Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Very Special Place

I had a chat with Jessica Burdon, illustrator of the lovely children's book A Very Special Place the other morning. The book is written by Tania Morgan and the Hobart launch is next weekend at the Avalon Market in Hobart (6-7 December), Some of the proceeds from sales are being donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.      You can hear the interview here, and find out more about the book here.
   Jessica has a solo exhibition coming up at the fabulous Stable gallery at the back of Cooleys in Moonah in the new year.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A presentation on reading groups

When I worked at Fullers, I hosted five discussion groups on a single book, every month for four years.  This is a presentation about reading groups and community a I did at a conference looking at creativity and health a while ago.

Reading Groups

It is a great pleasure to be involved with a conference that revolves around such a crucial and inspiring issue – that of creativity and health. All of us, by very dint of us being in this room probably know about the magic that art and being creative can make to our lives – and I just love living in a time where this is discussed – and people like Jacquie Maginnis seek to get the message out there further. We may say ‘der, of course arts and creativity are good for us’ – but because this can’t be quantified, bottom lined, explained in a functioning spreadsheet, as a whole, it is not recognised widely in our society – even though we know it in our bones. I just wish that we could all attend every session of today’s program.

Reading groups are a gentle way to access the creative in our communities, an easy and fairly conservative way to get people into a creative space that also has the potential to offer a sense of inclusion, worth, participation as well as getting our hearts and minds functioning in a wider, more generous manner. They may not provide the breathy exhileration of singing in a choir, or the gentle satisfaction of finishing a water colour, nor the pumped magic of having a good dance in your living room – but what they can offer is a small key to healing our communities (dare I assume that our communities need healing? – yes, they do, because in so many instances, there is no community in our communities).

    I have worked as a professional facilitator of reading groups for four years – hosting between 4-5 groups each month, discussing one book. Groups averaging in size 6-7 people – often 10 or 11 and in two cases, 2 people.
These groups were set up 15 years ago, and had been run for ten years by one erudite woman. The hosts for the year before me were two young men, one of whom has just had a book about philosophy published, the other is just compelting hist Phd about travel writing and the author Robert Dessaix. Me? I just like reading – and I like people, connection, community and debate.
Reading groups provide this space – for connection, community building and discussion –and simply because it is an artificially created situation it therefore has the added bonus of being a safer space for these connections to be established, for sharing and for the airing of diverse opinions.
In so far as a reading group will generally discuss one book, it is also the most wonderful space to practice the sharing of diverse and often conflicting opinions in a mature and generous manner.
Now, I think that the general sense of a reading group is best done as a cliché –
Let’s just say – ladies of a certain age, perhaps with a tipple in their hands, perhaps taking time ‘of their own’ to socialise in a sanctioned space of the intellect – and I imagine that is dominant demographic of reading groups around the Western world.

So, what is a reading group or a book club?
Is it the 200 funky Sydney kids who meet at a cool night spot to dance to the music of a cult classic novel? A Kurt Vonnegut, Bukowski or even the soundtrack to the new movie of On the Road by Kerouac? Is it a group of dear friends who meet every three months to pick over a chapter of Nietsche? Is it a mothers group that meets hurredly over coffee discussing the latest romance? Is it a structured study group? A group of mates tittering over scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey or two women yarning over TV week – or twenty strangers in a room metaphorically ripping a graphic novel to shreds? All of the above and more. We live in an age where the book as we know it is being fundamentally reinvented and our reading habits are changing as well. Of course it presumes a literate society – and we know that taking the time to be with art or story can sometimes be seen as a luxury – but we also know the power of story in our worlds – written or not. I have a friend who argues strongly that Australia has more of an oral culture- and that books are a mere artefact of this.
Broadly speaking – our reading habits are changing – we no longer rely on the book in the traditional style of cover and pages, generally read from cover to cover – we, generally, are reading as much as we ‘ever’ has but from more disparate sources. The internet affords us this – access to our own libraries, personally curated daily. Articles or short stories sourced from people we from twitter, the latest entertainment news, ABC just in Hobart through to blogs we either check into regularly or stumble across in a seeming random manner. It is all reading – reading wider and not necessarily deeper.
In that context, what is considered the ‘traditional’ (and still most practised form of a book group) seems staid. This model is, of course, the stereotype I described above.
*What are some other forms of discussions about books that you would like to see/participate in?
I can speak most to this style of reading group – it is these that I have worked with closely – in fact intimately over the last four years. These groups, despite the fact that they existed for a very small demographic, exhibit all of the lovely symptoms that a book discussion can cause to erupt.
But how to establish a group? I’m sure that you all participate in little guerrilla book clubs all through your waking lives – small discussions about text – What is it most that you enjoying discussing here – I like literature, I like powerful, stylish, moving literature. Not necessarily story driven, but it has to be what I consider ‘well written’: queue: question number one:
What do you mean by well written?
And why would you even consider starting your own book club? Generally, this is because you have desire to discuss books –and accordingly you have probably attracted some friends of the same ilk. Ask them – find a place and a time and a date about a month away, choose the book and read like crazy.
It’s a good idea if you’ve chosen the book to read around it – inevitably the lead in some of the discussion will fall to you – what is it that drew you to this book. Talk about personal connection and resonance but go easy on the personal stories – the group will be carthartic without you seeking a talking cure.
Send around some links to articles or reviews that you find relevant to the book. Some people will read them, some not, and often on the grounds that to read around spoils the text. Sometimes I agree.
At the meeting I often think wine would be lovely –the groups at Fullers have always been dry.
Some feedback I’ve received, is that the time for personal catch up at the beginning of the group is really important – a number of the Saturday group now meet up an hour or so earlier and have lunch before the discussion starts. “It’s always nice to have a bit of a social side for a few minutes to get to know the people as well as the facilitator as more than simply attendees at a book group, It is good tohavea bit of social time and then get the book”
There are also wise suggestions for a changing facilitator, which often happens with groups of friends – who ever is hosting, often has chosen the book, most often the person looked to if the conversation is flagging.
In terms of maintaining the group – there are one million trillion book discussion groups in the world – that is an official figure – and each of these groups ebbs and flows, has nuances of course. It will of course generate similar amounts of energy to that which is put in.
Rachel Cusk, author of a number of novels and memoir wrote a depressing article that was published in the Guardian some months ago – headlined “Novelist Rachel Cusk joined a book group to discuss beauty and truth. Instead she found herself defending Chekhov, and perplexed as to why the English resist stories of everyday life” of course tells of a very small coterie of book club attendees – of course there are places for dense literary discussions (to which I am quite partial) but generally the discussion of books ranging from Grapes of Wrath, The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, Don Quixote – yes, it is true – I picked the 914 page translation as the Summer read – no discussion in December or January – a good two plus months,
Cusk arrived in a small town in England and joined the local, long established book group. It was her turn to choose and she chose Chekhov, a Russian master of short stories – seriously! Do yourselves a favour, a quick yet slow dip into beautifully sculpted stories, moments of the characters’ lives.
“The ladies filed in despondently, holding their grim copies of Chekhov as people hold unsavoury things when they can't find anywhere to dispose of them. There were nuts and crisps and chilly little glasses of red wine, which people sampled erratically, undecidedly, as though, now the solace of reading had been contaminated, their generalised need for consolation had itself become strange and unfamiliar. So, someone said. So. There was a great sighing, a great wearied exhalation. “  and I had to read that in all its cutting intensity. I know that feeling actually – I met with it severely a couple of times – the choices? Everything from Lolita through to Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris – the story I chose as it had a translator as a protagonist and i was reading a lot about translation. It also had a sado masochistic relationship between a teenager and a geriatric.

But let’s forget all of that and consider some other and varied styles of reading groups/book discussion groups that can exist – and then look, in a bit more detail at why this space can be creative, freeing, beautiful and, in a broader, community sense, therapeutic.



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: A Compulsion to Kill by Robert Cox

A Compulsion to Kill; the Surprising Story of Australia’s Earliest Serial Killers is as disturbing as the title suggests.  This book focuses on the early years of white settlement in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s land) and a chapter is dedicated to each of the worst killers of those years, including the notorious ‘cannibal convict’ Alexander Pearce and the methodically brutal and often overlooked Charles Routley, who encouraged his victims to pray before he ended their lives. It traverses cold blooded murder, rape, cannibalism and other physical degradations. While we now live in a society  inured to violence, the content in this book is still graphic and shocking. It is also an excellent sociological account of Tasmania in those days.
  Cox defines the difference between serial killers (more than one murder over a greater timespan) and multiple murders (more than one murder, perpetrated at the same time) and the book begins looking at John Brown and Richard Lemon, who were transported to Sydney and then made their way, separately to Van Diemen’s land and it was here that their violent actions began; the murders that now have them recognised as Australia’s first serial killers.
  The names Lemon and Brown, Thomas Jeffrey and John Haley are not as familiar as Rocky Whelan (whose hide-out cave near Hobart still bears his name) and of course, the ‘convict cannibal’ Alexander Pearce. Cox’s descriptions of the violent actions of these men is unambiguous in condemning them, but in the case of Pearce it is more ambiguous, at least during his first spate of cannibalism. It was suggested by one of Pearce’s companions, a sailor, that the rule of the sea dictates that the weakest man be sacrificed for the good of the group. This provided the justification for the first act of cannibalism by Pearce and his group. These men had escaped from the grimmest of penal settlements, Macquarie Harbour and attempted to make their way overland to settlement. They were far from alone in turning to the flesh of their companions to help them survive. Many of the killers discussed in this book also partake.
   Each of these chapters provide a macabre and fascinating insight into the daily lives of people in early white settlement in Tasmania and many also provide insight into the killers’ minds. The facts related by Cox build up a rich and bloody portrait. Charles Routley who perpetrated most of his murders around Pitt Water, was also harboured by locals. Rocky Whelan was a peaceful, stoic prisoner for more than 20 years, riding out excessive violence on Norfolk Island before finding his way to Van Diemen’s Land where he began a spree of murders. The context is as crucial to this book as the crimes.   While some readers may find his tight focus on the deaths of an by only white people limiting, this book, for all its grim subject matter condenses the worst and first spates of murders and murderers into a grotesque and fascinating read. The primary focus is to list the atrocities perpetrated by these men but the greater historical and political context that Cox’s style and research offer highlights the brutal conditions in which these men lived. 

This review was first published in a slightly edited form in The Mercury's TasWeekends, November 1.

A Compulsion to Kill; the history of Tasmania's earliest serial killers 
by Robert Cox9781922120946Glass House Books