Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival 2012 special: The Sea Bed by Marele Day

In the lead-up to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, I’ll be putting up a series of (short) reviews of books I’m reading in preparation.

The Sea Bed, Marele Day
Allen & Unwin, 2009
9781741758412 (paperback, ebook)

The Sea Bed is set around an island with a tradition of ‘sea women’, who, for generations, have dived, dangerously and artfully, for abalone and other edible sea creatures. The novel is presumably set in Japan (though it is never stated), but sea women are present in other cultures too (ie. in Korea).

Chicken is a young woman working at Ocean World, posing for the tourists as a sea woman, carrying the weight of her family’s, and the community’s, past. Her sister Lilli could not bear the weight of secrets from the past (pressing like the sea on her lungs) and so left for the city as soon as she could. Arguably, the main character in this story, though, is the outsider: a monk who is on a mission to take the remains of a fellow monk to the sea. He also ends up at the island. Connections emerge, and coincidences occur, tying the monk’s mission to the women on the island.

This is a subtle, sweet story. Each of the characters faces the world and the past with a different face. The monk is curious but easily overwhelmed (after the structure of his days at the monastery); Chicken is committed, loyal and hopeful; and Lilli is a kind of dreamer and an opportunist, preferring gloss to reality. Day captures the importance of tradition for a community, and hints at the sadness (but the inevitability) of change. She does this  through settings like Ocean World, a sea folk museum, and through the sea festival. The festival is now a ‘re-enactment’ for the tourists, and the diving women are part of the spectacle. Despite this, the overall feeling is that the past does continue to echo through a place, often in surprising ways. And many of the characters do remain dutiful to the past, and to other people.

Day also captures a very subtle eroticism in regards to the sea women, and the sea in general: the underwater world, the kelp, the sea food. This is all tied in with danger and death: the sea bed, in which to create, and to finally rest. Again, a kind of inevitability. There is a touch of magic about it, too, or maybe it’s faith: in stories, in myth, and in coincidence, and in the power of collective and residual dreaming. All of it makes up the sediment of the sea bed, which remains—even if the abalone has been fished out.

The descriptions of the island, the diving costumes, sea life and sea food are quite exquisite. This is a quiet book that transports you for a while to another, tangible place, and leaves you feeling warm.


I will be chairing two panels with Marele Day, award-winning author of Lambs of God and Mrs Cook, at Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. They are:

‘An Australian in Paris: Setting Fiction Overseas’, with Kirsten Tranter and Alan Gould, at 11:40am on  Sunday 25 March, and ‘The Power of the Story’ (on short fiction) with Robert Drewe and Charlotte Wood, at 2:15pm that afternoon. Find out more about the festival here.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘unfriend’

a new age (21st century)

by David Crystal

In 2009 the New Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend as its Word of the Year. It meant ‘to remove someone from a list of contacts on a social networking site such as Facebook’. A minor controversy followed. Some argued that the verb should be defriend. But the use of un- was already well established in the terminology of reversing computer actions, with undo, unerase, undelete, unbold and many more. As a New York Times article said in 2009 (15th September), we are living in an ‘Age of Undoing’.

Unfriend also probably appealed because it feels more English, as evidenced by a history of earlier uses dating from the 16th century. Antonio describes Sebastian as ‘unguided and unfriended’ in Twelfth Night (III.iii.10). A noun (an unfriend) occurs as early as the 13th century. And in the 19th century, a member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) could describe a non-member as an unfriend. Defriend, by contrast, had no such history, so it has been slower to take root. But both unfriend and defriend are found in the social networking world now, with unfriend almost twice as popular in 2010.

Prefixes and suffixes continue to make their presence felt in word coinages of the new millennium. We find ecogloom (‘depression about environmental progress’) and bargainous (‘relatively cheap’), overthink (‘think about something too much’) and underbudget (‘underestimate costs’), catastrophise (‘present a situation as worse than it is’) and therapise (‘provide therapy’). As technology allows us to investigate smaller and smaller entities, previously obscure prefixes such as nano- have become widespread. It is, according to some commentators, a nano-age, with a nanocosm containing nanomachines using nanomaterials on a nanoscale, and investigated by nanoscientists. Virtually any word, it seems, is going to be prefixed by nano- sooner or later.

Nano- has left micro- a long way behind, though micro- did receive a boost with the advent of micromessaging. The posting of very short entries on a blog came to be called microblogging, and when Twitter arrived in 2006, with its 140-character message limitation, it was soon being described as a microblogging site. There are microbooks, micromovies, micromusicals and microapps now. Speaking as a lexical coolhunter (a 1990s’ marketing term: ‘a monitor of cultural trends’), I wouldn’t write it off yet.

This is the final extract in a series of five taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Scroll back for ‘OK’, ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘OK’

debatable origins (19th century)

by David Crystal

The little word OK has a linguistic reputation that belies its size. Over a thousand words in English have an etymology which, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘origin unknown’. Nobody knows where bloke comes from, or condom, gimmick, nifty, pimp, pooch, queasy, rogue or skiffle. Theories abound, of course, some very ingenious. Did nifty arise as a shortened form of magnificat? Is gimmick from magicians’ use of gimac, an anagram of magic? But no word has attracted more theorising than OK.

Is it from Scottish och aye? Is it from French au quai (the goods – or girls – have safely arrived ‘at the quayside’)? Is it from Choctaw oke (‘it is’)? Is it from Wolof okeh (‘yes’). Is it from Latin omnis korrecta (‘all correct’, sometimes written by schoolmasters on homework)? Is it from the Greek letters omega + khi (an early incantation against fleas)? Is it from Obediah Kelly, a railwayman who used to authorise freight movements with his initials? There are dozens more.

Thanks to a fine piece of research by American lexicographer Allan Walker Read, we now know that all of these theories are wrong. It first appeared in 1839 in a Boston newspaper, where there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters – an early instance of a language game. KY, for example, would be used for the phrase know yuse (= ‘no use’). And OK comes from oll korrect, a humorous adaptation of the words all correct.

Why didn’t it disappear, like the other abbreviations did? Because in 1840 it came to be associated with a totally different use – as a slogan during the 1840 US elections. It was the shortened form of Old Kinderhook, the nickname of President Martin Van Buren – Kinderhook being the name of his hometown in New York State. There was a Democratic OK Club, with its members called the OKs, and they had a war-cry: ‘Down with the Whigs, boys, OK!’

The combination of the two usages, in a very short space of time, resulted in the rapid use of OK as an interjection meaning ‘all right, good’. Other senses soon developed, such as ‘fashionable’ (the OK thing to do) and ‘trustworthy’ (He’s OK). A century on, and the word was still developing new uses, such as ‘comfortable’ (Are you OK with that?). In British English, it received huge grafitti exposure during the 1970s, when the fad of saying that someone or something rules OK (= ‘is pre-eminent’) was seen on walls all over the country.

But OK has a linguistic reputation for a second reason: the number of variant forms it has accumulated over the years. There are variant spellings (okay, okey), a shortened version (‘kay), and several expanded forms (okie-dokie, okey doke(s), okeycokey). Today, I suppose it’s the basic OK form which is most often encountered, thanks to the dialogue button on our computer screens. Press OK and something will happen!

This is the fourth in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘unfriend’. Scroll back for ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘gaggle’

a collective noun (15th century)

by David Crystal

I think it went something like this. A group of monks, wondering how to pass the time on a cold, dark winter’s evening in the 15th century, invent a word game. ‘Let’s think up words for groups of things’, says one. ‘What do we call a group of cows?’ ‘A herd.’ ‘A group of bees?’ ‘A swarm.’ A group of geese?’ ‘A flock’. Words like herd and swarm had been in the language since Anglo-Saxon times. There weren’t many of them, and the few that were available had been used for all kinds of things. People talked about a herd of cranes, wrens, deer, swans, gnats and more. The game must have palled after a while.

Then someone had a bright idea. ‘Let’s think up better words. What would be a really clever way of talking about geese?’ ‘A cackle of geese, maybe?’ ‘Not bad, but that better suits hens. What about gaggle? It goes better with goose because of the g’s? What do you all think?’ ‘Agreed? Write it down, Brother John.’

And Brother John did. Or maybe it was Dame Juliana. She was the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, and her name appears in a collection of material on hunting, heraldry and folklore that was printed in 1486, called The Book of St Albans. It’s one of the first English printed books, and it contains a list of some 200 collective nouns. Several are traditional expressions, such as herd. But many seem to be inventions. This is where we find a muster of peacocks, an unkindness of ravens, a watch of nightingales, a charm of goldfinches and dozens more. But the list goes well beyond animals. We find a diligence of messengers, a superfluity of nuns, a doctrine of doctors, a sentence of judges, a prudence of vicars and a non-patience of wives. And people tried out fresh combinations. ‘A gaggle of geese?’ ‘What about a gaggle of women?’ ‘Write that down, Brother John’. He did. A gaggle of women is recorded in a book written around 1470. An early sexist joke.

Why do I think this is the sort of thing that happened? Because this is a game people still happily play today, and human nature hasn’t changed that much in 500 years. A great deal of entertainment can be derived from thinking up the funniest way of describing a group of ‘X’ – where X can be anything from dog handlers to dentists. What’s the best collective noun for politicians, or undertakers, or linguists? Competitions have produced some fine examples. I made my own collection a few years ago, and found many that deserve prizes. Here’s a top ten:

An absence of waiters
A rash of dermatologists
A shoulder of agony aunts
A clutch of car mechanics
A vat of chancellors
A bout of estimates
A lot of auctioneers
A mass of priests
A whored of prostitutes
A depression of weather forecasters
An exces’s of apostrophes

And still they come. In recent times I’ve encountered a crash of software, an annoyance of mobile phones and a bond of British secret agents.

This is the third in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘OK’. Scroll back for ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘bodgery’

word-coiners (16th century)

by David Crystal

The history of English contains thousands of words that never made it – coinages invented by individual writers that simply didn’t catch on. There is just a single instance of bodgery recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is from the playwright Thomas Nashe, who used it in 1599. It means ‘bungling, botched work’.

Some 16th-century poets and playwrights seem almost to have coined words for a living. Nashe was second only to Shakespeare in the number of words whose first recorded use is found in his writing – nearly 800 – and several did become a permanent part of the language, such as conundrum, grandiloquent, multifarious and balderdash. Nashe also coined a word which would one day receive new life in science fiction: earthling.

But, like Shakespeare, quite a few of his coinages evidently didn’t appeal. Either they were never used by anyone else, as far as we know, or they had a brief flurry of usage before being quietly dropped. Probably no tears would ever be shed over the loss of collachrymate (‘accompanied by weeping’) or baggagery (‘worthless rabble’). But I rather regret that bodgery disappeared (though bodge and bodger are still heard in some dialects), along with tongueman (‘good speaker’) and chatmate (‘gossip’).

The list of words that never made it has a surreal quality. From Philip Sidney we have disinvite, hangworthy, rageful and triflingness. From Edmund Spenser, disadventurous, jolliment, schoolery and adviceful. From John Marston, cockall (‘perfection’), bespirtle (‘to spot with vice’), fubbery (‘cheating’) and glibbery (‘slippery’) – creations Lewis Carroll would have been proud of. Sometimes it’s impossible to say why one word stayed and another didn’t. Why did Spenser’s tuneful catch on but his gazeful did not?

However, you can never tell what will happen. Musicry was coined by John Marston, and nobody used it after him – until 1961, when a writer revived it for a book on the arts. Nashe’s chatmate is currently the only instance of its use in the Oxford English Dictionary. But that will soon change, for in the world of chatrooms, social networking and internet dating, what do we find? Chatmates. There’s hope for bodgery yet.

This is the second in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘gaggle’. Scroll back for ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘mead’

a window into history (9th century)

by David Crystal

Today we think of mead as a rather exotic alcoholic drink, made by fermenting a mixture of honey and water. In early history it was the alcoholic beverage of choice throughout ancient Europe, Asia and Africa. Some think it was the first fermented drink. It makes frequent appearances in the Germanic folk-tales of the first millennium and repeatedly appears in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, such as the epic poem Beowulf.

Mead was more than just a drink. It was a symbol of power. If you had the time and luxury to sit around drinking mead, then all must have been well in your land. And conversely: if you didn’t have that opportunity, things must have been going badly. At the very beginning of Beowulf we are told that the king, Scyld Scefing, ‘from bands of enemies, from many tribes, took away mead-benches’. That settles it. They would have been victories indeed!

So it’s not surprising to find that there was a large vocabulary of mead-words in Old English. Through this single word we obtain a considerable insight into Anglo-Saxon culture and society. A settlement might actually be called a medu-burh – a place renowned for its mead-drinkers. Any warrior living there would make nightly visits to the medu-heall (‘mead-hall’) or medu-seld (‘mead-house’) – the equivalent of the modern city hall – where his leader would be holding court and feasting. How would he get there? By walking along a medu-stig (‘path to the mead-hall’) through the medu-wang (‘land surrounding the meadhall’). All roads, it seemed, led to mead.

Once inside the hall, the vocabulary of mead was all around him. The place to sit was called a medu-benc (‘mead-bench’) or medu-setl (‘mead-seat’). He and his fellow-warriors would engage in a lengthy bout of medu-drinc (‘mead-drinking’), taking a medu-scenc (‘draught of mead’) from a medu-full (‘mead-cup’). He would soon get medu-gal (‘enthused by the mead’) and experience medu-dream (‘mead-joy’). If he had too much, he would end up medu-werig (‘mead-weary’).

It’s fascinating to see a word being used in this way, permeating so many aspects of social behaviour. And it’s a feature of English which we continue to exploit today. Whisky drinkers might buy a whisky bottle from a whisky shop or (in olden days) a whisky house, and pour a whisky peg from a whisky decanter into a whisky glass. They might become whisky sodden or develop a whisky voice. On the other hand, we don’t extend the usage as much as the Anglo-Saxons did. We don’t usually talk about whisky seats, whisky paths or whisky joy.

In the Middle Ages, mead changed its social standing in Britain. Wine became the drink of choice among the upper class, leaving mead, along with ale and cider, as the drink of the poor. Mead never died out as a drink, but it took second place to ale and cider, which were much easier to brew. Ale is used fifteen times in Shakespeare; mead not once.

Gradually, mead came back into fashion, sometimes developing new uses and shifting its meaning. In the 17th century it could be used to mean any sweet drink. Robert Burton used the term mead-inn in 1632, referring particularly to Russian drinking practices – a tavern where mead was the main drink sold. People in Britain in the 18th century drank mead wine.

In the USA, the name took on a different sense, referring to various sweet carbonated drinks sometimes flavoured with sarsaparilla. Americans continue to be strongly interested in mead today. There’s an International Mead Association, and a festival is held every year in Colorado. New meadwords continue to be coined. The occasion is a meadfest, and many meaderies and mead-lovers attend. There are meadmaking courses, meadings (tasting parties) and if you want you can read a meadzine.

But beware: don’t mix up the ‘drink’ sense of the word mead with another sense which is recorded in English from a few centuries later – a shortened form of meadow. When you see such words as mead-flowermeadsweet and meadwort, these are all meadow flowers. They have nothing to do with the drink. And if you know a road called the Meadway, that’s the ‘meadow’ sense too, and a later development. It’s mead in the ‘drink’ sense that fascinates linguists, because it’s part of a window into the origins of English.

This is the first in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘bodgery’.

Between worlds: Dominic Smith on Bright and Distant Shores


Allen & Unwin, 9781742374161, 2011
(Aus paperback, ebook + US/Kindle)

Bright and Distant Shores is hugely imaginative historical fiction. It’s set just before the dawn of the 20th century in Chicago and the South Pacific. Owen Graves is sent by Hale Gray, the president of Chicago First Equitable, to collect some ‘special items’ to display on top of the tallest building in the city. Graves is dubious about the morals of the expedition but wants the money so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Adelaide. In Melanesia, a mission houseboy called Argus loses his master, but not his faith. He seeks out his sister and they are soon promised new prospects by the man on a ship from Chicago… This book travelled with me around the globe recently. Back at home I got in touch with its Australian-American author, Dominic Smith.

AM: I was swept up in every element of this vast story – the tensions at sea, Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, Argus caught between worlds, the skyscraper sliding into the ground – and I wondered, was it difficult having so many balls in the air while writing? You draw them all together seamlessly and somehow keep the pace steady throughout.

DS: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled along! Writing this novel was sometimes akin to running between spinning plates, giving them each another nudge as I darted by. I was conscious from the beginning of the scope of the novel and thought about ways to handle all the moving pieces. Some of my favourite literature includes sprawling narratives and plots with many moving parts. I think of Dickens and George Eliot especially… I feel like one of the things I tried to do was to keep the plates spinning. So that meant even when we are at sea it’s worth taking a dramatic pause in the nautical action to check back in with the Chicago characters. It builds more tension – in both the Chicago and Pacific narratives – and allows the narrative to skip through passages of time. It increases the pace. I also tried to create some friction between the interweaving narratives, so that the ideas and predicaments of one storyline might echo with the storyline that is juxtaposed next to it.

It’s set in a fascinating time-period, when all the islands had already been somewhat ‘infected’ by ships of explorers, collectors, naturalists and missionaries and would never be the same again. What was it about this era that drew you in?

The 1890s was a fascinating period for both Chicago and the Pacific. When I was doing research for the novel I was shocked to discover the widespread fear among collectors of the late-19th century that ‘the bathtub had already been drained.’ There was a feeling that it was easier to get good curios in London or New York than in the Pacific islands. That surprised me. So you saw a huge collecting impetus by many museums and private collectors as the new century dawned. They were trying to get the last of the loot. So by 1900 the Pacific was already awash with European white culture; islanders were more likely to want Winchesters, ammunition, and cigarettes, than beads, glass, and ironwork. This is also a time of missionary zeal, when the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics are divvying up the Pacific, sometimes along tribal boundaries. Meanwhile, in Chicago, you have a dozen or so business tycoons who make millions from meatpacking and railways and insurance. They pour much of it into building cultural institutions – libraries, symphonies, museums. Marshall Field, of department store fame, donated $1 million to set up a museum in his name. There was a widespread interest in the exotic and ethnographic after the World’s Fair of 1893. So I was fascinated by how the tribal Pacific and commercial America could intersect in ways that were both strange and compelling. The 1890s, for me, is a crazy mash-up of conflicted ideas and visions.

You capture that mash-up very well! Some of the characters are ‘in between’ the two worlds (the West and the Pacific life), none more so really than Argus. He’s also caught, in a way, between loyalty to Malini, his sister, and to Owen; and between his past and his faith. His character is representative of some of the strongest themes running through the novel, but he’s very empathetic, three dimensional. Could you talk a bit about creating him?

I struggled with Argus and with my own misgivings about trying to represent someone with a tribal background. In the end, I gave myself license to explore his psychology. One of the things that made that easier was to make him a character who is caught between two worlds, between the Euro-Christian way of seeing things and the Melanesian tribal way of seeing things. He – like the writer – feels pulled between these opposite poles. So in some ways I gave Argus my own misgivings; he has to chart those waters on the writer’s behalf. Characters who have inner conflict are dramatically interesting, I think. Argus has a kind of visceral connection to faith; it’s in his blood. He’s also ambitious and wants to explore the world he’s read about at the mission.  So those forces of curiosity, doubt, faith, and ambition ground his character. They pull him into the future but not without uncertainty. That is perhaps one source of empathy for him as a character.

You play with issues of class through the character of Adelaide, and through her relationship with Owen. They are both strong characters: determined, charitable, hard-working. Can you tell us a bit about shaping their relationship? Of course the distance between them does also add great tension to the narrative.

In some ways Adelaide (and Malini) are the moral core to the novel. Argus and Owen are filled with ambition, but they’re also capable of a certain kind of ruthlessness. With the relationship between Owen and Adelaide I was interested in exploring class and privilege, in addition to a love story that would seem of the period and compelling for contemporary readers. Adelaide comes from money but throws herself into charity. Owen comes from poverty and on some level thinks charity is a rich person’s enterprise. So when the voyage comes up – the prospect of bringing back natives to Chicago so that Owen can receive a windfall – there is a real divide wedged into the romance. Owen struggles to reconcile the morality of the Pacific trading scheme with the pragmatic need for money. He slightly resents what he imagines Adelaide – with her blue-blooded philanthropic ways – will think of this equation. I think these are the kinds of issues people deal with in relationships every day. How does one person’s actions reflect on the other? Relationships are evolving narratives and we sometimes want our partners/spouses to add coherence to the story we’re trying to tell the world. So in addition to their obvious admiration for each other, they struggle with how to integrate their pasts. Until Adelaide, Owen has never ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Were classic adventure novels an influence? I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels, and thought perhaps your book has a subtle element of social commentary to it as well? Ambition and wonder are present in your novel – as you’ve mentioned – and on some scale are seen as unrewarding and even destructive. I keep thinking about the ambitious insurance firm building sliding down into the earth…

I certainly thought of Treasure Island and Moby Dick when writing this novel, but also more recent novels, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. These latter novels showed me it was possible to render a seafaring story in an interesting, nuanced way, while still having fun with the tropes that come with sea voyaging and lore. There is social commentary in Bright and Distant Shores, though I think I’m more interested in paradox than a set of thematic statements. Ambition and wonder abounded in the 1890s, but so did naivete and exploitation. The early insurance companies saw their enterprise as somehow noble and they were paternalistic towards their employees. They had this idea of their clerks never needing to leave the skyscraper – they could get haircuts and eat in the cafeteria and take night school all under one roof. The insurance towers eclipsed the church spire as the tallest point in the city and the tower was seen as a kind of totem, but also a beacon of hope for the populace, with its clock tower a suggestion of life ticking away. This is obviously capitalism on a grand scale, with the delusion of benevolence for an under-insured populace. Corporations often think they have enlightened interests when in fact it’s really about selling insurance or widgets.

Not only is Bright and Distant Shores a ‘ripping’ tale, the writing is delightful. I found myself gasping at certain turns of phrase. And yet it never obstructs the story, it is not showy – just beautiful. Some of the descriptions: ‘spandrels of moonlight’, ‘a crapulous German clipper captain’, and the ‘fusty nooks and fetid warrens below deck’. It makes it such a pleasure to read. How much time do you spend with the book on a sentence level? Does that all come in final drafts, or do you craft the language carefully as you go?

Thanks for those nice comments. I do think a lot about language – it’s what draws me to reading fiction in the first place. I used to write skeletal drafts of things with very little attention to language, and then I would go back and polish things. Now I seem to write very slow and deliberate first drafts. It’s a gamble, because you may end up throwing out much of what you write in a first draft. But I seem to like feeling that a sentence does its job, that it’s more than a place holder, before I move on. I really try to work at the sentence level as I go.

You grew up in Australia but live in the US and have published over there. This is your first novel published through and Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. How does it feel? Can you tell us a bit about your other works?

It has been very gratifying to publish a novel in Australia and I’m thrilled to have had it shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize. That means a lot to me; it’s a kind of sweet homecoming present. Allen & Unwin have been incredibly attentive. I was back in Australia for a month in June with my family and it was such a treat to share places and memories with them. My first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a historical novel that re-imagined the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype who supposedly suffered from mercury poisoning. The second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was a contemporary story and focused on the average son of a genius. It’s a story about a boy who is 15% above average in everything he does. His father, a renowned physicist, is convinced that the son harbors some greatness and desperately tries to uncover it.

Thank you so much, Dominic.

More details about Dominic Smith’s books can be found on his website.

Win James Franco’s Palo Alto with Faber Academy

Beginning the blogging year with a giveaway is always a good idea! This week you can win a copy of actor James Franco’s upcoming short story collection Palo Alto, courtesy of Faber Academy and Allen & Unwin.

What is Faber Academy?

The Academy began in London when Faber offered creative writing courses out of their offices, taught by authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Hanif Kureshi and Louise Doughty. When these became successful, the Academy spread to Dublin, Paris and Toronto among others. Faber has teamed up with Allen & Unwin to offer a six month course on ‘Writing a Novel’ to be held at their offices in Crows Nest and to be taught by Kathryn Heyman and James Bradley from March to August 2011. ‘What’s exciting about it’, says Allen & Unwin, ‘is the hands-on nature of the classes, the publishers and agents reading night and the expectation that participants will finish the course with a complete first draft of their novel’. There’s more information about the course outline on the website. Applications for the course close soon on 28 January.

To win James Franco’s Palo Alto, courtesy of Faber Academy and Allen & Unwin, all you have to do is tell LiteraryMinded about a book you’re looking forward to reading in 2011. It might be something new, or it could be that book you’ve been meaning to read for ages. Leave your answer as a comment here on the blog, send it to me in a tweet, or leave it as a comment on this post on the Facebook fan page (not my personal page) before 5pm Sunday 23 January 2011. The winner will be drawn randomly.

Good luck!

Investing in rainbows: Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man

Utopian Man
Lisa Lang
Allen & Unwin
2010 (Australia)

Edward Cole was the forward-thinking, optimistic and eccentric founder of Cole’s Book Arcade – a utopian hive of 1880’s Melbourne. In the Arcade was stacked all manner of books (which were able to be perused on in-store lounges), pamphlets (including challenging, self-published explorations by Cole), and eventually, monkeys, a hall of wonders and live music – buoying the spirit of the people during the 1890s economic crisis.

Cole’s story is fascinating – from the goldfields, to meeting his wife through a newspaper advertisement, raising children (here, each brightly rendered with their own set of attributes and flaws), being involved with influential early Australians such as Alfred Deakin, fighting battles against prejudice and more personal battles of fear and desire, and all the while growing, maintaining and deciding on the future of the wondrous Arcade.

Lisa Lang has vividly captured the life of a unique and admirable man. There is much joy and celebration in her prose – so when the hard, dark times hit for Cole, it is very easy to be moved. I won’t be forgetting his young daughter Ruby, who loves strawberries, any time soon. Nor what happened to Cole on the goldfields. Nor the way his memories, and the dead, come back to him fresh and vivid in old age, like James Whale’s demons in the film Gods and Monsters.

The book is also a sensuous delight – vibrant colours, the taste and smell of exotic teas, the crunch of an apple, the skin of someone you’ve known for so many years, the intimacy of children, the tense mood of a séance. Here’s a small section, from when Cole shows guests D’Ama, Deakin and Tart his newly constructed hall of wonders – Wonderland – to give you an idea of Lang’s prose:

‘At the far end of the room they find D’Ama, in partial darkness, lighting his pipe. As they approach he steps to the side, revealing three full-length mirrors mounted onto the wall. The three men – Edward, Deakin and Quong Tart – are confronted by three grotesque alter egos. Deakin’s head is enormous, his lips like two pink eels mating on his face. Quong Tart has shriveled up into a wasted figure, a deflated balloon of a man. And Edward, holding the lamp before his body, is a brilliant circle of light, his tiny bearded head sitting at its apex.’

Lang first published a nonfiction biography of Cole (EW Cole: Chasing the Rainbow) through Arcade Publications. The novel is published by Allen & Unwin, as Lang, most deservedly, was a joint winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award last year (along with Kristel Thornell’s Night Street). It must have been a leap to take all that research and construct a narrative out of it – to get inside Cole’s headspace, to capture the emotional dimensions of real life – of his family and friends. But she is very successful in doing so. And what strikes me about this engrossing book, too, is its lack of pretension. Many first novels or early novels, even by very good authors, have an air of taking themselves too seriously. You frown while reading them. But Utopian Man is mature, delightful, and even something to be grateful for – now we can remember there was a man like Cole who was generous, loving, complex, fair, optimistic, adventurous; and a lover of books, funny mirrors and monkeys.

Tonight (Tuesday 14 September 2010) I have the great pleasure of helping launch Utopian Man by asking Lisa Lang a few questions at the Melbourne City Library (Flinders Lane) at 6:30pm. It would be great to see you there.

Guest review: Matthia Dempsey on Patti Smith’s Just Kids

Bloomsbury/Allen & Unwin
February 2010
9780747548409 (Aus, US/Kindle)
Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey

Emerging from their teens, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe first encounter each other in 1960s New York, a recognition as much as a meeting. Smith has fled the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and the factory future that faces her in New Jersey. Mapplethorpe has broken from a Catholic upbringing – the restraints of it, and of his family, never quite loosed.

In the New York of 1967 they fall together easily, inhabiting a love and friendship that recognises and provokes the creative expression of each (Mapplethorpe wants her to sing, Smith urges him to take his own photographs; ‘one cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together’). A banister up a staircase, a rope through dark water, a guiding blue star: their friendship sees them through odd jobs, early sketches, illness, hunger, fame, and the sad fates that wait for many around them.

Though this is a memoir that takes us through the iconic days of the late sixties and the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel – telling of encounters with Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix , the Andy Warhol set, William Burroughs and Bob Dylan, among others – it is alive in ways that belie the cliché of that setting. Smith’s magic is to perform a kind of time travel for us, scraping away any nostalgic varnish. Hendrix stops to talk in a stairwell and becomes just a shy musician, Joplin is passed over for ‘one of the prettier hangers-on’ and we are heartbroken with her. We are grateful for the immediacy of these encounters, but even more for how close they come to being incidental – instead of starring, these other famous figures shift and fit around the true story (so that, watching Jim Morrison, we stay with Patti as she guiltily thinks ‘I could do that’).

A poet and musician, Smith knows something about telling moments and well-wrought phrases. Thinking of this book a few weeks after finishing it, I picture some thing of pure clarity – the element left when impurities have been burned away, or the lucid thankfulness that comes after a fever has passed. Smith selects her remembered moments carefully, trusting that we will trace the patterns.

This memoir will send you to your record collection, to the bookstore, to the cinema, the gallery, the internet: Rimbaud, Blake and Joan of Arc are early heroes, Picasso transformative; Smith goes to see the Velvet Underground and we want to hear Lou Reed, she writes a Rolling Stone piece about Lotte Lenya and you want to find out more and listen to Dylan’s ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ again; who is this Vali Myers? I must watch Midnight Cowboy… the notes pile up, the dog-eared pages outnumber the unblemished.

If the vitality of the book stems from Smith’s faithfulness to the central relationship with Mapplethorpe – a story arc for the meetings and memories – it also flows from the central assumption, so breathtakingly, beautifully pervasive, that life is lived for artistic expression.

‘Did art get us?’ wonders Mapplethorpe, as he nears death. ‘Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that,’ writes Smith.

At sixty-three, she is still producing music and words. The creative impulse that urged her and Mapplethorpe to forgo meals to buy art supplies is the live wire running through their story. It threads through incidents both beautiful and ugly, like the strings the pair would decorate with beads and broken fishing lures to wear and sell. It is the simple heart of their sometimes complicated relationship and it runs through Smith’s life still.

As a result, her stories have not tipped from the real to the rehashed, made empty with wearied retelling. We are there with these kids as they take photos, draw pictures, write poems. This is a portrait of youth and somehow of the way creation can keep us young – playful and awed. Writes Mapplethorpe: ‘I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.’

Just Kids is a beautiful song in the pages of a beautiful book, a tale pared back to the thread that ties two souls together and a talisman for anyone drawn to create, or drawn to those who are.

Matthia Dempsey is a writer, reviewer and editor of Bookseller+Publisher Online and the book blog Fancy Goods.