What Does the Bereft Hand Offer?

The Hollow of the Hand
P.J. Harvey & Seamus Murphy
Bloomsbury
Oct 2015
$35.00

the_hollow_of_the_handBetween 2011 and 2014, critically acclaimed musician PJ Harvey and her friend, photographer and film-maker Seamus Murphy, set out on a series of journeys together to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC.

Harvey describes the modus operandi of her collaboration with Murphy: ‘I would collect words, he would collect pictures, following our instincts on where we should go’. The place names alone intimate the subject matter of the book to a global citizen familiar with a news cycle: wars, wars, wars. But it is the ordinary person that the pair is interested in, the landscape and the streets, human faces, as well as distant horizons: ‘I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with’.

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Letter from the Committee

Vlaho Bukovac http:/www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com;

Vlaho Bukovac

I’m writing on behalf of The Melbourne Review of Books committee. We’ve recently become aware of an online discussion criticising the content of several of our reviews. First, we need to apologise for our delayed response. We are a volunteer committee, and were unaware of the conversation until recently. Second, we wish to apologise and take responsibility for the anger and frustration that we have caused.

There have been several criticisms of The Melbourne Review of Books, as provoked by a recent review of a new Australian young adult work, Clancy of the Undertow. In reading the discussion–in particular the comments on this site and the twitter threads associated with Margo Lanagan and Ellie Marney–we have identified three primary points:

  1. The MRB is indulging in the same literary elitism and ‘gate-keeperism’ as is frequently seen in literary review titles. In the specific instance that triggered the discussion, this relates to a generalised dismissal of young adult readers and writers.
  2. A lack in the quality of writing of MRB reviews, along with a lack of structural critique, and poor editing of the reviews. This represents a failure to meet standards expected of a publication that supposes itself to be providing thoughtful and articulate reviews.
  3. A lack of self-awareness and self-examination that has resulted in language that carries some clearly implicit gender biases.

We think these are valid criticisms. It is sometimes difficult to accept failure, but we think we have clearly failed in this regard. These criticisms run against the grain of our founding intention, which was to provide a place for thoughtful and considered conversations about the love of reading without prejudicing genres or readerships. From here, we need to reflect on how we have failed to meet our own expectations, as well as those of our readers and the broader community.

At this point we wanted to say thank you to everyone who has participated in the conversation. We are listening and we understand why people are upset. If you would like us to publish a response to these issues, we would be very happy to do so. Please feel free to contact us at melbournereviewofbooks@gmail.com.

Thanks and regards,

Christopher Johnstone

On behalf of the MRB Committee.

 

Food For Crows

Story of Antigone
Ali Smith, illustrated by Laura Paoletti
Allen & Unwin
November 2015
$16.99

410T8NkJ-3L._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_It’s perhaps not the easiest thing to do, to introduce a child to the convoluted and depressing world of Greek tragedy and somehow engage them in the story. Certainly when I was subjected to Oedipus the King at the age of eleven I was bored out of my skull. Coming after the much more interesting and child-friendly histories of the feats of Heracles, anything that came in play form might as well have been a list of shampoo ingredients for the all the interest they held.

One would imagine then that adapting Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone for younger readers would be a daunting task. It is a challenge that Ali Smith has risen to with aplomb. In her adaptation, The Story of Antigone, the tale is told from the point of view of a crow. A charming character, we are introduced to our witness at the very end of a battle as she describes how to grab a quick morsel for dinner before all the human women (the still-alives) come to collect their dead (food for crows). The theme of death, of human carcasses as things that provide sustenance to other creatures, is constant. Continue reading

Let Peace Be. Let Life Be

Under the Udala Trees
Chinelo Okparanta
fiction
Granta, Allen & Unwin
24 February 2016
323
$ 27.99

under_the_udala_treesAs a woman who likes women*, I can’t tell you how often I’ve set myself up for disappointment in novels.  So many times I’ve read protagonists meeting other girls who they immediately like because of their spunk, their beauty, their grace or whatever else.  I think, “Ooh, maybe they fall in love!” And they never, never do.  Imagine my delight when, in Under the Udala Trees, which has not been marketed at all as a lesbian novel in Australia, our protagonist Ijeoma meets and falls in love with another girl, Amina.  My worries about the book, mainly inflicted by the cover marketing, were instantly erased. Continue reading

Well, I Guess That’s Settled Then…

Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It
Daniel Klein
Text Publishing
$29.99

every_time_i_find_the_meaning_of_life_they_change_itWhat is the meaning of life? It is a question that has haunted drunk teenagers and philosophers since the invention of beer and philosophy respectively. Is there even such a thing as an extrinsic meaning of life? And if the meaning of life is in actuality created, not discovered, then how does one go about carving the good life out of the hard rock of daily routine, with all of its disappointments and trivialities?

Broadly speaking, these are the questions that Daniel Klein orbits around, examining, questioning and mulling over. I say ‘orbits’ intentionally. With subtle humour, wit and skill, Klein circles topics, whilst at the same time holding himself at a distance–not aloof–but perhaps cautious, even suspicious of the clever ideas he examines. This is a curious, interesting approach. It reflects a perspective where Klein, now approaching his ninetieth decade, seems to have decided that the important things in life may have less to do with clever twists of philosophic wit after all, and maybe more to do with afternoons in a lazy sunlit garden with the family dog and one’s own thoughts.

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The Lady Has Wonderful Eyes

Sophie and the Sibyl
Patricia Duncker
Bloomsbury
June, 2015, RRP $29.99

Sophie and the sibylBefore I start I should mention that there are a few minor spoilers within this review. So if you are sensitive to that sort of thing best look away now.

A long time ago I read a historical romance in which the heroine had, unbeknownst to her family, run off to live with an artist—our romantic hero—with no discussion of marriage. At one point in the novel they went to visit the beautiful and spirited lady novelist George Eliot, who, if I remember rightly, bestowed some words of wisdom about living with conviction, or something. It was meant to make the heroine feel better about not following the proper path for a young lady of her time. Continue reading

Little Girls Are Life Sized

Cat's Eye
Margaret Atwood
Literary Fiction
McClelland & Stewart
September 1988

Cat's_Eye_book_cover“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”

I have never understood the tendency for some older people to view childhood as an easy time, free of care and responsibility. Sure, you don’t have to pay the bills, but you get no choices on where you live, what you eat, and you are forced to go to school. I was a little girl and little girls can have the capacity and the opportunity to be utterly horrendous to each other, as they frequently are.

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If the Answer isn’t Violence, Neither is Your Silence

Panic
David Marr
Politics and journalism
Black Inc
2011

panicDavid Marr was, for a little while there, what I wanted to be when I grew up.  We’re talking high school here, which I started in 2001, deep in the Howard era and quite shortly before the terror panic gripped much of the “western” world.  For extra context, the first political protest I ever remember going to was one against the incarceration of refugees in the Woomera Detention Centre in 1999.  David Marr was one of an assortment of public figures who espoused opinions aligned with my own, one who was just as angry as I was about everything Wrong with Australia.

This book is a collection of edited pieces by Marr in his capacity as a journalist, tracking the bloom and boom of several panics that have gripped the Australian public, focusing especially on the time since 1997.  Even more especially, it focuses on the extremely vexed question of race as it pertains to immigration, in the wake of backlash against the revocation of the White Australia Policy, and to Australia opening its doors (kinda) to (hold onto your hats) refugees who are not white.  But there are other scandals thrown into the mix too; Jim Henson’s naked children, drugs, hommus-ectuality and that kind of thing.  The point Marr wants to make is that as a people Australians are pretty partial to getting in a flap about things.  Unfortunately, we see as a consequence such draconian and often poorly drafted laws as 2006’s anti terror legislation, or anti bikie laws introduced in various states in the last few years*. Continue reading

On the Beat

Tennison
Lynda La Plante
Simon and Schuster
September 2015, RRP$39.99

TennisonA long time ago—back when the term ‘on a school night’ actually referred to a night before attending a learning institution—I remember sticking a tape into a VCR recorder to capture the rest of the first Prime Suspect mini-series. It was after all a school night and Netflix was not yet the tiniest twinkle in a TV addict’s eye. I don’t remember the series in great detail; Helen Mirren striding down a corridor to visit someone in the cells, Helen Mirren drinking more than she should, Helen Mirren yelling. Basically, Helen Mirren is about all I remember. Continue reading

The Demons and Devils of Van Diemen’s Land

The Diemenois
JW Clennett
Graphic Novel
Hunter Publishers
December 2015
Hardback
$39.95

CoverDiemenois-841x1024Like anyone who survived the same public school education that I did, I’d hazard to say I know more about ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, and the social and political environments that led to the first and second world wars than I do about Australian history.

What I do remember of my schooling on Australia’s history can be listed thusly:

Pangaea, Gondwanaland, Megafauna, Dreamtime, human fire-clearing practice leading to the evolution of fire-dependent flora, Abel Tasman, First Fleet, Convicts, Burke and Wills.

Vicious colonisation, genocide, bloody massacres were mentioned, sure, but in a kind of blink-and-you´ll-miss-the-whole-apartheid-thing way. It’s enough to suspect some sort of government conspiracy of silence on our shameful past. Hmm. Continue reading

I Felt You in my Arms Before I Even Met You

Carol
Patricia Highsmith
as The Price of Salt 1951; as Carol 2016

carolAt least in my circles, Todd Haynes’ new film Carol created quite a buzz.  After all, it’s still quite a rarity to see a movie about a same sex relationship that doesn’t end in tears.  In 1951, when The Price of Salt was first published, it was unheard of, not just in movies but also in books.  Censorship, both official and soft, meant publishers were unwilling to produce books about same sex relationships.  Pulp lesbian fiction, which because of said censorship ended in death or in the blessed powers of the healing cock, was pretty much it for the ladies.  In terms of fiction, men had even less to turn to. Continue reading

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