Monthly Archives: May 2016

Craig Munro’s Under Cover

Craig Munro, Under Cover: Adventures in the art of editing (Scribe 2015)

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‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

That’s from E M Forster’s essay, ‘Aspects of the Novel’. The point he’s making is that plot is about causality rather than mere sequence, that plot engages readers’ imaginations: they have to ‘remember incidents and create connecting threads between them’, and that sustains their interest over the long haul.

A memoir needs some element of plot as well, but perhaps inevitably it will include quite a lot of detail just for the record. Under Cover  has a central theme, announced in a epigraph quoting Beatrice Davis, perhaps the most famous of all Australian book editors: ‘It is essential that authors and editors are capable of being temperamentally in tune, even of becoming friends: to be otherwise would be damaging or disastrous.’ We follow Craig Munro’s editorial career, mainly at University of Queensland Press, as a story of friendships, of what Munro, quoting Melbourne editor Mandy Brett, describes as intense affairs-of-the-mind. And then there’s the broader sweep, the history of the publication of Australian literature as seen through the lens of the part played by the memoirist.

In some ways the backbone of the book is the relationship of Peter Carey with UQP and Munro: Munro was responsible for bringing Carey’s first book to print, and the memoir maps the ups and downs (mainly ups) of Carey’s career against his changing relationship with the publishing house and the editor-become-friend. The small independent publisher discovers and nurtures a writer, who out of economic necessity moves to a better resourced London publishing house. As he becomes more successful, his books are published simultaneously in the US, the UK and Australia, sometimes typeset separately for the different editions: we get to see some of the inner workings of that set-up, including one spectacular error that took years for anyone to notice. (Did you know that if you read an early Australian or UK edition of Oscar and Lucinda you missed out on a whole chapter that was in the US edition and later Australian and UK editions?)

It’s not a kiss and tell memoir. There are no scandals, no grand revelations. But we get personal glimpses of David Malouf, the famously touchy Xavier Herbert, Barbara Hanrahan, Olga Masters in a marvellously magisterial moment, and others. Munro’s account of the infamously disorderly 1985 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner is just wonderful, names and packdrill included.

Sometimes the fine details on print runs, quotes from Munro’s and others’ reports on manuscript that were to become wildly successful books, and from reviews of those books on first publication, become cumulatively tedious. And really do we care that Peter Carey was mildly sarcastic to a reviewer who described Illywhacker as old-fashioned? But these moments are easily forgiven.The queen doesn’t die of grief, but Australian publishing lives on in spite of adversity. The authors of the recent Productivity Commission Report on book publishing would have done well to read this book.

SWF: My Day 4

Saturday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival the weather held, brilliantly.

My first session was at 11 o’clock: Paul Muldoon: On Seamus Heaney. Advertised as Muldoon discussing Heaney’s poetry, this turned out to be Muldoon reading Heaney. Did I mention earlier that David Malouf described Paul Muldoon’s reading as ‘at the right speed’? It’s such a spot-on observation: he makes every word count, the way Mandela did in his oratory. He read ‘Follower‘, ‘Digging‘, ‘Tollund Man‘, ‘Keeping Going‘, and stopped for questions. A woman in the front row – it may have been Kate Tempest – asked him to read more poems. He read ‘When all the others were away at Mass‘. It was an absolute treat.

Meanwhile, the Emerging Artist went to see First Dog On The Moon Live, which she said was wonderful: from the symptoms of windfarm pathology (all taken from real if somewhat delusional sources) to the grief caused by the death of a pet dog, the Dog is as captivating in person as his cartoons are compulsory reading.

We both went to see Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses after lunch. Wow! Michael Williams, her interlocutor, set the ball rolling by reading the first couple of paragraphs of the novel that this session was named for. As he said, he’s not a bad reader. Then he asked Kate to read the same bit. She stood up with the closed book in her hands and gave us the first several pages as a passionate spoken word performance. It was a whole other thing!

For the whole hour, she was not just passionate about her world and about the world, but constantly self-questioning, challenging herself not to fall back on setpieces when talking about her work. Responding to one question she rhapsodised about the joys of freeform rapping; to another who asked what William Blake said to her she quoted half a dozen bits from (I think ) ‘The Proverbs of Hell’. As the session drew to a close and Michael Williams made the standard announcement that her books were on sale at Gleebooks, she interjected, ‘Nothing you can buy will make you whole,’ then explained that she would have to be snappy with any signing because she wanted to get to the session on the Stolen Generations with Ali Cobby Eckermann in half an hour.

We had some quiet time, then queued for The Big Read at half past 4. This lovely event has been downgraded from the main Sydney Theatre stage to the cavernous space known to the Festival as The Loft, with just enough room on the  tiny stage for MC Annette Shun Wah and the five writers. All the same, it was  a great pleasure to be read to by

  • Carmen Aguirre (Chile and Canada), from her memoir Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution
  • Paul Murray (Ireland), from his novel The Mark and the Void
  • Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), from her novel The Book of Memory, a reading that included some very sweet singing
  • Marlon James (Jamaica), from A Brief History of Seven Killings and
  • William Boyd (England and France), from Sweet Caress.

I dashed straight from there to Avant Gaga, to be read to again, this time by poets in the Sydney Dance Lounge. One end of the space was occupied by people eating their dinner, and not doing so in monastic silence. Our crowded end was full of people straining to listen. There weren’t enough chairs for the audience – some sat on the floor, some on the spiral stairs in the middle of the room, one (me) sat on a low table under the stairs and managed to draw blood by bumping into the sprinkler there. Avant Gaga is a monthly event in the back courtyard of Sappho’s bookshop in Glebe, which it goes without saying is a lot more comfortable (unless it’s raining).

I can’t say it was an unadulterated pleasure to be read to in those circumstances, but there was a lot of pleasure. Our MC was Toby Fitch. He kicked things off with a seemingly endless list of entities and activities, real and then increasingly fanciful, that might be represented by the initials SWF. ‘Sesquipedalian’ featured and so did ‘fellatio’. Then, in order, a.j. carruthers, Amanda Stewart, Astrid Lorange, Elena Gomez, joanne burns, Kate Fagan, Kent MacCarter, Lionel Fogarty, Pam Brown and Peter Minter read. Toby Fitch asked our indulgence an read a poem called something like ‘A hundred fully-formed words’, in honour of his infant daughter. Here’s what Astrid Lorange looked like from my vantage point:

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While I was there, the EA went to My Family and Other Obstacles in which Richard Glover hosted three much younger people talk about books about growing up with seriously dysfunctional parents. One of my siblings once said that our birth family was dysfunctional, and I’ve no doubt that my sons at various times would say the same of theirs. After hearing the stories from this session, I’m confident that its participants would be entitled to sneer.

And though the festival continues today, that was it for me. I didn’t mention arriving one day to pass a senior poet wheeling a baby in a stroller, or pretty much looking up from the book I was reading to see someone whose name had been mentioned just a page earlier, or hearing a well respected political essayist exclaiming a common obscenity, or discovering that the Children’s Book Council had scheduled a conference to coincide with the Festival, or the pleasure of having my name spelled correctly on three hot chocolate lids in as many days, or the books I bought. But I don’t have to blog everything.

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

SWF: My Day 2

Thursday morning in Marrickville the air was grey with smoke – someone was burning off. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay, the air was clearer but there was still plenty of grey, this time on people’s heads and faces, though the festival goers aren’t as homogeneously 60+ as on weekdays in previous years.

If I had to name a theme common to the five sessions I attended today, I’d say it was intergenerational respect and co-operation.

At 10 o’clock Zelda la Grange discussed her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, steered deftly by veteran interlocutor David Leser.

As an ‘apolitical’ young Afrikaner who absolutely supported apartheid, la Grange accidentally found herself working for President Nelson Mandela, the man she had seen as her people’s greatest enemy. She told us of her first meeting with him in her early 20s: where she had expected hostility she not only  found a warm handclasp and interested questions about her life, but he spoke to her in Aftikaans, the language of the people who had gaoled him for decades. She burst into tears. He put his free hand in her shoulder and said, ‘Relax, you’re overreacting.’

Over the following weeks and then years, she heard more of his story, shed more tears and felt the bubble of white privilege that had kept her world narrow dissolving. She became his private secretary and, as he grew old and frail, his protector. She said he worked on her heart every day. She called him by the Swahili (I think) word for granddad. He rechristened her Zeldiña.

Since his death in 2013, she treasures their great non-romantic love, and sees it as her mission to keep alive his legacy of respect in public life.

Then on to a spectacular queue for Climate: Knowledge and Hope featuring scientists Tim Flannery and Peter Doherty, wrangled by Bianca Nogrady.

Flannery’s most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope, was written last August, when it seemed Paris would lead to good things. It did produce an agreement, but things are less obviously hopeful now, with news of record temperature increases. Doherty’s is The Knowledge Wars, which I gleaned is about current attacks on scientific knowledge on a number of fronts, beginning perhaps with climate change but extending to areas like vaccination.

Faced with the dire reality of climate change, these two men of a certain age remain ebullient. When Nogrady ventured that hope has a passivity to it – we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best – Flannery apologised to his mainly older audience and said that many young people, scientists and activists, are less prone to despair than their elders, but see the situation as a challenge which they set about vigorously meeting. Doherty echoed that view.

My other heartening take-home from this session was that where The Australian and the rest of the denialist and reactionary Murdoch press have been very influential on the rest of the media, that dominance is now being challenged by The Conversation, a much more reality based publication which presents the work of academics online in readable form. He urged us to subscribe at theconversation.com/au.

1:30-2:30 pm: NSW Premier’s Awards: Meet the Writers: I was initially disappointed that only two of the NSWPLA winners were on the podium with ‘senior judge’ Ross Grayson Bell, but when the two are Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung less is more.

Both women are daughters of immigrant fathers who experienced major traumas in their home countries – Poland under the Nazis and Cambodia under Pol Pot respectively. Both have written about their fathers, Magda in Reckoning, her award-winner, and Alice in her earlier memoir My Father’s Daughter. Though Alice spoke a little about her award-winner, Laurinda, most of the conversation revolved around their points of similarity. In both their families, the traumatic experiences of the parents weren’t passed over in silence to protect the children, but were told, often enough, as funny stories or adventures. Alice in particular now finds herself wondering about the wisdom of advice from teachers not to tell students too much detail about the terrible ordeals described in her books.

Neither writer referred to our current government’s cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees or to Peter Dutton’s recent disparagement of some as ‘illiterate and innumerate’. They didn’t have to. This was pointedly so when someone asked Alice Pung how her mother responded to her memoir: ‘My mother’s illiterate. She said she’ll wait for the movie.’

3:00-4:00 pm: Paul Muldoon talked with David Malouf for a wonderfully loose, lucid hour, about the way a poem is a process of discovery for the poet, and for the reader. Apparently distracted by the sounds outside the cavernous room, Muldoon drew our attention to the rhythmic creaking of the wharf’s posts and a distant pneumatic drill then, as if drawing his ideas from these ambient sounds, talked about the dual activity of the poet – construction worker/ maker/ makar, and explorer/ troubadour/ trovatore. The two poets, like the two scientists and the two daughters earlier, had a wonderful rapport. Each time the conversation threatened to slacken, David Malouf (who had introduced himself here as a reader) asked the poet if he would read to us. The poems he chose for us were ‘Hedgehog‘, written when he was a teenager, and ‘Pelt’ from his most recent book. Interestingly, far from patronising his sixteen-year-old self, Paul Muldoon was in awe of him.

4:30-5:30 pm: Tammy and Lesley Williams, Murri mother and daughter who collaborated on the book Not Just Black and White, were brilliant. Lesley led a successful campaign to reclaim wages withheld by the Queensland government from Aboriginal workers last century. She wanted to write a book about it but was daunted by the task as she’d left school at the end of primary school, and also had trouble believing anyone would be interested. Tammy, then a teenager in school, now a successful barrister and Queensland’s Commissioner for Children, helped with both problems. She taped her mother’s spoken account and transcribed it. Just as importantly, she constantly reassured her mother that the story was worth telling. This book tells their story in the form of a conversation.

In question time a young woman thanked the writers because, even though her grandmother had received only $4000 in acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work, the payment made a huge difference.

I had a personal connection too, but not one I wanted to inflict on that gathering. As a white child in north Queensland in the 1950s I was completely unaware that most Aboriginal people were living ‘under the Act’. I don’t know if the Aboriginal couple who worked for my parents, the man with my father on the farm and the woman with my mother a day a week in the house, were subject to the same covert exploitation as Lesley Williams discovered. My ignorance  is given extra point as their names were Charlie and Pearl Williams (always Mr and Mrs Williams to us kids). I’m ashamed, but hugely grateful to these Williamses for their generosity and valour in putting the story out here for all of us. I’ve bought the book.

End of my Festival day. [Wipes sweat from brow]

Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Chris Ware, Building Stories (Jonathan Cape 2012)

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This is a book that comes as 17 or so separate pieces in a box: little books, bigger books, concertina-folded strips, a board …  It might seem just plain gimmicky at first blush. But no. It turns out to be completely captivating.

The title is a pun: to read this book you have to build its stories, and a good deal of it is tales from a three-story building. Because of the nature of the beast, every reader will encounter the stories in a different sequence. Either I was very lucky, or the sizes and heft of the components tend to guide the reader’s choices, but I felt that I was reading a discontinuous but coherent narrative.

The book I read has five narrative threads, each with a central character: the lonely woman with a partially amputated leg who lives on the top level of an old building in inner Chicago; the unhappily married couple on the floor below her; the old woman who owns the building, and who lives on the ground floor where she has lived her whole life; a bee who is briefly trapped in the house; and the house itself. These stories connect and separate the way the lives of people who live in an apartment building do. Eventually, one of the stories emerges as the central one and the others slip away.  (I imagine that if you read in a different sequence, the life after the building – which to me was a long aftermath – will seem like the main story, with the life in the building as flashback.)

It’s not exactly a cheery read: most of the characters spend most of their time sad, lonely, bored, and generally dissatisfied. Youthful ambitions fail to materialise, youthful mistakes come back to haunt. But the telling is miraculous. Really. Once I got over my initial reluctance to engage with this box of stuff, I was completely gripped. The ending, or rather my ending, is devastating but not as nihilistic as I had feared. Chris Ware’s art is precise and spare to the point of primness, yet communicates meaning through the slightest variation – a flower stem bends slightly from one frame to the next, a facial expression changes subtly. Here’s a sample page, though I don’t know how much you can tell from it. It’s part of a day at work for the woman from the top floor, an aspiring writer and artist who works in a florist’s shop:

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A note on terminology: Generally I dislike the term ‘graphic novel’ because it seems to me to be little more than a way not to call comics ‘comics’. But it’s hard to call Building Stories a comic, because it’s not a comedy by a long shot. I don’t know, call this a grown-up picture book in a box (‘grown-up’ rather than ‘adult’, because although there’s nudity and some sexual activity, including among the bees, there’s nothing particularly erotic about it).

 

SWF: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is off and running. I’m having a soft entry: just one event yesterday and none today, and  I don’t expect to see Walsh Bay until tomorrow morning.

Yesterday’s talk, Craig Munro: Under Cover, was at the State Library, just next door to the Mitchell Library, scene of last night’s awards ceremony. Craig Munro was in conversation with Rachel Franks from the library, talking about Under Cover, his memoir of three decades working as an editor at University of Queensland Press.

I’m lucky enough to have earned my living as an editor, and I have never found the work less than interesting, whether in the book trade, on a children’s magazine (that was the best!), or in the publications section of a government department. But it’s not glamorous, and I struggle to see why anyone not an editor would be interested to hear one of us talk about it. However, a respectable crowd turned out for this talk, and seemed to like what they got.

What we got was some tips about self editing (‘the most important thing is to create distance from the initial writing’), advice on how to write a pitch for a publisher or agent (spend at least a week honing it), information and opinions about the changing face of publishing (paper books are here to stay; a poetry book is best-seller in Australia if it sells 400 copies), and glimpses of famous authors (David Malouf and the underrated Barbara Hanrahan are the only two writers Munro has dealt with whose manuscripts arrive at the publisher pretty well word perfect).

The best thing about the session was the readings that topped and tailed it. The first told of the author’s first meeting with David Malouf, in which they worked out the name for Malouf’s first novel. The second, with brilliant timing, told the story of the infamous NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner of 1985, at which the book people gathered in the Intercontinental Hotel grew unruly during Morris West’s sermonical Address (the poet Martin Johnston shouting ‘Bullshit!’ at one point), Nadia Wheatley criticised Premier Neville Wran’s housing policy when accepting her award from him, and Wran himself reverted to Parliamentary behaviour and called on someone to put a bun in the mouth of one rowdy interjector. The passage should be read aloud at the start of each Awards evening, to remind us all that slide shows, civility and smiling decorum may not always be preferable to honest ill temper and rowdiness. Craig Munro’s manifest pleasure in reading it to us cast a different light on his own quietly courteous, considered manner.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

I’d love to go to the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards again one of these years, but $60 for a cocktail event is a stretch even for people who drink alcohol, and it’s way out of my range for hors d’oeuvres, sparkling water and speeches. Maybe I’ll get a freebie one of these years as a designated blogger, but for this year, as for the last couple, here’s how the evening went as gleaned from Twitter (Noting by the way that Twitter account @NSW_PLA has been silent for five years, and the facebook page ‘NSW Premier’s Literary Awards‘ for nearly three, I put my faith, mainly, in #PremiersLitAwards).

In the lead-up, there was a flurry of good-luck messages from publishers, seven tweets from one publisher lobbying for votes in the People’s Choice Award, and at least one person wondering if the recent Australia Council cuts to literary magazines would lead to an ‘interesting’ evening.

The first tweeter of the evening, a book editor from Text Publishing, turned up about 10 to 6, and a little later the State Library account posted a moody photo of the crowd gathering upstairs at the Mitchell Library, and we were away.

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Twitter was fairly tightlipped during the night – nothing about what anyone was wearing, no jokes, and little from acceptance speeches. Maybe that’s what happens when it’s a cocktail event rather than a dinner. However, here’s what I’ve got. Links are to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

Just before 7 the State Librarian officially welcomed everyone. The Welcome to Country included didgeridoo, but no one tweeted the name of the welcomer(s). Ross Grayson Bell, senior judge (I guess that’s what used to be call Chair of the Judging Panel), spoke briefly, saying that the Awards reflected the diversity of Australian writing (and so foreshadowing a major theme of the evening). Wesley Enoch delivered what Twitter said was an inspiring Address: among other things he said that when you are feeling your lowest is when you should make more art, and spoke of ‘storytelling for a nation that is in want of a memory’ (Wesley Enoch is a Murri man).

In a welcome departure from recent practice the Premier Mike Baird himself presented the awards. He spoke of J D Salinger, and said that ‘stories remind us why we’re here, what we’ve forgotten, and help us to inhabit other worlds’, echoing Wesley Enoch’s words. Jennifer Byrne took over as MC and the announcements (what she called a ‘rollcall of excellence’) began.

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) went to Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books). He gave a ‘very funny and memorable’ acceptance speech. No details.

Indigenous Writer’s Prize (a new biennial award worth $30,000). Of the shortlisted books I’d read only Inside My Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Giramondo). The prize was shared between Dark Emu  by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books) and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press), which must be wonderful books.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000).  The Bleeding Tree, Angus Cerini (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company). I knew I should have subscribed to the Griffin.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000). Of the shortlist, I’ve seen only Last Cab to Darwin, and though it had many good things about it, it would have surprised me if it won. The winner was the fourth episode of Deadline Gallipoli, ‘The Letter’, written by Cate Shortland (Matchbox Pictures) and screened on Foxtel, so bad luck for us non-subscribers.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000) went to Teacup, written by Rebecca Young & illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic Australia). The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000) was won by Alice Pung’s Laurinda (Black Inc.).

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000). Again, I’d only read one book, Joanne Burns’s brush (Giramondo). It won!

Of the shortlist for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($40,000) I had once again just one book under my belt, Magda Szubanski’s wonderful Reckoning: A Memoir (Text Publishing). Once again, it won. I was doing well. Mike Baird held Magda’s phone for her so her mother and brother could hear her acceptance speech. Someone tweeted at this point that a number of award winners spoke of their family histories and ‘complex journeys to Australia as displaced persons’.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (a mere $5000) went to An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian (Text Publishing). Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)went to Locust Girl, A Lovesong by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), a post-apocalyptic novel. One tweeter congratulated her for helping us ‘care across borders’. The People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels, went to The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton (Giramondo).

The Special Award (for which, if money is involved, the amount is not easily discoverable) was given to Rosie Scott, described by Susan Wyndham on Twitter as ‘admired author, supporter of young writers, asylum seekers, refugees, many social causes’.

The book of the year (again, monetary value not easily discovered) went to Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Accepting his award, he said to the people in the room, ‘I want to hear your story, because I would be spellbound.’

Then the State Library account tweeted the hashtag #BestSpeechesEver. So those of us pressing our noses against the glass wall of Twitter know what we missed out on. It was all over bar the reading – oh, and the many pictures of underdressed young women that began appearing with the Awards hashtag during the night.

 

Adam Aitken’s One Hundred Letters Home

Adam Aitken, One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Books 2016)

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Just a short post on this book: no disparagement intended, it’s just that the Sydney Writers’ Festival is here and if I don’t get this post done now there will be too much time between the reading and the blogging.

One Hundred Letter Home is Adam Aitken’s memoir of his parents and his own youth. It has been a long time in the making – earlier versions of two of its chapters were published in the late lamented Heat in 2004 and 2009. In it, Aitken goes in search of his parents. Not the actual parents,with both of whom he is still in contact in the course of the book, but the young people they once were. He explores letters and photographs from more than 50 years ago to gain some understanding of how these two people met, married, and separated. His father was a white Australian advertising man posted to Bangkok, who after enjoying the nightlife for some time fell in love with a university graduate from southern Thailand, and after some vicissitudes married her.

Their son knows more about these events than most of us do about our parents because the young advertising man wrote detailed letters home to his mother, including notes on his alcoholic excesses, the taxi dancers and other women he was drawn to, and then – all others falling by the wayside – his great love. And Airken makes wonderful use of this resource. There are also photos, which he squeezes for their narrative potential, and on his mother’s side some wonderful sketches of Thai culture.

The story continues: the couple leave Thailand to live in England for some time, and eventually come to live in Australia – first in Perth and then in Sydney. The source material tends to be sparser, especially for the English period, until the writer’s own memory comes into play. Along with his father’s time in Thailand, the most gripping part of the book is Aitken’s account of his own visit there in his early 20s, in search of his Thai identity – where he finds that questions of identity are a lot more subtle than that.

Launching this book at Gleebooks recently, Beth Yahp commented that whereas mostly these days we want to rush through things we read, this book forces us to slow down, dwell on moments, go back and reread or have another look. She’s right. My impression is that it was written as a group of more or less stand-alone essays, and the joining of those essays isn’t seamless. The occasional rough edges, however, mean that the reader is made aware of the work involved in making the book. It’s not an entertainment in the manner of Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!): you can feel the wrestling involved in getting these stories told.

I found myself itching to interrogate the received versions and silences about my own heritage. Thanks, Adam

Lumberjanes

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen and others Lumberjanes: To the Max edition Volume 1 (BOOM! Box 2015)

1608868095This was a generous birthday gift from a son. It’s a hefty and handsome hardback which collects eight original monthly comics, presented as the tenth edition (February 1984) of the field manual for the Lumberjanes advanced program, the Lumberjanes being a fictional version of the Girl Scouts (which I think is the US version of the Guides). The graphic adventures of five girls disrupt the manual’s practical instructions and moral exhortations. They don’t undermine its ethos, but go off on bizarre, anarchic adventures to earn their badges and save the day.

I’m definitely not part of the target audience for this one, being neither USian, nor female nor tween. I do like the central idea, as foreshadowed on the false title page where the ‘Girls’ in the phrase ‘Camp for Girls’ has been blacked out and replaced with a hand-printed ‘HARDCORE LADY-TYPES’. But the graphic style (mostly by Brooke Allen, with garish colours by Maarta Laiho) is too anarchic for my taste and the stories (mostly written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis) of spells, anagram clues, underground animated statues, zombie boys, dinosaurs and so on left me pretty unengaged, even when I could decipher what exactly was happening. I did enjoy the way any number of feminist icons (‘Holy bell hooks!’, for example, or ‘Oh my Bessie Coleman!’) are invoked in moments of high emotion.

Horses for courses. There aren’t too many 12 year old girls who would enjoy the books I do. So I’m not knocking this.

Gail Jones’s Guide to Berlin

Gail Jones, A Guide to Berlin (Random House 2015)

berlin.jpgAfter ten or so pages of A Guide to Berlin I was weighing my options. Did I really want to read another 240 pages about a small group of Nabokov enthusiasts in Berlin who meet to tell each other stories from their lives? Especially when those pages promised to include overcooked writing like this:

Shivering, cold, suffering pathetically in a minor key of frozen hands and feet, she aimed her phone through the watery light at the disappointing building across the street, and a man appeared, standing silently beside her.

The main thing that kept me reading was the desire to have one more shortlisted book under my belt before the NSW Premier’s Awards are announced in a week or so. Plus: some fabulous literature has been built around the conceit of a group of travellers telling each other stories to pass the time; I would love to revisit Berlin; the first page foreshadows a death and therefore, perhaps, interesting developments; and I hoped that the self-conscious literariness of the narrating voice might turn out to be a function of character rather than the author’s natural (I use the word loosely) style.

I did read on. The group of six people tell their stories, and are much more moved by them than I was. Berlin is present mainly in the naming of streets, landmarks and train lines. The main character, Cass, visits the Pergamon and the aquarium, and the tale-tellers do tell each other their favourite spots. Death happens at about the three-quarter mark, but it feels like a plot device, or at best a pretext for more introspection. And the self-conscious literariness keeps up all the way, with some beautifully quotable paragraphs but an over-riding sense that the writing is more interested in itself than anything else.

I’ve never read any Nabokov. Given that the characters frequently quote him to each other, maybe a reader familiar with his work would in effect be reading a different, infinitely more enjoyable book than I read. I hope many people love this book. I’m not one of them.
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That much was written when I had about 50 pages to go. I was hoping I’d have to ditch my draft and start all over again, this time singing the novel’s brilliance. After all, a lot can happen in 50 pages. Alas, the concluding pages are pretty much taken up by the narrator’s fairly callow reflections on the limitations of story, and the characters’ callous, self-preoccupied responses to some terrible deaths. Maybe the novel is subtly and elegantly holding both these things up for scrutiny, but if so the subtlety passed right by me. I was left with a feeling of deep disgust. Sorry!

AWW2016A Guide to Berlin is the fourth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.