Monthly Archives: June 2017

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter


2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Movie: ‘Whiteley’

A friend recommended this, and I was wondering how I’d like it as she is very art-minded and I’m not.  The late Brett Whiteley has been in the news recently because of a courtcase which rested on whether some paintings of his were fakes or not. I hadn’t realized what a prolific and edgy artist he was, and how famous he was right throughout his life, right from when he won a prize to go to Paris on an art fellowship as a 21 year old.  Of course, there’s far more video footage of him later in his life, and so it’s been supplemented with re-creations and voiceovers, and Monty Pythonesque treatment of early images. I hadn’t realized, either, how beautiful Wendy Whiteley was as a young woman and how articulate she is now, too. It’s an interesting exploration of her role as muse too.  It captures well the insularity of Australian culture in the early 1960s and of course, Robert Hughes gets a look in. Well worth seeing, even if you’re not art-minded either!

My rating: 4 stars.

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann


2016, 256 p

Written by the author of one of my favourite books (This Side of Brightness) this is a really strong collection, comprising a novella and three short stories.  Each one of them is memorable in its own way.

The heart of the book is the eponymous novella with which it opens ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’.  It is told in thirteen chapters, each of which is headed by a stanza from Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. It was not clear to me that the stanzas had a direct connection with the chapter: they seemed to act more as an organizing device.  The octogenarian Manhattan judge Peter Mendelssohn is murdered after lunching at a nearby restaurant with his boorish, self-centred son. The thirteen chapters follow Mendelssohn through this last day as he wakes and is tended by his live-in nurse, dresses, shuffles to the restaurant, eats, then leaves.  Some chapters are his lengthy, wordy inner monologues which flesh him out as a character; others are more detached descriptions of the vision captured by the CC cameras with which wealthy Americans, in particular, surround themselves as a way of insulating themselves from danger.  We see, and yet do not see the one thing we need to know: who killed him?  We have multiple perspectives, and have been given knowledge things that the judge and jury in the ensuing murder trial do not know- but the ending of the story is abrupt and frustrating. The question is not answered definitively, but in many ways it doesn’t matter.

I was perhaps less taken with the second story, “What Time Is It Where You Are” which is a rather postmodern story of the construction of a story- in this case, about a female soldier in Afghanistan on New Years Eve. Just as in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’, there are choices in how a story can be told.  ‘Thirteen Ways’ utilized CC cameras as its way of creating a narrative, and in this story it is the unnamed author who is weighing up which facts to include or omit, and which twists of plot to introduce or not.

The third story, ‘Sh’khol’, riven through with a raw, keening anguish, counterbalanced the archness and self-consciousness of the second story.   An Irish mother, separated from her partner, is holed up in a cottage beside a raging ocean, with her thirteen year old deaf son who was adopted from Russia.  She has given him a wetsuit as a present. The next morning she wakes and he is gone.  Sick with dread, she searches for him on the windswept beaches and in the swirling waves.

I thought that the final story was as good as the one with which the collection opened.  In ‘Treaty’, an elderly nun has been enfolded back into her Irish convent when she is confronted with the sight of the  right-wing guerilla fighter who had kidnapped and raped her in the South American jungle many decades earlier. She’s not sure whether this re-fashioned ‘peace negotiator’ really is the man she thinks he is, and like Peter Mendelssohn in the opening story, her grasp of past and present is slippery.

I often find myself thinking about the editorial decision to select one short story over another in a compilation like this, and whether and how the individual stories contribute to the overarching unity of the collection.  These stories, very different though they are, are linked by their exploration of multiple perspectives, the elision of past and present and the contingency of fate. I enjoyed each of them, most particularly the first and final stories. Perhaps it’s because there were only four of them, but each of them is clearly defined in my mind in its own right – something that doesn’t always happen when reading a book of short stories. Or perhaps, as I suspect, it’s because Colum McCann is a very, very good writer.

Source: E-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10 (high praise for short stories from me!)

‘A Book of American Martyrs: a novel’ by Joyce Carol Oates


2017, 736 p

It’s been a while since I last read a book by Joyce Carol Oates. What a prolific author she is! Her bibliography lists 41 titles, with one book published each year since 1994. Some of them are gritty, edgy (often icky) novella-length books (e.g. The Beasts at 130 pages) while others, like  My Heart Laid Bare (531 p.) are real door-stoppers. There are themes she revisits in many of her books – emotionally lost female protagonists, infatuation, and the rippling effects of a crime on a family – and they’re all here in A Book of American Martyrs.

Here, though, they’re placed within the cultural and religious chasm between pro-life and pro-choice activists that has ruptured American politics for years.  Luther Dunphy is a zealous evangelical Christian, convinced that God has chosen him to assassinate an abortion provider, Gus Voorhees, in the driveway of the clinic where he is employed. Both men pay with their lives, in different ways.

Rather unusually for a fiction book, it has a table of contents. The book is divided into five sections, each divided from the next by a grubby, much-handled page that suggests that the book is a series of smaller, covered books, each separate from the other.  The first section focusses on Luther Amos Dunphy ‘Soldier of God’ and leads us up to the shooting. It is followed by a section ‘The Life and Death of Gus Voorhees’, subtitled ‘An Archive’. This archive, collected by Voorhees’ daughter Naomi, is her way of trying to make sense of her father’s death. It comprises a disparate and unsorted collection of documents, interviews and narratives from different members of Gus Voorhees’ family, some no longer than a paragraph, others some thirty pages in length.  The reader is left to make her own sense of all this.

The remaining three sections are arranged chronologically. ‘The Hammer’ turns to Edna Mae and Dawn, Luther Dunphy’s wife and daughter, in the years leading up to Dunphy’s execution in 2006. (I read this book in May 2017, very much aware of the multiple executions being lined up in Arkansas, where the drugs used to kill the prisoners are due to expire. It all seemed very pertinent) Now there are two martyrs: Dr.Gus Voorhees who died for the pro-choice principle, and Luther Dunphy who revels in his role as the man God chose to save the babies that Voorhees was about to ‘murder’ that day.

In the fourth section ‘The Embrace’ (2006-2010) and the final section ‘The Consolation of Grief’ (2011-2012) the two daughters, Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy come into each other’s orbit.  Both are damaged by their fathers’ deaths, each in their own way. Dawn, poorly educated and marginally employed, is achieving minor success as the female boxer, D. D. Dunphy. Naomi, who has spent most of her adolescence and adult life so far in obsessively collecting the ‘archive’ in Part Two is freed by wealth and connections from any real necessity to make a living. For both women, though, their families have fractured.  The two girls are united by their fathers’ martyrdom, but politically and culturally they are far separated.

This is a very long book at over 700 pages, but I didn’t find myself wishing that it were shorter, and I even felt sorry when it came to an end.  The Dunphy characters – Luther and Dawn- are more fully drawn than the Voorhees family, who always seemed rather insipid. I don’t know enough about small-town Evangelical working-class Americans to know whether Oates is being clear-eyed or loading on the stereotypes- I suspect a bit of both.  There is a lot of detail about boxing which probably could have been trimmed, although given that Oates wrote a series on essays On Boxing, it’s probably no surprise that so much attention is paid to the sport.

Oates herself does not come down on one side or the other of the abortion question. She gives each of the ‘martyrs’ a worldview that makes sense of their actions, however they might appear from the outside.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9

Report: ‘Why do we need social mix?’



Newspapers often use an academic or commissioned report as the basis of an article. I often think “I wonder if that report is available?” but then forget to follow it up. However, today I’m making a mid-year resolution to do so more often – a resolution that will no doubt suffer the same fate as the rest of my resolutions.

Since the horrific Grenfell fire, I find myself looking at brightly-coloured high-rise towers differently. Here in Heidelberg, a gigantic glowing copper high-rise is materializing on top of one of the highest landmarks in Melbourne, while there are plans for a high-rise on stilts to front the entrance into Ivanhoe. These are for the private market. Meanwhile  this morning, the Age published an article pertaining to the State Government’s plans to redevelop former public housing walk-ups with a mixture of public/private housing with higher density. According to the government, there will be no loss in the number of public housing units, and the public-housing residents will benefit from the influx of private buyers “to foster an integrated community”.

In the end, however, there’s no getting away from the fact that land for public housing is being turned over to developers for private profit.   Several public housing estates are in very enviable positions, close to all facilities and public transport, and in the case of Williamstown and Fairfield, with desirable outlooks. Once it’s in private hands, there’s no getting it back.


A report by  Abdullahi Jama and Kate Shaw cited here examines the Carlton redevelopment which is being lauded by the government as a good example of public/private redevelopment.  Jama previously lived  at the Carlton estate, while Kate Shaw is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in Urban Geography and Planning at the University of Melbourne.  They report that instead of a ‘salt-and-pepper’ distribution of public and private residents, the estate has separate public and private blocks, each with their own entrances, and few shared spaces.  The locked courtyard garden is for the use of the private occupiers only, and there is no mingling in the two cafes in the estate. This wasn’t the stated outcome when the redevelopment was first announced but, arguing that after the GFC it would be impossible to sell the private units, the idea of a ‘social mix’ has been put onto the backburner.  Meanwhile, private developers and owners have been able to grab prime real estate for themselves, without having to worry about ‘those’ people who are corralled in ‘their’ part of the estate.

Moreover, they question whether ‘social mix’ policies replace the social capital they displace.

Their conclusion?

A diversity of housing types must include diverse sources of funding, with a range of support programs. Involving future residents in design and ensuring they know what they’re moving into, and enabling people to organise their own housing, are far more effective ways of building social harmony than enforcing a rigid notion of mix.


‘Refurbishing’ memorials


The memorial in 2005 . Image source: Wikimedia

So, I see from a report in the Guardian (16/6/17) and on the Honest History website that the Ataturk memorial in Turkey is undergoing ‘refurbishment’.  Australians have often felt a warm inner glow when contemplating Ataturk’s words, previously emblazoned on the Ataturk memorial  at ANZAC Cove, Wellington and in Canberra:

Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly Country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land
They have become our sons as well

Except, as the Honest History website has been discussing for some time, there is real doubt whether Ataturk ever uttered these words at all.  I have always been impressed and surprised at the generosity of the Turkish government in accommodating the hordes of Australian and New Zealand tourists who flock to ANZAC Cove, although I’m sure that their tourist dollars are welcome. I can’t, however, see the generosity being reciprocated if the descendants of an invading force wanted to commemorate their battles on Australian land.

It will interesting to watch the politics of this- on both sides.

Exhibition: Love – Art of Emotion 1400-1800


Hurry! The excellent ‘Love: Art of Emotion’ exhibition closes at the NGV on 18 June 2017. Yes, once again I’ve failed to blog about something until it’s about to close – sorry. This free exhibition is on the ground floor of NGV International, and if you’re waiting around while seeing the Van Gogh exhibition, why not go see this one too. Most of the works are from NGV’s own collection, and are arranged around various perspectives on love.

It’s been on since February, and it closes this coming weekend. Perhaps I should rename this blog “Oops- Last Days”.

Movie: Moonlight

Well, I know that I always leave it late to catch movies but I excelled this time, with catching the very last showing on the very last day at Cinema Nova.  I knew that this won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but the trailer left me cold. Frankly, I knew very little about the film before seeing it.

I didn’t realize that it was a coming of age story, set in Miami but not Miami as I think of it. There’s not a white person to be seen in this Miami, a place of poverty and drug addiction. I didn’t realize that it involved a gay main character, who even before he knew what the term meant, asked ‘Am I a faggot?’. The movie is told in three parts, as Chiron grows up from a neglected, bullied child to a hesitant, searching teenager, and then a muscle-bound, intimidating ex-prisoner drug dealer.

I didn’t find it particularly easy to watch with jerky, handheld camera shots, and very-difficult-to-understand dialogue. But it was beautifully filmed, and it told a story that stays with you.

But if it’s no longer showing at the Nova, you know it’s really over and time to look for the DVD.

My rating: 4.5

‘Alicia en el Pais de las Maravillas y El Mago de Oz’


155 p.

I feel a bit as if I’m cheating counting Spanish books as ‘books read’ but – dang it- they take me as long to read as any 400 page novel, so count it I will! This book is not overtly aimed at the Spanish learner, in that it does not have vocabulary or questions at the back although its author information at the start seems to be aimed at an adult audience. The font is large, with a large illustration on the facing page, and the chapters are relatively short (i.e. a couple of pages). Of course, being Alice in Wonderland, strange vocabulary pops up and you think ‘Surely that can’t be right!’ but then you remember that yes, croquet is played with flamingos etc.  The Wizard of Oz story was easier to read because there was more repetition and the story followed a more conventional arc.

Does it work for me, reading a children’s book in Spanish? Yes, on one level, given that both are familiar stories which makes guesswork easier. But it certainly was a very abridged version, tracing plot alone, and in Alice in Wonderland particularly, it depended a lot on prior knowledge of the story with one event piled on another with little connection between them.  Come to think of it, though, that’s very much how Alice in Wonderland is, I suppose.

Source: Borrowed from my Spanish teacher Renato

Movie: ‘Lion’

It’s been around for a while, and still going strong. Based on a true story, Saroo is separated from his brother, ends up lost in Calcutta and is adopted by an Australian family. Google Earth comes to the rescue as he decides to look for his Indian family. A terrific story, although the dream sequences were a little tedious near the end. Stick around for the end of the movie where you learn ‘what happened next’.