Friday, March 30, 2018

North Melbourne Books April Newsletter - featuring Elizabeth Crook

In the April edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to American writer Elizabeth Crook about new novel, The Which Way Tree.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Elizabeth Crook

North Melbourne Books: Set in 19th century Texas, The Which Way Tree tells the story of a young girl, Samantha and her half –brother Benjamin who set off in pursuit of a panther that has viciously killed Samantha’s mother and left the girl badly scarred.  In order to avenge her mother’s death the children are joined by a Mexican outlaw and a preacher with a bullheaded aging tracking dog. Their journey is made even more dangerous with the realisation that they themselves are being pursued by a Confederate soldier with a score to settle. 

The Which Way Tree is wonderfully narrated by Benjamin in a plain speaking voice that brings to life the story’s many thrilling, humorous and frightening moments  At no stage do we sense a contemporary author at work.  How hard a task was that to achieve?

Elizabeth Crook: Benjamin’s voice came to me from reading so many letters and journals written in that time. And once I had the voice in my head, telling the story was surprisingly easy-- almost like listening instead of writing. Benjamin is an earnest character, and although he relates events that are often violent, and traumatic, his straightforward narration and total lack of self pity or self absorption and his kind, steady nature gave me the sense I could pretty much turn the story over to him and just let him tell it. From chapter to chapter, I had only a vague idea of what would be happening next, and was often, I think, as surprised as readers will be. In other words, I had a lot of fun writing this book.

NMB: The  American West has always been a popular setting for characters in pursuit of something be it treasure, justice or revenge.  What do you think it is about this aspect of American history that continues to fascinate?

EC: I think it’s the allure of the unknown at the edge of what’s familiar. In the old American West survival was more determined by the laws of mother nature and raw human nature than by laws mandated on paper. Life was harder and yet simpler, in that it was more basic and centered on the greatest challenge of all—that of survival. There was always the heart-pumping question of what, exactly, one would encounter around the curve in the trail or over the slope of the hill—would it be a life-saving source of water, or, instead, a violent surprise attack? The extremes posed by weather and violence and by the the vast, endless nature of the landscape tested people in harsh ways, and I think many of us, as readers today, like to watch our characters manoeuvre through these extremes and wonder how we would hold up if we were in their situations.

NMB: In your novel it is the search for the elusive killer panther that helps propel the narrative. At what stage did you decide to have an animal play such an integral part?

EC: It wasn’t as if I had a sense of the story and decided that the mountain lion—or panther, as these cats were then called—would play a pivotal role. It was the other way around. I simply had the cat in my head first. The characters and the story were built around that central image of the cat. It happened this way because of an event in my own life: many years ago my son, at the age of fourteen, became lost with a friend while camping in the rough hill country of Texas. We searched for the boys all night, and during the search the deputy sheriff spotted an enormous mountain lion trailing alongside him in the canyon where the boys had disappeared. Near daylight, the boys were located by helicopter and the deputy sheriff hiked down into a narrow ravine to retrieve them. He told me afterwards that when he reached their little campsite, where they had built a small campfire, the cat was there watching them. They had no idea of its presence. Almost certainly, it was only curious and the boys weren’t in danger. But the idea of those eyes on my son stayed with me and became the spark for The Which Way Tree.

NMB: Benjamin and Samantha are two children placed in extremely dangerous situations. Your depiction of  Samantha, still nursing the physical and emotional scars of a violent attack, is one of a child trying to sort out a mixture of grief, anger and insecurity. How important was it to create young characters who retain realistic childhood traits despite immersing them in such dramatic adult

EC: It’s important to me that characters act like real people rooted in their own time, not ours, and think and behave in accordance with their background and ages. If they don’t then I can’t believe in them. And of course, if an author doesn’t believe in his or her characters, then readers won’t either, and won’t care about them or care what happens to them—and this would render the plot, as well as the characters, irrelevant. Readers would simply put they book down. So it’s essential to keep the characters authentic and their actions plausible. A writer has to think at every turn: Is this what these characters would do if they were real people? Is this how they would feel and how they would behave in the situation I’ve put them in? If, as the author, I’m not getting that right, I have to re-think the characters or back up and approach the scene again.

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

EC: I’m a slow, slow reader, and therefore I have to spend most of my time reading research material rather than fiction. I just don’t have enough time to read both. So on the top of my reading stack there’s a journal of a trip across the southwest in 1858 and a history of a Texas town called Indianola that was an important coastal port before it was wiped out by a hurricane. I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, so I’m casting about, reading these histories and plucking out interesting facts and events that might help to make a good story.

The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook. Published by Scribe. RRP: $29.99

Friday, March 23, 2018

Money, by Emile Zola

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Emile Zola's passionate and consummately researched denunciation of the excesses of financial speculation.

Aristide Saccard is a bankrupt financier looking to deal himself back into the finance game. He dreams big, of conquering the world. When he discovers that his upstairs neighbour, Georges Hamelin, a devout Christian, has plans to run development projects in the Middle East - rail lines, ports and roads, infrastructure to move commercial goods - it sparks an idea. Why not set up a bank to fund these plans? Saccard calls his bank the World Bank and starts issuing shares. From day one, however, Saccard is intent on manipulating share prices by all sorts of back door chicanery. Principally, the bank buys its own stock and hides the proceeds in dummy accounts.

The stock goes from strength to strength, if it could be called that, realising ridiculously high values. It's all unsustainable, of course. The demise of the bank is also helped along by the seasoned Jewish financier Gundermann, who is also a major focus of Saccard's rampant anti-semitism. As the bank crashes, many "mum and dad" investors get ruined along the way, as do the greedy and the naive. Chief among these victims is Caroline Hamelin, brother of Georges. She invests in the bank and also becomes Saccard's mistress. Intelligent and principled, she nonetheless sleepwalks into the looming disaster, lulled by the promise of easy money.

Money (L'argent in French) is the 18th novel in Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. It's a story that he drives at full speed, with a dizzying array of characters. Zola uses his journalistic skills (he researched the finance industry intensively) and acute intelligence to produce a passionate denunciation of the evils of speculation, with special attention paid to the psychological effects money has on people. In short, money is like a dangerous drug, causing life threatening addiction. Money also seriously warps judgement, causing its victims to make irrational choices.

If there's a criticism that can be leveled at Money, it's that it feels like it was written quickly and with a lot of zeal. Some of the writing can seem a little repetitive and hastily thrown together. On the positive side, Money is amazingly modern in the problems it diagnoses and its core concerns (the finance industry; the psychology of the greedy and the gullible) make it almost a mirror on today's problems. Nothing much has changed in the 120 years since it was written.

Money, by Emile Zola. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN: 9781847495792 RRP: $19.99

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Real Thief, by William Steig

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When twenty-nine rubies go missing from the Royal Treasury, the chief guard is accused. But did he do it?

Gawain the goose is the chief guard of the Royal Treasury. Wearing his red and gold uniform and carrying a dangerous halberd, he paces back and forth in front of the treasury's door, occasionaly stopping to be photographed by tourists. Once a day Gawain has to enter the treasury and check that all is in order. Imagine his shock when he discovers that twenty-nine rubies, amongst other royal treasures, have gone missing. He immediately reports this finding to King Basil the bear. The king tries to calm the frantic Gawain down, but soon becomes suspicious. When the Prime Minister, Adrian the cat, is asked for advice on the matter, he all but accuses Gawain of the crime. The poor goose in swiftly thrown into the tower and then brought to trial, at which he escapes, flying away, refusing to be found guilty for the crime. He never stops claiming his innocence.

Who could be the real thief? It's soon revealed to be Derek the mouse. He found a chink in the treasury door and was mesmerised by the treasures held within. At first he took only a few rubies, but quickly became addicted, decorating his humble home and making it look like a royal palace. Having these jewels made the mouse feel important. He walked the town's streets with a proud gait. But when he finds out that his best friend Gawain has been accused and found guilty of the theft, he doesn't know what to do. Misery and suffering set in until all is resolved by a humble confession.

The Real Thief (1973) by American illustrator and writer William Steig is a perfect gem of a story that deals with themes of guilt, redemption, the importance of honesty and how lies can destroy whole communities. The novel has a wonderful psychological truth as we learn of Derek's subtle weaknesses – his need to make himself feel important through the acquisition of the jewels – and how such treasures come close to ruining his life. Derek must be one of the few criminals in literature that evokes a real fondness in the reader. It's impossible not to feel pity for the mouse as someone who is not bad at heart, but has lost their way.

A story that teaches valuable lessons about the importance of finding self worth not through riches but by maintaining personal integrity and how lies can destroy the soul.

The Real Thief, by William Steig. Published by Pushkin Children's. ISBN: 9781782691457 RRP $19.99

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Irresistible Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Academic and now Labor politician Dr Anne Aly tells her story. Warm, engaging and often quite funny.

Anne Aly first came to national attention several years ago as an academic and researcher on issues concerning counter-terrorism and extremism. More recently she entered politics as the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Cowan in Western Australia. She won the seat and became the first Muslim woman to enter parliament. In Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Story of an Irrepressible Woman, Dr Aly tells of her personal journey.

Born in Egypt in 1967, and migrating to Australia at the age of two, Anne grew up in suburban Australia like any other kid. The only difference was her darker skin and Egyptian heritage. She made friends, endured teasing (often called “blackie” and once spat on in the face by a fellow school kid) and generally concentrated on all the positives of her Australian upbringing.

When Anne turned seventeen, her parents became concerned about her marriageability, and so the family pulled up stumps and moved back to Egypt, ostensibly in the hope of finding Anne a husband. Horrified at the prospect, but yet succumbing to parental authority, Anne continued her studies in Cairo, graduating in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She did marry in Egypt, finding a husband of her own choice. The marriage produced two sons, was abusive, and soon ended.  Left on her own to raise two boys, Anne spent years of struggle – emotional and financial. Some of these passages in Finding My Place are deeply sad and heartbreaking.

A hard worker, Anne maintained her studies through a second none-too-happy marriage and forged herself a considerable career as an academic, appointed Associate Professor at Curtin University in 2014 and Professor at Edith Cowan University in 2015. A wonderful achievement, made all the sweeter by the fact that many had sniggered at her academic ambitions.

Finding My Place is a splendid book: inspiring, funny and genuine. It’s the story of personal hardships and challenges, of feeling yourself to be an outsider and and wondering where on earth you fit in life’s bewildering scheme of things. Anne Aly writes in a refreshingly breezy manner, peppering her story with entertaining incidents and smart observations (the descriptions of getting a license in Egypt are hilarious). Despite being the victim of racial abuse and domestic violence, Aly’s voice is always chipper, looking to find that glass half full. In these pages she certainly makes good company.

It’s not often that a parliamentarian writes a memoir like this. They’re usually self-serving, the story of a vocation that was practically commissioned in heaven. Anne Aly’s story is one of hits and misses, hard work and grasping at opportunities, of someone who doesn’t claim to have any answers, but is searching nonetheless.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Don't miss it!

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Irresistible Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly. Published by ABC books. ISBN: 9780733338489  RRP: $32.99

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Alain Mabanckou's latest novel is a biting satire on political corruption and ideology.

Thirteen-year-old Moses has lived in an orphanage since he was a baby. He never knew his parents. At the orphanage he hangs out with his friend Bonaventure and tries to avoid the bullies. Moses finds parental figures in the kindly Papa Moupelo, the orphanage’s priest and Sabine, a worker who supplies him with books. But both these surrogates are shipped out of the orphanage by the corrupt orphanage director, Dieudonné, who replaces them with his cronies.

Sick of the moral cesspool that is the orphanage’s administration, with its mindless veneration of the Congo’s Marxist government, Moses runs away to the city of Pointe-Noire and lives by his wits. He descends into petty crime, lives with a plucky brothel Madam and sinks to eating cat and dog meat to get by. Things don’t improve. Moses finds himself continually mired in poverty and the novel ends with him reaching the age of forty, nursing a serious mental illness.

It’s hard to categorise Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses. Its relentlessly bleak but also full of savage humour. The plot, such as it is, runs almost like a dark Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Moses narrates his own story and his voice is chipper and excitable. He describes so much corruption, violence and degrading poverty in a vivid and mercurial manner, skipping cheerfully over the abyss.

A biting satire that makes you recoil in horror at the truth it must be based on.

Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781256749 RRP: $19.99

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A mysterious sky-blue house brings together two strangers in a nearby apartment block.

Divorced three years ago, Taro lives alone in a block of eight flats. The flats have a slightly eerie, desolate feel as they are slated to be torn down and replaced with new ones. Taro is an introverted young man, still in his early thirties, and he spends much time thinking about his father who recently died. Next to the block of flats there are several other interesting buildings, most notably a sky-blue house, an architectural curio from the 1960s.

When Taro strikes up a friendship with the unconventional Nishi, a woman who lives in the flat above him, he learns that she has an obsession with the sky-blue house. In her youth, when she was at school, she remembered a picture book that was especially devoted to this blue house and was called Spring Garden. The book was put together by the original occupants, an outré, arty type of couple. The curious book featured pictures of the couple lounging around the various rooms of the house looking enigmatic. Nishi by chance came across the blue-sky house again when searching for a new place to live and so she moved into Taro's block of flats, with its direct view of the house.

The friendship between Taro and Nishi is cemented as they become intrigued by the curious book, Spring Garden, and speculate about what the house must be like inside. When a new family takes up residence in the sky-blue house, they get their chance.

Tomoka Shibasaki's 2014 novel, beautifully translated by Polly Barton, is a sensitive and intimate account of a spontaneous friendship between strangers, set against a delicately drawn backdrop of a transitory and ethereal urban environment. The descriptions of the mysterious sky-blue house, the other odd buildings, the lane ways, streets and idiosyncratic gardens, with their trees and wildly growing vines, will appeal to anyone who has been intrigued by the cultural and emotional significance of houses.

Spring Garden evokes feelings of isolation, introspection, and fleeting human connection in the midst of a densely populated city. A gorgeously delicate and intimate read. 

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki. Published by Pushkin. ISBN: 9781782272700 RRP: $19.99

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