Monthly Archives: January 2017

‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout


2016, 208p.

Lucy Barton lies in a New York hospital bed, seriously ill,  watching the lights in the Chrysler Building. Complications have set in after an appendectomy and she is frightened and desperately missing her two young daughters. Her husband has called her mother to come, and she has. She is sitting beside the bed, not sleeping.

The two women have been estranged for years and the mother keeps the conversation light, circling between anecdotes about shared acquaintances from the past. This is a conversation where the important things are left unsaid, as they always have been. It’s not a conversation between two adult women at all. Instead, Lucy is still the child, desperately wanting her mother to tell her that she loves her.  She cannot even frame the question about the poverty, physical, social and emotional, in which the family lived. Her mind shies away from the questions that she really needs to ask about her father’s post-war trauma, the punishment of being left in a truck, and even worse.

The narrative is simply told in retrospect, after Lucy – a published and accomplished writer- has recovered from her illness and moved on to another phase of her life.  Despite its 200 plus pages, the layout of the text provides a much shorter text,  in brief chapters and surrounded by much blank paper.  It is more novella than novel and it evokes the author’s earlier  Olive Kitteridge in its knife-sharp approach to relationships. I’m bemused by reviews that focus on the love between mother and daughter. I find it far more unsettling and much darker than that.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating:  8/10

Movie: ‘A United Kingdom’

There’s 54 countries in Africa, and each would have its own distinct post-colonial story. To my shame I know very few of them- just a smattering of knowledge about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and that’s just about it. Although some aspects of this film are for dramatic interest (e.g. the British public servants here are not historical figures), the rest is pretty accurate.  I thought for a minute that I might have to rethink my opinion of Winston Churchill- but I didn’t.  A United Kingdom is a good movie (and here’s a link to the obituary for Ruth Khama)

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

‘Illicit Love: Interracial Sex & Marriage in the United States & Australia’ by Ann McGrath


2015, 393 p & notes

Someone talking about this book recently described it as “the book that Ann McGrath has been writing all her life”. They were not being facetious or unkind.  Instead, I think that they were paying recognition to the fact that this book, coming relatively late in her career, completes the circle that she began to draw in her first book Born in the Cattle published from her PhD in 1987.  In that first book she focussed on Indigenous people who lived on the cattle stations outback in the late nineteenth and first half of the 20th century. She argued that  being ‘born in the cattle’ [country] meant that they could exert agency by maintaining their connection with the land and ceremony.  She does not resile from the fact that there was dispossession, financial exploitation and rape, but emphasizes there were loving and joyful relationships too.

It is a similar tightrope argument that she mounts here in Illicit Love too: that love and intermarriage between colonizer and Indigenous individuals are a hidden plot line in settler sovereignty.  Such relationships (and she’s talking about long-term relationships here, not casual or coerced sex) confounded the quick clear-cut sense of completion that colonization aspired to,  characterized by a rapid process of battle, victory and with the   colonizer-led nation finally despatching the eventual ‘last’ of the tribe. Instead

When a man and a woman married across colonizing boundaries, they broke one law or another. Even if their union was not against any official colonizer or Indigenous law, it pitched against family and community wishes. It was inherently transnational.  Illicit lovers began to absorb the worlds in which they lived, and to create, and make worlds anew.  In so doing , they challenged the vision of what the nation would be. (p. 1)

My eye snagged a little on the phrase “inherently transnational” on this first page of the book. ‘Transnational’ in historical methodological terms in recent work generally refers to the  movement of people and ideas across networks and oceans. It usually refers to trans-continental exchange.  In this book, however, the frame of her analysis is colonization as experienced by two different indigenous groups on two different continents:  the Cherokee nation between 1810-1840s and the several nations inhabiting the North Queensland coastline between 1900-1930. Her attention is directed to the “colonizing transnational” i.e. the intersections, relations and links between colonizer nations and First Nations (p.6) in each of these two sites.  These are nations within the same continent, where the colonizing nation struggled to frame the indigenous people as ‘foreigners’ because they were already there.  The stories she draws from these two sites do not necessarily function as comparative case studies but

Instead, in order to apply a strategy of juxtaposition, I put together and tease out a selection of emblematic narratives…The aim is to explore and delve into stories that were worlds apart, with the expectation that each will unsettle the other.  Rather than attempting a comparative or survey approach, I looked for eye-opening exemplars of what happened between peoples and polities in different times and places.  My aim is to engage with the vitality of the micro- the courtship and marital experiences of particular people in discrete times and places.  (p. 5)

She starts, as many historians do, in the archive, waiting with a Native American scholar for the delivery of a file. Inside the file is a flower pressing- a spray of fine twigs and a bud tied with string. The accompanying note read: “Presented to Mrs Mary B. Ross by Mrs Madison the widow of Ex President Madison”.  She returns to this vignette of the pressed flowers, and its meaning, later in the book. Continue reading

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


Now that the Christmas tree is taken down and chopped up, it’s time to admit that yes, Christmas is over, and turn my mind to 2017. I’ll be participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 again and once again I’ll nominate ‘Franklin’ level (10 books) and make a resolution to read more female Australian historians’ work. This year I’ll be writing the round-up posts for Non Fiction  (which unfortunately is a different category to History, Biography and Autobiography) so that might nudge me into looking for women non-fiction writers a bit more.

So, as they say in Spanish “¡Qué se abra el telón!  (Raise the curtain! Let the show begin!)


Movie: Nocturnal Animals

This movie was nothing like I thought it would be.  I knew that it was about a woman who was forwarded the draft of a book written by her ex-husband and dedicated to her. On reading it, she came to question past events, and finds that revenge can be served in many ways.

I was expecting a bit of a dinner-table psychodrama. I wasn’t prepared for the violence or dystopian bleakness of this movie.  A very critical review ‘I’m so glad to spoil this film for you’ found much the same thing.  I don’t know if I’ll be quite as malicious, but this film is certainly NOT a dinner-table psychodrama. Don’t think Woody Allen: think Mad Max.

My rating: Hard to say -4? but too violent and disturbing for me.

Movie: I, Daniel Blake

At a time when our government is sending out computer-generated demands for repayments of debts that may or may not be owed by Newstart clients, every member of Parliament should be made to sit down and watch this film. “Just get online and fix up your details” flows so easily from the lips of a politician,  but as we see with older worker Daniel Blake, it’s not so easy. Mr Bumble the Beadle from Oliver Twist might be a figure from the past, but the oily, formulaic weasel-speak of the employment centre staff is just as patronizing.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars

Redmond Barry’s house in East Melbourne

There’s a couple of derelict mansions in Clarendon Street. When I first read about the neglect of Valetta, I thought that it was the increasingly ramshackle mansion down near Alexandra Pde that I had assumed that belonged to the Pullman Hotel (ex-Hilton Hotel). Valetta, however, is at the other end of Clarendon Street, near Victoria Pde, up near Epworth/Freemasons Hospital.  The adjacent Clarendon House shows how beautiful it could be, and you can see the boarded up Valetta to the right of the picture.


Valetta was the residence of Redmond Barry, who plays a rather prominent part in this blog (here and here) and in multiple places in the ‘This Week in Port Phillip’ postings. Or rather, he lived there for one year before he died.


Valetta can be seen here, with Clarendon Terrace to the left.

Source: State Library of Victoria

It will be interesting to see if this new Heritage Act has teeth in terms of forcing the owner to act. I’m not holding my breath.