‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty


2015, 289 P

I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that the Booker Prize now includes American works. Yes, I know that we’re all globalized and agile these days, but I think that the Booker has lost its distinctiveness since it was opened up beyond Commonwealth countries. While I’m ambivalent about the Commonwealth as a political entity, I do think that there is some underpinning cultural thread that links countries – especially the ‘white’ part of their population-  where, in living memory,  large numbers have grown up with a portrait of the Queen on the wall. The Booker Prize, I feel, is still the Commonwealth’s prize.

So I spent the first half of this Booker-Prize winning  book being angry at its American swagger, showoffiness and shoutiness. It was almost exactly half-way through that I started laughing, and then found myself chuckling away at various points to the end. I don’t read a lot of satire, and it’s a rather wicked pleasure when I do.

The un-named narrator, living in a post-Obama time, is African American and lives in Dickens, a lower-middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. His home-schooled upbringing had been unconventional and overseen by his sociologist father who seemed determined to visit on his son all the most ethically-controversial psycho-social laboratory experiments of the twentieth century. After his father’s death, the narrator drifts into his father’s circle of old, idle chatterboxes who he dubs “The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals” and tries to hook up with an old flame. It is while he is wooing his bus-driving love-interest Marpessa that he jokingly starts off re-segregation on her bus (yes, re-segregation, not de-segregation) and, discouraged by the neglect of Dickens as a suburb, initiates a broader grass-roots program of resegregation throughout the suburb that actually works. School results improve, crime declines, civic pride burgeons – all because of a self-imposed segregation.

It’s all very slick and clever and  the book would probably easily reward a second reading. The blurb on the back describes it as “a powerful novel of vital import and an outrageous and outrageously entertaining indictment of our time”. Which is probably true. But I still think that it’s better recognized under the New York Times Book Review (as it was) than as winner of the Booker Prize.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner


2016, 240 p.

When I checked out how many Helen Garner books I’d reviewed on this blog there are five, which makes her (along with Kate Atkinson) the author I’ve read most often in the last eight years. I read others of hers, too, read before I started blogging. It’s no secret that I very much enjoy her writing and feel a sense of wary affinity with her, bolstered by being much the same age and a fellow-Melburnian.

This book differs from the others I’ve reviewed in that it is a collection of her essays, several of which I have read before in the Monthly. None of them are particularly long and they offer a slice of perspective and a way of looking, as the title suggests. She has a penetrating intensity that disguises itself as a general-looking-around. I find myself wishing that I could discipline myself to look more carefully and thoughtfully, instead of just letting things wash over me.

As with short stories, it’s hard to talk about essays, because each one stands on its own two feet and it feels almost unfair to single one out above the others. A collection of essays, just as with short stories, does not just fall together but is instead a curated arrangement and selection.  This is particularly apparent in this book, which is divided into six parts.

The first, ‘White Paint and Calico’ explores housing and the sense of home, which indirectly is the theme that her early books are rooted in, even though they directly focus on people.  Perhaps this is where the Melbourne-identification is closest for me.  Inner-city, student share-house Melbourne permeates Monkey Grip, the Last Days of Chez Nous is set in one house, and I’m sure that I know exactly where Dexter and Athena lived in The  Children’s Bach. As it happened, I read these essays in bed on a Sunday morning, having just read Robyn Annear’s excellent Melbourne-Prize-for-Literature winning essay ‘Places Without Poetry’ (available online here)  and they were a perfect complement to each other. I felt a rush of rootedness in the final paragraph of ‘Suburbia’ where she writes about Gerald Murnane’s acceptance speech for the Melbourne Prize for Literature.  Murnane, who ironically lived only two streets away from me here (in an obscure lower-middle-class suburb that is rarely in the news) , refused to go abroad with the prize money that was, under the terms of the prize, supposed to be spent on overseas travel. Instead, he said, he would visit all the houses in Melbourne that he had ever lived in.

Then he tilted back his head, closed his eyes, and recited a long list of all his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne: plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle-class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about in the news.  And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem.  It was a naming of parts of the mighty machine that had created the imaginative world of an artist. And when he finished, and opened his eyes, the place went up in a roar of joy. (p.25)

When my husband forwarded onto me, the (excellent)  poem ‘Naming of Parts‘ by Henry Reed, I realized anew that Garner ‘looks’ with the eye of a reader and writer.  This comes through clearly in the second part, ‘Notes from a Brief Friendship’ where she talks about her friendships and influences, of varying intensities, with other writers. One was Mrs Dunkley, a primary school teacher, with the sting in the tale of the essay coming in the closing paragraphs as the adult Helen looked back at the school-girl Helen, and her perceptions then of Mrs Dunkley.  I enjoyed this story most from this section, despite the fact that unknown Mrs Dunkley is surrounded by Australian literary luminati like Tim Winton, Jacob Rosenberg, Raymond Gaita and Elizabeth Jolley.

Part Three, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ is largely about construction of self as a writer. It’s probably the baggiest section, with three slabs of paragraphed journal writing, interspersed with two other stories: one an anecdote about a dog and the other a reflection on daughterhood.

Part Four ‘On Darkness’ is a collection of writings related to crime, which has been her patch over recent years with ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ and ‘House of Grief’.  Part Five ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’ is a collection of judgments of a different kind, as she critiques books and films. I hadn’t thought of her as a cultural critic, but she’s a good one.

And finally, Part Six ‘In the Wings’ is another more disparate section. ‘My First Baby’, which I think was probably the most memorable essay of the collection, is a reflection on her uni-student job in the toy department of a department store and her mature-woman recognition of something she witnessed there. Several of these essays reflect on the physical act of growing older- something I’m only too aware of!

So, all in all, an absolutely delightful gift of Garner’s writing, all bundled up into one book. Thank you.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10


I’ve included this review on my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Movie: ‘Ruin’

On Saturday afternoon (3 December 2016) I caught the final screening of ‘Ruin’ at ACMI.  This Australian film is filmed and set entirely in Cambodia and although described as a ‘romance’, it’s a very bleak one. A volatile, violent young man meets a very young prostitute who has escaped from her pimp who bashes her and threatens to kill her. In a gritty, violent road movie- or more correctly, river movie- and in the midst of brutality and exploitation, they gradually fall in love.  If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that there’s lots of slow-motion shots, lots of water, a nausea-inducing hand-held camera throughout and unsettling, droning music.  I suspect that it’s going to stay with me for far longer than I want it to.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 25-30 November 1841

More on ‘The Tasmanians’ or the ‘Van Diemen’s Land Blacks’

You might remember that a fortnight previously the newspapers were reporting that the Commissioner for Crown Lands, Mr Powlett, had been unsuccessful in apprehending the ‘Van Diemen’s Land Blacks’ who were ‘committing outrages’ in the Western Port district.

On 25 November the Port Phillip Patriot reported that they had been captured.

CAPTURE -At a late hour last evening we  received intelligence of the capture of the black marauders whose numerous depredations had rendered them the terror of the settlers in the neighbourhood of Western Port.  They were apprehended by the party who started from Melbourne about a fortnight since in pursuit of them.  The party with their prisoners encamped on Tuesday night at Dandenong, on their way to Melbourne, and may be expected to arrive today.  These blacks consist of two males, well armed, and three females; they form part of that “family” for whose removal from Flinder’s Island to Port Phillip Mr Robinson, the Chief Protector, obtained, some time since, the permission of the Governor [PPP25/11/41]

The Port Phillip Herald of 26th November carried this lengthy account, supposedly given to them by one of the captors. Whatever its inaccuracies or silences, this was the report read by people at the time:






On 26 November they were  placed at the bar of the Police Office and a preliminary inquiry was undertaken.  The witnesses were unable to identify the prisoners as the assailants.  Protector Robinson testified to the long contact he had had with the group, testifying that Jack had been brought up by him from childhood and had accompanied him in all his journeys and that Bob and the lubras had been in his charge for the past fourteen years.  The next day (Saturday) the prisoners were brought up again. Watson, the miner, identified them as the persons by whom he had been wounded, and his wife and daughter swore than the group had robbed and burned the hunt.  One of the women described the circumstances of the murder of two whalers from Lady Bay and produced the bloody bludgeons.  The group was remanded, to  be brought before the court again.  The Port Phillip Patriot noted that:

The prisoners are obviously a different race of men from the Aborigines of New Holland: their colour is much deeper,and in the general character of their appearance there is much more of the African features. (PPP 29/11/41 p.2)


At the very same time that the Tasmanians were appearing in court, the Port Phillip Herald carried the news that Mr Sandford George Bolden would be tried for the murder of an Aboriginal near Port Fairy.  According to this report, Mr Bolden with one of his stock-keepers came upon a native driving off a number of cattle, he left his stock keeper and rode to a station in the neighbourhood and returned with a loaded gun. His defence was that the black pointed his spear at him and that he fired in self defence. (PPH 30/11/41)

The Boldens were fairly well known in Melbourne. The accused’s brother,  Rev Bolden lived in Heidelberg, nearby to Judge Willis, who would be presiding over the case.  Two high-profile cases involving indigenous people and death were in the public consciousness at the same time: one where aborigines were said to have killed white people; the other where a white settler was said to have killed aborigines.

Well, that didn’t happen… yet

The Port Phillip Gazette reported that Melbourne was to have a botanical garden:

BOTANICAL GARDEN. “Sir George Gipps, having approved of the establishment of a public domain, for the purposes of rearing and cultivating indigenous and exotic plants having any peculiar or rare properties, it has been determined by the local Government to set apart “Batman’s Hill” and the surrounding land down to the Yarra Yarra for such reserve.  The Survey Department has received instructions forthwith to mark out the boundary lines, with a view to its early enclosure; when the long talked of Botanical Garden will be placed under the direction of an experienced Horticulturalist and Botanist. The present season is too far advanced to allow of any operations beyond the mere “laying out” of the promenades, and subdividing the allotment into its due proportions for the reception of seeds and plants at the fit periods during the ensuing season.  The sooner, however, the work is commenced the better; as delays in such matters are generally productive of evil to the public. [PPG 27/11/41]

I’m not sure what “evil to the public” accrued from the lack of a botanical garden, but Melbourne had to endure it for another five years until a new site was selected in 1846 where the Royal Botanic Gardens are now, rather than on the Batmans Hill site mentioned here. The flat part of the Batman’s Hill site was already used at that time by the public for horse racing and cricket matches and the hill formed a natural amphitheatre.


John Batman’s House by W.F.E. Liardet showing the garden and slope down to the river flats. Source: State Library of Victoria.


Batman’s Hill was excavated for railway lines in the 1850s and further levelled in the 1880s and 1890s for railway works in what became Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station).


Batman’s Hill Past and Present, J. Macfarlane (1892) originally published Illustrated Australian News 1 April 1892. Source: State Library of Victoria


And the weather?

Light winds; a gale and heavy winds from 27th to 29th. Top temperature for the period was 88F (31C) with a low of 47 (8.3)

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 17-24 November

Step up! Step up!

At this time, what we now know as the Old Melbourne Gaol was under construction, replacing a succession of smaller, temporary jails. The first gaol  was a converted shepherd’s hut on Batman Hill set off Collins Street between King and Spencer Street. It was burnt down in an escape by two Kulin men being held for trial in April 1838.  The gaol shifted briefly to a brick store on the corner of William and Flinders Streets until another gaol was built adjoining the police office and the stocks on William Street between Collins and Flinders Lane. The fourth and last of the temporary gaols was opened in 1840, located   close to where the the very first gaol had been sited, back near the corner of Collins and Spencer Street.  It would serve until 1844 when the present Old Melbourne Gaol was opened, although the three-storey building still standing in Russell Street today was not opened until  1853.

Prisoners sentenced to hard labour often worked on the roads, where they were often the butt of criticism and derision from passerby who accused them of loafing. During this week news came of plans for a treadmill to be erected outside the ‘new gaol’ as an additional punishment that could be ordered by the court, meaning by ‘new gaol’ the fourth, temporary gaol.  A treadmill was listed as one of the assets in the Port Phillip District as on 12 September 1841 so I’m not sure if there was an earlier one.  Nonetheless, the papers reported in early November that:

Among the various works for the accommodation and improvement of her Majesty’s lieges, now in progress, we ought not to omit to mention the treadmill which is to be erected in a building recently commenced in the rear of the jail. We are delighted with the prospect of the speedy introduction of this agreeable species of moral and corporeal exercise (PPP 15/11/41)

The tender for the treadmill was accepted in early November for a cost of £180.  However, the treadmill was to cause nothing but trouble, often being inoperable. Within a year it was found that the heat caused by friction on the ironwork caused the woodwork to warp and become loose.  There were multiple attempts to repair it, and there were hopes that by attaching it to a maize mill, it would prevent the problem from recurring and be more useful.  In 1844 the treadmill was shifted to the ‘new’ Old Melbourne Gaol where both it, and the supervisors appointed to oversee it continued to cause trouble- in the latter case through drunkenness or failure to stop escape attempts.

There are few mentions of the treadmill in the Criminal Record Books for the Supreme Court, although it may have been used more for internal discipline purposes within the gaol itself.  It was obviously operational by 15 March 1842 when Judge Willis ordered two prisoners to work on it: the first for a rape conviction, where the prisoner was ordered to spend time on the treadmill at fortnightly intervals for three months; the second for turkey stealing where the prisoner was sentenced to three months jail, with alternative weeks on the treadmill in the last two months.  A third sentence on 7 April over theft of alcohol was for one month jail with the second and last week spent on the treadmill. There were no other sentences involving the treadmill recorded- perhaps it had become too problematic!

The Port Phillip Patriot reported on 22 November on the number of prisoners in the gaol

STATE OF HER MAJESTY’S GAOL AT MELBOURNE Saturday Nov 20 1841. “For trial, 22 males and 3 female; for hard labour, 27 males and 1 female; for iron gangs 10 males; for solitary confinement 4 males and 1 female; for debt 2 males.  Total 70. Five persons who have been committed for trial are also out of bail.  PPP 22/11/41

Dr Lang and the Australian College

During this week in 1841, the Presbyterians of Melbourne briefly welcomed Dr John Dunmore Lang from Sydney. What a fascinating man Lang was! and he keeps popping up in different contexts. Born in Scotland, he arrived in  New South Wales in May 1823 where he was the first mainland Presbyterian minister in the colony (there was another in Tasmania). A disputatious, forthright fellow, he brawled with fellow Presbyterians who he felt to have fallen into error, and was publicly critical of the influx of Catholics from Ireland. He was involved in education and politics, he was an immigration organizer, a writer and  newspaper editor. His mobility back and forth between Australia and England is remarkable, making at least eight visits to and from England and two to the United States over his long life.  He arrived in Port Phillip on 15 November for a fleeting visit to solicit financial assistance from Port Phillip for the Australian College, which he had established in Sydney in 1831.  On one of his trips to England he had received a grant of £3500 from the Colonial Office for the establishment of a private college if the same sum could be raised privately (an early private-public partnership!)  He put much of his own money from a bequest from his father into the institution, but it was still struggling financially in 1841: so much so- spoiler alert- that it closed between 1841 and 1846 before opening again to struggle on for another eight years.  He bemoaned the fact that he had not been given an endowment for the college from the local government in Sydney, which  he attributed to narrow minded jealousy, personal hostility to himself and the fact that the majority of members of the Legislative Assembly did not themselves enjoy a college education.

And so here he was in Melbourne, suggesting that the Presbyterian residents of Melbourne form “The Port Phillip Education Society” to contribute £200 annually for four years to endow a professor at the college. What was in it for the Port Phillip Presbyterians, you might wonder?  Well, the Australian College could educate local lads for the ministry, thus providing a home-grown cadre of Presbyterian ministers. He proceeded to Launceston and Hobart to make a similar suggestion to the Van Diemen’s Land Presbyterians. (PPP 15/10)  before returning  to discuss the matter more fully at a meeting called for the 3rd of December for interested participants.

Posthumous portrait of Lang, circa 1888.

Posthumous image J. D. Lang (painted 1888

How’s the weather?

Well, summer had arrived, with a top temperature of 90F (32C) on the 15th and 16th November, followed by a cool change.  There was no rain during the week at all.


Movie: Sully

[ Postscript at the start: Oh dear, I wrote this review months ago and forgot to post it! Sully is still on at a couple of theatres so I guess this is just one of my ‘hurry up because it’s finishing soon’ posts]

How striking that two of the major news stories of the twenty-first century in a visual sense should occur in New York: that footage of the plane flying into the second Twin Tower and  the eventual collapse of the towers, and the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River on the cold morning of  Jan. 15, 2009 after striking a flock of geese. The movie  ‘Sully’ tells the story of  Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger whose skills saved the 155 passengers and crew on board, and the review that took place after the incident.  In this telling, within days of his heroic action his reputation is impugned and his skills questioned by a narrow-minded and legalistic board of enquiry, blinded by their stupidity and determination to turn him from hero into an incompetent egotist.

It’s quite an achievement to turn what was about six minutes of action into a full-length film, and you find yourself cheering for this good man who has been victimized by the system. But my scepticism-antennae began quivering at the end of what had been an entertaining movie with the patriotic declaration that “New York’s finest” had been there, along with Sully, to save the day.  Yes, if you had to land a plane on a frozen river anywhere in the world, you’d want it to be in a first-world city with beefed-up emergency services. But, remembering that Clint Eastwood directed this movie, was it true?

Well, as this article in the Guardian indicates: not exactly.  The film suggests that the inquiry in a packed room commenced immediately but in reality it did not commence until some months later, and there were only six people in the room and not the bank of onlookers shown in the movie.  Of the simulation flights ordered by the enquiry, only half made it to alternative airports. The investigators, not Sully, asked the simulation pilots to delay before attempting the emergency landings.

“Does it matter?” asked my father, who very much enjoyed the movie.  Stephen Cass, the author of the Guardian article asks the same question.

But does Sully’s portrayal of NTSB investigators as bullying incompetents matter? After all, whenever a movie based on true events is released, there are always cries of “it didn’t happen that way!” This occurs because of the inevitable changes required when dramatizing real-life events. These include creating composite characters, eliding side issues and compressing chronologies.

It certainly seems that great attention was paid to the details of the cockpit and the emergency procedures on board the aircraft.  But is there a bigger truth?

In evaluating such storytelling decisions, what’s important is whether or not the top-line takeaway is fair….It’s not hard to see why this tack appealed to strident libertarian Eastwood. In its populist zeal, the American right wing has been increasingly unwilling to accept the legitimacy of any branch of federal government. Sully meshes perfectly with a worldview where petty and clueless civil servants obstruct real Americans from being great.

The story of the landing of Flight 1549 is a great one in its own right.  I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but I feel cheated by the politics that have been superimposed onto it.

[Postscript: I recently heard a movie reviewer mention that in a movie ‘based on true facts’, the rule of thumb is that the most memorable scene of the movie is the one that didn’t actually happen. I must remember that.]


‘White Dog’ by Peter Temple


2003, 337 p.

I think I’m just going to have to admit that I don’t really like Peter Temple’s books very much.  I’m already ambivalent about the fictional crime genre and Temple’s books, with their abbreviated dialogue and huge range of incidental characters, just confuse me.  I looked back at my review of Truth, another of his novels, and I could just as easily cut-and-paste the comments that I made about that book into this review too.

Just to add to the confusion, the ABC has recently screened another Jack Irish series that uses some parts of White Dog, but not the whole book. So not only did I have Guy Pearce firmly embedded in my head (no hardship, I must say) but I found myself half remembering some aspects of the plot and misremembering others that appeared in the television show only.

Like the other Jack Irish novels, White Dog is steeped in local Melbourne colour, very familiar to north-of-the-Yarra inner suburban Melburnians (as I am). However, it’s a rather curmudgeonly approach, dismissive of hipsters and all-day breakfasts and harking back to a 1980-1990s cool, and even further back to the glory days of Fitzroy Football Club.  It’s all thoroughly recognizable to a Melburnian but I don’t know that it would add much for readers elsewhere.

So all in all, not a particularly successful read.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

My rating: 6.5