“Books exist for different reasons.” So said Di Morrissey at a recent dinner in Sydney to mark her 25th year as a published author. It was a pleasure to meet this 68-year-old writer (and former TV star) and some of her friends and family. Her son, Nicolas Morrissey, flew in from the US, where he is a professor at the University of Georgia. His speech was full of pride in his mother, and love. Morrissey’s first novel, Heart of the Dreaming, was published in 1991. She has written just about one a year since, the latest of which, A Distant Journey, is reviewed on page 31. Her simple description of books is one to which any reader can relate: we all like books for different reasons, we all receive something from them that is individual and personal. That can vary from reader to reader and book to book, but we know that books matter, that writers deserve respect. We may change our minds about that from time to time, but it’s a good starting point. It’s part of what Morrissey was saying, too. She may have sold a few million books, but it still hurts if critics diminish her writing. “I’m terrified,” she said when called on to make a speech. It was lovely to see her holding on to the shoulder of the writer sitting beside her, one who has published even more books: Tom Keneally. When he won the Man Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark, she was a decade off her debut. It was wonderful to see them together, both still going strong. I will continue the Christmas books theme in a second, but first I want to note three more animal-themed works that didn’t make the dogs and cats parade last week. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, by US journalist Andrew Lawler, is a fascinating, informative and amusing study of the bird that powers civilisation. There are 20 billion of them on the planet. The book is full of sections that start like this: “Chickens were already in Britain when Caesar arrived with his troops in 55BC.” It’s a page-turning read. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, is based on their documentary of the same name. It’s a pro-vegan (and pro-cow) examination of the environmental impact of meat production. Scorpion, by Sydney academic Louise M. Pryke, is a serious history of the stinging arthropod, an animal revered, feared — and misunderstood. As a Scorpio, I empathise. “Despite the scorpion’s hostile reputation,” Pryke writes, “most are not aggressive.” Indeed, they are “exceptional creatures”. So there! Christmas is fun but it can also be stressful, what with family and all that, so here’s a book that may come in useful if conversation livens up over post-pudding port. Scorn, by British politician turned writer Matthew Parris, is billed as a compendium of the “wittiest and wickedest insults in human history”. As the author is a Pom, I checked for a section on Australia. It’s there, devoted to politics, and is dominated by Paul Keating. He’s good value but it’s no compendium without Gough Whitlam’s response to Winton Turnbull’s declaration: ‘‘I am a Country member.’’ EGW: “I remember.”
The book is full of celebrated insults from famous and infamous people, from Dennis Lillee to Robert Mugabe, Virginia Woolf to Oscar Wilde, Mozart to Yoko Ono, Princess Di to Donald Trump. I was curious to see who received the most references in the index. I would have guessed Winston Churchill, but while he is ahead of Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, and Hitler for that matter, he’s a distant third to Wilde and, at the head of the pack, George Bernard Shaw. The most referenced Australian is not a sports star (though we punch hard in that section) or Keating but Clive James. Quote of the week: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay the debt. Don’t forget.” Yes, I’ve returned to the chicken book for that one, the final words of Socrates.