Between a Wolf and a Dog: review


The terrible story behind this book is well known. Georgia Blain writes a novel about a character with brain cancer, and then gets diagnosed with brain cancer herself. She finished the book knowing her diagnosis. The reviews of Blain’s book led me into the Readings store at the State Library one lunchtime to buy it. I took it home on the tram, wrapped in its crinkly brown paper bag, holding it with the anticipation of reading. 

That evening my mother rang me to tell me she had been diagnosed with cancer. I tucked the book still in its paper bag onto my bookshelf. The book sat ticking like a time bomb on the shelf while I did my best to ignore it. I did not read it.

The terrible story behind this book is well known. Blain died of brain cancer in December 2016. Her mother, Anne Deveson, died just days later. I took the book down from the shelf and unwrapped it. Maybe reading it now would somehow honour Blain’s and Deveson’s memories. I decided to face it.

The novel winds through a day in the life of a dysfunctional family (what family isn’t dysfunctional?) as the family members struggle through their individual and collective turmoils, some ordinary, some monumental. The most monumental being the family’s matriarch coming to terms with her diagnosis of cancer, alone. 

The narrative is drenched in a Sydney deluge that falls in sheets against the windows, floods through the gutters and gardens, and courses along the streets. Will the spring rain drown everything or is it cleansing and a promise of new growth?

Blain’s writing is poetic and lucid. Her characters are flawed, caught in conflicts of pain and joy. She treats them sympathetically but not sentimentally. This is a tender novel and full of beauty. It is much more about living than it is about dying. 

The terrible story behind this book is well known. I am grateful that Blain wrote it in the face of her diagnosis. I am glad to have honoured her by reading it. My mother continues her cancer treatment.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

The Hate Race


With a population of close to 2 million, Greater Western Sydney is a key influencer of election outcomes, yet the voices of people living there are rarely represented in Australian literature. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, is the voice of growing up black in the white suburbs of western Sydney in the 1980’s. As Beneba Clarke states on her Twitter profile ‘I try to write beautifully, about ugly things’. Her story is dark but her voice sings with West Indian lyricism.

In her memoir, Beneba Clarke relates episodes of cruel bullying and racism directed at her throughout her school years. These range from name-calling, nasty notes, and exclusion to physical abuse. Perhaps more disturbing are the tales of inadvertent racism delivered obliviously by children and adults. They are not meaning to be cruel but their racism is ingrained and seeps out through their pores.

Beneba Clarke is resolute. She learns to direct her anger from these experiences into being better than her tormentors. I’m sure others who have had similar experiences have instead directed their anger inwards and carried this burden through their lives.

The memoir is not all bleak. There are moments of real joy and humour shining through the cracks, lighting Beneba Clarke’s path.

I also grew up in western Sydney, a few years ahead of Maxine. It was not a place that embraced difference, despite the growing multicultural diversity of its population. Neither was it a place that celebrated academic achievement or ambition. Given that context, it would be simple to dismiss Beneba Clarke’s bullying experience as typical of schoolyards of the time and place. Certainly, that’s what her teachers do. She is an easy target because of the colour of her skin. But racism doesn’t stop at the school gates, it is insidious and stretches into every experience of her childhood, and reaches beyond childhood into her adult life in suburban Melbourne.

I escaped the western suburbs of Sydney as soon as I had the chance. I have not returned for over 20 years. It is a mythical place to me now, a dreamscape. Beneba Clarke’s memoir brought that dreamscape back into focus for me, flickering memories of the ugly things I experienced. It also reminded me that as a white girl, I got off lightly.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

The Australian Women Writers Challenge encourages participants to read and review books by Australian women. In 2017 the challenge also focuses on classics and diversity. 

This year, I have signed up for the first time. I kicked off my reading year with Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race

Last year I read 13 books by Australian women, all new releases. I didn’t review any. Now I have signed up for the challenge, I plan to read more books by Australian women in 2017, dip into some classics, and write some reviews too.

The challenge, along with the Stella Prize, are fantastic ways to promote Australian Women Writers and their books. Reading more Australian women writers increases books sales and supports authors, bookstores and the local publishing industry.

Your local library also has a strong selection of books by Australian women writers. And here is an insiders tip – if they don’t have the one you want, you can always ask for it to be purchased for their collection.

Happy reading!

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.

My favourite books of 2016

This year I tried to carve out more time to read. I abandoned television. I limited my time on social media.  I traded movies on long-haul flights for novels. I snuck to my bedroom when the inlaws were visiting to read (okay that isn’t a new strategy). 

In 2016 I also started tracking my reading on Goodreads. I set myself a target of 100 books, which I failed to reach, but I definitely read more this year than the past few years. Hoorah!

These are my top picks for 2016, followed by my favourite 2016 ‘best books’ listicles, and a quick look at my TBR (to be read) pile for summer.


Autumn by Ali Smith

Easily my favourite author at the moment. Autumn is Smith’s post-Brexit novel and the first in her planned quartet of novels, each named for a season of the year. Smith’s writing is electric, and this reads like one long poem. Whenever I finish a Smith novel I immediately want to start re-reading it again. Her books are so richly layered I feel like I have only scratched the surface.


Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look is a collection of essays, observations and diary entries by one of the greatest non-fiction writers. Sharp, honest, precise. When I read Garner I wonder why anyone else even bothers writing. If I could rub a magic lamp and have any wish granted it would be to write like Helen Garner.


The North Water by Ian McGuire

A rollicking, brutal and rancid tale of life on a 19th century whaling ship headed for the Arctic. Murder, violence and extreme weather create the perfect setting for a heady thriller. It’s hard to beat the 1800’s for savagery. I loved being cast into the rank world of The North Water.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton was my first dip into reading Strout and now I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything of hers before. This was a quiet book that crept up on me. I read it straight after Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which may have been an overdose of back-to-back dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, but I enjoyed this more than Levy. I know that will get me into trouble with everyone who loved Hot Milk, but there, I said it!


The Many by Wyl Menmuir

I would not have discovered this gem of a novel had it not been on the Booker long list. I reserved a bunch of long list titles from my local library and this was one of the first that was available. A beautiful and subtle story set in a parochial English coastal village. The village is haunted and the protagonist who arrives from out of town is haunted. At only 143 pages, The Many can be inhaled in one sitting.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

More 19th century murder and mayhem. His Bloody Project was another Booker long list discovery. The narrative is crafted through a set of (fictional) primary source documents including court transcripts and medical reports and presented as if it is a true crime tale. I consumed this book and carried the story around in my head for some time afterwards.


Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

A woman runs off to Alaska with her two kids in a campervan without telling anyone where she is headed. Not your typical road trip story. I read this while travelling through Canada so the landscape resonated with me. Some reviews have called Heroes of the Frontier a dark comedy, but I don’t think that label is quite right. It is dark, and it is funny, but it is also tender. The small family moving through the vast landscape captured me from the outset. I was cheering them on all the way.


Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy 

Serious Sweet is a day in the life of two anti-heroes negotiating through their lives in London. I have been a fan of A.L. Kennedy since I first read her short stories. Reviewers call her tricksy and her novels do take some work, but I think they pay back the effort. The narrative switches in and out of the characters’ rambling inner voices but once you get into the rhythm you really feel like you are inhabiting the minds of Jon and Meg. Whether you want to be caught there is another question.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder was a final trip back to the 19th century, which seemed to be familiar territory for me to visit in my reading this year. I wasn’t immediately sold on this novel, but before I knew it, it had carried me away. I won’t give away any spoilers with the story line but I was captivated by this tale of life in a small Irish village where everything isn’t quite what it first seems on the surface.

Those are my picks for 2016, keeping in mind I still have a huge TBR pile of 2016 books to catch up on over summer.

Here are my favourite books I read in 2016 that were not new releases.

If you would like to check out other people’s 2016 favourites, here is my master list of listicles. You can also catch me on Radio National talking about some of these.

And my summer reading plans? Here are the 2016 books currently on my TBR pile. I’m sure I will add to it once I have another look through the listicles over the summer break.

Cars

Our family has a bad track record with cars. My maternal grandfather died in a car accident on the way to visit my mum and me in hospital when I was born. He never looked in the rear vision mirror. A truck took him out. The cops said it was the worst smash they had ever witnessed.

Mum took valium to deal with the grief. She remarked to her friends that I was a calm baby and a wonderful sleeper. She was breastfeeding.

The phone call came in the middle of the night. It was just past midnight, which made it my birthday. It was my father’s ex. She said there has been a car accident. Head-on with a tree. Your father is dead. I had trouble finding your number. I didn’t believe her. My father was very well organised.

Later that day I got a birthday card from my father, posted just before the accident.

I delivered his eulogy holding my 18 month-old son, who my father only met once. We had been estranged for over 10 years. I said you might want to meet your grandson. Two weeks after my father died, I fell pregnant with my second son.

I had a nasty legal battle with my father’s ex over his meagre estate. In the end, she got the house and I got the superannuation. A few years later she sent me a friend request on Facebook. I didn’t accept.

This piece was originally published on Catherine Deveny’s website.

Listicles, muesli bars & mansplaining

What do best books listicles, the discovery of a 25-year-old muesli bar and a Swedish hotline for mansplaining have in common? They are the topics I discussed on Radio National Drive’s ‘My Feed’ segment.

I also talked about librarians on social media, book discussions on Twitter and how I use Goodreads to inform my reading.

You can listen to the podcast of the show here.

If you would like to explore some 2016 best books listicles, here are some good ones to start with:

Near the end


Heavy rain came thundering down onto the roof just as Richard Flanagan was about to walk onto the stage. Thick heat had been pressing in on Melbourne all day and now finally relief. Flanagan looked up and noted the thunderous welcome before beginning his lecture. He was speaking on the role of environment in shaping his writing. A sudden deluge seemed a fitting introduction to his coming tide of ideas.
Flanagan took us on a journey pulsing through the rapids and pausing in the quiet places of Tasmania’s Franklin River. He guided us through the primordial temperate rainforests of the Tarkine wilderness of his childhood. Equal parts homage and lament for these places are no longer what they were, gradually stripped away by forestry, mining and tourism. The wildlife disappearing into extinction and receding into myth to be known only through story. The Tasmanian Tiger his parents pulled him from the car to see one late night standing in the rain and searching in the headlights, but it was already gone.

‘Loving Tasmania is like loving a beautiful junkie. You are always disappointed’.

Flanagan dragged us away from the remote West Coast of Tasmania and across the globe to London, metropolis, where he first encountered a large city, the shock of being alone in a heaving mass of humanity. ‘Who would be there for me?’ he asked. Flanagan reflected on what we have lost by being city-dwellers, our connection, our humanity and at what cost?

Of course, he talked about writing too. His searching for a voice when trying to write about cities, which he didn’t understand, and then going back to his muse the river, and finding his voice in the air pocket where he was stuck underwater for hours facing death. This voice did not fit the model of Australian literature he was told, and so he made a new cast and filled it overflowing with the river. He wound the tendrils of death and decay of the rainforest around his words to bind them.

And now, he looks out from his cabin on Bruny Island, observing from the edges as the species around him ever decline and he sees the mirror of nature smashed into a thousand shards that we think we might now like to reassemble but it is too late. And if we look into what remains of that mirror we find the greatest loss is ourselves and we fear our own demise.

And he said other things too, but I did not take notes. I fixed my gaze on the pattern of bluestone behind him. Maybe there was some humour and I hung on for some hope. But all I felt was a sharp arrow pierce my black heart.

We walked out into air washed clean by the rain. Down into the crowd together alone to find a place to eat. And when we sat down and our meal arrived, and we were lifting our food to our mouths and trying to pick apart the noodles and our thoughts, a man died on the floor right next to us. We watched and we looked away and we could not look away as the paramedics pushed down hard on his chest, their equipment scattered all around, our table shoved out of the way, the music switched off and the lights turned up bright. And they kept pushing hard on his chest. And then we said to each other he’s breathing.

Image credit: State Library Victoria @library_vic

Reflections of a NaNoWriMo newbie

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_participant

November is NaNoWriMo time. That’s National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. The annual event challenges established, emerging and aspiring writers to put down 50,000 words over 30 days. The idea is to have a first draft of a novel completed by the end of the month with a daily target of 1667 words.

Every year I have an excuse not to do NaNoWriMo. This year is no different but I decided to give it a go anyway. Yesterday was day 4 and so far I’m on target (just) with 6,670 words on the page.

So far I have some sketchy, vaguely painted characters, some skeletal scenes, a bit of dialogue and no apparent plot. I have killed off a few characters, including an unborn child and a couple of chickens, and there is a lot of driving around in cars and some impressive weather.

Still, that’s 6,670 more words of fiction than I have written all year. I’m hoping a plot will emerge at some point and that my characters grow and become more complex portraits.

I have fallen down a few rabbit holes by Googling topics as riveting and diverse as: different types of air conditioning systems, Australian race horse names, bushfire warnings, the smell of amniotic fluid, and Elgar’s cello concertos.

So far I have successfully resisted all urges to edit or re-read what I have written.

Knowing there is a cohort of people around the world all doing the challenge at the same time is kind of comforting and I have been dipping in and out of the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversation for fortification. Though judging from the hashtag, I am one of the few people not writing fanfic, romance, or scifi.

And I’m keeping in mind all of the writing advice I’ve ever been given: you can edit a bad draft but not a blank page, a first draft is always crap, just get the words down on the page, write every day, trust yourself, etc etc. I have paraphrased the advice here because I don’t have time to Google the actual quotes. I need to get back to writing NaNoWriMo!

Badass storytelling for libraries

“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” – Jeanette Winterson, The Passion.


Humans are natural storytellers. Stories engage us, help us understand, and connect us. The Moth live story telling events are huge. Podcasts such as Serial have a cult following. Even in the corporate world, storytelling courses and presentation techniques are the new black. It’s no surprise then that cultural institutions, including libraries, are thinking of ways of using storytelling as a way to connect with their audiences.

I recently experienced two brilliant storytelling events which got me thinking about how to apply some of what I experienced back in my library.

It all started on a steamy summer day in Manhattan. On a reprieve from the heat and Pokemon Go players outside, I was lounging in my very tiny and poorly air conditioned hotel room flicking through the Time Out, New York magazine when I landed on an ad for a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour was titled Badass Bitches of the Met and it was run by a crew called Museum Hack. I was pretty much sold on the title alone. I booked my ticket for a two hour tour that promised me I would:

FALL IN LOVE WITH SOME AMAZING WOMEN YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

TAKE ACTUAL STEPS TO DISMANTLE THE PATRIARCHY

COMPETE TO FIND THE BADDEST BITCH IN THE MET

HEAR PLENTY OF ‘F’ BOMBS (‘FEMINISM’, THAT IS)

LEAVE INSPIRED TO CHANGE THE WORLD

The next day I turned up at the Met after having being lost in the Ramble in Central Park and then caught in the most spectacular afternoon downpour. I stood ringing my dripping hair and clothes into a puddle on the marble floor of the very crowded Met foyer. I was spotted by one of the Museum Hack guides who whisked me into the bathroom to pat myself dry with paper towels. Then onwards to my tour. Two energetic, knowledgeable, fun young women raced us around the museum telling us stories of women artists, women muses, and women art collectors represented (or not) in the collection. We played games, took photos and were encouraged to share our own stories. It was renegade and subversive and by far the most fun two hours I’ve ever had in a museum. I learnt about a bunch of inspiring women I had never heard of and left with a head full of fascinating stories.

The second brilliant storytelling adventure wasn’t in a cultural institution. This time it was in the tourism industry. Onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, I travelled through the snow dusted peaks of the Canadian Rockies from Jasper National Park through to Vancouver via Kamloops. In between spotting coyotes, bears, bald eagles and big-horned sheep (and being fed North American mega-portion meals) the highly-skilled storytelling staff narrated a fascinating tale of frontier life, the natural environment and adventure. Their rich stories brought the landscape to life with human endeavour, loss, love and triumph.

Both the Museum Hack tour and the Rocky Mountaineer guides highlighted for me the colour, life and emotional hook that a highly-skilled storyteller can bring to an experience – whether that experience is an artwork or a landscape.

Libraries are institutions that are full of stories. Stories about collections and collectors, stories about communities, stories about people. The challenge is how libraries can tell stories in playful, engaging ways to appeal to broader audiences.

What would a badass library hack tour look like?