Tag Archives: The Book Show

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards short lists

The shortlist for the fourth Prime Minister’s Literary Awards has just been published.

On the Book Show on 12 July, Hilary McPhee said, ‘Once you’ve published someone and like their work, you stick with them and read them and see what they’re doing with themselves.’ That’s true of me in my own small way. So I’m thrilled to see on the children’s and young adults’ lists a number of people whose work graced the pages of The School Magazine during my stewardship.

On the Young Adult Fiction shortlist:
Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, Bill Condon (32 items in SM, between 1992 and 2005, including poems, stories and plays)
The Museum of Mary Child, Cassandra Golds (incalculable contributions to the magazine as member of editorial staff)

On the Children’s Fiction shortlist:
The Terrible Plop, Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Andrew Joyner (mainly excerpts from Ursula’s books in my time, but after I left she joined editorial staff and Andrew became a regular illustrator)
Star Jumps, Lorraine Marwood (42 poems between 1998 and 2005)
Harry and Hopper, Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Thinking about it, I can’t claim to have published Margaret Wild, but she’s an Annandalean, so I’m thrilled to see her there too.

I hope they all win.

There are also awards for general fiction (with names like Malouf and Coetzee shortlisted) and non-fiction (with contenders ranging from the extreme lyricism of Mark Tredinnick to what the judges describe unpromisingly as ‘monumental history’ and ‘prescient analysis’ by John Keane).

Previous decisions on these awards have been eccentric, so the winners are anyone’s bet. I won’t even hazard a guess. Unlike, say, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, they’re not arms-length decisions: the judging panels recommend but the Prime Minister decides, and in the first year of the awards, John w Howard did in fact overrule the judges to make sure the Anzac myth got a boost. Let’s see if whoever is Prime Minister when these winners are announced (I can’t find a date on the site) has enough grace to refrain from bending the prize to her (please!) or his ideological agenda.

Coming into the Country

John McPhee, Coming into the Country (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1977, 1991)

I had no obvious reason to read this book. It’s about Alaska, after all, written more than 30 years ago, originally as three articles spread over eight issues of The New Yorker and dealing with such historical dead ducks as the vote to move the state capital from Juneau to somewhere more accessible1: more than 400 pages of dated journalism about a distant, cold place.  But a discerning friend gave it to me a while back with the implication that it was something I’d enjoy. It turns out he was right.

On a recent Book Show, Philip Gourevitch – himself among other things a writer for The New Yorker – described McPhee as having a ‘wonderfully informative, wonderfully vivid way of conveying knowledge as pleasure rather than as sort of eat-your-vegetables data.’ That’s spot-on: history, politics, geology, geography, climatology, anthropology, zoology – these pages offer a a huge diversity of knowledge for pleasurable absorption. The explorer Roald Amundsen rides into the book as naturally as he rode into the town of Eagle in 1905. The ‘winter bear’ phenomenon, in which a bear gains an armour of ice that makes it invulnerable to spears or even guns (shades of Iorek Byrnison) is mentioned almost in passing. There are helpful hints about how to leave a log cabin in the woods so as to minimise any damage by curious bears – not that you or I will ever need such hints, but reason not the need. The third essay in particular, which gives the book its title and accounts for more than half the pages, explores the intricacies of life in and around the tiny ‘city’ of Eagle, on the Yukon River, near the Canadian border, entirely through McPhee’s relationships with people there, interspersed with forays into history and an occasional string of quotes from the judgemental gossip that thrives there as in any small community. Eagle is divisible into the Christians, the bootleggers, the ‘river people’ (who live, illegally, out in the bush) and the Indians (who mostly live in Eagle Village, a couple of miles down the river). There’s plenty of animosity between these groups, but McPhee seems to have developed strong, trusting relationships in all groups – and the reader is invited to sympathise with them all as well.

Gourevitch said on The Book Show:

Coming into the  Country remains one of the two or three essential books about the nature of Alaska, and by that I mean its character, the people who are there, why they’re there, what it means to be Alaskan, what the state is in America.

I was surprised to read that only a thousand people voted in the 1974 Alaskan gubernatorial elections. Suddenly Sarah Palin’s governorship looks a lot less impressive. Likewise, having shot a moose is less of a feat when you consider that if you live in one of the larger population centres you have to be very well off to be able to afford to go hunting, and we can be fairly sure that the Palins weren’t among the people who choose the extremes of life ‘in the country’, where moose is a staple food.

McPhee evidently lived in Alaska for months if not years on the way to this book, long enough to get to know some of its people well, to learn the peculiarities of language as spoken there, to develop a deep feel for the country, to amass a vast store of fact and anecdote, to ferret out first-person accounts of incidents that had become legendary. This is journalism that’s not so much embedded as immersed.

There’s some wonderful nature writing, combining lyrical description with other perspectives as in this, from a much longer account of Mt McKinley:

The Alaskan Range elevates with a rapidity rare in the world. Its top is about two-thirds as high as the top of the Himalayas, but the Himalayan uplift is broad and extensive. if you were looking toward Mount Everest from forty miles away, you would lift your gaze only slightly to note the highest in a sea of peaks. Forty miles from McKinley you can stand at a bench mark of three hundred and climb with your eyes the other twenty thousand feet. The difference – between your altitude near sea level and the height of that flying white mountain – is much too great to be merely overwhelming. The mountain is a sky of rock, seemingly all above you, looming. Until it takes itself away, you watch it as you might watch a hearth fire or a show in colour of aurorean light. […] The Athapascans are not much impressed that a young Princeton graduate on a prospecting adventure in the Susitna Valley in 1896 happened to learn, on his way out of the wilderness, that William McKinley had become the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In this haphazard way, the mountain got the name it would carry for at least the better part of a century, notwithstanding that it already had a name, for uncounted centuries had had a name, which in translation had been written, variously as The Great one, The Mighty One, The High One. The Indians in their reverence had called it Denali. Toponymically, that was the mountain’s proper name.

Possibly my single favourite passage is about fifty-five-gallon drums:

A fifty-five-gallon steel drum is thirty-four and three-quarters inches high and twenty-three inches in diameter, and is sometimes called the Alaska State Flower. Hundreds of them lie around wherever people have settled. I once considered them ugly. They seemed disappointing, somehow, and I wished they would go away. There is a change that affects what one sees here. Just as on a wilderness trip a change occurs after a time and you cross a line into another world, a change occurs with these drums. Gradually, they become tolerable, and then more and more attractive. Eventually, they almost bloom. Fifty-five-gallon drums are used as rain barrels, roof jacks, bathtubs. fish smokers, dog pots, doghouses. They are testing basins for outboard motors. They are the honeypots of biffies, the floats of rafts. A threat has been made to use one as a bomb. Dick Cook, who despises aircraft of all types, told a helicopter pilot he would shoot at him if he ever came near his home. The pilot has warned Cook that if he so much as points a rifle at the chopper the pilot will fill a fifty-five-gallon drum with water and drop it on the roof of Cook’s cabin. Fifty-five-gallon drums make heat stoves, cookstoves, flower planters, bearproof caches, wood boxes, well casings, watering troughs, culverts, runway markers, water tanks, solar showers. They are used as rollers for moving cabins, rollers to smooth snow or dirt. Sliced on the diagonal, they are the bodies of wheelbarrows. Scavenged everywhere, they are looked upon as gold.

By the time I reached the end I could almost understand what some people find attractive about living in a place that gets to 40 below zero (Farenheit) and stays there for a good part of the year.
1 When the book was first published, the quest for a new capital was still under way, and supplied the backbone for the second essay, ‘What They Were Hunting For’: I had to look up Wikipedia to discover by what chicanery the vote was overturned.

Later: WordPress’s automatic link to possibly related blog posts went to Wickersham’s Conscience,, in which an Alaskan blogger echoes Philip Gourevich’s evaluation:

If you want to try to understand Alaska, its people, its politics and why I live here, this book is the best place to start. This book is a great writer’s greatest book.

Footnote on my blog note on Sacco’s Footnotes

I’ve just heard Chris Flynn’s excellent review of Footnotes in Gaza on the ABC’s Book Show of 21 April. It’s preceded by interesting discussions of European comics (‘graphic novels’) in translation and South Korean comics, in a refreshing antidote to the patronising treatment often handed out to comics in the mainstream media. Chris Flynn says in part:

Sacco tries his level best to build up an accurate picture of what might have happened. he comes at the massacres from all angles, presenting eyewitness accounts that sometimes correspond and sometimes conflict. Footnotes in Gaza is thus a fascinating document of ordinary people, but it is disappointing that it lacks an Israeli perspective on what happened. In his introduction  Sacco bemoans that he was stonewalled, and the limited access that he was granted to UN and Israeli Defence Force archives, and he puts out a plea for Israeli soldiers who were present on the days in question to come forward with their versions of events.

As an eye-opening piece of war reportage, Footnotes in Gaza succeeds largely thanks to Sacco’s innovative, fresh approach in presenting a forgotten moment in history in such a modern fashion. As a narrative piece of story-telling, it contains several moments that made me put the book down and hold my head in my hands. As illustrative journalism, it has a huge emotional impact, particularly during the grand vistas of destruction and the final, silent pages that transcend words. There are no answers here, just terribly sad questions.

You can download the whole thing or listen to it streamed.

Asia Literary Review 14 and 15

Chris Wood (ed), Asia Literary Review, Nº 14 and Nº 15

I subscribed to the Asia Literary Review as an act of avuncular solidarity – I wanted a hard copy of issue 14, (northern) Winter 2009, which features ‘Broken’, a story by my niece Edwina Shaw. Having now read two issues, I’m a fan.

Asia, of course, covers a vast proportion of the Earth, from the Philippines in the east to the Arabian Peninsula in the west. The Asia (not ‘Asian’) Literary Review is a vast tent open to contributions from all of it and beyond. It’s an English-language journal, founded by Nury Vittachi in 1999, and currently edited by Chris Wood. It publishes work by writers and visual artists from Asian cultures in translation and originally in English, work by expat and former expat Westerners (like my niece), not all from English-speaking countries, work by Westerners who have engaged with Asia in other ways (there’s an extract from Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing in Nº 14), contributions from various Asian diasporas. There are interviews, both original and transcribed from The Book Show, and a wealth of illustration.

In Issue 15, just arrived in my letterbox this week, Hanif Kureishi (one of the interviewees) is quoted on racism:

It really is about language. It’s very traumatic to exist in a world of other people’s descriptions. Your own words have no force.

If he’s right, then the sheer multiplicity of voices here must be profoundly anti-racist. In Issue 14, ‘Noe’s Jiuta-mai’, a photo-essay by Bangkok based Xavier Comas on a traditional Japanese dance form, is followed by  ‘Nova Initia’, Thomas Lee’s first person narrative about a Korean man in the US learning about his father’s past, which in turn is followed by ‘Phallacy’, a laddish sonnet by England born Daljit Nagra (How oft do mates bang on at length about / how well they’re hung …). Issue 14 interviews Gao Xingjian, three times exiled from China for his writing and now living in France:

The writer is a weak individual and cannot overcome political oppression; he can only flee, or he has to write for the government. […] Dante fled Florence because he couldn’t write. Ibsen fled Norway; it wasn’t until Norway began to recognise him that he went back.

In Issue 15, dissident writer Liao Yiwu’s memoir ‘Go South, Go Further South’ concludes:

I had survived prison, while others had died within its walls. And I had survived a devastating earthquake while so many others perished. And hundreds of people are arrested or shot crossing the border. I don’t have a single reason to complain.
I accept my fate, which is to stay, and write.

Heroism has many faces. So does Asia. You get to meet a lot of them in this journal.

And in case I haven’t said it before, Edwina’s story can hold its head up in that multifaceted and exalted company.

Bloom & Blair’s Islam

Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair, Islam: A thousand years of faith and power (Yale Nota Bene 2002)

I bought this book some years ago in the hope of finding some insight into how a religion that has sustained so many people for so long over such a geographic and cultural range could be used to justify the barbarity of suicide bombings and videoed beheadings. Since I don’t have much insight into how Christianity or Judaism can be used to justify mass murder either, and I’m already reasonably familiar with at least some parts of the former, maybe I should have expected my hope to be dashed, but it springs eternal, and trust in book-learnin’ is hard to shake.

The authors’ expertise, and presumably their passion as well, lie in Islamic art. This book was written to accompany a US television series, and despite its self-described aim as ‘to help Americans – of whatever and even no religion – understand the religion and culture of another place and time’, what it actually does is to provide background, to tell the grand, sweeping narrative of the beginnings, growth and spread of Islam in its first thousand years, with an inevitable emphasis military conquests and defeats, political struggles and religious strife, with a couple of welcome chapters on the flourishing of science and poetry between 750 and 1200 CE. The succession of dynasties and ruling elites – Abbasids, Barmakids, Chaghatayids, Fatimids, Ilkhanids, Mamluks, Mughals, Ottomans, Seljuqs, Umayyads – is as bewildering and at times as dull as the begats of Genesis.

I’m not complaining. In fact I wish I’d read the book 50 years ago as a supplement and antidote to the Eurocentric version of world history I received in my schooling. It’s bracing to read the stories, even in broad outline as here, of people and places that I know mainly as elements of  Orientalist decor: Saladin of the curly-toed shoes becomes Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub; Suleyman (isn’t that the guy from Lord of the Rings? – yes, I’m that ignorant) ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, Marlowe’s Tamberlaine the Great becomes Timur, a Great Mongol conqueror; Samarkand, Timbuktu, Xanadu all existed outside romantic poems and fantasy literature. Many things I have assumed to be creations of Western culture are in fact borrowed from the Islamic world: romantic love I already knew about, but x as a way of representing an unknown in maths was news to me; The Divine Comedy wouldn’t have existed if Dante hadn’t read in translation popular Arabic stories of Muhammad’s mystical journey to heaven.

I’d just finished the book when I heard Ramona Koval on The Book Show with James Delgado talking about his Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet. As Ramona, helping out her audience by displaying her own real or pretend ignorance, wrestled with the difference between Khubilai Khan and Genghis Khan, I realised how glad I am to have read Bloom and Blair’s book. If I had read it 50 years ago, when my memory was much more retentive,  I might have emerged from it knowing who all those people were. As it is, I can expect the names to ring some kind of bell, and I’ll know where to look for a quick rundown – and yes, as well as a list of further reading, this book is blessed with a substantial index.