2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Debra Dank, Echo, Literary prizes, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘We Come with This Place’ by Debra Dank

Non-fiction – paperback; Echo Publishing; 252 pages; 2022.

Debra Dank’s We Come with This Place is a love letter to Country and family.

A brilliantly evocative memoir about place and culture, it explores Australia’s dark history and the special connection First Nations people have with Country — that is, the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected.

It takes us on a wondrous adventure out bush, but it also shows us the terrible injustices inflicted on First Nations people and the violence that underpins Australian history. And yet, this is not a misery memoir. It’s hopeful, even joyous in places, and it brims with an intense love for Aboriginal culture and traditions.

Our story is etched into the rocks and it whispers through the trees and with our kin who are more than human. The wind tells it, sometimes strolling gently, sometimes bellowing from cavernous, dark, felt places, where eyes do not see, and only our goodalu can feel.

Warm and generous

Based on Dank’s PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics, We Come with This Place is written in a spirit of generosity and is warm-hearted, tender and humorous.

It mixes autobiography with intergenerational family history and First Nations storytelling. (The dreaming tale of three water-women “who came out of the salt water to the north-east of Gudanji Country” is a recurring refrain.)

It gives us a glimpse of another way of life, one in which relationships — with plants, animals, landscapes and ancestors — are crucial and grounded in reciprocity. And where family ties and kinship are key.

As a child I sat with my two sisters and our mum and dad at the fire, watching the gidgea logs burn to coals that could cook a nice, charred edge on a goanna. This night, though, it would be chunks of the recently killed bullock charring on gidgea. The gidgea burned and its dry heat worked its way under our skin and smoothed the dryness already there from the sun, becoming an extra layer of warmth. There was often a chill in the air at night in this place. We sat in company with our old stories, living our new stories and speaking our place into them where they came together. Our dad didn’t often waste air with words, he practised a silence that let other stories be told, so as we sat with the gidgea, we learned to hear and feel those stories waiting in the gaps between the noise.

The narrative is not told in chronological order; instead, it comprises a mix of vignettes, stories and anecdotes which move back and forth in time and cover Dank’s upbringing on remote Queensland cattle stations, her parent’s troubled but loving marriage, her own marriage (to a white man) and the ways in which her grandparents guided her and passed on traditional knowledge and how she, herself, is doing the same with her own grandchildren.

Her father’s story

Much of the memoir focuses on her father, Soda, with whom she has a close but complex relationship. She details his brilliant skills as a horseman and station hand (he could fix anything despite never being trained) and his deep knowledge of Country.

But she also reveals how the trauma of racist violence runs deep. The hardships and horrendous experiences he endured throughout his life (he witnessed, for instance, the brutal rape of his mother by station men when she stood up for herself and refused to return to her place of work), using this as a prism through which to view so many injustices experienced by First Nations people.

As a memoir about resilience, identity and family, We Come with This Place — which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize is heartfelt and honest. It should be required reading for all Australians. I adored it.

Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has almost 40 years of experience as an educator. She has worked in schools and universities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

This is my third book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. I also read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Greece, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘Aphrodite’s Breath’ by Susan Johnson

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a long tradition of people heading abroad to try living in a different country and then writing about it. But I’d wager few have embarked on such an adventure with their 85-year-old widowed mother in tow.

This is what the Australian writer Susan Johnson did when she decided to move from Brisbane, Australia, to the Greek island of Kythera — the birthplace of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.

Aphrodite’s Breath, subtitled “A mother and daughter’s Greek island adventure”, is a frank and funny memoir. It’s as much about the island’s culture, landscape, history and people as it is about the mother-daughter relationship and the tensions that threaten to unravel it.

The narrative, which spans a couple of years, moves from Brisbane to Greece and back again, via side trips to Paris and London, with the threat of the pandemic somewhere in the middle.

But it’s the first few months of the adventure that pose the greatest challenges. The pre-arranged car doesn’t eventuate, the rented house lacks modern amenities and the winter weather is perishingly cold and unforgivably windy. Then there’s the whole language barrier.

And mother and daughter don’t always see eye to eye about everything.

Mother-daughter tensions

Much of the book deals with the inherent and unspoken tensions within the relationship: Susan is a dutiful daughter who always thinks of her mother’s comfort; Barbara, who is used to the finer things in life, is flinty, headstrong and opinionated.

The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more Susan realises their differences. It comes to a head with a fiery argument only two months into their stay: Barbara wants to go home.

I know I had benefited from many advantages that Mum never had, most notably a university education, and I was forced to examine whether I was guilty of implying my tastes and opinions were superior to hers. As far as I could tell, apart from being a smartypants and falling into womansplaining, I hadn’t paraded any supposed supremacy over her but had done my best to secure her ease and comfort.

Barbara does get her own way in the end, returning home to Australia, but Susan remains in Greece, working on the edits of her previous book (From Where I Fell, reviewed here), writing this one, befriending the locals — a wonderfully varied cast of characters — and embarking on a short-lived romance.

Her reflections on this new life are forthright, unflinchingly honest and often self-deprecating.

Equally, her analysis of what makes a writer and how the art of writing can lay bare the truth at the expense of friends and loved ones is open and candid. Here’s how she puts it in the prologue:

If to photograph people is to violate them, as Susan Sontag suggests, turning them into objects hat can be symbolically possessed, what does writing them do? Perhaps even before we left home, I was the violator, my mother the violated.

Island life

But it’s Susan’s deeply felt personal connection to Kythera, a place she first visited in her youth, that really transforms this memoir into something that feels meaningful and passionate.

That first dawn, the sun lying pale in the sky as if dipped in water, as if it was not lying in the sky at all but in the sea. The village outlined, on the opposite hill, against the dawn sky, the singular cut of trees, buildings, stones; timeless, ancient. In the watery morning sun I wandered down the stony road, emerging into the rustle of pine trees, the wind rising, the sound like the breaking of waves upon an unseen ocean. The fizzing of electricity in the powerlines. The fizzing of my blood.

Her descriptions of the island, its culture and its people are vivid and lyrical (as the above quote attests).

Her interest in history, sense of curiosity and journalistic eye for a story have her tracing the tragic life of Rosina Kasmati, the daughter of one of Kythera’s wealthiest families, who was committed to a psychiatric institution in the mid-19th century after her marriage to an upper-class Irishman fell apart. The couple’s second son, Lafcardio Hearn, became a famous writer (Wikipedia entry here).

Susan’s own personal tragedies mark the end of Aphrodite’s Breath  (tissues are required), but this is a luminous, life-affirming memoir with all the qualities of a finely crafted novel.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I know the author personally, but this has not influenced my review. I was surprised to see my name (alongside dozens of others) mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

Book review, Deirdre Osborne, Greenfinch, Joan Anim-Addo, Kadija Sesay George, Non-fiction

‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’ by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne & Kadija Sesay George

Non-fiction – paperback; Greenfinch; 352 pages; 2022.

I love a good book list so no surprise that This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books would appeal to me with its curated list of 50 fiction titles from around the world.

The authors — Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George — are all esteemed academics who have made a living out of championing writers from diverse backgrounds.

Among a string of accolades and accomplishments, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, who was born in Grenada, co-founded the MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, with Deirdre Osborne in 2014; Osborne, who is Australian-born, is Reader in English Literature and Drama in the Theatre and Performance Department at Goldsmiths and the editor of the 2016 Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010); and Dr Kadija Sesay George, a literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent, is a literary project manager and former publisher of SABLE LitMag, a magazine for emerging writers of colour.

Together they have curated a list designed to:

centralize fiction produced by writers of African descent, Asian descent and Indigenous Peoples, to offer a corrective to reverse the pre-eminence of white-dominant literary canons.

The list is sandwiched between an engaging introduction that introduces this non-white canon and argues the need for it (highlighting also, some of the pitfalls associated with generating any kind of list) and an afterword that encourages readers to be proactive in their reading choices and to become “reader activists”.

50 books

Each book on the list is accompanied by a thoughtful review (of around three pages in length), a paragraph on its publishing history, author biography and a helpful list of further reading suggestions aka “if you like this, try…” For example, if you like Tony Birch’s The White Girl, one of two books on the list by Indigenous Australians, it recommends reading Sally Morgan’s My Place (1997), Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart (1999), Claire G Colman’s Terra Nullius (2017) and Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (2016).

The list, arranged in chronological order, is as follows (hyperlinks take you to reviews of books I have previously read):

  1. Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories by Eileen Chang (1943)
  2. All About H. Hatterr: A Gesture by G V Desani (1948)
  3. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1952)
  4. The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier (1953)
  5. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (1956)
  6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  7. Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War by Assia Diebar (1962)
  8. Wide Sargasso by Sea Jean Rhys (1966)
  9. A Grain of Wheat by Ngügi wa Thiongo (1967)
  10. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)
  11. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972)
  12. A Question of Power by Bessie Head (1974)
  13. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (1974)
  14. Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tiali (1975)
  15. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (1975)
  16. Our Sister Killjoy: Or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint by Ama Ata Aidoo (1977)
  17. Territory of Light by Yako Tsushima (1979)
  18. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
  19. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (1979)
  20. So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (1980)
  21. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  22. Segu by Maryse Condé (1984)
  23. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (1985)
  24. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  25. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)
  26. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros (1991)
  27. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1992)
  28. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)
  29. Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories by Olive Senior (1995)
  30. Salt by Earl Lovelace (1996)
  31. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
  32. Trumpet by Jackie Kay (1998)
  33. The Years with Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes (1999)
  34. The Best of Albert Wendt’s Short Stories by Albert Wendt (1999)
  35. Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)
  36. The Emperor’s Babe: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo (2001)
  37. Dogside Story by Patricia Grace (2001)
  38. Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe (2001)
  39. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
  40. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
  41. Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips (2005)
  42. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  43. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)
  44. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (2009)
  45. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (2010)
  46. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  47. The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (2013)
  48. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)
  49. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
  50. The White Girl by Tony Birch (2019)

Literary activism

The Afterword is especially interesting, for having read it I realise that I am a “literary activist” and a “reader activist” and didn’t even know it! If you are reading this blog, maintaining your own blog or reading books written by people of diverse backgrounds, you fall into these categories too.

It defines literary activism as:

the full range of work involved in the creation, production and promotion of literature and books.

It also then flags “reader activism”, which “can help influence the shape of the contemporary fiction landscape” by supporting

writers and their books by talking about them, recommending them and by voting with your wallet. […] This can make a real difference to opening up the literary world. It is an effective way to make publishers sit up and take notice of what readers want and it supports authors financially.

It outlines some practical steps you can take, which I’ve summarised as follows:

  • visit your local library
  • join a reading group
  • support independent publishers and bookshops
  • buy literary magazines and experience new writers
  • donate to writing prizes
  • attend literary festivals and events

This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books is a terrific reference book. Not only will it proudly sit alongside Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (my go-to literary reference book of choice), I will be using it to help shape my reading life moving forward. Watch this space.

Author, Book review, HQ, Michael Arndt, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Snails & Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols’ by Michael Arndt

Non-fiction – hardcover; HQ; 160 pages; 2022.

And now for something completely different.

As a self-confessed “word nerd” (and someone who has just spent the best part of eight weeks writing a copy style guide in my new role at work), I couldn’t resist buying Michael Arndt’s Snails & Monkey Tails when I saw it on the shelves of my local independent bookstore.

This delightfully designed reference book is for anyone interested in language and typography. It’s ideal for flicking through and delving into on an ad-hoc basis, but I actually read it cover to cover — and found it absolutely fascinating.

There’s a quirky, fun element to the design — which uses a muted colour palette of black, white, grey and a vibrant eye-popping red — that adds to the experience.  (To get a glimpse of the book’s design, check out this article in the Design Observer which reproduces many of the spreads.)

Featuring 14 standard punctuation marks in the English language, as well as a range of commonly used symbols, the book explains their origins and provides helpful tips on grammatical usage.

I deal with punctuation every day (some may laughingly say I just move commas around and correct people’s spelling!) and thought I knew a lot about my “tools of the trade”, but I learned a lot.

For instance, the Italians call the @ symbol a snail (chiocciola) and the Germans call it a monkey’s tail (affenschwanz), hence the book’s title.

The ¶ symbol, which is one of my favourites (perhaps because it’s an “invisible” in Adobe InDesign and pleasingly shows the start of every new paragraph), is called a pilcrow and was originally used to mark chapter headings or capitula (chapters / little heads).

Pilcrows were rubricated (lettered in red, from the Latin rubricare, to redden) by medieval monks known as rubricators to indicate the beginning of paragraphs.

If you have ever wondered why paragraphs are indented, it’s because:

Indents in medieval manuscripts left room for pilcrows, to be added by hand, even after the invention of the printing press. Eventually, the rubricated mark was abandoned, though the indentation remains.

Other fascinating facts:

  • The & symbol (ampersand) is derived from blending together the letters e and t
  • The #, which I call a “hash”, is also called a pound sign, number sign and octothorpe
  • Until 1970, the ! (exclamation point) did not have its own key on the typewriter — instead, you had to backspace and type an apostrophe over a full stop to create one (I have a vague memory of doing this on my dad’s old Olivetti when I was a child)
  • There was once a symbol called an “interrobang” (), which was a fusion of the question mark and the exclamation point to express incredulity, and was invented by an advertising executive in 1962 but fell out of favour about a decade later.

I also discovered why many writers annoyingly type two spaces at the end of every sentence (which I then have to delete). It’s a habit or “rule” left over from the days of using typewriters. Fonts on typewriters were monospaced so two spaces were needed after a full stop, but today’s computer technology optically corrects this so only one space is needed.

Finally, Snails & Monkey Tails has a helpful glossary of terms and a useful index. It even shows how to type the correct characters on a Mac and Windows PC using shortcuts and/or unicodes if there’s no glyph palette to help you. This is a terrific little book and one that I have proudly added to my small stash of books about grammar, writing and language usage that I have collected over the course of my career.

Australia, Author, Book review, Jackie Huggins, Magabala Books, memoir, Ngaire Jarro, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Jack of Hearts QX11594’ by Jackie Huggins & Ngaire Jarro

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 224 pages; 2022.

Jack of Hearts QX11594 is an affectionate portrait of Jack Huggins, a former POW and son of a First World War veteran, as told through the eyes of his daughters, Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro.

The book has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but I can see that Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it last September, so I am not sure how I missed it.

Wartime experiences

It’s an interesting account of one man’s wartime experiences and the legacy he left behind, but it also reclaims the important role Aboriginal soldiers played in Australian history. That’s because Jack Huggins was a First Nations man who signed up to defend the country at a time when Aboriginal Australians were not even considered citizens. In this context, why did he and so many other Aboriginal men go to war, his daughters wonder.

There were many reasons why Aboriginal men and women went to serve in defence of their country. For many, it was for love of country, to defend their country and sovereign rights, for others it was for payment, security, pursuit of freedom and adventure. We believe our Father’s motivation was to follow in his Father’s footsteps …

Based on personal recollections and written in a naïve, conversational style, the book follows one man’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Ayr, in northern Queensland, to his time as a prisoner of war working on the notorious Burma-Thailand Death Railway during World War Two.

It covers his return home, where fell in love with an Aboriginal woman and got married. He died seven years later from a heart attack, aged 38, leaving behind his wife, Rita, and a trio of young children — three-year-old Ngaire, two-year-old Jackie, and Johnny, who was just four months old. (As an aside, Jackie Huggins has previously written her mother’s life story in a book titled Auntie Rita, which was published in 1994.)

Two voices

The book is told in two distinct voices and while they’re not labelled as such, it’s clear that the more personal elements are Ngaire’s and the more factual ones are Jackie’s. Together, the sisters piece together their father’s story from family anecdotes, defence force records, letters, photographs and interviews with people who knew him personally.

They also retrace his steps as a soldier, where he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work building the notorious railway, a forced labour project in which “nearly 39 per cent of all those who worked in the railway perished […] mainly from disease and malnourishment”.

As well as being a loving portrait of a man who survived against the odds, Jack of Hearts QX11594 shines a light on the role Aboriginals played in Australia’s ANZAC tradition. The sisters write that in the wars, both First and Second, “Indigenous men and women were spotlighted, welcomed, seen and recognised, serving on the frontline and protecting each other”. But when they were repatriated, it was another story:

For many returned Indigenous veterans, discrimination and prejudice flourished. They were left out of society and were not served in shops and public places, after fighting for their country. They were scorned and degraded and could not get the necessities of a good life such as employment and housing.

Jack, an only child, was one of the lucky ones. He had a good job in the post office and had been raised in a loving home. His parents were unusual in that they were Aboriginal homeowners. The sisters say that it has always puzzled them as to “why Father’s family […] remained ‘free’ people while other Aboriginal people were being herded off in droves to missions and reserves all over Queensland”. They wonder if they claimed another identity to escape, which was common practice at the time.

Another perspective 

I had a couple of minor issues with the editing of the book — the word “very” is used repeatedly, there’s a lot of repetition and sometimes statements are made that could have been fleshed out to add more colour and vibrancy — but I’m being pedantic.

This isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. If you judge Jack of Hearts QX11594 on the sisters’ desire to learn more about their father’s short life by writing his story, it has hit its mark.

Will it make the Stella shortlist? Probably not. But this is a worthy contribution to our nation’s history, one that debunks the myth that only white Australians went to war, by quietly sharing a deeply personal account so different to what most of us have been previously told.

UPDATE (17 March): I neglected to mention that the sisters are from the Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru nations.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. I also read this book because it is on the 2023 Stella Prize longlist .

Australia, Black Inc, Book review, Geraldine Brooks, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 76 pages; 2022.

On Tim Winton is the latest volume in an ongoing series — about Australian writers by Australian writers — which now spans 11 titles. I had previously read On Helen Garner and much enjoyed it, so I was keen to read this one which was published at the tail end of last year.

The subject of this long-form essay is Tim Winton, who is arguably one of Australia’s most decorated and much-loved writers. He’s also one of the few who is published abroad and enjoys an international reputation.

The same could be said of the essay writer. Geraldine Brooks grew up in Sydney, became a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and has six novels to her name, including March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.

I’ve read plenty by the former (see here) and none by the latter, but the match — that is, getting Brooks to write about Winton — seems ideal: Brooks has a well-honed eye for the cadence and feel of Australian writing because she’s lived abroad for so long (she became an American citizen in 2002) and Winton’s writing is quintessentially Australian.

My island home

Here’s how she describes discovering Winton’s award-winning (and beloved) Cloudstreet in a London bookshop in 1991:

Three pages into Cloudstreet and I could see it, smell it, taste it. Home. I could hear it: our idiom, in all its insouciant vitality, delivered with uncompromising fidelity. Australian writing. Cringe-free. No fucks given if people in New York and London don’t get it.
Tim Winton was writing for us.

What she really loves about that novel, which chronicles the lives of two working-class families sharing a house in Perth, Western Australia, was the way she could identify with its themes and characters.

I had never read a novel that grazed so closely against my own lived experience. It was an unvarnished vision, meticulous in its recollection of the banal, the mundane and the sometimes cruelly philistine nature of mid-century Australian life; vivid in its evocation of the straitened options of the working class, especially working-class women; subtle but frank in its portrayal of the negation and misapprehension of Aboriginal culture.
But it wasn’t only that. This was no cringy put-down. These lives were also funny and passionate, full of imagination and yearning, glimmering with the possibility of transcendence. It was a capacious, generous giant of a novel, Russian in its ambitions, Melvillian in its digressions, Marquezian in its flashes of magic realism. All this, but all ours.

She goes on to describe Winton’s fiction as “acutely class aware” and suggests that by remaining true to his Western Australian roots — “ignoring the siren song of expatriate cosmopolitanism” and the “gravitational tug of Sydney and Melbourne” —  he has “polished his parochialism to a diamond brightness”. She argues that it is this sense of place and the mining of his own experiences for his fiction that makes his writing so distinctively Australian.

Christian values

What also makes him different from many of his compatriots, Brooks argues, is his religious upbringing which was far outside of the Australian mainstream:

The biblical cadence in Cloudstreet is no accident. Winton grew up in a family that read the Scriptures the way my family read the daily newspapers: habitually, fervently, in the conviction that information important to the conduct of one’s everyday life was contained there.

His Christianity, she says, is most obvious in his 1986 novel, That Eye, the Sky, a story about an adolescent whose father is paralysed in an accident and then “rescued” by a visiting evangelist, a scenario which is mirrored in his own life — Winton’s father, a motorcycle cop, was almost killed in a road accident when Winton was a young boy and during his long convalescence was helped by an evangelist who “shifted the Winton family to an urgent, immersive form of worship”.

While his religious tendencies might be less obvious in his later work, Brooks suggests that all his writing is about love, mercy, kindness and liberation — and the Jewish concept of repairing the shattered world. “Winton’s protagonists are always shattered”, she writes. “No one is whole. Everyone is in pieces.”

Literary criticism

Later she discusses the criticism his writing has attracted from the literary establishment and academics. The first is that his novels are too focused on plot, something literary novels are not supposed to be preoccupied by, and second, that his female characters are “too damaged”. Brooks writes that it’s infantilising and offensive to suggest that novelists should only create ideal women:

Never mind that Winton’s men generally are in much worse shape than the women, each one of them staggering under a dense pack of human flaws and moral failings. But all of them, his men and women, are vibrantly alive.

His strength, she points out, is his ability to examine Australian white working-class maleness. To vilify him for this is ironic, she says, especially at a time when anyone writing outside of their lived experience is roundly condemned.

Winton, of course, has done some condemning of his own. His passion for nature, particularly the ocean, has turned him into an environmental advocate. On the rare occasions when he has “stepped out of his carefully woven cocoon of privacy” to lend his voice to a cause he has been impassioned, brave and instrumental in making an impact.

I can vouch for his no-holds-barred approach: I was in the audience at last year’s Perth Festival when he resoundingly called out the organisers for relying on sponsorship money from fossil fuel companies in a speech that Brooks describes as “blistering”. It’s an apt interpretation. (You can read more about his speech here and here.)

On Tim Winton is an eloquent and insightful essay about one of the most successful writers Australia has ever produced. It has made me itch to dig out all those Winton novels I’m yet to read — there’s about four in my TBR — and to re-read those I already have.

Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, essays, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher

‘A Guest at the Feast’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 300 pages; 2022.

A Guest at the Feast brings together Colm Tóibín’s previously published non-fiction work in one volume. There are 11 essays in total, which were written between 1995 and 2022, and mostly published in the London Review of Books. They are unified by some common themes, including art (specifically literature and poetry) and religion (specifically Catholicism).

The volume is divided into three parts: the first focuses on personal, autobiographical-type essays; the second focuses on the Catholic Church and its various scandals; and the third is largely about writers — Marilynne Robinson, Francis Stuart, John McGahern and Thomas Mann — and the influences on their work.

Admittedly, this collection wasn’t quite what I expected. Its overriding theme is religion and now, having read the book, I feel like I know more about the inner-most workings of the Catholic Church than I ever wanted to know. Its saving grace is the eloquence of the prose, which makes for an effortless read, and the seamless weaving of facts with personal insights.

A brush with cancer

My favourite essay is the opening one — Cancer: My Part in its Downfall — a deeply personal and self-deprecating account of Tóibín’s testicular cancer diagnosis and treatment.  I had previously read it online and recalled its startling opening line:

It all started with my balls.

But I also loved the little insights he provides into hospital life, the side effects of chemotherapy — he loses his sense of taste but constantly dreams of food  — and the things that annoy him about spending so much time at home, where he is forced to listen to the “ghastly cries” of Dublin’s seagull population and the incessant sound of their claws on his roof.

They made their irritating little noises against the slate of the roof through the night until I came to believe that they and their parents had been sent by some force of darkness to mock me.

The humour, mixed with pathos, makes the essay memorable and moving.

The magic of McGahern

I also enjoyed his short essay Snail Slow: John McGahern, which is essentially a review of the book The Letters of John McGahern (Faber, 2021) but reads like a mini biography and examination of McGahern’s influences.

McGahern, who died in 2006, is one of my favourite writers (see my reviews here) and is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tóibín knew him personally and imbues his review with personal insights. He makes no bones about the fact that he wasn’t always a fan.

I found too much Irish misery in it [his work], too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism. Perhaps my aversion was made more intense by the fact that I recognised this world. I have been brought up in it; I was still living in it.

(Interestingly, it is these very factors that make me so interested in McGahern’s work — it probably helps that I am not Catholic and did not grow up in Ireland.)

Tóibín later comes to appreciate — and love — McGahern’s writing, and when he develops a friendship with him learns that he’s a man of contradictions and not without malice; he could make harsh judgments but he could also “have wondrous responses to anything that appealed to him”.

Charting the Church’s downfall 

The middle section of the book is concerned wholly with the Roman Catholic Church and comprises long-form reviews of books about the institution:

  • The Paradoxical Pope, first published in The New Yorker in 1995, is a portrait of John Paul II and the tensions between American Catholics and the Vatican, specifically around birth control, abortion, homosexuality and celibacy;
  • Among the Flutterers, first published in 2010, looks at the ways in which the Church has lost its power in Ireland and posits a theory that it provides a good cover for gay men who will never have to explain why they have never married;
  • The Bergoglio Smile examines the dark side of Pope Francis; and
  • The Ferns Report reviews an official Irish government inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in Tóibín’s home county of Wexford.

Each essay in this “Catholic set” is incredibly well-written, detailed and fact-filled, but reading them one after the other (I read this book in the space of a weekend) was a bit heavy going. The personal insights do lighten the load slightly — but only slightly.

The benefit of reading them together, however, is seeing how the Church’s power diminishes over time as popes change and scandals slowly emerge. At the time the first essay was written, for instance, abortion and contraception were the main controversies. Ten years later, at the time of the last essay,  pedophilia was being exposed through official inquiries.

Easy to read

On the whole, I enjoyed A Guest at the Feast but if I had known I could read most of the content online for free I might have thought twice about buying it.

That said, it’s easy to read, full of droll moments, carefully considered observations and deeply personal reflections and anecdotes that bring his subjects to life. It’s a masterclass in non-fiction writing.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, true crime, Wendy Davis

‘Don’t Make a Fuss: It’s only the Claremont Serial Killer’ by Wendy Davis

Non-fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 2016 pages; 2022.

This is a story about the tragic consequences for all women when one woman speaks up and nobody listens.

The above line, quoted on the back cover of Wendy Davis’s memoir Don’t Make a Fuss, perfectly encapsulates the moral of this story.

Wendy, a 40-year-old social worker at a hospital in Perth, was randomly attacked at her workplace by an onsite contractor in 1990. He grabbed her from behind while she was sitting at her desk alone in her office. He put a cloth over her mouth so she couldn’t scream and tried to drag her into a nearby toilet cubicle. Wendy managed to fight him off and ran for help.

The culprit, a Telecom (now Telstra) technician, was charged with the relatively minor charge of common assault, told to undergo counselling and kept his job. Meanwhile, Wendy’s shock, trauma and concerns were dismissed by the police, by Telecom (who claimed the man was having “relationship problems” and was a “good worker” with a “good future ahead of him”) and even by her husband (a policeman), whom she later divorced.

She buried her fears and never talked about what happened. She left her job, even though she loved it and had worked hard to achieve her position, and tried to put it all behind her. She remarried and moved to Tasmania.

Claremont serial killer

Meanwhile, the man that attacked her went on to murder two women, and a suspected third, in what became known as the Claremont serial killings, which occurred in 1996-1997. He remained undetected for almost a decade, but in 2016 he was arrested by the Special Crime Squad which had ploughed extra resources into investigating the killings.

Bradley Robert Edwards, 48, was charged with…

the wilful murders of 23-year-old Jane Rimmer and twenty-seven-year-old Ciara Glennon, who had disappeared from Claremont in 1996 and 1997, the abduction and rape of a seventeen-year-old woman in Claremont in 1995, and the sexual assault of an eighteen-year-old woman in Huntingdale in 1998, with both of the latter offences including deprivation of liberty. […] Police were still investigating the 1996 disappearance of another woman from Claremont, eighteen-year-old Sarah Spiers.

Response to arrest

Wendy’s memoir is written as a response to the news of Edwards’ arrest, which affected her deeply. She had spent 25 years pretending the attack hadn’t happened, burying it deep in her subconscious, until she received an unexpected call from Western Australia police at her current home in Hobart, which made it all come rushing back.

I had forced the trauma deep down. As people, especially women, of my time were taught to do, I just ‘got on with it’. I didn’t make a fuss.

Her story is written in an intimate but forthright style and swings between Wendy’s life in the immediate aftermath of the attack and the resurgence of anger and grief she felt more than two-and-a-half decades later. She details her involvement in the state trial (she was called as a witness), which took seven months and was conducted without a jury, but actually took years to get to trial.

What emerges is a portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and resilient woman, now in her 60s, who effectively suffered three traumas: the attack itself, in 1990; the dismissal of her concerns by the authorities immediately afterwards; and a resurgence of psychological trauma upon news of Edwards’ arrest and the subsequent trial.

Taking concerns seriously

The issue that hits home hardest, however, is the importance of taking women’s concerns seriously. While Wendy’s story is written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see how Edwards’ terrible deeds may have been stopped if Wendy’s “incident” had been taken more seriously in the first place.

A meeting with Telecom, just a week after Edwards had tried to abduct her, is a case in point. Wendy attends the meeting with her husband, not sure what it is going to be about, but then discovers it’s the company’s way of making excuses for their employee and of ensuring that Wendy won’t go on to sue them.

The manager went on to say that, although he understood that I was shocked by what had happened, it would not benefit anyone if this promising employee lost his job, his career. I was rendered speechless for a moment or two. When I recovered, I told him that I thought I was going to lose my life. I told him it was not normal behaviour to attack a complete stranger because you were having difficulties in your relationship. I said that he’d had cable ties in his pocket, that he’d put something over my mouth, tried to drag me into the toilet, that I was still bruised and in shock.

The manager tells her that it wasn’t unusual for Telecom employees to carry cable ties, that he’d never done anything like this before and that counselling would help him with his “current personal issues”. Wendy claims the manager was “clearly not hearing my account of the events” and that she left the meeting feeling anxious, angry, concerned and totally disempowered.

It’s hard to read this compelling memoir and come away from it without feeling the same.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it new from Dymocks not long after it was released.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia and lived in Perth for much of her life, this book qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here