Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Book cover of Dark Emu

Dark Emu: Black seeds agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe (Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2014).

While the Australian Historical Association conference was being held this week an important annual national celebration was taking place. This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Day of Commemoration Week, commonly known as NAIDOC Week runs from 6th to 13th July. Lisa Hill at the ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog runs the Indigenous Literature Week book reviewing challenge to coincide with NAIDOC Week each year.

It is tricky as I want to participate but each year it coincides with the Australian Historical Association Conference. There is nothing like a bit of determination to find a way though. Each year I choose two books to review, one by a female author and another by a male author. I read the first one in the weeks leading up to NAIDOC Week and post the review right at the beginning of the Week, but the other I struggle to read and review in NAIDOC Week. The review often comes out later… but I’ve managed to fit it in this year!

I had a wonderful day reading Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture of accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Engagingly written, full of interesting material and a modest 176 pages , it was the ideal end-of-conference read. Continue reading

The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman

Book cover of The Power of Bones

The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014).

“I chose survival” says Keelen Mailman in her memoir, The Power of Bones. Powerful, painful and memorable, The Power of Bones lays bare the struggles and achievements of Aboriginal life in  Australia during the late twentieth century and more recently.

Mailman is an Aboriginal woman from south-west Queensland near Charleville. She had a hard childhood and a poor education but she has risen from this to be the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station. This book is a lesson in never writing a person off, no matter how bleak their background appears to be.

Mailman is proud of her Bidjara culture. Her knowledge and commitment to the Bidjara people was recognised by one of the community elders who asked her to manage the Mount Tabor cattle station for the Bidjara. The work at the station is mentioned in passing, the focus of this memoir is family and culture. Continue reading

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014: What I learned

A glorious day at the hub of the Sydney Writers' Festival at Walsh Bay.

A glorious day at the hub of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is one of my favourite events of the year. It is a wonderful celebration of books. Who says the book is dead when over 80,000 people flocked to hear writers talk about their work! The program featured 450 writers talking at sixty venues throughout Sydney. I only heard six authors at the Festival but I was happy. Just attending two sessions allowed me to come away with a little more understanding about books.

Adrian McKinty, PM Newton and Malla Nunn are crime writers with a lot to say. They have good rapport with each other making the ‘Keeping it Real: Crime as Social History’ session an enjoyable event. Their discussion touched on the reasons why I like the novels of PM Newton so much. Place is very important in her work. She explores what I call the ‘real Sydney’, the one that is grimy, slightly dysfunctional and people living life hard.

Malla Nunn said that the work of all three authors is a good example of the ‘social novel’ or the ‘social problem novel’. These types of novels explore real social issues in real places. The work of Charles Dickens such as Oliver Twist is a good example of the social novel, as is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Newton pointed out that the modern social novel is most often seen in crime fiction. Continue reading

National Book Bloggers Forum

six books

Participants at the National Book Bloggers Forum received a pile of Random House/Penguin books.

This week Random House and Penguin organised a National Book Bloggers Forum in Sydney. Held in the week of the Sydney Writers Festival, staff from the largest publishing house in the world mixed with over thirty book bloggers for a day of book talk. I was fortunate to be one of the bloggers who attended the Forum.

Bloggers are writers and they are writers who know how to engage their audience.  Random House recognises this said the publisher’s Managing Editor, Brett VanOver. Random House regards bloggers as having the kind of potential that would make them authors of books people want to read.

VanOver pointed out that the days of publishers nurturing authors while they hone their writing skills through several books are gone. Now publishers need writers to be fully formed by the time they publish their first book. Publishers regard blogging as a process where budding authors can develop their skills. Through blogging writers develop a confident voice VanOver observed. Bloggers are already published authors, they already write on a theme. The challenge that VanOver identified is that bloggers have to move from a personal perspective to a universal one if they are to have a book published. Continue reading

Review: Boy, Lost

Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson (UQP: 2013)

Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson (UQP: 2013)

Anyone who researches their family history of the twentieth century is inevitably confronted by a wall of silence about something or other. These secrets are often about events that occurred before we were born and now that the holders of those secrets are dying the story of these tragedies becomes even more difficult to retrieve.

Kristina Olsson and her family have done the difficult task of unravelling their family secrets. They are exposed in her book, Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir. It won Kristina Olsson the nonfiction prize at the Queensland Literary Awards and has been shortlisted many times. Yesterday the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge published an interview I did with Kristina Olsson in which she gives insights into how she wrote her book. This book has impressed many people but it was a difficult story to tell.

Olsson’s mother, Yvonne had a short, unhappy marriage. Her husband was violent. Yvonne fled with her infant son, Peter. If only that was all that had happened. Yvonne’s husband entered the train and snatched Peter from her arms. That was it. Peter grew up without his mother. His life was difficult, very difficult. Continue reading

Historian Wins Major Literary Prize

Logo of The Stella Prize

Clare Wright won a major literary award for women’s writing for her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

Last night historian, Clare Wright, won a major literary award for women’s writing in Australia, The Stella Prize. Her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, was selected from a strong shortlist which included some of Australia’s most celebrated novels published in the last year and a compelling memoir which has been shortlisted for a number of awards.

Many Australians have heard the tale of the Eureka Stockade over and over, but as the judge’s comment, “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka sheds a bright new light on a dark old Australian story”. The judge’s citation goes on to say that Wright’s work is, “[a] rare combination of true scholarship with a warmly engaging narrative voice… makes this book compulsively readable.”

Wright demonstrates how history can be brought to life. Her writing makes original scholarship attractive to the general public. Released in October last year, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka has gone into reprint. In what is surely a strong message to publishers readers have voted at the cash register for a book with twenty-four pages of endnotes.

It is the strength of writing as well as the depth of research that attracts readers to this book. In an interview I did with Clare Wright a few weeks ago for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, she explains how writing for television influenced the writing of her book. “I had learnt a lot about the power of narrative, as well as the audience’s need to be emotionally engaged in the experience, to be invested in the question of ‘what happens next’.” Wright’s “frank and lively style of storytelling makes her material accessible without sacrificing either the scholarly accuracy of her account, the depth of its detail, or the complexity of its ideas”, note the judges of The Stella Prize.

Readers have shown that they enjoy well-written history that includes women as well as men. The Stella Prize citation concludes, “Wright does not attempt to discredit existing versions of events, but rather to deepen and enrich our knowledge of Eureka and our understanding of its place in Australian history”.

I hope by now that you are curious about this book. You can read an extensive review of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka I wrote last year on this blog. The Stella Prize judge’s citation is worth reading. This book is not a typical history book so I asked Wright about how she approached writing it. She made some interesting comments which you can read in an interview published on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge website.

This afternoon a shortened version of my review was published on the ABC’s The Drum website.

Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

The interaction between religious and non-religious beliefs in Australian society is complicated. It is often obscured by a public debate which in recent times has been punctuated by simple slogans, such as “Australia is a Christian country” or “separation between church and state”. Passion about these issues has periodically run high through Australia’s post European-settlement history. To gain a better understanding of secularism and religion in Australia we need to dig under the gushing of rhetoric to examine the actions of Australians.

Education is an important arm of the state in Australia. As I’ve noted in my review of the recently published book about religion in schools by Marion Maddox, Australian children  learned about God in their public school classrooms even in the times of allegedly “free, compulsory and secular education” in the late nineteenth-century.  We continue to have religious education in our public schools and now we have significant funding of religious schools as well as religious chaplains in our public schools.

Michael Gladwin’s new book, Captains of the Soul, brings attention to how religion is embedded in another important arm of the Australian state. Chaplains have been part of the defence forces during every major overseas war in which Australians have been officially involved. Gladwin tells of how the New South Wales government “bowed to significant public pressure” and allowed two chaplains to accompany the troops to Sudan in 1885, one from the Roman Catholic Church and the other from the Church of England. Eighteen chaplains accompanied colonial forces to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Continue reading