Sunday, June 25, 2017

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

Harrowing personal stories from those who have experienced Australia's detention centres.

Staff review by Chris Saliba

They Cannot Take the Sky is part of an oral history project that captures the stories of asylum seekers who have experienced Australia's harsh detention centre regime. Thirty-five current and former detainees, from nine different countries, tell their stories in a series of interviews. Some stories were pulled at the last minute for fear of retaliation.

There are common themes and experiences that appear in the detainees' stories. Detention centre staff are often cruel and harsh, repeatedly telling asylum seekers that they will never be admitted to Australia; serious complaints are never responded to; day-to-day living is made as humiliating as possible (people are not called by names, but rather immigration identity numbers); and generally people detained feel they are being tortured psychologically.

Most people seeking asylum who have experienced detention are depressed, fearful and often losing their minds. They are bewildered that they have fled danger in their own county, coming to what they thought was a country that defended human rights, only to end up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

These stories are harrowing for their hopelessness and extreme distress, yet they also contain great dignity. They Cannot Take the Sky is a vital document of Australia's mandatory detention policy.

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope. Published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292805 RRP: $29.99

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan

An unflinching examination of the career of George Pell. 

Louise Milligan is an investigative journalist with the ABC, working for the 7.30 program. In Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, Milligan examines not only George Pell's career, but also the culture of the Catholic Church and how it has dealt with the sex abuse scandals involving paedophile priests.

Of course, in many ways, Pell and the Catholic Church are one. Pell has risen in the church's hierarchy (as Cardinal he could even be chosen as the next pope) and advocated for a return to more rigidly conservative values. Many of his speeches and writings have criticised what he considers to be a too permissive attitude towards sex. His is not a progressive voice.

There are two main issues that Cardinal deals with. The first is how much Pell knew was going on in the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. Whilst some of the worst abuse was happening, he was attending meetings and was in discussions with other priests. He was an integral part of this culture. Did he have an inkling of why some priests were being moved about so much? Did he ask enough questions, if any?

The second issue that the book examines are the accusations laid against Pell himself of abuse. Are his accusers reliable? Many have criminal pasts, does this disqualify their testimony? Do the accusations, from several different people, start to paint a coherent picture of abuse?

All of these are questions that the reader has to decide for themself. One criticism that can perhaps be levelled at Milligan's book is the tone. The author sometimes uses a mocking and cynical language towards Pell. You wonder if a line of impartiality has been crossed. Having said that, the research in Cardinal is thorough and tenacious. Milligan is a dogged journalist who will leave no stone unturned and has interviewed a wide range of people – victims, police, clergy and lawyers.

Reading Cardinal is an emotional roller coaster of a book. It is deeply, deeply harrowing. So many suicides, so many lives utterly destroyed. A church that didn't seem to think much of the sexual abuse of children. The attitude was simply that the abused children would quickly “get over it” and get on with their lives. The book is also an indictment of social and cultural power imbalances: Catholic priests, and the church they represented, were not to be doubted. Several children, when they did come forward and tell their parents of their abuse, were actually beaten or verbally abused by their parents. It was unthinkable to accuse a priest of sexual abuse. No wonder on average it takes thirty-three years for a victim of abuse to come forward.

At least now, with books such as Cardinal, the victims of abuse are getting a voice.

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522871340 RRP: $34.99

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A compelling collection of stories that go some way to explaining life in North Korea.

Bandi is the pen name of an anonymous North Korean writer. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea comprises eight short stories, each about thirty pages long, written between 1989 and 1995. The manuscript was recently smuggled out of North Korea and is published for the first time. Bandi (the word means “firefly”) still lives in North Korea.

The stories describe many aspects of North Korean life. The wife of a man whose relatives have been denounced by the Party secretly takes contraceptive pills because she can't bear to think what fate her child might have; a couple are dragged off to jail because their young son was scared of a portrait of Karl Marx; a man who has spent his life faithful to the Party suddenly realises he has been duped by socialism's promise and becomes so consumed with rage he has a heart attack; an elderly woman has a chance meeting with Kim Il-sung (“the Great Leader, Father of Us All”) and is crippled with absolute terror.

This is an extraordinary collection. Bandi's stories are lucidly written, with an emphasis on individual characters faced with impossible situations. They are completely absorbing and explain the mindset and sufferings of those living under a totalitarian regime. Essential reading.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi. Published by Serptent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781258712 RRP: $27.99

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

African Psycho, by Alain Mabanckou

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A Congolese man plots a murder as an act of hero worship.

Gregoire Nakobomayo is an orphan and car mechanic. He lives in a Congolese town that he doesn't name, but in an ironic-comic tone calls He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. He gives other place names similarly cryptic, hyphenated titles. Gregoire tells his own story, of his rough childhood and upbringing, of his self-loathing and ugliness (he has a rectangular shaped head that he keeps shaved). But before this quick sketch of a personal history, Gregoire boasts of his intention to kill his girlfriend, Germaine. He tells us in the first line. “I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29.”

It takes a while to get to Germaine's story. Firstly Gregoire pays a long worship to his hero, the Great Master Angoualima. Angoualima is a famous serial killer and a coarse philosopher on the virtues of immorality. Throughout the novel Gregoire obsequiously calls him “Great Master”, even though he never meets him because before he can, Angoualima is found murdered. His discovered body is described as that of an ugly little man, almost an evil, menacing sprite, with six fingers on each hand, a bulging skull and a harelip.

Angoualima later visits Gregoire as a ghost or spirit and berates him for his cowardice, all the while espousing his own anti-social credentials (“I sh** on society.”) Angoualima is a grotesque, comic figure, like something out of Chaucer or the Marquis de Sade. He revels in his own putrid immorality.

Gregoire's girlfriend, the plucky Germaine, we learn in the novel's third part, is a prostitute. She's a procuress, running a sex ring from a local restaurant which she uses as cover. She discusses her trade in a matter-of-fact way, and her bag of sex aides is described at comic length. Gregoire decides to kill her, not because he hates Germaine, but rather to live up to his idol, the Great Master Angoualima. But all does not go to plan, for Gregoire, much like Jean Genet's anti-heroes, is a hopeless bungler and fool.

It's hard to think of a stranger novel you'll read. Alain Mabanckou has written an absurdist, existential black comedy that leaves an uncomfortable feeling. Gregoire is such an unreliable narrator that in the end it's not even clear that his hero Angoualima and girlfriend Germaine even exist. They could well be the fevered creations of his imagination. If anything, one pities Gregoire. Committing murder is his one chance of elevating himself, but his incompetence makes him sure to remain a non-entity, on society's bottom rung.

A work that is disturbing, comic, absurd and unforgettable.

African Psycho, by  Alain Mabanckou. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781257876 RRP: $19.99

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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Five witty and ironic stories from a European writer not well known to English reading audiences. 

Johannes Urzidil (1896 - 1970) was a German-Czech writer, poet and historian. Franz Kafka was a part of his intellectual circle of friends. Urzidil fled Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 for England, finally settling down in America. The five short stories in The Last Bell were written during the 1950s and 60s.

All the stories in this collection, though written in exile, reflect Urzidil's Bohemian heritage. The title story is set during the Nazi occupation of  Czechoslovakia. A housemaid in her early thirties, Marska,  is suddenly given all of her employer's posessions. "Mister and Missus," as the brassy maid refers to them, have had to flee the Nazis. This leaves the housemaid discombobulated. Is this turn of events good fortune, or does it presage disaster to come?

In "The Duchess of Albanera" a boring bank clerk who leads a very regimented life does something mad on the spur of the moment. On a visit to the State Gallery, he steals the famous portrait of the Duchess of Albanera. He keeps the modestly sized painting at home, but people start to notice strange behaviour on the bank clerk's behalf.

The third story, "Seigelemann's Journeys", concerns a travel agent who has remained curiously stationary in life. When one of his clients falls in love with him, he fabricates all sorts of stories about his great travels, trying to make up for an embarrassing lack of adventure.

"Borderland", a story that stands in contrast to all the rest for its ethereal atmosphere, is about a 12-year-old girl who has a special gift for apphrending the secrets of nature.

The final story, "Where the Valley Ends", is an anatomy of a civil war that erupts in a small village over the disappearance of a cheesecake. As the narrator makes clear, humans can't help bickering and quarrelling over small matters, turning these petty gripes into grand political machinations.

Most of the stories in this collection are comic in tone and nimbly written. Urzidil writes in a neat prose that grasps the reader's attention right from the first page. The theme of the stories is how humans delude themselves in trying to impose order on rolling, chaotic, real world events. When the housemaid in "The Last Bell" has a sudden good stroke of fortune in receiving a gift of so much money, she decides she will live it up and live like a queen. But things soon go off the rails. In "Where the Valley Ends," the narrator scoffs at how humans attribute good luck to their own personal prowess:

"...everyone whom fate has favoured just a little fancies that he's capable of doing and understanding more than others."

This is an eminently enjoyable collection of stories from a little known writer, brought vividly to life in this recent translation by David Burnett for Pushkin Press. A small literary gem.

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil. Published by Puskin Press. 9781782272397  RRP: $24.99

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mouse House, by Rumer Godden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A busy family of mice find a new house to live in...

Mary has been given a beautiful little doll's house as an Easter present. In fact, it's really a "mouse house" as two doll-like mice made out of flannel occupy the little house. A he-mouse that wears a suit stands on his hind legs in the sitting room while a she-mouse, wearing a lovely dress, stands in the bedroom. Their little mouse house is beautifully decorated. In the window sills stand thimble-sized pots of geraniums made out of scarlet silk.

In Mary's house, in the cellar, there's a broken flower pot that sits in a corner. A real family of mice live in the pot. The problem is there's no room in the pot for this large family of mice, especially Bonnie, one of the youngest mice. Trying to escape the cramped conditions, Bonnie bravely leaves the cellar, runs past the house cat and up the stairs to Mary's room. There she finds the mouse house. What bliss! She makes herself at home, but knocks over the he-mouse and she-mouse. When Mary finds the mouse house in such disarray after Bonnie's visit, she decides to keep the he-mouse and she-mouse, but relegate the mouse house to the cellar.

At last, the mouse family can move out of their old, cramped flower pot and into more suitable lodgings.

This is a charming, dainty little story, perfect to read out aloud to youngsters in one sitting. The contrast between the busy and disruptive little mice and the order and composure of the mouse house makes for some gently comic scenes. The descriptions of the mouse house's furniture show the connoisseur's delight in the miniature world of doll's houses: they are intricate and just-so right. The story also benefits from Adrienne Adams' wonderful illustrations.

Rumer Godden's Mouse House, first published in 1952 and now reprinted in this lovely New York Review of Books imprint, is a delight and a treat.

Mouse House, by Rumer Godden. Published by NYR Children's Collection. ISBN: 9781590179987  $28.95

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books June Newsletter - featuring Lissa Evans

In the June edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to English author Lissa Evans about her hilarious new book for children, Wed Wabbit.

When 10-year-old Fidge finds herself magically transported to Wimbley Land, the fictional homeland of the Wimbley Woos, she fears that she may never get back to the real world. Surreal and nonsensical, Wed Wabbit is the funniest kids' book you'll read this year - for adults and children alike.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Lissa Evans

North Melbourne Books: When 10-year-old Fidge finds herself inexplicably transported to Wimbley Land, the fictional homeland of the Wimbley Woos, she fears that she may never get back to the real world. Worse still, Wimbley Land is in turmoil: its Wimbley king has been deposed and a horrid plush toy dictator has taken over. The plot is quite topsy-turvy and reads like a spoof on young children's books. Where did the idea for the story come from?

Lissa Evans: I can usually work out where my ideas come from but Wed Wabbit and the Land of Wimbly Woo seemed to have arrived out of nowhere, fully formed!  The nearest I can get is the memory of reading a particular picture book to my children - one with a seemingly endless, repetitive story line  which (inevitably) my children LOVED  but which drove me mad. I used to make it bearable for myself by putting on different funny voices for each character...

NMB: Each colored cohort of Wimbley Woos has a particular characteristic. Blues are strong, yellows are timid, purples understand the past and future, pinks give cuddles, oranges are silly and get in muddles, greens are daring and greys are wise and rarely wrong. If you were a Wimbley Woo, what colour would you be?

LE: I like to think I'm a mixture of grey (wise and rarely wrong) with a touch of Pink (cuddles) but my children probably think I'm a Green (shouts a lot).

NMB: The story is hilariously funny. It's the sort of book that adults can read and enjoy as much - if not more - than the kids. What was the writing experience like? Was it fun writing all those madcap scenes and situations?

LE: I love books that make me laugh and  I was a producer/director in radio and television comedy which means that I know the amount of work that it takes to make a funny line  work.  I particularly like writing funny dialogue, and I tend to read the lines out loud to myself, in order to get the emphasis and rhythm of them exactly right.  It sometimes takes a while to get there, but there's no better feeling than knowing that you've come up with a great punchline...!

NMB: Wed Wabbit has the feel of children's classics like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland in its surreal and nonsensical style. What are some of your favourite children's books?

LE: I absolutely loved The Wizard of Oz, and I also particularly loved books in which magic intruded into 'real' life.    Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen was a favourite, as well as Jane Langton's The Diamond in the Window, which I must have read at least twenty times.  I also loved funny books, especially the 'Uncle' books by JP Martin - timeless, ludicrous, endlessly inventive stories about an elephant who owns his own castle and constantly battles with his disreputable neighbours.

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

LE: I've just finished Reservoir 13 by John McGregor, which I loved - an extraordinary, detailed, fascinating examination of time and change.  I've also read Ted Chiang's book of sci-fi short stories, The Story of your Life from which the film of Arrival was adapted.  They are MARVELLOUS!

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans. Published by David Fickling. RRP: $19.99

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In the Days of Rain, by Rebecca Stott

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Rebecca Stott's memoir of her father and the turmoil of growing up in the Exclusive Brethren is fascinating and deeply moving. 

Rebecca Stott is an English academic and novelist.  She was raised in the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian sect, until about the age of six or seven.  Her Scottish great-grandfather, David Fairbairn Stott, joined the Exclusive Brethren at the turn of the 20th century and the family stayed on for four generations. The Stotts left the Exclusive Brethren in the 1970s when their leader, James Taylor Junior, was caught in a notorious sex scandal. Taylor had actually taken the Christian sect in a more extreme, puritanical direction. Stott refers to the Exclusive Brethren throughout most of the book as a "cult".

When Stott's father, Roger, lay dying of cancer in 2007, he was filled with an urgency to write his memoirs. He feverishly started, but found writing about the 1960s difficult. This was the period when the Exclusive Brethren became more extreme. Stott's father even went so far as to liken them to the Nazis for their totalitarian control techniques. He died before he could finish writing his story, but asked his daughter, Rebecca, to finish it.

In the introduction to In the Days of Rain, Stott writes that she was frequently asked what it was like growing up in the Exclusive Brethren. The problem with this question was that you could never give a simple answer. To honour her father's wishes and go some way to explaining what it was like in the Exclusive Brethren, Stott has written a dual memoir, one of her father and herself. It's a gripping and moving story, beautifully told, full of tragedy and hard truths.

The story starts in Scotland, with Stott's great-grandfather, the first to join the Exclusive Brethren. They were then more of a strict Protestant church, rather than the cult they turned into in the 1960s, but one nevertheless that frequently broke off into factions, fighting over doctrinal interpretations of the Bible.  Scottish seaside towns where these arguments took hold would find their small number of residents in locked battle, refusing to talk to each other.

Stott has done much research and gives a well fleshed out family history, with special attention paid to family members who had it particularly tough. One aunt was put into an institution simply because she had epilepsy and was considered too "wilful". The church's attitudes to women was one of young Rebecca's major frustrations. Why didn't women get sick of being silenced and speak up? The attitude of the church was that women were to be seen and not heard. Women did what they were told, their opinions were not welcomed.

A frightening tool the church used against members was known as "withdrawing from". If a member had been found to have transgressed some rule or strayed from the church's teachings they could be withdrawn from. It meant putting people into total isolation. If all your social networks are within the church, indeed, if your whole family is within the church, being withdrawn from could mean disaster. Many committed suicide or went mad. One man murdered his family, then hung himself. 

As you would expect, the church brainwashed members over many years, even lifetimes. Stott grew up terrified of Satan, believing she wasn't good enough to be taken up to Heaven when the end times came, and spent much time wondering how she would survive on earth among the less pure like herself. A judging and terrifying God watched everything, and you had to look out for signs of God's wrath.

Roger Stott, Rebecca's father, who makes up the central focus of this memoir, is a complex and tortured character. A great lover of literature and cinema, a hard drinker and occasional actor, Stott paints him as almost Shakespearean, half Faltstaff and half Lear. At six foot four in height and weighing some 200 kilos, he also reminded her of an Old Testament prophet, a larger than life character. Roger Stott's later life descended into farce and tragedy. He had affairs, left his wife, drank too much, moved into shabby lodgings, became addicted to roulette, was busted for embezzling money and did jail time.

Through all of this Stott describes her love-hate relationship with her father. He would take her to the theatre and discuss art and literature, but she would get angry with him for his many betrayals. They had much in common, their tastes in books, philosophy and history, but their family past in the Exclusive Brethren had caused irreparable damage.

Rebecca Stott tells the uncomfortable story of her family and her father with honesty and understanding. It's a psychologically complex history, a life that's been lived at the extremes, but which has finally moved to the centre. In the Days of Rain does what literature does best, by trying to work out life's unfathomable mysteries, contradictions and tragedies. This is literature as therapy. Readers will find themselves drawn to this very human story of a flawed family history and its fallible patriarch.

In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult, by Rebecca Stott. Published by Fourth Estate. ISBN: 9780008209179 RRP: $27.99

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Friday, May 19, 2017

A Dog's Heart, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written in 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov's A Dog's Heart is an hilarious, razor sharp satire on the Communist revolution. Banned by the censors, it is now rightly considered a classic.

Professor Preobrazhensky is a haughty, arrogant, overly confident and somewhat mercurial scientist. He lives in a lavish, luxurious apartment of seven rooms where he performs bizarre medical experiements. When the professor meets a stray street dog that has been recently injured he takes him in. The dog thinks he has landed on his feet, but things soon take a sinister turn. With the help of his assistant, Dr Bormental, Professor Preobrazhensky transplants the organs from a recently deceased young man into the dog. The professor and doctor sit back to see what happens.

The dog starts learning a word or two, then starts forming sentences. Before long, the dog has learnt to stand and can pass for a human. He calls himself Sharikov and even gets an official job under the Communist regime (he has a sponsor working in the government) hunting down stray cats. Sharikov causes all sorts of mischief and has an unruly tongue. He's crass and vulgar, the very opposite of the aristocratic, if crazy, Professor Preobrazhensky. When it becomes clear that Sharikov is out of control, Preobrazhensky and Dr Bormental argue over how best to put the genie back in the bottle. Can the operation be reversed, or should Sharikov be killed?

Even though A Dog's Heart is ostensibly a satire on the Communist regime and ideology (Sharikov represents the idealised New Soviet Man), it reads brilliantly as a mad Frankenstein-like story. Bulgakov's writing is bracing and witty. The novella's pacing is brisk, with never a dull page. There's also a great cast of characters, all vividly drawn: there are the frowning assistants and bungling housemaids, the arrogant visiting governement officials and police. Professor Preobrazhensky is wonderfully obnoxious and eccentric; Sharikov hilariously coarse and vulgar, barking out unwelcome comments. Bulgakov has his sizeable cast skilfully interact in a zany, absurdist dance that shows his complete control and mastery.

A Dog's Heart is top shelf fiction, on a level with Dostoyevsky. No small praise indeed.

A Dog's Heart, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN:  9781847495686 RRP: $19.99

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Monday, May 15, 2017

The Bandini Quartet, by John Fante

Staff review by Chris Saliba

John Fante’s cycle of four novels set during the Great Depression.

The Bandini Quartet comprises four novels by American-Italian writer John Fante, based on the autobiographical character Arturo Bandini. The first three of the novels were written during the 1930s (The Road to Los Angeles was published posthumously, found amongst John Fante's papers.) The final novel, Dreams From Bunker Hill, was dictated to Fante's wife, Joyce, as he was blind with diabetes.

Written in a clean, crisp, unadorned style, frequently shot through with humour and sharp dialogue, the novels have much to say about poverty, being Italian and America during the Depression. More than that, they provide a striking portrait of an aspiring artist and outsider trying to prove their worth in an often crude and cruel society. They are a study of the self in isolation. No other cycle of novels is tinged with so much loneliness and vulnerability, without being mawkish or sentimental. Fante's language is so immediate and clear-sighted The Bandini Quartet reads like it was written only yesterday.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini

First published in 1938, Wait Until Spring, Bandini introduces Arturo Bandini, aged thirteen. He has two younger siblings, Frederico and August. His father, Svevo, is a bricklayer and stone cutter, struggling to make enough to keep his family fed with a roof over their heads. Maria, Arturo's mother, is a strongly religious woman. She is frequently mistreated by a husband who feels his life to be a humiliation.

There is much humour in Wait Until Spring, Bandini, especially the descriptions of Maria's mother, the ogre-like Donna Toscana. Her relentless criticisms of Maria's household and circumstances, mixed with her own grotesque appearance, makes for a brilliant, Rabelaisian comic portrait.

The novel ends on a note of pathos. Arturo is in love with fellow classmate, Rosa Pinelli, but is too shy and unsure of himself to express his admiration.

The Road to Los Angeles

Arturo Bandini is eighteen-years-old and living at home with his mother and sixteen-year-old sister Mona. (There's no mention of male siblings in this novel.) He now considers himself a writer and dreams of being famous.

The tone is of a flippant and confident Arturo. He is a mercurial character and speaks in a grandiloquent, over the top voice as he dreams out loud of his assured greatness as a novelist. The reality, however, is that he must work a dirty job at a seafood cannery. (The sections that deal with the cannery are some of the best and funniest in the novel.)

This is the story of a young working class man with dim prospects, trying to survive during the Great Depression.

How sad that this fine novel was not published during Fante's lifetime.

Ask the Dust

Arturo Bandini is now a twenty-year-old writer, living by himself in the seedy Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. He ekes out a meagre existence in a dingy hotel. His only claim to fame is the publication of a short story, “The Little Dog Laughed”, in a magazine. Despite his straitened circumstances in depression era America, Bandini is exultant, for he believes he is on the cusp of great literary fame.

Much of the comedy in Ask the Dusk derives from Bandini's delusions of grandeur. He's surrounded by squalor, filth, poverty and misery, yet he speaks in exalted and flowery language about his greatness as a writer. Those around him don't see him this way. When he tries to give away copies of the magazine in which his story has appeared, no one is interested. The only person who takes him seriously as a writer is a fourteen-year-old girl who wanders into his hotel room.

Ask the Dust feels like it prefigures much classic American literature. The mental collapse of the waitress Camilla Lopez reminds one of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, as does Fante's simple, poetic language.

Dreams from Bunker Hill

The last Bandini novel, written when Fante was blind with diabetes. He dictated it to his wife, Joyce, during the early 1980s. The novel is pretty much a sequel to Ask the Dust. Bandini is still trying to make it as a writer in Los Angeles. He gets a job as an editor which is short lived. He then works as a screenwriter and meets various interesting film industry characters. The portrait of fellow hack screenwriter Velda van der Zee is a special stand-out. She can't stop dropping names about who she's met and writes terribly cliched screenplays.

Sick of his struggles trying to make it in Los Angeles, Bandini returns to his family's home in Boulder, Colorado. He boasts to his family and friends about this exploits, lies really, that he's a big shot. But once again he's restless. He knows he doesn't fit in, either in Colorado or Los Angeles. What to do? Where to go?

The Bandini Quartet, by John Fante. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781841954974 RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Catlantis, by Anna Starobinets

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Many, many years ago, cats ruled the mysterious island of Catlantis...

Baguette is a ginger cat who lives in an apartment with his owners, Mama and Papa Petrov. He also has a lady friend, a street cat named Purriana. The two aim to marry, but Purriana has requested that Baguette perform some type of  heroic feat. He counters that he's performed many heroic deeds already. This is not enough for Purriana; she has something specific in mind.

Purriana introduces Baguette to her great-great-grandmother, a cat oracle and member of the Council of Six, a cat governing body. She tells the story of how cats originally lived on the island of Catlantis, until it mysteriously sunk. The elderly Oracle is about to die - she has no nine lives -  and so she asks Baguette to travel back in time to Catlantis and collect the powerful Catlantis flower that grows at catnip gardens. If the Oracle can only smell the Catlantis flower she will have all nine lives restored. And so Baguette goes on a journey back in time to save Purriana's great-great-grandmother.

Russian author Anna Starobinets delights with this clever and inventive tale that plays on all things feline. The story has many twists and turns, involving folklore and magic, with a cast of funny and fascinating characters, both human and feline. The charmingly devilish black cat, Noir, is especially captivating.

A short novel sure to engage and captivate young readers 7-12. (Adult readers will also find themselves chuckling along.)

Catlantis, by Anna Starobinets. Translated by Jane Bugaeva. Illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski. Published by Pushkin Press. ISBN: 9781782691310  RRP: $15.99

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Bold new ideas from one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch thinker and journalist. At twenty-nine, he's quite an accomplished young author, with four books under his belt. Utopia for Realists was first published in his native Netherlands in 2014 and has just been translated into English.

The main ideas the book espouses are a universal basic wage, a 15-hour working week and more open borders. The case for a universal wage has plenty of appeal, as crazy as it may sound. Bregman marshals some fascinating research on it. Where it has been trialed, the results have shown that people spend the money wisely. A common belief throughout history is that that the poor are lazy and undeserving, but research shows that the poor, when given money, use it for education or starting up their own businesses. The broad bureaucracy of the welfare state, with its experts, counselors and financial advisors, could well be a waste of money. It might be cheaper to give people money because they'll know best how to spend it.

The most striking example Bregman offers of a basic universal income was one proposed  by none other than American President Richard Nixon. He had a pilot program ready to go that would have given the poor a guaranteed basic income, but politics got in the way and the program was shelved.

A lot of the other ideas in the book flow from the basic wage, like a shorter working week. Bregman has statistics which show a large percentage of workers think their jobs are nothing more than useless busy work. He uses the example of the Irish bankers strike. Apparently, the strike didn't hurt the economy that much at all. People came up with their own methods of exchange. It seems most of the banking industry wasn't that necessary. Contrast this with the New York garbage strike, which caused utter chaos within a week. Bregman suggests we could ditch the useless busy work and spend our leisure time on more artistic pursuits.

The last big idea, more open borders, is the most contentious idea in the book, especially considering today's political landscape. Bregman here marshals data that shows more open borders would actually improve economic performance.

This is a book full of bold, fresh ideas worth thinking about. They may seem like the stuff of fantasy, but so have many other radical propositions that in due course became the norm.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN:  9781408890271 RRP: $21.99

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Taduno's Song, by Odafe Atogun

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun's debut novel is a moving and sorrowful story of tragic love and political oppression. 

Taduno has been exiled from his homeland of Nigeria. A guitarist and singer, capable of making the most beautiful music, he is seen as a threat to the state. His most effective songs, celebrated by the people, are protest songs against Nigeria's repressive government, led by a brutal dictator, the President. One day he receives a letter from his girlfriend, Lela, who has mysteriously gone missing. The letter prompts Taduno to return to Nigeria.

Once back in the homeland, a strange thing happens. Everyone has forgotten him, even his friends. No one can even remember his name. Like a character out of a Kafka novel, Taduno seems to have become invisible. Nevertheless, he begins his search for his girlfriend, Lela. He soon discovers that Lela has actually been kidnapped by the government. The President is keeping her incarcerated in terrible conditions. A terrible bargain is proposed: the President will set Lela free if Taduno will agree to make propaganda music to support his ruthless dictatorship.

What should Taduno do? If he supports the regime, many innocent people will die. If he doesn't, his girlfriend will surely die a slow, painful death in prison.

Taduno's Song is the debut novel from Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun. The story is written in a beautifully simple and straight forward manner; it almost reads like a parable from the New Testament. The influence of the Bible certainly comes through in the text, with references to the Upper Room and in the novel's often hypnotic prose. In wrestling with complex moral issues and the terrible choices his characters must make, Atogun delivers his story with grace and dignity.

There is a deep sadness in Taduno's Song. While there is no explicit violence in the novel, an air of   political oppression and suffering permeates every page. It is almost like Atogun has written an elegy for the untold many who have died in jails and gulags, tortured and killed for their commitment to the truth.

Taduno's Song, by Odafe Atogun. Published by Canongate. RRP: $24.99

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzu

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Nigerian writer Chibundu Onuzu's second novel is part political satire, part absurdist fiction. It's entertaining, shrewdly observed and wonderfully inventive.  

When army officer Chike Ameobi is ordered to torch the houses of innocent civilians in the Niger Delta, he decides he can't stomach any more human rights abuses and deserts. A private under his command, Yemi, also runs away with him. They soon encounter a young teenager, Fineboy. He's a sassy kid, a fighter with a rebel group not averse to taking hostages and demanding extravagant ransoms, and is on his way to Lagos to fulfill his dream of becoming a hip DJ (he tries to speak in an American accent, one that comes out mangled). The three band together and quickly run into a sixteen-year-old  girl named Isoken. She's fleeing an attempted rape and accuses Fineboy and his fellow rebels of the crime. Fineboy denies the charge and Isoken decides to join the group, keeping a wary eye on Fineboy. Finally they meet Oma, who has fled her husband.

Almost like in The Wizard of Oz, the group sets off for Lagos, a mega-city in Nigeria, looking for an answer to their problems. Their hopes are soon dashed and the group, rather comically, decide to set up home under a bridge that is run by a man called the Chairman. To stay under the bridge he charges them all a fee. As the narration says, to be homeless in Lagos you have to pay nonetheless. Their fortunes  bounce back when Fineboy discovers an abandoned apartment and the five runaways start squatting. Events take a bad turn when the owner of the apartment, Chief Sandayo, turns up. The Chief is the Minister for Education and rather suspiciously, he has with him 10 million American dollars that he is trying to hide.

Following the shady exploits of Chief Sandayo is Ahmed Batare, the editor and owner of the failed newspaper, The Nigerian Journal. Ahmed hopes to revive his paper's fortunes by breaking the scandal.

This is a wild ride of a novel that shoots off in all kinds of mad directions, but is consummately held together nonetheless. It's a mix of absurdist fiction and political satire, with generous dollops of irony, taking a broad and varied look at contemporary Nigerian society. The novel is also consistently funny. It reminded me of Gogol's The Government Inspector, a play that lampoons political corruption in Imperial Russia.

Welcome to Lagos is entertaining, shrewdly observed and wonderfully inventive. Chibundu Onuzu has an eye for the absurd and some of her descriptions are inspired and surreal. The plot cracks along and is always entertaining. If you want to read something smart and funny and incisive, then look no further.

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzu. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571268948  RRP: $27.99 

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books May Newsletter - featuring Benjamin Ludwig

In the May edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to American writer Benjamin Ludwig about his debut novel, Ginny Moon.

Ginny Moon is a fourteen-year-old girl with autism. At the age of nine she was taken away from her abusive birth mother, Gloria. Since then she has been living with different sets of foster parents, but due to her behavioural issues these arrangements have not worked out.

Written entirely in the voice of a fourteen-year-old autistic girl, Ginny Moon is a brilliant achievement.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Benjamin Ludwig

Photo credit: Perry Smith

North Melbourne Books: Ginny Moon is a 14-year-old girl with autism, who was taken away from her abusive birth mother Gloria at the age of nine and is now living with her ‘forever’ parents Maura and Brian. Despite having a stable home with two caring parents, Ginny is determined to run away and live with Gloria, who has a restraining order placed against her. As the story develops, we learn some of the complex psychological reasons as to why Ginny wants to run away. What inspired you to write this story?

Benjamin Ludwig: The story was inspired by the world my daughter exposed me to. Every Wednesday night, I’d take my daughter to the Special Olympics basketball practices, sit on the bleachers, and listen to the athletes talk. The way they communicated with one another—and keep in mind not all of them were autistic—turned my understanding inside-out. Many people with intellectual disabilities use language in what looks to us like a purely expressive way. We assume that their verbal expression is enough for us to know how to help. For example, when I’m hungry, I might say, ‘Hey, let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving.’ It’s all right there, the desired action coupled with an explanation as to why we should take it. But people with intellectual disabilities sometimes aren’t always capable of that level of complexity. A person with autism might stand there with a hand on his stomach, saying, ‘My belly.’ And we think, What, does it hurt? Ah yes! It must hurt! Let’s get you to the bathroom! And the truth may very well be that he’s hungry. So he’s used language to state what he thinks is a complete expression, but it’s missing a whole host of beats. The missing-beat dynamic, if I can call it that, helped me create Ginny, a young lady who wanted to say something, was trying to say something, but whose disabilities caused her to miss at least half the beats needed to say it.

NMB: The novel is written in the voice of 14-year-old Ginny Moon. Sustaining the perspective of an autistic child for 360 pages must have been a daunting challenge. It also carries a heavy responsibility to get it right. How did you go about creating Ginny’s voice?

BL: Ginny’s voice drove the story. It came to me fully-formed, and charged onto the page. If I’m honest, it wasn’t her voice that propelled the narrative. In that sense, writing it was really a matter of keeping up with her. The plot, which of course exists separate from the voice, was sort of pre-determined. I’d ask myself, Why does she emphasise that particular word? or What is it that’s really bothering her, when she picks at her fingers? The answers to those questions, and others like them, composed the major plot-points in the book.

NMB: The ‘forever’ parents Maura and Brian are shown in a very realistic light. You really sympathise with them. How much of your own experiences went into the novel?

BL: I couldn’t have written Ginny Moon if I hadn’t become a foster parent and adopted a special-needs teenager, but my own personal experiences aren’t in the book. When we adopted our daughter, my wife and I found ourselves immersed in a world of social workers, therapists, special educators and adoption specialists. We heard a lot of stories from a lot of people who take care of kids. All those stories helped inform the story’s background, though not in a conscious way. I should also say that we were tremendously supported by the people we met through social services and at our daughter’s school, so I hope people see that everyone needs a network when they do the kind of work that Maura and Brian do. Adoption isn’t something you do on your own. It takes the active participation of lots of different groups and individuals.

NMB: What do you hope the book will teach readers about autism?

BL: People with autism are individuals, and really can’t be lumped together in terms of behaviors that some of them exhibit. The autism spectrum itself is truly vast. One time the mom of an autistic child said to me, ‘You know, if you’ve met one kid with autism, then you’ve met one kid with autism.’ And she was right. People with autism are as different from one another as two neurotypical people are from one another. They’re not all great at math, though that’s the stereotype. They tend to love math because math is consistent and predictable, but having a need for consistency and predictability doesn’t make a person automatically gifted.

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

BL: Since I just finished a pre-pub tour, I wanted to read something grounding, so I’m just finishing The Hobbit. There are several books that I re-read every year, and that’s one of them. Others include two of Shakespeare’s plays (Twelfth Night and Hamlet) and a collection of short stories by Jim Heynen, called The One-Room Schoolhouse.

Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig. Published by Harlequin. RRP: $29.99