For Rose

Dave’s weblog for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

La Lutte Continue

Here I am, a year later. How has the year been? Well, Clementine Ford at Daily Life named the Australian Women Writers Challenge to be one of the twenty greatest moments for women this year (#12). A lot of books by Australian women have been read in the name of the challenge, almost 1500 reviews have been written, and many people have completed their personal challenges. I did.

And I've kept reading, adding the following seven books to those read, with four of them reviewed:

When We Have WingsClaire Corbett
Tarcutta WakeJosephine Rowe
Journalism at the CrossroadsMargaret Simons
MelbourneSophie Cunningham
Thief of LivesLucy Sussex
Looking for AlibrandiMelina Marchetta
Puberty BluesKathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

(Expect some writing from me on the brilliant When We Have Wings next year!)

This year, three-fifths of my reading has been by women. I intend to keep seeking representation and diversity in my reading next year. As my uni motto says, I'm still learning. And through the AWW2012, I have many great recommendations to choose from.

So I have signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I will Dabble (read in more than one genre), I will read at a Franklin level (ten or more books), I will hang out on Twitter, but I'm not planning on writing any reviews. You could do more. Or you could do less. Reading three books by Australian women, and doing nothing else other than signing up, would qualify you as meeting the challenge. Why not just do it?

Here's an American woman on women's writing:

As long as we live in a gendered world, most men and most women will reflect a gendered difference in their writing. All authors write about what they know and gender is part of our experience. If men and women are to communicate, they need to read about each other.

Here's an Australian woman writer on classics:

All canons are lists and all lists restrictive. `Classics' are a product of their time. What a list of important books does is hammer a marker into the landscape, to be walked around, kicked at, tripped over, and fought with.

So communicate. Fight. Accept the challenge!

Other men who have signed up for the AWW2013: Jon, Michael, Mark, James, Dave, Sean, Phillip, and John.

Other men who have plans to read more by women: Brad and Simon (the latter has a reading list provided by Dr Liz Byrski).

In 2013, I'd love to see a book reviewer at The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times, or The Australian, or on Radio National, or on First Tuesday Book Club admit that they are likely to read at least three books by Australian women and sign up for the AWW2013!

Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

Published 1979, McPhee Gribble

Years before anyone used the term ‘YA’, two eighteen-year-old women wrote a fictionalised account of their lives in the Shire when they were thirteen. The account was published a few years later by Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble. It was the third novel to be published by the startup publisher and thus occupies a special place in the development of Australian literature. The book starts like this:

When we were thirteen, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn’t let you do. Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs and go to the beach.

I was two when the novel was published and you’d think by the time I was thirteen that it would be respectable enough to read for high school instead of the relatively anodyne The Outsiders by Sue Hinton. But no. (I think the bowdlerised movie adaptation was watched in some classes, but not mine.)

The book doesn’t fail to live up to its opening paragraph. There’s a lot of sex. Between thirteen-year-old girls and seventeen-year-old boys. Inept and degrading sex. Statutory rape, rape-in-all-but-name, and rape-rape. The narrative drive is as minimal as the drive for these girls to have their owns wants, needs, and personhood. They aren’t characters, just ciphers made and moved by impersonal forces. Everyone drinks a lot, then marijuana arrives, then heroin. The epilogue reminds me of the afterword to A Scanner Darkly (1977), a memorial to those who didn’t make it. That the authors and their proxies, Deb and Sue, make it, it is made clear, is due to luck and a quirk of their own boredom.

This deeply feminist book is relentlessly bleak in its clarity: ‘We learnt to fuck just enough not to be called slack or tight.’ That’s the life for these girls who don’t go to the surf beach (except to accessorise the boys), don’t go to the movies (except to have sex), and don’t have any life of their own — because they have no alternative models, because society has no other use for them. Deb and Sue had luck and boredom. I hope girls and boys today have thirty-three years of fitful progress and a copy of Puberty Blues. But I know that there’s still a lot of thirteen-year-old girls getting pregnant out there.

(The class structure described by the book is curious: the boys are working class, while the girls — who live in three-storey houses, wear cashmere jumpers, and own horses — are upper or upper-middle class. Where are the upper-class boys?)

You can read other AWW2012 reviews of Puberty Blues by Belle, Mandee, Angggel (French, English), and Caroline.

I couldn’t believe it: there were Wikipedia pages for Puberty Blues (the movie) and Puberty Blues (the television series), but no page for Puberty Blues. The novel. So I have made a start at one. It could be better; please help if you can. I need to get hold of Hilary McPhee’s memoir again: it has lots of good material about the publication of the novel.

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

Published 1992, Penguin

In mid-1992, we could have intersected, Josephine Alibrandi and me. She traveled from Sydney to Adelaide by car, but went via Broken Hill on National Route 32, instead of the Sturt Highway, which would have led her through Mildura. Besides, she was two years older than me, and I would never be voted school captain. We did, however, both wear glasses. These little points of similarity and difference captivate me. My first girlfriend was an Italian-Australian, but her life was little like Josie’s. The Mildura Italians (and Greeks and Turks (and Yugoslavs)) were more integrated — were just people. And unlike Josie, who (like so many city mice) could live to seventeen without seeing an Aboriginal in the flesh, we lived alongside the meagre indigenous population.

I remember this book was something of a hand grenade when it was published. I am now older than Josie’s mother was then. What would I have made of it if I had read it then? It might have helped me see the world around me more clearly. It might not. There is one passage that, even at 35, I find confronting.

In synopsis, Looking for Alibrandi sounds trite. As a novel, it deals with the material of adolescence honestly. Towards the end, I cried openly in public while reading, unable to stop either; this went on for chapters.

You can read a Kill Your Darlings review of Looking for Alibrandi by Agnes.

P.S.: It takes thirty pages for Marchetta to mention in passing that Josie wears glasses. A casual mention, followed by others, that struck me like a thunderbolt. But Josie doesn’t wear glasses on the cover of any edition of the book, and, I understand, she doesn’t wear them at all in the movie adaptation. Shame, Penguin. Shame, Kate Woods.

Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham

Published 2011, New South (UNSW)

This book is an exuberant account of Melbourne. Cunningham piles fact upon fact in her tour of Melbourne, its history, and its many voices (which she generously quotes, including, for instance, passages from The Children’s Bach and Other People’s Words).

I didn’t really like this book. There is a lot in it, and, yes, I learned many interesting things, but I quickly tired of moving so quickly from one thing to the next, never getting a chance to really explore a topic. It felt bitty, and sometimes — when dealing with serious topics like Aboriginal dispossession or Black Saturday — glib.

My favourite passage was one of two extended treatments of a topic: Cunningham taking a Cave Clan tour of Melbourne’s underground passages (pp. 146–56). (The other extended passage was on the 2007 AFL Grand Final. Football does little for me, unfortunately.)

Still, despite the bittiness, I did occasionally feel the spirit that Cunningham was trying to evoke. My favourite bit was this:

McPhee Gribble was the first time I began to understand that the work you did in the world had meaning. Passions could be turned into something that existed outside yourself: they could become books.

Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe

Published 2012, University of Queensland Press

Does Josephine Rowe write quickly and at length, before revising? Or does she go one word at a time, one sentence, one paragraph, getting each just so before moving onto the next? In any case, her short stories are very short, often only a couple of pages long — what is sometimes called flash fiction. The 102 pages of Tarcutta Wake contain 25 fictions, the longest being 12 pages long.

At these lengths, they seem to display a suspicion of ‘story’, a suspicion of psychology. The fictions not only open in media res, they close in media res too. The order of the day is parataxis, a series of images that the reader must interpret. Fortunately, there are riches here for interpretation: Rowe is a master of the evocative image, the beautifully turned phrase, the novel simile, the nice and accurate word. And while her stories contain few words or incidents, they are generous with histories and relationships.

Her subject matter is love, loss, nostalgia, misunderstanding: the common currency of realist literature, handled in an honest manner. Yet there is also an experimental playfulness, sometimes appearing as a side effect of the brevity of the telling — the grammatical characteristics of a narrator may not become apparent until a story is almost over — or sometimes introduced through techniques that don’t seem unnatural in such short narratives — e.g. the first-person plural.

If you’ve read Rowe’s work before, this attests to her continuing excellence and growth. If you haven’t read Rowe’s work before, this is a perfect introduction. It is a delight.

For Rose

Dave’s weblog for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

La Lutte Continue

So, as a Dabbler in more than one genre, I have completed my attempt to read at the Franklin-fantastic level of the Australian Women Writers challenge. I have read ten and reviewed eight books written by Australian women. Here are the books:

My Career Goes BungMiles Franklin
Hating Alison AshleyRobin Klein
The Children’s BachHelen Garner
Other People’s WordsHilary McPhee
The Courier’s New BicycleKim Westwood
Behind the Shock MachineGina Perry
Space DemonsGillian Rubinstein
Running DogsRuby J. Murray
Delusions of GenderCordelia Fine
Her Secret FlingSarah Mayberry

They are three literary novels, two children’s books, two non-fiction books, one memoir, one science fiction novel, and one romance. They are all books I would recommend. Many are books I would likely not have read without the AWW challenge — even when they were books that I’d been ‘meaning to’ read for a long time.

Around 350 people have signed up for the AWW challenge, with the most recent doing so only two weeks ago. Nearly 900 books have been reviewed so far.

I am the 28th person to complete the challenge. If you are reading this and haven’t joined in, I encourage you to do so. It doesn’t take much to get involved. You can read three books and write a couple of sentences for two of them.

I have read 27 books so far this year, 16 of them by women. I am going to continue to challenge myself. On this weblog, I will continue to review books by Australian women writers that I read. The more that I and other challengers write, the easier it is to read such books, and to write about them.

That is the point of the challenge.

I will read on… Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta… Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham… Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex… and so on…

Her Secret Fling by Sarah Mayberry

Published 2009, Harlequin

When an injury leads to early retirement, Olympic swimming champion Poppy Birmingham decides to become a sports reporter. Jake Stevens — journo, author of a classic Australian novel, and Poppy’s literary hero — isn’t impressed. He dislikes Poppy for being a celebrity; she dislikes him for being, well, a bit of a prick. Then work brings them together for a two-day, one-night roadtrip…

What happens when a one-night stand becomes more than it should be? That’s the question that was the seed for Her Secret Fling. Two consenting adults have a good time and agree that’s all it was — then life intervenes and forces them to get to know each other. And, surprise surprise, they like what they discover — after some twists and turns along the way, naturally.

The above quote is take from a letter by Sarah Mayberry that prefaces her novel. I’m intrigued that category romance dispenses with even the illusion of suspense, something that most literary novels are afraid to do. Here, it really isn’t the destination that matters, but the trip: through the death of Poppy’s father-figure uncle, through the wreckage of Jake’s divorce, and through a lot of steamy sex.

I had never read a category romance novel before; Elizabeth Lhuede and AWW2012 made me question whether my lack of reading romance is ‘part of a larger pattern of devaluing women’s work and contributions’. I asked friends and the internet for romance recommendations. Vassiliki Veros recommended ‘Sarah Mayberry if you want to push your boundaries & explore fab category rom’. I decided that I did. Mayberry has written over twenty books, and my local library had some of them, so I picked one up — little realising that the one I got was part of the Blaze series of ‘red-hot reads’.

Where other novels end their chapters suggestively, so does this one… only to have the next chapter take up the suggestion. The one-night stand in question is eleven pages of explicit sex. This is all well handled, both sensitive and sexy; and simultaneously revealing of character. Between such encounters, the misunderstandings and reversals of Poppy and Jake’s relationship are also done well, as you’d expect from someone who has written and storylined Neighbours. Though much of the prose is functional, there are some striking phrases that spice the book.

Early on, I particularly like Poppy’s phrase ‘He thought she was a stupid jock.’ This evokes the gender politics that swim deep beneath the surface of the novel, as Poppy takes on the male roles of sports star and sports reporter. Unfortunately, much of what she does in the novel is subject to male approval. Even the sex, performed and enjoyed mutually, is undermined in this way. Poppy can desire, but she can’t initiate. And once she has Jake, she can’t take pleasure in herself. Perhaps Mayberry will write a sequel, where both characters will show the benefits of their growth in this novel?

One thing I unreasonably enjoyed about the book is that it is set in Australia. There’s a lot here for someone who can’t get enough of seeing places they know on the page. Although, this localisation is also the most annoying thing about the book: that it is written for an American audience. This results in irritants minor (the anachronism of the Brisbane Bears playing AFL) and major (‘fisted’ and ‘fisting’ as intransitive verbs meaning ‘to make a fist’).

Having read a category romance now, I’m left with the question, why wouldn’t I read one again? The only answer I have is that book discourse is structured in such a way that I am unlikely to encounter romance novels. That’s not a very good answer; that’s someone else’s choices making me.

You can read other AWW2012 reviews of Sarah Mayberry books by Kat, Bree (and Bree again), and Kylie.

You can read AWW2012 discussion of whether romance fiction is feminist by Elizabeth, Louise, Kat, and Kate.

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Published 2010, WW Norton

This book is a remorseless, thoroughgoing demolition of all ‘scientific’ claims of neurological gender differences. It’s also a lot more irreverant than I expected a heavily footnoted non-fiction book to be; perhaps this is a necessary condition of doing real science — that is, seeing what’s there and not what we want to see. But Fine can be deliciously sarcastic at the expense of the self-deluded, such as Simon Baron-Cohen or Michael Carr-Gregg. It’s good to laugh, because otherwise you would cry at all the question begging that goes on. Fine’s targets are not doing a very good job of contradicting those who say the purpose of science is to naturalise ideology.

From badly designed experiments to incorrectly interpreted results, Fine shows that little humility or even simple scientific method has been learnt in sex neuroscience in the last century. It seems that experimenters can’t trust themselves (because of experimenter expectancy effects), their subjects (self-reporting is notoriously dodgy), or even their equipment (you might as well use an MRI on a dead fish). In fact, even the ‘facts’ are terribly unstable; we should start assuming there is a Cartesian demon assigned to biology whose job is to introduce ever-increasing levels of complexity. Debates of ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’ seem quaint in the face of the fact that rat brains develop differently due to anogenital stimulation by their mothers, who are attracted to male sex hormones. ‘[Biology] changes and develops in interaction with and response to our minds and environment.’

Even with sex differences safely documented, there is no guarantee that they result in gender differences. As neuroscientist Geert de Vries says, sex differences in the brain ‘may prevent sex differences in overt functions and behaviour by compensating for sex differences in physiology.’ But we at least know that there are differences in the way males and females think, even before science gets involved, right? This is the folk wisdom known as the ‘biology-as-fallback’ position, and it’s wrong too. Babies are avid observers and they live in a soup of social cues, including unconscious ones from well-intentioned parents. So it is that primates have fairly rigid gender roles too, but these roles differ even within primate species.

So far, the items on that list of brain differences that are thought to explain the gender status quo have always, in the end, been crossed off. But before this happens, speculation becomes elevated to the status of fact, especially in the hands of some popular writers. Once in the public domain, these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture, often lingering on well past their best-by dates. Here, they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain.

So what do we know? We know that we all must carry around unconscious stereotypes in our heads, whatever our conscious and professed beliefs; we know that we sometimes interpret others as conforming to these models, or even conform ourselves; and we know that something as simple as the question ‘male/female?’ at the start of a questionnaire can set off our implicit associations between sex and behaviour. We also know that countering such a stereotype threat can impose a cognitive handicap on its victims, making them perform worse. And we know that gender roles have changed significantly in the last century, while not one positivistic shred of evidence for gender differences in the brain has been found. So we should treat men and women as if they were rationally and emotionally equal — perhaps they are.

When a woman persists with a high-level maths course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotions, values, interests, hormones, and brains — because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.

Literary editors and judges should all read this book, as it is just one more thing that underlines the importance of the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers challenge. It says that such activities could cause more Australian women to write, and cause them to receive more and better recognition for their work.

Delusions of Gender is an important book, accessibly written, which we can all point to whenever someone uses ‘the science’ to justify sexism. My only criticism of it is that it doesn’t include any discussion of trans or intersex people, who are too often victims of sexism, and who too often have their bodies used as weapons in the gender wars.

You can read another AWW2012 review of Delusions of Gender by Jenny.

Children’s Books

There has been a lot of discussion this year about how books perceived as ‘women’s writing’ are too often dismissed. The discussion has often centred around the genre of romance, however I want to quickly get you to consider another. The reason for this is that if you asked me whether I was reading anything at the moment for AWW2012, I would probably say, ‘No, I’m reading some other books (by an American women and an Australian man).’ Yet it seems that many days and nights I am reading books by Australian women, without noticing, and I bet this is happening to many AWW2012 participants and Australian adults generally.

These books — as this post’s title has given away — are the ones we read to our children.

If you look at public library lending of Australian-written books, you’ll see that Mem Fox’s Possum Magic (unforgettably illustrated by Julie Vivas) is the thirteenth most popular. If you look at school library lending of Australian-written books, you’ll see that the top eleven are all children’s books written by women. As carers and teachers we read these books. A lot.

A good example are the Steve Parish Kids books from Steve Parish Publishing. These books use images of Australian native animals, taken from Steve Parish’s nature photography, to tell simple fables. I like the books because the messages are fresh and well considered, lacking prejudice or didacticism. The stories are fun and well written, and the animals perform a diverse range of roles with balanced gender representation.

I think my favourite is Rowdy Devil’s Hide & Seek. It tells the tale of Rowdy Devil and her sister, Screechy, who fight and make mischief all day long. I love that these powerful, agressive animals with a scary name are represented here by the female of the species, and not shown in a passive or tender mood.

Why am I boosting these books with a man’s name all over them? Because so many children’s books do not credit the writer or illustrator prominently or at all. On the inside of the back cover of each book in this particular range, there is a credit — ‘Text: Catherine Prentice’. Who is Catherine Prentice? According to the SPP website:

Catherine Prentice, as an author, teacher, and mother, has a personal and professional interest in children’s education. She is also passionate about the environment and firmly believes that an early start in both areas is essential to a child’s healthy development. Catherine’s aim is to encourage parents to regularly read to their children, especially in the early years.

As a parent who regularly reads these books to his children, I would like to say, ‘Thank you, Catherine, and well done!’

Space Demons by Gillian Rubinstein

Published 1986, Omnibus Books (Penguin)

In my review of Hating Alison Ashley, I called that book ‘Classic YA’. When thinking of this book too, I found myself reaching for the YA label. The characters here are even a year older, for though, like Erica, they are in their final year of primary school, this is a South Australian novel. Yet suddenly I realised that these aren’t young adults. I certainly wasn’t at eleven or twelve. I wasn’t at nine, when this book was published, and everyone was reading it — except me.

But everything feels so big. I guess it always does when a novel accurately conveys what it’s like to be someone, whatever their age.

The characters here are experimenting with hatred — of others, and of themselves: ‘even the plunge into non-existence had a kind of despairing exultation about it, as he received in his own self the destruction he had been meting out.’ It’s dangerous, exciting stuff, though possibly made acceptable by being set in a country where youths don’t regularly do things with real guns. And these kids make it out of Space Demons, but how many would?

There’s a surfeit of characters — Andrew, Ben, Elaine, John, Mario; one would more than suffice in a lesser novel. Rubinstein handles them and their group dynamics well, though Ben does get lost in the end.

I wish I had read this when it came out, if only so I would have a firmer image of the computer game. Rubinstein does nail the ‘reality’ of such games though, as Andrew finishes a gaming session:

Everything around him looked disturbingly three-dimensional and too real, larger than life, as though his perception had started to shrivel while he had been stuck in the game.

This was Gillian Rubinstein’s debut novel. She has written two sequels, Skymaze and Shinkei, which I am now interested in reading, as well as many other books, including adult fantasy novels under the name Lian Hearn.

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood

Published 2011, Voyager (HarperCollins)

Is this book, as one SF fan averred, really ‘a crime novel in a science fictional setting’? Or is the main point, as a crime reader had it, ‘the view of future Melbourne’? Or is this a work with, as one journal claims, ‘genuine literary merit’? The reviews by Lorraine, Karen, and Peter are all worth reading for a taste of the ambiguities this novel offers.

I can say with certainty that I’m only passingly familiar with the tropes and techniques of crime fiction. In this book, I enjoyed that the main character, Sal, was not a professional sleuth, or even an enthusiastic amateur. The investigation thus proceeded in a way I found credible, with an admirable lack of apparent connection between events — a narrative resistance to forming a plot of rising incident. Once I finished the novel, I could look back and see how the unfolding of events behind-the-scenes created this seeming-shapelessness and gave rise to several red herrings, a plot that I’m sure is much easier to apprehend than assemble. On the other hand, I felt like the book tied up every thread in a fashion that was really too neat. It also seemed to me that several key points, which could be understandably overlooked in real life, were put in frustratingly plain sight for most readers. But your metric may vary.

The primary attraction of the novel, for me at least, is Sal. Salisbury Forth identifies as neither male nor female. There is a long history of unmarked bodies in science fiction, but author Kim Westwood early-on calls attention to Sal’s status as gender transgressive (or in current parlance, genderqueer), a marking of unmarkedness that I think might only be possible with gender. From this point of identification onwards, the text becomes a sustained linguistic act of preserving Sal’s integrity. The character is buffeted on both sides by an array of gendered pronouns and descriptors, as well as the reader’s possible search for a tell — or absence of one. Westwood brings her character through this storm with an even-handed supply — and withholding — of emblems from both genders.

Yet it does niggle that in a novel which enjoys the classic SF mode of discourse, exposition, there is no mention of what pronouns Sal, or other ambiguous gender transgressives, use for themselves. He, they, it, shi…? Then again, perhaps Westwood is wise to avoid pronouns which would require a whole web of ideologies to make them both stable and destabilising. Which has, after all, proved impossible thus far in reality.

Lest my review give you the wrong idea that Sal stands alone, let me assure you that there are a wide range of other ‘transgressive’ characters, making sure, as Cheryl observes, that ‘there’s no suggestion that there’s a right way and wrong way to be trans; no suggestion that being heterosexual or binary-identified is somehow inherently bad.’

It’s also worth noting that Salisbury’s name is probably derived from Sally Forth, and is thus an anti-joke. That the source form is derided in the text can be read as an attack on the use of descriptive or punning names in fiction. Such names come from the same easy and unthinking place where discrimination breeds, and are often used themselves or as templates for discrimination. Go, says Westwood; go beyond those old simplicities.

You can read Kim Westwood on genre and gender labels.

The Courier’s New Bicycle has won this year’s Science Fiction Novel Aurealis Award and Best Novel Ditmar Award. It was shortlisted for Ned Kelly and Davitt crime-writing awards, and has also been recognised on the Honour List of this year’s Tiptree Award (for works that contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles).

You can read AWW2012 reviews of The Courier’s New Bicycle by Mark, Jason, Annabel, and Sean.

Other People’s Words by Hilary McPhee

Published 2001, Picador (Pan Macmillan)

More than a memoir, more than the story of an exceptional publishing house, this is a generous history of Australia — its strengthening culture, its continuing self-doubt, its changing understanding of Aboriginal occupation, its growing diversity, its sexism, and its negotiated and renegotiated place in the world — over a period from the forties to the early nineties, all told from the vantage point of one engaged person, Hilary McPhee.

In her closing words, McPhee acknowledges the changes that the internet and digital media are bringing, yet, as in all histories of the recent past, she reminds us that many of the trends we see today have been ‘trending’ for some time. On the other hand, here is a reminder from her childhood (or teen years?) that things do pass:

Many of us in those far-off pre-television days became ‘bookworms’ and proud of the state the words implied. […] We sought other children with whole sets of favourite authors, which we devoured on each other’s beds at weekends.

She names television, but I wonder if it’s really rock and roll that was about to take youth’s reading time by storm. In any case, this historical moment, and many more captured within, are worth pondering.

The first half of the book traces McPhee’s childhood, schooling, and a university life lived in theatre, archaeology, and Meanjin. This part turns on her reading The Lucky Country on a beach in Greece and deciding to never return to Australia. (Samuel R. Delany, a year younger, and American, also ends up living for a time on a Greek island. Another rite that has passed?) McPhee then moves to London, before returning home and establishing herself at Penguin.

Time wanders and is sometimes vague in this book, but the second half starts with a real lacuna. McPhee never tells us how she met Diana Gribble, or why and how they set up McPhee Gribble, the publishing house that gave us a great reading list for AWW2012 — everything from Monkey Grip and Puberty Blues to Kaz Cooke — and many important works written by men, too. Despite her curious omission, McPhee does tell us much about this quintessential Melbourne publisher. I highly recommend her account to anyone with an interest in publishing; I found myself taking copious notes. I would quote at length, but you are better off reading the book.

I came away from the book invigorated. A little saddened at the loss of McPhee Gribble, yes, but also hungry for the alternate vision of life offered by its two founders and all those who joined them. In this vision, readers are not just sales figures, and a publishing house doesn’t just fill a schedule. A vision of a centred and located life, a life of doing good work — across a spectrum of meanings that those two words can take. The strongest image of this vision is the feminist utopia of 203 Drummond St, Carlton, with its nursery (‘the McPhee Gribble Childcare Department’) on the ground floor, and two more floors above of editors, designers, and others, all giving books the time they need.

A kind of postscript to the book: McPhee’s recent eulogy for Diana Gribble, which outlines their meeting and forming McPhee Gribble, plus some of what happened afterwards.

The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

Published 1984, McPhee Gribble

Dexter found, in a magazine, a photograph of the poet Tennyson, his wife and their two sons walking in the garden of their house on the Isle of Wight. ‘To the modern eye it is a shocking picture: they are all, with the exception of the great man himself, bundled up in such enormous, incapacitating garments.’ To my eye, it isn’t shocking at all. Did Garner see something because she was a woman? Or is it something that 1984 could see which 2012 cannot? Right from the first lines I am wrong-footed. (Later a character will advise, ‘And don’t call it uni. Only people who’ve never been there call it that.’ Really?)

Whispering Gums suggests the photo is there to introduce uneasiness about families. I look again and wonder if it is a way of showing Tolstoy’s famous tell: ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Perhaps, but Garner shows little respect for Writing Advice 101.

The point of view wanders from paragraph to paragraph, often even from sentence to sentence. Nor does the text stay focalised with the characters. (Whose modern eye looks at the photo?) While we are with the characters, we sometimes pass from reality to fantasy without notice. Despite the book’s grungy subject matter, this isn’t realism.

A family collides with individuals from a ‘world that lies outside families’, individuals on the edge of an attempted musical/social revolution of ‘cold, passionless faces’. I taste the energy, but the aftertaste is of conservatism. I can’t judge; I can’t always understand. Following one of the characters, I might say, Garner is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master her.

Here she has a character encounter a sexist joke:

They do hate us, she thought. The weight of disgust that loaded the simple joke made her bones weak. She thought, I can’t bear it, I can’t. She thought, I should be able to bear it by now. It has just caught me off guard.

That’s a powerful moment, and a progressive one.

You can read other AWW2012 reviews of The Children’s Bach by Rebecca, Astrid, and Michelle.

You can read AWW2012 reviews of other Helen Garner books: Monkey Grip by Jo, The Spare Room by Deborah, and True Stories by Maree.

Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein

Published 1984, Puffin (Penguin)

Classic YA. I wish I had read it when I was in Grade 6; it might have helped me get through some difficult times.

Erica Yurken is a brilliant character: so tortured, so destructive, so absolutely lacking in self-awareness. That last is what makes the novel, I think. The fact that Erica can choose her avowed enemy as a roommate without knowing why. The fact that she never does work it out.

I occasionally felt myself wondering if the characters weren’t a bit too grown up, but a little self-reflection of my own reminded me that things weren’t so different when I was their age.

(Also appreciated: the portrait of a poor suburb.)

More thoughts on the YA label.

My Career Goes Bung: the ebook edition

I was so inspired by AWW2012 and My Career Goes Bung that I have created a convenient ebook edition for others to read. Here’s the blurb:

“My rebellious discontent surged up more furiously than ever. I craved the pang and tang, the joys and struggles of life at the flood.”

Sybylla Melvyn—the I of My Brilliant Career—​returns!

Or does she? In this new autobiography, Sybylla reveals her first brilliant volume was something of an accidental literary hoax. But she soon discovers the strange life of the written word, as men vie for her attention, to save her from the error of her ways—or worse, to prove their claim to be the true Harry Beecham. With a mixture of fame and infamy propelling her, she flees into the arms of Sydney’s high society, only to find even stranger adventures awaiting.

Written by Miles Franklin in 1902, My Career Goes Bung was not published until 1946, as her publisher judged it too hot a combination of unladylike opinions and libellous—even salacious—gossip. A neglected Australian classic, it is an important part of Franklin’s literary legacy.

And here’s the file:

This ebook is free to have and free to do with as you wish. Please: copy it, share it, let it be read.

My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Written 1902; published 1946, Angus & Robertson

Here I am at 34, by choice, reading My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, a follow-up to My Brilliant Career, which I read, for Literature class, at 15. The years make me confident in saying that you don’t need to read My Brilliant Career to appreciate My Career Goes Bung: this isn’t a conventional sequel — but more on that later.

For now let me say that I’d rather have read My Career Goes Bung, all those years ago. This book lacks the ‘painfully real’ descriptions of bush life and scenery that were admired by Henry Lawson, but which stick in my throat even now. Instead, it has an altogether more modern sensibility in its writing, as that in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

There are other points of comparison with the Austen novel. For instance: here we have the young and unconventional Sybylla Melvyn struggling to find her own way in life, guided by a progressive, permissive father and a conservative, long-suffering mother; written as a biting satire on society’s conventions; where it is a truth universally acknowledged that an unmarried girl must be in want of a single man in possession of a good fortune.

And here’s Melvyn on that sordid business:

Girls! I do not address those feeble nauseating creepers who seem to fit into every one of the old ruts, the slimy hypocrites who are held up as womanly, but those who have some dash and spirit. You remember what we had to learn, girls, things that one cannot write in plain print or else truth would be abused as indecency; and there were other things too subtle to be expressed even to the elect, but which wielded the strongest subjecting influence. The dead dank gloom that settled on us upon learning that the eternal feminine was the infernal feminine! But Ma always said, “You’ll have to get used to it. There is no sense in acting like one possessed of a devil.”

(Melvyn is more Jane Eyre than Elizabeth Bennet. Another fruitful comparison for the book might be with one of its contemporaries, Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw.)

My Career Goes Bung had me laughing every couple of pages — and often laughing out loud. Melvyn has a biting wit, and she’s not afraid to bite, whether the target is hypocritical priests, amorous old landowners, or the ‘best’ of Sydney’s high society. The action moves from life on the farm, to the writing of My Brilliant Career, to the fallout in the bush of that novel’s publication, to Melvyn’s escape to the city — and her return in despair to the bush.

This novel contains rather than continues My Brilliant Career because, as it explains, the Sybylla Melvyn of that book is not the ‘real one’. For that book too was a satire, filled with rough types, its comic effect generated primarily through being written at all: ‘Such reality as mine would look mighty queer in a book, something like a swaggie at a Government House party, but it was as easy to describe as falling off a log.’ Unfortunately, the joke is on Melvyn, as country folk are only too ready to see themselves cast in a roman à clef.

This is something like the problem Franklin had, though the novel begs us to remember it is only ‘something like’, not identical. Franklin doesn’t take her metafiction on the problems of representation to the extremes of novels such as Don Quixote, but it is effective, or at least I found it so. In its own time, publication was delayed 44 years for, among other reasons, the possibility of libel, as publisher George Robertson again took a Franklin novel too literally, imagining that ‘Mr. Goring Hardy, Australia’s greatest literary man’ was the biographically quite different Banjo Paterson (who is, in any case, named as a separate personage within the novel). Bang! BUNG!


In 2009, I discovered that, in the preceding five-year period, only 8% of the books I had read were by women. In the following two years, I improved that percentage a little. It was only this year when I finally accepted that I just wasn’t doing well enough, and committed to making my reading at least 50% written by women. I’ve seen such targets accused of arbitrariness, yet it seems to me that all reading lists are arbitrary because there are more good books out there than can be read in a human lifetime.

I’ve found two things particularly hard. First, finding good books by women. Obviously my regular haunts were directing me towards male authors. It took time to find new sources of recommendations, especially because the world is so filled with recommendations for books written by men. Second, I started to resent the constant bombardment with those male recommendations. It seemed that if I didn’t read a good book by a woman, ‘the world’ didn’t care; if I didn’t read a good book by a man, I would be reminded daily that I should be reading it. I think this is why things like Meanjin’s recent Tournament of Books and the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers challenge are so important.

Ah, yes, the Australian Women Writers challenge: read three, six, ten, or more books written by Australian women in 2012; and review some of them. The objective is to counteract the phenomena I described above. To make it easier to find good books by women. To give daily reminders that there are books out there, by women, that are in want of reading. And to do so in a local context — a context that often makes writers doubly invisible, as both women and Australians.

I’m going to take the challenge, to help me to continue reading equally next year. This year, half of the books I have read were by women, and half of those by Australian women (or at least women who chose to publish in Australia):

Black GlassMeg Mundell
Machines for FeelingMireille Juchau
This Too Shall PassS.J. Finn
The Taste of River WaterCate Kennedy
NightsidersSue Isle
Indelible InkFiona McGregor
ButterflySonya Hartnett
Berlin SyndromeMelanie Joosten
BearingsLeah Swann
Five BellsGail Jones
Fall GirlToni Jordan
How a Moth Becomes a BoatJosephine Rowe
The Great FireShirley Hazzard
Working HotKathleen Mary Fallon
AsynchronyJosephine Rowe
East of Here, Close to WaterJosephine Rowe
TriptychKrissy Kneen
The Battle of the Sexes in Science FictionJustine Larbalestier

That’s eighteen books, a mix of the literary and the speculative. So, as a Dabbler in more than one genre, I will be attempting in 2012 to read at the Franklin-fantastic level — to read ten and review at least four books. The latter being where this weblog comes in.

I can’t promise more than four reviews (at least one of which should be of substantial length) so updates will not be frequent. The first might not even appear until March. Reviews will be shared via the POST REVIEW box on the 2012 Challenge page, and the #aww2012 hashtag on Twitter.

This weblog doesn’t host comments, but please email me, tweet me, post about me on your own weblog. I promise that I’ll write back, and post links or ‘letters to the editor’ on this blog when appropriate.

What will I be reading in the new year? I’m not sure yet, but I’ll probably start with My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, and The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood.

Finally, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Lhuede for organising the challenge. It’s a big thing, and, I think, very important. I hope lots more people sign up for it.