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Six degrees of separation, FROM Turn of the screw TO …

October 3, 2020

One month into spring here down under, and it is so lovely, particularly with daylight savings starting tomorrow. That will hopefully mean not being woken at 5am by sun and birdsong, much as I enjoy the latter! Now though, onto today’s business, this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  As always, if you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Once again, the starting book is one I haven’t read, though I have read and enjoyed several books by Henry James. The book is his Turn of the screw. Published in 1898, it’s a classic Gothic mystery featuring a young governess, in a country house.

Louise Mack, Girls togetherI was tempted to go with governesses for my first link, but decided to do something different and go with year of publication. Louise Mack’s Girls together (my review) is a little known Australian coming-of-age novel that was also published in 1898. Commencing as a school story, it’s about protagonist Lennie’s transition from self-focused girlhood to adulthood and its associated more mature world-view. Her life and choices are paralleled to those of her friend, Mabel.

Book coverAnother book which starts with young girls who meet at school – at Vassar College in fact – is Mary McCarthy’s The group (my review). In this case, however, we are talking eight girls, and we follow them through many years of their post-school life.

Book coverMy next link will be obvious to Australians as it is a book which talks about a group of women friends at the other end of their lives – that is, women in their 70s. The book is Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review).

Book coverWhile the main focus of Wood’s book is the women, there is another important character, Finn, the aging dog. He doesn’t have a voice in the novel, but a dog who does is Maf the dog in Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of Man the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). Phew that’s a title, but it was, as I recollect, an enjoyable book!

Book coverAnd here is where I get to the point I really wanted to get to because today, Saturday 3 October, is National Bookshop Day in Australia (or, it seems, now called Love Your Bookshop Day). You may be wondering how I am going to link to this? Well, Marilyn Monroe, as you probably know, was a big reader, so I’m linking to author Ann Patchett’s essay, The bookshop strikes back (my review). I reckon Marilyn Monroe would have loved this little book had she still been with us.

Book coverTo strengthen this post’s tribute to bookshops, I’m sticking with them for my final link. Ann Patchett, as you also know I’m sure, is an independent bookshop owner as well as an award-winning novelist. I included her in my post on author-run bookshops last National Bookshop Day. Another bookshop-owning author I listed in that post was Louise Erdrich, so it’s her The bingo palace (my review) that I’m using for my final link.

Although I didn’t intend it, I’ve stuck very much to anglo-speaking countries this month – Australia, Great Britain and the USA. Moreover, all my authors but one, this month, were women. Not wonderfully diverse then! However, on the plus side, I did manage to work in a tribute to reading and bookshops, because initially I’d headed off in a different direction. 

And just so you know, my favourite fabulous bookshops here are: National Library of Australia Bookshop, Paperchain Bookstore and Harry Hartog Bookseller (Woden).

Now, the usual: Have you read Turn of the screw? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

And, this month  a bonus question: Would you, wherever you are, like to give a little shout-out to your favourite independent bookshop? 

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows (#BookReview)

September 30, 2020

Book coverBroadly speaking, Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, reminds me of Anita Heiss’ choclit books like Paris dreaming (my review). By this I mean it presents as an escapist romcom genre novel but within it is some serious intent. In this case it relates to the oppression of women, particularly widows, and, more specifically, the problem of honour killings, in Britain’s Punjabi Sikh community.

The story concerns the “still searching for her calling” Nikki, who, twenty-two-and-a-half years old with half a law degree behind her, obtains a job teaching writing to immigrant Punjabi widows in Southall, the heart of London’s Punjabi community. Except, what she finds is that these widows do not want to learn to write:

I’ve survived all this time without reading and writing; what do I need it for now?’

What they want is to tell stories – erotic ones – to each other. What they want, really, is companionship and a safe place to be themselves, away from the oppressive eyes of a traditional community dominated by the self-appointed “morality police”, the Brothers.

And here is where some darkness comes in, because within this community, several young women have died. Officially, these deaths are recorded as accidental or suicide, but it gradually becomes apparent that all may not be as it seems and that murder and honour-killing may be involved. Widow Sheena chillingly says later in the book that “in this community I’m suspicious of accidents.” The novel, therefore, is a romcom-cum-crime mystery.

Paralleling this story of the widows and their writing class is that of Nikki and her nearly 25-year-old sister, Mindi. Born in England to Punjabi immigrant parents, they represent the other side of the cultural coin – to a degree, anyhow, because Mindi, a nurse and (still) unmarried, is considering “embracing our culture” and going the traditional arranged marriage route. This shocks the freer wheeling, English-to-a-core-she-thinks, Nikki, who tells Mindi:

This is what young women do in Britain! We move out. We become independent. This is our culture.

Even so, our modern Nikki does sometimes feel “split in two parts. British, Indian.” Fortunately, Nikki meets a man the more usual way – by serendipity – and love starts to bloom. But, this is a rom-com so, as you’d expect, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth and soon enough Nikki finds herself wondering why this man is behaving a little strangely.

As with Anita Heiss’s choclit books, what lifts Erotic stories for Punjabi women out of the straight chick lit genre, is its interrogation of social issues. Besides the above-mentioned mystery concerning a young woman’s death, two other issues are reflected in the lives of these characters, one being the challenges faced by young first generation women, and how they navigate the two cultures they find themselves straddling. By having Nikki and Mindi handle this quite differently, Jaswal reveals the complexity of what this generation faces. Then we add in Nikki’s new love, Jason. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that his experience of being a first generation Sikh man from the USA, and the expectations placed on him, adds commentary to Nikki and Mindi’s thoughts about life, love and marriage.

The other main issue is the oppression of Punjabi Sikh women, particularly but not only widows, within their own culture and in the culture of their adopted home. Our widows are invisible in their own community. Without their husbands they are seen as and feel “irrelevant”. However, these Punjabi women overall haven’t made any inroads into the English community either, feeling the English “haven’t made their country or their customs friendly” to them. “Britain”, Nikki realises, “equalled a better life and they would have clung to this knowledge even as this life confounded and remained foreign.”

There is, then, a lot going on here, but Jaswal, whose first novel, Inheritance, earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award, knows how to construct and move along a plot. She also knows how to entertain. The erotic stories are a bit of a hoot. With our widows finding creative synonyms for certain body parts, you may never look at a cucumber the same way again. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, which my reading group enjoyed, and there are some lovely touches of irony. For example, the earnest Kulwinder, interviewing Nikki for the writing class, starts to sense that Nikki’s idea and her own may not be aligned:

It dawned on Kulwinder that she had advertised for something she did not understand.

The joke, though, is on Nikki too, because for all her “passion to help the women”, little did she expect just how that “passion” might play out!

My favourite books are those which touch the heart and challenge the mind. Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, for all its serious intent, primarily meets the former. It ticks all the boxes: it’s fun to read, has likeable characters, and its message is valid and relevant. For me, though, it’s a little too obvious and predictable, and the resolution is too neat to give the book the sort of gritty, punchy power I love. However, I enjoyed the read and recommend it to anyone wanting an enjoyable romp of a read with a little meat on its bones.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

Balli Kaur Jaswal
Erotic stories for Punjabi widows
London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9780008209902 (eBook)
299pp.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Nib Literary Award

September 28, 2020

The Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award is a somewhat unusual award that I’ve been receiving notifications about for years, but have never posted specifically on (though Lisa of ANZLitLovers has.) It’s unusual for a couple of reasons. One is that its focus is on celebrating “excellence in research and writing in Australia”, and the other is, as the website also says, that it is “the only major [national] literary award of its kind presented by a local council”.

The award was established in 2002 as the Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature, but was renamed The Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award in 2017 to recognise the Morans’ significant sponsorship of the award. Exactly who initiated it is a little unclear, but it seems that the Australian author and playwright Alex Buzo (1944-2006), who lived near and prolifically used Waverley Library, and Chris Haywood, Patron of the Friends of Waverley Library*, were instrumental. (I love seeing a Friends’ group involved in something like this.)

The award is open to all Australian writers regardless of their experience, chosen subject matter or genre. The judging criteria are: excellence in research, high level of literary merit, readability and value to the community. These are interesting criteria and reflect, I understand, the ethos, passions and goals of both Alex Buzo and the Waverley Council. Announcing the 2019 award, City Hub Sydney suggested that these are the only awards given out for research and the writing process itself rather than just for the finished product. The shortlist and winner are chosen by an independent panel of three judges, of which Alex Buzo was one in its first few years.

There are additional prizes, but again their history is a little uncertain:

  • Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize of $1000 to each shortlisted author (added in 2006?)
  • The Military History Prize of $3000, supported by the Bondi Junction, North Bondi, and Rose Bay RSL Sub-Branches to commemorate the ANZAC centenary, “for a work that illustrates the service and sacrifice of Australian service men and women, families or the broader home front, during or in relation to any threat(s) of war” (added 2015?)
  • People’s Choice Prize of $1000 (added in 2017?)

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of EurekaI haven’t been able to find anything about the 2020 Military History Prize, so am not sure about its continuation or, at least, its being awarded this year.

Winners

  • 2002 Tim Low, The new nature (nature/science writing)
  • 2003 Barry Hill, Broken song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal possession (biography)
  • 2004 Geoffrey Blainey, Black kettle and full moon: Daily life in a vanished Australia (social history)
  • 2005 Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s consolation (true crime)
  • 2006 Gideon Haigh, Asbestos house (business writing/company history)
  • 2007 John Bailey, Mr Stuart’s track: The forgotten life of Australia’s greatest explorer (biography)
  • 2008 Christopher Koch, The memory room (novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2009 Robert Gray, The land I came through last (autobiography)
  • 2010 Andrew Tink, William Charles Wentworth (biography)
  • 2011 Delia Falconer, Sydney (history/travel)
  • 2012 Jane Gleeson‐White, Double entry: How the merchants of Venice created modern finance (business writing/history)
  • 2013 Gideon Haigh, On Warne (biography)
  • 2014 Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (Text) (history) (my review)
  • 2015 Erik Jensen, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen (biography) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2016 Rachel Landers, Who bombed the Hilton (investigative writing/political history)
  • 2017 Kate Cole‐Adams, Anaesthesia: The gift of oblivion and the mystery of consciousness (science writing/memoir)
  • 2018 Helen Lewis, The dead still cry: The story of a combat cameraman (biography) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2019 Nadia Wheatley, Her mother’s daughter: A memoir (hybrid biography/memoir) (my review)Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughter

I have read just three, but only two since blogging. It’s interesting, but not surprising, that although the criteria encompass all “genres”, only one of the winning books, to date, has been fiction. We have talked about the role of research in fiction here many times. I would love to see this award grapple with that a little more. There were a couple of novels in the 2020 longlist, including Heather Rose’s Bruny (my review) and Julie Janson’s Benevolence (on my TBR).

In the various announcements I’ve read online, I’ve seen little in the way of judge’s comments, so I don’t know how they’ve assessed the winning books in terms of the criteria, that is, their “excellence in research, high level of literary merit, readability and value to the community”. It would be really interesting to know, for example, what they mean by “readability” and “value to the community”.

Overall, though, I love that this award exists. It’s quite a testament to Waverley Council and its supporters that it has survived, now, for 19 years.

Are you aware of this award, and, regardless, what do you think about its criteria?

* See Nib Waverley’s Alex Buzo page and Wikipedia.

Bill curates: Favourite writers, no. 2

September 26, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

We discovered in August that Thea Astley is Sue’s #3 favourite writer. We’ve always known that Jane Austen (here) is #1. So I thought we should check out # 2. And, if you’re wondering, I’ve looked and there is no #4. Sue of course – she’s a librarian – is astonishingly well organised, so to go to her Jolley reviews, click on Authors above. There you will find authors listed alphabetically, and beneath each author the books Sue has reviewed.

My original post titled: “Favourite writers 2: Elizabeth Jolley”

Not, unfortunately, being a time-traveller, I haven’t managed to see or hear Jane Austen in person. I am, however, far more fortunate in this regard when it comes to the subject of my next favourite writers post – Elizabeth Jolley. I did get to see and hear her at a literary lunch at the height of her career. My reaction was the same as many others – her “little old lady” appearance and voice belied her sharp wit and earthy worldliness.

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

It’s not surprising that she is one of my favourite writers: I call her my antipodean Jane Austen. She is witty and ironic, she is wicked (though blacker than Austen), and she tends to write about a small number of people in a confined, often domestic, situation. But here the similarity ends. While the “character” of Austen’s characters play a role in what happens to them – there’s a reason why Elizabeth not someone like Lydia “gets” Mr Darcy – Austen’s main interest is in the social and economic constraints on her characters. Jolley on the other hand focuses more on the interior. She explores loneliness and alienation. She looks at the disturbing or unsettling sides of relationships, the ‘feelings’ people have but often don’t admit to such as those for a person of the same sex or for a person for whom they should not have feelings for (due, for example, to age differences, power differences, or infidelity). She shows how difficult it is to maintain a long-term intimate or deep relationship that is equal on all levels (physical, intellectual, social, material, etc).

In the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 25, No. 1, 1991), Jolley writes:

In my own writing I have been interested in the exploration of survival (perhaps emotional survival), resilience and responsibility. (I only know this now after several books are written).

How very Jolleyesque that aside is – humble but a bit sly at the same time. She continues a little later to say:

…for the most part my characters are perplexed, anxious, often frightened with perhaps one redeeming aspect in their personalities – that of optimism which might for a time, until it gets out of hand, keep them from the specialist’s doorstep.

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press
Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

The first Jolley I read was the short story, “Night runner”, in an anthology titled Room to move. It introduced me to her concept of alienation and rather black notion of survival, her particular brand of irony, her portrayal of characters who more often than not suffer from some level of self-delusion, and her dark humour. I went on to read Miss Peabody’s inheritance, The newspaper of Claremont Street, The well, The sugar mother, and An innocent gentleman, among others, and have never really been disappointed. I enjoy her use of repetition and self-referencing, the motifs and the characters, even, that reappear in different works. She gets me in the pit of my stomach with her vulnerable but often unkind or downright cruel characters, but makes me laugh at the same time with her depictions of their attempts at survival. You just have to see Ruth Cracknell playing The woman in a lampshade to know what I mean!

I have not yet read all of Jolley’s works. Just as for a long time I kept back one Jane Austen novel because once I’d read it I’d have read them all, I am now doing the same with Jolley. Her books are so delicious they need to be savoured. I’m sure this is not the last post I’ll be writing about her.

Postscript: Since this post I have read more Jolley, but I still have some up my sleeve!

____________________

Bill is right. There is no #4, though I have frequently thought about who would be my number 4. I’ve also wondered about how many favourite writers it would be reasonable to have? I love so many writers, still living and those who are no longer with us … but I think that if I do name a 4th I will stick to ones who have died. And, I think I know who that would be.

You now know my top three writers, as I considered them 10 years ago? Would you care to name your top 3?

Carol Lefevre, Murmurations (#BookReview)

September 25, 2020

Book coverMurmurations is a beautiful, evocative word, and Carol Lefevre’s latest book, titled Murmurations, does beautiful, thoughtful justice to it. It is though an unusual book. Styled by its author as a novella, it reads on the surface like a collection of short stories, except that the stories are not only connected by the various characters who pop in and out, but by an overarching mystery concerning one of them, Erris Cleary, whose funeral occurs in the first of the eight stories.

Murumuration is, you may know, the collective noun for a flock of starlings, something I discussed in my 2016 post on Helen Macdonald’s essay “The human flock”. She says starlings flock for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. Lefevre provides, as an epigraph for her book, an image of a murmuration and the following quote from a paper on starling flocks:

The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is.

These ideas are all reflected, in some way, in Lefevre’s book. But, the book also has another idea as Lefevre explains in her acknowledgements, and that is that each story was inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. If you know his paintings – like “Automat” which inspires the first story – you will know that although they are set in real places, they have a certain paradoxical other-worldliness, which entwines bleakness with a sort of dreamy expectation. This tone also purveys Lefevre’s book.

Murmurations starts with “After the island”. Here, young doctor’s secretary Emily considers the funeral of her employer’s wife, the 53-year-old Erris Cleary. She remembers some mysterious messages that had occasionally broken through the doctor’s patient note recordings, messages that implied Erris was in danger. The book ends with “Paper Boats”, in which two neighbours, Amanda and Magda, discuss Erris’ death, with Amanda going on to write a short story about it. Erris Cleary, then, is the link that joins the stories.

The six stories that come between these opening and closing ones are all, like the two just mentioned, told third person from different characters’ perspectives. All are women except for the titular (and penultimate) story, “Murmurations”, which features a young man. His, Arthur’s, story is the only one in which we finally “meet” Erris as a living woman. Four of the remaining five stories feature women who moved in Erris’ circle – Claire, Fiona, Jeanie and Delia – with the fifth one featuring Lizbie who had a complicated and ultimately tragic relationship with two sons from this circle. She is also the daughter of the final story’s Amanda.

Each story focuses on the dark little accommodations or disturbances in its protagonist’s life. Marriage breakdown, looming dementia, suicide and other events threaten to – and usually do – destabilise the characters. There is a sense of quiet desperation in the stories, even in those that look to be alright on the surface. Claire (“Little Buddhas everywhere”) clings to the husband who has remarried. She relies on his sense of responsibility, not to mention her faith in her inherent lovability, to keep him looking after her as well as his new family, while Jeanie (“The lives we lost”) is thrown by the fact that the man she married admits years later that he hadn’t loved her then, though he did now. Delia (“This moment is your life”) is starting to lose her mind. She appreciates her second husband but seems to have married the same sort of controlling man she had the first time. And so on.

These are, mostly, the quiet little tragedies of life, the ones that never make the newspapers but that are all around us – if we only knew what questions to ask. As one character or another appears in the story of another, we see the possibilities for impacting each other – as in a murmuration. The overarching tragedy is that for all their apparent connections, no one seems to really see what is happening to the others or to have the time, or even the desire, perhaps, to genuinely care. This is beautifully illustrated in Jeanie’s story. She moves in with her cousin but they can’t connect:

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying. Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.

The implication seems to be that this little murmuration of women is a surface one only, with little protection or warmth afforded to the individual members.

The exception is the mysterious Erris who, in the titular story, speaks to the young Arthur, working in her garden. She offers him the chance to fly:

… and a note, addressed to him, scribbled on a page torn from a blind notebook: Fly away, Arthur. Fly far, be free. Erris.

Around the edges of the paper, cloud shapes were filled with dozens of small, dark, pencilled birds.

The book is beautifully structured to suggest complex layers of links between the stories and characters, layers that would only multiply, I suspect on multiple readings.  The first story’s Emily, for example, is a young girl from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home. Then, after five stories about women linked through neighbourhood lives to Erris, we come to the aforementioned young Arthur. He also comes from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home and was a friend of Emily’s. Will these two, despite lacking the opportunities the others have presumably had, make a better fist of their lives?

The final story adds another dimension. In converting Erris’ death and the mystery surrounding it into a short story that she submits to The New Yorker, Amanda hopes to achieve her writing goal:

to hit one true note. A note that will make sense of something, perhaps of everything, a note that will crack the obliterating silence once and for all.

Can fiction, Lefevre seems to be asking, make the difference? Can we, through fiction, see the connections that we don’t always see in the real lives around us? If it’s fiction like this, written with such clarity and heart, I believe it can.

Challenge logoCarol Lefevre
Murmurations
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2020
108pp.
ISBN: 9781925950083

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Urban vs Suburban

September 21, 2020

Responding to my Monday Musings 10th anniversary post question regarding topics readers might like to see covered, Sue wrote that “there’s so much emphasis on regional writing which is wonderful – since I live outside the cities – but I think urban based fiction could be interesting”. 

Book coverI’ve been pondering this for a long time, in fact, but I’ve kept shying away from it because it’s such a big topic. There are so many questions to answer, before we even get started, beginning with what we mean by “urban”. Sue mentions Garner, Tennant, Park and Tsiolkas as examples of writers who could be considered. Now, Tennant’s Ride on stranger (1943) and Tell morning this (1967), Park’s The harp in the south (1948), and Garner’s Monkey grip (1977) are all clearly urban. That is, they are set in inner city areas. However, do we include suburb-set novels, like Tsiolkas’ The slap (2008) or, say, Patrick White’s The solid mandala (1968), in our definition of urban? Is there a difference, subtle or not so subtle, in the way novels set in inner city areas play out versus those set in the suburbs? I have a feeling there is.

However, Google wasn’t much help. I did find various bits and pieces, including reference to a “new” urban fiction or street lit genre which is, apparently, largely written by African-American writers, and, says the  Wikipedia article, is “as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”. This article, like others I saw about this “new” genre, is somewhat patchy but it does identify what seems integral to urban  literature as I see it, which is that it’s “usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse“Underside” here is the operative word, and refers, for me, to those “socio-economic realities”, Wikipedia mentions. Urban fiction tends (and I am generalising) to be about poverty and the various challenges and ills that occur in such an environment – marginalisation (of workers, women, migrants, and so on), crime, drugs, poor health, insecure accommodation, and so on – most of which stem from a sense of powerlessness. These are the sorts of issues variously confronted by Tennant, Park and Garner, and by other “urban” books I’ve reviewed here like William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (1892) and Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961). Many of these novels are – or owe much to – the social realist tradition. Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney (1934) also fits here.

If we look at urban-set historical fiction, this general trend seems to hold true. Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town (2014), Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (2015), Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (2015), and Janet Lee’s The killing of Louisa (2018), for example, all tell of poor and/or marginalised people, from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

There are exceptions, however. Literature, after all, is not a binary affair. So, not all urban-set novels are about poverty and socio-economic challenges. Ada Cambridge’s novels like The three Miss Kings (1883) and A woman’s friendship (1889), Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888), and Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (1936) are set amongst more comfortable and/or often more educated people. They tend to deal with more personal stories to do with family, marriage and self-determination, particularly for women.

Suburban fiction, on the other hand, is not necessarily cheerier, but the concerns can be different. Almost by definition, its focus tends to be the middle class, and it can be more existential because these characters are not struggling for material survival. So, for example, it can be about alienation and spiritual emptiness. Patrick White is a good example, with The solid mandala being a favourite of mine. Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower is a psychologically dark novel about young girls left to fend for themselves, so has a nod to the realist urban novels, but the crisis these young women face is of another ilk altogether.

Christos Tsiolkas, The slapAnother common topic in suburban novels is family – often family dysfunction. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), set in Perth’s suburbs, is probably the Australian suburban novel of the last few decades, though its protagonists are “battlers” rather than the middle class, and the story is told against the backdrop of history over a few decades. Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap also fits into these family-focused books, but again it’s overlaid with contemporary issues like class, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Steven Carroll’s six Glenroy novels (2001-2019), which I haven’t read, is a series set in Melbourne suburbia. Fairfax literary editor Jason Steger says that these

books have ensured that suburban life has been beautifully chronicled in Carroll’s distinctive style and is ensured a place in Australian literary heritage.

Steger reports that Carroll had read little fiction set in Australian suburbia, besides George Johnston’s My brother Jack (1964). Carroll sees suburban fiction this way

… taking the suburbs, the evolution of the suburb, and ordinary people living in that suburb and looking at the evolution of that place and the people simultaneously and acquiring a panoramic view of the whole thing over a series of novels.

He doesn’t say, though, what that “panoramic” view might be – and therefore how these books might fit into my discussion here!

Anyhow, moving on, the preoccupations and self-absorption of middle class suburbanites is ripe for satire – of which Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (2015) is a perfect example.

Coming-of-age novels are often set – not surprisingly – in the suburbs, like Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (2009), Sonya Hartnett’s Golden boys (2014), and Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (2018).

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerThen, there are the outliers. Where to put Elizabeth Jolley’s novels, many of which are set in  suburbs? Many of her characters are alienated or anxious, so perhaps they are a development of the Patrick White tradition? Amy Witting, Marion Halligan and Jessica Anderson have also set novels in cities and suburbs, some with a wry edge, and many dealing with the challenges women face in navigating contemporary life. And then there’s Sara Dowse’s West block – about to be reissued – which is probably unique here, with its life-within-the-bureaucracy context.

When the fiction – urban or suburban – is set affects the subject matter. Late nineteenth to early twentieth century novels, for example, started to discuss the role and rights of women, aligning with the suffrage and nascent feminist movements. In novels set since World War II, we start to see migration coming to the fore. Madeleine St John’s The women in black (1993) covers both women’s movement issues, and the positive impact of European migration on Australia, in the 1950s. Later novels though deal with some of the uglier aspects of migration – with discrimination and persecution – such as AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015).

Tony Birch, Ghost riverWe are also seeing some urban-suburban set Indigenous novels, like Tony Birch’s Ghost river (2015). These tend to be politically-charged, reminiscent in intent if not necessarily in style, of those earlier twentieth century realist novels.

I have made some wild generalisations here, and my coverage of Aussie lit is superficial, but I hope I’ve stimulated some discussion. I also hope Sue is happy with my attempt to meet her request!

(Links on titles are to my reviews. I haven’t linked other blog reviews, because there are too many, but you know where to look!)

Talking with my Dad: Wattles and Jimmy Woodsers

September 19, 2020

As many of you know, my father turned 100 this year, and three weeks later, my mother died. Life is sad, but Dad and I are soldiering along – with support of course from Mr Gums, not to mention family elsewhere in Australia. What is amazing, though, is how often new little pieces of information, or insights into Dad’s life, are still cropping up! I’m sharing a couple here, to document them for myself and because they might interest readers here too.

Wattle Day

Image of Golden Wattle

Acacia pycnantha or Golden Wattle, by Melburnian (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Wattle Day, as most Australians now know, occurs on 1 September, celebrating the first day of spring here downunder. The golden wattle (acacia pycnantha), which was included in Australia’s coat of arms in 1912, is just one of many wattle species found around Australia, but most tend to blossom in late winter to early spring. Wikipedia provides the complicated origins of Wattle Day, but by the 1910s it seems, most states in Australia were celebrating it, though it wasn’t a nationally gazetted day until 1992.

So, on this year’s Wattle Day, as I was visiting my Dad, he burst into song, with these opening verses:

The bush was grey
A week to-day
(Olive-green and brown and grey);
But now the spring has come this way,
With blossoms for the wattle.

It seems to be
A fairy tree;
It dances to a melody,
And sings a little song to me
(The graceful, swaying wattle)

– by Veronica Mason

I was astonished. I’d never heard this song. Indeed, I had only become aware of Wattle Day relatively recently. However, on discussing the Day with my patchwork-now-coffee group, I discovered that all present, except one other, were very familiar with Wattle Day. What? Then the penny dropped. My father was born in 1920, and most of this group were born in the late 1930s to 1940. The “one other” was, like me, born in the 1950s. So, on thinking about it, I realised that they were born during times of pro-Australian nationalism, whilst that other and I grew up during a period of cultural cringe, a time when we turned away from things Australian.

Wikipedia helped confirmed this. Referencing Libby Robin, Wikipedia advises that “the day was originally intended to promote patriotism for the new nation of Australia”. I sussed out Libby Robin’s article, “Nationalising Australia: Wattle Days in Australia”, in which she talks about the linking of nature with nationalism. After discussing some of the various nature days that were created, she writes that

Wattle Day was the most aesthetic and human-centred of the three ‘days of nature’, and its influence waned as the century wore on. In the 1930s and later the Gould League went from strength to strength. Arbor Day had a steady and strong following, reinventing itself in the 1990s as ‘Arbor Week’. But Wattle Day changed in the early 1930s, eventually fading away altogether. A Wattle Day League limped on in Victoria until the mid-1960s, but the other states were no longer interested.

So, those born in the first half of the twentieth century were well familiar with the day – and its various songs and poems – while those of us born mid-century have only discovered it in recent years, with its revival and 1992 gazetting. Thanks Dad for the song – and the inspiration to suss out Wattle Day a little more.

A Jimmy Woodser

And then, just this week, Dad mentioned a “Jimmy Woodser”! I looked blank! Do you know what a Jimmy Woodser is, because I sure didn’t!

Barcroft Boake portrait

Barcroft Boake, by George Lambert, pre 1913, Public Domain.

So, back to Google I went. I found several references, but this one on Time Gents (Australian Pub Project) blog is particularly good. The post starts by saying:

Jimmy Woodser is a name given to a man who drinks alone, or a drink consumed alone. The name is thought to come from a poem by Barcroft Boake, published in The Bulletin on May 7 1892, about a fictional Jimmy Wood from Britian [sic] who is determined to end the practice of ‘shouting’ (buying rounds of drinks for a group of mates), by drinking alone.

“One man one liquor! though I have to die
A martyr to my faith, that′s Jimmy Wood, sir.”

“Jimmy Wood, sir” to “Jimmy Woodser”!

Barcroft Boake (1866-1892) was an Australian poet best known for his poem “Where the dead men lie”. (In a little digression, I have posted on, and reviewed works by, his niece Capel Boake.)

Back, though, to Jimmy Woodser. There is an alternative anecdotal version of the term’s origin provided in The Brisbane Courier (May 11, 1926), which dates it to the 1860s and a story about two rival publicans. There’s another one in the Dungog Chronicle (July 14, 1942), while this one in Adelaide’s The Mail (7 July, 1945) provides a rundown of several theories. Without doing more research I can’t confirm which is right, but the meaning doesn’t change. (In a fun little aside, the Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser (11 May, 1906) has an article titled ‘A “Jimmy Woodser” Club’ about the creation of the Non Shouting Club, in Araluen, near where I live. Its aim was to reduce the drunkenness that they believed shouting encouraged!)

Meanwhile, Time Gents go on to share a poem by Henry Lawson, titled “The old Jimmy Woodser” (c. 1899). They suggest it could be about a Wollongong character, Billy Fitzpatrick. Its first verse is:

The old Jimmy Woodser comes into the bar
Unwelcomed, unnoticed, unknown,
Too old and too odd to be drunk with, by far;
So he glides to the end where the lunch baskets are
And they say that he tipples alone.

“Too old and too odd to be drunk with, by far”. Well, my Dad is pretty old, but I’ll have a drink with him any day – and look out for more little treasures like this to research and share.

Emuna Elon, House on endless waters (#BookReview)

September 17, 2020

Book coverI’ve said before that I’m surprised by how many takes there can be on World War II, and on the Holocaust, in particular – and once again I’m here with another such story, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters. I hadn’t heard of Elon before but, according to Wikipedia, she’s an Israeli author, journalist, and women’s rights activist. Her first novel translated into English, If you awaken love, is about life on the West Bank, where she lived for many years.

House on endless waters, however, is historical fiction – or, at least, one of those novels which flips between the present and the past. It tells the story of successful Israeli author Yoel Blum who had been told by his late mother to never go to Amsterdam, from which they’d emigrated. However, the time comes when the middle-aged and internationally successful Blum is urged to Amsterdam by his literary agent to promote his latest Dutch-translated novel. While there, he and his wife visit the Jewish Historical Museum, and here, in a little looping video, he catches an image of his mother Sonia in Amsterdam during the war. Next to her is a man holding a little girl, his sister Nettie, but the baby she is carrying is not he! Who is this baby, and where was he?

Yoel returns to Israel, but, after obtaining the incomplete information his sister is able to provide (which is not divulged to the reader), he goes back to Amsterdam, alone, to research his past and write a novel about it. The result is one of those novels within a novel, as we follow Yoel’s journey alongside reading the story he is writing as he uncovers his family’s – and his – past. How much is “true” and how much Yoel imagines is not the point. We are carried along in the horrors of war-time Amsterdam, in stories of decent hardworking people’s disbelief that life could change so horribly so quickly, of Jewish collaborators, of the hidden children, of the most difficult choices people have to make. Elon conveys viscerally the shock felt by Jewish citizenry as one by one their rights are removed and as the foundations of their lives – something they thought immutable in such a place as Holland – crumble.

Much of this story has been told before. Anne Frank comes to mind of course, and many novels have dealt with the ways in which Jewish people were gradually ostracised and betrayed by their own society (the yellow stars, the loss of jobs, the resumption of homes, the rounding up, the transporting to concentration camps, and so on). What makes this one a little different – at least in my reading to date – is its exploration of the hidden child phenomenon, within a larger story of collaboration, betrayal, resistance and difficult choices.

The important thing, however, is less this difference than that it is a deeply absorbing read. Elon’s ability to manage her two story threads, and maintain our interest in both, speaks to a practised, skilled writer. There is no rigid chapter by chapter alternating of stories. Rather, as Yoel becomes increasingly invested in the life of his mother, Elon starts to blend the two stories, with Yoel sometimes feeling himself in both stories at once. As his sense of self becomes increasingly discombobulated, the line between past and present starts to blur:

Yoel would have liked to write about the architectural significance of Amsterdam, about the implication behind the labor invested in the rows of tiny reddish bricks, about the stylized cornices above the windows and the artistic embellishments that adorn every single building. But early the next morning, Sonia is walking along the street, and across the road the police are evicting a Jewish family from their beautiful art-nouveau-design house. The members of the banished family are trying to walk proudly to the truck that has come to take them away …

For Yoel, unlike the tourists he sees blithely enjoying the sun and culture of Amsterdam, “the past is still here” and it begins to overwhelm him.

Why a story-within-a-story?

This bring me to the question of why would Elon use the story-within-a-story-device? I can think of three reasons, the most obvious being that it draws the reader into the story, engaging us in its unravelling along with the protagonist. Secondly, in this case, it also mirrors how many children of the Holocaust generation didn’t know their parents’ stories – weren’t told them – and therefore had to work out those stories piece by piece. Finally, also in this case, it enables Elon to expose the personal development of her narrator, Yoel, who is initially revealed to be decent but emotionally remote. Very early in the novel, we learn this about him:

Perhaps the day will come when he’ll even train himself to live, a day when he will walk the earth like everyone else without being overcome by the thought that in fact it’s odd , even ridiculous to be a human being …

He is, says his wife, “scared of living”. This novel, then, is partly about identity. Yoel didn’t know his past but it’s clear that the traumas of that past had unconsciously impacted him, as we now know they do. Slowly, as he comes to understand who he is, he also starts to live, to be an engaged human being.

Jan Toorop, The Sea at Katwijk, 1887 (Public Domain)

There is much to this book, with Elon and her novelist Yoel drawing on art and music to reflect both Holland’s cultural achievements and its darker side. A motif running through the book is a stolen work of art – Jan Toorop’s The Sea at Katwijk – that had belonged to Sonia’s friends, Anouk and Martin, who are implicated in what happens. Martin suggests to Sonia that the painting is more about Toorop – “every painter evidently knows only how to depict himself” – than place. However, Sonia also sees herself in it: “there she is in black, there in red, there she is borne from wave to wave, moving in the infinite.” For Yoel, this sea “is a huge finite vessel containing infinite waters”. All this contributes to the novel’s message, one which Yoel finally realises Sonia was telling him:

Whatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.

The trick is to know when to fight those waters, and when to let your “heart encounter the heart of the sea” and be at peace.

House on endless waters came to me out of the blue, but what a find. A Holocaust novel, it contains the horrors of that time but is also imbued with a generous, philosophical spirit that, without excusing atrocity, recognises the humanity of those who made selfish decisions and those who had to live with them. We need perspectives like this.

Emuna Elon
House on endless waters
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020 (Orig. ed. 2016)
309pp.
ISBN: 9781760877255

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Writers’ Centre

September 14, 2020

I have written posts now on writers centres in every Australian state and territory, but there is also, would you believe, an Australian Writers’ Centre. Who are they, and where do they fit in?

It seems like they are primarily a provider of writing courses. When you click on the About link on their website, the first thing you read is:

Welcome to the Australian Writers’ Centre

We’re Australia’s leading provider of writing courses and we’re so excited that you’ve found us at last!
If you’d like to improve your writing skills or simply find your inspiration, this is the place.

They say that they offer courses in “in creative writing, freelance writing, business writing, blogging and much more”, and that people love their courses “because of their affordability, short duration and accessibility – a risk-free way to gain new writing skills in a supportive environment”.  Their courses are “created by experts who are active in the industry”. They run in-person courses (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane) and online ones.

Nick Earls, NoHoThey sound and look highly self-promotional, but who teaches their courses? Well, there are some well-known names there, including published (many of them internationally successful) Australian authors, such as Kate Forsyth (best-selling author of fantasy, primarily); Alison Tait (best-selling author, particularly of children’s books); Nick Earls (popular writer of books for adults, young adults and children, and who has appeared here); novelists Annabel Smith (who has also appeared here a few times) and Natasha Lester; plus others including Valerie Khoo, and various journalists and free-lance writers. I notice, for example, that Annabel Smith’s Creative Writing course that started today is sold out.

They also offer other free “resources” or activities:

So, as far as I can tell, the AWC is primarily an organisation offering courses and other resources for writers, both fee-based and free. Unlike the state-based centres it is not a member organisation, but I can’t find anything on their site, not even their FAQs, about their history or governance. (Wikipedia’s article on Valerie Khoo says she founded it in 2005.) This sort of information is not essential, of course. If they are providing a needed and appreciated service, that’s the important thing. But, I’m a librarian-archivist, and I do love it when organisations provide some history on their sites. It’s not hard to do.

A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life. (Barbara Kingsolver, from AWC Newsletter, 6/2/20)

Exactly why I love to read (notwithstanding there are some lives I may not want to be in) … what about you? 

Writers Centres posts: ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Australian Women Writers 2020 Challenge completed

September 10, 2020

I’m very late with my traditional completion post for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge – it’s been a weird and difficult year all round. As always, I will continue to contribute until the year’s end, and do a final round-up then, but I do like to get the completion admin done!

I signed up, of course, for the top-level, Franklin, which involves reading 10 books and reviewing at least 6, and of course I’ve exceeded this. In fact, by June 30, my usual marker for my completion post, I’d contributed 13 reviews to the challenge,

Here’s my list in alphabetical order (by author), with the links on the titles being to my reviews:

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Challenge logo

I don’t set myself specific reading goals, but I do keep in mind a wish to read more indigenous and diverse writers, more classics, and more from my TBR pile. As I wrote last year, these continue to be my non-goal goals. So, how did I go? Well, I read just one Indigenous Australian writer, an Iranian Australian writer, two classics (thanks to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 week), and four (Hooper, Park, Thirkell and Azar) from my TBR*. This is not too bad out of 13 books (I think!), particularly given this weird year. However, I’d like to do more. Let’s see how I go by the end of the year.

Book coverNot included in the above list is Heidi Sze’s book Nurturing your new life, which I have not specifically reviewed. However, I have read a significant proportion of it, and did write up the author event I attended.

Watch out for my 2020 AWW Challenge wrap-up post for the year’s full story!

* All books I read are, by definition, on my TBR, but in terms of my book management, I define my TBR pile as those I’ve had for more than 12 months!