Category Archives: Books

The Book Group disagrees about Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)

Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.

The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.

The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.

As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.

This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.

Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.

After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:

  • I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
  • One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
  • Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
  • One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.

We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.

Colleen Z Burke’s Sculpting a Landscape

Colleen Z Burke, Sculpting a Landscape (Feakle Press 2019)

This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:

Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.

The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.

That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:

Sculpting a Landscape

In a small clearing
amidst a huddle
of skeletal
gumtrees
a rusted
burnt out ute
fuses into the
eroded earth
sculpting a
definitive
Aussie landscape.

At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.

Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.

The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:

I want to go to the cemetery
and dance on graves, said Emmett,
my eight year old grandson.

There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.

Sculpting a Landscape is the 30th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mark Brandi’s Rip

Mark Brandi, The Rip (Hachette Australia 2019)

I’m on holiday, and this was a birthday present. I knew from the start that it wasn’t my cup of tea. The cover is clever. Jock Serong’s back cover blurb makes me ashamed. He says:

What held me close in this novel was not the idea of a hidden population of drifters and addicts, but the writer’s reassurance that dignity and small kindnesses have a place in that world.

It makes me ashamed because I just didn’t believe in the drifters and addicts, and found the dignity and small acts of kindness as unconvincing as the rest. The narrator is a homeless young woman addict who has grown up in foster homes, at least some of them sites of sexual abuse. She has a good friend and protector in an older man, who doesn’t exploit her sexually and tries to find ways for her to avoid turning tricks for cash. They fall in with a very unpleasant character and it goes seriously downhill for both of them. There are no surprises in the plot,and the characterisation is minimal.

The narrator is not stupid, though she is extraordinarily obtuse at key moments, but she’s uneducated and very limited in her experiences. And very often in the writing, one has a sense of the writer pushing against her ignorance and limitations to say something that’s beyond her. Sometimes she quotes her friend (using the word ‘osmosis’, for example) and says she doesn’t understand what it means. Other times, it just feels as if she has become pretty much a ventriloquist’s doll for the author. Here’s a taste, from a passage early on where she’s describing what it’s like to use heroin:

I don’t want to make it sound romantic. Except it is romantic. And it’s just about the most wonderful thing there is. I love it. And it’s something I’ll always love, probably as long as I live. I suppose it’s a bit like smokers – maybe that’s a good way for people to think about it. Smokers might quit smoking because of all the other shit that goes with it, but the actual smoking part is something they enjoy – something they might always love. But they just make a rational decision, I suppose, that the downside isn’t worth it.

But for me, the downside is worth it. Because downside is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Getting high is my only glimpse of the upside, if that makes sense.

(Page 16)

To be fair, the unadorned narrative has an occasional meta touch that works well, if the reader is feeling forgiving): the main pair occasionally sneak into movies, and their tastes run to art-house features like Dogville and Pan’s Labyrinth. The narrator pours scorn on Hollywood’s need for happy endings, and there’s some discussion of whether the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth is meant to be real or just the girl’s fantasy. So when we come to the book’s ending (not to be too spoilerish), there’s a big doubt cast over what is actually happening. And in a clever postmodern way, the opening pages only make sense if read after the ending.

That said, it may be that it was a mistake to read The Rip so soon after two superb books: Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which treats the world of ‘drifters and addicts’ with so much passion and complexity, and Elie Wiesel’s Twilight, which never tells the reader what to think and is never predictable. Whatever, it didn’t really touch the sides for me.

Elie Wiesel’s Twilight (at a distance)

Elie Wiesel, Twilight (1987, translated from the French Le Crépuscule, au loin by Marion Wiesel 1988;)

I was given this book as a birthday gift some years ago. I was finally spurred to read it by a moment in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam when he says that Holocaust survivor Frieda Menco became an international activist ‘after hearing fellow Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel discuss his experiences’.

Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as ‘one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterise the world’, and his Wikipedia entry offers ample justification for that description. His writing of memoir and fiction about the Holocaust is just part of his extraordinary activism; it’s the part I’m interested in here..

His first book, published in 1956, was a memoir in Yiddish of his Holocaust experiences, And the World Remained Silent. Night (published in French in 1958, then in English translation in 1960) was a shorter version, focusing on his relationship with his father in the camps. According to Wikipedia, Night ‘now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature’. In the next years, he wrote the novels Dawn (published in French in 1960, and in English translation in 1961) and Day (1961/1962), making a trilogy that marked (again I’m quoting Wikipedia) ‘Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall’.

It’s reasonable to suppose that Twilight (especially in its original French title, which translates as ‘Twilight, at a distance’) is meant to be read as a footnote to that trilogy, an extra phase of the diurnal sequence. Not having read those earlier books, then, I’ve come to this one at a disadvantage: I suspect it picks up lines of argument from the trilogy, either amplifying them or refuting them. So bear in mind, if you read on, that I’m writing as someone who came in late. (Imagine reading only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and none of the first six HP novels.)

Raphael Lipkin was a young Jew in Poland during the Second World War. His entire family is wiped out, mostly by the Nazis but some by the Soviets, but he survived thanks to the intervention of a character known only as the madman with veiled eyes, and Pedro, a heroic member of Briha, the underground organisation that helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe. The novel tells the story of his traditional Jewish family as the reality of the Nazi threat becomes clearer and eventually overtakes them. Intertwined with this narrative is the story, some decades later, of Raphael’s time spent in a New York psychiatric hospital where all the patients believe they are characters from ancient history. He goes to the hospital on the pretext of learning from the patients in his academic field of Jewish mysticism, but he is actually trying to find out what happened to Pedro.

The Holocaust narratives they are mostly stories of richly diverse Jewish life – there are Judaic scholars, historians, young people in love, Communists, Zionists. The focus is on the rich culture and community life that was being destroyed rather than on the horror of the process (though there are moments of horror). In the modern story, Raphael speaks constantly to the absent Pedro, whose name he seeks to clear, but though Raphael’s main motivation is to do with Pedro, that story becomes secondary to his engagement with the hospital inmates. He has substantial conversations with Adam, Cain, a prophet, a dead man, the ‘Messiah of mad people’, and finally God himself. As I read it, in all these conversations, Wiesel is addressing the question of how the Judaic religious tradition can deal with the fact of the Holocaust – is it possible to still believe that God exists, that life has meaning. I suspect that as a confirmed atheist, and from a Christian tradition to boot, I missed a lot of the nuance, and if a conclusion is reached it passed me by (though there is a revelation in the final pages that may amount to Wiesel’s theological conclusion, and that revelation is foreshadowed in the epigraph from Maimonides, ‘The world couldn’t exist without madmen’).

The passion and intelligence of the writing held me captive the whole time. As a for-instance, here’s part of a monologue from the mad Adam, early in the book, which states an extreme despairing response to the horrors of the 20th century:

Listen, God. What I am about to tell you is for your own good. Stop! Yes, God: Stop this senseless project. Believe me, even you who are omnipotent cannot succeed n this. You thought man would be your glory, the jewel of your crown. You make me laugh. Man is your failure. Face it. Give up your illusions. Wake up. Be considerate. Close the book before you turn the first page. Does it shame you to admit that I’m right? The forget it’s my idea. Let it be my gift to you. Legally, philosophically, you will have fathered it. And you know what? Theologically too. All you have to say is: I tried, I was wrong. And, luckily for the world, I realised it in time. Thus, even if your dream will have lasted but one day, one lifetime, you will be applauded. By your angels and seraphim.By the countless souls who will escape the curse of being born inly to die. By the trees that will not be felled by man. By the animals that will not be slaughtered. By the earth that will not be despoiled. And all of Creation, pure and resplendent, will say: Look how great is God, how admirable His honesty. He does not shrink from admitting His error. And yes, He can manage perfectly well without man …

(page 28-29)

As you see, this isn’t a book that offers easy answers. It’s not a comfortable read. But (and remember, I’m a man who said last week that I need his novel to be fun) it’s kind of exhilarating.

Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city (Doubleday 2013, Little Brown 2014)

Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).

It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version of liberalism.

Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.

Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.

The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago =, for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.

And so on.

One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:

There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because “it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’

(page 280)

Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Just when I was beginning to think I’d become that typical older white man who doesn’t enjoy fiction, along comes Boy Swallows Universe and demonstrates that if anything my taste is reverting to that of a much younger demographic. It’s depressive fiction that I don’t enjoy. I want my novels to be fun, and this one is fun. (Come to think of it, it’s not so long since I read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and some bits in that keep coming back as unbidden memories that make me laugh, so Boy Swallows Universe isn’t an anomaly).

This is a novel full of odd characters, vivid villains, plenty of colour and movement, twists and turns, silliness and tears, something new and diverting on every page. Eli Bell, the narrator, is thirteen at the start of the novel. His brother August/Gus hasn’t spoken since their parents split up years before, but communicates by writing in the air. Their mother and de facto stepfather are recovered junkies, now dealing heroin, precariously involved in organised crime. The story that unfolds involves terrible violence, of the out-of-control domestic variety as well as the spine-chillingly calculated kind. It involves deep betrayal, and at least one moment of abject self-abasement more horrible than any of the violence.

But it’s also a love story. The boys’ babysitter, Slim, is a notorious criminal, who once served time for murder. Whether he did the crime is left an open question – as it must, because, we’re told in an author’s note, the character shares the name and the history of a real man was actually the author’s babysitter. Slim is Eli’s mentor: he helps him develop his remarkable powers of observation, and offers profound philosophical advice – usually with a half smoked durrie hanging from his lip: ‘The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’ There’s no doubt that he loves the boys. No doubt either that their mother, stepfather and even the father who turns up much later in the book, that they all love them in their wounded ways, and are loved in return. Eli knows that all these people have done bad things, and more, worse things are revealed as the novel progresses, and he wrestles with the question – not, How can you love a person who does bad things? but, What is a good person?

There’s a story early in the book that beautifully foreshadows some of this complexity. The school bully tells Eli to meet him in a secluded spot after school. When they meet, he and his thuggish offsider force Eli to splay his fingers on a flat surface while the bully, blindfolded brings a sharp knife dow=n, betting that he can land the blade between Eli’s fingers. They are interrupted in the nick of time by a school teacher, but Eli refuses to say anything untoward was happening. Later, asked by the bully’s mother – a powerful figure in the local drug trade – why he didn’t dob, Eli says, to the bully’s astonished pleasure, ‘Because he is my friend.’ And means it.

I was enjoying the book from the first page. The point where enjoyment turned to love is when Eli says:

I’ve never tasted the natural spring waters of Helidon, but I doubt they could match the sweet, restorative powers of an ice cold sarsaparilla.

(page 125)

You may need to be a Queenslander of a certain age to even understand what that sentence means, and I’m pretty certain that only a Queenslander could have written it. (Sarsaparilla, pronounced sarsprella in my childhood, is a soft drink that tastes like root beer, hard to find outside of Queensland, and not manufactured by the transnationals that otherwise dominate the softdrink market.)

Because, this is a Queensland novel through and through. Slim’s many escapes from prison earned him the nickname the Houdini of Boggo Road. The object of Eli’s infatuation works at the Courier-Mail. The beautiful names of Brisbane suburbs ring out through the story: Inala, Birrong, Sandgate, Toombul, Toowong, The Valley, The Gap. People feast on mud crabs, and no one trusts the police (it’s a just-post-Bjelke-Petersen novel).

There are fantasy elements – impossible conversations on a red phone, some romantic wish-fulfilment, maybe even the whole strand about Gus’s silence – that aren’t really integrated, and might irritate someone who wasn’t onside. For my part, I didn’t even have to forgive them: they work fine as decoration, they’re part of what make the book fun.

I feel a bit strange saying that a novel that includes scenes of terrible violence, a couple of teenage boys getting involved in drug trafficking, and some general degradation is fun. It’s not fun in the way, say, Breaking Bad, is, where sheer style carries the day. It’s fun because we encounter all those elements with an indomitably open-hearted narrator. Possibly spoiler alert: this is the kind of novel where the young hero, meeting the immensely powerful, chillingly evil villain, asks him on the record, ‘Are you a good man?’

Rebecca Huntley’s Advance Australia

Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly essay 73)

This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues

Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.

She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):

The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people

(page 17)

She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.

She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.

The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry

Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.

(Page 80)

Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.

is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show …
The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.

‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’

Australia Fair is the 29th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (14)

Who’d have thought there were such riches to be discovered when reading with someone less than two years old? (The question’s rhetorical, but of course, the answer is, ‘Anyone who knew anything about books created for children.’)

Alison Lester, Kissed by the Moon (Penguin Australia 2013)

A very beautiful little book featuring a baby and a tranquil night in the natural world, with a baby – ‘my baby’ – in the middle of it. Pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart.

Lynley Dodd, Scarface Claw (Puffin 2002)

Scarface Claw appears in others of the wonderful Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy books. He’s the toughest cat in town, and scares all the dogs in other books. This one celebrates his fearlessness in Lynley Dodd’s dependably lively rhymes, until the final reveal of the only thing in the world that Scarface Claw is scared of. I won’t spoil it for you.

Rosie Greening (words) & Stuart Lynch (pictures), There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Make Believe Ideas 2018)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time. It is probably one of many children’s picture books built around the well-known cumulative song. I have always loved the Burl Ives version of the song, and the Pete Seeger one as well. I wouldn’t say that I love this version – the illustrations are cute, but not compelling. I’m very glad to report that the disastrous consequences of swallowing a horse are not minimised.

Mem Fox (words) & Helen Oxenbury (pictures), Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (2008)

This would have been a slightly preachy book asserting our common humanity if it wasn’t so very well done. Mem Fox’s rhyming text feels effortlessly simple (and anyone who’s tried to do that sort of thing knows that the effortlessness is the reader’s, not the writers). It essentially lists a lot of babies and says they all have ten little fingers and ten little toes. The illustrations pick up the cultural diversity of the babies / toddlers, and the fingers and toes are gorgeous.

Karen Roosa (words) & Maggie Smith (pictures), Beach Day (MH Boos for Young Readers 2018)

Here’s a board book that made me rethink my whole approach to some children’s books. It’s a day at the beach involving a couple of families. I disliked it pretty intensely on first several readings, the rhyming text includes waves that soar (to rhyme with ‘roar’), and a ‘jewelled array’ of spray. But no one else cares about the rhymes: as you turn the pages, you can follow the doings of half a dozen different characters: the children, the dogs, the various adults, the two babies, the seagulls. I now wonder if its riches will ever be exhausted.

Kissed by the Moon and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes are the 27th and 28th books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country (UWA Publishing 2018)

Lisa Bellear was a Melbourne activist, photographer, broadcaster and poet who died aged just 45 in 2006. She had one book of poetry published in her lifetime (Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996)). Aboriginal Country, a second book which a number of poems from the first, has been edited posthumously by Melbourne poet (among other things) Jen Jewel Brown, with an ‘About the Author’ by Susan K. Martin of La Trobe University. That and other introductory material sketches Bellear’s life story – her adoption as a baby by a white family after being virtually stolen by a hospital, her rediscovery of her true Aboriginal family in her twenties, and then her years as participant in Melbourne’s cultural life and Indigenous activism. So the book is framed as a kind of memorial to an inspiring individual.

I’m coming at the book from a different angle. I’ve read it in NAIDOC Week, as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers, so I want to talk a little about this year’s NAIDOC theme, and about recent Aboriginal poetry.

The theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ You probably already know that that’s shorthand for the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which for a fleeting moment this week the Morrison government seemed to be taking seriously. Just as a reminder, here are the relevant paragraphs from the Statement:

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
       Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
       We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

(You can read the full Statement here.)

As NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ invites reflection and action at many levels besides those that involve government action. Among other things, they imply an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, to be open to their truths.

And we’re living in a time when a rich variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can be heard by anyone who cares to listen – in the mainstream print and broadcast media, on social media (have a look at @IndigenousX), in brilliant films and novels – and in poetry. Here’s a brief (well, as brief as I could make it) rundown of some of the excellent poets that I’ve come across (and mostly blogged about: click on the links for my blog posts).

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (who like Lisa Bellair came from Minjerribah / Stradbroke Island) carried the burden of being first – the first Aboriginal person to have a book of poetry published in English, and she produced two – We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn Is at Hand (1966).
  • Kevin Gilbert, like Oodgeroo, was many things besides being a poet. His first book of poetry, End of Dream-time (1971), which also carries some of the burden of being ‘first’, the felt obligation to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, is a striking lesson in what can go wrong when well-meaning non-Indigenous people overstep. His second collection, People Are Legends, partly corrected the damage done by the first. He also wrote a charming book of poetry for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992).
  • Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’. His concern is definitely not to put white readers at ease. ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ If you can live with that, I recommend his work.
  • Ali Colby Eckermann once said in an interview, ‘I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people.’ If you think that implies didacticism or talking down, I recommend her slim verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which is just wonderful.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson is another excellent poet from south-east Queensland. I didn’t blog about his prize-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers, but I remember feeling that I was meeting a new generation: his Aboriginality is no less significant, but a lot of the poetry is about life and relationships among those who had come of age in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane. (I don’t think SWW mentions Joh, but it’s a way of naming that cultural moment.)
  • Evelyn Araluen, as far as I know, doesn’t have a book out yet, but I’ve read poems by her and heard her read a couple of times. She does weird, vengeful mash-ups of May Gibbs. At a recent Sydney Poetry Lounge evening she read, among other things, a terrific piece lampooning awkward and/or perfunctory Acknowledgements of Country and a long, philosophical reflection on the effects of colonisation, which I look forward to seeing in print.

I’ve also read terrific poems by Peter Minter, Steven Oliver, Lorna Munro, Ellen van Neerven, Maya Hodge, Anita Heiss and probably others. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

Aboriginal Country is part of that extraordinarily rich conversation. My main response in reading it is to wish I could have seen her read them live, each one in its moment – as for instance ‘Dear Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’, written in June 1993, wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’, and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal)

Or the ten starkly confronting poems that were performed by Lisa Bellear as part of a multimedia event as part of Melbourne’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. Here’s the opening of ‘Federation Statement’:

In 1901 the new Federation of Australia deliberately excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – why?

Always was, always will be Aboriginal country.

That’s necessary speech, words that needed to be said then, need to be repeated, and still need to be heard. A lot of the poetry here is of that sort – what Jen Jewel Brown’s Editor’s Note calls ‘straight-talking, sparse yet dramatically alive words’: poems dealing with domestic violence, colonising history, war in the former Yugoslavia, everyday racism, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, almost always in a way that feels public, even if not for actual performance. There are moments of humour, as in the brief ‘Home’ which celebrates, if that’s the word, the greyness of Melbourne; and of domesticity, as in ‘Writer’s Block’.

The poems that stand out for me are dramatic monologues in the mouths of historical figures, some based on photographs. As my regular readers know, I generally choose one poem to quote and discuss in some detail. So here’s ‘Construct Me’ (click to enlarge):

This makes me think of Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings of his ancestors. Beginning from photos taken with and for a coloniser’s gaze, he creates lovingly detailed, large-scale drawings of formidable people, no longer objects but challenging subjects. Here, the speaker in the first section is an Aboriginal woman being posed for a studio photograph. As Lisa Bellear was a photographer, I think it’s safe to assume these lines are underpinned by deep consideration of the relationship between photographer and subject. The woman addresses the photographer (who I’ll assume is male):

This is your language your culture
This is your naming your ideals
of who I am supposed to
be, represent.

She is aware that she is being objectified, cast in the photographer’s narrative without regard for who she actually is. But she doesn’t submit:

Am I allowed to
mourn.
I am still able to feel the
kangaroo and possum skin
Inside I will always run free.

The next ten lines deal directly with the details of the shoot. She expresses a completely rational failure to understand the studio. And then the photographer speaks, giving her instructions, warning her of the flash, and then reprimanding her for not following his instructions.

And in the last seven lines the woman speaks again, this time transcending the detail of her situation. Now she addresses not just the photographer but us, in the future. She now takes on a representative role, not as a specimen, but now as a spokesperson – a Voice. We may never come to know her individual name, but her ”lations’, who are ‘a big mob’ have made themselves more clearly known to the colonisers.

For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered.

This lays out, so plainly and simply, the ambivalence in those photos: whatever the motive for taking them – as novelty, as anthropological record, perhaps as Victorian erotica – they can now function as a record of the people who were here at the time, they can be a means to ensuring that the people are remembered.

For this poem to have its full impact, it needs to be read aloud, in two voices, paying attention to the line breaks – over and again, there is a break just before a key word (‘to / be’, ‘to / mourn’, ‘the / kangaroo’, ‘the / trees’, all the way down to ‘we must be / remembered’.

Like many of the poems in this book, this one doesn’t invite the reader to enjoy it for clever rhymes or striking images. It’s in very plain language, ‘straight-talking’, as Jen Jewel Brown puts it. It challenges us to join the poet in doing the work of changing the way we look at those photos, and by extension the way we imagine the history of this country.

Aboriginal Country is the 26th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve read it this week as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Ruby Reads (13)

When I started writing about books I’ve met thanks to my granddaughter Ruby, I hesitated to include more than one book by a given author. But there are authors who turn up again and again, so here are a couple of books by repeat authors. But first, some read-alouds from Rhyme Time at the library.

Allie Busby, Feeding Time (Just Like Me!) (Childs Play Intl Ltd 2018)

This is a very simple book, with very simple illustrations, and flaps. It worked beautifully with under-twos at the library. The ‘just like me’ of the title evidently indicates a series it belongs to, and it’s also a refrain, as one lifted flap after another reveals the food an animal eats, and that food is also one that humans eat. The illustrations aren’t in the same class as Jim Arnosky’s Man Gave Names to All the Animals but the book’s sweet, unstrained assertion of human commonality with other animals is much more the kind of thing I’d want small children to hear.

Penny Dale, Ten in the bed (Walker Books 1990)

While Rhyme Time is primarily an event for small children, it’s also, something rare these days, a place where adults can enjoy singing together. One old thespian attends irregularly and behaves as I would like to – joining in the songs with unembarrassed pleasure and beaming appreciation of the librarian’s performance and of the children’s sometimes disruptive enthusiasm. This book lifted most of us to his level. The richly coloured illustrations are full of little jokes, and the text rings changes on the familiar song (each ‘one’ who rolls out is a different toy).

Doctor Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990)

I blogged about The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in pre-grandfatherdom days (the blog post is here). Both of them are still going strong as far as our family is concerned.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is the last Dr Seuss book published in his lifetime. It’s weirdly abstract both in its geometric illustrations and its non-specific text, but it’s got the characteristic verbal energy and visual quirkiness that keep his books interesting (for me at least).

Doctor Seuss (text) and George Booth (illustrator), Wacky Wednesday (1974)

Originally written over the name Theo LeSieg, this has clearly been welcomed into the general Dr Seuss canon. It’s meant for readers older that 18 and a two-thirds months, but Ruby requests it regularly. It’s essentially a series of spreads in which the reader is invited to find out what’s wrong with the illustrations. The text provides a slender narrative thread and tells the reader how many wacky things they can find on each spread. It has no appeal for me at all, and I can’t tell what Ruby enjoys in it, given that her sense of what’s ‘normal’ is (I believe) still developing – why is it odd that one of the girls on the cover image has no legs but not odd that three identical girls, identically clothed, are walking and gesturing in unison? Such questions are purely academic.

Julia Donaldson (text) and Rebecca Cobb (illustrator), The Paper Dolls (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I’m please to say that Ruby’s tastes and mine sometimes coincide. This book is an example, though I don’t know what Ruby finds interesting in it. A little girl has a chain of five paper dolls – Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow – who have a string of adventures. Happily, the adventures involve a gigantic crocodile, thereby meeting one of our current preoccupations. If only they’d met a kookaburra it would have been a perfect book.

There are more books, and there will be more blog posts about them.