Have you read…? This new Australian fiction

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Gosh, it’s been a while since a book post made it to the blog! The last one was focussed on some US titles so this time around – and thanks to my Melbourne Writers Festival book discount – I thought I’d go for some of our home grown authors!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose Set in New York, Heather Rose was awarded this year’s Stella Prize for her novel about art and love. Centred by the work of performance artist, Marina Ambromović and her work,  The Artist is Present which was staged in 2010 at MoMA, it tells the story of a number of visitors who come to the gallery to view her work, in addition to giving voice to Marina’s own thoughts about her work and her history. The gallery visitor whose storyline we are most concerned with is Arky Levin. Arky is a film composer and lives alone as his wife, who is ill, has requested he no longer see her. During one of his visits he strikes up a conversation with Jane Miller, an art teacher who is recently widowed, and is visiting from Georgia. Other gallery visitors with whom Arky and Jane cross paths are a doctoral student, a sometime-lover of Arky’s, and an art critic. We also hear the voice from the grave of Marina’s mother. Whilst the novel could be read through the lens of ‘what is art?’ given the quite confronting pieces of performance art Ambromović has created, for me, the novel was much more about love, grief and endurance. How could Arky endure the loss of his relationship with his wife whilst she was still living, still his wife? How could Jane come to terms with the loss of her husband and move on into a world with her own identity? How did Ambromović’s parents survive war and each other? How did Ambromović endure the demands her work placed upon her, physically, and the loss of her own relationship? I wanted to love this novel, and whilst it was beautifully written and the premise was interesting, it fell a little bit short of ‘five stars’ for me. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. I enjoyed Arky’s story, and Jane’s, but I didn’t feel a great deal of affection, or interest, in the storyline of the other characters. And if I can be a bit nit-picky, I had to remind myself on a few occasions that this book was set in New York, and the characters were American. If I think back to the session at the Melbourne Writers Festival where Hannah Kent and Tracy Chevalier spoke about how they set about writing in the voice of a place and time, for me, Rose fell short. There were references to streets in Harlem that don’t exist, Americans wouldn’t offer to give their ‘mobile’ phone number, talk about ‘shareholders’, or ‘primary’ school,  and Jane’s voice failed to sing with a southern twang. The book may have been set in New York, but I didn’t entirely feel like I was there. So, verdict? It was interesting, and well-written but I enjoyed previous Stella winners, The Natural Way of Things and The Strays more.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna This one I loved wholeheartedly! Nine-year-old Justine lives with her grandfather, a survivor of the Thai-Burma railway, on three acres near the banks of the Murray River. Her mother is no longer on the scene and her father comes and goes. Her two half-brothers live with their mother nearby. Justine has few allies in her life, and those she does have – her Aunty Rita, her friend, Michael, and a teacher, Miss Frost – lack permanence. As in her previous novel, The Eye of the Sheep, Laguna explores themes of violence, misogyny, and the innocence and incomprehension of the child. There is a lot happening in this novel, and Laguna captures beautifully how Justine, who is dyslexic, senses that there is more to her family’s life than she can understand. Justine says ,”I knew shadows of things; I could see the letters but I didn’t know the order. I stole a look at Dad’s face as he drove; it was a door that wouldn’t open.” Swirling in Justine’s shadows are the circumstances of her grandmother’s death and how it changed her father; the darkness of his behaviour and activities; the scars her pop carries with him from his time in the war; why her pop shuns her Aunty Rita for being “unnatural”; and the consequences of her association with a local family, the Worlleys, with whom her own family has fallen out. She desperately needs someone to care for her, and that someone is just not there. As her ignorance determined her fate, my heart ached for her, and as she learned to stand up for herself, I cheered for her. A highly recommended read.

Ache by Eliza Henry Jones I first came across Henry Jones’ s work in an article she wrote for The Sunday Age. I can’t recall what it was about but I remember I enjoyed her writing and so was keen to read this, her new novel. Bushfires have raged through the mountains where Annie grew up. At the time of the fires, Annie was visiting home with her daughter, Pip, and became ‘the face’ of the fires as a photograph of her and Pip felling the fires on horseback was plastered across the media. In addition, her beloved nana, Gladys, died in the fires, although not as a result of the fires but because she was crushed by a falling tree. Annie and Pip are both scarred by the fires, as are all members of the Quilly community, and in an effort to heal, Annie decides that she and Pip must return to the mountain from their suburban home. In doing so, Annie is faced with issues of belonging. Does she belong “to a place, or a person”, as her friend, Rose, articulates. Does she belong on the mountain, or with her husband, Tom, in their city home? Mother-daughter relationships are also explored as she returns to stay with her mother, Susan, who is almost Annie’s contemporary, having given birth to her at the age of fifteen, and as she reflects on the relationship she and her mother both had with Gladys, and Susan’s relationship with Pip. Henry Jones is a grief counsellor and so I trust her portrayals of the grief and trauma displayed by her characters. Aside from that, I wasn’t completely sold on this book. For me, I found the writing to be a little forced: the many references to “up the mountain’, “back on the mountain”, “down the mountain”; the “small circles” of city life compared with the “big circles’ of mountain life; broken people living in a “broken house”. I felt a little “yep, I get it!” I was also perplexed as to why Annie had left “the mountain” when it was clear that this was the environment she loved to live in, and, as a vet, work in? Yes, Tom was from “the flatlands” but how and why had they made the decision to settle there? Perhaps a little exploration of this would have added depth to the “belonging” theme. And, although it was eventually explained, I wasn’t convinced as to why the town displayed such animosity towards Annie? She was a local girl, after all, not a tree changer. I would like to read Henry Jones’s first novel, In the Quiet to see how it compares. If you’d like to read an interview with Henry Jones, pop over to Karen’s blog.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Melbourne Writers Festival

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Hey gang! How are you? I’ve just had an excellent week helping out at the Melbourne Writers Festival. How cool is my t-shirt and lanyard? Any fellow Melburnians, did you manage to get along? Are festivals your thing? I’ve been to the MWF the last few years and have heard some wonderfully entertaining and informative chats. When I saw the call for volunteers this year, I thought “why not?”

I had four shifts over the week. Two were full days with kids workshops in the morning and afternoon, one school group workshop, and the other was a session at my local library where Hannah Kent discussed her new book, The Good People. Gosh, she has a lovely speaking voice! It was interesting hearing her speak about her writing process – she writes from 7.30am to 2pm everyday, with defined breaks. She said she started this practice after she read that this was Sarah Waters’s writing routine. She figured that since Sarah was a writer of historical fiction maybe it would work for her too!

The workshops with the kids were great too. One of the nice things about these was that because they were small and pretty informal, we (me and my volunteer buddy for the day) had the chance to have a chat to the authors whilst we were wandering around and helping the kids with the activity.

My first session was with Asphyxia, author and illustrator of The Grimstones, a junior fiction series. She ran a creative art journalling workshop. She brought along some of her journals and, oh my, they were DIVINE! So inspiring! You can get a little taste of them here. The kids were totally focussed on creating their own journals. It was lovely seeing them working away so freely, without anyone judging their work and just embracing their creativity.

Ben McKenzie ran a games workshop based on Dungeons and Dragons. One session was for younger kids where they worked at creating their own story by themselves, or with their parents, and the second session was with older kids who worked in a group creating their game of rescuing their best friend from the monster they had created. Some of their ideas were very inventive.  They had to create an obstacle that needed to be overcome before they could save their friend. One boy’s obstacle was a ‘meme wall’ because encountering the memes would be so distracting it would be impassable!  I heard the same boy, with a big grin on his face, saying to his pal, “Do you think everyone here is a super geek?”!

One of my favourite authors is Maxine Beneba Clarke and I was lucky enough to score a place helping out at her workshop focussed around her new children’s book, The Patchwork Bike. She talked to the kids about how she came up with the idea for the book, how she thought about choosing her words, and how she chose the illustrator of the book, Van T Rudd. Van then helped the kids collage their own patchwork bike using cardboard, scraps of paper and textas. He chatted to the kids about how mistakes can be used to create different ideas and not to be scared of them.

Helping out with with these warmed the cockles of my heart! It was lovely to see the kids exploring their creativity with pens, paper, paints, pencils and words.  And they were all super engaged without a piece of technology in sight!

Alice Pung’s school workshop was at the Immigration Museum and centred around identity. Are you shaped by where you come from? It skewed a little more to the assumptions others make about you because of the way you look, or your ethnicity or religion. She shared stories with the kids about how she has received comments that indicate she is assumed to be a mail order bride when she’s been out with her Caucasian hubby (“How much did she cost?”), and how as a kid she didn’t understand what some boys meant when she was told to ‘go home’ because ‘home’ was the Melbourne suburb of Braybrook, and her house was only thirty metres away! The kids who were attending were from a variety of schools – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic – and they shared some of their stories too. Lots of gasps and laughs as they told their stories.

I think one of my favourite moments was at the free Hannah Kent library session. A lady barrelled in, breathless, “I’ve just flown in from Sydney and my friend told me this session was on. I don’t have a booking but she said I should try and see if there was a space free.” We assured her there was and that she didn’t need to pay any money and her voice raised excitedly in pitch, “It’s free! Oh my goodness! And there’s tea inside!”. She was a joy!

Everyone was so lovely at the festival – the staff, the volunteers and the  patrons (well, there was one grumpy one but think we managed to assuage her!). And the 10% off at the Readings pop up book shop was an added bonus – added The Choke and Ache to my reading pile! I’ll definitely be putting my hand up again next year!

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Have you read…? The year to date in books

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book post so I think it’s time to do a quick round up of what has been sitting next to my bed, my couch, and shoved in my bag and carried around!

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The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits ‘Hygge’, that lovely concept of Danish cosiness, is hot right now, yes? And there are quite A LOT of books in the bookshops explaining to harried souls how they can incorporate hygge into their daily lives. This was the ‘how to hygge’ book that I received in my Christmas pile. It is a lovely looking book. The pics are muted and tranquil and they made me want to spend my days wandering through forests or sitting by candlelight with a mug of hot chocolate. And, to be honest, this is pretty much what the text said – over and over again! There was a lot of ‘hygge is stopping by at your neighbours and sharing a glass of wine on the verandah’,  ‘hygge is a basket of knitted slippers at your front door’, or ‘hygge is lighting a candle and eating breakfast together’. Now I am not averse to any of these suggestions, but I probably only need to hear the suggestion once, not once each chapter.  Reading the book made a long haul plane flight feel a bit more hygge-like, but I’m not sure if I’d been sitting on my couch at home that I would have continued reading it from cover to cover.

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North Fairly self-explanatory from the title what this one is about! The story of the wunderkind filmmaker Sophie’s life and death is told by those closest to her – her brother, ex-husband and lover, and those who were part of her working life – film subject, film reviewer and producer. As I read the novel, I was a little unsure how I felt about it. I wondered if I was learning more about the characters who had had relationships with Sophie, than I was about Sophie herself. The focus of their recollections seemed to be how THEY responded to Sophie, how she made THEM feel. But as I read on, I started thinking that in showing how they were affected by Sophie, they were painting a picture of her – a self-contained, distant young woman who was an observer of life (appropriate for a filmmaker!), who,  when she did become a participant, seemed driven by her own desires rather than the desire to share herself with others. For the most part, I found it difficult to warm to her, but Anna North has managed to infuse her with enough victimhood and trauma in her life for her to be seen as a psychologically isolated, tragic young woman. Not sure that I super enjoyed it, but the fact that I am still mulling it over weeks down the track shows it was an affecting read.

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The Dry by Jane Harper This was a goody! Set in the fictitious sunburnt Victorian town of Kiewarra, this thriller seeks to discover who was responsible for the murder of the Hadler family. Is it a murder-suicide, or is there a killer in the small town? Aaron Falk, a former local, now a member of the Federal Police, returns for the funeral of his old friend, Luke Hadler, and is persuaded by Luke’s father to assist in the investigation. Aaron’s return stirs up the town’s emotions surrounding the crircumstances of the death, years earlier, of Ellie Deacon, a friend of Aaron’s and Luke’s. Were they involved in her death? Had Luke killed her? Had Aaron? This novel had sufficient twists and turns to keep me wondering throughout as to what had taken place, and satisfyingly, kept me guessing until the end on both counts. Recommended!

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Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance And now for some non fiction! Hillbilly Elegy is part autobiography, part social commentary. JD Vance grew up in Kentucky, then Ohio before becoming a Marine and then graduating from Yale Law School. He spent much of his life living with his grandparents whilst his mother battled drug addiction and cycled through one failing relationship after another. Vance shines a light on what constitutes hillbilly culture – its genesis and how it has spread from the south to the Midwest as hillbillies have migrated in the search for work. Alongside his own story of what it was like to grow up in this culture, his time spent in the Marines, and at Yale, he describes the culture of a people who feel hardly done by through the decline blue collar jobs; who feel minorities have gained an advantage over them through Democrat presidencies. Being Australian, I have read this book as an outsider – I cannot judge how accurate his evaluation is. I have read some criticisms of the book; that Vance seems to be saying that because he has become successful, others could too if they’d only put in the work. I didn’t get that impression from the book. I saw it more as explaining why there was a disaffected group in US society ripe for the politics of Donald Trump. And throughout, for me, he was conscious of his good fortune in having a family who despite their violent tendencies, aggressive behaviour and addictions, valued education and knew that he could achieve. They knew he had the ability to choose a path in life, that he didn’t have to accept what was, and it is this that he feels needs to be role modelled for those growing up within the hillbilly culture. An interesting read to learn more about US society.

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Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty I’ve never read any Liane Moriarty before and with Big Little Lies hitting the small screen, I thought it was time to give her a go. I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of her others, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by this one. The story revolves around three couples, Erika and Oliver, Erika’s ‘best friend’ Clementine and her husband, Sam, and Erika’s neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. The three couples, plus the daughters of Clementine and Sam, and Vid and Tiffany, gather for a barbecue one afternoon at Vid and Tiffany’s. Early on we learn that something has taken place at the barbecue that shakes the relationship between the couples. The chapters flick between the day of the barbecue and the present where we are made aware of the strains in Erika and Clementine’s friendship, Erika’s mother’s hoarding, Clementine’s cello audition, and Vid and Tiffany’s attempts to maintain a relationship with Clementine and Sam in the wake of the barbecue. For me this was a page turner but only because there was such a heavy-handedness in writing about what had happened at the barbecue – along the lines of ‘if only we’d stayed home’, ‘if only we hadn’t agreed’ – that I was saying through gritted teeth ‘just get on with it!’. I’m not sure that I felt the fallout from the incident to be entirely warranted, and I didn’t warm to the characters sufficiently to be concerned with their stories once the incident had been revealed. As a holiday read, maybe it’s okay. I guess I’d say ‘proceed with caution’!

Have you been reading anything interesting this year? Have you read any of these? Should I try another Liane Moriarty?

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What I did in 2016

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Well, here we are! The year is drawing to a close. Thank goodness! There has been a lot of sad news, hasn’t there? I couldn’t believe it when my man and I walked in the door this morning after our morning walk and the girl told us that George Michael had died. I went to see them in concert with two of my school friends when they came to Melbourne. So ace! We sang, we danced, we screamed! And Fast Love was playing on the radio when my man and I were driving to hospital when I went into labour with my boy. Vale, George. Thank you for your music and your gorgeous looks.

But whilst many big things have been going on in the world this year, it is the small things that make up our days that build a picture of our own life. These are a selection of the happenings that have made my 2016.

  1. Renewed my fondness for a G&T
  2. Watched my girl in her last school musical
  3. Achieved my Goodreads reading challenge goal
  4. Read a lot about US politics
  5. Supervised hours of driving practice with my girl
  6. Scored my first night time babysitting gig!
  7. Used a sewing machine for the first time in years
  8. Ate eggs for lunch A LOT! New year’s resolution – expand the lunch menu repertoire!
  9. Applauded the writing in season 4 of Please Like Me. I don’t have anyone like the characters in the show in my circle and yet they are all so relatable and authentic to me. And how good is Debra Lawrence?
  10. Made my last school lunch
  11. Enjoyed weekend coffee with my man and stealing bites of his lemon crepe!
  12. Despaired about Brexit, the US election result, and the general disregard for expert knowledge
  13. Helped out at a crafty day for refugee women
  14. Knitted a monkey for Softies for Mirabel
  15. Knitted scarves and cowls for a wintry holiday
  16. Started the year enthusiastically but ran out of puff towards the end
  17. Pulled lots of weeds out of my garden
  18. Had lovely real life catch ups with online buddies
  19. had a facial
  20. Looked forward optimistically to 2017!

I hope your year has formed happy memories for you. Maybe you have reacquainted yourself with some old pleasures? Maybe you have had some new adventures? Perhaps you have waved goodbye to a stage of life? I look forward to us sharing our 2017 experiences with each other!

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Have you read…? The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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The Course of Love by Alain de Botton follows the lives of Kirsten and Rabih Khan. We journey with them from the time of their meeting as work associates, through their courtship, early years of marriage and then as the parents of babes who grow into teens. It explores the way we communicate in a marriage, how this can enhance – or harm – our relationship. It is about the changing nature of the relationship between spouses throughout the course of their marriage. It is about love – how it shapes us and what it demands of us. De Botton intersperses the narrative of Kirsten and Rabih’s lives with philosophical insights which at times explain their behaviour towards each other; at other times, they provide insight into how they could improve their communication. As I was reading the novel, I was constantly asking myself if it was a dissection of a marriage, an instruction manual, an explanation. In then end, it doesn’t matter what it is; what matters is that it is, at least for those of us who are married – or in a long term relationship – a thoroughly relatable, and salutary, story.

De Botton writes with the candour that has made him so successful at bringing philosophy to the wider population. He makes us think about what is happening in our relationship, in effect using Kirsten and Rabih as a case study. What is it that causes the little niggles between us? What is the best response to coping with any barbs that may spring from our partner’s mouth? Is it true that we should be honest with each other at all times? Is keeping secrets consistent with love? Is our perception of what makes a ‘happy marriage’ out of step with how marriage plays out in real life? This is articulately explained, towards the end of the novel, when he writes

By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory…we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life…we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.

The novel, and de Botton’s insights, provide a realistic portrayal of marriage. There are times of joy, drudgery, uncertainty of feelings but the marriage endures. I found it to be a novel of encouragement and hope – that if we accept ourselves and our partner as flawed, and that our relationship is not always going to be perfect, that we can make our marriage endure. A highly recommended read.

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Have you read…? Any of these!

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Oh dear! I do have some catch up to do! It is a LONG time since a book review popped up here but I promise you, I HAVE been reading! Just haven’t got to WRITING about what I’ve been reading. So. Here we go. A quick run down of what’s been sitting next to my bed and beside my couch!

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

For any non-Australian readers, Magda Szubanksi is one of our most beloved comic actors and has been a fairly constant presence on our TV screens since the late 1980s. Maybe think of Dawn French or Melissa McCarthy. Her autobiography, Reckoning, is a beautifully written, fascinating, illuminating, touching insight into her life and the life of her family.  Born in Liverpool to a Scottish mother and Polish father, her story of her identity spans the globe and reaches back into history as she tells of her father’s life as an assassin with the Polish resistance during World War 2. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about how difficult it must be to fit together the picture of the father who is now part of suburban Melbourne with the Polish youth living half a world away, in another time, killing Germans in cold blood. As she says in the first line of the book

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

Alongside this aspect of her life, she also details the struggle she went through in being able to be open about her sexuality (she was very young when she realised she was gay); how it affected her sense of where she belonged and how it led to battles with food, weight and depression. And, of course, she details her life in theatre, television and film. A wonderful book about an incredibly complex life.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.

How can you not be captured by this opening line? And such lyrical writing continues throughout the novel. The Paper House tells the story of Heather and Dave as they face the unbearable sadness of a stillbirth, how they each negotiate their grief and the support they receive from Heather’s sister and distant father. For Heather, the loss of her child triggers, understandably, a deterioration in her mental health. As we witness this, we are also introduced, through flashback, to the tragic mental health battles of Heather’s own mother and how this affected their family as Heather was growing up. Spargo-Ryan also introduces us to Heather and Dave’s neighbours, Sylvia, and Ashok. As the three households interact, our eyes are opened to Sylvia’s own grief over the loss of her husband and how she and Ashok fill a hole in each other’s lives.

I loved the writing in this book. It was truly beautiful. My only niggle came from the nature of the mental health conditions suffered by Heather and her mother. I think this is more my own fault rather than Spargo-Ryan’s. Before I started reading, my preconception about the nature of Heather’s mental health battle was that it would be in the nature of depression and/or anxiety which I was interested in seeing explored but, whilst Spargo-Ryan deliberately chose not to name the condition, it seemed to be more a type of psychsosis. Heather’s mother’s condition, by contrast, appeared to me to be bipolar in nature. Related, yes, in that they are both mental illnesses but I think I would have preferred it if they had been the same; a genetic link. I’m trying to let go of this little niggle, because it is such a beautifully written book, but it’s still there, just below the surface!

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The Strays won the Stella Prize in 2015 for first time novelist Emily Bitto. Set in Melbourne in the 1930s, it is narrated by the adult Lily and is a recollection of the time she spent living with famed artist, Evan Trentham, his wife, Helena, their daughters and the various others artists (‘the strays’) who came to live with them. As a young girl on her first day at a new school Lily becomes friends with middle daughter, Eva. After school plays become sleepovers, weekends and then, when Lily’s father suffers a workplace injury, she lives, for a time, with the Trenthams permanently. Lily adores the free spirit of the home which is in sharp contrast to her own conservative home life. The dark side to the free spirit is an undeniable amount of self absorption by the Trentham parents and the artists. There is the desire for fame, acknowledgement, satiation of lust, and along the way, it is Eva and her sisters, and Lily, who get caught up and spat out by the behaviours of the adults in their lives.

This is yet another excellent novel by a female Australian writer. I have read so many recently! The characters and the setting are well realised, and Bitto has clearly been inspired by the lives of Sunday and John Reed in creating the Trenthams. We observe that whilst, in their art making, the artists may be great observers of their physical world, their own feelings and desires, in life, they do not observe the feelings of others or the damage that their actions are creating.

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

Another prize winner. This time, The Miles Franklin Award for 2015. Wow! I adored this book but I’m hesitant to say too much because I don’t want to give away spoilers. The story revolves around a young boy, Jimmy Flick. Jimmy’s condition is not named but I think it is reasonable to assume that he is autistic. He is obsessed with machinery and how things work and this is the way he attempts to make sense of the way people are behaving, including himself. Jimmy lives with his mum and dad and older brother, Robby.  Jimmy’s mum is the only person who is able to cope with his behaviour. His father finds it an enormous strain, and when combined with the work pressures and a fondness for drink, the home environment, despite the affection Jimmy’ parents have for one another, becomes a dangerous one. When tragedy comes to the home, Jimmy needs to learn how to navigate the world on his own.

The writing of Jimmy’s voice is stunning. I loved him and he tugged at all my maternal heartstrings. I loved his politeness and enthusiasm

Yes, Mr Ashworth. Yes, yes, I will. It’s ham, Mr Ashworth. It’s ham and pickle.

and his observations of his behaviour and others

I did what he said. I sucked oxygen through my mouth and down into my air passage until every cell got a portion. Oxygen was the glue, binding me together.

Like gravy and chips, my Dad had magnetic powers.  Mum had no defences for him.  He got in underneath. He was like a slice; she couldn’t give him up.

Really, I could pretty much quote the whole book! A highly recommended read.

 

Have you read…? Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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Last year, I sat in my car in the supermarket car park listening to a radio interview with Bryan Stevenson, who was in Australia to speak at the Perth Writers Festival. His story of his work as a civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was distressing, infuriating and inspiring. His excellent book, Just Mercy, fleshes out the stories he touched on the interview but also serves to illuminate a raft of issues in the American criminal justice and social welfare systems.

As a young law student in 1983, Stevenson undertook an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defence Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. As executions began to take place again in the Deep South after years of delay, the SPDC worked to provide proper legal representation to condemned prisoners who had been convicted without proper or no legal representation. A visit to a prisoner on death row brought home to Stevenson the grave injustices of the legal system towards indigent and coloured prisoners. As he explains

Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.

In the late 1980s, he established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to assist prisoners facing execution and, over time, this has expanded to tackling issues of mass incarceration, juvenile imprisonment, programs to assist those re-entering society after imprisonment, and the provision of policy advice on issues related to race, poverty and crime.

He explores a number of cases he has been involved in, with that of Walter McMillian being the thread that runs through the book. Walter, an African American, was wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman and sentenced to death. For me, this case exposed enormous issues with the criminal justice system: racial bias, the ability of judges to overturn sentences imposed by a jury, the dangers of having elected judges/sheriffs/district attorneys, the corrupting effect of deals with witnesses, and the sheer incompetence and bias of some of those working in the legal profession. The appalling result in this case was even worse than the apparent injustice in Making a Murderer. Spoiler alert – after six years on death row, and thanks to the tireless work of Stevenson and his team, Walter was exonerated. Whilst this was great cause for celebration, the sobering thought, as Stevenson points out, is that Walter’s case only came to his attention because he was on death row. If the judge had not overturned the jury’s sentence of 30 years and imposed the death penalty, Walter would have spent his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Stevenson exposes the treatment of juveniles in the justice system. How is it that children as young as 13 can be sentenced to life imprisonment? How can children be imprisoned in adult prisons with all the risks that that entails? For Ian Manuel, a 13 year old when convicted, this meant spending 18 years in solitary confinement as this was the only way to keep him safe from other prisoners. The work of the EJI has seen the courts, over time, prohibit life in prison sentences for children.

Harsh sentencing laws for drug and minor offences has seen an explosion in the prison population with the consequence that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. This has created massive overcrowding in prisons but also has led to social disadvantage becoming entrenched. Parents are removed from their children, those convicted of drug offences are not entitled to welfare or public housing, felons are disenfranchised. How are people able to rise above social disadvantage when society is not assisting them in any way?

As an outsider to the US, I have read about police shootings of black men, the college riots and the Black Lives Matter Movement. I understood that racism remains an issue in the country. Reading this book showed just how entrenched this racism  – hatred – is in some parts of the country and the devastating consequences this has for many African Americans. It made me think about how the proliferation of guns in the US has enabled so many people to become murderers where, without such access, they may have committed less serious crimes, or no crime at all. It made me appreciate the social welfare, health and justice systems we have in Australia (although there have been some devastating failures in our parole system) but it also made me think about how these systems are treating, or not treating, our indigenous people. It is a book that made me want to learn.

I am in awe of the work carried out by Bryan Stevenson and his team of lawyers. In the absence of societal support, it is essential to have people prepared to fight for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; to provide them with a voice and to give them the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential. A highly recommended read for those interested in social justice and social policy.

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If you are interested in issues of race and/or the failings of the US justice system, you may like to have a listen to the first part of My Damn Mind and Anatomy of Doubt. Indigenous incarceration and disadvantage is explored in this excellent article by Sarah Gill