Category Archives: Books

Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (Viking 2021)

If I hadn’t already embarked on my 500 people project before I read this book, I would have started on it now. It’s a terrific book, of which the fabulous Ayad Akhtar (my blog post on his Homeland Elegies here) says on the back cover:

Rare is the book that delivers on the promise of a big answer to an even bigger question, but Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers does just that. This lively, searching work makes the case that welcoming ‘others’ isn’t just the bedrock of civilisation, it’s the surest path to the best of what life has to offer.

I can’t say it any better.

Joe Keohane is a journalist, used to talking to strangers as part of his job, with the aim of extracting newsworthy information and quotes. This book is about a different kind of talk, the reciprocal kind that is an essential part of being human, but which has been much neglected in recent decades.

Keohane draws on studies in primatology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He describes the behaviour of ferociously territorial chimps and sweet-natured bonobos. He quotes philosophers, political scientists, novelists and historians. He interviews activists and takes part in classes, reporting on his successes and his embarrassments. He peppers his arguments with witty and moving anecdotes. He comes across as charming, intelligent, generous, and persuasive.

One of the user-friendlty feature of the book is that every now and then Keohane gives a little summary of the Book So Far. Here’s one from about the midpoint:

All right. So what do we know? We know that interdependence made hunter-gatherer groups more sociable among themselves and eventually with other groups. We know that greeting rituals in hospitality were evolved to reconcile the threat strangers pose with the opportunities that present… We know that we’re wired to favour our groups, but also that our definition of our group is flexible. We know that we’re predisposed to like people with whom we have something in common, even if we have no idea who they are and even if it consists of little more than wearing the same baseball cap. We know that cities can bring us together with countless strangers, but they can also create social norms that keep us apart. We know that talking across group boundaries can make us anxious, and we know that the relentless messaging about stranger danger that several generations were clobbered with has warped our sense of threat and possibly harmed our ability to trust.

(Page 166)

I won’t summarise the arguments for how talking to strangers was crucial to human survival in prehistoric times, or how rituals were devised to make it safe. I won’t do more than mention the experiments that show people’s sense of wellbeing increasing noticeably after they talk to a stranger, or even greet them with a wave and a smile. I won’t go into the fascinating findings that in places with high levels of generalised trust people tend not to be friendly to strangers, and vice versa, Australia being a rare, even possibly unique, exception: evidently we’re both trusting and friendly. I’ll skip over the lesser minds problem, that is, the common practical assumption that strangers aren’t fully human; and the self-explanatory phenomenon of absent presence. I’ll refrain from relaying the story of the viene-vienes in Mexico City (you can read about them here).

I will give you a surprisingly long list of projects that set out to encourage and enable people to talk to strangers. Most of them are in the USA – Keohane is a New Yorker – but while the ills they address may have a different flavour in other countries, I doubt if any place is free of them. In the order of appearance:

  1. Trigger Conversations: ‘a London-based “human connection organisation” that hosts social events aimed at facilitating meaningful conversations among strangers’, founded in 2016. Keohane spends a lot of time on what he learned at classes run by its founder, Georgie Nightingall
  2. Chatty Cafés: more than 900 pubs and cafés in the UK ‘set up specially marked tables where strangers can chat’
  3. Crossing Divides, a BBC series, which instituted a ‘chatty bus’ day, ‘during which riders were encouraged to talk to one another’
  4. Talk to Me, founded in 2012, a group that ‘distributed “Talk to Me” buttons to signal a willingness to talk in public, and set up “talk bars” in public spaces’
  5. Conversations New York (CNY) ‘holds regular, free group conversations, largely among strangers’. Forty to eighty people turn up at a college or in a park, are divided into groups and then talk for 90 minutes, ‘working from a list of topical or philosophical questions’
  6. Urban Confessional, which ‘encourages people to make their own crudely drawn cardboard signs [saying something like Free Listening] and stand in heavily trafficked locations offering themselves up as listeners to anyone who wants to talk’. The volunteers work in pairs to make the experience less intimidatingly intense for all parties
  7. The League of Creative Interventionists, a Californian organisation that has a number of projects, including Fear Doctor, in which someone sets up a booth in a public place that looks like Lucy’s psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts strip; and the Neighbourhood Postcard Project, in which the organisation’s founder Hunter Franks collected positive stories from the residents of a neighbourhood with a bad reputation, written on postcards, and then mailed them to people in different neighbourhoods
  8. An Instagram account called Subway Book Review that, among other things, sells tote bags that read, ‘Ask Me About the Book I’m Reading’
  9. Feasts of Strangers, hosted by the Oxford Muse Foundation, ‘dinners in which stranger are paired up and given a “menu” of intense personal questions’. The dinners last for two hours and have taken place in 15 countries
  10. Some fascinating individual projects: a young man named Judah Berger set up a table in Washington Square park in Manhattan with a sign reading, ‘Where Are You Going?’; Thomas Knox, an African-American, took a table and two chairs down to a New York subway platform to try to get people to talk to him – and succeeded amazingly; Danielle Allen, author of Talking to strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), has made a practice of talking to strangers and sees it as ‘gift giving’
  11. Braver Angels (originally called Better Angels) organises huge workshops where everyone wears a lanyard identifying them as either Republican or Democrat, and in a series of carefully structured events learn how to talk to each other – with remarkable success, even in post-Trump USA

This book was recommended to me by Jim Kable, frequent commenter on this blog. I’m hugely grateful for the recommendation.

The Book Group and The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery

The Book Group had our end of year meeting last night. I wasn’t going to blog about it as there was no book to discuss, but things happened to change my mind.

We had our now-traditional ‘gentlemen’s picnic’ – which is to say, everyone brought food. We had dumplings, barbecued prawns, delicious roast potatoes with rosemary and garlic, Portuguese chicken, plus a bowl of peas so we’d have some greens, followed by a fruit platter, pastéis de nata and mince pies, all accompanied by excellent conversation and much laughter.

Then down to work. Instead of a book, in what may become a tradition, we each brought a poem and read it aloud. The poems ranged from Les Murray’s ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow‘, read to us beautifully by a man to whom Les Murray had read it as a student audience of one, to a completely foul Rodney Rude limerick. Between those extremes were Janet Frame, David Malouf, Barbara Vernon (the fabulous opening stage direction to her 1957 play The Multicoloured Umbrella), Raymond Carver, Adrian Wiggins, anonymous children’s versifiers, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Readings were punctuated by wonderful anecdotes about complex intimacies, the sound of rain on an iron roof, 9th century Japanese poetics, student life in times past, father–son connections and more.

Finally, the Kris Kringle. We each brought a book from our shelves, suitably wrapped and given out at random. Once the books were unwrapped we all looked happy with what we’d got, though the one who’d scored three folded pieces of waxed cloth looked a little mystified and his happy appearance may have been a little strained. (He found out later in the evening that the giver had brought the wrong one of two identically wrapped parcels from home, and will get the book to him soon.) I’m delighted by my book, and because it’s a very quick read, I get to do this blog post:

Julie Shiels, The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery (M.33 2021)

Julie Shiels is a Melbourne artist who created a series of digital collages, starting during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown of 2020. She took a number of paintings by old masters, gave some of their personages the faces of contemporary Australian political leaders, and added pointed captions. For example, the dustjacket (left) has The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder featuring Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Barnaby Joyce. The satirical point would be clear enough, but then there’s the caption, a quote from the Prime Minister: ‘When I can tell you how we get there, that’s when I’ll tell you when we’re going to get there.’

The book simmers with rage, as it covers Robodebt, the federal government’s handling of the vaccine rollout, the scandal around Christian Porter, the Britney Higgins matter, climate change, Peter Dutton deciding to smile, Karen Andrews describing herself as compassionate, the abandonment of Australia’s Afghan friends, and so on.

I laughed out loud at the title page, which has a smirking Morrison standing by the woman’s corpse in Jerome Preudhomme’s The Death of Lucretia, while Michaelia Cash and Marise Payne play other roles – the caption: ‘Blokes don’t get it right all the time.’ Other pages – including but not limited to variations on the rape of Lucretia – are too horrible to be funny, but horrible in a bracing way. Some images land only in the general vicinity of their targets, and some – such as Scott Morrison as Aeneas carrying his ailing father in Pompeo Bartoni’s Aeneas Fleeing from Troy, saying ‘We are all Melburnians now’, or Dan Tehan as Rubens’ Saturn Devouring His Son – hit the bullseye.

This is an art book. The quality of the reproductions is excellent. The face-changes are mostly convincing, and where they’re not the effect is comic rather than shambolic (Julie Shiels must have trawled through millions of photographs to get the heads at just the right angle, the faces with just the right expression).

I recommend it as a gift for a politics-junkie friend who is into art. According to the M.33 website, only 300 copies were published, so you may need to be quick if you want one. The collages, being digital creations in the first place, can be see on Julie Shiels’s website at this link.


The GrandMasters #Sh*tf*ckery is the 15th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Journal Blitz 11

I’m constantly in catchup mode with my reading of literary journals. I tend to start each one with a sense of taking on a burdensome duty – after all, these journals are invariably dancing on the edge of the precipice of financial ruin. I’m generally engrossed by about the third page, and remember why they’re worth supporting.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 241 (Summer 2020)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Each issue of Overland currently (that is to say, a year ago, which is where I’m up to) is a three-parter.

Taking up the first two thirds is the articles section, a platform for marginalised voices and for arguments from outside the Overton window. The stand-out article in this issue is ‘No longer malleable stuff‘ by Jeanine Leane, an uncompromising contribution to the current conversation about who has the right to tell whose stories:

Australian fictionists may and most likely will still fossick over the stolen lands of the nation but we – First Nations peoples, Peoples of Colour – are no longer the ‘malleable stuff’ of the unchecked settler imagination. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a point in talking about an author’s identity if they were all the same. But this is no longer the case. We’re not dead. And, we’re not white. We write. Our identities matter.

Also in this issue, Mammad Aidani, whose writings have been banned in his native Iran, argues that it would be wrong of him to allow his writing to be published there (‘300 words for truth‘); Sam Altman sketches the ‘wholesale collapse of Earth’s planetary systems that sustain life as we know it’ (‘Prepare for collapse‘); Lisa Stefanoff promotes the movie In My Blood it Runs (‘The Australian government is not listening: education justice and remote Indigenous futures‘); Jinghua Qian and Liz Crash promote their virtual multimedia tour of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray (‘Underfoot: history from below‘); Angelita Biscotti reflects on her work as a nude photographic model, which she has come to see as sex work, and quotes the book I haven’t read whose ideas fascinate me most, The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild (‘On the fantasy work that makes life bearable‘).

Second, there’s the 12-page poetry section, edited by Toby Fitch. From a strong and varied field, it’s again a first Nations voice that grabs me: ‘Mnemonic 2020‘ by Yeena Kirkbright walks us in 13 sections, each named for a colour, through the rough year that has just been (this issue was published at the end of 2020). Here’s section 8:

8. _______Purple
After the Jacaranda blooms we go into lockdown.
We are locked in together on Gadigal land. 
I work from my bedroom and feel more trapped than ever.
A manager tells me she heard an Aboriginal woman 
on Sky News say blak breathlessness isn't a problem. 
Not in Australia.
I am livid. I can't argue. I need to pay bills.

Third, the fiction section, edited by Claire Corbett, comprises four short stories, all terrific. ‘Frog song‘ by Magdalena McGuire has a mother and small child in sweltering Darwin weather: ‘It shocks them to discover the sun is not a thing of beauty.’ In ‘Smoke and mirrors‘, poet Samuel Wagan Watson tells a story of loss and grief with a (spoiler alert) twist I didn’t see coming. ‘The white sea‘ by Alistair Kitchen is an unsettling fable in which the sea turns white ‘in the way milk is white – thick and full and opaque’. With Jane Turner Goldsmith’s ‘Smoke road‘, we’re back in naturalistic mode with a taut, understated tale of leaving an abusive relationship.

It looks as if the print edition of Overland no longer publishes the results of the literary competitions listed on the website. This seems to have resulted in a cleaner through-line for each issue. The absence of regular columns has a similar effect, but I do miss the cameo appearances of Alison Croggon, Tony Birch, Giovanni Tiso et al.


Stuart Barnes & Claire Gaskin (guest editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 11, Number 1: local, attention (2021)

As promised, this issue of APJ includes a further instalment of Jacinta LePlastrier’s ‘New Series’, which pairs poems with commentary. But first there are 60 pages of poems that reflect the theme ‘local, attention’. The guest editors’ Foreword quotes Mary Oliver: ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion.’ They’re suggesting, perhaps that this collection of poems that pay attention to the local in as many ways as there are poems might be seen as a post-religious devotional book.

It’s a nice thought, and I can’t tell you it’s wrong.

I turned down the corners of four pages. This doesn’t mean the poems on those pages are somehow superior to the others or even that they struck me more strongly – it’s just that I remembered to mark them at the moment of first reading them. They are:

‘Falling’ by Gavin Yuan Gao, which starts out observing that

____+++++++___ despite years of dogged 
____++practice, English is still the slick
winged serpent the dull flute of my tongue
has failed to charm

and develops, by way of a consideration of the use of ‘fall’ when ‘you mean to say you’re in or out of love’, into a celebration of first love.

‘Quantum Vacuum Noise’ by Alicia Sometimes, in which life with small children in lockdown is seen as problematic for quantum computers (I think):

We have been creating in this space
forts on top of desks on top of kitchens

the fluctuating energy of us laughing would
distort any signals or information encoded

I probably marked ‘Slowly, Here in Esssaouira’ by Matt Hetherington because it’s pretty much a sonnet. It evokes a state of lassitude which, the title informs me via DuckDuckGo, is happening in a town in Tangiers:

a peace is descending upon me
the noisy children don't bother me so much
and things get done, one at a time

‘The Ibises’ by Greg Page won me because I’m fond of those birds and quietly resent their ‘bin chicken’ nickname. Greg Page is a First Nations man, and the poem’s serious turn is a delightful surprise:

Hated, like us Kooris
Told they don't belong
Moved on from their homes
Making do on the fringe

There are eight poem–commentary pairs in the ‘New Series’ section. Though every pairing is interesting and instructive, I was especially interested in two where the commentator is the English translator. Both Dong Li (on Song Lin’s ‘Near) and Stephanie Smee (on Joseph Ponthus’ ’31. from “Part two”, On the line’) shed brilliant light on a translator’s relationship to the original work and its author.


Vern Field (editor) Island 159 (2019)

This issue of Island is upfront about financial difficulties. In 2019, according note from Geoff Heriot, Chair of the Island Board, the journal managed three issues instead of the usual four – but it ended the year in the black so they managed ‘to keep the doors open’.

Elsewhere, the sense of struggle recedes. There are four interweaving elements: nonfiction edited by Anna Spargo-Ryan, fiction edited by Ben Walter, poetry edited by Lisa Gorton, and arts features edited by Judith Abell.

The arts features are beautifully illustrated essays on works by three Tasmanian artists – Lucienne Rickard’s Extinction Studies, Julie Gough’s Tense Past and Selena de Carvalho’s Beware of Imposters (the secret life of flowers) – that bear witness to the island’s vital art scene.

Ten poems are interspersed among the other contents. The poem that spoke most directly to me is ‘Ash in Sydney‘ by Jake Goetz. It’s a wonderful evocation of the experience of being in Sydney during the bushfires of summer 2019–2020, which begins:

ash in falling on the Lidcombe line
on Carriageworks and Regents Park
it's falling on planes of closed-up houses 
where Greg thinks his summer's fucked 
and it's blowing in from morning westerlies 
and it's blown back by arvo southerlies

You can read it and a number of other poems from this issue on the Island website at this link.

There are five pieces of fiction whose subjects range from international adultery to futuristic crime thriller. If I have to single out one, it’s Pip Smith’s ‘Starter Culture’, in which the 70-year-old narrator endures the slights that come her way from her granddaughters and other young women, and eventually wreaks satisfying vengeance (no young people being harmed in the making of said vengeance).

Among the excellent nonfiction pieces, it speaks volumes of Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Death in the Garden‘, that I found its account of grief and resilience powerful even after it said that Epicurus ‘founded a school of thought championing the pursuit of hedonism’, which would have made my high school Latin teacher apoplectic. In ‘Principles of Permaculture‘ Sam George-Allen reflects on six months living alone on ‘a quarter-acre oblong island in a sea of golden grass, wedged between two improbable paddocks on the edge of a rundown country town’, and – though she doesn’t claim it for herself – describes a kind of solitary engagement with the earth that, through her beautiful writing about it, becomes a form of activism.


I interrupted the writing of that last paragraph to collect my mail. Sure enough, there was another literary journal hot off the press.

It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge.

The Iliad: Progress report 1

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998), from beginning to Book 3 line 190

My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other. I didn’t have a coherent answer beyond, ‘Because it’s there.’

Anyhow, after one month I’m half way through Book 3, and only one person has been killed. Apart from four or five mornings’ worth of roll call of the Greek troops and then the Trojan defenders, I’m riveted. Achilles has had a big row with Agammemnon and withdrawn from combat. The gods keep intervening in fascinating ways, including making promises they have no intention to keep. Now, as the vast armies are lined up against each other, it looks as if the war is about to be called off and replaced with a two-man fight to the death between Paris, the strikingly handsome man who abducted Helen, and Menelaus the wronged husband. I’m on the edge of my seat: I know the plan isn’t going to work, but I can’t see how.

I’m not going to do this in every monthly progress report, but I want to compare some translations. Here’s the very first death in Robert Fagles’s translation:

The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops
while he still lived, but now for many years 
the arms of the black earth had held him fast
and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,
both cheeks torn in grief, their house half-built. 
Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him, 
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.
(Book 2, lines 796–802)

Compare Alexander Pope’s translation of the same passage, published in 1715. Pope sacrificed literal translation in order to render the poem into rhyming couplets – heroic couplets. He also renders the ancient practice of tearing one’s cheeks into the more familiar breast beating.

These own’d, as chief, Protesilas the brave,
Who now lay silent in the gloomy grave:
The first who boldly touch’d the Trojan shore,
And dyed a Phrygian lance with Grecian gore;
There lies, far distant from his native plain;
Unfinish’d his proud palaces remain,
And his sad consort beats her breast in vain.
(Book 2, Lines 853–859)

Alice Oswald’s version emphasises the pathos of the moment. It’s not a literal translation, though you could argue that it feels closer to Fagles than to Pope. As she says in her introduction to Memorial (faber & faber 2011), ‘Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.’ This passage includes material from earlier and later lines:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything 
Pyrasus   Iton    Pteleus   antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face 
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother 
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Melissa Ashley’s Bee and the Orange Tree, plus November Verse 13

Melissa Ashley, The Bee and the Orange Tree (Affirm Press 2019)

Most people know that the story of Cinderella has been told in myriad ways in many cultures, and that the version most commonly told to children in the west these days – the source of the Disney version – was written by Charles Perrault, a late 17th century Parisian. But did you know that he was part of a thriving fairy-tale publishing scene in France between 1690 and 1725, and that most of the many authors of original fairy tales of that time were women? And had you even heard of the Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, the woman who coined the term ‘fairy tale’ (conte de fée).

Melissa Hay’s novel The Bee and the Orange Tree, set in 1699, takes place in that gap in our collective knowledge. It’s main characters are Marie Catherine, old, racked with arthritic pain and about to publish her second collection of tales; Angelina, a largely fictional character based on Marie Catherine’s youngest daughter; and Mme Nicola Tiquet, a friend of Marie Catherine who is accused of conspiracy to murder her abusive husband. Chapters are narrated from the point of view of each of these three characters in turn. The struggle to save Nicola from execution is a main narrative thread, secrets from Marie Catherine’s past are revealed, Angelina falls in love, and both Angelina and Marie Catherine reach turning points in their writing careers.

It’s a historical romance, even a bodice ripper, though rather than any bodice being ripped there’s a revelation of bound breasts and, at the novel’s steamiest, a lustful eye is cast at a décolletage. Paris of the time is vividly evoked, from the salons where ladies read their fairy tales to the huge public festive horror of an execution. Men tend to be peripheral to the story, except possibly for him of the bound breasts.

The novel has an agenda to retrieve some lost literary history, and some history of women and gender non-conforming people, and it achieves that interestingly, though I wasn’t completely convinced by the portrayal of the salons, and didn’t believe in the fairy tales included in the book. On the other hand, the sexual intrigues and the various plot revelations are pretty much determined by the genre – serviceable rather than engaging.

The part that worked best for me is the account of the execution as a public event that people feel compelled to witness, whether as sympathisers, as ghoulish entertainment seekers, or as participants. (It’s not a spoiler to tell you there is an execution – the threat of it hangs over more than one character.)


And now, because it’s November:

November verse 13: 
Three thousand sombre people gathered,
candles lit, when Ron Ryan* hanged.
By needle, bullet, stones, gas pellet,
rope, electric chair or sword,
Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, China,
Texas to South Carolina,
state killing still goes on today.
Polite, we turn our heads away
where once it was a great occasion:
come and see a life cut short,
come see how great the power of courts,
see how we'll kill, for God or nation.

Wise though we others claim to be
we'd still watch, glued to the TV.

* Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia. It was 8 am on Friday February 3 1967 in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. He refused a sedative so that he could write a note to his daughters. The note ended, ‘Goodbye, my darlings … Lovingly yours, Dad.’


The Bee and the Orange Tree is the 14th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Walk Like a Cow with Brendan Ryan, plus November verse 4

Brendan Ryan, Walk Like a Cow: A memoir (Walleah Press 2021)

I take Brendan Ryan’s poetry personally. His childhood and mine didn’t have a huge amount in common, but his poetry about cattle – working with them, observing them, even loving them – and about growing up Catholic resonate hugely for me. There were only five children in my family, as opposed to his 10. I spent my childhood on a sugar farm in tropical North Queensland, hard to imagine a climate further removed from his western Victoria. We had just a few cows, of which two were milked by hand in the mornings, rather than a hundred that had to be milked by machine day and night. And I left the farm behind me when I went to boarding school aged 13, whereas he kept working on the farm, much harder than I ever did, into young adulthood. But I recognise so much of what he writes about, and am grateful that he has done the work of wrangling his experiences and observations into words.

This book is a welcome backgrounder on the poetry, and it’s very interesting in its own right. It’s a collection of memoir essays: a version of one of them, ‘Ash Wednesday: A memorial’, published in Heat in 2010, first introduced me to Brendan Ryan’s writing, and I have read versions of several others in Heat and Southerly since. It’s good to see them brought together to form a narrative: his parents’ story, his childhood on the farm, Catholic school and then work away from home in late teenage years, the move to Melbourne, shared houses, pub music scene, odd jobs, and the beginnings of his lifelong relationship. Through it all there is his appreciation of cows, his learning from them how to walk the country (as opposed to Henry David Thoreau’s advice to learn to walk like a camel), and his development as a poet.

There’s a moving account of his relationship with poet John Forbes, who was a mentor. The life with cows and then living in the city with a paddock in his head, so vividly rendered in his poetry, are described here at fascinating length. It’s delightful to read that the first publication of a poet who is so rooted in place, so earthy and so accessible, was a self-published limited edition of 14 copies, bound in paperbark from the trees of St Kilda and selling for $50 each.

Here’s a taste of his writing about cows:

While a cow walks in a straight line, not moving from side to side, it also walks a deviating line. This line seems to be closely linked to two elements a cow encounters each day: the geography of a paddock and habit. Due to their physical size, cows will walk across a hill rather than down the steepest incline. Being a herd animal, a cow will mostly follow other cows along the track they walked the day before. Their cow tracks meander around bumps and ridges in the dirt, ands so the tracks suggest the intimate knowledge the cows have of each paddock. Each day the cows walk along these tracks, perhaps for security, most likely because the tracks have a more practical basis. When viewed from a distance the cow tracks describe the routine of a cow’s day. One track will lead straight to the water trough. Another track will fork off toward shelter on the boundary fence, while other tracks converge like veins around a heart at the paddock’s gate.

‘Walk Like a Cow’, page 202

Because it’s November, inspired by Brendan Ryan, here’s a little verse tribute from me to the Jersey cow that led our herd of mostly Australian Illawarra Shorthorns, with a couple of Friesians:

November verse 4: Cows I have known
For Brendan Ryan
Beauty was our herd's true leader.
Bulls might think they'd be obeyed,
but all the herd would turn to read her
every move, and move her way.
Bony ancient, grey as morning,
with no need for roughhouse horning,
queenlike, she assumed her rank
and strolled from shade to water tank.
Bullocks, calves and springing heifers, 
roan, and black and white, and red,
chewing, calling to be fed,
crumpled horned, with swinging udders,
lifting tails to drop their loads –
they all followed. Beauty led. 



Starting the Iliad

Homer, The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998)

It’s more than a week since I finished reading The Prelude, and I’m already missing reading a couple of pages from a classic text first thing every morning. I’ve decided to take on Homer’s Iliad, which definitely fits the definition of a classic as a book that you can’t read for the first time. My copy of Robert Fagles’s translation was a Christmas gift a while back and has been begging for attention from my sagging To Be Read shelf ever since.

This is my first crack at the actual Iliad, but I have read many fragments, versions and variations of it. Here’s a list of the ones I remember:

  • Kingsley’s Heroes, the Argonauts Club and the Queensland School Readers – from my parents, the ABC and primary school respectively – all told stories of Achilles, and almost certainly some parts of the Iliad
  • The Classics Illustrated comic some time in the 1950s
  • Book 2 of The Aeneid, Virgil’s account of the fall of Troy, which I studied in high school
  • Alice Oswald’s Memorial, subtitled ‘an excavation of The Iliad‘, which presents only the deaths from Homer’s poem (here’s a link to my blog post)
  • The 28 minute version in Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics (link to the podcast)
  • Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, which tells the story from the point of view of a captured woman (link to my blog post)
  • David Malouf’s Ransom, which I’m pretty sure I haven’t read, but I feel as if I know it intimately from reading and hearing about it.

I made a start on it this morning. So far I’ve read the translator’s note and I’m part way through the learned Introduction by Bernard Knox. Getting excited already. I’ll report back in a month.

Ruby Reads 28: Mostly William Steig

A good friend who has a vast library of children’s books decided it might be time for Ruby to meet William Steig, one of the greats of US children’s literature. Shrek is his best known book, but wasn’t among the swag she lent us. The four books in our swag have been read many times by many children over the decades, and needed to be treated with great care. After we read them to Ruby, we decided to get hold of copies we could keep and manhandle. It turned out that none of the three public libraries I belong to have copies; I’ve ordered them from bookshops, but it will take months for them to arrive from ‘suppliers’.


William Steig, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (©1969, Simon & Schuster 2005)

Sylvester is a donkey who finds a pebble that grants his wishes. As you’d expect, one of his wishes goes terribly wrong. The wonder of this book is that the wrongness isn’t Sylvester’s fault: his wish is a clever response to a real threat, so the pickle it lands him in isn’t a punishment. All the same, the bulk of the book has poor Sylvester trapped and immobile, while his parents search for him desperately.

The suspense is terrible. All the more, because z– not to give anything away – the reader can see just how close Sylvester is to a solution to his problem. Yet the happy end, when it comes, is a huge relief.

We’ve only read this once, but it feels as if it will be part of Ruby’s repertoire for a while. We had to play a game based on it, but Ruby instructed us to make up our own wishes. So the appeal of th story so far seems to be in the idea of a tiny red stone with magic powers.


William Steig, The Amazing Bone (©1976, Puffin 1981)

Pearl is a pig who dresses in pink (always a winner with Ruby: ‘Did you know my favourite colour is pink, Poppa?’ ‘Yes, I had gathered that somehow’). One day, relaxing in the woods, she discovers and befriends a magical talking bone.

The bone is much more active than the pebble in the earlier book, and the dangers that Pearl faces are more dramatic: first some masked bandits, and then a suave and hungry fox. The bone scares the bandits off without breaking a sweat, but the fox is another matter.

Needless to say, Pearl and the bone escape the fox and, like Sylvester, Pearl returns to her parents. But whereas the pebble was locked in a safe out of harm’s way, the bone lives on in pride of place in Perl’s household.

I’d hesitated to read this to Ruby because she tends not to like scary stories. But she loved it


William Steig, Doctor De Soto (Farrar Straus & Giroux 1982)

Doctor De Soto is a mouse who is also an excellent dentist. For work health and safety reasons, dangerous animals such as cats are banned from his practice. One day, however, a dapper fox who is in extreme pain from toothache pleads for his help. Doctor De Soto and his wife, who is also his able assistant, reluctantly take pity on the wretched creature and remove the troublesome tooth. But they know, and we know, that the fox is still a fox and will eat them both once he is relieved of his pain. (Spoiler alert: Doctor de Soto and his wife outsmart the fox and stay safe.)

There are comic-terrifying images of the mouse-dentist actually going inside the fox’s mouth, with its huge sharp teeth. Ruby kept her hands at the ready to clamp over her ears each time this happened, but decided over and over to let the story continue: ‘I think they’ll escape,’ she said. I think she had the crocodile’s jaws in Jonny Lambert’s Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (see below) as a reference point, and so was prepared to trust the story teller not to hand her a steaming pile of tragedy.

As for me, I love Doctor and Mrs De Soto for their courage, compassion, and quick-wittedness. I also love the dapper and unscrupulous fox, who may actually be the same fox who troubled Pearl and the bone, now recovered from what they did to him.


William Steig, Brave Irene (©1986, Victor Gollancz Ltd 1987)

Irene is a young human. Her mother has made a dress for the Duchess, but is taken ill and can’t deliver it in time for the ball. When Irene offers to deliver it for her, the mother can see no other option and reluctantly agrees. So brave Irene struggles on through page after page of blizzard. She rides on the dress’s package like a sled, and when the wind snatches the beautiful dress from her, she struggles on anyway because it would be even harder to return home.

It all turns out well in the end.

I’m not sure Ruby quite got this book, but I’m hoping it will grow on her. Irene is no Disney princess, which is a plus from my point of view, but not so much from Ruby’s.


Jonny Lambert, Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (Little Tiger Press 2019)

I had to read this book to myself in order to understand what I had to do when Ruby said, ‘I’m the mouse, you’re the rabbit and Nanna is the turtle.’

Three animals take a short cut across a creek. The mouse is the leader who knows it’s safe because they have never seen a crocodile in this creek. The turtle is a little bit thick and has to have everything explained to her/him: ‘What does a crocodile look like?’ and so on. The rabbit is all too aware of the dangers and preaches caution.

As they cross the creek, the three adventurers keep seeing things that match up to the mouse’s description of crocodiles: from bumpy, scaly backs to big eyes and very sharp teeth. The mouse pooh poohs the similarities, the turtle asks more questions, and the rabbit understands the danger they are in all too well but her/his cries fall on deaf ears.

It’s a lot of fun. Thanks to the interplay of text and image, we understand what is going on so much better than the characters, so the pleasures of the unreliable narrator can begin at an early age. And in our case, the book is perfect for re-enactments if you have two willing collaborators. It would be odd to write about this in the same blog post as the William Steig books, but the link is there in the scary teeth.

Brendan Ryan on the Lowlands of Moyne

Brendan Ryan, The Lowlands of Moyne (Walleah Press 2019)

I just read on Twitter that Brendan Ryan has been called ‘a poet of the cow pats’. The poems in this book may not celebrate cow manure as much as Ryan’s earlier ones, but they return to the apparently inexhaustible well of his childhood and adolescence in a large Catholic family on a dairy farm in rural Victoria.

I’ve just reread my three earlier blog posts about Brendan Ryan’s poetry, and it seems that anything I say about this book will be repeating myself. It’s not the poems: they’re fresh and full of discoveries, hugely satisfying. I have trouble finding fresh ways to express my love for them. So here are some samples from previous blog posts.

On Why I Am Not a Farmer:

Brendan Ryan’s poetry in this book is spattered with the shit and blood of work on a dairy farm … My high school Latin teacher said you could tell Virgil was a city man because in the Georgics he speaks of cow manure as disgusting. Brendan Ryan may well be citified, but he doesn’t shrink fastidiously from the details of labour on the family farm. He’s not whingeing. He has no obvious chip on his shoulder. And there’s no self-pity … There is nostalgia perhaps, but it’s not so much a vague yearning for a lost home, as an ache to integrate, to come to terms with experience.

On Paddock in his Head:

Most of the poems here are shot through with … Catholic sensibility: a sense of the holy unceremoniously embedded in the mundane, messy, painful, occasionally joyful, often strenuous, mostly inarticulate everyday life on a small dairy farm in rural Victoria – and in the farm escaped from, remembered, missed, revisited. It’s sacramental but not at all solemn, in fact not at all pious. There are hints of the Benedictine motto laborare est orare, but without religion.

On Travelling through the Family:

Brendan Ryan’s poetry is deeply rooted in place, specifically in what this book calls blister country, in western Victoria. The three books of his that I’ve read return again and again to his early life on a dairy farm, and to what it means to live away from it as an adult. Or they revisit it, even if only to drive through. It’s a rich vein that yields poetry about natural and human landscapes, about cattle and working with cattle, about living in a big Catholic family in a rural community, about masculinity as a son, a brother and a father, about memory and meaning, the powerful interplay of place and identity.

Some poems in The Lowlands of Moyne move away from the farm district. ‘Lajamanu’, ‘Ampilatwatja’ and ‘Home’ go to remote communities in the Northern Territory. ‘The things they carry’, ‘Coconut workers’ and ‘Brick kiln workers’ go to south-east Asia. There are elegies for friends who have died. There are poems that deal obliquely with the headlines: George Pell (‘of a time that haunts / like a rash, of looking the other way’) is on the car radio in ‘Driving to Debating’; ‘Comfort’ has fun with the coincidence that the main detective and his wife in Midsomer Murders are named Barnaby and Joyce (‘Barnaby will be my moral guide’); ‘Intentionality’ celebrates tiny moments of suburban life while Scott Morrison replaces Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister.

But the subjects of most of the poems are vivid memories of life and work on the farm, of family and community past and present. Where they are not the direct subject, they provide a vantage point from which to understand and respond to the world. Nothing feels arbitrary or ‘Literary’, everything seems to come from a deeply felt, deeply integrated place.

For example, from page 55:

 When she lowers her nuzzle to the clover / the post chafes her neck, swings against her shoulder./ No more than a wooden spacer tied to a loop /of cyclone wire strung around her neck. /She wears her post as a cross, bears its weight /its annoying shape for the days needed /to corral wayward heifer. /Aversion therapy, designed to stop her twisting /through fences, the lone heifer who discards /the herd to freely wander. The same process /we use to justify drowning kittens in a hessian bag, /whacking crippled calves on the head with an axe /watching the cattle buyer jab an electric prodder /into cows reluctant to climb into the darkness /of a cattle truck. In moments such as these /we separate ourselves from the animals, /realise who we are to detach ourselves /from the fear of the cow we are selling. /Like chaining a dog or dehorning a bull /our aim is to contain something wild, /rebellious, a heifer who will twist her neck /to pull at rye grass on the neighbour's boundary, /her fence post bowing the barbed wire /before she pulls back, snickets of orange fur snagging. /She learns to wear her post /as a sailor wears an albatross. /Other heifers /keep their distance, shun her affliction. /Eeach time she shakes her head at flies /the post knocks against her side like a voice /reminding her to pause before fences.

The word ‘wearing’ in the title sets up a kind of riddle, which is soon resolved, as we are told that the fence post is a kind of neckwear. The first seven lines focus on the young cow’s discomfort and annoyance. The tone is sympathetic, even affectionate. ‘She bears its weight like a cross’ beautifully clarifies the visual image and invokes religious iconography of Jesus on the road to Calvary. But before the reader can leap to an animal-liberationist sense of outrage, the fence post is described as an ‘annoying shape’: the heifer isn’t so much a sacrificial victim as a thwarted rebel, or even a free spirit lumbered with an irritating impediment.

Lines seven to 10 explain the rationale for the fence post: it stops her from wandering away from the herd by making it impossible to go ‘twisting / through fences’.

In a surprising shift in tone, lines 10 to 20 invoke many other ways that humans (‘we’) treat animals in utilitarian ways. The actions listed are harsh, but not wantonly cruel. Interestingly enough, the list starts with the most shocking: the killing of kittens and crippled calves, both of which are arguably horrible necessities. The electric prodder here is used to direct the cows, like a hi-tech whip. Bulls are dehorned to prevent damage in the herd. These actions are dictated by the logic of farming: using the animals for human purposes. We aren’t taken to the hideous, late-capitalism end of the spectrum: no animals dying of heat exhaustion on ships, no featherless cage chickens who never see daylight, not even the actual slaughter of beef cattle with a different kind of electric ‘prodder’.

As I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog, I grew up on a sugar farm in North Queensland. We had a small herd of cattle, which I had a fair bit to do with until I went off to boarding school at 13. I don’t remember us ever doing this to a heifer, or whacking a crippled calf on the head, or even dehorning a bull. But I have certainly chained a dog, I remember vividly the sound of kittens purring in a hessian bag as it was dropped into the river, and I helped in some gruesome births and deaths. So I easily find myself included in the ‘we’ at line 11, which is probably not the case for some readers. These lines aren’t a call to arms against animal cruelty so much as a reflection on the mental ‘process’ (line 10) that has us as farmers (and others) imposing our will on animals. The heart of the poem lies in the lines:

_______-______In moments such as these 
we separate ourselves from the animals, 
realise who we are to detach ourselves 

Many of us are thinking a lot these days about the disastrous results of humans, specifically humans of colonising and capitalist societies, believing we are separate from the rest of nature, seeing it as there simply to be exploited. Here in this gently comic image of an irritated heifer, Brendan Ryan asks us to notice it again with him, and asks if at some level it’s a matter of realising ‘who we are’ – what it means to be human.

In the remaining lines, we are back wth the heifer. The thing is, after centuries of breeding to fit human purposes, domesticated animals still have wills of their own. Our aim is still ‘to contain something wild, / rebellious’. Far from being a passive object of the farmers’ treatment, the heifer still twists through the fence, resists, and finally submits. The fence post, earlier compared to a cross, is now compared to an albatross, which sends me off to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, especially this:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung. 

It’s kind of pretty that the heifer and the Ancient Mariner both progress from wearing a cross to wearing an albatross, from a symbol of supreme sacrifice to a punishment for wrongdoing. But even though the other heifers shun her, our sympathies are definitely with the rebel – it’s hard to think of her as an actual wrongdoer. (I’m reminded of the mixture of sympathy and ruthlessness I used to feel when we put a ‘cone of shame’ on our dog to stop her from biting a sore patch on her rump.)

The last three lines are interestingly anticlimactic. Having delved a little into the deeper implications of the heifer’s treatment, the poem comes back to the observable reality. The heifer carries on, just a little more thoughtful than before. This is ordinary, the poem seems to say; if there’s something amiss here, it’s deeply ingrained in a way of doing things, and we may just have to live with moral complexity.

You might like to find a metaphorical resonance in the poem. Is it perhaps talking about the way we are all constrained by the profit-orientated society we live in. Do we accept with an irritated shrug the limits imposed our wild natures? My two bob’s worth: sometimes a heifer is just a heifer, and that’s enough for me.

Matt Nable’s Still at the Book Group

Matt Nable, Still (Hachette 2021)

Before the meeting: The Chooser for this book was strangely apologetic: a page-turner that he’d really enjoyed, he said, but he could easily find a second option … No one objected to a page-turner, especially as the 1960s Darwin setting made it a logical follow-up to Return to Uluru. The chat on WhatsApp brushed his apologetic tone aside.

Then came the book’s opening sentences, and my heart sank:

The long tufts of spinifex curled over on a gust of warm wind. Whispered voices broke with a gravelled edge and the sounds of violence disturbed a brown snake resting in a tight coil on the corner of a steep embankment.

This isn’t meant to be read word by word. Every adjective except ‘brown’ is unnecessary (‘tight’, ‘steep’), feeble (‘warm’) or off kilter (‘long’, ‘gravelled’). Where are an embankment’s corners, and what does it mean to be on one of them? Why are the two parts of the second sentence linked by ‘and’ rather than being separate sentences? But none of that matters if you read it fast and just take in ‘spinifex … wind … whispers … gravel … violence … snake’.

Sadly what follows needs to be read in the same careless, abstracted way: don’t linger over any sentence; don’t think too hard about any plot developments; don’t concern yourself with probability; just go with the flow. It’s Midsomer Murders in print, transposed to 1963 during the NT build-up, minus any self-mockery, mystery or nuance.

Maybe this is peculiar to me as a copy editor, but consistently, several times a page, I was yanked out of the narrative by a malaprop, a run-on, an Americanism, a non-sequitur, a physical impossibility, a roaring cliché, or glaringly unnecessary words … I wonder who made the decision that this book was good to go.

To test my feeling that the badness was pervasive, I asked the Emerging Artist to pick a number between 1 and 375, and another between 1 and 30. This would give me a page and a line. The first time, she picked page 34 line 2, which falls in the middle of this sentence:

Ned could smell Riley’s aftershave, the same one he always wore, it was sweet and, though pleasant initially, Riley wore too much of it and it invariably became overpowering and distracting.

Apart from the run-on, the hanging modifier, and the odd use of ‘distracting’, why not just, ‘Ned could smell Riley’s overpowering aftershave’ or, ‘Riley’s aftershave was as overpowering as ever’? Or maybe just delete the sentence, because like many references to smell in this book it feels as if it’s there because the author was told to include appeals to all the senses.

The EA’s second pick, page 105, line 5, turned out to be the final line of the one episode that I enjoyed, where the white policeman hero Ned Potter tries to catch a barramundi with his bare hands, as he has been taught by an Aboriginal man, and fails. The first words are what Ned imagines the victorious fish saying as it swims away:

Fuck you, Ned. He resolved to try again, to win, to catch a barramundi by hand.

On first reading, the second of these sentences felt like dead wordage. Why not let the fish have the last word? Or if we must have Ned making a resolution, why not end the sentence with ‘win’? The last phrase is only necessary if you don’t trust the reader to have read the previous three pages. It turns out – spoiler alert – that this sentence is there to foreshadow emphatically that Ned will indeed try again before the book ends, and there are no prizes for guessing whether he succeeds.

The book’s cover features high praise from Jane Harper – which is enough to make me decide not to read any of her novels.

I came to the meeting hoping others would be less unforgiving and find joy in the novel, which they’d be able to communicate – and dreading it as well, as it would confirm that I’m a joyless pedant.

Just before the meeting: We decided to meet in person. In the online deliberations leading up to the decision, we all disclosed our wide range of vaccination statuses. Possibly on no interest to anyone but copy-editors, here’s the range: double vaxed, double vaxxed, double vacc’d and double vaccinated.

After the meeting: I enjoyed this meeting hugely.

Most people enjoyed the book, as I’d hoped and feared. I guess I’m a joyless pedant, and a literature snob. No one was unkind enough to say either of those things in so many words, though the word ‘pedant’ was used. At least one person couldn’t believe that I was unmoved and unconvinced by the plight of the main female character. Even those who sympathised with the gist of my rant (and yes, I did have a rant, but only after a number of people had spoken positively about the book) had trouble seeing that I wasn’t swept along by the sheer pace of the narrative.

Our resident retired assistant film director said the book works very well as a fleshed-out treatment for a movie, and I’d say the majority of us concurred. Various people referred to the convincing dialogue, the back and forth of the narrative, the occasional sex scene, the violence, the narrative drive, the attention to place, and indeed the predominantly visual, scene-based nature of the writing. The cliche elements are acceptable because it is after all a genre piece. Someone thought I was being snooty about it because it’s an unpretentious page-turner, but I deny the charge. Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruín is a page turner, but it’s literate, and just look at Peter Corris or Peter Temple.

One man felt that the book was in many ways similar to Return to Uluru, and even superior in its treatment of racism. That’s a view so far from my own that I can’t begin to understand it.

I tried my party trick of asking someone to pick two numbers. The line that turned up was the last paragraph in this exchange between Ned and Ron Thompson of the coroner’s office, which takes place in the morgue:

Ned walked toward Thompson, settled beside him and looked over the bodies again.

‘That’s Lionel Frazier.’ Ned pointed to the body.

‘The white fella?’

‘Yep.’

Thompson looked over the body of the larger man. ‘He’s a Kanaka.’

‘What?’

‘The big one here.’ Thompson nodded at the larger corpse.

A punctilious copy editor would query the ambiguous phrase ‘looked over’ even if it only occurred once, and the awkward repetition of ‘larger’ might attract the blue pencil, but the narrative moves along, and there’s nothing outstandingly terrible in this writing. My party trick failed to make my point.

A degree of consensus was reached on the notion that the author had a story to tell, which he imagined in cinematic terms rather than in words; the book is a stepping stone to the complete work, which will be a film or TV series whose script will have passed through several more drafts and then be interpreted by a director and actors. Someone has heard that a TV series is already in the works. There was also a degree of consensus that I got i my own way as a reader of this book. (I disagreed, but not strongly.)

Did I mention that we met in person? We shook hands and even rubbed shoulders. We ate and drank together: I even shared a can. Excellent gossip was exchanged about the rich, famous and powerful, and toward the end of the evening we contemplated the terrifying inanity of the Prime Minister’s plan to take a PowerPoint presentation to Glasgow. We learned from Google that Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic Church. We learned that Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed is due for another short season in Parramatta and that Girl from the North Country is worth seeing.