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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 14th

WELCOME to Leo, panelling today.

* NEXT WEEKEND in Torquay brings the “Froth’N’Bubble” Literary Festival, Saturday and Sunday at Torquay College. All FREE.

* In our conversation last Tuesday, ROHAN WILSON spoke of his doctoral work on the relationship between historiography and fiction: that same day the marvellous621 am/Radio National’s “Bush Telegraph” featured a discussion of the novel-to-film process of “The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith” with author Tom Keneally, actor Tommy Lewis and director, Fred Schepsi. [You can download the podcast.] NOTE: in 2001,”The True Story OF Jimmy Governor” was published, Moore/Willaims. Very interesting.

* The latest GRANTA from the UK looks at the “F” word…FEMINISM.

* NEIL HUMPHRIES, an early guest on this program, has a new novel, “Premier Leech”, which looks at the ‘underbelly’ of English football.

* The new “Quarterly Essay” by JUDITH BRETT, looks at the city-country divide. I will talk about it next week.

* BLOOM’S DAY will be recognised Thursday 16th June at the Geelong Library by having local writers read from “Ulysses”.

* “Phil the Greek” – aka the Duke of Edinburgh – turned 90 recently and “The Oz” Saturday listed 100 foot-in-mouth eruptions from the Royal Consort. I will read one each week for your AMUSEMENT. Eg: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes”. [To a British student during a 1986 visit to China.]

* Book-to-film Number 40: Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea”, starring Spencer Tracey, was on TV Sunday.
The short story I recommended to Rohan last week was the
definitive “The Snows Of Kilaminjaro” [of which a film version came out, I think, with Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger?... maybe.]

* Hesse Street, Queescliff, is BOOKS street. Now PETE [sic] has opened a rag-tag second-hand shop where you will find classics such as John Del Vecchio’s novel of the Vietnam war, “The Last Valley.”

* Poet GEOFF GOODFELLOW will be visiting Geelong as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. More on this later. Karen Mayo is the contact and she is also organising a photography exhibition – “Certificate Of Presence” by KAREN MAYO – in the ‘old’ Dimmey’s building in Malop Street. Dates, times and details… later.

* GARRY DISHER’s new Peninsula [Mornington!] crime novel is out: “Whispering Death”. Stay tuned for my review soon and the follow-up interview.

* I have just begun the second novel by ARAVIND ADIGA who won the Man-Booker with “The White Tiger”. So far it is hilarious and right up there with his first.

* GALLIPOLI. Remember I spoke about the monumental new book by British historian PETER HART on April 26th? MICHAEL McKERNAN, formerly of the Australian War Memorial, prolific writer on Australian war history, has just published a very good SHORT history about the doomed 1915 campaign which is a great introduction. In a very concise manner, he raises all the issues – and provides some challenging answers.

INTERVIEW with ADRIENNE FERREIRA, author of a brand-new vovel,”Watercolours” [ 4th Estate pb, rrp $40, pp 340.]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

June 7th

WELCOME to Emma and John […and thanks to BOB APPLETON whose mind came up with the name of this program over two years ago!]

Book & Publishing News

* Remember my review of JC BURKE”s novel “The Pig Boy”? I have now read a second book – “The Story Of Tom Brennan” – which is currently on the NSW Yr 12 English syllabus. I am still trying to line Jan up for a chat.

* Book-to-film Nos. 39 and 40. We watched a 1990s’ film version of the Raymond Chandler classic “The Big Sleep”. Don’t bother: why did the director [the competent Michael Winner] move the action to the UK? Robert Mitchum is just too cool as Marlowe.
I read Burdick/Lederer’s “The Ugly American” when I was in my late teens and it awakened in me my interest in foreign affairs, particularly re. the US and Australia in SE Asia. The film came out in 1963: it was fascinating to see it now, with Marlon Brando as the embattled US Ambassador in Sarakan [Vietnam?]

* As the new month begins, all the news and books mags are coming out. You can purchase them at PATON’s in Newtown. Some highlights:
OVERLAND – BENJAMIN LAW on the Brisbane floods.
ALR [in “The Austrlian”]– an essay discussing who is the more selfish, the Babyboomers or Gen Y.
THE MONTHLY – a great article on the implications of China’s latest Five-Year Plan.
ABR – PATRICK ALLINGTON {“Figurehead”] has a long article on the criteria for the Miles Franklin Award.
QUADRANT – I enjoyed an article on GRAHAM GREENE’s “Catholic” novels.
SOUTHERLY – a special India edition…which reminds me that I must tell you soon about a great new novel set in SW India, ”Tiger Hills”.

* Torquay is holding its “Froth’N’Bubble Festival” on June 18-19. Check out the website for all the FREE events.

* BLOOMSDAY is June 16th and our Geelong library will host readings from That Book [”Ulysses”] by local writers.

* Melbourne Writers’ Festival is coming to Geelong…more later.

* BOOK DESIGN is a fad of mine. I love the look and feel of A&U’s “Good Living Street”, not to mention “The Roving Party”.

* I may not have time to review these, but interesting reading at present: “Amexica”. a documentary on the border wars on the USA-Mexican border….”Tamil Tigress’ tells the story of young Sri Lankan woman caught up in that civil war; she now lives in Australia. I will review “Those Who Came After” by ELISABETH HOLDSWORTH which is VERY good so far.

This Week’s Review: “The Precipice” by Virginia Duigan”

In spite of “Moby Dick”, ”The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher In The Rye”, I am rather wary of novels presented from a first-person narrator’s perspective. I also look askance on novels about writing – ah - novels. Hence my alarm with “The Precipice” as Duigan’s Thea Farmer begins to tell us about her unfulfilled retirement to her “shack” in the Blue Mountains, relieved mainly by her regular excursions to the local town’s Creative Writing evenings.

The nearby town could be Leura. It is never named, but Thea lives deep within that glorious terrain which is beautifully if ominously depicted in her reveries. She is a former principal of a girls’ secondary school. The circumstances of her finishing up in the profession are somewhat murky for most of the book. She had designed her dream retirement home, but had to sell up when the GFC hit. The purchasers are ‘tree changers’, Frank and Ellice, and his adoptive daughter, Vietnamese-Australian teenager, Kim. The only friends Thea has are Oscar, the man who ruins the Creative Writing course, and the local secondhand bookshop proprietor, Sandy. She dotes on her dog, Tim. Thea is intelligent, articulate, prickly, self-opinionated – and fascinating, for most of the book. I can’t say I liked her or even sympathised with her lonely plight. Increasingly I was reminded of those other memorable fictional teachers, Miss Jean Brodie from Muriel Spark’s terrific novel and Jack Keating [from the film, “The Dead Poets’ Society”.]

Thea’s private life is slowly, and [mostly] cleverly revealed, my reservation arising from my confusion at times about what was the novel and what was for her Creative gradually Writing class. We discover the lingering cloud over her work relationship with a gifted young male teacher, Karl Rhode. Meanwhile she seems to be getting awkwardly close to Frank. The friendship with Kim seems mutually beneficial as she mentors the girl’s English skills and Kim acts as a surrogate daughter. Remember, however, that I had begun to see Brodie-Keating signals – and we know how THEIR patronage ended up! Does the author want the reader to read such signs? Maybe that’s a question I’ll ask Virginia when I speak with her.

Kim is a regular “good kid” who laps up the attention and responds to Thea’s educative guidance. By halfway through the story, Frank’s specific artistic project comes in for attention while the overtly-loving relationship he displays for his wife begins to look just a little forced.
And Thea seems just a little too entranced by the brooding presence of her surroundings.

The novel has many of the elements of a conventional adult-child relationship story, but increasingly moves in to the realm of mystery. It is quite readable and Thea is an intriguing enough subject for a novel: God knows, there are enough of us oddball retired teachers around for a whole fiction genre!
But…Remember my unease about the structure and point-of-view?
The mystery just isn’t sufficiently enigmatic. The final climax is a giveaway. I thought so, anyway. I worked my way through the novel too slowly; I like to be drawn into a book, either by the fascination I derive from the characters, or the setting, or the sheer brilliance of the language. And if the writer steers me towards MYSTERY, that should make me turn the pages quickly. “The Precipice” finally disappoints though it is worth a look, for the Blue Mountains location at alone.

SCORE: **+
VIRGINIA DUIGAN: “The Precipice”, Vintage pb, pp 284, rrp $35.

Please feel free to respond to the material here, by writing to us or by phoning in between 3 and 4 pm on Tuesdays, during the show.

Author Interview: with Rohan Wilson author of “The Roving Party”

Rohan Wilson was the winner of the 2011 Vogel Literary Prize, for “The Roving Party” and is based in Launceston.

You can read my review of Rohan’s book if you scroll back to mid-April.

We spoke of Rohan’s interest in Tasmanian history, the “darkness” of the literary output from the island state [“Tasmanian gothic”?], the seminal work of ROBERT DREWE [“The Savage Crows”] in looking at Indigenous-European issues in fiction.

Rohan is working on his Ph D thesis, looking at the relationship between historiography and fiction, an area prominent in recent Australian writing [ cf “The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith”. ”Out Of Ireland”, ”That Deadman Dancing”, ”The Secret River”, ”Figurehead”.]
The novel almost juxtaposes the role of John Batman with Indigenous Vandiemonian [sic], Black Bill, in hunting down ‘marauding natives’. It is a graphic tale, full of the bleakness of the Tasmanian landscape– and the cruelty of the hunters’ minds and methods.

Guest Interview: Leah Swann, author of short story collection “Bearings”

John spoke with LEAH SWANN, author of the short story collection, “Bearings”, one of the six excellent books in AFFIRM PRESS’s recent publishing initiative.

CHARACTERS? People adrift with the title highlighting the experiences of people trying to find a place, an occupation; their resulting vulnerability.

STRUCTURE? Leah’s short stories are not anecdotes. Some follow a sequential structure, some are more “layered”. The structure comes out of the process of telling as a pattern emerges out of developing images.

CONCLUSIONS? They are often uncertain with the reader left to ‘conclude’.

POINT OF VIEW? Occasionally SECOND person: notoriously difficult, but that is how “Street Sweeper” emerged for her.

IMAGERY: the stories feature sensual detail – because that is what Leah herself enjoys in her reading: people love to experience the world from someone else’s awareness.
The “compressed energy” of the short story remains a most attractive feature for Leah though she is working on longer forms.


This week you heard Mel Torme singing “Blue Moon”….the best popular singer of the 20th century [says I.]

May 31st

Well,we are back again...but illness prevents my getting the FULL
story on-line for you this week. Be assured we will be back better
than ever from 3pm on June 1st

Book & Publishing News

* Torquay Froth'N'Bubble Festival is FREE: June 18-19 at Torquay
Secondary College hall. Lots of writing,etc. workshops for all
ages.Check the website.

* JC BURKE ["The Pig Boy",reviewed April 19th] was to speak with me
today;unavailable,but we will follow up.

Next Week

The Blurb will be speaking with ROHAN WILSON, this years Vogel Prizewinner for, "The
Roving Party"] and short story writer LEAH SWANN.

* Bernard will review "The Precipice", by VIRGINIA DUIGAN, who 'The Blurb' will be speaking with soon.

This Week's Review

This week's review was "Where Colts Ran" by ROGER McDONALD

Score: ****

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 17th

Book & Publishing News

* My apology for this print version of my review of the excellent “The Tiger Wife” being so brief…I lost some of it somewhere.

* LIAO YIWU continues to be harassed by the culture police of the People’s Republic: his “The Corpse Walker” is about as harmless a piece of social documentary as one could imagine…in a true democracy.

* JOSEPH HELLER’s unforgettable “Catch-22” is 50 years old. [I read pp 54-5 where Doc Daneeka defines Catch 22.]

* There was an article on 2011 Booker winner HOWARD JACOBSON [“The Finkler Question”] in Sunday’s “Age” which tells his story well. Scroll back to my review last year.

* I spoke at the recent meeting of the Bellarine Historical Society, Wednesday last on “What makes history?”, drawing on 20 or so history books we have discussed on this program over the last year. The excellent Drysdale museum is open the first Sunday of the month. Lots of local histories for sale.

* The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced this week: MALCOLM FRASER and MARGARET SIMONS for his memoirs and ALEX MILLER for “Love Song” were the main winners.

* VICTOR FRANKL’s classic “Man’s Search For Meaning” has been re-published: a thorough review in last Saturday’s “Review” in “The Oz”.

* The latest ABR has their winning 2011 essay by DEAN BIRON. Excellent. Another interview with GERALDINE BROOKS…I still haven’t read “Caleb’s Crossing”.

* Local poet JUDE McCUDDEN will be Poet-In-Residence at Portarlington’s friendly “Blue Dolphin Café” whose hosts Kamil and Helen are generous supporters of the arts on the Peninsula…and make great coffee!

* “THE MONTHLY” for May includes a long analysis of CHRIS LILLEY’s work…Novelist Nicholas Shakespeare on Tasmania… “the Oz”’s PETER van OLENSEN on the future of the Liberal P…And a review of MARK McKENNA on manning Clark; I have just begun this lengthy work. There was also another review of LINDSAY TANNER’s “Sideshow” [which I will review in a fortnight. An interview later, I hope.]...A review of MARK McKENNA’S large tome on Manning Clark which I am wrestling with at present…HELEN GARNER on “Mad Bastards” and “Snowtown”, two notable new films.
The best edition of this magazine for a while.
PATON BOOKS stocks all these magazines.

* I felt for the forlorn workers in “Borders” as they packed lonely books into crates in That Shopping Centre this morning…No sympathy at all for the company though – who spruiked books at “bargain” prices which were effectively the same as the ‘rrp’. LONG LIVE Kathryn, Marylou, Jane and all the ‘little’ booksellers!!

This Weeks Review: “The Sparrows of Edward Street” by Elizabeth Stead

In 1948, Sydneysiders were shocked when Ruth Park’s “The Harp In The South” portrayed the ‘underbelly’ of their city in all its squalor, disease, crime and poverty. Not in our backyard, surely! Sly grog, illegal abortions, domestic violence…and SLUMS. Investigation by the press revealed that, yes, Surry Hills WAS that seedy and low-lived.
[The book, of course, deservedly won all sorts of awards, was made into a successful play, and later became one of our first memorable TV mini-series. Park’s trilogy is still popular, never having been out of print, I believe – as has her trilogy of memoirs.]

I was reminded of “The harp..” as I read this novel from the great Christina Stead’s niece. The eponymous family – delicate apostate-Jewish mother, Hanora; our narrator, the feisty Aria; the vulnerable younger sister, Rosy – are consigned in the late 40s to a “public housing” camp in outer Sydney, having been evicted from a miserly city unit by a landlord who couldn’t find favour with Hanora. They are much put upon. It is a remote cluster of sheds really, full of the dispossessed, with some better-off migrants up the road – and Aborigines in a separate compound. The Sparrows quickly assert themselves, thanks to Aria pride and Hanora’s ingenuity. The place is peopled with some memorable characters – the rabbitoh, Mr. Sparkle; the local priest; a tragic war veteran – and the various women who gather at the laundry for mutual support and gossip. It is rather an anachronistic tale: why publish it now, I wondered? Park had done the job very well half a century ago. Perhaps we need to reminded that “working families” really had it tough not long ago? That there were strong women slogging away for recognition and dignity before the “women’s movement?” I would like to see some documentary work done in the area Stead had re-created.

It is definitely an entertaining book, sometimes amusing, rarely dull. We suffer alongside the Sparrows and the denizens of the camp as they long for escape into the outer world. We marvel at Aria’s endurance, but it was all a bit déjà vu, I thought.

SCORE: **+
ELIZABETH STEAD: The Sparrows Of Edward Street, UQP pb, pp 288, rrp $29-95.

I also gave a brief review of
RON RASH: One Foot In Eden, text pb, pp 197, rrp $30.


You heard Sandy Denny singing “3.10 to Yuma”. The original film with Glenn Ford is on TV at 4pm today! As well as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss singing, “Killing the Blues” from RAISING SAND.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 10th

Book & Publishing News

* May “ALR” had a challenging article by Stephen Schwartz pleading for the restoration of humanities in our universities. Hear here!

* The apers were generous to Rohan Wilson, winner of 2011 Vogel…You will have heard/read MY review. I cannot agree with most reviewers who saw it as an utter triumph.

* The current “Monthly” is full of good things, including a long article on Chris Lilley and “Angry Boys” which I haven’t seen yet

* …because I was speaking to the Bellarine Historical Society on a topic of MY choice: “What MAKES history? “

* We received the latest “Windmills” from Jo and friends at Deakin and the new booklet from Geelong Writers Inc with “our “ Jo and DR Alyson on the cover.

* Today I will feature a winning poem from recent interviewee, Melbourne Poet Jane Carnegie.

* Book-to-film Number 32: “Water For Elephants”…a NICE film generally, no aspirations to real sense for mine. Emma is going to read the novel and tell us about it.
Book-to TV SERIES…another “Moby Dick”. I won’t bother with the second part. Too CLEAN-looking and too much mumbling from Bill Hird [as Ahab.]

* “100 Books Of Liberty” comes from the Institute Of Public Affairs, a neo-Con thinktank so one is not surprised by the selection or the selectors. Have a look though.

* Chinese author Liao Yiwu thought he was going to be a guest at Sydney’s coming Writers’ Festival, but his government found his novel about the “Tienamen Square Massacre” and his current documentary “The Corpsewalkers” [which I am currently reading] dangerous…to someone, we can only guess. Will the People’s Republic go the way of the USSR, I wonder?

* If you missed our Anzac special when I reviewed a swag of books about Australia and wars [ on April 26], don’t forget all reviews can be read on our website.

* Clive James’ later poems are discussed in the new “ALR”: he has taken a more ‘spiritual’, late-in-life direction apparently.

* Linsday Tanner’s book, “Sideshow” is selling well, apparently…but has had poor reviews. I am still hoping to interview him soon. [When will he actually write about the LABOR governments he served in, I wonder?]

* June Alexander whose “A Girl Called Tim” I spoke about recently will be on Greg McHenry’s “Roads To Recovery” on June 8th.

This Week’s Review: “The Roving Party” by Rohan Wilson

A couple of preliminary remarks.

I read and reviewed this book BEFORE reading any other preview/review.
Congratulations to Allen & Unwin for the excellent presentation of this new Australian novel! The cover design is fetching and appropriate, bespeaking quality immediately. This is – I think it is worth saying - a comparatively BRIEF novel, probably only 70,000 words or so. Furthermore I approached it not as a first novel: I judge each book as I find it. Now, TIM WINTON’s “The Open Swimmer” won the Vogel years ago, and I’d say it now rates as rather forgettable. Well, I’ve forgotten all about it - whereas I will never forget Tim’s “Cloudtreet”. I love to see any writing encouraged, especially those who launch into the huge challenge of creating a novel. Finally, for the moment, I did wonder whether the controversial nature of the Wilson story – John Batman, Victoria’s “founder”, plus an Aboriginal Vandemonian competing for brutality in hunting down SE Van Diemens Land “blacks” – did not distract the judges in their deliberations. Maybe we can ask one of them, Cate Kennedy, when we speak to her soon.

Now, to the book itself.
[Cover blurb] “ John Batman, ruthless, single-minded; four convicts, the youngest still only stripling; Gould, a downtrodden farmhand; two free black trackers [from NSW]; and powerful, educated Black Bill, brought up from childhood as a white man. This is the roving party and their purpose is massacre…”
The narrative framework then is a long chase over several months covering the rock-strewn hilly plateaux and plains of south eastern Tasmania in the 1840s. One is immediately struck by Wilson’s spare and crisp writing style. This is very much the vogue at present. Listeners may be surprised that the doyen of the style – Cormac McCarthy – has been writing this way for over twenty years. I well remember the impact of “All The Little Horses” and the others in the trilogy. And the sometimes-great HEMINGWAY set the benchmark with his classic short story [among others] “The Snows of Kiliminjaro” [though I found “For Whom The Bell Tolls” very long-winded, actually.] Maybe these new young writers do what Gay Talese spoke of in a recent interview. He types drafts in CAPITALS and quadruple-spaced, pins them up around his writing office and chops away at them in large clusters for weeks…And then does it all over again. Well, our new word-processing obviates a lot of those needs, but I still wonder just how they achieve such a lean-cuisine sparseness. Having said all that, I am quick to applaud Wilson’s depiction of the Tasmanian countryside. Even today one has only to stray a kilometre from the [few] roads to become very conscious of a dark and brooding wilderness pretty well all over the island state. It carries a haunted feel [and well it should, not just because of the Black Wars.]
The compressed story-telling suits too the single-minded, driven quest Batman and his cohorts undertake – and even more so the ‘finishing’ tale of Black Bill’s hunt. The drama is somehow pre-historic, primeval, pre-literary – as Wilson reminds us with his constant allusions to nature: weather, topography, fauna and flora. None of the meagre props of even the primitive villages avail. The bounty-hunters barely survive by living off the land.

ROHAN WILSON: The Roving Party, A&U pb, pp 280 [wide-spaced!], rrp $20

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 3rd

Welcome Leo, panelling for us today. Also welcome to work experience student, LIAM from Year 10 at St. Joseph’s.

Book & Publishing News

* THE AUSTRALIAN/VOGEL Award this year goes to Rohan Wilson for his tale of “The Roving Party”, comprising a fictionalised John Batman and a Vandiemonian Aborigine, Black Bill, plus assorted convicts, after money and tickets-of-leave for bringing in the remaining ‘Blacks’ of south eastern Van Diemen’s Land
in the 1840s. I will review the novel next week and we will speak with the author early June.

* The BBC has a 100 Books-One-Should-Have-Read list on its website…I was humbled to be able to claim only 59!

* Book-to-film No. 30: Michael Lincoln’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” was pretty good, though the lead is a bit too smooth and handsome for Connelly’s character.

* GRIFFITH REVIEW is always full of good reading: available from PATON’s.
Matthew Condon on post-Floods Brisbane, Veteran women’s rights advocate Wendy McCarthy on “Woman And Power” these days; Bronwyn Adcock: the sad tale of dispossessed Central Tilba Aborigines; Greg Lockart with a new look at how Australia was preparing for WWI.

* Leslie Canold [“The Book Of Rachael”] has had to postpone our interview indefinitely.

* My former colleague BRONWYN HODGE has a beautiful new daughter, Zoe. Congratulations, Rob, Anthony and big sister, Abigail.

* Film from book No.31: we watched the B&W film of Steinbeck’s “East Of Eden” with Raymond Massey and James Dean [as the tortured Caleb – from whence we took Number 2 son’s name 33 years ago.]

This Weeks Reviews:

“The Moment” by Douglas Kennedt

What is it about Berlin? The only pre-War images I can conjure belong to the unforgettable film, “Cabaret”, the stage show of which was drawn from the writings of Christopher Isherwood. We’ve probably all read some of Brecht, again set in the final stages of the Weimar Republic: seedy, unsettled and cynical. Then there were the countless “war” films, in B&W then Technicolour. Then “The Third Man” with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton lurking in the sewer with the zither theme plunking away in the background. Novels by Gunther Grass and Kurt Vonnegut Jr….Topping such memories, of course, are vignettes from John Le Carre* novels [and films and TV series!], not least the lonely figure slowly crossing the bridge at the end of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” [still his best for me]. *I don’t think we have had too much else set in the DIVIDED Berlin?

* The “real “ Le Carre has at last nominated a biographer. ‘Can’t wait.

A couple of years ago, Australian Ann Funder wrote “Staziland” about the end of East Germany, a book which still sells well – and deservedly. Do you remember all those relics of The Wall that circulated in the aftermath of its destruction? Now we have a novel that somehow updates the LE CARRE existentialist zeitgeist. Douglas Kennedy is new to me, but he joins the ranks of such illustrious journalist/travel writers turned novelists as Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban.

We spend most of the book in Berlin, immediately before and right after The Wll came down. Finally, this is a love story, but delves far deeper into the human psyche than Mills’n’Boon ever reached. First of all, it is a LONG novel – at 200,000 words, but Kennedy needed this sort of volume to get his story across which he does admirably. As well as the suitably noir setting of Berlin – with its coffee bars and dim-lit streets – he provides some rippling dialogue, full of wit and irony [reminiscent of Arthur Philip’s “Prague” which I enjoyed last year]. Just as some of the characters discuss Graham Greene and other authors, so this novel echoes some of the angst so beloved of that great English novelist.**

** I cannot remember EVER reading an American novel in which a character mentions Greene, much read a novel where the writer pays such tribute to Green’s thematic preoccupations the way I feel Kennedy does. Le Carre, of course, is in eternal debt to GG.

Kennedy is a patient writer who demands patience of his reader. We begin with the protagonist – successful travel writer, Thomas Nesbitt - just emerging from a tired marriage and about to embark on a work-oriented fact-finding trip to Berlin. We are in roughly the present.
“ [His] solitude [is] disrupted by the arrival one wintry morning of a post box marked Berlin. The return address on the box – Dussmann – unsettles him completely for it is the same woman with whom had had an intense love affair with 26 years ago in Berlin – at a time when the city was cleaved in two, and personal and political allegiances were haunted by the deep shadows pf the Cold War…” [Cover blurb] Nesbitt must confront the issue of how and why he ended the greatest love he had ever had. The reader is then taken back to a Berlin BEFORE the end of the Cold War. Thomas is a young writer in search of a breakthrough “travel book”. Getting a job with the American foreign services information NGO, he soon meets Petra Dussmann, to whom he loses his heart. We find that she is more than a refugee from police-state East Berlin; there is a deep sadness in her life which is only slowly revealed. As I said, in a sense this is a slow read – the final third of the book brings us back to the present - but it is totally absorbing. I already mentioned the wit of the dialogue, but it is also the intensity of the scenes between Thomas and Petra that raise this novel to a higher level. Meanwhile there is the Le Carre-like intelligence/ spy/ Cold War overlay with their threats of misinformation and betrayal, and the characters themselves – Thomas, Petra, Thomas’s Berlin housemate, the flamboyant, vulnerable, brilliant Expressionist painter, the Irish Fitzwilliams-Ross. There are other minor characters, so neatly composed, almost in the manner of an Altman film script.
The book operates in two time zones, as it were: the present and the past, the time of Thomas and Petra’s fraught relationship, and it is all under the spell of The Wall. It haunts Thomas from the first moments of his arrival in the early 1980s. Inevitably he “makes” East Berlin the subject of the first column he will write in his day job. A pattern is set, the atmosphere established. Read the book as a love story, or a Cold War mystery thriller. It just works so well on many levels.
I am on the lookout for some more of Douglas Kennedy.

SCORE: ***+
DOUGLAS KENNEDT: The Moment, Hutchinson pb, pp 489, rrp $35.

“The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht

I thought of Tim Winton as I began this book because I had just been reminded that he won the VOGEL many years ago now with his all-but-forgotten “The Open Swimmer”[ Not his best book by a long shot. I will review this year’s winning novel NEXT week.] Apparently TEA OBREHT is already being touted as the Next Bright Young Thing in the States. At 25, this is her third published work and I think it is a novel remarkable for the maturity of its insight into the extraordinary complexity of values, emotions, politics and humanity that is “the Balkans”[if one can still use the term] which touches all of us as all good art should. It is never didactic, but rather tells an epic story – the grandfather’s - amid the tragic mess of the second half of the twentieth century in that region.

We begin in 1941. “As German bombs are falling, a tiger escapes from his zoo, padding through ruined streets and onwards, to ridge above the village of Gaina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic- ‘Shere Khan’ awoken from the pages of ‘The Jungle Book’. Natalia [our narrator] is the granddaughter of that boy. Now she is a doctor. It is the 1980s and she is visiting after another war that has devastated her region. On this journey she receives word that her beloved grandfather has died, far from their latest home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.” [Cover blurb.] And so our story begins, weaving through history, family reminiscences and local folklore – somewhat in the manner of the Latin magic realists, but Tea is no imitator or parodist. We have here a distinctive and impressive new voice.

Score: ****
TEA OBREHT: The Tiger’s Wife, Weidenfeld & Nicholson pb, pp 336, rrp $30

This Weeks Poem

“The Poor Commissioners” by Cate Kennedy whom we will be speaking with, in a couple of weeks.


This week you heard LINDA RONSTADT singing “A La Orilla…” from a 2010 CD of THE CHIEFTAINS and various Mexican bands/singers plus the ubiquitous RY COODER, “San Padricios”

Monday, May 2, 2011

April 26th

Book & Publishing News:

* THREE finalists have been named for 2011 Miles Franklin Award:
KIM SCOTT for “Dead Man Dancing”, ROGER McDONALD, “When Colts Ran Free” and CHRIS WOMERSLEY, “Bereft”. Scott’s is my pick, but I suspect Womersley’s will win.

* The Australian/Vogel Award [for best new novel] will be decoded from BOMY ASH, JADE MAITRE and ROHAN WILSON. See Saturday’s WEEKEND REVIEW for lots of detail plus a sample of their work.

* Book-to-film No 29: I watched “War And Peace” for the first time [on DVD] recently: a very long film with great battle scenes, but very melodramatic. Audrey Hepburn steals the show utterly. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read the book…yet.

* NEXT WEEK I hope to speak with LESLIE CANNOLD about her novel.”The Book Of Rachael” which I reviewed last week.

* I think it was good to see “The Age” continuing the discussion of what Anzac Day means “Commemorate” not “celebrate” was a theme as well as questioning whether we want it to be our “national day”. I wonder what the day means to those who do not attend services or go to the MCG on the day.

* And to continue: should we remember Indigenous warriors who fought and died to defend their land…on Anzac day?

‘THE BLURB’ welcomes comment: email me c/e Pulse or phone us during the program.

This Week’s Interview: Gerard Windsor author of “All Day Long The Noise Of Battle

I was privileged today to speak for 20 minutes with GERARD WINDSOR – historian, novelist and memoirist – about his well-reviewed new book, “All Day Long The Noise Of Battle” which looks in exhaustive detail at the three-day battle fought by “C” Company of the 7th Battalion RAR in Phuoc Tuy in February 1968
[as part of the Allies’ preparation for the “Tet Offensive”.]

Gerard spoke of the gestation of the book, an unlikely project for the novelist. He had come across after many years the fact the a schoolmate had not only served in Vietnam, but had earned the respect of his comrades to the extent that one had said the man [ Mark Moloney] should have been decorated for his role in the “Bunkers action”.
We spoke of the anomaly of historians’ reliance on eye witness accounts where possible – when, in Gerard’s experience, even witnesses will vary in their memory of events, given the split-second dramas taking place. This becomes an issue, of course, when one looks at the official reports of battlefield action…and the awarding of decorations, for instance.

Gerard ended up being able to talk to nearly 60 of the officers and ranks in preparing this marvellous story of events that had largely been lost in the ‘fog of war’. He spoke of being continually impressed by the raw courage the men showed, with little thought or rationalisation, really, about what they were involved in…And might not the enemy have retaken their positions within days of the Australians’ cleaning them out anyway!

GERARD WINDSOR: All Day Long The Noise Of Battle. Pier 9 pb, pp 255, rrp $35.
SCORE: ****

This Week’s Reviews:

I will mention [only] the books on AUSTRALIANS AND WAR that I have received this past year and will review a couple in more detail.

-TONY WRIGHT: Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula. Much more than a mere guide.

-PATRICK LINDSAY: The Coast Watchers. Behind enemy lines with the men who “saved the Pacific”.

-ROLAND PERRY: The Changi Brownlow. How these amazing POWs found Aussie Rules as a way to help them survive.

-ROB MAYLOR/ROBERT MACKLIN: SAS Sniper. Maylor was in the Royal Marines and later served with Australian troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

-CRAIG STOCKINGS[ed]: Zombie Myths Of Australian Military History.
Demythologizing such myths as the one that says there was no Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion; and that “Breaker” Morant was a hero…

-PAUL DALEY: Beersheba. The journalists travels far and wide to find out what happened with the ‘last great cavalry charge’.

-ANDERSON?TREMBATH: Witnesses To War-the history of Australian conflict reporting.

-SCOTT BENETT: Pozieres. An extraordinary story not told before in such detail.

-ROBER MACKLIN: Bravest – Australia’s greatest war heroes and how they won their medals. Fifteen winners of Victoria and George Crosses.

-LEON DAVIDSON: Zero Hour. An introduction to the Anzac action on the Western Front.

-WILLIAM CULL/Pegram [ed]: Both Sides Of The Wire. The memoir of an Australian Officer captured during World War One.

-DAISLEY: Traitor. A novel about a friendship between an Anzac and a Turk during the Gallipoli campaign.

-PETER HART: Gallipoli. This may be THE book about the events of 1915. Written by an Oral Historian from the Imperial War Museum. I am still working through its 533 pages and will review it later.

“The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground” by Paul Cleary

PAUL HAM has written the best book I have read yet on Australians in Vietnam. In reviewing Cleary’s book, he wrote: “[He] tells this story in an arresting narrative, unblemished by the lapse into histrionics that so often debases the history of war. Nor will he indulge in careless triumphalism. The men of the 2/2 demonstrated HUMAN [emphasis mine] not peculiarly Aussie qualities of courage and resilience”. This is a point GERARD WINDSOR made about the Australian Viet vets he interviewed in preparing his book and would be welcome in the talk that surfaces annually around this time of the year [though I suspect the jingoistic hysteria has faded significantly now that Howardism is fading…one hopes!] Many of the recent books about war – and they are legion – that I have seen of late seem to be re-evaluating what we mean by soldiering and its place in our particular national story. Cleary gives us the facts and largely refrains from judging, much less eulogising. Decisions about the situation in Timor early 1940s that were naïve, ill-informed and catastrophic and often poorly-planned.

Obviously,…in retrospect. Civilians, for example, WERE executed. Soldiers deserted. As HAM said, this was human endeavour, undertaken amid extraordinary stress we in our comfort can hardly imagine.

The setting is mostly “East Timor” [today’s Timor Leste], 1942. Immediately, it is amazing to remember that casualties were quite low amongst the 200 Australians as they tied up a Japanese force totalling 20,000, over two years or more... Sadly, many thousands of Timorese were killed during World War to, having no real say in the politics of it all, often spending years with the Aussies behind the lines, away from family and safety though some joined Japanese=sponsored militia.

“Sparrow Force” were trained quickly [at Wilsons Prom – a lively early section of this absorbing book], but selected for their athleticism. They were ferried in and virtually left until Macarthur [surprisingly?] heard of their valuable work in stalling the Japanese eastward march and ordered a better means, of supply and support. Cleary seems to imply that overall the Portuguese remnants were more active in helping the Allied effort than were the Dutch colonist, but I may be
mistaken; I’d have to look up the post-WWII history of Indonesia again.
Throughout their relentless ordeal, the Aussies were not just outnumbered, they were poorly led FROM AUSTRALIA, never being totally clear about he project’s overall objectives. Were they really meant to DEFEAT the Japanese? Surely not, but by endlessly ambushing, retreating, skirmishing and hiding out, they kept an enormous army occupied and actually inflicted considerable damage.

The role of the locals, as I said, was significant – which makes our abandonment of the East Timorese during the militia campaigns of recent times even more shameful. [ Surely, Gough’s most shameful act!]

SCORE ***+
PAUL CLEARY: The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground, hatchette pb, pp 382, rrp $35,2010

“My Dear I Wanted To Tell You” by Louisa Young

I’m sure I reminded listeners before of the opening phrase of Vergil’s epic, “The Aeneid” [“Arma virumque cano”= I sing of arms and the Man/men.] And isn’t it sad that WAR is the inspiration for so much great art – in literature, music, film, painting…And still novelists find new lodes of story from the “Great War”. The recent benchmark for me is PAT BARKER’s “Regeneration” trilogy where she imagines the war as it was affecting the poets Sassoon, Owen and Co. in their personal circumstances. Our ROGER McDONALD [“1915”] and DAVID MALOUF “Fly Away Peter” hold their own, of course, and so does this novel – beginning with its startling cover, just by the way.

The novel begins slowly. After all, the war was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914. It seemed “safe” for all those men to enlist. The enemy were boorish Teutons, surely no match for the stiff upper lip and public-school masterly leadership of the sons of an Empire on which the sun never set.
British grit would prevail and quickly….which made the drawn out abominations of the Western Front all the more horrific.

And that is the story our book tells. Our main character, Roger Purefoy, is poorly-educated and working-class though from the start he seems to be blessed by opportunity, initially in being placed as the gofer for a low-ranked but rather toffy painter. This opens doors for him such that he is almost going up in the world. Young is very good on the drawing-room society of Roger’s all-but-adoptive new family – as she is in reminding us, via the person of Roger’s mother, of his humble origins,. This is Waugh without the satire because we empathise [in their later tragedy] with both “Upstairs” and “Downstairs”. This war was cruelly democratic in Young’s world.

At home, Roger will probably never have the only girl he aspires to. In a fit of disappointment, he rushes to enlist. Meanwhile, out in the country, the aristocratic peter Locke accepts a commission and the pair are off to France, soon ending up together on the killing fields of 1915. Amid the needless slaughter, Roger shows exceptional leadership and is rapidly promoted from the ranks while Peter barely hangs on. The devastating casualties affect Roger physically and personally while Peter becomes a psychological wreck.

There are interesting minor characters in this deceptively epic story. The women at home struggle to find appropriate roles and to accept the awful realities of what is going on Over There.

I thought this was a terrific novel. Some of the battle scenes are reminiscent in their compression and naturalistic imagery of Owen and Rosenberg. We are reminded once again of the chilling FUTILITY [cf Owen’s poem] of it all.

SCORE: ****
LOUISA YOUNG: My Dear I Wanted To Tell You, Harper Collins pb, pp 330, rrp $35, 2011

This Week’s Poem: “The Company Of Lovers” by Judith Wright

She was in her early 20s, attending Sydney Uni, fresh from country Armidale, and Sydney was full of soldiers – Aussies and Americans… From her first published anthology, “The Moving Image”. I am currently reading “Nine Lives” [Susan Sheridan], a beut little book about nine “Postwar women writers making their mark”. You must read it if you are at all interested in Australian literature. A sound introduction to Wright, Astley, Hewett, etc.


Holtz “The Planets” – MARS.

April 19th

Book & Publishing News:

* SHAKESPEARE: I will look briefly today at four new books involving the Great Man.

* Book-to-film No. 27: I have just watched the DVD of the 1930 black and white film of “All Quiet On The Western Front” [from the Library, of course] which was only published in 1938. It starred LEW AYRES who I think became young Doctor Kildare in the late 30s films.
FILM-TO-MUSIC: I also watched a great concert of Bluegrass music, a DVD called “Down From The Mountain” [2000]:the artists were the people who featured on the soundtrack of 2001 Coen Brothers’ film, “O Brother….”, such people as the now-famous Diana Kraul.

* …No. 28: I look forward to seeing the newest film version of GRAHAM GREENE’s “Brighton Rock”.

* …And a MUSICAL from a great book: we saw “Dr Zhivago” Sunday. Excellent. Go to a matinee: convenient and much cheaper.

* AIREY”S INLET has several book launches coming up in tandem with Bells Beach’s 50th. Check it out at

* JUNE ALEXANDER from Clifton Springs will be speaking about her very moving memoir “A Girl Called Tim” at Ocean Grove’s great little bookshop, Bookgrove, at 11am, Saturday, April 23rd. I will be speaking with June in a couple of weeks’ time.

* Some new books I received this week:
CATE KENNEDY: The Taste Of River Water [New poems]
FRANCIS WEBB: Collected Poems [The authentic anthology by our most neglected poet.]
TEA OREHT: The Tiger’s Wife.
PETER DOCKER: Someone Else’s Country

This Week’s Reviews:

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare!” by James Shapiro
Contested Shakespeare. The latest attempt to solve the mystery that lingers – did Bill REALLY write all those plays and sonnets? A very well-written lively discussion. This is a scholarly but accessible examination: sound index and bibliography.

“The Merchant Of Venice” by John Drakakis [ed.] [ARDEN SHAKESPEARE]
Arden is THE authoritative edition used in universities, etc. And this is a 2010 version with a very good new Introduction by the editor. Faber pb, pp 367, rrp $24-99.

“Dictionary Of Shakespearean Quotations” [ARDEN] Beautifully presented, a must for everyone’s coffee table.
rrp $ 45

“Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets” by Don Paterson
This is a terrific book for anyone who has studied or just dipped into “The Sonnets” by an academic whom is in love with his subject. I am slowly working my way through at about eight pages a day. There is so much new and amusing material here. Each sonnet gets about 600 words so it is never laborious reading. Faber hb, pp 500, rrp $50.

“The Pig Boy” by J C Burke

One of the “New Realist” young writers discovered in the 70s and 80s was American PAUL ZINDEL who wrote a very good book, “The Pigman”, this book is nothing like the other! Back then the “YA”: readership was really taking off, and books dealing with the ‘generation’ gap, rites of passage, adolescent sexuality, authority, separation, death, etc. were at last getting on to the school English curriculum here as well as being read by millions of teenagers the world over. The standard of Australian output in this genre has been outstanding for years now. In fact, I find it rather specious to draw separating the YA genre because many of the books are well worth reading by all ages [from maybe fourteen on.] And JAN Burke’s book is the latest I’ve had sent to me. I loved it.

This is a tough book. It is shocking at times, but never sensationalist in the mode of the TV “current affairs”, “reality” TV and the glossy magazines. Life is hard for Burke’s late-teen protagonist, Damon. He is overweight, a loner, good at English, but at odds with everything else at school, and the book opens with his expulsion just before his final secondary school exams. Mum, “the old girl”- is miserable, estranged from husband and lover. She consoles herself with takeaway meals and liberal infusions of Rum’n’Coke, financed by her recent win in Powerball. Damon too shares in this largesse which enables him to indulge in his hobby of on-line games [which, I confess, I still don’t understand.] He suffers from constant porcine name-calling everywhere he goes. There is something more, however, the details of which we learn only as the plot unfolds, but it has him terrified. The only person resembling a friend as the book opens is the son of the local shopkeeper, but this boy’s loyalty is soon challenged – on ethnic grounds, which he gets wrong any way.. He might have had a girlfriend, but he has destroyed that possibility by a clumsy act of over-protection on a recent school camp. There are mysterious objects secreted in his locked wardrobe….
There is a subculture of violence in Strathen, this small country town, and another loner, “Miro”, apparently a refugee from the Balkan conflict whom most of the town thinks is weird if not dangerous. Miro is “the Pigman” who kills feral pigs for local butchers, but also makes regular excursions further west where he and his two dogs rid graziers of these feral pests.

Damon decides he must learn to shoot and Miro seems the most likely teacher. The reader is now alert: will this book end up in a Columbus-style massacre? Some of the locals suspect Damon is thinking such thoughts. Damon, however, not only goes shooting with Miro, but the two become friends. This is the most powerful theme in the book – not unusual, the mutual attraction of ‘outsiders’ – but I found the friendship very moving in the light of current global phobias and local jingoism. Secrets are shared between the veteran of the 1980s killing fields and the troubled Australian boy. Meanwhile, the pig-boy slander becomes a badge of honour almost as Damon passes the physical test out in the scrub. Some of these scenes reminded me of the film “Wake In Fright”. The hunting episodes are by no means exaggerated: quite a few boys in rural towns all over Australia train “pig dogs’ to savage feral pests.
I will score this book AS A YA NOVEL going against what I’ve said above, yes.]

J C BURKE: The Pig Boy. Woolshed pb[from Random House],pp 325, rrp $25

“The Book Of Racheal” by Leslie Canold

Not by choice, I have found myself with a lot of time on my hands for the last couple of years – and this job, hosting “The Blurb”, shepherds my favourite pastime, READING, in a productive direction. I tend to have four or five books on the go at any given time: a ‘serious’ novel; a history; a memoir; a detective/crime novel; some poetry. A friend in Melbourne recently sent me “A Portrait Of Jesus” by well-known Australian Scripture scholar, GERALD O’COLLINS SJ. Note the title: “A” and “Portrait”. My slow and reflective reading of Gerald’s book coincided with the arrival of “The Book Of Rachael”, a novel about the fictional sister of “Joshua”/Jesus of Nazareth. We have no biography of Jesus, the Christ of Christian believers, of course. The four ‘Evangelists’ wrote in a genre which the author Mark called “gospel”, translated “good news”. Three of them used pretty well the same sources. Forty years later, the author of “John” drew somewhat from the three “synoptic” Gospels as well as some of his own, but shaped his book for a very different purpose. I digress, I know, but I wondered as I began how Leslie’s Joshua might look, speak, act. Last century saw lots of devotional writers penning “lives” [sic] of Jesus, designed to give would-be-believers the REAL picture of the Nazarene. They were not at all scholarly and indeed did a lot to ambush the developing rational approach – source criticism, etc.- to the study of Scripture. Leslie comes to her task with a very open mind [unlike, say, PHILIP PULLMAN of recent times.] She comes from a Jewish background, but claims to be an atheist-humanist. She is a well-known and very respected ethicist whose earlier publications have included feminist studies and analyses of issues surrounding abortion. This is a story ABOUT a fictional 1st century Jewish Israelite girl called Rachel whose parents are Miriam/”Mary” and Josep/”Joseph”. She has several siblings, most notably as it turns out her older brother, Joshua. The social environment is captured vividly – the geography, the culture, the busy-ness of village life. Early on, Rachael is “the good little girl” her almost-shrewish mother expects her to be. Gradually, the onset of puberty and the rape of her older sister steer her towards another sort of life and a radical change of personality. As she secretly learns Hebrew and the Scriptures, she also acquires “secret women’s business” from a local shaman, the midwife, Bindy. So far, so good. I found, however, that once the scene had been set and the story begun, the novel stalled. Rachael falls in love with a local young political rebel called Judas. [Yes, the same.] Obviously we will have certain plot developments pushing for space hereon in. The final sections, interestingly, are among the best. I was left, however, wondering why Leslie chose this particular story for her first entry into novel-writing. OK, Rachael is a proto-feminist, but why THIS family and WHY this historical period which surely has been mined to death over centuries. Lots of people seem to be buying it, so my responses may be coloured by my personal academic background [which is Literature, History and Biblical Studies.*] I hope not because I commenced reading the book with an open mind.

SCORE: **+
LESLIE CANOLD: The Book Of Rachael,Text pb, pp 325, rrp $32-95

* I am not sure why Leslie cited just half a dozen sources from her research: if she wanted some sort of academic accountability, she would need to have read much more widely.

I will be speaking with LESLIE CANOLD in a future program. Stay tuned.

I also will be speaking with JC BURKE in a few weeks’ time.


This week you heard excerpts from the soundtrack of the 2008 Australian film, “South Solitary”.

Next Week:

Coming up next week is a special ANZAC DAY program, including an interview with GERARD WINDSOR about his new book chronicling a five-day battle in Vietnam in 1068,”All Day Long The Noise Of Battle”.

April 12th

A special welcome to Stephen, Michael, Leo and Doreen…and to Leo Renkin, filling in at the desk for Emma.

Book & Publishing News:

* “The Monthly” is a good read again, although I’m not sure what PETER VROBB was attempting with his piece on Marcia Langton. I usually love his work [eg “Street Fight In Naples”,2010.] Beautiful artwork from the talented SHAUN TAN. Succinct assessment of Tony Blair by one of the last great hopes the Labor Government had, LINDSAY TANNER.

* “Overland’s” theme this edition is freedom so WENDY BACON reminds us of the censorship battles of the 60s and 70s. ALEXIS WRIGHT [“Carpentaria”] on the Intervention legacy. JUSTIN CLEMENS on the poetry of PORTERS,P. and D. and DOROTHY HEWETT.

* ANZAC DAY I will look at some more books on Australians and war…and hopefully speak with GERARD WINDSOR about his new book on Vietnam, “All Day Long The Noise Of Battle”.

* Advance notice of Torquay’s “Froth’N’Bubble” Literary Festival, JUNE 19-20.

* I recently found a little treasure of a book, “Who Wrote The Ballads?” by J.S. Manifold,1964 whose “The Tomb Of Lt. John Learmonth” featured here for Anzac Day 2009.

* The latest “Quadrant” has a long essay by an academic from the DFA in Duntroon on that most bloody of novels, “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. I’ll try to find time to talk about the book and the article one day.
Did you know the American Civil War began 150 years ago this month? April 12th,1861.
There is a good article about the causes this month too.

Gaita [ed.]: Essays On Muslims And Multiculturalism
Birch: Jamrach’s Menagerie [Review coming up.]
Griffiths: A Love Letter From A Stray Moon […novel about Freda Kahlo.]
Kennedy: The Moment
CD set of R.S. THOMAS reading his poems. [I have featured the work of the late poet on the program.]

* Local author, JUNE ALEXANDER, will be speaking about a new book “A Boy Called Tim” at Bookgrove in Ocean Grove,11 am, Saturday April 23rd.

* The April ALR [in “The Australian”, first Wednesday of the month] maintains its rather lofty tone; as I do so often ask – who are the audience? An interesting article on the ‘difference’ of writers from WA. [I believe GEORDIE WILLIAMSON does a great job with the same paper’s Saturday “Review”.]

* This month it will be 150 years since the American Civil War began.. There is a useful article on the causes in the latest “Quadrant” – which borrows very heavily from a book discussed on this program early last year: McPherson – “The Battle Cry Of Freedom”. The exceptional KEN BURNS’ documentary from years ago on the Civil War is available on DVD from Geelong Regional Library.

* Wed April 6th’s “ALR” continued on its rather lofty way, though there was an interesting article on the ‘loneliness’ of Western Australian writers.

* I’m looking forward to GERALDINE BROOKS’ latest, “Caleb’s Crossing”, another historical novel based on the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

* Would-be-writers can take advantage of a CREATIVE WRITING GROUP which gathers at “Cloverdale” in Purnell Rd 9.30 am Wednesdays.

*…And there is a BALLAD WRITING WORKSHOP held
at Belmont Library from 6-8 pm Wednesdays.

* My pedantic pout for this week: when will someone teach our PM how to pronounce the consonant “t”?..And is her “HYPERBOWL” [hyperbole] held the same time as the USA’s Superbowl.

This Week’s Reviews :

John reviewed- “Five Bells” by Gail Jones


“The Many Worlds of RS Mathews- In Search Of An Australian Anthropologist” by Martin Thomas

Another beautifully designed tome from A&U, this has clearly been a labour of love for Thomas. His ‘search’ has ranged far and wide in place [all over Australia and to the British Isles] and in time [from the 1850s to the present.]
He also seems to be after an answer to the question: What is anthropology?...and ethnography?......and “ethnomania”, a term he coined for Mathews’ [hence, “RHM”] decades-long dedication to an emerging science. Both targets prove rather elusive, so the book takes on some of the elements of a detection story. RHM left almost tonnes of leaflets, booklets, articles, sketches and notes which our author has ruthlessly sort out and studied. The results provide a portrait of a most interesting man and, in the process, the reader learns a lot about perceptions of the first Australians to be gleaned from RHM’s unique research. Thomas uses the phenomenological approach RHM himself apparently used: trust only the ‘sensible’ evidence – what can be recorded or gathered. Lots of us studied this model, preached by the pioneering MIRCEA ELIADE. Hence, the author examines EVERYTHING he can find that remains of RHM. This leads to a long book, but I never found it boring.

I must single out the “PROLOGUE” [sic] to this book: it is fine an essay as you will ever read. Our author writes beautifully as he tells us why and how he became captivated by this project. The remainder of the book didn’t let me down. The reader needs to be patient as Thomas trawls for information about RHM’s forbears and his childhood. We are rewarded through learning that the young Mathews was determined to be successful because of a shadow in his ancestry that rendered his father an unsuccessful farmer in the Goulburn region of New South Wales in the middle of the 19th century. It was here that RHM developed an acute love for The Land – and friendships with local Indigenous youth that inevitably led to the later passion. He had a first career – as a surveyor – which gave him financial wherewithal to indulge his ethnomania from early middle age. His empathy for Aborigines was probably fairly unusual for the times; it underpins his every observation though he doesn’t always have the language to express it. The book is replete with quotations and RHM’s sketches, as well as other useful illustrations.
There is so much to talk about in this book, though I would assume only those with a keen interest in Australian history and anthropology would find it as absorbing as I did. It is at time a challenging read. Throughout, however, we are drawn to this man who almost single-handedly – because he was continually out of step with contemporary academics [usually from overseas! in this new field] – found evidence of cultural practices and beliefs unknown until then.

Read this book and learn. There is so much more we must find out about Indigenous Australians.

SCORE: *****
MARTIN THOMAS: The many Worlds Of RS Mathews – In Search Of An Australian Anthropologist, A&U hc, pp 462, rrp $45

This Weeks Poem:

The last two stanzas of “Five Bells” by KENNETH SLESSOR, read by our guest Michael Bartlett.

Bernard would like to say FAREWELL to that encyclopaedia of jazz history, BARRY HART, who is returning to England to live. Thank you for the music and memories, Barry, and the friendship.

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 5th

Author Interview: Cory Taylor author of “Me and Mr. Booker”

My first guest was CORY TAYLOR, Brisbane-based author of “Me and Mr. Booker”, reviewed last week on “The Blurb”.

Cory has written children’s books “Rate Tales” #1 and #2 and worked on film scripts. She spoke of the positive influence of an inspiring English teacher and the poet GEOFF PAGE.

Cory is currently working on a novel, which takes up the character of Victor, Martha’s Mittyesque father.

Interview with Robyn Rowland

ROBYN ROWLAND was in to talk about her current work, and to publicise the Geelong Regional Library’s next “Conversations With Poets” which will feature Catherine Bateson and Alex Skovron. Last month’s evening was sold out, so contact the library if you intend going. More details next week.
Meanwhile as we mentioned a few weeks back Robyn was recently awarded the Irish “Writing Spirit Award” for her recent writings. She read a recent poem about BILL HENSON’s photos and we talked about our concerns regarding the sexualisation of children – a natural follow on from my conversation with Cory Taylor.

This Week’s Review: “Angelica” by Arthur Phillips

JOHN FOWLES hit the literary scene with a bang in the 1970s,with “The Magus” soon followed by “The Collector” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. [The last two were made into very good films.] The last book apparently came out of Fowles’ teaching about the English novel at university. It was his attempt to write a “Victorian” novel. Think George Elliot, Thackeray, Hardy. Yes, the book’s language had a somewhat archaic and stilted period feel to it, but the novel worked very well without apology or explanation. I loved it back then and must find time to read it again. Today’s book reminded me very much of Fowles’ for the style and setting Phillips has adopted. A far cry from “Prague” which I reviewed last year [though apparently closer to his later “The Egyptologist” which I am yet to see.] “Prague”, you may remember was a very talky but enjoyable contemporary story about a group of English 30-somethings ‘on the make’ in Central Europe. A comedy of manners, really.

Phillips is in a darker mood here. Inevitably the blurb mentions HENRY JAMES’ classic novella, “The Turn Of The Screw” [made into a brilliant black-and-white horror film in the 1960s, starring Deborah Kerr in one of her final roles. One of my favourite films.] The novel echoes the earlier book’s themes somewhat and the tone is decidedly gothic with evident sexual suppression and bottled hysteria [like James’ governess.]

Constance, the wife, was a lowly, orphaned shopgirl until she was wooed by the handsome Barton [nee “Bartone”, Italian parentage…as in hot-blooded, of course.] He never quite made it through medical school and is a reasonably well-off research scientist, working in immunology and experimenting with live animals which the reader finds out well ahead of his wife. Constance has managed only one live birth, Angelica, from three pregnancies and has been warned that another will be fatal. Naturally then she dotes on her eccentric [at least] daughter. Barton is clever and arrogant. He enjoys an independent social life and is finding the near abstinence from sexual contact very difficult [being, as he is of Mediterranean lineage!]. Constance tries to play to his needs, but this only seems to encourage animosity and resentment from her husband.

Meanwhile their daughter is having “episodes”: perhaps they are supernatural? Or is it hysterics? Now, at this stage, it is good to recall that our word “hysterics” comes from the same Greek word as “hysterectomy”,etc. In Victorian and earlier times, hysteria was the name for the female ‘complaint’ of sexual enjoyment. As Constance observes Angelica’s night time experiences, she comes to wonder whether they are somehow connected with or even caused by her husband. Coupled with the eerie atmospherics of the house and its history, there is a domestic who seems to know more than she should. If “Little People” [last week] belongs in the genre melodrama, what is this book? Constance reacts to her husband’s edict to sleep in their bed by sneaking down nightly to sit with her daughter…Are the nocturnal phenomena real? Surely an external, objective witness is called for. Enter, Anne Montague, a spiritualist who has her own interesting history and commanding presence.

What is going on here? One critic called “Angelica” a ‘psychological detective story without a detective’ and so it is. The novelist lets the story be told by using four voices, as it were, none of which is entirely omniscient [I think], but rather - layer upon layer – the facts might finally emerge. Yes, the plot is somewhat convoluted, but it all comes together in the end. There are some wonderful elements: the night “dreams”; Constance’s visit to her husband’s laboratory; Barton’s relationship with his boss, Harry; the awful “women’s specialist”, Dr. Miles, which Constance is sent to. And all the Freudian connections are on show: daughter-father; fear of sex; sex and death; the latent power of childhood trauma to affect adult life. Phillips is a young writer who may already be at the top of his form. He is not afraid of long paragraphs with sentences containing lots of complex clauses, but he is always in charge. If the plot remains murky right to the end, I believe that is precisely what the author intended. Listen to the opening sentence:
“I suppose my prescribed busywork should begin as a ghost story, since that was surely Constance’s experience of these events….”

Shades of “The Catcher In The Rye’ or “Portnoy’s Complaint”…Who is speaking? To whom? We should have known we’d be kept guessing….

SCORE: ****
ARTHUR PHILLIPS: “Angelica”, Scribe pb, PP 331, rrp $35

And speaking of OPENING SENNTENCES: in a few weeks’ time, I’d like to offer listeners what I think are come classic openings from some well-known/well-liked novels. You may like to contribute some. Send them in to me at PULSE.


This week you heard “Stormy Weather” by Steve Murphy. Steve can be heard every second Friday at “The Wrong Crowd” in Moorabool Street, Geelong.

March 29th

This is The Blurb…with Bernard, Emma…and our fortnightly guest, JOHN BARTLETT

Book & Publishing News:

* We found DAVID MALOUF’s “Quarterly Essay” fairly heavy-going as Malouf looks at the big philosophical question: What is happiness? Some very good Letters in response to the last Essay [“Trivial Pursuit”.]

* VICTOR FRANKL was a Holocaust survivor who became a leading psychiatrist, founder of the school of Transactional Analysis. His excellent book, “Man’s [sic] Search for Meaning” was widely read in the 60s – and has now been re-issued.

* I have recommended “Eureka Street” before; yes, it is published by the Jesuits, but is in no sense proselytising. It features some of our best commentators on issues of the day. Available free on-line.

* Local writer ROSALIE HAM [ “The Dressmaker”] has a new book coming out soon: look out for “There Should Be More Dancing”.

* When I spoke about MICHAEL DUFFY’s “The Tower”. I didn’t realise that the second Troy novel, “The Simple Death”, was already out…and I think it is even better than the first. I believe Duffy has just raised the bar in Australian crime fiction. I will speak with him in a couple of weeks time.

* What is it about Autumn? Isn’t it just the best season? JOHN KEATS thought so; not many of our Australian poets do the Seasons, although many talk of Summer in passing. Today John will read the beautiful opening stanza of Keats’ “To Autumn”.

* Last week I spoke with MEG MUNDELL about “Black Glass” – reviewed in “The Age” at the weekend…And there was an article yesterday about SCOTT BENNETT’s “Pozieres” which I spoke about a few weeks back: just reminding you how current we are here at “The Blurb”….And I had written my review of “Little People” last week – before it was covered in the weekend papers…

* PAUL CLEARY”s “The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground” [“The Blurb”, October, 2010] has been nominated for a Walkley Award this year.

* JAMES LEE BURKE’s daughter, Alafair, has ventured into the crime fiction field, not very successfully, I’d say. The son of ELMORE LEONARD, Peter Leonard, however, has written a ripper of a pulp-fiction book called “All He Saw Was The Girl” which is fast-paced, funny, dark, global – all that a contemporary thriller should be.

* The book on which the current film, “The Way Back” is based – “The Long Road” – has been re-issued in paperback.

* Next week, ROBYN ROWLAND will be in again and I hope to talk to CORY TAYLOR [“Me and Mr. Booker”] in Brisbane.

* I spoke yesterday with KATHRYN from that her great little bookshop in Barwon-end Pako, PATON BOOKS: she or someone from the shop will be in regularly to tell us what is happening there. [I reckon the WEST end of Pako needs a bookshop too…The food down there is getting better by the day!]

This Week’s Author Interview: Benjamin Law

John spoke with BENJAMIN LAW, the popular author of the proclaimed and best-selling memoir, “The Family Law”.
[In the not-too-distant future, “The Blurb” will be available for you to podcast and listen to via iPod.]

This Week’s Reviews:

‘Little People’ by Jane Sullivan

This is a very clever book. Jane has discovered some larger-than-life historical characters – especially Charles “General Tom Thumb” Stratton – and re-created the world of late 19th century SE Australia for a rollicking story of showbiz, love and adventure the likes of which we don’t see often [though again I was reminded a little of E.L. Doctorow’s work.]

‘The General’ did in fact visit our shores at the time the novel is set, but Sullivan creates her own tale, via her invention of the interesting Mary Ann, an impoverished pregnant governess through whom we see most of the events…though the author is not content with a straight-forward third person narrative, as I’ll show later. The “little people” reveal all the human traits of love, intrigue, rivalry and adventure-seeking lest you scoff at the public’s adulation of such “freak” shows, I remember the Fat Lady and the “pygmies from Africa” at the Melbourne Show in the early 60s! Anyway the real genius of the show business phenomenon was the legendary P T Barnum who had discovered the child who became ‘The General’ when the latter was a young child whom we meet as an ageing star, and this onward march of age will be his greatest threat – as well as a fellow member of the troupe.

* Our “little people” – Sullivan tells us in a useful Afterword – probably had Pituitary Dwarfism, caused by a deficiency in growth hormones. Their heads, body and limbs were in perfect proportion, they may have been born to parents of normal height – and any offspring might have been of average size.

As to the book’s style and form, Sullivan uses the conventional chapters for a chronological account, but inserts ‘sideshow’ vignettes
[termed “Acts”] from the various minor characters which works very well in letting the reader into the whole picture, complete with authentic period photographs. [This is another beautifully-designed paperback from “text” publishing.] The tour begins in Melbourne with ‘The General’ apparently rescuing Mary Ann from drowning in he Yarra. Then it’s Tasmania, Adelaide, back to Melbourne, thence towards Sydney via Seymour where there is a brilliantly-depicted flood emergency. There are some wonderful characters in this novel: ‘The General’ and his beautiful wife; her sister, the desperate-for-love, Minnie; various underlings who keep the show on the road, including ‘The General’s’ rival, Rondia. Then there are “villains” of the almost hiss-able type. Mary Ann’s plight is realistically portrayed: this was the era long before any social welfare; being single and pregnant was doom-laden; her situation is desperate and yet she acquits herself admirably. Yes, it is a bit That Sort Of Book, though at no stage does it become mawkish or predictable. We await the birth of the child with Mary Ann and her unusually supportive employers.

The historical novel has always been in vogue, I suppose, but I seem to be coming across them more than ever, and they are of consistent quality. Sullivan [literary editor of “The Age”] is an intelligent and hard-working writer. The research she did for this novel shows in the realism of the settings – and the lives we encounter in this very entertaining novel. In the meantime, however, I came to sense as I read that she was consciously entertaining her reader, that is – in McLuhan’s famous phrase – the medium here IS the message…The book is “show time” in print! If this makes it “melodrama” [as one critic put it], all well and good. Read Dickens again. Watch the films of Stephen Spielberg and Tarantino, etc. Melodrama is KING! And, as for “genre-driven”; what is flavour-of-the-decade CORMAC McCARTHY but a writer of WESTERNS, albeit a very good one?
I really enjoyed everything about this book.

SCORE: ****
Jane Sullivan: “Little People”, Scribe pb, pp 342, rrp $34-99

“Me And Mr. Booker” by Cory Taylor

Another FIRST novel. Cory Taylor is an experienced writer, however, with a background in children’s books and writing for film.

I found this a challenging book, not because it was hard to read: Taylor writes fluently, has a keen ear for dialogue and the subject is certainly arresting. I was surprised by my personal response to the novel’s central fact: a sixteen-year-old school girl having an affair over a year or so with a married university lecturer in his late thirties. Call me old-fashioned, uptight, repressed, whatever, but I had difficulty finding the author’s point of view in this book. It wasn’t so much the hot sex scenes, but the age difference, first of all, plus the fact that the affair is given at least tacit approval by the cuckolded wife as well as the girl’s mother who meanwhile is about the only likable character in the cast. What also annoyed me – on a different level – was the girl, Martha’s, utter stupidity in falling for and maintaining a relationship with an utterly-unattractive male. The eponymous Mr. Booker [Martha’s term of address throughout the story] is a heavy drinker who is hopeless at his job, socially inept with his peers; he speaks in clichés and cracks age-old jokes…I am waiting for some women to tell me their reaction to this book. Okay: ever since “Lolita” and probably long before, exaggerated “May-September” sex has been a seller in fiction, but this is the 21st century. Surely the mores of male-female culture have been re-written? I assume Cory Taylor is serious with this book. Next Tuesday I will be speaking with her so I am sure we will find out more.

As I said initially, this is a crisply-written and contemporary novel and certainly has elements of raw social comedy and satire. Taylor’s suburban Brisbane middle-class families are deftly sketched. I loved the estranged dad eventually taking up residence in a caravan in his family’s driveway. Martha’s mother is almost a tragic figure, shades perhaps of “Muriel’s” mother in the classic PJ Hogan Australian film, “Muriel’s Wedding”. I say “almost” because there is for me no reason why SHE should have fallen for the Bookers just because her teenage daughter does. Finally I think Taylor is a cruel observer, but maybe this is a valid perspective on what is a very dysfunctional set of relationships.
Please read this book and tell us what YOU think.

Cory Taylor: “Me And Mr. Booker”, text pb, pp 208, rrp $32-95

Sunday, April 3, 2011

March 22nd

Book & Publishing News:

* Today’s poem is from the veteran BRUCE DAWE, commenting on the events in Libya [ to be read by my guest, John Regan.]

* Last Night my fortnightly colleague JOHN BARTLETT compered a very successful evening at the Geelong Art Gallery where nine poets from the region, who featured in last year’s Best Poems…

* I have mentioned before this year the centenary celebrations at ST. PAT’S SCHOOL in West Geelong. If you have suitable memorabilia, their archivist Glen Turnbull is working solidly on the history. Contact the school.

* I am just starting to get into yet another book entitled, “Gallipoli”, but this one is from the person in charge of Oral History at London’s Imperial War Museum, Peter Hart. It is like no other book I have come across so far on that awful campaign in that there seems to be equal sourcing from the Allied and the Turk [and GERMAN] sides. I will talk about it closer to April 25th.

* Last week I referred to the recent publication of an anthology of mystery stories by the venerable and prolific Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favourite writers, now in her Seventies. Blow me down if she hasn’t another new release, a memoir, based on her 46 years’ marriage, “A Widow’s Story”. I am really looking forward to reading it. Great reviews so far.

* JANE SULLIVAN will be well-known to readers of the Saturday “Age Review” for her weekly newsy column about books and writing. I have just begun her new novel, “Little People”, based on the life of a late 19th century world-wide show business phenomenon, the diminutive “General Tom Thumb”. Very amusing and even engrossing so far.

* Next week, I will talk about “Little People” [from Scribe,pb] and an arresting first novel, “Me and Mr. Booker” by Brisbane-based screenwriter, Cory Taylor [whom I will be interviewing the week after.]

This Week’s Reviews:

‘The Tower’, by Michael Duffy

This man is a jack-of-all trades. A publisher in his youth, he is now both a print [ Sydney’s “Sun-Herald] and radio [ Radio National’s “Counterpoint”] journalist. He is a recent newcomer to the ranks of our already-formidable crime writing fraternity, with “The Tower”, and this month’s “Simple death”.
Knowing a little of Duffy’s background, I wasn’t surprised by elements of his work which separate him from the current Australian crop who operate in this popular genre. Firstly, this is a longer book than we usually get from the likes of Corris or Maloney certainly. Secondly, his main character, Troy, resembles Conelly’s Los Angeles-based Bosch or Rankin’s Edinburgh-loving Rebus than his Australian compatriots. Troy is eternally reflective. He is married to Anna, an Indian-born nurse who is suffering prolonged post-natal depression – or at least their marriage is in a sexual no-go phase which is causing Troy considerable pain. His angst seems also spiritual. Orphaned while still a child, he became a street-kid, rescued from a pointless life by the intervention of Fr. Luke, a Bob-Maguire-type suburban priest who helped him develop a sensitive conscience – and a love of the Scriptures, to which the policeman turns in times of stress. Another characteristic is the mild sophistication of some of the other characters. Shannon, is the Irish engineer-cum-security operator, coke-sniffing and randy, who can quote WB Yeats on cue. We get to know Shannon very well and his role in the novel is central.

The location is contemporary Sydney. Skyscrapers continue their upward thrust; Chinese money is pouring in; building unions are highly-politicised, as is the police force…Strangely though, I feel the newcomer [from a few weeks back], Katherine Howell:”Violent Exposure”, caught the feel – smells, sounds, emotions – of the harbour City with more intensity than Duffy, in a far less-ambitious novel. There is lots of CBD busy-ness, but none of the excitement even I was able to sense on my recent visit of a few days.

Troy is a member of the Murder Squad at “Sydney Central”, called in to investigate the suspicious circumstances of a woman from the upper level of a new building site, “The Tower”, set to become Australia’s highest skyscraper. From the first day of his involvement, Troy is in the headline-boasting spotlight. Almost overnight, the squad is investigating three killings. In-house competition and politics are bubbling away and Troy just doesn’t know whom to trust. Becoming his uncertain sidekick is “Mac” McIvor – who reminded me of “The Bill’s” sexily-balding Burnside of years ago: a little bit dodgy, maybe, but reliable finally in a scrap. Troy’s superiors seem unsure of our hero’s capabilities and he is being shuffled about, meanwhile finding out key information on his own…and seemingly with the unselfish help of afore-mentioned Shannon. Shannon is a vital link to the powerful, assured and very smooth Chinese businessman, Mr. Wu, the force behind the new building. If this sounds complex, it is, somewhat; Duffy weaves a mean plot with just enough red herrings to keep the reader alert. I had difficulty sorting the relevance of one or two characters, and the goings-on “below stairs” were a little incredible. By and large, however, the story is pretty well anchored in current events in our big cities [and, remember, Duffy’s day job is as a crime reporter, so he knows!]

The crime investigation/procedural dimension is handled very well, but it is the characterisation of Troy that gives this book its edge. He is a genuine feeling…and therefore troubled 21st century male. This is not just a crime novel, then. He is trying to make his way in a job he loves and thinks is important, while balancing the usual personal responsibilities. I found him thoroughly credible.

MICHAEL DUFFY is a most welcome new novelist [to me] on the scene.

SCORE: ***+
MICHAEL DUFFY: The Tower,[ A&U pb, 2010,pp 465, rrp $22-99.]

‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens

The latest history of the early years of our nation is called simply “The Colony – A History of Early Sydney” – when it deserves to be called fresh and revisionary. Karskens lectures in Australian History at the University of New South Wales and she is an excellent teacher who maintains just the right balance between thorough and far-reaching information and the sort of human interest that derives from fluent story-telling. You may wonder what is there that has not been said before. This time last year Tom Keneally enthralled me all over again that this period was largely all about individual people [as did AN WILSON in last week’s “The Victorians”.]

Isn’t it ironic that the further we get from, say, our colonial history, the more information seems to be becoming available, thanks to our ICT records-keeping and research capabilities. Karskens’ early “Sydney Cove’ is, of course, a very harsh place, but – unlike Robert Hughes’ unrelenting “Fatal Shore” – Karsken’s is a place of hope and enterprise [ not just in business.] In spite of the repeated instructions from ‘Home’ to maintain a punishment regime, almost from the beginning there were realistic opportunities for reform and the pursuit of a way of life that the transported – and, indeed, the free settlers could only have dreamed of in Britain. Our writer cites carefully four elements of colonial Sydney which more or less guaranteed not just survival but not-too-distant prosperity. Firstly, Sydney was a MARITIME settlement, [many of us still rush to make our sea changes!] The discipline was of a naval/military bent which was inevitably and continually scaled down in the practice if not the letter of their law[s]. Secondly, for the first 40 years, there was no central monetary system. This meant the officer class, paid in sterling, quickly achieved a monopoly in trade, with lots of illegal side effects, sure. Though illegal, it meant a thriving little economy in practice, in rum, sealing products, etc. Further, the geography of the little colony – on a harbour, locked in North, South and West by the Hawkesbury Estuary, the Blue Mountains and the Wollongong escarpment respectively – was inevitably drawn into the commercial life of the “East Indies” and India. Finally, the convicts actually brought with them a thriving consumerism: they wanted “things”. They were mostly urban people and, though money-poor, quickly developed bartering systems for all manner of goods.

This is a very brief look at this excellent book. I would like to talk more about the section on “The Macquaries” [sic]: the author points out the influence in policy-making – especially regarding infra-structure – which Elizabeth Macquarie wielded.
Many of “her” gardens around the Harbour survive to the present. Lachlan himself –“the father of Australia?” – is given a bit of a going over by Karskens though finally he is seen not quite as progenitor of the nation we became, but much more than the over-sensitive squanderer of public [i.e. British] monies Commissioner Bigge would have him to be, the lay visitor to Sydney can hardly miss such Macquarie “relics’ as the “Rum Hospital” [now part of the NSW parliamentary precinct],The Hyde Park Barracks, St. James Church [as well as St. John’s at Parramatta],the South Head Lighthouse, etc.

This book is a marvellous new contribution to our treasury of knowledge about the “Foundation Years”. I liked the latter parts where Karkens revisits the conflicts out on the Cumberland plains – now the source of political battles, at State and Federal levels, interestingly. Indeed, the book continually goes “beyond the fringes”, as does the author, to push our assumptions about where we came from as a “Commonwealth”. A terrific book.

SCORE: ****+
GRACE KARSKENS: The Colony, A&U pb, pp 670, rrp $49-95

This Week’s Poem:

“Libya 2011” by Bruce Dawe [courtesy of “The Australian”, March 20th]


This week we were celebrating the visit of two rock’n’roll veterans and you heard,

- “Ridin’ With The King” by BB King [and Eric Clapton]
-“Heartbreak Hotel” by Leon Russell [and Willy Nelson]

March 8th

Book & Publishing News:

* Happy International Women’s Day…not that I am practising affirmative action here…except to welcome EMMA to assist me in production…And she’ll be doing some reviewing later too, we hope.

* February’s ALR was less ‘academic’ this time…More reviews [ including one by the author of “The Colony” which I spoke about a fortnight ago, I think] and essays that might reach readers of “The Oz” at their level.

* The March edition of “The Monthly” includes a long essay by the redoubtable Robert Manne on Julian Assange, BEFORE the recent releases. Young Julian is definitely politically – New Age anarchist? - motivated and has been since his youth.
There is also a review by aspiring political leader MALCOLM TURNBULL…

* One of today’s books, “That Deadman Dance”, has just been named Best Novel 2010 by the PACIFIC Region Commonwealth Writers’ Board.

* “The Bush Orphanage” by last week’s guest JOHN HAWKINS is available at all our regional small bookshops, and in the Library, of course

* I use the library’s excellent DVD collection for my films and we finally saw “Patriot Game” last week. an action film closely based on TOM CLANCY’s bestseller of 20 years ago. The setting is the final days of the fracturing of the IRA and the rise of Sinn Fein as a valid political entity…Quite interesting. The title surely comes from writer Brendan Behan’s folk song from the late 60s: Behan was notorious for his “Borstal Boy” which could only be published in our fair and just isle in about 1970 by converting the numerous F*** bombs to “fugh” and its variants. Nowadays even the ‘midday movies’ are full of four-letter expletives. Are we a better society for that?

* Book-Into-Film No. 27 or so. As a young fella, I hadn’t read a serious novel until “The Power and the Glory” [GRAHAM GREENE] and “The Return of the Native” [THOMAS HARDY] – which were set texts for Matric [sic] English [sic] Literature. Inspired perhaps, I also read SLAVOMIR RAWICZ’s “The Long Walk”
and “ Seven Years In Tibet” by HEINRICH HARRER. In spite of my being a good little right winger, I had never read anything about Stalinism till then. Soon after, came ARTHUR KOESTLER’s “Darkness At Noon” and the SOLZHENITYN oevre….Anyway this is all by way of saying I saw “The Way Back” last week, PETER WEIR’s epic based on the Ramicz book. Was “The Long Walk” authentic? The journey and the hardships stretched belief, but human endurance saw men survive the Burma railway, of which the definitive account for me is IAN DENYS PEEK”s 2003 book, “One Fourteenth Part Of An Elephant”.

- The next Poetry and Conversation- APRIL 10th
- An Afternoon with Henry Lawson- March 19th at Woodbin Theatre

* Queescliff’s Mystery Bookshop in Hesse Street has a new proprietor in JOAN CANTY. We wish her well in her endeavour. A great little shop.

This Weeks Reviews:

“That Deadman Dance”, by Kim Scott

Listeners will know that I recently looked through some little history books about the Meredith district. My attention was caught by the merest mention in one of them, that the existing oval had been the favoured gathering place of a local clan of the Wauthorung nation. The site which is still a sort of central location for the town’s events was especially blessed because it was covered by native forest! The mention was from the early 1840s…then came sporadic European settlement, followed by the gold “rushes’ [as Geoffrey Blainey insists on calling the events of the 1850s,quite correctly, I feel.] Local Indigenous people disappeared very swiftly. “THEIR ghosts may be heard” too, perhaps, if we listen really carefully….

Anyway, today’s author is a NOONGAR, an Indigenous man from the South West corner of Western Australia. He acknowledges having read Tiffany Shellam’s wonderful “Shaking Hands On The Fringe” in preparing his novel, so it is no surprise for his story to be, by and large, a positive one. Central to it is a character known as Booby Wabalanginy who survives the first white arrivals, and remains a local identity throughout the 19th century. It is really Bobby’s story. The first encounters between local and the invaders were apparently not only non-violent but downright peaceful and laced with a spirit of co-operation and mutual support.
Because Bobby sees everything from the very first moments the sailing ships arrive, we too become privy to an ‘ordinary observer’s point of view, while being introduced to a lively cast of minor characters. He is no naïve bystander: he quickly becomes a fluent English speaker and a friend of the children of the leading member of the settler group, a relationship which has a tragic finale because this was no paradise after all.

I thought of some of the earlier classic works, which have attempted to imagine the encounters between the First Australians and the Europeans. Not in any order: Xavier Herbert’s “Capricornia” and “Poor Fella My Country”, KS Pritchard’s “Coonardoo”, Randolph Stow’s “To The Islands”, Nene Gare’s “The Fringe Dwellers” and more recently, Alexis Wright’s highly original “Carpentaria.” To the usual elements of colonial encounter – convictism, ham-fisted would-be-humanitarian British administrators, “settlers”, pastoralists, warriors, sheep – add Indigenous leaders and whalers, such an important part of the early European adventure in the “Swan colony”.
Perhaps the plot arrangement somehow resembles the ‘songlines’ of Aboriginal mythology [which is what Wright seems to be up to with her novel about the North]
Woven amongst the various episode from Bobby’s life are references to the dichotomy between the littoral colony and what was going on “beyond the fringe”; asides about animal and plant husbandry; whaling experiences – all told with Scott’s inimitably exquisite language, poetic yet earthy. Bobby himself behaves as some sort of ambassador, at least in the better early days when the Europeans want to learn from the locals – before the redundant whalers are forced to become land-lubbers and bring cruelty and exploitation with them. Bobby must also go through initiation and once a man of his people, pressures to hold the rapid expansion of the whites onto Aboriginal hunting land increase. He must make choices.

There are other interesting characters. This is a novel on a grand scale – though it never becomes sprawling due to Scott’s economical use of language. The escaped convict, Jak Tar, loves the new land for the freedom it offers, and for a time the security of his love relationship with a Noongar woman, Binyan. His immersion in the land and a new culture are beautifully depicted. There is, of course, pain, brutality, betrayal, misunderstanding, but they are represented realistically, and with surprising objectivity. One of the sharpest-drawn characters is the entrepreneurial Chane who dares all, but suffers great loss. He is a true humanist, engaging with the Noongar on their terms while trying to remain an Englishman of culture. This is – as Alex Miller has commented – both a “beautiful and a heart-rending book”. It succeeds because the novelist has empathy for both sides in the restless encounters. By the end, the days of whaling are over; there are the beginnings of a thriving agricultural and pastoral industry built on sheep. Small communities are becoming towns from which cities such as Perth will emerge.
This is an excellent addition to an existing collection of fine writing about the early days of European “settlement”, in a region which will be fairly new to most readers. It can only help us to look again at the realistic plight of the peoples who were displaced.
SCORE: ****+
KIM SCOTT: “That Deadman Dance”, Picador pb, 2010, pp 398,rrp $32-99.

“The Victorians” by A N WILSON

Does anyone remember and care about the “culture wars” of the 90s? One of its saddest side effects was demonising of that great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey who somehow was claimed for the Neo-Con corner by people like the rascally Keith Windshuttle. Here in Australia it became a tug of war over Indigenous fatality statistics in colonial times and since. Meanwhile the controversy did nothing to harm the political rise of Hanson and her all-but apologist, Howard. What can be a more interesting debate might come from asking: what really are OUR myths?....traditions?...certainties from our brief past? It’s good to see some of our military historians re-examining Gallipoli and other WWI events. [I will look at a new book “Pozieres”, in coming weeks as well as one on Gallipoli specifically, this time by a British academic from the Imperial War Museum.] I discussed briefly a few weeks back the lively “Zombie Myths Of Australian Military History”, a best-selling paperback out at the moment. There is nothing like thorough revision in history.
…And that is what A N Wilson [famous for excellent earlier books, “Jesus” “Paul”, “The Jews”] has done with a recent book looking at the second half of the 19th century. There are some “Great Figures of History” in this book, but Wilson challenges the status of many of them and questions there effectives and/or influence for good which is what made it an enthralling read for me. I managed to read it during a very distracting week beach-side at Manly a fortnight ago.
Perhaps some would call Wilson a Left-wing historian; he certainly tends to approach events from a Marxian analytical perspective [yes, especially when he’s discussing religion, in the earlier books mentioned.] That is his framework, not his political philosophy.
One is not far into his book until one realises [again] just how much of who we [still?] are derived not just from Britain, but from Victorian times specifically. So it is no surprise to recall that until ANU’s was established in, I think, about 1970 that there was no chair of Australian History in any of our universities. Remember your secondary school history courses? In my student days, there was a section on the British History Matric exam which looked at Australia [ well, on the Wars, the Depression…] So it was with joy that I saw Wilson challenging so many of the assumptions we all entertain about those Victorian times. Queen Victoria suffers at his hands: she is revealed as a peevish little haradan whose only good ideas came from her short-lived husband. She was certainly no absolute monarch. Probably not her fault, but many of the “reforms” of the era don’t stand up to scrutiny [eg Poor Law, Factory, etc.] To mention one in particular, though the 1830s produced Wilberforce and “the end of the slave trade”, the actual business still underpinned the business interests of many British MPs through to the 1890s [when the generation of slaves in the West Indies, died out.] There was no emancipation as such.
Our education system still really follows the model that emerged out of the British “public schools”, immortalised in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” – and wonderfully satirised by Dickens in his “Nicholas Nickleby”. Wilson argues that British schooling was always intended to maintain a rigid class system [ and until the current mess surrounding funding currently fermenting is properly sorted, some of these elements surely remain here in Godzone.]

With his judicious mix of events and people, Wilson never becomes boring throughout 800 pages [with good photos, bibliography and index.] Readers are forced to look again, for example, at Ireland’s “Great Famine” of the 1840s which sent many of our ancestors to the colonies that became Australia. The often cavalier attitudes and overt racism that was behind so much Imperial policy towards Ireland still rankles in some of us! And the second half of the 19th century saw the height of the British Raj in India, “the jewel in the crown”. Wilson talks about what has been called: The Indian Mutiny” [ cf Andrew Ward’s “Our Bones Are Scattered” for a full treatment of India 1857. ] They were awful events, none more than the retribution the British visited on any suspects. Wilson suggests there was no mere “mutiny”, but a mismanaged revolution – which would be another century in the making.
Earlier, of course, there was that tragic farce, the Crimean War: thousands of British soldiers died of cholera before a shot was fired. Tennyson’s celebrated “Charge Of The Light Brigade” was a disaster overseen by incompetent fools. It would take, however, a ”Great War” before the British Army finally reformed itself
from its nepotism and gerontocracy.

The title of this worthy book is telling for it is finally a story of PEOPLE. From Tennyson to Disraeli, the Prince Consort to the Rosettis, Wilson reminds us that the Victiorian Age was the first time permanent records of any great scope became available to the historical researcher: there are so many documents of every size and from every source. There are newspapers, magazines, diaries, court records, government minutes…
This is history for the lay person: fluent, accessible, amusing, concise – for all its length. I found it a leisurely read which cannot be said, alas, for a lot of histories – though I would suggest we are getting better at it [even if we don’t have a lot of Macaulays around these days.] In closing, let me note a reference by Wilson to someone who claimed that there in those days a “favoured 10,000”. “Within this group, all the decision-makers could be found: the Royal Family and a vast aristocracy, church leaders, key academics, famous writers and artists, soldiers, politicians, military officers – very many of whom were connected by blood and/or marriage, of course.”

SCORE: ****
A N WILSON: “The Victorians”, Arrow Books pb,2006 [?],pp 738

This Week’s Poem:

‘Sonnet 29’ - by William Shakespeare


‘Something’s Coming’ by Oscar Peterson