Monthly Archives: August 2017

Movie: Get Out


I haven’t seen a spooky movie for ages. I don’t know if I like the experience of watching them – usually through my fingers as I have to cover my face – but it’s all good as long as the horror movie keeps its promise and all turns out in the end.  Does ‘Get Out’ keep that promise?  Ah – you’ll just have to see it.

My rating: 4.5

‘The War at Home’ by John Connor, Peter Stanley and Peter Yule


2015, 240 p& notes

It might seem a bit strange, but I’m starting off this review at the very last chapter of this book, where Peter Stanley talks about a book that could well be seen as a forerunner of this present volume. That earlier book was Ernest Scott’s Australia During the War, published in 1936 as part of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, edited by Charles Bean. Having a volume devoted to the war at home as part of this huge undertaking was a bit of an afterthought, but Charles Bean was happy to accommodate it because it meant that he didn’t have to worry about all that political stuff happening back ‘at home’ in the volumes that he was writing. Historian Ernest Scott was brought in to write it after the first draft penned by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald was felt to be lacking.  Although exhaustive, apparently it’s a very politics-based approach, penned as it was some five or so years before G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942) had suggested that a social history could be written ‘with the politics left out’.

So why am I talking about a book written 81 years ago? Like that earlier volume, The War at Home is written as part of a five-part series: in this case, the ‘Centenary History of Australia and the Great War’ by Oxford University Press.  The other four volumes all sound rather militaristic (Vol 1 Australia and the War in the Air; Vol 2 The War with the Ottoman Empire; Vol 3 The War with Germany; and Vol 5 The Australian Imperial Force) and they hold little appeal for me. But I’m preparing for a presentation in December on the conscription referendums from a very local (i.e. Heidelberg) perspective, and I’ve been enjoying the work that has been done in Melbourne this year related to Conscription (i.e. the Serenading Adela choir, and the Anti-Conscription conference I attended in May). I feared that this book might be full of Anzackery, but my fears were groundless. In fact one of the authors, historian Peter Stanley, admitted  -perhaps a little regretfully? – that his own work had contributed to the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War as a major and formative experience for both individuals and the nation.  The authors have deliberately chosen to talk of ‘the war at home’ rather than ‘the homefront’, which they explain was a term used at the time to talk about Germany, not Australia.

The book is divided into three parts, each denoted by a single word (Economy: Politics: Society) and written by a different historian. Within each of these themes, the chapters are arranged roughly chronologically. Part I, ‘Economics’ was written by Peter Yule and opens with ‘The Australian Economy in 1914’ and closes with ‘The Australian Economy in 1919′. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this section as much as I did, given my aversion to numbers, but I found it fascinating. He took some time to describe Billy Hughes’ actions  in trade negotiations- something that I hadn’t considered previously.  Nor had I wondered why all those bags of wheat were stacked up, being eaten by mice? (Answer: it was because Britain had ordered up all Australia’s wheat crop when it seemed that the Canadian crop would fail- and when it didn’t, they just left the wheat here rotting), or thought about why the Zinc industry became prominent in Tasmania in 1916? ( Answer: it was because a replacement needed to be found for the German supplies). This topic could be dry, but I liked the way that he interwove human stories into his analysis: the wealthy mining industrialists based in Collins House; the town of Warrnambool cheering the opening of the woollen mill; Leonard Dyer eking out an existence on a soldier settler farm in the Mallee.

Part II ‘Politics’ was written by John Connor, a historian whose work I’m not familiar with, I must admit. Although it is the most relevant section to my own Conscription Campaign project, it didn’t sparkle for me in the way that the other two parts did. This section followed the chronology of the war fairly closely, from the perspective of the different parties, exploring the personalities and political machinations that ran through WWI domestic politics. He spends considerable time on the conscription referendums, and the narrative is clear and insightful.

Part III ‘Society’ by Peter Stanley was organized thematically, with each chapter heading starting with a gerund (see…learning another language has been useful after all- who knew that there was such a thing as a gerund!)  e.g. ‘Cheering: Outbreak, Shots and Loyalty’, or ‘Understanding: Faith, Propaganda and Culture’. There is a chronological progression here too, moving from Cheering to Mobilizing to Enduring to Remembering etc. and within each theme there is a chronological progression as well. Although it doesn’t identify itself as such, this section is very much a history of the emotions of a community whose men are so far away fighting and I very much liked it.  I was surprised that by the end of this section, Stanley seemed to be distancing himself from the Capital Letter War approach that he, among many other military historians, had championed:

Even if the war is not interpreted as a great national epic, as Charles Bean’s official history portrayed it, it is seen as a great human drama, or as a great national and human tragedy. There is much to commend these views, and abundant evidence of how the war actually was a profound, tragic and deeply significant event  in both the life of individuals caught up in it and in the story of the nation, for which it represented a major – even a formative- experience. This is the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War (and I have myself contributed to creating it).

But there is another way of thinking of the experience of the Great War, without denying the power, the significance or the poignancy of the conventional interpretation. For many people, possibly even an actual majority, the war was neither a great personal tragedy nor an experience that shaped life for decades to come. For many- those who did not enlist, those who did not become involved, those whose immediate family did not enlist or did not return wounded, those whom the war passed by those who actively opposed it- the war was not central to their lives or their collective history. These people have been largely overlooked in the war’s historiography, which remains seriously skewed towards the drama of conflict; partly because the records of organized violence are better arranged and preserved. (p.228)

I very much enjoyed this book- far, far more than I expected I would. The chapters were short, mostly 8-9 pages in length, and the book was well illustrated. I’m sorry that in a field dominated by male historians, a female historian could not have joined the triumvirate. Although women are mentioned, especially in the third section, they tend to still tend to form an amorphous other, with a special section devoted to them in Section III under the chapter ‘Supporting’.  The book has footnotes but they are not obtrusive, and there’s an informative bibliographic chapter at the end which points out the most significant literature.  It seems to meet that sweet spot where it is engaging for the general reader, but with sufficient grunt and referenced support for the academic reader as well.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library (yes, I’ve finally activated my alumni account there!)

My rating: 9/10


‘The Only Girl in the World’ by Maude Julien


2017, 256 p Translated from French

Spoiler alert

I felt uncomfortable and voyeuristic reading this book, but I couldn’t put it down either.  It’s the way I felt when reading 3096 Days by kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch too (see my review here) where I wanted to honour the teller and the telling, but still felt rather grubbied by my own interest in the story.

You can read an extract from the start of Julien’s book here.

Maude Julien starts her story at only three years of age, when her father bought a house between Lille and Dunkirk and withdrew there, with his wife and daughter. As the gate slams shut, her father Louis Didier, already an older father (59 years old) turns his attention to his daughter, who he is determined to turn into a ‘superior being’ to ‘raise up humanity’. In his tangled, esoteric, Freemason-oriented world view, Maude was  one of the Initiates, the Beings of Light, whose temporal power was headed by the Queen and the Pope. She needed to be strengthened for the trials to come, through a combination of seclusion, extreme training and physical and emotional abuse.

What power parents have! Maude strains for the slightest brush of human contact, in spite of the physical and emotional violence both parents exert on her.  Her mother Jeannine, who had been ‘purchased’ as a child by Louis, educated and then scheduled to give birth to a child for him to program, is arguably just as much a victim as Maude is. However, in the arbitrary and stringent world within the fences of the Didier house (one could not call it a ‘home’), it was dangerous to trust anyone because it could be used against you: the exact lesson that Louis Didier wanted his daughter to learn.  Maude was sexually abused – not, as you might suspect by her father – and her mother witnessed it and did nothing.  Fear seeps through this book.  As a reader, you fear for the animals she loves; you fear for her as she turns on her own body as a way of keeping her own control. You fear for her mind as she turns to fictional characters as friends.

Her father is inscrutable. He is clearly obsessed with Hitler, but wants her to be able to resist the atrocities that Hitler unleashed.  He is obsessed with the orchestra that played at the concentration camps, and is determined that she will learn every instrument, so that she can be saved. He sees danger everywhere, and instills that danger into his daughter, as a way of keeping control over her.

You expect a rupture: a crime, a rescue- anything to make it stop which, as the book is written as a memoir you know it will.  It doesn’t come in the way you anticipate.  Instead, she makes her physical and emotional escape through the training that her father himself has instigated.  You can’t help but feel relieved at her resilience and recovery, but also, rather deadened by the flatness of the telling.

This book has been variously  described as ‘inspirational’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘triumphant’. I don’t know that I felt that it was any of those things. I am left more harrowed than uplifted.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Unable to rate.


Movie: Lady Macbeth


I saw this ages ago, and didn’t get round to posting this short review. Its probably out on DVD by now.

It’s not Lady Macbeth in the Shakespearean vein, but instead the film is based on the novella and opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  A young woman is married off to an older man, who manipulates and humiliates her and when she can, she takes her revenge.  It’s a very dark movie, both visually and in terms of story.

Movie: My Cousin Rachel

A pigeon-pair for Daphne du Maurier’s other well-known book/movie Rebecca, here we have a young man who is unsure whether his uncle’s wife is a tragic widow or an arch manipulator.  Rachel Weisz is suitably enigmatic and your sympathies for her shift as quickly as her facial expressions do. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

My rating:  3.5

‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan


2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.