Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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When in Canberra…

….I never miss the opportunity to check out what’s on at one of our national capital’s impressive array of galleries and museums.  Some are must-sees,  such as the amazing Songlines earlier this year, others worth seeing but more of the three-and-a-half star mark, such as the current Rome: City and Empire. On loan from the British Museum in London with around 200 objects on show it features a more fraction of the 100,000 treasures that actually make up the collection. 

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Still, just contemplating the map at the start of the exhibition underscores the sheer size of the Empire in its heyday – a vast stretch of territory covering present-day swathes of western Europe, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, England and Wales. Just as the British took advantage of empire by appropriating treasures, the Romans also enslaved conquered peoples and seized their wealth. While missing major masterpieces from the British Museum the exhibition focuses on objects from quotidian life, funerary art and items like coins. The collection owes much to the discovery of burial hoardes from various locations including Britain.

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Intricately carved 100 BCE Etruscan alabaster burial chest. 

Highlights include an exquisitely carved Etruscan alabaster burial chest; a relief depicting gladiatrices Amazon and Achilla, showing Roman-era women had won the right to take up the sword; a 2000-year-old freestanding basanite (volcanic rock) bath in a style very like those found in trendy bathrooms now; and a bust of the renowned Hadrian, who liked to build walls and who was said to be openly gay.  

This Roman bath would go well in a modern-day showroom; Hadrian the wall builder. 

Bust from now north Africa (l); Funerary relief, Palmyra, Syria (r) ; bust of Bacchus. 

Mithras slaying the bull; the gladatrices Amazon and Achilla. 

 

Items from the Hoxne Treasure in England from the fourth and fifth centuries. 

Rome: City and Empire  runs at the National Museum of Australia until February 3.

 

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Book tasting

Listening to a recent RN book chat show the topic of hard copy versus online books came up. Without hesitation the participants gave the thumbs up to “the real deal” books, the ones you could smell and feel, and enjoy browsing through at a real book shop. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the touch-and-feel variety our annual “book tasting” at Avid Reader bookshop in West End, with resident guru Fiona Stager, wouldn’t be nearly as pleasurable.

Take your pick…..

This year’s selection revealed a botanical emphasis, coincidental because earlier this year I had my own “botanical immersion” through German forester Peter Wohllben’s fascinating The Hidden Life of Trees. First on Fiona’s list was The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, by Queensland writer Holly Ringland. Set in Queensland’s canefields, the Sunshine Coast Hinterland and Central Australia the novel communicates its domestic violence theme through the dramatic beauty of Australia’s wildflowers. “You’ll never think of the Australian landscape the same way again,” our host advised.

Next, The Botanist’s Daughter, by Kayte Nunn, an colourful story of a race to find a life-saving plant involving two female botanists, set across more than a century. The Overstory a lengthy and complicated tale by American Richard Powers connects people through trees – “it takes reader commitment but is well worth it”, was Fiona’s advice. In Unsheltered veteran Barbara Kingsolver, long-time writer on topics like social justice, biodiversity and the interaction between communities and environments, tells the tale of a now-destitute middle-class American family who inherit a tumble-down house originally owned by a botanist. Warlight, Michael Ondjaate’s spy-themed novel set around post-Second World War London, follows the elusive struggles of 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister to piece together the mysterious life of his parents. A key character leading a double life as a natural history radio presenter adds a strong natural history component.

Moving away from the botanical, Edward Carey’s Little shines a light on the founder of Madame Tussauds, the diminutive Swiss orphan Marie Grosholtz. In Less this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, Andrew Sean Greer, takes a humorous look at literary life and the gay scene. “Funny is hard to write,” said Fiona. “This is funny without being cruel”. Avid Bookshop regular, Krissy Kneen, switches from her previous erotica in Wintering  to tell the story of a woman whose husband goes missing: “It is strong in landscape and has received good reviews”, said Fiona. Cryptic crossword king David Astle offers mental exercise with Rewording the Brain; and in The Golden Thread – How Fabric Changed History Kassia St Clair reveals the magical power of textiles. For food-lovers – or those who just love leafing through luscious celebrity cookbooks – Simple, Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest offering, promises straight-forward, Middle Eastern-inspired treats. “I’m obsessed with it,” Fiona confided.

Tips from other staff: Boy Swallows Universe, a debut novel by Australian journalist Trent Dalton – “a book that speaks to all people”; Normal People by talented young Irish writer Sally Rooney is this staff member’s “favourite book of the year; The Children’s House, by Alice Nelson, set in America, Israel and Rwanda, references an upbringing in a kibbutz children’s house and the author’s life in the various countries.

A Gentleman in Moscow is described as “a must read”; Man out of Time, the experience of living in a family where one parent is a severe depressive, offers “exquisite writing”; Prague Spring, by Simon Mawer, is set in 1968 when Russian tanks rolled into Prague; Sally Piper’s The Geography of Friendship is “an enjoyable read …. a vehicle for exploring female friendship”; Eggshell Skull is judge’s associate Bri Lee’s account of her work experience, including many rape cases, for which she shared the 2018 Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards prize; and for the kids, the crowd-sourced Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo; the Little People Big Dreams series about extraordinary women; and finally Kate DiCamillio’s latest adventure with her Louisana Elephante character, Louisana’s Way Home. 

Happy reading in 2019!

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Talking to trees

Apart from slowing down and smelling the roses apparently we would do ourselves a favour if we walked in the woods a lot more. In Japan, it’s already a “thing”. It’s called “forest bathing”, or shinrin yoku – shin meaning forest and yoku to bathe.

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Japanese scientists have researched the reasons why “forest bathing” makes us humans feel so good. The university website The Conversation reports the Japanese investigations identified three major inhaled factors making “bathers” feel healthier in diverse forest ecosystems –  beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.

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After reading German forester Peter Wohllben’s fascinating The Hidden Life of Trees, a gift from my thoughtful elder daughter, I know why I instinctively feel so upset by the sight of a felled forest giant, or upended tracts of massacred trunks, roots and branches. Wohllben sets out how trees are much like human families, living in communities, bringing up their children, parenting them as they mature, sharing nutrients, helping those who are ailing, communicating, and warning them when danger is approaching. Like human towns forests go through cycles of life, death and regeneration , only on a much longer timescale.

Wohllben talks about how trees isolated from their forest environment struggle to survive, just like abandoned children. And those specimens singled out to beautify our cities, planted individually along suburban streets and city boulevards, are just like street kids, left to fend for themselves. He also described the “pain” caused to a tree by cutting into its bark, rather like cutting into someone’s skin. And we should think of sap as the tree’s blood.

Dr Qing Li is the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine. A medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, he’s a staunch advocate of what forests do for us.  “Forests are an amazing resource,” he says. “They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing, and shelter, and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases.” Now his research is proving how “bathing” in the forest boosts the immune system, increases energy, decreases anxiety, depression, anger and stress and brings about a state of relaxation.

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Dr Qing believes if people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect and look after them. Which no doubt would make Peter Wohllben – and the forests – very happy.

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The beauty of a Japanese forest in autumn. 


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Whadda we want? Our ABC!

This week’s Four Corners report on the Thai cave rescue garnered rightful praise from many quarters, ABC-TV’s investigative stalwart scoring yet more kudos for hard-hitting, non-sensational reporting. In this era of “fake news” thank goodness for shows like Four Corners. It reminds that sometimes one needs to get out into the public square to make one’s voice heard on matters that matter. Most recently I was called to Southbank Parklands, to the ABC headquarters, where Aunty loyalists young and old gathered to do their bit to protect the old girl . It’s common knowledge that this national treasure is suffering from the common current malaise of “fiscal squeeze”. Some even suggest she should be sold off to the highest bidder, God Forbid!

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Speakers Tony Koch, a former Walkley Award winning journalist, and Janine Walker, a former ABC presenter, unionist and academic, both fondly recalled childhoods in regional Queensland in which the ABC played an important community and entertainment role. Others stressed the need in this time of the 24-hour news cycle, diminishing printed media and under-funded long-form journalism of the importance to the democratic political system of maintaining quality, informed media. Such as that provided by the ABC.

I fear for the future of brilliant concepts such as Australian Story, which is currently on a mysterious “mid-year break” and Foreign Correspondent, and regret the demise of Lateline. And where would we be without Four  Corners, the show that spotlighted the Moonlight State, their brilliant 1987 expose of political and police corruption in Queensland; the nail-biting documentary recreation of the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart which claimed six lives and five yachts; or more recent exposes of corrupt banking and insurance practices; inhumane practices at the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory; and in the live animal export trade? Then there is the incomparable Leigh Sales who puts the hard questions to dissembling politicians. And let’s not get started on what’s happening to RN!

 

My introduction to protests was as a reporter in the early 1970s when Brisbane was in turmoil over the proposed Springbok Rugby Tour and Premier Bjelke-Petersen pulled punches like States of Emergency. Then in November 1975 I joined the shocked throngs following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. I marched in the 2000 Brisbane Bridgewalk for Reconciliation, and again in 2003 as one of the 100,000 who took to Brisbane’s city streets to (unsuccessfully) convince the Howard Government not to join in the Iraq war, And again when the missiles actually went up. I’m partial to an environmental protest, especially those that look to protect the Barrier Reef.

I regard the right to protest as fundamental to democracy, and the duty of those who believe in this system of government. So, Whadda ya want? – the ABC! When do ya want it? – Forever!

 

 

 

 

 


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Learning to sing

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The term Songlines is widely recognised but for non-Indigenous Australians grasping the actually concept is more elusive. Hats off then to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra for its imaginative effort to bridge the gap of cultural enlightenment by taking the visitor on a colourful, multi-media Indigenous cultural journey through space and time across the continent and beyond.

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Woven versions of the Seven Sisters created by Indigenous women. 

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters focuses on sections of just five songlines, a mere handful of the thousands that track across Australia telling the Indigenous creation story.  Those stories could be described as parables imparting traditional laws and creation interpretations, the battle between good and evil. The seven sisters are chased across the land by the lustful, shape-shifting sorcerer Wati Nyiru. He can become a tree, or a serpant, always trying to tempt and confound the sisters as they flee across the land, each songline having a different version.

The songline left by the sisters in their flight across country, employing all the tricks they know, such as flying, to elude Wari Nyiru creates the features of the land – boulders, hills, trees and waterholes. Eventually they fly into the heavens where they merge with the Orion constellation and Pleiades star cluster.

Ceramic tributes to the songlines. 

The standout feature of the exhibition was the amazing six-metre digital dome room wherein visitors could lie back and watch a state-of-the-art digital, high-res experience including the transit of Pleiades and the Orion constellation, the Seven Sisters rock art from Cave Hill in South Australia and vision of the sisters flying into the night sky. Given the scientific revelation that we humans all carry elements from the Big Bang within us, I saw the elegance of this songline.


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Going dotty

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Yayoi Kusama has been called the “Priestess of Polka Dots”. And a few hours gazing at her creations is certainly enough to send you happily polka dotty. The Japanese octogenarian’s most recent Brisbane exhibition, which I just managed to catch before it wrapped up at the Gallery of Modern Art earlier this month didn’t disappoint in the dot department. Spots of all hues camouflaged sculptures, paintings of pumpkins, Picasso-like portraits, lighted and dark kaleidoscopic mirrored infinity installations, all creating a sense of collaboration with kids, Indigenous artists and the avant-garde art world. A visual blitzkrieg.

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Kusama’s dot fetish was said to derive from an early childhood illness with hallucinations impairing her sight with dots in front of the eyes. Another of her themes is the concept of infinity which she represents not only through mirrored installations but infinity “net” paintings of endless interlinked patterns. The artist said this fascination was a result of looking down at the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean on her 1950’s flight from Japan to New York, where she became a leading art scene member. Pumpkins? She likes their shape, their “grotesqueness” and their “homeliness”.

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Yayoi Kusama’s dotty interpretations of Marilyn Monroe (left) and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Mirrored infinity room installations. 

 It was Kusama’s third Queensland Art Gallery-GOMA outing, the first being at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2002 when she especially wowed the kids with her “obliteration room”. Imagine being a kid walking into a room painted completely white and being invited to stick coloured dots wherever you like to your heart’s content!  The relationship between QAGOMA and Kusama nurtured through the Triennial was rewarded with another exhibition in 2012; the 2017-18 show Life is the Heart of the Rainbow; and major acquisitions making the Gallery’s collection one of the most significant in a public museum outside Japan.

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Infinity nets. 

 

 


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Booking some reading time

The Christmas-New Year break is my favourite time of the year – my “do nothing but read lots” time. The Christmas left-overs provide days’ worth of meals; there’s nothing compelling on TV; only kids’ movies on at theatres; friends are away; and who wants to fight over Boxing Day bargains? Perfect!

Happily, our end-of-year book club event at the Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, with Living Book-Advice Treasure Fiona Stager as our host and reading guide, offered plenty of suggestions to add to the waiting-to-be-read pile. They range from heartfelt novels, to historical fiction, memoir, fact-and-fiction mixes, biographies, short stories and science history. As with last year’s nominations many authors are Australian, a timely nod to the health of our literary creativity. Among Fiona’s personal recommendations are:

Music and Freedom, by Zoe Morrison, winner of the 2017 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. The first-time novelist and music prodigy draws on her love of music and social issues in a gripping novel that examines how long-term domestic abuse can stifle the life chances of women.

IMG_9059The Restorer, by Michael Sala. A couple attempt a marriage reconciliation while embarking on the restoration of a terrace house in Newcastle. Fiona praises Sala’s writing saying he has “thought about every word on the page”. His first novel, The Last Thread, won the NSW Premier’s Award for new writing and was regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize.

First Person, by Richard Flanagan. Fiona found this novel interesting: part fact, part fiction. The protagonist, a struggling young writer, faces a moral dilemma when offered a commission to ghostwrite the memoir of a celebrated conman who is about to be jailed. She said First Person received some negative reviews. “Some men I know didn’t like it, but all the women did”, she said.  First Person is Flanagan’s first novel since winning the Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

City of Crows, by Chris Womersley, has an historical base, and is set in 17th century France, a time when life was hard and magic and witchcraft were commonplace.  Fiona describes it a “page-turner with a slightly sinister edge”. As a Sydney Morning Herald review noted, a really good writer like Womerlsey “can engage readers in things they didn’t know they’d be interested in.”

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn. This is one of publisher Hogarth’s series of Shakespeare classics reimagined in contemporary settings by selected writers. St Aubyn’s Henry Dunbar is a modern-day King Lear envisioned as the all-powerful head of an international media company with the capacity to ruin lives and reputations on a whim. Sound familiar? For literary history buffs, Hogarth Press is a British publishing house started in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

A New England Affair, by Stephen Carroll, the 2008 Miles Franklin Award winner. It’s the third of his novels about T. S. Eliot, using elements of Eliot’s poems and life as the basis. Each presents Eliot as he is known by others. In this a 74-year-old New England woman, with whom Eliot was said to have had a romantic connection, is the centre of the novel which deals with the concept of the lasting desolation caused by lost opportunities.

Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, and the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner. The plot revolves around a story of Frederick Lothian, an concrete engineering specialist, who has moved into a retirement village after his wife’s death. He has a difficult relationship with their adopted Indigenous daughter, Caroline, living in London and curating an exhibition about extinction; and little close contact with his son Callum, who is in care after suffering a serious brain injury in a car accident. Fiona said the “hook” for the story relates to what happened to both son and daughter.

Terra Nullius, by Claire Coleman, a  Noongar woman. Fiona describes the work as “speculative fiction”. At the time of our book club evening it was her current read.  She said the puzzle of the book was: “is it set now, or in the future. Or is it a dystopian novel?”

Common People by Tony Birch.   This is a book of short stories about individuals who have missed out on the great Australian Dream. “Birch’s themes are love, loss, poverty and pain,” said Fiona.

The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretzer. The work consists of five sections that have an interconnection without being a continuous narrative. Only one character appears throughout. Writer Pippa Reynolds, who grew up as Narelle in North Sydney, changes her name on her 18th birthday because “no-one called Narelle’s ever going to win the Booker”.  This plays into the book’s dark humour theme of throwing a spotlight on Australian narcissism.  As in her other books de Kretzer weaves in a reference to her native Sri Lanka.

Saga Land, by Richard Fidler. This exploration of both the new must-see tourist destination of Iceland and the mysterious Sagas, the true stories of the first Vikings to settle the remote and unforgiving Arctic island in the Middle Ages, follows closely on the respected ABC interviewer’s earlier tome Ghost Empire. Fidler and Kári Gíslason connected during an interview and bonded over a mutual love of the Sagas. The book is the story of their research in Iceland which included a quest by Gíslason to solve a long-standing family mystery connecting them to the most famous Saga author. There could be no greater praise for Saga Land than for Hannah Kent, author of award-winning Iceland-based historical novel, Burial Rites, than her declaration she “adored” Saga Land.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by Richard Attenborough. The text was first published in 1956 but has been out of print for some time. Apparently a young publisher found a copy in a second-hand bookshop and here it is in print again for nature lovers and Attenborough-philes to enjoy anew.

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott.  Fiona describes McDermott is a “writers’ writer”. She nominates this story of the poverty and struggles of Irish Catholic Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and the ever-presence of nuns in everyday life, as her favourite for the year.

The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein. This biography looks at the subject of trauma, from the work of Sandra Pankhurst, who not only cleans up after the most gruesome of incidents frequently offering a sympathetic ear to victims, and asks questions about the impacts of trauma. Fiona said the writer shines a particular light on hoarders and what leads people to hoard. But there’s plenty more too.

Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams. This Australian journalist worked for Melbourne’s Age newspaper and brings her inquisitive and explanatory skills to a subject little-understood, even by the anaesthetists themselves. It looks at the development of anaesthetics, the bizarre experiments, the maverick professionals, and that most widespread of fears, waking up during surgery. The author did much of her research in anticipation of her own encounter with the mystery gases for spinal surgery.