You’ve heard about Michelle Obama’s memoir, no doubt. It was always destined to be the Christmas purchase for many late last year. I spent a good chunk of my holiday listening to the audiobook. And yes, I’m here to confirm reports. It is really very good.
Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Accident or Agriculture? Was published almost five years ago now. Shamefully, it had slipped my radar then, despite it sweeping almost every award imaginable. It was shortlisted for the Queensland, Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, winning in NSW for Book of the Year. It’s a deserving achievement. Bruce Pascoe’s non-fiction historical work is required knowledge for any Australian. It’s a re-focusing of the lens on Indigenous Australian history. It shouldn’t be a tectonic shift, but it is, bringing voices and practices from the past into sharp relief. When the book was mentioned to me, unprovoked, by three separate people in the space of a month (in late 2018), I knew I couldn’t ignore it.
Bruce was born of Bunurong and Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage in Melbourne, where he grew up and became a leader in the education sector. He is also, helpfully, an informative and striking writer. Pascoe’s premise, that pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians have been unfairly dismissed as ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer societies, could be dry and academic in the hands of a lesser writer. Pascoe’s skill for insight and story craft make it the compelling argument it deserves to be.
My own prejudice, my own un-examined and colourless pictures of Australia’s past, were shaken by Dark Emu. The scene that emerges from Pascoe’s work is of a thriving, prosperous, pre-colonial nation. As Pascoe himself says:
“If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”
The wonderful destruction of the colonial narrative is all the more satisfying because Pascoe uses the very instruments of the colonial men against them. Diaries of explorers and pioneers are forensically inspected to present a fuller picture of Indigenous life. One explorer tells of coming upon a tribe that had built a small village on a floodplain. Upon his arrival, he was greeted warmly, given roast duck, cake, and his own dwelling. Elsewhere, Pascoe describes enormous man-made dams, and agricultural practices designed to feed 5,000 people.
In a hilarious and face-palm-hit example, Pascoe demonstrates the clear racism of some of the early explorers. A gentleman tries to fish on the edge of a river without luck. He watches an Indigenous man crouch with a special line. He puts it into the water, lets it move with the current, and at the right moment, gently pulls out a writhing fresh fish. But for the explorer, the man is neither ingenious nor efficient. He is lazy, and clearly not easily persuaded to hard work. The white persists with his own method of fishing, catching
Agricultural history may not be the Summer beach reading hit, but it’s telling that readers of this book become evangelical about it. I’m sharing stories with you now in the same way the book was summarised for me. It’s a landmark achievement for Pascoe, not only in terms of content but the book’s popularity. It gives us hope for the twenty-first century, that Australians might finally be able to reckon with aspects of our past.
Ernest Cline apparently came from nowhere. A slam poet and screenwriter of moderate success, there was no particular reason to suspect that his first novel would become a cultural phenomenon. But it did. Ready Player Oneis Cline’s first novel. It was published in 2011 after a lengthy bidding war between publishers. The film rights were sold the following day. Apparently everyone knew Ready Player One was a book to get excited about. Now, the Steven Spielberg movie is about to hit screens, and the initial slew of reviews are full of praise.
Here’s the gist: in a near future dystopia, the poverty-stricken middle-class are addicted to virtual reality. Our young hero is Wade Watts, who joins millions of other players in the ‘Oasis’ - a game designed by an eccentric genius, James Halliday. In a Willy-Wonka style set-up, Halliday’s death brings about an irresistible call to arms: there is a secret hidden inside the game. The one that finds it will inherit Halliday’s enormous fortune. Wade must face off against a plethora of enemies and challenges to find the treasure. Each plot point is saturated in 80’s nerd nostalgia. Pop culture references abound: Dungeons and Dragons, War Games, Star Wars, Joust, Pac-Man, Black Tiger, BladeRunner…even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
When I read Ready Player One a few years ago, I was hit with such a beautiful whack of nostalgia that I was immediately suckered into the narrative. I couldn’t put the book down. It is, unmistakably, wonderfully written. Even though I am probably five years too young for the pop culture sweet spot that this book trades in, it didn’t matter. The book felt like my childhood, it reminded me of so many teenage pop culture experiences. It gave me a kind of literary high. I don’t use the allegory lightly - it was like a drug. I couldn’t stop reading. It felt great. I don’t think I’d quite experienced anything so engrossing since Harry Potter.
Cline’s earlier work provides some clues to this blockbuster. His early couple of screenplays focus on fandom, or passionate specific niches of pop culture. Ready Player One came at just the right time in a cultural zeitgeist. Television streaming was becoming the norm and all your old, favourite TV shows were more accessible than ever before. Virtual reality is inevitable. Generation Y and the millennials were coming of age, and everything old is new again. Despite its futuristic setting, Ready Player One is a book that relies on nostalgia. It both exploits and is responsible for the current cultural zeitgeist of resurrecting the 80’s and 90’s.
In the last few years we have seen the re-launch of a cacophony of pop culture icons: The X-Files, Will & Grace, Full House, Star Trek, Star Wars… Not to mention the entire film industry almost being swallowed alive by superhero comics. Some of the biggest original pop culture hits, while independent of any existing franchise, also deliberately self-reference the work that influenced them. Stranger Thing’s unique blend of Spielberg, Stephen King and 80’s product placement (and use of the synth, possibly the greatest crime against music ever recorded) is a heady and intoxicating mix for the nostalgia-hungry folk of my generation, who can’t quite bring themselves to grow up.
If I sound grumpy, it’s only because I’m fully aware that my childhood memories have become a massive corporate entity…what’s that? A new Star Wars film is out? I’ll pay for three Gold Class screenings please, and I’ll pre-order the books and comics that will release with it right now. Is there a video game spin-off that’s pretty crappy but will probably capture my attention for a week anyway? I’ll grab that too. Collector’s edition? Sure.
It makes delightful sense that Spielberg would direct this film. The book references his work many times. Early reviews say it’s a return to 80’s form for Spielberg. From the look of the trailer, he’s managed to incorporate a whole range of other visual references into the jam-packed adventure tale.
The cynic would roll their eyes at the whole charade. After all, there’s nothing particularly new in Ready Player One. There’s nothing innovative. And it knows this. But out of the hundreds of books that I’ve read over the last few years, it speaks to me unlike any other. And this back-referencing of childhood isn’t exactly new. Grease, after all, is set in the 50’s, but was released in the 70’s - a perfect, generation-sized gap designed to appeal to the 30 and 40 year-olds of the time. The first Back to the Future film, released in 1985, winds the clock back to 1965. Almost Famous, released in 2000, is set in 1973 and drenched in the popular music of the time.
Nostalgia is a commodity. Ernest Cline, Steven Spielberg and Ready Player One are cashing in. I, for one, don’t mind. They can take my money. I’m a sucker.
From almost any standpoint, the rise of Scott Pape (The Barefoot Investor) is extraordinary, but his dominance over the Australian books best-seller charts is particularly astounding. His 2016 book, The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You’ll Ever Need, is now probably the most successful Australian non-fiction book of all time. Its success, as I’ve written about before, is driven almost entirely by the sublime management of Pape’s authorial voice.
Les Zig’s August Falling starts with a blunt assertion, ‘This is not a love story’. So, right from the get-go a warning not to expect an uplifting story where love conquers all, or even a little as it happens. While I applaud Mr Zig’s authorial honesty, that opening line had me reaching for the Rescue Remedy.
Before a friend recommended I read this book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, my knowledge or interest in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy was tenuous at best. The 1980s BBC TV series Bergerac (where a pre-Midsomer Murders John Nettles played a maverick detective, tearing around the island of Jersey in a 1947 Triumph Roadster) was about the extent of my acquaintance with these islands located in the English Channel.
Soon after Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin Award I bought a copy and put it in my bookcase. Life got in the way and Breathsat there until this April when I first heard of Simon Baker’s directorial debut in the movie by the same name. It was worth the wait. I devoured the book in a matter of days before seeing the film on release day at the Palace Theatre in Norton Street, Sydney.
It was 1975 when the movie adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock was released. I was in year nine at a straight-laced Presbyterian-Methodist private school for girls in Brisbane and I did not read Lindsay’s book before seeing the film.