Getting a little out of hand

As well as being a rare opportunity to hear from many and varied authors, the Melbourne Writers Festival was a brilliant way to find new books to put on my reading list.

As out of hand as my list might be, I’m really pleased to have found a wide range of new books to read and revisit, including…

The Arrival,  Shaun Tan
Thought Crimes, Tim Richards
Sarah Thornhill, Kate Grenville
Pedder Dreaming, Natasha Cica
Island Magazine
Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex, Jane McCredie
Bird, Sophie Cunningham
The Life, Malcom Knox
Midnight in Peking, Paul French
The Shelly Beach Writers’ Group, June Loves
There Should be More Dancing, Rosalie Ham
The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton
And What do you Do, Mr Gable?, Richard Flanagan
You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead, Marieke Hardy
Violin Lessons, Arnold Zable
How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely

Phew…that’s a big pile of books and I can’t wait! If you’re interested, you can find my whole ‘Up Next’ reading list here.

Anything strike your interest? Did you pick up any good reads at the festival?

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Thanks for the memories MWF

I’m feeling a little bit lost today, now that the Melbourne Writers Festival is done and dusted.

I’m sure that all the authors, festival staff, and volunteers are breathing a collective sigh of relief at having orchestrated a most impressive event, coordinating over 300 sessions and 400 authors. I on the other hand am feeling a little bit sad that it’s all over for another year.

So, please indulge me while I tell you about the enlightening, entertaining and at times fiery weekend I had at Stories Unbound.

First up on Saturday was the session Essaying Options featuring an impressive panel of exemplary practitioners of the art of essay writing; Richard Flanagan, Robert Manne, and Marieke Hardy, and panel chair Alison Croggon.

For many years I believed essay writing to be mainly a chore borne by university students, the result of which was often printed on cheap printer paper and mercilessly marked by red pen. Then I discovered Orwell’s work and realised that an essay is so much more than a means of assessment. In their best form they are well researched and carefully constructed pieces aimed at truth-telling and change-making. I liked Richard’s description, that an “essay is a short piece of writing with something wrong with it,” going on to explain: “What’s wrong with it is that it is provisional, they have a humanity, they attempt to devine something about this world.” Essay’s can, over time, effect great change in individuals and in society.

I enjoyed the mixed styles of the Richard, Marieke and Robert. Richard demonstrates a raw, yet well reasoned emotion, Marieke uses a rye humour to engage and Robert places much hope in politics: “Politics is our way of acting collectively. We can’t live without politics if we hope to achieve things…we have to fight for decent politics.” I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the different ways in which they choose their subject matter, how they work to effect their audience, and what they hope to achieve through their work.

As with many of the festival’s sessions, the discussion moved into talk about the internet and it’s effect on humanity, argument and politics. This was a nice lead-in to my second session for the day Assange: Man and Myth, at which the panelists investigated the freedoms and conundrums presented by the internet, particular as it relates to freedom of speech, human rights and journalism.

The session seemed to have lost a little of it’s intended structure, as a result of Andrew Fowler being unable to attend and I suspect his biography The Most Dangerous Man in the World was going to be the anchor of this discussion. Nonetheless Suelette Dreyfuss, Joel Deane and Tracee Hutchison conducted an informative and feisty presentation.

Somewhat to my surprise, this was the most fiery session that I had attended throughout the festival. Suelette was passionate in her defence of Assange, and her complete commitment to WikiLeaks. Joel seemed more focused on the ‘definition’ of Assange: “The question must be asked as to whether or not Julian Assange is a journalist or not” and it was this question that raised the most ire amongst the audience.

At the end of the day, this session was largely a discussion about the ethics of journalism, and in particular the sticky question of protections offered to whisleblowers, a rare breed of informants on which WikiLeaks is heavily reliant. The panel talked around whether Assange was an anarchist, a rule-breaker (Suelette’s assessement), or a rebel-rouser (Joel’s suggestion) and argued heatedly on the need for responsibility in journalism, even in this new type of ‘leaks’ reliant reporting. Tracee expressed her concern: “This seems to me troublesome, this gloves-off approach to free speech, if there is no responsibility taken,” and Suelette disagreed strongly that Assange and WikiLeaks in fact demonstrated great responsibility, although she didn’t really seem to say how this was so.

I walked out of this session quietly pleased to have been privy  to such a passionate debate.

Last up for me on Saturday was a delightful conversation between Julian Burnside and Arnold Zable, and it was a perfect way to finish the day. As Burnside said at the outset, “Arnold is a fine writer, and an amazing storyteller” and he in keeping with this description, Arnold kindly shared the story of his writing, his history, his family and his love of music.

The appeal of this session was simple really…it was fascinating to hear about the moments at the heart of his stories, and how through his travels “moments of amazing symmetry occur, and things just come together.” Each story would seem to have a profound core, an “eloquent episode” that informs it.

In short, I have been enticed by his latest Violin Lessons and so it would seem, this collection of stories is yet another title for my reading list. I’d also have loved to be able to get to a performance of Cafe Scheherazade (adapted by Therese Radic) being shown at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne until the 11 Sept 2011.

I didn’t want the festival be over so I had a last hurrah on Sunday. I was extremely moved by The Pity of War, a session at which the audience was given a perspective of what it is to be at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The presentation focused on the monetary, humanitarian and political costs of remaining at war in these regions, and touched also on the issue of fair and truthful reporting in conflicts such as these.

The recounts, facts and figures gave me chills, and horrified me.

Being challenged to think so deeply really seemed a fitting way to finish off my MWF, and after this session I packed up my notebook and slowly, reluctantly left Federation Square. Until next year.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on Stories Unbound, and that you were able to get to some sessions as well. If you’re interested in hearing any of the sessions, keep an eye on the Melbourne Writers Festival website, as podcasts will be made available over time.

Thanks to MWF for giving me the opportunity to cover the festival, it has been an amazing privilege.


Coming up soon, I’ll be reviewing Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, and Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee and I’ll be updating my reading list with some new discoveries.

Also, don’t forget to enter the competition to win a copy of Room, by Emma Donoghue. Full details of this month’s give-away can be found here.

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Friday story-time at the MWF

There are many nice ways to start a day, and for me, being read to is definitely one of them. This is especially so when it’s four talented novelists doing the reading.

I was eased into my forth day at the Melbourne Writers Festival by Malcom Knox (The Life), Paul French (Midnight in Peking), June Loves (The Shelly Beach Writers’ Group) and Rosalie Ham (There Should Be More Dancing) who all kindly shared a little of their latest novels and their thoughts on said works.

I was intrigued by Paul’s fascination with “the British list of undesirables, an amazing source of many interesting individuals” which provided him with many of the characters he chose to populate the Legation Quarter in his wartime Peking.

June Loves was charming and funny, and her words reassured me that I’ve still plenty of time to write the great Australian novel, matter-of-factly proclaiming that “writing a novel is great fun to do in your old age,” particularly if you’re not overly partial to lawn bowls.

An hour of reading and conversation got me in the mood for fiction, so I popped over to the session, The Fiction of Love. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I’m not a big reader of romance. Nonetheless, something in the session description attracted me, so off I went. I am so glad that I did, it was about so much more than romance…as Jo Case said by way of introduction, all the authors “were about bending, breaking the rules and presenting love, sex and attraction in surprising ways.” Authors Eleanor Catton, Craig Sherborne and Mandy Sayer were unique characters and they most certainly had an edginess to how they viewed love, lust and relationships.

After some introductory discussion, Sayer somewhat coyly shared a scene from her novel Love in the Years of Lunacy. It was a scene that had the audience on tender-hooks, gripped ever-so awkwardly by the intimate scene being read aloud. It might have been a little difficult to listen to, but in Mandy’s opinion, sex scenes are not difficult to write: “Writing about sex is easier than writing about love. Sex is active, it has action. Love is abstract, and is passive and is harder to put into words.” In contribution to this topic, Eleanor went on to talk for a while about the difficulties of getting the balance of a sex scene right, the challenges of “choosing between metaphor, which can get kind of cheesy and the clinical choreography of the act, which in turn can get tired.”

It was then Eleanor’s turn to read a little from The Rehearsal. I’m quite smitten by this novel, even though it’s not one I had heard of before this session. The section that Eleanor read was poetically paced and disturbingly intimate. I’ve since bought a copy of her book, and will review it here as soon as I can.

The session was concluded with a really moving exert from Craig’s novel The Amateur Science of Love, with a scene chosen to illustrate the unfortunate and unavoidable transition from “wet lust to dry responsibility.” Sherborne’s reading provided a male perspective of this burden of responsibility, as his protagonist is “taken into someone’s wound,” and is introduced to Tilda’s mastectomy  scar. Craig lamented that “men’s inner lives don’t mean anything” and his fiction seems to be a reaction against this, providing a deeply personal view of a man’s perspective of love in its many forms.

I really enjoyed this session, and I’ve now found three more books to put on my reading list.

Today’s ‘artist in residence’ was Alex Hallatt, a freelance cartoonist and writer who provides cartoon illustrations for a wide range of newspapers, books, and magazines – you might recognise her Arctic Circle comic strip, gotta love penguins! I spent a little bit of time looking over her shoulder and had a nice chat with her about how wonderful the festival is. Her work is cheeky, slightly dark, but mostly fun…you can check out her cartoons and illustrations on her website.

Another amazing Friday, full of talented people and new ideas. Three more sessions on Saturday, which I’ll write about next, and hopefully a couple to wrap up the Festival on Sunday.

Do you like being read to? Do you read romance? Have you made it to the festival yet?

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Back for more MWF fun

I’m so pleased to have been able to arrange for another (bonus) day at the Melbourne Writers Festival today. I had Saturday and Sunday lined up already, but now with a little help from both helpful Grandmas I’ve been able to score a little extra kid-free, literature-rich time.

I’m not sure what sessions I’m going to go to yet, I’m playing it a bit by ear, but I’ll be sure to let you know this evening when I get reviewing.

In the meantime, you might want to have a little look at this fun item I bought last Sunday, at the Dymocks bookstore set up at Federation Square for the festival…

I’m looking forward to reading How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely’s reputation precedes him and I’m expecting a very funny read. The fact that this is a signed copy just makes it all the more fun.

Stay tuned for a couple more days of festival fun.

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Mythbusting at the MWF

On a good day I learn something new. On a really good day, I might get a few ah-ha moments. An excellent day is full of new facts…and that was my Sunday.

The issue of gender, as it relates to identity, equity and ability is an emotive one. I certainly know it’s a topic quick to raise my ire. It’s a passionate topic, but still, it is one best treated with intelligence and reason. The two sessions that I attended on Sunday did just that.

Dissecting Gender presented neurological, biological and psychological perspectives on what it means to be male or female, and explored whether or not we are in fact hardwired to be fundamentally different from each other. The resounding answer of the panelists; Jane McCredie, Rob Brooks and Cordelia Fine was clear – no, we are not.

Any such science that suggests that all males and all females are and must perform and behave in a particular way is at best mistaken, and at worst fraudulent.

McCredie, Brooks and Fine are, without doubt, committed to their work in this in field, each having published works seeking to dispel the many myths surrounding what it is to be a man or a woman. Interestingly, McCredie is even more inclusive in her study, investigating what it is to be “outside the binary” of gender, considering situations of ambiguity in gender allocation and idenfication.

Reassuringly, Fine assured us that although women have on average, a smaller, lighter brain than men this doesn’t in fact act as a determinant of success or intelligence in any field: “Claims about gender differences are based on incorrect, and at times fabricated data,” states Fine. Brooks argued well to dismiss the outdated notion that we are slaves to either our nature or our nuture, assuring that many options remain open to us all. And McCredie was decided: “Science should apply to us all, and not just to those that fit neatly within the accepted stereotypes…stereotypes seem not to apply to many people.” Further, she asked the question, how do any of us come to understand who we are, and what it is to be male or female. Science, in all it’s certainties and averages has not yet been able to explain many of the complexities that create differences between us all, let alone between males and females.

I left this session feeling encouraged…my little brain was not necessarily less powerful, and any stereotypical strengths and weaknesses would seem to be more likely about self-fulfilling prophesy or stereotype threat than about an overarching biological or neurological predisposition.

In this mood, I took my seat in the BMW Edge to listen to Sophie Cunningham. I had heard very good things, and was excited about being at this session. The crowd seemed to be feeling the same way, and I got the sense that the audience was eagerly awaiting inspiration, and perhaps a bit of illumination.

Many things were made much clearer to me by Sophie’s presentation A Long, Long Way to Go: Why We Still Need Feminism, not the least of which was the scale of the issue of women’s invisibility. Sophie provided a set of most incredible and infuriating statistics relating to women’s place in literature, business, fine arts and law. Example after example illustrated the extent to which women have disappeared, and the degree to which we’ve simply gotten used to it. Frightening stuff.

Cunningham laid blame for this in both the political and cultural sphere, and made several suggestions as to how this imbalance might be addressed. One of these solutions was featured in The Age today, namely the Stella prize, a women’s only literary prize. I will be watching this with great interest. Her conviction was strong, and she disputed the belief that women need simply to be more assertive: “You can be as assertive as you like, you’re still starting from a lower base,” citing examples of starting wages of male and female graduate lawyers and the distinct difference therein. It would seem that equality will take more than a loud voice and a forthright personality.

I was personally quite moved by her views of women’s self perception, our habitual self-loathing, which damages our chances and holds us back by diminishing our self-confidence in contexts such as work, earning and education. In Sophie’s opinion: “This self-doubt is political, it’s like tinnitus and we have to learn to ignore it, we must learn to block it out.”

I was moved by the presentation, and buoyed by the rousing reception that Sophie received. I trust that this is a sign that, should it be needed, the forth wave which Cunningham referred to would be fervently supported by a new generation of woman.

Did you attend any Sunday sessions? What were the highlights for you?

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It just keeps getting better at the MWF

I liked Friday’s sessions a lot, but I liked Saturday even more. If my enjoyment of the festival keeps increasing at this rate, my head might well explode by this time next week…

I arrived at Federation Square at dusk, ready for a few of the later sessions on the program. The Square looks really amazing at this time of day, and the feeling you get when you look around is quite special. In one sense it feels as if the space is winding down for the day, with families wandering wearily home after a full day of activity, and in another sense there’s a feeling of anticipation for the night to come, with groups of friends meeting, ready to descend on the restaurants, pubs and clubs of the city centre.

After having a little chat with the lovely Mel Hobbs, I made my way to ACMI Studio 1 for Tasmania’s Call, a panel session featuring Natasha Cica, Sarah Kanowski and Michael Vetch. This session held particular significance for me, having grown up in Tasmania. I have often wondered what path my life might have taken had a stayed there, particularly in regards to my education and my writing. The panelists had some really insightful things to say on how Tasmania sees itself, and the dynamics that are working within this unique State.

The panelists shared their thoughts on the uniqueness of Tasmania, and they all seemed to agree that Tasmania is indeed very different to many other parts of Australia, environmentally and culturally. Michael ventured that it might be “something about being on the absolute edge of the known world.” As such, it produces literature unique to place, it’s environmental rawness and distinct isolation cannot help but influence the thoughts and deeds of those living and creating in this special place.

Not all the panelists agreed that Tasmania is any more unique than anywhere else, with Sarah suggesting that “Tassie needs to find something beyond it uniqueness…” and to identify with more than just being very different.  Despite this, they did all agree that the geography of the State, the effect of being on the very edge of the world created a sense of wildness perhaps not felt in towns like Melbourne or Sydney. Michael believes that “Tasmania prides itself on its isolation” and Natasha recalled how difficult it used to be to leave: “It cost a huge amount to travel to Melbourne, and it was very difficult to get to the mainland.” As a result, many Tasmanian’s choose never to leave, creating a kind of happy introspection.

I’m looking forward to getting hold of a copy of Natasha Cica’s Pedder Dreaming on its release, and I was greatly encouraged to hear that she thought real change in attitude in and about Tasmania was evident. I’ll also have a look into Michael’s new book The Forgotten Islands (2011), a travel memoir about the isolated islands of Bass Strait when it’s released.

I was so pleased to hear from Sarah Kanowski, editor of Islanda literary quarterly that publishes the very best contemporary writing – fiction, essays, memoir and poetry. I picked up a copy of their Winter Edition, and I plan to feature it in a blog post in the near future.

After this session, which made me feel a little bit homesick for Tassie, I attended the John Button Oration – The Fire Within. It was quite a privilege to hear from the most accomplished Honourable Michael Kirby. His progressive and eloquent discussion on a range of issues such as public education, the introduction of a bill of rights, and the current debate regarding same-sex marriage was enlightening and inspiring.

He has an incredible way of teasing out the threads of an issue, making the facts and feelings obvious from each other so as to be able to better understand the true nature of the argument at hand. What an amazing man, and amazing speaker.

The oration was well attended, and very well received. I’m so glad I was able to go. I am now looking forward to reading his forthcoming publication, A Private Life, a collection of essays which he describes as a picture of “his inner life.”

Today I’m looking forward to a little feminist discourse (what better for a Sunday afternoon hey?) as I’m going to see Dissecting Gender and Big Ideas: A Long Long Way to Go – Why we Still Need Feminism.

I’ll report back tomorrow, so stay tuned.

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My first day at the MWF

After much anticipation, my first day at the Melbourne Writers Festival went down a treat. I was so happy to be there…I’ve been wanting to attend this festival for years, and for one reason or another not been able to.

So this year is the year, and I’m going to half live there if I have my way.

I strolled into Federation Square, nice and early, and enjoyed the quiet buzz of anticipation. I’ve decided that I really quite like Fed Square, it’s such a unique space and perfect for this kind of event.

At 10am, I took my seat in the BMW Edge room to listen to Kate Grenville share her thoughts. As I’ve said before, I think Kate is an incredibly wise woman, and amazingly eloquent. She was also really influential in my own learning-to-write process at university, so I was very excited to hear what she had to say.

The main focus of the conversation was her newest novel, Sarah Thornhill (the third in Grenville’s trilogy about early Australia) although this discussion quickly gave rise to serious considerations of Australia’s dark history.

Being so committed to the process of research, Kate left no stone unturned in her research for The Secret River (2005), The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011) and as a result discovered disturbing truths about the history of white and indigenous Australia, and about her own family’s involvement in these dark days. I think it’s fair to say that much of Kate’s recent work deals poignantly with the notion of the Australian identity, and all that that entails. She seems also to be fascinated by the notion of an individual having no past: “These first generation Australians found they had no ‘back’ to go to, Australia was their home.” This presented many challenges to her most recent protagonist, Sarah Thornhill, but also new opportunities.

I was enticed by her recount of how her novel, Sarah Thornhill came about, how “the cosmos” made sure that it happened by ensuring she was in the right place at the right time to learn the story of Sarah. I was equally engaged by the promise of treatment of the harshness of the Australian experience, including experiences of love, hard work and dangerous childbirth: “I thought, let’s write about childbirth the same way that men write about the battlefield.” She has certainly presented a tale of a strong, resourceful woman.

I was also really pleased that she was able to share a few pearls of wisdom on the process of research and of writing. A piece of advice that I’ll take to heart and practice:”Go where the energy is…” if you feel like writing, write…if you feel like going to the library, go and read. Words to create by.

After a short break, I wandered back into BMW Edge to hear from Lindsay Tanner, former Finance Minister and author of a new book, Sideshow. Tanner is passionate about the often detrimental effect of media on politics, and is highly critical of the sideshow that political coverage has become. “Politicians are changing without even realising it.” said Tanner “Today requires a challenging balance between entertainment and politics, and having the talent to manage both.”

It was really interesting to hear first hand, the effect that commercialisation, sensationalisation and ‘dumbing down’ can have on willingness and ability to run this country well. Tanner pointed out that “Television demands good pictures,” and went on the explain that this influences (often negatively) where politicians go, what they do, who they meet. Nothing looks as good as “sitting on the floor of a childcare centre” and this in turn can effect decisions that politicians make about where to direct their attention.

After this session, I had a little bit of time to kill so I looked over the shoulders of an eager little crowd to see a real live artist, Matt Bissett-Johnson. Matt is a Melbourne-based  political cartoonist who is regularly featured in a wide range of publications, including The Age and The Melbourne Observer. It was wonderful to see his process, and to have a bit of a giggle at his visual punchlines.

Don’t Feed the Artists sessions are being run from 12 to 3pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays of the festival and will feature Matt Bissett-Johnson, Alex Hallatt, Judy Horacek, Jon Kudelka, Bruce Mutard and Mandy Ord.

I’ll be back in the Square this evening to see a couple of sessions; Tasmania’s Call and Big Ideas: John Button Oration. I’ll be sure to let you know about these two sessions tomorrow.

Have you made it to any sessions? What did you think?

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Nice start…

Really enjoyed the sessions I went to today at the Melbourne Writers Festival (despite the little health-blip later in the afternoon).

Watch out tomorrow for a review of Kate Grenville’s In Conversation session, and of Lindsay Tanner’s views on politics and the media.

Federation Square is such a great venue, and the festival is being run wonderfully. I’m looking forward to getting back to see some more events over the weekend.

Did anyone make it to the Shaun Tan event tonight?

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And let it begin!

And so it begins, two weeks of fun, discussion, reading and writing. I’m at the Melbourne Writers Festival and currently waiting to hear Kate Grenville. There is a real sense of anticipation in the air.

Stay tuned today for a run down on the sessions that I get to today. I hope you’re able to think about getting down here yourself this weekend.

Midweek festival gems

By the end of my Top Ten MWF events post last week, I realised that I’d mostly picked sessions that were being held on the weekend. So, today I went back to the crazy-great festival program and had more of a look at the week-day sessions. Wow, what a wonderful selection, both for adults and for kids.

Here are my picks for the working week, starting on Monday, 29.08.11…

Monday: Adventures in Science
Presented by the always entertaining and highly informative  Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, I’d think this session would be a real hit with kids and grown-ups alike. Plenty of opportunities to ask Dr. Karl your most burning scientific questions.

Tuesday: What Body Part is That?
Featuring a book that deals with some straight forward no-fuss education as only Andy Griffith can present. Learn all there is to know about the body, jargon-free and giggle-filled.

Wednesday: Sporting Heroes
If you’re kid’s are anything like mine, they’re just a little bit sports mad. Let’s face it, it’s hard to avoid in footy-mad Melbourne. This session features Michael Panckridge, whose been able to combine a love of sport with a love of reading, to great success.

Thursday: Q & A with Emily Rodda
There seems to be no better way to capture the imagination of a child than through fantasy and the long-term character development (and endearment) that comes with delivering a series of books. Emily Rodda is a much-loved author, and this’d be your opportunity to ask her all about her books and her process. Not to be missed for Rodda fans.

Friday: The Long and Short of It
I really love short fiction, and would be rapted to hear more about the process of short story writing. Three accomplished short story writers Maile Meloy (Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It), Tim Richards (Thought Crimes) and Wayne Macauley (Other Stories) talk to Chris Flynn about the strength of the form, and what its future might be.

I hope this gives you a few ideas, and gives you a nudge to pop into Fed Square while the kids are at school or on your lunch break. Might see you there!


A random re-draw of our August give-away has been completed today, due to the first winner not having claiming the prize by the deadline. I’m please to announce the winner of the double pass is Tatiana S.  Please contact me at, as soon as possible, with your details so that ticketing arrangements can be made. Congrates!

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