‘Rules of Civility’ by Amor Towles

2012, 368 p.

I had to wait for a long time for this book to become available at the library, and it was well worth the wait. I just loved it, and didn’t want it to finish. The story is set in New York in 1937, and is evocative of all those black-and-white films with the Empire State Building in the background and imbued with New York glamour. There’s shades of Gatsby here too, through the first-person narration of a young woman of humble background who is drawn into the milieu of fabulously wealthy people.

The frame story introduces us to Katey Kontent on the 4th October 1966 who, along with her husband, attends a photographic exhibition ‘Many are Called’ at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition features never-before-seen portraits taken by Walker Evans with a hidden camera in the late 1930s on the New York subways with a hidden camera. These black-and-white images are of just ordinary people, taken without their knowledge or consciousness. One image in particular attracts her attention. She knows that well-dressed, urbane business man, and she knows that an image of a gaunt, disheveled man is him too- it is Tinker Grey.

And thus we are taken back to New Years Eve 1937, when Katey, along with her room-mate Eve Ross, first meet Tinker in a nightclub, as they try to eke out their money for drinks to see them through to the new year. Eve, is blonde, with dimples “so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek” (p.15) Tinker is rich and good fun, and both girls – neither of whom is rich – are swept up into a life of parties and nightclubs until it all comes to a sudden halt. Despite Katey and Tinker’s attraction to each other, life goes off in a different direction. Katey takes us through the year of 1938, each time taking care to note the exact date, as she changes her job, and negotiates her way around a wealthy, dissolute milieu with Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile, and Anne Grandyn. Meanwhile, Eve and Tinker go off on other trajectories. One one level, Katey learns that wealth and power can influence events and give people the wherewithal to manipulate and intervene in other people’s choices: on another level, there is still that aspect of chance and unexpected event that sends everything awry.

The title of the book comes from the Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation which Katey discovers amongst Tinker’s possessions. She realizes that these 110 homespun maxims are more influential on Tinker than she at first thought, especially the last one: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience”. And it was that last one that brought Tinker to the dishevelled state that the photographer Walker Evans captured in his photograph.

At the end of the book, and looking back on that year of her life, the older Katey says:

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time- by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?…

Life doesn’t have to provide you any options at all. It can easily define your course from the outset and keep you in check through all manner of rough and subtle mechanics. To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course- that’s by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn’t come without a price.

p. 323

I’ve been oblique about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and feel as if I have been in the hands of a master storyteller.

My rating: 9.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 June 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 147 Capitulation. So Julian was dead, with the Sassanids heading for victory, and with no successor named. The officers turned first to Praetorian Prefect Salutius, but he declined because he said that he was too old. Then they went for Jovian, the 39 year old and largely unknown Captain of the Imperial Bodyguard. He was openly Christian, but this hadn’t hurt his career as Julian the Apostate didn’t particularly care what your religion was, as long as you did your job. Jovian accepted capitulation to the Sassanids in order to keep his army intact, but the troops opposed this surrender and he lost all authority amongst them. He annulled the anti-Christian legislation and brought back the anti-Pagan legislation. But after 8 months, he suddenly died. Was it an accident? Who knows. But Mike Duncan thinks that it was a blessing because it brought Valentinian and his brother Valens to the role of Emperor. When Jovian up and died, they were the right men at the right time.

Episode 148 The Cousin´s Cousin. For the first time in ages, we had two emperors who didn´t hate each other. Valentinian and Valens embedded the idea of the East-West division, with Valentinian taking the western provinces and Valens the east. Valentinian generally treated the Gauls and Allamanni with contempt, and when Julian´s cousin Procopius, the last of the Constantinian dynasty, seized Constantinople, Valentinian left it to Valens to deal with. But Sharpoor was on the rise again in the east, so Valens headed off to Syria until he received news of Procopius´seizure of power, then returned to Constantinople to fight him, and won. Meanwhile Valentinian was engaged with the Allamanni and was in a good position to finish them off, but had to leave off battle because the Saxons were on the rise in Britain.

Carol Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

Episode 149 The Great Conspiracy takes us to the co-ordinated uprising in Britain where, on account of the neglect and stagnation that had set in, the Picts, Hiberian tribes from Ireland, the Franks on the coast and loose, unorganized Saxon tribes from Jutland all joined together against the Romans. The Romans were quickly overcome. There was no real political agenda: it was just plundering. Valentinian didn’t head over to Britain in person because defeats were politically dicey so he sent off Theodosius Snr instead (the father of the future emperor) who was a supporter of the Nicene Creed. He quickly cleared Londinium and announced an amnesty for Roman soldiers who had gone AWOL (as many had done) in order to boost the numbers of Roman troops. Valentinian was sick, so he elevated his son Gratian to full Augustus in order to secure the succession.

How It Happened (Axios) Putin’s Invasion Part V: The Fight for the Donbas picks up on Putin’s redirection of troops to the Donbas, which Putin claims is taking place on Russian soil. Many Ukrainians speak Russian, and one of the interviewees (news producer Kateryna Malofieiva) talks about how life changed once the Russians annexed the region in 2014- the currency changed; the food brands changed. There has been a complete breakdown in her family between pro-Russian and pro-Ukranian relatives. Ukraine wants to return to the 1991 borders (i.e. get back the Donbas region and Crimea) and is relying on its 44,000 battle-hardened troops who have been fighting on the Russian border since 2014. One of those is Ukrainian Cpl. Andrii Shadrin, born in the Crimea and who had never even heard Ukrainian spoken (only Russian). He joined one of the units that Putin would say was ‘Nazi’, and his parents too believe that he has been brainwashed. He thinks the same about them.

The Little Red Podcast is hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. Shanghaied: Living with COVID Zero was really interesting. We were all appalled by scenes of Wuhan citizens being bolted into their homes, and two years later it is happening again as Shanghai is locked down again in pursuit of COVID Zero- something that the rest of the world seems to have given up on. Shanghai residents had reassured themselves that they were so economically important that they couldn’t be shut down, but they were wrong. Two months later, upper and middle-class Shanghai residents are now aware of the power of censorship and arbitrary decision-making as their building-specific group chats were closed down on the internet, and they were being told things that they could clearly see were not true. Food handouts from the government depended on where you lived, and those factories that did remain open in effect became labour camps. Now they are ramping up their testing, with compulsory tests every couple of days, but so many low-paid workers have left Shanghai for their villages, that there are insufficient people to do the testing at such low pay.

‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’ by Julianne Schultz

2022, 416 p. plus notes

I must confess that I’ve never really engaged in discussions of Australian identity. It has always seemed to me to be a topic that can too often by hijacked by the ra-ra Akubra mob, and infused with the whole Anzac, flag, fair dinkum rhetoric. But I was encouraged to read this book, largely on the basis of the many positive blurbs on the cover, but also by the inclusion of that little word “soul”. Leaving aside its religious connotations (which Schultz does too), she is probing beyond the surface and the image to consider something more personal, more integral to the idea of Australia and Australians, as distinct from the performance of Australian-ness. As a commentator she is well placed to do so: she was the inaugural editor of the Griffith Review which, over and beyond the 64 volumes she edited, has explored various features of Australian life in essays, poetry and story.

In many ways the chapter headings in this book echo the titles of the Griffith Reviews that I have on my shelves: From Somewhere; Making the Nation; Remaking the Nation; People Like Us; From Little Things. Like a Griffith Review volume, these discursive chapters weave together strands of her own biography, history, literature and politics.

She has a number of themes that she returns to across different chapters. One of these is the idea of the ‘Covid X-ray’ which revealed the fault-lines within Australian society. Another is Linda Colley’s idea that, without catastrophe, most change takes ‘three score years and ten’ to move from idea to reality- an oddly reassuring thought. Schultz references this ‘three score years and ten’ often during her book, giving it an oddly ponderous, almost religious tone at times. She refers several times to the Sydney Olympics and the feeling of pride that many of us, ready to sneer, felt at its irreverent and insouciant depiction of our country on a global scale. Where has that Australia gone? Finally, and most importantly, she returns again and again to the Uluru Statement, that call to Australia’s soul, that she feels will “sooner or later, fundamentally reshape the idea of Australia” (p. 146).

This book is unashamedly a product of the twenty-first century. Her chapter-by-chapter references (unfortunately the book lacks a compiled bibliography) favour recent publications and the rather excessive long list of laudatory paragraphs at the start of the book embed the book within a progressive intellectual milieu. So far, I have not read reviews of the book from The Australian or Quadrant, which ordinarily would leap on a book about ‘Australia’s identity’- one of their favourite topics despite their deprecation of ‘identity politics’. In a way this book is timely, given that we faced a general election in the wake of strange times. But I also have hopes that, given its historic span that draws from historians and events across Australia’s history, it might transcend that short-termism. I suspect this book may well stand the test of time, as Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, Hancock’s Australia, Bernard Smith’s Boyer Lecture The Spectre of Truganini and Stanner’s phrase ‘The Great Australian Silence’, each of which she references repeatedly, have managed to do. At least, I hope that it does. By talking of ‘the soul of the Nation’ she steps beyond the economy and politics into something more intimate and powerful and inspirational.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 June 2022

History of Rome Podcast. Episode 144 The Road to Constantinople Even though he had not been brought up in the military, Julian had good success against the Germans and Franks- so much so that he was acclaimed as Augusta by his troops. But, at this stage, he declined the offer, saying that Constantius was the only Augusta. Instead of stripping the Gauls of everything in order to pay for his victory, he had the idea of cutting taxes on them, but actually collecting them, instead of allowing them to accrue debt and then write it off in a fit of debt-forgiveness. Meanwhile, over in the east, Sharpoor and the Sassanids became active again in Syria, so Constantius ordered Julian to send his troops east. But his troops didn’t want to go and Julian wasn’t prepared to force them, and this time when they urged Julian to be Augusta, he accepted, thus setting himself up for war against Constantius. Constantius was becoming increasingly paranoid after his wife (who had always championed Julian) died. Constantius was en route to engage in battle with Julian, when he died, leaving Julian as sole emperor. Once Julian arrived in Constantinople in

Episode 145 Julian the Apostate, he cleared the imperial court of his enemies, after appointing an ostensibly ‘independent’ commission. He looked back to the 100s C.E. and the Antonine dynasty as a model, cutting the bloat in the court and administration, and abandoning all that talk of “Living God” stuff. He kept control of defence and taxation but devolved power back to the local magistrates. He had always been a pagan behind the scenes, having rejected the Christianity of his upbringing, but now he embarked on re-paganizing the Empire. Despite his name, he didn’t make Christianity illegal. However, he opened up the civil service to pagans, and sacked the Christians, and announced that all religions were now seen as equal, which set the Christians against each other as now all sorts of heresies could arise. He didn’t actually ban Christian schools, but he banned the use of classical texts by Christian teachers, and Roman families who wanted their sons to get ahead withdrew them from Christian educators so that they could receive a proper education. Julian looked at the community and social support aspects of Christianity and tried to emulate it by uniting pagans into one Paganism- but that was never going to work. In Episode 146 The Spear of Destiny Constantius was dead, but Julian was determined to go to war against Sharpoor and the Sassanids. At first he was quite successful, but then he failed. The Sassanids engaged in a scorched earth policy, which led to starvation amongst Julian’s troops. However, he continued to lead, and it was while leading that he was speared (no-one knows by whom) because he rushed out without wearing his armour. He probably didn’t think that he was going to die, but after lingering a couple of days, he did- without appointing a successor. He was 31 years old, and had ruled for about 18 months. He dreamed big, and died young. Superficially, he was like Elagabalus in that he tried to reform religion, but he was more important than that. It’s one of the big ‘What Ifs’ of history- if he had ruled for longer, would Christianity ever re-established itself? Would the whole of European history changed?

The Real Story (BBC) China vs. the West in the East is interesting because it takes a European/BBC approach to the ‘Far East’ , which is of course Australia’s closest area of influence. It features Jonathan Pryke – Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank; Dr George Carter – A Samoan Research Fellow in Geopolitics and Regionalism at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (ANU) and Judith Cefkin – Former US Ambassador to Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati. All speakers were keen to emphasize the multiplicity of languages, cultures and states within the Pacific, and the inappropriateness of China wanting to deal with them as a block. Dr Carter pointed out that there is no Pacific immigration at all into China, and that these family ties are important in relationships with Australia and New Zealand.

Things Fell Apart (BBC) Episode 7 A Secret Room behind a Fake Wall tells the story of Isaac Kappy, a film producer from Albuquerque whose career fell apart and ended up in Hollywood. Always attracted to conspiracy theories, he became engrossed in Pizzagate, and then went onto Alex Jones Infowars to claim a widespread Hollywood pedophilia network. He died by falling from a bridge, obviously troubled and probably by suicide, but his cause was taken up by QAnon and lawyer Lin Wood, one of Donald Trump’s ‘outside’ lawyers.

History Extra Podcast There have been fairly muted celebrations of the Queen’s 70th Jubilee here in Australia but I did listen to Britain’s transformation during the Queen’s Lifetime, featuring historian Dominic Sandbrook. Starting off with the Queen’s birth in 1926, he and interviewer Rhiannon Davies give us a picture of British life and politics decade by decade of the Queen’s life. There were no Roaring Twenties in Britain, where the ’20s were largely an extension of the pain of WWI. Perhaps that’s why the Depression did not figure as much in people’s consciousness as it did in US, although there were very different experiences in the North and South. WWII in the 40s was a seismic event, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret became patriotic icons. The 50’s -especially the second half- were marked by consumerism, brighter clothes, youth culture and full employment. Televisions and washing machines in particular changed society. The 60’s for families in the suburbs were not particularly ‘swinging’, and were more an extension of the 50s. Large-scale immigration from the Caribbean and India/Pakistan began in this decade, and it was unpopular from the start. The 1970s were marked by strikes, discontent and IRA bombings, co-existing with increasing affluence. The arrival of Thatcher during the 1980s accelerated changes which were already under way, but de-industrialization and austerity deepened social divisions. The 90s brought New Labor, and in many ways Thatcher had fought many of the battles for them. With the death of Diana, the Queen seemed to be a bit of a relic, but Brexit and the Queens neutrality about it, was good for the Royal Family. She was embraced again with her COVID speech, and I think that Paddington Bear endeared her to us further.

99% Invisible. Divining Provenance examines the looting of Syrian artefacts since the start of the Syrian War. Syria, of course, is replete with archaelogical sites, which have been looted for decades. But with the arrival of ISIS (many of whom were not Syrian), this looting and trafficking became a major source of funding. Over the last ten years, ordinary people have been doing it too. The UN introduced Provenance law in 1970, which made trade of anything uncovered since 1970 illegal, but different countries apply the law differently. Although buyers will turn themselves inside out proving authenticity (because who wants to buy a fake) but provenance is another matter, especially when goods are presented in a job lot. Facebook, where much of the selling takes place, claims to have a take-down policy, but it in effect leaves the whole question of provenance (or not) to the seller.

‘The Red Witch’ by Nathan Hobby

2022, 385 p & notes

Near the end of her life, the author Katharine Susannah Prichard was sorting through her papers and correspondence, threatening to burn “while there’s still time”. Her friend Catherine Duncan wrote back to her

I can understand that you should want to put a time limit on giving students access to personal papers, but in fifty years, dearest Kattie, the KSP you are now will have become someone else- she will have escaped you…Perhaps in the end it’s better to surrender the truth to posterity rather than allow one’s self to be deformed by supposition.


Well, fifty years have passed and here is Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I wonder what KSP would think of it? She was, after all, very conscious of posterity and it was the attempt of early biographer Cyril Cook to apply a Freudian lens to her biography that led her to write her own autobiography Child of the Hurricane. Time and politics have not been kind to some aspects of her legacy: for example, Coonardoo needs to be read within the time it was written and would never appear on school reading lists today, and her staunchly pro-Stalinist political views, controversial then, would appeal to an even smaller group of adherents now. But I think that she would embrace the roundedness of Hobby’s biography, which combines beautifully the personal, the literary and most importantly, the political in presenting her life.

What a complex thing it is, constructing a person’s personal life from the outside and at fifty years’ remove! What she herself said about her relationships with men, and what her son, who was her literary executor, might have written are not necessarily what an outsider decades later might have said. What we think or write ourselves about our relationships (retrospectively in a memoir, or contemporaneously in correspondence) is refracted by our need to have an emotional coherence to the story we tell ourselves and others about our choices and actions. A biographer looks for coherence too, but is more tolerant of ambiguity and inconsistency. And so, Prichard’s relationship with the older married man William Reay reads now as a compromised, rather questionable entanglement, the relationship with Guido Barracci is tinged with betrayal and her dalliance with Hugh McCrae seems opaque and puzzling. Reading from the outside, her marriage with Hugh Throssell seems an enigma. To the end of her life, in her letters to her son and friends, she declared her love for him and mourned his ongoing absence in her life. Yet they seemed to share little of her literary life (although it did sustain them financially), they spent quite a bit of time apart, the family suffered on account of his financial ineptness and I suspect that Hugh was never as politically active as she wanted him to be. Did the circumstances of his death colour the story she told herself about her marriage? And then there are her other friendships. What was it like to be her friend? There are obvious falling-outs with many friends, despite the effusiveness and overtly literary tenor of her correspondence.

To be honest, I was completely unaware that she had written so much. Certainly, this was her working job, and, especially during the Depression years and later, she needed the money from her novels, short stories and newspaper stories. But this is a lifelong job, and the to-and-fro with publishers and editors continued throughout. Competitions play a bigger part in her writing life than I would have imagined, although I guess awards (a ‘competition’ under another name?) play a similar role in our literary scene. She received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant in 1941, but I am not at all surprised that the security service recommended in future that the names of applicants for fellowships be submitted to them “for comment” to prevent any other writers with Katharine’s political leanings from being considered. A literary biography needs to accommodate both readers familiar with the subject’s works, and those who have not read them at all. I felt that Hobby did well, giving enough of the flavour of her work for those unfamiliar with it, drawing together his own evaluations with those of readers at the time, but not labouring the work either. That said, the only one of Prichard’s works that I am tempted to read after reading this biography is the goldfields saga (The Roaring Nineties; Golden Miles and Winged Seeds). Her frequent trips to the places in which she set her novels reflects her emphasis on authenticity (within limits, of course), although the outback seems to held more allure than urban settings.

The strongest part of this biography, as reflected in the title The Red Witch, is Hobby’s examination of her politics, which enriched but complicated her life enormously. It seems to me that she projected her political commitments onto her husband Hugh, who showed only fitful involvement in politics. She both gained and lost friends through differences of political opinions. Her politics could have cruelled her career (her receipt of a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant probably stymied the chances of Communist writers who followed her) and certainly many readers and reviewers felt that the vehemence of her politics straitened her novels. Her unshakeable admiration of Stalin, when so many other colleagues dropped away, can be variously read as loyal, steadfast, inflexible or willfully blind. But her politics were so interwoven with her friendships and her writings that it is impossible to cut them out and make a judgement of her life and writings without them.

The book is arranged in five chronological parts: Kattie 1883-1907; Freewoman 1907-1919; Mrs Throssell 1919-1933; Comrade 1934-1949; Katya 1950-1969. Within each part there are multiple chapters- possibly a few too many, when some were as little as seven pages in length. The preface plays the part of the literature review, and is probably the most evident sign of the PhD thesis that preceded this book. I really enjoyed the Afterword, set in Prichard’s former home in Greenmount W.A. in 2019 when the author comes on stage properly. Nathan Hobby has been present in the book throughout, especially in his appraisals of Katharine’s writing, but it has always been behind the scenes, which is the way I prefer it. But I was glad that he stepped forward at the end.

He has been well-served by Miegunyah Press, which has given him expansive footnotes, an excellent index and a bibliography as well- something that is much appreciated instead of having to hunt through footnotes for the first reference to a source. The footnotes reveal the rich archive of correspondence that underpins Hobby’s work, and the variety of newspaper sources from which has drawn.

It is probably true that, as Catherine Duncan predicted, some fifty years after her death, ‘KSP’ has become someone else but I think that she would recognize herself in this book. The KSP of the future may have escaped her, but I don’t think that she escaped Nathan Hobby. He has presented her to us in all her aspects – as lover, mother, wife, comrade, writer, companion and public figure – with diligence, empathy and tempered admiration. No subject could ask more of her biographer.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy Melbourne University Press

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 May 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 141: Blood and Water looks at the ten years of co-existence between Constans and Constantius. The religious culture wars were not dead, and the two emperors became caught up in them: Constantius leaned towards Aryanism, while Constans was pro-Nicean. Constans in the west began losing touch with reality, spending all his time hunting and banquetting, and neglecting the army for an archery corps. This isn’t going to end well. It didn’t because he was overthrown and killed by Magnentius. Constantius took on the usurper Magnetius in 350AD, finally triumphing over him in 353 when Magnetius did the right thing and committed suicide. To ensure that a rebellion didn’t break out while he was on the other side of the empire doing this, he appointed Gallus, one of the two survivors of the Massacre of the Princes, which would free him to go after Magnetius. Episode 142: You’ve Earned It. Gallus was unpopular because he cut the food supply to the citizens in order to supply the army instead, and he was persecuting pagans as a fundraiser. In the end, Constantius killed first Gallus in 354 and then Claudius Silvanus in 355. That left him the last man standing, which was good until he started looking for a successor. There was only one male blood relative left, his cousin Julian. Episode 143 Julian the Pre-Apostate traces through the early life of Julian before he became Julian the Apostate. He was a studious lad who had been orphaned when Constantius killed his father, and he was allowed a fairly free education in the Greek-speaking East until he was summoned to Milan so that Constantius could check him out. Constantius didn’t see him as a threat, so he gave permission for him to keep travelling around for his education. When he was 23 years old, he was made a junior Caesar and Julian decided that if he had to be a Caesar, he’d do it well. Despite not being well supported by his generals, he had a good victory over the Germans at the Battle of Strasbourg, which of course made Constantius a bit twitchy again. Never a good thing.

Conversations (ABC) The Caving Time Lord introduces us to Australian geochronologist Dr Kira Westaway who has been involved in archaeological discoveries of ‘the hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) in Indonesia, and more recently, the molar from a young Denisovan girl in Laos. And to think that for so long, we thought we were the only ones here.

Rear Vision (ABC) Sri Lanka: Failed State When Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1948 it inherited an economic completely geared to British interests. Exports of tea and rubber to Britain brought in foreign exchange but this was directed entirely towards buying in products produced elsewhere (especially Britain). Sri Lanka has teetered on the edge economically for much of its history, forced to take IMF loans with their iniquitous hard-right political policy prescriptions. Politics has been dominated by the Rajapaksa family who dominated all the major political positions, and the war against the Tamils led to a bloating of the army at huge cost. Recent events like the abrupt suspension of imports of fertilizer, the collapse of tourism, and the decision to reduce (!) taxes has led to acute shortages of food and fuel. Although many accuse China of increasing Sri Lanka’s indebtedness, the major creditor is in fact Japan.

Things Fell Apart (BBC) Most of the issues of the culture war just wash over me, but I find the issue of the relationship between transgender rights and feminism less comfortable. I’m troubled by how quickly any discussion becomes sharp and painful- but I guess that’s just because this particular ‘culture war’ topic is one that does engage me. In this episode Many Different Lives, Jon Ronson revisits the MichFest women’s festival in Michigan in 1991, where conflict arose over whether a trans woman could attend a women’s festival run completely by women, for women. The issue splintered further- what about pre-trans women? He discusses second and third wave feminism, and the origin of the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism), which was not intended to be a term of abuse.


History Hit It’s rather ironic that people pay to go on a treadmill at gymnasiums. This episode The Treadmill features Rosaline Crone, a Senior Lecturer in History at the Open University who has specialised in nineteenth-century criminal justice history. The treadmill goes back to Roman times, when it was used by slaves and labourers as a form of crane for lifting heavy objects. The treadmill in a penal setting was invented by William Cubitt, who saw it as a way of giving work to prisoners in the Bridewell. He had the idea of turning the ‘hamster wheel’ type of treadmill inside out, so that the steps were on the outside. It could be- and was- used as a mill, particularly in Sydney but not in the UK. In the 1830s and 40s there was a backlash against its use, but it was revitalized from the 1860s to the early 20th century, when men could be sentenced to 6 hours on the mill. The movie ‘Wilde’ was wrong in depicting Oscar Wilde on the treadmill: like 50% of other prisoners in the 1890s, he received a medical exemption.

Australia if you’re listening (ABC) It’s not just that Australia has finally rid itself of the Coalition government, but this final episode sees light on the horizon too. The 49-year-old energy prophecy that is finally coming true goes back to 1973 and Professor John Bockris of Flinders University, who saw the dangers in the runaway production of carbon dioxide and predicted that Australia would become an energy exporter in the future, using solar energy to transform hydrogen for export overseas. This episode points out that Australia has been at the forefront of technology that has been picked up by other countries- NASA, China- but that we have sustained reputational damage from the Coalition government’s stance on climate change. In his final words of the series, Matt Bevan notes that nearly everyone he spoke to for this series said that Australia would get there in the end, but that we need vision and consistency over several decades. Perhaps, in the 2022 election, we have finally made a start.

Six degrees of separation: from Sorrow and Bliss to…

Is it really the start of another month? How did that happen? Well, my calendar tells me that it’s the first Saturday in June and so it’s time for Six Degrees of Separation where you link the titles of six books to one selected by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. You can read how the meme works here.

For June she selected Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which I had never heard of and about which I know absolutely nothing. So, I’m going just by the title – in particular looking for titles of three words linked by ‘and’ in the middle.

Reason & Lovelessness is a collection of essays and reviews written by Australian author and cultural critic Barry Hill over a period of thirty five years. It ranges far and wide and I must confess that I often felt left behind. This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Heat and Light, written by Indigenous author Ellen Van Neerven is in three parts. The first part, Heat, comprises a number of short stories about the Kresinger family which interweaves magic realism and contemporary indigenous family life. The stories are tangentially connected, a technique I enjoy, giving them stand-alone status within something larger. The second section, Water, contained only one story and it was probably my favourite one. Kaden is a young Aboriginal woman employed in a scientific program engaged with research on ‘sandplants’, a marine lifeform that has been found to have almost human intelligence. The blurb on the back of the book tells me that in the final section ‘Light’ “familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging”. Yes, but I must confess to finding this last section bitsy and insubstantial. So, for me, a bit of a curate’s egg of a book: good in places.

From the title Sex and Suffering, you might not expect a history of the Royal Women’s Hospital, but this is what you get in this book. Historian Janet McCalman’s book follows a chronological approach, with seven sections covering roughly 20-30 year periods. The emphasis varies in the sections, from the clinical (particularly in the sections discussing sepsis and antisepsis) to the social and structural (where the judgments of upper-middle class doctors and the Board of Management were trained onto the predominantly working-class and migrant clientele). Throughout most of the book, she draws on the case notes of individual women- helpfully supplemented with a glossary of medical terms in the margin. A second thread that runs through the book is a commentary on class and gender in Melbourne where she contrasts the more feminist, women-centred Queen Victoria hospital with the the more traditional, male-dominated Royal Women’s Hospital. I enjoyed it up until she reached the 1970s, when the people she was writing about were still alive (and no doubt reading this book), at which point the book became a fairly conventional and and less incisive and critical institutional history.

While we’re talking about sex (which we weren’t really), there’s Adam Kuper’s Incest and Influence, which isn’t really about incest either. Instead he looks at two types of marriage in bourgeois England – those between cousins, and those between in-laws- which at various times were perceived as either a thoroughly good thing or illegal. Kuper then goes on to examine three different constellations of  marriage among three prominent 19th/early 20th century circles of influence:  the Wedgewood/Darwin group, the Clapham Sect of Wilberforces, Thorntons, Stephens etc who were influential in the abolition of slavery, and finally the Bloomsbury circle.

In terms of 19th century families, who can go past Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I had started it many times, but I didn’t actually finish it until I was 54 years old! It’s not really difficult once you overcome your fear of forgetting all the names and it is just all-encompassing. I found myself unable to pick up anything else to read for some time after. In my review, I went on to talk about another three word ‘&’ work – Isaiah Berlin’s 80-page  essay The Fox and the Hedgehog (PDF full-text) so I guess that I’m cheating putting two titles in the one selection. In this essay, Berlin talks about Tolstoy and his writing of history – it’s well worth reading.

And while we’re talking about writing history, let me finish off with E.P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters. The full title of the book is Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act.  I knew that the Black Act referred to the death penalty applied to crimes like poaching and the cutting of trees. I had previously understood that it was the passing of the Black Act that led to so much transportation to Australia, but it is not as simple as that. One of the first surprises of this book is that the Black Act was not so called,  as I assumed,  as a description of its severity.  Instead, the “Black” refers to the practice of blacking faces to disguise the perpetrators undertaking the depredations under cover of night. Like the anti-terrorist legislation of our post-9/11 world, the Black ActS (because it was an ever-expanding suite of legislation) were introduced in haste and expanded way beyond the original intention.

Next month the Six Degrees of Separation meme will start with Wintering by Katherine May. Once again, I haven’t read it, but the title sounds very appropriate for July.

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

2014, 288 p.

As it happened, I read two books in a row that were debut novels written by authors writing about their own profession. One of them was As Swallows Fly, based partially in a hospital, and written by a Professor of Nephrology (see my review here), and the other is The Imperfectionists, set in an English-language newspaper published in Rome, written by a former International Herald Tribune staffer. As you might expect, the language and narrative was handled much more confidently in this book which uses the chronological rise and decline of the un-named newspaper founded in 1954 by an American industrialist named by Cyrus Ott as the narrative structure for a series of chapters about different characters involved with the newspaper.

Each ‘character’ chapter has a catchy title, sometimes (but not always) referencing an article being written by the particular journalist, or more often referencing the article which bumped the character’s own work from the columns of the newspaper. In ‘Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls’ we meet Lloyd Burko, who is at the end of his career, while in ‘World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126’ we see the career rise of Arthur Gopal, originally employed as the obituary writer who becomes fascinated by Gerda Erzberger, a dying Austrian intellectual. ‘Europeans are Lazy, Study Says’ introduces Hardy Benjamin, an insecure woman who settles for a boorish boyfriend for fear of being left alone and disappointing her father. ‘Global Warming Good for Ice Creams’ features Herman Cohen, the Corrections Editor and his relationship with his old friend Jimmy, a scammer and blow-hard. Kathleen Solson, the Editor-in Chief, is the main focus of ‘US General Optimistic on War’ and the foreign correspondent Winston Cheung, based in Cairo, meets the egotistical Rich Snyder while on assignment in ‘The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists’. Ruby Zaga, the Copy Editor is unhappy and fears that she will be fired in ‘Kooks with Nukes’, while Craig Menzies the News Editor is besotted with Annika but they destroy their relation through their demands of each other in ’76 Die in Baghdad Bombings’. The story that I liked most was ‘Markets Crash Over Fears of China Slowdown’, where Abbey Pinnola, the Chief Financial Officer, finds herself seated on a flight next to a man who she had organized to be fired from the newspaper as part of cutbacks. ‘Cold War Over, Hot War Begins’ moves away from the writers to the reader- in this case, Ornella de Monterecchi, who read each page of the newspaper, column by column, refusing to move to the next issue until she had read the last. (This reminds me of myself, and the two last editions of the Saturday Paper still in their plastic because I haven’t finished the preceding one). Oliver Ott, the grandson of the paper’s founder, features in ‘Gunman Kills 32 in Campus Rampage’ where he is charged by the rest of the family with closing the failing newspaper down after more than sixty years.

Although each character has their own focus chapter, they are threaded through the other chapters as well, sometimes as walk-on parts, at other times as background. Meanwhile, the shaky start of the newspaper, its success and decline, are traced in the connecting chapters, and we learn from the final story that the newspaper has only ever been an act of love, and not intended to make money. But it is an act of love within an industry that is spurred by technology and communication change, but eventually sidelined by the digital media.

I enjoyed this book. Although not particularly fond of short stories, I like it when they are tied together by a theme, and when characters appear and disappear in other stories. The story-telling was very assured, capturing in short brush-strokes the personalities and career trajectories of its characters, while making an ultimately futile plea for the humble, paper-based newspaper.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 May 2022

Theodosian Walls of Constantinople Source: Wikimedia

History of Rome Podcast Episode 138 The New Rome looks at the transformation of Byzantium from a small town with a population in the tens of thousands into the New Rome (‘Constantinople’ was a nickname, and it was only adopted formally later on). Many emperors had based themselves in places other than Rome, and Byzantium had the advantages of water on three sides (and thus difficult to besiege) and no religious baggage of other pagan gods. Just as in the early establishment of Rome, Constantine needed to augment its population, so he welcomed both the poor and the greedy as immigrants. It took six years to build. Quite apart from his building activities, though, Constantine embedded his power by killing off his own son Crispus. It’s not clear why, but his stepmother Fausta seems to have been involved. Then, Constantine executed his wife Fausta by locking her in a steam room. Realizing that killing your wife and son was not a good look, he sent his mother Helena on a tour of the East to identify important Christian sites. This was a very popular pilgrimage. In terms of policy and ideology, Constantine’s reign was an extension of Diocletian’s policies in terms of Divine Right of the emperor, the separation of the military and civil arms of government. Unlike Diocletian, he welcomed the role of the Senate but increased its size from 300 to 2000, thus diluting its power. He introduced a new solid gold coin which maintained its value for centuries, although there was runaway inflation with silver coins. He introduced a new and unpopular tax, payable four years in advance and embarked on an empire-wide building program involving both churches (e.g. The Old St Peters Basilica) and secular buildings. Episode 139 Wash Away Your Sins looks at Constantine’s military activity and succession plans. He continued the policy of Germanization of the empire and the army, and the failure of the Germans to integrate was to be one of the causes of the downfall of the empire. At this stage, his legions were successful against the rebellious tribes of the Rhine and the Danube. After killing off Crispus, he seasoned his remaining three sons by putting them in charge of the army. For some reason, he decided to pick a war with the Sassanids on the pretext of protecting Christians under their rule. But he died in Nicomedia, just after embarking on this battle, and got baptized just before he died. You might have thought that he would have been baptized earlier, but this could be because he wanted to be able to sin until the last minute, or more charitably, because he wanted to be pure as the driven snow when he actually died. His succession plans were messy: he left it to his three sons and two nephews. In assessing Constantine, he was certainly a transformational emperor and one of the most important historical figures in Western history. But he had his darker side too: the assassinations, the messy succession plans etc., so it’s a mixed record. Episode 140: My Three Sons. Well, three sons and two nephews isn’t going to end well. Constantius II started things off with the Massacre of the Princes at his father’s funeral, killing off most of his cousins and uncles from his aunt Theodora’s line over two days. Then the three boys (all named very similarly) Constantius, Constantine II and Constans began fighting among themselves, and getting involved on different sides of the doctrinal battles going on in the Christian church,. In the end Constantine II died in an ambush, leaving just two, Constantius in charge of the East and Constans in charge of the West.

Australia If You’re Listening. Episode 7 The Countdown on Coal Fired Power was a cracker. It starts off with the South Australian tornado in 2016 that saw electricity pylons scattered like pick-up-sticks and which was instantly blamed on renewable energy. In fact, whenever there is a power blackout, politicians in Australia and around the world tend to blame renewables. The reality is that it is the old coal-powered stations that are falling over, with near misses and disasters like the Callied Turbine failure outside of Biloela in Queensland, and the Hazelwood fires that blanketed the La Trobe Valley in smoke in 2014. This was a really good episode.

Conversations (ABC) In A History of War, Richard Fidler (who is such a good interviewer) spoke with historian Gwynne Dyer, who has recently released The Shortest History of War. I was going to give this book a miss because I thought that it would be all about military strategy, but good historian as Dyer is, he takes a much broader approach, integrating history, technology, sociology and psychology. Interesting.

Australian Book Review Frank Bongiorno on enlarging our diminished sense of political leadership looks at the elevation of the political operative and the breakdown of the party system. He points to the Australian of the Year award as an alternative form of political leadership, where in recent years the winners have been ahead of paid politicians. This was recorded prior to the election, and Frank Bongiorno is always worth listening to.

‘To Paradise’ by Hanya Yanagihara

2022, 704 p.

I admit it- I was attracted to the cover of this book, and it was only when I looked closer that I discovered that the author had written A Little Life, a big fat book that I have on my shelves but have not read, even though I know there was a lot of commentary about it. The author is obviously fond of writing big fat books, because this is another one, at 704 pages. But for the last few days I have been completely engrossed in it, and even now I don’t want it to end.

It is set in three parts, each set 100 years apart. This is clear from the start, with the opening pages consisting of three hand-drawn maps, each related to Book I, II or III. The first depicts the the United States in 1893, showing the Free States on the East Coast; the United Colonies in the ‘South’; a blank Uncharted Territories where Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are today; The Western Union comprising California, Washington State and Oregon and the American Union, comprising all the other states, in the centre. The second map is of the Hawaiian Islands in 1993, and the third map, dated 2093, shows Manhattan Island, divided up into Zones, with Central Park now ‘The Farm’ and with Washington Square marked out in Zone 8. The building in Washington Square is important, as it is going to appear in some guise in each of the three Books.

In Book I (1893) we find David Bingham, the unmarried son of a rich grandfather who has made him heir to the Washington Square house on his death. This first book was very evocative of Edith Wharton’s work, both in its focus on the nuances of upper-class life, and in its formal, mannered language. But this New York is set askew: the Free States and the United Colonies are two separate nations after all, and homosexual marriage is an accepted fact. David’s grandfather is concerned that his grandson marry, and so he encourages an arranged relationship between David and the older Charles Griffith. Despite knowing that his grandfather is acting only out of love, David becomes infatuated with an impoverished, unreliable and possibly dastardly teacher Edward Bishop, who implores David to accompany him to California, even though homosexuality is illegal there. I just loved this first part – the cushioned luxury, the restraint, set against the passion and recklessness of David and Edward’s relationship. I didn’t want to let them go as I turned to Book II, set 100 years later in Hawaii.

But hold on- here they are again – David, Edward, Charles, Eden – but they’re not the same people, even though the names are the same. Here is another aimless David Bingham, but this time he is the young partner of an older Charles Griffith, who lives in Washington Square and who this night is hosting the final party of his former lover Peter who is dying of cancer, even though AIDS is ravaging the gay community. He receives a letter from his dying father from Hawaii, another David Bingham, known as Wika (for Kawicka) who has been inveigled? coerced? by an old schoolmate Edward Bishop into stepping into his role as hereditary royalty in establishing a breakaway settlement in Lipo-Wao-Nahale. Edward and David live there, and David’s son (also named David) lived there during vacations as well, until he refused to visit any more, travelling instead to New York where he met Charles Griffith. His father, David Bingham senior, has a breakdown and is hospitalized, writing his last letter to his son. I must admit that after my initial delighting in meeting David, Edward and Charles again, this second book left me underwhelmed, with the last-supper dinner of the dying Peter seeming to stretch on interminably, mirrored by the equally prolonged death of David Bingham senior in Hawaii.

[Update: I have since learned more about the history of Hawaii through a ‘Stuff They Don’t Want You to know podcast, which I mention here, most particularly the coup d’etat by white landowners in 1893. Clearly 1893 is a significant date- but why did she set Part II a hundred years later? I’m mystified.]

Any disappointment that I felt in Book II was quickly forgotten in Book III, set in Manhattan in 2093. It doesn’t surprise me that this book was published in 2022 because it certainly bears the traces of the COVID pandemic. Now that I had realized how the book worked, I was on the lookout for David, Charles and Edward and they were here too, but in very different guises. New York- and indeed, the whole world- had been ravaged by waves of pandemic diseases, with resultant surveillance and government over-reach to quell and fend off the next epidemic. Global warming has resulted in the collapse of the food chain, there is an ongoing drought, and New York is only liveable if you wear a cooling suit while you are outside. Charlie is the grand-daughter of Charles Griffith, who has been the policy architect of a lot of the pandemic responses: confinement of infected people and their families (after initially separating children from their parents, whole families would go into confinement and inevitable death together), wholesale cremations, rigid government control. Charlie had contracted one of the pandemics as a child, and is now infertile and emotionally frozen, and her grandfather arranges for her to marry Edward, a gay man who will look after her but never love her. The narrative is in two parts here: Charlie’s story told with Ishiguro-like flatness, and as a series of letters over decades between Charles and Peter, a high-level bureaucrat in New Britain. While the letters did fill in background for how New York had ended up as it had – and a very depressing trajectory is it, with more points of verisimilitude than I like- the idea of letters being so lengthy and conversational is rather implausible.

Despite its severity, I really enjoyed Part III, as much as I did Part I and I have found myself thinking about Part III a lot since finishing reading it: for me, a sign that a book has really affected me. Reading back over this review, I see that I have likened the writing to Edith Wharton or Kazuo Ishiguro, and there is an element of pastiche about the book. There were hints that the whole thing was going to fall into place with a resounding clunk, but that never happened. Instead there were wisps of connections, and a low drumbeat of repeated themes- homosexuality, illness, searching for something better, loneliness – and the repeated names. Worth 700 pages? For me, yes.

My rating: 9.5/10 (Maybe even 10/10?)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.