New South Wales

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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Sheep shearing
Photo by Magic Foundry used under a Creative Commons license.

Roger McDonald, Shearers’ Motel (Picador, 1992).
Wrestling with a yearning he is hard put to explain, in1989 McDonald left his family and farm to be the cook for sheep-shearing crews, a position for which his ancient 1-ton truck was a bigger asset than his inexperience counted against him. As the “cookie,” he prepared several meals a day for a half-dozen or more shearers for stints of a week or twoat remote sheep stations across New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. Shearers are a crusty lot, and his account is full of terrific characters with names like Davo, Quinn, Wade, Bertram Jr., and Louella. Many of them are Kiwis, Maoris come over to a vast, dry, red-rock country to earn a dollar. I just adore this book, and if it’s hard to track down a copy, rest assured that it’s worth it. It won the 1993 Banjo Award for Non-Fiction.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on McDonald. Perry Middlemiss posted the synopsis from the dustjacket and the book’s first paragraphs. In 2003, Libby Robin reviewed Wood: The Asutralian Story; she says it’s not as good as Shearers’ Motel, but her review gives some sense of the Australian wool industry.

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Beach on a week day
Photo of a Sydney beach by Marion A used under a Creative Commons license.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Vintage, 1988).
A history of early Australia. Hughes relates the discovery and early exploration of the continent, the decision to “transport” the unwilling colonists, the social dynamics of the young colony, the sorts of lives that convicts made there, and their relations with and abuse of the aborigines whom they displaced. Much was brutal, including the penal colonies established for recidivists. Hughes tells this tale through to the end of transportation and the start of the gold rush. Hughes, who emigrated from Australia in 1964, was a cultural critic for Time for many years and his writing is a pleasure.

A bio of Hughes can be found on the PBS website for a series about Australia (“Beyond The Fatal Shore”) that he wrote and hosted. You can listen to Don Swaim’s 1987 interview with Hughes. Clive James reviewed the book in The New Yorker). So did
Thomas Keneally and John Gross, both in The New York Times. See also these pieces by
Shriram Krishnamurtri, Brian Smith, Aarti, John Launer (in QJM), and urbanmonk. And here’s something for Jane Austen fans.

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Sheep near Goodooga
Photo of sheep near Goodooga by D. used under a Creative Commons license.

Jill Ker Conway, The Road from Coorain (Vintage, 1990).
Conway grew up on 30,000 acres of ranch land isolated on the plains of New South Wales, Australia, where her father struggled to raise sheep. Conway describes this world vividly. After eight years of drought, he committed suicide, and three years later her older brother died in an automobile accident. In 1948, Conway and her mother moved to Sydney, starting on the path that eventually would lead Conway to attend the University of Sydney. She would earn a Ph.D. in history at Harvard and later become the president of Smith College. The Road from Coorain is a memoir that leaves off when she departs for the United States to go to Harvard, a story continued in True North.

Some excerpts are here. The publisher has posted this, from the first chapter, but it doesn’t seem typical of the book to me. Here is a bio of Conway. Verlyn Klinkenborg reviewed the book in The New York Times. Here are blog posts from Belle and Husky.

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