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?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Our wives under the sea TO …

It’s April down under. Actually, it’s April everywhere – I know that – but, down under, April is autumn, not spring. All those Easter cards with baskets of pretty flowers, not to mention eggs with their hints of fertility and birth, have always seemed out of place. Gradually, though, we are making this time our own. Easter Bilby anyone? And now, with that important message off my chest, 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 debut novel I’ve never heard of – so clearly I haven’t read it (yet again). It’s Julia Armfield’s genre-bending, from what I can see, Our wives under the sea.

Susan Hawthorne, Limen, book cover

Armfield’s novel is apparently a queer story about a relationship that starts to fall apart after one partner returns from “a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe”. I thought a lot about where to go from here, riffing at first on Armfield to Aussie theatre director Armfield who has staged several novelistic adaptations – but that was getting a bit tortuous, even for me. So, I’ve gone with something a bit watery, albeit concerning a flooding river rather than the sea, Susan Hawthorne’s Limen (my review). It’s a verse novel about two women on a camping holiday whose safety is threatened by a rising river, but while there is suspense and tension, there is more here than a simple adventure or suspense story.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight

From here I’m linking on form, because I love to give my favourite verse novels a little push when I get the opportunity. I’ve posted on a few verse novels over the years, but the one I’m choosing is First Nations’ writer, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (my review). A work of historical fiction about a young Indigenous girl survivor of brutal massacre, this book has a subtlety that I found impressive.

Book cover

Next, I’m staying with First Nations’ writers, but moving to a memoir and linking on name. In Tell me why (my review), Archie Roach pays great compliment to his late wife Ruby Hunter who provided much of the stability he needed to turn his life around and become the success he now is. 

One of the main issues Roach confronted, and for which Ruby Hunter’s support was important, was alcoholism. For my next link, I’m returning to fiction, and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review) in which alcoholism plays a significant role in the poverty-stricken life that young Shuggie lives.

Book cover

And now, I’m drawing on this very meme to provide my link. Shuggie Bain is one on the many many starting books I hadn’t read at the time of the meme. It is also one of the very few that I read some time after the meme. Another book in this category is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (my review). If these two books are any guide, I guess I really should try to go back and read more of those unread starting books!

My final link is another one personal one. Hamnet was not one of my reading group’s Top Three picks at the end of last year, but it was one of our two highly commendeds. The other highly commended was Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing (my review) and so I’ve chosen it for my last link. Not a perfect book, by any means, but a good, heart-felt story.

And there, I am back to four women writers and two men in my links. I could perhaps argue that we’ve come full circle given the starting book and my last one are set in watery domains. The authors all come from English-speaking countries – the United Kingdom, Australia, and the USA.

Now, the usual: Have you read Our wives under the sea? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The end of the affair TO …

March. Summer is over and I’m a bit grumpy, as you couldn’t call what we’ve just had, summer. Very few days exceeded 30°C and none exceeded 35°C. But, I can’t really complain. I am not facing war or floods, and last month a new grandchild – a healthy baby girl – joined our family circle. I’m very fortunate. So, we’ll just enjoy autumn, always a lovely season, and get onto this month’s Six Degrees. As always, if you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. For March, she’s chosen a classic, Graham Greene’s The end of the affair. I’ve read a few Greenes but am not sure I’ve read this one, which has to be a gap in my reading …

Jane Austen, Emma, Penguin

I have, in fact, even reviewed a Graham Greene novel here, but that seemed a  bit boring for a link. Moreover, it’s been some time since I included a Jane Austen novel in my chain, so this seemed to be the perfect opportunity. But no, the link is not on English classics, but on books that have been adapted to films of the same name. The end of the affair and Emma (one of my many Emma posts) have been adapted more than once.

Staying with film adaptations, the most recent film adaptation of Emma was the 2020 version directed by Autumn de Wilde to a screenplay by the New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton. It’s to her Booker prizewinning novel The luminaries (my review) that I’m linking next. Helen Garner is another novelist who has written screenplays (albeit original stories rather than adaptations) but she is not my next link!

David Mitchell, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Poet

The luminaries has a large number of characters. Fortunately, Catton (or her publisher) very generously provided one of those character charts at the front of the novel. Another novel that has a huge character list is David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review). No list or chart is provided in this book, but one of my reading group members created one herself. That was in 2010, and over a decade later we still often remind her of her diligence!

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

I know many of you are David Mitchell fans, but for those who aren’t this novel was set in Japan (in Nagasaki in fact). Mitchell, of course, is not Japanese, but English. Another novel set in Japan but not written by a Japanese writer, is Korean American writer Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (my review). This one, as many of you will know, tells the story of a Korean family in Japan. However, that’s irrelevant to my next link, which is a simple one …

Michelle de Kretser, The life to come

Pachinko was published in 2017, along with a few other books, says she cheekily! One of those was Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review), so that’s my simple fifth link. I guess you could say there’s another link here because de Kretser’s book does include some immigrant stories.

Book cover

And now we go from a simple link to an obscure one. The life to come is told in 5 parts, one of which is titled “Pippa passes”. It surely has to be a reference to Robert Browning’s eponymous poem. This made me think of Browning, and epigraphs in books. I love epigraphs! So must Orhan Pamuk as he included four in his novel, Snow (my review), one of which was from Browning. Not from “Pippa passes”, unfortunately, but from “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, on the paradoxical nature of things: “the honest thief, the tender murderer,/the superstitious atheist”. I enjoy paradoxes too, but, luckily for you, I’m at the end of my Six Degrees!

I feel as though I may have gone a bit rogue with my links this month, but I’ve enjoyed doing so. What isn’t rogue is that I’ve returned to my usual proportion of four links by women writers and two by men. We’ve travelled quite a bit – England, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Turkey – with some brief trips to Korea and other spots around the world.

Now, the usual: Have you read The end of the affair? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Jane Sinclair, Shy love smiles and acid drops (#BookReview)

Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, is an unusual book. Covering around two years in her parents’ life, this book comprises, mostly, letters sent between her parents between April 1960 and July 1962 when Sinclair and her mother were in England while her father remained in Australia. Between the letters (and some entries from her mother’s journal), Sinclair adds explanatory information, which ensures the narrative flow.

Sinclair was 5 to 7 years old when these letters were written. Being so young, her memory of that time is scattered, but she has clearly thought much about her parents in her adult life. Also, she remembers family stories of those times told to her later, and she did discuss her parents’ relationship with them, though, as is the way with such things, not as much as she wishes she had. The book was inspired by her finding the letters that underpin this book.

What makes this book particularly interesting is who her parents are, the artist Jean Langley and music critic John Sinclair. You may or may not have heard of them, but these two were part of mid-twentieth century Melbourne’s arts and music scene. In particular, they had close connections with the Heide artistic community, which inspired Emily Bitto’s award-winning novel, The strays (my review), and which was created by two art-lovers and philanthropists, John and Sunday Reed. This community was famous for two things, the art produced there and the complicated personal relationships amongst its members.

Some of Australia’s best-regarded modernist artists were associated with Heide, people like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, and Joy Hester, all of whom appear in this book. Artist Arthur Boyd was also close to these people, though not part of the community. However, Heide was just as well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, for “the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people involved”. Sunday Reed herself had affairs with several in the community, with her husband’s knowledge. This art history is what primarily attracted me to the book, but it was the background rather than the focus that I’d hoped. Instead, Shy love smiles and acid drops is exactly what it says it is, the story of “a difficult marriage”. As we are told on the back cover

when Jane Sinclair was five her mother Jean Langley followed her lover, Arthur Boyd, to London and took Jane with her. This book covers the two years they live there before returning to Australia in 1962, by which time her mother is three months pregnant to an Englishman.

“Your letter makes me cross” (Jeannie)

The letters are difficult reading because of the emotional pain and distress they contain. There are some fascinating insights into London and England at a time when many Australians saw it as a mecca for arts and culture. Indeed, while Jean Langley was there, living near the Boyds, so were their friends, Barry Humphries and his wife.

In her introduction, Sinclair speaks of how the letters caused her to “seriously question” her mother’s “version of herself as the aggrieved, wronged wife that she had cultivated and genuinely believe to be true”. Sinclair was also sorry that she had never allowed her father, who died twenty-five years before her mother, to tell his side of the story. This is understandable given when he died, she had probably not reached that age of (hopefully) wise reflection many of us do later in our lives, that age when we start to really see our parents as human beings, rather than seeing them through the prism of their relationship with us. I think this is so, in even the best of parent-child relationships?

Anyhow, Sinclair tells us that her parents’ relationship was “intense and difficult” from the start. They separated many times, but “there remained an irresistible attraction that kept them returning to each other”. Eleven years of age separated her mother and father, but it seems that personality difference (“not compatible emotionally”) was the essential problem. John Sinclair apparently tended to melancholy and depression, while Jean Langley was a romantic. “She could create sparkle and shine” and “wanted the world to be a beautiful place of happy endings”. All this comes through the letters. John expresses his sadness, his missing his wife and daughter, while Jeannie expresses her frustration with him, and her increasing disappointment with life and human beings, as things become more and more complicated. The England she adored at the beginning of her trip is not so great when it becomes cold and grey, and as the reality of never having enough money sets in.

“a riddle, muddle, fiddle, diddle” (Jeannie)

But what comes through even more is miscommunication, and particularly what seems to be Jeannie’s wilful misreading of John’s letters. When he invites her to return home on her terms – meaning she can live separately from him if she wishes – Jeannie seems to misread that wilfully, insisting again and again that she can’t be his wife, she won’t sleep with him, and so on. Readers wonder where she reads this, because we don’t.

At times, I put my feminist hat on and wondered whether there was something about John that we don’t know. Should I be supporting my down-trodden sister, I started to wonder? But, while there are, naturally, gender issues to do with women’s place in the mid-twentieth century, I don’t read a woman wronged by her husband here. I read a woman who, due to her own personality, and upbringing perhaps, regularly let emotion cloud her ability to reason – to her own detriment as well as those around her. She falls in and out of love twice during this English sojourn – besides the apparently abiding love for Arthur Boyd – and admits in June 1962 that, “I seem to have made a mess of my emotions”.

As the narrative progresses, daughter Jean notes that her mother, who liked to see herself as truthful, strayed often from it:

My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality.

Reading this, I think I would say more than “sometimes”. I have known people like Jeannie, people who have such a zest for life but who wear their emotions so close to the surface that they can’t reason through what is really happening. They can be both joyful and draining to be around, and this is how Jeannie comes across.

This is not my usual review, because, in a sense, it’s hard to review such a personal book. Indeed it’s so personal that it’s worth thinking about its target. There’s some interesting social history here – life in the 60s, the experience of Aussie artistic expats in London, the challenges of communication in those pre-electronic communications days. There’s also a little about the the art world, the odd reference to a Boyd or Nolan exhibition, to the Blackmans, and to Brett Whiteley whom Jeannie calls “a shocking little upstart”. But, overall, this is a nicely presented but intense story of a “difficult marriage”, and it will appeal mostly to those interested in human relationships.

Read for #ReadIndies month (kaggsysbookishramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life). Hybrid is a Melbourne-based independent publisher, with a special but not exclusive interest in Judaica. I have reviewed many of their books over the years.

Jane Sinclair
Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
279pp.
Cover art: from oil painting by Jane Sinclair
ISBN: 9781925736588

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Two new indies

This month – February* – has been designated #ReadIndies month by two British bloggers, Karen (kaggsysbookishramblings) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). The rules are simple: “read anything you like, in any language you like, as long as it was published by an independent publisher”. This is not a difficult reading month for me to take part in, as the majority of my reading comes from independent publishers.

However, the question is, what is an independent publisher? Karen and Lizzy admit that it’s not easy to define, but they mean smaller outfits that print and issue their own works, and aren’t part of a larger conglomerate. In Australia, the Small Press Network (about which I’ve written before) is a good place to start. In the end, Karen and Lizzy suggest “going with your gut”. They also say, quite rightly, that most independent publisher websites will proclaim their independence. I have written a few times about independent publishers. You can find most of these on my Small Publishers tag. In those posts, I’ve named many small and independent publishers. In this post I’m adding two very new publishers which launched during the pandemic: Ultimo Press and Upswell. What a funny coincidence that both start with U!

Ultimo Press

“to be distinctive, a little bit different, to disrupt and to have fun.”

Launched in 2020, Ultimo Press is an independent publisher with the simple ambition of becoming “home to Australia’s best storytellers”. They say they are part of Hardie Grant Publishing (which is now a reasonably large, diverse business with offices worldwide), making me wonder what they mean by “independent”. However, Hardie Grant describes itself as “independent” and “Australian-owned”, so I’m going with it.

Most Australians will assume, rightly, that Ultimo’s name comes from the Sydney suburb, but here is how they describe it:

Named for the Sydney suburb that houses Hardie Grant’s Sydney office, Ultimo references our home – an historic and colourful part of Sydney. The Italian translates roughly to ‘the latest’, and that will be our ambition: to provide a platform for the latest trends and newest voices.

The staff has some extensive industry cred, as the Who We Are page shows.

They “want to excite readers of general and literary fiction (especially the sweet spot in between), and discover non-fiction that inspires and ignites”. Their “hallmarks will be editorial excellence, arresting design, dynamic marketing and publicity, respect and loyalty to our authors, and publishing compelling new voices and original perspectives that reflect the full spectrum of Australian life”.

They have certainly started with a bang, with some of their books already making a splash, like Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (which I gave Daughter Gums for Christmas and she loved) and Shankari Chandran’s Chai time at Cinnamon Gardens. They’ve published Claire G. Coleman, and coming up is Yumna Kassab’s Australiana (March 2022), and local writer Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is is a little wild thing (May 2022). Regular readers here will be familiar with Featherstone’s warm, expressive writing.

Ultimo certainly looks like a new indie to watch, as does …

Upswell

“where have all the adventurous readers gone?”**

Launched in 2021, Upswell is, you could probably say, a passion project, but it’s the passion project of someone with significant cred too. Director Terri-ann White ran UWA Publishing from 2006 until mid-2020. During that time she was responsible for significant publishing output across the genres, but, for litbloggers like me, especially for some great literary fiction and creative non-fiction. Josephine Wilson’s Miles Franklin Award winning Extinctions (Amanda’s review) and Jessica White’s hybrid biography-memoir, Hearing Maud (my review) are just two examples of too many to name.

Upswell is a not-for-profit company, with its directors being three impressive women, Carmen Lawrence, Linda Savage and White.

Like Ultimo Press, White wants to publish distinctive works, but puts it this way. She will publish

a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

She’s shown, with her early list, not to be afraid of forms that often scare off the big publishers, like novellas, essays and poetry. And, like Ultimo, Upswell has started well with one of its first books, John Hughes’ The dogs (Lisa’s review) being shortlisted for last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (not that awards are the only – or main – marker of excellence.)

Upswell is also distributing a bit differently. Of course, individual books can be bought from them directly or from booksellers, but they also have a subscription program, which Lisa and I took part in last year, receiving their first three books: John Hughes’ The dogs, Belinda Probert’s Imaginative possession and Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong’s The sweetest fruit. This year they are offering several subscription packages, which is a great option. You get to support an excellent publisher by providing them some certainty and you get little surprises during the year.

This isn’t the only different thing, however. Upswell also has DGR status, which means that (Australian) donations to them are tax-deductible. Donations will support their Regional Writing and Publishing Workshops, Mentorships with White, a strong poetry list, and their Noongar Voices program.

So, two new indies to add to the ever-growing list of wonderful indie publishers in Australia. Do support them when you can – and, the bookshops which stock (and feature) them. If you don’t see them at your local bookshop, talk to the bookseller. A personal touch is a powerful thing.

Finally, a little aside just in case you are interested, Marcie (Buried in Print) is running a Read Indies series on her blog, in which she is devoting posts to individual Canadian indies.

* The “month” has been extended to 15 March.
** From an article by Terri-ann White in SeeSaw magazine

Six degrees of separation, FROM No one is talking about this TO …

February already … and so another year starts to whizz by, or so it seems to me. Somehow, this Six Degrees theme just makes it all the more obvious as it comes around very quickly. But now, as it’s clear that I don’t have any small talk – or, alternatively I have too much – we’ll just get on with the main game. (Talking of games, wasn’t Australia’s summer of tennis great this year?!) Anyhow, if you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. This month, she’s chosen a book that was near the top of her Best of 2021 list, Patricia Lockwood’s No one is talking about this. I haven’t read it, so let’s push on …

Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

As always, there were so many options for my first link, but I decided to go with the idea of debut novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which was the case for No one is talking about this. Many debut novels have been shortlisted for the Booker since it started, but one that I’ve reviewed here is Steve Toltz’s A fraction of the whole (my review). I’ve chosen it because it was a lively read and – well – because I like to remind us of older books that once made a splash.

Peter Temple, Truth

In 2019, ABR (the Australian Book Review) posted their Top 20 Aussie books of the 21st century, which seemed a bit silly given how early in the 21st century it was. However, it does provide me with an interesting link opportunity. Steve Toltz’s book came in at 17. At 16 was Peter Temple’s detective novel, Truth (my review).

I’m not really a big reader of crime fiction, but I admit there’s some good writing in that genre, including good Australian writing. Truth was an International Winner of Germany’s prestigious literary prize for crime fiction, the  Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Award). And so was Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road (my review). In fact, Disher has won this award a few times.

Book cover

But, hmm, I’ve now linked three Australian books, so I would really like to get us overseas – in books, not just in awards! So, my next link concerns my TBR. Bitter Wash Road had been on my TBR for 8 years when I read it in 2021. A book that had been waiting much longer, from when I bought it in 1995 to when I read it in 2019, was Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace (my review).

Book cover

Now, I’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich on my blog in another capacity besides for this book, and that was as an author who also owns a bookshop. Hers is Birchbark Books and Native Arts, in Minneapolis. Another American author who owns a book shop is Ann Patchett who hit big time with her novel Bel canto (read before blogging.) I read, loved and reviewed her essay (published as a booklet) on bookselling and bookshops, The bookshop strikes back.

And this leads me naturally to another essay by a novelist (and more) who worked in a bookshop, George Orwell’s “Bookshop memories” (my very short review). The essay draws from his work in a secondhand bookshop in London.

I rather like that I’ve gone from a book that deals, at least in part I believe, with the internet and the infiltration of social media into our lives with one about selling secondhand books, in which the author discusses people’s reading tastes! (And, for the first time, ever, I think, the male writers outnumber the female in my six links!)

Now, the usual: Have you read No one is talking about this? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Blogging highlights for 2021

Finally, the last of my traditional, self-indulgent year-end trifecta (which includes my Australian Women Writers’ Challenge wrap-up and Reading highlights posts).

But, like last year, before I launch into my usual analysis, I must send another big shout-out to Bill (The Australian Legend) who continued to curated his Bill curates series of reblogged posts from my blog’s early days to help me over the doldrums in the months after my father’s death. I know I didn’t have to keep posting during that time, but I so appreciated being able to keep up the continuity. Thanks a bunch Bill.

Top posts for 2021

Gradually over the last few years my top posts have shifted to include more posts on recent Australian books. However, a few “usual suspects” posts keep hanging around, and it’s still true that most of the posts are over 5 years old. Regardless of whatever the top posts are, though, they raise the question, why them? They are such a motley lot.

Here is my 2021 Top Ten, in popularity order:

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe

None of these, as usual, were actually published in the reporting year (2021). Other observations:

Book cover
  • Mark Twain’s “A presidential candidate” joined the Top Ten in 2018 and reached 2nd spot in 2020. This year it gained the Top Spot! Curious.
  • Three works made their Top Ten debut, and they are all Australian: Fergus W. Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab, Tara June Winch’s The yield, and Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence.
  • Five of the Top Ten are for Australian works, one less than 2019’s record of 6.
  • Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to safety, a post from 2014, suddenly appeared in 2020’s Top Ten, and remained there? Why now?
  • Barbara Baynton, who has been in the Top Ten for as long as I have been doing this, has slipped out, with “The chosen vessel” slipping from 2020’s no. 5 to no. 15.
  • Red Dog (posted in 2011) was a Top Ten regular until last year when it moved to the Top Twenty, where it remained this year.
  • Seven of the top ten posts were published over 5 years ago.
  • Short stories and essays still feature strongly, but are decreasing – to just three this year.
  • My little post on English language usage in restaurant ordering keeps getting hits!

Five Australian posts appear in the next ten, one more than in 2019 and 2020, and are similar to last year’s: ABR’s Top Twenty Aussie Novels of the Twentieth Century (11) which was a Top Ten last year; Delicious descriptions: Clare Wright’s sources on the Australian landscape (12); Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” (15); Shaun Tan’s Eric (19); and Red dog (20).

As for posts actually written in 2021? Where did they fit? Well, as usually happens, they appear quite low in the list, with the first one ranking 32. Here are the Top Ten 2021-published review posts (excluding Monday Musings and meme posts):

Two from last year’s published-in-the-year Top Ten – Tara June Winch and Julia Baird – made it into the “real” Top Ten this year. Will any of these achieve the same in 2022?

My most popular Monday Musings posts were:

None of these were in the Top Three last year, except that the 2020 new releases post was. My Australian Gothic (19th century) post, which had been in the Top Three for a few years, wasn’t even in the Top Five this year. Maybe life has been too Gothic recently for people to want to read about it?

Random blogging stats

The searches

Help Books Clker.com
(Courtesy OCAL, via clker.com)

I love sharing some of the search terms used to reach my blog, even though changes to Google a few years ago dramatically reduced search term visibility. However, some still get through, and some find me despite some aberrant spelling at times.

  • there are always some searches that truly make me laugh, or mystify me: jane austen corner laughing; new panjabi sexy stories; chinese gym “guest post”
  • as last year, several searches seemed to be for a school or college assignment about Sherwood Anderson’s short story “Adventure”. Some hopefuls type in the whole question: explain the significance of the title ‘adventure’ by anderson; adventure by sherwood anderson 4. who should be blame for alice’s tragedy [I wonder what the previous three questions were?]
  • I have mentioned Austen scholar Gillian Russell, but my post wouldn’t have helped this searcher: “gillian russell” husband canberra
  • some searches are so general, I’m amazed they found my blog. I have no idea if they find what they want. Try this one: winner announced OR erotic story

Other stats

I wrote 154 posts, one more than in 2020, and just under my long term average of 158. This represents an average of nearly 13 posts per month..

Merlinda Bobis Fish-hair woman

Australia, the USA, Britain, in that order, continue to be the top three countries visiting my blog. The next three slots mirrored last year’s: India, the Philippines and Canada. The Philippines seems to be here primarily because of continued interest in my post on Philippine-born Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-hair woman. I think she’d be pleased. Anyhow, Germany, France, Mexico and China, in that order, round out the Top Ten.

Challenges, memes and other things

I only do one challenge, the AWW Challenge, which I wrapped up last week, and one regular meme, #sixdegreesofseparation run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). I occasionally do others, which you can find on my “memes” category link.

I also took part in Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Indigenous Literature week, Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week Part 2, and Nonfiction November. More casually, I toyed with Novellas in November (Cathy of 746 books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck), the #YEAR Club (Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling and Simon of Stuck in a Book), and Brona’s Aus Reading Month.

All of these align with my reading practice, and frequently give me a welcome opportunity to delve into the TBR.

Being blogging mentor for the New Territory program (2017-2019) was a highlight, until the pandemic struck. Now, online communications have moved on, and thus, I’d argue, also the original impetus for this program. However, I want to report on the activities of its “alumni”. Angharad continues to actively blog at Tinted Edges and has had some wins in short fiction competitions, while continuing to work on her novel. Emma Gibson is now based in Melbourne, and following her dual interests of playwriting and writing about place. Amy Walters is building her excellent criticism cv. You can find a list on her blog, including several published in 2021. This year I reviewed These strange outcrops, a special edition of Rosalind Moran’s Cicerone journal. Rosalind continues to write poetry and reviews from her current homebase in Cambridge, UK. Shelley Burr, as I reported last year, won a Debut Dagger for her Aussie noir unpublished manuscript, Wake. It is now set for publication this year with Hachette. I will be reading it. Watch this space.

And so, 2022 …

As I say every year, a big thanks to all of you who commented on my blog this year – the regulars who have hung in with me year in year out, and the newbies who have taken the time to visit and comment. I do hope you stay, because, for me, the conversations are one of blogging’s biggest delights. They help us, I think, grow as readers. Also, as I wrote last year, the friendly but fearless sharing of sometimes opposing ideas demonstrates that social media can be positive and respectful, that communications technology can be used for good. I love being part of proving that.

Beyond the commenters, though, I also want to thank all you wonderful bloggers out there. I apologise for not always managing to visit everyone as much as I’d like. I wish you all good reading and great book talk in 2022.

Finally, huge thanks to the authors, publishers and booksellers who make it all possible (and who have put up with my extreme tardiness this year, but I am catching up). Roll on 2022 …