My Year In Review

2014 was a year of firsts for me. I began my Tattooed Critic wordpress, I started to read more and more fiction rather than non-fiction, it was the first time that I had traveled outside of Australia, and the first time that I attempted to review books that I read – publishing them on my blog and slowly building up confidence to send some off in the hope one will be published somewhere. I’m still a novice at what I am doing and haven’t been able to read and write as much as I wanted; still, I’m enjoying my project. So, with this ‘article’, I add another first: my first ‘Year in Review.’

In 2014 I set myself the goal of reading 50 books for the year. I’m not so pleased to announce that I fell well short of that number. It was probably an ambitious target to set considering I would spend five weeks in the United States traveling, and would spend most of my time working and saving for the trip. Nonetheless, I read a total of 34 books (not too bad, I guess). It’s not the worst result, but its nowhere near where near the number I wanted.

We are now well set in 2015 and once again I’m running late for such a list. So, before it gets too late to publish such a piece, I would like to present my most favourite reads of 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan:

9781741666700-2The 2014 Man Booker Prize winner would no doubt be in a lot of people’s must read list. Nevertheless, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book I have been suggesting to anyone with a heartbeat.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes its title from 17th-century poet Basho’s travel journal. The reason for choosing this title reflects both the highest part of Japanese culture, and also the lowest of Japanese culture with the treatment of its Prisoners of War in World War II.

Inspired by both his father’s experience as a POW on the Thai-Burma railway and the life of Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Flanagan confronts the reader with the suffering, sacrifice, humility, heroism, trauma faced by POWs on the railway, while addressing the question of memory and the impossibility of love.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book of unwavering beauty set amongst the suffering experienced by the Australian POWs. As Dorrigo Evans says: “a good book… leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your soul.” The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that will leave you rereading your soul.

An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman:

Carman-CoverAn Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, his first book of fiction, is a collection of monologues set in the suburbs of Western Sydney. Carman’s young, self-conscious but determined hero navigates his way through various complications: divorce, an often-perilous social world involving the cultural flash point of Western Sydney, friends and enemies.

Carman’s debut book of fiction is dynamic – blending his loves of Whitman and Kerouac, Leonard Cohen and Henry Rollins throughout the monologues and capturing the voices of the streets conveying the fear and anger, beauty and affection, the ugly and the bad, with restless intensity.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane:

9781926428550Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair, her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, loneliness, isolation, memory and tenderness that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. What lies at the heart of the novel is the question: who is to care for them when others are unwilling or unable to do so?

Lost For Words by Edward St Aubyn:

2014-04-28-LostforWordsjacketHP-thumbLost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is a hilarious satire on literary awards – most notably the Man Booker Prize. Renamed the Elysian Prize for literature, St Aubyn traces the complicated path to awarding a major literary prize.

Lost for Words is habitually St Aubyn: telling a multi-layered story through a vast amount of characters each offering their point of view. Lost for Words is a witty, fabulously entertaining satire that cuts to of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and asks how we can ever hope to recognise real talent when everyone has an agenda.

The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs:

the-undesirablesThere is no other contentious issue throughout Australia’s history, both politically and socially, than the issue of immigration. George Megalogenis describes immigration as “the defining issue in the battle of wills between politicians and the polls, because voters, if given the chance, will always prefer fewer new arrivals.”

The issue of Asylum Seekers usually draws heated debate – especially between the left and the right – yet the voices of those who are either at the front line, or those who are fleeing persecution, are never heard from. This is where The Undesirables is most valuable.

Isaacs did five rotations on Nauru from October 2012 to June 2013. Over this time, Isaacs kept a diary of what life was like living and working on Nauru. His diary has been refined into The Undesirables: Inside Nauru. The Undesirables at times can be a grueling read. The original intent of the book, as a diary, and a novice writer, means there are repeated concerns, themes, and topics throughout the book. Nonetheless, the theme that resonates the most is the celebration of the human spirit and the struggle to do what is right.

ANZACs Long Shadow:

9781863956390James Brown’s short but much needed critique of Australia’s Defense forces is a must read for 2015. While Brown does discuss several issues with the Anzac legend and the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF.

Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

The book is more important considering the Australian Government’s purchase of new fighter jets, HMAS Canberra, and the plan to build a new submarine fleet that could possibly be unfavorable to future military strategies.

The Unexpected Professor by Peter Carey:

imagesBest known for his provocative take on cultural issues in The Intellectuals and The Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey describes in this warm and funny memoir the events that formed him – an escape from the London blitz to an idyllic rural village, army service in Egypt, an open scholarship to Oxford and an academic career that saw him elected, age 40, to Oxford’s oldest English Literature professorship.

He frankly portrays the snobberies and rituals of 1950s Oxford, but also his inspiring meetings with writers and poets – Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney – and his forty-year stint as a lead book-reviewer for the Sunday Times.

This is a book about the joys of reading and an informal introduction to the great works of English literature. But it is also about war and family, and how an unexpected background can give you the insight and the courage to say the unexpected thing.

Notable Mentions:

Other notable mentions that I read throughout the year are: The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Patrick Melrose Novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last – in the past couple of weeks I have seen new editions of the Patrick Melrose Novels, combining all five novels into one, in bookstores), and Stoner by John Williams.

It was pretty difficult to narrow all the books I read in 2014 to a list of seven. After looking at some other people’s top reads for 2014, it appears I’ve given a larger list, especially with my notable mentions section.

And 2015?

In 2015 I’ve set myself a more achievable goal this year: 35 books. I’ve started well: I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, David Malouf’s The Writing Life, Robert Dessaix’s memoir What Days Are For, and Geordie Williamson’s brilliant The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found.

In 2015 I hope to bring my readers (if there are any) more reviews, articles, and my travel diary (and maybe a short story, or two) along with bookish news, photos and other interesting things involving books via my twitter feed. Hopefully My Year In Review brings forth some books and writers that you haven’t heard of and encourages you to read on of them. All the books mentioned are all fantastic and cover a wide range of issues and topics.

Happy Reading!

Andrew: Unknowing Agent of Disaster.

Review of E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain, 2014, 198pp.

17834914Many readers will know the name E. L. Doctorow from his works of fiction including Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, City of God, and Welcome to Hard Times, and his wide achievements and honours including the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the National Humanities Medal, and a Gold Medal for Fiction awarded in 2013 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Doctorow is well known for his work in “historical fiction”, a label he has moved away from in his latest novel Andrew’s Brain. Doctorow has moved well away from historical fiction – even though Andrew’s Brain does have a strong historical base to it – and into the realm of psychology and cognitive development.

In Andrew’s Brain, Doctorow abandons lineal storytelling that was a feature of his distinguished novels, such as The March – a precisely woven novel set in late 1864 and early 1865 during the American Civil War. In an interview with Manuel Roig-Franzia in the Washington Post, Doctorow explains that he wrote Andrew’s Brain in order to challenge the reader: “I do think this book, more than most, is one that judges its readers. If someone is looking for ordinary formulaic fiction, this is not it.” In the most part, Doctorow is correct. It isn’t your ordinary novel, yet it isn’t really challenging.

Andrew’s Brain is centred on the extended conversations, and writings, between the cognitive scientist, Andrew, and a frequent questioner, that Andrew calls “Doc”. Andrew is retelling his misfortunate life, prompted by his thoughts and questions from “Doc”. It is through these conversations, thoughts, and writings that Andrew gradually reconstructs his path of disorder and misfortune – his loves, his tragedies, and his triumphs that lead up to his current position.

There is a lot of pain in Andrew’s story. At the beginning of the novel, Andrew is still dealing with a fatal mistake that led to the death of his baby daughter:

It is true I accidentally killed my baby girl that I had with Martha: In good faith I fed her the medicine I believed had been prescribed by our pediatrician. The druggist sent over the wrong medicine and I was not as alert as I should have been…

Andrew’s second tragedy, the death of his second wife, Briony, who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Briony’s death not only leaves Andrew widowed, it also leaves their newborn daughter, Willa, motherless. The terrorist attacks in Andrew’s Brain are both vivid and emotional. After the towers collapse, Andrew attempts to look for her:

In the confusion, the fire engines, people stumbling through the streets, shouting, sirens, it was as if all of that had swallowed her up. Where was she? She would think first of Willa. She’d be back in a second to make sure the baby was all right. Wouldn’t she? Then where was she? Doctorow, who has his own personal story with the terrorist attacks, deftly conveys the confusion that was present that day along with the hopeless and desperate search for loved ones days after the attacks: There were in the street these posters everywhere plastered, on every wall, on every fence, on mailboxes, on phone booths and in subway stations, with the photographs of intensely alive, of can’t possibly be dead, faces. Name, age, last seen. Phone numbers in black marker. Have you seen this person? Call this number. Please call. I went around putting up the picture of Briony. Name, age, last seen. I wanted people to see her face. I knew it was useless, but I thought it necessary. I had taken in the park, she was smiling at me. I had a folder with her faces, a hundred copies, printed at Kinko’s, and I went around posting them. She was in that community of the last seen, their names and addresses, that they were loved. Please call. She was in that community of what was left of them.

After enduring what he could, and the sleepless nights waiting for Briony to come home, Andrew decides to take Willa to Martha.

After taking Willa to Martha – Andrew believed it was only fair for Willa to be taken care of by Martha considering it was he who killed their child – Andrew sells everything and moves to Washington, and as an academic, now takes a job as a science teacher at a public school. During one lesson, it is interrupted by a surprise visit by the President of the United States. And, as it turns out, Andrew knows the President from his time at Yale. From here, Andrew is hired by the President and appointed to a position titled ‘White House Office of Neurological Research’.

Andrew’s presence in the White House and Oval Office creates some suspicion and he becomes a source of interest for White House reporters – not to mention some conspiracy theorists. It is here that we also meet two other characters, Rumbum and Chaingang. Even though the Presidents name is never mentioned, it is quite clear that the President is G. W. Bush. Chaingang and Rumbum also resemble former Vice President Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Andrew now becomes a pawn in some type of game between the President, Chaingang and Rumbum.

Andrew then finds himself in an unknown location continuing his life of suffering, despair, and his ability to carry disaster with him. His final thought reflects upon his desire to protect his children like the way Mark Twain – one of his idols – did with his children, and not be the pretender he himself, and his life, have made him out to be.

While Andrew’s Brain does leave particular questions open to challenge the reader – for example, who is “Doc”? Is he a psychologist, or is he a close friend? Or, is Andrew really the “first computer invested with consciousness?” – it isn’t an extremely challenging read. Even though the novel doesn’t follow the previous footprints of other E. L. Doctorow novels, the storyline does flow through the disastrous life of Andrew. Andrew’s voice throughout the novel is very fascinating, and at times, charming – even amusing. He is clearly intelligent, demonstrated with his vast speeches and thoughts on the human brain, consciousness and neurological science. Andrew’s powerful voice creates a buffer between his academic achievements and his life of misfortune. Andrew’s Brain also provides some comical and powerful passages on the President, Chaingang and Rumbum. Demonstrating their somewhat “sinister” characteristics and their legacy on one of the most crucial moments in American History.

Review: Australian History in 7 Questions, by John Hirst.

Black Inc., 2014, 206pp.9781863956703

John Hirst’s latest book, Australian History in 7 Questions, examines Australian History in a new format. Unlike previous Australian Histories, resembling Manning Clark’s epic six volumes, or Thomas Keneally’s three volumes of Australian History, or The Oxford History of Australia, Hirst addresses Australian History in a thematic aspect, rather than a grand or specific narrative.

The idea for the book derives from Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe, and four lectures given under the title ‘Four Questions in Australian History.’ The lectures were extended to seven questions for the purpose of this book. The question addressed in the book are: “Why did Aborigines not become farmers?”, “How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy?”, “Why was Australia so prosperous so early?”, “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”, “What effect did convict origins have on national character?”, “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, and “Why is Australia not a republic?”.

The questions Hirst has chosen to answer for his readers are specifically chosen. These questions comprehend parts of Australia’s contested history; address Australia’s most treasured myths, overlooked historical questions, and the possibility of Australia’s future. These seven questions also lead to others: the question of Australia’s frontier violence, the rise of the Anzac legend, the effect of the White Australia policy, Australia’s national anxiety with migration, and the failures of Australia’s republican movement.

Hirst’s answers also provide contrasting accounts to some Australian history ‘classics’. For example, Hirst demonstrates that the Australian colonies and their peaceful transformation into a federation – first dismissing the connotations of an open prison and demonstrating the colonies emphasis on English law, and therefore its economic, social and political triumphs – provide a complete contrast, for example, to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that demonstrates the suffering and brutality in the colonies.

The Australian story embraces several myths, and it is both the Anzac legend and the New Year message from John Curtain: Australia ‘looks to America’ that feature in Hirst’s work. While Hirst discusses the “speculative connection between convict shame and national history”, Hirst believes that modern Australians are puzzled by the assertion that the Australian nation “was born at Gallipoli”. I disagree. Today, both modern Australians and young Australians believe that Gallipoli was where Australia was born, and not at federation in 1901.

Many historians, including Tom Millar, claim that the New Year message of Prime Minister Curtain in 1941 “marked the beginning of a new shift in Australia’s sense of military dependence away from Britain to America.” It is under closer scrutiny that this claim becomes more complex and problematic for Miller and other historians. Hirst demonstrates that this “new shift” was not the case, and by the end of the war, the New Year Message from Curtain had left no lasting mark on Australia as it continued to develop military links with Britain; including a long-range rocket facility at Woomera, and the development of nuclear bombs in South Australia. “In the 1950s Britain tested its atomic and nuclear bombs in Australia. Australia welcomed the mushroom clouds because Britain with the bomb made Australia more safe.”

Hirst, while answering “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, rejects the notion that Australia’s backlash against Asylum Seekers arriving by boat was a result of racism and xenophobia, rather:

[I]t was the boat people’s mode of arrival that caused resentment. It was uncontrolled, so there was the potential for the numbers to blow out. The people were not fleeing immediate danger; they were imposing themselves on the country rather than being invited and there were grounds for thinking that they were not all genuine refugees. This was a complete reversal of how migration was usually conducted.

 Therefore, asylum seekers arriving by boat “affronted the Australia egalitarian instinct.”

If you are familiar with Hirst’s previous works – Australian History in 7 Questions is Hirst’s 14th book – such as Convict Society and its enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Looking for Australia, or Sense and Nonsense of Australian History, some of his arguments will be familiar. However, Australian History in 7 Questions is a fresh new format in discussing Australia’s history. The straight-forward responses, clarity, insight, diagrams and lists, and contentious conclusions not only encompass all of Australia’s past, but demonstrate that Australian history is far from being “dull and predictable”.

While you may agree or disagree with Hirst’s questions or answers – or both – it is the combination of a lifetime of research and writing Australian history written for the novice historian, and the professional.

Review: Tasmania Aborigines

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803,

by Lyndall Ryan.

Allen & Unwin, 418 pages.


 tas aborigines

“The white men have killed us all; they shot a great many. We are now only a few people here and we ought to be fond of one another. We ought to love God. God made every thing, the salt water, the horse, the bullock, the possum, the wallaby, the kangaroo and wombat. Love him and you will go to him by and bye.”

In 2005, Eddie Kneebone, a member of the Bangerang people and reconciliation campaigner, painted a multi-panelled work to exhibit the impact of European settlement on the north-east of Victoria. The work was titled Bones of Contention and was painted shortly before his death. Along with the painting, Eddie Kneebone provided notes beginning with the so-called Massacre at Broken River in 1838. Kneebone wrote of the aftermath: “the troops came on horses with guns and swords, hunted and killed the Aboriginal people as they found them…” Kneebone continued: “land truly did bleed and their bones fell like rain.”

Lyndall Ryan first encountered Aboriginal History at Macquarie University in 1970s with her PhD thesis. The thesis was later transformed into the book The Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981, with and a second edition appeared in 1996 containing an additional two chapters. However, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is a completely new book. Nonetheless, the thesis of her early work – that Tasmanian Aborigines resisted British colonisation and did not die out in 1876 or in any other period of Tasmania’s history, still remains cogent.

Ryan suffered more than any other scholar during the ‘History Wars’ and the ‘Black Arm-band of History’ – brought about from Historians Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Windschuttle charged Ryan and fellow historians – Henry Reynolds to name one – of deliberately misleading Australians about Australia’s contact history. Windschuttle argued in several articles in the journal Quadrant and his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 that Ryan had fabricated footnotes to invent settler massacres in the Black War during the 1820s.

Tasmanian Aborigines is Ryan’s vindication from Windschuttle’s “fabrication” claims. The book is divided into six parts: Invasion, 1803-26, War, 1826-31, Surrender, 1829-34, Incarceration, 1835-1905, Survival, 1840-1973 and Resurgence, 1973-2010. Each section of the book continues a sysinct path through Tasmania’s contact history; one of the many strengths of Ryan’s new book compared to her 1996 edition. It adds clarity to her argument and assembles what I would have thought to be a irreducible topic, into an argument of outstanding clarity.

The beginning of the book introduces the reader with a comprehensive overview of Tasmania, or Trouwunna as the Aborigines called their island. Ryan provides a detailed and interesting overview of migration movements, physical features, landscape, food, family and the nine nations of Trouwunna. The opening chapters are important to the whole work. Ryan surveys several sources dealing with the original population of Aboriginals in Tasmania before and during the European settlement of the island. These numbers provide a firm base for the rest of Ryan’s thesis.

Next, Ryan begins to analyse the first steps of the European invasion (a term that Ryan consistently uses through the book): the Wrangeowrapper – White Devil, up until 1826 with the “pastoral invasion.”

The book moves drastically into a new phrase of Aboriginal and European relations between 1826 and 1831. With Aboriginal attacks, European reprisals, and increased atrocities led Governor George Arthur to declare Martial Law on 1 November 1828.

In the sixteen months between the declaration of martial law in November 1828 and March 1830, it would seem that there were at least 120 attacks by the Aborigines on the settlers, leading to about fifty deaths and at least sixty wounded. On the other hand, at least 200 Aborigines had also been killed, many of them, it appears, in mass killings of six or more. The war was beginning to take its toll on both sides (p. 121).

Late in 1830, Arthur was still under serious pressure from settlers. Settlers, including women and children, were still under attack from Aboriginal tribes. A further sixty colonists were killed in settled districts. In comparison, 300 Aboriginals were killed in the same period, with at least 100 of these losing their lives in mass killings of six or more. The continued pressure on Arthur led him to respond with a “sledgehammer.”

This sledgehammer solution from Arthur was to drive the Big River and Oyster Bay Aborigines from the Settled Districts to the Tasman Peninsula. To do this, Arthur called on every able-bodied male in the colony, bond or free, to combine with the military and police forces to form a human chain or line to undertake the task (p. 131) on 7 October:

The line would advance for three weeks in a pincer movement south-east across the Settled Districts until it converged on 28 October unto a 60-kilometre line bounded at one end by the towns of Sorell and Richmond at Pitt Water and the stretched along the Prosser River and Prossers Plains to Spring Bat on the east coast.

Arthur’s Black Line was meant to be “a knockout blow that would bring the conflict to an end.” The line was “more like a very large scale Scottish Highlands shooting party: the soldiers and colonists were the bearers and the Aborigines were the prey waiting to be flushed out of the bracken.”

The Black Line gave the colonists in the Southern, Central and Eastern parts of the Settled Districts unfettered possession of the land. The “reckoning” of the Black War and the Black Line in the Settled Districts of Tasmania, an estimated 1000 people had perished, with an Aboriginal to colonial death ratio of 4:1.

The catastrophic destruction of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania after the Black War marked a new policy direction for Australia colonies. The new policy direction was for ethnographer, humanist and devout Christian G.A. Robinson, to walk around Tasmania to organise the surrender of Aboriginal survivors. Robinson and Arthur’s plan was to remove the remaining Aboriginal population from the main island of Tasmania to a “sanctuary” at Wybalenna. The task Robinson undertook was no small feat. Robinson first had to track down a dwindling population that would more than likely have been avoiding contact with whites. Furthermore, Robinson then had to negotiate with the Aboriginals: removing them from their land and relocating them.

Ryan’s detailed account of Robinson’s task is both chilling and at most times confronting. Ryan’s tone throughout this section of the book remains elucidate, even though there are some passages that cause a feeling of aghast. “Both men firmly believed they were saving the western Aborigines from certain extermination and extinction and providing them with the benefits of British civilization and Christianity (p. 214-15).”

Even with Robinson’s and Arthur’s good intentions, their actions can only be described as myopic. Both men were unprepared for the consequences of removing the remaining Aboriginals off their land. The consequences were devastating: as fast as Robinson was brining Aborigines to the sanctuary, they were dying.

The Wybaleena Island sanctuary was a disaster. After successful lobbying by the remaining the Aboriginal population on the island, they were later removed to the ‘Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station’. The station was divided into two sections, with a total area of just over 700 hectares. Nevertheless, the suffering of the Tasmanian Aboriginals continued. At theOyster Cove Aboriginal Station, there was still a “shocking” death rate, dreadful conditions and massive alcohol abuse: “The realisation that many white people saw more value in them as skeletons than as a living people led them to fear for their lives. It is not surprising that more of them resorted to alcohol to drown the prospect of the impending horror (p. 263).”

With the death of Truganini in 1876, many white Tasmanians believed that the colony was now completely ‘native free’ (p. 275). Her body was exhumed in 1878 and was available for scientific purposes until it was placed in the Tasmanian Museum where it was on public display. The vile desecration of Aboriginal remains were commonplace. However, Truganini’s death and then the public display of her remains, promoted the belief of a native free Tasmania.

I recall several times being told that the only successful genocide in Modern History was that of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I even recall myself saying it to others. Having said that, it is completely wrong. Ryan’s cogency is the argument of resurgence. Even though the duration of Ryan’s book is devoted to destruction and death, the remainder is filled with the important fight by the Tasmanian Aboriginals to regain their identity.

Ryan thoroughly recounts the prodigious work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and campaigners such as Michael Mansell, in their effort for recognition and also the return of ancestral remains that were taken from the Aboriginal people and taken to various institutions.

The work of the TAC, Mansell and other campaigners, led to the Tasmanian parliament to apologise to the Aboriginal community to the Stolen Generations; the first to do so in Australia. Tasmania was also the first to compensate the Stolen Generations.

Ryan applies an equanimity narration throughout the whole book. This is in spite of various accounts of death, incarnation and desecration that will no doubt cause some aghast in most people. Ryan’s eminence as a historian is broadcasted throughout this work. It is an account that brings together a pragmatic and irreducible topic with a didactic tone, giving Australians, and future Australian’s some issues to discuss openly if White Australians and Aboriginal Australians are to move forward.

As aforementioned, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is Ryan’s vindication. The “few, explicable and trivial” errors that were made in her previous works have been rectified. If there was a positive to come from the history wars, it is this book. Only on several occasions Ryan mentions Windschuttle, yet, convincingly refutes his myopic claims. Tasmanian Aborigines is a vital scholarly work that leaves Windschuttle’s work in a state of dilapidation.

Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.


My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.

Review: The Night Guest

The Long Goodbye9781926428550

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.

Penguin Australia, 2013.

On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:

Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’

Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.

The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.

Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:

Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.

As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?