All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

‘For me, the front is as sinister as a whirlpool.’

As I read this book about the horrors of war, I thought about my family members who fought on the Western Front. My maternal grandfather, who lived to be 80, and his younger brother who died because of his war injuries in 1920 aged 30. My grandfather never spoke of the war, of being gassed, or of suffering his first heart attack in his twenties. Another relative, on my father’s side, had several sons in the conflict. Two of them were killed in France.

From the dioramas at the Australian War Memorial, I gain some idea of the conditions, from other reading I gain some idea of the horror.

‘Albert puts it into words. ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’’

This book may be fictional, but I can imagine hundreds of thousands of young men, like the fictional Paul Bäumer, enlisting. My grandfather travelled from Queensland where he was cutting cane, home to Tasmania to enlist. He was too short to enlist in Queensland, tall enough to enlist in Tasmania. Fate. You see, I read this fiction and try to imagine where my own family members were and how they coped.

I read this fiction and the characters become proxies for those other young men, from so many different countries who became caught up in this dreadful conflict. And the only thing that has changed in the last one hundred or so years is that men have constructed ever more awful ways of killing.

‘The horror of the front fades away when you turn your back on it, so we can attack it with coarse or black humour.’ Indeed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer (Translator)

‘Many restless men rowed north from Skania …’

Enter the world of the Vikings in the tenth century CE as they roam and rampage between northern Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Join with Orm on his journey from captivity to riches. Red Orm is a teenager when he is waylaid by the Vikings who need replacement oarsmen on their dragon-prowed ships. Orm survives capture by the Moors and makes his way to the court of Almansur in Cordoba, Spain. Here he converts to Islam and serves as a guard.

Eventually Orm escapes with his comrade Toke, while on an expedition to raid and pillage Christian churches. They escape with one of Almansur’s ships with a large bell stolen from a church in Asturia said to house the grave of the James the apostle. The bell saves their lives when they make their way to Ireland where Christian monks add another dimension to their life experiences.

They then deliver the bell as a gift to King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who has converted to Christianity. Orm falls in love with King Harald’s daughter, Ylva, and his adventures continue.

I really enjoyed this novel: there is plenty of action, adventure and humour. It is a long, convoluted story showing that there was much more to Viking life than plundering.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

‘Nothing like a new horse to brighten a day.’

In 2019, a PhD student in art history rescues an oil painting of a horse from a pile of possessions discarded on a sidewalk in Georgetown, and a zoologist finds a skeleton labelled ‘Horse’ in a Smithsonian attic. In 1850, an enslaved boy is present when a mare foals. This is how Ms Brooks begins her novel. Yes, foal will become the horse in the painting and the skeleton in the Smithsonian. The enslaved boy, Jarret, will be with the horse from his first breath to his last. The foal, first named Darley, will be renamed Lexington. Lexington, a real racehorse, won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred sire. His offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century.

Some of the characters in the story are, like Lexington, real. Ms Brooks includes the various owners of Lexington and the painter Thomas J Scott. And in 1954, Martha Jackson a modernist art dealer, becomes obsessed with the painting when the woman working for her seeks her advice on a painting that has been handed down within her family. The key characters: Jarret; the PhD student Theo; and Jess the zoologist are fictional.

Jarret is the imagined son of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to buy his own freedom in antebellum Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr Warfield, offers to colt Darley to Harry in lieu of a year’s wages. If the colt is successful, Harry might be able to purchase Jarret’s freedom. But once Darley wins his first race, Dr Warfield is reminded by others that there is a law preventing Black people from racing horses. As a result, both Darley (then renamed Lexington) and Jarret are sold. They are sent south and become part of Richard Ten Broeck’s operation in Louisiana. Neither will be free.

In 2019, Theo and Jess are brought together by Lexington’s relics. Theo, the son of diplomats (a Nigerian mother and an American father) is painfully aware of racism. Jess, an Australian scientist, fascinated by the bones of the horse is less sensitive. They begin a tentative relationship, cut short by tragedy.

I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Ms Brooks wove fiction around history to bring both Jarret and Lexington to life. And, just in case anyone has forgotten, slavery may no longer exist, but racism certainly does.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’

In fewer than one hundred and ten pages, Ernest Hemingway takes us on an heroic journey with Santiago, an ageing Cuban fisherman. The family of his apprentice, Manolin, has forced the boy to leave him because of his bad luck, but Manolin still supports him by supplying food and bait.
Santiago, convinced that his luck will change, takes his skiff far out into the Gulf Stream. Here, in the deep water, he hooks a giant marlin. He fights the marlin for three days, admiring its strength and eventually prevails.

But by the time he returns to port, the sharks have eaten most of the fish. Discouraged, he goes home to sleep. Other villagers, seeing the remains of the fish lashed to Santiago’s skiff, are amazed.
To fully appreciate Santiago’s journey, this is a book to read in one sitting. From the routines of life in the fishing village, to Santiago’s courage and strength as he struggles against the fish and the sea. The fish does not go easily, Santiago does not give up. As I read this novel, I could picture the sea and appreciate the exhaustion of both man and fish. The ebb and flow of life.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Idea of Australia by Julianne Schulz

‘Culture is the real barometer of change. Politics often follows.’

After reading enthusiastic reviews of this book by those whose opinions I value, I bought a copy for myself. I read slowly, to think about some of the important albeit uncomfortable questions Professor Shultz raises.

I agree with at least some of Professor Schultz’s conclusions, especially with this: ‘the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking.’

Perhaps, now that we have had a change of government, there is reason for optimism. Perhaps. I agree that we need to acknowledge and better understand our past so that we can make sense of the present and build a positive and inclusive future. But I worry that the current economic climate and the ongoing pandemic will make this even more difficult.

We need to consider the long-term underlying issues while at the same time reacting to urgent emerging needs. We need to plan as well as react.

I would recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

‘The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other.’

In this book, which is part investigation and part reflection, Leigh Sales looks both how ‘ordinary’ people face unexpected and often horrific twists and turns in their lives. And, in looking at her role as a journalist, Leigh Sales reflects on her own actions including how she interviews these people.

‘What prompted me to begin writing this book was the thought of what might happen if I walked towards what I most feared, rather than in the opposite direction.’

The interviews in this book are different from those we have seen on the ABC 7.30 Report. Here we have some insight into Ms Sales’s preparation and presentation. Her interviewees include those who have lost family members, those who came close to death themselves, as well as a police officer, a coroner, a priest, a social worker and former prime minister, John Howard. Ms Sales also writes of her own brush with death involving herself and her unborn child.

Ms Sales writes, too, of how we perceive risk. How, for example, we might be more concerned about the danger of an amusement park ride, or a plane flight (both rare) than being in a car (unfortunately common).

‘To live life, we have to take risks, most of which we will never even know we’re taking.’

When writing about the roles and responsibilities of journalists, Ms Sales acknowledges that she has made mistakes. She refers to her interview of a grandmother following Hurricane Katrina, and how the woman’s grandson intervened.

I found this book thought-provoking and informative. It both explores the different ways in which we approach grief and offers insights into how we can help those grieving. It reminds us to consider the consequences of our own actions.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Jeffrey Smart by Barry Pearce

This is the second book I have read about Jeffrey Smart (26 July 1921 – 20 June 2013) since I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery of Australia. I borrowed this book, published in 2006, from my local library and fell in love with Jeffrey Smart’s work all over again.

In this book, Barry Pearce documents both the life and work of Jeffrey Smart. I enjoyed the biographical details and loved the 160 full colour plates of his work. There is something about Jeffrey Smart’s use of lines, shape and colour that draws me into his paintings. While my current favourite painting in this book is the amazing ‘Container Train in Landscape’ (1983-1984), there are many paintings (and studies) to admire. This is a big, beautiful book and I wish I had my own copy.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

School: The ups and downs of one year in the classroom by Brendan James Murray

‘School feels like the whole world when you’re in it.’

Reading this book took me back almost fifty years, to my own experience of what is now called Year 12. The pressure (mostly self-imposed) was inexorable, the stakes were high, and most of the teachers were terrific. But this was in Tasmania, at a time when the high school retention rate was low and very few of us ventured beyond Year 10. Those of us who stayed to complete Year 12 were focussed on university. Some of our teachers were very recent graduates and only a handful of years older than we were.

See, I have already digressed. A bit. This book is about teaching and learning, about the challenges and experiences of teaching, about navigating learning and life. Mr Murray writes of a single school year, of the journey through four terms. He focusses on the journey of some of his students, as well as reflecting on his own experiences as student and teacher.

In parallel with Mr Murray’s year of teaching I was remembering my own six years of secondary education: the first four years at a public high school, the last two years at (what was then called) Launceston Matriculation College. I remembered the teachers who inspired me, including the one who made maths exciting, sadly followed by those who killed my interest entirely. I remember teachers who made economics, English and history fascinating. Their enthusiasm, knowledge and interest encouraged many of us to want to learn more. By contrast, those who recited facts and figures without context quickly extinguished enthusiasm.

The best teachers combine enthusiasm and knowledge and encourage their students to think and question. Mr Murray reminds me of some of the teachers I had all those years ago. A terrific read
And, yes, while I do enjoy (most of) Peter Carey’s work, I prefer to read Richard Flanagan and Steven Carroll.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith