Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Learning to sing


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.


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.



Going dotty


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.


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”.


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.


Infinity nets. 




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.





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No stone unturned

An ’80s’ movie etched in my memory is Costa-Gavras’ chilling Missing, the story of an American family’s search for their journalist son who had disappeared in post-coup Chile. The 1973 toppling of Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, ushered in an era of bloody repression under the CIA-backed military dictator General Augusto Pinochet.  The Palme D’Or-winning Missing centred on the search for left-leaning reporter Charles Horman by his businessman father Ed, played by the legendary Jack Lemmon, and Charles’ wife, played by Sissy Spacek. Ed at first blames his son but slowly discovers the complicity of the American Government. The Chile coup shocked many Australians, maybe because Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had recently won office after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government rule.

Three years later Argentina suffered the same fate as its western neighbour when a military junta ousted Isabel Peron. Argentinians woke up to find their parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – everyday men and women – “disappeared”. These commonplace tragedies are given ongoing focus as now-grandparents continue to search for missing grandchildren, many of whom have ethereal status without a confirmed existence. I have just put down the gripping 2016 novel The Memory Stones by Australian journalist-turned-author Caroline Brothers, a fictionalised telling of one such generational search. Brothers worked as a foreign correspondent for media organisations such as the  International Herald Tribune, including stints in Mexico and Central America. She told an Avid Reader gathering last year she chose a fictionalised format for Memory Stones because the non-fiction version had “already been told” through extensive reports over decades in the foreign media.


The choice of style was effective: fiction allowed the creation of characters who brought life to the events of the period and allowed the reader to suffer the anguish of all those who experienced devastating loss, through disappearance and death.  It’s estimated that between 1976 and 1983 up to 30,000 Argentinians vanished or were known to have been killed. The book also brings life to the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo –  the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – which still works relentlessly to find the the babies born to “disappeared” or executed young mothers and adopted out to junta officials. The abuelas’ efforts have recovered 122 grandchildren, seen 1000 of the dictatorship’s torturers tried and 700 sentenced.  No stone unturned indeed.

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The classic touch

For 15 years I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Masterfully lead by the energetic and creative Richard Tognetti the ACO captivates with its eclecticism and daring scope.  While performing under an Australian flag Tognetti has brought together a virtual united nations of performers with orchestra members hailing from French Canada, Japan, Finland, Ukraine, Slovania, Singapore and Romania. Tognetti is not your average chamber orchestra director and conductor, roles he has played at the ACO since his 20s. Still youthful at 52, and until recently sporting a trendy brush-up hairstyle, the world-acclaimed musician likes to take his followers on musical “magical mystery tours”.


Concert-goers know to always expect the unexpected. During my  time I’ve experienced a full-screen movie of the keen surfer’s wave-hunting expedition to remote Western Australia with the orchestra performing the Tognetti-composed score live; a collaboration with Whitlams lead singer and keyboardist Tim Freedman; an evening of Bell Shakespeare Company readings with ACO accompaniment; and a Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret evening with the world-famous comedian joined by award-winning performer Meow Meow. Tognetti, with or without the full orchestra, is just as happy performing in ski village clubhouses in Hokkaido, and small outdoor sound shells in rural Australia, as the Sydney Opera House or grand concert halls in world capitals.

But for the ACO’s concert at QPAC concert hall last week it was a return to the classics, a sublime evening of Bach violin concertos rounded off with a Haydn symphony. For the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major, Tognetti was joined by long-serving and accomplished lead violinists Helena Rathbone and Satu Vanska. Then they were joined by Vanska’s Finnish countryman Timo-Veikke Valvo for a solo performance of the Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 4. No wonder the ACO is often referred to as an ensemble of soloists. Which is exactly what the orchestra’s next national tour is titled – ACO Soloists.

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Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます


Nengajou welcome the New Year for multiple millions of Japanese.

Happy New Year! As millions of lunar calendar followers around the world welcome in the 2017 New year, those following the Oriental calendar are preparing to wave goodbye to that little scallywag the monkey and welcome in the stately rooster.

In Japan, where Oriental symbolism is synced with the lunar calendar the Rooster has crowed his first 2017 morning call. Multiple millions of nengajou, the little symbol cards that friends and family send each other, rather like Christmas cards, are arriving in special postal deliveries through the day. Across the world revellers are waking to sore heads, or the first day of well intentioned resolutions. The rooster will be in hot demand this year, this famous early morning riser credited with being able to foretell the future. Many will hope that he can see an end to the political upheavals experienced in numerous countries in 2016.

2016 calendars will come down and their replacements will go up. I have written before about the attachments I form to my calendars, which usually include one put together by my photographically talented older brother; another which I order specially from Tokyo’s captivating Blue and White Shop in Azabu Juban; and one which arrives every year from a young Japanese woman who stayed with us as an international language student over 20 years ago.



Hello new Blue and White, goodbye old; and a sad farewell to this Southern NSW egret image. 

This year I’ll be putting up a beautiful calendar featuring Japanese art treasures, given to me by my Japanese family, which has been published by JAL Airlines for as long as I can remember. The pieces chosen for each month are exquisite, of the quality of treasures I’ve seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oriental section. While a calendar’s not quite as good as the real thing it’s an excellent substitute.


A section from the January illustration from the JAL calendar. 

Whether you’re an Oriental or a lunar cycle person here’s wishing you a very happy 2017 . May the qualities of warmth, generosity, diligence, sociability and excellent communication skills attributed to the rooster be the overriding zeitgeist in 2017.


Avid readers


A favourite haunt back in the ’90s when we lived in inner-city Brisbane was the original Mary Ryan Bookshop in Latrobe Terrace. Apart from its laden shelves there was a welcoming coffee shop on the lower level where I would take my mother for our fix of caffeine and to enjoy its treed garden sloping down one of Paddington’s many gullies. Mary Ryan was one of the first bookshops to incorporate a coffee shop and the genial owner Phil Ryan a pleasant and knowledgable source of advice on what to buy.

Alas, Mary Ryan Paddington was one of many such book-lover-friendly enterprises that succumbed to the competitive forces unleashed by  the internet in the 2000s. Those that have survived are much treasured. In Brisbane the best known of these are Riverbend Books in Bulimba and Avid Reader in West End. As a end-of-year treat my bookclub facilitator had the prescience to reserve a spot with the latter’s knowledgable owner Fiona Stager, a much-sought-after presence at such talks because of her wealth of knowledge of the latest publications and her well regarded opinions.  Apart from her status as an avid and discerning reader Fiona has a wealth of knowledge of the publishing industry as a lecturer on the subject at the University of Queensland.


Over glasses of wine and tempting snacks she talked through her reading suggestions from the latest publishers’ offerings. Interestingly a number were by Australian writers, underscoring the health of our literary scene.  Her recommendations:

Not Just Black and White, by Lesley and Tammy Williams, which tells Lesley’s story of being an Aboriginal girl from Cherbourg settlement forced from home to work as a domestic servant; Ghost Empire, beloved ABC Conversations host Richard Fidler’s rich telling of the history of old Constantinople; The Riviera Set,  the rollicking bed-hopping and partying history of the monied and famous at the Chateau de l’Horizon near Cannes over a period of 40 years; The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J Church’s story of an ornithologist who marries a much older physics professor recruited to work on the Los Alamos Project and her battle to retain her own academic identify; The Birdman’s Wife in which Melissa Ashley gives artist Elizabeth Gould the credit she deserves as the true genius behind John Gould’s famous early sketches of Australia’s unique bird life; To the Bright Edge of the World, an Alaskan explorer’s story extracted by Eowyn Ivey from journal entries, military reports, letters and documents; Our Souls at Night, a tender account by Kent Haruf of a widow who asks her widower neighbour if he’d consider sharing her bed – not for sex but for warmth and comfort; My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Stroud’s telling of a hospital-bedside reconciliation between a long-estranged mother and daughter;  Between a Wolf and a Dog, the heartfelt account by Georgia Blain, daughter of acclaimed journalist Anne Deveson and broadcaster Ellis Blain, of a woman dying from a brain tumour, and written at a time when Blain herself was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer; Truly, Madly, Guilty, world top-seller Australian Liane Moriarty’s latest pot boiler and suggested by Fiona as the perfect beach holiday read; One, Patrick Holland’s well researched account of the demise of Australia’s last bushrangers, the Kenniffs, in western Queensland;  in Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, popular writer of young  adult novels, Melina Marchetta, makes a provocative move to crime fiction to reviewer approval; Midsomer Murders screenwriter Anthony Horowitz has fun with the vintage crime novel genre in Magpie Murders;  nature writer Simon Barnes tells how birds help us understand the world we live in, in The Meaning of Birds; and finally,The Memory Stones, Caroline Brothers’ harrowing account of the Disappeared of Argentina’s  military coup in 1976 and the ongoing devastation down the generations.