Tag Archives: essays

Erik Jensen’s Prosperity Gospel

Erik Jensen, The Prosperity Gospe: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost (Quarterly Essay 74), plus correspondence from QE 75

I approached this Quarterly Essay with reluctance. Did I really need another inside-baseball, after-the-event reading of the tea-leaves about the May federal election? That’s how I felt when the essay came out, and my already-faint enthusiasm has only waned since. But I did read it, three months after the event as has become my custom..

It’s mercifully short. It consists mainly of finely crafted snapshots, mainly of the party leaders in action, from both sides of the election campaign with occasional snippets of commentary, and no sustained argument as such. An essay for the distractible perhaps. Or one that met an impossible deadline, to be published within weeks of the events it deals with. That’s not to say it lacks insight (‘Bill Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy’). But it’s impressionistic rather than discursive, and narrative rather than analytical. It was written on the campaign trail. Bill Shorten gave a generous interview; Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed. There’s no doubt which of the two men emerges as the more likeable, but he is the one who is accorded the most devastating summing-up:

The great truth of Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t know himself. He hasn’t settled his character.

Morrison on the other hand, though his religious belief and his deep commitment to his family are noted, is described in the essay’s final words as ‘a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay’. Both those summations are beautifully concise, and they’re far from stupid, but neither is justified by the essay that precedes them.

It’s a strange essay, reading sometimes like diary notes from the campaign trail: along with the oft-seen moments like Morrison’s Easter observance, speeches are summarised, mostly without comment; we’re told what books people carry in their luggage; there’s a scattering of off-the-cuff witticisms from staffers; the behaviour of the wives of both candidates is described; sometimes unrelated passers-by are mentioned.

Much of the narrative simply sits on the page, without resonance or further implication that I could discern. An outstanding example is in the account of Morrison emerging from a Healthy Harold igloo (part of a program of health education for children):

Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect

(page 48)

This reminded me of a piece by Mungo MacCallum in the Nation Review some time in the early 1970s. Describing Gough Whitlam emerging from a swimming pool, he commented that the honourable gentleman appeared to be very well endowed. That was funny in a transgressively adolescent way, and it chimed with the writer’s clear view that Gough was an attractive big man in other ways as well. Here, the point of mentioning the state of Morrison’s nipples, if there is one, seems to be to tell us that the writer was very close to the action and noticing details, however meaningless. The length of his tie doesn’t even have that, and what does the personification of Morrison’s paunch even mean?

In fact, as a guide to understanding what happened in the election, the essay is eclipsed by the 25 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (my blog post here), which offer a number of interesting and plausible hypotheses about how the progressive-leaning population described so convincingly by Huntley could have delivered the result when it acted as an electorate.

And now perhaps the existence of Jensen’s essay is justified by what turns out to be an excellent correspondence about it at the back of QE 75 (Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which I look forward to reading in three months’ time).

Shorten’s speech writer, James Newton, gives an unrepentant insider’s account of Shorten’s campaign, including his now-near-forgotten town hall meetings. Journalist David Marr and scholar Judith Brett offer their analyses. Barry Jones offers the perspective of a grand old man of the ALP. Elizabeth Flux tells us what she learned from being ’employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics’ throughout the campaign, Kristina Keneally writes interestingly about the possible role of religious background. Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson offer historians’ insights. Lawyer Russell Marks gestures towards ‘the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems’.

These contributions mostly include evidence that they have read Jensen’s essay. Some of them actually grapple with it, as distinct from using it as a launching pad for their own commentary. Here are some quotes to balance my own underwhelmed response:

James Newton: ‘Instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik Jensen gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.’

David Marr: ‘The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. … The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day.’

Elizabeth Flux: ‘The Prosperity Gospel helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.’

Kristina Keneally actually engages critically with the essay, finding it unsatisfying in three areas: ‘First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. … Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced. … Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election.’

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson wonder on paper if people will still go to this essay for insight in the future, say in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They argue (unconvincingly in my opinion) that they should.

Russell Marks laments that while the essay’s subtitle promises an explanation for the election result, ‘Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer.’ He goes on to speak, not quite disparagingly, of political journalists making ‘literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections why publics endorse one leader and not another’, and then speaks quite disparagingly of ‘armchair psychoanalysis’, though he doesn’t accuse Jensen directly of that.

Tellingly, Jensen’s ‘Response to Correspondents’ ignores them all and makes some observations on what has happened in the months since the election.

Fiona Wright’s World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole (Giramondo 2018)

[Added later: If you read only one article on this book, I recommend Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s brilliant essay ‘Comfortable and Comforted: The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright’ in Sydney Review of Books (click here) rather than mine. Of course, I’d be happy for you to read both.]

This is Fiona Wright’s second book of personal essays. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, she said the first book, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes, particularly those brought on by her severe health issues, and this book is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is (still) fragile. It’s a very good description.

The essays are beautifully written, combining personal detail, literary reference and information about the social and historical contexts. They revolve around three main things.

First is the experience of chronic illness. Fiona Wright lives with a rare and complex digestive disorder, which gave rise to behavioural difficulties. Dealings with dietitians, psychologists, hospitals and the mental health system feature prominently, and there’s a revelatory quality to her recounting of the micro-moments she has to negotiate as a person for whom eating is always problematic. One example at random: in ‘Back to Cronulla’ she has a meal with her family to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, course after course of beautifully plated dishes:

It was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware than any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

(page 41)

The second recurring subject is home, as housing and as locality, home that is never the stable, warm reliable nest of stereotype, but home that is uncomfortable, and sometimes precarious. Born and raised in Sydney’s Western suburbs, Wright now lives in the Inner West, and one of the beauties of the book is the way these places, and others such as Cronulla, come alive on the page. In particular, even while she makes it very clear that she doesn’t feel completely at home in her current suburb of Newtown any more than she did in her childhood suburb, her love for it is tangible, and never more so than in this account of the Newtown Festival:

The street itself was thronged and milling. A beautiful young woman with a shaved head and silver glitter pressed onto her eyelids placed a sticker in the shape of a heart onto my chest. I ran into one of my housemates in the park, an old colleague and then the girlfriend of a woman I used to live with; a little further on, I saw one of the nurses from the hospital, although it took me a moment to place her properly, dressed in denim and wearing jewellery, rather than navy-blue scrubs and a duress alarm.

Later, I met a friend in a café on King Street, and the barista said, we haven’t seen you for a while, and reached for the skim milk before I’d even had a chance to speak. I used to bristle when this happened, when a waiter or bartender asked if (or assumed that) I wanted my usual, it used to embarrass me acutely, because I didn’t want anybody else to recognise how predictable, habitual, routine I could not help but be. It seemed to be a failing and a fault, but in this afternoon, all afternoon, I felt it as a recognition of my place, of my home and my inextricability, almost, within it.

(‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’)

There’s a lot about the joys and tribulations of shared rented houses. ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’ – the title says it all – casts a cool eye on the process of being evicted, finding new housemates and searching for a new house. It’s personal, but it’s worth a hundred newspaper articles about the housing problems facing young people in Sydney (and many other cities).

The third thing, not so much a theme or a subject as a practice, is attention to moments. In the Correspondence section of the current Quarterly Essay, responding to Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss, Fiona Wright has a piece that pretty much starts out:

I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.

A number of the essays here are fragmentary – congeries (a word my high school Latin teacher used to love throwing at us) of moments, observations, eavesdrops, beautifully chosen quotations from other writers. Only an inattentive reader would think they were solipsistic or narcissistic. And they do have a point, though not one that is argued for as if in a debate.

A woman about my age sits at the next café table with someone I take to be her mother, slung beneath a bag as enormous and as orange as a pumpkin. The older woman says to the waitress, I’ve quit sugar so I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.

(‘What It Means for Spring to Come’)

I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: it smells of seaweed in here.

(”The everyday Injuries’)

There are two marvellous travel pieces – Iceland in ‘A Regular Choreography’ and China in ‘Little Heart’ – which combine all three of those features. By its nature, travel imposes extra stress on vulnerable bodies and minds, raises issues of home and belonging, and is disjointed and fragmentary.

The collection’s title, and the title of one of the essays – ‘The world was whole always’ – come from the poem ‘Aubade’ by US poet Louise Glück (click here for the whole poem):

A room with a chair, a window.
A small window, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world 

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the centre. 

I stumbled across another of Glück’s poems, ‘Formaggio’ (on a pdf file here), which includes the book’s title, though without the ‘always’ of the essay. It begins:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

These lines could have served as an epigraph to the whole book. One way or another, the essays are about being shattered, or its aftermath: precarious housing, chronic illness, life away from the security and predictability of the family of origin. The writing is a way of understanding, of knowing what it is.

The book hit a number of personal spots for me: I live on the edge of Newtown and recognise many of the places mentioned; it’s a while ago but I’ve lived in a number of share houses; there’s a discussion of one of the few Chinese poems I’ve tried to engage with intimately (here if you’re interested); and I’ve recently become aware that though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have 12 years to prevent irreversible and calamitous damage, yet I go on pretty much as before, so I was struck by this:

So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent global disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them.

This is also exactly how anorexia works.

(‘To Run Away from Home’)

Oh!

The World Was Whole is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.

Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look and November Verse 3

Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)

1925355365.jpgI’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)

One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.

Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.

And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):

Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’

AWW2016Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

Don Watson,  Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, September 2016)

qe63.jpg

This Quarterly Essay is closer in form to the classic essays of Addison and Lamb than to the engaged argument of most issues. It doesn’t so much push a thesis as offer a series of ruminations and perspectives.

Don Watson is a lugubrious bemoaner of abuses of the English language, so visiting a US election campaign must have been a melancholy experience for him. One of the joys of this essay is the attention it pays to language – my favourite moment being this comment on Bernie Sanders’ repeated use of the word ‘incomprehensible’:

An election processes reality into platitudes. Even the images become platitudes. It grinds all the tendons and marrow and flesh of history, and all the cultural overlays of Los Angeles, and the ukuleles and ‘You bets’ of Janesville, into something universally digestible. Hearing a word like ‘incomprehensible’ in the middle of it is like finding a bone in a fish finger.

More substantially, Watson is also a historian. Rather than give us a blow-by-blow account of Donald Trump’s tweets and other provocations or Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turns to the past for perspective. He likes Hillary Clinton best when she delivers a history lesson rather than a stump speech at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund meeting. He sees Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a resurgence of ‘a much assailed and greatly debilitated, but unbroken American tradition of democratic socialism’, which he presents to us by way of a sketch of the history of Wisconsin, where Fighting Bob La Follette ‘took on the elites for forty years’ and the current mayor, Paul Soglin, continues in his footsteps. He discusses Trump in the context of twentieth century fascism,  concluding somewhat reassuringly:

[Were] he to win the presidency in ways resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, it’s inconceivable that Trump’s next steps would resemble theirs. His brutish and ingenious destruction of the country club Republicans, and the capitulation of most of the remainder, are shameful and concerning, but even if this means the end of the Republican Party, that is not the same as the end of UIS democracy. The Germans of 1933 had had a decade of democracy. The Americans have had a a lot more than that.

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

And if Trump doesn’t win, will he walk away? Will his followers? He is telling them if he loses it means the vote was rigged. He doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

I’m glad to report that most of the essay is about the US rather than specifically about Trump. Not that Watson is reluctant to repeat witty take-downs of either main candidate, but the ‘time’ of the title was also the moment of Muhammad Ali’s death, of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, of Bernie Sanders’ speaking – about all of which he writes beautifully.


Roughly two thirds of this QE is devoted to correspondence on the previous issue, in which James Brown put a case for greater public engagement and debate in Australia’s approach to the possibility of war. Two elder historians lament young Brown’s apparent historical ignorance, other correspondents take exception to aspects of his argument. But there’s a general consensus that more thought and discussion is needed. Brown acknowledges some criticisms as ‘bracing, but useful’, and utterly rejects others. It couldn’t be more different from the way argument is too often conducted in the social media.

Judith Ridge’s Book that Made Me

Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)

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tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.

Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.

It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘ made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book

made them fall in  love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.

Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:

  • Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
  • Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
  • Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
  • the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
  • Kate Constable,whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
  • Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.

As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.

Something the book does for me which it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.

The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
—–
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reach double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.

I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.

What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.

One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in  Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:

We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.

I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)

I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.

His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.

For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.
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AWW2016I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.

Lily Brett’s Only in New York

Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

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This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:

When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.

Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.

In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she  is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:

My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.

Then, without missing  a beat:

After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.

We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.

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Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,