Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode One

The first episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView.)

This episode, called ‘People’, was themed around great characters from Australian fiction. This was how it was described on iView:

As an actor, Claudia Karvan knows great storytelling is all about people, great characters. What truths we can uncover about ourselves through the fictitious characters of Australian novels?

Having been starved of Australian literary fiction for about 20 years while living abroad, it was a delight to see this beamed into my living room! I was so familiar with the names and had read several of the books. I had even interviewed one of the authors in the past (hello, Tim Winton) and met another a couple of times (hello, Christos Tsiolkas).

While there was perhaps a bit too much focus on Karvan in the show and too heavily weighted toward contemporary fiction, there was enough meat on the bones in this episode to keep me entertained. And I even learned a thing or two. It wasn’t highbrow or dumbed down, but tread a careful middle ground.

And, more importantly, it wasn’t all fawning over writers and praising their work. In her opening interview with Christos Tsiolkas, Karvan confessed she never finished the book because she hated the characters so much! I’m sure that’s not the first time Tsiolkas has had that criticism levelled at his book, but perhaps the first time he’s had to defend it on television. I think he did it pretty well!

The books covered in episode one

I thought it might be interesting to list the books covered in episode one. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews

  • ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ by Nino Culotta [not read, but we had a copy in the family home when I was growing up – amazed to discover it was written by an Irish-American, not an Italian immigrant]
  • ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey [abandoned in my pre-blogging days but as a much more experienced reader, I would be prepared to give this one another go]
  • ‘The Choke’ by Sofie Laguna [not read this, but in the TBR]
  • ‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko
  • ‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
  • The ‘Edith Trilogy’ (‘Grand Days’, ‘Dark Palace’ & ‘Cold Light’) by Frank Moorhouse [admittedly never heard of it but want to read immediately!]
  • ‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey
  • ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas
  • ‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton [read and loved when it first came out in the early 1990s and am probably due for a reread!]

The next episode, entitled ‘Place’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Peter Carey, Publisher, Setting

‘A Long Way from Home’ by Peter Carey

A Long Way from Home

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 336 pages; 2018.

Earlier this year, in the depths of winter, I went to Dublin for a long weekend, specifically to see Peter Carey in conversation with Joseph O’Connorat the “Pepper Cannister Church” on Upper Mount Street. It was essentially the Irish launch of his latest novel, A Long Way from Home, which has since been longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It was an entertaining evening — albeit very, very cold (even with the heating on, the church was akin to sitting in a giant refrigerator and after an hour in the pews I could barely feel my feet because they’d turned numb with the cold). He largely spoke about the background behind the novel, which is based on the Redex Australia Trial, a road rally dating from 1953 that circumnavigated Australia and was open to pro and amateur drivers in unmodified cars unsuited to the tough terrain.

Carey’s own family ran a Holden car dealership in Bacchus Marsh, the country town where he is from, so he shared a lot of funny tales about cars and this particular rally, which he followed obsessively as a young boy — among other topics, including politics, travel, writing and why he’d waited so long to write about Australia’s indigenous history.

This novel — his 14th — is based very much on the Redex Trial and focuses on a trio of eccentric characters that enter the event, before it morphs into an intriguing exploration of a different kind of race — that of white Australia’s crimes against its indigenous population.

Eccentric characters

The story, set in the early 1950s, is told in the first person from two different character’s points of view in alternating chapters. (Occasionally, it has to be said, this is confusing, especially if you’ve put the book down and then come back to it and can’t remember which character is telling their side of the story; their voices don’t feel sufficiently different to be able to distinguish them easily.)

Those characters are Irene Bobs, a headstrong woman who is married to the best car salesman (a short man called Titch) in the whole of south-eastern Australia, and Willie Bachhuber, a tall, lanky teacher who’s ruling the airwaves as a quiz show king on a national radio programme. The pair are neighbours and strike up an unlikely friendship.

When the Bobs enter the Redex Trial — in a bid to become famous and boost car sales — they convince Bachhuber, who has been fired from his job after an unfortunate incident with a student, to join them as their navigator. It’s a perfect match, given Bachhuber’s love of maps, but the stresses and strain of the race, puts stresses and strains on the ability of everyone to get along.

But before things go completely pear-shaped, Carey does an expert job of conveying the thrill — and danger — of the race, yet he also scatters enough clues to suggest the novel — when it truly hits its stride about two-thirds of the way in — is more than just an adventurous tale about fast driving.

For instance, early on in the race, Irene takes a roadside toilet break and stumbles upon an unmarked graveyard of exposed bones crumbling to dust (“There were so many, they must be blacks”) and, out of shock, returns to the vehicle with  the bullet-ridden skull of a young boy. In another example, blonde-haired Bachhuber, raised by a Lutheran pastor, recalls the shame of discovering that his wife had given birth to a black baby — and then abandoned both.

Mixed feelings

Did I like this book? I’m not too sure. In its immediate afterglow, I’m feeling slightly ambivalent about it, but perhaps it will grow on me?

I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well. His characters are so strong and I love his feminist slant in this one (Irene is as good, if not better, at rally driving than all the male competitors but is constantly mocked and put down by them; even the media, which sees her as their darling to begin with, fall out of love with her and start questioning who’s looking after her children while she’s in the race.)

But the pacing, I think, is slightly odd. When Bachhuber finds himself stuck in the outback, the energy of the narrative seems to dissipate. (I appreciate that I’m being a bit vague here, but I don’t want to give away plot spoilers.) It doesn’t really pick up again and I could find my own interest waning. Yet, for what it’s worth, I very much liked this section of the novel — Bachhuber’s inward spiritual journey, for want of a better description — but felt the change in pace jarring from everything that had gone before.

I think a good way to describe my feelings about A Long Way from Home is this: I appreciate the elements that make it up (the characters, the prose, the setting, the issues), but I’m not sure everything gelled together as one seamless whole. Perhaps it’s a case of the novel simply being less than the sum of its parts…

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 2nd for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in January at the Peter Carey literary event in Dublin and then queued up in a freezing-cold church to have it signed. When I got to the signing table I made the mistake of telling him he wasn’t the only Australian in the room (cos, you know, the event was in Dublin and full of Irish people). He gave a wry smile and his publicist, standing beside him, said in an oh-so condescending voice “he never is”.

Australia, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Peter Carey, Publisher, Setting

‘Theft: A Love Story’ by Peter Carey

Theft

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 274 pages; 2006.

The wonderful and intriguing world of art forgery is explored in Theft: A Love Story, the Booker shortlisted novel by Australian author Peter Carey.

In my experience, reading anything by Peter Carey can be a bit of a hit or miss affair. There are certain books by him that I love (Jack Maggs, Oscar and Lucinda) and certain books I’ve struggled with and eventually abandoned (The Illywhacker, The True Story of the Kelly Gang). Fortunately, I found Theft: A Love Story to be immediately accessible and highly entertaining. I loved it’s balance of humour and melancholy, and the twist at the end was a joy.

The story follows the lives of two very different Australian brothers — Michael “Butcher” Bones, a wayward artist, and his “damaged two-hundred-and-twenty-pound” brother, Hugh — who take turns to narrate their escapades chapter by chapter.

Their various run-ins with art dealers, collectors, critics and curators covers rural Australia, Sydney, Tokyo and New York. Accompanied by the mysterious Marlene, a woman with an eye for a genuine work of art, the brothers get themselves into all kinds of “situations”.

It is, at times, laugh out loud funny and at others slightly distressing. But above all it’s a fun read about a world characterised by deception and dishonesty, where no-one can tell the difference between the real thing and a fake, and where the road to artistic fame and glory is paved with criminal intent.

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksDespite growing up in Australia and spending the first 29 years of my life there, I can’t say I’m very well read as far as Australian fiction is concerned. I do miss the “Australiana” sections that are found in pretty much every Aussie bookstore. This means I usually stock up on Aussie literature whenever I go home, because it’s often hard to get on this side of the world, unless, of course, the novelist pens international bestsellers.

Here’s my list of favourite Australian fiction books, written by Australian authors and set in Australia (in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This is a wonderful fable-like story, set in rural NSW, in which a man plants hundreds of different species of gum trees on his farm. When he announces that his 19-year-old daughter, Ellen, can marry the first man to name all the species correctly, a series of would-be suitors from around the world turn up, but many are more interested in the challenge than the prize. Set under the searing light of the unrelentless Australian sun, this story reads like a magical fairytale about love, destiny and nature.

This book won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

Oscar-and-lucinda

This unforgettable book set in mid-19th century Australia is a rollicking good adventure story that combines old-fashioned romance with history, humour and religious piety. The two characters — Oscar, an Oxford clergyman, and Lucinda, an orphaned heiress — both share a penchant for gambling. Together, they make the biggest gamble on earth: to transport a crystal palace of a church across the harsh and dangerous Australian bush without destroying it in the process.

I’ve read a handful of Carey books, but this one stands out in my memory the most. The characters are wonderfully realised, strong and believable, and the descriptions of the Australian bush and life at that time in history are pitch-perfect. The 1997 film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, is a very good adaptation.

This book won the 1988 Booker Prize, the 1988 Miles Franklin Award and the 1989 National Book Council’s Banjo Award.

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall (1991)

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall

Hall’s novel, the second in the Yandilli Trilogy, is a classic of the Australian convict genre. In this dark, but spellbinding book, a young convict escapes his captors and finds himself on the run in the unfamiliar Australian bush. He is adopted by a tribe of aboriginals, who revere him as a kind of mythical creature. But the narrator remains a solitary being who wanders dreamlike through the landscape for two years, before being recaptured.

I read this shortly after publication because it had attracted a lot of media publicity. The writing was poetic and lyrical, but the mood of the book was almost Gothic, dark and claustrophobic in places.

While this book did not win any awards, it was critically acclaimed for its exploration of universal themes: civilisation, exile, justice and our need for human companionship.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston (1964)

My Brother Jack by George Johnston

My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time. As a person who never re-reads books (there’s too many other unread tomes to make my way through), I have made an exception for this one and have read it several times now. I first read it as a teenager (it was on my school syllabus), then again in my twenties and more recently in my thirties. I particularly identify with the narrator, David Meredith, because he is a journalist who becomes an expat Australian, which is kind of the story of my life too.

Essentially it’s a tale about two brothers who grow up in suburban Melbourne between World I and II. The elder brother, Jack Meredith, is the epitome of the macho Aussie male who is full of bravado and wants nothing more than to fight for his country, while David, the narrator, is more introverted, unsure of himself and lacks self esteem. Ironically, it is David who gets to see the frontline as a celebrated war correspondent
while Jack, through one misfortune after another, never passes his army medical.

This book has been described as a quintessential Australian novel which explores two Australian myths, that of the man who loses this soul as he gains wordly success, and that of tough, honest, Aussie battler, whose greatest ambition is to serve his country.

This book won the 1964 Miles Franklin Award. George Johnston died in 1970.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

If you’ve ever seen the 1975 Peter Weir film of this book, then you will know this story is very atmospheric, if slightly creepy. It’s about a party of schoolgirls who go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, a real-life sacred aboriginal site near Mt Macedon in Victoria, on Valentine’s Day 1900. During the picnic four girls mysteriously disappear when they explore the rock.

Despite the fact that there is no satisfactory conclusion to this intriguing mystery, it’s a cracking read. One of the best things about this book is Lindsay’s evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape and wildlife.

A final “secret” chapter was published in 1987, which supposedly solved the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. But I never bothered to read it, because I quite liked the idea that it was up to the reader to figure out what happened; it was part of Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s charm.

1915 by Roger McDonald (1979)

1915 by Roger McDonald

This debut novel explores the seminal year in Australia’s history, the year that gave birth to the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) legend that endures to this day. It’s essentially about two boys from the bush, shy Walter and extroverted Billy, who sign up to fight in the Great War on the other side of the world. It’s a moving and passionate story that mirrors Australia’s coming of age, and when I read this book as a 16-year-old I was completely smitten by the whole drama and romance of it.

It was made into a popular television mini-series in the mid 1980s.

The Great World by David Malouf (1990)

The Great World by David Malouf

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up better than I ever could: “Every city, town and village has its memorial to war.  Nowhere are these monuments more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people’s battles — from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam.  In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience.”

Essentially The Great World is about two men, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. It is, above all else, a tale of mateship and a study of human nature under extreme conditions.

When I read this in my mid-twenties the story stunned me. It was the first time I’d ever read a book about men living under such brutal conditions; these were the men of my grandfather’s generation, who still lived and walked among us. There’s one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

This book won the 1991 Miles Franklin Award, the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1991 Prix Fémina Etranger.


The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park (1948)

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

This is one of those books every Australian teenager is made to read at school. Set at the end of the Second World War, it chronicles the ups and downs of an Irish Catholic family living in an inner-Sydney slum among the razor gangs, brothels and grog shops. The main character, Rosie Darcy, falls in love and makes something of herself despite the sadness, despair, violence and poverty that fills her existence.

I’ve included this on my list, because I think it provides an interesting glimpse of the immigrant experience at an important time in Australia’s history.

This book, which is a trilogy, was made into a mini-series. Ruth Park, a New Zealander by birth, was an incredibly prolific author, writing both adult and children’s fiction, including the much-loved Muddle-headed Wombat series.

Tree of Man by Patrick White  (1955)

Tree of Man by Patrick White

This is an extraodinary story about ordinary people living on the edge of the Australian wilderness at the turn of the 19th century. Stan Parker and his wife Amy are pioneers struggling to survive the harsh environment. The novel follows their ups and downs, highs and lows, their triumphs and disappointments. The great beauty of Tree of Man is that it provides the most enlightening glimpse of a past way of life and chronicles the achievements of Australia’s pioneers in a non-glorifed but totally real way.

I have to admit that when I read this circa 1990, it took me two goes because at almost 500 pages it seemed so impenetrable, the writing was also very dense and heavy, while the lack of plot was a challenge. But perserverance paid off, and when I eventually finished it I felt genuinely sad that this lovely family saga had come to an end.

Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; he died in 1990.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Cloudstreet refers to a broken down house on the wrong side of the tracks in Perth, Western Australia, the most isolated city on earth. But when two rural families, the Lambs and the Pickles, move into the ricketty old structure they turn the place into a home against all odds.

The story follows their complicated soap-opera-ish lives over the course of 20 years, and it is, by turns, funny and heartbreakingly sad.

This book received huge publicity upon publication and Winton, who was born in 1960, was hailed as Australia’s new literary hero at a time when there didn’t seem to be any new, young writers around.

This book won the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Are there any other Australian books that you think are worth including on this list?