Monthly Archives: February 2013

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn


2012, 395 p.

I always keep a bit of an eye on the Book Scan results of bookshop sales that appears in the Saturday paper.  I’ve noticed Gone Girl bobbing around on the Independent list and –lo and behold!- last week it made it to No.1   However, I haven’t seen anyone reading it, or heard of anyone else who’s read it.  But obviously lots of people have read it, because after reading a glowing review of it in August last year, I put a hold on it at my local library.  Number 63 I was, on ten copies.  Finally, it was my turn.

And I can tell you nothing about it.  Except, perhaps, that it involves a disappearance, and that it is written in alternating chapters, all tethered chronologically back to the day of the disappearance.  Beyond that, I’ll give too much away and I don’t want to do that.  The book just teetered on the edge of implausibility, but didn’t fall over, and each time I started “Hey, but what about….” the author had anticipated my objections.  While not high literature, and probably 1/3 too long, I found it a real page-turner- and hey, we can all enjoy one of those every now and then.

If you can’t stand waiting as No 63 in line, don’t worry- apparently it’s already been optioned as a movie with Reese Witherspoon as one of the lead actors, and it’s absolutely tailor-made for Hollywood.  I’m not quite sure how they’re going to do it- lots of voiceovers, perhaps and  done well, it should be a winner.

My rating: a rather guilty 9/10. Dammit, I could barely put the thing down.

Sourced from: The long waiting list at Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It has been on the best seller list for ages.

‘Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image’ by Kim Torney


2005,  241p.

I feel as if the McCubbin image that graces the front cover of this book has been hanging in the corridor of every school I have ever attended.  Just looking at it evokes for me the smell of squashed sandwiches and pencil cases.  Likewise, the mere mention of the “Lost in the Bush” story in the primary school reader brings back memories of brave little Jane Duff, struggling with her brother to carry their baby brother through the ravines of the endless bush, tenderly covering him with her cotton dress at night.  Of course, that’s the whole power of an image:  just a glimpse or uttered word evokes a cascade of remembrances and associations. And as the title of this book suggests, the lost child in the bush is a particularly durable and potent Australian image. Continue reading

‘ A Stranger Here’ by Gillian Bouras


1996, 247 p.

The Age, my daily newspaper (which is, unfortunately, becoming less and less pleasurable- did you hear that the Guardian is coming to town?) no longer has its regular columnists who let you into their lives over an extended period of time.  I suppose that Martin Flanagan writes within that tradition, and the much-missed Kate Holden did too on the back page of Saturday’s Age.  The late Pamela Bone was good; so was Sharon Gray; and I remember Gillian Bouras as well. As I recall, she was a Melbourne teacher who went to live in a Greek village, and she continued to write her column from Greece.  She  has mined her life for novels, too, and this book  continues this tradition.  Is it fiction or non-fiction? I have no idea.  I think that I’d classify it as memoir and biography dressed up as fiction.

It is written in three alternating voices of three women, overlaid by an invisible third-person omniscient narrator :  first, the Greek peasant mother-in-law Artemis;  second, the friend Juliet; and finally the writer Irene (who may, perhaps be the omniscient narrator writing in first person).   Australian-born Irene now lives in England, self-exiled from Greece where her youngest child still lives after the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.  She doesn’t want to return to Australia and she cannot bear to be too far from her youngest son whom she loves perhaps too unhealthily.  Her mother-in-law Artemis, addled by dementia, has always resented Irene, and the friend Julie, herself British-born, has stayed in Greece, turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities and she is rather impatient of Irene’s indecisiveness and passivity.

I received this book as part of my book-group’s Kris Kringle: we each anonymously wrap up a book of our own that we have enjoyed and put it wrapped into a basket and choose another.  Over the Christmas break we read the book, then at our first meeting we return it, speak about our response to it, and try to guess who ‘gave’ it.   It doesn’t at all surprise me that this was a book given by one middle-aged woman to another middle-aged woman, and it has been interesting reading this and My Hundred Lovers in such close succession, because there is a similarity between them.   They are both very female books, written by older women, who have been scarred, chastened and emboldened by experience.  Both books do not have a clear-cut beginning and end point, and while driven by the elapse of time and the waxing and waning of relationships, do not have a plot as such.

While identifying with it, I did become a bit impatient at the ‘stuckness’ of the narrator in this book and was relieved that it didn’t go on for much longer, even though I was enjoying reading it.  I do wonder if  the author takes the  adage “Write what you know” a little too seriously: can any one person’s ordinary life carry the burden of so many novels???

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from:  well- who knows???  I think Sue, but I’m not sure.

Read because: it was the 2012 book group Kris Kringle.  And she identifies herself on her website as “An Australian Writer Living in Greece” so I’ll include her on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.


Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013


Well, I did it in 2012 and I’ll do it again in 2013. I’ll probably read quite a bit of fiction because I tend to anyway, but this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013,  I want to concentrate on Australian Women Historians writing Australian History.

Last year Yvonne Perkins in her blog Stumbling Through the Past analysed the gender balance of book reviews in three major Australian history journals.  She found that by and large, History Australia and Australian Historical Studies have a fairly even gender balance the books that are reviewed (with even a slight leaning towards female writers), while The Australian Journal of Politics and History had more reviews of male authors.  It’s an interesting post- read it here– and it spurred her to develop a list of books written by women historians.

To be honest, I was surprised that there was such strong gender balance in two of the journals she analysed, because my perception is that more books are written by male historians.  I did a little detective work myself, counting the books in the ‘Australian Studies/Australian History’ section of Readings bookstore in Carlton.  Whatever the breakdown in the book review section of the major Australian historical journals, on the shelves male historians romped it in – only 28 of the 95 books I counted were written by women.

And certainly, if I turn my head to the left and look at my own bookshelves, there are many more books written by male historians.  I can think of a number of reasons for that.  First, I don’t very often buy history books new (whereas I do buy second-hand) and so any bias in the past will be reflected in the books I buy. I really am trying to have less clutter around, and so I borrow from the library, and try not to buy. But I’m often attracted to the remainder bin, the ‘Specials’ table and the second hand bookshop, and the piles of books that academics put outside their door when they’re cleaning up their offices…..and my bookshelves show the result.



Second, my area of interest is nineteenth century colonial societies in white settler nations- especially Australia and Upper Canada.  It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of interest now, and was mined fairly heavily in the 1960s and 1970s.  I’m coming to it imbued with all the ‘isms’ and ‘turns’ of the past fifty years, but I must admit that many of the books on my shelf are terribly dated- and the bias towards male authorship in the 60s and 70s shows.

Finally, and related to this, early women Australian historians writing Australian history had a hard time even being recognized as academics, let alone published academics.  Some time ago, I wrote a post about Kathleen Fitzpatrick , a historian at Melbourne University who wrote, but abandoned, a book on Charles La Trobe that she had been working on for some time.  There is a suggestion that she withdrew from the field because another (male) historian was writing on him as well, and she didn’t want to compete with him.

Just recently, I read an article called ‘ The Writing of Australian Biography’ by M. H. Ellis who is depicted in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry as just the sort of male historian that one might want to step back from.  It was published in Historical Studies (Vol 6, No. 24, May 1955) after being read before Section E of the Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science held at Canberra in January 1954.  I disagree with much of what he says in his paper, but what really struck me was the language. I’m sure that any female biographer with the audacity to even sit in the room slunk away quietly, well aware that she had no right to be there:

 No very young writer, hastily scrambling over a rich reef of documentary material, is likely to have the natural insight to enable him to distill from it a living image that will appeal as being the stuff of life to readers of diverse ages and mental outlooks in different periods, and inspire confidence in any picture he may draw of the mind and motives of a man of mature years… Nothing but slow filtering of essentials through the sieve of parallel experience can teach one man what makes another man function and behave as he does and enable him to put his findings down on paper in a manner to convince those who have endured or are enduring life that he is setting down truth.”(p 434)

Or how about this one?

There must be in all true biographers a natural and honest bias toward good principles, which are the yardstick by which men are measured.  Biographers should be the most human of men and subject to the decent prejudices and preferences which guide the ordinary citizen.  It would be right against human nature if such men did not involuntarily exhibit their likes and dislikes, their amusement or lack of amusement, their approval or disapproval, if they write from the heart.  But if he tries to suppress or falsify his natural emotions, then the biographer’s work becomes sodden dough or dead meat or false in note.  But in any case the chances are that when his subject takes control of his imagination he will be at his mercy if the man is worth writing about.  (p. 437)

Just imagine if a female biographer wrote about a female subject!!…ah, but would she be worth writing about??  It is sobering to think that this is the intellectual climate that our early women academic historians operated in.  It makes their few publications even more significant.

And so, for my Australian Women Writer’s Challenge this year, I’d like to consciously read and review some histories written by women.  Where possible, I’ll look for histories related to my thesis to review, but I’ll try to review them as a reader, rather than for the contribution they make to my own work. I did review a couple of histories for the Australian Women Writers Challenge last year, and I found myself consciously trying to make my review more general than I might have otherwise, and I’ll take the same approach this year.  Other histories I find, that are unrelated to my own work, I’ll be reading just as anyone else would, as I won’t have much pre-existing knowledge to bring to the book.

I often feel a bit diffident about reviewing books when I know that I’m going to run into the author- which is quite likely when reviewing Australian History books by Australian historians.   I get an attack of the M. H. Ellis-es, and I feel that I really have no right to review and that I should just slink out of the room.  But I shall stand tall (take that M. H. Ellis!!), knowing that on the few occasions when the connection has been made “Oh, so YOU’RE the Resident Judge!” (and I cringe at the presumption of my blog-name), there has never been any unpleasantness- to the contrary, in fact.


‘My Hundred Lovers’ by Susan Johnson


2012, 262 p.

I must admit that the whole Fifty Shades  phenomenon and its innumerable offshoots leaves me cold.   So it was with some trepidation that I borrowed My Hundred Lovers, hoping that a writer that I’ve enjoyed in the past would not betray me with a fleeting and warped assertion of empowerment through a string of  hot-breathed, moist, look-away sex scenes. I need not have feared. This is a beautifully written book, expanding love and sexuality to encompass the whole of life and being human.

It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph.  The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.  There is  much for the fifty-year old reader to reflect and identify with here: the ambiguity of father/daughter physicality; the childhood sex play that I find myself looking back on and wondering about;  explorations of changing adolescent bodies; self-exploration;  sex for all the wrong reasons; sheer experimentation.  But sensuousness and being in the body is more than genitals and crevices: it’s also luxuriating in water, sand, heat; buttery croissants; it’s buildings and houses and landscapes; it’s friendship and companionship.

Unlike the sweaty, fervent erotic fiction that its title evokes, this book champions an older, wiser, more lived-in view of love.  It’s a view of love that  a fifty-year old reader does not feel disqualified from- if anything, it affirms and confirms what it sometimes takes fifty years to learn:

Love arrived smaller and more humble than advertised.  Love turned out to be plain, quotidian… She preferred herself now, less succulent and more loving, humbled, loved. (p.261)

This book is more than a list, it’s a life-story with relationships, losses, pain and confession, all measured out against the beat of passing time.  In fact, counting and taking measure is prominent here.  As she tells us in the opening sentence, romance between the average couple dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.   Most of us will live for a thousand months.  There are one hundred experiences in this book, numbered off in a countdown, and given that the book could have finished anywhere really, I found myself counting too…98, 99, 100.  Biography (including fictional biography as in this case) relies on the countdown of years and the elapse of time for its shape; unlike memoir which is an intellectual construction where time can be squeezed, stretched and compressed like clay.  This book combines the two- it is basically chronological in its structure, but events and reflection are intertwined and the whole  “100” framework is a literary and arbitrary construction.

The writing is crystal-sharp: quite an achievement in a genre that even has its own award for failure and mis-steps in the Bad Sex Awards– a dubious ‘honour’ that must surely shrivel up the juices of any writer.  Although it is completely self-contained in its own right, the author’s highly-acclaimed earlier work The Broken Book, a fictionalized biography of Charmian Clift, sits alongside it as a close companion.   They are both beautifully written, intelligent books.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because:  I’d heard of it and very much enjoyed the author’s earlier works.  And I’ll backtrack a little and  count it for the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge 2013