Monthly Archives: June 2018

‘Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden past’ by Giles Tremlett


2012 second edition, 446 p.

I’m not a particularly keen reader of travel books, but as I’m going to be in Spain in the next few days, I decided to read this book which has gathered pretty good reviews. It’s written by a journalist who has lived in Spain for over twenty years, making him enough of an insider to understand what he is seeing, but enough of an outsider to have his attention attracted by the unfamiliar.

Throughout the book he refers to the ‘two Spains’ – the conservative, religious Spain and the outward-looking, liberal if not socialistic Spain – that still exist in Spain today. The first three chapters are about Franco and the Spanish Civil War and the general agreement to look the other way and leave well enough alone.  After these first chapters I thought that the book was going to continue in this vein, but it became more journalistic and digressive. He moves around different regions of Spain (the Basque Region, Catalan district and Gallacia), as well as discussing childrearing practices and death rituals.  There’s a good map and a good index, so it acts well as reference book.  It’s fairly current, with a good discussion of the Madrid terrorist bombings, immigration and the economic recession following the global financial crisis that particularly affected Spain and Greece.

I won’t know until I’ve been there how useful any of this is going to be, and whether there will be resonances in what I see. Quite apart from the anticipation that the book has aroused, it was an interesting and entertaining read with a narrator that you feel you’d like to know.

My rating: 8/10

Read because: Voy a Espana!

‘Like a Fading Shadow’ by Antonio Munoz Molina


2017, 308 p. Translated from the Spanish by Camilo A Ramirez

This book takes as its starting point the little-known fact that after the assassination of  Martin Luther King, the chief suspect James Earl Ray spent ten days in Lisbon, trying to obtain an Angolan visa. When this did not succeed, he went to London, where he was arrested.

This thread of the story, based on true facts, is interwoven with the author’s own narrative of the act of writing. This itself is split into two further threads: in 1987 when, as a young writer, the first-person author went to Lisbon to write another story (which we never get to read) set in Lisbon, and then a return journey in 2012,  when the author returns to Lisbon, then travels to Memphis to research the James Earl Ray story for, presumably, the book you are reading.

This all sounds rather complex, but it’s not really while you’re reading it, once you realize that there are two separate author narratives in play.  In a way, it is almost a relief to break away from the increasingly fevered, paranoid world of James Earl Ray which, left unmediated, would be suffocating.  As his money runs out, he is becoming encircled by his own fears and distrust as much as anything else.  When the end comes – as we know it does – Molina jumps ahead to James Earl Ray in prison years later, writing his own narrative that centres on ‘Raoul’, the man Ray claimed to have been behind the assassination. Molina reports this, but sceptically.

Separated by twenty-five years, the older author ‘I’ is a more balanced, reflective man than the younger author, who left his wife with a newborn second baby in order to follow his passion in writing his novel.  As an older man, he is by now reflective about the act of writing, the role of novelization and the narrative imagination.

The last part of the book takes us almost minute-by-minute to Martin Luther King, hanging over the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  We know exactly what is going to happen, yet Molina manages to wind up the tension as we wait for the finger to press the trigger.

The time shifts in this book are complex, but Molina keeps good control of them.  It’s a taut, controlled book that draws you on, even though you know how it’s going to end.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Off we go again


Guess where I’m going this time? Some wedding shoes; a hiking hat and boots; a Spanish phrase book.  Yep.  I’m going to David’s wedding in Nairobi, I’m going to look at gorillas in Rwanda/Uganda then I’m off to the south of Spain.

Wot larks!  You can follow me at my other blog:

Podcast: Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie

If you saw Q&A on ABC last Monday, you would have seen Rosie Waterland as one of the panelists.  “Who’s Rosie Waterland?” you may ask. It was, in fact, the first time that I have seen Rosie Waterland too, but she sounded very familiar because I’d been listening to her podcast ‘Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie’ for 22 episodes, over several weeks. You can find  it here.


Rosie Waterland wrote an award-winning memoir about her troubled and dysfunctional childhood called The Anti-Cool Girl in 2015 . Her mother Lisa, an alcoholic, had been warned by her friends not to read it and, given her health and other problems at the time, it was highly unlikely that she would have done so.  Two years later, however, Lisa had cleaned up her act and was sober and she read the book.  This podcast, as mother and daughter face off over the veracity of  Rosie’s memoir, is the result.For the first few weeks of listening to this, I found myself talking about it to anyone I came across, urging them to listen to it.  It is graphic, disturbing, but also illuminating and thought-provoking.

Lisa, now in her 50s, has had her own troubled life, but has worked (remarkably) as a psychiatric nurse, and from her vocabulary, is clearly well-educated. From her voice, and accent, however, you can detect the effect of years of drug and alcohol abuse and some pretty hard living. Rosie sounds young (she is in her early 30s) and likewise, bears the traces of a private school education in her voice as well, mixed in with the effects of some pretty hard living in her own right. They often clash: sometimes over the veracity of Rosie’s obviously coloured memoir, which combines humour with real tragedy, but more importantly, often  over blame and responsibility.

You don’t need to have read the book, because each podcast starts with Rosie reading a chapter until she reads the whole way through. There’s mutual embarrassment here, when Rosie is reading about her own, or her mother’s, sex life, and discomfort when she exposes Lisa’s multiple failures as a mother.  Then, after Rosie has finished reading the chapter, they ‘discuss’ it. Sometimes it’s outright denial from one or the other of them; other times it’s reflection and a step towards reconciliation.  At other times, it sparks off an argument that you just know has been had many times before.  It’s interesting (and somewhat voyeuristic) listening to the whole of an argument, as distinct from just overhearing snatches of it on the phone, or worse still, being involved in the altercation yourself.  You hear the shifts in the logic; the outright stupidity; the inadequacy and immaturity of other parts of the argument. Your sympathies shift back and forth.  I noticed this most with the episode about Rosie’s weight gain.

Is it my age perhaps? For all Lisa’s flaws (and they are legion, as they are with us all), I found myself more often on her side. I wish her well.

But I must confess that by the end of the series,  I was tiring of it. The next-to-last two or three episodes could be easily skipped, with just the final episode as closure (and even that last one went on too long).  I wondered why she felt Rosie felt that she had to abnegate herself through her revelations (TMI, you might say) and combined with her weight problems, I started to feel too voyeuristic and even complicit in heightening Rosie’s pain.  Will she still want this podcast to be around in ten years? I wonder.

But the first, say, 15, episodes I found absolutely compelling.  Brave stuff- from both of them.  And when I saw her on Q&A the other night, I felt as if I were hearing the voice of a friend.

‘A Good Day to Die’ by Lisa Birnie


1998, 227 p.

When I saw that this book was my bookgroup’s selection for May, I wondered how I would cope with it, as Dad died at home in January this year. My qualms might seem rather paradoxical, given that I chose to read Pat Jalland’s Australian Ways of Death right in the midst of Dad’s passing. Somehow that seemed different.  I wanted to read Jalland to contextualize what I was feeling within a historical frame of distant times and foreign mindsets – a comfortable and comforting exercise for me- whereas these were contemporary, personal stories told from my own city.  I felt that I could trust Jalland’s distance and span as a historian, but I didn’t feel the same way about a journalist with an eye to the good story.  As it turned out, the book wasn’t as confronting as I feared it might be, but my misgivings were not assuaged by the time I finished it.

Lisa Birnie was a writer-in-residence who spent several weeks at McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre. There she spoke with patients, families and staff members while seeking the answer to her question: “Is euthanasia desirable or necessary or could accessible palliative care supplant the need for it?” As the weeks went on, and as she met more patients, her question changed to “Should a rigidly circumscribed law be drafted that permits patient-requested euthanasia in cases where all palliative care practices to control pain have been unable to do so?”

The fraught question of euthanasia was one that she had grappled with in her earlier book Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez (1994), where she followed the legal battles of a young woman with Motor Neurone Disease to commit suicide with a doctor’s assistance.  She came away from that case concerned that euthanasia would inevitably be used against people who did not want it, and that it would pre-empt further research and provision of good palliative care.  Moreover, by her own admission, Birnie acknowledges being ‘spiritual’, and I think that both these dispositions drove her to explore and frame her questions as she did.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each fronted with an epigraph and a short title: Hope, Denial, Searching for Meaning, Pain, Living Fully Until Death, Attitude, the Caregiver, Faith, Last Rites, Grief and Love, The End and the Beginning.  Each chapter is similar in structure, starting first with the story of a particular individual, their illness and their family, followed by an interview with a staff member.  I felt just a little voyeuristic, prying into this most intimate and physical of events, but there was much to think about too. There was young Michael, aged 30, dying with melanoma shortly after his second child was delivered by caesarean so that he could see him before he died; or Adrian, also in his thirties, whose mother clung to the hope of a miracle.  There were people who kept having more and more surgery; a woman who wanted her daughter and friend to be part of her death; a man with sarcoma of the mouth who drew from the strength of his brother; and most memorably a driven business-man whose anger at his illness was an extension of his need to control his family and business as well.

Her approach is anecdotal, not analytic.  Only in one chapter did she venture beyond the walls of McCulloch House to consider palliative care in the home (as we did with Dad). I feel that she was somewhat ‘captured’ by McCulloch House and her feelings about palliative care in the home are equivocal.  She did not ever come to a definitive view. She was more conscious of the limitations of pain relief for a small percentage of people and her concerns about euthanasia becoming normalized still stood.

This book was written twenty years ago. I wonder how she would feel about the Assisted Dying legislation passed in Victoria last year.  She alluded to negative experience from the Netherlands, which does not tally with my perception of the overseas data presented to the enquiry and legislation last year.   Most particularly, her book deals only with patients dying with cancer. She does not deal with patients with dementia, or MND and other degenerative diseases (not that the Victorian legislation gives any comfort to dementia sufferers and their families.) By the end of the book, I was left feeling that she had not really shifted all that far in her attitudes from where she was at the start i.e. a spiritual woman concerned about the ‘slippery slope’.  On the other hand, I was pleased that the question was still left open in her own mind.  I do wonder, too, if she’s still alive (she was born in 1928, although still very actively writing in 2014) and whether she still feels the same way.

It was interesting (and somewhat sobering) to listen to our book group discussion, amongst a group women aged mid-60s to mid-80s. I was a bit surprised at the strength of feeling against assisted dying held by some of our members, reflecting the strength of my own feelings to the contrary, I suspect.

Read because: CAE bookgroup

My rating: 8?  It’s difficult to separate my own feelings about her conclusions, from my feelings about the book


I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of her before and I didn’t realize that  she was Australian. She was born in Australia and started her career at the Warrnambool Standard, then the Hobart Mercury and Argus before travelling to London to cover royal events. She then travelled to San Francisco, and later lived in Vancouver.

There’s a podcast from 2014 where she talks about her journalistic career at