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Category Archive for 'Australia'

Like so many others who read voraciously – all kinds of books, from experimental modern fiction to the classics, from thoughtful novels of ideas to thrillers, and from analytical non-fiction to other-worldly fantasy – I have often been asked to name my favorite author, as if it were possible to choose just one. And as Lloyd Alexander points out above, I tend to read according to mood and what appeals at different stages of my life. My all-time favorite books, however, tend to be those which deal with ideas in a unique way, capturing my imagination at the same time that they convey a new slant on a universal theme. If they are also written with a touch of humor, so much the better. Among my long-time, special favorites are several authors who are little known in the United States, authors whose unique work has continually entertained and surprised me, often moving me to tears at the same time that it has left me with a smile on my face.

Tom Winton was a student of Elizabeth Jolley at Curtin University on the west coast of Australia. Photo by Denise Fitch. One such author is Australian author Elizabeth Jolley (1923 – 2007). Simultaneously daring and subtle, insightful and bold, sensitive and sometimes sexy Jolley’s novels are absorbing and satisfying on many levels, and I hope I’ll persuade a few who are unfamiliar with her to take a look at her novels..

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The “sensitivity” of Japanese soldiers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate in the novel were lost on the allied Prisoners of War under their control, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life.

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Dark, stark and potent in its story and its message, Past the Shallows reduces life to its most basic elements as perceived by two young brothers, Miles and Harry Curren, who share the story of their uncertain lives on an island at the tail end of the inhabited world. Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia, where their father fishes for abalone in the dark water, offers no refuge, either physically or emotionally from fate and the elements – just open water from there all the way to Antarctica. As difficult as the setting may be, the boys’ dysfunctional family is worse. The boy’s father, a threatening and often intemperate “hard man,” offers the young boys no emotional refuge from difficult lives made worse by his drinking and irrational behavior. Their older brother Joe is living at his grandfather’s house, clearing it out after his death. Their mother died so long ago that they remember almost nothing of her or the car crash which killed her, just occasional flashes of memory of the ride they shared with her up to the fatal moment. The only woman with whom they have any contact is their Aunty Jean, whose own attitudes toward them alternate between callous indifference and the kind of caring that usually arises more from obligation than from love. There is no softness, no caring love from anyone in their lives. Lovers of literary fiction will find this novel a welcome change from some of the stylized narratives and artificial constructs which sometimes pass for “literary,” and book clubs – and teachers of young adults – will find this novel a never-ending source of lively discussion.

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From September, 1829, until early 1831, the British government overseeing the rule of Tasmania as part of its Australian colony, engaged in establishing the shameful “Black Line,” part of its Black War to remove all blacks in Tasmania. Numerous clans of aborigines, who hunted and farmed “their” Tasmanian lands at will for uncounted generations learned to hate the whites who appropriated their lands at will, destroyed their farms and habitat, and killed them and their families to take over their traditional lands. Rohan Wilson, a Tasmanian himself, tells the brutal story of the Black Line in the northeast part of Tasmania, in which a white farmer, John Batman, and Manalargena, an aborigine leader, among others, engage in a genocide sanctioned by Colonial Governor George Arthur on behalf of the British crown. As Wilson presents the bloody story of this period, he is sensitive to the historical record, telling of events as they happened, while also paying attention to the incalculable effects of this war on the aborigine people, either through warfare or through the transporting of the few survivors of this war to mainland Australia. His main characters are real and are presented realistically, not as stereotypes of good and evil as they struggle to survive.

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Winner of the prestigious Patrick White Award in her native Australia, Christina Stead (1902 – 1983), acclaimed in England and Australia, still remains unknown to most readers in the United States, and that’s a shame. Her 1973 novel The Little Hotel, given to me by a friend from England, reveals her deliciously twisted sense of humor, her pointed social satire, and her vividly depicted but often very sad characters, and I am now poring through Amazon’s Marketplace listings to find as many of her other sadly neglected novels as I can. In this novel, set in a small hotel on Lake Geneva in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Stead introduces an assortment of bizarre characters who live at the small Hotel Swiss-Touring for various lengths of time, some of them for a season, and a few as residents. Most of them are there because they cannot afford the more elegant accommodations to which they have been accustomed, though the twenty-six-year-old hotelkeeper, Selda Bonnard, and her slightly older husband Roger do their best to meet their guests’ needs. Touring artists associated with a local nightclub, and the road companies that play the casino, also occupy the hotel, residing on another floor above the guests. All of Stead’s characters are flawed, and as all are shown in intimate scenes in which they reveal themselves, at least to the reader, they inspire a kind of empathy within the reader – and even a kind of pervading sadness – which does not often happen within social satire, which is usually characterized by sterotypes.

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