Monthly Archives: March 2021

‘Summer’ by Ali Smith

2020, 379 pages in large font

There! I’ve finished the whole quartet. I must admit that I really wanted to enjoy this multi-volume work. I liked the idea of it being written in real-time, and I enjoy series that have an over-arching shape, as well as the detail of the component works. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed.

I had expected there to be more integration between the four books, but the previous three were only loosely connected – indeed, so loosely connected that you wondered whether you had imagined the inter-relationships. I sat up and started taking more notice in this book, once the connections were more overt. “Am I getting too old to read books like this?” I wondered, as I found myself having to flip back pages or dig out reviews of the earlier books (or the actual book if I had it) to remind myself who characters were, and how they fitted into the story. I can imagine that the problem would be further magnified if you read them over four years, instead of over a few months as I have done.

New characters were introduced in this final volume: a rather unlovely brother (Robert) and sister (Sacha) Greenlaw, who live with their mother Grace, while their father lives next door with his new partner Ashley, who has stopped speaking. Characters from the earlier books reappear, but now in a different timespan. Daniel Gluck and his neighbour Elizabeth pop in from Autumn, while Art (in Nature) and Charlotte from Winter make another appearance. Then there is the ubiquitous SA4A security firm, which lurks in the background, refugees, Brexit- and now the Australian bushfires as well as COVID. (My stomach sinks at the thought of all the books that are going to be written with COVID and lockdown as their premise. Oh spare me.) As with the other books, there is a dual (and often triple) narrative being worked out, separated in time, with Summer featuring WWII and the plight of interned ‘enemy aliens’ and resistance workers. Once again, we have another female artist- this time the film-maker Lorenza Mazzetti- and the Shakespeare play this time is A Winters Tale.

There is beautiful writing in this book, and eminently quotable political commentary but it still felt very heavy-handed. Having read all four, I think that they would be best read one straight after the other in order to pick up on the links and connections, although I don’t really know that the prospect particularly appeals to me.

This is not a multi-volume saga like Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, or the Poldark series. Family does not lie at its basis, although networks and connections and kindness are important. The politics is shout-ier, and the books crackle with current events (that will soon no longer be current). You sense that Ali Smith could just go on producing one volume a year forever because there is no overarching plot. I don’t begrudge the time in reading any of them, but it was not the overwhelming reading experience that I thought it would be.

My rating: 8/10 (I did like the way that the connections became more apparent)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘En el tiempo de las Mariposas’ por Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies

1994, translated into Spanish 2001 and revised 2005, 424 p.

I’m rather proud of reading this in Spanish- just look at the number of pages! Let us not speak too much of the fact that it took me six months and the reality that each page would have between 5-10 words underlined and written out with the English translation. I read it: I understood it, and I would have enjoyed it in English just as much.

“Las Mariposas” was the code-name for the four Mirabel sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria Theresa and Dede who, for different reasons and to differing extents, were involved in clandestine actions against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (El Jefe) in the Dominican Republic. The whole of the family came under official suspicion, and two of the girls and their husbands and father were imprisoned at various times. In 1960 three of the sisters were assassinated in an ambush that was made to look like a car accident, leaving their sister Dede to guard their legacy. They are today recognized as symbols of social justice and feminism, and their images appear on the Dominican 200 peso bill and on a mural painted on the huge 137ft obelisk that Trujillo constructed to commemorate changing the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (it reverted to its original name in 1961 after Trujillo himself was assassinated). That’ll show you, Trujillo.

The narrative of the book switches between 1994 in the voice of the remaining sister, Dede, and chronological chapters told in the varying voices of Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria. Although clearly Alvarez has researched the topic thoroughly, it is historical fiction with invented conversations and scenarios. The description of Minerva and Maria Teresa’s imprisonment was chilling, and the suffocating presence of male lust dressed up in military costumes is palpable.

I’m particularly pleased that I was able to read a book that was not translated for language learners, but for Spanish-speaking readers. At times I was frustrated by the presence of so many synonyms, but of course any literary text written in English would vary its vocabulary too, avoiding the repetition that language learners hold onto life a life-raft.

So – it may have taken six months, but it was well worth-while!

My rating: if I had read it in English, I would have rated it 8

Sourced from: purchased from Book Depository.

I hear with my little ear: 16-23 February 2021

History Extra I just finished reading ‘The Shadow King’ and decided that I wanted to know more about the Italian/Abyssian (Ethiopian) War. History Extra had an interview with the author, Maaza Mengiste, The Real History behind The Shadow King but it was more about the writing of the book than the history. Obviously a lot of research went into the book, which she wears very lightly, and she has not been constrained in her imagination or creativity by her research.

Witness History (BBC) Just a short 9 minute episode Italy’s Shame: The Massacre in Ethiopia looks at the retribution that Italy wrought on Abyssinia (Ethiopia) after a grenade attack on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani who was appointed by Mussolini to govern Ethiopia.

The History Listen (ABC) Once the crossing of the Blue Mountains had been achieved in 1813, the town of Bathurst was established two years later. As was often the case, things were relatively peaceful at first, but within 7 years, as more and more settlers flowed into the areas, there was a full-blown resistance. Windradyne’s forgotten war tells about this change, and the way that stories are handed down from family to family that often tell another story to those of the written sources.

Big Ideas (ABC) This lecture Conscription in World War I was originally delivered in October 2016 at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, and broadcast soon afterward. 2016 was the centenary of the first conscription debate, and so this seemed a little anachronistic. I’ve done quite a bit of research (albeit at the local Heidelberg level) into the conscription debates, and I enjoyed listening to Prof. Joan Beaumont’s overview. The broadcasts finishes with a Tom Switzer (not my favourite broadcaster, I must admit) interview with Sean Scalmer, one of the editors of The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

BBC Outlook. If I can’t sleep, I turn on the radio and listen with my wonderful Acoustic Sheep sleepphones. The whole point is to make me drowsy so that I can go back to sleep. But when I started listening to Swimming With Polar Bears: A photographer’s “crazy” dream, it was so gripping that I woke right up, my heart pounding at the predicament the photographer found himself in. They might look cute, but polar bears are terrifying!