Posts filed under ‘australian’

DARK EMU by BRUCE PASCOE

dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.

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April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

TREMBLE by TOBSHA LEARNER

 

tremble

I guess it should be no surprise that I really liked Tremble. The book is billed as erotic fantasy, and I am both a keen participant in Sydney’s burlesque scene and long term reader of fantasy novels. So its a match made in heaven me.

Unfortunately no one else in the bookgroup has this combination of interests so Tremble did nothing for them, not even a weakness of the knees, let alone trembling all over.

I thought it was a long shot but I thought maybe they’d go for it in a guilty pleasure sort of a way. I thought it had a chance with them because it was written by a woman, so the sex was all from the woman’s perspective; also a lot of the stories were set in Australia; some were funny; some political; some informed by ancient myths and legends; the perfect brew for my taste so I thought maybe Bookgroupers would find something to enjoy.

Alas I was alone on that island. Badly written, not erotic, weird, too much, some book groupers even complained the sex was stereotypically male oriented . So unhappy were they, that very few read more than couple of stories.

So I guess I cannot recommend it to anyone other than people like me – long term fans of fantasy and burlesque. If you happen to be in that group, quite possibly a group of two, just you and me, this may be the book for you and, maybe you should call me.

Otherwise, based on the reaction of other book groupers i’d have to say stay away – unless you really want to push your boundaries with stories of magical sex, revenge and enchantment set in Sydney, Brisbane, the English countryside and in one case the Falklands war.

March 20, 2016 at 4:06 am Leave a comment

THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by HELEN GARNER

house of grief

Helen Garner is one of the most respected literary figures in Australia, mostly because she writes books like this one. Very precisely written and minutely observed books, about very unpleasant situations, that draw out all kinds of extreme emotional responses from onlookers.

Based on this book it seems her purpose in doing this is to make us question those responses, and look at them from multiple points of view. What she seems to want us to understand is the diversity of human experience, that none of us can really know how we will behave in any given situation until it happens.

For that purpose her target in this case is well chosen. It is a murder trial that was big news for many years in Australia. A father was accused of murdering his three young boys by driving his car into a dam and drowning them. One of the more appalling things a human could be accused of doing, and an act that elicits strong emotional reactions.

Garner chose to sit through every moment of months and months of trials and appeals over several years. The book reports her observations of the participants and onlookers throughout this process, particularly her observations of herself.

In this process she makes you think about what it means to be a man and a father, what really is a ‘good’ life or relationship, and what should we be prepared to do to get them, or keep them, and how to respond when we lose them.

It’s magnificently written in a technical sense. The sentences are perfectly structured and punctuated. Their meaning is almost never in doubt, despite the complexity of the emotions she is trying to communicate. If you want to learn how to write clearly for professional purposes, you could do worse than copy her style.

Despite the worthiness of the project and its execution, for me it wasn’t worth my while to finish it. I read about a 100 pages then flicked to the end, to make sure the court verdict was as expected. To me it’s not news to learn that perfectly normal people, mostly men, sometimes do perfectly evil things, even in perfectly banal situations. Life is complicated and people can be strange. I didn’t feel I needed to read a whole book, a whole harrowing book, to confirm that.

However bookgroupers felt differently. They were very engaged by the book. They were particularly fascinated by the detail she gave of the court process, how expensive it is, and how difficult it is for the witnesses, even in what seemed like a rather open and shut case. I think Garner would be happy with this reaction as the book title refers to the court system, not the family in the story as you might assume. Bookgroupers were also very impressed by the way she brought all the various participants into the story, and reported on their reactions and feelings.

I agree the book is a spectacular display of empathy. She really makes an effort to take the reader inside the heads of the people involved: the mother; the barristers; the investigating police; the jurors; the grandparents; the accused; and even the journalists such as herself covering the trial. At times she does this with insightful flair like when she describes the effect of the testimony of mother’s lover on the jury, and the watching audience, saying ‘he had that certain glamour that hangs around Australian tradies’.

In conclusion I’d say this is a book for people fascinated with the psychology of crime. If you really want to know why people kill. If you can’t get enough of crime dramas that take you into the world of the accused, the victims, and the justice system this is probably for you. It could be described as a literary equivalent of high quality crime docu-drama, but that would miss a central core of the book, which is garner’s eye-witness account of proceedings. To make the analogy complete you would have to imagine such a docu-drama with a narration by the film maker, describing their feelings and impressions as the footage unfolds.

It’s difficult material, but covered from every angle and so precisely written you feel like you are watching it rather than reading about it.

August 4, 2015 at 8:22 am Leave a comment

THE ROSIE PROJECT by GRAEME SIMSION

rosie p

The Rosie Project was light hearted and a lot of fun. As I read it I thought, this will definitely be made into a Hollywood rom-com. It is therefore a great tribute to the book to say that I really enjoyed it. I am not someone who would ever willingly sit through a rom-com, so for me the read it all, and enjoy it, was a great effort by the author.

It has all the traditional elements of the rom-com: a nerdy guy, with a Casanova friend; the unlikely couple; a misunderstanding; a joint quest that forces them to be together; various hijnks en-route to the quest; and of course a happy ending.

What made it fun for me was the Australian setting and the characters particularly the lead character don, and the leading lady Rosie.

The book is written in the first person by don. Its this that gives the book pretty much all of its freshness and humour. Don is an academic, a genetics professor, and like a lot of academics he is a long way along the Aspergers spectrum. The book’s humour comes from both his social ineptness, and from him pointing out how silly, from a purely rational standpoint, a lot of the behaviour us ‘normals’ expect.

As good as the don character is, it was the Rosie character that allowed to me to enjoy it despite its rom-comyness. Rosie is not the standard leading lady for this genre. She is confident, unpretentious, practical, has low expectations of men, but is willing to reserve judgement. In many ways she is an Australian woman. In short, she would be a challenge for a Hollywood rom-com to recreate. If the movie stayed true to the book they could not cast a Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts type character. Rosie is much more Sharon Stone or Halle Berry or even Carrie-Anne Moss from the matrix.

After I finished the book I learnt it had originally been written as a screenplay for a rom-com. It only turned in to a book because the author couldn’t get the movie made. The success of the book however got the attention of the movie industry, and its recently been announced that a movie will be made. Apparently it will be a big time hollywood number and Jennifer Lawrence has been cast in the role of Rosie. It will be interesting to see if screen Rosie bears any resemblance to book Rosie, and also whether they relocate it entirely from Melbourne in to a US setting.

There are lots of great scenes in the book as our unlikely couple roam around Melbourne and New York on the quest. They are trying to furtively obtain DNA samples from each of the men that may be Rosie’s father. As the quest goes on and each candidate is eliminated, the suspense builds nicely. You really want to know the answer. Better still the end result is a big surprise.

So all told i thought it was great light hearted read, and well worth the effort. Surprisingly bookgroupers had little to say about it. All basically agreed it was fun and that’s about as much as we discussed it. Nearly everyone said it prompted some laugh out loud moments. Whenever a book can get you to laugh out loud it’s doing pretty well in my view, so if you are looking for a light hearted read – it’s a great option.

As Bookgrouper Annie put it:

…a great book… Haven’t laughed out loud like this while reading a book for years; finished it in two days; couldn’t put the book down. The story is about a nerdy geneticist who has Aspergers, but doesn’t know he has….. Despite his odd behaviour, strict routines and lack of friends, he seems unaware he’s an Aspie. He embarks on a project to find a partner / wife, which becomes the Rosie Project. The book highlights the strengths and unique personality of this 40 year old likeable man. Highly recommended.

August 4, 2015 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by RICHARD FLANAGAN

narrow road

Bookgroupers were divided. some thought it was poetry, others thought it was like reading a shopping list. Some thought it was bringing light to forgotten history, others thought it was going over the same old stuff we have heard over and over for years and years. There was one point of agreement. it was a gruelling read.

This Booktopia page  has links to reviews of the book, which won the Booker in 2014. This radio national interview, which was first aired in 2013, gives a lot of insights in to the mind of the author.

The book is largely the memoir of its aging hero. This character is called Dorrigo Evans, but it’s clear to Australian readers that his story is very similar to that of the real world Australian war hero Weary Dunlop. Like Evans, Dunlop was a doctor and officer in the Australian army in the Second World War. Like Evans, Dunlop’s hero status is a result of his role as a leader of the Australian prisoners of war in Burma. The Australians, along with prisoners from several other nations, were forced by their Japanese captors to attempt to build what came to be known as the Burma Railway.  The planned route went across mountains and through tropical jungles. The prisoners were given little or no food, primitive tools and all sorts of diseases.

Dunlop is regarded as a national hero because the death rate of the Australian prisoners, although very high, was much lower than that of other nations, and this is ascribed to his efforts as an officer on behalf of his men. The story is taught to Australians as an example of what it means to be Australian; egalitarian, all mates working together, and so on; and it is basically identical to the Dorrigo Evans story in this book.

Bookgoupers agreed the book largely consisted of lengthy descriptions of death, sickness and hunger. However, they disagreed on two main issues: whether there was anything beautiful or poetic about these descriptions; and secondly, regardless of how beautiful or otherwise the words might be, was there was any point to describing all this horror in such detail?

On the poetry front Flanagan certainly aspired to that. In this interview in The Monthly he said:

“I think there is an idea of high modernist prose particularly common with people out of American creative writing schools that actually has lost the importance of those poetic cadences and tropes in the writing of prose.”

But Bookgroupers were divided on whether he succeeded. Personally I didn’t find it beautiful, but I did find quite few great lines.

P3 a happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else
P23 but what reality was ever made by realists?

On the issue of whether there was any point to all these gruelling descriptions, I’m afraid I was very much in the anti-camp. I only managed to read 50 pages or so. I found all the portrayals of awfulness morbid and pointless, stale and repetitive. Not because of the writing just because I have heard it all so many times before. However I was very much in the minority. Most Boogroupers got through it all, many with great enthusiasm, and they said they enjoyed it.

I confess my reading of it was less than objective, and my reactions may be a little idiosyncratic. I have been poisoned by the way stories of suffering in war have been used politically in Australia in recent decades. so now i cannot read these stories without thinking of whose agenda they serve.

In this political context the net effect in my view of this book, and books like it, is to glorify war and make a repeat more likely. I know this is not Flanagan’s intention, and that his actual words say the exact opposite. However the effect of stories like this is to put war on a pedastal. They make war seem like the ultimate in extreme experiences, and therefore the people who die in it or live through it are by definition heroes. This creates a need in all of us to redeem their suffering in some way, and the greater the suffering the more we want to redeem it. To feel it wasn’t wasted. To give their suffering and death meaning. So the more we memorialise war, as this book does in lurid detail, the greater need we have to give it meaning.

This creates an opportunity for one politician or another to link this suffering to some unrelated non-specific end, like freedom. The next step is for politicians to justify future horrors in the name of their chosen goal, ‘the glorious fallen’, and their suffering. We see this in Israel, which constantly justifies its behaviour in Palestine by reference to the holocaust. We also see it with every deployment of australian troops. We are told they are part of the Anzac tradition, following the example they set in 1915 at Gallipoli.

In Australia this happens despite the fact that the historical facts about Gallipoli are well known. The Anzacs suffered and died pointlessly, whilst trying, and failing, to invade a country on the other side of the world for no apparent reason. It was not necessary, and did not contribute in any way to the subsequent freedoms and quality of life of Australians. We all know this but every year on Anzac Day when we remember their suffering, we want to believe all that horror was for something. Surely it had to be? So we choose to believe politicians and generals when they tell us it was.

Hence my discomfort with this book. It plays in to the hands of politicians and generals that want to use the Burma railway in the same way they have used Gallipoli. Like Gallipoli, The awful suffering detailed here played no part in the course of the war. It was a senseless tragedy. But this is such a harsh reality it is almost impossible to accept. It is much easier to believe the politicians and generals when they say they died for us, Christlike.

The counter argument of course, in favour of such books, is the old saying ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. My reply is, the saying needs a makeover to fit in to media world of the 21st century. It should now read ‘those who sanctify the sufferings of war will reenact it, again and again’.

But most Bookgroupers did not have these misgivings. Those who liked the book did have a dispute amongst themselves about the love story and associated sex that runs through the book. There were multiple lines of argument on this point: it was good light relief from the terror; it was a counterpoint in the otherwise too saintly character of the hero, making him more human; or it was just a shameless attempt to make the book more readable and saleable. all these points of view seemed equally valid.

Apart from the gruesomeness, there did seem to be another broad point of agreement between both the pro and anti camps – the inclusion of the Japanese point of view in the story. Bookgroupers thought this was a new and interesting take on the Burma railway story. They were very impressed at the lengths Flanagan went to achieve this, for example taking the reader in to the mind of a Japanese guard as he ceremonially beheads a prisoner. However, they didn’t talk about it as much as the mud, blood and shit, or the sex, so it can’t have been too front of mind for them.

It certainly was the most interesting aspect of the story to me. So much so I stopped reading the book and read a book on haiku instead. The poet featured in The Narrow Road, and from whom the title is borrowed, is Basho. He lived in the 1600s and is apparently the best known haiku poet in Japan. Below are some examples of his work that caught my eye, and/or seem appropriate to the book.

rainy season
and the crane’s legs
have grown shorter

out over the fields
attached to nothing
a skylark sings

quietly in the night
a worm in moonlight
burrows through a chestnut

it should have
stayed green
this bright red pepper

a sad fate for us all
we feed bamboo shoots
at the inescapable conclusion

But I thought I’d save his best for last. This one summarises the whole of Flanagan’s book in three short lines.

Summer grass
All that remains
Of warriors dreams

April 12, 2015 at 6:55 am 1 comment

BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT

burial

Its Iceland and its eighteen twenty three,
there is work and the stink of poverty,
there is a crime and there is water,
and there is Agnes Magnusdottirr. She is no-ones daughter.

She is in the hands of fat man in red coats,
with their blame and certainty
they have privilege in plenty, but not much mercy.
She has the cold, and now she knows she is never growing old.
Its motivation enough to slit their throats.

She is sensitive and intelligent.
She is observant, but practical enough to lie.
She is tragic and arrogant,
and she is condemned to die.

They work, eat, sleep and pray
in the Badstofa. Its a room with 6 beds,
where they squint through the northern gloom
to pick lice from each others’ heads,
and ignore the stink of the chamber pot
and the cattle in their sheds.

They dress in wet wool and eat blood sausage, these folk,
and they cough blood on to dirt floors through thick smoke.
Their windows have no glass,
they are made from the membrane of a fishs’ arse.
The free, the servants and the condemned
endlessly knitting socks as if it will help her mend.

This is rural Iceland, not a museum diorama.
It is so detailed it beats the real thing.
This world imagined by Hannah Kent,
as the backdrop for what was a true life drama.
Its pre-industrial and pre-modern, its pre everything
except the enlightenment,

because its poverty
and religiosity
are washed with democracy,

and the rights and freedoms of John Stewart Mill.
The poverty is still brutal,
but the politics are not feudal:
there are no lords that kill,
it’s the courts and the people’s will;

there are landed farmers with servants,
but all alike can read and write
and everyone sleeps in the one room, though I don’t know how;
there are no landlords and no tenants;
and everyone gets tried in a court, they have that right.
In a sense it’s a stop on the way, to how we live now.

But for Agnes Magnussdottirr,
no one’s daughter,
it is too little and too early,
not enough to stop the execution of this surly girly.
She’s the right woman in the wrong time.
A time when a criminal is needed for every crime.
She is too smart for her own good,
a clever woman cannot be good,

so the fat men say, and they say it was Agnes Magnessdottirr.
We may not like it
but even so
we cannot know
it was not her.

Hannah Kent
gives her character the cold,
not only of Iceland but also of the soul.
She paints her less emotional than competent,

as a smart woman in the wrong time.
A disappointed peasant, rather than deranged witch.
But this is a version of history,
She could have been a bitch.

It’s not the real Agnes Magnusdottir.
We can never know her.
She could be a witch or deserve to be sainted.
Is this portrait a beautiful painting or is it tainted?
Yu know all this, its just like the moon lander,
but this version seems more like history than propaganda.

And partly thats because the Cinderella of this story
meets her prince up to her elbows in mince.
He’s an unbeliever but he sees her,
unfortunately their first kiss starts a love that couldn’t be more gory.

There are no metaphors in this love story.

She really did lose her head, and he really did take it like a knife to the heart,
It really was till death do us part.

While her history seems like great work of letters,
judging from the sources listed in the authors notes,
her literary achievement is even better.
For example, review these quotes

mostly, though not all, from Agnes the star of the show. She says:
Her poetry made lamps out of people;
The dark comes, it has settled down in these parts like a bruise in the flesh of the earth;
The world has stopped snowing;
The verses lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like mist;
I won’t let go of you Agnes I’m right here;
You are not a monster.

I say –
we are all monsters
when forced together
like chicks in a nest,
in a fight for food, warmth and rest.

So, in conclusion, it’s a novel about what went wrong.
The prose is decorated but not too long,
It is a sad story,
touching and a little gory
in the tradition of a Scandinavian Saga song.

 

There is a rather annoying academic review here. the author’s own website may be more informative than that or the above

December 16, 2014 at 10:27 am Leave a comment

COAL CREEK by ALEX MILLER

coal creek

This book is unlike nearly every other modern novel. It uses the  traditional storytelling approach of  first person, past tense, with a linear timeline. This is quite a relief, as it makes it a fairly easy read compared to all those funky ‘literary’ novels that jump back and forth in time and speak in the voices of multiple characters.

It is set in an unspecified part of north west Queensland in the 50s. The narrator is Bobby Blue, an uneducated young man whose mother died when he was teenager. As a result he grew up in the bush mustering cattle for  land owners throughout the region, with his father,  his fathers best mate, and his son Ben.

As the story begins Bobby’s father has recently passed away and Bobby is out of work. A new policeman has just arrived in town. He has come from the city to replace the previous officer, who had been in town for 30 years, and was a local. He is looking for an assistant so Bobby decides to take the job. As story develops it becomes clear that the person the policeman, and therefore Bobby, will have to deal with is Ben. Bobby’s oldest friend.

The book does not contain a lot of fast paced action. Neither does it cover a lot of complicated political or philosophical issues. Nevertheless it triggered lots of discussion at bookgroup. Nearly all bookgroupers liked it, and we don’t often agree so that is quite a compliment to the book.

The thing that seemed to get people’s interest was the way it portrayed two very different ways of being in the world. The narrator presents this as the difference between western people and coastal people. That is, between him and the other locals, and the new policeman and his family. But from the readers’ point of view, and I’m guessing the author’s, its the difference between people that talk about what they are thinking and feeling and those that don’t. Those non-talkers that just expect people to pay attention and pick up on what is happening.

The book is fairly even handed. It doesn’t  necessarily say one approach is better than the other. For example, it would have been a romantic cliche to say that the way older generations of country people leave almost everything unsaid, and just expect people to pay attention and understand, is a better way to live than a more modern urban way of being, that expects people to ask if they want something and speak up if they disagree.

It didn’t do this it just presented the difference very starkly.

This was perhaps very relevant for bookgroupers as many of us have, or had, parents that grew up in the Australia of the 30s, 40s and 50s, with Anglo Celtic heritage. This means our parents were these non-talking types, but we, as 21st century urbanites, are expected by our colleagues friends and lovers, not unreasonably, to be talkers. Speaking personally, this can be difficult when you have been brought up by a non-talker.

Non-talkers live in a world where the presumption is that not only is mind reading possible, it is an accurate and universal ability that everyone possesses. This means they don’t ask for what they want, or say how they feel, but they believe they know what you want and how you feel. The book demonstrates what can go wrong with this approach, but also suggest it has some strengths.

Some of things bookgroupers did not like included several concerns about the language.

  • It is written in what is supposed to be the vernacular of that time and place, so much of the grammar etc is incorrect which was annoying to some bookgroupers
  • Some bookgroupers also questioned whether it was an accurate representation of the vernacular from that time and place
  • The language is sometimes very beautiful and insightful. How is that a problem for book groupers? Well it is written  in the first person, in the voice of a very uneducated character, so some bookgroupers found these more lyrical passages unbelievable
  • Finally, several bookgroupers who have spent time in north west Queensland, including me, couldn’t relate to the description of the country because it didn’t resemble the areas we have seen.

For me these concerns were much less troublesome than they might have been, because I knew from reading this review in The Monthly that the author actually grew up in this time and place, so he is writing what he knows. I took a lot more of it on trust because I knew that from the outset. I was able to assume that because he is from there he must know what it’s like. So for example I assumed it was a part of north west Queensland i had not seen and that’s why I didn’t recognise it. If I hadn’t known the author grew up there I would have assumed he was making it up and getting wrong. I suspect this would have annoyed me a lot.

Another thing that annoyed several bookgroupers was the technique used to create suspense. One of the advantages of writing  in past tense with a linear timeline is that it allows the narrator to insert references to events later in the book. In this case the book contains a liberal frosting of phrases like ‘if x had paid more attention to y things might have turned out better’ and ‘this was before the tragedy’. Bookgroupers thought more of these were used than was needed to create suspense.

However, bookgroupers did like that all this building up of expectations of violence and tragedy did not turn in to as much tragedy as expected. A lot of us were expecting a violent and unhappy end, and were relieved to find it wasn’t so bad.

Bookgroupers also thought it handled the difficult issue of a young man’s friendship with a young girl well. Similarly people found many of the descriptions of land, horses, dogs, vegetation and wildlife very simple, detailed and often beautiful.

I recommend The Monthly’s review. It is a very  serious and knowledgeable account, unlike this one. It includes a lot of info on the author and his previous books, some of which are apparently set in the same place and time, and even include some of the same characters.

 

 

October 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

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