Six degrees of separation, FROM What I loved TO …

Half the year is over – and what an awful year it has been, generally and personally. I’d like to try to put the first half behind me (without ever forgetting the special person who left my life during it and whose 91st birthday would, in fact, have been today) and look to a more positive second half. Let’s see what we can do with this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  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.

Book coverJuly’s starting book is another I haven’t read. Indeed, I haven’t read any of her books, but if I did, this is the one I’d choose. The book is American writer Siri Hustvedt’s What I loved.

Jane Austen, PersuasionSiri Hustvedt is, I read a long time ago, a Jane Austen fan, so my first link is Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my reviews of volume 1 and volume 2) because Hustvedt wrote the introduction to the Folio edition of this novel. If you are a Jane Austen fan, like me, you will buy multiple versions of her novels just for the introductions. (For this reason, I’ll be adding my mum’s editions to my already multiple edition Austen library.)

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookAnother novelist who loves Jane Austen – they are legion in fact – is Helen Garner. She wrote about Austen in her collection of essays, Everywhere I look (my review).

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (PD, via Wikipedia)

Garner, in fact, wrote about quite a few writers in that collection, including Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolley, but the one I am going to link to next is a much older writer, Barbara Baynton, and her short story “The chosen vessel”, (my review). Garner says she has never got over it. It’s a powerful story, that’s for sure.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (PD, via Wikipedia)

There are many short stories and novels I have never got over, though quite a few of them are from pre-blogging times. However, there’s a short story from my blogging times that affected me deeply and that I keep returning to. The writer is the American Kate Chopin, and the story “Désirée’s baby” (my review). Its underlying themes about race and gender are distressingly still too relevant today (or, do I mean still too distressingly relevant!)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRacism is an issue that we just can’t seem to resolve. Why is it that we can’t all see and respect each other as equal human beings? I have read many books over the years – fiction and non-fiction – that deal with race. However, I’m going to return to Australia, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review), for my fifth link, because her aim was to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. It “erodes us all”: this is a lesson we are all still learning.

Book coverWhere to from here? Can I be a little less heavy for my last link? The hate race is a memoir about Clarke’s experience of growing up. I hope it’s not disrespectful to conclude with a very different, and rather happier memoir about growing up, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano lessons (my review). Goldsworthy had her challenges – who doesn’t – but nothing like those faced by Clarke.

So, an unusual chain this month, because it includes two short stories, a book of essays, two memoirs, and just one novel. My links have stayed mostly in Australia, but I have popped over to early 19th century England and late 19th century USA. All this month’s writers are women.

Now the usual: Have you read What I loved? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Six degrees of separation, FROM The Road TO …

We are now through one-third of the year. Can you believe it. It’s been quite a blur here in Australia with our worst bushfire season in decades being followed almost immediately by the pandemic. It’s hard to feel that the year has started, and yet, here we are in May already. Last month, I noted that the starting book was the first of the year’s Six Degrees of Separation starting books that I’ve read. Well, I’m thrilled to announce to all who are fascinated by such things that I’ve also read this month’s starting book, albeit before blogging. 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.

Book coverNow to May’s starting book, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by America’s Cormac McCarthy The road. If you haven’t read it, let me tell you that it’s a mesmerising, post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. I loved it, partly because its writing is so spare (see my discussion of spare early in my blog.) It’s about a father and son who walk alone through a burned, destroyed America. They are heading to the coast, though to what they don’t know. Now, I’ve decided to do something a little different in this post: I plan to link every book back to this one. In other words, each book will be about something people do “on the road”, which means, of course, that each book will also link to each other!Raphael Jerusalmy, Evacuation

My first book is French writer Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Israel-set novel, Evacuation (my review). It is also a road trip novel, but it involves twenty-something Naor driving his mother from her kibbutz back to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend, and his grandfather, had jumped off the bus that was to take them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.

Eve Langley, the pea-pickersAnother, very different road trip underpins Australian writer Eve Langley’s The pea-pickers (my review). Here, two sisters dress as men and take men’s names, Steve and Blue, in order to work as agricultural labourers in Gippsland. The book chronicles their experiences, work, relationships and lessons learnt, over a few seasons, as they travel through Gippsland and greater Victoria.

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeWhile road trips aren’t the backbone of my next book, American writer Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the light we cannot see (my review), they do feature quite strongly. Young Marie Laure is taken by her father from Paris to the Brittany coast’s Saint-Malo after the Germans invade Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, the orphan German boy, Werner, becomes a master at building and fixing radios, which results in his being taken on the road through Germany and into Russia to track Resistance workers through their radio transmissions.

Book coverStaying in war-time but moving to a different sort of road, I am taking us to the Thai-Burma railroad as told by Australian writer Richard Flanagan in his Booker Prize-winning novel, The narrow road to the deep north (my review). I don’t think I need to justify this one any more, except to add that there is a dramatic road trip through a bush-fire at the end, giving this book double-linking credit!

Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra AberlineHaving mentioned railroads, I’ll stay with them and link to Australian writer Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review). Having been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Guest’s Sydney-based protagonist Cassie decides to return to her childhood home in Perth in order to resolve the situation that had resulted in her fleeing many decades ago. She chooses the train as her method of travel, because that was the way she’d left, and it would also give her time to think through her situation. This is a true “journey” novel.

Book CoverChoosing my final book proved a challenge: I had many to choose from, many I wanted to highlight. In the end I decided to stay in Australia, and go a bit lighthearted. The book is English writer Louis de Berniere’s Western Australia-set Red dog (my review). My post on this book and film is among my all-time most popular posts. The story is about how a stray dog, the titular Red Dog, decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara, much of it travelling in John’s truck. It also tracks Red Dog’s search for John through Australia and even into Japan, via road, train and ship. A road story with a difference!

So, a simple chain this month in terms of linking strategies, but I enjoyed looking at some of the ways “the road” has been used by novelists to chronicle journeys, whether they be actively chosen, or forced upon people.

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

Raphaël Jerusalmy, Evacuation (#BookReview)

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationRaphaël Jerusalmy, for those who, like me, hadn’t heard of him, is a French-born and educated writer living in Tel Aviv. He had a career in the Israeli military intelligence services, worked in humanitarian and educational fields, and is now an antiquarian book dealer in Tel Aviv, where his novella, Evacuation, is set. In some ways, the book is a love letter to Tel Aviv – but it is more than that, too …

Evacuation is a short, quick, but powerful read. The narrative is structured around a road trip, in which twenty-something Naor is driving his mother from her kibbutz home to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend Yaël, and his grandfather Saba, had jumped off the bus that was taking them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.

The thing about this book is that although we realise the war is part of the ongoing Middle-eastern conflict, no specifics are given. No dates, no enemy, just, later on in the story, that peace negotiations were taking place in Geneva. By the time the novel starts, that peace had been achieved (for the moment anyhow) and Naor is dealing with the aftermath. The lack of specificity universalises the story, focusing us on the characters’ experience more than on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of the war.

So, their experience. Firstly, I should explain that it was Saba and Yaël who had decided not to evacuate, with Naor feeling obliged to stay with them. They are all artists – Naor a filmmaker, Yaël a visual artist, and Saba a writer – so there is also an underlying thread about art and resistance. They go to friend Yoni’s house in the already evacuated part of the city, and from there they learn how to survive – how to find food, water, clothes – and how to occupy their time. They roam further and further, taking risks to enjoy a dip in the sea; they enjoy strolling down Tel Aviv’s beautiful Rothschild Boulevard; and, they decide to make a film, titled Evacuation, to Naor’s script and with Saba and Yaël acting.

It’s while filming a critical scene in a synagogue that a long-range missile attack occurs, forcing them to take cover. After this attack, Yaël decrees that they are not going to let air-raid sirens disturb their peace again – “From now on, we were going to behave as if there was no war” – setting us up for the tragedy that we have been sensing through Naor’s narration.

Now, I said that the novel focuses more on the characters and their experience, than the war. However, there are occasional references to Zionism and the ongoing political situation, including this on Saba’s opinion:

Deep down Saba wasn’t unhappy about what was happening to Tel Aviv … He said it did no one any harm to get a kick up the arse from time to time. And that we Israelis badly needed it. Because we had got stuck in a stalemate. Not only with the Palestinians, which was of course unfortunate. But also and especially with ourselves, which was much worse.

So the evacuation was timely. It gave us an undreamt-of chance to wipe the slate clean. To start again. In his mind, Zionism as an idea was not a failure. But it was stagnant. It had come unstuck in its application. Because of this and that. Those were his exact words. This and that. He spoke about restarting our attempts at Jewish socialism. About the importance of education. ‘Everything stems from that.’ And about being kinder in general. To poor people, and to Arabs.

There’s also Yaël’s stronger statement that Tel Aviv was the only place she “felt safe. From those at war with us. From those who have morality and justice on their side.” [my stress]

All this is narrated by Naor to his mother as they continue their trip – and as he does, certain things become clear. One is that there’s been some falling out between his mother and Saba, her father, and that this trip is partly a peace-making one (subtly paralleling the political war-and-peace background to the story.)

Now, I daren’t say any more for fear of giving the whole lot away. While it’s written nicely (albeit I read it in translation), its main appeal, besides the story, is its engaging narrative structure and gentle tone. I loved the way Naor’s story is interrupted regularly by comments from his mother (not to mention road signposts). These interactions, while hinting at some of the tensions needing to be resolved, also imbue the book with a lovely normal intimacy, unexpected perhaps in a book with such subject matter.

Evacuation is an open-ended book, one the reader can consider from various perspectives, including the choices we make, love and family, art and resistance, war and peace. I found it a surprisingly enchanting read, which I hope doesn’t make me sound insensitive to its seriousness, because I felt that too.

Raphaël Jerusalmy
(Trans. by Penny Hueston)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018 (Eng. ed.)
ISBN: 9781925603378

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Road novels

Having just returned from the madness of LA’s freeways to the calm of Canberra’s roads, I found myself thinking about road novels! Road movies are often talked about, but not so much road fiction, particularly in Australia – so today I’m going to have a go.

Defining the term

I’ve labelled this post “road novels” rather than “road literature” or “road narratives” because I want to focus on fiction rather than on travel, and other non-fiction, in which “road” stories abound.

But, how to define the “road novel”? I turned to Google of course, and found some discussion of a “road genre”.

WorldCat provides a basic, brief definition, noting the “picaresque” as a related genre:

Used for works in which a journey, as a life-changing experience, is a central part of the action.

Blackwell Reference, a subscription site, is more expansive (but I would have had to subscribe to get their full discussion):

The road novel is the automotive version of the journey narrative, borrowing elements from its two major variants: the romance or noble quest and the picaresque with its chance encounters and roguish characters. American automobilists recall pioneer figures like Leatherstocking and Huck Finn who seek to escape civilization by “lighting out for the Territory”; they also follow in the footsteps of the peripatetic speaker in Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” who finds freedom, companionship, and insight on the highway. Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air ( 1919 ), the first road novel, draws on these traditions in establishing the defining theme of the genre: the technologized escape from the constraints of civilization to the freedom of the open road. This flight is also the central paradox of the genre since drivers, in their dependence on automotive technology, bring with them the civilization they flee. The road novel became a popular genre in the 1950s, when growing affluence made it possible for the majority of Americans to own automobiles and President Eisenhower backed the largest freewaybuilding project in history. The most famous example is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which adapts Huck’s “lighting out” to the Beat philosophy of “dropping out.” Kerouac’s journey inspired road trips by a number of literary dropouts, including Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson …

British author and journalist, Tim Lott, wrote in The Guardian:

No, it needn’t involve a road, but probably will. Yes, it is pretty much an American form. Yes, it is essentially 20th-century, with exceptions. And yes, it does have to be a novel (which disqualifies The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). By this definition, a road novel would still include, say, The Grapes of Wrath, which nevertheless somehow doesn’t quite fit – mainly because it is a novel about desperation and escape rather than exploration and adventure, which to my mind are the quintessence of the road novel.

Three definitions, but they differ in emphasis. WorldCat focuses on the idea of “journey” and “personal growth”, whilst Blackwell and Tim Lott focus more on “adventure” and “freedom”. I wonder if this difference relates to their different cultural frameworks, that is, WorldCat is probably providing a more international definition whilst Blackwell and Tim Lott see the genre as primarily an American one and define it in terms of the “big” American examples, On the road, Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, et al. Blackwell adds the “car” as a critical component, which would exclude books like Cormac McCarthy’s The road. (But then, they and Lott would probably exclude it anyhow, given it’s about “survival” rather than “adventure” and “freedom”)

So, what about Australia? Do we have road novels, and if so, do they meet these definitions or do we have our own version (or variation)?

The Australian road novel?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airI’d say we do have road novels. Here are some suggestions (in chronological order):

  • Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, 1942 (my review), about two sisters seeking agricultural work in Victoria’s Gippsland and other rural areas
  • D’Arcy Niland’s The shiralee, 1955, about a father tramping the country roads of NSW with his daughter, his swag/shiralee/burden, working itinerantly
  • Ruth Park’s Swords and crowns and rings, 1977 (my review), in which a step-father and son seek work in country NSW during the Depression
  • Tim Winton’s Dirt music, 2001, in which a man travels to NW Australia to escape a confrontation (and find his own peace)
  • Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air, 2006 (my review), about a young indigenous woman seeking her heritage

Some of these books are primarily about “the road” while in others, particularly Swords and crowns and rings, and Dirt music, the road forms one part of a bigger story. Looking at them in terms of our definitions, we could say that:

  • None are primarily about “adventure” and “freedom”, though there is an element of these in The pea pickers – and they can be natural by-products of being “on the road”.
  • Two have a strong “quest” element, particularly The pea pickers (with the girls seeking a spiritual connection with, or at least an understanding of, their mother’s home land) and Swallow the air with the protagonist seeking to understand her heritage and therefore he identity.
  • Most are about survival – either physical or spiritual or both.
  • Two – The pea pickers and Swallow the air – have autobiographical elements, which is a feature of the classic American road novels.
  • None are specifically “automotive” journeys, though the car is used as a form of transport in some.

So, I’d say, from this small sample, that Australian road novels:

  • meet the broad WorldCat definition because, whether or not “life-changing” is the goal of the journey, that does tend to be the outcome; and
  • are not universally characterised by the “freedom” and “adventure” goal that is seen to be critical to the American road novel.

There is more that could be teased out – including the possibility of gender differences. For example, the two novels that I suggest have autobiographical and stronger quest elements are the two by women authors. Too small a sample I know, but it’s an idea to explore.

I’d love to know whether you like road novels, what you think characterises or defines them. Or, do you think it is a specifically American genre, and that the books I’ve listed are not road novels?

[Please excuse the lazy dot-pointing in this post.]