The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack and illustrated by Katie Scott

‘Faced with the sky we imagine gods; faced with the ocean we imagine islands. Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding. And sometimes that desire gives us back the absences we sought to fill.’

In this book, delightfully illustrated by Katie Scott, Malachy Tallack writes about twenty-four islands which were once believed to be real. These islands no longer appear on maps. Some of them were the result of human error, some were the products of imagination, while others were deliberately invented.

Some of the names may be familiar. I’ve heard of Atlantis, Thule, Frisland, The Isles of the Blessed, and Hawaiki. But I don’t remember reading about most of the others. I was intrigued to read about Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This is a space which is both real, and mythological. This area, where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān (the ‘Marsh Arabs’) and was known to European visitors including the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who visited times during the 1950s, and the writer Gavin Maxwell who travelled there in 1956. It was from these marshes that Gavin Maxwell brought back the otter Mijbil, the subject of his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’. Sadly, most of the marshland has now been destroyed because of action taken by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War.

‘Like many such islands, Hufaidh existed in a region bridged between life and death. It was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and of another.’

Atlantis may have been pure invention (thanks, Plato), but in this book Mr Tallack writes of other islands believed to have sunk. Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific (claimed by the USA for its guano deposits) is one such island.

I was amused to read that Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico, the subject of dispute between the USA and Mexico, was only proven not to exist in 2009. That’s one way to solve territorial disputes.

‘Today the era of new island discoveries is over, and the age of un-discovery is likewise coming to an end.’

I enjoyed reading about these islands, and I especially enjoyed Katie Scott’s marvellous illustrations. While it’s good that improvements in navigation have reduced the uncertainty about which islands exist and where, I liked how uncertainty provided fertile ground for the imagination of mystery.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

‘It was late winter in Northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.’

Set in a version of medieval Russia, Ms Arden’s novel creates a world where myth is difficult to distinguish from reality, where what is seen is only part of what is believed to exist.

In a village in the far north of Russia, where winter is long and harsh, Vasya is the child her mother insists on having. Vasya sees the house spirits and comes to understand the magic which keep the dark forces at bay and the world in harmony. After her mother’s death, Vasya’s father remarries and her stepmother sees the same spirits but is convinced they are demons. And then, Konstantin, a priest is sent to the household. He is determined to exorcise the demons. Will he succeed? And at what cost? The crops fail, and the wolves move ever closer to the village. The villagers start to view Vasya as a witch, and she is faced with a difficult choice.

This is the first novel in a trilogy, and I’m eager to read the second novel (to be released early in 2018). For the time it took me to read this novel, I was transported to a magical world. A world in which harmony required both sacrifice and sharing. I was pleased to be reading about Morozko, the demon of winter, from the relative safety of the Australian summer.

“Get out,” said Pyotr. “You are nothing; you are only a story. Leave my lands in peace.”

It may only be a story, but for a while it was a world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Adaminaby, NSW. 19/12/2017

Today,  over much of New South Wales and the ACT, it is going to be very hot.  Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees C in a number of places.  Temperatures will be well into the 30s (high 30s I think) over much of the Snowy Mountains.  And with the heat today,  we have quite a lot of wind.  The ennervating, unsettling kind of wind which has me hoping there will be no bushfires.

It was cooler when I walked early this morning, with not enough wind to deter the bush flies.  

Today most of the cows sought shade away from the road, and I admired the trees.

Adaminaby, NSW.  18/12/2017

Another warm day, another morning walk accompanied by bush flies. There was more breeze this morning, so fewer flies – for which I am grateful.

Clouds and cows took my attention this morning.  The clouds because we again have the possibility of thunderstorms.  The cows because there are quite a few of them grazing on properties along the Yaouk Road.

I feel very fortunate to have such a lovely space to walk in.

Adaminaby, NSW. 16/12/2017

I saw the sun rosing just after 5 am (no photographs, sadly) but didn’t set out for a walk until after 6 am.  I was greeted by beautiful clear blue skies,  and many bush flies. I walk with a net over my hat here at this time of the year,  and the world looks very different through the layer of net, and dark sunglasses.

Everything is still very green along the Yaouk Road.

The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If you have read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work, how did you react to it?  Not just ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ (although I’m interested in reactions to it as well), if you’ve read other of her stories, what did you think?  While I recognise feminist aspects to Ms Gilman’s short stories, it seems to me that she was also pointing out that men also suffered as a consequence of societal restrictions.

I’d love to know what my grandmother (born in 1893) would have thought of Ms Gilman’s stories.

‘And what can one do?’

I read this book after reading Odette Kelada’s ‘Drawing Sybylla’, which refers to ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’. I’d never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and I was intrigued by the references in Ms Kelada’s novel. A descent into madness, accompanied by (perhaps even occasioned by) yellow wall-paper? I had to read this story.

It took me two weeks to read the nineteen stories in this collection. ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ took me into places I really didn’t want to revisit: my own experience of psychosis some years ago. And while wall-paper (yellow or otherwise) was not part of my particular psychotic journey, I found it easy to relate to Ms Gilman’s story. I’ve also observed women with postpartum psychosis: how easy the boundary between reality and psychosis can become blurred, and then disappear. How easily inanimate objects take on new (and sometimes terrifying) realities. How hard it can be to find the way back. Imagine being confined to a room for three months, for ‘health reasons’.

As I worked through ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’, found safety back in the real world, and then read Ms Gilman’s other stories, I could observe her thoughts without being overwhelmed by my own. Some of the stories in this collection hint of new possibilities for women, for new roles. But these stories are not only confined to the restrictions placed upon women. Men are also restricted by their duties, stifled as a consequence. ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ is the story foremost in my consciousness because I found it so unsettling. I don’t need to reread it, but I would like to reread some of the other stories in this collection.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ in 1890.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

‘A Black Death has fallen upon our land.’

Sir Richard of Develish and his entourage are travelling away from home in June 1348 when the Black Death struck. He is trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter Eleanor. But when those where he is staying become ill, Sir Richard decides to travel home. No one knows where the plague came from or how it is spread, and many believe the Church when it claims that God is punishing people for their wickedness. As people flee in their panic, the Black Death casts its net ever wider.

But Sir Richard’s wife, Lady Anne, educated by nuns and literate, believes that if the sick are kept separate from those who are well, it may be possible to keep her community safe. So, Lady Anne, home at the moated Develish manor house, closes off the Develish community. Villagers are moved inside the moat, and Lady Anne refuses Sir Richard and his entourage entry. Can they survive? What does the future hold?

‘In twelve days the world had changed beyond all recognition.’

I’ve read quite a lot of Ms Walters crime novels, and particularly enjoyed the earlier ones. I picked up this historical fiction novel after a few friends had read and praised it highly. I enjoyed it as well. In Lady Anne, Ms Walters has created an intelligent and compassionate hero. She has to try to provide her people with food and security in an environment where nothing is known about what is happening in the world outside the confines of the manor. While some of the people she has can be relied on, others are consumed by jealousy and uncertainty. There are those who resent Lady Anne’s attempts to manage the estate, some of whom seek to undermine her. As the food stocks run low, Lady Anne realises that they need to know what is happening beyond the moat. Lady Anne’s right-hand man, Thaddeus takes a group outside to explore. What will they find?

The story pauses, at the end of 500+ pages. Those of us who want to know how it will end have to wait for the sequel, due (I believe) in October 2018.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Who was Eirene Mort?

An article in a local paper caught my attention in November, advising that the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s summer exhibition ‘Eirene Mort: a livelihood’ had commenced, and would run until 25 February 2018.  As I read further, and discovered that Eirene Mort had been a proponent of Australian materials and motifs in the decorative arts, I wondered why her name was not familiar to me.

A little more research told me that Eirene Mort (17/11/1879 – 1/12/1977) was the daughter of Canon Henry Wallace Mort (a Queensland-born Anglican clergyman) and his wife Kate Macintosh. Mort Street in Braddon, ACT, was named after Henry Mort’s uncle, Thomas Mort.

Eirene Mort attended St Catherine’s Clergy Daughter’s School in Waverly, and studied painting with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo and Albert Fullwood. She travelled alone to London in 1897 (she turned eighteen in the November of that year) and completed courses at the Grosvenor Life School, the Royal School of Art Needlework and at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington.

Eirene Mort returned to Sydney in 1906, and set up a studio with her lifelong friend Nora Kate Weston.  This studio became one of Sydney’s earliest centres for professional design and applied art.  I could see, in some of the work on display, the influence of William Morris.

More biographical information about Eirene Mort is available at the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Walking around the exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, I was struck by the breadth of Eirene Mort’s skills.  Her etchings, her wildflower painting books, her embroidery and the personalised bookplates all appealed to me.  But the highlight for me was the magnificent tapestry ‘An Australian Scene’ which Eirene Mort designed and which was worked by Ninian Thomson between 1928 and 1945.  I smiled when I read that the tapestry was designed with the specification that it ‘must be gay and have a swagman in it’.  There is definitely a swagman in it!

Some of Eirene Mort’s work is also available at the Art Gallery NSW.

I enjoyed this exhibition, and plan to revisit it before the end of February.  There’s so much to see: from the sketches of early Canberra landmarks, designs for Sheridan sheets, some beautiful work done in partnership with Nora Weston, innovative and intriguing designs.