Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Stella Prize 2015

In 2013 a new literary award was created in Australia - The Stella Prize - named after one of my favourite authors Stella Miles Franklin. The Stella Prize aims to recognise Australian women writers of fiction and non-fiction and their contribution to literature. The $50,000 prize helps the writer individually, while the prize collectively increases awareness of female authors.

The award was created as a women-only prize because women are dramatically underrepresented in Australia's other literary awards - like the Miles Franklin Award and the Premiers Literary Awards. What's more, the creators of the award discovered female underrepresentation in book reviews and book reviewers, and an overall lack of promotion of women writers.

The first Stella was awarded in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany's novel Mateship with Birds (2012) which is set in rural Victoria in the 1950s. I have not yet read this book, but it is on my reading list.

The following year, the 2014 prize was awarded to historian Claire Wright for her non-fiction account The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2013) - the story of women on the goldfields of Victoria in the 1850s. My mother has read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it and it is on my To-Be-Read list.

The 2015 Stella Award featured an interesting shortlist which consisted of:

Other than Joan London, I had not heard of these other books or authors, The Stella Prize has brought them to prominence, exposing me and many other readers to new works. Of these, Bitto's The Strays (2014) is the one that most interests me, while Kenneally's book may appeal to my mother's interest in genealogy.

This year's award was announced in Melbourne on 21 April. The winner is: Emily Bitto's The Strays.  (Update: read October 2015 - see review)

This is Bitto's first novel and it is about families and friendship. Only child, eight year old Lily meets a new friend, Eva, at school. Eva has grown up in a large artistic family, in stark contrast to Lily's more conventional upbringing. The Stella Prize judging panel likened this book to Ian McEwan's Atonement or AS Byatt's The Children's Book... so it sounds like it would be well worth the read.

For more information see The Stella Prize website.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Heart of Darkness

I realise I have so far spent all of 2015 reading non-fiction so I thought it was time to add in a novel. Waiting for a bus home from work one day I scrolled thought the titles on my ereader to see what was there in the way of fiction. A novel caught my eye so I started reading.... and reading... and reading.

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (2011) is about a journey into the Amazon rainforest. Dr Marina Singh works for Vogel, a multinational pharmaceutical company, at its base in Minnesota.  A letter arrives from Brazil to advise that Singh's colleague, Dr Anders Eckman, has died in the jungle, purportedly from a fever. Eckman's widow wants to know what happened and to have her husband's remains and belongings returned, so Vogel sends Singh to the Amazon to find the answers.

Arriving in Manuas, Singh is clearly in out of her depth. She lacks the supplies and the skills to survive in the jungle. Plus, she is having nightmares, brought on by her anti-malarial pills and her fears of meeting up with her former teacher, gynaecologist Dr Swenson.

Deep in the jungle, Singh learns about the research Swenson is conducting which will have a tremendous impact on the world and financially rewarding for Vogel. Singh discovers the rituals of the Lakashi tribe, encounters some interesting dilemmas relating to interference with indigenous people, and tries to overcome her demons.

For a while there I was engrossed in the journey, keen to learn more about Marina Singh, the mysterious Dr Swenson, and those around her. But then, with the unexpected arrival of visitors to the camp, the story went quickly downhill to a thoroughly disappointing ending. I felt cheated by the way in which Patchett wrapped up the story when it could have gone in so many, much more interesting directions.

While Singh was a fairly well rounded character, most of the others, particularly the locals, were one dimensional. The romance elements were not believable and there was no clear sense of how much time had elapsed in the Amazon. 

Ultimately, what started out as a promising story with an intriguing plot unravelled and became quite ordinary.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Three Years and Three Days

Julia Gillard made history in 2010 by becoming the first female Prime Minister of Australia. For the next three years and three days she served this country, held together a hung Parliament and managed to deliver an extraordinary amount of legislation designed to bring about positive change in education, workplace relations and other areas desperately needing reform. She records her time in office in My Story (2014).

For those three years and three days Gillard also endured a war on multiple fronts: attacked by the Opposition (lead by current Prime Minister Tony Abbott) with its sexist overtones and outright misogyny; attacked by the media who critiqued her wardrobe rather than her policy; and attacked from within her own party by former PM Kevin Rudd, determined to undermine the government with leaks, self-promotion and the continual threat of a leadership spill.

That Gillard succeeded is a remarkable achievement. During her years in office I often wondered at her strength. She put up with relentless abuse from all sides but remained stoic and driven, or at least putting on a brave face. She is a woman of passions and throughout My Story she keeps coming back to her core beliefs as her reason for getting on with the job.

Starting at the point where she took office, Gillard explained why she felt it necessary to remove Kevin Rudd. She explains how dysfunctional his office had become and the work she was doing behind the scenes to keep the government moving. Rudd comes off as an egomaniacal bully, abusing his staff, keeping secrets, and failing to make decisions.

She doesn't hold back when talking about Rudd. For example, in Chapter 3 - A Campaign Sabotaged, she talks about Rudd's 'dominant emotion was a need for revenge' (p 37) and how he leaked information from a meeting in which Rudd, Gillard and John Faulkner were the only attendees. She writes - 'Feeding this material to a journalist constituted a significant and malicious act. It was not only a deliberate tactic to seek to overshadow my speech on the eve of an election campaign, it was designed to raise doubts about my character, precisely when most Australians were making up their minds about me.' (p 39)

Gillard has high praise for many of her colleagues - Craig Emerson, Stephen Conroy, Jenny Macklin, Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Penny Wong - and gives credit where credit is due. She speaks clearly about the factions within the Labor party and how divisive they were/are, and where the lines were drawn in the leadership contests.

The book gives intriguing insight into the behind the scenes machinations in the corridors of power. She doesn't hold back, but at the same time she doesn't back-stab. She is a fierce Labor advocate and wants the party to regain its former glory, knowing that this can only come with root and branch reform.

Julia Gillard and Governor General Quentin Bryce at
Gillard's swearing in as Prime Minister in 2010
I had mixed feelings about the Gillard government, largely because the whole Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period seemed more about the party and less about good government. There were so many things achieved during her leadership, but often overshadowed by the nonsense of leaks and scandals.  I wanted more from her and hoped that she would bring about reforms (like marriage equality) that were long overdue.

In reading My Story I was reminded of the government's achievements and, in learning about the internal treachery and prolonged negotiations, I came away feeling intense admiration for Gillard and her leadership.  Her passion for education as the key to a successful life is one that I share. Two speeches she delivered stand out for me: the misogyny speech and her final concession speech. Both delivered with a courage and passion that demonstrate the strength of her character.

I think about Julia Gillard often these days and imagine her clapping her hands with glee over her nemesis Tony Abbott's failings in government. He too is suffering from leadership speculation and internal rumblings, and the vicious words he spewed at Gillard now come back to bite him.

I enjoyed reading My Story and I look forward to seeing what Gillard gets up to next. Gillard will be speaking as part of the Sydney Writers Festival on 1 May 2015, which I will cover in this blog.

Friday, 3 April 2015

As time goes by

Karen Hitchcock's Quarterly Essay (QE57) Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly should be a must-read for government, policy makers, medical students and everyone working in the health care profession. It is a compelling and passionate plea to respect our elders, challenge agism, and invest more in quality care.

So often we hear about the tsunami of old age pensioners that will burden an already stretched health care system to breaking point. When the frail and demented find themselves in hospital, specialists race to see who can avoid treating them. They are shoved into corners, over medicated, and encouraged to move on. What is seen is failing kidneys, dodgy hearts, broken bones... Isolated body parts not connected to a real life person. Not a human being; someone's mother; someone's husband; someone who has contributed for their long life to the tax system and now seeks to make a withdrawal. Certainly not someone that you or I will become in twenty or thirty years.

Littered with touching tales of elderly patients, Hitchcock puts a human face to her essay - the man who thought he was a burden, the woman who only wanted time to say goodbye to her family. Woven throughout is the story of the author's Nan, who inspired her to become a GP.

Exposing the sad truth of many end-of-life decisions, the pressure placed on families, the over treatments and rush to deem treatments as futile merely because someone is old, Hitchcock makes a compelling case for reform. Starting with a medical system that shunts people into specialties which creates a false hierarchy within the profession, this allows geriatric care to be devalued reflected in the status and pay of those working in our nursing homes and hospices. If we want quality care in these spaces, we need to train, value and pay the staff that work there and ensure we put enough staff on so that they can spend time with the patients. 

She also argues that the biggest threat to the healthcare system is not the grey army, but rather those of us in younger generations - 'the population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future'.  We need to invest more in attending to risk factors of smoking, alcohol, sodium, obesity, and high blood pressure. Instead, the government has defended the Australian National Preventative Health Agency and cut Medicare Locals. Let's hope the Minister for Health reads this before the exit federal budget and demands investment rather than the inevitable cuts.

Included in this volume is correspondence related to the previous QE on Clive Palmer. Of interest, Richard Denniss writes about the electoral system and the low percentage of eligible voters who actually elected the Abbott government to provide him his supposed mandate.  Dennis Atkins ponders whether the 2015 Queensland state election marks the beginning of the end for Palmer's party, especially with so few Senators remaining.

My reviews of past Quarterly Essays are also on this blog: