Monthly Archives: December 2019

‘Olive, again’ by Elizabeth Strout


2019, 289 p.

I’ve read quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout over the last few years, after falling in love with the first book of hers that I read in 2015- Olive Kitteridge.  I’ve read three others since then: The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, but I found myself enjoying them less as their similarities became more obvious. I decided to give myself a break from the Strout ‘brand’ for a while.  But when I saw that she had released another book about Olive Kitteridge -my favourite of all her books-  I lined up straight away to read it.

Like the original Olive Kitteridge book, Olive, again is a series of linked short stories where Olive Kitteridge appears at some stage- a bit like Alfred Hitchcock in his movies. The stories are all set in Crosby, Maine which appears to an Australian reader as the quintessential East Coast American town.  Sometimes the chapter is about Olive’s life, at other times she just has a walk-on part with the focus on someone linked to her.  What is common to all chapters is a clear-sighted wisdom about human limitations and frailties. People here are snippy, bad-tempered, frustrated but these are foibles lived out amongst other people similarly flawed.  It’s a very domesticated, family-oriented world, that is very conscious of how stifling and lonely that world can be.

I absolutely loved these stories, and found myself rationing them out to just one chapter a day to make it last longer. Frances McDormand, who starred in the HBO television series now completely inhabits the Olive Kitteridge in my mind as the large, ungainly, abrupt and socially awkward woman who is almost oblivious to her (often negative) effect on other people. But this is an older Olive, who remarries after her first husband dies, and now needs to negotiate her estranged son and his new second-marriage family, with all the nuances of step-vs-natural children. Her health is failing; people are dying; she moves into aged care.  Finally, after all these changes, she mellows somewhat. She recognizes that she doesn’t have to say exactly what’s on her mind; that she can choose to say nothing.

I think that Elizabeth Strout is ‘killing off’ her Olive in this book – I can’t see how she could write another volume about her (death beds are a scenario that would be difficult to stretch to a whole book). But she is letting this character go with her own dignity and sense of self intact, and draws us as readers to view this with empathy and even love.

My rating: 10/10  – just as I rated the first Olive Kitteridge

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 December 2019

Maree Man geoglyph at Finnis Springs near Maree

Aerial shot of Marree Man. Source: Wikipedia

Earshot (ABC) 24/10/19 Marree Man- is he a relation of Mungo Man perhaps? Well- no. He’s a huge carving of an Aboriginal man, etched into the red dust around the South Australian outback town of Maree 21 years ago. Yes- you read right- twenty one years ago, not 20,000. At four kms. in length and 28 kms in circumference, this is a huge piece of artwork – but who did it? Not  Erich Van Danikan’s Gods and their Chariots, but maybe  U.S. or Australian servicemen from the nearby Woomera base? Someone as a joke? It’s certainly a complex hoax, with fax machines clattering into life with mysterious faxes, and clues planted all over the world. The Mystery of the Marree Man is a fascinating podcast.

Hazel Rowley Lecture. Did you know that many of the Adelaide Writers Festival talks are available on podcast? In 2019 the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture was given by Maria Tumarkin, whose most recent book Axiomatic draws on the stories of multiple people, as did much of Hazel Rowley’s work with her joint biographies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Satre. In this lecture, Maria Tumarkin presents as series of nine alternative openings to her talk, covering a  range of perspectives on life writing, the ‘NON-fiction’-ness of non-fiction, the art of biography and the hard graft of writing.  She identifies as the ‘take-away’ of her lecture, as Americans would put it, and it is that the task of the non-fiction writer is to write about real people in a way that makes it impossible for them to be scooped up and repurposed, or turned into something or someone else, to meet other people’s fantasies.  The person, she says, is sovereign: they are never ‘character’. This beautifully-written lecture is read, so it is a little too garbled in places and rather stilted in its delivery but it is nonetheless excellent listening (although the interference of a lecture from an adjoining hall at the Writers Festival is distracting)

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) In Episode 6 The Spies Who Suck at Spying, Matt Bevin looks at the Russian assassination attempts in England dating from the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, up to the unsuccessful poisoning of former Russian military office and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. (25/11/19)

Revolutionspodcast  While we’re over in Russia, Episode10.19 introduces Nicky and Alix, who were going to face the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. This is a pretty sympathic analysis of two people completely interwoven within the European royalty network of Queen Victoria’s children.  Episode 10.20 The Liberal Tradition (Such as it is) goes back to even Catherine the Great to examine people who might be described as ‘liberals’, even though they were few and far between, and reluctant to use the term. It then goes through the Tsar Liberator in the 1870s, the repression of Alexander III and culminating with historian and politician Pavel Milyukov who would become involved with the Constitutional Democratic Party (known as the Kadets)

Cuba’s National Art Schools

In the movie Yuli, the young Carlos Acosta stumbles on the abandoned National Art School on the outskirts of Havana. When I saw it in the film, I recognized what it was from an episode of ‘News in Slow Spanish’. In that episode they talked about these stunning, abandoned buildings, but being a podcast only, I didn’t realize just how incredible they are.


By DuendeThumb – Donated to Creative Commons by author John Loomis, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Started in the early 1960s after the Cuban revolution on the site of a Country Club golf course, the Cuban government drew on the skills and vision of international architects to design a school for the arts that nestled into the curves of the former golf links.  But this sinuous, visionary architecture did not conform at all to the prefab, concrete architecture of the Soviet Union, which increasingly dominated Cuban architecture, and they were never finished.


By DuendeThumb – Donated to Creative Commons by author John Loomis, CC BY-SA 3.0,

They were abandoned, and despite being put on the 2016 World Monuments Watchlist, two of the buildings are now close to collapse.  The movie Yuli is correct in that dancer Carlos Acosta wanted to restore them, but that caused controversy because it was seen as a form of privatisation by stealth.

In the most recent article that I could find (from 2018) it would appear that the Getty Foundation granted $195,000 for a project to conserve the site. (I wonder if that is still proceeding, given Trump’s attitude towards Cuba? And Cuba’s attitude towards America, as well)

I found a fascinating essay called Reading the Future of Cuba in its Abandoned Art Schools, which describes the background to the project, its use of space, and the role of the crowd in revolutionary spaces.

And here is a video, which starts off with very stirring Russian music, but then moves to a documentary about the construction of the schools. It’s in Spanish only, but if you turn on the subtitles (also in Spanish), you’ll probably be able to follow it.  It’s fascinating.  If I go back to Cuba someday, guess what I want to see.


‘The Great Irish Famine: A History in Four Lives’ by Enda Delaney


2012 (under the title ‘The Curse of Reason’), 2014, 235 p. & notes.

Enda Delaney finishes his book with the death of Michael Collins, aged fifty, by the side of the road on 23 November 1850. This isn’t the famous Irish Michael Collins: instead he is an otherwise unknown man who, dying of hunger, was taken into a house. The priest was sent for, and he died on the floor.  He comes into historiographical view because of the inquest that was held into his death. That is one of the problems with writing about the Irish Famine: it can be writ large because such huge numbers were involved but when you come down to individuals, it’s harder to find them. The reality is, as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote, starvation ‘is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough to eat.’ (cited p. 115)  Those people not having enough to eat were overwhelmingly the poor, illiterate and  politically weak.

Books about the Irish Famine are nothing new – indeed, there has been a deluge of them since the 150th Anniversary in 1997. Because of the flow of Irish immigrants to America, Canada and Australia, each of those settler countries has its own Irish famine refugee stories as well. Where this book differs, perhaps, is that it takes a biographical approach to an economic/political event that is usually approached from a wide-angled perspective.  The four lives that Enda Delaney has chosen, because of the limitation of the sources, are not the victims. Instead, they were at the other end of the famine. There is John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, who at first saw the famine as God’s punishment on his flock for their sins. Over time, he became increasingly critical of the British Government response. There is the radical nationalist John Mitchel, a leading member of the Young Ireland and Irish Confederation movements, who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land for his seditious activities. There is Charles Trevelyn, the assistant secretary to the Treasury, who has often been depicted as the Main Villain because of the policies implemented by the British Government. Finally, there is Elisabeth Smith, the Scottish-born wife of a Wicklow landlord, whose sympathies for the Irish peasantry became increasingly rigid.

The book moves more-or-less chronologically, but the four stories are interwoven with the factual narrative.  He is particularly good on the colonial networks that indirectly linked Elisabeth Smith and Charles Trevelyn, who were both in India at one stage. As events change, so too do people, and you can see the increasing radicalism (albeit expressed in different ways) with John MacHale and John Mitchel; the hardening attitudes of Elisabeth Smith who would otherwise be seen as a relatively enlightened landlord, and the increasingly harsh political medicine being doled out by the British Government wanting Ireland to deal with its own problems.  Even though Trevelyn is seen as the author of these policies, I know through my own work with the Colonial Office, that civil servants in a parliamentary system could not act completely independently.

I always tend to think of 1845 as the Irish Famine year, but in fact it continued right through until the early 1850s. Many of the people who perished died of ‘fever’ rather than outright starvation, although it was severe malnutrition that weakened their whole system. The British Government instituted a system of work-for-the-dole, but this broke down completely when people were just too weak to work. They then insisted that the Irish Poor Law look after the people in the workhouses, rather than have access to British Assistance.

What comes through most strongly is a dogged determination to follow the prevailing economic orthodoxy of free markets and punitive charity which 165 years later still holds sway.  Food was still being exported from Ireland; food imports into Ireland were not allowed to threaten the market; ‘charity’ was grudging and demanded complete abasement.  What did work was soup kitchens, but they were withdrawn prematurely in case people became ‘dependent’. The flood of famine refugees was feared and stigmatized, and landlords took the opportunity to clean-out small landholders by eviction, or somewhat more charitably, emigration schemes.

The power of this book is seeing these politics of ideology, and the politics of resistance being expressed in the words of individuals, and watching their positions harden as the crisis continued.  If you’re looking for ‘getting to know’ these individuals at an emotional or moral level, this is not the book for you. The book does work, however, at the level of personalizing the political. The original title of this book was ‘The Curse of Reason’, and although probably too vague as a title for a publisher, the orthodoxy of the free market and individualism was indeed a curse.  Hard-baked ideology, of any kind, is really not an edifying sight.

You can hear Enda Delaney being interviewed here.

My rating: 7/10

Source: La Trobe University Library


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 November 2019

Letters of Love in World War II. That’s it- it’s over. What a fantastic podcasts!!!  Listen to them!! Home at Last: Grief and Relief.  I hadn’t really thought about those months after the war was over, with the German soldiers coming home to Germany.  You’re told in the very first episode that Cyril and Olga went on to have a happy marriage together, so you know that nothing awful is going to happen at the last minutes before he gets home.  Really, really good.


Rough Translations.   Ghana’s Parent Trap  (20/06/18 – yes, it’s old)  In Ghana, parents ambitious for their children’s education send them to school at ONE year old, and expect rote learning and homework. A program to instruct teachers in play-based education had results, but when it was extended to the parents, it did not go as planned.

History Workshop. My very wise PhD supervisor, Richard Broome, advised me that when you’re presenting a paper at a conference, you should work on a ratio of 140 words per minute available to you. It’s a shame that Yasmin Khan wasn’t given the same advice when she presented her 2019 Raphael Samuel Memorial Lecture on “Women on the Frontline of Empire”. The podcast itself is interesting- looking at women during WWII across the empire (Africa, India, to a lesser extent Australia and Canada) and how the stationing of soldiers affected them, and the economic changes for individual countries brought about by the empire’s involvement in war.  But … her presentation is so fast and garbled that it’s really hard work.

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC). Episode 5  (18/11/19) When the Father of Brexit met Mother Russia is a bit of a misnomer, because there is no evidence (yet) that Nigel Farrage, (the Father of Brexit) actually met with Putin or his operatives. This episode traces the rise of Nigel Farrage, prompted by Mad Cow Disease of all things, and claims that Russia influenced the Brexit campaign through social media.

RevolutionsPodcast  Episode 10.18 The Witte System. Well, if the peasants aren’t up to a revolution, and your bourgeoisie is non-existent, what’s a revolutionary to do? Fortunately Sergei Witte (never heard of the man) arrived in Russia to stimulate an industrial economy and build the Trans-Siberian Railway.


‘The Lake House’ by Kate Morton


2015, 591p.

It was not my choice to read this book. Call me snobbish and superficial, but I’m even  turned off by the cover. There it is with its anachronistic photo of yet another woman’s back (although at least you can see her face here), and the fact that the author’s name is in a larger font than the title (one of my ‘amber lights’ warning of books that I probably shouldn’t read).  Kate Morton is a best-selling Australian author and has written several books, all with similar names and covers. Normally, I would steer well clear. However, this book was the selection for my bookgroup and because I am a very conscientious book-grouper, I read it.

It’s a mixture of a  historic big-house novel and a current-day police cold-case story featuring a middle-aged female detective. I’m rather guiltily partial to both genres. I’ve read my share of ‘big house’ books: I loved The Go-Between in Year 12, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, innumerable Victoria Holt books when I was 15, Molly Keane’s books and Atonement.  And in terms of cold-case police stories, after I finish writing this review, I’ll go off to watch Unforgotten on the TV to get my dose of intelligent female police detectives. All these indulgences are just that: they’re ‘down-time’ leisure, when I turn my mind off and just go with it. Which is how I think about The Lake House. It’s the sort of book you might read when you’re on a week’s holiday and want to just immerse yourself in a fairly-undemanding read.

There are two narratives interwoven through the book, one set in 1933 and the other in 2003, both based on the house Loeanneth and its mysteries. In 1933 it was the home of Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their three daughters and baby son, Theo who mysteriously disappeared on Midsummer’s Eve.  The second narrative, set in 2003 centres on Sadie Sparrow, a London detective who has been stood down and told to ‘take a holiday’ after she spoke to the press about a missing-child case.  She travels down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather and when she stumbles on the now-derelict Loeanneth, she is driven to find out what happened to the family who left it so abruptly after the disappearance of the little boy.

There are red-herrings and misdirections galore, and although some of them took me by surprise, I guessed the too-pat ending ahead of time.  I suppose that I should be pleased that I actually knew who dunnit by the end, instead of plaintively wailing “But I don’t get it…..”

The book contains every possible big-house and cold-case cliche and at just off 600 pages it certainly is a big baggy monster. There are whole plot lines that could have been omitted without loss, but the twin-narrative structure was well-constructed and sustained across the whole long book. It certainly romped along and drew me in so that I didn’t at all mind reading great slabs of it, which is probably the way you’d read it if it were a holiday read. But it’s not high literature, and I suspect that much of its appeal is that it is so recognizable and comfortable. I won’t be rushing to read another Kate Morton – there are too many other books that are more challenging to read and enjoy, and at 500+ pages, the rewards just aren’t there

My rating: 6/10

Read because:  CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.