MY top ten Aussie books (for now)

ABC tv’s First Tuesday Book Club has been running a promotion where viewers can vote from a list of 50 Australian books from which the program’s producers will draw up a list of The Ten Aussie Books to Read Before You Die.

The list it offers is a mix of fiction, memoir and non-fiction, some predictable – Seven Little Australians (Ethel Turner) and The Tyranny of Distance (Geoffrey Blainey) – and some surprises Grand Days(Frank Moorehouse).  But it got me thinking – what were my top ten books by Australian authors?  Being more a fiction reader, I have limited my list to novels.

In no particular order, my list is as follows, however, I reserve the right to review it.

The Riders – Tim Winton

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Perhaps it’s the life defining experience of my own European journeys, but this book’s search for meaning through travel in far off lands, only to find the reality of life hit you hard, has stayed with me.

Voss – Patrick White

My first experience of metaphysical writing, set against the hard and alien Australian landscape. White’s depiction of Voss and Laura’s emotional and intellectual connection is masterly.

Monkey Grip – Helen Garner

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First read this in about 1980 and was blown away by the world that Garner was depicting.  Nora’s addiction to Javo the addict, and how she beat that addiction was the real story for me.  Plus the depiction of inner city hippie life with its hand to mouth existence rang very true.

The Deep Field – James Bradley

Set in the near future, Bradley brilliantly presents a haunting love story against a backdrop of a techno-advanced, climate crazy world.  I cried when it ended and re-read it straight away, and several times since.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

One of the first novels that I read that had used the Australian bush as a backdrop, and presents that backdrop as something to be feared.  Explores the conflict of European sensibilities with reality of the Australian location.  The clash of the old and the new:  and Miranda and her friends were the victims.

Praise – Andrew McGahan

Grit and anxiety in contemporary Australia.  Two mismatched lovers can’t break the nexus of their relationship. And you scratch when he does.

The Doubleman – Christopher Koch

Weird, delving into mysticism and the occult, The Doubleman uses the sixties folk scene as a backdrop to a story about the influence of a charismatic record producer over members of a folk group, even years after his death. Koch writes about Tasmania so that you feel like you’ve been there, and can see what he’s describing.

The Lieutenant – Kate Grenville

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I much preferred this over The Secret River.  Using Lieutenant Watkin Tench’s diary, this book feels like Grenville was watching the early days of Sydney’s settlement from some private perch.  Her characterisations are brilliant, with the conflicted emotions of the astronomer are teased out with sensitivity.  The interactions between the young Aboriginal people and the lieutentant also ring true.  I didn’t want it to end.

Conversations at Curlow Creek – David Malouf

A trooper and escaped convict/bushranger share experiences before the latter is due to be hanged.  A careful exploration of shared heritage, and how easily the boot could be on the other’s foot. We all have more in common than differences.

Peter Corris – any of the Cliff Hardy novels

Corris is brilliant at place (usually Sydney and surrounds), dialogue and language, and tells a good story too.  While not high brow literary content, he’s given a voice to a certain kind of Australiana.

One extra:  Grand Days trilogy – Frank Moorehouse

Australia takes its place on the international stage through exploration of the early days of the League of Nations.  Great characters as well.

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Wallander captivates

I’ve been entranced by the UK production of Wallander, which recently finished on Australian tv on ABC 1 on Sunday nights.

I’ve only seen a few episodes of the original Swedish productions which ran here on SBS in the mid 2000s and repeated since, but the casting and general look and feel of the British production starring Kenneth Branagh is very close to the version starring Krister Henriksson in the lead role.

The landscape and locations, the production design, the lighting and the whole understated nature of it is what I love. 

Take the landscape – its “other-ness” of the Swedish location produces a sensation that we’re not just in another country, but on another planet.  The flatness, grey skies, grey seas and muted colours.  Snow either just gone, or imminent. The ocean is never too far away, but the seas are fairly flat.  A lot of the action is, not surprisingly for a small country surrounded by ocean, rarely far away from a dock, or a quay, or a beach. 

The beach house where Wallander lives in this series is low, sprawling, with faded paint, and creaky doors, surrounded by grey green grass and farm land.  The furniture is spare, old, wooden, pared back to the basics; it’s no Ikea display home. The garden, which featured heavily in the first episode of this latest series as a burial spot for a body, is unkempt, non-descript and a bit spooky.

This is contrasted when there are designer locations; the look is sleek, finished with a sheen, with no frippery or florals.  The crumpled Wallander bumping through these spaces adds to the weight of the detective as outsider, thinking outside of the square to work out the mystery.

As has been noted in other commentary on Wallander, in both series, he spends a lot of time driving to and fro, and there are several scenes in each episode taken from a crane or a helicopter.  He drives across the bleak, flat landscape, through the milky light, with the sun setting or coming up.  I think their purpose is to show the accumulation of time, and why Wallander’s so knackered all the time; it’s partly from all of that driving around.

Brannagh plays Wallander in an understated manner.  He’s exhausted by the emotionally draining nature of his work, which he uses as an excuse to disconnect himself from family, or women he might like to have a relationship with.  Like many detectives before him, he’s married to the job; similar to Rankin’s Rebus, his best bet for sleeping is the lounge chair, an empty bottle beside him.

It’s also interesting because it’s another in a list of cultural “products” featuring Nordic settings, which possibly started in the early 1990s with Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and carried through various tv shows such as The Eagle, The Killing, and the hugely successful Girl with Dragon Tattoo series of books, films and tv shows.  We somehow get the impression that our interest in these shows gives us some kind of insight into the Danish/Swedish/Norwegian way of life, in much the same way that people watching Home and Away or Neighbours, or even Packed to the Rafters. think they know about life in Australia.  This belief was hilariously parodied by Jennifer Saunders in the 2011 reboot of Absolutely Fabulous.  Eddie has been obsessed with watching episodes of the Danish detective show, The Killing, and is convinced that she can speak Danish as a result.  She is visited in a dream by Sofie Grabel, the lead actress from The Killing, who has no idea what Eddie is saying to her.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw18U_-Y6b4  Of course, it’s all much more complex than that.

Also of note is the decision by the British producers to reproduce the stories from the original, and put them in the same locations as the Swedish production.  A bit of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” thinking, which works well.  So the presumed goal of good story telling, but reaching a wider audience through a production in English with a British star works in this case. 

The last episode in this series is available on ABC tv’s iview for another two weeks.