Nonfiction November 2022: New to my TBR

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

Newly found on my TBR

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

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

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

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

Eyes bigger than …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonfiction November 2022: Worldview changers

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

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

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonfiction November 2022: Stranger than fiction

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

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

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

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

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

What can be stranger than families?

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

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

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

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Classic Australian novellas

Novellas in November logo

I have written on and reviewed novellas almost since this blog started, because I love the form. Last year, for Novellas in November (run by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck), I wrote a Monday Musings on Supporting Novellas (here in Australia). This year, I thought I’d address the meme’s first week’s theme, which is Classic Novellas. I am also going to dedicate this post to Brona’s AusReadingMonth, because I know she loves a good novella too!

I love Bookish Beck’s introduction to novellas, in which she quotes American author Joe Hill‘s description of novellas as being “all killer, no filler”. This beautifully captures why I love great novellas – they cut to the chase. This is not to say that longer books can’t also cut to the chase. Of course they can, but novellas often get a bad press because, you know, they are over before you’ve started, they don’t offer value for money in terms of how much you pay per page, etc etc. None of these anti-novella reasons cut it with me, though, because for me writing is all about the punch (broadly speaking) – and you can get that in a short story, a novella, or a full-length novel.

Wikipedia’s article on the novella provides a useful introduction to the form. Do read it if you are interested, but I thought I’d share just one quote from it, because it expands on Hill. The quote comes from Robert Silverberg‘s introduction to the novella anthology, Sailing to Byzantium. He writes that the novella

is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms…it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.

I have discussed the definition of novellas before, and you can read more in Wikipedia, so am not going to go there again, except very broadly. Definitions, after all, are the darnedest things, and here, for this post, I’m confronted with two – “classic” and “novella”. Regular readers here will know that I do like discussing definitions but, perhaps contrarily, I’m also happy for them to be loose. That is, I like definitions to offer a framework for the topic under consideration, but I don’t like them to lock us down. So …

For the purposes of this post I’m going to use meme-leader Cathy’s definitions. Classic, then, means published up to and including 1980 (or thereabouts), and novella means up to 150 pages and no more than 200! (Officially, novellas are defined by number of words but how can readers know that, so pages, for all their variation in size, is it!)

Selected Australian classic novellas

The first novella I can remember reading was in fact a classic Australian one, Frank Dalby Davison’s Man-shy, in my first year of high school. It had quite an interesting history, as Wikipedia describes. Originally self-published through the Australian Authors Publishing Company, it was soon picked by Angus and Robertson after winning the 1931 ALS Gold Medal, before then being successfully published in America as The red heifer. In a post on 1930s Australian literature, I shared that a columnist/critic had written that Davison’s The red heifer “has already been accepted in America, probably to a greater extent than in Australia”. 

Over the decades since then I have read many more … including most of those in the list below (though several were before I started blogging).

  • Jessica Anderson, Tirra lirra by the river (1978) (Lisa’s post)
  • Thea Astley, A kindness cup (1974) (Lisa’s review)
  • Frank Dalby Davison, Man-shy (1931)
  • Helen Garner, The children’s Bach (1984) (my review)
  • Bill Green, Small town rising (1981) (Lisa’s review)
  • Barbara Hanrahan, The scent of eucalyptus (1973) (my review)
  • Elizabeth Jolley, The newspaper of Claremont Street (1981)
  • Louise Mack, The world is round (1896) (my review)
  • David Malouf, Fly away Peter (1982) (Lisa’s review)
  • Gerald Murnane, The plains (1982) (my review)
  • Vance Palmer, Cyclone (1947) (Lisa’s review)
  • Patrick White, The cockatoos: Shorter novels and stories (1974) (Bill’s review)

I’ve included Helen Garner’s novella, although it is pushing the definition envelope a bit, because, when researching its Wikipedia article many years ago, I discovered that Australian academic and critic, Don Anderson, had argued that

There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Garner’s The Children’s Bach.

That is some accolade.

Aus Reading Month logo

This is a small selection, based mostly on those I know and have read. I’d love to hear of your favourite classic novellas – and, if you are Australian, I am particularly interested in classic Australian ones that I haven’t included here.

Written for Novellas in November 2022 and AusReadingMonth.

Nonfiction November 2022: Your year in nonfiction

My participation in Nonfiction November is usually a bit catch-as-catch-can – that is, I often don’t manage to complete every week’s topic – but I do like to start off as though I might, so here I am.

Nonfiction November, as most of you know, is hosted by several bloggers. This year, Week 1 – Your Year in Nonfiction, is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, with the same questions posed for us to consider as last year.

I’m not sure why, but for this nonfiction-November year (that is, from last December to now), I’ve read about 25% more nonfiction than I read in each of the previous few years that I’ve participated. 45% of this reading has been life-writing, 45% essays, and the rest has been “other” non-fiction.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Favourites are always hard to identify, because I tend to get something out of most of what I read. However, if pushed, I’d say Carmel Bird’s Telltale (my review), because bibliomemoirs are always going to appeal to me, and when such a book is written by a favourite writer as Carmel Bird is, then it’s a no-brainer. I loved so much about this book, as my review and follow-up post make obvious.

Honourable mentions are many, but let me just name three, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (my review), because I am a fan of its subject, Elizabeth von Arnim; Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru (my review) because it increased my knowledge of Australia’s history and relationship with our First Nations people; and Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review) about domestic abuse, with particular exploration of coercive control, because I learnt a lot about something I thought I already knew quite a bit about.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

Last year, I wrote in answer to this question that when it comes to nonfiction, my main interests are literary biographies, nature writing, and works about social justice/social history. Nothing has changed in terms of my preferences, but I should add something I didn’t say last time, which is that in terms of nonfiction forms, I do like essays, and there are always a few in my reading diet.

This year, the greatest proportion of my nonfiction has related to literature in some way. Besides the books by Carmel Bird and Gabrielle Carey mentioned above, I have read several fascinating essays from the anthology edited by Belinda Castles, Reading like an Australian writer. One of my posts from that book was about Emily McGuire’s essay on epiphany in an Elizabeth Harrower short story. It has proved very popular on my blog this year. I’m not sure why but I wonder whether the word “epiphany” has attracted search engine hits?

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Again, as I wrote last year, this is hard, because with nonfiction, even more than fiction, what you recommend depends greatly on people’s interests. I have, though, recommended all those books I named under my favourite nonfiction book of the year.

I have also talked much about my most recent read – which is also, really, a “favourite” contender – Biff Ward’s The third chopstick (my post). Given it is about a time my peers and I lived through when we were young, and given it is written with such humanity and heart, it’s natural that I expect to be talking about and recommending it often in the months to come.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

What I am not specifically looking for is more recommendations – not because I am not interested but because I have too many books to read already without adding to the pile (physical and virtual). However, what I always get out of participating in blog events like this is book talk on topics that particularly interest me and, sometimes, meeting new bloggers whose interests are similar to mine (albeit, as with my book piles, I don’t really need more bloggers to follow. I hope that doesn’t sound unkind, but I think many of you understand the quandary! We love the book talk, but it also takes away from the book reading!)

Besides this, I’m always interested discussing wider issues regarding nonfiction and nonfiction reading: Why do we read nonfiction? What do we look for? What makes a good nonfiction read?

This year, with us all having come through a pretty tough few years, there’s the question about whether trying times see us seeking more nonfiction that might help us understand what we are going through or less because we want to escape into an imaginative world. What do you think?

Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune, Ch. 1 (#Review, #1929 Club)

I had identified two novels for my 1929 read, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and another. With Lisa also considering A house is built, I decided to go for the other. I started it, and am loving it, but I won’t finish it in time, so I thought I’d check my Australian anthologies for a 1929 offering, and found one. In the Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature is the first chapter of a book I’d been unaware of until I wrote my 1929 Monday Musings post this week. The book is The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916, by Frederic Manning.

It particularly caught my attention because the title sounds more like a nonfiction book. So, I checked it. Yes, it is fiction, I clarified, and has an interesting history. I’ll start, though, with the author…

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was born in Sydney. An apparently sickly child, he was educated at home, and when a teenager he formed a close friendship with Rev. Arthur Galton, who was secretary to the Governor of New South Wales. When Galton returned to England in 1898, Manning went with him, but returned to Australia in 1900. However, he returned to England in 1903 – when he was 21 – and there he remained. He produced all his writing from there, but the Australian Dictionary of Biography (linked on his name) claims him as Australian.

That’s all very well – for us to say now – but at the time of his death, according to Nicole Moore who wrote his entry in the Anthology, he was “largely unknown in Australia”. And yet, she continues, “his novel, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929) is cited around the world as one of the most significant and memorable novels of the First World War”. Indeed, she writes, it is “often grouped” with Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to arms and Erich Remarque’s All quiet on the western front.

Manning served in the war from October 1915, first as Private (no. 19022) and later as a second lieutenant, though apparently the officer’s life did not suit him. He drank, and resigned his commission in February 1918. Wikipedia explains explains that, with increasing demand through the 1920s for writing about the war, and his having published some poems and a biography, he was encouraged to write a novel about his wartime experiences – and so The middle parts of fortune was born.

The story does not end here, however. The first edition was published privately and anonymously, under subscription, says Moore. Soon after, in 1930, an expurgated edition was published under the title Her privates we, with the author now identified as Private 19022. This version, Moore says, “removed the soldiers’ expletives that strongly punctuate the text”. Acceptable, apparently, for the private edition, but not for the public one! Wikipedia says that Manning was first credited as the author, posthumously in 1943, but the original text wasn’t widely published until 1977.

Wikipedia identifies the book’s admirers as including Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, and T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence is quoted as saying of The Middle Parts of Fortune that “your book be famous for as long as the war is cared for – and perhaps longer, for there is more than soldiering in it. You have been exactly fair to everyone, of all ranks: and all your people are alive”, while Ernest Hemingway called it “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I”. How could I have not known it?

Now, the book … Wikipedia says that each chapter begins with a quote from Shakespeare – answering a question I had, because Chapter 1 so starts. The source of the quote, however, is not cited, but a quick internet search revealed it to come from Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once;
we owe God a death. … and let it go which way it will,
he that dies this year is quit for the next.

It basically says that we can only die once, and that we’ll all die one day – so, we may as well accept our fate? A soldier’s creed?

Before I say briefly discuss the first chapter, I’ll add that Nicole Moore says that the protagonist’s nationality is not “made explicit” which is “in keeping with the novel’s deflation of military hierarchies and nationalism”. She goes on to say that it explores “the effect of war on reason and selfhood” and is thus “an existentialist study of the extremes of human experience”.

I’ve read several novels, over the years, about World War 1, including – to share another Australian one – David Malouf’s Fly away Peter. It too powerfully evokes the terrible impact of that war.

So, Manning’s Chapter 1 introduces us to a soldier stumbling back to the trenches after some action during which many men had been lost. Soon, he – named Bourne, we learn – is joined by a couple of Scottish soldiers – not from his battalion – and then an officer from his. The rest of the excerpt chronicles his moving through a “battered trench” to join his compatriots in their dugout, before setting off again to meet their captain and retire to their tents in the ironically, but truthfully, named “Happy Valley”.

The tone is one of desperate resignation. Faces are blank (despite “living eyes moving restlessly” in them); no energy is wasted in unnecessary talk; and whiskey is a necessary support after “the shock and violence of the attack, the perilous instant”. The description of their progress from the dugout to the camp above ground beautifully exemplifies the writing:

they saw nothing except the sides of the trench, whitish with chalk in places, and the steel helmet and lifting swaying shoulders of the man in front, or the frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees, and the sky with clouds broken in places, through which opened the inaccessible peace of the stars.

The “frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees” and the “inaccessible peace of the stars” conveys it all – and this is only Chapter1.

If you would like to know more about this novel, you can check Lisa’s blog, as she knew of this book and reviewed it back in 2015!

Read for the 1929 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book).

Frederic Manning
The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929)
in Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature (ed. Nicholas Jose)
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009
pp. 365-369
ISBN: 9781741754407

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1929 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1929, and it runs from today, 24 October to 30 October. For the third time now, I have decided to devote a Monday Musings to the week (my previous two being 1936 and 1954).

1929 is a meaningful year for me, because that was the year my dear mum was born. It was, however, meaningful more universally too, given, as most of you will know, the Wall Street Crash came late in the year and ushered in the Great Depression. But, of course, this happened at end of 1929, so won’t be reflected in the books published that year.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1929-published novels:

  • Arthur H. Adams, Lola of the chocolate and A man’s life
  • Martin Boyd, Dearest idol
  • Bernard Cronin, Toad
  • John Bead Dalley, Max Flambard
  • Jean Devanny, Riven
  • M. Barnard Eldershaw, A house is built (John Boland’s review)
  • Arthur Gask, The lonely house
  • Mary Gaunt, The lawless frontier
  • William Hay, Strabane of the Mulberry Hills: the story of a Tasmanian lake in 1841
  • Fred Howard, Return ticket
  • Jack McLaren, A diver went down
  • Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (Lisa’s review)
  • Myra Morris, Enchantment
  • Katharine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo (Posts by Lisa and me)
  • Effie Sandery, Sunset Hill
  • Henry Handel Richardson, Ultima Thule (Brona’s review)
  • Alice Grant Rosman, Visitors to Hugo
  • James Tucker (as Giacomo di Rosenberg), Ralph Rashleigh (Bill’s review)
  • Arthur W. Upfield, The Barrakee mystery
  • Arthur Wright, Gaming for gold
Book cover

By the late 1920s, there was quite a flowering in women’s writing, which continued through the 1930s. This is reflected in the above list, which includes Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (writing collaboratively as M. Barnard Eldershaw), Mary Gaunt, Katharine Susannah Prichard and the already-established Henry Handel Richardson. Effie Sandery (Elizabeth Powell), Myra Morris and Alice Grant Rosman also appear in the list, but are new to me.

There were very few literary awards at the time, but two that were established in 1928, made awards in 1929: the ALS Gold Medal went to Henry Handel Richardson’s Ultima Thule and The Bulletin’s (unpublished) Novel Competition was won by Vance Palmer’s The passage.

Writers born this year included poet Peter Porter, and novelists Kenneth Cook, Catherine Gaskin, Ray Mathew, and Glen Tomasetti (though she was better known as a singer-songwriter and activist). Deaths included Barbara Baynton, who continues to be the subject of some of my most popular posts.

The state of the art

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

One of the things that shone through the newspaper articles I read was great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature. The papers reported on the meetings of many organisations, including the Australian Literature Society (which originated the ALS Gold Medal), the Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association, the Henry Lawson Literary Society of Sydney, and The Royal Australian Historical Society. The papers noted the issues they raised, and what guest speakers discussed. These included:

  • holdings of Australian literature in school, university and public libraries. There was clearly concern about either lack of good holdings and/or lack of promotion of those holdings. Brisbane’s The Telegraph (8 February), for example, reported that the University of Queensland had approved the purchase of books by Australian authors for the University library from the proceeds of Authors’ Week. Further south, Tasmania’s Mercury (6 December) reported that the Australian Natives’ Association* had decided to write to the Launceston Public Library committee, asking them to set aside a section of their library for “works of all descriptions by Australian authors” and to so identify them.
  • support for Australian literature. A couple of papers reported that organisations had expressed appreciation for the support given to Australian literature by newspapers. Melbourne’s Argus (19 March) quoted a speaker at the Australian Literature Society saying that “the best newspapers of the Commonwealth were making a definite attempt to create a literary tradition, and the standard of professional writing was high, despite the fact that writers appeared to be paid in inverse ratio to their qualities” [my emph]. The Sydney Morning Herald (11 June) repeated similar praise from the Henry Lawson Literary Society which said that “opportunities for Australian writers had been greatly extended by the interest displayed by Australian newspapers and journals prominent among which were the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin. On the other hand, Melbourne’s The Age (16 March) wrote of Australian Literature Society’s point that “more is required of the public than a passive loyalty”, while the above quoted Argus wrote of the public’s “indifference”.
  • lectures on Australian literature. Papers also reported on various lectures given on Australian literature. The Australian Worker (28 August) promoted a series of three to be given by author, editor and critic A.G. Stephens. It was organised by the University Extension Board “in response to numerous requests for lectures on literary subjects”. His topics were Australian Poetry, Australian Humor, and Australian Literature.

This is just a small taste of the sorts of discussions of Australian literature that occurred throughout the year. The final recurring issue I want to share concerned the quality of Australian literature – to date.

Book cover

Journalist Firmin McKinnon had strong views about Australian literature, and I have reported on him before. Then, 1934, he was still speaking about what he was arguing in 1929, which was how “behind” Australian literature was compared with the settler societies like Canada and South Africa. Brisbane’s The Telegraph (6 August) reported on a lecture he gave, in which he pronounced that:

Australian novelists have failed in the main because they have no definite attitude towards life that is worth writing about, because many of the characters are unreal, and because they have failed to interpret the great soul of the real Australia.

He did, however, praise two novels from my list above. One was John Dalley’s Max Flambard, which he described as

the best novel yet produced of Sydney and suburban life, failing only because he had given his novel a tinge of satire which detracts from a true interpretation, and depicts snobbery as the dominating feature of suburban life.

Oh dear, we can’t be satirical about Australia? But, he saves his best praise for the one he sees as “the greatest Australian novel”:

“A House is Built,” by Miss Eldershaw and Miss Barnard. … while it may be too long and too particularised for the average reader, it was a story of the reconstruction of the past, covering the history of Sydney for half a century.

Overall, though, he argues that Australian literature to date was lacking a “definite constructive outlook towards life”. McKinnon was firmly of the opinion, as The Queenslander (6 June) reported on an earlier address, that

some writers unfortunately wallowed in the realism of misery, forgetting that misery was not a dominant feature of Australian life, but light-hearted optimism and courage.

Australian writers “must”, he told the meeting, “tell a story true to Australian life”. I think I’ll leave you with that little thought!

Additional sources:

* Natives, here, meaning “white” Australian-born, not First Nations people, an appropriation issue that was commented on by later historians.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1929 Club?

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?