Melbourne Knowledge Week: on libraries


Melbourne Knowledge Week (MKW) 2017 filled the city with a packed calendar of talks, events and technology demos in the first week of May. The MKW Hub this year was the State Library Victoria. What better venue for a panel discussion on the future of libraries

Ben Kolaitis from the City of Melbourne libraries hosted the panel, made up of Travis Sheridan (Venture Cafe St Louis), Jason Potts (RMIT Professor of Economics) and me. What happens when you ask an economist, a librarian and an entrepreneur about the future of libraries? 

Well, as you might expect, not everyone imagines the same future. The discussion ranged over rocky terrain that saw the death of the book and the demise of the library, through to a bright, shiny outlook where libraries seized the zeitgeist of the creative economy and were reborn.

It was a robust discussion with the packed audience asking some thoughtful questions to round out the debate. And as a follow up to the panel, Kirby Fenwick wrote this piece on the future of libraries for the MKW site.

“Book clubs, coding workshops, poetry slams and exhibitions. Children’s story-time, writer’s groups, maker hangouts where you can access 3D printing and robotics. Digital literacy classes, live music, literary festivals and craft workshops. All these things are happening in libraries right now.”

The future of libraries is already here…

Podcast: The future of publishing

What’s the future for reading and writing in the digital world? What are digital writing communities all about? And why is the State Library Victoria involved?

I had a chat about these questions with Jemma Birrell from Tablo on Radio National’s Books and Arts program, hosted by Michael Cathcart.

You can listen to the podcast here.

If you would like to find out more about the Tablo State Library Victoria community, you can explore the community on Tablo or read this article on FutureBook.

See What I Have Done: book review

Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any doubt about whodunit.

The gruesome events at the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts are narrated from the points of view of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, and the Bordens’ Irish housemaid, Bridget. Infiltrating the Borden household is the voice of a menacing stranger, Benjamin, who collides into the family’s bloody trajectory via the girls’ objectionable uncle, John. A thread of desperation connects all of the voices in this story. They are each, in their way, cemented in their misery.

The three women narrators all pine for escape. After a thwarted romance, Emma is forever tethered to her cloying and demanding sister, Lizzie. The housemaid, Bridget, dreams of returning to her homeland, Ireland, but is trapped under the financial thumb of her employer, Abby Borden. And puffed up with conceit after a grand tour of Europe, Lizzie imagines herself too sophisticated for the small life she leads in Fall River.

Schmidt explores the lives of these women with a sharp feminist lens. They are each trapped by the financial and social circumstances of being a woman in the late 19th century. That Lizzie Borden is a woman ironically becomes her saving grace when she is acquitted of the murder. The jury simply cannot believe a woman to be capable of such a heinous crime.

Schmidt weights this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with vomit, decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. But the decay is infused with sensuality. Schmidt is clearly fascinated with dissecting and describing the guts of life:

“Along the fence was a full-bloom pear arbour, the sickly-sweet smell of half-eaten fruit thrown to the ground. I thought of the worms underneath churning earth, climbing over each other until their soft jelly bodies rolled into one. I pulled a pear and ate, juices on fingers and chin. There was a sharp twinge towards the back of my mouth and I reached my index finger inside, felt another loose tooth. I took hold, pulled and twisted, threw the tooth under the pear arbour.”

The effect is overwhelming and claustrophobic, always teetering on the edge of too-muchness. It is the kind of book you want to read with a hand over one eye to shield your gaze.

The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her orbiting cast are cut through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark, and Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.

Lizzie is a perfectly unhinged character, a maelstrom of instability and obsessiveness, petulance and pity, with a rushing undertow of maleficence. She continually revisits the bodies of her father and stepmother, both physically and in her mind, with an almost-devotion:

“At the tip of my mind I heard Mrs Borden call to me, ‘Come and see us Lizzie. Come see a secret.’ I didn’t want to let them down. I crept the stairs towards the dining room. I made sure I was alone. I held my breath. There under the white sheets, frightened and silent, their bodies held each other like first-time lovers. I closed my eyes while Father reached his arm around his wife and told her, ‘It will all be over soon.’

… I hid a smile underneath my palm and tasted salt. On my wrists there was a spatter of blood, tiny droplets that were still finding their way under my skin. I licked at my finger and wiped at it, erasing Father, erasing Mrs Borden from my body.”

Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive, full of brilliant and off-kilter imagery that reinforces the unsettling mood of the novel: ‘her mouth lion-wide’, ‘his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler’ and ‘voices were pin pricks in the ear’. Lizzie describes her father’s dead body ‘stretched out like a bone xylophone’. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.

This is a confident debut novel and there are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s work and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are based on actual 19th-century crimes – women accused of murder – and both were much hyped. But unlike Kent’s novel, where the reader is invited to have empathy for the central character, there is nothing redeeming about Schmidt’s portrait of Lizzie Borden.

Two recent novels that sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th-century exploits of The North Water by Ian McGuire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And for another brilliant study of the mind of a murderer, MJ Hyland’s This is How is a cracker.

Schmidt is now working on her second novel. According to an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is about a woman with a decomposing baby in the back seat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with her for some time yet.

Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done, Hachette Australia 2017 PB 336pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books.

Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to also mention that Schmidt is a librarian from Melbourne. Librarians are awesome, and Schmidt clearly is no exception.

Things That Helped: book review

Jessica Friedmann’s book, Things That Helped, deftly threads essay, memoir and critical theory through the despair of Friedmann’s post-natal depression to weave an impressive debut. 

Friedmann reflects on her experience of motherhood with the benefit of distance, both geographic and temporal. She now lives and writes in Canberra, anchored in an inland city far removed from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong river where she fantasised about drowning herself. The cool, calm river a siren calling her from her misery towards annihilation.

While Friedmann’s focus is her post-natal depression, her essays radiate out across art, feminism, music, the environment, marriage and race. It is an enthralling journey through her expansive knowledge and sharp mind. This isn’t a 10-step recovery narrative. It is a 12-chapter chipping away at the edifice of depression, each chapter offering a thing that helped.

Emily Laidlaw and Kara Nicholson both place Friedmann’s book alongside Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance as stablemates in genre. I found Nelson’s dense critical theory a hard slog. In contrast, Friedmann wears her theory delicately. It never weighs her writing down. Like Wright in her exploration of anorexia, Friedmann deconstructs her mental health struggle honestly in all of its complicated mess. Neither Wright nor Friedmann offer easy answers, instead they raise difficult questions about being a woman. 

They simultaneously hold up a mirror to themselves and to society, laying bare the imperfections of both.

It is a revelation to watch the recent emergence of women’s writing on mental health from Australian writers such as Friedmann, Wright and Anna Spargo-Ryan. Their important narratives open up room for discussion and better understanding of the experiences of the many women wrestling mental health challenges. This kind of writing can save people.

Dying a memoir: book review 


‘The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.’ 
I can’t imagine feeling anything but sheer terror at the prospect of dying from a terminal illness, when your brief flicker of life faces extinguishment. Conversely, in this short but powerful book, Dying: a memoir, Cory Taylor faces death with sadness, sometimes anger, but mainly resolve and a deep appreciation of all her life has been, both the ups and downs. Taylor laments the absence of discussion about death in our culture and the lack of choice for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity. She ponders death through the lens of an atheist and questions how she might view it differently with religion as a frame of reference. For the most part, the book is a gentle meander down the paths of memory and I had to remind myself at times that Taylor was dying. This is a beautiful book and is as much about living well as it is about dying well. Perhaps our vain attempts at self-preservation by wandering about in denial about our own mortality robs us of the chance to live better lives.

The Museum of Modern Love: book review

What is art? It is a question as inexplicable as asking what is life? But in The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose asks both questions. The lens for examining these questions is a fictionalised account of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance art piece staged in New York’s MoMA. In the novel we meet a cast of characters intersecting with Abramovic’s performance, all at a cross-roads in their lives. This is a clever, well-executed novel and beautifully written. Rose weaves the intertwined lives and narratives of major and minor characters convincingly, though I did wonder if the novel could have worked better if it had been written from fewer perspectives. I wanted something more from the voice of the ghost, but then this wasn’t meant to be a ghost story. This novel ponders the artistic life and ultimately Rose is making a statement, which is that making art is an act of courage. There is something of a manifesto in this novel. I think Rose is saying that we live one life and she is challenging us to live it singularly, to create art. And she has done that with this novel.

From the Wreck: book review


Genre-bending, ambitious, wild and magical. I loved this novel. In From the Wreck Rawson challenges the boundaries of historical fiction with a shape-shifting alien character. She takes us on a journey from dusty and dry 19th century Adelaide, drags us down into the deepest oceans, flings us out past the stars and into space and then reels us back to earth again. This tale of loneliness, trauma and grief is equal measures tender, dark and playful. This novel is original and deeply human. Rawson is masterful at stretching plausibility just enough, balancing a tricky line of believably that never tips too far over the edge and without ever becoming tricksy. I’m not sure if I would use the label scifi, fantasy or magical realism for the novel. It did remind me a little of Jeanette Winterson in books like The Passion, but then I also thought it was completely unique.

Wimmera: book review


A proof copy of a Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera, landed on my desk a few ago. What a gorgeous cover. If you like a bit of Australian rural noir, check it out. It’s out in June through Hachette.

Here’s my review from Goodreads:

There seems to be a recent surge of excellent Australian debut novels. Wimmera by Mark Brandi is no exception. This coming of age/murder mystery fusion is set in Stawell, a country town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. The Grampians loom large as a backdrop to the relationship of Ben and Fab. We follow them as they tread their path from young boys yabbying in the local dam, discovering their sexuality and negotiating life at home and school onto an adolescence marked by an experience that will haunt their troubled adulthood. From the outset of the novel we know there is a brutal discovery waiting to unfold but this sits lurking quietly behind the scenes, never dominating the narrative. It is not your typical whodunnit, the story instead centering around the relationship of the boys. I enjoyed the nostalgic thread of pop culture references and the playful vernacular language in Brandi’s novel. This is a ripping yarn, quietly menacing, and neatly resolved. I’m looking forward to Brandi’s next novel. This one will appeal to fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry.

Author in conversation: Kirsty Murray


I spoke to author Kirsty Murray about her award-winning YA novel, India Dark, at M Pavillion on 2 December 2016.

In our conversation, Kirsty shares the scandalous story of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, 29 Australian child performers that worked the Empire circuit from Melbourne to India in 1909, on which her novel India Dark is based. 

We also talk about India, colonialism, writing and Kirsty’s involvement in projects such as Bookwallah

The recording includes a short reading from India dark and Q&A with the audience. 

Listen to our conversation here.

ALIA Information Online 2017

I didn’t hear a single presentation pondering the future of libraries at the ALIA Information Online conference this year. What a relief! The profession seems to finally be stepping out with confidence and just getting on with things.

There were a few years there where everyone was anxious about the future relevance of the library. Perhaps that was a natural reaction to, dare I say the word, disruption. We took a good look at ourselves, had a shake up and now we are moving ahead.

I tweeted my takeaways themes from the conference. 

The stand-out theme for me was prototyping and experimenting, having a minimal viable product, and being quick to market. This theme came up in a number of talks including Paula Bray’s keynote.

Slide from Paula Bray’s keynote

Perhaps the newly embraced confidence of the profession means we are finally willing to let go of perfection, loosen up and experiment more.

Copies of the papers and presentations I co-presented are up on the conference site. The New UX at State Library Victoria gives the inside story on our in progress major redevelopment project. Around the world in not-quite-80 libraries looks at major trends in library spaces across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Check out the conference program for the latest thinking and interesting projects in the Australian library sector.