Books in review

By Diana Simonds

In this issue:

Sarah Thornhill

Cover illustration of Sarah Thornhill

Kate Grenville
TextPublishing $39.95

The thing about Kate Grenville (BA ’73) is that if and when challenged, she rarely takes a backward step. You might not guess it because her demeanour is reticent and graceful, but it’s as well that she is an unlikely fighter. After the pasting she took from some historians for the imagined sins of the magnificent The Secret River, a lesser writer might have packed her ports and gone home for good. Instead, Grenville came right back with The Lieutenant – a tender fictional account of the friendship between two of early Sydney’s most appealing inhabitants, William Dawes and a young Aboriginal woman, Tagaran. Now, however, Grenville’s new novel continues her exploration of themes taken up in The Secret River – inspired by research into her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman of the ferry – and takes the story forward another generation.

Sarah is a compelling character and Grenville occupies her skin with conviction. Raised on the Hawkesbury in the relative comfort of her father’s successful settling and merchanting, nevertheless Sarah’s life is – by today’s standards – brutally hard. Her youthful love for half Aboriginal Jack Langland is early thwarted by a socially ambitious stepmother; instead Sarah marries up – stolidly respectable Anglo-Irish gentleman John Daunt – and they make a life perilously close to the ”limits of location” – the lower Hunter region.

The combination of Grenville’s research and her instinctively empathic attitude towards Sarah and her inner life give the novel an irresistible depth and richness. Every page is a revelation yet there is never a hint of the didact, nor of the traditional historian; instead, a writer at the height of her considerable powers sweeps the reader along to conclusions both satisfying and plausible. True romance: tough, beautiful and honest.


The Flight Attendant’s Shoe

Prudence Black
NewSouthBooks $49.95

Dr Black, an honorary associate in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University, reveals all and more about the history of the women of civil aviation. Now disparagingly known as “trolley dollies”, they were once among the most glamorous workers on the planet (actually, mostly above it).

Tracing the tradition of the quasi-military uniforms from the beginnings of civilian air travel – ex-air force pilots desperate to keep flying – Black illuminates a world that is now as distant as Jane Austen. Advice from the 1963 Qantas training manual, for instance, suggests a night a week to take care of vitals such as hair and nails and surplus hair removal, and ends: “The next morning you will not only feel healthier and cleaner, but look a different person. There is a virtuous feeling knowing you and your possessions are spick and span and you will make certain your workday matches the mood of the orderliness.”

This kind of conscientious attention to one’s person was required for any chance to display “feminine achievement” and be in the running to win the Miss Air Hostess Quest. Thirty years earlier, however, and a hostie would have been instructed, “Passengers who wish to remove their shoes should be assisted and the shoes cleaned by the hostess before returning them.”

This large format coffee table-book-with-brains is full of delicious illustrations, photographs and historic ephemera, and evidence that no matter how gloomy the outlook from the feminist perspective, some aspects of life and work have changed for the better.


An Eye For Eternity – The Life Of Manning Clark

Mark McKenna
MUP/Miegunyah Press $54.95

McKenna, a research fellow at the University, eminent historian and award-winning author, is frank about the subject of this close to 800-page, lucidly written life. Of Australia’s most popular and controversial chronicler of itself, he writes that Clark, “pushed beyond the particulars in order to write history that revealed universal truth – not historical fiction but fictional history”. Which is a neat way of dealing with the great man’s tendency toward the dramatic, in all things.

The problem with history is that it’s supposed to be about certainty and therefore – being history – rarely is, nor could it be, as it’s the creation of humans. And one of the oldest human traits is story telling. It’s not too fanciful to see the genesis of The History of Australia in this letter from a 23-year-old Clark: “…I feel quite convinced that Australian history has been betrayed by historians. I believe quite passionately that Australia is a ‘weird’ country and that its weirdness has never been portrayed except in landscape painting…”

As a biographer, McKenna is thorough and reasonably uncompromising. Clark’s own “weirdnesses” aren’t ignored, nor are they gnawed to death. His flaws and foibles actually make him worth reading about. Whether his Communism (yes or no) needs to be defended is debatable. Clark wrote to a friend, “Just because 1917 fell into the hands of spiritual bullies, that does not mean we should give up the hope of stealing fire from heaven.” Indeed.


The Man Who Loved Crocodiles

Marg Carroll
Allen & Unwin $32.99

Carroll (BA ’69 MTCPlan ’77) has been up to her elbows in rural life since she returned to Central NSW after university. It would be easier to list what she hasn’t done than what she has done and is doing, but running the family farm at Molong with husband Bill hasn’t kept her from adventures. These have led to a couple of books: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives and Reinventing the Bush: Inspiring stories of young Australians. She has also met and been enthralled by other, older Australians whose stories she now tells in this interestingly illustrated book.

In the foreword, Australia’s favourite older pin-up Maggie Beer writes, “I found myself on the verge of tears at times, and laughing out loud at others, as I read these stories.” It’s true: a delightful collection of characters, laughter and wisdom.


Which Oil?

Cover illustration of Which Oil?

Richard Michell
Veloce Publishing $24.99

Handily, the subtitle “choosing the right oils and greases for your antique, vintage, veteran, classic or collector car” immediately reveals whether or not you are likely to want this little book. The author (BE(Chem) ’67 PhD ’71) drove around uni in an MG TD and now owns – and drives on a daily basis – a Porsche 912, a Lancia Beta Spider and an Austin 7. Anyone similarly inclined will hurl themselves on this book with gratitude and enormous interest.


Desert Fishing Lessons – Adventures In Australia’s Rivers

Cover illustration of Desert Fishing Lessons – Adventures In Australia’s Rivers

Adam Kerezsy
UWA Publishing $34.95

Living and working beside Lake Cargelligo in the middle of the Murray–Darling Basin meant that freshwater fish scientist and aquatic ecologist Kereszy (BA(Hist) ’90) could see, daily, the many problems that afflict the river system and its inhabitants. It caused him to get in his 4WD and begin exploring the relationship between the vast inland arid zone, its waterways and the fish that live in them.

His PhD was on the distribution and movement of fish in the virtually unknown rivers of western Queensland and the Simpson Desert and, through this book, you too can find out about the secret life of fish. How can you resist a Lake Eyre Hardyhead, a Cooper Creek Turtle, or a Silver Tandan? Do you know the difference between a red- or blue-claw yabby and why one is good and the other not? You will, and you’ll also form a relationship with the waterways of the inland that could change the way you think about the wide brown land.


The Transit of Venus

Cover illustration of The Transit of Venus – 1631 to the present

Nick Lomb
NewSouthBooks $49.95

The author (BSc ’69 PhD ’75) is Astronomy curator-at-large at the Sydney Observatory and Powerhouse Museum, and with this book he has given us the essential guidebook to 6 June 2012. If you missed the transit in 2004 it’s important to see this one and be the full bottle on what it all means: the next pair of transits will not happen until December 2117 and 2125.

The book is a treasury of rare photography, historic illustrations and all the information you might need. The layout is bizarre, however, and takes a little getting used to: skipping pages to continue a feature doesn’t come naturally, so keep your wits about you.


The Magic of It

Michael Wilding
Arcadia-Press On $24.95

Emeritus Professor Wilding (DLitt ’96) has a wicked sense of humour and delicious ways with words, as befits a teacher of English and Australian Literature and creative writing. His latest novel follows the benighted progress of Plant, hired as a private detective of sorts by book dealer Mac Arber on behalf of Archer Major, a supercilious academic. The action moves from sandstone Sydney to Oxford in search of the author of threatening letters. The prime suspect is an objectionable sort named Revill, but he ends up dead.

Like so much of Wilding’s fiction this is about place and language as much as the plot itself, and the humour the author finds in academe and its pretensions.


On Shakespeare

Cover illustration of On Shakespeare

John Bell
Allen & Unwin $39.95

Bell AO OBE (BA ’73 Hon DLitt ’96) is a true believer when it comes to William Shakespeare. He has dedicated the past 20+ years of his life to the man’s plays, and his company is a powerhouse of practical and spiritual enrichment for actors, director and audiences. If there is another living Australian actor, director or academic who knows as much about Shakespeare, it’s impossible to imagine who it might be.

Bell understands the plays and the playwright from the inside out: as
an actor and director, and that’s what makes his book such a pleasure and also important for both crafts. He’s been there, done it and often more than once or twice. Learn a lot and be entertained too.