A powerful story of two families brought together by beauty and torn apart by tragedy, the new novel by the Orange Prize-winning author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder is her most astonishing yet

    It is 1964: Bert Cousins, the deputy district attorney, shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited, bottle of gin in hand. As the cops of Los Angeles drink, talk and dance into the June afternoon, he notices a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman. When Bert kisses Beverly Keating, his host’s wife, the new baby pressed between them, he sets in motion the joining of two families whose shared fate will be defined on a day seven years later.

    In 1988, Franny Keating, now twenty-four, has dropped out of law school and is working as a cocktail waitress in Chicago. When she meets one of her idols, the famous author Leon Posen, and tells him about her family, she unwittingly relinquishes control over their story. Franny never dreams that the consequences of this encounter will extend beyond her own life into those of her scattered siblings and parents.

    Told with equal measures of humour and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility. A meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories, it is Ann Patchett’s most astonishing work to date.


    Thank you to Pat for moderating The Colour by Rose Tremain. An excited buzz was in the air as we gathered, eager to get back into book discussion, after our summer break.

    The Colour had proved to be perfect holiday reading. From opening chapters you knew you were in safe hands with the promise of a page turning, well written, well researched book set around The Gold (The Colour) Rush in 19th century New Zealand.

    The novel ‘s main protagonists, deeply flawed Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and mother Lillian, emigrated from England, escaping various tragic pasts, for a new start in the alien hinterland near Christchurch. Joseph throws everything into building a cob house ignoring local advice on where to set its foundations. The first severe winter snow brings huge deprivations for the family though they battle on with the fortitude of true pioneers. OBGers doubted we were made of such stern stuff!

    One morning, going down to the river, Joseph spots flecks of gold and quickly becomes consumed with making his fortune an easier way. He leaves the farm alone, sails north around the South Island to the gold fields on the West Coast. Later Harriet, after Lillian’s death, follows him, though they never meet again.

    There is a sweeping cast of believable characters including generous neighbours Toby and Dorothy Orchard, successful sheep farmers who in contrast have tamed their environment, their ailing son Edwin with his Maori nurse Pare, Pao Yi, the gentle Chinese gardener supplying vegetables to the miners with whom Harriet develops a fulfilling relationship, and camp followers rent boy Will Sefton, and Mrs Dinsdale, the respectable landlady turned brothel owner. While there were mixed views on the degree of our emotional attachment to some of characters, the majority of members were absorbed in their different stories, particularly Harriet’s, praising Tremain’s poignant observations.

    Pare was voted the least convincing. Presumably, Tremain had introduced Pare to add a layer of Maori spiritually to the grasping world of the immigrants. One member reminded us that Pare had no interest in gold searching instead for culturally significant Greenstone. This was an effective jolt for the group to question the meaning of intrinsic value.

    There was unanimous agreement that the strength of the book was her vivid descriptions of the landscape, particularly the workings of the gold fields with its complicated contraptions to mine the seams hidden in the riverbed. We all got caught up in the gold fever debasing men and women into creatures with one aim to find gold or take advantage of those who had.

    Jane Campion’s film The Piano was referenced………the mud, the clothes, the new settlers alienation from the landscape. Another member compared Tremain’s storytelling style to Thomas Hardy novels where unsympathetic leading men and fate, symbolised by the weather, are always strong themes ……The Mayor of Casterbridge sprung to mind.

    Minor criticisms were the Mills and Boon description of the physical relationship that developed between Harriet and Pao Yi, the death of Lillian’s husband by an Ostrich seemed rather odd and tying up all the loose ends in closing chapters may have been a bit twee, but, hey, lots of us were pleased to know they were mostly going to be OK after everything.

    Rose Tremain is a new author to many, but certainly one we will revisit when the mood calls for a strong story well told.


  • Happy New Year from everyone at FOBL!

    We are currently working on an exciting program of Speaker Events for 2018…………so watch this space!


    This year marks the 10th Anniversary of FOBL’s Open Book Group. In 2007 Jan, Annette and I put up a notice inviting FOBL members, and anyone else, to come along and talk books. Would they come? Yes, they did, and 10 years on they still do. Well done all!

    I was pleased to moderate The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.

    Barnes presents us with a fictional biography of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich born on 12 September 1906 in St Petersberg and regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. Barnes uses Shostakovich’s voice to describe his life against the background of a tumultuous period in Russian history. The main theme of the novel is how the Soviet State or “The Power” used its influence to control the artistic expression of its composers.

    Shostakovich lived in fear of his life following numerous interrogations by The Power when composing every one of his fifteen symphonies, six concertos, quintets, three operas, and film music. He was continually accused of dangerous personal expression rather than writing for the glory of the proletariat……..but, as the group discussed, what and how exactly did The Power want him to compose? The sands were continually shifting depending on Stalin’s whims.

    There was unanimous agreement that the writing is sublime. Barnes divided the Novel into three parts covering the years from 1936, when Shostakovich first raised Stalin’s ire with a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to his death in 1975. The last section was particularly harrowing as Shostakovich is forced to join the Party. The Power argued the world can see just how enlightened they are now that a person of Shostakovich’s stature is “willing” join the fold. Trump, someone ruefully pointed out, is using similar tactics with “good” Republicans.

    Each section starts with a quote referencing the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities without the balancing Best of Times. Members also noted Barnes describing the Lady Macbeth review in Pravda as by someone who knew as much about music “as a pig knows about oranges”…….referencing Orwell’s Animal Farm, in turn, a satire of the Russian Revolution.

    Another member brought our attention to her favourite passage; a description of the natural pessimism of Russians and Stalin’s aim to make the Soviet Union optimistic (even if he did have to kill millions in the process). Others praised Barnes’ building up the sense of terror within which Shostakovich lived his whole life. “I really had to break for a cup of tea, it was all too much”.

    The suspicion was raised about how much was true in the telling and how much is fiction? Some may have preferred a factual biography……….but then any history is only ever the interpretation of the author. Barnes’ treatment allowed his considerable imagination to get inside Shostakovich’s head and attempt to describe his thought processes.

    There was also some criticism that there was too little focus on the masses dying without the protection Shostakovich’s art did, ironically, provide him……..but Barnes was focussing on the plight of the intelligentsia.

    The musical buffs amongst us were able to shed light in this area where I am sadly lacking. They commented that he can be discordant, but several had witnessed thrilling nights at the Opera House where the audience had lifted as one at the end of the performance of his symphony.

    Interesting the Novel is bookended with passages about Shostakovich and friend meeting and drinking vodka with a beggar at the train station. I had been bemused by this, but the group came to my rescue. In the clicking of the three glasses, Shostakovich hears a perfect Triad note. Notes which, ultimately, like other great works of literature and art will survive The Noise of Time. Barnes argues that in the end, this is all that matters. Plenty of food for thought.

    In conclusion, we agreed that not only was it a great read, but also we had learned loads. Many of us knew nothing of his life and works, and foresaw much browsing on YouTube to rectify the matter.


  • We are delighted to present The Last Literary Editor, a talk by Susan Wyndham.

    Susan Wyndham was literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1996 – 1999 and 2008 – 2017.

    In her career as a journalist she has also been a news reporter, feature writer, editor of Good Weekend magazine, New York correspondent for The Australian, and deputy editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. She is the author of Life in His Hands: the true story of a neurosurgeon and a pianist (Picador, 2009) editor of My Mother, My Father: on losing a parent (Allen & Unwin, 2013) and contributor to several other books.

    Susan has also contributed essays to two more recent books Rebellious Daughters edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (Ventura, 2016) and Unbreakable, edited by Jan Caro (UQ, 2017).

    She is now a freelance journalist, book reviewer, moderator at literary events, and working at another book.

    Susan Wyndham’s essay titled The Last Editor will appear on the December 2017 issue of Meanjin.

    We are thrilled and excited to have the chance to hear Susan talk about her experience and share her thoughts with us all.

    Date: Friday 24th November 2017
    Location: Balmain Town Hall Small Meeting Room
    Time: 7pm for 7.30pm
    Cost (incl. light supper):
    Non-members: $20.00
    Members: $15.00

    Tickets are not available for purchase on-line.

  • Welcome Caroline and thank you to Sylvia for moderating We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

    Getting into a book sometimes creates a challenge and the first 76 pages of this one certainly did.

    The story commences in the present with protagonist Rosemary recounting memories of her happy, very loving, if somewhat chaotic, upbringing with sister Fern, brother Lowell, mother, and father a behavioural psychologist.

    Rosemary is a difficult turbulent character with the writing bouncing all over the place to reflect her voice. As her mother declared “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” in this household. Intriguingly Rosemary also alludes to great sadness in her early life when Fern and Lowell suddenly both disappear from the family. We were confused, did they die?

    At this early stage, for some members, frustration was seriously setting in. For others, the account reinforced the fact that happiness is not state in itself but is a product of being loved and surrounded by people who care.

    Then we reached page 77 and the big reveal.

    Fern is a Chimp and Rosemary was brought up in tandem as her “twin” until Fern disappeared.  This totally unforeseen twist gave us all a jolt. We reassessed, and some reread, the first 76 pages with fresh eyes. Fern through the experiments undertaken by her father and the graduate students, had taken on human characteristics. Rosemary’s early play with Fern meant Rosemary’s chattering incessantly, biting, pulling hair, jumping on tables etc. was also considered acceptable.

    Our attention now truly captured, the book took on a darker turn. Fern had been taken away to live, caged up, in a Laboratory when she became too big and dangerous to reside in a human home. The family fell apart. Lowell left, ending all contact with his parents. He became heavily involved and subsequently incarcerated for his Animal Liberation activities.

    We all agreed that it was a plot of great imagination and the writing very successfully captured her “monkey-girl” character. It was also a novel about memories, how selective they are – Rosemary hardly mentions her father….although presumably as the instigator of the animal experiments he would have been a powerful force in the family – and how reliable those memories, like all memories, actually were.

    Fowler referenced the real-life cases in the 60s and 70s where Chimps had been subject to similar experiments. Fowler’s accounts were brief but prompted one member to say she would have almost rather read a non-fiction analysis of these experiments. Totally inappropriate as they were, maybe their tragic results did result in the understanding we have today?…….a difficult call.

    The OBG discussion moved onto the whole topic of the arrogance humans hold over animals. Many animal lovers in the group, including a volunteer at Taronga Zoo, had heart warming accounts clearly demonstrating their intelligence.

    One member noted the Great Ape Project seeking to legislate Primate rights. How far do you go? “Would you worry about your goldfish?” quipped a member. We touched upon the challenge of using animals in medical research. Yes easy to have an outcry against animal testing of mascara and lip gloss, but the more tricky debate of their use in a cure for cancer was left hanging. Each of us reflected on our position privately.

    Swinging back to the book Sylvia noted there were several in-jokes which none of us would have got without her help…..the name plays of Rosemary’s equally anarchic friend Harlow and of Madame Deferage, the puppet. What exactly was the point of the Ventriloquist dummy anyway? We didn’t understand that plot line. Some felt Lowell’s story was perhaps more interesting and would have liked to have seen it developed from his viewpoint..

    In conclusion, we agreed that it was a book well suited to OBG. The discussion of the challenging issues it raised greatly enhanced the original read. Happy participants moved on to Tea and Tim Tams.



  • It was a full, excited, house on Friday 6th October to hear Kate McClymont speak to FOBL. Her talk was entitled The Bold, The Belligerent and the Bagmen.

    Kate McClymont is an investigative journalist currently reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. In the late 1980s, McClymont worked for two years as a junior reporter on Four Corners. In 2002, she won a Gold Walkley, an investigative journalism award, with Anne Davies for coverage of a rugby league salary cap scandal associated with the Canterbury Bulldogs. She presented the 2014 Andrew Olle Media Lecture. She is the co-author, with Linton Besser, of He who must be Obeid,an unauthorised biography of former NSW Minister Eddie Obeid.

    A generous, witty and informative speaker. Kate is pictured here with FOBL Chair, Dr Mariella Totaro-Genevois.

    We were delighted Kate also enjoyed her visit to Balmain “That was one of the most enjoyable talks I have done. The audience was well informed and so receptive!”

  • Tonight we will announce the finalists and winners of the FOBL Writing Competition for year 5 and 6 students in the Balmain area.

    Viv Nicoll-Hatton who was awarded the 2013 Lady Cutler Award, an award presented annually for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature in New South Wales will be discussing the young writers’ entries.


    Come along and join in the buzz in the room as the Awards are announced!


    Date: Friday 15th September 2017
    Location: Balmain Town Hall Small Meeting Room
    Time: 7pm for 7.30pm
    Cost: FREE

  • Tonight we will announce the winners of the FOBL Writing Competition for Balmain Secondary College. Winners and Highly commended entries will be selected from two separate groups. The first group consist of years 7 and 8 students and the second group years 9 and 10 students.

    The task for the students was to write on the theme of Justice.

    Come along and join in the excitement of the Awards Ceremony!

    Date: Wednesday 23rd August 2017
    Location: Balmain Town Hall Small Meeting Room
    Time: 6pm for 6.30pm
    Cost: FREE

  • FOBL AGM – 2nd June 2017

    Chairperson’s Report

    Mariella Totaro-Genevois


    Good evening and a very warm welcome to everyone here tonight. This is the 19th Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Balmain Library (FOBL). My name is Mariella Totaro-Genevois and I have been Chair of the FOBL Committee for the last ten years. I am really sad to announce that Annette Waterworth, our invaluable Treasurer since 2002, has lost her brother in a light plane crash and has gone to Adelaide to join her family there. FOBL Committee member Rosa Saladino has kindly agreed to read the Treasurer’s Report, while Shirley Allen, another helpful Committee member is standing in for Fiona Chapman, our Secretary, who is unable to be here tonight.

    FOBL, as most of you know, is an independent, non-profit organization, founded in 1998 to fight for Balmain Library’s inclusion within the restoration plan of the Balmain Town Hall. Since achieving that goal all following FOBL Committees – including the current one – have been devoted to supporting, promoting and enhancing the services of Balmain Library.

    But, coming to the present, while Annette’s report will mostly focus on financial issues, I will endeavour to present a concise but comprehensive account of FOBL’s work, initiatives and projects from May 2016 to May 2017. My Report includes three sections addressing the main areas of interest we have covered in this financial year: education, culture, and communication and interaction with our members and the Balmain community at large.

    Of course not everything can be categorised in absolute terms, for instance our 2016 AGM when Shirley Allen, Convenor of the NSW Support Association for Women of Afghanistan (SAWA), gave an informative and inspiring talk about the long-standing and successful work of her Association, this could come under culture because of its edifying content, but could also fit into the area of communication & interaction with FOBL members and the general public. So I hope you will allow me to be a bit flexible.

    I’ll start with FOBL commitment to educational projects.

    In June we held the fifth School Writing Competition Awards Night for students of the Sydney Secondary College in Balmain. This is one of two annual creative-writing contests run by FOBL.  The second Awards Night for the Primary School Writing Competition was held in mid October. The atmosphere at both events was vibrant and joyful, with our venue full of bright excited students, smiling teachers and proud parents and grandparents. Soon after the Primary Schools Awards Night the celebrated writer and distinguished education expert Nadia Wheatley conducted a creative-writing workshop for the lucky winners and the highly commended schoolchildren.

    As you may know since 2010, when our Committee launched the first FOBL Primary School Writing Competition these contests have occupied a central place in our annual calendar, thanks also to the generous financial backing of Bendigo Bank, to which we are and always will be deeply grateful.

    Unfortunately we have recently been informed that the Bank won’t be able to continue supporting us in the future. Let me say that notwithstanding this unexpected drawback, the FOBL Committee would like to continue running its writing competitions for the schools; I am confident we will eventually find support from other community-minded organizations.

    Finally in the education area I want to take this opportunity to warmly thank Vivienne Nicoll-Hatton, Maryellen Galbally, Bronwyn Monro and Fiona Chapman, the four highly competent and dedicated judges of the School Writing Competitions. The amount of work required by these contests is huge. It’s not just a question of professional qualifications, but as in most things relating to education qualities such as flexibility, empathy, experience and above all passion are essential, and the FOBL team of judges have all these qualities.

    Let me move now to cultural initiatives and events.

    On June 10 2016 children’s literature star and collage artist Jeannie Baker fascinated her audience illustrating the genesis and development of her latest book Circle. At the same time the book’s original artwork was on display in a traveling exhibition at the Sydney Maritime Museum. I must also mention that since then Circle has attracted national acclaim for its powerful, environmental message and artistic merit, and has been chosen as the best picture book for children by the Independent Bookshops NSW. It has earned Jeannie Baker the honour of being chosen by the International Board on Books for young people (IBBI) as the Australian nominee for the prestigious 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration.

    At the end of July Emeritus Professor Nerida Newbigin from the University of Sydney, a specialist in Italian Renaissance Studies, captivated us with the story of the discovery and subsequent transformation of a 15th century Florentine manuscript firstly into the PhD of her postgraduate student Kathleen Olive, and later into a magnificent book that was given to Pope Francis on his first visit to Florence. A facsimile of this precious and splendidly illustrated volume was on display for the audience to inspect on the night.

    In November we decided to present a daytime function, a well attended and well-received talk by Anne McCloud, who presented her recently published biography of Marie Byles, the first female solicitor to practice in NSW. A lively question time followed ending only because there was a delicious lunch waiting to be enjoyed.

    Our end of the year function in early December was called Carols, Carousing and Cooking: a Medieval Christmas. Vivienne Nicoll-Hatton, who had put in a tremendous effort organising it, gave us a lively introduction to this special celebration. The event also included traditional carols sung by the local small choir PerSona. On this occasion our customary generous supper featured tasty examples of medieval finger foods.

    Do I need to add that the FOBL crowd had a highly successful and fun night?

    Coming now to this year, FOBL’s cultural program for 2017 was inaugurated in March with the best selling author and well-known memoir-writing teacher Patti Miller. Her topic was Truth Telling in Memoir, and her thought provoking presentation fully engaged the audience.

    If we move now to FOBL’s interaction with its membership and the wider community, first on the list is of course the increasingly popular Open Book Group. Its regular meetings take place on the second Tuesday of the month. Discussions are always lively and stimulating, a great achievement by inspirational convenors Gillian O’Mulloy and Jan Atkin.

    Still on the subject of connecting with the public FOBL’s website, au, keeps expanding its content and is regularly  and meticulously updated. This is a time consuming and specialised task that our wonderful Gillian carries out in her usual generous and understated style.

    Our regular publication, Bookworm, on the other hand, remains a reliable and valuable source of information about matters of interest for FOBL members, always presenting it in a very appealing format. The Committee is deeply grateful to Rosa Saladino, its accomplished Editor. In addition, as unfortunately Rosa is not nominating for next year’s committee, I wish to publicly express our deep gratitude for her skilled and generous contribution to the FOBL Committee work in the past four years.

    As for Hill of Content, our local bookshop, FOBL is truly grateful for its generous support. The collaboration is not only very welcome but also very enjoyable for us all.

    Finally, and still on the subject of the FOBL Committee connecting with people, we have a new initiative, in the form of a quarterly morning tea for the Staff of Balmain Library, when they join us for a brief break, which offers the chance for a quiet chat over a cup of tea and home-made cake.

    And now, having concluded my 2017 AGM Report, once more as in the past ten years, and most importantly with the same enthusiasm as the first time, I wish to sincerely thank every member of the FOBL Committee for their amazing and resourceful work.

    For me it has been not only a wonderful experience but also a real privilege to be part of the team!

  • Book boost newsFriends of Balmain Library workers had a very happy time presiding over our Third Book Boost. We spent almost $5,000.00 buying books for the Library on the weekend of 17/18 October.

    This is how it works: we ask the Library staff which areas need a top up. Last year it was non-fiction which resulted in a very colourful supply of cookbooks. This year it was children’s books and fiction. There was a particular need for board books for the littlies who do use them for teething and tearing practice.

    Then the public are invited in to choose what books they would like to see on the shelves. People usually are quite surprised and cheerful that they can choose a book without spending a dollar of their own money. The kids are delighted to rummage through the collection and of course want to take their book home straight away. The idea of waiting a couple of weeks for the staff to process them is not always well received.

    We FOBLers have a great time chatting to old friends, making new ones, joining up new members and watching the beautiful kids enjoying the beautiful books.

    A special thanks to the Hill of Content staff who provide us with a really good selection of titles at very good prices and of course to the Library staff who grabbed the selections for processing ASAP and also kept us supplied with tea and chocky biccies.

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