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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 7th

Book & Publishing News

Tell us in 25 words or less about the book you enjoyed most during 2010. It doesn’t have to be a new publication. Send your entries to
THE PULSE 16-18 Lt Ryrie St.,Geelong
Phone: HONOR at the station during working hrs at 03 52225947.

We will judge the best entry during TUESDAY 21st’s program. The winner can collect a gift of books to the value of $75 from the station [$100 for subscribers.]

*Peter Corris has been designated “godfather of our crime writers”. With 30 years writing about crime in inner Sydney – mostly dealing with the life of that great survivor, Cliff Hardy – I think he has earned his stripes. In January his latest Hardy book, “Follow the Money”, will be out. I am hoping to speak with Peter about his writing life in the New Year. Before resorting to crime fiction, he lectured in English at the University of Sydney, and is married to novelist, Jean Bedford whose novel about Kate Kelly, “My Sister Kate”, is a jolly good read.

* Our poem today comes from Clifton Springs Diane Fahey. “Air” was published in Saturday’s Review in “The Australian”, quite an achievement. Those of us who live on the Bellarine will really love this poem about regrets, etc. Another of Diane’s poems appeared in today’s “Eureka Street” [ the excellent free on-line news magazine, published by the Jesuits.] She will be a guest on our show in January too.

*Late Christmas present ideas…
1. SALLY DINGO: “Unsung Ordinary Men”. Stories of WWII POWS, including her grandfather.
2. ANDY MULLIGAN: “Trash”. Remember the novel, “Towards The Beautiful North” – about three girls from a poor Mexican village who head “North” in search of some “magnificent” men to save their homes from drug dealers? I reviewed it early this year. [ You can find all our reviews under the Blog Archive on the right hand side panel]. This exceptional novel has something of that tone, but is much more serious. Three boys who ‘live’ on the garbage dumps outside Manila find a ‘treasure’ which leads them into an adventure which may take them to freedom…”Slumdog Millionaires” territory, sort of.

* Speaking of films. I use our Regional Library’s vast collection of DVDs for my film viewing – including last week Peter Brook’s 1963 B&W classic take on William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. What a film!, What a book!

*And “Jindabyne” was on recently as part of SBS’s latest classic films offering. We will feature the [Paul Kelly] soundtrack today. We all know the film’s pedigree? Raymond Carver wrote a chilling story “So Much Water So Close To Home” which Kelly drew on for his song, “Everything’s Turning To White”…which was then picked up for the screenplay of “Jindabyne”.

* LISTEN IN to my other program “BLOOD’S COUNTRY” every Monday at 3pm.


Not in any order;

- Morais: “The 100 Foot Journey”
- Levy: “Small Island” OR “The Long Song”
- Markell: “Wolf Hall”
- Roth: “Nemesis”
- Slawenski: “JD Salinger”
- Keneally: “Australia”
- RS Thomas: “Collected Poems” Vols I and II
- Doshi: “The Pleasure Seekers”
- Miller: “LoveSong”
- Malantes: “Matterhorn”

And ‘ELEVETH MAN’/Interchange:
- Allington: “Figurehead”

- Capp: “My Blood’s Country”
- Cunningham: “By Nightfall”
- Kelly: “March of the Patriots”

I think all these were published this year so should be available. And you know where to find reviews!

This Week’s Review: “By Nightfall” by Michael Cunningham

Who has been to New York? Do you know someone else who has? [Oh, ZANE has….when he was two years old!] Anyone I know who has been there has been quite overwhelmed by the experience: the vibrancy, the variety…the little specialty shops, the café life, the bars…Central Park…The music, the food, the theatres, the galleries. The COLOUR of the place.

When I think of New York these days, it is hard for me to shake those dreadfully images from 11 pm the night [our time] of their attacks on the Twin Towers. [By the time I was watching, the coverage had gone to Washington where two reporters struggled to describe what was happening as we saw the Pentagon being attacked as we watched.]
In quieter moments I will think of:
“The Great Gatsby”, stil the most perfectly crafted novel I have read…CHAIM POTOK’s novels about the Orthodox Jews of Williamsburg, NY, especially my favourite, “My Name Is Asher Lev”…Hart Crane’s epic poem, “Brooklyn Bridge”…The Mafia, and Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, maybe the zenith of American film achievement…Woody Allen films..The music: of OLD [Gershwin, Cole, Porter, Rogers and Hart] and the once-new: Dylan, Paul Simon, Billy Joel.
Believe it or not, a lot of this was running around in my head as I read Michael Cunningham’s new novel. He made his name with the book about Virginia Wool’s – “The Hours” – the very good film of which starred ‘our’ Nicole [in perhaps her last real acting role?] As well as telling a very good story about a modern marriage, Cunningham has done a good job of celebrating the Big Apple of the 21st century, or at least one upper middle-class slice of it. The great city almost features as a character.

I think this is a brilliant novel – though it may not be to everyone’s taste. It is by no means slow-paced, but it is a psychological or social novel. So there are no shoot-outs or overly dramatic turns. It tells of the latest phase in the twenty-year-old marriage of Peter Harris, a successful art gallery entrepreneur, late of Milwaukee. His wife, Rebecca, is “one of the Richmond, Virginia, Taylor sisters”. She also works in the art industry, and I suspect New York is still the world’s art capital? The time is now, so the big bucks once made by agents from the latest fashion in painting, sculpture, ‘installations’, ICT/multi-media creations are drying up. Pleasing his valued, wealthy customers and discovering [ and ‘booking’] the latest art hero are just two of Peter’s current challenges. They are both worrying about their uni drop-out daughter, when the unusual nephew, Ethan [aka “Mizzy”] decides to come and stay a while. Peter is in search of beauty, in the art he studies, evaluates and exhibits as well as in his daily existence. Mizzy’s presence challenges him in ways he thought he would never dream of.

Peter’s is [as Billy J sang] very much “a New York state of mind”. Some of the novel’s best moments are when he walks the neighbourhood late at night, or discusses the latest hangings with his assistant, or visits a wealthy client in her out-of-town mansion. I found him a sympathetic character. The vents are seen very much from his point of view, but he is not given a whitewash by any means. Twenty years ago this sort of novel would have been considered daring, but we are used now to the honesty with which the serious artists treat “Ordinary People” [that very good film!] I felt for Peter not because of his advanced aestheticism [if, in fact, he possesses it] but for his willingness to face his issues. So – am I contradicting myself? – The book is also a bit old-fashioned in its prose style. There are no gimmicks here – and it is not too long.

When Cunningham takes two pages to describe, for example, a room, you can bet the effect will be memorable, and relevant to the novel’s overall meaning.

Rating: ****

Michael Cunningham: By Nightfall, 4th Estate, 2010, pp 238, rrp $34-99 pb.

December 7th

Book & Publishing News

*It’s nearly Christmas, so let’s forever CORRECT something…If you are involved in it, it is “Kris Kindle”…and NEVER “Kris Kringle”. The latter is, I think, a character in an old movie entitled “Miracle on 34th Street.

*The latest ALR was bit disappointing. No surprise The Oz gave space to NSW Right-Wing powerbroker Michael Costa to add his surgical swipes to the state of federal Labor, though what it has to do with our current LITERARY scene as such, I am not sure.

* …Speaking of which: very contrasting reviews of the Howard book from Robert Manne [in the latest “The Monthly”] and David Martin Jones [in “Quadrant”]. I honestly tried to read “Lazarus Rising”, but resorted to cherry-picking, using the index. No wonder The Oz is giving it away to new subscribers to that newspaper. There is some great summer reading in this issue of “The Monthly”.

* I’ve not time to review it, but “Chains” by Laurie Hals Anderson was a very good recent read. Set amid the turmoil of the British attack on Washington and his patriots in 1776.the book reminds us of the pain of that particular Revolution.

* ..IF YOU WANT $75 worth of new books, tell us what your favourite read was this year. Email /phone/ write in, 25 words or less. We will judge the most PERSUASIVE piece and the winner can collect the prize from our reception. [$100 if you are a subscriber to THE PULSE.]

*Dec-Jan edition of Australian Book Review announces the winner of its Short Story Comp for 2010– Deakin Geelong’s Maria Toklander. There is lots of good reading, including Maria’s rather unusual story and an essay on ‘Em Forster’ by editor, Peter Rose. Of special interest will be the favourite books for this year from prominent writers, including many we have reviewed on this program.

*I will list my favourite TEN books for 2010 during our last program before Christmas.

*My MONDAY program – “BLOOD’S COUNTRY” – goes to air at 3 pm. Lots of readings from all sorts of people telling us about our land and its People. Good Australian classical music too.

This Weeks Review: “the mary smokes boys” by Patrick Holland

This novel reminded me of all those wonderful writers who over the years have told us what it is like to be a Queenslander. Xavier Herbert’s “Capricornia” must surely be one of the great Australian novels. More recently, the late Thea Astley’s numerous books managed to cover just about every aspect - historical, geographical and social - in the Sunshine State’s experience. Of late, we have the likes of Matthew Condon. Perhaps the greatest of them all is David Malouf, master poet, novelist and short-story writer.
Well, Patrick Holland has a way to go yet, but his second outing is a very perceptive look into the lives of a handful of contemporary Queenslanders about whom we don’t usually hear much. They live just over the Great Divide from Brisbane, in fairly poor circumstances and are generally left to their own devices by family and the wider community. They are the denizens of ‘Mary Smokes’. Nothing much happens there because it is on the way to nowhere much. Our hero is Grey. He and his troubled but rather wise younger sister, Irene, lost their mother years before, and Dad is a rather ne’er-do-well, through no fault of his own, really. He’s just one of those sad people for whom life has dealt the lower cards. He has a new wife, but life has no promises left for him.

Grey is pretty much his own man, though he is continually lured into the escapades of his young Indigenous neighbour, “Ook”, and the other “Boys”. There is an element of illegality in much of what they get up to. They do love the places where they live: the Mary Smokes River and its surrounding bush which is playground and hideout. This is by no means an unlikely scenario in small towns where there is not much to do.

Having lived and taught most of my adult life in such places, I would say that the situation of youth –especially the older adolescents, with little education, just out of school – is somewhat precarious. There are the possibilities for a meaningful relationship between Grey and a local girl, but she will always be better off – attractive, better-educated, from a better side of town. Ultimately Grey has to make some choices about loyalties – between his vulnerable sister and the Boys.
It is quite a simple tale but one told with sincerity and an authenticity born of the author’s own earlier immersion in the life of rural Queensland. Holland respects his characters, though the reader is left in little doubt of their fallibility and [probably] hopelessness.

Rating: ***

Patrick Holland: “the mary smokes boys”, Transit Lounge, 2010, rrp $29-95, pp 237, pb.

Author Interview: Jane Carnegie-Poet (Bernard’s Interview)

On The Blurb’s never-ending quest to unravel poetry for our listeners, we spoke to poet Jane Carnegie about her poetry. She also gave you a taste of her work by reading some of her poems [in a much better fashion than my weekly attempts at it]. This week the show was jam packed with poets as poet Cameron Lowe joined us in the studio to talk about his recently published work.

Jane on “Why” Poetry?
One takes on the creative endeavour one by one. The poems just began. When I first began writing, I could write 3 poems a day, now it’s more 3 poems a month. It was very exciting in the beginning.

Jane on the accessibility of her poems to the reader and what makes poetry different from prose-
What I’m trying to do when I write a poem on something is to distil its essence.

Author Interview: Cameron Lowe author of poetry collection “Porch Music” (John’s Interview)

Today we were joined in the studio by Cameron Lowe, Geelong-born poet whose first full-length collection of poetry Porch Music was launched by Whitmore Press in Geelong last Sunday. (Whitmore Press is a locally-based publisher, headed by local writer and editor, Anthony Lynch).

Cameron has served as editor of the Ardent Sun and co-editor of the Geelong-based poetry magazine Core. He has published frequently in Southerly, The Age, Island, Meanjin, & now The Best Australian Poems 2010. “Throwing Stones at the Sun”, a chapbook of his poems was published by Whitmore Press in 2005. He is currently undertaking postgraduate study at The University of Melbourne.

It is worth making a special note of the fact that Cameron is one of eight poets in the Geelong region whose work appears in this year’s “The Best Australian Poem” (published by Black Inc).

I know poets (and many writers) are loath to discuss the nuts and bolts of their writing but Cameron was happy to explore some of the directions in which his work is taking him. My personal belief is that poets have a particular view of the world and of life and I think there’s a particular sort of observation that Cameron brings to this collection. Most of us in our busy lives are content to look at something and then look away at something else but poets like Cameron look and then keep on looking until they get to the essence of what they see and find the words to express this.

It’s the small, concise intimacies that Porch Music brings to our attention. For example in ‘Easy’:
‘You wake with her hand / on your back; her hand, / warm beneath sheets, / on the small of your back. / …a thing, a small easy thing’
or in Solitude where:
‘…the late sun falls sharp / and clear / into that bare white room, warming / her back…’

These are the sorts of observations that David McCooey, in launching Porch Music, described as ‘mundane yet remarkable’. Perhaps poets don’t so much look at life differently but they do keep looking and noticing the things the rest of us miss in our haste. Cameron Lowe in this collection makes us notice the small details and they are always details suffused with meaning and significance. Cameron admitted that he is much influenced by the poet William Carlos Williams in his focus on the small and seemingly insignificant.

He said also in his interview that he does attempt to de-Romanticise the idea of poetry and his focus is often on the ordinary or everyday:

In Morning light ‘Over the road, the new neighbour / polishing his ute, three magpies / exploring the median strip. / On the fence rail, by the gate, / a green can of VB its own mystery.’
Yet these ordinary objects seem to glow with an inner mystery or meaning.
However, Porch Music does not take itself too seriously. There is always humour lurking behind the lyrical.

In Summer:
‘…As the day’s / heat softens into evening there’s that / sausage again, adrift on the hot breeze, / whispering: it’s summer, it’s summer.’

While the first part of this collection contain poems which are often personal and intimate, the second section, “Corrosive Littoral”, responds to the paintings of the Australian Surrealist artist James Gleeson. Many of these poems take more time to digest and their meanings are not immediately apparent. Titles are taken from Gleeson paintings and often discard the poetic structure as if it is inadequate to contain the responses generated by the paintings.
Overall in this collection there is a balance between poems which are intensely private and personal and others which roam into wider, more universal territory. The title of this collection “Porch Music” then feels entirely appropriate, where the porch is the space which is situated between and connects the personal and the public and it is this ‘littoral’ territory that these poems inhabit

This is a beautifully presented collection from a local poet of whom we should be proud and of whom we will no doubt hear more in the future.

“Porch Music” published by Whitmore Press is available at Paton Books, Pakington St. Geelong. RRP: $24.95

For more on poetry and to check out some of John’s Very on work check out:


This week you heard the following tracks:
-“We Won’t Run” by Sarah Blasko
-“Let Go” by Frou Frou

Catch Up on The Blurb

Here at The Blurb we try and post as many reviews and other bits and pieces from our show onto our blog. Unfortunately some things get lost in translation! Here are some things that have finally found their way to our blog from past shows…ENJOY

Bernard’s ‘History Book Reviews’ from November 9th

Regular listeners to this program will know that I am pretty interested in history books. More specifically, I find ‘HISTORIOGRAPHY’ - the study of how history is recorded – totally intriguing. But why is history, usually recorded by ‘white’ males, from the material left by dead ‘white’ males? Well, maybe things are changing, have a look at the bookshelves in your library… Anyway, that is a topic for another time. In the meantime, as we approach the gifting season, I thought I should tell you about some books available which talk about some contemporary history, some recent publications as well as a few famous events, a favourite subject for writers of history books.

I have mentioned before my admiration for the work of some-time television broadcaster, Simon Schama. You may have to dig around for his books, but he has written beautifully about the French Revolution [in “Citizens"], the American slave trade [“The Middle Passage”] as well as a general history of the United States [“The American Future”.] His newest publication, "Scribble, Scribble , Scribble…” awaits me, with its promise of “Writings on Icecream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother”.
Tony Wright is a respected journalist with “The Age” [who can be heard weekly on Denis Scanlon’s “Front Page” on this station]. Ten years ago he visited the Gallipoli Peninsula on assignment and has returned several times. Allen & Unwin have just published his excellent book “Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula” which is much more a walker’s guide. Tony has done his homework and provides a rich background to events of those dreadful months in 1915 that add fresh insights, especially for the intending traveller. [I have grave personal uncertainties about just what we as a nation are doing with our wartime mythology – led by less-scrupulous politicians? - which is not to take anything away from the pain suffered by those “diggers” and their families.]

In this election year there has been an unusually large number of ‘post mortem’-type books published; have there ever been so many before? [“Montes parturiuntur/Et nascitur ridiculus mus” indeed! I laughed as I browsed “Best Political Cartoons of 2010”, out already, reminded of the unique place filled by our cartoonists in the work of the Fourth Estate. The often-hilarious, always-perceptive comments of Leunig, Tanberg, Petty, Nicholson, Leak, etc. are all there for you to smile over. Barry Cassidy is well-known for his work on ABC TV, particularly his addictive “Insiders” on Sunday mornings. He has called his record of the past three years in Australian federal politics “The Party Thieves”, a title which hints at the revelatory contents. It is for the lay reader rather than the serious student, but a good read nonetheless.

And that brings me to Bruce Guthrie’s “Man Bites Murdoch”, probably one for the media tragic's. You may remember Guthrie as a leading Melbourne newspaperman over many years who took on and beat Murdoch Snr in a recent wrongful dismissal case. His book reminds us just how capricious life can be at the upper end of the media circus.

We leave the public life of the nation now for more local histories. Victory Books are clearly cashing in on the popularity of the recent film “Animal Kingdom” by re-releasing former tabloid journalist Tom Noble's “Walsh Street", though I would say this story deserves to be recalled continually as our police go about their dangerous calling. The cold-blooded murder of two young officers is still a 'powerful and emotional’ one as Noble says in his introduction. The crime remains unsolved.

World-famous novelist [Sir?] Salman Rushdie was being as provocative as usual when he wrote in 1984 that “Adelaide is the perfect place for a horror story….because sleepy, conservative towns are where these things happen. Adelaide is an Amityville, or Salem, amid things go bump in the night.” Well, we always allow Rushdie a bit of poetic licence, but journalist Sean Fewster goes all the way back to Edward Gibbon Wakefield to explain why he thinks the “City of Churches” has been the site of so much bizarre crime. Adelaide was to be a 'planned' community of free men, avoiding the “hated stain” of convictism of the other colonies. Fewster reveals that Wakefield himself had his own skeletons clanking away in his English cupboard. Anyway, was it not inevitable that Adelaide’s obsession with propriety and secrecy would build a pressure-cooker society that must periodically burst into infamy, this is a racy read, tabloid in style but well-researched and rather compelling.
David Hill is something of a local Renaissance man, arriving as a British WWII orphan he has since taken on many prominent roles in the service of his adopted country. After being head of the ABC and running the national Soccer Federation, he has turned to writing history books. His “Gold: The fever that changed Australia” was certainly an ambitious project. The hallmarks of sound history writing are there: the footnotes, bibliography and index are sound. I feel his enterprise may have been rather over-reaching as he attempted to cover the search for the precious metal from the Palmer River to Ophir to Central Australia[Lassetters Reef] over 150 years. People like Geoff Blainey Geoffrey Serle and [Deakin’s own] Weston Bate have made it hard for later writers of the history of gold discovery in Australia. Find “The Rush That Never Ended” or “Lucky City” for the very best. That being said, Hill provides a pretty extraordinary introduction to this vast topic. He even gives the associated bushrangers a run. [Pun intended!]
To a completely different scenario. British academic Jeremy Black has written a comprehensive yet concise history called “The Battle of Waterloo". I found it dovetailed neatly with my finishing “Citizens”. Clearly the vast majority of unfortunate participants in that bloody conflict were illiterate so as usual the history is drawn from 'official' records. The work of the American, Ken Burns [with "The Civil War", notably] and our own Bill Gammage [“The Broken Years”] have been able to acknowledge the role of the ‘ordinary’ soldiers in war. People such as Black rely on the politicians and military leaders for what are usually secondary sources anyway. The people in the field are normally silent. However, this is a good all-round introduction to this area. I get annoyed with the absence of maps in such books….Not many of us know these places, for heaven’s sake. What I found most interesting was Black’s discussion of the impact of Napoleon’s campaigns, and the end of same, on the events of 19th century Europe.
It is these sorts of connections that are the real stuff of history, methinks.

Tony Wright: "Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula", A&U, 2010, 287pp, rrp $ 32-99 pb.
Jeremy Black: "The Battle of Waterloo", Icon Books, 2010, 236pp, rrp $35 hb.
David Hill: "Gold…", Heinemann, 2010, 497pp, rrp $34-95, pb.
Sean Fewster: "City Of Evil", Hatchette, 2010, 322pp, rrp $35, pb.
Bruce Guthrie: "Man Bites Murdoch", MUP, 2010, 353pp, rrp $45, hb.

Bernard’s Crime Book Reviews

Here are two very good new crime novels, one by Martin Cruz Smith, the well-known creator of Russian cop/investigator ‘Arkady Renko’, the second by a newcomer the aptly-named Attica Locke. As well as being more or less investigation genre novels, each novels presents a city that is almost character in the drama – a not unusual facet of modern crime writing [ cf Rankin and Edinburgh, JL Burke’s “New Orleans”.]
Ever since his wonderful “Gorky Park”, Smith has made modern Moscow almost as well known to readers as New York has become to TV viewers. The capital of the new Russia is depicted as a little boy grown too big for his pants: its infrastructure is groaning, its streets full of drunks pimps and petty crooks of all kinds while at the top new sorts of mafia control every aspect of business. Locke’s setting is a city new to me – Houston, in the 1980s, oil capital of the USA. Her version of this sprawling city on the Gulf coast is far from glamorous; there is little of Burk’s exotic bayous and juke joints here. Smith’s latest has Renko caught up in contemporary crime on a small scale as he stumbles onto the murder of a young apparent prostitute and, as is usual for Renko he cannot leave the initial plausible investigation alone. Meanwhile another young female vagrant from the provinces arrives in Moscow to have her new-born baby stole. The two threads inevitably come together while Renko fights to retain his status as a policeman. This is not Smith at his best. The scale is reduced from his more world-shaking plots. He writes as if in cruise control. It is worth reading, but a bit on the lazy side.

SCORE: **+

Martin Cruz Smith, “Three Stations”, Pan Macmillan, 2010, pp 241,rrp $32-99,pb

Locke’s novel shows us 1980s Houston, wrestling with its resources boom and in the throes of ‘labor’ troubles concerned with the oil trade. It opens, however, with a couple celebrating a wedding anniversary who accidentally become involved in a late-night criminal incident. He is an African-American lawyer, a bit down-art-heel, a veteran of the glory days of the civil rights movement of the 60s-70s. The story takes a while to get going, but builds into a searching investigation of just how permanent the social advances wrought by ML King Jr and the his great movement for change in race relations were. Locke’s Porter had been a prominent small player in local race politics in his younger days, but has more or less moved into the settled middle-class life of American suburbia when his father-in-law summons him to stand up again on a justice issue, labour rights this time. Meanwhile, the possible murder, from the book’s opening pages, emerges as a threat to his new-found attempts to lead the better life.

Jay’s character is multi-layered. It seems every book nowadays carries its “Acknowledgements”, etc. addendum. Locke’s is worth reading because she explains how the genesis for her novel was an incident involving her father very like the occurrence of the assault that opens this novel. Jay has to take new risks; faces up to aspects of his past that he had hoped were left behind – while looking after his wife as she prepares for the birth of their first child. Not surprisingly, the ripples spread until we discover the lurking influence of Big Oil in the mix. If this sounds soap-operatic, fear not. Locke handles a complex plot with the skill of a veteran. This is by far the best book in this genre I have read this year. It combines the intricacies of crime-and-investigation with a frank look at an aspect of US history - the advancement of “coloured people” – that resonates today as we consider the situation of the embattles President!

SCORE: ****
Attica Locke, “Black Water Rising”, Harper Collins, 2009, pp 430, rrp $ 24-99, pb

Bernard’s Review of “Nemesis” by Phillip Roth

Now, listeners, a question for you. What do the following people have in common? A wartime American President; a famous Australian soprano; two of my childhood neighbours ;one of my cousins ;the younger brother of one of my lifelong friends? Give up? All of these people, unfortunately, suffered the lifelong effects of a cruel disease that is happily no longer with us – poliomyelitis. If I call it by its earlier name, ”Infantile paralysis”, you will remember that ‘Polio’s” cruel legacy was at least the withering of one limb; the worst cases at the time led to the patient’s quick death from an epidemic that swept the Western world, including Australia in the 1940s. I think it was about 1953 when we were all immunised with a vaccine developed by the American Jonas Salk. It has been so easy for the rest of us to forget the life-changing trauma Polio visited on so many of our contemporaries, many of whom of course still live with its effects.

This is all by way of introducing this week’s book review. Eminent American writer Phillip Roth may be best known for his forgettable yet briefly notorious 1960s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint”. [I won’t embarrass anyone, myself included, by reminding you what young Portnoy’s actual “complaint’ was.] And there was another mildly successful novel, “Goodbye Columbus”, made into a reasonable film with Richard Benjamin and [the new] Ali McGraw which many of us saw in the late 60s. Fortunately Roth’s prowess as an observer of middle-class American life – I hasten to add from a Jewish point of view because his ethnicity is at the heart of his perspective - has improved with age. I venture to suggest he is now, in his 70s,at the height of his powers. I refer you to his two Zuckerman novels and “American Pastoral” of recent times – and now “Nemesis”, the last of a quartet completed in the past couple of years. Though Roth is much lauded in his own country, I could never see why until I read these later novels.

Our central character is “Bucky” Cantor whom we meet as a 23-year-old PE teacher who has been seconded to a new sports program for inner-city boys in inner Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1940s. He has been left at home by his peers because of his poor eyesight; they are off in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese. By the sheer generosity of his nature, he becomes a charismatic figure to the twenty-or-so adolescents whom he daily teaches softball and swimming. It is the dreadful summer of 1944. Not only is America on a full war footing: an epidemic of a new and fearful virus – Poliomyelitis – is afoot. The war, meanwhile, is turning; remember the awful effect the recapture of Europe had on the young JD Salinger? Bucky believes his sad childhood background has made him self-reliant, resourceful, empathetic. Nothing, however, has prepared him for the deaths of some of his charges and the awful choices that suddenly confront him as a result. His lover, Marcia, has “escaped’ the epidemic for the apparent safety of the mountains of Philadelphia where she is counsellor at a school camp attended by her younger twin sisters. Bucky not only yearns for Marcia: he is beginning to grapple with the problem of the ‘death of innocents’ up against his Jewish religion’s teaching about the mercy of God.

That covers the first half of this beautifully-written story. You will have to read it yourself to see how it unfolds. Roth’s command of prose is masterful. Unlike a lot of [dare I say] younger contemporary writers, Roth is not afraid of complex sentences, of the longer paragraph or of exploring human emotion or of establishing the particularity of a setting in place and time. Yet he never lapses into verbosity much less sentimentality. This is a gem of a novel. Now a senior in the writing academy, he has obviously learned his craft by endless practice. The prose is polished, his eye always discerning and accurate – and his heart is unerringly sensitive to the ebbs and flows of humans in history.
This is up there with “Matterhorn” and “Love Story” as my best reading so far this year.
Rating: ****

Philip Roth: “Nemesis”,Jonathan Cape,2010,pp 28o,rrp $35 HB.

News for October 19th

* The latest ABR [from “The Australian”] was a bit esoteric…academic…for me.

* The ever-active TOM KENEALLY recently turned 75, in time for his latest history venture “Three Famines’.

* A recent column in the Fairfax ‘big paper” from The Emerald City bemoaned the scarcity of female writers in the winners’ lists of international fiction awards. Cited was JODI PICOULT’s opinion. Now I have to challenge her claim to be a “serious” novelist.

* Australian Poet GWEN HARWOOD – whose work you we heard again today – is studied for the HSC English course in NSW.

* October is Cancer Awareness Month. Two books around the topic:
Janet Elder:”Huck” and [Australian] Susanne Gervay:”Always Jack”.

* The October edition of independent news magazine “The Monthly” includes JOHN [“After America”, recently reviewed] BIRMINGHAM on the ‘Wikileak’ phenomenon.

* National Geographic continues to be about the best value read around. For about $50 pa, it provides wonderful ‘wildlife’ photography as always, but also amazing articles about world history and environmental issues. This month it tackles the huge story of the Mexico Gulf oil fiasco.

* The Age”’s JANE SULLIVAN wrote recently of her experiences as a judge on one of our leading fiction awards, speaking of the dominance of ‘the big four’ novelists: can you guess who?

* When I calm down sufficiently, I will deliver my review of the 2010 Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”. Yes, I was appalled – especially when Andrea Levi’s beautiful book was in the mix.

* Did you read the interview in “The Age” recently with playwright EDWARD ALBEE? He will be in Melbourne soon for a lecture. A superbly succinct writer.

* The latest quarterly essay includes several letters commenting on the previous edition’s now-famous David Marr’s discussion of Kevin Rudd [before his removal.] They are relevant to John Bartlett’s recent comments on our program on “the essay” as a genre.

Bernard’s Review of “Private Life” by Jane Smiley and “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson

They are both well-known in their own countries – Smiley won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature in the US in 2000 for the splendid “One Thousand Acres” [which was spoiled by a mediocre film version.] Jacobson’s new book was awarded this year’s Man Booker Prize [for best novel published in the British Commonwealth in 2010.]

While Smiley’s works are firmly located in various parts of the USA, Jacobson in fact wrote a couple of early novels while he was teaching at Sydney Uni ,in the early 70s. Smiley’s works have a firm but gently-observing tone, whereas Jacobson’s have a more robust and satirical bent. For the last decade or more, his target has been upper middle-class life in urban England.

Smiley is looking at the life of a middle-class American woman, Margaret, from the 1880s through until the middle of World war II. She is more a Jane Austen than a Joyce Carol Oates, concentrating on the ‘small’ lives of ordinary Americans, but she does it with an unerring gaze which she uses to uncover frustrations and yearnings that are very painful, for all their banality.

On the surface, Margaret is a boring character. No, her sad life is boring. Raised the least attractive of three Mid-West daughters, she gladly allows herself to become hitched to the wonderfully-named Andrew Jefferson early. Fortunately for the reader, most of the story is filtered through Margaret’s eyes for she is a tireless observer, able to wring every possible sensory observation form the quotidian routines of hers and her family’s lives.

Her husband is a pedant. Not only does he [apparently] know everything about most things, in the areas of science - especially astronomy and cosmology – he is forever pushing into what he claims is new territory. The methods he uses in this lifelong pursuit are found to be a little dodgy, just one of the sources of the novel’s little tragedies.

Through a rather loveless courtship and marriage, Margaret makes her way into tedious middle-age. Two miscarriages and the early death of her only child leave a dark scar on her psyche, but at least they also give her a new privacy which she learns to enjoy and exploit.

The historical and political backgrounds are etched in beautifully. It is the time of America’s great industrial awakening and then its emergence as a world power. Amid all this, Margaret lives modestly but with a subtle style of feminine [not quite feminist] independence of heroic dimensions, I think it is her continuing empathy and compassion for those around her; she is never cruel, even to her awful husband. On the contrary, she reaches out to people, quietly, unobtrusively…effectively.

I really liked this novel. Smiley has created an unlikely heroine in Margaret. The scale of the book is quite vast – epic almost. The background events are more momentous than those of Austen’s books, yet they are just there, intruding but so subtly. She is a beautiful stylist. As I recommend repeatedly, read a paragraph aloud and enjoy the flow, the resonance, the language.

Rating: A strong ***

Jacobson writes social comedy. in the style of, say, the American Lisa Adler [What ever happened to her? Great stuff 15 years ago…] In the UK, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe write similar satire. It is a change for the Booker judges to reward this genre. [Privately, I have not agreed with their judgement since they followed the great “Midnight’s Children” with a lesser Roddy Doyle.]

As a young academic, Jacobson spent a few years lecturing in English at our oldest university. His lectures were apparently both hugely entertaining and very scholarly, a fairly rare combination. “Coming From Behind” and “Redback” and “In The Land Of Oz” come from this period and sold well at the time.

Jacobson is in good form in “The Finkler Question”. It is a witty treatise on his favourite theme of recent times – ‘Getting Older’ – and, of course, there are Jewish men involved. I feel this is a bit anachronistic for our times. Hasn’t Woody Allen done this to death for us, albeit in a different medium?

To quote the cover blurb: “Julian Treslove, a former BBC worker, and Sam Finkler, A Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite different lives, they’ve never lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech more concerned with the wider world than exam results…’ [Those familiar with the novelists mentioned above will already see the relevance of my reference.] Sure, the novel is “Funny, unflinching and furious…” as claimed. I couldn’t agree, however, that as “a story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, ageing, wisdom and humanity”, it has succeeded, if that is what the author was attempting. Jacobson has definitely become kinder in his later middle years, but his characters just did not engage this reader.

I wonder whether the novel would have worked better as a play; Jacobson is very good at conversations. A lot of people will buy this book on the strength of its Booker win. Maybe I missed something.

Rating: **

Sunday, December 12, 2010

November 23rd

Book & Publishing News

- Arrived recently: two great Christmas buys for the ageing Rockers….Brian Cadd’s “From This Side of the Fence”, lots of gossip and memoir’s from this legendary singer/songwriter, rrp $35. Also out now is “The 100 Best Australian Albums” a beautifully-presented coffee-table style souvenir, rrp $60.

- What did you think of the TV adaptation of Andrea Levi’s “The Small Island”? Our regular reviewer, John, found it all too rushed

- The latest “Quarterly Essay” is by “The Australian’s” George Megalogenis, [who also appears on “True Believers”.] Of the 2010 poll, George says wisely “…Gillard and Abbott, and behind them their poll-obsessed teams, were so terrified of offending the disengaged that they forgot to inspire the voters who were paying attention.” Excellent reading, as always. Available from Paton Books and your library, rrp $19-95.

* Geelong Library representatives will be on “The Blurb” monthly in 2011.

-What better Christmas gift than a new book? Support our station sponsors – PATON BOOKS and Angus and Robertson!

- Commencing this Monday , November 29th at 3 pm , I will be hosting a new hour-long program – “MY BLOOD”S COUNTRY”- which will present how writers, of all kinds have viewed Australia over the years. Be prepared for short stories, poems, diary extracts, interviews, etc from 1788 till now.

* Keep listening to “The Blurb” for my TOP TEN BOOKS of 2010!

This Weeks Review: A collection of Reviews from recently released books about Aussies and War

Did you watch “Sisters at War” on ABC1 the other Sunday? An excellent film about the trials of two remarkable Australian’s. It seems we still like to read about and watch the stories of our fellow countrymen/women in the throes of conflict. We want to applaud, perhaps, or maybe it just does us good to be humbled in the face of such blatant heroism. The bookstores keep a regular stock of new titles and this year has been no exception. I have already reviewed a number of ‘weightier’
books on various wars [which you might like to scroll back and find], I will make these comments briefer as there are so many books to talk about.

The quality of the story-telling in these books varies significantly, but would-readers will probably select according to their innate interest. I felt “On Radji Beach” was the standout of the current crop along with “The Changi Brownlow”. Ian Shaw tells again the truly heroic story of the survival of a group of Australian nurses in the aftermath of that most unforgivable of blunders, the “Fall of Singapore”. Having nearly escaped capture once, the original group- numbering in the hundreds – were sunk in their escape vessel, captured by the Japanese and subjected to three and a half years of humiliation…and, mostly, murdered. It is a heart-wrenching read, but superbly written.
"On Radji Beach",Macmillan,pb,rrp $35,pp 358

Though “Beersheba” came out last year, I’m not sure I gave it suitable mention at the time. This is the story of “the last great cavalry charge’, but it is more than that. Daley takes us to the site and has managed to source a lot of new material about the events. He effectively challenges some of the prevailing myths that surround our involvement in World War One, particularly the Middle East campaigns. As with the previous book, sound index and footnotes.
"Beersheba", MUP 2009,rrp 35, pb, pp 337

Roland Perry takes us into the lives of others who were in Singapore at the time of the infamous surrender – the men who suffered through imprisonment in Changi and the slaver labour camps on the Thai-Burma railway, have we forgotten that 23000 Australian and other Allied POWs died in that awful time? Gain it is a story of survival – and tenacious good humour, a product of basic humanitarianism by these amazing ‘blokes”, to this day in our district, only a handful of these soldiers still survive.
What does a group of Aussie men do when there’s nothing else to do? They grab a footy, and have a kick! Bizarre as it seems, this is what happened among the Australians in Changi – they organised an Aussie Rules comp. A very lively and uplifting tale.
“The Changi Brownlow”, Hatchette, pb, rrp $35,pb pp 376

Patrick Lindsay’s book “The Coast Watchers” brings us closer to home – to the islands of our north where, it was felt at the time, the very survival of Australia was in the balance as the Japanese war machine relentlessly thundered south. As have several of these authors, Lindsay has worked in journalism so the story moves swiftly and authoritatively. Not unlike the heroes of the next book, the Coast Watchers were ‘left behind’ to keep an eye out for the Japanese advancing across the Pacific after Pearl Harbour. When all hope of defending their particular space had been abandoned. Again, the persistence and practicality of these men and women is beyond belief to most of us today. More than thirty were captured and executed, in fact.
“The Coast Watchers” Random House, pb, rrp $34-95,pp 416

“The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground” were ‘Sparrow Force’, a Special Forces Unit set up to fight behind enemy lines on the island of Timor [sic]. It was a guerrilla war, relying on the support of the locals ,of whom many thousands died during the Japanese invasion, “avoiding pitched battles, instead picking the right time to strike…..They tied down thousands of the enemy, not just matching them, but beating them”.
“The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground”, Hatchette, pb, rrp $35,pp 382

Moving closer to our times, “Bomber” tells the story of a remarkable man, Tony Bower-Miles, who served his hour in Vietnam as a sapper and who since 2001 has devoted much of his time to the daunting job of removing landmines in Cambodia.
We’re still only slowly learning about illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as we continue to ‘debrief’ as a community the aftermath of war, for example. Tony confronted his post-Vietnam demons and turned them on their head, as it were- by enlisting fellow vets for those days to help the war-damaged people of Cambodia, The story is not always very well-written, but deserves to be heard.
“Bomber”, Macmillan, pb, rrp $35,pp 292

New Zealand-born Rob Maylor served as a soldier in various guises and in different theatres. His story ranges from his homeland to Northern Ireland through East Timor [sic] to Iraq and Afghanistan. As the cover blurb says, his was “the world of an elite Australian marksman”. Established author, Robert Macklin, worked on Rob’s memoirs with him…fortunately because this book narrowly avoids being a smoke-social, boys-own-adventure rave. I have little doubt that people like Rob are necessary tools in our defence apparatus, but I wondered at times abut his motivation and thought processes in the field, and his evaluation the events he recalls.
“SAS Sniper”, Hatchette, pb, rrp $35,pp 330

Just when I had completed these jottings, onto my desk came Craig Stockings’ weirdly-titled “Zombie Myths of Australian Military History”. The book sets out to tackle ten myths – eg the ‘heroism’ of “Breaker Morant” [not even his real name!] – most of us have entertained unquestioningly forever. Perhaps, Stockings argues, Australians have a need “to commemorate and venerate the deeds of past servicemen, conceptions of national identity wrapped in the imagery of war, and the all-encompassing social implications of our central national legends – Anzac and the ‘Digger’…challenging stuff? Indeed. I hasten to add that nowhere in this lively book is the authentic bravery of our military doubted, it is the myths that are under fire. Heartily recommended.
“Zombie Myths of Australian Military History”, Newsouth Books, pb, rrp $35, pp 275

Thursday, December 2, 2010

November 23rd

John’s Review- ‘How It Feels’ by Brendan Cowell

I have to confess I come to this review with something of a personal prejudice. This is a book written by someone who identifies as an actor albeit an actor I much admire. Brendan Cowell is an Australian actor, writer and director and perhaps best known for his role as Tom in Love My Way. He was nominated for an AFI award for his role in Noise a nomination I thought he thoroughly deserved and for a film I thought did not receive the acclaim it deserved.
However, I’m always a bit suspicious when professions cross boundaries. I mean would you employ a plumber to perform your open heart surgery? Should writers be allowed to act or actors allowed to write? Perhaps the listeners have some views on this topic.
I concede there are closer links between the skills of an actor and those of a writer than perhaps between plumbing and surgery and to be fair Cowell has written scripts for film and television.
‘How It Feels’ is basically a coming-of-age story about Neil Cronk and his girlfriend Courtney and his mates Gordon and Stuart. It’s a story of booze, drugs sex and violence told in a style that is unrelentingly gritty, coarse and very frank and perhaps comes across as trapped in an adolescent rebellious style. As a genre I suppose it could best be described as ‘grunge’ and in the Australian tradition of Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas or Praise by Andrew McGahan. The writing style is direct and unflinching and packs a real punch. It’s an unrelenting high octane story of the struggle of a young man to move beyond the self-destruction of addiction and his total focus on personal needs above those of anybody else. This is a compelling story but I do think there are some problems with the style.
For example there is some confusion about the construction of the story. The first few chapters proceed in a chronological order which is easy to follow but then in mid story there are movements back and forth in both time and location that left me confused. I’m not a rabid supporter of sticking to a strictly chronological structure and some of the best novels are flexible in playing with time and location in a narrative but here these changes were badly handled and confusing.
There are also some gaps in information and presumptions from time to time that needed more explanation, a sketchiness that the narrative doesn’t completely cover.
Despite the energy of the writing style, and there is plenty of that, at times the style fell into purple prose or felt just too overwritten. A simpler, more pruned back style could have been just as dramatic and more impactful. Take for example this statement: ‘Hell sat pregnant in my face. Something beautiful had left the building. I was a shell of a man. The scallop of my soul had been sucked out and I couldn’t help but think the cliché: I could have saved him.’ Much of the style is like this, overwritten, overdramatic, even clichéd when less might have been better.
The novel’s point of view is very definitely a strong first person main protagonist voice but it does have some limitations. We see everything through this character’s eyes and I soon wondered how reliable a narrator he really was. The other characters feel a bit like puppets or chess pieces to be moved about or given dialogue to deliver rather than living as full-blooded characters in their own right.
I’d love to hear what some female readers would make of his portrayal of the female characters and what his male characters have to say about women. I did notice that Louise Swinn in The Age on November 6th suggests that ‘we don’t get a good enough view of Courtney, who is an important character.’ One of the main revelations of the story revolves around the question of which of the 3 male characters ‘took’ Courtney’s virginity, which is a pretty sexist view.
In many ways this is a ‘blokey’ novel, not exactly from a sexist angle but more than that, concentrating on the fraught ways Australian men struggle to express affection and friendship for one another. But it should be highly commended for its attempt to portray Australian male friendship, something that has perhaps been neglected in contemporary Australian fiction.
With a first novel questions can always be asked about the quantity of autobiographical detail and this is a fair question in this case. Given that Neil Cronk’s CV has some resemblances to that of Cowell we can fairly conclude that there is some autobiographical material here. Both grew up in Cronulla and attended Drama at Bathurst University.
Despite its flaws there is an incredible energy and heart at the centre of this novel, which mostly overrides the stylistic limitations I have mentioned. This is a story told with guts and lack of pretension and armed with this sort of energy Cowell can only go on to refine his writing skills further. Perhaps after all it’s an argument for more not less intermarriage between writing books and writing for the theatre.

This Weeks Poem:

“Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum ”- Peter Porter


This week we played the following tracks:
-‘Livin In The Seventies’ by Skyhooks
-‘War’ by Gossling