I really enjoyed this book! Yami Lester (b. c1949) is a Yankunytjatjara man from northern South Australia. According to Wikipedia, his most significan...moreI really enjoyed this book! Yami Lester (b. c1949) is a Yankunytjatjara man from northern South Australia. According to Wikipedia, his most significant contribution to indigenous rights was helping gain recognition for the atomic tests at Maralinga and an acknowledgement for the Aboriginal people who had been affected. An important achievement that led to the McLelland Royal Commission in 1985 - but this most modest of men grants it a mere ten pages or so in his autobiography. The rest of his book is a vivid picture of his extraordinary life which reminded me of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.
As a boy Yami lived a bush life in camps in the area around Coober Pedy. His family travelled around from station to station getting itinerant work, living on bush tucker when the rations ran out. At Mt Willoughby Station, the kids were warned off the rubbish dump by the Aboriginal women:
‘Awai! Your father’s going to hunt you away from there’. That was my white father, Dick Lander, the manager of Mt Willoughby Station. ‘You gotta come this way,’ the women said, ‘and we’ll give you some food.’ So we left the rubbish dump, but we didn’t go to the house, we walked to the creek close by and waited until they brought out some food that my father gave to them: eggs and cake and different food.
That was as close as I got to my white father. I would like to have known him. But we couldn’t have talked because I didn’t have any English. I just had my own language Yankunytjatjara. It would have been something, that, to have talked with him. Anyway, we did share something: he didn’t want me to go to the rubbish dump! (p. 3)
That short excerpt is an indication of the character of this most entertaining storyteller: not an ounce of self-pity and always ready to look for the best in any situation. He was soon to need both those traits to overcome the challenge that defined his life (less)
The Town Grew Up Dancing, the life and art of Wenten Rubuntja is a fascinating book, not least because it is a trilingual text. Wenten Rubuntja (c. 19...moreThe Town Grew Up Dancing, the life and art of Wenten Rubuntja is a fascinating book, not least because it is a trilingual text. Wenten Rubuntja (c. 1923 – 2005) was a well known artist and a key figure in the Central Australian Land Rights Movement in the 1970s. This book is his story, told in his mother tongue, Arrernte, and also in Aboriginal English, with accompanying translations. Including the texts in Arrernte and Aboriginal English rather than just the English translation is an important signal about this book: it respects the original texts as equal in status to English. It also affirms strongly that the genesis of this book is in oral narratives, reminding the reader that for more than 40,000 years, it was the oral tradition that was used to pass on stories. But that’s not all that’s special about this book…
Indeed, the book’s provenance is a story in itself: it reveals a different way of thinking about authorship and autobiography. The book began in 1998 when Rubuntja asked for help to record his life story, and received a grant from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to help with the research. The text came together from taped interviews with Rubuntja between 1975 and 2001, mostly recorded by linguist and artist Dr Jenny Green, but also by teams of other interviewers. Jenny Green also contributes additional commentary and so does historian Tim Rowse. (Dr Green won the 2011 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in a PhD Thesis for her work on telling Australian sand stories, there’s a lovely photo at this link).
The stories of Wenton’s sister Ruby Rubuntja were recorded too, and so were those of other people who knew and worked with him. These interviews were circumscribed by traditional Aboriginal practice: permission had to be granted to use Ruby’s contribution after her death, and Arrernte cultural practices have been respected by limiting questions only to matters considered public. So the book does not include anything to do with traditional Aboriginal law, or men’s and women’s restricted ‘business or ceremonies. (p. viii)
Though all authorised biographers respect the wishes of their living subjects and may have to negotiate ‘no-go’ areas, this community-based autobiography combined with cultural prohibitions is, I suspect, quite a different approach to the usual practice of autobiography … It gives the book an authority that derives from thousands of years of a living culture even though it is using all the modern accoutrements of publishing. There are also occasions when the commentary acknowledges that accounts of the same event are not necessarily the same. IMO this actually reinforces the authenticity of the book, because everybody knows that people often remember the same event differently! I found this distinctive approach very refreshing, but it also made me wonder how different the book might have been had it not been published while Rubuntja was still alive.
I haven’t finished reading the book, but I wanted to share my thoughts about it now because NAIDOC Week kicks off tomorrow but I will be spending most of the day in transit to Queensland. (It’s my usual term holidays trip up to see that all is well with my elderly parents.) The Town Grew Up Dancing is a book that’s ideal to kick off my reviews for Indigenous Literature Week 2014, so I’ve scheduled this review to coincide with that. It is a biography of a very significant indigenous man but it’s also a beautiful book of beautiful art!
The Marriage Game is an entertaining light choice for a travel day. Based on the life of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, it’s the story of the endless she...moreThe Marriage Game is an entertaining light choice for a travel day. Based on the life of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, it’s the story of the endless shenanigans concerning her marriage, and of her love for Robert Dudley. For many of us it’s a well-worn story because the endless fascination with all the Tudors has led to so many fictionalisations and films, so it is all the more surprising that The Marriage Game is as entertaining as it is. After all, everyone already knows the plot!
Weir’s previous publications – 14 works of non-fiction – establish her expertise as an historian of this period, and the novel rarely departs from the historical record. What makes it an entertaining book is that Elizabeth’s love for Dudley is the cornerstone of her reign, but – like all the other marriage negotiations with assorted princes of Europe – it is characterised as a ‘game’. A game played by her rules which were constantly changing.
So over the course of 400-odd pages, Elizabeth promises to marry him, but won’t say when. She favours him, and withdraws her regard. She makes him believe she will marry her, but there always reasons of state which force delay. And while she won’t have him, she sabotages any chance of him taking any other woman as his wife, to have the children he so dearly wants to have. It seems a cruel way to treat a loved one, but Weir provides convincing reasons for this wayward behaviour, weaving certainty out of what has always been conjecture about Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry. It would spoil the novel to say much more about those personal reasons.
Claustrophobia is an interesting book. It took a little while to lure me in, but once it did, I became more and more intrigued. It reminded me of Juli...moreClaustrophobia is an interesting book. It took a little while to lure me in, but once it did, I became more and more intrigued. It reminded me of Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour because once again the reader is inside the mind of someone who is seriously psychologically disturbed. So part of the pleasure is decoding what to believe.
Pen (Penelope) Barber reveals herself as a bit odd right from the start. In conversation with her awful hectoring mother, Pen thinks mutinous thoughts, but never confronts her – or anyone else who provokes her self-righteous feeling of inferiority . Indeed, she’s often in a curious dream world of her own, having conversations in her mind that she would never dare to have in real life. She has a nice husband called Derrick, who seems devoted to her, but when a parcel is delivered for him her overreaction is bizarre: she vacillates between fantasies about surprise gifts, and unhealthy suspicion. And when she finds an hysterical letter that Derrick sent in the death throes of a long-ago love-affair, she decides that this long-ago lover must be dealt with in no uncertain terms.
It’s been so long since I’ve read any SF, I’ve almost forgotten how to read it. Rift Breaker, by award-winning indigenous author Tristan Michael Savag...moreIt’s been so long since I’ve read any SF, I’ve almost forgotten how to read it. Rift Breaker, by award-winning indigenous author Tristan Michael Savage, is a high action space adventure that will appeal to fans of Doctor Who and similar types of fantasy. The book won the 2013 Black&Write award for YA writing, but I think that adolescent boys of any age will like it. I’m not so sure about girls…
The main characters are Milton Lance, a human, and his simian mate Tazman. Although Tazman is unreliable and his party-animal ways often get the pair into trouble, there is never any doubt that they are the Good Guys. Inexperienced, sometimes naive and often impulsive, these two are recognisable as the antithesis of Evil because they show compassion for the suffering of others. With their sidekick Luyulla, it’s not so clear where her loyalties lie…
This is also true of the other significant characters. Fleet Commander Viceon Raegar works for the Tranquillian Composite, which is a ‘fusion of worlds dedicated to preserve cohabitation’. Sent to discover how the space colony Orisurrection was annihilated, he sees Luyulla’s spacecraft and assuming that the trio are responsible, circulates a Wanted notice throughout space.
From here on the trio have all kinds of trouble. Clearly there are Bad Guys, but all kinds of confusion keeps the reader guessing about who’s double-crossing whom. Milton finds himself the object of interest from both sides because the Good Guys think he’s on the wrong side and the Bad Guys somehow know that he has acquired a powerful gift that facilitates their Evil Quest.
Finlay Lloyd publish beautiful books, and The Wild Goose by Mori Õgai is no exception. It’s a new translation of an early modern Japanese text, its or...moreFinlay Lloyd publish beautiful books, and The Wild Goose by Mori Õgai is no exception. It’s a new translation of an early modern Japanese text, its origins captured in the cover design by Phil Day of Mountains Brown Press, and the same design on elegant paper leaves separates the novella from the introduction. Paradoxically, the book feels both delicate and sturdy in the hand, because while the texture of the boards feels like very expensive paper under the fingers, you know that the book is not going to fall apart with reading, as so often paperbacks do.
The introduction by Meredith McKinney might have been written especially for me. I have read very little Japanese literature, and none at all from the early modern period when Japan was making hasty efforts to transition from isolationism after American ‘Black Ships” forced them to accept international trade. It was not an easy transition, apparently: there was a bloody civil war between supporters of Westernization and those who wished to ‘expel the barbarians’. At the time of Õgai’s birth in 1862 Japan was still officially ‘closed’ but within half a dozen years the new Meiji era had begun, and Õgai was, by the time of his adolescence, able to take advantage of the changes. He was obviously gifted in many ways, entering the Tokyo University Medical School at twelve years of age and graduating at nineteen. He studied in Germany and his fluency in German enabled him to read an astonishing array of Western Literature in German. This background in Western Literature positioned him in the literary forefront of the early modern Japanese era when he turned to writing.
The Wild Goose (sometimes translated as The Wild Geese) was written in the period when he mostly wrote fiction based on his own life, but after that he wrote historical works and biographies. It tells the story of thwarted love, an opportunity lost for want of a nail. The novella (just 150 pages) is told by a young student who might easily be Õgai himself, but the story is revealed mainly from two points of view: the young woman Otama, mistress of a sleazy money-lender called Suezõ, and the student Okada who sees her through the lattice of her window and becomes attracted to her. (This ‘woman at the window’ trope reminded me of a story by Balzac, but I can’t remember which one that was).
Julie Proudfoot has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction works in journals, but The Neighbour is her first published book. A novella of 204 pages...moreJulie Proudfoot has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction works in journals, but The Neighbour is her first published book. A novella of 204 pages, it is a gripping tale of a life gone horribly wrong. It begins with a perfectly ordinary scene in domestic suburbia, but a tragedy unhinges all the characters one way or another, especially the central character, Luke. Haunted by the childhood death of his brother, Luke tangles guilt and responsibility and tries desperately to prove to himself that he’s not a bad man.
I won’t spoil the powerful impact of Luke’s transgressions by telling you what they are, but I can tell you that you won’t be able to put the book down. Julie draws on her background in psychology and sociology to render events with extraordinary authenticity ... and it is these insights into Luke’s disturbed mind that makes this book so compelling.
I’m not very enthusiastic about the fairy phenomenon that seems to have engaged so many little girls, but I did like this book. It’s a retelling of a...moreI’m not very enthusiastic about the fairy phenomenon that seems to have engaged so many little girls, but I did like this book. It’s a retelling of a fairy story by Pixie O’Harris that would make most modern readers gnash their teeth in dismay because it promoted conformity and obedience to gender roles that are now obsolete. Bronwyn Davies has updated this story so that it fits more comfortably with contemporary life, and the edition is complemented by illustrations from Pixie O’Harris and other images from the collection of the National Library of Australia.
Here’s how it goes: the Queen of the Fairies banishes the fairy who wouldn’t fly because she needs to learn to be like everyone else. Other fairies lift up the heads of flowers after rain, they help lame beetles and they save silly baby birds. In other words, their role is to nurture and care for others (and presumably not to aspire to the role of the powerful Queen). There is no room in Fairyland for lazy fairies…
But the Fairy-who-wouldn’t-fly was not the same as other fairies. Instead of working, she wanted to read, to sleep, and to dream. And when she woke, she would wonder about things. She wondered where the wind came from, and wondered how seeds knew what kind of flower to grow into. (p.3)
Too bad, is the Queen’s verdict, so the FWWF is whisked away to the Woodn’t, a place full of idiosyncratic rebels like the Kookaburra-who-wouldn’t-laugh and the Bee-who-wouldn’t-live-in-a-hive. The FWWF is both pleased and irritated by the assorted manifestations of wilfulness, and she misses Fairyland – but she still doesn’t want to be like everyone else.
Stephen Romei, in the blurb on the back of this award-winning novel, says that it deserves a place alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the...moreStephen Romei, in the blurb on the back of this award-winning novel, says that it deserves a place alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Mark Dapin’s Spirit House – and I think he’s right. After Darkness is indeed a remarkable novel, so accomplished in its writing and so compelling a story in the issues that it raises that I am not at all surprised that it won the 2014 Vogel Prize.
Set in a remote Australian internment camp during World War 2, After Darkness tells the story of Tomakazu Ibaraki, and his struggle to find a way to keep living after a descent to the depths of suffering. Ibaraki has to reinvent himself when he realises that the ideals by which he has lived his life have been perverted. His loyalty to the group rather than the individual, and his belief that his honour depends on his discretion become irrevocably associated with great evil in which he is complicit. As I watch the ISIS atrocities on TV this week, I wonder if a time will come when these men will confront the human suffering they have inflicted in their cause, and be appalled by their own wickedness. Will they be like the monster in Anna Funder’s Stasiland and go to the grave still justifying their actions? Or will they, like Ibaraki in this novel, suffer the torment of remorse?
Ibaraki’s sin occurs in Tokyo the pre-war period, and he seeks redemption working far from home in Broome. (No, I’m not going to tell you what his sin was. Suffice to say that I have chosen to use the word ‘sin’ rather than ‘crime’ because what he did was not only legal, it was endorsed by the authorities.) When war breaks out he is interned, and paradoxically he almost welcomes it because the loss of freedom relieves him of responsibility, and he fears the decisions that he made when he was free.
I loved this book! It’s a great big chunkster of almost 600 pages but it is utterly absorbing from beginning to end.
John A Scott is the author of The...moreI loved this book! It’s a great big chunkster of almost 600 pages but it is utterly absorbing from beginning to end.
John A Scott is the author of The Architect, a small gem of a book that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2002. Before that he won the Victorian Premier’s Award twice, in 1986 for his poem St Clair and again in 1994 for his novel What I Have Written (which I’m now going to track down). He has apparently spent ten years writing N., a different book entirely to The Architect…
N. has been described elsewhere as a political thriller, but it’s not genre fiction. Far from it. It’s intellectually sophisticated, enticing the reader with delicious allusions to characters from real life and from literature, and it explores big issues, the most prominent of which is the tension between popular rule and decisive leadership. This tension occurs in the context of an alternative history of Australia’s WW2…
Phillip Roth explored this idea in The Plot against America which I read some time ago (see my review). In Scott’s novel, Japan has occupied Australia’s northern states and a fascist regime is running the rest of the country from the tasteful surrounds of Mt Macedon. This bizarre turn of events comes about because of a hung parliament caused by the unexpected death of Norman Cole, one of two independents supporting Prime Minister Curtin. The fascists grab power in the vacuum. From complacent 21st century Australia this looks like a daft plot, but Scott makes it convincing, – and there are, alas, plenty of historical precedents. (The fact that we’ve just emerged from three years of a minority Federal parliament kept in power by independents, only to have it replaced by a government behaving in wholly unexpected ways is probably too recent to have influenced Scott’s book).
The book is a pastiche of literary styles and forms, with a multitude of characters. (Though it’s a measure of how well-written N. is that I had to resort only three times to the Dramatis Personae at the front of the book.) Some of these characters are real people from history, with their own names or invented ones, while other characters are products of Scott’s imagination. The most compelling of these characters are Missy Cunningham and Robin Telford, both of whom are struggling with the tension between love and duty. Their narratives feel like diaries or memoirs though never named as such, and they are complemented by documents that Telford unearths in his role as a public servant recruited as private detective: phone transcripts, radio scripts, newspaper reports and articles, and Hansard. There are also letters, memos, a photograph, scraps of poetry and epigrams. Missy Cunningham’s son Ross writes his short contribution like the Boys Own books he’s read (Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels), and Telford alternates his much more extensive contributions between dry bureaucratese and his idea of romance. Missy writes like the poet she might have been had she lived in a different era...
It’s a long time since I’ve been to Sydney. I haven’t had any reason to go now that I have no family there, but even in the days when I made the occas...moreIt’s a long time since I’ve been to Sydney. I haven’t had any reason to go now that I have no family there, but even in the days when I made the occasional fly-in/fly out visit for a family celebration or a conference, I never got to know the city very well. That makes me part of the audience for this small book, because it is written with firm intent. It is a political work, created with the intention of redressing what the author thinks is the misrepresentation by the media of Arab-Australians in western Sydney. You can read about Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s big ambitions for this small book in an article at The Guardian …
I know two Sydneys: fleeting impressions of the tourist attractions and conference centres I’ve visited and the fashionable inner city addresses where my sister lived – and a night of sheer terror when in my twenties I drove along up from Melbourne with my son asleep in the back of the car, to rendezvous with my husband at a suburban motel on the Parramatta Road. It was in the middle of the night and a gang of hoons in their hoonmobiles thought it would be fun to ‘escort’ me into Sydney. It was not until a police car turned up on patrol that they melted into the side streets, leaving me with an impression of Sydney as a place where a woman apparently alone was not safe on a main thoroughfare.
Neither impression is the real Sydney, of course. It’s not so different to Melbourne, and it’s like many cities overseas as well. A tourist and business centre, clean, shiny and bright - and then the vast mass of suburbs full of people who are as individual as their fingerprints. It’s multicultural in the way that Melbourne is, or London or dozens of other cities around the world. Ethnicities converge in certain suburbs, and disperse themselves. (Cheap, immigrant-rich areas in Sydney contain a mix of ethnicities rather than ghettoes, see this interactive data visualisation at the SMH). But for reasons which those who read tabloids and listen to shock jocks will know better than I do, the Lebanese of Western Sydney have acquired a bad reputation. The Tribe - a novella in the Giramondo Shorts series – sets out to redress this.
It’s a book that celebrates the customs and lifestyle of a large extended family of Lebanese-Australians, as told in first person monologue by Bani, a child of seven when the book begins. The family are minority Shi’ite Muslims in a community of Sunnis, but although their faith seems strong, they have abandoned observances such as daily prayer, they drink alcohol and the women don’t ‘dress modestly’. Bani is somewhat immune to some of the cultural norms in his community: when his mate Omar at Lakemba Public School ticks him off because he doesn’t know how to eat pies from the school canteen, and that he should open the top and eat it with a spoon, Bani ignores him.
Since I grew up in Alexandria, right next to Redfern, I know the Australian way to eat a pie. (p. 120)
What a contrast between The Conquest of Plassans is with The Dream! The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) was first published in 1874, th...more What a contrast between The Conquest of Plassans is with The Dream! The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) was first published in 1874, the fourth novel completed in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle. But if you are reading in the recommended reading order as I am, it is No 5, and comes after The Dream (Le Rêve) which was not written until 1888 and was a complete departure in Zola’s style. (See my review). With The Conquest of Plassans, we are back in the seedy world of political intrigue, greed, opportunism and gullibility.
19th century French politics are as mystifying as ever in The Conquest of Plassans but all you really need to know is that the town of Plassans has returned the ‘wrong’ candidate. As we know in Australia, marginal seats swing to-and-fro, but there is Serious Dismay if a party loses a seat that is ‘theirs’ by long-standing tradition. You can bet that the Liberal Party has a major campaign already underway to retrieve the seat that Sophie Mirabella lost at the 2013 election, and you can bet that the Labor Party hasn’t given up on the seat that the Greens snaffled in inner city Melbourne either. Well, in Plassans the party of the Empire under Napoleon III wants its seat back, and they have a suitably Machiavellian plan to achieve that.