Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Indigenous Picture Books for Children

For Lisa's Indigenous Literature Week I had planned to post a selection of new Indigenous picture books, however my plans were bigger than my time management abilities!

Fortunately, these beautiful books deserve to be shared at any time, regardless of NAIDOC week or ILW.

Baby Business (2019) by Jasmine Seymour is a wonderful story for new parents, showing us, sharing with us, one way to welcome a new baby to country. However it's not just baby business, but also mother, grandmother and aunty business.

Respect, love and tradition embues every page as we follow the rituals of a smoking ceremony of welcome.

I loved this a lot.
I loved it for its celebration of new life, diversity and belonging. For its pride in our heritage and traditions. For its openness in sharing personal rituals and beliefs.

It's a book that reminds us that we belong to Country; that it doesn't belong to us. That we should only 'take what we need and no more' then 'give back what you can, and help your Mudgin (family) and Nura (country) when they need it.'

Durag words are scattered naturally throughout the text.

Seymour's beautiful, warm earthy illustrations create tender scenes of family, women and country. The background has a soft, dreamy quality which draws the eye towards the action around the sharp-focused baby on each page.

Jasmine is a member of the Durag Custodian Aboriginal Corporation. Her bio at Magabala Books also says that she is,

a descendant of Maria Lock, daughter of Yarramundi, the Boorooberongal elder who met Governor Phillip on the banks of the Hawkesbury in 1791. Maria was the first Aboriginal woman to be educated by the Blacktown Native Institute. She was married to carpenter and convict, Robert Lock and their union resulted in thousands of descendants who can all trace their Darug heritage back past Yarramundi.

When I was growing up, this kind of Indigenous family history and acknowledgement of local Indigenous heritage did not exist. In certain circles, there was a lament that this information had been lost, but most (white) people didn't see the point of remembering it.

But then colonial family history research took off during the 1980's, as so many of us searched for our convict ancestors and the UK county of our forebears. Suddenly (white) Australians were proud of their convict past as they (re)claimed a small patch of the UK as an ancestral 'home'.

It feels like it has taken a lot longer for pride in our Indigenous history to also be embraced. It is still an evolving idea in many circles. But books like this can help all of us to acknowledge, understand and respect the traditional heritage of our land. To learn some of the language, to have a window into another culture, to share a moment together - theses are all tiny, baby steps towards truth telling, reconciliation and treaty.

Sorry Day (2018) by Coral Vass and illustrated by Dub Leffler tells two stories told side by side - a modern story set on the lawns of Parliament House on the day that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the Stolen Generation.

The older story provides a window into what it felt like to be stolen.

"Hide. HIDE!!" 
"White men  
The children trembled."

I have read sections of the Stolen Generation report and feel that I am open to seeing things from a perspective other than my own, but it is still confronting to realise that Aboriginal children today, and of old, automatically viewed all white men as people who they should fear. 

Dub Lefller is from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of SW Queensland. His illustrations include a sepia style for the historic story, while the modern story is in full colour. A double page spread opens up at the end to combine the two styles. A timeline with the relevant facts and figures about the Stolen Generation and the events leading up to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology are provided at the end.

The book includes a foreward by Lee Joachim, Chair of Rumbalara Aboriginal Coop and Director of Research & Development for Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation.

It was Shortlisted for the 2018 CBCA Eve Pownall Award and a Winner of the Speech Pathologist Book of the Year 2018.

Little Bird's Day (2019) by Sally Morgan is a gorgeous picture book about a day in the life of a bird. Sally belongs to the Palyku people from the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia and is best known for her 1987 autobiography, My Place.

However, for me, Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr's stunning illustrations are the main attraction of this book. Malibirr is a Yolgu man from the Ganalbingu clan who has recently been awarded the Inaugural Kestin Indigenous Illustrator's Award. His bio on Magabala Books also says that he,
is known for his paintings of Ganalbingu song lines as well as his mother’s Wägilak clan stories. Along with other members of his clan, Johnny keeps culture strong through painting, song, dance, and ceremony. Johnny lives in the remote East Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak, where he is Chair of the Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Aboriginal Corporation.

The illustrations have a strong connection to nature, using a traditional colour palate and styles. The sense of movement on each page is gracefully achieved, with a pleasing balance of details and open space.

It's a lovely nature story for a 3+ audience, that lends itself to simple dramatisation and dance moves.

Welcome to Country (2016) by Aunty Joy Murphy and illustrated by Lisa Kennedy is one of my favourite picture books of the moment. It not only feels worthy (of awards and recognition) and timely, but it's also sensitively and beautifully executed.

The initial 'welcome to the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri People' is presented in both English and Wurundjeri language, with a another reminder to 'only take from this land what you can give back.' The book celebrates Indigenous language, culture and art and is another example of a book naturally introducing the local language to a wider audience. 

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin AO is an Elder of the Wurundjeri People of Melbourne and surrounds. She is a storyteller who 'is passionate about using story to bring people together and as a conduit for understanding Aboriginal culture.'

Lisa Kennedy is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway People on the north-east coast of Tasmania.
It was then my challenge to find a way to express this living culture in a contemporary way in my illustrations. I wanted to show the physical and the spiritual connection to Country and Ancestors using imagery accessible to a wide audience.
  • Winner of the Environment Award for Children’s Literature
  • Winner Educational Publishing Award
  • CBCA Notable Book 
  • Short-listed for the CBCA Crichton Award 
  • Short-listed NSW Premier’s Literary Award
  • Short-listed Speech Pathology Book of the Year Award

Land of the Echidna People (2019) by Percy Trezise and illustrated by Mary Lavis.

I wasn't completely sure about including this book in my collection of Indigenous picture books. Neither Percy Trezise (1923 - 2005) nor Mary Lavis are Aboriginal. However in the end I decided that the story behind this book was interesting and a good conversation starter around the whole cultural appropriation topic.

The Land of the Echidna People is the eighth book in Trezise's Journey to the Great Lakes series,
first begun in 1996. The eight books follow Jacinda and his younger sister Lande, brother Jalmor and dog, Lasca after a violent storm has carried them away from them family. The series follows their journey through various countries as they try to make their way home. Many of the books contain maps that allow the reader to follow the path they took. The stories are full of adventure, danger, belonging and family.

The first seven books were illustrated by Trezise himself. Sadly he died before finishing the last book. Mary Lavis offered her services to the family to finish Trezise's work to bring this series to an end.
  • Home of the Kadimakara People (1996)
  • Land of the Dingo People (1997)
  • Land of the Emu People (1997)
  • Land of the Snake People (2000)
  • Land of the Brolga People (2001)
  • Land of the Magpie Goose People (2001)
  • Land of the Kangaroo People (2002)
  • Land of the Echidna People (2019)
Trezise devoted his life to Aboriginal causes. In 1956 he moved to Cairns as a pilot to be closer to Aboriginal people. Discoveries of rock art during the 60's by road crews, encouraged Trezise to use his aerial skills to search for other 'lost' rock art areas. One of the most significant finds was the Quinkin Rock Art, in Cape York Peninsula, the oldest art site in the world. He helped the local Aboriginal community to advocate for this area to become a national park administered by them. He also purchased two properties to preserve and protect further rock art sites.

There is absolutely no doubt that Trezise's heart was in the right place. Various interviews and articles, including an Australia Story episode on ABC TV, show his life-long passion and support of Aboriginal culture and art. His collaborative friendship with Mornington Island illustrator, Dick Roughsey (1920 - 1985), gave him access to many of the 'old people'. He was granted the Aboriginal name, Gubbaladalli from the people of Mornington Island Mission.

After his death, two of his sons have continued his work in the area.

I suspect if Roughsey had still be alive, they would have collaborated on this series of myth-making stories, as they did with so many books before. My understanding is that they shared creative ideas and painting techniques. Trezise's interest in Aboriginal culture was not just a passing thing. It was a passion and belief that guided his whole life.

Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children's Literature (2001) by Clare Bradford. She discusses at length the 'complex cultural politics' evident in the Trezise/Roughsey relationship. She claims that their work sits somewhere between an older style assimilationist approach and the contemporary retelling of traditional stories, 'caught between times and between changing practices.'

She sees Trezise's post-Roughsey work as 'redolent not so much of of a set of formulae not too remote from Aboriginal traditions to function effectively for contemporary readers.'

Wilam: A Birrarung Story (2019) is another story by Aunty Joy Murphy with Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy.

Andrew Kelly is a Yarra Riverkeeper, who had this to say about the writing process with Aunty Joy on the Booktopia Q&A site,

The writing of the book was a process of bouncing words and ideas between myself and Aunty Joy. The first draft of the manuscript had many more words and it was a matter of whittling them down to a sufficient elegance. The other part I really liked was working with Aunty Joy on the language and creating a seamless flow between Woiwurrung words and English.

I love this trend in embracing and sharing Indigenous languages in a natural way. We should all be growing up, hearing and using Aboriginal words, not just in the names of our country towns and rivers, but in songs and everyday speech.

Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly use traditional language to name many known animals and natural things (like rain, tree, creek, river etc) in a beautifully illustrated story about the water cycle.

As ngua rises, Bunjil soars over mountain ash, flying higher and higher as the wind warms. Below, Birrarung begins its long winding path down to palem warreen. Wilam – home.

Kennedy has merged scenes of modern life into and around her central images of the natural environment. Gorgeous end papers bookend the story.

A glossary at the back provides definitions for all the Indigenous words used throughout the story.

My Culture and Me (2019) by Gregg Dreise.

Dreise is a descendant of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi tribes, from south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. As the Penguin blurb says, this is indeed a 'heartfelt and stirring story of cherishing and sustaining Indigenous cultures.'

One of the trends in children's picture books at the moment, is pride in Indigenous culture. They encourage Indigenous readers to reclaim, embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage. They allow non-Indigenous readers a window into another way of life. These stories embody a wonderful sense of sharing, acceptance and understanding with all Australians. 

It is such a long overdue idea that I'm hopeful this new trend is just one more signpost along the way to a more meaningful reconciliation process and a more 'fair and truthful relationship'* between us all. 
*Uluru Statement From the Heart

As an early childhood teacher in a previous life, I know the importance of the early years in laying down the foundation stones for a strong sense of self. Books like this help promote positive images and pride in culture. It is so important to have heroes and role models that look like you and sound like you in books. 

My one concern is that most Aboriginal children in Australia today, now live in cities and large urban areas, whereas most of these books are set in rural or remote areas. Country is such an important concept in Aboriginal culture and this shines through in all these books. But it's not only important to see people who look like you in books and stories, it's also important to have stories that reflect the lives you actually live in the places you are living them. 

Which leads me very nicely into Black Cockatoo (2018) by Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler

Mia is a 13-year-old girl from a remote community in the Kimberley. She is saddened by the loss of her brother as he distances himself from the family. She feels powerless to change the things she sees around her, until one day she rescues her totem animal, the dirran black cockatoo, and soon discovers her own inner strength.

When I was teaching, the Aboriginal children in my class, were mostly being cared for by their grandparents. In fact, I can only think of one family where this was not the case. Stories that reflect this situation are important for a sense of belonging, but also for opening up the wider discussion around the why's and wherefore's of this reality.

Black Cockatoo is a short story that oozes themes of connection, standing up for yourself, freedom (for birds, animals and humans), family, totem, animal rights, respect and complicated family relationships. It's contemporary, real-life nature is suitable for 10+ readers.

Jaru words are used throughout the story.

The story includes evocative black and white paintings, mostly of the cockatoo. There is a glossary of indigenous terms used in the story at the back of the book.

Carl Merrison is a Jaru man from Halls Creek. Carl was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2016.

His partner, Hakea Hustler was a high school English teacher at Halls Creek District High School. She is committed to Indigenous education with a particular focus on 'school engagement, English language and story as learning, understanding and empowerment.'

Their book has been Shortlisted for the 2019 ABIA's Small Publishers' Children's Book of the Year and the 2019 CBCA Younger Readers Book of the Year.

I had planned on including Young Dark Emu: A Truer History (2019) by Bruce Pascoe in this post, but 
1. it's first print run sold out in a matter of days, so I've been waiting for the reprint to turn up to read it properly. 
2. this post is already too long and 
3. I suspect Pascoe's book will require a longer response than the few paragraphs I could give it here!

For now I will leave you with the words of Michael Warren in his 2012 thesis, Exclusive Inclusion: Aboriginality, The 'Juggernaut' of Modernity and Australian National Identity
Contradiction is indeed a feature common to the relationship between Aboriginal people and white Australia.

Since creativity evolves from and is inspired by the contradictions in our lives, I'd say we can look forward to many more engaging, confronting Indigenous stories in the years to come.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

Poetry doesn't come easy to me. 
I often feel like I'm on the outside looking in. I don't always get the rhythm, or the cadence of poetry. I struggle with the silences and the spaces. I flounder around unable to hear the voices or feel the mood.

But every now and again a poem or a poet crosses my path and I feel a connection. Suddenly I want to work it out. Suddenly I hear, or almost hear, what the poet is trying to say. I'm moved and motivated to dig deeper.

Alison Whittaker is one such poet and her collection of poems, Blakwork has provided me with non-stop provocation for several months now. Her poems delight me, confound me and unnerve me in equal measure.

I keep returning to certain poems over and over again. A Love Like Doreathea's is one (see link at the bottom of this post).

My first read through was like a sucker punch to the stomach. I have loved Doreathea MacKellar's My Country all my life, but suddenly seeing it through another's eyes, was a shock. Seeing how something I loved - my country, my land of sweeping plains - was also the same land that had been taken away from others.  Not only taken away but altered so much that it no longer looked like the country they once knew and cherished. Up until now, I had thought that love of country, was something that Indigenous and non-Indigenous could share. Something that could bring us together. Now I'm not so sure.

As Bill @The Australian Legend says far more succinctly, 'Our love leaves no room for their love.'

I've underlined, starred and questioned so many of Whittaker's words and phrases. 

I'm not sure I will ever be done with this book. 

For the first time in my life, I understand why people used to (maybe some still do?) carry around pocket books of their favourite poems (like Willoughby and Marianne in Sense & Sensibility). Some poems, some poets just get under your skin, or speak to you so deeply, that you have to have them nearby all the time, ready to dip into at will.

Whittaker has done this to me.

Watching the spoken word videos that she performed for the Melbourne Visiting Poets Program at The Wheeler Centre in August 2018 (see below) have helped me to feel her rhythm and get into her space. I also like being able to hear her voice in my head as I read and reread the other poems for myself.

I'm still trying to understand why this collection of poems has had such a profound impact on me. I guess I need to keep reading and listening until I work it out.

I've also been wondering about cultural appropriation this past week or so as I've been preparing for Indigenous Literature Week. Who really cares what another white woman thinks about the work of an Indigenous author? What right do I even have to voice an opinion on something I understand so imperfectly?

However the NAIDOC About page reminded me that one of our roles is to listen, "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want their voice to be heard."

The true story of colonisation must be told, must be heard, must be acknowledged.

But hearing this history is necessary before we can come to some true reconciliation, some genuine healing for both sides.

And of course, this is not just the history of our First Peoples – it is the history of all of us, of all of Australia, and we need to own it.

Then we can move forward together.

Let’s work together for a shared future.

Perhaps that's why Whittaker's poems have had such a profound impact on me. I was open to hearing. Instead of feeling defensive or dismissive, I have heard and accepted the truth of what I've heard. Everything I thought I knew has been turned on its head.

As Atticus Finch says to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird,
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.

Whittaker has shifted my point of view.

My earlier post for A Love Like Dorothea's.

Book 10 of #20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 19℃
Dublin 21℃

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Stories and Shout Outs

Some days the word won't flow.

I have several posts half-written, but over the past few days I haven't been able to find the inspiration or energy to complete any of them. I guess a big weekend away, is enough to throw my routine these days.

So it's time for a housekeeping post to clear my head.

I Am Reading:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (chapter-a-day readalong)
  • Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Indigenous poetry)
  • Yield by Tara June Winch (Indigenous author)
  • The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (#1 in a new cosy crime series set in 1920's India)
  • The Fast 800 by Michael Mosley (time to get back on track and into my jeans)

Read But Not Reviewed:

My Week:

B21 moved out of home last weekend - a week before he became B22. He hasn't accumulated much stuff yet, so the move was hassle free with only minimal withdrawal symptoms on behalf of myself and Mr Books.

When someone is so ready and so pleased with themselves about taking this next step into the adult world, it's hard to feel sad about it. Pride in the lovely young man he has become as well as in our efforts to get him there have been the predominate feelings instead.

We enjoyed one night of being empty-nesters before B18 came home for a week during his Uni semester break.

Off My Radar Completely Until Right Now:

Writing about my week just now made me realise that I missed the 10th anniversary of my blog!

How on earth did that happen, I hear you ask?

On the 6th July 2009, I sat down with a great deal of trepidation and opened my first blogging account. It was B22's twelfth birthday. I should be able to remember that date, but every year, I forget.

So, anyway, YAY me!

I wish I had something profound to say after all this time, some blogging words of wisdom to share with you all. But really, it's quite simple.

  • If you love what you're doing, then you'll find a way to keep on doing it.
  • If you want to be a writer, then write. 
  • Even when you don't want to or when it feels too hard. 
  • Especially when you don't want to and it feels too hard. 
  • Write something.
  • Write what you would like to read.
  • Edit.
  • Write some more.

Recently Discovered:

  • The Guardian Books podcast during a solo roadtrip last week. 

New To The Pile:

  • The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf & illustrated by Lillian Melcher (gorgeous, coffee table, graphic non-fiction that I discovered thanks to the Guardian Books podcast)
  • The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman (a book about books? how could I possibly be broken hearted)
  • Autumn Light by Pico Iyer (it's Japanese, enough said)
  • The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (rave review from a regular customer at work)
  • Dear Reader by Debra Adelaide (October release - part bibliomemoir, part user's manual apparently)

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I've had a lovely run of Homeric stories retold from a feminist perspective this year - Madeline Miller's Circe and The Song of Achilles, and now Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls.

After Miller's wonderful, rich storytelling, I was looking forward to seeing what Barker would come up. I was thrilled that her story was going to be told from Briseis' point of view, as I enjoyed the brief glimpse that Miller gave me into a possible story for her in The Song of Achilles.

Briseis, the wife of the King of Lyrnessus, Mynes is one of the women and girls captured as spoils of the Trojan war. She is given to Achilles as a war trophy, but becomes a disputed object between Achilles and Agememnon which leads the reader into the central crisis in Homer's The Iliad.

Barker doesn't shy away from the sexual nature of these transactions. The women and girls knew they were going to be enslaved, raped and abused. Knowing this, I'm not sure why more of them didn't leap from the top of the tower, like Barker described two young women doing early on, as the Greeks crashed through the front gate.

Maybe there wasn't that much difference between their husbands and their new masters? Or perhaps the violence wasn't as horrific as I imagined and Barker suggested? Maybe a form of love or tenderness bloomed between master and subject? Perhaps the Greeks were looking for the comforts of home not more violence?

We will never really know, which is why I'm so fascinated by these modern retellings.

However, in the end, Barker's was a fairly straight version of events as originally told in The Iliad.

I enjoyed the first person narrative of Briseis, but found the occasional third person narrative from Achilles point of view very clunky. There only worth was to highlight just how objectified the women in the camp were to the men. They were sexual objects for barter and to show off. Barker showed these men as being unable to remember the names of the women that they took to their beds on a regular basis, dismissing their words, their presence and their humanity.

I also struggled with the language. Barker's writing style abounded in cliches with her characters often behaving in implausible ways. The dialogue in particular was banal and didn't seem to lead anywhere or show anything. I was disappointed to say the least.

So for now, this ends my run of Homeric retellings with a feminist twist. I still have Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad to look forward to one day and Gareth Hinds graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad on my TBR pile...maybe the next readathon?

Favourite Quote: I didn't underline one single phrase or sentence.

Favourite or Forget: Forgettable.

  • Costa Novel Award 2018 Shortlist
  • Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 Shortlist
9/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 19℃
Dublin 18℃

Friday, 5 July 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming ended up being an epic read for me, simply because I put the book down when I was half way through it in the New Year, when we were away and busy with family and summer and stuff, and then I forgot to pick it up again.

Other new, shiny books caught my eye and it kept sliding down the pile of half read books by my bed.

A few nights of waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep though, has cured that problem.

I find it too hard to read my fiction books at that time of the night, but the heavier non-fiction titles don't work either. An easy to read memoir is the thing that does the trick.

And a memoir that is full of the such hope, dignity and grace is the perfect antidote for the 3am blues.

I'm not sure I can add anything new to all the other rave reviews I've read for this book where Michelle Obama walks us through her childhood, her school years, her career, meeting Barack, having a family and moving to the White House. All I can add perhaps, is a perspective from the other side of the world.

There may be nuances particular to the American dream in Michelle's story that those from elsewhere may not fully appreciate, but I could appreciate the message about the importance of education to change lives. However, as Michelle realises too, it's not just a good education that gets you there.

In our modern Western world, a large majority of children have access to a good education. But not every child has the advantage of a strong, supportive, loving family or an inspiring teacher that can change the course of their lives, or a minister or neighbour who mentors them towards a better way. Good education, especially in the early years is vital, but so too are these connections, these people who boost, push, motivate, encourage and manage to say just the right thing at the right time to make a difference. People who open just one door, or people who do that one thing that makes your life easier for just that one magic moment. Then having the right personality to be able to make the most of those moments is the final blessing.

Michelle Obama was fortunate enough to have most of those things work in her favour. But it's her gratitude and her ability to give back, or to pay her good fortune forward, that makes her shine with grace and dignity.

Gratitude, grace and dignity are sadly lacking in much of world politics at the moment. Arrogance and bullying tactics have been mistaken for gravitas.

It is a curious thing watching all our Western democracies floundering on a bed of teenage petulance, seemingly in a race with each other to the bottom of human decency and kindness. I sometimes wonder if we are watching the death throes of the democratic process as we know it. The Obama White House may be the last decent government anywhere in the world for a long time to come. Living under the political systems currently in China, Russia, North Korea or Iran are not enviable or desirable in any way shape or form either. It could be easy to despair.

I have to remind myself of inspirational leaders like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand or Justin Trudeau in Canada to know that it is still possible for kindness and inclusivity to be the guiding philosophy of a government and its leader.

Becoming reminds us that there are people in leadership positions who care, and care deeply. That small changes can lead to bigger changes. That individuals can make a difference. And that kindness and generosity will always be more admired than the alternative.

Michelle Obama's book is charming, genuine and heart-warming. The perfect antidote for the 3am blues.

8/20 Books of Winter Summer
Sydney 20℃
Dublin 20℃

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick's little book of essays about why one should read Moby-Dick is more a book about one man's love for this American classic and it's author than anything else. By sharing his passion and knowledge, Philbrick is hoping to inspire others to follow his example and dive right into this complex, challenging book feet first.

Or perhaps I should say, heart first.

For Why Read Moby-Dick is a love story.

Philbrick provides lots of fascinating background information about how Melville wrote the book, his life story, plus influential friendships, writing style, themes and the various draft versions. He also gives detailed insights into the various characters and their motivations as well as exploring the idea that,

Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts & ideals...whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.

I confess this over-the-top ra-ra American classic stuff nearly put me off. Especially when he went on to say, "instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology." Please!
But I might be letting my current feelings about US politics get in the way of a good story, and perhaps now is exactly the type of 'crisis' that Philbrick is referring to. Which leaves me to wonder what a 2019 read of Moby-Dick might say to me, from the other side of the world, about America today?

Will this particular thought resonate even more as I read along?

To be in the presence of a great leader is to know a blighted soul who has managed to make the darkness work for him....Melville shows us how susceptible we ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great & demented man.

Philbrick is pretty clear about what he thinks Moby-Dick says, 

The the mythical incarnation of America: a country blessed by God & by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.

...but wait there's more!

Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype as it interweaves creation myths, revenge narratives, folktales & the conflicting impulses to create & to destroy.

If that didn't make you feel too squeamish, then read on brave wayfarer!

The rest of this post, however, will have some spoilerish moments and quotes.
Continue at your own peril!

I have not read Moby-Dick or ever seen any movie versions. But I still know quite a lot about the story and what happens. Philbrick is careful not to reveal everything (I'm assuming) but lots of the well-known details and events are referred to in his book (and below) where I will highlight some of the main points, so that I have them to hand for my August #MobyDickReadalong.

Early on he tackles one of the big problems most people have with the book,

Moby-Dick may be a well known (American classic), is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and maddeningly digressive...but the novel, like all great works of art, grows on you.

Like Nancy @NancyElin, Philbrick doesn't discourage the reader from skimming over the tedious sections,

Moby-Dick is a long book & time is short...The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices...

This point about listening interested me a lot, as I plan to listen to the Moby Dick Big Read at the same time as I read the book. It's beginning to sound like a very good way to tackle this tricky book.
Later on, Philbrick also suggests reading aloud certain sections to enjoy the poetry and rhythm of Melville's language.

I reread the words aloud, feeling the rhythms, the shrewdly hidden rhymes and the miraculous way he manages consonants and vowels.

I was fascinated to learn that Melville's first draft of Moby-Dick did not have a character called Ahab.

Under the steadying influence of Hawthorne, Melville pauses in the middle of a quite ordinary, picaresque novel about whaling & completely rethought the story in terms of power of darkness he recognised in Hawthorne’s short stories.

Ahab was something he clearly got from Hawthorne: a way to put artistic distance between himself & the very thing he most identified with, this provided a way to write about the darkest & most frightening aspects of human experience.

Obviously Hawthorne was a big influence on Melville and his writing process. Philbrick claims that this friendship is 'reason enough to read Moby-Dick, a novel that is as much about the microclimates of intimate relations as it is about the great, uncontrollable games that push & pull all of us.'

Apparently there are a few famous homo-erotic passages in Moby-Dick that have caused people to wonder about the exact nature of the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne and the unhappiness endemic in Melville's marriage.

Melville & Hawthorne by Edward Sorel

Other books and authors also influenced Melville. Philbrick suggests that 'the writing process for Melville was as much about responding to & incorporating the works of others as it is about relying on his own experiences.'

This included Shakespeare, who Melville only read for the first time as an adult.

Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalised everything he saw, and seven or so years later, after internalising Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future.

Clearly life experience also played a part in this story. Melville actually spent quite a bit of time on a whaling ship and knew the horrors and joys of being at sea for a long period of time.

The crew of a typical whale ship was made up of men from all over the world....This demographic diversity was not typical of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century....Melville was one of the few authors of his time to have firsthand experience...& his portrayal of working people is never stereotypical or condescending.

The every man, or working class man, sensibility adds authenticity to a story that plays around with some big philosophical ideas.

It is only amid the terrifying vastness of the sea that man can confront the ultimate truths of his existence.

The compartmentalisation of spiritual & worldly concerns is a temptation in every era. In Melville’s day, it was most apparent with the issue of slavery.

Simply feeling good about life doesn’t mean life is good.

As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears & hatreds in us all.

The curse of being human is to realise that it all ends & can do so at any moment.
This is Melville's ultimate view of humanity....The job of government, of civilisation, is to keep the shark at bay. All of us are, to a certain degree, capable of wrongdoing. Without some form of government, evil will prevail.

One of the interesting points, not only for Melville and Philbrick, but for myself, was the real life tale that inspired the story in the first. Melville spoke to survivors of the original disaster and read first hand accounts of it. Philbrick has written a book about it too, In The Heart of the Sea (a copy of which resides on my TBR pile). I'm not sure if I will read it before or after my Moby Dick readalong.

There is a pathos, even a tenderness, that enters Moby-Dick in its final chapters, and it was Melville's memory of the real men behind the Essex, Nantucketers who never completely escaped the shadow of the disaster, that brought a much-needed injection of humanity to his attempts to bring his dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel to a close.

Philbrick is also keen for us to read Melville's letters (to Hawthorne in particular) to gain a true and proper understanding of Melville's processes and thinking at the time.

I would go so far as to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible.

I'm not sure I will tackle the letters as well - spending seven months with this book is enough I feel! Although if you know of any online articles or websites where I could sample a few of them, please let me know.

Philbrick finishes his book of encouragment with some final words on how to get through certain infamous sections...

The beginning of the book is a magnificent mess...a listing of obscure quotations & translations...seemingly endless compilations of whale-related passages...Melville is challenging the reader with both his scholarship & wit.

Challenge accepted Herman!

Each non sequitur of a chapter requiring its own course correction as the narrative follows the erratic whims of Melville’s imagination toward the Pacific.

Aye, aye captain!

In the end, even the fiercest of tyrants is done in, not by his own sad, used-up self, but by his enablers, the so-called professionals, who keep whispering in his ear.

It's curious how apt and up-to-date Philbrick's 2011 analysis and assessment feels at times. But he leaves us with some hope as well,

Life isn't about achieving your dreams; it's about finding a way to continue in spite of them.

Finally, yes finally! We come to end of this post and Philbrick's musings about the great white whale and the man who created him. Philbrick, at the end, is pretty clear about why he has chosen to read and read Moby-Dick multiple times.

This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.

I wonder what I will say next February?
Will I also come to love this behemoth of a book?

7/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 18℃
Dublin 18℃

Monday, 1 July 2019

Paris in July 2019

C'est reparti!
As we bunker down for a long cold winter in Australia (okay a moderately cool and relatively short winter compared to the rest of the world, but hey, it's all relative), the one thing that can brighten our short, grey days is to dream of warmer climes.

Tamara @Thyme for Tea has tapped into this desire we all have for something a little more exotic, a little more glamorous and a little more sophisticated than our regular daily lives. It's a desire not dependant on the season it is wherever you are right now, but a desire more universal to break out of the everyday routine into something far more séduisant.

Paris in July is a celebration of all things French - literature, movies, food, music, history, fashion, culture and language - with a particular focus on life in Paris.

What are my memories and plans for Paris in July 2019?

My real life memories are based on one all too brief visit to Paris in 1991. It was late July and hot, hot, hot. It was my very first visit to a foreign speaking country. I was a little overwhelmed. We arrived in the afternoon and went straight to our camping ground on the outskirts of Paris to set up before dark.

The plan was to then bus into the city to catch an evening cruise on the Seine, so that our (my) very first sight of Paris would be by night. Seeing Paris for the first time, all lit up, with twinkling fairy lights, coloured lights and neon signs was truly a magical experience, and I'm so grateful it was organised this way. I was only 23, but I knew I would never forget this moment.

The rest of Paris is a bit of a blur. I remember trekking up the spiral stairs in the bell tower of Notre Dame, feeling faint in the heat, but I don't remember the gargoyles at the top or the view.

I remember climbing all the stairs up the Eiffel Tower (I was only 23 after all!) and I do remember the view from the top of that monument. It was a smoky haze that blanketed the entire city (and most of Europe) thanks to the Gulf War oil fires in Kuwait.

I tasted escargot for the first (and probably last time) and I finally accepted that I just don't get all the fuss about pastries, bread and cakes. Although walking along the Left Bank watching everyone else eat them felt very Parisienne!

I went to the Louvre and stood in front of the Mona Lisa with hoards of others, but mostly remember being in awe of the Venus de Milo. I know I also went to the Musee d'Orsay, but sadly can't bring any of it to mind.

I remember sitting on the grass under a tree in a park along the Champs Elysee, feeling too hot and bothered to join the others in their trek across to the Arc de Triomphe. Looking at it from across the way was enough for me. I took off my sandals, wiggled my toes in the grass, guzzled lots of cold water, and enjoyed watching the people stroll by as I wrote in my journal.

I'm sure I ate well (or as well as a 23 yr old expects), but I can't remember anything but the snails. I'm sure I drank something other than cold water, but I can't remember that either.

Obviously, I'm overdue for a repeat visit!

I have several books on my #20BooksofSummerWinter list that I hope to get to. Including a couple of Maigret's, a few more stories from The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant and a memoir by Herve le Tellier called All Happy Families.

Although not set in France, I also have Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Dai is a Chinese born French resident.

The wonderful, extraordinary lives of Mirka and Georges started in France before WWII, before emigrating to Australia. Their biography is littered with recipes for some of their most well-known French meals in their various Melbourne restaurants. I hope to make a few of them throughout July.

I'm also still reading The Count of Monte Cristo one chapter a day. July will see me reading from chapter 54 - 84. The Count has now arrived in Paris and I suspect he will remain there for most of July.

No doubt Midnight in Paris and Julie & Julia will get another viewing and that I will add to my Spotify playlist - Brona's Paris in July (which I've just realised was in secret mode, but is now in public mode if you'd like to follow and suggest more songs).

That should be enough for me to get on with!
What about you?

Que la fête commence!

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Indigenous Literature Week 2019

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog may include images or names of people now deceased.

Lisa @ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia (7th to 14th July). Please visit her page for all the details.

This is a week when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is Voice, Treaty, Truth. This theme acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always wanted an enhanced role in decision-making in Australia’s democracy.

ANZ LitLovers’ contribution to NAIDOC Week is to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing, and she hopes that many readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.

I have a few possibilities:
  • I will attempt to finish a book of poems, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (I’m absorbing them, savouring them very slowly. There's a lot to contemplate.) 
  • Maybe Stan Grant’s Australia Day.
  • Or maybe my ARC of Claire Coleman’s new book, The Old Lie.
  • There are a few essays & short stories in the Griffith Review #63 Writing the Country.
  • Meanjin A-Z: Fine Fiction 1980 to Now also a number of Indigenous authors.
  • Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is somewhere on my TBR pile.
  • We also have a number of children's picture books at work that I can peruse.
The hard part will be having enough time to review three or four of these to coincide with ILW. Nothing like a challenge, I say.

What will you be reading for Indigenous Literature Week?

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Strong in the Rain by Lucy Birmingham & David McNeill

Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster was not exactly what I was expecting.

Before visiting Japan for the first time last year, I read Richard Lloyd Parry's Ghosts of the Tsunami. Parry, like his American counterparts, was (and still is) an (English) journalist based in Japan. His book focused on the effects of the tsunami on one small town on the coast where an entire school of children was lost to the overwhelming wave. His book evolved over several years of interviews with survivors and was finally published in 2017, six years after the tsunami.

Strong in the Rain (published in October 2012) was a more immediate response to the disaster of 2011 and focused on the reaction of the government, media and locals to the nuclear threat that teetered on the brink of major catastrophe for days and days and days.

As a result, it was more report-like in structure and execution than Parry's book which was more personal, and told in a narrative non-fiction style. Both styles have their place and perhaps if I had read Strong in the Rain when it was first published I would have been more engaged with it.

Not that it wasn't interesting, it just didn't grab me the way Ghosts of the Tsunami did. That sense of immediacy had passed.

I did learn that the title came from a well-known Japanese poem by Kenji Miyazawa which has been translated below by Roger Pulvers.

Strong in the rain
Strong in the wind
Strong against the summer heat and snow
He is healthy and robust
Free from desire
He never loses his temper
Nor the quiet smile on his lips
He eats four go of unpolished rice
Miso and a few vegetables a day
He does not consider himself
In whatever occurs
His understanding
Comes from observation and experience
And he never loses sight of things
He lives in a little thatched-roof hut
In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove
If there is a sick child in the east
He goes there to nurse the child
If there’s a tired mother in the west
He goes to her and carries her sheaves
If someone is near death in the south
He goes and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’
If there are strife and lawsuits in the north
He demands that the people put an end to their pettiness
He weeps at the time of drought
He plods about at a loss during the cold summer
Everybody calls him Blockhead
No one sings his praises
Or takes him to heart

That is the sort of person
I want to be

It's easy to see how this poem could embody the Japanese national spirit, although not so sure about the blockhead part!

Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan 2011

Birmingham and McNeill interviewed six survivors in six different areas to personalise the disaster. As you would expect, all their stories were compelling and heart-breaking. For someone who has never experienced that extreme type of earthquake and tsunami in person, it was often hard to fathom the extent of the destruction. But I could admire their courage in resilience in carrying on afterwards.

One of the relief workers talked about 'post traumatic growth' where 'people have power to face their own grief and gain control of their lives.' I first came across this idea in Leigh Sales book Any Ordinary Day and find it encouraging to know that it is possible to not only survive a traumatic event but to ultimately use it as a growing experience.

I learnt a lot about the history of quakes and tsunamis in Japan and the various preparations that the Japanese had put in place - seawalls, breakwaters and floodgates, early warning sirens and action plans - so many of which completely failed.

But it was the total failure of adequate preparation surrounding the Fukushima power plant that Birmingham & McNeill focused on. From the government, to TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) officials and media outlets that failed to prepare, report or acknowledge what was really happening. Obviously scaring everyone unnecessarily does no-one any good during a crisis, but denying and ignoring the facts could be equally devastating and even life-threatening.

One of the shocking facts that came out of the court case afterwards, was TEPCO arguing that it was not responsible for the radioactive fallout as it didn't "own" it. "Radioactive materials...that scattered and fell from the Fukushima No. 1 plant belong to the individual landowners there, not TEPCO."
OMG!! Surely this ridiculous claim was challenged at subsequent court hearings.

The Epilogue went on to provide some information on how various towns were coping with the clean up, preparing new and improved warning systems and commemorating the event. From ocean parks, to cherry tree plantings to mark the high water mark, to elevated housing. 

I'd be interested in finding out how things have progressed seven years on. If you know of any more current books on this topic, please leave me a note in the comments.

Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. This week I snuck my poem into the review!

6/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 16℃
Dublin 16℃

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

I recently read and loved The Song of Achilles, and couldn't really understand why I had waited so long to read a book that was so obviously designed to appeal to my reading temperament. Ancient Greek mythology, historical fiction, women's issues and award winning book all packed into one delightful package.

I was determined not to make the same mistake with Madeline Miller's second book, Circe.

Eight years in the making, for the early fans of The Song of Achilles, Circe would have definitely been worth the wait. I discovered a rich, engrossing, fabulous ride into the Ancient Greek world of gods, goddesses, nymphs and legends all told from the perspective of the daughter of the sun god Helios and the ocean nymph, Perse.

Circe, the nymph of potions and herbs, has long fascinated me thanks to a visually stunning painting by J. W. Waterhouse that I spotted in one of my early visits to the Art Gallery of NSW gift shop. A print of Circe Invidiosa has been hanging on my wall ever since.

I love the colour of the liquid in the bowl as it flows into the sea (that I now know was used to turn the beautiful naiad, Scylla into an ugly, deadly monster) and I love the look of incredible intent and purpose on Circe's face. This is a woman who will not be crossed or deterred from her course. Beauty and power, good and bad reside in her actions. I've always wanted to know what she was thinking about at this moment.

Miller gives me options to ponder. 

I moved straight-backed, as if a great brimming bowl rested in my hands. The dark liquid rippled as I walked, always at the point of overflow, yet never flowing.

Circe Invidiosa (1892) - J. W. Waterhouse

Telling the well-known and much loved story of Odyssey's travels via a feminist lens is not new. Pat Barker went there recently with The Silence of the Girls and Margaret Atwood has also been there with The Penelopiad, which, like Penelope herself, is still waiting patiently on my TBR. (I'm sure there are more examples, but I'm too tired to search them out tonight). 

I enjoy these modern interpretations of ancient stories. A lot. 

Back in my twenties I dabbled wit a few Marion Zimmer Bradley retellings - The Mists of Avalon and The Fall of Atlantis in particular. But don't get my started on my Arthurian obsession!

The ancient myths and legends were guideposts for the people of the time to help them to explain the world they lived in, gave meaning to their lives, validated their experiences and entertained. Generally this world was a world of men.

Our lives now are far more equal, balanced and diverse. Acceptance and openness are the norms we have come to expect in our lives and in our literature. No longer is, humbling women the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Miller has reclaimed the role of women in this world of men. They are not just put there to be the playthings of men. Their lives are not to be judged or explained by men alone. 

With this retelling, Miller has turned a somewhat chest-thumping, male-ego excursion into adventure and boastful escapades (The Iliad) into a more human, more authentic and more possible version of events simply because it considers more than one perspective.

In these modern retellings women have active roles, they have agency over their life choices and they have their own opinions and ideas.

I, for one, rejoice at this modern turn of events. And I wait with baited breath for Miller's next venture into this ancient world.

Favourite Quotes:
That is one thing gods and mortal share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.
Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. It was their fate...the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark

Favourite Character: Circe, naturally.

Favourite or Forget: One of my best reads this year so far. It was gorgeous, epic and enchanting! I'm very disappointed that Circe did not win The Women's Prize this year.

5/20 Books of SummerWinter
Sydney 16℃
Dublin 18℃

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The TBR 200 Challenge

I spotted this little challenge going around the blogosphere recently thanks to FanFiction celebrating her 200th TBR post. Any opportunity to tackle my out of control TBR piles is a good thing. So here we go!

My TBR: The first thing I quickly discovered (besides that thing about acknowledging that I have a serious problem!) is that I haven't updated my Mount TBR page this year. Uh-oh!

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

Definition: My TBR pile consists mostly of paper books. A large number of these are ARC or gratis copies that I have received via work. Most of these get taken back to work once read, for one of my colleagues to have a go at.

Total: 689

I'll just let that stupendous number sit there in all it's glory...

...and ponder the problem I have.

Target: This process has made me realise that there are a number of books on the list that have passed their used by date. They came into my possession thanks to work ARC's, they sounded interesting, I thought I would like to read them, but they got lost on the bottom of the pile and now they've been and gone off our shelves at work and my interest has waned. Time for them to go back to work - that's 10 book problems solved straight up!

  • Australian books - 115 books
  • Other English language books - 125
  • Classics - 211
  • Books in translations - 70
  • Non-Fiction books - 81
  • Kids books - 8
  • ebooks - 79

Format: all but 79 of the 689 are the real deal paper books stacked up under my bed, in my cupboards and by my desk.
This does not include the books I have already read and loved, that are shelved neatly on their bookshelves. These books have usually been read multiple times, or I plan to reread them one day.
Every other book gets passed onto family and friends once I have read it, or returned to work. This is the majority of the books that pass through my hands.

The Oldest:

  • On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin is one of my lovely Folio Society books purchased prior to my first house (my subscription to Folio books was one of the things I gave up when I decided it was time to go into debt to buy my first property)! This neatly dates the book coming into my possession to the year 2000.

The Newest:

  • No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani


Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains...
In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island. He has been there ever since.
People would run to the mountains to escape the warplanes and found asylum within their chestnut forests...
This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.
Do Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?



  • The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman (September release)
A thrilling and ambitious new novel from the author of the bestselling and prize-winning Terra Nullius.
Shane Daniels and Romany Zetz have been drawn into a war that is not their own. Lives will be destroyed, families will be torn apart. Trust will be broken.
When the war is over, some will return to a changed world. Will they discover that glory is a lie?
Claire G. Coleman's new novel takes us to a familiar world to again ask us what we have learned from the past.
The Old Lie might not be quite what you expect.
  • The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith (now)
The Electric Hotel winds through the nascent days of cinema in Paris and Fort Lee, New Jersey--America's first movie town--and on the battlefields of Belgium during World War I. A sweeping work of historical fiction, it shimmers between past and present as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a prodigious film studio and one man's doomed obsession with all that passes in front of the viewfinder.
  • Fortune by Lenny Bartulin (July) 
In 1806 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Prussia. Beginning on the very day he leads his triumphant Grande Armee into Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate, Fortune traces the fates of a handful of souls whose lives briefly touch on that momentous day and then diverge across the globe.

Spanning more than a century, the novel moves from the Napoleonic Wars to South America, and from the early penal settlement of Van Diemen's Land to the cannons of the First World War, mapping the reverberations of history on ordinary people. Some lives are willed into action and others are merely endured, but all are subject to the unpredictable whims of chance. Fortune is a historical novel like no other, a perfect jewel of epic and intense brilliance.

200th Book:

  • The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner

The Books I Most Want to Read & Can't Understand Why I Just Don't Do It:

  • No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
  • Benang by Kim Scott
  • The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
  • The Virgin in the Garden by A S Byatt
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  • The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Other TBR 200 participants:
Time to stop typing and time to start reading!