April 2009 Archives

Although originally written in 1839, this poem by "Frank the Poet" (Francis Macnamara) was first published in 1900 and then in an anthology of Australian poetry in the 1980s. It appears that the poem survived via an oral tradition and may have been finally published in a very different version from that first written - it's impossible to tell. The fact that it has lasted for around 170 years attests to its power to convey the convict experience, or, at least, the hopes of the Australian convicts.

The poem tells the story of Frank the Poet (the alter ego of the poet himself) who dies and finds himself on the banks of the River Styx across from the gates of Hell. Needless to say, Frank considers that he's suffered enough during his mortal life and thinks he's somehow come to the wrong place. As Hell's gatekeeper, Pope Pius 7th, tells him: "This place was made for Priests and Popes/'Tis a world of our own invention", and as Satan himself points out: "...I detest and hate the poor/And none shall in my kingdom stand/Except the grandees of the land." A roll-call of those who have injured and persecuted him is then presented to Frank, who seems quite pleased that they are all to suffer eternal punishment. Even Captain James Cook is tied to a fiery stake, sentenced for no more than discovering New South Wales. Frank finally ends up in heaven and is feted by Jesus, Peter, Abraham and Abel, only to wake at the end of the poem and to find it was all a dream.

It's hard to get a grip on the worth of a poem such as this from a distance of 170 years. The whole story is rather trite from our perspective: a wish-fulfilment dream, in which the dreamer is the innocent victim. The one thing that comes across loud and clear is the hatred that Macnamara felt for the convict settlement and army authorities: sulphurous lakes, fiery stakes and chairs, and rivers of boiling lead.

And all those fiery seats and chairs
Are fitted up for Dukes and Mayors
And nobles of Judicial orders
Barristers, Lawyers and Recorders
Here I beheld legions of traitors
Hangmen gaolers and flagellators
Commandants,Constables and Spies
Informers and Overseers likewise
In flames of brimstone they were toiling
And lakes of sulphur round them boiling
Hell did resound with their fierce yelling
Alas how dismal was their dwelling
It's all classic fire and brimstone stuff.

Macnamara probably felt he had due cause to wish such punishments on his gaolers. Born in 1811 in Ireland he was transported to New South Wales in 1832 after being convicted of theft, though there is a suspicion that he was a political agitator. If that last is true, he would have been targeted by the authorities from the start. He did abscond
several times and received numerous floggings and other punishments. Little else is known about him other than he was shifted from NSW to Port Arthur in 1842. He appears to have changed his ways there - probably under the threat of further depravations, and believe me, Port Arthur is a pretty scarey place - and was given his freedom in 1847. After that he disappears from the record, although Marcus Clarke does write about a balladeer in a dosshouse in Melbourne in 1868 who might have been Macnamara. Less than 20 poems have been attributed to him.

Text: "A Convict's Tour to Hell" by Francis Macnamara. [I dropped the original link to this as it had a missing line, and several punctuation variations.]

Author bio: Australian Dictionary of Biography

Publishing history: the first known publication of the poem was in the Cumberland Times, December 27, 1900. It subsequently appeared in The Penguin Book of Australian Satirical Verse edited by Philip Neilsen (1986), The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray (1986 and 1996), The Sting in the Wattle : Australian Satirical Verse edited by Philip Neilsen (1993), The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads edited by Elizabeth Webby and Philip Butterss (1993), and Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology edited by John Leonard (1998).

Notes: This work is also known under the alternative titles: "A Tour to Hell", "Come all you prisoners of New South Wales", and "Ye prisoners of New South Wales".

Next five poems in the book:
"The Beautiful Squatter" by Charles Harpur
"Taking the Census" by Charles R Thatcher
"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon
"My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens
"Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

Note: this post forms part of my series on the poems contained in the anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know edited by Jamie Grant. You can read the other posts in this series here.

Jennifer Mills Interview

Her first novel, The Diamond Anchor, was reviewed here yesterday and last weekend Jennifer Mills was interviewed by Steve Dow for "The Sydney Morning Herald".

She began writing her own book alternating between May and Grace's voices, but settled on writing almost entirely in May's voice; an interesting choice given Mills has more the restless soul of a Grace. Perhaps, she agrees, she was interested in getting inside the head of someone who wants to settle down where they were born. "I guess I'm trying to deal with how my generation, as very transient people, build a sense of home and belonging," she says. Her second novel, in progress, will be a dark tale about a hitchhiker; a few years ago Mills thumbed lifts while travelling through Europe, Turkey and the United States. "I came back to Australia and knew I didn't want to live on the east coast again; I wanted to do something different." That was three years ago and she has been in Alice Springs since, and "it's very much home now".

Review: The Diamond Anchor by Jennifer Mills

diamond_anchor.jpg Jennifer Mills
University of Queensland Press, 314 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Here is a beautifully written novel about storytelling. In The Diamond Anchor the art of story telling is portrayed in all its different forms, from personal history to history of a place and time, family saga and intimate childhood memories. There are tales tall and true, a dramatic love story and the mundane details of a life lived simply in an ordinary way in extraordinary times.

May is getting to the end of her life. She is still working in her old pub, The Diamond Anchor, situated in a small coastal mining community in New South Wales. Her father won the pub in a card game when she was born and she has lived her entire life under its roof. Her children and developers are putting pressure on her to sell up her now valuable bit of coastal real estate. An unexpected letter from her friend Grace, whom she hasn't seen since they were young women, forces her to review her life and examine their friendship and the events that made them take very different paths. The old pub becomes a metaphor for May's memory as she enters closed up rooms and opens drawers, examining long forgotten items and letters, everything falling apart and covered with dust. She starts to write a letter to Grace to try to trace the threads of what happened to them.

May takes us back and tells the wonderful story of seventy years of her family life and the small town she lives in, where everyone knows everyone and they all help each other through good times and bad. As a child she knew every nook and cranny of the natural world around her, the sea and the bush. Grace's family moved to the area when May was a young child and the two girls became close friends. Blessed with a gift for storytelling inherited from her Irish father, May charmed and thrilled Grace. Their friendship grew as they enjoyed a type of childhood that is gone now, where kids spent hours roaming outside, making their own world from make-believe and sometimes harsh reality. Events shrouded in mystery are slowly revealed that explain what tore their friendship apart, May staying to marry and run the pub, Grace leaving to go to university, marry and live an apparently glamorous life travelling the world. Now, many years later Grace is reaching out to May and she must decide whether too much has happened for them to go back to what they had. She has her memories and the beautiful ongoing stories of her beloved community and The Diamond Anchor.

I couldn't put this book down until I had read the whole story, until I got all the answers. The writing is evocative and fresh and the characters well drawn. All the threads of the many levels of storytelling, true or false, travel together at a wonderful pace to a great ending. The theme of examining one's life and facing the truth about the people and events that have shaped us, no matter how painful, rings true for most of us who, with "maturity", have a little perspective on our lives (put your hands up all you baby boomers!). I'm sure we all think about how things would have turned out if we had taken different paths to the ones we chose and what we would do if we had a second chance.

2009 Locus Award Finalists

The finalists for the 2009 Locus Awards have been released. "Locus" magazine refers to itself as the newspaper of the sf and fantasy genres and runs these readers' polls each year. Their coverage is pretty comprehensive and the number of votes for the awards appears to be growing each year.

Australians among the finalists:

Young-Adult Novel
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan

Eclipse Two, Jonathan Strahan, ed.
The Starry Rift, Jonathan Strahan, ed.

Jonathan Strahan

Shaun Tan

Non-Fiction/Art Book
Tales From Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan

The winners will be announced over the weekend of June 26-27, 2009 in Seattle.

TV Adaptation of Cloudstreet

"The Daily Telegraph", out of Sydney, is reporting that Screentime, the television production company reponsible for "Underbelly", is aiming to produce a television adaptation of Cloudstreet by Tim Winton.

The TV adaptation has been commissioned by Foxtel for the network's Showtime channel and author Winton says it was important his 1991 released novel maintained its typically Australian feel. "For me it's always been important for Cloudstreet to be a homegrown production and I'm really pleased to know that, through (this) collaboration, it can be made here in Australia," he says. "As the book's twentieth anniversary approaches, this is happy news."

Australian Bookcovers #158 - Vanishing Points by Thea Astley


Vanishing Points by Thea Astley, 1992
(Minerva 1993 edition)

On Depression and Creativity

A couple of weeks back James Bradley, on his "City of Tongues" weblog, reprinted an essay he had written and had published in "The Griffith Review". The title of that essay was "On Depression and Creativity", which was reprinted, in an edited version in "The Age" Review section over the weekend [not currently on the paper's website].

And for the past couple of weeks I've wanted to link to this piece and bring it to your attention. The trouble was that every introduction I thought of came across as insignificant and trite. So I've decided not to bother with one. If you're at all intrigued by the creative process, fascinated by the ways a physical and emotive state can affect that process, and interested in what the current state of the Australian essay has to offer at its best, then I suggest you read it. If you don't, you'll be missing something.

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott

Genevieve, of the "reeling and writhing" weblog, alerts us to the publication of The Pilo Family Circus in the US. This is indicated by a review of the book by Maud Newton, and the publication of an extract from the novel.

The book was first published in Australia in 2006 and won the inaugural ABC fiction award (sponsored by ABC Books). It then went on to win the Aurealis Award (co-winner: Best Horror novel, plus the Golden Aurealis Award), the Australian Shadows Award, the Ditmar Award (Best Novel), and the Sydney Morning Herald's "Best Young Novelist Award" for 2007. It was also short-listed for the 2007 International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel. Not bad going for a first novel by an unknown author.

The cover of the US edition

is certainly scarier than the original Australian version,
which has now been replaced on the latest Allen & Unwin edition.

All of this is good fun as it allows me to go look up "Coulrophobia" on Wikipedia. That's the morbid or exaggerated fear of clowns by the way.

2009 Emerging Writers Festival

The 2009 Emerging Writers' Festival will be held in various locations in the Melbourne CBD over the period May 22-31. A lot of the events are free, and the rest appear to fairly well-priced. Angela Meyer, of the "LiteraryMinded" weblog, will be appearing on a number of panels at 5:30pm at the City Library and provides a few details of what she will be up to, Stu Hatton will be talking about his mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, and Karen Andrews will be hosting a session on how writers can use the internet to better promote their work.

Poem: The Rejected Authors' Club by Creeve Roe (Victor Daley) Part 2

We have members in full measure:
Men of business and of pleasure,
Who in quiet hours of leisure
      Court the Muse.
Some are big men in the city,
Yet can write you poems pretty,
Or a sweet decadent ditty,
      When they choose.

And our Chairman is a German;
He's a firm man and a fair man,
And to quell a row a rare man --
      Six feet tall.
When he brings down his small hammer
There is then an end to clamour --
      Once for all.

Lord! 'Tis good to see their capers --
Bankers, brewers, wholesale drapers,
And proprietors of papers
      (Keep it dark!)
Who, o'er pen-names, write spring verses,
Which their Editors, with curses,
Chuck into their wicker hearse --
      What a lark!

And they do not write their stellar
Compositions in a cellar,
But each bard and story-teller
      Sits down square
By a bottle of best claret,
And cigars of nineteen carat --
Which you don't get in a garret,
      I can swear.

From a banker up in Warwick
We've an epic allegoric,
Full of color and caloric
      Upon Loans;
And an ode lies on our table
On the subject of the cable
Written by an author able --
      Name of Jones.

Yes, our club holds up its head -- there
Are some very fine things read there,
And fine literature bred there --
      Words that burn,
And no editors shall get them,
Though the want of them should fret them,
If they pine and sicken -- let them --
      It's their turn.

First published in The Bulletin, 16 September 1909

[Note: part 1 of this poem was posted last week.]

Peter Corris Interview

Since the early 1980s Peter Corris has been producing a series of crime novels featuring his PI Cliff Hardy. His latest, Deep Water, is the 35th in the series, and as it is released Marc McEvoy interviewed the author for "The Sydney Morning Herald".

Although Corris invented the character of Hardy in 1976, it took five years to find a publisher for his first novel, The Dying Trade. Once a punchy, beer-swilling philanderer, Hardy is less sexist now. His evolution during the series mirrors the changes in his creator.

"I stopped smoking about one or two books in - Cliff stopped smoking," Corris says. "I started jogging and trying to take better care of myself five or six books in - Cliff starts exercising. I try to keep alcohol consumption down - likewise, Cliff cuts down his drinking."

The changes are sometimes structural, such as when Hardy's office in Darlinghurst was renovated in real life, so he has since moved to Newtown.

Sometimes Corris even plants books he's reading in the plot, which help punctuate the action. In Deep Water Hardy reads Julian Barnes's Arthur And George and James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. "Cliff's never read anything I haven't read," Corris says.

But Corris insists Hardy is a complete fantasy figure in the way the detective can prevail against the odds. "His physical capabilities are way beyond anything I could do . . . and his sexual prowess is considerably greater than mine," Corris says with a grin. "But the sense of humour, the take on life, the take on politics and religion - these are absolutely me."

Corris invented Hardy after reading American crime fiction writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald. "Hardy was a straight pinch from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe," he says.

I seem to remember reading a piece of Corris's in an issue of the late-lamented "National Times" from the late 70s or early 80s - about the time the Hardy series started. As I recall Corris was at a crime convention somewhere in the States and told someone there that he intended to write an ongoing PI crime series set in Sydney. They just about laughed in his face. Not any longer I suspect.

Extract: Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

As Chloe Hooper's book, Tall Man, is released in the USA, Alison McCullough reviews it for "The New York Times", which also makes available the full first chapter.

Note: you may need to set up an account to access this. For more information on the book you can go to the book's website.

100 Australian Poems: Introduction

100_aust_poems.jpg    100 Australian Poems You Need to Know
Edited by Jamie Grant
Hardie Grant Books

I recently picked up a copy of this book and, I must say, I'm mightily impressed by just about everything to do with it. It's a good-looking thing from the outset: brightly coloured boards, an inlaid illustration on the front, slightly cream-coloured pages with lots of white space and a good font size, and a number of pencil illustrations throughout the book by Bridget Farmer. Hardie Grant Books has produced a good one here, one that makes you want to pick it up and read.

I say "just about" because there are a few things that irk me a little. I won't detail them now but will aim to cover them as I gradually work my way through the list of poems presented here. They are mostly minor, and probably rather nit-picky, but it's the right of the reader to complain as well as praise. The book is divided into nine sections ("Convict and Stockrider", "The Red Page", "Gundagai to Ironbark", "Bastard and Bushranger", "Drought, Dusk and War", "Country Story", "Melbourne and Sydney", "Beyond Sprawl", and "The Generation of XYZ") most of which will be pretty obvious to most Australian readers. The exception might be "The Red Page", which refers to the literary section of The Bulletin magazine which was printed on the inside pages of the red wrap-around cover the magazine sported for much of its early life, from 1880.

The contents of this volume cover the full range of poems from the earliest distinctly Australian literature to a poem from 2002. So you can fairly state that the contents cover the date range of Australian poetry - in the European style at any rate. But the major question outstanding is "Do you really need to know these poems?", or, for that matter, "any poems?" It depends on your ambitions. If it's to have a general understanding of the development of Australian literature over the past 200 years or so then at least some acquaintance with poetry is a requirement - I'm not one for assuming that verse will be learnt by rote, so a recognition and appreciation level of knowledge should suffice.

So poetry is a requirement, but these ones in particular? Well, that's where the arguments come in. Grant comments on the selection process by stating:

There will inevitably be some other readers' favourites missing, particularly as I have restricted my choice to one poem for each author. If I had attempted to literally present the first one hundred in a list of this country's most popular poems, there might not be many more than a dozen poets included in the collecton, from Henry Lawson to Les Murray. The broader range which results from my self-imposed restriction should enable other readers to make some pleasurable discoveries.
So you can understand what Grant is getting at. Even though it does fly in the face of the title to some extent this is a publishing decision which makes about as much sense as any other. It keeps the volume down to a manageable size, and for that we can be grateful. Just taking Banjo Paterson as an example, if you took all his most-loved poems you'd have to include "Waltzing Matilda", "The Man from Snowy River", "Clancy of the Overflow", "Mulga Bill's Bicycle" and "The Man from Ironbark". Too unwieldy. Better to chose one and leave it at that. Anyway, it allows for arguments amongst readers. And arguing about these poems is just what I am going to do on this weblog. I'm aiming to write about one poem here each week: looking at the poem, the author, the context and publishing history. A self-imposed study course on Australian poetry if you like.

"Ah", but I hear you say, "whatever happened to the 'Classic Year' reading program from 2008. That only got through 17 of the 50 odd titles." Which is a good point. I dropped that reading program last year for a number of reasons, and now have every intention of picking it up again in the next week or so. Just have to keep plugging away and doing the best I can. Where possible I'll provide links to web-based editions of the poems in the book, though, for copyright reasons, you'll understand that this will begin to peter out by the time we get to about halfway.

First five poems in the book:
"A Convict's Tour to Hell" by Francis Macnamara
"The Beautiful Squatter" by Charles Harpur
"Taking the Census" by Charles R Thatcher
"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon
"My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens

Deborah Forster Interview

Deborah Forster's first novel, The Book of Emmett, has just been published, and she spoke to Jo Case from Readings about the novel, Melbourne and her previous work as a journalist.

This is a very Melbourne novel, anchored in a rich sense of place -- not just the "blasted landscape" of Footscray, but the cramped streets of North Melbourne, the Lifesaver-coloured cottages of Kensington and the perfect peaches and strong coffees of the Queen Victoria markets. How integral was the setting for you?

I see place as another character in this novel and I wanted the place and the people to reflect each other, to reflect the toughness of Footscray people as well as their sweetness. I love those places. That Footscray has gone now, it's changed as everything always changes. When I was a kid, I wasn't so crazy about it. I craved trees and flowers and pretty houses, much more like it's become. Originally the book was set more in North Melbourne and I researched the market and discovered there's a cemetery still under the big car park. A cemetery was strictly divided according to race and religion. Amazing. I lived in North Melbourne when I was young and grew to love it. The Queen Victoria Market is beloved in this city and it seems almost spiritual to me in its beauty. All that glorious fresh food.

Leap of Faith

Joshua Gans is economics professor at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, and the author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting. Marshal Zeringue, on the "Writers Read" website, asked him what he was currently reading.

"The Sydney Morning Herald" newspaper is reporting that Peter Carey is the current bookies' favourite for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. Carey is reported to be at 6/1, ahead of Czech author Arnot Lustig at 7/1 and India's V.S. Naipaul at 8/1.

Jenny Sinclair can't seem to walk around Melbourne without getting fictional flashbacks.

D.M. Cornish has finished the first draft of the third book of his Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy and is now waiting for his editor's comments and the start of the revision process. And he's actually looking forward to it.

On the "Inside Story" website Shane Maloney looks back at the career of Australian crime writer Peter Corris and his fictional detective Cliff Hardy.

Hal G.P. Colebatch, in "American Spectator" magazine, attempts to paint climate change into a corner by stating that the recent Victorian bushfires had "Nothing to do with climate change, only stupid, ignorant, meddling, and in the event homicidal, Greens and politically-correct officialdom." He backs up this claim by quoting poetry from Will Ogilvie and John O'Brien. I only mention this because of the poetry.

The State of Australian Publishing

Here we go again, I thought, as I started to read this piece in "Overland" magazine about the current state of publishing in Australia. "Louise Swinn takes the temperature of Australian publishing" states the article - lukewarm and getting colder will be the conclusion, I thought. How wrong could I be?

In the course of the essay Swinn talks to such people as Mark Rubbo (ex Miles Franklin Award judge and bookseller of the Readings bookshop chain), Rod Morrison (Picador publisher), author Nick Earls, Sophie Cunningham (editor of "Meanjin"), agent Gaby Naher, and author Toni Jordan. There is a fair degree of concern expressed by all of them that the current Global Financial Crisis might mean a drop in the number of Australian titles being published, but all seem cautiously optimistic. Which is a pleasant surprise.

Max Barry Interview

Max Barry, author of the novels Jennifer Government and Company, has started releasing a novel online, one page a day. You can try out page one of Machine Man for free.

Angela Meyer, of the "LiteraryMinded" weblog, was so intrigued by the concept that she asked the author about it all.

It's not like it's never been done before, but you may be one of the first Australian authors depositing installments of a novel into cyberspace day-by-day with Machine Man. What made you decide to tell this particular story this way?

I really liked the idea of each installment being short. I love the net, but never thought it was a great way to deliver novels, because novels demand long periods of undivided attention, whereas I can't read more than eight sentences of anything online before feeling the urge to check my email. And that's including when I'm reading my email.

So a novel delivered one chapter at a time via the web never seemed right to me -- particularly a novel written as a regular print book. The art and medium just didn't fit. But I heard about these tiny, bestselling Japanese novels delivered via text message, and found that intriguing. At that time I had the basic idea for Machine Man and a few hundred dull, ponderous words that sucked all life out of it: when I thought of that idea in a compressed, electronic format, it came alive again. The format changed the nature of the story.

Australian Bookcovers #157 - Reaching Tin River by Thea Astley


Reaching Tin River by Thea Astley, 1990
(William Heinemann 1990 edition)
Cover illustration: Faye Maxwell

Kristina Olsson Interview

Kristina Olsson's second novel, The China Garden, has been chosen as the April selection for the "Courier-Mail" Big Book Club. The author is interviewed in the paper by Madeline Healy.

That Olsson has written a story of an "odd or lost boy" should not surprise. Her mother Yvonne, on the run from her abusive husband, had her first child Peter snatched from her arms by his father on a train when he was one. The family did not see Peter again until he was 37. He later contracted polio and faced challenges.

"In all of the writing I've done there's been an odd boy, a boy missing someone," Olsson says. "Because there has been missing boys in my family. I guess it's a way of bringing them home for me; it's a preoccupation."

The story of her brother Peter will be told in Olsson's next book, a memoir tentatively titled Lost Boys, which traces the lives of Yvonne and her family.

But The China Garden, Olsson says, was the book she had to write before the memoir, while she gathered permission to write Lost Boys after her mother died in 2001. "I couldn't write my mother's story as fiction -- it needed to be non-fiction and I needed to talk to all of the family before I did that," Olsson says.

Poem: The Rejected Authors' Club by Creeve Roe (Victor Daley) Part 1

Trodden worms may turn -- to vipers,
There are bounds set to all gripers
Of the Chance -- from kings to swipers
      In a pub.
Certain gentlemen respected
In this town, and well-connected,
Have established The Rejected
      Authors' Club.

Now the Editor tyrannic
Shall no more with smile Satanic --
Or perhaps in jealous panic --
      Drop their screed
In his basket-grave infernal,
Wherein rest, in peace eternal,
Better things than in his journal
      People read.

Let that Editorial Vulture
In his pages give sepulture
To his friends' work; Men of Culture
      Will not care.
He no more shall bullyrag them,
Satirise and nag and scrag them --
For wild horses will not drag them
      To his lair.

They have found a place of meeting
That will take a lot of beating;
There you may, for moments fleeting
      Shoulders rub
With stout poets, rich and wary,
Who write verses light and airy --
And they've made me Secretary
      Of the Club.

Our club rooms -- we're no ascetics --
Are a lesson in aesthetics,
And our sofas are not bed ticks
If your saw our fine-cut glasses,
And our pictures -- each first-class is --
You would be -- and this no gas is --
      Much surprised.
In our club there no no needy
Bards or storytellers seedy,
Who demand with voices greedy
      Coin or gore --
No poor devils who with scowling
Brows write love-songs, while the prowling
Wolf of Hunger comes a-howling
      To their door.

If with us you chanced to mingle,
It would make your pulses tingle
Just to hear the joyful jingle
      Of the coin
In our pockets -- that's a chiming
That is better than your rhyming,
And your poor Parnassus climbing --
      Will you join?

First published in The Bulletin, 16 September 1909

[Note: part 2 of this poem will be posted next week.]

2009 Miles Franklin Award Shortlist

The shortlisted works for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award have been announced.

The shortlist comprises:
The Pages by Murray Bail
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
Ice by Louis Nowra
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Breath by Tim Winton

The winner will be announced on June 18. First thing that strikes me is the lack of women writers on the list. And have no fear, this will be commented upon over the next few days.

Just a Thought: Christos Tsiolkas

Is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas the 2009 literary equivalent of the 1986 album "Human Frailty" by Hunters & Collectors?

Surprise, Surprise

The lineup of participating authors for the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature (April 27 - May 3, 2009) to be held in New York, has been announced. Main Australian interest centres on Shaun Tan and Nam Le. The second of these has his nationality listed as "Vietnam/U.K.", yet his associated biography says: "Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia." Neither the UK, nor any of its constituent countries, is mentioned anywhere in his biographical entry. The Ruddster might be Barak Obama's new BFF, but it seems that Australia is still too far away to be comprehensible.

Last year James Bradley was interviewed by an Italian research student who was writing her thesis on the topic "The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction". That paper has now been completed, but James decided it wouldn't be available in English for a while, if ever, and so has published some extracts.

A new Australian literary prize has been announced. The John Button prize has been named in honour of the late Senator and Industry Minister and "awards $20,000 to the best piece of non-fiction writing on politics or public policy in the previous 12 months." The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is patron of the prize and the judging panel consists of: Bob Carr, Kerry O'Brien, Morag Fraser (Chair), Judith Brett, and J.M. Coetzee.

Angela Meyer, of the "LiteraryMinded" weblog, has been working on a novel manuscript for the past couple of years and it seems to be coming together at last. She writes about the manuscript's history and the major changes she's made to it just recently. The idea of physically cutting the manuscript up into scenes and laying them out on the floor in various combinations and sortings to check the balance is a good one. People will now tell me this techniques has
been around since Adam was a lad.

Jonathan Crossfield runs the "Copy Write" weblog and has compiled a list of the top 50 writing blogs in Australia. These are weblogs which deal with the actual act of writing rather than just reporting on publishing and books. Lots of interesting new blogs to check out here.

Thorn Birds as a musical? Seems so. Not sure why Colleen McCullough thought that Rachel Ward couldn't act. Ward certainly can now.

2009 Miles Franklin Award Shortlist Possibles

The shortlisted works for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award are announced tomorrow. You may recall that at the time the longlist of ten novels was announced in March I mentioned that I had a little side bet running with Kerryn Goldsworthy of the "Still Life with Cat" weblog regarding who could get closest to the mark at each of the award's three levels: longlist, shortlist and winner. I got beaten 6-4 at the longlist stage and hope to do better this time round. Well, I have to really. Otherwise I'm out in straight sets. Be aware, though, that Kerryn, as an ex-Miles Frank Award judge, has what might be termed a "home-ground" advantage here.

In case you've forgotten, here are the longlisted novels:
Addition Toni Jordan, Text Publishing
A Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books)
Breath Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books)
fugative blue Claire Thomas, Allen & Unwin
Ice Louis Nowra, Allen & Unwin
one foot wrong Sofie Laguna, Allen & Unwin
The Devil's Eye Ian Townsend, Fourth Estate (HarperCollinsPublishers Australia
The Pages Murray Bail, Text Publishing
The Slap Christos Tsiolkas, Allen & Unwin
Wanting Richard Flanagan, Knopf (Random House Australia)

And here's my choice of the six to appear on the shortlist:
A Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books)
Breath Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books)
fugative blue Claire Thomas, Allen & Unwin
The Pages Murray Bail, Text Publishing
The Slap Christos Tsiolkas, Allen & Unwin
Wanting Richard Flanagan, Knopf (Random House Australia)

I can't say I'm overly confident with this lot. No fault of the books but the lack of women authors on my list is very worrying. Oh, for a Garner or a London now.

Review: Vote for Me by John Barron

vote_for_me.jpg John Barron
University of NSW Press, 203 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freeman

To the untrained eye, the system used to elect the President of the United States is a little hard to follow. I suspect that even to the trained political observer, US elections can be confusing. The process can be many months old, and the financial cost in the millions of dollars, before the presidential candidates are even nominated. By the time Americans finally elect their commander-in-chief, political careers will have been crushed, the US media will have devoted millions of words to topics as crucial as where Sarah Palin obtained her latest suit, and the USA will loudly be touted by all as the
greatest democracy in the world. And just 3 short years later, they will do it all again.

In Vote For Me, John Barron attempts to reveal the inner workings of the US electoral system, and explain how the most powerful country in the free world elects its leader. He begins in the 40 degree heat of Iowa's cornfields, and ends just nine weeks before history was finally made in November 2008, with the US electing its first black president. Wisely, Barron does not simply focus on the 2008 campaign, but also regales the reader with selected anecdotes from US political history, such as the fascinating rise and fall of Senator George McGovern and President Richard Nixon. One of the book's chapters is called "Follow the Money"; an obvious reference to the mindset of the various 2008 Presidential hopefuls, but it is also the strategy that led the Washington Post to the revelations of the Watergate scandal. The intertwining of past and present is clever and seamless, and Barron has an ironic sense of humour, which is particularly suited to this subject.

Barron writes extremely well, and at times his book reads almost like a political novel than a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless his prose is always witty and engaging. There are occasions, however, such as when he quotes Rudy Giuliani, complete with lisp, where the book veers from political satire to an attempt to garner cheap laughs. Perhaps you can get away with this once, but Mr Giuliani's lisp is quoted at length. It seemed unnecessary.

As an Australian journalist, Barron is, in a sense, removed from the 12-month reality television show that is the US electoral system. This gives him a degree of objectivity American political commentators sometimes lack. On the other hand, such objectivity is hardly necessary to understand a major problem inherent in the American democratic process.

The problem is this. To be President, you need money. Lots of money, and the more you have the better your shot at the Presidency. The more money you have, the more pomp and pizzazz you can introduce to your campaign. This inevitably translates into votes. According to Barron, at one stage during the 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination John McCain was spending two million dollars a month. This is remarkable when you consider that the maximum contribution any individual can make to a Presidential campaign is $2300. The message is clear -- wealth equals good election prospects. More insidiously, it also has the potential to welcome corruption.

A country's electoral process can be characterised as a sprint, in some cases, and a middle distance run in others. Not the US. Their system is more like a marathon. Unfortunately, that fact combined with the obscene amounts of money spent along the way reduces the whole spectacle to, well, a spectacle. Not particularly dignified for the greatest democracy in the world. That, for me, was the chief lesson in Vote For Me.

[Note: since this review copy was received the publisher has printed an updated version of this book, labelling it a "Special Obama Victory Edition". We'll attempt to have a few follow-up notes at the later date to see how the additional text affects the overall work.]

2009 Williamstown Literary Festival

The 2009 Williamstown Literary Festival will be held over the weekend of May 1-3 2009. According to the website:

This year's Festival theme is "The Hidden Life of Suburbs". We have an exciting program of workshops, keynote events, panels, readings, book groups and more, and featured authors include Jane Clifton, Steven Conte, Catherine Denevy, Garry Disher, Nick Gadd, Andy Griffiths, Gideon Haigh, Leigh Hobbs, Martin Flanagan, Sofie Laguna, Marcia Langton, Maureen McCarthy, Alice Pung, Andrew Rule and Denise Scott.

Digitised Newspapers at the National Library of Australia:

Back in September last year I wrote a post about the National Library of Australia's (NLA) newspaper digitisation project. At the time I thought this a very worthy and exciting initiative which aimed, to make available to the general public, scanned and OCRed [Optical Character Recognition] versions of all Australian out-of-copyright newspaper editions. I've certainly made good use of it by re-printing a number of articles and poems here. Given that it's now been over six months since that initial description I thought it about time to follow-up and see how the project is progressing.

In about mid- to late October last year the project stopped adding new pages to the publicly available depository. I was a bit surprised when this happened as I hadn't actually read enough of the supplementary pages on the project's website to get a firm understanding of the project's timeline. Basically, the initial website was only a pilot. Its aim was to set up the digitisation mechanism and repository, and to engage the public to help fix the scanned pages.

You may recall that I wrote last year about the OCR process which converts the scanned pages into editable text. This is a bit dodgy with old newspapers and you get a lot of misread characters that need to be proof-read and edited. The NLA decided to invite users of the public to correct the pages they read with the aim of gradually improving the final product. I'm not sure how many editors they expected to pick up but I suspect they were quite happy to end up with about 1300 registered users who have corrected 2 million lines of text in 100,000 newspaper articles. The final number of articles made available under the pilot was 367,651 (on approximately 300,000 pages), so something over a quarter have been edited in some way or other. There is no way of telling if all the 100,000 articles have been completely fixed, but at least that number has been looked at and amended, however slightly.

So what of the future? The pilot project has been a success, volunteers have been engaged and are working away, so where to from here? Well, it appears that it was never the intention of the project to tie up NLA personnel on this project indefinitely so a Request For Tender process has been instituted which will result in the appointment of a panel of contractors to undertake the actual work of scanning and digitising - I suspect the editing will be left with the volunteers. That panel should be announced sometime soon, and hopefully the project will "re-boot" and the number of pages available will rapidly increase. The current plan is for the project to have 1.5 million newspaper pages available by the end of 2009, and 4 million pages by the end of 2010. I'll be very pleased if they can reach anything like those numbers.

Australian Bookcovers #156 - Beachmasters by Thea Astley


Beachmasters by Thea Astley, 1985
(Penguin 1985 edition)
Cover illustration by Bill Farr

Garry Disher Interview

Liz Porter, of "The Age", talks to Garry Disher, Victorian-based author of the Challis and Wyatt series of crime novels.

"Social diversity creates social tension," says the writer, who has just had Blood Moon published, his fifth book in the series featuring crimes that happen on the watch of Detective Inspector Hal Challis of the Waterloo police crime investigation unit.

"There are disadvantaged housing estates a couple of kilometres away from wealthy communities. That kind of social tension leads to crime and helps me to find plots. The fallout of poverty and job loss are just as important to me as matters of police procedure.

"I don't want to beat the reader over the head with a message. But crime fiction does give you the room to explore strain in the community. Literary fiction has let us down in that regard." But is there enough crime on the peninsula for a writer whose books are gritty and realistic as Disher's?

"I reckon I have bumped up the murder rate significantly," he says. "But there have been some horrifying crimes on or near the peninsula. Just reading the local paper I get a sense of an undercurrent of small, mean and petty crimes -- muggings, thefts and bashings."

The interview also brings the excellent news that Disher has a new Wyatt novel just about finished. It is due
for release next year.

Matilda Waltzes

I'm off on holidays with the family. See you back here in a bit over a week.

2009 Children's Book Council of Australia Awards Shortlists

The shortlists for the 2009 Children's Book Council of Australia Awards have been announced. The winners of these awards will be announced on 21 August - yes, nearly five months off.

Book of the Year - Older Readers
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Two: Lamplighter, D.M. Cornish (Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia)
Into White Silence, Anthony Eaton (Woolshed Press, Random House Australia)
A Rose for the Anzac Boys, Jackie French (HarperCollinsPublishers)
Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta (Viking, Penguin Group Australia)
Kill the Possum, James Maloney (Penguin Group Australia)
Tales from Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan (Allen & Unwin)

Book of the Year - Younger Readers
The Wish Pony Woolshed Press, Catherine Bateson (Random House Australia
Polar Boy, Sandy Fussell (Walker Books)
Then, Morris Gleitzman (Viking, Penguin Group Australia)
Audrey of the Outback, Chrsitine Harris and illus. Ann James (Little Hare Books)
Perry Angel's Suitcase, Glenda Millard and illus. Stephen Michael King (ABC Books)
The Wizard of Rondo, Emily Rodda (Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia)

Book of the Year - Early Childhood
How to Heal a Broken Wing, Bob Graham (Walker Books)
Leaf, Stephen Michael King (Scholastic Australia)
Special Kev, Chris McKimmie (Allen & Unwin)
Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle, Glenda Millard and illus. Stephen Michael King (ABC Books)
Tom Tom, Rosemary Sullivan and illus. Dee Huxley (Working Title Press)
Puffling, Margaret Wild and illus. Julie Vivas (Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia)

Book of the Year - Picture Book
Sunday Chutney, Aaron Blabey (Viking, Penguin Group Australia)
Collecting Colour, Kylie Dunstan (Lothian Children's Books, Hachette)
Home and Away Matt Ottley and text John Marsden (Lothian Children's Books, Hachette)
Nobody Owns the Moon, Tohby Riddle (Viking, Penguin Group Australia)
Captain Congo and the Crocodile King Greg Holfeld and text Ruth Starke (Working Title Press)
The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness, Colin Thompson (Random House Australia)

Book of the Year - Eve Pownall Award for Information Books
The Word Spy, Ursula Dubosarsky and illus.Tohby Riddle (Viking, Penguin Group Australia)
Simpson and his Donkey, Mark Greenwood and illus. Frane Lessac (Walker Books)
Alive in the Death Zone, Lincoln Hall (Random House Australia)
Chicken: the Story of Chicken in Australia, Catriona Nicholls and Janet Paterson and illus. Rod Waller (Kondinin Group)
Tuart Dwellers, Jan Ramage and illus. Ellen Hickman (Department of Environment and Conservation, WA)
Every Picture Tells a Story: Adventures in Australian Art, John Ross and Anna Booth (Craftsman House, Thames & Hudson, Australia)

Currently Reading

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.jpg

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann
A collection of Grann's journalism featuring tales of murder, madness and obsession. Varied but generally fairly interesting, and sometimes just plain bizarre.



Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell's investigation of why some people are more successful than others. Interesting but not up to his previous work.


Recently Read


 The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin
Rankin's second novel featuring his new detective Malcolm Fox of The Complaints. There are echoes of Rebus here, but it still has some way to go to reach those heights.


Bomb, Book and Compass

 Bomb, Book and Compass by Simon Winchester
The amazing tale of Joseph Needham and his exploration of the history of China. The story is very interesting even though the writing is somewhat flat.



 The Lost City of Z by David Grann
The story of Percy Fawcett's obsessive search for a lost city in the Amazon. It cost him his life in 1925 but he might just have been right.



 The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Grossman's take on the "magician-in-training" fantasy sub-sub-genre. Starts off being rather derivative but slowly morphs into something very interesting.



 The Years That the Locust Hath Eaten by Marjorie Quinn
The long-delayed publication of the memoirs of Sydney poet Marjorie Quinn. An intimate portrait of the Sydney literary scene between the wars and one woman's struggle for a literary life.



 Whispering Death by Garry Disher
Disher is back with another Hal Challis/Pensinsular Murder mystery. As good as ever but this time with more dead bodies, and an intelligent, elusive burglar.


the complaints.jpg

 The Complaints by Ian Rankin
Rankin's new crime series, following on from the very successful Rebus novels. As good as ever.



 The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
Fry's second autobiographical volume of memoirs. The name-dropping is relentless, but we forgive everything to allow Fry to tell his story.



 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 more 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.



 Monster Blood Tattoo: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
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.


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