Six degrees of separation, FROM Stasiland TO …

It’s April and finally the first starting book for 2020’s Six Degrees of Separation that I’ve read. If you are new to blogging and don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Anna Funder's Stasiland bookcoverNow to April’s starting book, the critically acclaimed, multi-translated, award-winning nonfiction book by Australia’s Anna Funder Stasiland (my review). Have you read it? If you haven’t do consider it because it’s not the sort of book to go out of date.

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lostStasiland tells the stories of Stasi officers and collaborators and of those who suffered at the hands of the Stasi in the then East Germany. Largely because of this book, Mr Gums and I made a point of going to Leipzig in 2013 and visiting the Stasi’s Runde Ecke headquarters there. Anyhow, in announcing this book, Kate described it as a “classic on tyranny and resistance”. There are so many books that can link from that, so I’ll be interested to see what my co-meme-players do. I’ve decided to choose a related aspect, surveillance, which was fundamental to the Stasi’s tyrannical practices, and link to Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost (my review).Book cover

From here, I could take a cheery turn and link on, music, say, or the classics, but I’m going to stick with serious themes. Orpheus lost is partly about how terrorism leads to fear, surveillance and the loss of freedoms. Hospital was interested, she said, in the trading of civil liberties for safety in the post-9/11 world. However, I don’t want to spend all this post on this issue, so I’m making a cheeky jump to David Brooks’ The grass library (my review). It’s an animal rights focused memoir in which one of the main “characters” is Orpheus the lamb!

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashFrom here it’s a very simple jump to another animal rights book, this one about the live export business, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review). I remember that when he sent the book to me, co-author and publisher Julian Davies described it as the most important book they’d published.

Book coverSo, I’m going to stick now with Julian Davies, or, at least, with his publishing company Finlay Lloyd, and link to the latest book of theirs published, John Clanchy’s In whom we trust (my review). One of the commenters on my post – someone who knows the author – described it as “an origin story” for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is about child abuse, but is also about, as commenter David wrote, “the institutional tension between the Brother’s and Clergy power structure within the Church”. It’s a powerful, but deeply human read.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksTrust, as Clanchy shows, is in short supply between powerful institutions and those who have no power and who, by rights, should be able to trust those who are not only able to but who morally should protect and support them. Rebecca Skloot had to work very hard to gain the trust of African-American Henrietta Lacks’ poverty-stricken family to write her scientific biography The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (my review). This book is both a fascinating story of scientific discovery and a horrifying story of the abuse of people’s trust and, in fact, their rights.

Elliot Perlman, The street sweeperI am going to stay in America for last book, albeit the author is Australian, Elliot Perlman. The street sweeper (my review) is about many things, but the titular character is street sweeper Lamont Williams, an African-American, who has just started work as a janitor at a cancer hospital in a pilot program for ex-convicts. He is innocent of the crime that put him in jail but his colour and poverty meant he didn’t have a chance. This book which links the Holocaust to Civil Rights in America is fundamentally about moral responsibility – which, of course, is not what the Stasi practised at all!

I have stuck with politically charged books this month – and why not given the important role writers play in keeping us honest. So, I am going to conclude with Orwell from his essay, “Why I write”:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

PS I wrote and scheduled this before COVID-19 restrictions took hold internationally. I decided not to rethink my post in the light of that but to leave you with what initially inspired me! However, I’ll add that I wonder what writers will make of COVID-19. When will the first COVID-19 novel appear? From where and from whom will it come, and what will be the take?

Anyhow, now the usual: Have you read Stasiland? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Six degrees of separation, FROM Wolfe Island TO …

It’s March, so soon? Oh well, at least we have another Six Degrees of Separation to look forward to. As always, for those of you who don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Once again, but I’m used to this now, I haven’t read Kate’s starting book, Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. I am, I must say, more embarrassed about this than usual, because Treloar is an Australian woman writer and I do like to support them!

But now, crunch-time. Because life has been busy lately, I am going to be lazy. Not only am I going to make this post short and sweet, but all my links will be on words in the title or author’s name, with a little bit of poetic licence taken along the way.

Book coverSo, we start with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island

and immediately time-shift back to Tudor England and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my review).

From here, we return to our times and Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (my review).

Now, I just can’t let “stolen” pass without referencing Carmel Bird’s (ed) The stolen children: Their stories (my review).

Children takes me to Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review) …

at which point I beg your forgiveness, because we are going to Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs (my review).

Dogs! Now there’s an embarrassment of riches. Since blogging, I’ve read several books with “dog” in their title, so which to choose? I thought, in the interest of gender diversity, that I should choose one by a male writer, but in fact most of them have been written by men, so, I’m just going to spin the dice and land on … Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). I mean how can you resist a title like that!

So, short and sweet as promised. What more can I say, except …

And now, the usual: Have you read Wolfe Island? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

POSTSCRIPT: This went out with last month’s title – that’s what you get for being lazy and copying old posts!

Six degrees of separation, FROM Fleishman is in trouble TO …

Here we are at our second Six Degrees of Separation meme of 2020. For those of you who don’t know what this meme is and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Once again, but I’m used to this now, I haven’t read Kate’s starting book, Fleishman is in trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. However, I devised a lovely – well, I think it was – chain for it. Then, as the fires and smoke in my area just got worse and worse this week, I decided to go off script and riff off the title to create my own theme for this post, Australia is in trouble! I’m not going to link my books, but just share six that I’ve read which address, in some way, climate change.

In his 1946 essay, “Why I write”, George Orwell lists four main purposes for writing, the fourth being:

Political purpose: Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

The other purposes, if you want to know, are “sheer egoism”, “aesthetic enthusiasm”, and “historical impulse”. Orwell goes on to say that “in a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” Of course his times were different, so his issue – totalitarianism – is different to the ones confronting us now (though, then again, perhaps not!) Anyhow, my point is that in this post I’m going to share six works by writers who also write with a political purpose.

Melissa Lucashenko’s “How green is my valley” (2006) (my review): an essay in Griffith Review’s climate-change-focused issue (12), Hot air: How nigh’s the end. Indigenous writer, Lucashenko addresses climate change, recognising that many non-Indigenous Australians also love the land. She suggests that a “bicultural” approach, which spans the chasm “between industrial and indigenous views of the ‘good life’ and what constitutes a proper society”, would be a good place to start.

Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) (my review): set in a bleak climate-damaged Melbourne of 2030, where it’s very hot, and clean water is harder to come by and more expensive than beer. Its main protagonist, Caddy, is living rough, having lost her husband and home in a heatwave-induced fire a couple of years before the novel opens.

Annabel Smith’s The ark (2014) (my review): set in the 2040s, during, as Smith describes it, “a post-peak oil crisis. The polar ice caps have melted. Crops are failing. People are starving and freezing to death.” Interestingly, given my George Orwell intro, a major theme of this novel is how, in such a world, charismatic-despotic leaders can come to the fore.

Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (2015) (my review): a family drama, but one framed by farming and the land. Climate change hangs over this novel, with its depiction of father Bruce and daughter Laura struggling against drought, bushfires and land degradation to keep their farm going. By 2018 (a little into the future at the time the novel was written), Laura has given up the struggle, because “the climate had long stopped being something she understood”.

Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s Here where we live (2016) (my review): a collection of short stories about the relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, and the relationship both have with the land. Although not specifically a cli-fi book, concern about land, the environment, and climate change suffuses the stories. In the last story, a terrible storm occurs, and a character says:

‘It’s climate change, of course,’ you say knowingly. ‘They say that these one-hundred year storms are occurring so frequently now that the name no longer bears any meaning. But we need to keep the name so that we can understand that this kind of storm is so severe it should only occur once every hundred years. We need the name so we understand that something has gone wrong.’

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland (2017) (my review): set in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and tells the story of the Australian continent, post-white settlement, from 1796 to 2717. One of its five time-periods is 2033 in which climate-change has caused utter devastation to the land and a dystopia is playing out.

So, a different Six Degrees post, and one not necessarily featuring all the most obvious Australian climate-related books. Although all mine are by women, men have written some too. It’s just that I haven’t read them. The main point is that writers are addressing this issue, doing their best “to push” all to see that Australia is in trouble. The question is whether the people who need to read them are in fact reading them?

And now, the usual: Have you read Fleishman is in trouble? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

World Bee Day 2018 – and literature

Apparently today, May 20, is World Bee Day! Who knew? Not me, until this morning. I understand it was designated last December by the United Nations, on the recommendation of Slovenia. Given the rise of cli-fi literature and the importance of bees to our planet, I’ve decided to give a little shout out to our fabulous bees today.

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of honey. I love the idea of it – of all those exciting flavours you see – but if I can choose between honey and maple syrup, it’s maple syrup I take, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, bees aren’t just about the honey, as I’m sure you know. They are critical to our planet for their busy little pollination activity. The World Bee Day website says that bees and other pollinators pollinate “nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food” and that “a third of the world’s food production depends on bees.” In addition, their pollination activity is critical for ecological balance and diversity, so much so that their presence, absence or quantity is a significant indicator of the health of our environment. In other words, we need bees … but they are  are in decline, due to a combination of factors including pesticides, climate change and disease. Hence World Bee Day.

Bill McKibben, Oil and HoneyBack in 2013 I read and reviewed American climate activist Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and honey: the education of an unlikely activist. It’s about the two important things in his life: bees, honey and good farming practice, and oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. They’re all related.

However, that’s a work of non-fiction, but increasingly fiction is dealing with climate-change, resulting in the genre called cli-fi (ie climate change fiction.) I’ve reviewed some cli-fi here, but none focussing on bees, so this post is as much for my benefit as yours. (This is why I love blogging – I get to research something I’m interested in and then share it with anyone who is interested.)

So, here is a small selection, in alphabetical order by author.

James Bradley, Clade (2015)

James Bradley, CladeAustralian author James Bradley’s book Clade is more broadly about climate change than the other books in my selection here, but it does have bees on its cover. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Caroline Baum describes it as follows: “A global deadly virus, the collapse of bee colonies, extreme weather events causing social unrest, eco-refugees, infertility, autism and new advances in technology – these are just some of the themes of James Bradley’s new novel, Clade.” The bees, I understand, mainly feature in a sub-story about a refugee beekeeper who is concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder. However, this sub-story and the presence of bees on the cover suggest their importance to Bradley’s overall theme.

Moya Lunde, The history of bees (English ed. 2017)

Maja Lunde, The history of beesThe Saturday Paper’s reviewer, KN, describing Norwegian author Lunde’s The history of bees as presenting “an original angle” in the cli-fi realm, says that “the dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006.” As The Atlantic’s reviewer writes, its premise is simple: what would happen if bees disappeared? The book apparently has three strands – one contemporary, one set in the 19th century, and one in 2098 after “The Collapse”.

I learnt a new term researching this – First Impact FictionLA Times reviewer Ellie Robins says it was coined by novelist Ashley Shelby to describe “fiction set in more or less the present day, which depicts ‘our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known’.”

Bren MacDibble, How to bee (2017)

Bren MacDibble, How to beeBren MacDibble is an Australian-based New Zealand born writer. How to bee is a children’s book, which has been shortlisted for multiple literary awards, including the 2108 CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers, the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Children’s Literature, the 2017 Aurealis Awards for Best Children’s Novel, and the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards, Griffith University Children’s Book Award. Decent cred, eh?

Publisher Allen & Unwin describes the plot:

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Laline Paull, The bees (2014)

Laline Paula, BeesThe Guardian’s Gwyneth Jones describes British novelist Laline Paull’s The bees as “a debut dystopia set in a beehive, where one bee rebels against the totalitarian state.” It’s apparently a complex story, and Jones concludes her review by saying that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery …”

The Bees was Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Now, the question is: can cli-fi help the cause of climate change? Well, coincidentally, a climate change research fellow, Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick wrote about just that in The Conversation last year. She believes it can. “Through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters”, she says, cli-fi can make people “care about and individually connect to climate change” and thus “motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.” She also argues – but of course this depends on the writer and the work – that cli-fi can deliver a message

of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.

Is all cli-fi hopeful?

Do you like cli-fi? And, do you agree that cli-fi can help the cause (assuming, of course, that you agree it is a cause)?

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (#BookReview)

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandIt is still somewhat controversial for non-indigenous Australian authors to include indigenous characters and concerns in their fiction, as Catherine McKinnon does in Storyland. But there are good arguments for their doing so. One is that not including indigenous characters continues the dispossession that started with white settlement. Another is that such fiction brings indigenous characters and stories to people who may not read indigenous authors, which is surely a good thing?

However, such writing requires sensitivity, or empathy, on the part of non-indigenous writers. Indigenous author, Jeanine Leane says that this can only be achieved by social and cultural immersion (which can include informed reading of indigenous writing). McKinnon addresses this in a couple of ways. In her author’s note, she refers to discussing “stories and ownership” with local Illawarra region poet and elder, Aunty Barbara Nicholson, which resulted, for example, in her telling a brutal story from the convict perpetrator’s point of view rather than from the indigenous victim’s. She also acknowledges Nicholson “for reading, local knowledge and generous advice both early on in the process and nearing completion”. But now let’s get to the reason for all this …

Storyland is set in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and tells the story of the Australian continent, post-white settlement, from 1796 to 2717. It has a nine-part narrative arc that takes us through five characters and six time periods: Will Martin 1796, Hawker 1822, Lola 1900, Bel 1998, and Nada 2033 and 2717. These form the first five parts of the novel. The final four parts return through Bel, Lola, Hawker, finishing with Will Martin, each picking up its character’s story where it had been left first time around. Got it? Two of these characters – Will and Hawker – are based on historical figures, while the rest are fictional.

… a tricksy plot

Will’s employer, the explorer George Bass, says early on that “the land is a book, waiting to be read”, and this, essentially, is what the book’s about. Will is a 15-year-old who sailed with Flinders and Bass in 1796 on their search for a river south of Sydney. On their trip they meet “Indians” whom they fear might be cannibals. We leave them at a nervous moment in their encounter to move to 1822 where we meet the convict Hawker. He’s a hard man, who believes you need “a mind like flint and a gristly intent”. He has his eye on a young indigenous woman, but also on improving his future. From him, we jump again, this time to 1900 and young hardworking dairy-farmer Lola who lives with her half-sister and brother Mary and Abe, both of whom have indigenous blood. There is racism afoot, with a neighbouring farmer suspicious of Abe’s friendship with his teenage daughter Jewell. We leave this story, with Jewell having gone missing, to meet Bel in 1998.

Bel, the youngest of our protagonists at 10 years old, spends her summer rafting with two neighbourhood boys on a lagoon that features in each of the stories. They befriend a couple, Ned and his indigenous girlfriend Kristie. Bel is a naive narrator, but adult readers quickly see the violence at the centre of this relationship. Meanwhile, down the road lives the slightly younger Nada, who is the pinnacle of our chronological arc, featuring in 2033 and 2717. In 2033, climate change has created havoc in the land, and a dystopia is playing out …

Country and connection

I hope this doesn’t sound too confusing – or fragmented – because in fact Storyland is a very accessible book. Superficially, it seems disjointed, but McKinnon connects the stories through links that gradually register as the narrative progresses. For example, the transitions between each story all feature birds, such as this one from Hawker to Lola:

The women are disappearing into the forest. And then they are gone. Lost in the dark trees. An owl


calling boo-book, boo-book.

(My html skills aren’t up to replicating the layout I’m afraid.) Other links include the aforementioned lagoon, a creek, a cave which most characters reference, a big old fig tree and an ancient stone-axe. None of these are forced, or feel out of place. Instead these places and objects naturally connect the stories, despite their very different narratives, to provide a continuity that transcends the people to focus on the land itself – because, ultimately, this is a story about the land and our ongoing relationship with it.

McKinnon, the author bio says, has been a theatre director and playwright, as well as a prose writer. This is evident in the voices (all first person) and dialogue which beautifully capture the rhythms, vocabulary and grammar of the different characters and their times. Will Martin talks of “Indians”, Hawker talks of “forest”, while turn-of-the-century farmer Lola uses structures like “Jewell and me carry buckets of skimmed milk” and “When he were done”. Ten-year-old Bel is language-proficient, with a good vocabulary, but she sees things through a ten-year-old’s eyes, such as this on the abused Kristie, who “has her big black sunglasses on” and “looks funny, her lips look bigger or something”.  (In a delightful in-joke, her father Jonathan is writing his PhD on unreliable narrators).

The real star of the novel, though, is the land. McKinnon traces its trajectory from an almost pristine state at the dawn of colonisation through being farmed by Hawker and Lola to climate-change-caused destruction in 2033 followed much later by a mysterious post-apocalyptic world. She similarly traces our relationship with indigenous people from early caution, uncertainty and tentative goodwill, through 19th century brutality and ongoing dispossession, to the continuing racism and exploitation of the twentieth century.

The question to ask here is why did McKinnon structure the story the way she did, starting and ending with 1796? Here is Will at the end, exploring a beach on his own:

The white sand curves around the land; the dunes in the late night are dark mountains and valleys; the forest behind is thick and green to the sky. This is a wild place. Too wild for civilisation. It is a place for adventure.

And “the water is fresh” to drink! Is McKinnon, by ending with this more idyllic picture of the land, suggesting that there’s still hope? This is how it was, this is what could happen. Does it have to? Can we yet turn it around? Well, yes, perhaps. As Uncle Ray says to Bel, “it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.”

“To dare is to do”, George Bass tells Will, and this is what McKinnon has done in Storyland. She has combined historical, contemporary and speculative fiction to tell us a story about our land – and our relationship with it and with the people who know it best. This land, these mountains, creeks, lagoons and trees, were here first, Uncle Ray says, and this makes us “part of their history, not the other way around.” The message is clear.

Storyland is a beautiful book physically – in cover, design and construction – as well as being a moving and relevant read. I dare you to read it today.

Bloggers Lisa (ANZlitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) liked this book too.

aww2017 badgeCatherine McKinnon
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2017
ISBN: 9781460752326

(Review copy courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Alice Robinson, Anchor point (Review)

Alice Robinson, Anchor PointI love it when the book I’m reading picks up ideas explored in my previous book. Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor point is, in reality, far removed from Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono (my review), but the first line of Henshaw’s book – “There are times in your life when something happens after which you are never the same” – could have been Robinson’s first line. Her focus is more personal than Henshaw’s audacious broad sweep, but the point is still made with punch.

Another aspect of this novel that popped out for me is its rural focus. Rural romance is becoming popular here, but not much of our literary fiction focuses on the rural – on farm life, specifically, I mean. In this regard, it reminded me a little of Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review), though they are different books in terms of what drives them.

Have I intrigued you? I hope so, but it would probably help if I now told you a bit about it, rather than the books it reminded me of! The novel starts with a small family on a farm – ten-year-old Laura, five-year-old Vik, their artist-potter mother Kath, and farmer father Bruce. It’s clear there are tensions between the parents, and early in the novel Kath disappears. Interestingly, White’s novel also has a disappearance. Anyhow, young Laura, in a state of anger and shock, makes, as the book’s promos say, “an impulsive decision that will haunt her for decades”. Nonetheless, she fills the gap left – she mothers Vik, takes on the domestic duties, and helps her father on the farm. Robinson conveys beautifully the impact of on her – her pride in helping out, her exhaustion and loneliness, and her realisation of what she is missing. Her childhood, like that of a character in Henshaw’s The snow kimono, was “wrenched” from her. Late in the novel Laura reflects on “what she had lost, what she had cost herself”.

The novel is told third person, in a linear structure. It is divided into parts identified by dates: 1984, 1997, 2008 and 2018. Such a span could suggest saga, but this is a quieter work. It has its dramas, but the tone is not dramatic, which conveys a sense that this is life. Life, in other words, comes with highs and lows, and you just have to get on with it. So we follow the family as Vik grows up and leaves home for university, and as Laura eventually leaves too, at the suggestion of her father. There is always, though, the pull of the farm for Laura – and she does return.

Besides the family drama and the resulting narrative arc to do with Kath’s disappearance, the book is also concerned with farming and the land. Bruce and Laura struggle against drought, bushfires and land degradation to keep the farm going. Climate change hangs over this novel. By 2018 Laura has given up the struggle to regenerate the farm: “the climate had long stopped being something she understood”. This little jump into the future is surely a message from the author, and gives the book a foot in the cli-fi genre.

The other important land issue for farmers – indigenous people and their relationship with the land – is also a thread, introduced early on via Laura’s school friend, the indigenous boy Joseph. This issue is not laboured but bubbles along underneath, coming to the surface in 2018 when Joseph reappears as a man asking for occasional access to the farm for his people. Laura is taken aback:

The land belonged to her and Vik. She thought how mixed up they all were. There was what they believed and what they did, the stories they told. So many truths contained in skin, concentric rings. Laura imagined herself a log, sawn open. How many layers.

She remembers Joseph’s help in the past, and recollects the canoe tree on the property. “‘Course'”, she says, “You can use the place any time you like”.

Like White, for whom this issue is more central, Robinson offers no longterm resolution, but it’s positive to see non-indigenous authors addressing it. (As an aside, I can’t help but think Robinson’s naming one of the farms in the area, the Jolley farm, is a little tribute to Elizabeth Jolley.)

Robinson introduces another contemporary concern, Alzheimer’s. It works well as a plot device, but she does push it a little far. Not unbelievably so, but enough to weigh the novel down a little with issues. On the other hand, it could also work as a metaphor for the way we “forget” what we’ve done and are doing to indigenous people, and to the land.

I enjoyed Robinson’s prose. Here for example is a description of time passing:

The months broke across the year in alternating tasks: clearing, fencing, cutting wood.

And here is a description of the house, when Laura returns after a time away:

The house looked long abandoned, falling into the dry earth. Paint worn away by weather. Verandah sagging. Foundations shifted like rheumatic joints, as though it hurt the wooden skeleton to stay still.

The language, as you can see, is generally spare – sentences tend to be short, and not a lot of time is wasted in long descriptions, just as Laura herself has little time for anything but work.

Overall Anchor point is a tight, well conceived novel. The title, meaning “a safe place”, can be read in multiple ways. Laura does find some “safety” or redemption, but it’s not a simple or easy one for her, and the land itself is far from safe. In the end, it’s all about choices, and, as Laura learns, our choices can create ripples that last long after they’re made. Best, really, to make good choices first off. I’m not sure we’ve learnt that lesson yet.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the novel.

awwchallenge2015Alice Robinson
Anchor point
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922213617

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

Bill McKibben, Oil and honey (Review)

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

Courtesy: Black Inc

It’s coincidental, but nicely appropriate, that the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Provisional Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2013 last week, just as I was finishing US environmental activist Bill McKibben‘s latest book, Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist. It’s likewise coincidental that, three days before WMO’s announcement, Stefanie (of So Many Books) published a post titled Gardening for Climate Change* containing her thoughts on her garden and how climate change might affect it.

WMO’s statement says, among other things, that “During the first nine months of 2013, most of the world’s land areas had above-average temperatures, most notably in Australia, northern North America …”. As you know, I live in Australia; Bill McKibben and Stefanie live in the northern part of the USA. We are seeing (feeling) the changes, and are concerned. What I’m going to say next is pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow because I always like to start with the basics in discussions like this. There are two critical issues in the climate change debate: Is the climate changing and, if it is, Is it human-caused? It’s hard to imagine, given all the data available, that there’s anyone out there who really believes the climate is not changing, though I believe there are still some who think it’s simply a case of “climate variability”. These people think that the climate will get back to normal (some year soon, they hope). The trickier issue, however, is the causal one. Most of the deniers are not so much denying that the climate is changing, but that we are causing it. This brings me to Bill McKibben.

McKibben does not, in Oil and honey, spend time trying to prove that humans are causing climate change. For him it’s a given. Rather, he shares how he changed from being an environmentalist, who researched and wrote books, to an environmental activist who campaigns (and writes books). It’s an interesting, clearly written book about one man and his path, but can also be read as a how-to for those who want to get active.

You may now, though, be wondering about the title. Oil and honey? I’m sure there’s an ironic allusion here to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (which we are not heading towards), but there is also a literal meaning to the title. The narrative shifts pretty seamlessly between his two main passions. One is to do with bees, honey and good farming practice. The other is oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and how to stop its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. It’s all related.

You may also be wondering, particularly if you’re not American, who Bill McKibben is. As the blurb on the back of my edition says, he has written over a dozen books including the New York Times bestselling Eaarth and The end of nature. He also founded the environmental organisation and “was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming”. Despite all this, he did not until recently see himself as an activist. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker for five years, but quit in 1987 when its long-term editor was forced out of his job. Since then he has been a freelance writer.

Oil and honey is his latest book. I’d call it part-memoir part-manifesto, because it is both the personal story of his transition to full-blown activism and the story of his passion for saving the planet. The personal aspect of the book helps make it a good read. We get to understand his thinking, we feel his anxiety about becoming not only an activist but a leader of activists, and we learn that his activist philosophy is inspired by the non-violent resistance ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We see his love for nature and for working close to the land on the bee-farm he bought for his friend Kirk Webster to run. This farm functions both as respite and as a place for him to see land stewardship working.

That’s the memoir aspect. In the manifesto aspect, he shares with us the development of his ideas and strategies. We learn of various campaigns he has been involved in since 2009, including Step It Up, Keystone XL,  Do the Math. And he explains how he and his co-activists have shifted from focusing on politics and politicians – through such activities as sit-ins at the White House and lobbying politicians – to directly tackling the fossil fuel industry. He came to realise, he says, that the situation was/is becoming so dire there’s no time “for slow graceful cultural evolution”. Consequently, the last part of the book deals with the goal of encouraging educational institutions to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel industries. They’ve targeted educational institutions because students represent a significant percentage of climate change activists. For these students the question is simple:

are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?

I’ve only touched the surface of what this book covers. Like many books of its type, chances are that it will only be read by the converted. That’s a bit of a shame, but it’s not useless says McKibben:

You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal. The choir is there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.

So, if you’re part of the choir, this book is still for you. And if you’re not, think about joining. It could be the most important thing you do.

Bill McKibben
Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
255 pp.
ISBN: 9781863956178

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)

* Stefanie has since posted a link to a British blog called Climate Change Garden.

Climate change, ferals and Central Australia

While we generally prefer to go it alone, we did decide a few days ago, due to access challenges, to book onto an organised tour of Palm Valley. A good tour can work well and this one turned out to be one of the good ones – decent tour guide, uncrowded tour with congenial companions, and a relaxed style.

During the tour, our guide told us – and he came across as pretty knowledgeable though we didn’t ask him for his sources! – that climate change is pretty evident in the Central Australian deserts. He said that, over the last 40 years, there has been significantly more rain, more frequent flooding, and a higher number per annum of high temperature days. Fascinating, eh, that the desert has had more rain while much of the rest of Australia (particularly in the south and southeast) has had much less! It sounds as though there aren’t many climate change sceptics here in the Centre.

The golden feral buffel grass in Palm Valley

The golden feral buffel grass in Palm Valley

Just as, if not more, scary, though, was his discussion of the problem of ferals. We all know about feral cats, foxes, horses, camels etc but he showed us some feral plants, the worst of which seemed to be buffel grass. It gives the desert, to we more naïve visitors, a lovely golden tinge but in fact it is a highly invasive plant which creates a monoculture thereby removing the habitats for many Australian flora and fauna. And, like the cane toad, its march seems inexorable and hard to halt. It was designed by the CSIRO (in the 1930s/40s if I recollect properly) as a hardy dry-country stockfeed grass! He also showed us a Ruby Dock plant which is an efficient water “gatherer” and which as a result leaves less water for native Australian plants to use. It’s a pretty plant though – and I remember proudly photographing some on a previous trip to the Northern Territory only to discover when I got home that it was not a plant to promulgate proudly! Traps for young players!