Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Daniel Pinkwater's 1976 young adult novel, Lizard Music, is a delightfully trippy and inventive story perfectly suited to fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. 

Eleven-year-old Victor’s parents are having some kind of marital trouble and decide to take a vacation by themselves, leaving their children at home. Victor's seventeen-year-old sister, Leslie, is left in charge. Once their parents leave, fast-track Leslie promptly announces she's splitting, taking off on a camping trip to Cape Cod with her hippie friends. She threatens him with dire consequences should he squeal.

Left alone in the house, Victor sees things aren’t so bad. He takes to eating pre-packaged instant dinners and watching lots of late night television. Victor loves television and is a big Walter Cronkite fan. One night, after the last program has run, he sees the most bizarre thing. It’s a group of actual lizards, on the television, playing music. The music is a bit weird to begin with, but then Victor finds he doesn’t mind it so much.

The lizard music is just the beginning of a series of strange and uncanny events. Victor meets “the chicken man”, an elderly Black man whose pet chicken, Claudia, sits under his hat. The Chicken Man, a mercurial figure who keeps popping up in different guises, eventually takes Victor to a place called Invisible Island, which is situated in the middle of Lake Mishagoo. On this island, which floats back and forth on the lakes, there lives a vibrant lizard community. They worship chickens, amongst other strange behaviour.

Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music (1976) is a fun, bizarre, hallucinatory story that gets weirder and weirder, moving from dull, predictable suburbia to a surreal and comic lizard civilisation, complete with mystical places of worship. Written as a young adult novel, it’s also perfectly suited to adult readers. Fans of Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut will find much to enjoy in Pinkwater’s out-of-the-box imagination and eccentric characters.

For anyone who has ever felt themselves to be a fringe dweller, outsider or misfit, Daniel Pinkwater will offer solace with his reassuringly kooky world. A true original.

Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater. Published by New York Review Books. ISBN: 9781681371849 RRP: $16.99

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Friday, August 10, 2018

The Family Tree, by Mal Peet

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A sensitive novella about family breakdown. 

A young man, Ben, is driving in a part of town he doesn't usually visit, a place where his childhood home still stands. On a whim, he decides to make a turn and visit his old house. He immediately regrets his decision as painful memories come rushing back. He remembers his mother and father and their difficult relationship which ended whilst living in the house. Ben especially remembers the treehouse outside, called “The Nest”. His father built it for him and spent much time there himself, trying to escape his problems. When Ben looks over The Nest, now belonging to a new family who have bought the property, he is dismayed at how run down it has become. It obviously has no value for the new family, but means so much to Ben.

The Family Tree, a novella for young adult readers, is a sensitive and heart-wrenching story of family breakdown and the special childhood places that can offer solace from a world of troubles. Mal Peet has written a sparse yet emotionally resonant story, capturing the trauma of watching a parents' marriage disintegrate . Emma Shoard's painterly, expressionistic illustrations provide a perfect match for Peet's sparse prose.

The Family Tree, by Mal Peet. Published by Barrington Stoke. ISBN: 9781781128053 RRP: $16.99

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books August Newsletter - featuring Beck Dorey-Stein

In the August edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to former Obama administration staffer and writer, Beck Dorey-Stein, about her tell-all memoir From the Corner of the Oval Office.

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North Melbourne Books Talks to Beck Dorey-Stein

North Melbourne Books: In 2012, quite by accident, you found yourself employed in the Obama administration as a stenographer. From the Corner of the Oval Office covers your five years travelling, recording and transcribing President Obama’s interviews, briefings, conference calls and speeches. The book is rich in detail: people, conversations and fly-on-the-wall observations. How did you get so much of it down on the page? Did you have any particular method?

Beck Dorey-Stein: My particular method was a frantic and inconsistent purging of emotion, mostly when I was feeling the most alienated. Whether it was writing at my kitchen table at sunrise or journaling in my bed at night, writing has always been my salve for scorching isolation. And while working at the White House as a stenographer was thrilling and a blindside tackle of honor and privilege, it was also profoundly isolating. I constantly thought to myself, “What am I doing here? And how did I get here? And where am I going?” Feeling like a weirdo outsider makes for lonely moments but also inspires lovely reasons to write.

NMB: The book is in many ways confessional. You reveal in compelling  detail the many twists and turns of your romantic relationships while working at the White House, in particular one with a fellow staffer. What made you want to write with such brutal honesty?

BDS: It’s the only way I will write. My tolerance for polished veneers is not great — mostly because perfect or impersonal is boring. Life is tough and magical and gross and funny and awkward and heartbreaking and beautiful...why pretend it’s anything less complicated when all the imperfections and struggles are what connect us?

NMB: It was interesting to read about the ambitious and career hungry people who throng the halls of power: despite their success, many are not particularly happy. Was that an irony that struck you particularly while working at such a high level? 

BDS: Yes, very much so, although Tennessee Williams had warned me in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” which I thankfully read on a beach the year before I moved to Washington.  Success is dangerous because, as Williams wrote, “Security is a kind of death...” My politically-driven friends knew they had peaked when they arrived at the White House and that’s as upsetting as it is wonderful. Struggle is key to survival because it sharpens our senses. It makes us fight tougher and love harder. Complacency, which so often chases success, is the true soul-crusher — not struggle or even failure.

NMB: Your book, while being essentially a memoir, is also a search for meaning. It asks what should we do with our working lives, how to spend our time most effectively. Is there a message you hope people take away from the book?

BDS: I learned from President Obama no one is too busy or important to be kind and respectful. It’s important to look up and recognize the humanity in each other. Be kind. It’s not that difficult.

I also learned from President Obama that you need to do the work if you want to get what you want. I lucked out with a Craigslist ad, but I’d still be typing other people’s thoughts and not writing my own words if I hadn’t hustled. Fight for what you want, sure, but more importantly, work for what you want. Our biggest adversaries are so often ourselves.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

BDS: I’m concurrently reading Alisyn Camerota’s Amanda Wakes Up  and Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defense. They are both a true joy and gift to read.

From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman's True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House, by Beck Dorey-Stein. RRP: $35

Monday, July 23, 2018

My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A young girl braves dangerous counterrevolutionary forces in the Cuban countryside in order to teach literacy.

It's 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora has joined a paramilitary group to spread literacy. Only two years previously, Fidel Castro had marched on Havana and ousted the corrupt, American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lora defies her father and commits to one year as a “brigadista”, an army member teaching literacy in the Cuban countryside. Even thought Batista has been defeated, there is still fighting and treachery going on. Young people have been tortured and executed. Even though Lora's role is to teach reading and writing, it's still a very dangerous undertaking.

American children's writer Katherine Paterson has crafted a seamless novel about a young girl's coming-of-age in a Cuba still torn by political strife. Based on interviews with Cuban friends and personal research, the novel has an effortless quality that makes it feel like it's based on personal experience. You'd never know the author is American and not Cuban. The portrait of Lora as a young girl who wants to do the right thing for her country, but is often scared by the very real possibility that she may be killed by the Batista forces, gives her an authentic feel.

My Brigadista Year doubles as a fascinating short history of the 1961 Cuban literacy program and inspiring story of an independent young girl, volunteering for a worthy cause and finding herself transformed by the experience.

My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406380811  RRP: $14.99

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work), by Gwynne Dyer

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Many words have been written about the Trump and Brexit phenomena, trying to find a logical reason for these seemingly irrational voter outbursts. Renowned Canadian journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer tackles the subject in Growing Pains.

From an historical perspective, Gwynne Dyer argues that humans are hard wired for an egalitarian way of life. Before the advent of agriculture, humans lived in bands of no more than a hundred people. Equality and co-operation allowed these smaller communities to survive. Then came the development of agriculture, the human population exploded and tough, brutal hierarchical political systems were needed to make large-scale civilisation work. Now, we are coming to another major crossroads in human development. We are returning to our egalitarian ways: societies everywhere aspire to have government by democracy.

How does this fit in with Trump and Brexit? Interestingly, Dyer calls Trump the canary in the coal mine. He has alerted us to the fact that a noxious gas has been allowed to infect the body politic. This noxious gas is an inequality that has been expanding for the past three decades. Neoliberalism, which came into full swing under Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, has seen worker wages stagnate, while the rich have gotten richer. Before this period of neoliberal economics, productivity gains were passed onto workers. Since the 1980s, those same productivity gains have gone to the top tier of earners. (Dyer presents stark statistics that show this erosion in worker pay packets, despite their contribution to the economy.)  Automation further threatens wages and jobs in the future.

So, according to Dyer, the reason for so much voter rage is simple: gross inequality, getting worse and worse over a long period. Furthermore, he demonstrates that political and economic elites have simply ignored this anger. Voters finally decided to trash this economic orthodoxy by voting Trump and Brexit.

How to restore the equilibrium? Dyer writes strongly in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a modest, regular living wage paid to all. A UBI won’t be a silver bullet, but it will be a way of reducing inequality and giving people back their dignity.

Gwynne Dyer’s writing is always punchy and witty. His work as an historian and close watcher of global politics gives his insights an added piquancy. Growing Pains is an arresting book, free of ideological cant. It will appeal to readers wanting fresh eyes looking at an often over analysed problem.

Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)
, by Gwynne Dyer. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322637 RRP: $29.99

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Small Country, by Gaël Faye

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The terrible events of the Rwandan genocide form the basis of this devastating coming-of-age story.

Gabriel, or Gaby, is ten-years-old. It’s 1992. His Rwandan mother fled her country in the 1960s due to political strife and took refuge in the neighbouring country of Burundi. She married Michel, a Frenchman, and the couple had two children. Rwanda is again descending into war. Genocide is being planned by the Hutus against the minority Tutsis, and this murderous politics is infecting Burundi. Fear is in the streets, people are being murdered and everyone has grown suspicious of each other.

Gaby and his small group of friends try to innoculate themselves against this poisonous environment, yet they are not successful. Innocence is irrevocabaly lost as they are all dragged into the terrible violence. His mother, or Maman, returns to Rwanda to try to locate missing Tutsi family members, but finds either their butchered remains or news of their murder. She turns inwards, unable to get over the horror of what she has seen.

French-Rwandan Gaël Faye’s debut novel, narrated in the first person by Gaby, is an unforgettable child’s account of war and its lasting psychological effects. The story is told in a light, simple language that develops in gravity as themes of war, mass murder and morality come to predominate. Faye’s descriptions of Burundi before the war, a child’s lost paradise, often have a restrained poetic quality about them.

The tragic events of the Rwandan genocide are made palpable, creating feelings of  grief and terror.

Small Country, by Gaël Faye. Published by Hogarth. ISBN: 9781784741594 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anthony Quinn entertains and informs in equal measure with Our Friends in Berlin, a sophisticated and intelligent thriller set in London during the early 1940s. 

London, 1941. Amy Strallen, a single woman in her late twenties, is running a marriage bureau with her friend Johanna Quartermaine. The bureau has been running for about two years and to the surprise of both women has been a roaring success. They had presumed that no one would want to get married during the war, but the opposite is the case. Life is short and precarious; Londoners living under bombardment are eager to find someone before fate intervenes.

Into Amy’s office one day walks Jack Hoste. He claims to be looking for a wife, but he’s a little odd. A little dull, too. Mysteriously Hoste starts bumping into Amy when she’s out of the office and the two strike up a friendship of sorts. It turns out Hoste works for the tax office and is trying to contact a certain Marita Pardoe, who is a friend of Amy’s. The tax office, apparently, owes Marita Pardoe’s husband a large sum of money. But the more Amy gets to know Jack Hoste, the more she finds out that her new friend is not all he seems. Is he a spy? And if so, which side is he working for, the British of the Nazis?

Our Friends in Berlin is a perfectly plotted espionage novel set in London during the bombing raids of the early forties. The story runs at a neat clip, with nicely paced twists and turns along the way without at all feeling contrived.

The novel’s great achievement is its authentic 1940s flavour. It captures  the mood and atmosphere of London during the blackouts – the smouldering ruins, the bombing casualties, the privations and the great fortitude of the people. Quinn’s language is uncanny in its fidelity to the period: it has the feel of Orwell’s early fiction, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, or a Dorothy Sayers thriller. The clever plot is nicely balanced against a cast of fully fleshed, three dimensional characters. Quinn writes women particularly well. The central figure of the novel, Amy Strallen, is drawn with great sympathy. The reader really walks in her shoes for the whole story, feeling her pains and disappointments, her rare moments of happiness and reprieve from war’s misery.

An espionage thriller set during the Second World War doesn’t seem to promise much beyond cheap thrills and cliches. Our Friends in Berlin is a very pleasant surprise, rich in psychological depth and aesthetic pleasures.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining yet informative novel about London during the war years.

Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781787330986 RRP: $32.99

Release date 16th June

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Cow Book, by John Connell

Staff review by Chris Saliba

John Connell describes six months on an Irish family farm, raising calves. An intimate portrait of rural life, its triumphs and heartaches.

After years spent working in Australia and Canada, twenty-nine-year old John Connell decided to move back to his parents’ farm in his native Ireland. The family have been farmers for generations, raising cattle and sheep for sale at market. The Cow Book covers a six-month period and reads like a series of short, freewheeling essays on farming life. Interspersed with the essays is a potted history of the cow, from myths and legends, to how the cow helped colonial expansion, and finally today, to the horrors of factory farming, where cows live their entire lives in brutal feedlots.

Raising calves for sale is hard, messy, dirty work. The book opens with a full-blown description of a calf being delivered. The author’s arm reaches into the cow’s passage and rummages around for the calf’s feet, then pulls it out, trying not to kill the calf in the process.

The calves are grown to about 14 months old, then sold at market. When the calves are young, they must have their horns removed. The normal practice was once sawing them off, but now they are burnt off, which is deemed more humane.

There are dangers involved in farming that city dwellers probably never think of. Cows produce a lot of excrement, which is kept in slurry pits. When the excrement is removed, it has to be stirred up first. One farmer and his two sons were performing this work when their dog fell into the pit. The father tried to rescue the dog, but the powerful methane gas knocked him out and killed him. The two sons died in the same way, trying to save their father. They had no hope against the noxious fumes (no wonder they are so environmentally damaging.)

Despite the subject matter, full of so much death, disease, excrement and bodily fluids, John Connell has written a beautiful and moving memoir. The descriptions of the cows, their personalities, intelligence and ability to remember, induces great respect for these wonderful creatures. At one point Connell wishes that he could communicate with the cows; at another he rather whimsically describes the cows in the field “eating and singing to one another”. Of the family's prize winning bull, Eric, Connell writes, “And so, golden and strong, smelling of rose petal and hibiscus, we took Eric to the show.”

The central drama of The Cow Book is the difficult relationship Connell has with his father. The two often fight, or when they’re not fighting, there are simmering tensions. The son wonders whether he will keep on with the farming life; if he does, he’s committed to producing organic meat. (Interestingly, Connell refuses to eat pork because of ethical concerns he has with the way pigs are farmed.)

The Cow Book is written in beautifully simple, sing-song like prose. Both engaging and instructive, this memoir of farm and family is an eye-opener onto rural life.

The Cow Book, by John Connell. Published by Granta. ISBN: 9781783784172 RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The first in a series of three autobiographical novels by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes), A Vicarage Family concentrates on the years leading up to the First World War.

The Strangeway family – Isobel, Victoria, Louise and the youngest, Dick – are moving to Eastborne. Their father, a local vicar, has received a new posting. This new job will be good for his career, as it's a bigger vicarage, and could even lead to him becoming a bishop. They are all good and well behaved children, except for Victoria (who we learn in the Streatfeild's author's note is based on herself.) Vicky is argumentative, rebellious and never quite happy. She's resentful of her teachers and somewhat jealous of her sisters, who she sees as being prettier and more talented than herself. For that's her major problem, a mildly existential one: she doesn't know what she's to be in life. Gradually, however, she begins to see that she might have talent as a writer. Her cousin, John, has been giving her books and Vicky has been secretly reading them, even memorising poetry.

While A Vicarage Family reads like a perfectly constructed children's novel, with its well defined characters, differing points of view and naturalistic prose, the book is often suffused with a realism and candour that has the power to shock. Streatfeild, while looking back to her youth during the 1910s, is critical of the mores and attitudes of the times. When Vicky's younger brother Dick is sent to boarding school, it is noted “To neither parent did it seem cruel to send little home-loving Dick to boarding school while still a mere baby.” In another passage Streatfeild writes with a groan of the simple, conservative ways of the vicarage. “God was in his Heaven; the King on his throne; you voted Conservative; the English were the finest people in the world; there was no grey about it - you were right or you were wrong.” The novel also discusses on many occasions the status of women, how little was expected of them, how they were to hope for little for themselves. When the children's father talks about the Suffragettes, active at that time, it is in an angry voice. “They want to behave like men and vote for members of Parliament – which would mean blue murder – the ruin of the country.”

Despite Vicky's many miseries and disappointments, her clashes with authority and self-inflicted wounds, A Vicarage Family still has an idyllic feel about it, of a time when things may have been frustrating, but family in the end was there to protect and cosset you from life's larger dangers. Streatfeild finishes her story in 1914. Suddenly the war appears and the cosy, quite normal world of the vicarage, is turned upside down with a horror never anticipated and little understood.

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141368665 RRP: $19.99

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

North Melbourne Books July Newsletter - featuring Robyn Cadwallader

In the July edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to novelist and poet Robyn Cadwallader.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Robyn Cadwallader

London, 1321. A group of manuscript illuminators are working in a small stationer’s shop in Paternoster Row to complete a commission for a noblewoman, Mathilda. It is to be a prayer book, called a Book of Hours. John Dancaster, the master limner, is struggling to produce his best work, while the two apprentices Nick (John’s son) and Will, a haunted man with a past, all have problems of their own which threaten the completion of the manuscript. John’s wife, Gemma, a formidable intellect and talent in her own right, must hide her own considerable input into the creation of the manuscript.

What inspired you to write this story?

The initial inspiration for Book of Colours was curiosity and a question. I’ve been studying medieval literature for many years, and I’ve often come across beautifully decorated manuscripts, especially books of hours, prayer books made for the devotions of noble women. They are beautiful: all written on parchment, prayers copied carefully, and decorated by hand: a finely decorated capital or a larger picture, illuminated with gold leaf, of Christ, Mary or the saints, and some delicate foliage in the borders.

But it was the surprise of seeing thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts with a carnival of life in the margins that really had me intrigued: jugglers, dancers, cock fights, ball games; animal fables, where animals apparently wreak revenge on humans (Monty Python’s killer rabbit comes straight from a medieval manuscript!); dragons and all manner of fantastical beasts, and even scenes of sin, like a monk and a nun having sex.

All of this in a beautiful and expensive prayer book intended for a woman! How could this be? What was the purpose of such play and fantasy? Scholars have theories, but no one knows for sure. The margins seemed to resist the authority of the centre, to say that there is more to devotion than paintings of holy figures. I love those fault lines, the places where expectations are undermined, forcing us to rethink our assumptions. What rich material to explore!

Book of Colours is richly imagined, everything from the sensuous descriptions of manuscript making to the turbulent politics of the time. How did you go about researching the book?

First of all, I was fortunate to have visited London and Cambridge. London has obviously grown enormously, and most of the original buildings are gone. But with my map of fourteenth-century London in my hand, I walked the streets — Cheapside, Old Change and Paternoster Row, and tried to imagine what it would have been like. Even when the city has changed, there’s something about the feeling of old streets and lanes, and especially the churches, of course, that give a sense of age sunken into the stones.

Beyond that, it was reading, reading, reading. And my imagination. I read about drainage, public hygiene, hospitals, health, markets, by-laws about privies, court rolls describing crimes, the penalties for fraudulent trading, brothels, prostitution, ale-making …. on and on. But the details about the book trade are fairly sparse, so I had to infer from the little I did know. I had to read enough to find my framework and then imagine inside that. In the end, it was me and my imagination. We’ll never know exactly what Paternoster Row looked like, but I know what my Paternoster Row and the Dancaster atelier are like.

For the illuminations themselves, I was incredibly fortunate to hold and turn the pages of some of the original fourteenth-century manuscripts in the Manuscripts Room of the British Library. I watched artists paint delicate and ornate capitals and gild the page, and I tried my hand with a quill. I read all about the various kinds of pigments and their preparation in the medieval world; the program of decoration, and the reasons why particular illuminations were included in books for women. But finally, once I had all that information, I imagined the sensuous relationship each of my limners had with the page and the paint at their desk.

Your novel has a lot of feminist themes. The reader can’t help but feel deeply for Gemma, the wife of the master limner, John Dancaster. She’s a great creative force, but must keep up appearances as a devout medieval wife. What did you hope to show with your portrayal of
Gemma and her struggles? 

History is, as they say, written by the winners, so our information about the lives and experiences of women is limited — although there is now, fortunately, a strong wave of scholarly research on women in the Middle Ages. I’m intrigued by the ways ordinary women encountered and perhaps challenged the patriarchal structures of the medieval world. What happened when a woman’s own desires, interests and talents would not be accepted or enabled by social structures?

I would like to give such women a voice and, as far as possible, to honour their experience. My starting point in writing fiction set in the Middle Ages is to be as authentic to the period as I can be; I do not want to exploit women of the past in order to tell a story the way I would like it to be. It is clear from research that women involved in crafts worked alongside men, usually a family member such as husband or father, but were unable to become full members of craft guilds, organisations similar to our unions. So, many of them would have straddled the world of home and work, and possessed many of the same skills as men, but without the power to influence their work situation.

My interest in portraying Gemma is to explore that territory, and to do so in a way that is true to the period, inferring from thorough research. I imagine many women were simply frustrated and many others were never able to find their way beyond the everyday struggle for survival to even contemplate exploring their own talent. Perhaps some challenged social structures head-on, but I think it is more likely (and a more interesting area to explore in a novel) that women, like Gemma, sought to explore their own abilities within the limitations of their situation, nudging the limits where possible.

I’ve also sought to make Gemma a whole character, with strengths and limitations —more than simply a cipher for the lack of recognition of women. As I began writing, Gemma’s voice arose quite quickly as someone with energy and intelligence, shot through with anger. Her frustration at having her skills unrecognised has an effect on her behavior toward those around her, and she learns a bitter lesson about the need to separate her own needs from those of her children, her daughter especially. Her struggles feel very human to me. As the novel continues, it is apparent that the impact of patriarchy is not only felt by women, but will impact her husband and the family business.

The novel has a rather complicated structure, as it moves back and forth between two time periods in the 1320s. What was the writing process like? Was there a lot of planning? 

I don’t plan my novels, so there is a lot of editing and adjusting after the first draft! Nonetheless, I was clear from the outset that I wanted to show the ways that the book could create a kind of ‘conversation’ between the illuminators and the book’s patron, even though they would most likely never meet. The pictures are the meeting point for both creator and reader, and show up their similarities and their  differences.

Mathilda, the book’s patron, and Gemma, one of the illuminators, are from quite distinct classes and I was interested in the ways in which their experiences were different, and yet, as women in a patriarchal world, also very alike. In terms of the creation of the decorated book, I wanted to explore the idea that, no matter how authoritative a text (both word and image) might be, especially a religious one, the writer and artist cannot control the way a reader will understand their work. Thus, even though the illuminators are instructed to paint according to strict conventions, Mathilda, understands and interprets each picture both according to what she has been taught, but more importantly, thorough her own needs and concerns at the time. In a similar way, as the illuminators paint, each image has the potential to stir memories and concerns, and these will be reflected in the details of the pictures they create.

So I did have a general structure in mind where Mathilda’s experience of reading the book, page by page, would be woven through the main narrative of the book’s creation, and the two timelines would dovetail toward the end. It was, of course, easier in theory than in practice, and I needed to rethink and reorganise many chapters.

I used the pictures in the book as ‘touchstones’, the points where the two timelines would meet. I especially enjoyed writing these parts of the novel — the scenes where an illuminator would paint a picture, and I could explore their feelings and memories, but in the next chapter or so, describe Mathilda viewing the very same picture with different, or perhaps similar thoughts and feelings.

The hardest aspect was that the timelines move at a different pace, but both needed to maintain forward movement. This theme is a reminder that once a work of art is made and sent into the world, the creator has no control over the ways it will be received — salutary for a novelist, but very true, I think.

And I can’t finish without a word of praise for Scrivener, a word-processing program for writers. It was a huge help, enabling me to see the big picture of the whole novel, and its various chapters and their dates, in outline, and then to shift around scenes or even paragraphs.

What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

I have just finished Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods and enjoyed it immensely. Jenny has such a talent for dialogue and for noticing the fine, incidental details that make up so much of our lives. So often I felt myself in a lounge room, or in a garden, standing among the characters.

I’ve just begun George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and, even though I’ve read that it’s difficult, I feel completely absorbed in its world. What extraordinary imagination. It encourages me to take more risks in my writing!

And even though I normally don’t read more than one novel at a time, I’m also reading The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizedah because I’ve been asked to review it. I do like its shifting narratives and various voices, though I find the details of battles and military negotiations less interesting than Jeanne herself.

Book of Colours, by Robyn Cadwallader. Published by HarperCollins. $32.99

From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman's True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House, by Beck Dorey-Stein

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A funny, whip-smart, warts-and-all memoir from inside the Obama White House.

In 2012 Beck Dorey-Stein found her career in a bit of slump and didn’t know what to do. Answering an ad on Craigslist for a stenographer at a law firm, she halfheartedly applied. To her surprise, she soon found out the job was actually working for the Obama administration. Her job involved a jet set lifestyle, following the president and his entourage around the world, recording interviews and press conferences, then typing up the transcripts.

It was a dream job: meeting important people, travelling to amazing places, making great friends. But there was a down side when the private and professional became intertwined. Dorey-Stein started a romantic relationship with one of the male staffers. It would put her on an emotional roller coaster that didn’t let up for the five years she worked for Obama.

In this very confessional, warts-and-all memoir, Dorey-Stein lays it all bare: the mistakes she made in pursuing the wrong man, the hurts she suffered, the friends she betrayed. The book is also a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall peek into how a slick, well oiled presidential machine works. There are the hierarchies, the protocols, the career chess moves. At times, Dorey-Stein paints a bleak picture of  Washington DC culture, full of ambitious, successful people who are not particularly happy.

From the Corner of the Oval Office
is written in a punchy, quick-witted style. It’s breezy and candid. Once opened, you won’t be able to put it down.

From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman's True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House, by Beck Dorey-Stein. Published by Bantam. ISBN: 9781787630888 RRP: $35 

Release date: 16th July

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber argues that automation has already created mass unemployment, but the economy has filled the gap with dummy jobs. 

Have you ever worked a job that didn’t seem necessary at all? In fact, it was a complete mystery as to why the job was created in the first place? Or has your workplace laboured under an immense weight of pointless bureaucracy – box ticking and form filling? Have you ever found it affecting your mental health, driving you positively mad? Then David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is just for you.

The book had its genesis in an earlier article Graeber wrote, speculating that a high percentage of jobs in the modern economy were essentially dummy jobs made up of useless busywork. The article was published widely and garnered a wealth of interesting responses and testimonials from readers who had done jobs they deemed pointless. Generous portions of the book are made up of frustrated employees explaining their mind numbing jobs that involve, for the most part, pretending to be busy while actually having nothing to do. Ironically, these easygoing “dream” jobs end up being quite stressful and people quit for lower paid, more meaningful work.

To test the hypothesis that a large portion of jobs are fake, a British pollster ran a question from Graeber’s original article, asking respondents if they thought their jobs contributed anything worthwhile to society or had any use. A staggering 37 per cent said they felt their jobs were pointless.

A book about useless jobs sounds like a bit of a dummy spit, but Graeber expands this single theme into an overwhelmingly fascinating thesis. British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s that automation would kill off the need to work long hours, and that in the future people would only work 15-20 hours per week. Graeber maintains that this is exactly what has happened. Automation and productivity gains have produced so much wealth we simply don’t need to work long hours. Writes Graeber:

“Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.”

Bullshit Jobs discusses many other interesting facets of work, such as the value we give particular kinds of work (why are the useful professions, such as childcare and nursing, underpaid?), the mental health aspects of performing useless tasks and our general attitude to work (we see it as punitive and yet something everyone must be made to endure).

This is a totally liberating book that will make you rethink how the economy works and how it could be re-configured to serve us better. Graeber has a fine, incisive mind; every page offers original ideas and a unique perspective.

I wish everyone would read this book.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241263884  RRP: $49.99

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The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese, by Moreno Giovannoni

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Melbourne writer Moreno Giovannoni dazzles with this impressive debut.

Writer and translator Moreno Giovannoni starts his collection of interconnected short stories with a character named Ugo. Ugo is ninety years old, born in the Tuscan village of San Ginese in 1927 and migrating to Australia in 1957. He tells the reader that he has written the following stories himself, with a few contributions from fellow villagers, and had them translated into English. His own writing skills are fairly rudimentary, he confesses, but assures that the translator has added some literary finesse.

Village life in San Ginese is noisy, earthy and gossipy. The agricultural clock governs everything: sowing vegetables, tending animals, working olive groves, separating wheat from chaff by hand. The sweet fecundity of the earth is matched by its opposite: cesspits, fertilizer and excrement. (In one story the noxious gases from so much bodily waste creates an explosion). Life may be poor, but it is also good, full of wine, wheels of pecorino, slabs of polenta and dried figs. Populating this rich, fertile land is a colorful cast of characters, everyone from pig merchants to chaplains.

The Fireflies of Autumn, Giovannoni's debut work of fiction, is wonderfully accomplished, creating a fully realised, self-contained world. The prose is gently ironic and rich. Readers longing for a transformative experience will find it in spades here.

The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese, by Moreno Giovannoni. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863959940  RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House, by Shoukei Matsumoto

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, explains the spiritual benefits of cleaning your house.

In this short, easy to read book, Shin-Buddhist Shoukei Matsumoto does two things. Firstly, he provides a fascinating glimpse of temple life for a Japanese monk. There are the daily routines, the way meals are prepared and the tools, clothing and utensils that are used. Matsumoto also gives some impression of the gentle, reflective atmosphere of the temple: incense, polished floors and a respect and appreciation of simple objects.

Secondly, Matsumoto explains some aspects of Buddhist philosophy. We learn the importance of cleanliness and how keeping our environment neat and orderly reflects our respect not just for objects, but for people as well.  (“People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people.”) A constant refrain of the book is how regular cleaning, in an almost ritual-like manner, will not only keep the house clean, it will also keep you heart pure.

Your everyday domestic chores will become a way to clean your heart.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind is a captivating little guide to the good life. It comes with lovely illustrations and practical tips on all sorts of cleaning. It will give you a lightness of being after having read it.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, by Shoukei Matsumoto. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9781846149696  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Japanese authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga present the ideas of Austrian psychologist and philosopher Alfred Adler in the form of a dialogue.

Along with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Alfred Adler (1870-1937) is considered one of the greats of psychology. In The Courage to be Disliked, Kishimi and Koga distil Adler's key ideas and theories into an accessible dialogue between a youth and a philosopher. The youth and philosopher meet over five nights, where the philosopher puts forward the Adlerian recipe for a happy and contented life, while the youth argues and disputes many of the central tenets of this school of thought. In the end, over much intense discussion, the youth is converted to this new way of thinking.

The main point of departure that Adler makes from Freud and Jung is his denial of the importance of past traumas in our psychological make-up. The Freudian belief that past traumas affect us deeply is known as an “aetiology”, or cause and effect. Adler, by contrast, maintains past traumas are not so significant and that we often use past traumas as an excuse to avoid performing important tasks (social engagements, for example, or not applying for a new job). Adler calls this a “teleology”.

So, we avoid perfoming life's tasks and blame events from our past. Another main cause for inaction is our fear of what others think. We are all in competition with one another, often judging and assessing our social standing. Adler says that our interpersonal relationships are at the core of all our problems. The solution to this is to concentrate only on our own tasks in life and find the courage to be disliked by others.

The final plank of the Adlerian philosophy is something called “community feeling”. While we are encouraged to find some distance from others, and to disentangle ourselves from feelings of either inferiority or superiority, we should imagine that we belong to one large global community. The main goal should be to concentrate on how we are useful to others. This will lead to a simpler and happier life.

The Courage to be Disliked provides an engaging and at times challenging philosophical dialogue. Many of the complex emotional states that are described, the feelings we keep hidden from others, ring true and also explain some of our darker motives. The philosophy of Adler, as it is distilled here, really strives for a balance between not worrying too much about what others think and being active members of our communities. It's about being close to people, but not too dependent on their opinions of us.

A self-help book that resonates deeply because of the elemental truths it speaks about the human condition.

The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781760630492 RRP: $24.99

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