Australia



Photo by NatalieTracy used under a Creative Commons license.

Jan Morris, Sydney (Random House, 1992).
If you were to want to read one book to get an overview of the history, character and culture of Sydney, you could do worse than to turn to this one. There is only a smattering of her own experiences here; instead, the greater part of it is her synthesis of other people’s histories.  As one reviewer below says, it is as if Morris rented an apartment with a view of Sydney Harbor, visited the local library and read up on the city, and then dutifully compiled that work into a book. The result is solid enough, if not particularly sweet or filling.

Here is Wikipedia on Jan Morris. Don George profiled her for Salon in 1999. More recently, she remarried. Carolyn See (Los Angeles Times) calls the book a competent, chronological, amusing, mannerly, dutiful account of one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world. Brett is truly and madly in love with the book. Morris says she detested Sydney when she first went there in the early 1960s. In an interview with Leo Lerman in The Paris Review in 1997, Morris talked about why she wrote the book. In an interesting exchange, she also suggests that she didn’t quite get to the bottom of the city. Another essay about Sydney appears in her 2005 collection, The World. Footless Crow interviewed Morris a few months ago.

Buy it at Half.com.

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Photo of a painting by Colleen Wallace and posted by Ben Lawson used under a Creative Commons license.

Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998).
A lovely and comprehensive survey of Australian aboriginal art, replete with many and terrific color plates.  From ancient rock art to post-modern art (including a reworking of Van Gogh’s room in Arles), Morphy, whose own focus has been on the people and art of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories, explains the significance and context of different tradition, old and new, from around the continent. An excellent introduction to the subject.

Here is Morphy’s page at the Australian National University. David Cossey says the books is thoroughly researched, authoritative, and written with elegance, an essential reference work for scholars and lay readers alike. David Betz calls it the best read on the ideas behind Aboriginal art practice (and has other interesting links). This site calls it the best single book on the topic of Aboriginal art and culture. Answers.com calls it an authoritative survey. It was one of Alex Dally MacFarlane’s favorite books of 2010. Will Owen saw the painting Karrku Jukurrpa this summer at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; he has a picture and quotes Morphy’s explanation, and more. This essay echoes some of the book (but is not representative of it). Here is Morphy on the Yolngu art of Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga. Felicia R. Lee (The New York Times) writes about a discovery Morphy made in Hamilton, New York. Not enough time to read Morphy’s book? Try this introduction to the subject by Mick Steele.

Buy it a Half.com (I did).

 The Sydney Opera House
Photo by Ohm17 used under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney (Bloomsbury, 2001).
Carey, a prodigal son who had lived in New York City for ten years, was commissioned to return to Sydney for a month.  His notion was to ask friends for stories of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and that is what he gives the reader, though the book is subtitled “A wildly distorted account,” and it is hard to say whether it is fiction or non-fiction or to know whose stories they are.  Though the result is unconventional, these stories express much of the place.     

Rebecca Vaughan of Flinders University has a useful Carey site.  Here is Carey’s site and here is his Wikipedia page.  Perry Middlemiss has the first paragraphs, and an impressive array of Carey links. The New Statesman has several paragraphs more.  According to Phillip Knightley (The Independent), Poms looking to have their prejudices about Australians confirmed will both love and hate this brilliant, eccentric book.  Peter Conrad (The Guardian) says Carey’s approach is partial, peripheral and ultimately frustrating, and that the book evokes Sydney flats which, unable to boast harbour views, are said by the anxious estate agents to possess ‘harbour glimpses’.  Bibliofemme calls it a great story and a sensory experience.  Jeff VanderMeer says it’s raucous and raw and full of wonderful details, one of the coolest little nonfiction books he’s read in recent years.  Gary Krist (The New York Times) says this frank and restless book percolates with ambivalence, evincing a complicated attitude toward everything from the language used by Australian airline employees to the oddly genial attitude of Sydney’s bike thieves.  Peter Porter (The Spectator) says Sydneysiders are inveterate nourishers of their local legends, the majority of which are self-serving, and the book perpetuates some of the most venial of them, though it gives them a high-gloss magical polish.  Kristen Conard says don’t pick this up if you are looking for dry facts and a straightforward narrative; pick it up if you want to be enchanted with Sydney, with history, with people and with story-telling.  Deacon liked it as unlike other travel writing.  And Dina wishes she was Australian but doesn’t think she’d like the book.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Sydney skyline
Photo of Sydney by sachman75 used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Flanagan, The Unknown Terrorist (Grove Press, 2007).
The Doll is a pole dancer from Sydney’s western suburbs who makes good money and is saving it — or what she doesn’t spend on designer clothes — to buy an apartment and a better life. When she appears on surveillance videotape with a suspected terrorist, she becomes a suspect herself, the subject of a media frenzy, and unwillingly assumes a new identity. The action ranges across Sydney, from Bondi Beach to Kings Cross to the western suburbs, and while many of the post-9/11 themes will be familiar to Americans, it is very much a novel of Australia.

Wikipedia’s page on Flanagan is rather brief.  NPR has an excerpt.  Google Book Search offers a preview and links.  The book’s site has a trailer (!) and more.  Peter Conrad (The Guardian) says it’s all so vividly local that English readers might feel the need for a glossary.  Ivar Hagendoorn particularly loved Flanagan’s depiction of the seamy, gritty streets of downtown Sydney.  Jesse Kornbluth calls it one of the most exciting thrillers he’s read in the last few years, a novel you can’t put down.  James Ley (The Age) says it’s a morality tale with massive pretensions.  Magdalena Ball calls it a perfect example of why polemic and fiction do not combine well.  But Simon Butler says Ball’s criticism is misplaced, that it’s not a polemic but a clever work of fiction.  Uzodinma Iweala (The New York Times) says it mocks the thriller genre even as it fulfills its expectations.  David Marr (Sydney Morning Herald) thinks disbelief begins to undermine the narrative.  John Tague (The Independent) likes Flanagan to an Old Testament prophet shouting confrontational truths in the wilderness.  Christopher Sorrentino (Bookforum) says it rides along on the edge of hysteria, perhaps too stridently so.  James Buchan (The Guardian) calls it a terrific novel maintained at fever heat.  Kimbofo says it’s a genuinely intelligent thriller with beautifully written prose.  Gabriela Zabala-Notaras and Ismet Redzovic call it an unconvincing and poor effort that doesn’t work on any level.  John Freeman (Boston Globe) says it’s not a very good novel.  Damien Gay says the story is particularly relevant.  Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) sees a brilliant meditation upon the post-9/11 world.  C.B. James was reminded of John LeCarré.  Laurence Phelan (The Independent) has the sense that this might just be the book that best describes the grim, sad farce that is our times.  Redhead Ramble thought it too pretentious.  Richard Whittaker (The Austin Chronicle) calls it unapologetically Australian.  Jerome Weeks (SF Chronicle) says it’s a suspense thriller with a heart of bitter satire.  This Melbourne blogger calls it absolutely the best Australian novel he (she?) has read.  Jake Seliger thought it not worth reading.  DrVJ calls it a decent read.  Kerryn was disappointed.  Derek says it’s a disaster.  But timmyk at Kos is a big fan. Flanagan explains why he wrote the book in the Tasmanian Times.  You can listen to Ramona Koval’s interview with Flanagan about the book or read the transcript.  Kerry O’Brien interviewed Flanagan for the 7:30 Report.  Or listen to Flanagan’s appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Camel in the Simpson Desert
Photo by Markus Staas used under a Creative Commons license.

Robyn Davidson, Tracks (Vintage, 1995).
In 1977, after two years of training camels, Davidson set out to walk from the vicinity of Alice Springs, in heart of Australia, across the outback 1,700 miles to the Indian Ocean, which she found south of Carnarvon, W.A. She did this alone, but for her dog Diggity and four camels, and this is her story. The desert’s solitude appealed to Davidson, and to others as well — when she accepted financial support from National Geographic, she shared her trek with others. Lucky for us: the popularity of the magazine’s coverage prompted her to write this book.

Here are some passages. Sarah Ferrell (The New York Times) says the book is much more than the usual descriptions of obstacles met and surmounted. Tim Forcer liked the book but was disappointed by its relative lack of naturism. Susan Wyndham wondered if Davidson was mad. karen said it was just OK. Bobby Matherne reviewed it. This reading group guide is probably of more use to those who have read the book. You can listen to this 2006 interview with Davidson. This page explains how to listen to another interview with Davidson hosted by the National Museum of Australia.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

The Painter
Photo by storm_gal used under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (Vintage, 1997).
Oscar is a shy, English minister; Lucinda is headstrong Australian, the owner of a glass factory bought with her inheritance. In the nineteenth century, they meet on the boat to Sydney, sharing an affinity for gambling, and other things, some of which lead to his being defrocked. One thing leads to another, and they embark on the unlikely mission of building a glass church in the Outback. Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize in 1988 (and Carey won again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang).

Perry Middlemiss posted this bio of Carey. Here is a Peter Carey site at Flinders University. Here is Carey’s site. John Gross reviewed it in The New York Times. Paul Gray reviewed it in Time. Trevor Berrett liked it. So did this Trevor. Kate Jonuska was a little disappointed. Jackie became obsessed with the story to an annoying degree. Sarah liked it too. Hil found fact in Carey’s fiction. The Guardian‘s Sam Jordisan took another look at it. Here are clips from the movie. Carey didn’t get into this fight with Ian McEwan.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

A Sunburnt Country
Photo of Mutawintji National Park by Beppie K used under a Creative Commons license.

Jack Hodgins, Over 40 in Broken Hill (McClelland & Stewart, 1992).
A travelogue by Hodgins, a Canadian novelist, who took a road trip with Australian writer Roger McDonald. The two planned to drive in McDonald’s one-ton truck through the outback of New South Wales and Queensland, initially to do some research on sheep shearers for a book McDonald was writing (which turned out to be Shearers’ Motel), and then to visit McDonald’s brother on a cattle ranch and lastly to do some camping. In the event, record rains and floods interfered. I picked up this book because I love Shearers’ Motel, and hoped Hodgins would shed more light on that book, but he skipped most of McDonald’s interviews with shearers. Instead, he gives the sort of perspective on the small towns between the long stretches of bitumen in the interior of these two provinces that it takes a foreigner to provide.

Here is biographical information on Hodgins. Wayne Grady wrote this review. Here is more about others of Hodgins’ books. And here is his website.

Buy it through Amazon.com.

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