Monthly Archives: December 2012

My best reads for 2012

The end of year is the time for lists, no?  Well, here’s my list of my best  10 reads for 2012.  I only give a rating for fiction books generally, although one or two non-fictions crept in here because they were read as an escape from the thesis.

There was only one book to which I awarded a ’10’

1. ‘Good Evening Mrs Craven’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

The other nine received a score of ‘9’.  Three of these were from my CAE bookgroup- none chosen by me- which is a good reason for continuing to participate, quite apart from the friendships there.

2. ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by Z. Z. Packer (Yes- a collection of short stories made it onto the ‘best’ list! CAE)

3. ‘Otherland’ by Maria Tumarkin

4. ‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

5. ‘Bright and Distant Shores’ by Dominic Smith

6. ‘London War Notes 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes  (non-fiction)

7. ‘How To Live’ (A life of Montaigne)’ by Sarah Bakewell  (non-fiction)

8. ‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

9. ‘When Will There Be Good News’ by Kate Atkinson (CAE)

10. ‘Water Under the Bridge’ by Sumner Locke Eliot. (CAE)

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‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright

wright_reddirttalking

346 p. 2012

I’m nearly always disconcerted by film footage of aboriginal settlements- the dust, the rubbish, the band of kids clustering around.  Yet I sense, despite the many deficiencies that can be picked out so easily, that there’s another way of living there with priorities and resiliences that I can’t see.  Alexis Wright gave us a glimpse of it in Carpentaria, as did Maria Munkara in Every Secret Thing.

Red Dirt Talking is a whitefella perspective on this landscape.  The small town of Ransom is in outback Western Australia; eight kilometres  out  is the ex-mission station  Eight Mile Creek, smaller still; and 370 kilometres further out again  the Aboriginal communities of Yindi and Breakaway.  Here are all the set pieces of what we understand of outback life today-  the smelter and its fly-in, fly-out workers that distorts the economy of small towns; the art centre co-op that teeters uneasily on the line between exploitation and entrepreneurship; the whitefella managers; the Toyota trucks; the Flying Doctor Service.

The book opens with the first-person narrative voice of Maggot the Garbo whose job takes him round the camps and pubs, the haunts of hard-bitten men and women, hoarders and crazies.   An eight year old Aboriginal girl, Kuj, has disappeared.  He doesn’t know what’s happened to her- no one does- but they all have their theories and suspicions.  The second narrative, told in the third-person voice,  is set some months earlier, focussing on Annie, a 40 year old anthropology postgraduate who arrives at Ransom, tape-recorder in hand and thesis in sight, hoping to collect some quick oral history interviews about a massacre some decades earlier.  Of course, such earnest whitefella briskness is completely the wrong approach.  Annie finds herself drawn into a diffident but increasingly complex relationship with the laconic Mick Hooper, one of the white project officers, and is gradually forced to let go of all the objectives, timelines and academic protocols that the university is trying to impose on her research.  Kuj is one of the constellation of children who swarm around the community, and as time elapses, the narrative takes us up to her disappearance but this time through the web of relationships- marriages, deaths, breakdowns, fosterings- that blur the boundaries between long-term black and white inhabitants of Yindi. Finally, there are the transcripts and contextualizing introductions to her interviews, printed in a different font on coloured paper: white-fella academia that stands apart both visually and as knowledge, from the rest of the book.  The book is called Red Dirt Talking, but it’s even more about silences and listening.

I must admit to becoming rather jaded at all the historian-as-protagonist stories that I seem to have read this year.  There’s a whole string of them- Candice Bruce’s The Longing; Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory; Anne Summers’ The Lost Mother and Eliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper.  What’s going on? Is it the influence of all these creative writing courses in universities, so that ‘writing what you know’ starts and ends with an academic?  Is the academic hunt an upmarket version of the ‘journey’ narrative that we all seem to be on these days?  With the increase in tertiary education levels, are we all academics and historians these days? Or am I hyper-aware of this  because my own thesis-clock is ticking away in the background?  I suppose that it’s a common framing device, but it’s wearing a bit thin for me at the moment- and so, I put A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale back onto the shelf until I can read it with fresher eyes.

Red Dirt Talking was written as part of a creative arts doctorate, it won the T. A. G Hungerford award for an unpublished debut West Australian manuscript, and the author Jacqueline Wright has worked as a teacher and linguist in outback Aboriginal communities.  I think that you can detect all three influences in the text.  As a debut book, it is probably fifty pages too long and it has far too many characters to remember.  She has acutely depicted the politics and protocols of academia, and I suspect that she has observed other Annies, ( if, indeed, she was not an Annie herself when first arriving in the outback).  I found it hard to keep track of who was black and who was white (in fact, I don’t think that Wright did identify in terms of black/white anyway)- which is probably a good thing; her descriptions of landscape are evocative, and she captures dialogue particularly well.

But most importantly, she cuts through the visual imagery of outback life- the mess, the flies, the rubbish strewn yards, and the people gathered under trees- and picks up on the humour, the complexities of relationships and histories, and the uneasy coexistence of wariness and generosity in a community where she is an outsider.  I found myself perfectly happy to pick up the book to keep reading, and I was drawn along by wanting to know what happened to Kuj.

My rating: 8/10 maybe 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read becauseLisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it, and I read a good review of it somewhere (although I can’t remember where!)

Happy Christmas Resident Judge

And how did John Walpole Willis spend Christmas in Georgetown, Demerara in 1833?

Xmas Day. JWW (John Walpole Willis) and JW (Jane Willis) at Church in ye Morn’g very fine day.  Mr and Mrs Price, Messrs Harvey & Cowan called.  JWW and JW rode in ye even’g called at Mr Albany’s gave the servants their dinner Roast Beef & Plum pudding.

Happy Christmas all.

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobsen

finkler10082

320 p. 2010

It’s an odd coincidence that the books chosen over the course of a year by my face-to-face reading group often end up having a common theme.   We send in a list of about 40 possible titles, and yet somehow or other there are often connections between the eleven that actually land in our laps. It seemed that one year we read a succession of Asian family-history stories spread over three generations (oh, please spare me another of  those!) and this year we seemed to have stumbled onto a Jewish theme.  One book, Lily Brett’s You’ve Got to Have Balls annoyed me and I was relieved to find that I couldn’t attend the meeting and promptly ditched it.  The second The Full Catastrophe, I enjoyed.  And now this third book The Finkler Question.

It won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  What was it up against?  Hmm. A Carey, Emma Donoghue’s Room, Damon Galgut, Andrea Levy- I think I like her, and Tom McCarthy’s C. Well, I’ve heard of two of them (Parrot and Olivier in America and Room)  and the longlist had The Slap and a Rose Tremain book as well.  If I’d written any of these books, I’d be pretty annoyed. I really didn’t enjoy this book much at all.

The “Finkler” Question is actually the “Jewish Question”, posed by the protagonist Julian Treslove, retired BBC employee now working as a celebrity impersonator, who decides that after he was mugged by a female assailant who hissed “You Jew” at him (or at least, he thinks that’s what she said) that he really must be Jewish and just didn’t know it before.  And off it goes into a long conversation about Jewishness and Jewish self-loathing and anti-Semitism- on and on it goes; talk, talk, talk.  It’s a bit like reading a British Woody Allen, and I don’t really like him much either.  I find the language overwhelming, and the self-absorption tedious.  This book is promoted as a comic novel, but I barely found anything more than mildly humorous in it.

I don’t know what the other contenders were like, but I sure wouldn’t be awarding it the Booker Prize.

My rating: 6/10

Read because:

Sourced from: Council of Adult Education.

Judge Willis’ Sydney

Most of my attention has been directed toward Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne, where he was appointed as the first resident judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the Port Phillip district.  But he was in Sydney for much longer than he was in Melbourne- from November 1837 to March 1841- compared with his stay of two years and three months in Melbourne.

In Sydney, he was one of three judges who formed the Supreme Court bench, and so he was not as prominent as he was in Melbourne, where he was the only Supreme Court judge.  In fact, I’ve found it hard to form a clear view of him in Sydney: he doesn’t seem to have socialized much with any of the people whose writings I’ve been able to access from Sydney at the time.  From my point of view, he seems to become much more defined once he was given virtually free rein (and reign!) in Melbourne.

But he WAS there in Sydney and so, tramping the streets of Sydney this last week, I tried to see it through Willis’ eyes.

His Court

Supreme Court Sydney

Stairwell in the rotunda, Supreme Court Sydney

Stairwell in the rotunda, Supreme Court Sydney

By the time Willis arrived in Sydney in 1837, the court had abandoned its temporary premises and moved permanently into the Supreme Court buildings in King Street.  Although the appearance of the courts has been altered by later additions, inside under the rotunda it is largely unchanged.  The courts were designed by Francis Greenway, the “convict architect” who was responsible for the design of several buildings during Macquarie’s time.

His Church – maybe.

St James' Church, Sydney

St James’ Church, Sydney

Next to the court house is St James’ Church.  Actually, the building that houses the church today was originally intended to be the law courts with a larger cathedral built elsewhere, but after Commissioner Bigge criticized Macquarie’s extravagant expenditure, the planned law courts were turned into St James’ instead, and the law courts were built next door in what had been a schoolhouse (and they are still there- as you saw, further up the page!)

I don’t actually know that Willis attended this church- he may have attended St Philips instead- but I strongly suspect that he did as he aligned himself publicly with Bishop William Broughton who frequently officiated at St James.  (By the way, feeling rather downcast at some recent sad news, I attended the choral evensong there on Wednesday evening.  The choir was absolutely beautiful.) I know from his time in Upper Canada and Melbourne, and back home in England that Willis attended Anglican Churches regularly, often morning and evening on Sundays.

His library

Then there’s the Australian Subscription Library. Unfortunately it survives as only a plaque in the footpath.

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ST JAMES’ PARSONAGE. The first residence on this street, built in stone by Surgeon D’Arcy Wentworth in 1820, housed the Australian Subscription Library 1840-3.  It then housed the parson from nearby St James’ Church until demolition in 1888.

I know that Willis belonged to this library because in early 1841 there was a brouhaha concerning a confidential cabinet document that had somehow found its way into the collection.  Heads needed to roll (figuratively) and they did: the Assistant Colonial Secretary Harrington lost his job over it.

The Parliament- maybe???

State Parliament, Sydney

State Parliament, Sydney

While Willis was in Sydney, there was only one body that gave advice to the Governor, the Legislative Council.  It was appointed by the governor, and by 1829 had been enlarged to between ten and fifteen members.  It met in the ground floor rooms of what were at that time the Chief Surgeon’s rooms in the Sydney hospital.  Like the church and the court buildings, the hospital was also designed by Francis Greenway, and funded by an early form of public/private partnership, based on the monopoly of spirits imports- hence the name ‘Rum Hospital’ that has been attached to the building ever since.  I have no evidence that he ever attended Parliament,  but it was open to the public from 1838 onwards.

Government House- certainly

Model of the original Government House, Museum of Sydney

Model of the original Government House, Museum of Sydney

As puisne Judge, Willis most certainly did attend levees and functions at Government House.  The building that is now Government House was commenced but not completed during his time in Sydney, so he would have attended  the old Government House. In 1809 it looked like this:

Government House Sydney 1809

Government House Sydney 1809

It fell into disrepair- in fact, it sounds a rather shoddy building from the outset, and was demolished in 1846.  There is a ghost of the original house in the stencilled outline in  the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, where it originally stood.  If you go up to the corner, you can catch a glimpse of Circular Quay down below, and imagine the early Port Jackson shoreline.

So….

Actually, despite the heavy building activity in Sydney over recent decades, and a cavalier attitude towards heritage buildings during the 1960s (thank you Jack Mundey!) there’s more to find of Willis in Sydney than there is in Melbourne.

The ANZLHS conference at Sydney

I’ve been up in Sydney for the last couple of days for the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society conference.  You’ll note that the name of the organization  is ‘Law and History Society’ and not ‘Legal History Society’.  It’s an important distinction: it’s not just lawyers exploring historical cases but historians wading into legal waters as well. The conference reflects this dual focus, as I now realize even more clearly after attending the British Legal History conference last year which is far more lawyer-oriented.

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It probably reflects my membership within the historian camp, but the presentations that have remained most clearly with me are those involving people rather than principles.  So, just off the top of my head: terrific papers on the wardens watching Jimmy Governor before his execution; taking Nat Turner’s profession of faith seriously, a South Sea Islander petitioning for a lease on an island in the middle of a river in Northern Queensland,  and the fascinating case of Eugenia Falleni (the topic of a recent book).

But good papers on historical legal issues as well: vagrancy legislation in NZ and Australia during the 19th century; 18th trials of slave traders in Sierra Leone, and 19th century factory legislation that dared not speak its name in limiting the employment of women and children.

Some sessions I attended just for fun, like the “Literary Traces” panel, which ranged across Rousseau, Dickens, and the concept of “the reasonable man”.  Then there were the issues which spilled out of historical straitjackets into current issues: the historical trajectory of international human rights, the concept of marital rape immunity, and immigration law.

Did I give a paper? Yes I did, based on a case that arose out of the abolition of slavery in 1834 in British Guiana featuring Judge Willis (of course).  I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with it yet.

Lots to think about and I learned much.  Well worth going.

‘Cambridge’ by Caryl Phillips

cambridge

1991, 184 p.

A funny thing happened while I was reading this book.  I’m in the habit of reading in bed before I go to sleep, but I never read ‘work’ (i.e. thesis) books that I think I might need to really concentrate on.  Novels, yes; diaries, yes; arcane books from Google books yes.  Occasionally I find something in these books that I might jot down, but it’s all pretty low key.

So here I was, reading Cambridge by Caryl Phillips.  I’d heard about it on one of the lists that I subscribe to,  in response to a question regarding novels set on Caribbean sugar plantations. It is, indeed, set in the West Indies.  Now, I’ve read quite a few books about the West Indies by now for my thesis,  including travel books to the West Indies as in Mrs Carmichael’s jolly tracts review here and here, and diaries.  The first section of Cambridge is told from the perspective  of a young Englishwoman sent out to check on her father’s plantation before returning home to marry an older man her father had chosen for her.  So utterly convinced was I by the narrative voice  that I picked up a pen ready to make a note until I thought- hold on: it’s fiction.

The first section, told in the first person by Emily Cartwright is written as a journal-type narrative (although not divided by dates or other chronological markers) and in the immediate past tense.  When Emily arrives at an unnamed West Indian island, at an unspecified time (somewhere between 1807 and 1834) she finds that the manager, Mr Wilson, has disappeared and been replaced by Mr Brown.   Mr Brown is a surly, uncouth man but Emily falls in love with him gradually, and all of a sudden he is no longer ‘Mr Brown’ but Arnold.  Emily is troubled by Mr Brown’s black mistress, a woman called Christiane, whom all the other slaves fear to be an obeah (witch) woman.  Cambridge, a large well-built negro worker, is set to keep watch over her at night.  The first part of the book is by far the longest – 122 of the book’s 184 p.  It is told at a leisurely pace- hence, I think, my being lulled into thinking of it as an authentic diary, and it shares the one-dimension perspective of the diary genre.

The second section is told by Cambridge- a slave whose travels have taken him on his own Atlantic triangle- Africa, England, West Indies.  He is a man of many identities and many names- Cambridge,  David Henderson, Olumide. His voice is the formal, stilted witness of the evangelical convert, and he retells many of the same events as Emily does, but brings another truth to them.

In an interview with the New York Times, Caryl Phillips said:

To begin a book I must first find characters who allow me access to their lives and who trust me to tell their stories….I began by reading period novels. That wasn’t enough, so I turned to diaries and collections of letters. I found that a considerable number of personal narratives existed, written by English travelers to the Caribbean. All of that helped me to understand the language of the period, the attitudes that it shaped and reflected and the subtlety of statement common to the period.

I think that it was this capturing of nuance so authentically  that I responded to: so much so that I was disappointed by a third short narrative, in the form of a newspaper story, that somehow missed the mark.  It starts as a report such as you might find in the ‘criminal’ section of a colonial newspaper, but it then segues into the florid prose of a story-telling also common to the colonial press of the time,  complete with improving verses and sunrises and sunsets.  But in reality, you’d find these two separate sorts of writing in different parts of the newspaper as two completely different articles.   For something that had felt so authentic up to this point, this was disappointing.

This is the third  Caryl Phillips book I have read: I reviewed his Crossing the River  and Dancing in the Dark some time back.  Both Crossing the River  and Cambridge are similar with their multiple narrators, but I think that this book has a much better unity.  It is a pastiche, of course, but a very well researched one (and I know this because I’ve read the same primary sources!) that wears the research lightly.

I suspect from the rather dismissive reviews on Google that it has been assigned as school reading.  I acknowledge that the first part is very slow, and events unfurl as they do in life.  It’s a much more complex book than these disgruntled young readers realize. It also supports an academic response as well, all steeped in postcolonial theory (see here and here and here as well) .

My rating: 9/10

Read because: It was suggested on a list of fiction works addressing plantation life

Sourced from: The Annexe at La Trobe University.  Obviously not enough people borrowed it.  They should.