I’ve been listening to Death of a Whaler by Nerida Newton as an audio book on my way to work each day, and I’m wondering why this book was ignored forI’ve been listening to Death of a Whaler by Nerida Newton as an audio book on my way to work each day, and I’m wondering why this book was ignored for the major awards of its year of publication (2006).
The central character, Flinch, is the ultimate anti-hero. He is short and scrawny; was born with a deformed leg; is jobless and uneducated, has no money and lives in a dingy pastel pink house. He has one pair of jeans that fit him – all the others trail the leg of the pant where one leg is shorter than the other. When he did have a job it was as a whaler – as near as one can be to a pariah in hippie Byron Bay of 1962, (and probably throughout Australia and the civilised world in 2009). He has an ancient ute nicknamed Millie ( what kind of name is that for a bloke to call his car?) but so far is he from the stereotypical Aussie male of heroic ingenuity, that when the ute breaks down, he can’t fix it. His spiteful mother Audrey gave him a miserable childhood, blaming him for her self-imposed loserdom, and it seems as if all of Byron Bay was glad to see the back of her when she died. Oh, and Flinch accidentally killed his best mate, Nate, too…
Flinch could so easily, then, have been a pathetic character and the story maudlin, but the author of The Lambing Flat (1) is too good a writer for that… For Flinch, while a recluse (and who wouldn’t want to be?) and burdened with awful emotional baggage, is no embittered loser. He is his own man. When he meets up with Karma, (who reminds me of Lizzy Dellora (the daffy blonde) in East of Everything ) he eventually overcomes his wariness and enjoys her open friendliness – but he doesn’t for one moment believe in the hippie spirituality stuff and isn’t about to go vegetarian any time soon. Newton portrays his occasional forays into the commune in a mixture of droll humour and awakening hope as he begins to emerge from his self-imposed isolation.
Byron Bay 1962 is as I have never seen it, a tatty, dingy place like so many of those daggy Queensland towns you drive through on your way to somewhere else. Newton has resisted the temptation to wax lyrical about the bay, and has instead chosen to remind us about its past as a whaling station. The innocence of the commune is in stark contrast to Nimbin today: yes, you can still catch a whiff of pot as you stroll through town, but you’re more likely to smell good coffee or to hear cash registers rather than meditational chanting. These scenes are great writing, untainted by that tiresome nostalgia you sometimes hear from people who whinge ‘Oh, you should have been here when it was unspoiled’.
I like most of Australia’s capital cities, but – as many Australians do – I have a special fondness for Hobart. We like it because it is beautiful, inI like most of Australia’s capital cities, but – as many Australians do – I have a special fondness for Hobart. We like it because it is beautiful, intimate in scale and rich in interesting things to do and see. No other capital city lets tourists share such a wealth of treasures without much need of a car; though you need one to explore Mt Wellington, from a B&B in Battery Point I have spent half a dozen happy weekends mooching about on foot in the Salamanca district and the CBD while The Spouse attended conferences, and we were then able to walk to splendid restaurants without fear of a breathalyser to spoil our pleasure in the wine list. Hobart has all of a capital city’s amenities without the traffic, crowds and pollution. You can go to museums and art galleries; concerts and plays; historical tours and markets; and all of it tucked beside the charm of Constitution Dock and under the brooding majesty of Mt Wellington.
Peter Timms’ In Search of Hobart (2009) was the first contribution to the New South City Series; it was followed in due course by Brisbane by Matthew Condon and Sydney by Delia Falconer. I bought Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham when it came out in 2011 and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy in 2012. Others in the series are Canberra, Alice Springs, Perth and Darwin. My guess is that these books are very popular with tourists: they are compact reading, and can be read between cities on board the plane.
Timms’ is a recent convert to Hobart’s charms: he originally hails from Melbourne but has adopted Hobart as home and his affection for the city shows. Still, he has a criticism or two to offer, but he includes anecdotes and interviews with fellow-Hobartians so there is a diversity of opinion. His own background is as an art curator and critic of note, and – as you’d expect – he has some cross things to say about some of Hobart’s more recent architectural developments.
Jill Blee is a remarkable woman: born in Ballarat where she now lives again, she is a ‘late bloomer’ as an author after a very varied career in MelbouJill Blee is a remarkable woman: born in Ballarat where she now lives again, she is a ‘late bloomer’ as an author after a very varied career in Melbourne and Sydney. From an old article in The Age, I’ve learned that after school she trained as an industrial chemist, but like many women of her generation, she gave up work to have a family. When her marriage broke down she started a picture framing business, then sold insurance, and then was a factory manager. At 35 when her youngest started school, she started an arts degree, and – her interest in history fired by helping her children with projects – she went on to complete two Master of Arts degrees and a PhD, working as a live-in boarding-school housemistress so that she could study by day. And at 50 she began to write. I’ve previously reviewed Brigid (1999) and The Liberator’s Birthday (2002), and … without knowing it was Blee’s work as an historical researcher that I was watching, I’ve also seen some of the Doctor Blake Mysteries, set in Ballarat!
The Pines Hold Their Secrets (1988) is her first novel. It’s historical fiction, set on Norfolk Island during its period as a notorious penal settlement. Elise Cartwright travels with her family from the penal settlement in Hobart to Norfolk Island where her father – transferring under some unspecified cloud – has accepted a lesser position as Superintendent of Agriculture. He had been one of the most important men in Van Diemen’s Land and his silly wife is very conscious of her social position, fussing over frocks and what’s ‘appropriate’ and always manoeuvring to ensure that her three daughters marry well. Elise, an independent minded young woman in her early twenties, chafes at the social niceties and thus comes into brief contact with a convict called O’Shaughnessy while they are on board the Porpoise.
On Norfolk Island Elise is haunted by O’Shaughnessy’s enigmatic plea for help to prove his innocence, but can’t do anything about it. And despite Mrs Cartright’s best efforts to shield herself and her girls from anything unpleasant, before long all kinds of horrors are revealed, all reasonably consistent with what we know of Australia’s history as a penal colony. While there are a couple of rather melodramatic moments that test credulity as the novel reaches its climax, the plot rattles along quite well and the characters are generally well-drawn.
I don’t go to many book launches these days, but the launch of The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar was more of a cultural event than a book launcI don’t go to many book launches these days, but the launch of The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar was more of a cultural event than a book launch…
Pinchas Goldhar was born in Lodz, Poland in 1901, and migrated to Melbourne in 1928. Anxious, with good reason, about the survival of Jewish life and culture in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe and a resolutely monocultural Australia, he became
‘the first to publish a Yiddish literary book, the first editor of a Yiddish paper, the first Yiddish writer to be included in Australian anthologies, the first to translate Australian writers into Yiddish and was certainly one of the founders of a literature written by “New Australians” before the term New Australian even existed.’ (H. Brezniak, quoted in the Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii)
(Wikipedia tells me some of the authors he translated into Yiddish include Henry Lawson, Susannah Pritchard, Frank Dalby Davison, Alan Marshall and Vance Palmer).
Held at the Kadimah Leo Fink Hall in Elsternwick, the launch was an impressive affair. MC was Renata Singer (wife of Peter Singer the philosopher and an author in her own right) and the speakers included Professor Bill Rubinstein and Arnold Zable, with readings of the story ‘Drummond St’ in both English and Yiddish. There was also a performance by the Melbourne Yiddish Choir.
Louis de Vries from Hybrid Publishing told the extraordinary story of the book’s gestation. Although, as Professor Rubinstein had told us, these stories represent a distinctive moment in Jewish and Melbourne life, and although no less an authority than Nettie Palmer admired them, they have not been available as a collection in English until now. Two previous attempts to publish them were aborted when the publishers died unexpectedly, so de Vries was pleased to break the jinx!
As Arnold Zable explained in a very moving and powerful speech, Goldhar’s stories are not nostalgic for Europe. They are about the universal immigrant experience:
His stories are poignant and touching, featuring mainly Polish-Jewish protagonists who wrestle with the strange ways of their new home, but resonating for any migrants or refugees who have come to Australia. Often told with bitter irony, the stories express the loneliness and isolation of the immigrant, for whom cultural differences seem insurmountable, the longing for familiar Jewish life, and his sense of uprootedness and disappointment in his adopted homeland. (Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii).
I meant to listen respectfully during the Yiddish reading, but it was too hard to resist reading the first story. It’s called ‘Cain’ and it was all I could to suppress a tear as I read it. It takes the form of a letter to his family, from a Doctor Hermann Lowenstein who committed suicide in a Dresden concentration camp. He tells his wife Klara and his children not to say Kaddish (the Jewish mourning ritual) for him, because he will always bear the mark of Cain after he was forced by the Nazis to brutally beat another prisoner.
From the moment that the Nazis broke into our house in the middle of the night and dragged me from my bed, my life has been suspended in a web of uncertainty. Suddenly, I began a new life. I became a new man. Dr Hermann Lowenstein ceased to exist. His books, his laboratories, his high moral principles and ideals disappeared without trace as if they had been sucked into a vacuum. A new being was created in my body – not a person, but a creation of fear that trembled at the sound of every scream, cowered before every stare, became a slave to every superior. My entire persona was ruled by only one thought – to live, to live, to live! (p.19-20).
In his anguish, he tells them that because of this they must forget him and obliterate his memory without trace.
Well then, I just had to read the next story, ‘Café in Carlton’.
Jodi Picoult is one of America’s most popular authors but apart from My Sister’s Keeper which I read in 2005 before I started this blog, I’ve never beJodi Picoult is one of America’s most popular authors but apart from My Sister’s Keeper which I read in 2005 before I started this blog, I’ve never been very interested in her brand of issues-based story-telling. However, late last year I caught the tail-end of a Radio National program about Small Great Things which tackles racism, and was sufficiently interested to bring the audio-book home when I stumbled on it on the shelves at the library.
As it says on the Books and Arts website, the set-up for the novel is this:
Ruth Jefferson is the only African American nurse at the birthing centre where she works.
A white supremacist couple don’t want her to care for their baby. The hospital accepts this request.
After a routine procedure, Ruth is left alone with the baby, and due to complications, the baby dies.
She is charged with murder.
The novel suffers from an overdose of melodrama, the court-room scenes are used for speechifying rather than realism, and the end-of-novel redemptions completely lack credibility, but these defects, I think are forgiveable in the wider scheme of things. The intent (made explicit in the author’s afterword) is to make White Americans think about everyday racism, and about how White people view the world through the prism of their own privilege without realising that they’re doing it.
The characterisation, for a start, is very effective. It’s told from three perspectives: •The nurse (Ruth Jefferson) dealing with the shock discovery that a lifetime’s hard work, dedication and forbearance in the face of racism in the workplace, can fall apart because of her colour; •the public defender lawyer (Kennedy McQuarrie) and her personal journey towards realising that racism can’t be brushed under the carpet in the courtroom; and •the White supremacist father (Turk Bauer) whose racism morphs into something much more dangerous when he wants someone to blame for the death of his child.
Given this cast it would have been easy to let stereotypes take over yet the totally unlikeable White supremacist parents are humanised by their loss. The male narrator is particularly good at rendering this character as wholly contemptible so it’s even more effective when the tragedy of their child’s unexpected death shows him as a father devastated by grief.
The latest Griffith Review: No 55, ‘State of Hope’ is all about South Australia. It’s a most interesting miscellany of short essays and memoir, fictioThe latest Griffith Review: No 55, ‘State of Hope’ is all about South Australia. It’s a most interesting miscellany of short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and there are also photo stories. The collection is permeated by an awareness of South Australia’s economic problems in the wake of the collapse of its manufacturing industry, but also by an optimistic faith in its future – not unjustified, given its history under the innovative and visionary former 20th century premier, Don Dunstan (1926-1999).
I can’t possibly do justice to this diverse collection even with the open word limit of a blog, so I am going to focus on just one piece:
Tory Shepherd’s piece called ‘In the dark, when ‘truthiness’ eclipses the truth’ turns out to be strangely prescient in the light of the American election. (This edition of the review was officially published on the same day as the inauguration, but the content was of course written before that). With the SA blackout last year triggering all kinds of false claims about the causes, Shepherd reminds South Australians how important it is that they think clearly – because their future depends on it.