Monthly Archives: March 2019

‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez


2014, 320 p.

I was planning my trip to Colombia, so I decided to seek out some books set in Colombia. This book, which won the Alfaguara Prize in 2011 (one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Spain) and its translation by Anne McLean won the 2014  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. So, it came bearing a hefty reputation!

It thoroughly deserves it. The writing and the translation flow seamlessly, as it shuttles between the drug violence of the 1980s and 1990s Bogota, when the book was set. A rather aimless law professor, Antonia Yamarra strikes up an acquaintance in a billiard hall with ex-con Ricardo Laverde. Standing together in the street outside the billiard parlour, they are shot at. Laverde dies, and Yamarra is injured both physically and psychically. He becomes obsessed with Laverde’s story, and meets up with Laverde’s estranged daughter. Through her he learns that Laverde had been a drug-mule pilot during the 1980s, and she shares with him a cassette tape of a black-box recording that ties together Laverde’s earlier crime and the death of Laverde’s wife. I won’t say any more, because if you read it- and I hope you will- it will spoil the story.

I found this book almost un-put-downable, and the language of both author and translator just swept me away. It’s a page-turner, but it’s also a reflection on fate and death, the ripple effects of violence, and the ease and speed with which events can veer off into other directions. It’s also a sobering look at the violence in Colombia during the 1980s and 1990s, set in a time where the narrator is oblivious to the violence yet to come.  At the end of it, I found myself googling the events of the novel, and felt sobered to realize that, while fiction, it is grounded in fact. Perhaps not the best pre-holiday reading, but certainly an excellent book that fully deserves all the praise it garnered.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I was going to Colombia (not exactly reassuring reading, I must admit)

My rating: 9/10

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 March

Revolutions Podcast: Still the Mexican Revolution goes on. With my recent interest in WWI in Australia, I’ve been alert to the connections between the Mexican Revolution and WWI. Then there were suggestions in some quarters that Mexico should side with Germany against America. Did you know that trench warfare was used in quelling the Mexican Revolution too? The rebels decided that they’d attack the trenches at night, only to be dazzled by floodlights that lit the trench complex.

New Books in Latin American Studies. I’ve only recently subscribed to this podcast. Given the cost of academic books here in Australia, it’s highly unlikely that I will read any of the books discussed, so listening to the authors talking about their books is a good second choice. In a cross-over with New Books in German Studies, historian Daniel Stahl talks about his new book Hunt for Nazis: South America’s Dictatorships and the Prosecution of Nazi War Crimes. It’s a wide-ranging transnational history, dealing with not only South America but the differing and changing responses to calls for extradition over time. For example, during the 1970s when North American interest in the Holocaust was increasing (e.g. film, an second-generation preparedness to talk about what their parents could not) and their demands for extradition of war criminals were becoming louder, many South American countries were led by military generals.

Rear Vision. While I’m in South and Central America (in my head at least, now that I’m no longer there physically), the always excellent Rear Vision has a good podcast that sums up the last twenty years or so of Venezuelan history for a quick-catchup, and another very good podcast explaining how the neo-liberal politics championed by the United States have contributed to the ‘caravan’ of economic and political refugees fleeing Central America.

‘Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation’ by Rebecca Huntley QE73


2019, 64 p.

I’ve recently spent a week as the only Australian in a group of fourteen Americans.  While similar in age and political persuasion (mostly) to myself, it struck me how different my attitude towards the government was to theirs. While I might grumble about my government, (and heaven knows I can’t wait until the current crop of muppets departs the political stage),  I do not fear my government and indeed optimistically look to it to act as a force for good. I know, too, that although I may be left-of-centre in my politics, even conservative media and acquaintances urge that the “government should do something” about the issues they are complaining about. Despite conservative and business grumblings about red-tape, many people want red-tape once they themselves are being ripped off, and are disgruntled when, because of ineptitude or cronyism, corporations and shysters slip free of it.

In many ways social researcher Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay is a shout-out to the ‘sensible centre’ who, in spite of different political affiliations, have felt for some time that the climate really is changing and that ‘the government should do something’; that ‘big business’ and especially the banks are treating us like mugs, and that locking people up indefinitely on Manus Island and Nauru is not really sustainable for ever even though there is still support for turn-backs and off-shore detention. The figures show that the majority (albeit sometimes not a large majority) feel this way, but the government seems to respond only to the noisier, minority view.   Huntley makes no secret of her own political leanings, and she writes from the expectation that we will soon have a change of government.

She draws on historian John Hirst’s work, and particularly that of John Keane in his 2016 essay ‘Money, capitalism and the slow death of social democracy‘.  She harks back to Keith Hancock’s Australia, written in the 1930s when we were still clinging to the sheep’s back, where he described Australians’ almost instinctive turn to government to provide social good as ‘State Paternalism’ rather than State Socialism, and decried its deadening effect on society and its economy.  Most particularly she draws on social research: not the quick four-option polls that are churned out fortnightly in the newspapers, but in-depth qualitative research that tries to  uncover the values and priorities behind the opinions.

She points out that despite our disgust for our present crop of politicians, Australian (and especially older Australians) continue to respect the idea of democracy, and see nothing wrong with compulsory voting. They do, however, see a great deal that is wrong in terms of electoral funding and the pressure of lobby groups, especially big business.

This really is an essay, with a linking paragraph at the end of each section leading on to the next, just as we were taught to do in school. In a way, I wish that she had broken free of this template because it tended to infantalize her argument somewhat.  Nonetheless, it’s a cheering and rather empowering essay to read at a time when we feel that we’re actually in a position to vote for a changed political landscape. It would make a perfect reading partner to Judith Brett’s From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, which I have not read (but Lisa at ANZLitLovers has) as a way of reassuring ourselves that we can be better than the government and politics that we have at the moment.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 March

After a long break while I was away in South America, I’m back to my routine again, which means a couple of long walks each week and time to listen to podcasts.  We’re still going with the Mexican Revolution, which I did at uni. back in the mid1970s. I must confess that I’d forgotten most of what I learnt then, but in Episode 9.16 The Legend of Pancho Villa , good old Pancho Villa in his big hat comes back onto the scene – him I DO remember. And then he teams up with Emiliano Zapata (who I also remember), then the US invades Veracruz, then they swap their loyalites; and then allies fall out and start fighting each other etc. etc. I’ve decided that I need to listen to this podcast with a little more dedication, as I keep forgetting what has happened in the last episode, and now I’m up to Episode 9.20 The Guns of Veracruz, where Pancho Villa starts making mistakes.

Caliphate.  I don’t know- all these podcasts where the researcher/podcaster talks about the process of tracking down, interviewing, verifying…it’s all been done before. Although, I do acknowledge that this podcast series was released some time ago, so I’m coming to it late. But I don’t know…I’m wanting something a bit different. Still, these episodes are good to remind us of the grand plans behind the caliphate, and the cold-bloodedness of their attempt to get there. I’m up to Chapter Six: The Paper Trail.

The Pamphlet  One of the liberating things about podcasting is that it is relatively cheap to do, and you can listen in to people whom you would otherwise never have heard. As any of you who’ve followed me for a while might know, I am a Unitarian Universalist and attend a small fellowship here in Melbourne. The Pamphlet is presented by two American UUs and is very low-tech and very American-UU-centric. You won’t find any of the production values in ‘Caliphate’ here! But in a two-parter (extended to 3 parts now, I see), they try to track down when the ‘Flaming Chalice’, a symbol used on most UU websites (including ours here in Melbourne), actually became a real, physical object that you could find in a UU service. Their first foray (The Chalice Capers 1) led them to a dead-end when it seemed that the chalice was just a spoof, and the second exploration (The Chalice Capers 2)  also raised more questions than it answered.

99% Invisible is a podcast by Roman Mars about design and architecture. In Episode 340 The Secret Lives of Colour, they talk  with Kassia St Claire who has written a book of that name. I’ve been deluging my husband with “Did you know…..” facts ever since.

Duolingo Podcasts. Ah! Was this one easier than the others, or have I improved in my Spanish listening comprehension?! Aventuras con mi padre is about a young girl whose father takes the family on ‘adventures’ to places in Venezuela (before it all went wrong).

‘Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir’ by Catherine de Saint Phalle


2016, 256 p.

There is no shortage of memoirs about parents written by their children.  Too often, there is an underlying whine of grievance in such memoirs – admittedly, quite often justified- because the parents are too cruel, too self-absorbed or too mad, and the author/child is seeking to blame or understand (and often both at once).  Alternatively, there are memoirs of parents bathed in nostalgia, sorrow and yearning: yearning for a return to a simpler time and regret for lost opportunities and all the things the author did not say at the time.

Poum and Alexandre falls into neither of these camps. It’s significant that the title makes no reference to the author at all – there’s no ‘my’ in the title- and the subtitle ‘A Paris Memoir’ emphasizes place. The book is written from the child’s point of view, but the author’s own life, and most particularly her adult life, is largely absent, except in the final section. The book is written in three parts: ‘Poum’ dealing with her mother Marie-Antoinette, nicknamed ‘Poum’ because of a childish game in bouncing down stair ‘poum, poum, poum’; ‘Alexandre’ dealing with her father; and then a final short coda involving both parents.

Both Poum and Alexandre are eccentric. Poum is a disinterested mother, just as happy to stay in bed with her books, as to spend time with her daughter. Alexandre imbues his daughter’s mind with Greek myths, praise for the Magna Carta, and tales of Napoleon. Both parents are drawn to tales of blood and savagery, and they share these with their daughter, irrespective of her age.

Their daughter, Catherine, spends much of her early life away from her parents. Born in England, ostensibly  because of the freedoms bestowed by the Magna Carta, she is largely raised by her nanny Sylvia, and Sylvia’s own family. When she finally settles in France, she can barely speak French, and the book is largely devoid of friends or any other contacts other than her family.

Told from Catherine’s point of view, there are many gaps and non-sequiturs. Alexandre is already married and has an older, first family and what seems to be an ever-increasing number of offspring that Catherine gradually learns about, but does not meet. Alexandre and Poum are cousins, and have fallen out with their families over their relationship. Poum tries doggedly to maintain relations with her own family, but there is tension and resentment, and Catherine feels it. This ‘situation’ swirls around Catherine and her parents, marking them out as different and disreputable. Perhaps it’s this exclusion that turns them towards each other in a fey, irresponsible and downright strange way.

Yet there is no judgement here. Catherine describes them with love and acceptance, even though as a reader you find yourself raising a sceptical eyebrow or huffing with disapproval at the sheer irresponsibility that both parents display at different times.   The book is beautifully written, and it certainly subverts the chronological memoir genre. It shuttles backwards and forwards, and tells events from multiple perspectives. It withholds as much as it gives.  And yet at the end of the book, you realize just how much Catherine has given you as a reader, and you are left with a puzzling and yet rich view of her parents – much how the author finds herself. This is a challenging memoir, but I suspect that I will remember it long after the ‘misery memoirs’ have merged one into another.

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection (mine). And several people on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge website had read it

My rating: 8


I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ by Gideon Haigh


2018, 320 p.

I read this book during a week when yet another young girl was raped and murdered walking home in Melbourne. As in 2019, so too in 1930. However, I don’t think that Mollie Dean’s rape and murder elicited the same outpouring of anger and grief in 1930 and at least in 2019 we have been spared the prurient exposure of the flaws of the victim, as distinct from the perpetrator.

Mollie Dean was violently raped in a St Kilda laneway at the age of twenty-five. She was intelligent, sexually active and she flitted around the edges of the bohemian scene in 1930s Melbourne. There is little hard evidence about her: just a nondescript photograph, a few bureaucratic reports, and some letters. And yet she has lived on, through the artistic and academic world of which she was only marginally a part. She was painted by the man who was one of the police suspects. Her story was incorporated into George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, which has in turn appeared on stage and screen. Other contemporary writers have taken up her story as well: she featured in a play Solitude in Blue and has recently been fictionalized in The Portrait of Mollie Dean.

Mollie is the focus of the book, but it is also a portrait of the artistic scene in Melbourne, with many familiar names: Max Meldrum, Mervyn Skipper, Justus Jorgensen, Nettie Palmer. Being a north-eastern outer suburban girl myself, I was drawn to the Eaglemont and Montsalvat settings, both being familiar to me.

Gideon Haigh’s treatment of Mollie Dean is non-fictional, and there is a long list of sources in the back. It is a very discursive account – rather too discursive – with every possible connection followed up in Haigh’s network of Melbourne bohemianism in the 1930s. As a result, an index was sorely missed as you found yourself wondering whether you had encountered a name previously or whether it was just another addition to the ever-burgeoning list of contacts and connections.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library