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05 Feb

Life of Pi author Yann Martel in town to headline Canberra Writers Festival

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Author Yann Martel is the headline act at the first Canberra Writers Festival. Photo: Jay CronanYann Martel has a message for the powerful people of Canberra – reading books is important.
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The best-selling author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi is in town this week as one of the stars of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival, with the capital his first stop on a tour to promote his latest book.

The High Mountains of Portugal is a meditation on grief, split into three short stories.

Speaking shortly after landing from a long flight from his hometown of Saskatoon in Canada, he said he relished the chance to meet more readers and learn about Australia’s writing landscape.

The father of four young children said reading was of the utmost importance, particularly for people in positions of power.

“We live in a literate society, so if you’re at the top of it, it strikes me you have to read,” he said.

“A police chief, the head of a hospital, the head of a corporation, a prime minister – to me they should read because I don’t know how else you can know the human condition. Otherwise you only know of your own tight little life.

“I’m not saying a book a week, but you have to have a book by your bedside table that makes you be someone else every night for at least 20 minutes before you fall asleep. That’s enough. It’s like a vaccination.”

Martel has form when it comes to prescribing such self-help: he spent four whole years, from 2007-2011, trying to convince then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to read more books.

He was moved to start a two-person book club with Mr Harper after realising his country’s conservative leader cared little for the arts.

He sent Mr Harper a new book every two weeks, accompanied by a two-three page letter explaining why the book was important and discussing some of its themes.

The books, mostly works of fiction and under 200 pages, ranged in genre and theme.

“I sent everything – highbrow, lowbrow, international,” he said.

“I sent him an Agatha Christie, I sent him a Harlequin romance, a Mills and Boon, everything, plays, poetry collections. I sent him a Virginia Woolf… They were usually under 200 pages, because the usual excuse that people give for not reading is that they don’t have time.”

His efforts – 101 books in all – were to no avail; Mr Harper failed to respond to a single letter.

“He was not willing to engage in a dialogue, which to me reflects who he was,” he said.

“I did this specifically with Harper because he’s a tight, little, narrow man who did great harm to Canada. His record was largely negative, what he did not do rather than what he did do. So that was my little effort to bridge that gap.”

He said Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a former drama teacher with a degree in English, probably didn’t need much instruction when it came to reading.

And interestingly, US President Barack Obama was moved to send him a letter, unprompted, after reading Life of Pi with one of his daughters.

This, and the fact that all 101 letters sent to Mr Harper were eventually published as book, meant his efforts were not in vain.

Yann Martel will be speaking about The High Mountains of Portugal at Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University on Friday, August 26 at 6.30pm. For bookings and more information, visit canberrawritersfestival杭州m.au. 

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05 Feb

The 2016 ACT Book of the Year shortlist has a wide variety of subjects

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Authors Frank Bongiorno, Robyn Cadwallader and Subhash Jaireth have been shortlisted for the 2016 ACT Book of the Year. Photo: Melissa AdamsThe shortlist for the 2016 ACT Book of the Year was announced on Friday at the National Library of Australia by ACT Arts Minister Chris Bourke on the first day of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival.
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The ACT government has promised that if re-elected it will increase support for the Canberra Writers Festival with a financial contribution of $125,000 a year over the next three years.

Dr Bourke said 39 books by ACT authors – ranging across fiction, non-fiction and poetry – had been entered for the $10,000 prize, reflecting the diversity of writing in the Canberra community. He said the subject matter of the shortlisted books tied in well with the festival’s themes of power, politics and passion.

The shortlisted books were: Locust Girl by Merlinda Bobis​ (Spinifex Press); The Eighties: the Decade That Transformed Australia by Frank Bongiorno (Black Inc. Books); The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (Harper Collins); Moments by Subhash Jaireth ( Puncher & Wattman); and Illicit Love by Ann McGrath (University of Nebraska Press).

Locust Girl – which has won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction – is a political fable about a young woman with a locust embedded in her brow who undertakes a magical journey. Illicit Love by Anne McGrath is a history of love, sex and marriage between Indigenous peoples and settler citizens in the US and Australia from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.

The 47-year-old Bongiorno – who won the 2013 ACT Book of the Year for The Sex Lives of Australians: A History – said, “I was interested in treating a period I could recall – I was a teenager 30 years ago.”

He was struck by how a lot of what happened in the decade, such as the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating government, continued to influence what happened today, as well as other aspects of the era such as the impact of AIDS.

Robyn Cadwallader said her novel The Anchoress, set in 13th-century England, told the story of Sarah, a 17-year-old villager mourning the death of her sister and resisting pressure to marry who chose to be sealed up in a cell in a church.

“She would pray, read and counsel women in the village as a holy woman considered to be wise.”

Cadwallader came across anchoresses when working on her doctorate about 15 years ago. The Anchoress is her first novel.

Moments by Subhash Jaireth is a collection of 11 short stories. Jaireth said, “I write stories in the voice of well-known artists, performers and musicians. There is a story, Bach (Pau) In Love where I try to figure out why Bach wrote the very lyrical, romantic cello suites”.

The ACT Book of the Year has been supported by the ACT government since 1993. It is being judged this year by writer and Muse events manager Nikki Anderson, ANU Emeritus Fellow and writer Colin Steele and 2015 ACT Book of the Year shortlisted writer Sam Vincent and the winner will be announced in December.

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05 Feb

Alec Patric wins Miles Franklin award for novel about Bosnian refugees

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Refugee tale: Alec Patric has won the Miles Franklin award. Photo: Eddie JimAlec Patric was only six or seven when he realised that writing was important. His mother was involved in a poetry competition between Australia and Yugoslavia and he sat holding her hand in a university lecture theatre.
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“And her name is announced and she goes down and makes a speech and I see my mother get an award for a poem she wrote. That is probably the most significant moment in my life.”

Fast forward to Friday night and he might want to change that assessment as it is Alec Patric getting the award – this year’s Miles Franklin, Australia’s most important literary prize, for his first novel, Black Rock White City. He has previously published two collections of short stories and a novella.

The prize was presented at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival at which Maxine Beneba Clarke delivered a keynote address bouncing off her new memoir, The Hate Race, about growing up black in Australia.

Black Rock White City tells of two refugees from the Bosnian civil war, Jovan and Suzana, both writers, negotiating in the late ’90s their new and very different lives in bayside Melbourne, dealing with the traumas of war, exile and loss. Jovan is working as a cleaner in a hospital that is subject to a spate of graffiti attacks that are getting more aggressive and more focused.

Judges spokesman Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW, said the novel’s urgent narrative “envelops the reader in one of the great issues of our time”.

The Fairfax review of Black Rock White City described it as “formally rigorous and emotionally powerful, (Patric’s) new novel can only add to his stature as one of the most fascinating writers in this part of the world”.

Patric’s parents migrated from Serbia in the early ’70s: “They came to Australia to give their children new possibilities, and for me to win the Miles Franklin, that’s certainly that coming to fruition,” he said.

Patric wins $65,000 while the other novelists on the shortlist – Peggy Frew (Hope Farm), Myfanwy Jones (Leap), Lucy Treloar (Salt Creek) and Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) – each take home $5000.

Patric was surprised to win the prize, which is given to a novel that depicts “Australian life in any of its phases”.

“Generally speaking, if you look at what the Miles Franklin has been given to in the past,” he said, “it hasn’t often represented multicultural perspectives yet multiculturalism has been a very significant part of Australian life and culture for decades.”

He said the disintegration of Yugoslavia was relevant to Australia because it had been one of the first countries to set up as a multicultural society and its collapse was significant to all such societies. “These people really are part of Australian culture, part of Australian society. They do live amongst us and … it’s really important for us to understand where we really are.”

But he was quick to point out that the book is no political rant. “It was driven by a love of literature, of art, a love of peace, a love of family, of children, a love of all those things that are significant to people simply being able to live happy lives.”

For him literature “is a religion … Jane Smiley said it is an act of humanity; not in terms of saving other people but simply in enlarging ourselves and our sense of self”.

When Patric is not writing literature, he sells it in his day job at Readings’ St Kilda bookshop. So what happens to Black Rock White City?

“You don’t generally sell your own book. If someone said I want a book about Bosnian refugees living in Melbourne set in a bayside suburb, even then I would hesitate to say here’s my book. All I can do is leave the book there and hopefully people will discover it.”

After winning the Miles Franklin, plenty more people are going to discover Black Rock White City.

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05 Feb

Gretchen Shirm: books that changed me

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Gretchen Shirm is a writer and lawyer. She has been published in The Best Australian Stories, Etchings, Wet Ink, and Southerly. She was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her collection, Having Cried Wolf. Her new novel, Where the Light Falls (Allen & Unwin), follows a photographer’s efforts to understand his former girlfriend’s death. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
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I read this novel for my final year of high school on the north coast of NSW, where reading was deeply uncool. Thomas Hardy left a permanent mark on my reading habits. Hardy is criticised for being overly didactic and overwrought, but since I read Tess I’ve wanted books that make me feel. It’s never enough for a book to make me think; I need that emotional heft I found in Hardy at that significant moment in my life.  Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Hoeg​

I read this book in my 20s and it resonated strongly with me. Although it’s essentially a crime novel, the appeal of the book is really to do with the main character Smilla. It was only after I’d read it three or four times I realised what I identified with: Smilla has the personality of a writer. It’s her yearning for solitude, her need to uncover the truth whatever the consequence, and rejection of all things superficial. The Turning – Tim Winton

When I was still practising law and working in The Hague, I cycled down to the English-speaking bookshop one lunchtime and bought this book. I was at a crossroads in my life: would I pursue law or seriously attempt what I had always loved? So many of Tim Winton’s characters are exploring what acquiescence has cost them. From then on, I pursued writing seriously; that was 2006 and I’ve written every day since. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson​

I read this book when I was pregnant with my daughter (born in February). It’s about a summer a young girl spends with her grandmother on an island off the coast of Finland. I loved its unusual combination of unexpected humour and profound insight. My partner Julien read the Moomin books as a boy and when I finished we agreed to name our daughter after Tove Jansson. At that moment, I crossed a threshold into motherhood.

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