I’m rather proud of reading this in Spanish- just look at the number of pages! Let us not speak too much of the fact that it took me six months and the reality that each page would have between 5-10 words underlined and written out with the English translation. I read it: I understood it, and I would have enjoyed it in English just as much.
“Las Mariposas” was the code-name for the four Mirabel sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria Theresa and Dede who, for different reasons and to differing extents, were involved in clandestine actions against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (El Jefe) in the Dominican Republic. The whole of the family came under official suspicion, and two of the girls and their husbands and father were imprisoned at various times. In 1960 three of the sisters were assassinated in an ambush that was made to look like a car accident, leaving their sister Dede to guard their legacy. They are today recognized as symbols of social justice and feminism, and their images appear on the Dominican 200 peso bill and on a mural painted on the huge 137ft obelisk that Trujillo constructed to commemorate changing the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (it reverted to its original name in 1961 after Trujillo himself was assassinated). That’ll show you, Trujillo.
The narrative of the book switches between 1994 in the voice of the remaining sister, Dede, and chronological chapters told in the varying voices of Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria. Although clearly Alvarez has researched the topic thoroughly, it is historical fiction with invented conversations and scenarios. The description of Minerva and Maria Teresa’s imprisonment was chilling, and the suffocating presence of male lust dressed up in military costumes is palpable.
I’m particularly pleased that I was able to read a book that was not translated for language learners, but for Spanish-speaking readers. At times I was frustrated by the presence of so many synonyms, but of course any literary text written in English would vary its vocabulary too, avoiding the repetition that language learners hold onto life a life-raft.
So – it may have taken six months, but it was well worth-while!
My rating: if I had read it in English, I would have rated it 8
History Extra I just finished reading ‘The Shadow King’ and decided that I wanted to know more about the Italian/Abyssian (Ethiopian) War. History Extra had an interview with the author, Maaza Mengiste, The Real History behind The Shadow King but it was more about the writing of the book than the history. Obviously a lot of research went into the book, which she wears very lightly, and she has not been constrained in her imagination or creativity by her research.
Witness History (BBC) Just a short 9 minute episode Italy’s Shame: The Massacre in Ethiopia looks at the retribution that Italy wrought on Abyssinia (Ethiopia) after a grenade attack on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani who was appointed by Mussolini to govern Ethiopia.
The History Listen (ABC) Once the crossing of the Blue Mountains had been achieved in 1813, the town of Bathurst was established two years later. As was often the case, things were relatively peaceful at first, but within 7 years, as more and more settlers flowed into the areas, there was a full-blown resistance. Windradyne’s forgotten war tells about this change, and the way that stories are handed down from family to family that often tell another story to those of the written sources.
Big Ideas (ABC) This lecture Conscription in World War I was originally delivered in October 2016 at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, and broadcast soon afterward. 2016 was the centenary of the first conscription debate, and so this seemed a little anachronistic. I’ve done quite a bit of research (albeit at the local Heidelberg level) into the conscription debates, and I enjoyed listening to Prof. Joan Beaumont’s overview. The broadcasts finishes with a Tom Switzer (not my favourite broadcaster, I must admit) interview with Sean Scalmer, one of the editors of The Conscription Conflict and the Great War
BBC Outlook. If I can’t sleep, I turn on the radio and listen with my wonderful Acoustic Sheep sleepphones. The whole point is to make me drowsy so that I can go back to sleep. But when I started listening to Swimming With Polar Bears: A photographer’s “crazy” dream, it was so gripping that I woke right up, my heart pounding at the predicament the photographer found himself in. They might look cute, but polar bears are terrifying!
Given that this book was written in 1995, (reprinted in 2008 with a new afterword) I hoped that her analysis of the lives of Islamic Women in Middle East countries might have been rendered redundant. That hope has not been realized. Despite the Arab Spring, the position of women in Islamic countries remains parlous, and possibly even worse than when Brooks wrote this book prior to 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the wars that followed in its wake.
Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Australia, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for many years, although she is probably better known now for her historical fiction. While she was working as the Middle East bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, she was frustrated by the customs that made her life as a journalist so difficult, compared with her male fellow journalists. Then she noted that her colleague and translator, Sahar, had begun wearing the hijab. Curious about why Sahar had adopted it, she realized that as a woman she had access to women’s experience that was closed to male journalists.
For almost a year I fretted and kicked at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.
p. 7 1995 edition
Taking on Islamic dress herself, she sought out women who were still working as journalists, politicians and activists. Many women told her that, historically, Islam provided an improvement on women’s conditions, that the Prophet himself was pro-women, and that Islamic dress provided a respite from the male gaze. She was not convinced:
Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.
p. 232, 1995 edition
The title of the book is taken from a quote from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”. This sounds like an invitation to male lasciviousness to me, and the desires that Brooks explores in this book are not sexual. Each chapter starts with a relevant quote from the Koran.
Chapter 1, The Holy Veil talks about Brooks’ own interview with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran between 1989-1997, for which Brooks wore the chador. She writes about the variations of Islamic dress in different Middle East countries, and the effect of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Chapter 2 “Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Them” discusses female genital mutilation and its absence in the Koran itself, honour killing, and the paradox between sexual licence for men and repression for women. Chapter 3 “Here Come the Brides” looks at Islamic marriage while Chapter 4 “The Prophet’s Women” looks at Muhammad’s own family life, making the point that many of the revelations from God seemed to be particularly apposite for Muhammad’s own situation. Chapter 5 “Converts” focuses on Janet, an American who had married and converted to Islam, and Janet’s American friend Margaret. Both women complied completely with the demands of their husband and in-laws. Chapter 6 “Jihad is for Women, Too” looks at the paradox of women incorporated into the military forces in Islamic countries, and the empowerment (within limits) that this sometimes provided. Chapter 7 “A Queen” looks at the situation of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that at the time offered the most hope for political liberalism. Chapter 8 “The Getting of Wisdom” examines women’s education in different Middle East countries, with differing degrees of segregation and the increasing presence of fundamentalism. Chapter 9 “Risky Business” looks at women’s role in the workforce, and Chapter 10 “Politics, With and Without a Vote” looks at the varied (and decreasing) political roles available to women. Ironically, some Islamic women were elected in hard-line Iran, but I sense that her political acceptability was increased by her persecution under the Shah which made her a striking example of the repressiveness of pro-Western politics. She picks up on the campaign by Saudi women to be able to drive- something that is shamefully still a travesty. Chapter 11 “Muslim Women’s Games” addresses the women-only Islamic Women’s Games and in Chapter 11 “A Different Drummer” Brooks herself gets physical by taking a belly-dancing course.
In her conclusion “Beware of the Dogma” she comes out most strongly with her own conclusions and the question of how we, as Europeans, should respond. She argues that “In an era of cultural sensitivity, we need to say that certain cultural baggage is contraband in our countries and will not be admitted.” (p.238) At the time of writing, America did not have laws banning female genital mutilation (Australia does). She argues – but does not believe that it will ever be accepted – that Islamic women should have a right to asylum on the grounds of “well-founded fear of persecution” as a matter of course.
I have read this book before, and I think that I am even more conscious of the issues that she raises, especially after the Arab Spring sputtered out. Her criticism is most strongly directed at Saudi Arabia, a country which has assumed even more importance on the world stage since Trump. She is strong in her condemnation, especially in her conclusion, but she avoids the reflexive Islamophobia of, say, Ayan Hirsi Ali (who lost me with her association with the American Enterprise Institute). Her interviews mainly deal with middle-class and educated women, but that probably reflects the milieu in which she was working and the contacts that she made. She seems rather oblivious to the effect that her Judaism – something that she does not hide- may have had on her informants.
How my Grandmother Won WWII This was recommended by the Guardian, but I don’t know if I’m going to stick with it. The writer and narrator Enid Tihanyi Weisz Zentelis tells the story of her Hungarian grandmother during WWII in How My Grandmother Won WWII but the narrator is off on a frolic of her own to feel better about her dysfunctional family. She “needs” to know this, and “needs” to learn that. I can’t bear upwardly inflected accents (Australian or American) but this is a downwardly inflected accent instead, which comes over as a depressing, self-centred moan. I don’t know where she comes from, but remind me not to go there.
Strong Songs. This podcast takes a famous popular song and pulls it apart musically. And what could be better to explore than the Beatles’ A Day in the Life. Kirk Hamilton discusses the musical theory behind the song, separates the different tracks etc. and in the end you hear the song with completely new ears.
Latin American History Podcast. Max Sarjeant starts this essay with what was, at the time of recording in June 2019, current news e.g. Mexico’s request/demand that Spain apologize for the Conquest; the discovery from space of more meso-american ruins in impenetrable jungle etc. He then returns to his history. In Episode 5 Cortez was determined to meet with emperor Moctezuma, even though Moctezuma had made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in meeting them. To get there, he had to get past the Aztec city of Cholula (second only to Tenochtitlan) and the land of the Tlaxcalans, neither of whom had any great love of Moctezuma. When they started plotting to kill the Spaniards at the request of Moctezuma, Cortez found out about it and massacred the main warriors and partially burnt the city.
Heather Cox Richardson. Continuing with her Reconstruction story, she starts off her episode of 21 January by sharing why she enjoys this period so much. She read through about 40 years of newspapers, and all of the literature of the time: she likes that from 1860-1900 it is a ‘manageable’ period historically. But her talk gets pretty detailed very quickly, and just covers the 1870s. After the Civil War, many east coast Republicans were disgusted that Grant was made president, and they formed the Liberal Republicans. The election of 1876 was heavily contested and the candidate that won the popular vote did not win the electoral college vote (sounds familiar) and there was widespread cheating by the Democrats in the South. In the end a deal was stitched up where the Republican Rutherford Hayes was made President, but the role of Postmaster General went to a Democrat, who proceeded to place Democrats where-ever he could. Republicans were beginning to wonder if all Americans should have the vote, after all, when it included migrants and poor people. Meanwhile, a courtcase that found that while women were American citizens, they were not necessarily entitled to vote would be used to disenfranchise African Americans.
Saturday Extra (ABC) Not necessarily the whole show this time, but an interesting segment The Glamour Boys, a book by UK Labor MP Chris Bryant, author of The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler. The term ‘glamour boys’ was a derogatory sneer at a group of conservative MPs, many of whom were gay or bisexual who challenged Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Hitler. I think that he has overstretched a little in suggesting that without their actions, the UK would never have fought, let alone defeated Hitler.
The Forum (BBC) What a lot of programs nestle under the wings of the Beeb. The Forum seems to have historical biographies and events- and I’d never heard of it. Nor had I heard of Sister Juana, a great mind of Mexico. She was born in Mexico of Spanish/Criollo parents in the mid 17th century and was a writer, public intellectual, and feminist long before these terms were in use. There are three experts in this program, two of whom disagree vehemently with each other. Sister Juana, or Sor Juana as she was known, became a nun which gave her the space and freedom to write. She was published in Spain and in Mexico, although our experts disagreed about the degree of agency she had in later life. There are excerpts from her writing- she was incredible! How have I gone my whole life unaware of this woman?
I have no idea why I reserved this book at the library, and it has taken an inordinate length of time to arrive. As it happens, I read Jacqueline Woodson’s coming-of-age novel Another Brooklynimmediately prior to reading this book. Had The Yellow House not already had another hold on it, I might have deferred it, reluctant to read two American Bildungsromans (is that the plural?) in a row. As it turns out, the order was fortuitous, because the lyrical but slight Another Brooklyn is eclipsed by this much meatier book.
Sarah, or Monique as her family knows her, is the youngest of twelve children, and she never knew her father who died when she was six months old. Long before her birth, her mother Ivory Mae bought 4121 Wilson Avenue when the flood-prone New Orleans East area was opened up for industrial and housing development. The house, which she only knew to be ‘the yellow house’ on account of its yellow cladding, was a shotgun house that cost $3500, located at the ‘short’ end of Wilson Avenue, with a trailer park across the road and a scattering of houses along the street. It no longer stands. It was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and was finally demolished as part of the inadequate rebuilding program that was quick to knock-down damaged houses but stingy in replacing them.
This memoir combines national and local history, family stories and her own story of place and identity. As the youngest, her older siblings circulated in and out of her life as they got jobs, had children, married, separated, and in one case fell into addiction. Her mother and 4121 Wilson Avenue are the linchpins of the family. The house, poorly built from the start, became at the same time a source of shame but also the tethering-spot for the family. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and with the hollowing out of America’s manufacturing base, their house became marooned in a deserted industrial area, surrounded by the faded dreams spruiked by developers and boosters. Like many African-Americans in 1960s America, Broom’s family were part of the economic under-class, taking several poorly-paid jobs to cobble together an income. She is the one in her family who ‘escapes’, gaining a university education, a job in journalism. After Hurricane Katrina, her family splinters as her siblings shift to other states. Even though she had not lived in the Yellow House for many years, she is cut adrift too once the house has been destroyed, shifting to Burundi as an expatriate, then returning to live in the touristy French Quarter of the rebuilding New Orleans.
Although this is a memoir, it also reads like a history. She has clearly interviewed her mother and siblings, with direct quotations, and her mother’s words are italicized, appearing throughout the book. As the youngest in a large family, the family lore stretches for decades before her birth. The book is intimate, but also forensic. In trying to piece together the history of the house and New Orleans East she combs through archives and interrogates workers in local government departments. The reporter/journalist is uppermost in her section on Hurricane Katrina. She is circumspect in what she reveals of herself to the reader, with family and place at the heart of her analysis. There is no blame and no howling of injured entitlement here, but instead a clear-eyed, steady gaze at her family and family home, moving out from the personal and particular to a broader analysis of New Orleans and its place within the American dream.
I just loved this book.
My rating: 9.5 (and because the year is yet young, it may well grow into a 10 by the end of the year)
As the name suggests, Spring, the third book in the Seasonal Quartet, has more ‘oomph’ than the earlier two books Autumn and Winter. There are themes and approaches that run across the three books that I have read so far – the work of an artist, political monologues, the play on words – but this book seemed more plot-driven, more directly political and more physically active than the other two.
The artist in this case is Tacita Dean and the painting is ‘The Montafon Letter’ (you can see it here), a huge chalk-on-slate drawing of an avalanche hurtling down a mountain. After seeing it in an exhibition, Richard Lease, a TV and film director, sent a postcard of the drawing to his friend, Paddy (Patricia Heal) who was dying. Paddy has now died and Richard, bereft and distraught, feels that there is nothing more to live for and resolves to take his own life too. His attempt is interrupted by a woman – Brittany (Brit for short) who works as a guard in a refugee detention centre, and a young girl, only ever referred to as ‘the girl’, a preternaturally sharp child who reminded me of Greta Thunberg in her ability to speak up to power. The narrative switches between the present day interaction between Richard, Brit and ‘the girl’, and the approaching death of Paddy. The literary by-play is present here too, with Richard contracted to direct a TV program with a dire script based on Katherine Mansfield and Rilke staying in the same hotel, oblivious to each other’s work and presence.
There is much more political anger in this book, a bit like the avalanche in the Tacita Dean drawing. In Autumn it was Brexit; in Winter it was Trump, and now in Spring, it is England’s refugee detention program (if Smith really wants to get angry, she should look at the ‘Australian model’ that Donald Trump thought so worthy of emulation). It is more overtly preachy, and the book is more plot-driven.
All of which makes me wonder where Smith is going to end up with Summer, which is the next book off the pile after I finish my bookgroup read. I’m conscious of little cross-references between the books, and I really hope that all four are eventually published together because it would make seeking the connections easier. I do wonder, as I always do with series like this that are published with years between each volume, whether readers taking them up year after year would be as aware of the connections as I am while reading them with mere weeks between each book.
Anyway, let the year continue…
My rating: 7.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (which is also making the connections harder to trace, as I no longer have all the completed books at my fingertips)
The Daily (NYT) So what happens to the Trump supporters now? A Conspiracy Theory is Proved Wrong interviews a number of ‘true believers’ who fervently believed that somehow Trump would end up as president. As in a millenarian cult disappointed after the Messiah does not appear (again), believers blame themselves for misinterpreting what they were told. I just don’t know how you prove that something – i.e. fraud- did not occur.
Dan Snow’s History Hit .These podcasts are teasers for Dan Snow’s History Hit television channel, and you really needed visuals here. Edge of Empire: Rome’s Northernmost Town looks at Corbridge, two miles south of Hadrian’s wall, and the archaeological ruins uncovered there. It was a garrison town that survived after the soldiers left to become a trading centre. I think you have to see it for this podcast to make sense.
Heather Cox Richardson continues her history series on Reconstruction. In her January 15 episode she looks at two forces which challenged the post Civil War idea that all men (including African-American men) should be able to have a say in the government. First there was fear of ‘communism’, spurred on by the resurrection of unions after the Civil War and the Paris Commune which was publicized by the new improved Transatlantic telegraph table of 1865. Second, there was the careful creation of the independent, government-scorning Western cowboy as a counter to the eastern states ‘socialists’.
Late Night Live (ABC). I saw that Simon Winchester has written a new book Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.Philip Adams interviewed him here. He seems (from this interview- I may be wrong) to start his analysis with the land enclosures in the 1600s onwards but I found myself wondering about feudal ownership beforehand, Indian and Chinese ownership- was there such a thing?- and how nobility and kingship fitted in with land ownership. It all sounds a bit Euro-centric – again, I may be wrong.
Saturday Extra (ABC) It’s the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Spring, and I’m interested to know what the after effects were. A week ago Geraldine Doogue interviewed Sarah Yerkes, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Tunisia: Ten years since the Arab Spring. She argues that Tunisia came out better from the Arab Spring than many other Middle East companies, but that there have been recent uprisings again. Then this week, Doogue interviewed James Dorsey, journalist, and a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. He argues that in recognizing Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were allowing Trump to give something to his evangelical followers, and to present an alternative to conservative Islam – a trend that is occurring across the Middle East to varying degrees. After the interview, he was chatting informally to Doogue. He said- and she had his permission to add this to the podcast- that Indonesia is being underestimated, but at this point he started to talk to Doogue as a real insider, and I didn’t know what he was talking about, quite frankly.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m rather uncomfortable with the current trend to write history as a quest, interweaving the researcher/narrator’s perspective on the search with the actual history itself. Initially, I loved it as something brave and humanizing. But after at least a decade, it’s becoming a bit tired, and I feel that it is often resorted to as a symptom of the paucity of sources, as much as anything else. Ah, but I’ve said this again and again, and now I’m even boring myself.
But sometimes the historian genuinely is part of the history, and this is certainly the case in The Palace Letters. Jenny Hocking has written a two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam, and has been working on the Dismissal for many years. Indeed, if it were not for her persistence, and the generosity of pro-bono legal representation, historians would only have been able to work with retrospective accounts of the leadup to the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. The real-time documentation leading up to the November 11 1975 events was held at the pleasure of the Queen as ‘personal’ documents instead of the Commonwealth records that they are. After the National Archives refused Hocking access to the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and the Queen’s Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris after the statutory period had elapsed, she embarked on a ten-year battle to resolve the status and ownership of these documents as part of the historiographical record of Australia. This book is the story of that fight.
I have been following her battle for several years , especially through her recent book The Dismissal Dossier and I think I even threw some money towards her crowd-funding campaign to fund her legal expenses. After the papers were finally released, I can remember feeling somewhat disappointed that there was no ‘smoking gun’ of a Palace conspiracy, but rather the self-serving and pompous bleatings of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who did not cover himself with glory in November 1975 or in the years afterwards. But having read, The Palace Letters there is, at the personal level on the part of the Queen’s Private Secretary Charteris, a passive encouragement to Kerr, and certainly a structural effort to keep this communication hidden on the part of the National Archives, Liberal/Coalition governments over the decades and the Palace itself.
The book is written in the first person, with remarkably little self-promotion and puffery on Hocking’s behalf, even though she could have easily trumpeted her credentials for writing this book. It starts off in the archives, where all historians love to be, and her discovery that there were actually two copies of the letters: the first, the actual letters and the second, a photocopy made at night by David Smith, the Governor-General’s official secretary in order to send to Kerr to write his Journal. When both copies were placed under an embargo by the Palace on the grounds that they were personal papers, she thought that she would never see them. It was when she read Sydney barrister Tom Brennan’s blogpost ‘Australia owns its history‘ that she realized that there were legal allies with whom she could join forces.
The book then moves to the various court cases that the issue moved through, and the arguments that were made on both sides for or against the release of the letters. She was a participant, rather than a disinterested observer, and the National Archives does not come out well, in her retelling, taking advantage of tactics like unequal access to information, obfuscation and courtroom time-hogging. Headed by David Fricker, a former deputy director-general of ASIO, it becomes clear that the Archives are more than just a repository for documents but a political actor in their own right. There is even a National Archives whistle-blower who, infuriatingly, conveys important information at such a late stage that it cannot be used. The Murdoch-owned Australian is a player here too, and it is not surprising that Australian journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramson have published The Truth of the Palace Letters as a counter to Hocking’s analysis of the letters, once they had been made available.
Hocking gives a good sense of the imbalance of this fight: the National Archives are able to draw on their government-provided budget (albeit at the expense of their other activities) whereas Hocking could be held personally responsible for court costs. Although she was able to negotiate a capping of these costs, and was able to draw on the cream of Australia’s legal system for pro-bono representation, there must have been many times when she felt sick to her stomach at the implications of the losses in court. For losses there were, and it was only when it went to the High Court and received a 6:1 victory, that the long battle had been vindicated.
The final third of the book looks at the content of the letters themselves, and the aftermath of the Dismissal for Kerr himself as the Palace distanced itself from both Kerr and the decision. At one stage Sir Martin Charteris referred Kerr to a book written by conservative Canadian politician and expert on the reserve powers of the Crown in former dominions, Eugene Forsey, which enlarges the scope of the question beyond just Whitlam and Kerr into a broader historical question. However, after the dismissal, the time for book recommendations had passed, and Charteris becomes frostier, with Kerr’s actions now in the past.
While, of course, tales of the archives and courtroom stories will appeal to a particular type of reader, this book itself is very accessible. Who said that historians can’t be heroes? If you’re tempted to read it, read Hocking’s The Dismissal Dossier first (which will probably get you fired up) and then read this book, almost as a type of morality tale, to see the Mighty Fallen and the rewards for persistence and the courage to put yourself on the line – for our right to know our own history.
My rating: difficult to rate…8?
Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
Once again, I have not read the book that starts off the Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website. This month the starting book was Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.
I might not have read this particular Anne Tyler book but I have read several others. Before starting this blog I would have nominated her as one of my favourite authors, but I think that after a few books I had begun to tire of the Americanness and everyday-lifeness of her books (I don’t know if either of those words exist!) and I haven’t read anything of hers in the last ten years. I know that I really enjoyed Ladder of Years, where the middle-aged female main character decides to just walk out on her family, adopt a new identity and start a new, stripped-down life. Perhaps my enjoyment of this book says more about me as a middle-aged female reader, than the book.
Someone working as an undercover agent would be adopting new identities all the time, I should imagine. But what happens to the family they leave behind? Berta Islaby Javier Mariás explores the scenario of a wife whose husband disappears ‘on business’ for increasingly lengthy periods of time.
If you say “spy” to an Australian, probably the first names that will occur to them are those of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov (in fact, there’s a good chance that the Petrovs will be the only names that most Australians will be familiar with). The image of Evdokia Petrov being manhandled along the tarmac to an aeroplane is one of the iconic images of the 1950s. Andrew Croome has fictionalized the Petrov Affair in his Document Z.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies was able to take advantage of the Petrov Affair during the 1954 election campaign- a timing which many thought was too convenient. I grew up during the 1960s believing that Robert Menzies was the only possible Prime Minister: a bit like the Queen, he just was. Judith Brett wrote an excellent biography of Menzies and the middle class in the post-war years in Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which I read prior to staring this blog.
Another historian who captured twentieth century Melbourne middle class life very well is Janet McCalman inJourneyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990. She takes as her narrative vehicle (literally) the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle St St Kilda to Cotham Road Kew, picking up the students of four private schools: Scotch, Trinity, Genazzano and MLC (Methodist Ladies College) and traces the experience of middle class, Melbourne life in the suburbs through which the No. 69 travels.
The other major denominational rival to MLC was Presbyterian Ladies College, whose most famous alumni is Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, better known by her nom-de-plume Henry Handel Richardson. She famously wrote about her school days in The Getting of Wisdom, but I much preferred her wonderful three-part work The Fortunes of Richard Mahony which is probably one of my favourite Australian novels.
Hah! Four Australian books this time- and three of them by women!
Stuff the British stole (ABC)Shots Fired I heard this program advertised some time ago on the radio, but I could never catch the title! However, I finally tracked it down and listened to this episode on Invasion/Australia Day. I can remember feeling angry that the Gweagal shield was being returned to the British Museum after being on exhibition in Canberra as part of the Encounters exhibition at the NMA, where it was identified as being ‘collected’ at Botany Bay. But now that the custodianship of the shield by the British Museum is being challenged, it seems that it was probably not the shield dropped as part of the first contact at Botany Bay in 1770 after all. It raises questions about the relative worth of an artefact, the stories attached to it, and the politics of retaining or repatriating it.
The Daily (NYT) One of the first things that Joe Biden did on becoming president was tear up the Keystone Oil Pipeline. Good thing, too. This article from February 2018 has been read as a podcast and it goes through the history of American climate change activism, starting with Bill McKibben and 350.org, and focussing on five activists called The Valve Turners who deliberately trespassed while shutting off pipelines to ensure that they would front a court so that they could argue the necessity to act against climate change. Middle aged, upper middle class, educated Quakers and Unitarians… I’m proud to hear this, and I doff my cap to their bravery.
My Anne Lister-fest I finished watching Gentleman Jack (starring Suranne Jones) last night and I was curious to know more about Anne Lister and how accurate the Sally Wainwright-directed depiction was. First I listened to the History Extra Podcast Anne Lister, the Real ‘Gentleman Jack’ which featured Anne’s most recent biographer Angela Steidele. I think that her biography, Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist was originally written in German and translated by Kate Derbyshire. I wasn’t quite convinced by Steidele’s unfamiliarity with English gentlewomen’s diaries which (from the limited experience I have with them) are almost always boring, and there seemed a lot of emphasis on the ‘coded’ part. This same Kate Derbyshire the translator was a guest on The Dead Ladies Show Episode #12 Anne Lister where I was disconcerted by the tittering and male guffawing in the audience, something that the presenter seemed to be playing up to. I noticed that in the TV series, credit was given to Jill Liddington, so I sought her out. I found a series of videos on ALBW – Anne Lister Birthday Week- which was planned for 2020 before COVID intervened. They have bravely rescheduled it for April- then, July 2021- I am not hopeful. Jill Liddington seemed more a historian’s historian, who gave equal weight to the context of diary-writing and the English class system. Jane Liddington: The Inspiration of History is a one-hour interview with Pat Esgate (American organizers of the ALBW).
The Guardian. I have a friend from Brazil, and since I’ve been learning Spanish I am more interested in Latin American/South American affairs. I saw the appalling news about the shortage of oxygen in Brazil, so I was interested in Why Brazilians are taking the Covid crisis into their own hands. The reporter in this podcast, Tom Phillips, thinks that the tide has turned on Bolsonaro because of his handling of Covid. I’m not so sure.
Latin American History Podcast Continuing on with The Conquest of Mexico- Part 4, the podcaster Max Serjeant pulls a bit of swiftie here. He starts off telling the story of a European explorer meeting with an indigenous culture, going off, returning, getting killed and that’s the end of the story. This explorer is not Cortez of course, (I’ll let you guess or find out who it is) but he raises some interesting questions about how the appearance of a ‘stranger’ fits into pre-existing cosmology. Cortez meets envoys from the Aztecs, and is rebuffed in his efforts to meet with Montezuma, who rather foolishly keeps sending him gifts which just happen to include gold – thereby highlighting the desirability of Aztec wealth. Cortez teams up with the Totonacs, who had been defeated by the Aztecs in the old “enemy of my enemy” scenario.
Heather Cox Richardson. Returning to her Thursday series on Reconstruction in America, on 31 December she looked at two groups who were excluded by the 14th Amendment: the indigenous American tribes and women. For some reason, I always avoided doing American history and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize that the ‘Indian’ Wars took place during (as well as before and after) the Civil War. It was interesting to juxtapose these wars, treaties and land swaps with what was happening in Australia with our indigenous people. However, I disagree with her definition of ‘suffragist’ vs ‘suffragette’ (she sees it as a US vs UK thing) rather than a difference in strategy.