susannah Prichard, because last month I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s The red witch, the first thorough biography about her. I’m linking to a short story by her, “The Christmas tree” (my post) because it is also set in the Western Australian wheatbelt. It links beautifully to Kinsella, because, as I wrote in my post, “we are still challenged by the role capitalist structures play in people’s lives and livelihoods”.  Kinsella would agree.

“The Christmas tree” was first published in 1919, and so was another short story, written by another significant woman writer, “The mark on the wall” (my post) by Virginia Woolf. They might be very different stories in very different styles – Prichard’s realist approach versus Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness – but both come from women who have now moved into the canon.

So, a bit of a different month to usual: I have only one male writer, two of the works are short stories, two are by poets, and one I experienced as an audiobook. However, we have travelled around the English-speaking world a little – Australia, Canada and England – and we have spent more time than usual in Western Australia. I can’t see any link back to the starting book.

Now, the usual: Have you read Sorrow and bliss? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Six degrees of separation, FROM True history of the Kelly Gang TO …

Winter is icumen in! Can I say that? For many of you, it’s not that cold here in Australia, but in Australia, my city of Canberra is the coldest capital city in the country. It’s the only thing I don’t like about living here. But, we will survive. Meanwhile, we have things like blogs and memes to entertain us. So, let’s get onto this month’s Six Degrees. As always, if you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for April it’s a novel I’ve read, but not since blogging, Peter Carey’s award-winning True history of the Kelly Gang in which Carey tackles on of Australia’s big (bushranger) myths.

Courtney Collins, The burial

There are so many angles to take from here. One could be its unique syntax (and go to Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl woman other). Another I considered was titles that people aways get wrong. There is no “The” at the beginning of Carey’s title, but that led me down a path I didn’t have time to fully investigate. So, I decided to go with content, and choose Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review), because it is also historical fiction about a bushranger, albeit a women, Jessie Hickman, whom most of us had never heard of.

Arielle Van Luyn, Treading air

Now Courtney Collins made quite a splash with this novel in 2012, but we’ve not really heard from her since. Another novelist we’ve not heard from again (yet) – though her novel didn’t make quite the same splash – is Ariella Van Luyn, and her 2016 historical fiction, Treading air (my review), which also focuses on a real, albeit small-time, historical character.

Book cover

Next, I’m staying with historical fiction – and writers we’ve not heard much from – but the link I’m choosing is the Brisbane 1940s setting (though only part of Treading air is set in Brisbane). The book is Melanie Myers’ Meet me at Lennon’s (my review). Both books mean something to me. Van Luyn’s book is partly set in Townsville where my Mum was born. And, my Mum became a teenager in 1940s Brisbane and experienced the wartime Brisbane that Myers writes about. She also knew Lennon’s.

Book cover

But now, we’ve spent too long in Australia. I was going to say, in historical Australia, but I’m sticking with historical fiction and linking to another another World War 2-set novel, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters (my review). Both this novel and Myers’ alternates between the present and a past mystery, but Elon’s also moves between the Netherlands and Israel.

Sawako Ariyoshi, The doctor's wife

We are staying with historical fiction – who knew I’d read so much of it – but I’m linking this time on the idea of translation. Elon’s novel was translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel. Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife (my review), which tells of the Japanese doctor who developed anaesthetics for surgery, was also translated (from the Japanese) by two translators, Wakako Hironaka and Ann Silla Kostant.

Haruki Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

My final link is a bit of a cheat, because it too was translated from Japanese by two translators, Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. Its Haruki Murakami’s Blind willow, sleeping woman (my review). I say it’s a bit of a cheat, because this is a collection of short stories so it’s perhaps a little more understandable that there might be more than one translator. However, if you don’t like that, let’s just say the link is another Japanese authored work. Take your pick.

And thus, like last month, I am back to more women writers in my link, with five this month. We have, however, travelled a little, from Australia to Japan, via The Netherlands and the Middle East. We have spent quite a bit of time in the early to mid twentieth century, except that with Ariyoshi we did go back to the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. I can’t think of any real link between the starting and ending books except – and maybe this is a good one – both Carey and Murakami were born in the 1940s, and both have had significant writing careers.

Now, the usual: Have you read True history of the Kelly Gang? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Bernard Cronin, The last train (#Review, #1954Club )

Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) has featured in this blog a couple of times, but most significantly in a Monday Musings which specifically featured him. He was a British-born Australian writer who, in his heyday in the 1920s to 40s, was among Australia’s top 10 most popular novelists. And yet, along with many others of his ilk, he has slipped from view. However, I did find a short story of his published in 1954 so decided this was my opportunity to check him out.

The reason I wrote my Monday Musings on Cronin was because in 1920 he founded (with Gertrude Hart) the Old Derelicts’ Club, which later became the Society of Australian Authors, but I have mentioned him in other posts too. For example, in one post, I noted that in 1927, Tasmania’s Advocate newspaper had named Cronin as being “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”. And, in my post on Capel Boake I shared that he had written collaboratively with Doris Boake Kerr (aka Capel Boake) under the pseudonym of Stephen Grey. In fact, he used a few pseudonyms, another being Eric North, which he used for his science fiction. Cronin wrote across multiple forms (publishing over twenty novels as well as short stories, plays, poems and children’s stories) and genres (including historical fiction, adventure stories, metropolitan crime fiction, romances, and science fiction and fantasy).

Wikipedia’s article on him includes a “partial” list of his works, with the earliest being The flame from 1916, and the latest novel being Nobody stops me from 1960. What the list tells us is that his most active period occurred between 1920 and 1950, so the story from 1954 that I read comes late in his career.

I had initially chosen a different story, “Carmody’s lark”, which was published in late 1954 in several newspapers, but belatedly discovered that one paper had printed it in 1951! Wah! Fortunately, I found another, “The last train”, that, as far as I can tell, was first published in newspapers in 1954. They are very different stories, the former being a character piece about a lonely suburban railway worker whose friends notice a change in behaviour and think he’s finally found a woman, while the latter is a more traditional suspense story set, coincidentally, on a surburban train. Both convey subtle wordplays in the their titles.

“The last train” picks up that conversation-with-a-stranger-on-a-train motif, a conversation that will change the life of the protagonist. It’s midnight, and a “nondescript little man in sports coat and baggy slacks” rushes onto the train at Ringwood in the outer suburbs of Melbourne heading for the Dandenongs. There’s a broken light in the carriage so it’s (appropriately) dim. He thinks he’s alone until he notices “a man in a rather comical misfit of hat and light raincoat”. He’s “slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at him”.

Now, our “little man” has had a rather dramatic night. The story continues …

there was nothing in the least sinister in the indolent down-at-heel looks of his solitary companion. He seemed, indeed, exactly the type preyed on by the garrulous; and the newcomer, who was shuddering deliciously with a sense of rare importance, instinctively shifted over to the corner immediately opposite him.

You have probably worked out already that all is not as our “little man”, as he is repeatedly described, thinks. The story builds slowly, starting with a bit of general chat that, if you are looking for it, already contains little hints of menace. But, our “little man” blunders on, ostensibly uncertain at first but in fact keen to tell of his experience that night, while the “other man” listens, gently encouraging him on. Too late does our “little man” realise the truth of the matter, but the story ends there, leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest from the clues given.

Lest you be thinking, it is not the same story as Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a train (adapted by Hitchcock into a film of the same name). And it is not like Christie’s earlier 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. However, it is a well-told, if traditional, suspense story, that is typical, I’d say, of 1950s popular crime fiction and perfect for a newspaper readership. (Whatever happened to the inclusion of short stories in newspapers?)

And that, I think, is the best I can do for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

Bernard Cronin
“The last train”
in Maryborough Chronicle (Maryborough, Qld)
22 November 1954
Available online

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

Some of you know that Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they choose, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1954, and is happening this week, 18-24 April.

I’ve taken part a couple of times, the first time being the 1936 Club for which I also wrote a Monday Musings. I’ve decided to do this again for 1954.

By 1954, World War 2 was over, and the now infamous baby-boom was well underway. Australia was welcoming migrants from war-torn Europe and life was, generally, looking good. However, the war was still close, and the Cold War was being well felt. The war featured heavily in popular literature, but writers were also looking at who we were as Australians, and at our near neighbours.

My research located a variety of books published that year across all forms, but to keep this simple, I am going to focus on fiction. Here is a selection:

  • Jon Cleary, The climate of courage
  • Dale Collins, Storm over Samoa
  • L.H. Evers, Pattern of conquest
  • Miles Franklin (as “Brent of Bin Bin”), Cockatoos (Bill’s review)
  • Catherine Gaskin, Sara Dane
  • Nourma Handford, Coward’s kiss
  • T.A.G. Hungerford, Sowers of the wind: A novel of the occupation of Japan
  • Barbara Jefferis, Contango Day
  • Eric Lambert, The veterans and The five bright stars
  • Henry George Lamond, The manx star
  • Eve Langley, White topee (Bill on The pea pickers and White topee)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie (as “Seaforth” Mackenzie), The refuge
  • Alan Moorehead, A summer night
  • Tom Ronan, Vision splendid
  • Arthur Upfield, Death of a lake
  • Judah Waten, The unbending
  • Don Whitington, Treasure upon the earth

Many of these authors have been forgotten, while others, like Alan Moorehead, are more remembered for their non-fiction work. Some, like Jon Cleary and Arthur Upfield, were successful writers of popular fiction, and are still remembered, albeit probably little read. Women are less evident here, than they were in 1936.

However, this list also includes some significant “literary” writers, like Miles Franklin, Eve Langley and Judah Waten, and others who are remembered today for awards established in their names, T.A.G. Hungerford and Barbara Jefferis. I like the sound of Jefferis’ debut novel. It was set during a single day in Sydney about Miss Doxy, a confidential filing and records clerk. The Barbara Jefferis Award was endowed by her husband in 2007 to commemorate her. 

There were very few literary awards at the time. One that did exist, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, was awarded in 1954 to poet Mary Gilmore for her collection Fourteen men.

Writers born this year included two poets, Kevin Hart and Dorothy Porter, and the novelist Kerry Greenwood. Deaths included, significantly, Miles Franklin.

Overland magazine, to which I often refer, was established in 1954 by Stephen Murray-Smith and Eric Lambert, who had also co-founded, with Frank Hardy, Melbourne’s Realist Writers’ Association.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and the fiction in particular.

Some specific issues

A recurring issue was the cost of books in Australia. A brief article in Adelaide’s Advertiser (January 25) reports on a visit to Australia by Desmond Flower of the large British publisher Cassell & Co. Flower said that English publishing costs had dropped slightly because of reductions in the price of cloth and paper, and the cost of printing was also likely to fall which should bring book prices down in England, “and consequently Australia”. (As an aside, he also noted that book business in Australia had trebled since 1939, which represented a greater increase than anywhere else in the Empire.)

Another discussion concerned the Little Golden Books, and Americanisation of Australian culture. (Nothing new, eh?) Jill Hellyer writing in the Tribune (July 21) argues not only that these cheap books had “pushed Australian authors even further from their precarious position”, when there are excellent Australian books available, but that the books were “full of loose phrases, bad grammar and cheap American slang”. She admits some in the series are good, but is particularly scathing about the Disney versions of classic children’s stories. There was a riposte, in the Tribune (August 11) from a “West Australian mother” who argued that “it is possible to select, from among these books, ones that can be good and useful for our children”. She didn’t mind ‘reading the words “sidewalk” or “cookies” because it provided her the “opportunity to explain this is how people talk in America”. From her point of view, these understandings help us get to know other people and cultures. However, while she disagreed with Hellyer’s specific cultural concerns, she agreed that “some [Golden Books] are very unpleasing, notably the ones based on Walt Disney’s films that were mentioned by the author of the article”.

Censorship was also discussed. The highly-respected Australian librarian John Metcalfe was quoted in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (August 10) as arguing against proposals (from both the right and the left) to extend censorship. The particular target was comic strips and books believed undesirable for children. Censorship, he said, is against the “liberal tradition” and was a “negative approach to the problem”. The Children’s Book Council, he said, “shows that a positive approach can be made in encouraging children to tackle a better type of literature.”

Similarly, a commentator in Wagga Waga’s Daily Advertiser (September 2) expressed concern about plans to extend censorship. Accepting that there there was a “a plethora of cheap and sexy trash on the market” and “an emphasis in some publications on crime and violence”, and agreeing that these can present “a danger to the younger generation and the lesser intellects [defined how?] among the adults”, this commentator believed that “a ban on ‘obscene’ literature is too dangerous to be countenanced”, and goes on to argue the case. There must be other ways, our commentator says, because

Once books are banned or burned, freedom is on the way out.

Some specific books

I could write screeds on reviews of particular books – even though I only read a tiny percentage of the articles I retrieved in Trove – but that’s not practicable, so, I’ll just share a few.

Brent of Bin Bin’s Cockatoos was much approved – and was also recognised by then as the work of Miles Franklin. IM (Ian Mair?) summarising the year’s books in Melbourne’s The Age (December 11) wrote “In the year’s fiction, first must come The Cockatoos … Like all her novels of country life, it has a wonderful feeling for place and period”. Earlier in the year, the writer of the Books Received column in Townsville’s Bulletin (April 18), wrote:

The theme is the universal one of the conflict between the artist and the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously, but the novel is also another Brent of Bin Bin’s memorable recreations of place and period in Australian country life. It is concerned particularly with the problem if the “exodists” — the restless young Australians who fifty years ago sought art of adventure, and in so doing suffered uprooting and exile. 

Oh dear – “the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously”!

There’s superlative praise for popular writers of the time like Jon Cleary and EV Timms. T.A.G. Hungerford‘s Sowers of the wind was also much liked. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that this novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson until 1954 “because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces”.

But I’ll save my last discussion for Eve Langley’s White topee. There were many reviews for this book, which continues the story of Steve from The pea pickers, but most seemed to be variations on a theme, which is to say, they praised its creativity but expressed some uncertainty too. Langley remains a challenging author for many, but her contemporary reviewers did value what she offered.

The Newcastle Sun’s (August 5) reviewer perhaps puts it best, opening with

It is impossible to judge White Topee by Eve Langley according to the established standards as the author has embarked upon the adventure of writing in a way that is completely original and individual.

The review uses headings like “poetic passages”, “heady style”, and “impressionistic”, but also gets Langley:

There are so many strands in this study of the country that the author’s impressions come tumbling with enough dazzling rapidity to suggest eccentricity, but the work on closer examination is revealed to be composite and, the result of shrewd observation and searching frankness.

M.P. in Queensland Country Life (August 5) is more measured, writing that it “could have been an outstanding book” but “is full of ego”. M.P. admires much in Langley’s passion and the writing:

Her love of Australia is deep and emotionally strong, and on the too rare occasions when Eve Langley forgets the poets and calls on her own descriptive powers she gives passages that, with their beauty and strength, are pure classics.

M.P. concludes that when Langley “extricates herself from the morass of sentimentality and confusion of mind she will write a book that is truly great”.

R.J.S., reviewing in Cairns Post (August 14) admired the book. S/he starts by saying “it has brilliant descriptive passages and much originality of thought but lacks a plot and is not a novel when judged by the usual standards”. S/he make a strong case for the work’s value:

To date no one has interpreted Australia and its people as Miss Langley has done in “White Topee.”

R.J.S. advises that the novel “cannot be skipped through” and suggests that “the careful reading it deserves will disclose that the writer has opened a new furrow in the field of Australian literature”.

I’ll leave White topee there, and will conclude my introduction to 1954 in Australian fiction with popular non-fiction author, Colin Simpson, who is quoted in Grafton’s Daily Examiner (December 23) as saying:

If one person in three would make one of his or her Christmas gifts a book by an Australian author, that could sufficiently enlarge the market to make authorship economic for more than just a few of us. The effect on our national literature could be very considerable.

Plus ça change?

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1954 Club?