Archive for April, 2021

I have wanted to read Bruce Chatwin’sThe Songlines‘ for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Bruce Chatwin decides to go to Australia and do research on the songs of indigenous Australians and learn more about the history of the songs. It appears that the songs function as a map for indigenous Australians and when all the songs by the different tribes are put together, they describe the flora and fauna and the whole landscape of Australia. This is what I understood from the book.

The first half of the book is structured like a classic travelogue – Chatwin reads books on the songs and goes to Australia and talks to a few people and attempts to write the definitive history of the songs (which is next to impossible after talking to a few people). Suddenly, halfway through the book, it appears that Chatwin has run out of material and he suddenly starts sharing quotes from his notebook and his own notes, which are not at all related to native Australians or their songs. They are mostly about nomads in different parts of the world, quotes about nomads and travel by famous writers and stuff about human evolution. Towards the end he tries to make a link which is weak at best.

So the first part of the book is like a travelogue which anyone could have written and the second part is Chatwin sharing parts of his notebook.

The book was very disappointing. I had wanted to read it since my teens and maybe I had built up too high an expectation, but I felt that the book didn’t stick to its theme and even when it did, it wasn’t great. The native Australian characters all look similar (unlike Sally Morgan’s memoir where each person is distinct) and though Chatwin makes all the right liberal noises (‘The aborigines are great. I love them’ kind of thing), it sounds extremely unconvincing. The book was a bestseller when it came out and it got great reviews. I don’t know why.

But there was one silver lining. There was one page in the middle of the book which was absolutely beautiful. I am glad I read that page. I’m sharing it below. Hope you like it.

“I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.
      Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
      Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?
      Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.
      One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was ‘distraction’ (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.
      Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?
      All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.”

You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ Litlovers) review of the book here.

You can find Kim’s (from Reading Matters) review of the book here.

Have you read ‘The Songlines‘? What do you think about it?


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I discovered Sally Morgan’s memoir ‘My Place‘ when I was searching for books written by indigenous Australian writers.

Sally Morgan starts her memoir by talking about her childhood. She describes how life was hard for her and her family, how her mother took care of her and her siblings with the help of her grandmother, how her father (who fought in the Second World War) was either in or out of hospitals and how when he was out of hospitals he spent most of his time at the bar getting drunk with his friends. One day Sally’s classmates in school ask her where she is from, the dreaded question that all immigrants are asked. When she says she is from here, they change tack and ask her where her parents are from. When Sally comes home that evening, she asks her mother the same question. Her mother asks her to tell her classmates that they came from India. Sally is not very convinced but lets it be. Then later Sally’s sister Jill tells her that they are  indigenous Australians or Aborigines. Sally is surprised that this is the first time she is hearing about it and she decides to explore her roots. What happens after that and the secrets that tumble out of the Pandora box are told in the rest of the book.

My Place‘ is a beautiful, insightful memoir. It is heartbreaking to read about all the challenges that indigenous Australians went through, the inhuman treatment they suffered at the hands of the government and the law, and how sometimes they couldn’t keep their own children as they were taken away by the government. Sally Morgan’s story is interspersed by first hand stories narrated by her grandmother’s brother Arthur, her mother Glad and her grandmother Daisy. These stories were my favourite parts of the book. I loved Arthur’s story very much. I also loved the early part of the book in which Sally Morgan talks about her childhood, especially the part in which she describes the pets they kept in her family and how everyone in her family loved animals.

I loved ‘My Place‘. This is the first book by an Australian indigenous author I’ve ever read, and I am glad I discovered it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“It was halfway through the second term of my fourth year at school that I suddenly discovered a friend. Our teacher began reading stories about Winnie the Pooh every Wednesday. From then on, I was never sick on Wednesdays. In a way, discovering Pooh was my salvation. He made me feel more normal. I suppose I saw something of myself in him. Pooh lived in a world of his own and he believed in magic, the same as me. He wasn’t particularly good at anything, but everyone loved him, anyway. I was fascinated by the way he could make an adventure out of anything, even tracks in the snow. And while Pooh was obsessed with honey, I was obsessed with drawing. When I couldn’t find any paper or pencils, I would fish small pieces of charcoal from the fire, and tear strips off the paperbark tree in our yard and draw on that. I drew in the sand, on the footpath, the road, even on the walls when Mum wasn’t looking. One day, a neighbour gave me a batch of oil paints left over from a stint in prison. I felt like a real artist. My drawings were very personal. I hated anyone watching me draw. I didn’t even like people seeing my drawings when they were finished. I drew for myself, not anyone else. One day, Mum asked me why I always drew sad things. I hadn’t realised until then that my drawings were sad. I was shocked to see my feelings glaring up at me from the page. I became even more secretive about anything I drew after that.”

You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ Litlovers) review of the book here.

Have you read Sally Morgan’sMy Place‘? What do you think about it?

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Continuing my exploration of Australian literature, I read ‘The Spare Room‘ by Helen Garner today. This is the first book by Helen Garner that I have read.

The story is narrated by the main character Helen. Her friend Nicola is coming to stay with her for three weeks. Nicola has cancer and all her treatment options have been exhausted and doctors have said that it was time to prepare for the next step. But Nicola refuses to give up and she is trying alternative therapy now. That is the reason she is coming to stay with Helen. What happens over the course of the next three weeks is narrated in the story.

I found ‘The Spare Room‘ moving and powerful. It almost read like nonfiction. Anyone who has taken care of a family member or a relative or a friend with a terminal condition or a longterm chronic condition will be able to relate to it – when you have to frequently wake up in the middle of the night for emergencies, when emergencies have a sneaky way of arriving only during the weekend or in the middle of the night when medical help is not easy to get or transportation is hard to organize, when you get up in the morning and the first thing you do is check how the person under your care is doing and that determines how the rest of your day is going to be, how the person under your care refuses to listen to you and refuses to do the simple things right or does things which are not good for their condition which makes you angry and howl with frustration, how you love this person and want to take care of them because they are suffering but you also hate them at the same time – all these are realistically depicted in the book. The narrator is portrayed as a complex, real, imperfect person and Helen Garner gets that pitch perfect and it is beautiful to read. Helen Garner’s prose flows beautifully and the pages just fly. It is surprising given the fact that the book’s subject is heavy.

I loved my first Helen Garner. I can’t wait to read my next one.

You can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) nuanced review of the book here.

You can find Kim’s (from ‘Reading Matters’) effusive review of the book here.

Have you read ‘The Spare Room‘? What do you think about it?

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Thea Astley is one of Australia’s greatest writers. She is a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin award. ‘Girl with a Monkey‘ is her first book. I discovered Thea Astley through Lisa’s (from ANZ Litlovers) review of her books.

Elsie is a teacher in a small town. Her time in the school is getting over and Elsie is leaving town to move to work in a school in another small town. The story describes what happens on the last day before Elsie leaves, how easy or hard it is for her to part from friends and from her school, how hard it is for her to break up with her boyfriend who is possessive and is obsessed with her. As the story describes that last day, we are also taken into the past, and we see how things were when Elsie moved to that town, how she met Laura, her best friend, how two men vied for her love, how she favoured one over the other and how this man turned out to be obsessive, even dangerous.

I enjoyed reading ‘Girl with a Monkey’. The story was interesting but what I loved most was Thea Astley’s prose. It was not the kind of prose you can push forward with or blitz through, you have to pay attention, you have to let the words come to you and work their magic. As Thea Astley herself says in the book in a different context – “Jostling and rushing were unknown in these northern latitudes because they were almost an impossibility under the vertical sun. Here one became a lounger, a lover of shade-patches and the cool gulfs of doorways.” In cricket language, we can’t read the book like we are batting during a T20 match. We need to read it like we are batting on the first day morning of a Melbourne or Brisbane test, waiting for the ball to come to us, navigating the swing and the seam and not rushing around but taking our time and enjoying the experience. I did that and it was very beautiful. Astley’s beautiful sentences were a pleasure to read and I loved that aspect of the book very much. I want to read another Astley book just for her prose.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“There was some hardness in her that made her feel no emotion at all towards things she left, only to those she came back to. So many people and undertakings had abandoned her, or alternatively she had been forced to abandon so many, that a parting was no difficult thing. The very emptiness of the future gave a sorrowful pleasure. It was akin to travelling continually in space, tacking briefly towards some unattainable astral beach only to be swept away before anchoring safely.”

“There is a certain permanence of beauty and truth to be extracted from natural scenery. We all have those moments of crystalline perception when the flesh, divinely prompted, seems to melt into nothingness, leaving the mind nervously aware, apprehending, cut off from was or will be, swung from there to here: those times when pausing at night beside the weatherboard house, starved for real music, a piano cuts the stillness with melodic scimitars, boomerangs of tune; or being a new-comer to the stunning plainsong of mountain and valley sweeping down into green sunlight, the breath is held unaware.”

Have you read read Thea Astley’s ‘Girl with a Monkey’ or any other book by her? What do you think about it?

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The Family Doctor‘ by Debra Oswald is the second Australian book I read in April. I discovered this book through Kim’s (from ‘Reading Matters’) review of it.

Paula Kaczmarek is a doctor. Her friend Stacey is currently staying with her with her two kids, after Stacey moved away from her husband because of domestic violence. One day Paula comes home and finds the door open. Inside the house she finds Stacey dead, shot through the head. She searches for Stacey’s kids and finds them dead in the same way. While she is reeling in shock, she sees Stacey’s estranged husband enter the room with a rifle. While we and Paula are terrified about what he is going to do next, he shoots himself. After Paula recovers from this traumatic experience, she gets back to work. One day she notices that one of her patients has injuries caused clearly by domestic violence. When Paula offers help, this patient refuses. She says that her life will get harder if she complains against her husband. Paula thinks. She doesn’t want this woman to suffer the same fate as her friend Stacey. She doesn’t want to sit quiet and watch another woman get killed by her partner. She finally does something unconventional.

I can’t tell you more, of course. You have to read the book to find out what happened.

I loved ‘The Family Doctor‘. The story is gripping, the action picks up on the first page and never lets go till the end. The friendship between Paula and Stacey and another friend Anita is beautifully depicted. The book asks some difficult questions on how the law works in domestic violence cases, on how it is possible for the perpetrator to get away with things. We can’t stop thinking of the first line from William Gaddis’A Frolic of His Own‘ – “Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” Dr.Kaczmarek, Paula to us, realizes that and she kicks ass and dispenses her own brand of justice.

I wondered how the book would end and I thought I wouldn’t be happy with it, but the author surprised me. It was a wonderful ending. It wasn’t the perfect ending I wanted (I always want good characters to live happily ever after), but it was a very satisfying ending. Brava Debra Oswald for getting it right!

Have you read ‘The Family Doctor‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘ by Steve Toltz ever since it came out. I finally got around to reading it. It was a thick book, almost approaching chunkster-ish size at around 700 pages filled with tiny font, and while reading it, I was distracted by real life, elections, addiction to TV shows, temptations of slimmer books. But I persevered and I was thrilled when I crossed the last page today. It took me 21 days to read, and that is a really long time for a 700-page book, but I am glad that I stuck with it and didn’t give up.

The story starts with the narrator Jasper Dean describing his life in school and discovering one day that he had an uncle who was a famous outlaw and almost a folk hero. When Jasper asks his dad about his uncle, his dad, after some initial hesitation, tells the story. And we are taken on a roller coaster ride as the story moves from past to present through different time periods and things get crazier with every page.

Reading ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘ was like reading the literary version of a Coen brothers movie. The dark humour is amazing and I couldn’t stop laughing while reading the book. It was odd, because the story is mostly sad as bad things keep happening to the main characters, but the dark humour is so cool and stylish that it lightens the bleakness of the story. The book has a brilliant first passage which grabs our attention. I was thinking that as authors always give importance to the first passage and the first pages of a book, the first few pages will be gripping, but as the book progresses things will slip and the prose will lose its charm and become plain. But surprisingly, it was not the case here. The prose is cool and stylish and the pacing is taut even in page 200. It is hard to maintain that for hundreds of pages and Steve Toltz has done the impossible. I loved that aspect of the book.

The date on the first page that I have written says that I got the book in 2008, when it first came out. I am glad I didn’t read it then, because I didn’t understand dark humour then. Though I feel sad that the book lay on my shelf for years gathering dust, I am glad I read it now, because I could appreciate it better.

My favourite part of the book was the first part which is about Jasper’s father Martin and Martin’s brother Terry. It is a sad story, a realistic story, but the dark humour is at its most brilliant here. Later in the book, the events become more and more crazy and at some point we have to suspend our disbelief.

The book also makes references to real events like corruption in sports – the Shane Warne – Mark Waugh interaction with bookies is alluded to. There are even two characters who look suspiciously like the media moghul Rupert Murdoch and his son.

I loved ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I am glad I finally read it. This book came out in 2008 and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I wondered why it didn’t win. So I went and checked the shortlist. That year the Booker Prize was won by Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’. I don’t know in which world ‘The White Tiger’ is better than Steve Toltz’ book. That is one more decision that the Booker Prize committee got wrong. Toltz’ book deserved the prize. Steve Toltz has written one more book since, but has otherwise kept quiet and slipped into anonymity. I don’t know whether he is one-book-a-decade writer like Donna Tartt and Jeffrey Eugenides, or whether that is all there is and he is like Patrick Süskind and has retired to a quiet life in the outback. I hope this is not the end, and hope he writes more.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book. I hope they make you laugh.

“I was taking a 45-minute shower. I know I was being unforgivably inconsiderate of the environment, but I’d read in ‘New Scientist’ that in a couple of billion years the expanding universe will have stretched to breaking point and will start contracting like a rubber band, time will run backward, and (therefore) the water will eventually return to the showerhead.”

“The worst thing you can say about someone in a society like ours is that they can’t hold down a job. It conjures images of unshaven losers with weak grips watching sadly as the jobs slip free and float away. There’s nothing we respect more than work, and there’s nothing we denigrate more than the unwillingness to work, and if someone wants to dedicate himself to painting or writing poetry, he’d better be holding down a job at a hamburger restaurant if he knows what’s good for him.”

Have you read ‘A Fraction of the Whole’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Australian crime fiction last month, I thought that I’ll read Australian literature for the whole of April and maybe in May too. I also thought I’ll sneak in an NZ book or two (Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand). While getting started, I made a whole reading list. This is what is there in it.

(1) Two novels by Shirley HazzardThe Transit of Venus and The Great Fire – I’ve always wanted to read a Shirley Hazzard book. She loved reading and was a great romantic and was married to the Flaubert scholar Francis Steigmuller. Shirley and Francis used to read books together, taking turns while reading aloud. They did it till the last day before Francis died – they read Antony and Cleopatra on the last day. When I think of that, it gives me goosebumps, it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t wait to read her own books and find out how they are.

(2) A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz – This was Toltz’ first novel and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I’m nearly one-third in and it is hilarious and amazing with lots of dark humour.

(3) Two novels by Peter CareyOscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey is a two-time Booker Prize winner, which is an exclusive club because it has just four members (the others are J.M.Coetzee, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood), and both these books won that prize. Oscar and Lucinda is about a woman and a priest who fall in love with each other and it looks suspiciously like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, which is Australia’s most famous love story. I want to find out whether Carey just copycatted that or shaped that story into something different. True History of the Kelly Gang is about Australia’s outlaw folk hero, Ned Kelly.

(4) Two novels by Tim WintonThe Riders and Dirt Music – Tim Winton is a four time winner of the Miles Franklin award (Australia’s leading literary award) I think, and I’ve wanted to explore his works for a long time.

(5) Keith Miller : The Life of a Great All-Rounder by Roland Perry – I’ve always wanted to sneak in a cricket book into a reading challenge and what better time to do that 😊 Keith Miller was one of the greatest cricketers to have ever played for Australia and during his prime he was adored by both young men and women (see how incredibly handsome he is in the picture). He was one of my sporting heroes when I was a kid, though he had long retired before I was born. Australia is one of the great sporting nations, not just in terms of sporting achievement or Olympic medals, but because of the pure love that Australians have for sport. It is one of the few countries where women go out to the field during the weekend and play sport for fun, and it is a common sight to see whole families out in the park during the weekend playing cricket or Aussie football or another sport. While it has become a fad today across the world to run and participate in running competitions, it was never that way in Australia. In Australia, playing and enjoying sport, was part of the culture, it was part of the Australian spirit, and it is something that the rest of us can learn from. What better way to celebrate the great Australian sporting spirit and celebrate my favourite team sport, than reading the biography of one of the greatest cricketers to grace the cricketing field.

(6) The Bone People by Keri Hulme – When Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won the Booker Prize, the biggest question on everyone’s mind was who was the last New Zealander to win the Booker Prize. The answer to that question was Keri Hulme. This book of hers won the Booker Prize in 1985. Keri Hulme was virtually unknown before that. She continues to be unknown since. Which is a shame. Because this book looks wonderful. The main characters in the book seem to be native Maori New Zealanders, and this book deserves to be more well known.

(7) A Short History of the World by Geoffrey Blainey – This was probably the first Australian book that I’ve ever read. Geoffrey Blainey is one of Australia’s pre-eminent historians and his book on Australian history ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ is a classic. I couldn’t get that but I got this. I read this one years back and it is one of my favourite one-volume history books. Hoping to read it again soon.

Books not in the picture (mostly in the Kindle)

(8) True Country by Kim Scott – Kim Scott is a native / indigenous Australian. I’ve never read a book by a native / indigenous Australian writer before. This is a highly recommended book and I’m looking forward to reading it.

(9) The Family Doctor by Debra Oswald – This is a crime novel which tackles contemporary issues and it came highly recommended. Can’t wait to read it.

(10) The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – Australia’s most famous love story. I want to read this first before reading Peter Carey’s book.

(11) A History of Victoria by Geoffrey Blainey – More Geoffrey Blainey is always good 😊

(12) The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay – Bryce Courtenay worked as an advertising professional for years, before he became a novelist. This was his first and his most famous novel. Courtenay had South African roots and this story is set in South Africa. It is about boxing. One of my friends tells me that it is one of her all-time favourite books. Hoping to read it soon.

Do you like ANZ literature? Which are your favourite ANZ books?

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