Thursday, 13 November 2014

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ November 2014

Did you see on TV the two episodes of Brilliant Creatures, Howard Jacobson’s documentary about Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes?

It was fascinating and brought back many good memories about bookselling in Sydney. Such as the day when Robert Hughes’ book The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change was rushing out the door.... Tom Hughes, famous Sydney Silk, came in and declared “I have to buy my little brother’s book”. There is a revised edition now, published in 1991 and definitely in stock at Abbey’s.

When I look at our Bestseller list (click The Top Tens on our homepage for the latest list), prepared by Kelly each week, I can see that quite a few people are intending to do what I intend to do. That is, re-read (or read for the first time) Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and Clive JamesUnreliable Memoirs, because they have both recently appeared on the list, although they are two books which have always sold well.

David Hill, yes, that David Hill who was also Head of the ABC and the Railways, has just published The Making of Australia: From a Tiny Struggling Convict Settlement to the Remarkable Nation It Is Today. This is a very readable popular history – for locals and visitors. It may not be so full of fascinating details or so full of zing as The Fatal Shore, as only Robert Hughes knows how, but I think it will be a very useful book.

Another memory is prompted by Clive James’ recent and acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine ComedyWhen I visited my friend Professor Sue Berners-Price in Florence in 1997 I was instructed to take the Dorothy Sayers’ translation published in 1974 in the Penguin Classics edition. I notice in the poetry section there are still many translations, varying from the Everyman hardback edition translated by Allen Mandelbaum to the Oxford Worlds Classic edition translated by C.H.Sisson or the several translations available in Penguin Classics by Mark Musa or Robin Kirkpatrick. Take your pick. We even have a Dover dual-language edition of some Selected Cantos translated by Stanley Appelbaum. How does one choose?

I’m a fan of Howard Jacobson and really enjoyed his Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question. I can’t say the same for his latest, also Booker Prize-nominated, which is called J: A Novel. Not only a difficult title but a difficult book to read. It is being compared to George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Yet another story set in a dystopian world, which seems to be quite the fashion just now. I don’t want to read it. Reality is hard enough. In J events are set in a world where life goes on after “Whatever Happened, If it Happened”. Too confusing!

I was so fascinated by Jung Chang’s revised view of the Dowager Empress, in Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China that I decided to attempt the updated view of Mao in the book written with her husband Jon Halliday, called Mao: The Unknown Story. Once again the authors have had access to previously unobtainable archives as well as interviewing hundreds of Chinese. The page count is 971 pages and of these 91 pages consist of fascinating back-up notes and 13 pages list the various people, from national leaders, interpreters, journalists and bureaucrats to aged Chinese survivors who told their stories to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. There is also a Bibliography of Chinese Language Sources, and Index of course. Mao is shown to be a pitiless monster, more than ruthless and with an enormous self-belief. How did he ever achieve the power he wielded? It seems impossible now. Even at his death he saw himself as one of the “fallen kings” and invited Richard Nixon to come for a personal farewell. He was famous for his belief in the power of the gun but he was no battlefield person himself.

Although a devoted fan of Helen Garner’s writing I was slow to read This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial because of the very sad subject – the death of the small boys in the dam. I remembered how much I was fascinated by her earlier book Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law which remains one of my favourites. This House of Grief is another tour-de-force from our great writer. Read it.

Here is some excellent news. The hardworking booksellers in Abbey’s have just completed re-arranging fiction. Why? Because they need more space for AUSTRALIAN FICTION. It wasn’t until the Olympic Games in 2000 that Abbey’s decided Australian fiction could warrant its own section, it could stand on its own against the rest of the world, and certainly visitors to Australia would want to know about our local writers. Now, fourteen years later, Australian writers seem to be first choice. I find a big proportion of my own reading is by Australian writers. And we've had to do the same with AUSTRALIAN CRIME, which has been expanded in order to give more space to Australian crime writers. Great news.

Another piece of good news is that Lindy Jones has been invited to join the Miles Franklin Award panel of judges. This will be a big task for Lindy, one of our Senior Booksellers, but it will be one she will relish. I think it is an excellent choice. I was a Miles Franklin Judge in 2005, 2006 and 2007 but I was semi-retired then, so Lindy, who is still working, will be burning the midnight oil. She will join Richard Neville (State Librarian), Craig Munro, Murray Waldren and Susan Sheridan.

And one final note: Entries for the Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay close on 19 January 2015. Enter online at

Keep well,


Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

No comments: