Monday, 25 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 4

Sadly we have come to the last day of our 2015 Sydney Writers Festival. It has been a wonderful few days and I suspect that this will become an annual event.

We had a short Sunday planned at the Festival, and here's what we got up to on 24 May 2015:

Mum has a particularly keen interest in Australian history and so we were thrilled to attend this session in which Tom Keneally and David Hill spoke about how to make history engaging through the stories we tell.

Keneally is a living legend. Most people know him for his novels like Booker Prize winner Schindler's Ark (1982), The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), and the more recent Shame and the Captives (2014). But he has a comprehensive catalogue of non-fiction as well, including his three volumes of Australians.

David Hill is an Australian non-fiction writer known for his works 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet (2008), Gold - The fever that changed Australia (2010), and The Great Race: The Race between the English and the French to complete the first map of Australia (2013). His latest book is The Making of Australia (2015).

Keneally and Hill are a delightful pair and as they took to the stage and got themselves sorted, Keneally joked that they were a "geriatric comedy duo." There were certainly a lot of laughs, as the two men bantered for an hour about various figures from Australian history - some well known and some unknown. There was a lightness about this session, but they also brought history to life.
Hill said that "telling the story through villains and heroes makes it much more interesting" and proceeded to tell us about the logistics of the First Fleet and some of the individuals involved. They both spoke about the changing role of women and how much of Australian early history has been recorded from the perspective of the white military officers, but very little from the poor, women, or the Indigenous people they encountered when they arrived in Australia. Hill said these officers had a "disparaging view of the lower class" and this was reflected in their accounts.

"The flappers were a serious phenomenon" said Keneally, as for the first time in history women were able to shorten their skirts, bob their hair, drink with men and "initiate sexual dalliance." They spoke about the first Miss Australia, a woman named Beryl Miles who, as Keneally explained was "the girl we want to bear future Anzacs" in a time where there was an emphasis on eugenics.
Thomas Keneally, David Hill and Suzanne Leal

Hill went on to talk about the Fairbridge Farm, the subject of his book Forgotten Children (2007) and explained how British children were taken from the UK and brought to Australia as child migrants. Keneally said it was a case of two problems and one solution: the problems of too many poor in Britain and needing white stock to colonise Australia could be solved with child migration. Children as young as four were taken away from their homes and transported to Britain. Hill himself was one of these children as he and his two brothers were taken from his mother, when he was only eight years old. Fortunately for Hill his mother soon followed and the family was reunited, but for many others they were subject to neglect and horrific abuse. Fairbridge Farm only closed in 1974, so it is still a contemporary problem and not some secret from our past.

The two authors spoke of the role compassion plays when writing history and along the way told the stories of William Buckley, Henry Parkes, Molly Meadows, John Hudson, the Petrov Affair, Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin, John Curtin and Charles Kingston.

During question time, they were asked who they would like to have a cup of tea and a chat with. Keneally said "My hero of this story has to be Lachlan Macquarie" and the other person was Captain Bligh.  Hill said Deakin and Caroline Chisholm. They were also asked who they thought was the greatest Australian: John Curtin according to Keneally; and Gough Whitlam for David Hill.

The two authors were so incredibly knowledgable, witty and informative that I would have loved to stay with them all day and learn all that I could. The hour flew by and it was time to go.

After the session we went along to the book signing. David Hill signed a copy of Forgotten Children: Fairbridge Farm School and its Betrayal of British Child Migrants to Australia (2007) for me, and The Making of Australia (2015) for mum.  We spent some time chatting with Tom Keneally as he signed a copy of Schindler's Ark (1982) for me and Volume 2 of his Australians: Eureka to the Diggers series for mum. He said he is hard at work on Volume 4 of the series, so we will have to get reading to catch up.

Other Adventures
Spotted a number of people today including: Jason Steiger, Sonja Hartnett, Tommy Weiringa, Maxine McKew, and Christina Lamb.

The sessions I wanted to see today but did not are:
Today was Family Day - with a lot of activities and events for children which is a terrific way to encourage reading in young people.

Final Thoughts
So ends our SWF for 2015. A couple of thoughts overall about the Sydney Writers Festival:
  • Ticketing: It would have been great to have the full program published and then a gap of time before the tickets went on sale, to allow more time to plan attendance and to liaise with others to map out our Festival. We rushed to get our tickets (which was necessary as some sessions sell out quickly), but I would have liked more time to sit down and plan our festival. Fortunately it was possible to buy some tickets at the last minute to see some interesting sessions.
  • Passes: Some sort of bundling like day passes or discounts on bulk purchases would have been great. This is done at other events (e.g. buy 5 sessions, get 15% off) and would have been welcomed by those of us wanting to see more paid sessions.
  • Free Sessions: These are a great way of giving public access to some terrific speakers. Unfortunately though, they are hard to get into because people line up for hours. But with a well planned schedule it can be done.
  • Venue: Sydney Harbour is always beautiful and the venue was a lovely spot. The shuttle buses from Circular Quay to Walsh Bay were an excellent idea, especially given the number of seniors in attendance. Some of the volunteers managing the buses did their best, but some could have been better briefed about how to manage queues. The free sessions in Sydney Dance Theatre One were a bit hard to hear because of the ambient noise and the racket coming from the neighbouring cafe.
  • Program: I loved the diversity on the program - there truly is something for everyone. I also liked that a number of authors were speaking more than once so there were plenty of opportunities to see people.
All in all, it was a wonderful event and I will definitely be attending again next year. The highlights from the 2015 Sydney Writers' Festival for me were:
  • Julia Gillard: On Standing for Something, which I was fortunate to attend on 1 May 2015.
  • Richard Flanagan: A Celebration
  • Kate Grenville: One Life
  • Helen Garner: Lives and Writing
  • Tom Keneally and David Hill: Reading History through People
  • Just being among lovers of literature in an incredibly festive atmosphere.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 3

Saturday 23 May 2015 is Day 3 of our SWF. It is a little bit quieter than the first two days with only two sessions planned. But we arrived early and I was able to secure tickets to see Asne Seierstad for half price, so a bargain as well as a delight!

We begin our day with a free session with journalist and author Caroline Overington. Mum and I had both read Overington's book Last Woman Hanged (2014), the true story of Louisa Collins who was hanged in NSW for murder. The book is very strong in making a case against capital punishment, a view I share. 

Overington spoke passionately about capital punishment and how wrong it is. She started with showing excerpts from a film about the execution of 14 year old George Stinney in 1944, a verdict which has recently been overturned as a gross miscarriage of justice. She then talked about the recent deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia and of the reaction here in Australia to their murders. She cited facts and figures from research on the ineffective deterrent value of capital punishment. It was a fascinating presentation, by a journalist who knows her stuff. 

Caroline Overington
Overington then took questions from the crowd. As she lives in California now, she was able to give an interesting perspective on the thoughts about capital punishment in America. Questions included whether there were certain types of crime for which the death penalty was suited and about the psychological impact on the executioners. I wanted to ask her about 'death qualified' juries in the US, as in the recent case of the Boston marathon bomber, but did not get a chance.
After the session mum and I spoke to her briefly at the side of the stage. She had messaged me on Twitter as I said I was attending, so I introduced  myself and told her how much we enjoyed her book and that I had reviewed it on this blog. Mum mentioned that Carol Baxter has a book on Louisa Collins coming out soon, and Overington said she was aware of this and looks forward to it. I did not realise that Overington had written so many novels, as I knew of her only as a journalist,  so I might check out her fiction one day.

We next went to another compelling free session in which Jenny Brockie moderated a discussion with David Kilcullen, Mohsin Hamid and Anne-Azza Aly on fundamentalist behaviour. This was a fascinating session on the individual motivations for joining up with Islamic State, the Western response, and what to do when people involved in extremism want to come home.

Dr Aly is a respected professor and terrorism expert from Curtin University in Western Australia who has been researching how to counter violent extremism. She is the author of Terrorism and Global Security: Historical and Comparative Perspective (2011). She has been involved in working with Muslim youth on developing a counter narrative to the one used by violent extremists.  
Dr David Kilcullen is an Australian counterinsurgency expert who advised American General David Petraeus and US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. He is the author of several books on guerrilla warfare including The Accidental Guerrilla (2009) and Out of the Mountains - The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (2013). Kilcullin also wrote the latest Quarterly Essay on Islamic State, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday.
The two were joined by Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani author of international bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a film in 2012. I missed Hamid's opening address at the Festival - "Life in the Time of Permawar" so was delighted to see him today. Having a writer of fiction join this panel provided an interesting perspective and Hamid made some interesting points which grounded the discussion.

The panel discussed the reason why individuals are heading to Syria to support Islamic State. Kilcullen said that there is no one single, simple explanation. He said "one thing I am struck by with ISIS is the number of people involved" as well as the number of women. He cited the speed with which this generation of violent extremism is occurring and said "this is a different model, in addition to the traditional model of someone feeling marginalised.... now, I liken it to pedophile grooming where they reach in and groom extremism." He said they are now using social media well and have a jihadist dating service which is attracting younger men and women to the cause.

Aly said "we are consistently looking for a profile, some kind of psychology" but it is not that simple. She questions our use of the term radicalisation as it is often used for a range of behaviours. The example she gave was of the Nazis at one end and then skinheads who "latched on to the motifs and symbols of neo-Nazi groups" but these two groups are not the same. She called for the involvement of young Muslims in trying to understand this radicalisation and said that we should "admit that we don't get it and talk to people who do."

Hamid stressed the need to understand the story behind why people engaged in this. He said that young people have a "strong desire to matter" and may join this cause in the same way that volunteers joined the Spanish Civil War decades ago. He also reminded us that there isn't a single Islam and one of the challenges is that, in the West as well as in IS, there is a notion that "the Muslim aspect of your identities the strongest aspect; it is the Muslim in you that matters most" which feeds into this idea of a single Islam. He also made a plea for considering the way in which we view migration and cited "the virulent demonisation of the migrant" and the manner in which we treat people differently.
Brockie, Kilcullen, Aly and Hamid

The panel talked about the solution for the current IS problem. Kilcullen said that a military solution to"kick seven kinds of crap out of IS" was needed to actively contain the situation, however he said the "military can never solve these problems, but we can set the conditions to allow politicians to solve this."

Hamid said the best thing we can do in Australia is to be less afraid. He reminded us that there are people in the world living in conflict zones that have real reason to be scared of violent extremism, but in Australia we do not. He likened it to being afraid of sharks in Switzerland.

I really enjoyed this lively panel discussion, and I learned a lot about what is happening in Syria from the panelists. After the session we were able to attend a book signing and Hamid signed my copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist so that was a real treat.

Asne Seierstad: Dissecting a Crime 

One of the sessions I didn't buy tickets for in the first round was to see Asne Seierstad, but I really wanted to attend her session so went to the box office first thing in the morning and picked up two tickets for her session.

Seierstad has recently published One of Us (2015) about Anders Breivik and his mass murder in Norway which I was uncertain whether or not I wanted to read about this. On the one hand I am curious about the motivation for this atrocious act of barbarity, but on the other I don't want to give Breivik any more oxygen by reading about his crime. Seierstad said she wrote the book to try and get to the bottom of the question "Who are we dealing with?" and over the next hour, through her interesting presentation, she convinced me that I wanted to read her book.

Asne Seierstad and Anne Manne
Anne Manne interviewed Seierstad about the book, and took us through a narrative of Breivik's life, telling us about his dysfunctional family and unhappy childhood, disengaged youth and his constant need for attention. She shared the horrors of the day in which he committed his crimes and the meticulous research she had conducted in preparing this book.

Seierstad at the book signing.
The session was all very interesting and so I purchased a copy of her book (actually, I started reading it on the bus ride home and I am gripped by the story and her writing). After the session we were able to meet her as she signed copies of One of Us and my old dog-eared The Bookseller of Kabul. This is one of the things that makes the Festival so great; that you can actually meet and talk with so many wonderful writers.

Other adventures
Today was a busy day of author spotting at Walsh Bay as we saw Ramona Koval, Dr Karen Hitchcock, Robert Dessaix, David Marr, Scott Bevan, Zoe Norton Lodge, Shaun Micallef and many more. Mum also picked up a couple of books she wanted to read - a David Hill and a book by Kate Grenville.

Other sessions held today that I would have liked to have attended include:
  • A Life of True Crime - in which Asne Seierstad, Julie Szago and Virgina Peters talk about the inhumanity of the worst among us. 
  • How Enid Blyton Changed My Life - Robert Dessaix talks about how Blyton's stories encouraged his creativity.
  • On Hipsters - Dr Fiona Allon talks about the rise of the hipster.
  • Les Murray: Waiting for the Past - on his new poetry collection.
  • Give me back my pre-internet brain - Richard Flanagan, Douglas Coupland, Sally Andrews and Adam Spencer talk about our reliance on devices.
  • The Golden Age of Television - Starlee Kine, Daniel Mendelsohn and Shaun Micallef on TV.  
So ends Day 3 at the Sydney Writers' Festival... One more to go, with a short day on Sunday.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 2

It is Friday 22 May 2015 and Day 2 of our SWF begins. It is a horribly wet and cold day - perfect for curling up on the sofa with a mug of tea and a good book, not great for tramping about the piers, standing in line and trying to keep dry! But there are too many good sessions to see, so armed with umbrellas and anoraks we ventured out to the festival.

Linda Mottram, ABC 702
Our first stop was to sit in on a broadcast by Lindra Mottram at ABC radio 702. She was talking with Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling (2014) and Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a member of NSW Legislative Council for the Greens party, and the first Muslim woman in an Australian parliament. This was a fascinating discussion about the veil in its various formats, whether it is oppressive, its history and attempts to ban the burqa. Then Richard Fiedler came on to chat with Norman Doidge about neuroplasticity, which would have been fascinating, but we had to move on to catch our next session.  

We begin our day listening to Helen Garner in discussion with Tegan Bennett Daylight. Readers of this blog will know how much I enjoyed Garner's latest book This House of Grief (2014) about the trial and conviction of Robert Farquharson. This was, without doubt, one of the most engrossing books I have read in the past year. 

Unable to attend Garner's session at the All About Women festival in March, I was thrilled to hear her speak at SWF. During her session, Garner began by reading from her debut novel Monkey Grip (1977) which she said she had not looked at in 25-30 years as it would be "too mortifying". After reading the richly evocative passage, she exclaimed "Hey, that's not bad... But it has an awful lot of adverbs in it."    
An interesting discussion ensued with Daylight, who remarked on the pace of the story. Garner stated that "as a woman I always felt I didn't have people's attention for very long... No one was going to pay attention to me long enough to say things slowly." She likened it to the feeling of running across a stage, and said that she always talks fast and tends to "gabble". 

Garner struggled with her second book. She wrote one that wasn't publishable. She said "I produced this pathetic thing, and in my heart I knew it was crap." But she salvaged the best bits and turned them into the stories "Honour" and "Other People's Children". 

She spoke about Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) and how it was received. She says that there is a character like her in all her novels.

They then turned to her non-fiction with The First Stone (1995), Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) and her most recent book, This House of Grief (2014). The discussion of the Farqaharson case was fascinating, as she said she faced criticism for refusing to portray him as a monster. While what he did was horrendous, "what you see is not a powerful monster, but rather a pathetic figure, a lost soul."   

After the session mum and I spoke to Helen and got her to sign my copies of Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) and The First Stone (1995). I told her how I read Cinque in law school and how I have sent it to many friends. Mum asked her where she did her writing and she said she rented a room, as writing at home has too many distractions. 

This was an open session at SWF in which journalists talk about their work and what happens when the tables are turned and they become the story. In attendance were Maxine McKew, Sarah Dingle, Peter Lloyd, and Christopher Warren (from the Walkleys).

McKew became the news when, after decades as a journalist, she turned to politics and ousted Prime Minister John Howard in 2007. She talked about how she had a "golden ride" from the press but how different it was when she got into office.

Dingle also chose to become the news when she elected to be interviewed about being a child born from a sperm donor and her search to find her father's identity. 

Lloyd did not willingly become the news, but rather found himself in the spotlight when arrested in Singapore for drug possession. 

All three spoke about the importance of knowing who you are, and understanding that the journalists are just doing their jobs. McKew said that she had changed and that you "become more guarded... You are only going to get a version of me."

This session was interesting but I found the room very noisy with the clatter of dishes from next door and the sounds of water rushing through the pipes very distracting. We also had a really long queue and had to wait around 40 minutes to get in. So while it was good, there were also a number of negatives.

I was keen to attend this session in which Bligh spoke about her memoir Through the Wall (2015). Bligh was the first female Premier of Queensland and is very much a trailblazer. She has written this book about her career and her battle with cancer. 

At SWF Bligh talked about the three themes of her book - leadership, love and survival. She spoke about the Australian ideal of egalitarianism and said the "gap between those people who can realise the opportunities of this country and those who are prohibited is growing." This gap "should worry us all". She pointed to the difficulty the federal government had with the last budget as indicative of this ideal and the desire for "a sense of fairness in our economic circumstances."
She talked about ambition and being warned by a close colleague about being seen as to ambitious. Bligh said "if we are talking about male leaders we see ambition as a positive quality... But for women the word ambition has ambiguous qualities."  Ambition "seems to be at odds with what we see as feminine." But she says we won't see more women in leadership unless we encourage ambition in women. 

Bligh spoke of the Labor party, the union movement and the challenges of modern political parties. She is proud of her handling of the 2011 floods, in which she demonstrated tremendous leadership and empathy. She also acknowledged her failure to communicate the need to privatise some government assets. In terms of a quieter achievements she cited adding a year of schooling for Queensland students to bring them in line with the rest of the country.

Bligh's session was reminiscent of Julia Gillard's session - both strong, resilient, intelligent, Labor leaders who were trailblazers. Bligh acknowledged she was the first in Queensland, but said it was the second, third and fourth women premiers that take it "from novelty to normal" and embed female leadership. 

Other adventures
I also had a small splash at Gleebooks, picking up copies of Helen Garner's The Spare Room (2008), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid, Not My Father's Son (2015) by Alan Cumming and Farewell Kabul (2015) by Christina Lamb. Plenty of good reading and blogging to be had from these titles.

The sessions I wanted to see today but did not are:
So ends Day 2 of SWF. We have an early start tomorrow!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 1

The Sydney Writers Festival (SWF) is an event that I have always wanted to attend, but never quite got around to. This year, however, I have taken some time off work to attend the festival with my mum. Over four days we will attend sessions with some of our favourite writers, learn about their motivations and be introduced to new authors and works. 

We have deliberately chosen sessions that reflect our interests in Australian history, genealogy, politics and literature.  We will see Richard Flanagan, Helen Garner, Annabel Crabb, Kate Grenville, Anna Bligh, and many more. I will be tweeting and blogging throughout, so stay tuned...

Day 1 of our SWF, Thursday 21 May 2015, is action packed with a fantastic program. Here's what we got up to:

Signings, sightings and socialising
We picked up our tickets at the Roslyn Packer Theatre and then wandered down to the piers. We got waylaid at Gleebooks and after browsing for a while we realised a session had just come out and a whole bunch of authors were coming for signings. So I quickly bought Joan London's The Golden Age and had a great chat with her when she signed it. Likewise Mum had a lovely chat with Kate Grenville when she signed a copy of One Life. We also spotted Emily Bitto, Ross Gittings, Mike Carlton and others.

We then grabbed a perch at a cafe and enjoyed the sunshine and a latte while we caught up with some of mum's friends, comparing notes about what we were planning to see at the festival. It was all enjoyably social until we had to bolt down the road to catch our first session.
We begin our SWF with Australian author Kate Grenville who has recently written a memoir of her mother, One Life (2015). Grenville's mother Nance had been compiling snippets of her own history and Grenville lovingly pulled them together into this book.

Nance was born in 1912 and lived an extraordinary life in amazing times. She went to Sydney University, became a pharmacist, owned her own business, raised a family, and built a house - all against the backdrop of the changing twentieth century.

I have not yet read this book, but have read some of Grenville's fiction, like The Secret River (2007). But I was keen to hear Grenville talk about this book and her approach to her mother's story.

Grenville started with a reading about her grandmother Dolly, who led a fairly frustrated life in an unhappy marriage, unable to have the career she wanted, instead serving as a disinterested mother to three young children. During the session Grenville spoke lovingly of her mother and how her mother wanted to publish a memoir because the stories of the lives of ordinary women are never told. Nance also understood her place in history, as the first generation of women in her family that was literate and could have a career, and felt her story would be akin to A B Facey's A Fortunate Life

Grenville talked about the difficulty of finding the right narrative voice for the book. She said that the book is "as much a social history as a biography of a person" and that it "took 27 drafts to find the voice which now seems so effortless".  In those drafts, which she called "an unpublishable mess", she tried to write a conventional biography, interspersed with her mother's words but that didn't work. She then got some great advice from a friend that told her to "throw out the cautious biographical voice". 

While Nance was alive, Grenville recorded her mother telling stories which helped immensely in the writing. But she said she could never have written the book when Nance was alive, as "she was my mother and I was her daughter. But after she died I was getting to know her woman to woman."

I am really looking forward to reading this book and Kate Grenville was a great way to kick off our Festival.

Every Sunday I tune in to see journalist Barrie Cassidy host Insiders on ABC. Last year he took some time off to write Private Bill: In Love and War (2014), the story of his parents. Bill Cassidy was a prisoner or war for four years during WW2. While he was away, his wife was a prisoner herself in many ways.

Like Grenville, Cassidy has written his parents' story, so it is interesting to compare and contrast the two books and the way in which the authors wrote about such personal subjects.

Cassidy had an interesting conversation with Group Captain Catherine McGregor, AM, about his father's military experience starting in Crete in 1941. There were a number of fascinating parts to the story including how his father was convalescing in a hospital that was jointly operated by the Germans and the Allies, the way in which the prisoners got news of the war (from covert notices to a smuggled radio), and the way they learned the war ended.

They then talked a lot about cricket, which is a particular passion for McGregor. Not being a cricket fan, I got a bit lost in the stories of bowls and not outs, but could get the gist of what they were talking about. 

Cassidy shared stories of his family, and how they felt about the writing of this book. The questions from the audience were largely centred around post traumatic stress disorder and became a bit repetitive. But then someone asked about gendered responses to war, and whether war ever solves anything. McGregor gave a compelling reply, referencing her Masters thesis on Robert E Lee, and talking about some of the positive interventions - what would the world be like if the Yankees hadn't challenged the Confederates, if the two world wars hadn't taken place, or the interventions in Timor. But she and Barrie both questioned the usefulness of the conflicts in the Middle East. 

This was a really interesting session, but I am not sure that I want to read the book. It was great to see Cassidy in person after watching him on TV for so long, and I particularly enjoyed hearing from McGregor, who is such a fascinating, articulate woman.

I missed Annabel at the All About Women Festival in March as her session conflicted with another. So I was delighted to have the chance to hear her at SWF talking about her book The Wife Drought (2014). Mum and I are huge fans of Annabel's writing and her show Kitchen Cabinet, so it was terrific to see her in person.

During her sold-out session, Crabb shared her tale of how this book came into being, starting as a rant she had written for International Women's Day about why there were so few women in federal politics. The response from readers was to alert her to the gender segregation in other professions.

Crabb shared some stunning statistics about gender and work, housework and wages. In her inimitable style, she talked about how society needs to change its view on gendered work. She spoke about the disservice that comes from questioning whether a man can cope with child rearing and considering it "an incredible erotic treat, this man who can make a pasta bake". She asked why we have a phrase for "working mother but not working father". 

She was asked about parental leave and Crabb said "it is a bit like waiting for a bus in Adelaide... Nothing and then two turn up." She said that as long as we view parental leave as a woman's problem, we miss the point. Everyone gains from having men more involved in child rearing, and as a society we all need to challenge the casual dismissal of gender in the domestic sphere. 

An interesting, thought provoking session from Ms Crabb. 

Our last session for today was to head to Sydney Town Hall to hear Richard Flanagan discuss his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). I was thrilled to get tickets for this session and to hear Flanagan speak, as his amazing novel is one of the best books I have ever read.

At the Celebration, Flanagan spoke to Jennifer Byrne who gave him a wonderful welcome, likening his journey to that of an astronaut. Flanagan began by reading a passage about love. He said that the book, which is often thought of as a book about war, "was a book about love from the beginning".

He said that Narrow Road was a "book so easy to do badly and so hard to do well" and that he wrote it five times before landing on the version now published. He said "a good writer needs a good garbage bin". It turns out that Flanagan has a lot of unpublished writings and he made it clear that the work published "should be the best of you.  When it is not it is for the bin. You shouldn't just publish ceaselessly".

Flanagan showed photos of his childhood in Tasmania, and said that he had "a beautiful childhood because we were free and loved". He spoke of coming from a storytelling family and said "the novel isn't just an entertainment, it is one of the great inventions of the human soul." He said the "novel is the purest form of storytelling". 

Flanagan read two more segments of his magnificent novel, and spoke about his love of Tasmania, his family, and about some of his favourite writers (Chekhov, Faulkner, Kafka, Camus etc). 

The session ended with Byrne asking Flanagan what winning the Booker meant to him. His response was quite interesting. He said "I dragged many burdens as inevitably, if you live by your own lights, you will.To be a writer in this country is hard as we are a conformist country and writing is non-conformist. With the Booker I realised I was free and I could leave my burdens behind."

Flanagan was lauded with a deserving standing ovation. I am so thrilled to have seen him live. His book  is marvellous and even now, months after reading it, I still get emotional thinking about the characters and the storytelling. It is a masterpiece.

So that was Day One of our SWF. There were some common themes that came out through the discussions. Both Grenville and Cassidy were initially writing their books as family stories to be shared only with relations, before realising there was a wider audience that might be interested in the lives of these extraordinarily ordinary people. Flanagan and Grenville spoke about the trials of writing novels and the drafts that they rejected before landing on the final one. Converesely, journalists Crabb and Cassidy wrote much more quickly finishing their books in months. I have so much food for thought, and many books to read now!

There were many other sessions we would have liked to have attended but were unable to, including:

Stay tuned for stories from Day Two of SWF.

A few weeks ago I also heard Julia Gillard speak as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival. You can read my post about her session on this blog as well. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Window Seat

Every morning Rachel Watson commutes by train to London. The train always stops momentarily at a signal box outside Witney and, while paused, Rachel peers into the houses backing on to the tracks and imagines the lives of the inhabitants. One day a woman goes missing, a woman Rachel has seen daily from the train, and Rachel becomes involved in the investigation to find the missing woman.

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train (2015) is a gripping page-turner. It has been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2013) which is fitting for a number of reasons. They both involve alternating unreliable narrators, missing wives, unlikable characters, and are clever thrillers about domestic relationships. While I enjoyed both books, I think it is wrong to dismiss Girl on the Train as a Gone Girl knock-off. It can stand on its own.

I don't want to say too much about the plot so as not to spoil it for readers, except to say that while there are some aspects that seem implausible, it does not detract from the enjoyment of the story. What did detract was the dates on each chapter as the novel flits back and forth in time, which I often found confusing. This could have been simplified by adding a subtitle of time in relation to the date the woman goes missing.

Rachel, Anna and Megan - the three women at the centre of this novel - are all deeply flawed, and intricately intertwined. I really liked that these women were each in their own way struggling with their lives and their pasts. These characters bring to mind Roxane Gay's essay "Not Here to Make Friends" on unlikeable female protagonists which is included in her book Bad Feminist (2014). Hawkins has created characters who are addicts, unhappy, manipulative, desperate and trapped, but who are also relatable in so many ways.

The Girl on the Train is an enjoyable, light read - perfect for beaches or train rides. It has been optioned for a film which should be an exciting thriller. This is Hawkins' first novel and I look forward to what she comes up with next.

My review of Gone Girl is also available on this blog.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Sydney Writers Festival - Julia Gillard

The Sydney Writers' Festival has begun!  I have a lot of exciting presentations to see over the course of the Festival with some of my favourite authors speaking about their work.

First up is Julia Gillard, author of My Story (2014), her memoir of her time as the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in Australia. Ms Gillard spoke on 1 May 2015 at the City Recital Hall and I had the privilege of attending to hear her speak in conversation with Jamila Rizvi.

The event was sold out in 48 hours and the standing room crowd was definitely filled with Gillard admirers. The love in the room was evident from the moment she stepped on the stage to wild applause, the cheers throughout her presentation and the standing ovation she received at the end. All of this praise was well deserved, as the evening was as insightful as it was entertaining.

What struck me the most was how her personality strongly shone through in a way that I had not seen it before. Here she was just Julia - smart, savvy, witty, strong, natural and profoundly human. She has been through a tremendously difficult professional period, and has come through stronger and more passionate than ever before. While I certainly admired her before this evening, I have an even greater respect for her now.

Waiting for Julia
Unfortunately, the Sydney Writers Festival did not allow the audience to take photographs, but the conversation has been recorded by SWF for a podcast (link will be added once podcast is available).  What follows are some of the key topics, themes and moments that resonated with me from the night.

On Pop Culture
The conversation started lightly with the topic of television. A few weeks ago, Gillard wrote a review of the first few episodes of this season's Game of Thrones for The Guardian. So Rizvi started by asking whether she had illegally downloaded the program, as so many Australians do. She assured us she had not, but rather had been given a preview copy for review purposes. She was then asked whether Canberra resembled House of Cards, The West Wing or The Hollowmen. Gillard responded that it was most like the romantic idealism of The West Wing, but without all the impossibility good looking people. Her recall of specific characters, episodes and quotes from these shows was quite humorous and revealed her to be a pop-culture junkie.

On Resilience
Constantly under attack as PM, Gillard was asked about her deep well of resilience. She said "resilience is a muscle. You can work it and make it stronger. I wasn't in politics for the applause from the crowd... I had a sense of purpose." She also indicated the toll on family and friends and said that it was probably harder for them as her "lioness instinct" tried to shield them from the worst of it.

One of the things I greatly admire about Gillard was her ability to put on a brave face, day after day, while under the most ridiculous personal pressure. She spoke about the need to not show emotion to protect herself and the women that come after her. She said if she had shown emotion "no one would have said 'Gee she's an interesting, rounded character', but rather 'she can't handle it'." Gillard said she was determined not to break down during her farewell speech as she didn't want the narrative to be that as a woman she couldn't cut it. "No one could say I was too fragile to take it!" she said to resounding applause.

She recounted the day she became Prime Minister, and said she can only "remember the days in disconnected fragments" as she had only had two hours sleep and there was no time to take it all in.

She also spoke about the resilience needed to get into politics. She said "it took me ten years to get into federal parliament. I lost preselection against Lindsay Tanner...  two attempts at the Senate... before finally being preselected for Lawlor." These repeated attempts gave her time to consider and it "got clearer and clearer about why I wanted it", but of course at the time it was devastating.

On the Real Julia
During the election campaign in 2010 she came under fire for the "Real Julia" announcement in response to two conflicting media narratives. On the one hand the media were saying that her campaign was tightly controlled spin, and on the other that it was out of control and messy. Announcing the Real Julia moment was her attempt at reset.

She wanted her policies to speak for themselves and have the campaign be about policy not personality. She said "I am not completely naive. I knew that one could not turn up a senior political figure without expressing a bit about yourself. But I also brought an inherent sense of personal reserve. I feel uncomfortable with the intensity of it."

In response to an audience question, she said that women can have families and enter Parliament, and referred to Tanya Plibersek and Nicola Roxon as role models.

On Loyalty
Rizvi then asked Gillard to explain the contradictory views in which she was portrayed as loyal to a fault, but also as a treacherous back-stabber. Gillard remarked "I consider myself to be loyal. I'd rather the fault be too much loyalty than a lot of what else you see in the political world".

Referring to Kevin Rudd, she spoke positively about his 2007 campaign and how he "masterfully aught the mood for change". She said that they had a strong friendship that had "frayed regrettably" and that she bears him no ill will. She said "I am not going to live my life grinding my guts going grrrr Kevin" and that if she ran into him she believes they would have a friendly conversation.

On the Carbon Tax
Asked about the Carbon Tax, Rizvi pointed out that most politicians and journalists only remember a part of what Gillard had said. The full quote was:

"There will be no Carbon Tax under a government I lead, but let's be very clear, I am determined to put a price on carbon."

Of course Tony Abbott and the media only recited the first part and labelled her a liar for bringing in the carbon price. Gillard spoke of the frustration she and her team felt that the second part had been forgotten. She said the Canberra press gallery didn't care about context and took on the whole "liar" idea as it sold papers.

On Gender
The discussion then turned to the portrayal of Gillard as treacherous. Gillard referred to Anne Summers' book Damned Whores and God's Police (1975) and the ways in which women are stereotyped and segmented. She said she was portrayed as a villainous Lady Macbeth, which was an easy stereotype for the media to go to.

Conversation turned to her references to gender in her farewell speech where Gillard said:

"It doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things, and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey. What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I'm proud of that." 

Rivzi asked Gillard what are the 'some things' that could be explained by gender. Gillard said that "for all of us there is a whisper in the back of our head that tells us women nurture and empathise" and these traits are seen as inconsistent with leadership. She said that "leadership and likability correlate for men, but not for women". Speaking of Hillary Clinton she said that she has had a masterful start to her campaign, but that most of it has had to do with making her seem more likeable as gender feeds this notion that she is not likeable, which is certainly not true.

On the misogyny speech, Gillard said that it came from a place of cool anger. She recounted her day, first the Peter Slipper texts, then word that a no-confidence motion was going to put forward, and she was frustrated as all this was detracting from getting on and governing. So when she got into the Parliament, her cool anger welled up and she gave that speech. I watched the speech again and was deeply impressed by her oratory skills, her clarity and her passion. It is as compelling today as it was when she gave it a few years ago. That Tony Abbott is now Prime Minister, and still of the same view about women, is a terribly sad indictment on our nation.

When asked about the role of social media, Gillard said that often people hide anonymously behind social media to say abhorrent things they would never dream of saying in person. She said that "the issue here is how we conduct ourselves on social media" and the need to "install a sense of self so we are not hostage to what is said on social media".

Gillard was passionate in her feminism and resolute in her belief that women should be given a 'fair-go'. She was clear that women should have 50% of leadership roles in parliament, boardrooms and businesses. She said "the prison of gender roles imprisons men too. Feminism is about the best interests of men and women. It enables everyone the full set of options."

On the Media
Gillard spoke about digital disruptions and the death throws of the traditional media. During her time as PM two new 24-hour news stations (Sky and ABC) started and there was a constant need to feed the beast. She acknowledged that "segments of the media here are more comfortable with conservative governments. I think the current government has an easier run that the government I led or the government Kevin led."

On Australian Politics 
Gillard was repeatedly asked by the audience about various government policies from gay marriage to Palestine. Gillard said that she thought Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and the team are doing a great job, but would not be drawn on the issues. She said she needs to exit the domestic political space and let the new team have their time to govern. She said that she is "Labor through and through" and that "I see much I disagree with but I understand the obligation of my status" as a former leader and the need to "clear the space".

She spoke positively about Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and how they "put national interest ahead of their own political interest".

She frequently joked about Tony Abbott and his onion-eating came up more than a few times to great laughter. It is clear that there is no love lost in her relationship with Abbott.

One of the things she did talk about was voting. She said "I am concerned about young people not enrolling to vote. What a precious thing it is to vote. People around the the world fight and die for the right to vote."

On Education
The topic she is most passionate about is education and its ability "to share opportunity and transform lives". To this end, she is happy in her post-political life as a fellow of the Brookings Institute, and the Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, as well as serving on the Board of Beyond Blue. She doesn't know where she will be in 10-20 years but she acknowledged she is living a different kind of life now, forever committed to service for the greater good.

I look forward to seeing what she gets up to next!  My review of My Story (2014) is also available on this blog.