Monthly Archives: August 2021

‘The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt’ by Andrea Bobotis

2019, 311 p.

I can’t quite remember why I ordered this book from the library. Theresa Smith reviewed it back in 2019, and I think that I must have read a more recent review of it as well. It’s the debut novel of an American historical fiction author, Andrea Bobotis, who has a PhD in English Literature, and has published academic articles on Irish writers, as well as short stories. She teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

Perhaps I was attracted to its setting in the decaying, hard-luck town of Bound in South Carolina, where Judith Kratt, an elderly spinster, has been living in her family home all her life. It is 1989 and the quiet, if cluttered, domesticity of Judith and her African-American companion Olva is disturbed when Judith’s younger sister Rosemarie suddenly turns up. She had run away sixty years ago at the age of thirteen in 1929, just after her older brother Quincy, had been murdered.

Quincy’s murder is announced on the first page of the book, with an extract from the York Herald.

Quincy Kratt, aged 14, sustained a fatal gunshot wound to his person in the early hours of Friday, December 20. Young Mr Kratt was a scion of the cotton industry in Bound, South Carolina. His father, the influential businessman Brayburn Kratt, is one of our local captains of that industry. The principal suspect in the shooting is a negro called Charlie Watson, who is employed by the Kratt Mercantile Company and whose whereabouts are as yet unknown.

That Charlie Watson was responsible for the murder was local lore, but when Rosemarie returns in 1989, this certainty is unsettled. We can tell from Judith’s 1989 narrative that although Olva is a ‘companion’, there is a complex power imbalance here, only partially explained by colour. As the remaining matriarch of the Kratt family, Judith decides to compile an inventory of the objects within the family home, and these items trigger off memories from the past. Each chapter closes with an ever-growing list of objects, which have enhanced resonance for the reader after travelling with Judith back to the 1920s. These are not happy childhood memories. Her father, Brayburn, was a violent and mercurial man, who cultivates his son Quincy as a spy on the employees of Kratt Mercantile company, and who tries to coerce Judith into his racist activities as well.

This book is probably more heavily plotted than what I am used to reading, and at times I felt that some of the plot turns were a bit implausible. However, she captured well the insolent, swaggering menace of racism both in 1929 and 1989 and I liked the slightly stilted, rather self-serving narrative voice of Judith. It was well-researched too (says she who has listened to just one podcast about the South during the 1920s!) in capturing the economic decline of Southern towns prior to the Depression. The device of the ever-growing list of objects at the end of each chapter worked really well in highlighting both the uselessness of sheer objects, but also the freight of memories, both good and bad, that they carried.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as a large-print book. I wonder why it was only in that format.

Six degrees of separation: from “Postcards from the Edge” to…

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme is hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest and it involves drawing links from the book that Kate chooses – in this case, Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge – and nominating six other books that you mentally link with the starting book.

I don’t remember reading Postcards from the Edge, but I do know who Carrie Fisher the actress was. But another “Miss Fisher” who is far more familiar to me is Kerry Greenwood’s creation Miss Phryne Fisher. I’m not really into mystery novels, but I did read a Phyrne Fisher years ago. I had no idea how to pronounce her name then, but the television series has taken care of that. To be honest, I can’t remember which one I read, but let’s go with Murder on the Ballarat Train because that leads me to….

…Ballarat, and Clare Wright’s fantastic history of women in the goldfields in her Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. This book won the second-ever Stella Prize in 2014, highlighting that the Stella was for both fiction and non-fiction books. It is written in Clare’s trademark warm, bubbly voice but underpinned by serious academic research. It is based on the Eureka Stockade rebellion which took place on the Ballarat goldfields, which leads me to…

Another goldfield, but this time in New Zealand with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Actually, when I look at my review, I didn’t seem to be particularly impressed with it, and rather disgrunted about its length even though it won the 2013 Booker Prize. As I remember it, much of the action took place on a boat, which leads me to….

Robert Drewe, who is drawn to writing about water. The True Colour of the Sea is a collection of short stories, several of which make reference to the sea. We’re taken to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable Australian oceans and beach-side settings. And as a good little Australian school child, I was well and truly drilled in the importance of Captain Cook, one of the greatest navigators of Empire which leads me to….

Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife by Marele Day. As suggested by the title, this is not a straight biography, but nor is it pure fiction either. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. I don’t seem to have been terribly impressed by this book either. But another book about the sea that I was impressed with is….

A very recent read, Kathryn Heyman’s Fury. You might think from the front cover and the opening chapter that it’s going to be about a woman clinging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, which is it. But it’s about far more than that. It’s about class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves.

Thanks, Kate, for hosting this meme, even though I very rarely have read the book you start off with. September is Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, nominated for the 2021 Booker. I don’t like my chances of having read that one, either.

‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen

2001, 653 p.

Perhaps this post should be titled ‘Re-reading The Corrections’, because I read it in 2002- think, nearly twenty years ago. I was interested to see what I wrote about it in my pre-blog reading journal back then:

I can’t remember having such varying feelings about a book. It is really a tragedy mixed with farce. In its tragic parts, I felt uncomfortable at the harsh glare of reality: in its farcical sections I felt bored and tired of the author’s look-at-me cuteness and self-conscious wittiness. It is, as the author admits, five novellas and for me, the sections dealing with the cruise and the Lithuanian venture could easily have been dropped.

But the family dynamics were brilliant: the well-meaning but manipulative mother who wants to bring the family together for one last Christmas; the father bewildered by his Parkinson’s Disease; a psychologically-hypochondriac son bullied by his wife and children; a son who throws away a career because of sexual indiscretion and ends up doing very shady deals in Lithuania, and a daughter who discovers her lesbianism only while wrecking her own career as a chef because of an affair with both her employers. Incisive, current, but very in-your-face. 8/10

So how does it shape up 20 years later? I was more impatient this time of the self-indulgent length of 653 pages, the long lists of objects, and sheer show-off-iness of the writing. I just wanted him to shut up, frankly. Too much talk, too much self-indulgent angst.

It now seems very much of its time – pre September 11 and the GFC, it’s a time of American bombast and certainty, where greed was still good (if somewhat grubby) and the American viewpoint dominated the world. Trump, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction and the whole Middle East mess that it gave rise to, and COVID have punctured all that.

The search for the ‘Great American Novel’, fat and sneering and self-important, seems now to be a very masculine endeavour, with Franzen being likened to Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Don de Lillo, Thomas Pynchon etc. (all men, I note). Actually, I think that Elizabeth Strout should be in this list too, and her books are so different from these. Yes, there are deeply flawed and unlikeable characters in her books too, but there isn’t the superciliousness in these other contenders.

Of course, I’m not the same reader either. Twenty years on, Parkinson’s is a much more sensitive topic, given that someone I love dearly has it. Twenty years later, having sat beside both my parents as they died, I understand more about death and age. Hell, twenty years later, I tick the 65+ age box now. Now I’m the grandmother and mother-in-law. Given that Franzen himself is now 61, I wonder if he would write the same book.

This is an unkind book that is far, far, far too long. Twenty years later, I’d downgrade that 8 to a 6.5

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups

Read because: it was a Bookgroup selection

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 July 2021

Nothing on TV. I just love these podcasts by Robyn Annear. The episode Buried Treasure is a little different from her other episodes in that she starts off with a newspaper article that is not in Trove, because it comes from the Sun News-Pictorial in March 1936 about a ‘foreign’ man who turned up in Richmond, wanting to dig up the back yard of a house in Canterbury Street. She riffs off this story to talk about overseas ‘swindlers’ who would send letters claiming that treasure was hidden nearby and that for a price, they would send the map (an early manifestation of the Nigerian scam email!). She then goes on to talk about other so-called buried treasure in Victoria. A lovely, chatty, discursive story.

History This Week I really don’t know much about Roman history, and I wish I knew more. Perhaps that might be a little project for me. Fiddling with the Truth is about Nero, and the story that he ‘fiddled while Rome burned’. This episode featured Anthony Barrett, author of Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. It was all very clear, even for someone who knows little Roman history. He talked about how Nero got to be emperor (a grubby story) and what happened afterwards (another grubby story) and explained why this largely false story was created to meet the political needs of the time.

The History of Rome Podcast. I’ve done it. I’ve launched into Mike Duncan’s 170-odd episode podcast series on the History of Rome from start to finish! At least the episodes are much shorter in this series (about 10-15 minutes), although they may increase later on. In Episode 1 In the Beginning he traces through the Romulus and Remus myth (for myth it is). I didn’t realize that there was a supposed link to Troy, many generations previous. Episode 2 Youthful Indiscretions covers the remainder of Romulus’s life, his questionable morality and ultimate disappearance from the world of men. Really, the Romans were pretty warlike and dodgy. I always wondered what the Rape of the Sabines was about – it was a violent mass abduction to bring women (and children) to this male-dominated society. Episode 3a The Seven Kings of Rome looks at first three of Romulus’s successors to the throne: Numa Pompulius (715-673 BCE), Tullus Hostilius (673-642 BCE) and Ancus Marcius (642-617 BCE). They seem to alternate between warlike: religious: warlike: religious. Mike Duncan raises an interesting question: what is the difference when religion is introduced to a basically warlike society compared with introducing war and fighting into what had previously been a religious society? Episode 3b deals with the three Tarquin (Etruscan) kings: Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 BCE), Servius Tullius (578-535) and Tarquinius Superbus (535-510BCE) . The first was a wily, manipulative but essentially competent King who usurped the two sons of Ancus Marcius by sending them out of the country; the second was his adopted son, who came to power by pretending that his father was still alive and that he was acting in a temporary capacity only. The third, Tarquinius Superbus was a tyrant. He knocked off Servius Tullius (literally) and eventually the people decided that they didn’t want any more kings. The first built the Circus Maximus and started the tradition of the Triumph; the second started the census and the system of contributing to the army by social class and the start of representative democracy for some, and the third limited the power of the Senate. His son Sextus Tarquinis was even worse: he was the one who raped Lucretia. Tarquinius Superbus’ nephew Brutus got the support of the army, the aristocracy and the people, and they overthrew Tarquinius Superbus, the last of the Etruscan kings. They decided not to have any more kings: just two consuls. And all of this might be bullsh** anyway, because the sources all tell a different story.

Rear Vision (ABC) I really do not like Jair Bolsonaro, and this episode The Trump of the Tropics: Jair Bolsonaro reminds me why. He sat in Congress alone for years, mouthing off his anti-liberal policies, and came to power on a wave of anti-politician sentiment and the Beef, Bible and Bullets mob. None of the commentators on this program thought that he would be impeached, no matter how bad his handling of the pandemic, because Lula will want to keep his powder dry, and at the moment another centre right politician would replace him who might attract more support.

Outlook (BBC World Service) I was in 1st year uni in 1974 and I really don’t remember Frank Sinatra’s comeback tour. He didn’t really mean much to me: he was the sort of singer that my parents liked. Frank Sinatra’s Australian Showdown tells the story of his rambling conversation about the press during his opening show, leading to union bands and HAWKIE! This is a replay from 2018.

The Spies in my House tells the story of East German activist Ulrike Poppe who discovered, when the Berlin Wall fell, that she had been under surveillance for 15 years. She went through her files and was interested to find what they did, and what they didn’t know about her. She found the Stasi officer in charge of her case, and out of curiosity and a sense of injustice, she met with him.

Con subtítulos en español: El cuerpo de la mujer sin sombra(The Body of the Woman without Shadow) 2021

[This trailer was actually made about 10 years ago, publicizing the project from which the short film arose. It gives you a flavour of what the film was like]

I’m not really sure if I know what this short film was about, but it wasn’t a problem of language! It was a homage to Alicia D’Amico, the Argentinian photographer who died in 2001. Her father owned a commercial photography store in Buenos Aires, but when she became a photographer in her own right, she concentrated more on ethnographic and political photography. She was a prominent feminist and lesbian activist. You can read more about her here (in English!)

The film was very arty, with lots of long lingering shots, and the use of D’Amico’s own films and photographs from Buenos Aires, Paris and Switzerland, interviews and fragments of written letters. It was very beautifully filmed and after reading (in English) more about her, I guess that I understood more than I thought I had. The film was part of the Instituto Cervantes series of LGBTI short films.