Category Archives: In Review

Chubby mangoes

 

The Coconut Children (2020) published by Vintage (Penguin Random House Australia) amalgamates an intense teen spirit that breaks through intergenerational trauma, lyrical prose, and an incredible human insight that belies the author’s age. Essentially a bildungsroman novel that you won’t find in the YA section of your favourite bookstore or library due to its sophistication. Pham is now just nineteen but was only a teeny sixteen when she penned the first draft. Set in Sydney’s Cabramatta in the late 1990’s the story follows sixteen year old Sonny and her childhood friend Vince as they navigate their journey back to each other after Vince’s two year stint in juvie. Pham’s voice is unique and quite unforgettable. Her mangoes are chubby and her handsome troubled boy drinks sugar cane juice.  It is set firmly in the present as we only get the odd rare glimpse of the past, such is the pain it represents. The story of Sonny and Vince unfolds and takes flight from under the heavy blanket of traumata their parents and their wider community, experienced as Vietnamese refugees. Balancing the trauma is the beauty of the writing and arc, the teenage crush we are introduced to at the beginning and the depth of the real connection that is realised, can only be revered and coveted. Well done Vivian Pham.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness embodies the zeitgeist that was the horror of King Leopold’s imperialism.

The astounding gaps in knowledge in our educators are proof that falsehoods invade the historical record like a global pandemic that has been spreading via community transmission for hundreds of years without pause. The order of the day may well be a fictional novel embodying the zeitgeist that was the horror of imperialism in the heart of the Congo in Central Africa so look no further than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). I was planning on posting a review on Dark Emu (2014) by Bruce Pascoe (still to come), but I have just read a confessional social media post of a ‘British History teacher’ on a group page for Library Professionals, admitting that she did not know who King Leopold was until just a few days ago. I was shocked, and then I wasn’t. In 1988 in VCE (Year 12) Art History I was taught that the European painters who accompanied the colonialists on tall ships and painted the Australian landscape were not that great (even though they hang in our national galleries) as they overlaid what they saw with their European sensibilities of what a landscape should look like. (Oh how very liberal of our teachers to critique the colonist collaborators). Of course they were capable of painting what they saw! To admit that though is to admit that indigenous people cleared areas of vegetation, and that the landscape vistas that these white artists were privileged beyond words to witness were, wait for it, clearly managed and maintained and done so for reasons beyond their comprehension. (Thank you Bruce Pascoe). Not just an omission in education, but at some point in the past, lies! All lies!

Conrad’s writing is other worldly, intense and short, a mere eighty pages, a novella. Every turn of phrase is worth savouring so if you find it hard work consider doing what I did and retreat to the audio book. Once released from that work, (and the anxiety of several hundred pages of scholarly text that made up the volume and weight in my hands) I was able to properly comprehend Conrad’s phantasmagoric story and appreciate his depiction of the madness of Mr Kurtz, and his journey to get to him (metaphorically and physically), through the eyes of his protagonist, Charles Marlow. Many of you may be more familiar with the film adaption Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, (which also garnered critical acclaim) in which the mise en scene is reimagined in Cambodia, and Marlon Brando’s utterance of ‘horror, oh the horror’. The content is horrendous albeit fascinating, and the writing incomparable. If you’re particularly self motivated to self educate this may be the book for you – if not google King Leopold.

The loudness of unsaid things

In the midst of ISO I was prompted to go online shopping for some new books (in spite of my substantial TBR stack-s) by @louisadeaseyauthor and her blog advice to list ‘comparative titles’ on your book proposal. Knowing that such a beast is a wonderful tool to realise the structure of one’s own manuscript and its place in the great scheme of things, aka the book market I read with interest and quickly translated my first move into ‘I must have new books’. In a few clicks I found The Loudness of Unsaid Things, the debut novel from Hilde Hinton, released in April by @hachetteaustralia. With a fantastic title, and a protagonist that visits her mother within the walls of a ‘mind-hospital’, a theme I know intimately, it was carted without a moments hesitation. Hinton doesn’t disappoint. Her writing is authentic, imaginative, and clever. Her literary device of a secondary narrative is quite brilliant in its ambiguity and its simplicity. There was a small section near the beginning where I fretted for a few pages that we would spend too much time in the protagonist’s juvenile perspective, in spite of the page turning story that was unfolding. I would like to admit to and apologise for my unfounded fears that this book would end up on my half-read pile-s. Hinton’s novel turned out to be a great read and an inspiration to my own writing to boot. I finished it in under twenty-four hours, with tears aplenty. Seriously, there isn’t a writing mode more attuned to getting the feels than a well written fictionalised memoir, and Hinton’s brilliance in this regard is a wonderful homage to empathy – at every opportunity without exception. I went looking and found a story on Hinton, by Jo Abi, published prior to the release. ‘It took her six months to write the first draft, the story of which was based on three pieces of writing she had done years ago that she deemed “the best things I’d ever written” which didn’t tie together well, but she was determined to use them all.’ Oh how the writer’s soul sings when she realises she is not alone!

That Deadman Dance

That Deadman Dance (2010) by Kim Scott, a scholar and a descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia, published by picadoraustralia, won among many awards, the 2011 Miles Franklin award for Literature. I am embarrassed to admit though that had this book not been on the reading list for my Australian Literature unit during my undergraduate degree I might not have ever read it. That Deadman Dance is an exquisite reimagining of a first contact story told through both a white and an indigenous perspective and asks some big questions through the detailed creative showing (and not didactically) of what transpired. Scott depicts the gamut of human character in both races and leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense and a better understanding of the missed opportunities of our past. The heartbreaking glimpse of what could have been has stayed with me, years after the first reading. “We learned your words and songs and stories and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.” As readers we can choose what we read with consideration, we can choose with a willingness to listen to perspectives that are different to our own lived experience. What we read is an integral path to learning from the past so we can do better tomorrow.

Explaining the Heaven

Occasionally, if we are lucky during our bibliographical exploratory journey the universe may drop into our laps an extraordinary gem. Books which blow us a little closer to the stars.  I am currently reading Jack Lynch’s You Could Look it Up (2016) published by Bloomsbury Press, which explores ‘The reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia’. It sounds rather like a infinite uninhabited desert, full of dusty relics but it’s not. The structure of Lynch’s book is attention grabbing and bursting with humanity from the get go. He groups together two carefully selected reference ‘books’ in each of the twenty-four chapters, (in the process of discarding a good number of equally fascinating ones by his own admission) with a ‘half’ chapter between each. These half chapters explore themes such as ‘The Dictionary Gets its day in Court’, and ‘Ignorance, Pure Ignorance: Of Omissions, Ambiguities, and Plain Old Blunders.’ Some of the ‘books’ featured are in fact volumes of tablets depicting ancient laws (as brutal as you can imagine) and dictionaries or simply lists of words. Chapter twenty is ‘Modern Materia Medica’, where Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter’s Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical (1858), aka Gray’s Anatomy (no it is not just a television show) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952) appear together. It is followed by chapter twenty and a half; ‘Incomplete and Abandoned Projects’, which begins with, ‘In the back alleys of intellectual history are scattered the abandoned wrecks of would-be dictionaries and encyclopedias.’ I find myself compelled to share that never before has a non-fiction book driven me to bed at such an early hour for the sole purpose of reading, or to spontaneously write an unsolicited review in the wee hours. I am usually decidedly more inclined to fall asleep reading fiction or memoir.

What Lynch also offers is some shooting stars, some extra special words pulled back from long ago to make us weep from the sheer beauty of them. In chapter two ‘In the beginning was the word; The first dictionaries’, Lynch gives us Erya an ancient Chinese dictionary that dates back (unconfirmed) to around third century B.C.E.

Poetry or dictionary? You decide:

Explaining the Heaven

‘Round hollow and very blue, this is Heaven. In springtime, Heaven is blue; in summertime, bright; in autumn, clear, in wintertime, Heaven is wide up. These are the four seasons. In springtime, there is a greening sun-warmth; in summer, a reddish enlightening; in autumn a blank storing; and in winter a dark blossom. If all these expressions are harmonious, (the year) is called “jade candle.” The spring gives birth; the autumn grows the adult; in autumn the harvest is completed; and in winter there is a peaceful tranquility. If the harmony of the four seasons is thorough and correct, (the year) is called “illustrious wind.” If the sweet rain comes down to the right time, the many things are at their best, it is called “sweet spring.” This means luck.’

Luck it would seem is not so random and neither are great books. Heaven surrounds us; in the tendered garden and in our changing seasons, and from one bibliophile to any other, and on the reference shelf.