June 2005 Archives

Patrick White Debated

In "The Sydney Morning Herald" Bruce Elder and Sacha Molitorisz debate whether Patrick White was ever worth reading.

Elder thinks not: "...while the personality of a writer should never intrude on his works, Paddy, as he was known to his one friend, was a vindictive, malicious, boorish, arrogant old sod who had such an inflated opinion of his inner and intellectual worth that he treated even those who loved him with disdain."

Molitorisz thinks so: "The Tree of Man is set in the Australian bush early last century, where Stan and Amy Parker are two stoic survivors. With a veracity peculiar to great fiction, White creates a mythic work that contains several decades of Australian history. All of which makes it sound important, but tedious. The opposite is true. To borrow from White, The Tree of Man has the simplicity of true grandeur."

Elizabeth Jolley Appreciation

Elizabeth Jolley has been one of the great Australian writrs over the past 30 years with such works as The Well, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1986, and Mr Scobie's Riddle, My Father's Moon and The Georges' Wife, all of which won the Age Book of the Year Award. But we haven't heard from her since her 2001 novel An Innocent Gentleman. And now comes the news that age is catching up with her.

In "The Sunday Age" over the weekend Helen Garner published an appreciation of her friend and long-time correspondent. A beautiful piece of writing.

Weekend Round-Up #26

Everyone says that short stories don't sell, that no-one wants them, yet thousands are written in Australia each year, and lots of collections are published, viz Black Juice by Margo Lanagan that I've just started. So, this week, "The Age" kicks off with a review of two collections: The Essential Bird by Carmel Bird, and Vincenzo's Garden by John Clanchy.

Sara Douglass has been writing those big fantasy series for a number of years now and is in the midst of a major four-book sequence of which Darkwitch Rising: The Tory Game, Book III is the third, naturally enough. Jeff Glorfeld reviews the book this week and concludes: "The second book struggled to engage, but this one has no such problem, moving smartly out of the starting blocks. Newcomers to the series are in an enviable position: by the time they finish book three, the final volume shouldn't be far away."

Short notices are given to: Australian Literary Studies Vol. 22 No.1 edited by Leigh Dale: German-Australian literary themes are examined, including the German reception of Les Murray's Fredy Neptune and "Michael Ackland's account of Henry Handel Richardson's final year at Leipzig Conservatorium"; Still Waving by Laurene Kelly: whose "commendable aim here is to portray an abused young teenager who is nonetheless able to derive pleasure from life, particularly positive relationships with friends and family"; Shirtfront: A Short and Amazing History of Aussie Rules by Paula Hunt: "this breezy history is a cert for tough nuts who thnk that reading is for sissies...just about right, I would say, for the upper primary/junior secondary market"; The Literary Larrikin: A Critical Biography of T.A.G. Hungerford by Michael Crouch: "...this biography is better at portraying the life and times of an often contradictory man, tolerant and intolerant, stubborn and generous, than in inspiring the reader to seek out Hungerford's work"; and Walk On by Brenda Hodge: who "has clearly written her story in a bid to help other peole who have come from shattered families; to tell them not to feel shame but to seek help and support and the prospect of healing".

Kate Grenville is best known for her Orange Prize winning novel The Idea of Perfection, which was published in 1999, so any new novel of hers is worthy of special attention. Her latest, The Secret River, is reviewed in "The Weekend Australian" this week by Stella Clarke, who describes the book as "a fabulous historical fiction, a rich and challenging re-imagining of familiar territory in the mould of Carey's Jack Maggs, his True History of the Kelly Gang, or Rose Tremain's The Colour".

Peter Beattie has been Premier of Queensland since 1998, and yet, at 52, considers himself too old to join Federal politics as he feels the lead time for Federal Labor may be just too long - which is politician speak for "I don't want to say anything definitive". Political commentator Ross Fitzgerald looks at Beattie's latest book, Peter Beattie: Making a Difference, which the politician has written in conjunction with Angelo Loukakis, and he generally likes what he reads.

Detective novelist Peter Corris looks at The Eccentric Mr Wienholt by Rosamond Siemon, and while he finds the writing "evocative" he didn't like the racist subject that much.

Robert Hughes is back in Barcelona with his new memoir Barcelona the Great Enchantress which is reviewed by Patrica Anderson, who finds that Hughes "inserts himself into the narrative like a sixpence in a Christmas pudding."

Short notices are given to: Deep Waters by Andiee Paviour who has "an uncanny eye for human excess and frailty"; What Happened to Joseph? by T.A.G. Hungerford, which "celebrates the West Australian author's 60 years at the keyboard, working at novels, plays, stories, poems and articles"; and How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare... by Paul Jennings: "a personal and atmospheric book".

Poem: Blurb by Iford

There's a word that has puzzled me many a day,
Denoting a compound of blither and bray,
But for fitting its subject I count it superb,
That pungent expression, a publisher's "blurb."

On-o-mat-o-po-et-ic you'd call it, I s'pose,
Though its actual origin nobody knows.
It might fairly be Volapuk, Gaelic or Serb,
But I'll hazard it's Yankee, the publisher's "blurb."

It's an appetite-coaxer concocted, you feel,
To give you a zest for a fictional meal,
A cocktail, a julep with mint for a herb
To tickle the palate, a publisher's "blurb."

Ingredients? Some thunderous nouns, not a few
Grandiloquent, glittering adjectives, too,
Spice now and again with a resonant verb,
And here you've a genuine publisher's "blurb."

It will mostly be found as reliable, quite,
As the stuff which our goldmine flotationers write.
If you deprecate humbug your pen must curb
When you spread yourself out on a publisher's "blurb."

Lord knows, since my inky wayfaring began,
I've turned out most things that a journalist can.
But my spirit would quail and my dreams 'twould disturb
Were I hired for concocting a publisher's "blurb."

First published in The Bulletin, 12 January 1938

Brief Notes

J.M. Coetzee has a new story, titled "The Blow", in the latest issue of "The New Yorker". I gather it's only available in the print version.
[Thanks to Conversational Reading for the notice.]

Shirley Hazzard was interviewed on ABC TV's "7:30 Report" last night. I'm impressed that the transcript is available so quickly. She covers such topics as her latest novel, the death of her husband, working for the UN, and Greene on Capri. She has another novel underway. Better start catching up I suppose.

2005 Miles Frankin Award Winner

Andrew McGahan's The White Earth was last night announced as the winner of the 2005 Miles Franklin Award. "The Australian" referred to the book as "a psychologically complex tale of power, passion, dynasty and dispossession set in a landscape not too dissimilar to the Queensland wheatlands of the author's childhood."

"The Age" relegated the news of the annoucement to page 9, but at least carried a photo of the author, and reproduced the book jacket. Jason Steger, "The Age"'s literary editor wrote that: "The White Earth is a family saga set in Queensland's Darling Downs wheat belt that manages to tackle a number of contemporary political issues, including the question of native title and the relationship of white Australians to the land."

In "The Sydney Morning Herald", Catherine Keenan reported that, while the decision on the winner was strongly debated, the final result was unanimous. And that "when Andrew McGahan won Australia's richest literary gong yesterday, it caused barely a ripple of surprise. He was the most fancied and best-known author on a shortlist light on famous names. And his novel, The White Earth, was the most obviously prize-worthy, an ambitious, gothic-tinged saga of the land that perfectly fulfilled the criteria of literary merit combined with a focus on Australian life."

Interestingly enough, the readers' poll in "The Age" that was referred to here in Matilda yesterday, only had The White Earth as second favourite with 23% of the vote, behind The Submerged Cathedral with 27%. This was from a final tally of 133 votes. And for those who are now heartily sick of reading about the award I guess we can put it to rest for 10 months or so. What a relief.

Miles Franklin Award Poll

"The Age" is running a readers' poll for the Miles Franklin Award tonight, which has produced some interesting results. At just after 9:00pm this evening, just after I voted the polling sat as follows:
Salt Rain - 16%
Sixty Lights - 9%
The White Earth - 20%
The Submerged Cathedral - 29%
The Gift of Speed - 23%

Just a tad different from my form guide. Still can't find out who won.

Review: Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Lucy Strange, the protagonist in Gail Jones's novel Sixty Lights, lives a tragic life: born in Australia in the 1860s, along with her brother Thomas she is orphaned at eight when her mother dies in childbirth and her father suicides in grief a fortnight later, transported to England to live with her uncle whom she has never previously met, condemned to a work-house at 14 when her uncle is nearly bankrupted, shipped to India at around 18 to live with a man to whom her uncle owes money, pregnant before she arrives, and back in England a year later severely ill. All in all, not such a good time was had. Yet she is able to see the light in the situation and near the end of the novel she discovers a talent for photography that is a direct result of all she has experienced.

The title of the book gives a clue to the basic symbols utilised: all sixty chapters, in some way or other, refer to light or the way it is used. We have references to photography, glass beads, early slide projection, sunlight - both bright and dull, stars and the night, bioluminescence, and one of the characters is named Isaac Newton, who investigated the way light interacts with glass prisms. For a while I thought the symbols would get in the way but Jones handles them pretty well; they define the edges of Lucy's life without overly impinging on the plot.

Jones handles the changing times and locales with ease and her characters are filled out and real. All in all, this is damn fine novel.

Final Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
3. The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
4. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
5. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Miles Franklin Award Crisis?

With the winner of the 2005 Miles Franklin Award being announced tonight, Jason Steger ponders , in today's "Age", if there is major crisis facing Australian literary fiction.

I don't think anyone is bemoaning the lack of quality, all entries on this year's list appear to me to be of the highest standard, but it's the lack of entires that is the most disturbing. Books are entered for the award by their publisher who, I believe, can enter as many as they wish. Scattered amongst Steger's article are the statistics for the number of those entries by year. He doesn't give them all but the list he provides comes out as:

1995 - 60
1996 - 64
1997 - 84
1998 - 44
2001 - 54
2002 - 39
2005 - 43

Not all that flash really. The organisers of the award are trying new ways to attract readers to the shortlist by adding stickers to the covers of the novels announcing their nomination. And that's a good start. But more needs to be done.

Steger states that the judges and organisers of the Miles Franklin Award look covetously at the publicity generated in the UK by the Man Booker Prize. Even half that level would be a huge boost. Yet the Booker didn't get there in one year, it had to work at it. I lived in the UK during the period from 1990-92 (covering the period of three prizes) and don't remember any major events being staged. The books were in the shops, they were publicised by posters, dump-bins and book-marks, and all the books received extra reviews in the couple of weeks leading up to the announcement of the award, but there was no television coverage. And that might just be where the Miles Franklin Award needs to start: get the publicity out into the shops and try to persuade the papers to run extra reviews of the shortlisted titles, and get one of the television networks, either free-to-air or pay-tv, to cover the awards event. A quick look through tonight's television programs doesn't show anything yet the award is being presented by the film director Gillian Armstrong. Last year the awards were introduced and presented by Cate Blanchett, so obviously the organisers are attempting to add a bit of glamour to the event. The next step is getting the telecast out there.

Yes, there is a crisis in Australian literary fiction. But I don't believe we can sit still and wait for "one really successful novel to bring people back", as Random House executive publisher Jane Palfreyman states in Steger's article. That will only attract readers to that author's other works, not to Australian literature as a whole. It is possible to raise Australian literary fiction's profile, it just takes a little thought, innovation and judicious investment of funds. Highlighting the Miles Franklin Award strikes me as a good place to start.

As a final note: good luck to all the authors shortlisted tonight. They would all be worthy winners.

The Cost of Australian Books

An American friend of mine commented on Saturday night that he was shocked at the prices we had to pay for books in this country. "Basically, your paperback prices are equivalent to our hardback," he said. And he's perfectly correct. Just today I purchased a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink for the sum of $32.95, in paperback. I'll admit it is one of those large-sized formats, but the print size is pretty big (a point size of about 15) and the book runs to 277 pages, including the index.

In today's "Sydney Morning Herald", Damian Kringas expresses his own view on the matter. It's partly to do with GST on books, and partly that the bookseller is probably the fourth or fifth person in line to collect money off the sale, and it's possibly to do with problems of scale with only 20 million people in the country. But you still can't get over the fact that the prices seem high.

The great future hope will be print-on-demand (or POD for short) which implies that a bookshop will also be a print-shop, carrying only one copy of each book and offering a customer the prospect of a freshly printed version within minutes. The trouble is it's a pipe-dream at present. The technology just isn't there at present to provide the service at price that are considerably less than those currently available on pre-printed books.

I hope it changes soon. With hardcover copies of Saturday by Ian McEwan retailing for $49.95, I doubt it will be too long before customers start clamouring for it. The major difficulty will be that, as customers will want the book immediately, the copy will have to be printed on site. And that implies that only the big shops, capable of housing the printing infrastructure, will survive. I fear the end of the small corner bookstore.

Review: The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll

gift_of_speed.jpg The Gift of Speed
Steven Carroll
Fourth Estate

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

The Gift of Speed is Steven Carroll's sequel to his 2001 novel The Art of the Engine Driver, which was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. The current novel is set against the backdrop of the 1960-61 West Indies cricket tour of Australia, a tour that is forever etched in cricket history in this country: the tour of the Tied test, Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud.

Michael, the twelve-year-old of the first book, is now sixteen and fixated on the concept of speed. In this case the speed of a fast bowler. He practices in his backyard continuously, shattering the side fence, and driving the neighbours and the others in his family to distraction with the thump of leather ball on wooden picket. Everyone in this novel is obsessed with speed, in one form or another: Webster, the local factory owner, hides his secret passion, a sportscar from his wife and drives it through the outer suburbs of Melbourne at night; Vic, the ex-train driver and Michael's father, loves the sound of diesels in the distance and dreams of slowing down and moving to a town on the coast; Rita, Michael's mother, is tired of the slow life but is doomed to live it; and Mary, Michael's grandmother, is old and just slowing down.

Carroll has drawn an image of an Australian suburb that is calm and ordered, slow-paced and friendly, and he infuses it with a texture that is autobiographical in nature. It was a time when it was possible to stop in the street and listen to the cricket coming from windows and shops. Maybe even the last time this was possible. And this is the impression the author gives: by extending the characters' inner worlds out into the wider physical landscape the novel is told in a languid prose that flows with the speed of contemplation.

I suppose it's possible that some readers will be put off by the cricket motif running throughout the book. I hope that isn't the case. You have to read the cricket as a reflection of Michael's life and times. It fits beautifully.

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
3. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
4. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Apology to Steven Carroll

I don't know how I did it: I've read the reviews, bought and read the book, and still I spelt his first name wrong. So I'm very sorry about that. I've done the best I can to get back through all the web pages and weblog entries and fix them up. Hope I didn't miss any.

Review: The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood

submerged_cathedral.jpg The Submerged Cathedral
Charlotte Wood

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Charlotte Wood doesn't hurry the writing of her novels. Her first, Pieces of a Girl, was started in 1994 after the death of her mother and published in 1999; The Submerged Cathedral, her second, has followed five years later. While this production schedule doesn't affect the novel in any way it does give an indication of the pace of the book: slow, languorous and contemplative.

The novel follows the love affair between Jocelyn and Martin from their first meeting in 1963 to the final section of the book in 1984. Familial ties are strengthened and broken, love is made and lost, and characters grow throughout the novel in sometimes strange and unexpected ways. The only discordant note I found in the novel concerns two major turning points in the plot. I found it a bit peculiar that the strong characters involved would stand silently by and allow their circumstances to change so greatly without some response. But the rest of the novel flows beautifully and it may well be that this reader has missed something of importance that would explain it all. For a while, about halfway though the book, I couldn't see where it was all headed. The characters seemed to be walking and talking with little in the way of any forward movement and I was becoming rather impatient. I shouldn't have worried. Wood brings it all together rather well, and the ending is both satisfying and hopeful. I can see that I will be coming back to this book at
some time in the future - probably when Wood's next novel is published.

Can we make that somewhat less than five years distant, please?

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:
1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
3. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Weekend Round-Up #25

"The Age" comes back strongly this week, at least on the non-fiction front, with four major reviews of Australian books, which is a nice return to form. For a sport that pretty much dominates southern Australia during the winter months, Australian Rules Football has not produced a great number of books on the subject. Although indigenous players had been around at the highest level for most of the game's history, they had not been a dominant force until the 1970s and the arrival of the Krakouer brothers at North Melbourne. Now Sean Gorman tells the story of the two players in Brotherboys: The Story of Jim and Phil Krakouer, which is reviewed by Michael Gordon. The review is a strange mixture of anecdote and history. I would have liked more about whether the book succeeded or not. Still we are left with the statement that "Gorman is well placed to write the Krakouer story because he has an understanding of what it is like for indigenous Australians in country towns and he loves the rhythms of the 'language, moments and myths' of football. He writes about subjects with empathy and insight." Which might be enough.

Romana Koval, presenter of the "Books and Writing" radio program on the ABC, has compiled Tasting Life Twice: Conversations with Remarkable Writers which contains interviews chiefly made during the Edinburgh International Book Festival between 1999 and 2004. Christopher Bantick's asks all the relevant questions in his review of the book, and finds a way into the review via his own interview with one of Koval's subjects, Malcolm Bradbury.

If the interview/profile piece is your bag then you can continue on with Close Up: 28 Lives of Extraordinary Australians by Peter Wilmoth. I will admit to reading these pieces from time to time in newspapers and magazines, usually if their subject has an affect on my life (eg politicians) or if they work in an area of special interest (eg writers). But I'm not big on puff-pieces or blatant publicity stunts. Matthew Ricketson is impressed with Wilmoth's collection which dates back to 1993, not only because of his attention to detail but also because he "has an ability, underestimated by those outside the media, to persuade people to talk. He is an attentive, sympathetic listener, and not afraid to ask hard questions."

So far we've had the biography, the interviews, and the profiles, and to continue the biographical/confessional nature of the books under review here we have Velocity by Mandy Sayer. This is Sayer's second memoir, following Dreamtime Alice, and Michelle Griffin, the reviewer, appears to have enjoyed it with some caveats: "The new memoir is written in the past tense but without any reflection, as if Sayer were afraid to name the empty spaces between the stories...I'm convinced of the gist, if not the details. You're always aware of the writer sifting through her memory stash, selecting and arranging the details for effect."

Short notices are also given to: Lessons I have Learned: Inspirations and Insights from Australia's Greatest Golfer by Peter Thompson, with Steve Perkin - Greg Norman had the name but Thompson had the results, and "what shines through is a generosity of spirit that, sadly these days, one does not associate with elite levels of competitive sport"; Noeline Long-Term Memoir by Noeline Brown: "Certainly there is great gossip and the usual collection of amusing anecdotes in this memoir but for a woman who has made her living making people laugh, there is a sadness in the subtext that is never fully realised nor explained"; Treaty by Sean Brennan, Larissa
Behrendt, Lisa Strelein, and George Williams: the treaty of the title refers to "the much-debated idea of a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians...[which] can serve the dual purpose of being a meaningful gesture and have a material effect"; and Nine Tenths Below: UTS Writers Anthology: "it's good to see the spirit of experiementation so strong here: there's not much traditional realism nor the kind of thing that has half an eye cocked on prospective commercial publishing."

"The Weekend Australian" reviews Troubled Waters by Ruth Balint, the co-winner, with Nicholas Angel's Drown Them in the Sea, of the 2003 Australian/Vogel award. To the best of my knowledge this is the first non-fiction book to share in the prize and shows that the judges are looking outside the usual boundaries. This work is an "eloquent account of the clash between traditional fishing in the Timor Sea and Australian determination to enforce its claims to maritime sovereignty".

The Long, Slow Death of White Australia by Gwenda Tavan is reviewed by Stephen Matchett who appears to find good and bad in the book, and who gives the impression that his political views don't gell with the author's: "Tavan is a fine historian who marshals her material to present a complex and convincing argument. But her comments on the supposed role of race in the politics of her own age are just another partisan polemic." And what's wrong with that, I ask?

Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn, the Australian actor of notorious reputation, was born on this day in 1909 in Hobart Tasmania. What is probably not so well-known about him was that he was also an author, having penned one novel, Showdown, in 1946, and two volumes of autobiography, Beam Ends in 1937, and My Wicked, Wicked Ways in 1959. He died in October 1959. A posthumous volume of his collected writings, From a Life of Adventure: The Writings of Errol Flynn was published in 1980.

Shirley Hazzard Live

In rather late notice (I only got the note yesterday) Shirley Hazzard will be appearing in Melbourne tonight. Details: Shirley Hazzard in conversation with Jane Sullivan Monday 20th June, 6.30pm for 7pm Melbourne City Conference Centre, 333 Swanston St Tickets $20/$18 Conc. and available exclusively from Reader's Feast on (03) 9662 4699 or in person at the store.

Poem: "Remainders" by Ganesha (Louis Esson)

They lie in casual heaps, these lorn, lost books,
   Love lyrics, thrilling tale, historic tome,
Where none but heedless hands and scornful looks
   Take notice of their last neglected home.
A soulless publisher has marked them down
To sixpence each, or eight for half a crown.

"Remainders" now, they have outlived their time,
   Their publisher has cast them out of sight,
Not spareth he the gentle poet's rhyme,
   Nor funny narratives some authors write.
He throws them to the wide, wide world, and eke
The nursemaid's novellete and sage critique.

Here lies "Lord Rudolph's Secret love," and here
   "If Maids but Knew," a passionate romance
That drew from fair frail flappers many a tear,
   Tossed in with Coffyn's "Sermon's," just by chance.
"Roses of Rapture" and "In Chloe's Day"
(Such daring books!) have gone the self-same way.

Here is a name, the pride of yesterday,
   A hundred thousand readers was his score;
His masterpiece, now marked a modest tray,
   None but a passing straggler glances o'er.
Best sellers, like poor blokes without a name,
They drop into the basket just the same.

They lie, poor books, neglected, put to rest,
   "Remainders," now scarce able to entice,
Though lauded loudly as the last and best.
   Reluctant purchasers to risk the price.
This is the end of every author's stocks,
Oblivion in a little dusty box.

First published in The Bulletin, 20 August 1925

Review: Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

salt_rain.jpg Salt Rain
Sarah Armstrong
Allen & Unwin

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Sarah Armstrong's first novel, Salt Rain, has a lot of things going for it: it's short (224 pages), it keeps its roll-call of characters to a minimum, it keeps the story-line moving ever onward, and it keeps the time-frame of the plot to a period of only a month or two.

I don't want to seem patronising when I say that but a lot of first novels feel rather bloated in terms of character numbers, time-frame and page-count, and this one doesn't. And in my view that's a big plus right from the outset.

Salt Rain concerns the story of Allie, a fourteen-year-old girl living with her single mother Mae in Sydney. One night Mae goes missing and her sister Julia arrives to take Allie back to her mother's rain-forest valley home. There she waits for news of her mother, meeting her extended family and attempting to piece together the true story of her mother and of her own birth. Mae has been a story-teller, embellishing and polishing her history for Allie's benefit, which has left Allie with a distorted view of her own beginnings: including the true identity of her father. Was it Saul, the First Love (sic), who still lives next door to Julia, or the balloon man from the fair as Mae always made out?

Allie has to cross a number of boundaries during her journey into the truth about her family, with most of the crossings being painful. The only trouble is, the revelations, as they come to light, are meant to be surprising, yet few of them are unguessable. Younger readers might find the final truth disturbing, older ones - such as the present reviewer - have seen it before. But that is not to say that the journey is unsatisfying. On the contrary, Armstrong has a fine readable style, she sketches interesting characters and landscapes; though having Mae, the most interesting of the bunch, off-stage for the bulk of the book is a bit of a dampener.

There's a lot of promise here and I look forward to her future work.

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Australian Author Birthdays

It's the birthday of Henry Lawson (1867), Kerry Greenwood (1954) and Gail Jones (1955) today. Again showing that there is something to this clumping theory of mine. Lawson needs little introduction as he is considered to be in the top rank of Australian authors.

He's not as well-known as Banjo Paterson for his iconic poetry, but he was probably a better short story writer with his collections, While the Billy Boils and Joe Wilson and His Mates, being considered classics of the genre. He struggled throughout his life to earn a decent living and to rid himself of his alcoholism. He died in 1922, aged just 55. His loss was keenly felt and C.J. Dennis, amongst many others, sang his praises after he'd gone.

Kerry Greenwood is best known for her Phryne Fisher series of mystery stories and is one of the most popular writers of detective novels in Australia today. Matilda recently looked at the reviews of her novel Heavenly Pleasures. Greenwood lives in Melbourne.

Western Australian Gail Jones is currently in the limelight for her novel Sixty Lights which was longlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize and has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award. Reviews of the novel were covered here in Matilda in January.

2005 International Impac Dublin Literary Award Winner

The Known World by Edward P. Jones has been announced as the winner of the 2005 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, beating out our own Shirley Hazzard with The Great Fire.

Review: The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

white_earth.jpg The White Earth
Andrew McGahan

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

The relationship between the peoples of Australia and the Australian landscape has been undergoing some profound changes over the past twenty years. Some of that has been environmental and a lot has been political.

The political side of the change came to a head back in the early 1990s when the Supreme Court handed down its Mabo decision: basically dispensing with the concept of terra nullius, the concept that Australia was unoccupied or untended when Europeans arrived in the late 1700s. It also had the effect of allowing Native Title claims on Crown Land where local indigenous people could show a continuing relationship and contact with the land prior to European colonisation. As I recall, the more sane of the Mabo opponents claimed this would result in Native Title claims on suburban backyards, which was, of course, blatantly ridiculous. I won't go into what the others had to say.

It is into this political storm that Andrew McGahan has pitched his fourth novel, The White Earth. The title itself gives a hint of what is in the book but it has deeper meanings. McGahan introduces us to William on the day his father is killed in a farming accident. The mysterious figure of an "uncle", John McIvor, appears and whisks William and his mother off to Kuran Station to live. It is through William's eyes that we are introducted to McIvor and to his long association with the land of the station. He loves the place, respects it and cares for it. And for all of the first third of this book you are led to believe that McIvor is an honourable man, doing the best he can in a harsh and unforgiving land. But he has a secret. His sense of ownership has warped him into being over-protective and into believing that he, and he alone, has the right of land ownership. This has led him into helping to run a secret army of followers who view the federal Native Title Act of 1993 as being deliberately targetted at them, and them alone.

McGahan handles all the conflicting land relationships with care, giving each an airing and not judging the characters or their views. Many times in the novel he could have stumbled badly but he negotiates the hazards with skill. There is a lot to like about this book and only one point at which I would have recommended a change, and then only a small one, to the manifesto of McIvor's followers. Invoking the name of a now-fading Queensland political group left a jarring sensation with this reader. It didn't detract from the overall effect of the work, it just seemed out of place.

This novel is a departure from McGahan's earlier works and moves him into a literary strata sparsely populated by Australian writers. It has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Frankin Award, and must at this time be considered one of the favourites.

Shirley Hazzard

Back in town for the Miles Franklin awards next week (gotta get my skates on to finish
the books in time) Gleebooks, is presenting Shirley Hazzard, winner of the 2004 award for The Great Fire, on Thursday 16th June at 7pm in the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney. Tickets are $12.00 if you are a Sydney Writers' Festival newsletter member. No idea what the price is if you are not. Probably not allowed in I guess. To book: phone the Seymour Centre: 9351 7940 and quote "Sydney Writers' Festival", that should do it.

2005 Mildura Writers' Festival

The 2005 Mildura Writers' Festival will be held over the weekend of July 14-17. This forms part of the Mildura Wentworth Arts Festival, and full details of the program along with booking details are available. Writers currently scheduled to appear include: Pamela Bone, Bob Ellis, Morag Fraser, Peter Goldsworthy, and Les Murray.

Essential Modern Australian Novels

In my other "life" as the owner of a batch of websites devoted to Australian literature I occasionally get emails from people who want an introduction to this branch of literature but don't know where to start. They have either read something by an Australian author and want to read more or intend to visit the country in the near future and think that reading our novels will be a good introduction.

I'm actually a bit impressed by these people. I would assume they intend to read any number of guidebooks and travelogues such as those by Lonely PLanet and Bill Bryson, but to take the leap of faith to want to read novels to round out their knowledge is quite admirable. I always respond to these, and try to spread the range to give them a good idea of where Australia is at and where it's been. I also try to provide them with a list of books that are fairly readily available here and overseas.

So my list, currently, is:

Drylands by Thea Astley
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
Illywhacker by Peter Carey
The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
Snake by Kate Jennings
The Well by Elizabeth Jolley
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Tom Keneally
The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

And it's interesting to note that two of these were only read this year.

Weekend Round-Up #24

It's a slow week in "The Age": Peter Craven outlines a way of getting into Ulysses which I must follow some time. I've read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and an Irish mate of mine always gives me heaps over not having read The Big One. I keep thinking a long train journey would be the place for it. Must make one some day.

For the first time this year I haven't been able to identify a single Australian book under review in the weekend "Age". A sorry state of affairs. I would have thought there was something out there.

Short notices are given to: How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare... by Paul Jennings, "It takes a while to get going, but Hedley Hopkins ends up being a fun and instructive adventure story"; The Long Hot Summer by Mary Moody: "Many people question Moody's motivation for writing about her personal life...[but] Moody, a former journalist, writes fluidly and with much passion"; Island 100 edited by
David Owen "a hefty double issue to which past editors and others with a close association with the magazine have been invited to contribute"; The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel by Rachel Antony and Joel Henry: "there are a lot of ideas for livening up your weekend or making new friends"; Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham: "Graham's book is a gentle, detailed and affectionate portrait of the way many people live their lives and how they take great pleasure in simle events, despite the lack of a ski-lift pass or an SUV"; Federation Square by Andrew Brown-May and Norman Day: "This well-conceived and well-written book about the long history and eventual realisation of the Square taps into the complex emotions behind this public space, making it an unexpectedly moving document". Fiona Capp, the reviewer also states that the square is "something wondrous and strange, a place of warmth, light and colour that we have been able to embrace whole heartedly." Well, not
this little black duck. It looks like a Christmas present left out in the rain to me; a European edifice that looks totally out of place in an Australian environment. Where's the shade? And where's the sense of community that doesn't require a trendy wine bar? Don't get me started.

On the eve of her arrival in Australia to accept last year's Miles Franklin Award for The Great Fire, "The Weekend Australian" carries a profile of Shirley Hazzard. The book also won the US National Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Impac Prize, the winner of which will be announced during the week. After that, forget it. No Australian stuff anywhere.

Poem: Our Mæcenas by V.J.D. (Victor Daley)

What! Don't you our Mæcenas know
The man who started, years ago,
Our Wild Australian Author show?

You don't? Your ignorance sublime
Exceeds -- to use a Boston rhyme --
The taciturnity of time.

Well, there he is, across the way --
Tall, thin, and growing somwhat grey --
He has good reason, you will say.

He's entering a bookshop. Fine!
He buys a book. Don't make a sign!
Don't speak! Don't breathe! It may be mine!

Alas! The cover isn't blue;
It's green -- it's Quinn's -- I always knew
His taste was never sound and true!

We all have hobbies. Some endure,
Some pass. Australian Literature
Is his. He likes it straight and pure.

Those breezy gentlemen you see
Walk up the street so spaciously,
He started them; he started me.

My word! My oath, if that you wish!
I would have now been selling fish,
Or something hot and sausageish --

And friends of mine, with names renowned
Would now be driving picks in ground,
And hoisting New South Wales around,

If he -- the Lord of the Event --
Had not appeared, pre-subsequent,
And given us encouragement.

He's now, you see, just skin and bone,
Yet once he weighed quite fourteen stone --
When he left coves like us alone.

And he was -- breathe it hoarse and low --
A man of substance. This I know --
But that was several years ago.

Now was he thus to leanness brought?
What tragic Fate his sorrow wrought?
Alas! he read the books he bought!

And now he's growing grey and old:
But while he lives, we'll say: "Behold!
One copy of our works is sold!"

He is the apple of our eye;
His health to us is precious. Why?
We have to live; he dare not die.

First published in The Bulletin, 8 February 1912

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Slow Man, will be released on September 22nd in the USA, and on September 1st in the UK. This should make it eligible for this year's Booker prize.

Amazon UK describes the book as: "A masterful new novel from one of the greatest writers alive. Paul Rayment is on the threshold of a comfortable old age when a calamitous cycling accident results in the amputation of a leg. Humiliated, his body truncated, his life circumscribed, he turns away from his friends. He hires a nurse named Marijana, with whom he has a European childhood in common: hers in Croatia, his in France. Tactfully and efficiently she ministers to his needs. But his feelings for her, and for her handsome teenage son, are complicated by the sudden arrival on his doorstep of the celebrated Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, who threatens to take over the direction of his life and the affairs of his heart. Unflinching in its vision of suffering and generous in its portrayal of the spirit of care, Slow Man is a masterful work of fiction by one of the world's greatest writers." Interesting to see Coetzee's character
Elizabeth Costello making another appearance.

The Latest Meme #2

This has been sitting around for over a week and I've been more than a little slack about getting back to it. I plead the fifth - otherwise known as work-pressure, which also explains the thin and sparse postings of late.

1. The person who passed the baton to you.

Genevieve from You Cried for Night, possibly as a payback for an earlier meme I passed along.

2. Total volume of music files on your computer.

If you'd asked me six months ago I would have said none but I've discovered the joys of storing tracks on the hard drive and listening in when I'm working. This is especially useful in libraries which seem to be getting noiser and noiser. Oh yes, just a touch over 3 Gb. All of this is copied from CDs I have around the house. Haven't got into downloading as yet. As I won't let my daughter download without paying I'd be on very shakey moral grounds if I ventured there.

3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.

This is where my dinosaur side comes to the fore - Devils & Dust by Bruce Springsteen. This one ranks with Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. It's bleak, basic and bloody good. I've been a fan since 1975 and reckon he keeps on maturing as a songwriter and artist.

4. Song playing at the moment of writing.

"Searching for a Heart" by Warren Zevon, from his live Learning to Flinch album. I only got to see Zevon once, in Melbourne in 1992 when he was on the tour that produced this album. It's hard to think that I won't be able to buy any more of his records. I found it a big shock when he died about 18 months ago: I'd been following him since Excitable Boy. The tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich, which was released last year was pretty damn good as well.

5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs)

I've got a fair chunk of my music collection stored on the hard drive now so I just set the play selection to random and let it run wherever it wants - kinda like the iPod shuffle function. You get some very strange juxtapositions that way. So we'll talk about favourites rather than what's on high rotation.

"Thunder Road" from Born to Run by Springsteen - I'm with Nick Hornby here in thinking I've heard this song more than any other I can name. One of the all-time great rock songs. "The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves, Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, Hey, that's me and I want you only..." Fantastic stuff. I was 21 when I first heard this. Actually, the best age to hear music that stays with you for the rest of your life is probably 16. The age when you know all the words to all the songs.

"Hard on Me" from Mock Tudor by Richard Thompson. Not his greatest album but hell, even a medium-level Thompson album is better than just about anything else going around. Thompson stated in an interview once that this song was about the troubled relationship he had with his father; I always heard it as the next-to-last cry of a failing love affair.

"The Power and the Passion" from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 by Midnight Oil. This album helped me get through one failed relationship - played really, really loud. One of the great live bands. The title of the track might just as well have been their live performance motto.

"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" from Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon. I was a slow starter on the music scene, so my 22 was probably everyone else's 16 (see above). I discovered Zevon around the same time as I found Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne. I'll admit to being more than a tad West Coast fixated at the time. That's okay. All four of these guys made it out the other side and, with the exception of Zevon now, are still putting out good stuff.

"Losing my Religion" from Out of Time by R.E.M. During the early to mid-nineties I was probably as interested in R.E.M. as anyone else. I had to choose one song and this is one that got me interested. "...that was just a dream..."

So that's five, but what about Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Cold Chisel, Steely Dan, Crowded House/Neil Finn, Neil Young, and John Martyn? Just no room for them all.

Author Interview Site

Don Swaim, of CBS radio's Book Beat program, seems to have met just about everyone, and he now presents what must be one of the largest collections of audio interviews with writers available anywhere on the web, Not a lot of Australians though: a quick skim through the list reveals only James Clavell, Tom Keneally, and Morris West. Besides that, there's quite a few here that I'll be having a listen to.

[Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the link.]

Geraldine Brooks

"The Washington Post" has chosen March by Geraldine Brooks as one of its "Editor's Picks" for best novels of the summer. They describe the novel as: "Brooks's novel conflates Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, with the errant Yankee chaplain, Mr. March, who serves in the Civil War during most of Little Women . Not really a biography or a companion to Little Women, March is a wholly original and engrossing story about a man whose lofty principles are scorched by his

Man International Booker Prize Winner

I must have been asleep last week when the winner of the first Man International Booker Prize was announced. On Thursday June 2nd, the judging committee announced the winner as Ismail Kadaré, Albania's best-known poet and novelist, who has lived in France since 1990. In his survey of the shortlisted authors "The Australian"s Murray Waldren quoted Kadaré at 80/1. Not bad odds if you got them.

Literary Find in a Charity Booksale

It may not be a Gutenberg Bible but the discovery of a rare Peter Carey is certainly work a few pennies: approximately $800 actually. The first edition of Carey's The Fat Man in History is rather rare and to find one amongst donations to a charity auction is an added bonus.

Wordstorm: NT Writers' Festival

The 2005 NT Writer's Festival will be held in Darwin over the weekend of 16th - 19th June. The program will feature such writers as John Marsden, Frank Moorhouse, Sue Woolfe, Robert Dessaix, Dorothy Porter, Anita Heiss, Alex Miller, Samuel Wagan Watson, Nick Earls, Shaun Tan, and full details are available.

Weekend Round-Up #23

The major Australian fiction review in "The Age" this weekend is of Eva Sallis's The March Birds by Lisa Gorton. The novel concerns the story of a young Iraqi refugee living in an Australian migration detention centre. John Marsden recently called on novelists to write more challenging works, to grab people by the shoulders and shake them into some sense of recognition. Sallis follows Keneally's The Tyrant's Novel in dealing with the problematic treatment of refugees in this country and can be said to be following Marsden's advice. But there are problems: "All the qualities that make The Marsh Birds particularly compelling as a work of testimony limit its range as a work of fiction." Gorton then goes on to conclude that the overwhelming machinery of the immigration system in this country acts as a lead weight on the novel's plot, dragging it under, throwing it down paths it might not normally have taken. But is this such a bad thing? I don't think so. The plot is the young protagonist's life-story: if that is chaotic and fragmented then so follows the novel. Sallis has a record of writing confronting novels (her first, Hiam, won the 1998 Vogel award) so I believe she is worthy of being allowed to lead the book where it needs to go. As Gorton puts it: "...[the novel] is insistently and convincingly topical; committed to setting out how politics affects individual lives in inescapable ways. And surely, if it can help to dismantle Australia's practices of detention, it will have value."

Bronislaw Malinowski was "a founder of modern anthropology based on intensive fieldwork and the revolutionary paradigm of structural functionalist theory." The first volume of his biography, Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920 by Michael Young, is reviewed by Michael Young. Malinowski was an aristocratic, well-educated young Pole who travelled to Australia before commencing his field work in the Trobriand Islands in 1910.

Short notices are given to: Mad Arm of the Y by David McRobbie: "...an addictive melodrama that will make a fine movie or miniseries"; Runner by Robert Newton: the "evocation of Richmond slums and his mastery of the colloquial language are done extremely well"; Decolonising the Mind by Ulli Beier: "Beier writes with an appealing voice, and this plain and straightforward account of his time in PNG is a very likeable book.."; Great Pioneer Women of the Outback by Susanna de Vries: [she] "controls her material beautifully: her narrative never stalls but thrives on the research. She also gives the reader fresh insights into the importance as well as the drama of these women's lives."

Graeme Blundell is very impressed with Mandy Sayer's new memoir, Velocity, in "The Weekend Australian". He is very aware of the problems associated with writing a good memoir and sets them out in order to see whether Sayer's work measures up. "Anyone who has tried to write personal testimony knows that consciousness is sprawling, fragmented and contradictory. And simply telling what happened rarely makes for compelling narrative...The writer's job is to find the shape in unruly life and serve their story; not their family or even the truth, but only their story...Argentinian
writer Jorge Luis Borges called writing 'a guided dream,' a phrase that echoes my experience of reading this glorious piece of narrative nonfiction. No reader's imagination can fail to be touched by some part of it."

Poem: The Lay Figure by Eddyson (Edward Dyson)

The poet took his battered lyre,
   And to the careless maid
He softly tuned a song of fire.
   She laughed-out from the shade,
And said: "I do not care a thing
For that fantastic song you sing."

The poet touched the cords anew,
   And sang a second verse,
Of love as gentle and as true
   As mortal heart might nurse,
She drew a lozenge from her muff,
And called his poem "hopeless stuff."

The poet still sang on. His lay
   Gave glory to her nose.
Her hair was like the western day,
   When dipping hotly goes
The sun behind the glowing sea.
She said: "It sounds just rot to me."

The poet sang in perfect tune
   To her brown-golden eyes.
She said: "It is a wretched run."
   He answered: "Sweet and wise
I do not give a button for
Your judgment -- you're no editor!"

First published in The Bulletin, 04 September 1919

Australian Bestsellers

The Australian Publishers
has released its survey of the bestselling books in Australia
for the period April 1 2004 to March 31 2005. As you might expect Dan Brown
dominated the Adult Mass Market Paperback section with the top four books all
selling over 225,000 copies.

Selected Top 10s:

Adult Hardbacks
Brother Fish, Bryce Courtenay (over 250,000 copies)
Guinness World Records 2005, Clair Folkard, ed. (over 160,000)
Trace, Patricia Cornwell (over 100,000)
The Turning, Tim Winton (over 95,000)
Da Vinci Code: The Illustrated Edition, Dan Brown (over 95,000)
Instant Cook, Donna Hay (over 85,000)
Hover Car Racer, Matthew Reilly (over 75,000)
Nights of Rain and Stars, Maeve Binchy (over 70,000)
The Broker, John Grisham (over 65,000)
The Cook's Companion - 2nd Edition, Stephanie Alexander (over 65,000)

Adult Trade Paperbacks
The Reef, Di Morrissey (over 105,000)
Phaic Tan, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner & Rob Sitch (over 95,000)
Ultimate Weight Solution, Phil McGraw (over 90,000)
3rd Degree, James Patterson (over 75,000)
Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin (over 73,000)
Girl in Times Square, Paullina Simons (over 65,000)
Wild Lavender, Belinda Alexandra (over 63,000)
Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Aron Ralston (over 63,000)
The Narrows, Michael Connelly (over 63,000)
Honeymoon, James Patterson (over 55,000)

Australian Adult Fiction
Brother Fish, Bryce Courtenay
The Reef, Di Morrissey
Phaic Tan, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner & Rob Sitch
The Turning, Tim Winton
Hover Car Racer, Matthew Reilly
Wild Lavender, Belinda Alexandra
Angel Puss, Colleen McCullough
Dirt Music, Tim Winton
The Naked Husband, Mark D'Arbanville
Shiver, Nikki Gemmell

Currently Reading


 Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
The second book in the "First Law" series. Epic fantasy written to honour the honour and explore the standard fantasy tropes, as well as to poke ore than a little fun at them at the same time. A big book, but still a page-turner.



 How it Feels by Brendan Cowell
A debut novel from a multi-talented author/actor/director. A coming-of-age novel which might well be semi-autobiographical.


Recently Read


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The third book in the MBT series. Will we finally find out who Rossamund really is? And will we be sad to leave this fully-realised fantasy world? I suspect the answer will be "yes" to both.



 Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn by Marshall Browne
Browne's first novel in a new series, this time featuring a Japanese detective, Inspector Aoki. This novel finds the inspector investigating an old murder in a snowed-in remote Japanese retreat.



 The City & The City by China Miéville
Miéville's Hugo Award winning novel of two cities inhabiting the same physical location. A murder mystery with hints of classic sf/fantasy memes, from Dick to Borges, but in a European setting.

 Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
The 13th Jack Reacher novel. Suicide bombers on the New York subway and international terrorism mixed with hard-boiled action makes for an interesting brew.



 The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Heroic fantasy in the modern style. A fantasy that is laced through with noirish elements, and excellent characterisations. First book of The First Law trilogy.

 Where Have You Been? by Wendy James
What happens when a sister returns after being missing, presumed dead, for twenty years? James enhances her reputation as one of Australia's rising literary novelists.

 Wyatt by Garry Disher
Disher's anti-hero is back after an absence of ten years with a gritty, fast, noirish struggle for survival. All the best aspects of Disher's work are on display here.



 Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
A Young Adult steampunk novel set at the start of an alternate history First World War. Fast-paced, intriguing and totally captivating.



 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dick's novel of the near future when the difference between human and android is barely discernible. One of the great all-time sf titles.



 American Journeys by Don Watson
Watson journeys into the heart of America, by train and car. There he discovers the best, and the worst, of humanity and society.



 Ghostlines by Nick Gadd
2009 Best First Novel at the Ned Kelly Awards. Murder in the art world involving political intrigue and business corruption in Melbourne.


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