INTERVIEW: Frank Moorhouse on ‘Cold Light’ (Vintage)

In the conclusion to Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry mixes politics with pleasure in post-war Canberra. Moorhouse spoke to Andrea Hanke in the November issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Edith has a glamorous lifestyle in the first two books. She is young, attractive, surrounded by interesting men and women, and working for world peace. Were you tempted to end her story there?
For a while after Dark Palace I thought that Edith’s life ended with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision—what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20th century—the new UN had rejected her, and some of her friends at the League had suicided because of their failure to stop World War II. In some ways Edith flees back to Australia to find herself. I became excited and went to Jane Palfreyman, my then editor at Random House, and said, ‘the third novel is set in Canberra in the 1950s’. She looked at me and said, ‘do you have a stronger pitch than that?’ I told her that this was a remarkable time in Australia and the world regardless of how we tend to see it—and Edith belonged there. Jane agreed. In Canberra Edith again confronts all the great problems of the human race—and her own personal dilemmas. Wherever we go the existential questions follow us. Edith is a woman in her prime, also a woman still trying to understand her sexuality even if it means crossing the sexual borders or trying to live without borders. She is a woman who wrestles for her say in the world; to find a family life; she wrestles with alcohol, and she strives for a sexual life which fits her personality and she searches for peace of mind.

In Cold Light, Edith takes up a number of causes, including the construction of Canberra, for which she has lofty dreams. How do you think she would feel about Australia’s capital today?
Edith would’ve been pleased to see that the unique and creative hands of Marion and Walter Griffin were still clearly present in the design of the national capital.

She would have seen that the residential neighbourhoods of Canberra had lost their rawness and had become distinctive in design and layout—some with interesting restaurants and their own community activities, and that each is now an archive of the architectural styles of the decade in which they were built.

She would have said now let’s pull down any unsuccessful structures and ugliness.

She would have been disappointed that the buses taking people to and from work did not have visits from wandering minstrels and opera singers and celebrities.

But she would be delighted and thrilled that Australia had manage to create a distinctive city ‘not like any other in the world’ with its ‘temples’ of art, literature, science, music, democracy, law, military history, its parks and gardens, and a national museum—all showing where we came from and what brought us along.

She would probably ask where the Museum of Design, Arts, and Crafts was and why there wasn’t there a great museum of Indigenous culture.

She might be disappointed at the level of political debate in the new parliament house.

You spent some time in Geneva to research the first two books of the trilogy. Did you set up camp in Canberra for this book?
One day in the bus travelling through Canberra in a winter mist I had a dazzling revelation—it was that Canberra may well have evolved into the most aesthetically distinctive and functionally satisfying 20th-century planned city in the world—that Australia had pulled it off. I then had a second realisation, Canberra was now completed in the formal sense—the new parliament house was working and the key cultural institutions were pretty much in place. I even entertained the notion that Canberra might be the most beautiful 20th-century city in the world. While some people who live outside Canberra still hold out-dated memories of the ‘city without soul’ where you couldn’t get a decent coffee, Canberra is now a sophisticated city and it increasingly delights me—architecturally, gastronomically and with its wonderful cultural resources.

The story also delves into the history of the Australian Communist Party, and its role in political espionage during the 1950s (both as a spy and as a party that was heavily spied upon). Did you find many sources to draw on this?
The release of national archival material and the publication of a revealing book by former communist Mark Aarons (The Family File, Black Inc.) may have extinguished any illusions those on the left still have about the nature of the Australian communist party leadership during the immediate post-war years. We now know that the communist party in Australia was substantially funded by the Soviet Union and a section of the membership was engaged in spying for the Soviet Union. Whether this has discredited forever the vision of some sort of a socialistic economic and social system as an alternative to that of American capitalism is, perhaps, still to be resolved.

You write ‘literary novels’ that are funny and sexy, which is less common in this genre. Have you been influenced by any particular authors?
My hero author is George Eliot and she has influenced me throughout my life since school days but I doubt that she has contributed to what you call the ‘sexy’ in my work—I have to take responsibility for that—although, given her own personal life, I do not think she would’ve been in any ways embarrassed by it if she were alive to read it. I think her influence on me was that she showed me that the personal life, the civic life, the life of ideas and social change can be intertwined into an engaging readable novel.

Are there any plans to adapt Edith’s story into a movie or mini-series?
A number of film options have been taken out on the Edith novels over the 20 years that they were written but they still await the right director and producer—Cate Blanchett said in an interview that my character Edith was the one she most wanted to play. I hope that comes to pass.

BOOK REVIEW: A Common Loss (Kirsten Tranter, Fourth Estate)

Kirsten Tranter’s second novel—following The Legacy—is the story of a group of college friends who travel together each year to Las Vegas. Dylan, the charismatic confidante of the group, the keeper of secrets and solver of problems, has died in an accident, so the remaining four friends plan the annual trip. Elliot, an erudite yet awkward English lecturer, narrates the novel. He is the most naïve of the group, so his perspective makes it easy for the reader to slip into the group and share disgust at Cameron and Brian’s hypocrisy, concern over Tallis’ drinking, and to wonder: what holds these friendships together? There are similarities in this story to The Legacy: both share a naïve, lovelorn and lost character driven by the absence of a friend who still seems all too present. A Common Loss is a potent story of secrets, love, friendship and the bonds that keep people close; in the case of these friends it is a shared history that also threatens to destroy them. Brimming with blackmail and deception and laced with grief, poetry, simmering emotional tension and relationships both budding and exhausted, Tranter’s second novel does not disappoint.

Portia Lindsay works at UNSW Bookshop. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Most mentioned this week

The death of political writer and renowned athiest Christopher Hitchens received considerable media coverage over the weekend, with two of Hitchens’ books–his memoir Hitch-22 (A&U) and a collection of his most controversial writings, Arguably (A&U)–appearing in this week’s most mentioned chart. Also receiving several mentions were Michael Lewis’ analysis of Europe’s credit crisis, Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Penguin), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair) and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Little, Brown)–Media Extra.

Bestsellers this week

Kay Scarpetta is on a mission to get to the bottom of the murder of her former deputy chief Jack Fielding. While following a lead at a women’s prison, she uncovers links in a series of other seemingly unrelated murders, which in turn point to a potential international terrorism conspiracy. Red Mist (Hachette), Patricia Cornwell’s 19th novel in the Scarpetta series, is top of the fastest movers chart this week followed by Guinness World Records 2012 (Guinness World Records). In the lead up to the festive season, the top five bestselling books are Cabin Fever: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin), still in first place, followed by Inheritance (Christopher Paolini, Doubleday) in second and The Opal Desert (Di Morrissey, Macmillan) in third. Donna Hay’s Simple Dinners (HarperCollins) is fourth on the chart, followed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Hachette) in fifth place.The Scottish Prisoner (Diana Gabaldon, Hachette) is at the top of the highest new entries chart–Weekly Book Newsletter.

BOOK REVIEW: Everyday Kindness: Shortcuts to a Happier and More Confident Life (Stephanie Dowrick, A&U)

Once again, Stephanie Dowrick has drawn on her extensive experience as a psychotherapist, interfaith minister and writer to deliver a book that will appeal to anyone looking to improve the quality of their life. The premise of Everyday Kindness is that everyone has the power to bring joy or healing to another person’s life, as well as their own, through a simple act of kindness. Whether you’re a longtime spiritual devotee or more of a novice, looking for direction on how to live a life less preoccupied by individual need, this book will be of value to all. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of everyday life, including self-confidence, personal power, moods and relationships, which Dowrick explores through facts and personal stories from the her own experiences. The chapters are short, designed to be read in a single sitting, encouraging reflection before moving onto the next. The book also works as a reference book that can be revisited often. Each new chapter reinforces the overriding theme that kindness should be practiced every day, in all aspects of life. This is insightful, stimulating reading, which will leave readers feeling positive about themselves, and what can be achieved with like-minded people.

Sherri Kalow is manager of Watermark Books at Melbourne Airport. This review first appeared in the November issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Page to screen: summer edition

This year we’ve had The Help, Norwegian Wood, We Need to Talk about Kevin and who could forget Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1. The book-to-movie adaptations continue this summer, beginning with several high-profile Boxing Day releases.

One of the most-anticipated adaptations has to be The Adventures of Tintin (Boxing Day), based on three of Herge’s comics: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure (all Egmont Books). This 3D adaptation is directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, and has Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis in starring roles.

Stephen Spielberg is also the director behind the World War One drama War Horse (Boxing Day), adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s bestselling children’s novel of the same name (Hardie Grant Egmont). The story has also been turned into a successful theatre production and after stints in London and New York, a local production will open in Melbourne in late 2012.

We Bought a Zoo (Boxing Day) is a comedy-drama directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and a menagerie of animals. The movie is based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name (HarperCollins), which tells of how the author and his young family came to own a dilapidated zoo in the English countryside. The movie, however, is set in Southern California.

Thankfully, the new movie adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (January) remains faithfully British, with Colin Firth and Gary Oldman in the lead roles. The novel is published by Hodder.

Also out in January is a second Sherlock Holmes movie adaptation from director Guy Ritchie, again starring Robert Downey Junior as the detective and Jude Law as Dr Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories are available in various imprints but for something new, check out Anthony Horowitz’s authorised Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk (Orion).

Brian Selznick’s multi-award-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic), which combines elements of picture book, graphic novel and film, was always going to be a tempting project for an ambitious filmmaker. The story of an orphan living in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s has been turned into a 3D film, simply titled Hugo (January), by Martin Scorsese.

The Descendants (January) is a quirky comedy-drama starring George Clooney as a man who finds out his wife has been having an affair after a boating accident lands her in a coma. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings (Vintage).

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death and one of several biopics in production is My Week with Marilyn (January), directed by Simon Curtis and starring Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Monroe and Laurence Olivier. It’s based on two books by Colin Clark (My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, both HarperCollins) about the making of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl.

The US adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’ kicks off in January with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. A new movie-tin in edition is being published by Pan Macmillan.

A movie adaptation of Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Penguin), which draws on the events of September 11, will be released in late February after initial plans to release it on the 10th anniversary of the attack were scuttled. The movie is directed by Stephen Daldry and stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.

Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe tackles another book-to-movie adaptation with The Woman in Black (February), based on Susan Hill’s thriller of the same name (Profile). The book has also been adapted into one of the longest running stage plays.

On the smaller screen, Gabrielle Lord’s ‘Conspiracy 365’ series has been adapted as an interactive TV series for the Family Movie Channel, with 13 episodes to screen monthly from January 2012 to January 2013. The story follows 15-year-old fugitive Callum Ormond as he searches for the truth behind a deadly family secret, and features a local cast including RocKwiz’s Julia Zemiro.

BOOK REVIEW: Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees (Odo Hirsch, A&U)

Due to a mysterious illness, every bee on the Bell estate has perished. Not only does this mean that no honey will be produced this year but the fruits and vegetables in the Bell orchard will not be pollinated. Those who read Darius Bell’s previous adventure will know that the Bell family has a large house with huge grounds, but very little money. They depend on the bounty from their garden for food and trade. Darius’ father doesn’t grasp how serious the situation is, while the mayor hates the Bell family and is actively working against them. Once again it is up to Darius to find a solution to the problem. Odo Hirsh writes great problem-stories where the kids are resourceful and the grown-ups are mostly incompetent and easily outwitted by Darius. Woven through the story is the science behind pollination, but it fits in well with the narrative and doesn’t seem like a science lesson has been dropped in the middle of a story. This book references Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool, but it is not essential to have read book one to understand this story. This is a very enjoyable read for a thoughtful upper-primary reader.

Amelia Vahtrick is the children’s book buyer at Better Read Than Dead and was awarded the Australian Booksellers Association’s Young Bookseller of the Year in 2011. This review first appeared in the October issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Most mentioned this week

As the year draws to a close, publications are looking back at 2011 and compiling lists of the best books of the year. For a round up of the ‘best of 2011’ lists see Fancy Goods. Appearing on these lists are this week’s most mentioned books, with Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate) at the top of the most mentioned chart. Set at Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom, but when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are affected. Also appearing on the most mentioned chart this week are Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U), Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (Harvill Secker), Jessica Rudd’s Ruby Blues (Text) and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair)–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rattler and Other Stories (AS Patrić, Spineless Wonders)

Spineless Wonders is a new, Northern Territory-based small publisher, specialising in short fiction. It is heartening to see a publisher championing shortstory collections, especially quality ones such as The Rattler, the debut collection by Melbourne writer (and bookseller) A S Patrić. These stories range from narrative experiments such as the chilling ‘B O M B S’, an oblique look at terrorism, to more playful pieces such as ‘Ducks’, which imagines Anais Nin and June Miller living out their autumn years in Elwood. Regardless of mood or technique, the stories are highly poetic, both in terms of their rhythmic use of language and the way in which they show quotidian objects and landscapes—Melbourne suburbia in particular—in a strange, often unsettling, new light. The only real exception is the title story, which lacks the assurance and edginess of the shorter pieces. Its central character Atticus quits his job as a tram driver in order to devote himself to writing about his tram-driving experiences. The experiences themselves, rather than Atticus’ struggles to document them, might have been more interesting to read about. But there are enough gems among the other 17 stories to impress any short-fiction enthusiast seeking a fresh and vibrant new voice.

David Cohen is a Brisbane-based writer and former bookseller. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher, which is available online here. (Spineless Wonders is now based in Sydney.)

Best books of 2011

Tis the season for ‘best of’ lists, and whether you get your tips from the New York Times, Goodreads or local booksellers/tastemakers such as Jon Page and David Gaunt, this year there are plenty to choose from.

From the local booksellers:

The good folk at Readings have devised multiple ‘best of’ lists, including the intriguingly titled ‘best overlooked books of 2011’, as well as the ‘bestselling ebooks of 2011‘; Pages & Pages’ has compiled its best books of 2011 (owner Jon Page has also nominated his top five reads for 2011 — if you follow him on Twitter these should be self-evident); Gleebooks’ David Gaunt has shared his favourite titles of the past year; Oscar & Friends has announced its staff picks for 2011; several Shearer’s booksellers have blogged about their top picks; and The Women’s Bookshop in New Zealand has compiled its favourite titles for 2011.

From the overseas booksellers:

Barnes and Noble has named its best books for 2011, including a category for ‘quirky, beautiful, different’ titles.

From the media:

The New York Times has released its annual ‘100 notable books’ and ‘10 best books’ lists; Flavourwire has compiled a list of ‘the most criminally overlooked books of 2011’; and there are more ‘best of’ lists from the Guardian, Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Salon, NPR and Kirkus Reviews. In local media, the SMH/Age has asked a selection of writers to name their favourite reads of the past year; as has the New Zealand Listener. The Australian has released its Books of the Year over five pages starting here (paywall). The Huffington Post compiled a list of the best food books of 2011 as did the blog Brain Pickings.

From social media:

The winners of the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards have also been announced, with over 600,000 votes cast.