Monthly Archives: December 2018

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 completed

I can never remember how many books by Australian women writers I aimed to read in any given year. I seem to have read about twenty a year for the past few years, and 2018 was no exception, with a total of twenty-two books. And once again, even though I promised myself to read more fiction, I didn’t seem to get round to it – in fact, I can’t believe that I read so little!

History

“Girl Talk” by Gwenda Beed Davey

“And the Women Came Too” by Anne Marsden

“The Battle Within: POWs in Post-War Australia” by Christine Twomey

“Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation” by Janet McCalman

“Six Bob a Day Tourist” by Janet Morice

“Chinese Market Gardens in Australia and New Zealand” by Joanna Boileau

“Australian Ways of Death” by Pat Jalland

Current Affairs

“Follow the Leader” by Laura Tingle

Biography

“The Enigmatic Mr Deakin” by Judith Brett

Unbridling the Tongues of Women” by Susan Magarey

“The Unusual Life of Edna Walling” by Sara Hardy

“Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life” by Jenny Hocking

“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein

“Swanston: Merchant Statesman” by Eleanor Robin

Memoir

“Ever Yours C. H. Spence” ed by Susan Magarey

“Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull

“The Year Everything Changed:2001” by Phillipa McGuinness

“From Strength to Strength” by Sara Henderson

Fiction

“A Week in the Future” by C. H. Spence

“The Museum of Words” by Georgia Blain

“Long Bay” by Eleanor Limprecht

“Mothers Grimm” by Danielle Wood

 

 

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan

McEwan_ChildrenAct

2015, 224 p.

Like On Chesil Beach which preceded it, this book is quite short and has a similar tremulous, sinking, hold-your-breath feeling about it. It is named for the UK legislation of 1989 the Children Act which rules that “When a court determines any question with respect…to the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”.

The child in this case is Adam Henry, just three months short of his eighteenth birthday, who along with his parents, is refusing a blood transfusion rendered necessary by treatment of cancer because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The hospital, aware that time is running out, brings the case to the court, where it rests before High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

‘My Lady’ Justice Maye has come before other excruciating moral cases before in her capacity as judge with the Family Division, most particularly a case about the enforced separation of conjoined twins. In deciding this current case under such tight deadlines, she decides to go to the hospital to visit Adam Henry, who she finds to be highly intelligent, articulate and engaged. McEwen really knows how to built the tension as he reports her long-winded finding to the court, just as it would have been experienced by the gallery filled with family and journalists.

At the same time that professionally Fiona Maye is dealing with this, her own personal life is unravelling. After a long marriage with both partners working, her husband Jack announces that he wants to have an affair, now that the spark has gone from their marriage.  She is hurt, furious and ashamed. She has seen many ruptured families in her professional life, but somehow felt aloof from all that.

A professional life spent above the fray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide (p.49)

It’s only a small book, and I don’t want to give too much away. At heart is the question of how much responsibility Fiona has for Adam’s wellbeing both professionally and personally.

Adam’s case is just one in a long professional life, and I felt that McEwan turned too didactic in his backgrounding of the other cases she had heard. It felt clunky and contrived.  The ending is not as I expected it to be, and could perhaps be seen as a letdown. I didn’t see it that way, however.  I don’t believe in karma, and there is often no symmetry or fairness in consequences. The book has the same chilliness that many of McEwan’s books express, while dealing with pain and regret. Somehow it seems a very English combination.

I read this for my bookgroup, and it was my choice from about two years ago. It has taken some time for us to receive it! As it happened, we read it in November, just as the film was on general release.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: CAE bookgroup

‘Mothers Grimm’ by Danielle Wood


wood_mothersgrimm

2014, 212 p.

When I was little, my mother gave me her copy of  ‘Children’s Treasure House”, printed in 1935. It was a huge book- some 700 odd pages, with stories from a range of mainly British authors, and a sprinkling of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. It had beautiful art deco illustrations, including colour plates. Few of the stories were rewritten for younger readers, and the fairy stories were left with their darkness and thinly veiled menace. There were plenty of  absent mothers, bad mothers and step mothers, but the good mother was always absent. It seems that the story can only begin once the Good Mother gets out of the way.

In her prologue to her collection of long short stories Mothers Grimm, Danielle Wood reminds us that the archetype of the Good Mother still surrounds us, in advertising, in magazines and in impossibly well-groomed women in your playgroup. Written in the second person, she invites the reader into an identification with a less glowing model, the not-very-good, ambivalent, rather resentful mother instead. She does this through four lengthy short stories, each titled with a single word, that have at their base the sort of archetypes that emerge in the tales of the Brothers Grimm. I can sense the presence of those archetypes (e.g. Hansel and Gretel in ‘Cottage’), but I must confess that I’m struggling to put my finger on the exact story or character for some of the others.

The four stories are all set in the present day, with women as the main characters and men playing only bit parts. The women here are sisters and mothers, and they are flawed. Some are exhausted, others guilt-riven, some manipulative, others cruel. The stories are long enough to really develop the characters and draw you into identification – not necessarily sympathy- with them. At about 40-50 pages in length, they are just the right length for me as a reader: able to be read in one sitting, and meaty enough that you don’t’ want to turn to the next one, but just let it sit instead.  They are Australian stories without going all ‘Henry Lawson’ on the reader; they are urban and current and thoroughly relatable.

But looking at the publisher’s blurb on the front cover (which to be fair, the author has limited control over), I found myself wondering if I had read the same stories. “Wickedly dark, astonishingly funny, happy endings not guaranteed” it reads.  Dark, certainly but I found too much truth in them to be funny, and there are certainly no happy endings here, just realistic, stuck-with-it ones. As life is.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it, and did a much better job than I in identifying the source stories!

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I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 database.

‘Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp’ by David Sornig

sornig

2018, 361 p.

My ‘best book’ choice for 2018!

About thirty years ago, my then-husband and I won a prize in a raffle. It was a bus trip to and from Adelaide and two nights accommodation there.  (In fact, given that it takes a good 10 hours to travel to Adelaide from Melbourne, I’m starting to think that this might have been a second prize!) We left from Spencer Street (Southern Cross) station and drove through West Melbourne to get onto the freeway to Ballarat. I could still see the city skyscrapers on the right hand side of the bus – but what was this deserted flatland that we were driving through?  Warehouses, empty streets, great stretches of railway, blocks of containers, barren flat open areas. Where on earth was I?

Without knowing it, I was driving through the former Dudley Flats and West Melbourne Swamp, the focus of this excellent book. Even now, thirty years later, despite the construction of quays and high-rises, it’s an area that seems to resist taming. It’s almost as if it’s cursed. They build ferris wheels there, and they break down for years on end. They build high-rises, cover them with cladding, and they catch fire. Meanwhile, the wind sweeps along the newly-built boulevards, where trees struggle to grow.

Sornig starts his book with a death: the particularly gruesome death in 1942 of Elsie Williams, a Bendigo-born singer of Afro-Caribbean origin. Her body is savaged by the half-starved offspring and remainders of over 60 dogs that were kept by Lauder Rogge on his stranded ship, the John Hunt some six years earlier. She is discovered by Jack Peacock, the king of the Dudley Flats tip scavenging community.  These three characters – Elsie, Lauder and Jack – are the linchpins of this beautifully written narrative as Sornig traces through the attempts by governments, railways, do-gooders and now Border Force, to clean up and control what he calls The Zone.

Sornig describes himself a writer and a psychogeographer, not a historian (p. 152). I hadn’t heard of the term ‘psychogeography‘ before, but I have become aware that geography writing has changed over recent years, looking at space as well as place, tracing deep time as well as calendar time, revealing palimpsest as well as topography and emphasizing the connections between human individuals, their networks and ecology.

But Sornig is underselling his skills as a historian. He starts with the Blue Lake, known variously as Batman’s Swamp, Batman’s Lagoon, the North Melbourne or West Melbourne swamp,  covered with flowers, and described in idyllic and nostalgic terms by Edmund Finn (Garryowen) and George Gordon McCrae.  He traces through the various engineering manipulations that turned it into a wetland, and most importantly, the economic and social influences that drew the marginalized to its flats – the unemployed, alcoholics and homeless people. By the time it was known as Dudley Flat in the 1930s, it was notorious: my father remembered being taken to see the tin shanties as a young boy, and somehow government bureaucracies fell over each other in trying to move people on, resulting in their long-term residence on the flats.  His telling of the whole lives of his three main characters – Elsie, Lauder and Jack- encapsulate twentieth-century social history of the marginalized in a more human and nuanced way than any other I have read.

Like a Sebald book, this book is punctuated by black and white pictures, sometimes details of a larger picture, that is gradually revealed. There is a map, but it only appears 2/3 of the way through the book: a rather curious decision.  The narrative shifts back and forward as the narrator walks – literally – the Zone, while he also delves archives, sifts newspapers, follows up family history links.

It is beautifully written and very easy to read. It’s the best book that I have read all year, and one of the best books about Melbourne that I have encountered. Will it clean up in the non-fiction and history awards next year? It deserves to.

My rating: an unequivocal 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

simonson

2010, 359 p.

This was a bookgroup selection and I’d left it late to start reading it. So, in the one night I was catapulted from Vichy France and Nazi interrogators in Lovers at the Chameleon Club  into  English village life, retired Army Majors and golf-club gossip in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. A very abrupt change of pace!

I was surprised to learn that Helen Simonson is an American writer, albeit British-born, who has lived in America for the past twenty years. She captures village life remarkably well. Midsomer Murders is a cliché, but when I visited my brother who lives near a village outside Maidenhead, I was stunned to find myself in a village that looked very much like that murderous locale, right down to the village green with the white posts and looped chain fence. This is the sort of place in which  68 year old Major Pettigrew (retired) makes his last stand.

Not that you’d know it from the opening pages of the book where, numb after the death of his brother, he has put on his deceased-wife’s floral housecoat. The doorbell rings, and he answer it to find Mrs Ali, the widow of the local general-store owner. With self-assured pomposity and casual racism, he had barely been aware of her except to buy his blended tea from her, but they strike up a friendship.  They are drawn into the disastrous plans by the local golf club to have as their party theme ‘The Last Days of the Maharajah’, an ignorant and insensitive event which conflates India and Pakistan, the Mughals and the Empire. Both the Major and Mrs Ali are quietly resisting the suffocating oversight of their son/nephew, both of whom are insufferable in different ways. The book does become rather hyperactive at the end.

Is it the persistence of Baby Boomers as a reliable reading market that has led to a rash of older-person ‘twilight’ relationships? I’m thinking of Our Souls at Night, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Australian author Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, all of which have older protagonists who are being pressured by their offspring.

This book is a comfortable read that reveals a wry sense of humour. I was reminded of Barbara Pym, and perhaps even shades of Jane Austen. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but it was a very enjoyable escape that made you squirm at time with embarrassment, roll your eyes at pretension and prejudice, and rejoice in a happy ending that didn’t necessarily tie up all the ends too neatly.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (a reading selection for my bookgroup)

Rating: 7.5/10

I hear with my little ear: podcasts 15-22 December 2018

99% Invisible Here in Australia, our conservative government has decided that in relation to electricity policy, reliability and cost trumps emissions every time. We have far fewer blackouts now than I remember having as a child. But imagine the power being out for a year, as it was in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. This podcast, A Year in the Dark is about an electricity worker who decided to become a one-man-clearing house for information about the progress (or lack thereof) it reconnecting the electricity supply.

Revolutionspodcast continuing on with the Mexican Revolution in Episode 9.15 The Constitutionalists. Well, the elected president was shot, an army general took over, and perhaps you think that’s the end of the Mexican revolution. General Huerta settles in, and the US ambassador Henry LaneWilson has his back, and it seems that he’s going to be a second General Portfirio Diaz. He jails and kills the opposition, and buys off rebel soldiers with a pardon if they join the government troops. But there’s the second phase of the revolution stirring, as men and groups begin forming, in the north under Carranza and Pancho Villa, in the south under Zapata.

Russia If You’re Listening is heading into a Christmas break but just before he left, Matt Bevan made two more Trumpdates. Donald Trump’s Not So Merry Christmas goes through all the things that have gone wrong for Trump in recent weeks. Five Ways it could end for Trump features Dom Knight (from The Chaser) and Emma Shortis (from RMIT who has commented on this series several times).

Movie: They Shall Not Grow Old

Released for Armistice Day, this film by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) takes 100 hours of black and white footage from the Imperial Museum, slows it down and transforms it into colour. The most striking thing is the faces. They look right at the camera- and you. Unlike the generic ‘soldier’ who flashes onto scratchy black-and-white film then disappears, each one of these faces is distinctive. The voice-over is a montage of audio snippets from 120 oral histories -600 hours in all- that reveal the commonalities of the war experience from these men who clearly come from such different classes and backgrounds. There are no names, no ‘iconic’ battles, no dates.  It’s excellent.