Monthly Archives: June 2019

The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (UWA Publishing 2016)

Before the meeting: Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and has been widely well received. I hated it.

I realised how much I was hating it when on page 16 the main character, grumpy and defensive seventyish white man Frederick Lothian, describes a piece of knitting as ‘abandoned in medias res‘: my inner pedant came out all guns blazing. That’s syntactically incorrect, it shouted: in medias res doesn’t mean ‘in the middle of things’, as Frederick (who has been studying Latin) and presumably the author think, but ‘into the middle of things’ – you can’t abandon something into something. I was being unfair: it’s a genuinely trivial matter and anyhow English usage has long since left the Latin behind. If I’d been enjoying the book, even moderately, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Out of respect for the Book Group, the Miles Franklin judges (though we shouldn’t forget The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I persisted.

There are a lovely couple of sentences on page 164:

Some young lads were tossing a Frisbee, diving after it and landing heavily in the sand. They came up laughing and dusting off their legs, A thin, stringy boy with a head of dark hair and a little nub of fluff under his lip leapt sideways and missed. He met the ground not as you would meet an adversary – hardened and eager to hurt – but like a member of the family who had been gone just a little too long: a quick embrace, an easier release.

And in the final movement there’s a scene of genuine power in which a father slaps his tiny son.

I mention those moments for two reasons: first to prove that I did read on, and second to demonstrate that I wasn’t committed to hating the book. But committed or not, I did hate it. I really I don’t want to spend time spelling out why, though a number of my friends have put up with rants and readings-aloud. enough to say that it seemed to me at one stage that you could pick a passage at random and I’d hate something in the content or the expression. If you want to know more about the book, I recommend any of the blogs I’ve linked to above. They’re not written by defensive and grumpy old white men and may be more dependable than mine.

At the meeting: I arrived intending to keep my mouth shut because there’s nothing worse than having someone spraying vitriol at a book you’ve just read and loved, and I was trying to be open to the possibility that the book is actually OK, but just sparked/triggered something in me. (Another chap from the book had told me a couple of weeks before the meeting that he too had hated the book – it had made him unaccountably angry. Being morally superior to me, he reread it. I was looking forward to what he had to say at the meeting.)

We did spend an unusual amount of time discussing the food (which was excellent – everyone had bought something), the recent election result, and the rights and wrongs of a Sydney multi-millionaire sporting celebrity who broke a contractual undertaking not to speak ill of LGBTQI people and lost his job because of it. But we also had a spirited, amiable and enlightening conversation about the book.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my mouth shut for long, and my friend who had been made unaccountably angry didn’t say much more than that the book didn’t make him angry the second time. A couple of people had enjoyed it a lot (though one who had really loved it couldn’t be there, alas). No one hated it as much as I did, and I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).

The architects and modernist design aficionados among us enjoyed the presence of those elements, including the illustrations scattered throughout. No one could tell me what these photos added, except that they pleasantly broke up the pages of text. Clearly, though, the book had stuck a chord in some, as a number of members spoke in a heartfelt way of how adoption, old-people’s homes, work-family balance had figured in their lives. Oddly, I felt that the plot tensions were satisfactorily resolved in the final stages, whereas some people who liked the book were left dissatisfied. I was the only one who read out a passage – the one quoted above – though one chap read out a number of phrases that he considered beautifully turned (I didn’t, but there’s no point arguing about such things).

Extinctions is the twenty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a library book.

Literal erasure

I’ve been walking past this rubbish bin outside the Marrickville Metro for a couple of weeks. It just occurred to me that the attack on this tiny, neat graffiti is an example of literal erasure of First Nations peoples in history. For what it’s worth:

Ruby Reads (12): Ladybird, Alison Lester & Dylan

On the weekend I went to a family gathering – not a reunion, but a first-time gathering of the descendants of three Shaw brothers who came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1860s and 70s. The event itself was fun and interesting, with at least one revelation that led to much hilarity, but what’s relevant to this blog is that I stayed with a niece, mother of two small girls. Here’s a) a book I read while stickybeaking on her bookshelves, and b) two books that were requested at bedtime. You’ll be able to tell which is which.

Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, How it Works: The Mum (Michael Joseph 2016)

This is one of those books that sit on the front counters of bookshops inviting you to buy them as gifts. It’s a parody of a Little Golden Book (or Ladybird Book in the US UK (see Robert Day’s comment) edition as pictured here), using illustrations from 1960s children’s books and affecting a childlike tone in the text, but with an adult sting in the tail. This one is funny rather than cynical, wry rather than bitter. My niece’s favourite page is the one where the mum has an interview for a job but can’t get the theme tune from The Octonauts out of her head. Mine is the last page, where the mum rides her bike to work after an exhausting night and when she hears other mothers speak of their children’s exemplary behaviour is fortunately too tired to kill them.

At the end, there’s a sweet acknowledgement of the pleasure the authors derived from the original books, which reads as a sincere tribute rather than a legal requirement. The artists are listed, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

Alison Lester, Are We There Yet? (Viking 2005)

A family of five go on a trip around Australia in 32 pages. The refrain ‘Are we there yet?’ is irregular enough not to be annoying, but frequent enough that my seven year old great-niece could join me in saying it each time.

Regular readers will know that my main contact with children’s books these days is thanks to my 18 month old granddaughter. This book is a reminder of past reading pleasures and a sweet harbinger of things to come. Alison Lester’s images are completely beguiling.

Bob Dylan (lyrics), Jim Arnosky (images), Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling 1999)

This is a rare thing, a picture book with Bob Dylan lyrics as the text. The song is from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, from BD’s born-again Christian era. It was hard to tell if my young relatives (who were not only sleepy but also slightly anxious at being read to by a virtual stranger) enjoyed it very much. But the illustrations are gorgeous, every page crowded with splendid animals, many more than are mentioned in the song. The book comes with a CD attached – our copy was from the library, and the CD-less.

I may be a feminist Climate Crisis prig, but front and centre for me was the title’s erasure of female humans and its assertion of human separateness from ‘all the animals’, both of which made it hard for me to love the book or the song.

Are We There Yet? is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Journal Blitz

I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.

Gig Ryan (guest editor), Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1 (2018)

In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:

No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.

The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.

There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:

From Judith Beveridge’s poem:

Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling
yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults?
Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands
running along the canted bones of your spine
(from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)

From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:

Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word.
Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope,
will always draw out those strong and slanted notes
running across every imperfect surface.

There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?

Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:

In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.

I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).

Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.

There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.

Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’

Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache & Christopher Cyrill (guest editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 2 2017: The Long Apprenticeship

Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:

  • Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
  • Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
  • Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
  • James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/

There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.

There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.

Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.

The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:

A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.

Ruby Reads (11): Caterpillars, butterflies and lavatory humour

Last week I in bed with a fever and had the great pleasure of hearing in the next rook the Emerging Artist and the Granddaughter enjoy Rosie’s Walk together, maybe ten times in a row. So much squeaking and screaming and sheer exuberance! (Note to the Ramsey Centre: please consider Rosie’s Walk for your curriculum. It is one of the great achievements of Western Civilisation.) But that book has had its moment in this blog. Here are some new books, all of which were read to us at the library’s Rhyme Time:

Eric Carle, Sleep Tight Very Hungry Caterpillar (Puffin 2018)
Eric Carle, Where Is The Very Hungry Caterpillar? (The World of Eric Carle 2020)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it turns out, isn’t so much a book as a commercial phenomenon. These books, read to us on separate occasions, have a comfortingly familiar feel. Sadly, though, the existence of these and (I gather from the internet) other sequels/spin-offs somehow takes the shne off the original book (my blog post here).

Petr Horáček, Butterfly, Butterfly (Walker Books 2012)

Though the cover of this book announces that it is a ‘pop-up book of colour’, I was surprised and delighted by its only pop-up spread. Lucy sees a butterfly in the garden one day, and then it is gone. She spends most of the book discovering other colourful creatures, and in the end, failing to find the butterfly again, lies down and waits. Then, in the book’s final spread, there’s a wonderfully theatrical moment. You can see it for yourself on YouTube (here)

Stephanie Blake, Poo Bum (Gecko Press 2013)

The librarian prefaced her reading of this by saying it was for the parents and grandparents rather than the children. It’s a scatological variation on the theme of Maurice Sendak’s sublime Pierre (my blog post here): the little rabbit replies ‘Poo bum’ to every conversational opening. After surviving a terrible event, he (or she) undergoes a miraculous transformation, conversing with courtesy and a rich vocabulary. There’s a lamentable relapse at the end. The librarian closed the book and sighed, ‘I love a bit of lavatorial humour.’

I was relieved to note that it’s a New Zealand title, so I don’t have to include it in my list of books read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews (Part One)

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE to 1492) (Vintage 2014)

Some decades ago, I borrowed a book called The History of the Jews from a friend, and was disappointed to find that it was little more than a smoothing out of the Biblical stories. As far as its author was concerned, it seemed, you didn’t need to go past the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) to get the history up to the beginning of the current era.

Simon Schama’s book is the one I was hoping for back then. The Hebrew Bible, he writes, is not primarily history, but

the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry; it is the epic of the YHWH treaty-covenant with Israel, the single formless God moving through history, as well as the original treasure of its spiritual imagination.

(page 7)

Schama’s story doesn’t begin with Abraham leaving Ur, or even with Moses leading his people from Egypt. Schama isn’t confident that the exodus from Egypt even happened. It begins with the documented beginning of ordinary Jews, the earliest Jewish city that archaeologists have been able to reconstruct, on the island of Elephantine in Egypt, in the early 5th century BCE, hundreds of years after the Biblical account of the exodus. And although that city was a military outpost – Jewish soldiers employed by the Syrian empire – the book begins not with a battle or any grand scheme, but with a letter from a father to his soldier son.

Though the book’s title promises ‘The Story’, Schama insists from the beginning that there’s more than one story: the Biblical story and the archaeological story; Jerusalemite stories and stories of communities in exile; stories of those who integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours – Babylonian, Egyptian, Christian, Muslim – and of those who insist on rigorous separateness; stories of brilliant intellectual and spiritual achievement and stories of unimaginable horror (and this book ends in 1492).

I spent my first two decades in an intensely Catholic environment, so the account of Christianity’s transformation from a Jewish sect to a demonically anti-Jewish institution is particularly gripping to me. Cherie R Brown and Amy Leos-Urbel’s Anti-Semitism asserts that religion is not the cause of anti-semitism, but has been used as a tool to foment it. I think that makes sense, but reading how John Chrysostom, revered father of the church, preached vile slander and murderous injunctions against Jews (evidently thinking it was necessary because a lot of Christians in the 380s happily participated in Jewish festivals), tests the proposition. And my childhood image of St Francis preaching to the birds must now be accompanied by that of his Franciscan friars torturing and murdering men, women and children who refused to renounce Judaism, and many who had renounced it but continued to eat their customary food.

But the terrible history of humiliation and massacre is not the main story here. Again and again, Schama gives us stories of brilliant survival. The Talmud and the mishnah – tumultuous documents filled with wisdom, argument and disputation – grew in a state of exile. And before them, the Hebrew Bible itself was an extraordinary creation. A roll call of the people in this book who did great things would be very long: administrators, generals, poets – why haven’t I ever heard of Shmuel ibn Naghrela or Yehuda Halevi?

One small warning: I’m pretty knowledgable about Biblical stuff, have a smattering of mediaeval history, and some knowledge of current Judaic feasts. There were times when I found it hard to keep my bearings in the tumult of this story. So it may not a good place to start. If you don’t know who Moses is, or you’ve never heard of Purim, you might need something more straightforward, and move on to this when you’re ready.

Speaking with Paul Holdengräber at the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Simon Schama spoke of the heroism of the displaced. I don’t think the phrase occurs in this book, but it could have. His main subject at the SWF was the second volume of this story. You can hear that wonderfully entertaining conversation by clicking here, and my blog report on it here. He is now girding his loins for the third volume, which brings us through the twentieth century up to the present.

Ruby Reads (10): Ducks, pop-ups, and llama

Ruby hasn’t been terribly interested in reading for a while, at least when she’s with her grandparents. Too many competing interests, like bubbles, ramps, putting tiny dolls in bags and taking them out again, hunting for kookaburras, people watching … the list goes on. Three of the books in this post have been read to us at library Rhyme Time. Only one has been requested (or, to be more accurate, demanded repeatedly) at home.

Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury, Farmer Duck (Walker Books 1992)

This was read to us, rather poorly if the truth be told, at Rhyme Time at a different library from our usual. The duck works for a lazy farmer, who lies around all day and every now and then asks how the work is going. The poor duck looks up from one of his many tasks and reports that it’s going well. Soon the duck is exhausted. The other animals have a meeting, whose conclusion is ‘Moo’, ‘Oink’, ‘Cluck’. Translated into action, this leads to the ejection of the farmer from his bed and from the farm, and the work being taken over by a collective of animals. This is a cheerfully nonsensical tale of socialist revolution and workers’ control. Text and images triumphantly transcended the circumstances in which we encountered them.

Jo Lodge, Oops! Little Chick (Push, Pull Pop! Books, B E S Publishing 2013)

It’s tempting to say this was the opposite experience: an almost nothing book read to us with enormous charm and enthusiasm. But really, the book is an unassuming but perfect piece of paper engineering. The high point, hinted at in the colour illustration, is the page where you pull a tab and a little splat of yellow business appears on the ground behind the little chick. Our excellent librarian returned to that page a couple of time.

Fiona Watt and Alessandra Psacharopulo, Pop-Up Jungle Book (Usborne 2015)

More paper engineering. This one, which is much more elaborate, goes on a walk through the jungle where tails swish, jaws snap, etc, activated just by turning the page. One small child (the program is for children younger than two) was so enthralled, she wandered from her mother’s lap as if hypnotised to stand almost within touching distance. Speak not too lightly of pop-up book creators, they are the unacknowledged formers of young minds. (There’s a YouTube of this book: here.)

Anna Dewdney, Llama Llama Zippity-Zoom (Viking 2012)

This board book is one of the :Llama Llama series. The other one I know is about Llama Llama Red Pyjama at bed time. In this one the protagonist (I’m avoiding saying ‘he’, because the character could be female) has fourteen pages of vigorous, onomatopoeic activity. Something about it appeals hugely to the almost-eighteen-month-old in my life. Just yesterday she returned to it with a vengeance. And I confess to enjoying its wonderful minimalist storytelling, and finely judged rhyme. I just read on wikipedia that all Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pyjama books have been New York Times best sellers. [Added later: The Emerging Artist wants me to acknowledge that she is the definitively preferred reader of this book.]