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Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom by Anita Heiss

July 20, 2019 4 comments

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss. (2016) Not available in French. 

This billet was due for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week but time went away from me and I’m late.

When Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms opens, we’re in 1944 in Australia. Japanese POW are kept in a camp in Cowra, in NSW, 300k East of Sydney. On August 5th, 1944, a thousand of these POWs escaped from the camp. Most of them died, either killed by Australian guards or because they committed suicide. Indeed, it was so shameful to a Japanese soldier to be held prisoner that it was better to die than come home with such a disgrace.

Hiroshi was among the Japanese who broke free from the camp in Cowra but he didn’t die. He managed to escape and reach the nearby Aboriginal station at Erambie. Banjo Williams, who lives at the mission, finds him and he and his wife Joan decide to hide Hiroshi until he can go home. It is a risky decision and their clandestine gust must stay hidden in a cave.

Banjo and Joan decide that their seventeen years old daughter Mary will bring him food and clothes. Hiroshi studied English at university – a convenient plot device –he can engage into friendly conversations with Mary and communicate properly with his hosts. Mary and Hiroshi get to know each other. Through their talks, the reader learns about Japan and life at the Aboriginal mission. And as expected, they fall in love.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is second Anita Heiss after Not Meeting Mr Right, a fluffy romance whose aim was to show the world that an Aboriginal young woman lived the same way as any Australian young woman of her age. Then I read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, not written but edited by Anita Heiss. It’s a stunning collection of 50 texts written by Aboriginal people from all Australia and all ages. They describe what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia and share their experience. Extremely moving.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is a novel between the two. It’s romance and fiction based on historical facts. It’s a political novel wrapped in a romance cover. Anita Heiss gathered stories and anecdotes from Erambie’s inhabitants and changed them into literary yarn, knitting a novel with a thread of fiction and a thread of history.

I enjoyed reading about life at Erambie and learnt more about the status of Aborigines in the 1940s. I think it’s even worse than Native American living on reserves in the USA. Food resources are limited. Work is rare and Banjo is lucky to be gainfully employed. Aborigines are under the guardianship of the mission’s Manager. They live under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, which means that they don’t have basic civil rights.

Anita Heiss’s purpose is commendable. You don’t catch flies with vinegar and this romance has more chances to attract a wide public than a dry essay. It is effective. The reader sees life through Banjo’s and Mary’s perspective. We feel empathy for them and anger towards the asinine rules they have to abide by. A non-Aboriginal reader will learn things and the novel’s educational aim is obvious, even if subtly played. Whatever works is good if it means that the message of tolerance is heard.

I thought that the romance between Hiroshi and Mary was too obvious, too predictable. In my eyes, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms would have been more powerful if Anita Heiss had chosen a male Aboriginal character who builds a strong friendship with a foreigner. The love card is a cliché that dims the novel’s lights. It’s good research and interesting but the romance is counterproductive and didn’t work for me.

If you want to know more about Aboriginal Australia, I’d recommend to read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Meanwhile, I hope that Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms reached readers who don’t read non-fiction and that it helped Australians face part of their past, as this was also one of Heiss’s goal.

For a better written and better informed piece about this novel, check out Lisa’s review here.

My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 33 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 19 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – Entertaining

December 24, 2018 14 comments

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. (2013) French title: Le théorème du homard.

This month, I’m supposed to read Dead Souls by Gogol before my next Book Club meeting. I am too tired to concentrate on it and so far, I haven’t been able to go further than page 2. Yes, it doesn’t sound good. So, I’ve been reading easy books for the sake of entertainment. I had The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion on my kindle and it seemed the right time to get to it.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the university of Melbourne. He’s single, almost forty, never passed the first date stage and now wishes to get married. His friends Gene and Claudia tried to set him up with friends but to no avail.

He decides to set up a very detailed questionnaire to find the perfect wife. This is how he starts The Wife Project. When Gene sends Rosie to Don’s office as she has a question related to genetics, Don misunderstands her coming to him and thinks that Gene sent her after she applied to The Wife Project.

Don starts taking interest in Rosie’s search for her biological father. He gets invested in what becomes The Father Project. Rosie inserts herself into his life, and although he dismissed her as a valid candidate for The Wife Project, he slowly discovers that science cannot solve everything.

Don is the narrator and we understand from the start that he has an IQ higher than everyone, that he has trouble interacting with people, that he painfully lacks social skills. His life is organized by the minute on a white board and he aims at maximizing his time for everything. Scientific thinking is his only way of thinking. He’s rational and has trouble with spontaneity and non-analytical behaviours and responses.

Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing. However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships.

This is typical of Don’s voice.

At the beginning of the novel, he replaces his best friend Gene to be the speaker at a conference about Asperger’s syndrome. His reaction to the public and the few words he says about the content of the conference leads the reader into thinking that Don has Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s never said directly and that was clever of Simsion. He avoids further criticism about inaccurate psychiatric details and Don isn’t pigeonholed as someone with a disorder but just as someone odd. Rosie brings spontaneity into his life and breaks his routine, throwing him out of his comfort zone. Her presence disrupts his life and forces him to come out of his self-built shell.

The Rosie Project reminded me of Addition (2008) by another Australian writer, Toni Jordan. In Addition, Grace, the main character has OCD and a life with a lot of rules and habits, just like Don.

The Rosie Project is tagged as a “feel-good” novel. If the narrator and the writer were female, I bet it would be tagged as chick lit. I suppose that, like Addition, it a romcom with an unusual character, one who’s socially inapt but still loveable. Don’s deadpan tone is quite entertaining and he finds himself in situations that become comical. His vision of life is endearing as he tends to take everything at face value. Since he has trouble understanding non-verbal messages, he has difficulties in social settings. Lots of miscommunication happen. Rosie has her own issues and interacting with matter-of-fact Don isn’t easy for her either. He doesn’t know how to sugar-coat things, he always speaks his mind and he can be hurtful. Unintentionally.

The Rosie Project won several prizes and I suppose that in its category, it’s a good book. It’s easy to read and written in a good style. It’s a perfect distraction, an excellent Beach & Public Transport book. It’s also a novel that reminds us that it takes all sorts to make a world and that we shall accept people the way they are and not always try to change or improve them or make them enter into some socially accepted standards.

For another review, see Lisa’s here (She also mentions Addition) and Sue’s here.

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook – What happens in The Yabba must stay in The Yabba

December 12, 2018 8 comments

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961) French title: Cinq matins de trop.

Welcome to our next stop on my crime fiction reading journey. We’re with John Grant, a schoolteacher who has been appointed in the remote tiny town of Tiboonda in the Australian outback. He hates it there and he still has another year to serve but now it’s the end of the school year and he’s on his way back to civilisation, which means Sydney to him.

The schoolteacher knew that somewhere not far out in the shimmering haze was the state border, marked by a broken fence, and that further out in the heat was the silent centre of Australia, the Dead Heart. He looked through the windows almost with pleasure, because tonight he would be on his way to Bundanyabba; tomorrow morning he would board an aircraft; and tomorrow night he would be in Sydney, and on Sunday he would swim in the sea. For the schoolteacher was a coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west.

He has to stay in the mining town of Bundanyabba for a night to catch his flight. It’s hot as hell in this place in the summer. After checking in in his hotel room, he decides to have a beer in a pub before going to bed. He starts chatting with a policeman who takes him to the local two-up gambling game. Grant is fascinated by the show, the bets, the atmosphere. He leaves unscathed but is caught by the gambling bug later in the night. He goes back and of course, he loses all his money. He’s now stranded in Bundanyabba, or as the locals call it, The Yabba.

What the loss meant to him was so grievous in import that he could not think about it. His mind had a small tight knot at the back, and around it whirled the destructive realisation of what he had done, but until that knot unravelled, he need not think too deeply about what was to happen now. He went back to the hotel, stripped off his clothes, fell naked on to the bed, and stared, hot-eyed, at the ceiling until suddenly he fell asleep with the light still burning.

The morning after, he wanders in town, enters another pub and befriends with Hynes, the director of the local mine. Hynes takes him home to diner with his wife, adult daughter and friends Dick and Joe. They drink themselves into a stupor and Grant wakes up in a shack which is the home of the local Doc. Grant barely recovers sobriety before drinking again and being dragged into a nightly kangaroo hunt.

How will he get out his predicament?

No wonder Wake in Fright has become a classic. Cook draws the tale of a man who’s in a two-years hiatus from his life as he has to serve his two years in the Australian outback and he loathes it. He’s bored, ill-prepared for the climate and so ready to have a break from it all during the Christmas six weeks holidays.

He’s puzzled by the bush and its people. All the people he meets in The Yabba love it there, something he can’t understand. The heat turns his brain into mush, thirst leads to drinking too much beer and his willpower is quickly eroded and crumbles. The poor, candid and virgin John Grant is taken in a storm of drinking and sex topped up by a hallucinating hunting trip in the wild.

Cook draws a convincing picture of life in the outback. He brings the reader there, especially in the descriptions of the landscape and wild life. Like here when Grant is in a truck on his way to the hunting trip:

Out over the desert plains, behind the roar and grind of the ancient engines, the dreary words and trite tunes of modern America caused the dingoes to cock their ears in wonder, and deepened measurably the sadness that permeates the outback of Australia.

I imagine them all in the truck’s cabin, listening to the only radio available and disturbing the peace of the wildlife with their loud Western attitude. Meanwhile, nature goes on with its natural course and gives us humans a magnificent show.

Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.

Wake in Fright has a strong sense of place, The Yabba is almost a character, playing a decisive role in the days Grant will spend in this dreary place. The book is tagged as psychological thriller, probably because Grant falls into the sick hands of the Hynes clique. Moral compasses are not aligned between Sydney and The Yabba. Propriety is not the same and Grant is a stranger with no clue of the code of conduct he should abide by.

Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy. What the hell?

I’m not so sure about the psychological thriller tag. Sure, Grant falls victim to a group of sickos. But he had opportunities to opt out of this destructive journey. He knew he should not go back to the gambling game. Yet he did. He could have looked for Crawford and ask for help at the police station. Yet he didn’t. Cook doesn’t let us see Grant as a victim, except of his own weakness as he writes:

He almost smiled at the enormous absurdity of it all. But what was so fantastic was that there had been no element of necessity about it all. It was as though he had deliberately set about destroying himself; and yet one thing had seemed to lead to the next.

Wake in Fright is a hell of a ride with a man unconsciously led to self-destruction in the hard environment of a small outback town in Australia. In a way, Grant is a bit like Meursault, the main character of L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Both have their mind altered by heat and live moments of their lives as in a daze, not willing to engage with life, probably unable to find a proper meaning to it all.

Kenneth cooks us a stunning and memorable story of a man left in a harsh environment whose codes he fails to understand. A man not sure enough of who he is and where he stands in the world to resist the destructive forces of The Yabba.

Highly recommended.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

Literary Escapades: Australia

August 26, 2018 29 comments

Regular readers of this blog know (or have guessed) that I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Australia this summer. This is not a travel blog, so I won’t share details about my trip except the bookish ones. Reading Australian literature before visiting helped a lot during my stay, I had a better understanding of what I was seeing. Since I was with my non-bookish family, I didn’t specifically seek out literary places. I just took note of what I stumbled upon and visited bookstores along the way.

There’s a Writers Walk in Sydney, near the bay. It’s made of plaques on the ground with the name of the writer and a quick bio. I didn’t look at all of them but they were mostly Australian writers and foreign writers who stayed in Australia. To be honest, I’d never heard of most of them.

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores when I’m abroad. When I’m in a non-English speaking country, I can only watch which writers are on display. Here I came with the idea to get myself some Australian books. I visited bookstores when I had the chance and was very disappointed for the first two thirds of my trip.

At first, all the bookshops I found had books I don’t read. Lots and lots of mainstream fiction I’m not interested in and even the crime fiction section was a letdown. Literary writers have little room in these stores. Tim Winton and Peter Carey seem to do alright but otherwise, lots and lots of colourful cheesy covers with embossed letters. Yes, you see those in your mind eye. One of those sold new and second-hand books that were called Pre-loved books. I like that concept.

And, the horror, these books were expensive. 20 to 30 AUD, which means 13 to 19 euros for a paperback. In France, paperbacks cost from 5€ (classics in the public domain) to 12€ (fancy editions or small publishers)

I eventually found a bookstore in Alice Springs that sold Australian literature, Red Kangaroo Books. By then, I had adjusted to the local prices of books. I tried to focus on buying books I couldn’t find in France or in French. After reading Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the SeaMarie Munkara’s personal story, a book I really recommend to everyone, I decided to try her fiction, A Most Peculiar Act.

After seeing the cover, my children asked me if I was now into horror books. And I have to admit that it looks like a book by Stephen King with a psychopath doll, don’t you think?

I’d heard about Growing Up in Aboriginal Australia on Lisa’s blog. It is a collection edited by Anita Heiss in which fifty Aboriginal Australians relate their personal experience about growing up as an Aboriginal Australian. I should be interesting.

The good thing about traveling so far is that you get a 30 kg allowance of luggage. Yay! More room for books! I ended up in a bookshop called Readings in the Carlton neighbourhood in Melbourne. It was their flagship, according to their website. It’s the size of my favourite bookstore in Lyon and they had a large enough section of Australian literature. I stayed a moment there, browsing through books before deciding upon four new additions to my TBR.

I wanted to read the Anita Heiss but couldn’t get it in France, so I knew I wanted to buy it in Australia. I’m lucky they had it at Readings because Aboriginal writers seem hard to find. (except at Red Kangaroo Books) I’ve already read Madeleine St John and I enjoyed her Women in Black.

I remembered reading about Tony Birch on blogs, Blood was listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the blurb sounded good. We’ll see how I like it. Five Bells appealed to me, it’s published by Penguin so I expect a certain literary quality.

This was my experience with bookstores and I didn’t go out of my way to find them during my stay since I’m the only one obsessed with books in my family. There are probably incredible bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne that I didn’t see, they aren’t on the touristy paths, that’s all.

Seeing the price of books, I sort of felt relieved for Australian readers to encounter so many libraries. At least, there’s a way to read without depleting your wallet. The reading room in the State Library in Melbourne in stunning:

They have sculptures from children books in the forecourt. I didn’t recognise the characters, they were from Australian books but I find it nice that the entrance of this intimidating building is made to speak to children and not only to bookworms. Well, literary nerds have their corner with the James Joyce Seat of Learning.

It looks like a lectern to me, I can understand how Ulysses can be a bible to some but still. There’s a stone from Joyce’s house in Dublin embedded in the desk, like a relic in a church, which enforces the Catholic vibe. I thought it was a little weird, especially since Joyce never set a foot in Australia.

Another way to have free access to books is to check out Street Library boxes. There’s one in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

And according to their website, there are tons of them in Australia.

This initiative exists in lots of countries and I love it. For France, you can check out the website Boîte à Lire. One of these days, I’m going to set one up in my street.

I also bought the literary number of The Big Issue. It’s one of those magazines that homeless people sell on the street. Several Australian writers are involved and donated either their time and/or their stories. It’s the first time I’ve seen one with a fiction edition and it’s a great initiative.

My literary escapade in Australia wouldn’t have been as good without a stroll in Melbourne’s CBD with Tony, from Messy Booker. Thanks for taking us to the lanes with street art and explaining what the references were and for pointing out William Barak’s face on one of the city’s skyscrapers. We would have missed this without you and it was lovely meeting you.

And last but not least, we loved having lunch with Lisa and The Spouse on our last day. I’m happy we had the chance to meet IRL, as it’s customary to say. It is always a great pleasure to meet online friends in person. I’m always surprised at how easy the conversation flows but I shouldn’t be because blogging is real life too and the love of books a strong enough connection. So, if you’re in Lyon, don’t hesitate to contact me.

And for the rest of my blogging life, I’m late with everything: writing up the two last billets of last season’s Book Club (The Eastern Parade and Small Country) and the two billets for Portuguese Lit Month (The Alienist and The Anarchist Banker). I didn’t have much time or energy to read at the end of my busy days. I didn’t have time to read other people’s reviews, unfortunately. I’ll try to catch up but I expect to be burried at work in the next months.

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