Sunday, 12 May 2019


Vicki Laveau-Harvie won the 2019 Stella Prize and 2018 Finch Memoir Prize for her remarkable memoir, The Erratics (2018).  The author grew up just south of Calgary in Alberta, Canada near a remarkable glacial rock formation known as the Erratics.

Her childhood was traumatic due to her mother's behaviour and, upon reaching adulthood, Vicki and her sister both moved away from home. Residing in Europe, Asia and later Australia, Vicki became estranged from her parents who had ''disowned and disinherited' both their daughters.

One day Vicki gets word that her mother's hip has crumbled and she has been hospitalised. Vicki ventures back to Canada after a twenty-year absence, to help care for her elderly father. Vicki and her sister arrive at their childhood home only to find that their father has been essentially imprisoned. He is malnourished, medicated and has had all ties cut with the outside world by their mother. The sisters set about cleaning up the toxic house, which has become a hoarder's delight, and trying to reconnect with their father. They are deeply concerned that if their mother returns home, she will continue her abuse and eventually kill their father, so they work to ensure she stays away long enough to rescue their dad. In coming home the siblings need to confront their past, and their differing perspectives, to try and save their family.

Vicki's mother is like a monster in the closet or under the bed. We see little of her in this book, though she is a threatening presence throughout. The mother is manipulative, charismatic, narcissistic and cruel, but I never really got to understand why or how she became this way. Clearly she has had a tremendous impact on her children as Vicki is full of anger and pain. Her sister is too, but she has a different response and will shoulder much of the burden of caring for the father because she is nearer and feels obligated.

This memoir was bleak, but there was a dark humour that ran throughout, allowing light to get in. I read it in one sitting, and it was a gripping book. As a Canadian ex-pat living in Australia, I immediately felt nostalgic for my own childhood home. But there was something missing for me. Perhaps it was the detached narrative voice, as though Vicki didn't want to get too close to her own story.

In terms of The Erratics winning the Stella Prize, I am not sure why this book was chosen. I have read past Stella Prize winners like Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love (2017), Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (2016) and Emily Bitto's The Strays (2015) and took great delight in each of them. I would have preferred this prize to go to other nominated books like Bri Lee's memoir Eggshell Skull or Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist, both of which I found to be better written.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (part 2)

My weekend at the Sydney Writers' Festival continues with another action packed day. Here's a run-down of the final day of my weekend at the Festival.

Sunday 5 May 2019

Kerry O'Brien - A Memoir

Legendary journalist Kerry O'Brien has released a new memoir about his magnificent career. I last heard him speak at the 2016 Festival when he had published his book about Paul Keating.

O'Brien spoke with Philip Clark about his life in journalism. They began with his childhood at a repressive Catholic school, moving on to his early career as a reporter and later to his television career. O'Brien talked about interviewing Mandela, Thatcher, Springsteen and others as well as his time working as press secretary for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. O'Brien spearheaded some incredible programs like Lateline, The 7:30 Report and Four Corners. 

I was interested in this session because my father was a journalist, and listening to O'Brien speak about his career reminded me of my dad. When O'Brien described how he loved the 'ambience of the newsroom, the thrill of the chase, the competition' for bylines, I thought of my dad's early days in print journalism and his later career in television. O'Brien's tale made me nostalgic; wishing I could talk with my dad more about his work. Unfortunately my dad passed away far too young. Had he lived he would have been O'Brien's vintage and would perhaps have written a memoir of his own remarkable life and career.

Trial By Fire

This is the session I was most been looking forward to - Chloe Hooper (The Arsonist) and Susan Orlean (The Library Book) in conversation about their works. In both books, the authors try to get to the bottom of why someone would commit the crime of arson.

Orlean and Hooper spoke to Matthew Condon, who posed really insightful questions, drawing out the parallels and differences of the two books.  Orlean's work is about the fire in the Law Angeles Central Library in 1986 which resulted in over 400,000 books being destroyed by fire and another 700,000 being damaged by smoke and water.  Handsome and charming, Harry Peak was arrested for the arson, but never indicted, leaving the crime technically still unsolved.  Orlean spoke about how the conditions were perfect for a fire of this magnitude with the layout of the building, the ready fuel in the form of books.

The Black Saturday fires of Hooper's book were wildfires, but again the conditions were perfect with the high heat, dryness, and the change in wind. Unlike Peak, Brendan Sokaluk was a simple loner who was convicted of starting the Churchill Fires and is currently imprisoned. What I particularly enjoyed about Hooper's discussion during this session was her sophisticated linking of social issues with arson - she spoke of the connection between unemployment, discontent and fire setters. 

Both women provide incredible descriptions of the fire and its movements in their books. They spoke in the session about how they learned about fire and its movements, and the animalistic qualities we ascribe to fire. 

I completed Hooper's book late last year and I am currently enjoying Orlean's work. After the session I had the great pleasure of meeting both authors and they kindly signed their books for me. I really enjoyed this session and, for me, it was the best session of the festival: a perfect mix of wonderful books, great speakers, and an excellent facilitator.

Daisy Johnson - Everything Under

Last year Johnson became the youngest person to ever be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her book Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth set in the Oxfordshire canals. She spoke with Nada Bailey. I chose this session as I haven't read the book and don't know the author, so I was eager to learn.

Johnson is an articulate, funny and interesting woman. She began with a reading of the first page of her book, and her prose was so beautiful that I was immediately entranced. Johnson spoke about her interest in fragments of memory and how they come to you out of sequence, unexplained and it is up to you to make connections and determine what is real. In this novel the characters have experienced trauma, and this has had an impact on the way her memory unfolds.

Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth and so Bailey asked about the rise of feminist retelling of ancient tales. Recent revisions include Madeline Miller's Circe and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Johnson said that she recalls reading Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, revisions of fairy tales, and she enjoyed the idea of destroying and rebuilding things.

Johnson always wanted to be a writer, admiring the works of Keri Hulme, Roald Dahl, Stephen King and others - trying to understand how they crafted their works. She began writing short stories, and has a collection available called Fen. She said that she rewrote Everything Under from scratch seven times before the final, published version.

After the session I met Daisy Johnson and she has signed a copy of her book for me. Looking forward to reading this when I return from overseas.

Gabbie Stroud - Teacher

My festival friend alerted me to this session featuring an ex-teacher who has written a memoir about her time in the school system. She spoke with Education professor Nicole Mockler about the current education system and how it needs to be improved.

Stroud was a kindergarden teacher who was passionate about supporting children to learn. She began by reading a heartbreaking passage from her book about a morning at the school, where the key won't work, her impatient charges don't give her a second to think, there is that one child who will do the opposite of everyone else, and the teacher is faced with the sheer exhaustion of trying to meet everyone's needs.

Stroud took time off for parental leave and after a few short months she returned to find the teaching landscape had changed with a new national curriculum, standardised testing, professional teaching standards and more. She said she felt morally and ethically conflicted in her work, while she agrees with quality and accountability, she feels that trust has been eroded and teachers have lost their professional standing.

I found this session quite interesting, but didn't necessarily agree with all of Stroud's views.  I work in education, and have an understanding of and respect for quality standards and accountability. But I share Stroud's concerns about implementation of regulations and the lack of resourcing and respect. I liked her straight-talking manner. Her book sounds interesting and I may seek it out once I have whittled down my existing pile of reading. She has also written about this subject in the Griffith Review.

'I Do Not Want To See This In Print'

With an election only weeks away, it was great to attend this session about the relationships between sources and the media. Annabel Crabb spoke with Samantha Maiden, Niki Savva, and Shari Markson.

This powerhouse panel shared all sorts of wonderful insight about confidential sources, 'off the record' comments, the challenges of chasing down a lead, the disappointment when politicians publicly say the exact opposite of what they told you, and the competition for scoops.

Much of the commentary was about Barnaby Joyce. Markson broke the story last year about his lovechild, when in fact she was investigating potential travel rorts. Maiden shared a funny story about Peter Dutton accidentally texting her. Savva spoke about Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and how she is now writing a book called Highway to Hell, about the undermining of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership.

There were a lot of laughs in this segment and it was a fun way to finish off my Festival for the year.

Final Thoughts

I always enjoy my time at the Sydney Writers' Festival. The biggest problem for me this year was that many of the sessions I wanted to attend were at times I could not go (weekdays) or were in conflict. So I had to make some difficult decisions as to what I would see and had to forego seeing a few authors I wanted to see like Jane Caro, Anna Funder, Sean Greer, Meg Wolitzer and Jane Harper. Fortunately I was able to meet Jane Harper and Meg Wolitzer at the festival in the breaks between sessions.

I really like the Carriageworks as a venue - it is close to home, compact and accessible. But the acoustics were shocking in a few of the rooms. I found the noise from other sessions distracting and disrespectful to both the authors and audience. I note that the Festival organisers were working hard over the course of the event to improve the sound and have since apologised. Hopefully they will rectify this before the 2020 event.

For the most part I am pleased with my choice of sessions. The ones I liked best were largely the ones of authors I was unfamiliar with, and part of the joy of the festival is in hearing new voices and being exposed to new ideas.

I was fortunate to have books signed by the following authors at Sydney Writer's Festival 2019:
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer
  • Jane Harper - The Dry
  • Chloe Hooper - The Arsonist 
  • Daisy Johnson - Everything Under
  • Susan Orlean - The Library Book
  • Meg Wolitzer - The Female Persuasion
  • Clare Wright - You Daughters of Freedom
I am looking forward to reading the ones I haven't already explored.

I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links:

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (part 1)

I spent the weekend of 4-5 May 2019 at the Sydney Writers' Festival, attending nine sessions over the two days. Here's a run-down of the first day of my weekend at the Festival.

Saturday 4 May 2019

Literary Worlds

My first session of the day I chose because I was not really familiar with the panelists but I was intrigued by the premise of their discussion. Carla Gulfenbein, Toni Jordan and John Purcell spoke with Susanne Leal about their love of literature and how they have incorporated it into their works.

Carla Guelfenbein is a Chilean writer who has had a fascinating life, fleeing Pinochet and returning to her homeland 10 years later. She is a huge fan of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Guelfenbein's latest novel is In The Distance With You (2015) which features a character, Vera, based on Lispector. Guelfenbein spoke with great passion about belonging and the need for women to find their place in the world. She said that she is interested in people not fitting in where they are supposed to belong, and that is where she writes.

Toni Jordan is a Melbourne based writer. Her novel The Fragments (2018), centres on a dead author and a missing manuscript. In the book acclaimed author Inga Carlson died in a New York warehouse fire in the 1930s and her second novel was presumed to have been lost in the incident. Fifty years later fragments of this missing novel appear in Brisbane. Part mystery, part historical fiction, it is wholly a book about love of literature. Toni spoke about how good writers are also good readers and she reads two novels a week.

Purcell's novel The Girl on the Page (2018) has been on my reading list since it was published last year. It is about two literary giants who have been married fifty years, one of whom has received an advance for a novel that has yet to appear. A young editor is sent to assist the author make good on this advance. This novel is a behind-the-scenes look at the world of publishing, which is unsurprising given Purcell's long career as a bookseller and current role as Director of Books at Booktopia. Purcell spoke about his love of books and encouraged readers to stretch themselves by reading at a higher level that comfortable with.

When I tweeted the photo of the panel above, John Purcell tweeted back with a funny comment about his surly look, resulting in a bit of hilarity on my twitter feed that had me smiling all day.

Whose ABC?

I am always amazed by the political commentary and controversy surrounding the ABC. The independent public broadcaster is an essential in providing quality journalism and local content. The last year or so has been turbulent with the sacking of the Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, and the replacement of the Board Chair with Ida Buttrose.

This fascinating panel was chaired by Sally Warhaft and featured Marc Fennell, Margaret Simons, Jonathan Holmes, and Mark Scott (former ABC Managing Director). The first subject was the appointment of the new Managing Director David Anderson, who was announced the day before this session. The panel spoke favourably of Mr Anderson and encouraged him to get out quickly and present his vision for the ABC. All agreed that Ida Buttrose is more than qualified to lead the Board, but there was a great deal of concern over the lack of transparency surrounding her appointment.

There was a lot of discussion about the important role the ABC has in telling Australian stories, particularly the voices that will not get covered on commercial television - indigenous, regional and remote. Mark Scott pointed out that it costs over $2M to make one hour of quality drama, and that is why so many stations look to making cheap reality TV. The risk is that the only Australian voices will be those of MasterChef and Married at First Sight contestants.

Funding continues to be a huge problem and the cost-cutting has had a terrible impact on morale of ABC staff. The politicising of the ABC has placed pressure on the network. The journalists spoke about the notion of 'fair and balanced' promoted by politicians, and said that balance is not what is needed. Rather fairness is prime, following the weight of evidence. They pointed out that on some topics there is a clarity of the weight of evidence (e.g. vaccination, climate change) and that 'balance' would undermine and mislead reporting.  All agreed that ABC needs to cover broader issues, like business topics (SBS has a series on managing small business) and consumer journalism.

As an ABC viewer I appreciated the insight each panelist brought to this session. Both Holmes and Scott have written essays for the Melbourne University Publishing 'On' Series in which writers are asked to produce a small book about a big topic. Scott has written 'On Us' about new media and Holmes 'On Aunty' about our national broadcaster in an era of media disruption.

Rachel Kushner - The Mars Room

Last year Kushner was shortlisted for the Booker prize for her third novel The Mars Room (2018) which tells the story of a woman who is incarcerated, leaving her young son to be cared for by his grandmother. I had not read this book and was not familiar with Kushner, when I selected this session.

Kushner spoke with Michael Williams (Wheeler Centre) about the impetus for writing this book and her concerns about mass incarceration in the author's home state of California. She spent a lot of time talking wth inmates in order to understand the conditions in which they live and the circumstances which lead them to jail. She spoke about how she is unsettled by the lack of care for those who go to prison - the prolonged sentences, unavailability of books, the hopelessness of the parole system.

During the session, Kushner read a few passages from the book which were witty, heartbreaking and literary. It made me really interested in reading the novel.

Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer

My last session today was with Nigerian author Oyinkan Brathwaite who has crafted a dark, comedic novel about two sisters, one of whom has a habit of killing her lovers.

Braithwaite spoke to Rebecca Harkins-Cross about her literary influences - Jane Eyre, Great Expectations in particular, and the characters that interest her like Estella, Miss Haversham and Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester. She said she is drawn to strong female characters who do nefarious things.

The narrator in Braithwaite's novel is the sister of the killer, the enabler and supporter. She spoke about the need to write from this perspective, rather than trying to get inside the killer's mind. This gave her a freedom to write. Earlier drafts had the women as friends, but as the writing evolved they became sisters to make the ties familial and strong.

Beauty is a central theme as Ayoola, the murderer, is impossibly beautiful and is therefore able to get away with things that her plainer sister Korede, the narrator, is not. Braithwaite spoke about how quickly people are judged on their looks.

During the session Braithwaite read a number of sections, which were witty and compelling. My Sister, the Serial Killer has recently been shortlisted for the Women's Prize. I grabbed a copy at the Festival and was thrilled to have it signed by the author. I have been enjoying reading it in the past few days and will blog my review separately.

I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links:

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Sydney Writers' Festival - Early Sessions

The 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival has begun!  I will be sharing my festival experiences on Twitter (@inaguddle) and blog about them here as I have done in the past (SWF2018, SWF2016,  SWF2015)

Unable to take time off work to attend weekday sessions, I am making the most of my evenings and have an action-packed weekend scheduled. My festival companion and I have chosen a wide array of sessions - some together, some apart - selecting topics of interest and some new authors with whom I am not familiar.

Over the course of SWF2019 I will be hearing from some amazing writers like Gillian Triggs, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, John Purcell, Gabbie Stroud, Kerry O'Brien, Chloe Hooper and Susan Orlean.

So here's a summary of my first few sessions...

Suffragettes, Referenda and Sausages (Thursday 2 May 2019)

This panel session is subtitled 'The History of Democracy in Australia'. Journalist Annabel Crabb sat down with historians Judith Brett and Dr Clare Wright to talk about politics.

I have a keen interest in politics and history and have long admired Wright, author of the Stella Prize winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014). Her latest book is You Daughters of Freedom (2018) about the Australian women's suffrage movement. Judith Brett's latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage (2019) about the Australian electoral system.

This session was so interesting and I learned so much about how unique Australia's electoral system is - with the legal requirement to register, compulsory voting, accessible weekend voting, and the independent electoral commission which protects against voter suppression and gerrymandering - all reasons that over 96% of eligible population are enrolled to vote.

What particularly fascinated me was Wright's discussion of women's suffrage and how influential Australian women were in the British suffrage movement, supporting their 'less fortunate British sisters'. Wright shared some stories of the innovative ways women pressed for the right to vote. Both Brett and Wright spoke about our shameful history of denying rights to Aboriginal men and women, sharing excerpts of overtly racist political speeches. Wright reminded today's politicians that 'Historians in one hundred years will judge you on what is recorded in Hansard' - the transcripts from our Parliament.

After the session I purchased Wright's book and spoke to her while she signed it for me. Can't wait to read it - although it may be some time, as the 400+ page hardcover is not a book I will be taking with me on my Moroccan holiday later this month!

Gillian Triggs - Speaking Up (Friday 3 May 2019)

I have huge admiration for Gillian Triggs, former Human Rights Commission President. I have heard her speak previously at events and always found her to be an intelligent,  passionate and empathetic advocate for human rights. My festival friend and I were keen to hear Triggs speak with Dr Clare Wright about her memoir Speaking Up (2018).

Spending her early years in Britain before emigrating with her family to Australia, Triggs was raised with a keen sense of social justice. She spoke about the influence Greer's The Female Eunuch and de Beauvoir's Second Sex had on her as a young woman and how optimistic she was for a positive, equal future in which she could pursue whatever future she had imagined for herself. She shared how she ended up in law, how difficult it was in the late 1960s for women to get into the profession and how she developed her interest in international law.

Triggs then spoke about the fundamental freedoms at the heart of democracy - rights to be free from arbitrary detention, to a fair trial, to freedom of assembly, to be equal before the law, to vote, etc - and how Australia's rights have been eroded and are not protected by a Bill or Charter of Rights. She claims that 2001 was when Australia began to lose its way because of three distinct but linked incidents - the 'children overboard' claim, the Tampa crisis, and 9/11 - which lead to successive governments conflating Islam and asylum seekers with terrorism, and the creation of laws which have diminished the separation of powers and placed human rights at risk.

She spoke about her time as Human Rights Commission President, the intense scrutiny and abuse she endured, and how her resilience was fuelled by her team at the Commission, her anger at the injustice and the overwhelming community support. Triggs ended this empowering session with an optimistic view of the future and encouraged young people to be bold and stand up for what they believe is right.

Insiders Live (Friday 3 May 2019)

One of my favourite events at each Sydney Writers' Festival is Insiders live which I attended with my festival friend (who secured some amazing seats!). With the host of ABC's Insiders program Barrie Cassidy set to leave the show mid-year, this event was particularly special and it started with a bang when James Jeffrey played the Insiders theme on bagpipes as he walked through Town Hall.

Cassidy was joined by journalists Annabel Crabb, Niki Savva, David Marr and Katharine Murphy, with Mike Bowers 'talking pictures' with Jack the Insider and James Jeffrey. Two weeks out from an election, with 16 candidates having had to pull out of the race for various unsavoury reasons, there was much to talk about.

Earlier in the evening there was a televised debate between the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, which Annabel Crabb summarised. The panelists each spoke about the campaign highlights and lowlights. The general consensus was that Labor is performing well because they are a united team, with solid bench-strength, and they have clearly articulated policies to discuss. On the other hand, the Coalition is more of a one-man show with Morrison doing all the talking in this campaign and having no real policies to speak of.

Talking pictures is always a hoot, with Bowers showing some of the best political cartoons of the campaign and some incredible photographic images. They also showed one of Huw Parkinson's gems - a mashup he did in September 2018 when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted.

The 2000-strong audience all got to participate in the traditional 'Back to you, Barrie' twice this night, the final one including a thank you for Cassidy's 18 years at the helm of Insiders. The show will not be the same without him. The ever-humble Cassidy sought to escape the stage without much fanfare, but was forced to return for the prolonged standing ovation and there was a touching moment when he was hugged by Katharine Murphy and Mike Bowers at the end of the night. A great event with an amazingly gifted panel.

Looking forward to the next two days of the Sydney Writer's Festival!

I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links: