Category Archives: Books

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate 2020)

Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed. biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

(Page 65)

This is the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: my blog posts of the first two are here and here. When the first novel was published in 2009, the idea of Donald Trump as President of the USA was a barely-remembered joke from Back to the Future II (1989). Yet now that we’ve reached the third volume her portrait of Henry VIII as a flashy, erratic, concupiscent, self-serving despot has taken on sharp contemporary relevance. Henry had more wives than Donald. and treated them a lot worse, but on the other hand he believed in God and his sense of his own importance, for good or ill, was bound up with that belief.

How we could wish for a principled, pragmatic and effective Thomas Cromwell in the White House of our own crooked age!

Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

(Page 435)

Ten years ago I thought of Thomas More as a saint, a model of integrity and courage, and Cromwell as corrupt, venal and murderous wielder of power. Now I think of the former as a vicious, misogynistic ideologue, and Cromwell as a basically decent man who, though not above murderous vengefulness, wasn’t afraid to get shit on his shoes or dirt on his hands in order to preserve social order and peace.

What to say about this huge (882 pages) book?

It’s beautifully written: someone told me his partner was reading a couple of pages of it to him each night, and I can see what a joy that would be.

It’s meticulously researched: it’s five decades since I studied Reformation History, so I’m no judge on its accuracy, but every time I checked a detail it turned out to be there in the record.

It’s spellbinding: even though you know in advance – or could do – that the main character is executed at the order of the king he serves and whose favour he enjoys, that conclusion seems both impossible and inevitable as events move inexorably towards it.

Though the resonances with Donald Trump’s presidency are strong, the book isn’t a thinly- or even thickly-veiled analogy for our times. One feels at every moment that Hilary Mantel has steeped her imagination in the England of the late 1530s. The food, the clothes, the specifics of patriarchy, the religious complexities, the lurking presence of the plague: all come startlingly alive. The bewildering array of characters that my generation of Australians learnt about in school – Henry VIII and his six wives, Thomas More, Cromwell himself, the bishops Cranmer, Pole and Latimer – are here as scheming and schemed against, sweet-talking, threatening, manoeuvring and grasping for survival, and in the middle of it all somewhere grappling with matters of principle.

I learned about the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective, and my childhood contempt for a clergy who modified their doctrines to suit the whims of a lusty king wasn’t changed much by my university studies. But this book, while it leaves me with even less respect for Henry, has given me a profound respect and admiration for the champions of the gospel around him.

In one reading, patriarchy remains intact and unchallenged in this book. There is no hint that both of Henry’s daughters would one day rule England – though women, including Mary, cold cause terrible trouble by marrying against the king’s wishes. Women are seen largely as pawns in the dangerous game of royal succession: will this one please the ageing king enough for him to ‘do the deed’, will she get pregnant, will the child be a boy, will the boy survive childhood? But there are hints that elsewhere women can have different kinds of power. Some women inspire the heretics and papists who rise up against Henry. Thomas’s witnessing a Lollard woman burned at the stake is one of the formative horrors of his childhood. And in the short chapter in which Jane Seymour gives birth to a son the narration moves away from Thomas’s point of view, and we are taken for a moment into a whole different world. Here not only do women have significant agency, but also the lore and wisdom inextricably bound up with the old Catholic religion comes into its own. Our sympathies are thoroughly with Cromwell the protestant, but Mantel’s imagination transcends anything like one-sided advocacy. A short quotation may help show what I mean:

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

(page 508, 510)

I finished this book with a sense of having witnessed a miracle.

Oh one last thing: earlier in the trilogy, Hilary Mantel got stuck into Thomas More and made Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons into a villain for our times, in this book Thomas Becket, the martyr hero of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral gets a similarly persuasive demotion. Is nothing sacred? I cry. To which Hilary Mantel apparently responds in the negative.

Ruby Reads 21: Books lent by a blog reader

I’m doing proportionally more posts about children’s books just now because this Covid lockdown is giving me more time than ever with granddaughter Ruby, and concomitantly less time for other reading.

After my last post about books I’ve read with Ruby, a lovely friend/blog reader lent me a swag of books she thought we’d enjoy. This is that swag:

Ian Falconer, Olivia Saves the Circus (Atheneum 2001)

The original Olivia has been a big success. Ruby talks about Olivia’s little brother Ian quite a lot and doesn’t want to go pink at the beach ‘like Olivia’. So this book, in which Olivia tells her class at school how she stepped into the breach when the circus performers were all sick, was very welcome. Although Ruby is a long way from getting the classroom jokes – the teacher is sceptical of Olivia’s tall tales and forces a near-admission of untruthfulness – she asks for the book on repeat. Olivia’s bold inventiveness is pretty irresistible.


Alison Lester, Clive Eats Alligators (OUP 1985)

The first spread of this gives us six children eating breakfast, all different. Turn to the next spread: the text on the left-hand page reads ‘But Clive eats alligators,’ and the image on the right shows Clive, perhaps disappointingly, eating a cereal called Alligator Pops. The book continues with Getting Dressed, Playing, Lunch, Shopping, Pets, Treats and Bedtime. Each of the seven children has a turn at having a spread to her or himself. The fun is in tracing any one of them through the book and seeing how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy, and so on.


Shirley Hughes, Chatting (Walker Books 1994)

Shirley Hughes is one of the great children’s illustrators of the 20th century. The endpapers of this book are 18 wonderful, warm cameos of active small children, each with a present participle beneath it: laughing, aching, pushing, pouring, and so on. The body of the book picks up on one of these cameos, ‘chatting’. and rings variations on it. The first person narrator is a little girl who likes to chat, who is bored when adults chat for too long, whose mother calls her a chatterbox, whose best chats of all are with her dad when he comes to say goodnight. The illustrations are great, but not very enticing to Ruby, and the theme is a bit lost on her too, I think. (For my part, I rankled vicariously at the ‘chatterbox’ criticism.)


Vera B Williams, “More More More,” Said the Baby (Greenwillow Books 1990)

Subtitled ‘Three Love Stories’, this is exactly that. In three separate stories a small child – a toddler rather than a baby – has a great time with an adult and cries out, ‘More. More. More.’ Except , that is, for the third one, because she’s asleep and just says, ‘Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.’ Done in consciously arty gouache, and with attention to diversity, this is very sweet. It doesn’t have the dramatic hold of Olivia or Rosie (see below), but it’s terrific.


Ruth Krauss (writer) and Maurice Sendak (Illustrator), A Hole Is to Dig (Harper Collins 1952)

Subtitled ‘A first book of first definitions’, this is just that – a collection of definitions, mostly in the form ‘X is to y’: ‘A watch is to hear it tick,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the top,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the bottom,’ ‘A package is to look inside.’ The text is witty and charming, but what makes the book brilliant are the pen-drawing illustrations by Maurice Sendak, then 24 years old. It’s a book to treasure. Ruby doesn’t care for it at all.


Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)

Stung by Ruby’s indifference to the 1952 Sendak, I retrieved this chapter book from our bookshelves, expecting it to sail right past her. The book has been on high rotation ever since.

You can see Meryl Streep reading the first half of the book at Maurice Sendak’s 80th birthday party, complete with slides of Sendak’s drawings, at this link. In that half, Rosie becomes Alinda the Lovely Lady Singer. In the second half, which is even better, she becomes Alinda the Lost Girl (‘Who lost you?’ ‘I lost myself.’) and a giant firecracker, and finally (spoiler alert) a sleepy cat. So many lines in this book make my heart sing. It was inspired by children Sendak saw playing in the street outside his window in Brooklyn, in particular the little girl who ran the show. Like Ruby, Rosie creates a lot of fun, and takes on a range of identities as she goes. I love them both.


Clive Eats Alligators is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

Proust Progress Report 9:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for nine months now. Part way through this month, I decided to reduce my daily quota of five pages. Three pages were fun, and then the next two were a slog. So I’m now aiming for three pages a day, and expect to be reading Proust – still mostly without a dictionary and still with limited comprehension – well into 2021.

At about page 1320 I nearly threw in the towel – exasperated by the interminable salons and garden parties, the meticulous charting of the rivalries of various duchesses, princesses and other ladies, the intrigues of the idle rich and their shifting allegiances related to the Dreyfus case and antisemitism. If I wanted to read something in French, maybe I should shift to Montaigne … or Jules Verne, where something happens.

Then the narrator goes for a second time to the seaside resort of Balbec, and after an encounter with the manager whose malapropisms amuse him enormously and are carefully explained, he is knocked sideways by memories of his beloved grandmother, who was his companion on his earlier visit. He feels her loss intensely, and is stupefied by grief. Worse, a number of people – workers at the hotel, his mother, his servant Françoise – tell him of sacrifices his grandmother was making for him at a time when he was oblivious to her suffering. This whole section is just brilliant. Though Proust is as much the meticulous analyst of emotional processes as ever, here it feels like vivisection.

And then we’re back with tales of lust and disgust and linguistic oddities. The early parts of this book dealt with the world of Sodom, of male homosexuality. At Balbec, in the part I’m now reading, the narrator becomes obsessed with Gomorrah, the world of Lesbians In particular, he suspects Albertine of Sapphic desires. So far, there’s nothing more graphic than public kissing, tittering and indecent shouts:

elles passèrent enlacées, ne cessant de s’embrasser, et … poussèrent des gloussements, des rires, des cris indécents.

(page 1397)

This must be the kind of thing that gave French literature a reputation for being as good as pornographic in the early 20th century.

I the middle of all this there are a couple of pages where the narrator tells us about a couple of sisters from the country who are employed as messengers by a wealthy woman at the hotel. Having somehow – he doesn’t explain how – struck up a friendship with them, he gives us a blow by blow account of a conversation in his bedroom one morning where they mock him mercilessly. My impression is that a native French speaker would find great joy in their rustic language, but I enjoyed it a lot without that advantage. These two women, Céleste and Marie, are full of vitality and have no respect at all for the narrator’s poor health, social ambitions or writerly distinction. There have been other moments where Proust has taken the mickey, but this one shines.

I’m soldiering on.

Ruby reads 20: Lockdown?

In the mainstream narrative grandparents everywhere are pining for their socially distanced grandchildren. The Emerging Artist and I have meanwhile been quietly sailing against the current, with more contact than ever, pending our little one being rid of flu-like symptoms. She comes to our place three days a week, and our small collection of children’s books has been much called on. When Gleebooks at Dulwich Hill reopened recently, we fell on its non-virtual shelves with cries of joy and came away with arms full.

Here are some of the old and some of the new.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Jedda Robaard (Illustrator), Soon (Little Hare 2020)

This is brand new and has already been requested/demanded many times. It may be a mistake to give a toddler who is obsessed with babies a book about waiting for a new baby to be born, but if so it’s a mistake that’s hard to resist. We wait, wait, wait. We clean, clean, clean. We paint, paint, paint. And just about all the mother mouse has to say on the subject is, ‘Soon.’ You don’t need me to tell you the ending, but I will say that it is emotionally very satisfying. Libby Gleeson’s incantatory text and Jedda Robaard’s calm, charged images make this a joy to read together. (The birth itself, like the devouring of the apple in Grug and the Big Red Apple, happens offstage.)


Ian Falconer, Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2000)

Olivia is a great artist and dancer trapped in the body of an anthropomorphised pig and the persona of a six year old girl. The back-cover praise from dame Joan Sutherland, Mikhail Baryshnikov and David Hockney, at least one of them written posthumously, are just one of the delights for adult readers. A 2 and a half year old seems to be delighted as well. Olivia argues, paints, dances, fusses about her clothes (which I’m glad to report are all bright red, no pink in sight), and is generally fabulous on pages with acres of white space.


Julia Donaldson (writer) and David Roberts (illustrator), Jack and the Flumflum Tree (Macmillan Children’s Books 2011)

We may have gleaned this from a street library a while back. In it the enormously prolific Julia Donaldson teams up with illustrator David Roberts for a quest story. Jack’s granny has spots and the only cure is the fruit of the faraway flumflum tree. Jack and friends sail away, face many challenges in which the contents of a patchwork sack come in handy. It bounces along, and ends with a terrible pun. I think Ruby likes it because it’s got sharks in it, and they’re almost as interesting as the big bad wolf or a bear.


Cressida Cowell (writer) and Neal Layton (illustrator), Emily Brown and the Thing (Hodder CHildren’s Books 2007)

Cressida Cowell wrote How to Train Your Dragon, which I haven’t had the pleasure of reading yet. She has also created a whole series of Emily Brown books: in this one, Emily Brown and her old rag rabbit Stanley keep trying to go to sleep but are kept awake by a weird creature, a ‘Thing’, who demands that they perform great feats to help him. They perform the feats – retrieving his cuddly (we say ‘blanky’) from the Dark and Scary Wood, fetching a glass of milk from the Wild and whirling Wastes, and so on. In the end Emily refuses to pander any more, and everyone gets a good sleep. We love this one.


And now a couple more Julia Donaldson titles. Is anyone else finding that her books are multiplying like mice? Nice mice, of course.

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), The Smartest Giant in Town (Macmillan Children’s Books 2002)

Here Julia Donaldson is teamed up with Axel Scheffler, the co-creator of her most famous book, The Gruffalo.

This is a tale told in prose that allows the reader-aloud to burst into song at the end of each of its episodes. A scruffy giant wanders into town and buys a smart new outfit. Then, in fairytale rhythms, he gives one item of flash clothing after another away to animals in distress. In the end, he retrieves his scruffy old clothes from the garbage outside the clothes shop, and is reconciled to his scruffy status. But them the animals he has helped turn up and celebrate his kindness. This is amiable and charming. The text is beautifully honed, and the illustrations are full of unexpected joys – other giants can be seen among the rooftops and characters from fairytales pass the giant on the road without comment.


Meanwhile, the parents had felt the need for variation and bought a number of books online, among them:

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), Zog (Scholastic 2016)

Told in the bouncing rhyme that I think of as Julia Donaldson’s typical mode, and which is a lot harder to do than it looks, this one plays sweet variations on the dragon theme. As young Zog learns all the basic dragon skills he is helped out by a girl who happens to turn up just as he gets into trouble. When he has to capture a princess, well, guess who turns out to be one? And when a knight comes to rescue the princess, I don’t think you’ll guess what happens, but it’s a most satisfactory ending with a most satisfactory variation on the tale’s recurring refrain.


Besides the books, there’s the scooter, the dolls, the trampoline, the cooking, the painting, the songs and the athletic challenges – all making worthwhile the weariness come 6 o’clock


Soon is the eight book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

SWF 2020 Day One

This year, because of viral matters, the Sydney Writers’ Festival has gone virtual. According to its website, more than 50 re-imagined sessions from the 2020 program will be presented as podcasts over the next few months. I don’t usually blog about podcasts, but since I’ve been blogging about the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 16 years off and mostly on, why not? I’ve made a monetary donation to help the festival through this crisis (and you can too, at this link). Here’s my bloggetary one, hopefully the first of several.

The first six podcasts were uploaded last Friday, all excellent. Here they are in my listening order, plus an earlier one that’s technically part of the Festival. The titles of the sessions here are linked to the Festival website where you can find the podcast..

Alison Whittaker: Opening Night Address: Alison Whittaker, described on the Festival website as ‘Gomeroi poet, essayist and legal scholar’, evoked the isolated condition in which she recorded her talk. She said her brief included a request to avoid talking about Covid-19 if it was possible, but she couldn’t find a way to avoid it. The theme of the Festival is Almost Midnight: she suggested that it’s now a minute past midnight, that we are living in apocalyptic times, but that First Nations Peoples have been doing that for 250 years. It’s a salutary talk, in which Whittaker pays tribute to many other First Nations writers who were scheduled to appear at the Festival.

Ann Patchett and Kevin Wilson: A Conversation with Friends: A free-ranging conversations between two US writers. Wilson first met Pratchett when he was beginning his postgraduate studies. She asked him to look after her dog for a time, and in that time she kept giving him books to read, which they would discuss, and it sounds as if they’ve been talking about the books they read ever since. It’s a warm, entertaining conversation with a lot of insight into how each of them approaches writing. I haven’t read any of his books, and just two of hers., but both were equally interesting to me.

Rebecca Giggs: Fathoms: I knew nothing about Rebecca Giggs’s book Fathom: The World in the Whale before listening to this. Nor had I heard of Sweaty City, an independent magazine about climate change and urban ecology, whose co-founding editor Angus Dalton is her interlocutor on this podcast. I learnt a lot about whales that I didn’t know I wanted to know. For example parts of whales’ bodies were used to make things and perform functions that are now being made or done using plastics, so the reason for the wholesale slaughter of whales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but now, in a terrible irony, many whales are dying because of the plastic that is polluting the oceans and ending up in their intestines.

Jess Hill: See What You Made Me Do: Jess Hill’s book about domestic and family violence won this year’s Stella Prize. Before listening to this I thought I might make myself read it in order to Be Good. It turns out that when Jess Hill was commissioned to write a long article on the subject many years ago she accepted without a lot of enthusiasm, but felt that she couldn’t let ‘the sisterhood’ down. As I listened to her describe in this conversation with fellow feminist writer and journalist Georgie how her enthusiasm for the subject grew with her understanding of its complexity, I was similarly enthused. This is a terrific conversation.

Miranda Tapsell: Top End Girl: Miranda Tapsell talks with Daniel Browning from the ABC’s Awaye! about her memoir Top End Girl. Another terrific conversation. Mind you, I’d be delighted to listen to Miranda Tapsell talk about anything or nothing for as long as she wanted. How does a 31 year old women get to write a memoir? She says it’s because when she read memoirs by, for example, Judi Dench or Michael Caine, she was struck by how they struggled to remember details of their youth, so she decided to write about her youth while it was still fresh in her mind. But that’s just a typical bit of charming self-deprecation: in the course of the conversation, it turns out that the book is also something of a manifesto (DB’s term) for diversity of representation and acknowledgement of the presence of Aboriginal people in all aspects of the arts, in particular film. They discussed the movie Top End Wedding, and the process of getting cultural permissions. I especially loved that at the very end, Browning asked about the episode of Get Krack!n when she and Nakkiah Lui took over the stage, and she spoke of the huge privilege she was given there of speaking in a ‘raw, unfiltered’ way while also exercising her ‘comedy chops’ to the full. That was one of my Great Moments of Television, and I was delighted to hear that they both thought so too.

Return of the Sweatshop Woman: Sweatshop is a Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Its Sweatshop Women is an anthology of short stories, essays and poems produced entirely by women of colour. This podcast, shorter than the others, consists of readings by five of its contributors: Phoebe Grainer, Sara Saleh, Sydnye Allen, Janette Chen and Maryam Azam. One of the joys of the Festival is being read to, and another is hearing from voices that are usually marginalised if not completely silenced. This podcast provides both joys. The readings are introduced by Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop.

If I was attending this Festival at somewhere like the Carriageworks (currently in dire straits thanks to governments’ decision that the arts aren’t eligible for Covid–related help) or Walsh Bay (currently being ‘redeveloped’), I’d be in the company of hundreds of other silver heads, and I’d skip more sessions than I attended. So I have much of a misgiving about not watching or listening to Malcolm Turnbull in Conversation with Annabel Crabb, but there’s the link of you’re interested. (Full disclosure: I did listen to the first 20 minutes of this conversation, and MT’s urbanity and AC’s apparently genuine affection for him are seductive.)

I miss those hundreds of other bodies, the unexpected questions at the end of sessions, the catching up with old friends, Gleebooks’s groaning trestles, the coming out blinking out into the sunlight after being taken to a whole new view of things. But in the absence of all that, I’m grateful for teh existence of podcasts.

The Book Group zooming with Hwang Sok-yong At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe 2018)

Before the meeting: One of the many things I love about my Book Group is that a couple of chaps can be counted on, when it’s their turn to choose our book, to send us Somewhere Else. We’ve read challenging books from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland, Russia .. the list could go on. This month, we’re in South Korea.

Like many novels these days, this one tells two separate stories in alternating chapters, and the links between the stories become apparent only towards the end. The reader is quietly tantalised by hints at the connection, and there are red herrings.

The protagonist of the first narrative strand, Park Minwoo, is a successful male architect nearing retirement age, who has been part of ruthless slum clearance projects and aesthetically hideous urban development. My reading was partly informed and enriched by knowing that I was in the virtual company of architects, a builder and a heritage consultant in the Group, but the ethical issues didn’t need that kind of help. Minwoo has our sympathy: the bulk of his story is taken up with his childhood in the slums, and his escape to a more affluent life through study and patronage; and with the way his childhood friends and, especially, sweetheart remained behind, mostly forgotten by him – until, in the opening paragraph of the book, a young woman hands him a slip of paper with a name and a phone number and the past comes back.

The other story, told in the first person, features Jung Woohee, a young woman who is scraping a living working the graveyard shift in a convenience store in order to pursue her ambition to become a playwright. She is befriended by a man slightly older than her, named Kim Minwoo. I was struggling with the Korean personal names and place names, and at about the time that we learned his name I went back to the start to draw up a list of characters and places: yes, there are two Minwoos, but the mother of Kim Winmoo laughs at the idea of any connection between the son of a poor single mother and a famous architect.

I know next to nothing about South Korean history and culture. Duck Duck Go was my friend, especially in Minwoo’s story, which includes passing references to a coup, martial law and a massacre – all background to his rising fortunes. And I recognised motifs from of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite – I don’t think there’s any influence or borrowing in either direction, just that the movie and the book are about the same world: Woohee lives in a basement apartment like that of the poor family in that film; and like the daughter of the poor family, Minwoo earns some cash by tutoring the initially unresponsive son of a wealthy family.

The thematic relationship between the two narratives is powerful, particularly as embodied in the two Minwoos. One has become successful through projects that have destroyed communities but has been able to turn his back on the human suffering; the other has been led by poverty and need to be part of an eviction squad on just that kind of project. It’s an amazing achievement of the novel that we continue to see these characters as human and deserving our compassion, even while we see the horror of their actions. We take no joy from the fact that things don’t end well for either of them.

I think I’m missing something in the way the two narratives connect at the end. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it felt like a twist that lacked any pay-off at all. Possibly something is being said about generational cultural shift, or the role of the artist (is Woohee a representative of the novelist?), and maybe there’s something about gender, but it sailed past me. I’m looking forward to talking about it to a lot of little faces on my computer screen.

A word about the translation: Sora Kim-Russell manages to give us a very readable text in natural, flowing English, while at the same time not pretending that this is anything but a Korean story. Take this little passage from Minwoo’s childhood visit to the home of his poorer friend Jaemyung:

Their mother ladled up bowls of sujebi that she’d cooked in a large pot, while Myosoon carried the bowls from the kitchen to the table. Once Myosoon and their mother were seated at the end of the table, dinner began. Instead of the usual firm dough torn by hand, their sujebi was made with a runny dough that was scraped with a pair of chopsticks into a pot of boiling water; as you ate it, the dough flakes turned soggy and loose until you were basically eating flour porridge. The flour must have been of poor quality to begin with, as it was yellowish in colour, and the broth wasn’t made from beef or anchovy stock but was just plain water with a little soy sauce and sliced squash. It barely qualified as sujebi.

(page 56-57)

There’s a lot of explanation embedded in that passage that – I’m guessing – wouldn’t be necessary for a Korean reader, but the ignorant reader (such as me) is neither patronised nor mystified. Sujebi isn’t translated for us, nor is it italicised to mark it as ‘foreign’; but we are told what the yellowish hue of the dough signifies about the flour. I just looked Sora Kim-Russell and see that she’s won awards. I concur with the judges.

After the meeting: I felt our last meeting, our first on zoom, was like an EngLit seminar, by which I think I meant less convivial as well as less chaotic than our Book Group meetings usually are. If Wednesday’s meeting was seminarish, it was only to the good, because we had a wonderfully rich, and enriching, conversation about the book. This may have been helped by the unobtrusive labour of one group member who earns his living largely as a facilitator. In the past he has been mocked for his pleas that we have one conversation at a time. This week, no one mocked, and I think we all silently appreciated the way he made sure everyone had a fair bite of the conversational apple. So, apart from the chap who was called away because his daughter cut her hand badly (she’s OK now), it was a smooth and unchaotic event.

My hope that the architects etc would shed extra light on the book was dashed. Pretty much with one voice they said that the architecture was there as a metaphor (or metonym, maybe: the subject was the modernisation of Korea, and architecture was a way of talking about that.

One chap had read the book twice, and a number of us thought that was a smart move. It’s a short book, but there are many layers: the portrait of Korea, the romance, the interplay of the two narrative strands, and so on. Someone had given the book to a friend to read because he wanted to discuss it before we met. The friend described it as unsentimentally elegiac, a phrase that struck a chord in the group: Author Hwang does tell of a lost past, without romanticising it.

There was an interesting discussion of the ending, which I won’t even attempt to summarise here, partly because that would be spoileristic.

And as well as that, the important business of the evening: hearing about how we are all faring in these Covid–19 times. Some are busier than ever with their jobs, some suddenly out of work, some missing contact with their family, some living in uncustomary closeness with theirs, one man needing advice on a barber for a much-needed haircut, and so on. Have I =said I love my book group? Then I’ll say it again. (Also, someone mentioned my blog, so I have to be nice about them in case they turn up to read it!)

Ruby reads 19: Ancient favourites

People in their late 60s and older are generally avoiding contact with grandchildren these days, but the Emerging Artist and I are currently on grand-duty a couple of days a week, at least until the little one is cough-free and can go back to her childcare centre without fear of infecting anyone. (Note to any Covidgilantes reading this: We’re confident that her cough isn’t Covid-19, because we caught it from her and have tested negative.)

One of the many pleasures of grand-parenting this week has been renewing acquaintance with some much loved books, and encountering new (to us) variations on others. Here goes, with two Lynley Dodd books and three Allan Ahlbergs.

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Burglar Bill (William Heinemann 1977)

Burglar Bill’s refrain ‘I’ll have that!’ became part of our family’s conversation. There’s something wonderful about the way he climbs in through windows and puts anything from a toothbrush to a can of beans into his sack. Spoiler alert: he takes home a box he finds outside a house, and discovers a baby inside it. Much merriment ensues as he tries to deal with the baby’s unstoppable crying.

It all turns out well (even bigger spoiler alert) when Burglar Bill is burgled by Burglar Betty who turns out to be the baby’s mother, both burglars decide to reform and end up marrying. But secretly we all just put up with the happy ending so we can have that wicked stealing in the first half. It may be a bit old for Ruby just yet, but she asks for it on repeat anyhow

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Mrs Wobble the Waitress (Puffin 1980)

I have Mrs Wobble the Waitress on order, but I wanted to mention it here because it was also a big hit with out young ones 30 or more years ago. It’s part of Allan Ahlberg’s Happy Families series – 20 books in all, many (most?) of them illustrated by his equally brilliant wife Janet Ahlberg. I don’t know if the Ahlbergs had the opening lines of Anna Karenina in mind when they named the series, but these happy families are definitely not all alike.

This book begins with a wonderfully inept adult – Mrs Wobble – whose clumsiness leads to her being fired from her job as a waiter. The family come to the rescue, and it all turns out well, but I confess that what has stayed in my mind is the book’s final line After the wobble family have set up their own successful restaurant, there’s an impending disaster: ‘Mrs wobble wobbled.’

Allan Ahlberg and Joe Wright, Mrs Plug the Plumber (1980)

Mrs Plug the Plumber competes with Where the Wild Things for having the most neural pathways laid down in my brain. I read, ‘If a plumber was needed in the town, the people said, “Send for Mrs Plug!”‘ and I’m away. Mrs Plug is the mover and shaker. Mr Plug is the plumber’s mate, and Miss Plug and Master Plug are the plumber’s babies. Terrible things happen, and Mrs Plug rises to the occasion every time. Joe Wright’ illustrations, especially of the storm at sea, are brilliant, and the incantatory text is superb. Ruby loves this one, even including the somewhat scatological punchline. One small but significant pleasure for me is the appearance of Burglar Bill’s catchphrase, ‘I’ll have that’ in the scen where Mrs Plug turns the tables on a robber.

Lynley Dodd, Hairy Maclary’s Rumpus at the Vet (1989)

The first Hairy Maclary book, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy was published in 1983. According to Wikipedia the most recent, Scarface Claw – Hold Tight, appeared in 2017. Roughly 20 books in 35 years and as far as I know Lynley Dodd is still going strong and so are her gang of bouncily rhyming dogs and other animals.

Ruby has at least half the Hairy Maclary and Friends books. These are two of the four or five I enjoyed with her this week. Atypically, Hairy Maclary doesn’t have a starring role in this one: a cockatoo bites his tail in the vet’s waiting room, and there’s a chain reaction of disturbed animals: the dog, mice, budgerigars, kittens, a goat, an overwhelmed vet with her legs in the air. What more could anyone want? (Well, you could want the fabulously scary Scarface Claw to be lurking on the sidelines, an innocent bystander – and if you wanted that you wouldn’t be disappointed.)

Lynley Dodd, Hairy Maclary, Shoo (2009)

Hairy is centre stage in this one. It begins and ends with him playing with his friends, whose names (Bottomly Potts all covered in spots, and so on) have rung like a litany in some of the earlier books. But soon he jumps into a delivery van and is driven off in it. When poor Hairy Maclary jumps out of the van he is lost and every human he meets shoos him off. The lost dog’s panic is wonderfully rendered as comedy, but like all the best comedy the dark emotion isn’t completely extinguished. So the relief when he is found is huge.

Linley Dodd is a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. For having for so many decades paired evergreen, lively rhyming verse with precisely and lovingly portrayed dog behaviour, she richly deserves any honours she receives

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

The NSWPLA night used to be a grand affair. Long before my time there was a bread-roll throwing affair when Morris West droned on too long in his acceptance speech. I got to be on the free list one year, then coughed up good money for a number of years after that, and one year I got to be the plus one of my shortlisted niece. It became less fun when it changed from being a full-blown dinner to a drinks and powerpoint affair, but I still followed it, at least on Twitter. (I dutifully blogged the event for quite a while, and if you really want to, you can plough through my blog posts for 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

This year, thanks to the Great Leveller, SARS-Cov2, it was again possible to attend the whole event without stirring from home or spending a cent.

So here’s how it went:

After an elegant introduction by John Vallance, Chief Librarian, speaking to us from an empty Mitchell Library, President of the Library Council George Souris spoke from his home and introduced Gladys Berejiklian, who somehow found time off from crisis-management to record a short message. John Vallance then announced the winners without any frills apart from little speeches from a range of relevant politicians:

Multicultural NSW Award went to The Pillars by Peter Polites (Hachette Australia). Peter did a to-camera piece expressing gratitude to, among other things, his publisher’s bowties.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Counting and Cracking, S Shakthidharan and auxiliary writer Eamon Flack. The writer, the second from Western Sydney: ‘This award helps to weave this little story from Western Sydney into the tapestry of all the great Australian stories.’ Eamon Flack used his platform to contrast the ‘neglect and carelessness’ of current art policy with the years of policy that enabled Counting and Cracking to happen.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: joint winners The Cry, Episode 2, Jacqueline Perske (Synchronicity Films), and Missing, Kylie Boltin (SBS). Kylie Boltin dedicated the award to her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother died yesterday.

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Ella and the Ocean, Lian Tanner, Jonathan Bentley (Allen & Unwin). Both author and illustrator spoke. She spoke of starting the book twelve years ago and then leaving it in the folder marked ‘Abject Failures’ for years. He, a humble illustrator: ‘Thank you for choosing me.’

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Lenny’s Book of Everything, Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin). Karen said, ‘I want to use this platform to thank readers everywhere who continue to buy books in these times. I want to thank everyone who supports the arts.’

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press). Peter Boyle paid tribute to his late partner Debora Bird Rose (herself a great writer).

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press). Tony Birch gave a shout out to ‘every Blackfella across Australia who is writing’.

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction: from 136 entries, the winner was Tiberius With a Telephone, Patrick Mullins (Scribe Publications), a book about William McMahon. Patrick Mullins, looking scarily young, acknowledged his debt to writers and journalists whose work was important to his, and to the many people he interviewed.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Real Differences, SL LIM (Transit Lounge). SL LIM looked even younger, with pink hair and a soft toy, and plugged her coming book, which (I think I heard correctly) calls for the end of the family.

Fiction (Christina Stead Award): The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House). Tara June Winch spoke of the centrality of language to human life. ‘It is a sacred thing,’ she said, in Wiradjuri. The Yield also won the People’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year. Tara June Winch got to speak again, and spoke of her esteem and fellow feeling for the other writers having a hard time just now. She asked the Federal Government to treat ‘our sector’ as our families do. ‘We can’t tell you the story of what is happening to our country now if the only thing on our minds is how to afford the next week’s rent.’ She hopes that our First Languages will be included in our schools’ curriculum.

That was it. It turns out that though I’d read a couple of the shortlisted books, I hadn’t read a single one of the winners, and had seen only one of the performances – the absolutely stunning Counting and Cracking.

You can watch the whole ceremony at:

I think of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

I’ve been thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles a lot in recent weeks. At the supermarket checkout, passing the post deliverer in the street, receiving a hand-delivered book from Gleebooks, putting the garbage out for collection, seeing a childcare centre that has stayed open, and especially when being tested for Covid–19 by a young man in a mask and a blue gown several sizes too big for him, I feel the urge to say, ‘Thank you for keeping us alive,’ and think of her.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles {Wikipedia entry here) has been the unsalaried artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since the late 1970s. I first heard of her when the Emerging Artist was doing her MFA and regaling me with stories of public art projects. One of them was Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation. In this performance art project, she spent eleven months in 1979–1980 visiting each of the New York Sanitation Department’s districts and shaking hands with every worker who would accept her handshake, roughly 8500 of them. She looked each worker in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive.’

The conversations didn’t stop there – she also listened to the workers, and documented their personal stories. There are some wonderful photos (for example, here, here, here and here).

Plenty of people have commented that in Covid-19 times the poorly paid, low-esteem jobs are being recognised as essential and offered more respect if not better remuneration. Artists help us make sense of our times. Mierle Laderman Ukeles did this major performance 40 years ago: it speaks directly to our circumstances now.

Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics

Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press 2019)

This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:

Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour

I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.

Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.

A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:

APRON SORROW
apron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets
--pinned--- tucked-- hidden
------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun 
------------– hung -
--------- limp on the breeze they sway
------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.

There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.

A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.

I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.

Archival-Poetics is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.