Monthly Archives: October 2015

Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound in the Book Group

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (2002, translation by Annie Tucker, Text Publishing 2015)

9781925240238A while back, we agreed that the Book Group would stick with short books. So we read Of Mice and Men. Then somehow we settled on Beauty Is a Wound, which weighs in at just short of 500 pages.

Not that I’m complaining. The book more than fills the promise implied in its epigraph from Cervantes [note to self: read Don Quixote]:

Having cleaned his armour and made a full helmet out of a simple headpiece, and having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realised that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love, for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul.

The book gives us three quarters of a century of Indonesian history seen largely from the perspective of the ‘lady-loves’ of its variously idealistic (or not) warriors. A multitude of stories involving Dutch colonisers, Japanese invaders, guerrilla resistance, nationalists, Communists, anti-Communists, capitalist thugs – all revolve around the central figure of Dewi Ayu, the most famous whore of the fictional city of Halimunda, and her three beautiful daughters. Tender love, passionate mutual obsession, brutal rape, prostitution, high romance, fraternal and intergenerational incest, borderline necrophilia: these are all there, with World War Two, Indonesian Independence, the 1965 massacre of leftists and the 1975 invasion of East Timor as context. More than once the streets of Halimunda are filled with corpses, and then with the unappeased ghosts of the slaughtered.

Eka Kurniawan has been called Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s successor. The latter’s Buru Quartet was also a panoramic account of recent Indonesian history seen through the lens of one man’s life, but as far as my memory goes those earlier novels were strictly realistic and unsensational – the story of their being written without pen and paper while the author was in prison is much more thrilling than the novels themselves. Beauty Is a Wound, on the other hand, is unlikely to land its author in prison,even though writers about the 1965 massacres were banned from this yeas Ubud Writers Festival, but it provokes a visceral response to the history it treats.

The book’s web of relationships is extraordinarily complex. For my own peace of mind, I attempted a diagram showing the main ones. The diagram doesn’t show the revelations of the final chapter which manages the improbable feat of pulling the many threads together into thematic consistency, but it does contain one or two spoilers if you look at it closely. But here it is, small but embiggable, for anyone who’s interested (dotted lines represent anything from concubinage to one-off rape, while deep unfulfilled love is indicated by a dotted line with a cross):

Beauty Is a Wound Chart

Annie Tucker, the translator, has done an awesome job, creating the sense that we are in a world not quite like ours. Partly, I mean by that, we know we are in a non-Western cultural setting. Some words remain untranslated but explained – such as moksa (in Indian philosophy, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth) or jailangkung (a Javanese game in which the spirits of the dead are summoned). But more interestingly, the translation allows us to feel that we are not just in a different culture, but in a different reality. When characters return from the dead or avoid death altogether, when there are curses, prophetic insights or hauntings, we feel that we are in a weird waking dream of our own rather than listening in with an ethnographer’s ear.

At the meeting: This was not one of those times when we all had similar responses to the book. We had such an engrossing conversation over  soup and salad that we barely got to discuss the removal of Tony Abbott or his embarrassing Lady Thatcher address.

There were eight of us, though one was only there between dropping his daughter off at soccer training and picking her up – the driving time meant he had just about 40 minutes to eat, drink and opine (all of which he did most elegantly). One hadn’t read the book at all. Another ‘declared at tea’ – reading on the Kindle so couldn’t say what page. One pointed to the fact that he’d read the whole book to prove that he didn’t hate it, though he was, well, flamboyant in his account of it as tediously ‘factual’ in its prose and intolerably sexist in its treatment of the women characters (who are there for purposes of sex and nothing much else)

A number of us had grappled with the possibility that there was some kind of allegorical account of Indonesian history at work. One chap, who had been struck by the fact that the central characters, Dewi Ayu and her daughters. were mainly very passive, suggested a reading in which they represented the soul or the spirit or ‘the people’ of Indonesia, and the treatment that had roused the other chap’s ire signified the damage done to the country by each of the groups that their various rapists, and exploiters belonged to. That made a lot of sense to me.  And the prose style has the matter-of-factness of folktale, which fits that reading.

Someone told us that a number of speakers had been banned from the Ubud Writers Festival yesterday because they were scheduled to speak about the 1965 massacre of leftists. I don’t think Eka Kurniawan was one of them, but the news did shed an interesting light on the book’s unflinching account of the massacre.

Oh, and my chart of the relationships was widely admired, possibly with a slight edge of irony.

Australian Poetry Journal, recent issues

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2015)
Bronwyn Lea (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2013)


Australian Poetry Journal is a twice yearly publication of Australian Poetry Ltd, which describes itself, surely with a wistful edge, as the peak industry body for poetry in Australia. You don’t have to be a poet to join APL (the poetry industry includes readers), and membership fees cover a subscription to the journal.

This issue is attractively democratic. Award winners with many books on their CVs rub shoulders with people who have had poems published in newspapers and journals. I wouldn’t dream of singling any poems out as ‘the best’ but I do need to give you a taste of some. This is from Judith Beveridge’s ‘Clouds’:

Let blue skies stop their rhetorical grandstanding.
We know they’re filled with the breath of men cocked
and fettled by greed. One by one I call the clouds in.
A cloud for each child hungry, ragged, naked. A cloud

for all exiles whose voices can’t find a single raindrop,
whose eyes are stones that out-weather the past.
A cloud for those in war-ravaged places where shadows
terrorise doorways, and the old live between rubble
and crumbled bread.

Jeff Rich’s ‘Not getting things done’ deals with those to-do lists where some items just got moved from list to list, or projects dreamed of but never begun. The final lines bring it all home beautifully:

Whole careers, projects without plans.
Journeys of recovery and feats of weakness

Pile like chaos in the attic
Awaiting defeat

By distraction and habit and boredom and chance
Four deadly horsemen more real than the rest.

Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’ responds to the callous feral poetry of a Tony Abbott slogan with child-like rhyming that is anything but infantile. I’ll resist the pull to quote the whole thing:

Remote ideologies send bonnie boats
Like broken-winged birds to our merciful votes.

And we turned them away, yes we turned them away
As we went out to play
In our dead-hearted country, the bounteous place
Where neighbourly love puts a smile on each face.

Apart from the poetry, there are interviews – Paul Magee interviews Samuel Wagan Watson and Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau interviews Julie Chevalier; a personal introduction to Greek poet Tasos Leivaditis by his translator N N Trakakis; a review by Tim Thorne of eleven titles from Ginninderra Press – which expresses gratitude for the publisher’s ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ policy while being unsparing of the blooms that aren’t up to scratch; a history of another small publisher of poetry, Black Pepper Press, by Margaret Bradstock, who paints a fascinating picture of the critical reception of a number of their books; and three review articles that I found illuminating, especially Bonny Cassidy on Spatial Relations, a two-volume collection of John Kinsella’s prose.

Bonny Cassidy begins her review, ‘It must be said, straight up, that this two-volume publication … is unlikely to attract the recreational reader.’ (And she might have finished it by saying that a smaller, more selective publication may yet bring Kinsella’s prose to a wide and appreciative readership.) I could have said, straight, up that while Australian Poetry Journal might not attract too many recreational readers, any who wander into its pages are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

1apj31Having been pleasantly surprised by Volume 5 No 1, I realised Volume 3 No 1 had been wallflowering on my bookshelf for a year. It turns out to be another treasure trove. I’ll just mention two very funny poems by Anthony Lawrence –  ‘The Pelican’, in which the eponymous bird snatches a Jack Russell puppy, flies off with it

clearly visible through the lit
_____transparent pouch beneath its beak

and swallows it in full view of a horrified human crowd, and ‘Lepidoptera’, in which a gift of butterflies to the speaker’s sister meets with a dreadful fate, with an implied analogy to the frequent fate of poems.

There’s  a section on the poetry of the late Philip Hodgins – an introduction by Anthony Lawrence and then a selection of poems, mostly in some way to do with farming life, and death. A section titled ‘Criticism’ includes, among others, David McCooey on Jennifer Maiden; Martin Duwell – always worth reading – on a book about postwar US poetry; and an essay by Stuart Cooke about stray animals in Central and South America, which I enjoyed but whose title suggests I missed the point: ‘A Poetics of Strays’.

Vivien Johnson’s Streets of Papunya

Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya ( 2015)

9781742232430This is a gorgeous book full of dazzling images from Australia’s Central Desert. Its publication coincides with an exhibition of the same name at UNSW Galleries, which is showing until 7 November. If you can’t get to see the paintings the book is the next best thing.

The book is more than its images. It is also a story of Papunya the place and the artists who live there.

The word Papunya has entered the general Australian and perhaps world vocabulary as synonymous with the rise of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art in the 1970s. It was in the small, artificially created settlement of Papunya that Aboriginal men, under the tutelage and encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon, began to use acrylic paints to depict traditional designs for non-Indigenous viewers. The company Papunya Tula must be the most recognisable name associated with Aboriginal art.

But Papunya was there before Geoffrey Bardon arrived. And so was Aboriginal art. Albert Namatjira painted his last watercolours while living there, and many of the local men could imitate his style (but chose not to because he was from a different country). And there was art in Papunya after Papunya Tula relocated in the 1980s and many of those original artists moved to other settlements. The town remained, as beset by disfunction as many other Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory, its artists left to pursue their talent without an art centre or any substantial support.

The history of Papunya has been told many times, possibly most beautifully in The Papunya School Book of Country and History, created by Nadia Wheatley and the children and adults of Papunya in 2002. That’s nominally a children’s book, but like that other great ‘children’s book’, Maralinga: The Anangu Story (by the Yalata, Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley), it tells an important story from an Aboriginal perspective. Without glossing over the terrible realities the consequences of colonial policies, these books convey a sense of Aboriginal agency and  intelligence.

Streets of Papunya is not a children’s book, and at times it can be hard going because it assumes prior knowledge, or else a high degree of interpretive skill on the part of the reader. But Vivien Johnson tells a story that has grown from her relationship with artists who have remained in Papunya. They may have been sidelined by the departure of Papunya Tula, but they continued to paint, and now, with the establishment of Papunya Tjupi, they once again have infrastructure to support their creative work.

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty in the book: the details of how the artists have been supported with supplies of canvas and paints over the decades; the legal wrangling over ownership of the 14 paintings from the 1970s known as  Papunya Community School Art Collection; the role of white managers in helping artists break out of narrowly conceived commercial imperatives; the arduous four years it took to get a new Art Centre up and running after two decades of false starts.

There’s also some splendid revision of received history. For example, you may have thought, as I did, that those early Papunya painters didn’t include women because of cultural considerations. But no, it was because the white managers couldn’t see their way to stretching the genuinely limited resources to a whole new population of potential painters. The impetus to include women in the ranks of the painters came, often enough, from the old men. You may have thought, as I did, that it was the lawmen, men of high cultural influence, who began the contemporary art movement.  But no, the first Papunya painters were risk-takers, cultural innovators, whose showing of painted stories to non-Indigenous people won the approval of the serious lawmen only after it was seen to succeed.

There are many stories on this book of frustration and defiance and hard work and triumph. Vivien Johnson sums things up nicely at the end (the lines of verse at the end are from Billy Marshall Stoneking’s ‘Passage‘):

These artists of Papunya live their lives amid the residue of successive government policy and planning failures over the half-century of Papunya’s existence. … Art centres are for them a kind of oasis from that devastation, places where through tirelessly painting the stories in which their ancestors’ deeds are recounted for the delight and edification of whitefellas, the painters symbolically invoke the power of those ancestors, just as Papunya’s street signs now invoke its cultural and artistic heroes. Surveying the ruins of their colonisers’ attempts to bring them into the mainstream of Australian life, for which places like Papunya were originally created, they are a reminder of another force at work here, underpinning all endeavours in its various names:

… the Dreaming does not end; it is not like the whiteman’s way.
what happened once happens again and again.
This is the Law. This is the Power of the Song.

‘Through the singing,’ the old men say, 
‘we keep everything alive; through the Songs,’
they say, ‘the spirits keep us alive.’

aww-badge-2015 Streets of Papunya is the nineteenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)


Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.

The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.

I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.

Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.

1. It’s not a diatribe

It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.

There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …

But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).

2. It’s not against white people

I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.

Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.

3. It’s not paranoiac

To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which

each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)

4. It is well written

The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:

‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.

Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’  Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.

Bill Willingham’s Fables 5

Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham, Tony Atkins, Jimmy Palmiotti and Steve Leialoha (artists), Todd Klein (letterer), Fables Vol. 5: The Mean Seasons (Vertigo 2005)

f5Another loan from one of my generous sons.

In Volume 3, Snow White got pregnant to Bigby Wolf in an encounter that embarrassed them both. In Volume 4, while the pregnancy progressed, Fabletown fought off an attack from the fairytale Homelands and endured a campaign by Prince Charming to become mayor. In this volume, Snow White gives birth, and our suspense about the species of her issue is resolved – eventually. The captured invaders from the Homelands are being interrogated in secret dungeons without noticeable benefit. Prince Charming wins the election, with not very happy results, so that by the end of this issue he is planning to go to war, always a good plan for an incompetent government to keep the electorate onside.

That’s how the main story arc develops. There’s also a two-part war story and a one-off in which Cinderella is a spy. As a ten-year-old I thought there must be something wrong with me that I didn’t enjoy war comics, but now, well, a war story is a war story is a war story, even if it incorporates a battle between a giant wolf and a Frankenstein’s monster, and I don’t mind who knows that’s how I see it. The Cinderella tale feels like a sleeper – there are plenty more volumes in which her role as spy can blossom.

Apart from the truly lovely invention (no spoilers here) of Snow White’s offspring and Bigby’s father, there’s not a lot to get excited about in this instalment, but the series will go on being a reliable source of Christmas and birthday gifts in this family for a while yet.

Saga 5, Fables 3 & 4

Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga Volume Five (Image Comics 2015)
Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Bryan Talbot, Linda Medley and Steve Leialoha (artists), Todd Klein (letterer), Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love (Vertigo 2004)
Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, P. Craig Russell and Steve Leialoha (artists), Todd Klein (letterer),  Fables Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers (Vertigo 2004)

One of my sons kindly went through his comics collection recently and put out a pile that I might be interested in. I passed on Swamp Thing and something about zombies (or they might have been vampires), but carried off a small swag. These are some of them.


In Saga, Hazel, the child of parents from two different, warring species, has her father’s horns and her mother’s wings, or at least the beginnings of both. Her existence challenges the ideologies of both sides, and the little family has powerful enemies. In previous volumes they have had narrow escapes, acquired a number of bizarre allies and fellow travellers, and dealt with an apparently endless stream of weird, murderous monsters.

Though this instalment, in which Hazel is a toddler, continues to enthral and delight those of us who have the preceding four volumes under our belts, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with it. You’d still have the wit, the wonderful art, the occasional outrageous action, and even the underlying celebration of love and family, but you’d be left wondering if there was any coherent thread at all as the family members are spread across the galaxies.  I recommend reading Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4, in that order, before this one.

The series has a bit too much explicit sex for my taste. Not that it’s pornographic: I can’t, for example, imagine many people would find the sexual behaviour of the dragons in this book anything other than disgusting. I guess I find other people’s sexual activities and fantasies mildly embarrassing. There’s a bit too much graphic violence too, come to think of it. Oh, and there’s some romanticising of drugs, though the realisation that a main character comes to as a result of his stoned dreams is hardly endorsed by the narrative. None of those misgivings stop me from already hungering for Volume 6.

f3There are no giant dragon’s genitalia in Fables, but there’s enough human-looking sex to ensure that this series about fairy tale characters in exile isn’t for the very young. The tales are dark, though not exactly in the way the original fairy tales were dark: more like childhood noir. The big bad wolf is now Bigby Wolf, a tough-guy operative on the side of good who is – mostly – in human form. Old King Cole is a figurehead mayor of Fable Town while Snow White as his deputy really runs the show.  And so on. All in the midst of unsuspecting ‘mundies’ (short for ‘mundanes’). In Volume 3, the love story between Snow White and Bigby Wolf passes a significant milestone (see cover of Volume 4 below for a spoiler), tiny police mounted on talking mice do their bit for law and order, Bluebeard turns out not to have reformed as thoroughly as he claimed,  Prince Charming moves back in with one of his ex-wives when he realises there’s more to be gained there than by conning mundy women into supporting him, and a gun wielding Goldilocks does a lot of damage. What’s not to like?

f4In Volume 4, the framing story comes back to life. The characters are in exile because someone known as the Adversary had mustered a huge army and was murdering everyone in fairyland. Those who escaped set up a clandestine community known as Fable Town in New York City, with a farm upstate for those Fables (as the fairytale characters are known) who don’t look human. These two places have been hard enough to police so far, because as everyone knows, being a fairytale character is no guarantee of decent behaviour. In this issue one of the gates dividing the worlds is breached and, after centuries of believing themselves safe, the Fables face Tarantino-esque violence at an industrial level.

In a long-lasting comic series like this, one of the pleasures is the regular appearance of guest artists. Mark Buckingham is the principal artist, and it’s his gritty vision that dominates. Then for a retelling of an American folktale or an episode involving cute miniature characters, someone else (in these cases Bryan Talbot and Linda Medley respectively) shows us the familiar characters and milieux through a different lens. The lettering, by Todd Klein throughout, almost makes one regret the less labour-intensive digitised process that (I’m assuming) is used in more recent comics such as Saga.

Wikipedia tells me that this series has continued from 2002 almost to the present – issue 150 was released in July. I’m reading it in the trade paperbacks, so far up to issue 27. I have 18 books to look forward to.

Going Down Swinging Longbox

Geoff Lemon, Katie Pase, Rhys Tate & Simon Cox (editors), Going Down Swinging Longbox (2015)

gdslbxFaced with the recurring heartache of literary-magazine editors, of having to reject excellent material because it exceeds the magazine’s word count, the Going Down Swinging crew had the bright idea of publishing a boxed set of such rejects. And here it is, a collection of five slim books (for a range of values of the word ‘book’) enclosed in a paper box. It’s a beautiful artefact – like Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, but for grown-ups. The separate pieces are:

gdslb5Bridget Lutherborrow, Thirteen Story Horse (illustrated by Harley Manifold)

Thirteen short stories set in a block of flats, each story bearing the number of its characters’ flat. There’s a talking horse who makes furniture out of egg cartons, a girl called Henrietta who has a mysterious supply of eggs (and useful egg cartons), a woman who irritates her neighbours by calling her husband’s full name when they’re having noisy sex, another woman who grows big hairy man hands when she drinks too much, someone who talks almost entirely in cliches, and so on. The stories are full of apartment living’s tangential connections and mysterious glimpses into other lives, with added weirdness and the horse providing a through line. Lovely ink wash drawings add a lyrical dimension.

 alt=Andrew Denton (with a little help from Megan Herbert and David Squires), Looking a Little Drawn

Who’d have thought Andrew Denton had a whole other career in him? Yet here he is, with 30 original cartoons, each printed on a separate card, all but three executed with the skill level of a bright five year old. The resulting combination of sharp wit and primitive technique is totally disarming. The three exceptions, which are executed by Megan Herbert and David Squires (to help him, Denton says in an author’s note, ‘realise some ideas that neither the left nor right side of my brain knew how to draw’), wouldn’t be out of place in, say, the New Yorker. For example, a giant, radiant, bearded figure in a white robe sits on a throne in a supermarket with a tiny human on his lap; an onlooker says to a companion, ‘See? He really is real.’ How good it would be if The Monthly and/or the Saturday Paper started publishing such single-frame cartoons just for fun. Not that Denton totally avoids topicality: I ventured to reproduce one in my blog post on David Marr’s quarterly essay on Bill Shorten.

Version 2Luke Johnson, Ringbark

Ringbark is an excerpt from Luke Johnson’s unpublished novel On Dead Highways. It’s an elegant 74-page book with a gorgeous cover drawing by Caroline Hunter, but I can’t tell you more than that because I have a policy of  not reading excerpts from novels in newspapers or magazines. I’ll wait for the whole thing.

Version 2Pat Grant, Toormina Video

A graphic novella–memoir in which Pat Grant tells the story of his alcoholic father. It’s pretty sordid, but it’s complex, and in the end respectful and full of love. The novella was first published on the internet two years ago, and you can still see that version at Pat Grant’s web site. Here, the 44 pages of the story are printed on 11 sheets of paper, each of which unfolds to reveal a single drawing and text on the other side, filling in details, responding to comments on the internet, meditating on art, addiction, family and other maters raised: the equivalent of DVD extras. I found it deeply satisfying, and I imagine that anyone who had a non-violent alcoholic parent would find it even more so.

Version 2Version 2Katherine Kruimink, News from a Radiant Future
Libbie Chellew, Protein
(both illustrated by Anthony Calvert)

Two dystopian novellas back to back. In Protein a city (country? world?) is under threat from a mysterious epidemic that shares some features of the zombie apocalypse. From a series of vignettes, we piece together a picture of what’s happening. Many questions are left unanswered, and the panic of the situation gets under the reader’s skin. At least it did mine. And then, the end, and we’re left with it.  Katherine Kruimink’s story is likewise a patchwork – memos from a noticeboard, dialogue, what may be a diary entry by someone who is in 21st century terms illiterate. We are in the middle of things again – a small community of human survivors live in a compound, survivors of an invasion by Them (who are left undescribed apart from passing mentions of tentacles and technological superiority). Is it safe to leave the compound as the younger generation believe? Will the heroic sacrifice of two of the older generation come to anything? Will the group survive to another generation? All is left unresolved, brilliantly.

The package was produced with the help of crowd funding. My copy arrived as a fabulous surprise long after I’d made my donation. But you don’t have to have been a member of the funding crowd to own a copy. You can buy it online.

aww-badge-2015Added later: Though they are part of a bigger bundle, Thirteen Story Horse and the Protein/News from a Radiant Future pair are the seventeenth and eighteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

David Marr’s Faction Man

David Marr, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power (Quarterly Essay 59)


Some trivia to start with: Timothy Conigreve, whose memoir Holding the Man has been made into a deeply affecting film, attended the same secondary school as Bill Shorten: the Jesuits’ Xavier College in Melbourne. Congreve performed in a school production of Romeo and Juliet in the late 1970s; Shorten staffed the box office for a Romeo and Juliet in the mid 1980s.

David Marr’s Quarterly Essay doesn’t mention Tim Conigreve or Romeo and Juliet, but it paints a portrait of a man who, having functioned brilliantly behind the scenes, now stands centre stage. It also reminds us that Tony Abbott is another Jesuit old boy, and invokes the Jesuit ideal of ‘a man for others’ of Shorten, a phrase that is at the heart of a brilliant piece on Abbott by Katherine Murphy. A Jesuit education can clearly lead to very different outcomes.

Marr asks about Bill Shorten the same question he has asked about Kevin Rudd, George Pell and Tony Abbott in previous essays: who is he? The question has a particular flavour in Shorten’s case because, as Marr says, he is ‘a man from nowhere’: ‘Where Tony Abbott is disliked quite viscerally now that he is known, Shorten is suspect because he isn’t.’ One of Andrew Denton’s cartoons in the fabulous Going Down Swinging Longbox (which I’ll blog about soon, and which I assume it’s OK to quote here), makes a similar point:


To treat politics as if it is all about personalities is to debase the public discourse. But it really does help to know something about the people who are vying for the top political job, about where they come from and – now that politicians are so intent on telling voters in marginal seats what they want to hear – what we can figure out about their agendas.

Marr’s essay gives the background – one of twins, the son of a university lecturer mother and a sailor turned small businessman father, Shorten educated in Catholic schools, including Xavier, joined the ALP while at school and threw himself into student politics at university. The story gets interesting – and incredibly intricate – when young Bill becomes an organiser for the AWU and enters what Marr calls ‘the dark world of Victorian politics’. Shorten quickly mastered the politics of the ALP right, proved to be a brilliant recruiter who, as he took on leadership, reanimated the ‘shot duck’ union.

The history is interspersed with vignettes that are closer to the present moment: Shorten’s successful management of potentially rancorous differences at the ALP National Conference this year; Shaun Micallef’s skewering of his sub-Keating wit, his ‘zingers’; his time in the witness box in Tony Abbott’s politically motivated Royal Commission; a list of his nicknames, from Lot’s Wife‘s Bill ‘Career Move’ Shorten in 1987 to Tony Abbott’s Barnacle Bill in 2014.

The picture that emerges is a man who has a phenomenal talent for union politics. Bill Shorten has been a master of the deal – all the hard work, sweet talk and hard-man tactics, betrayal and compromise happen behind the scenes. His role in the manoeuvring to replace Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister with Julia Gillard and then to replace Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd was in that same mode, though more visible and not a good look (Marr doesn’t mention it, but the captions of newspaper photographs of him at that time called him, paradoxically, a ‘faceless man’.) Now that he is seeking to become Prime Minister, he is in new territory: this competition has to happen in the open – out of the box office and onto the stage, perhaps. When the essay was written, Tony Abbott was his opponent. With the infinitely more personable Malcolm Turnbull in the other corner, Shorten’s challenge remains much the same. This essay helps us to see who he is and the world that he comes from: he needs to find a way to show himself in a way that the electorate will take to him.

Speaking at Gleebooks last night, David Marr said this was the hardest writing assignment of his life, because ‘the terrain is so unspectacular’. Maybe, but there will be a federal election in the next 15 months, and Bill Shorten’s conservative Labor style and substance will be part of some interesting times.


Up the back there are 40 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay – that is to say, some discussion of IS, Iraq and Syria that doesn’t bristle with terms like ‘death cult’, ‘baddies and baddies’ or even ‘evil’, but is all about military strategy. I’m a pacifist, but I love the way these people can argue their cases.