Monthly Archives: November 2018

Movie: A Translator (Un Traductor) Cine Latino Film Festival

Set in the ‘Special Period’ when the Cuban economy plummeted after the demise of the Soveiet Union, a taciturn, aloof Professor of Russian Literature is sent to a Cuban hospital to translate for Russian patients and their parents who have travelled to Cuba in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The closing credits point out that over 20,000 Russian children were part of this program that continued until 2011. A father himself, the translator becomes increasingly drawn towards the Russian children, to the detriment of his marriage and relationship with his own son. It is filmed in Cuba, so I enjoyed seeing places I’d visited. The language is really hard to understand, although if you look (or rather, listen) to the trailer, the dialogue is very muffled.

‘The True Colour of the Sea’ by Robert Drewe


2018, 209 p.

It would come as no surprise that this collection of short stories should coalesce around the theme of the sea. Several of Robert Drewe’s earlier works reference water: The Bodysurfers collection of short stories, The Drowner (which, admittedly was more about the arid outback than water) and his own memoir The Shark Net.  But it’s not just the Australian sea that provides the background for many of these stories: instead we travel to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable beach-side settings.

I always find it hard to review a collection of short stories as a precis often gives the whole story away: by its very nature a ‘short’ story doesn’t have a lot of flesh to cut away. I tend to flip through, and if I can remember the scenario, then I feel that the story has worked for me.

On that basis, I enjoyed ‘ Another Word for Cannibals’ where an earnest, progressive, European couple returns to a Pacific island to complete the genealogical circle of their great-great-great grandfather’s missionary endeavour. ‘Varadero’, set in a down-at-heel Cuban hotel really appealed to me, as it captured Cuban tourism so well. ‘Lavender Bay Noir’ is slightly creepy in a domestic sunlit, sea-kissed setting. ‘Spotting Killer Whales’ involves an adult family gathering together in a restaurant overlooking the sea after their father has died. The eponymous ‘The True Colour of the Sea’ has a historical setting, where a colonial artist is left an a rock in the Arafura Sea.

These eleven stories were just the right length as far as I’m concerned. They were long enough to get your teeth into, but were easily read as a story-before-bedtime read. Drewe is such an accomplished writer, confident and clear-eyed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I saw it there on the library shelf

My rating: 8.5/10

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 14- 21 November 2015

Background Briefing (ABC)  Progressives here in Australia feared for the effects on the availability of abortion after Brett Kavanagh’s ascension to the Supreme Court. But we shouldn’t be too smug about the provision of abortion here in Australia. At the time of this recording, abortion was still illegal in Queensland under a 119 year old law (it has since changed), and the provision of late term abortion is very difficult to access. This podcast looks at the Marie Stopes provider in Maroondah, known as The Clinic of Last Resort for women all over Australia seeking a late surgical abortion.

Rear Vision (ABC) In celebration of Armistice Day, Rear Vision put out an excellent episode The Centenary of Armistice: Australia and World War I. There’s been so much about WWI and this encapsulates Australia’s war both overseas and domestically in just half an hour. Features Robert Bollard, Rae Francis from ANU and Meleah Hampton from AWM. So if you want to listen to just one podcast about the war- this could be it!

I recently read Laura Spinney’s book on the influenza epidemic and I saved Rear Vision’s The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19.  The broadcast is actually from 2009, and it draws quite heavily on Geoffrey Rice’s book ‘Black November: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New Zealand’.

History Today And other podcast about the influenza epidemic, this time from History Today. The Spanish Flu pandemic features author Catharine Arnold, whose book Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History takes a more biographical approach to the spread of disease, particularly in Britain

Revolutions PodcastEpisode 9.10 Chickens Coming Home to Roost is a bit of a stop-and-take-a-look-back type of episode. The presenter Mike Duncan was on a book tour so in  his absence,  he reads an essay that he wrote in grad school on the fall of the Porfirio Diaz’s long regime. I enjoyed this episode because, when you’re listening to something as elongated as this, you wonder if you have forgotten important things along the way. It’s reassuring to find that I haven’t.

Movie: The Accused (2018) -Acusada- Cine Latino Film Festival 2018

An Argentinian film about a young girl, Dolores, who finally, after two and a half years, faces the court after the murder of her best friend. This friend had posted a sex tape of Dolores, leading to a falling-out between the two girls, and when the friend is found stabbed on the couch after a drunken party, Dolores is accused of the murder. Now she faces the court, her parents having mortgaged the house to employ the best lawyer they can.  The young actress reminded me of Demi Moore in Ghost, and she is very good in manipulating your feelings about her. Is she innocent, exhausted, manipulative or a good liar?

It’s subtitled in English, which is just as well because I could barely follow a word.

My rating: 3.5

Movie: Roma (Cine Latino Film Festival 2018)

I saw this as part of the 2018 Latin American film festival. It’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed Gravity and Children of Men. It’s filmed in black and white, and it looks at a year in the life of a middle-class family in the Roma suburb of Mexico City. It reminded me a lot of that other black and white film Of Time and the City, (which in that case was about Liverpool), in that the director is almost writing a love letter to the city of his memory. Lots of observations about class, being a woman, betrayal – and in beautifully clear Spanish! (subtitles in English). It’s very good

My rating: 4.5 stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 6 -13 November 2018

Well, the mid-term elections are done and dusted, Jeff Sessions has been ordered to let himself out the door- what does it all mean? There’s a new Trumpdate episode of Russia If You’re Listening.

News in Slow Spanish Latino Episode #282

99%Invisible Episode 326 Welcome to Jurassic Art has a podcast about the depiction of dinosaurs and how it has changed as artists have been liberated to draw from analogy and imagination. I’ve often been amused looking a sketches of a dinosaur that show the one little tiny bone that has been discovered.

Big Ideas. Kirsten McKenzie is one of the historians who influenced me most when I wrote my thesis on Judge Willis (see my review of A Swindler’s Progress which she released in 2009 ). In this podcast A scandalous empire she talks about colonial scandals – Viscount Lascelles in NSW and Chief Justice Wylde in the Cape Colony- and what they tell us about respectability and anxiety, and the bringing of social change. It’s a lecture recorded on 4 October 2018 at UWA Institute of Advanced Studies. The recording has not been kind: it’s rather shrill, (says she who is very self-conscious about her own voice) but the content is excellent.

Conversations.  Everybody’s favourite interviewer Richard Fidler talks with David Marr, who is so witty, arch and caustic. A rather more tentative and emotional interview subject is Louisa Deasey who talks about how she completely re-evaluated her view of her long-deceased father when she received a Facebook message from a stranger about a cache of letters a French family had found amongst their grandmother’s possessions. The episode Discovering a father’s secret life in France ties in with Deasey’s book A Letter from Paris. The interviewer Sarah Kanowski sure has to work hard to get this story out of a very nervous interviewee.

‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world’ by Laura Spinney


2017, 295 & notes

It is like the final insult. After four years of death, injury, mud and sand in WWI, it was the ‘Spanish flu’ that killed soldiers  just as the war was turning. It engulfed the whole globe -not just those countries involved in the war-  with most of the deaths occurring in the thirteen weeks between mid-September and mid-December 1918.

Flu epidemics have been with us for thousands of years. Because writing only emerged 4500 years ago, we cannot know when the first one was. We know that there was a  flu epidemic in Uruk in Iraq around that time; there is speculation that flu devastated the armies in Sicily in 212 BC; the first recognized flu pandemic is thought to have begun in Asia in 1580; there was one in 1830 and another ‘Russian’ flu in 1889.

The ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918-19 didn’t start in Spain. Indeed, according to Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider, a hundred years later we’re still not sure where it did start. Maybe in the poultry farms of Kansas; maybe in the army barracks at Etapes in northern France where birds flocked in the Somme estuaries; or maybe in Shansi province in China, where ducks were herded through the paddyfields to eat insects. What is common to these three locations is birds. Recent research  involved disinterring an obese woman from the permafrost to sequence the flu virus still present around her organs when she died in 1918, and sure enough, the “Spanish” flu was a form of avian flu which had crossed over to humans.

The ‘Spanish’ flu arrived in Spain in May 1918. It had been in America for two months and in France for at least a couple of weeks. But because any mention of flu was censored in nations at war, it was only in neutral Spain that it was reported in the local newspapers. Although “Spanish” was the name that stuck, most countries named it after another country- generally a country they didn’t like: in Senegal they called it Brazilian flu; in Brazil they called it the German flu, the Poles called it the Bolshevik disease; in Iran it was the British flu.

Whatever it was, it affected an estimated 500 million people, 1/3 of the global population in 1918. Between 50,000 and 100,000 million people died.  It came in three waves: the first in March-April 1918; the second and most deadly wave in August 1918 when it spread through most of Europe, Iran, India and China; a third wave in early 1919 which affected Australia which had largely escaped the other waves through effective quarantine; and perhaps a fourth wave in the winter of 1919-20.  In Australia, more than 12,000 people died.

Children and old people have always been vulnerable during an influenza epidemic. What was unusual about the ‘Spanish’ flu was that if you  map out the distribution mortality rates, it shows a W-shape, with people between  20-40 particularly susceptible. Spinney suggests that flu might have been particularly virulent among otherwise healthy people because their immune system went into overdrive. Perhaps some older people, who would normally have been susceptible, had gained some immunity from the 1889 ‘Russian’ flu.

Modern medicine was powerless. Aspirin was prescribed in huge doses, and indeed there has been a claim (which Spinney largely discounts) that very high doses of aspirin , which causes the lungs to fill with fluid, may have actually contributed to the deaths of a sizeable proportion of the flu’s victims. (p.122). However, this argument cannot explain why so many people died in India and other countries where aspirin was not available. Another common treatment was high doses of quinine which added vertigo and vomiting to the symptoms, and may have contributed to the visually “washed out” appearance of the world that many recovering victims reported.  At a time when there was no firm distinction between commercial and folk medicine, it is no wonder that people resorted to traditional medicine and practices to ward off the disease, like ‘black weddings’, an ancient Jewish ritual which involved choosing a groom and bride from the most unfortunate in society (beggars, disabled) and conducting a wedding in a graveyard to fend off the disease.

Spinney’s book has an introduction, eight parts and an afterword. Part I, ‘The Unwalled City’ places influenza within a historical context, both across the centuries and the immediate WWI medical and social environment. Part II ‘Anatomy of a Pandemic’ describes the spread of the Spanish flu across the world. Part III ‘Manhu or What Is It?’ deals with the incomprehension and impotence of medicine and governments against the pandemic when it first emerged.  Part IV ‘The Survival Instinct’, which I found the most interesting, looked at the medical and social responses across the globe. Part V ‘Post Mortem’ looks at the search for the first ‘Spanish’ flu victim, and the toting up of the final figures. Part VI ‘Science redeemed’ details medical and scientific progress in understanding the pandemic, while Part VII ‘The Post-Flu World’ looks at the fall-out medically, socially, culturally and militarily after the last wave.  Part VIII ‘Roscoe’s Legacy’ discussed disease control in the future. The Afterword ‘On Memory’ looks at how the pandemic has been remembered, or more pertinently, forgotten.

Spinney’s book joins a surge of interest in the 1918-19 epidemic now that it is coming up to its centenary. Unlike many books that concentrate on its effects in one city or country, hers is a truly global approach to the pandemic.  As a science writer, she focuses on the disease, its manifestations and the scientific response, but she also interweaves this with a consciousness of how the experience of suffering and recovering from the flu leached out into music and literature in the succeeding decade.

As for her claims for it changing the world?  I’m not quite convinced, given how easily it has been forgotten. She argues that it ended the war because the German soldiers were so sickly; she suggests that it led to the introduction of universal health care (I’m not so sure- the NHS, Medicare/Medibank etc were introduced post WWII), and posits that the British negligence in treating Indians with influenza was an eventual catalyst to Independence (another event that seems to me to be too chronologically distant from the pandemic to be convincing).

Nonetheless, I found this book a fascinating read. It is well written, well-researched and rather chilling.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I’m aware that the centenary is upon us.

Rating: 8.5