Book review – Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

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Here we have the last book I read for AusReading Month: fortunately, Brona, who runs the challenge, has allowed people to post reviews after the end of the month! I continued my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and a summary of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; then “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia” gave the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and now we have the lived experiences of one woman who is an Aboriginal/Indigenous [she uses both terms in the book, Indigenous more often and I’m trying to reflect that] writer, academic and campaigner. This is the third book that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and I urge you to read it.

I admit right now that I’ve been a bit nervous about reviewing this book. It is not written “for” me, the author makes it clear (and fair enough, of course) and it’s doubly not about my culture, being Aboriginal/Indigenous centred and about Australia. All I can really do is set down my reactions and the connections I have drawn with other works I’ve read or cultural issues I’ve noted: and like all great works, it’s both specific to its time and culture but can have general global points drawn from it. I’d encourage people to read it for themselves if they’re at all interested in learning about colonialism, current issues of the “settlers” in a claimed territory that is actually someone else’s and Indigenous people’s lived experience.

Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

It took me a while to realise that in teaching Indigenous anything I was meant to be teaching students to feel good about being a coloniser; that in my presence I was meant to be the site of absolution both for the institution and its students. Despite transcending our role in the academy as engraved objects carved into sandstone, to enter classrooms as educators we are still being called to accessorise white knowing and affirm white belonging. (p. 109)

Dr Watego is clearly angry, and she has good reason. She is also exhausted, and as we read this book, we can see why. She doesn’t want to, and doesn’t, explain terms, history and experiences for White / settler [her term] readers, and why should she? (this fits with a long-held view of mine which I know is contentious that it’s my job to look stuff up, not the author’s job to explain her culture to me when things are easily looked up; terms, yes, experiences, no, and we get them from this book).

I’d like to say Dr Watego’s experiences are shocking, but if you’ve read a fair bit of work by Global Majority and Indigenous peoples, unfortunately they’re not. Or not surprising. She experiences racism and exclusion in academia and expected to remove guilt from White students (I’ve read Black and Brown academics talking of that here). She’s blamed for all sorts of things outside her control. If she’s in confrontation with a White person, the White person will be believed (and let go and she’ll be taken into custody). If she dares to say that someone who claims to be Indigenous but has no connection to the culture which is so communal and relational is not yet wholly Indigenous, she’s told she’s wrong. She encounters White anthropologists who try to tell her about her own lived experience. She sees her own people denigrated for having poor health outcomes when it’s clear those outcomes are a direct result of the pressure and colonisation, institutional and intersectional racism, sexism and classism imposed upon them by a coloniser ideology that believes they should have died out decades ago. (This last reminded me of the blame heaped upon Global Majority People in the UK when they died disproportionately of Covid: it was biological or due to “lifestyle choices”, not of course because they were forced into poverty and overcrowded living and compelled to go out and do risky face-to-face work while the White middle class sat in our homeworking isolation.)

In this bold and usettling book, Dr Watego sets down her experiences on her terms. She is able to print a (perfectly reasonable, well-argued and massively referenced) article that ended up not going out in an academic journal because the publishers weren’t keen on the racist stereotyping and violence clearly portrayed in the book being exposed without having some spurious balance: she did claim room for a rebuttal and letter to the managing editors in the journal. She states powerfully in the final essay that there is no room for hope, only for sovreignty, and for standing your ground, not fighting back, for strategies and not solutions. You’re not going to read this to feel better about the world or your place in it, apart from the fact that there are people like Dr Watego who are managing to speak out and get published so others can see themselves reflected or learn about what’s happened and happening. There is a superb playlist in the back of the book of “songs that brought joy” while she was writing it, and I salute her (not that she needs my salute, obviously) for including that in what is a confrontational and at times very dense read.

One powerful lesson that was reiterated for me here (which I did learn when reading a book by a non-Indigenous Canadian about Indigenous Canadians last year and bought a new book instead) was to go to “own voices” for books about Indigenous and Global Majority peoples, which I do do on the whole, but I need to stay in this space and not go back to White people’s, even if not Australians’, narratives about Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples like the one I read last year. And I recommend this powerful and strong narrative by very much an “own voice”.


This was Book 3 for AusReading Month and Book 12 for Nonfiction November.

State of the TBR – December 2022

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Looking at last month’s picture, I have done quite well again! Incomings have come in but books have come off the TBR, too. Even though I’ve added five books to the little pile at the end, it’s not as big as last month.

I completed 23 books in November (thanks to my week’s holiday and doing Novellas in November), and am part-way through three more (one my Emma Read and one reading along with Matthew), plus the long-term ongoing Tolkien and Sagas books. I read all my ebook TBR books for November (my picture was wrong last month; I have yet to review two of them), and also got my September ones and all but one of my October ones read or (one) started. I read eight out of the fifteen novellas I put out to choose from and two others (one in from a publisher then read right away, one from the TBR), making a total of ten, and I read three books for AusReading Month (one left to review) and twelve for NonFiction November.

Incomings

Incoming print books. I had some lovely books in this month.

“Mary & Mr Eliot” by Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner is an author copy from the publisher – it’s based on Mary Trevelyan’s manuscript about her friendship with T.S. Eliot which I copy-typed a few years ago to start off the process for Erica to edit and provide commentary on it. Lovely publisher Michael Walmer kindly sent me a review copy of his reprint of Howard Sturgis’ “On the Pottlecomble Cornice” which I promptly reviewed for Novellas in November and the British Library Publishing folk kindly sent me “Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season” which of course I have saved to read this month. We had a tea party at Ali’s the other weekend and Meg gave me her copy of Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” while Ali passed me her copy of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s “The Pachinko Parlour”. I went to a Brian Bilston poetry reading run by The Heath Bookshop last week and bought a copy of his latest book, “Days Like These” (a poem for every day of the year!), and finally I received a copy of Nigel Green and Robin Wilson’s “Brutalist Paris” which I had helped crowd-fund. What a lovely variety of ways to receive books!

I won five NetGalley books this month:

“The Silence of the Stands” by Daniel Gray (published November) is about football’s lost season in the lockdowns – whose blog did I see this on?? Alexis Keir writes about returning to St Vincent [edited out my error, apoplogies to the author] and tracing his family’s journeys to the UK and New Zealand in “Windward Family” (Feb 2023) and in “Black Girl from Pyongyang” by Monica Macias (Mar 2023) we’ll learn about how the author was transplanted from West Africa to North Korea to be raised, and how she searched for her identity once she’d grown up (that’s going to be a good one for the Stranger than Fiction segment of NonFicNov next year!). “Happy Place” (April 2023) looks like another good novel from Emily Henry, a break-up novel with a big lie to all the friend group and Shauna Robinson’s “Must Love Books” (Feb 2023) pits a young Black woman against the world of publishing.

And I bought three e-books from Amazon in their Black Friday sale:

I always think I have Trevor Noah‘s memoir, “Born a Crime” but I didn’t, until now. John Cooper Clarke is one of the few poets I like and I couldn’t resist his autobiography, “I Wanna Be Yours”, for 99p. And Patrick King’s “Stand Up For Yourself, Set Boundaries and Stop Pleasing Others” might stop me making myself labour over these massive posts (right?!).

So that was 23 read and 15 coming in in November – back in the right direction!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “Settlers: Journeys through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London” by Jimi Famurewa, which is a NetGalley book published in October and is marvellous so far, Jini Reddy’s “Wanderland” is my readalong with Emma and most entertaining so far, and I’ve finally got to reading Dave Grohl’s “The Storyteller” with Matthew, so he does a bit of the audio book (with Dave narrating and a musical background) on his walk and I catch up with the book (no Dave’s voice or music) at home.

Coming up

This month, I’m taking part in two challenges: my own Dean Street Press December, of course (see my main post here) and I’ve laid out all the DSP books I have in paperback plus one more modern one on Kindle. I’m looking forward to seeing what I and everyone else can read in the month from this lovely publisher.

And I’ve also decided to do #DiverseDecember to maintain the diversity of my reading, though I don’t have a main post to link to for that. So upcoming are Nova Reid’s “The Good Ally”, Riva Lehrer’s memoir of her life and art living with a disability, “Golem Girl” and Rabina Khan’s essays, “My Hair is Pink Under this Veil”. I have my lovely Christmas stories from the British Library, too, and my great big Larry McMurtry, “The Evening Star”. This isn’t the end of Larry McMurtry Rereading, though, as I only have “Cadillac Jack” left so am going to read that in January.

My NetGalley TBR for December has just two books, but of course I have September to November ones, too:

“Beyond Measure” and “Femina” are older ones I need to get read, “The Racial Code” and “The Christmas Castle in Scotland” are two from October I need to polish off (the latter saved on purpose of course) and Meron Hadero’s “A Down Home Meal for Difficult Times” and Eris Young’s “Ace Voices” are published in December.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s one book to finish and 21 to read (ten of them paperback novels and I have a week off over Christmas …), but I’m looking forward to it all!


How was your November reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection? Are you doing Dean Street December with me?

Book review – Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”

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Back to AusReading Month and I’m continuing my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and it gave me a short history of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; this book charts the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and “Another Day in the Colony” which I am starting now, will fill in a lot more gaps hopefully (I don’t think I’ll get to “Lies Damned Lies” but can save that for next AusReading Month of course). This is another of the books that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and we largely agree on the pieces that most struck us, interestingly.

Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

… this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration, demonstrating the will to survive and the capacity to thrive against the odds. Growing up Aboriginal in Australia paints a landscape of a country that has created leaders who form strong communities, with a generous heart and passion for change. That is why this anthology matters. The goal is to break down stereotypes – many of which are identified with these pages – and to create a new dialogue with and about Aboriginal Australians. (Introduction, p. 2)

This excellent book takes 50 submissions from Aboriginal people living in Australia which (sometimes loosely) follow the theme of growing up. Some of them relate in a straightforward manner what it was like to be a child in Australia, some take the idea that they are still “growing up” and some just fill us in on what life continued to be like. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the contributors, but some are well-known writers, academics, musicians and sports players and some are ordinary people. The ages of the contributors range from 13 to people who must be in their 80s and this gives an excellent perspective as some are from the Stolen Generations (Aboriginal people, especially those with lighter skins, who were taken from their families and ‘raised’ on missions and in special schools to ‘protect’ them from taint by their darker-skinned relatives) or are children of people who were stolen, or look back to a fractured family line because of this vile policy: we really see how that has reverberated through the generations.

I learnt a lot reading this. Many of the contributors described their anguish at being lighter-skinned, asked to prove their Aboringinality, told they could and should ‘pass’ for non-Aboriginal, were questioned on what proportion of their heritage was Aboriginal and found they were too light-skinned for some of their family group or activists but too dark-skinned for European-origin Australians (this chimed with the works I’m reading on people with dual heritages elsewhere in the world, but with special horrors to do with their geography). I also hadn’t realised that Aboriginal people were only accepted as actual PEOPLE in the 1960s when there was a referendum about ‘allowing’ them to appear on the census and vote – before that, they were counted as sort of part of the flora and fauna [Edited to add: this is actually a myth, please see the comments and links by my Australian blogger friends below]. And I was completely unaware that people were captured and removed from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other islands and used for labour.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there’s a lot of humour, a lot of anger and pushing back, and a lot of people finding their Aboriginal heritage and connecting with it, learning the traditional ways and cultures of the different Aboriginal groups and becoming workers or activists or educators in their communities and beyond. Interestingly, although I re-read his review after I’d finished the book and put down some thoughts, I liked similar essays to the ones Bill chose: for example, “Two tiddas” by Susie and Alice Anderson, who record a dialogue about their feelings about being Aboriginal, and Dom Benrose’s powerfully sarcastic apology to “Dear Australia” for basically existing or pushing back: “I am sorry I can’t tot paint, play football or run really fast” (p. 17). There’s a lot of intersectionality, too, looking at race, class, gender and/or sexuality, with Celeste Liddle in “Black bum” unable to separate her experiences of being Aboriginal from those of being female.

One tiny criticism I had is that I struggled to find a pattern or structure in the book, so while it showcased diversity in ages, backgrounds and experiences, you sort of dotted from one to another without a clear pathway through it. The introduction by the editor only explains they came from 120 submissions and notes on why the anthology matters, which is great, but I’d have liked to understand the selection and organisation principle. This is a minor point, though: the thing that matters is the diversity, own voices and chances for people to express themselves and readers to find themselves mirrored or to learn.

At the end of his review, Bill notes that many people of his generation and younger don’t understand/accept that racism existed and still exists in Australia and adds his hope that school children are all reading this book: I add to that hope and also think it’s very important to know about these issues outside Australia, hence being very glad to have had the opportunity to read this powerful, fascinating and moving book and share about it here.


This was Book 2 for AusReading Month and Book 7 for Nonfiction November.

Book review – Doris Pilkington / Nugi Garimara – “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence”

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I’m very pleased to have read this one so early in the month because it neatly covers the three reading challenges I’m doing this month: AusReading Month, Nonfiction November and Novellas in November. As well as coming in at around 130 pages and being a true story, most importantly it fits in with my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent it to me in January, along with two others of the books pictured here, and I’m very grateful that he’s helped me to access these books on an important part of Britain’s colonial history and wrongdoings.

Doris Pilkington / Nugi Garimara – “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

The fence cut through the country from south to north. It was a typical response by the white people to a problems of their own making. Building a fence to keep the rabbits out proved to be a futile attempt by the government of the day. For the three runaways, the fence was a symbol of love, home and security. (p. 109)

What a punch in the guts this book is to read. I had a good idea of the taking of land from Aboriginal peoples by White invaders and of the treatment meted out to the people who had lived on this land for millennia, but I don’t think I was fully aware that, like in Canada, an “Indigenous School” system was used to practise cultural genocide. Here, we learn of the system created to remove mixed-heritage, part-Aboriginal children from their families and “re-educate” them to basically provide labour for the people who stole their land. While the story of Molly, Daisy and Gracie dates from the 1940s, the author of this book, Molly’s daughter, lost her sister to this system a decade or so later, too.

The book is so well-done, with an introduction telling us how the author came to put the information down from her mum and aunt’s narratives and work out time scales for the Western reader while acknowledging the different ways Aboriginal Peoples have recorded time. Then it gives the the context in a couple of chapters which cover things right from when White invaders first came along the western coast of Australia, some more decent than others, none really decent. In fact, the first chapter with the idyllic and simple life of people living in harmony with their land, with its casual use of Indigenous language terms (there is a glossary in this book) reminded me strongly of the first sections of “Roots“. Then we get up to date with the founding of the settlement at Jigalong government depot, the birth of first Molly and then her cousins Daisy and Gracie, each with a White father, and their experiences with their families before being ripped away and shipped down to a school 1,600 km away.

It’s not long before they escape and make their way back home, which forms the majority of the narrative, raised in bush craft and the ability to survive but with the intelligence and resourcefulness to put this into practice. Good people are met along the way, give them food and clothes, then report them to the authorities, sometimes “for their own good,” and they realise they can trust nobody until they get back to their own people. The round-up of what they did next at the end is still stomach-churning – Molly in particular ended up losing one of her daughters in a similar situation once again.

This book was originally published in 1995 and it is horrific that so little is heard about this still (even though a film was made of this story), similarly to the awful Canadian “Indigenous schools”. There was an apology in 2008 and on-going reparations: this Wikipedia article on the Stolen Generations (which I hope is an appropriate link: if someone tells me it isn’t I will of course change it) has quite a lot of detail. Bill’s review of the book also describes the background in more detail and has interesting links and images.


This was Book 1 for AusReading Month, Book 1 for Nonfiction November and Book 1 for Novellas in November.

State of the TBR – November 2022

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Looking at last month’s picture, I have done shockingly badly! Not only have the Three Investigators pile moved back to in front of the books; there’s now a vertical pile of the most recent incomings there, too!

I completed 13 books in October, and am part-way through four more. I read none of my ebook TBR books for October, but did get three of my September ones read and I’m going to make a real effort to keep going and clear them properly. I read some of my print TBR books, including two of my three review books from publishers, I gave up on “The View from the Corner Shop” because it was just too detailed.

Incomings

I talked about my 22 incoming print books in a separate post this month and have managed not to acquire any more since!

I won six NetGalley books this month:

Jonathan Coe’s “Bournville” (published Nov) is a family saga set in the suburb a few miles from me. Alba Donati’s “Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop” (Nov) is the tale of a bookshop founded in a tiny town in lockdown. “The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival” by Nicola Rollock (Oct) investigates race and racism in Britain today. Meron Hadero’s “A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times” (Dec) is a set of short stories set around immigrants and immigration which I imagine I saw on someone else’s blog, but where? Ore Agbaje-Williams’ “The Three of Us” (May 2023) is a novel taking place in one day as a marriage and a best friendship collapse. Colin Grant’s “I’m Black so you don’t Have to Be” (Jan 2023) is a memoir told through a range of intergenerational stories.

I also bought three e-books from Amazon:

Dayo Forster’s “Reading the Ceiling” was another one I think I saw on a blog. It’s a first novel set in Africa and the UK which looks at three directions a young woman’s life could go on. Dipo Faloyin’s “Africa is not a Country” looks at stereotypes and how to break them, and Jane Linfoot’s “A Winter Warmer at the Little Cornish Kitchen” is a bit of fun in a series I’ve read from before to read in December.

So that was 13 read and 31 coming in in October – still going very much in the wrong direction!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “Black Victorians” which is a NetGalley book from September and Jessie M.E. Saxby’s “Rock Bound”. Jini Reddy’s “Wanderland” is Emma and my next readalong after finishing “Square Haunting” (review to come soon). I’m also inching my way through that big Tolkien book.

Coming up

As well as the Larry McMurtry for this month, I’m taking part in three challenges: NonFiction November, Novellas in November and AusReading Month. I have set aside books for NovNov and AusReading Month and most of the former and all of the latter are nonfiction books, so the reading for NonFicNov will look after itself and I’ll be bombarding you with Monday posts for the themed discussions.

For AusReading Month, hosted by Brona of This Reading Life (introduction and master post here), I’ll be looking at social justice, with four books looking at colonialism and the current and recent experiences of Aboriginal people (an acceptable term to use at the moment, thanks to resources from Brona last AusReading Month). Anita Heiss edited “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”, collecting people’s experiences, Doris Pilkington / Nugi Garmara’s “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” is the true story behind the film of an epic journey made by children (this is also under 200 pages so will fulfil all three of my challenges). Chelsea Watego’s “Another Day in the Colony” looks at the effects of colonialism, as does Claire G. Coleman’s “Lies, Damned Lies,” which is a personal exploration of this.

For Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy 746 Books and Bookish Beck (intro post here), I have laid out 15 books (like last year!) which I don’t expect to get through; 14 of them are non-fiction and all but two are by Global Majority People authors, too, so I’d like to read as many as possible. I won’t list them all here so you won’t get disappointed when I don’t read your favourite!

My NetGalley TBR for November has just four books, but of course I have the September and October ones, too, including the one I won in October, published then. Two you have seen about above, then “Refugee Wales” is a project looking at Syrian people who have settled in Wales, and Hakim Adi (ed.) “Black Voices on Britain” takes original sources into account, although by then I’ll have read about lots of Victorians and Georgians so I wonder if there’s going to be a lot of overlap.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s 3 books to finish and a big choice to read, but I only really have to read my Australian ones and I’ll cover all my challenges, so only a minimum of eight!


How was your October reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection?

Book review – Sven Lindqvist – “Terra Nullius”

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Oh dear – at almost the last hurdle, I’ve fallen behind my plan! We both had our booster Covid vaccinations yesterday at our GP surgery, and although we’ve not been too bad and it was worth it, of course, we did have some side effects that led to me sleeping in and drifting around rather than keeping focused on reviewing this book this morning and finishing reading two more to review tomorrow! Anyway, this is my second book read for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. I bought it from Oxfam Books in September, spotting it was about Australia and immediately putting it in the pile to buy. So this one comes in for NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge as well as AusReading Month!

Sven Lindqvist, translated by Sarah Death – “Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land”

(8 September 2021)

If one of us can, everyone can. On that basis, it turns out that whole villages can produce superb works of art which win them acclaim from teh world and raise them out of misery and dependence. (p. 202)

So I need to mention first of all that this is an outsider’s reading of an outsider’s translated book about their experience travelling in Australia and learning of the country’s history, particularly around its interactions with the original Aboriginal peoples*. In the early 2000s, Lindqvist paid a long visit to Australia from his native Sweden, researching the history of the places he visited and seeking out sites relating to the many atrocities he discovered had been meted out to the Aboriginal peoples who already lived there. The title and subtitle are ironic: it was because the British settlers who went there and claimed the land stated that it was no one’s land that they were able to claim it, when, of course, it was land inhabited for centuries [edit: as Bill reminds me, millennia] by people to whom it was hospitable, fruitful, sustainable and religiously significant.

Lindqvist details horrendous event after horrendous event, from people being turned off their land to forced migrations (It “doesn’t matter” because they’re “nomads”; never mind the significance a certain land has to a group), being studied to back up spurious psychological theories, being moved out of the way for nuclear testing even after a test ban treaty had been signed, having mixed-heritage children forcibly removed from them to be taken away and “saved”, and being plied with alcohol then slammed for using it. He draws an interesting parallel with the treatment of more recent immigrants to Australia than the British; refugees being herded into camps and kept in inhumane conditions.

He does also celebrate the cleverness of some Aboriginal peoples in their manipulation of their coverage and discussion, and also some sympathetic Europeans who try to help and/or make amends. And later in the book he very much celebrates the way Aboriginal peoples artists, especially women, have flourished and taken their place in worldwide art markets, celebrating also their very different attitude towards artistic talent and individual exceptionalism, and the way that recent radio and television media have helped to preserve and spread cultural artifacts such as sand pictures and songs. He also celebrates the recent movements around Indigenous peoples across the whole world joining together for conferences, solidarity and campaigning.

There is travelogue in here, places stayed and people met, and some good geology. A chronology in the back of the book sets the events in order and lists which chapters they fall in, as the chapters are not in strict chronological order themselves as he travels around, delving into history. Of course a pretty hard book to read, Lindqvist shares his horror without going over the top, I felt and does bring out positives where he can. The emotional impact taught me a lot more about what I sort of half-knew intellectually, and I’m glad I read the book.

* I sought support from Brona on how to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia and she pointed me to some resources to help me decide. I have used Aboriginal people because Lindqvist travels around the whole country and discusses a wide range of different peoples, but no Torres Strait Islanders, as far as I was aware.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 19/85 – 66 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and AusReading Month! Interestingly, for AusReading Month, I’ve managed to read one book by Australians set in Iceland and one book by a Swede set in Australia!

Book review – Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land”

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I’m excited to have read my first of two books for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. It took her spotting this one on my TBR shelf and letting me know that it was by one Australian by birth and one by residence for me to realise I had more than one book for this challenge this year!

It also comes under NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge (in fact, it’s one of the older books on my main TBR) so all good. Certainly not a novella, though, at a hefty (but very readable) 447 pages plus 50 illustrative plates.

I bought this book as part of my 2020 Book Token Extravaganza – arrival post here and post about the Extravaganza here (I have now read or am reading 6 out of the 7 books purchased, with the final one to read this month).

Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land: The Island of Stories at the Edge of the World”

(15 July 2020)

Audun and the Polar Bear is a small, finely wrought fable, but it holds many of the qualities of the great Icelandic sagas: the tale is told tersely, and contains real historical figures. The main character’s honour is central to the story, and Audun quietly holds to it, at the risk of great suffering to himself. Also typical of the sagas is the beautiful strangeness of the tale. (p. xxv)

Fidler and Gislason met when they did a radio programme together in Australia and then ended up chatting about Iceland and the sagas for ages afterwards. This book is a lovely mix of travelogue and saga retellings as they share the story of their obsession with the sagas and their two trips to Iceland, one in the summer, one in the winter, along with Kari’s interesting personal story of searching for his heritage.

Kari was born as the result of an affair between his Australian mother and Icelandic father – his father already had a family and forbade Kari’s presence to be made known. Eventually, Kari did speak up, and he met his father and bonded with his siblings (he’s written his own book about all this, which I might have succumbed and bought within moments of seeing it mentioned in this book …). Part of his father’s small legacy to him was being told that he was a direct descendant of Snorri Sturluson, the great chieftain, lawgiver and saga writer / collector, and a lot of the book a) retells Snorri’s story and b) tells the story of Kari’s slow attempt to find out if this is true – because the population of Iceland is so small, there’s a database of everyone’s genealogy going back to mediaeval times, however Kari wasn’t linked properly to his father originally.

The travelogue is excellently done, the two authors tell alternate chapters, which works really well, often looking at the same episode from both their viewpoints. In the summer, they travel to Thingvellir and the farmlands of Hliðarendi (oddly enough, they don’t visit the petrol station of the same name, which thrilled me when I was there in 2014!), then to the western dales and the fjords of the northwest. In the winter, they fill in Snorri’s areas as well as experiencing Reykjavik in the endless night. The saga retellings and the story of Snorri are really well done – accessible and modern enough to engage, but correct enough to please the expert or other obsessive. They also don’t retell WHOLE sagas, either bits of them or a sort of summary of the main points, unless they are really short, which makes the book less uneven than it sounds. There were some new-to-me sagas, and the meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev and the chess contest between Spassky and Fischer are also told in this style, which was a nice touch.

I got very excited when I saw Gunnar’s farm’s name on a service station in 2014

The writers are decent, emotionally literate family men who have a special fondness and affinity with the sometimes dark and blood-soaked sagas of a different age and place. Their love for the topic really shines through, as does their friendship. This is a really special and lovely book, and one I will no doubt ready again. Heartily recommended, whether you know the sagas and Iceland or not.

There are pictures printed straight onto the page throughout the book and a set of colour plates, also on the standard paper, at the front and back. It was lovely to see places I’ve been and photographed (e.g. Snorri’s hot pot) and, along with watching Alexander Armstrong’s TV series on Iceland, made me desperate to get back there for a fifth time.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 11/85 – 74 to go – and it was part of Nonfiction November and AusReading Month!