Monthly Archives: July 2012

‘When Will There Be Good News?” by Kate Atkinson


2008, 348 p.

“A coincidence is nothing but an explanation waiting to happen” is the modus operandi of Jackson Brodie, ex-policeman and now private investigator, who is the main character in Kate Atkinson’s crime series, of which this book forms the third offering.  Well that’s good, say I, because it doesn’t do to take all the coincidences woven into crime fiction too seriously.  I love the subversiveness of Kate Atkinson’s writing.  She has detectives who really don’t want to investigate crimes; she has little interest in the perpetrators of crimes but instead focusses on the victims and by-standers, and things happen just “because”.  There’s no need to lie in bed afterwards asking “But why….?” or “Just hold on a minute….” about the plot.  It just is.

Her books generally start with a bang, and this one is no exception.  A horrific crime occurs within the opening pages, then the book leapfrogs some 25 years.  Victims have grown up, and perpetrators are about to be released from jail.  Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, whose unresolved love-interest with Jackson Brodie has extended over the series, is obsessed with a recent appalling domestic violence crime, and somehow all these crimes are brought together through a series of coincidences, missteps and what-ifs.

This is the third book in the series ( I reviewed an earlier book ‘One Good Turn’ here) , but it is not necessary to have read the earlier books.  If you have, then you get the warm inner glow of recognizing carry-overs between the stories, but they would pass a new reader by.

As with her other books, there is a huge  almost-Dickensian cast of characters.  The allusion to Dickens is quite deliberate, as she interweaves literary references throughout the book, both  in her chapter headings (e.g. ‘Satis House’ or ‘She would get the flowers herself’) or throughout the text.  Sometimes the punnery is groan-inducing, but it adds to the flippancy of her approach.  There are so many characters and red-herring plot lines that it can be quite anxiety-producing (have we met this character before? how am I going to remember all these characters?)

There’s a humanity about her writing though, that challenges the sometimes clinical omnipotence of the crime writer.  She is messing with the pomposity of the genre and once you lie back and let it all wash over you, it’s a fun ride.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

Read because: it was the July book for my face-to-face bookgroup.

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‘The Autobiography of John Galt’ by John Galt

1833, 2 volumes

John Galt published this autobiography in 1833, some six years before his death in 1839 at the age of sixty.  It starts off with a number of early memories: falling into the fire at his grandmother’s house and causing his cousin’s legs to be scalded by the kettle; watching lilies grow, and seeing a postcard of Niagara Falls.  In a more carefully constructed memoir, he could have used these early memories as organizing devices because illness, the Romantic view of the sublime and nature, and the settlement of immigrants in Canada emerge as major themes of his life. However, apart from a mention of Niagara Falls later in the book, he does not do so and the book trails off near the end into a vindication of his work with the Canada Company and a list of his literary, cultural and (to a lesser extent) scientific contributions.   These are prodigious, if somewhat arcane today, as his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography attests.

Although he only lived in Canada for four years, it takes up a large section of his autobiography, much of which is spent explanation of his actions and the injustice of his dismissal from the Canada Company, a company established originally to purchase the Clergy Reserves dotted throughout the new Canadian frontier lands, but which swapped these lands for a huge tract of land at Lake Huron purchased for a uniform 3 shillings and sixpence per acre.   Such land companies (seen also in the Van Diemens Land Company and Australian Agricultural Company) were part of the debate over immigration, crown land, ‘wastelands’ and Wakefieldianism of the time.  This section was my main reason for reading the book, interested in Upper Canada as I am, so imagine my consternation when the version I was reading had an editor’s footnote that a number of rather boring letters about his conflict with the Governor there had been omitted because they weren’t very interesting!  However, I’ve since found another version of the autobiography, and perhaps the editor was right.

A sizeable proportion of the book is also devoted to his literary work, largely influenced by his time in Europe doing the Grand Tour, hanging out with Byron and acting like an early-nineteenth century gentleman should act.  He does describe his methodology of “theoretical history” which underpinned his writing of Bogle Corbet, whereby he fictionalized factual material.  But there’s lots of impenetrable poetry, and further sallies into the literary debates of the day, much of which eluded my understanding.  It’s very much an autobiography of the head rather than the heart, and very much a work of its time.  If, in some sort of hackneyed time machine scenario, I were to meet him today, I think I’d be rather intimidated and wary of him. I would very much be aware as L.P Hartley famously said “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

Availability: Available online at Google Books and Internet Archive- downloadable as epub and pdf.  How grateful I am that I’m writing my thesis now and not 20 years ago. I’d be holed up in some Rare Books Room, if indeed I was even able to locate a copy of this book here.

Read because: The friend of my thesis topic is my friend too.  Mind you, he’d be my BFF (best friend forever) if he’d been a bit more forthcoming.  As it is, I read it for slightly thesis-oriented curiosity value.

A pleasant Sunday afternoon trip to …Kinglake

I hadn’t revisited any of the places burnt out during the Black Saturday fires of 2009.  I think of them often though.  Standing in my dressing gown on foggy winter mornings as I go out to get the paper, I often think of Marysville where I spent several September school holidays as a child.  The air has that same cold, wet feel, and you can smell the soil and the trees.  I would dearly love to be able to return to stay in a little faux-Tudor guest house with a name starting ‘Mary…’.  Marylands, Mary Lyn- it wouldn’t matter really.  But the economics of the guest house concept, fire regulations, demands for ensuites and the sophistication that sneers at the joys of table-tennis and croquet etc. will conspire to make this an impossibility, I’m afraid.

But Kinglake is still there, just up the road a bit.  For a long time I felt reluctant to go there just to rubber-neck, and I still do feel a little voyeuristic.  But three years have passed, and I know that Kinglake is “open for business” and perhaps I don’t need to feel so diffident any more.

It’s still fairly clear as you drive along the Kinglake Rd that there has been a large fire here.  The bright green furze that grew onto the tree trunks over the first winter has now faded to a more normal eucalyptus green and many small sapling are growing underneath the burnt out trunks.

A number of bushfire-recovery services started up in the wake of the fires.  They are still there.

The Kinglake Ranges Rebuilding Advisory Centre and Community Facility

The new CFA (Country Fire Authority) building is big, new and prominent

The temporary village has almost been dismantled. You can see by the roads and power outlets that it had been much bigger

The sheer scale of the fire is most apparent when you see a whole mountain still bare covered with what looks like matchsticks.

 

 

 

‘The Price of Emancipation’ by Nicholas Draper

Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery, 2010, 278 p. & appendices and notes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the government is offering money, then people will emerge from the woodwork with their hands out.  It’s true today, and it was true in 1834 when the British government provided compensation to West Indian slave-owners after slavery was abolished in British colonies.  This book is based on the records and correspondence files of the Slave Compensation Commission which was established in London in 1834 to oversee the awarding of 20 million pounds worth of compensation (value approximately  76 billion pounds today) to over 45000 claimants who owned slaves who had now been liberated (albeit after they served an extra six years of ‘apprenticeship’).

Although there was a swell of support for abolition (which, admittedly, varied from year to year) and  some squeamishness about admitting to owning slaves in Britain, this did not stop people applying for compensation.  The records of the Commission show that absentee slave owners resident in Britain received the bulk of the compensation, and that slave-owning was more widespread than previously understood in metropolitan Britain. While not ubiquitous, it did permeate certain sectors of British society where it was “generally routine, unexceptional and unexceptionable” (p. 273).

Slave-owners were not a homogenous group, and Draper has classified them into three main groups.  First, there were the large-scale rentier-owners, often from among the gentry, who had held slaves and plantations in the older sugar colonies and passed them on through the family over several generations.  They had generally hoped that their West Indian plantations and slaves would attain equivalence with landed property in the UK where it would be transferable by inheritance and be considered a form of permanent security.  This never eventuated for a number of reasons: instability in the West Indies; the lack of the conventional structure of landlord/tenant; reliance on overseers and managers at a distance, and quite frankly slave-owning never attained much social cachet.  However, at a time when traditional ideas of property were under threat, with tithes and sinecures being abolished, slave-owners were able to draw on solidarity with other traditional property owners to claim “we’ll all be rooned” and to demand compensation.

A second group comprised small-scale slave owners, both in Britain and in the colonies themselves.  This group came to be symbolized by the humble widow, left a small annuity of slaves by her father or husband as her sole source of income, and indeed many in this group were women.  Their slaves often worked on tropical plantations rather than in the large sugar plantations or were rented out as agricultural labourers or domestic servants by their absentee owners.  Often these slaves were accumulated during a naval or military posting to the West Indies, or by doctors or church men who had spent time there.  Many of these small-scale slave owners were  resident in the colonies themselves.

Finally there were the merchants, bankers and agents, who have previously been considered to be almost inadvertent slave-owners through defaults on loans to plantation owners in the absence of credit institutions in the colonies.  However, Draper finds that although this may have been true in the older sugar colonies, in the ‘new’ colonies of  Trinidad and British Guiana, bankers and merchants were more active in their own right.

There are many tables and figures in this book, but particularly in the chapters dealing with these three categories of slave-owners there are also many small vignettes drawn from the correspondence of people applying for, or contesting, compensation grants.  In many ways the Slavery Compensation Commission exemplified the new approach to bureaucracy of the 1830s where patronage had less (although still some) sway, with an emphasis on process and transparency, and it was generally considered that the Commission acted efficiently.

Of course, the idea of compensation was never intended to extend to the slaves themselves, and indeed individual slaves, or their experiences, are virtually invisible in this wind-up to the end of the slavery system.  In many ways, it was the closing of one era and the opening to another.  The compensation money, which on paper probably represented a loss, was nonetheless invested in other ventures, most particularly railways, where much larger profits were made.  Likewise, other recipients of compensation money turned to the land colonization schemes that were opening up in Australia and Canada, and making their money and reputations there instead- think for instance, of George Fife Angas in South Australia.

In fact, I’m finding myself becoming increasingly sensitized to the West Indian connections among Australian and Canadian settlers.  The connection is often dismissed in less than a phrase – “born in St Kitts” or “branches in the West Indies”, but it is there nonetheless, and is assuming more interest to me.

‘The Street Sweeper’ by Elliot Perlman

2011, 544 p.

Spoiler alert

“Tell everyone what happened here!”  This is the drum-beat that pulses through this book.  Tell them of the death camps; tell them of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners charged with disposing of the bodies); tell them of the resistance at Austwitz; tell them of the racism in 1950s and 1960s America; tell them of the Black struggle for rights; tell them of the present-day rejection of the idea that Black soldiers may have been involved in the liberation of the concentration camps.

And so this book does, through two present day characters.  Lamont Willams is an African American on probation at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre after being recently released from jail for involvement in an armed robbery.  He befriends an elderly patient, Henryk Mandelbrot, who urgently pours out his story of his time and work in the death camps.  The second present day character is Australian-born Adam Zignelik, working as an untenured lecturer in History at Columbia University.  After a successful publication following his thesis, his research output has dribbled to a halt.  He is aware that he needs to find a new research topic, and he finds a whole new area opening up to him when he follows up on a suggestion by an American World War II veteran.

This double narrative that spools back to World War II Europe is very similar to that employed by Anna Funder in her award-winning book All That I Am.  Both books deal with memory and forgetting, betrayal and loyalty, and both are based on real-life characters who somehow, against the odds, survived the Nazi regime. I read Funder’s book first, and to my mind it is far the superior work. Perlman’s book seems flabby and undisciplined in comparison.   I do wonder, however, if I had read this book first whether I would have found Funder’s thin and more detached. Other readers whose judgment I respect have found much to admire in The Street Sweeper, but I’m afraid that I’m not one of them.

It seemed a very loud book.  Talk, talk, talk.  At first I thought that perhaps it was echoing the New York setting, but when the Australian-born character was introduced (presumedly a more taciturn type?), the garrulousness was just as striking.   It’s as if there is no off-switch as one mundane detail of the present-day characters is piled on after another.

The book has a didactic purpose- (“tell them what happened here”)- and I felt as if I was being lectured through the agency of the characters located in the academy.  Is it aimed at a generation that doesn’t know about the death camps? Is there such a thing?  Is fiction- as distinct from historical documentation and eyewitness testimony-  the best way to do this? I found myself really disconcerted by the fictionalizing of the experience of workers in the death camps (especially while that generation is still alive): I don’t know if I’ve read any other fiction that has dared to go right to the very extreme at the point of death in the shower rooms. Is there something to be gained by bringing a reader’s imagination there?  Where do you go next?

I found myself wondering if this book could (or should, or would) be filmed.  Certainly the heavy of presence of dialogue  suggests that a screen play could easily be written for it, but would directors and audiences baulk at the depiction of the death camp scenes?  It happened, and we do know that because witnesses spoke about it- the real Henryk Mandelbaum (on whom the fictional Henryk Mandelbrot is based) did so.  But to go beyond the witnesses’ own words in fiction, and even more so in cinema- does that take us to a place too far?  Do Mandelbaum’s own words need to be coloured in, to be made more graphic in the cinema of the mind?  If  words fail, then there is a reason for that.  Is it false to heighten the sensory and emotional freight carried by real-life witness who could only  endure it by detachment or, as Hannah Arendt argued, by transforming reality into the banal and  the abstract?

The juxtaposition of American racism and European anti-semitism was interesting, but unsettling.  I do not see them as equivalent or parallel, nor does one necessarily lead to the other- although I don’t think that he’s saying that (although I don’t know what he is suggesting by this juxtaposition).  This is the second book that I have read recently that focusses on the historian’s quest and detective skills (the other was The Longing) and much though all historians relish the hunt, the excitement and the emotional draw of their sources, it’s not exactly the stuff of high drama.  The rather heavy-handed plotting of the two themes relies too much on on coincidence and interconnectedness, becoming tighter and tighter as it draws to a rather too-contrived ending.

The book was long-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin, but I think that the Australian component was too thin to qualify.  I’ve read Elliot Perlman before and very much enjoyed him: I thought that Three Dollars and Seven Types of Ambiguity were brilliant. I regret that I didn’t feel the same about this book.

For a more positive review than mine, you could check out Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers or any number of other mainstream media reviews.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because:  It was the June read for the online Australian Literature group.

For the benefit of Pablo Fanque

I called in today to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, where they are showing an exhibition called “Melbourne Theatres in Transition: 1840 to 1940s An Idiosyncratic View”. This small exhibition at the RHSV has pictures, programs and clippings relating to Melbourne’s theatre industry from the earliest days of the Port Phillip settlement up to the war years.

In his book London, Peter Ackroyd described the palimpsest effect of multiple reincarnations of the particular urban functions found in cities.  Markets, eating places, theatres, charities often tend to be located in particular places, and are constantly renewed as older buildings and enterprises are replaced by newer ones, offering much the same wares. This is largely true of Melbourne’s theatre district.  Theatres particularly in Bourke Street and Exhibition Street were built, knocked down, burnt out, then replaced again.

My attention was attracted to a small scrap book that had press clippings about theatre in Melbourne.  One unattributed clipping looked back fifty years and described the entertainment at Cremorne Gardens in Richmond to celebrate the first anniversary of the Eight Hour Day.  Among the acts described was ‘Pablo Fanque’.

And all of a sudden, the Beatles’ song  ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ began drifting through my head

For the benefit of Mr Kite

There will be a show tonight- on trampoline

On trampoline/

The Hendersons will all be there

Late of Pablo Fanque’s fair- what a scene

The original circus poster from which the inspiration for the song was drawn.

Pablo Fanque was the first black circus proprietor  in Britain.  He was born in England in 1796 and operated his circus for over thirty years. His own acts included rope dancing and equestrian feats. He toured England , Scotland and Ireland. But did he come to Australia?

He was certainly advertised as being here….

Advertisement ‘The Argus’ 8 January 1855

But, alas, it was not THE Pablo Fanque. Instead it was his nephew Billy Banham, who took his uncle’s name and toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s.  This is the Pablo Fanque who appeared at the Cremorne Gardens (interesting article about the gardens here) and this is the Pablo Fanque for whom a benefit was held in March 1859.

Sydney Morning Herald 10 March 1859

Somehow I think that they really, really, wanted you to attend.

The Melbourne Theatres in Transition exhibition is on at the RHSV, corner a’Beckett and William St until 31 August.  Open 10.00-4.00 Monday to Friday, gold coin donation.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch

2006, 198 p.


This is only a small book that fits right into your hand.  It is a series of short vignettes,  surrounded by quite a bit of white space, with several pages separating each chapter from the next.  The Sydney Morning Herald review of the book likened it to “short stories strung together like beads on an outlandish necklace”, and I found myself thinking of it in much the same way- as a series of small, glittering stones, carefully polished.  I soon stopped reading through the book quickly, but instead took my time, turning over her language and concentrating on the close-up, rather than striding through the broader arc of the story.

There is an overarching narrative in this book: it is essentially a quest story as a young girl leaves home after the death of her mother, who was raising her family alone and battling her own demons.

When Billy and me lost our mother, we lost ourselves.  We stopped swimming in the ocean, scared that we’d forget to breathe.  Forget to come up for mouthfuls of air.  We lost trust because we didn’t want to touch something that was going to fall away.  Like bubbles, too delicate, too fragile, too brief.

Her brother, Billy, had descended into his own half-light of drug addiction, and her aunt, who had taken over care of the siblings had her own battle with alcohol. So sixteen-year old May Gibson set off north, looking for her father, looking for her mother’s people, looking for some sense of belongingness.  Her journey takes her to the Block in Redfern, to the red sand rodeos in outback Queensland, and to the ironically-named ex-mission town of Eubelong.  She finds acceptance in the midst of poverty, addiction and anger; she comes to distrust her own memories of her father, and her dreams of the embrace of a grounded, intact aboriginal family are dealt with brusquely.  As an author, Winch does not resile from the violence and hopelessness of these different settings, but she does also overlay this with the humour and easygoingness that exists alongside it, just as Maria Munkara and Alexis Wright have done in their own books. There are good people here as well as lost ones: truck drivers who don’t take advantage of a young, rather vulnerable young girl; Joyce of the Block who accepts her at the same time as pushing her out to keep searching; Aunty who is still there, even though May has travelled far away.  She has a good ear for dialogue.

However, in reading this book, I was more struck by the language than the overall narrative.  It is very carefully written- perhaps too carefully written?- with lyrical imagery that forces you to slow down. It’s more like reading poetry than a novel.  At times the imagery clags up the meaning and becomes nonsense (can, for example, sand be said to ‘stew’?)  but overall, it challenges you to take the book on the writer’s terms, rather than your own.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa at ANZLit Lovers has held an Indigenous Reading Challenge to mark NAIDOC week (which, ahem, I am a little late to join).  Also, I’m reading this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.