Monthly Archives: September 2021

‘The Republic of False Truths’ by Alaa Al Aswany

2021, 464 p.

At the start of this year there were quite a few ‘Ten Years On’ -type programs looking back at the Arab Spring that swept across different Middle Eastern countries, reaching its high point with the fall of Muburak in Egypt in 2011. To be honest, I’m no longer clear in my own mind about what happened when and where and why. That’s where fiction, or a well-chosen journalistic non-fiction piece can come in, by humanizing and locating, at a small scale, those huge crowds that seem indistinguishable from each other on the nightly news.

Alaa Al Aswany makes no secret of his politics in this fictionalized account of the January 2011 uprising. He was there himself, and he was one of the organizers of the Enough! group that is mentioned in this book. He presents a group of alternating characters who represent different groups in Egyptian society who participated in different degrees to the uprising or its suppression. There is the devout General Alwany whose morning ritual is prayer, sex with his wife, then off to the office for some torture of political prisoners. His defiant daughter Danya is drawn into the protests and witnesses her friend Khaled shot by the military at point-blank range. Ashraf Wiffa is a dope-smoking failed actor who pursues an affair with his maid, only to find himself falling in love with her and increasingly involved with the protestors, to the disgust of his estranged wife Magda. The love affair of Asmaa, a teacher at a corrupt school, and Mazen, the son of a political prisoner and union organizer at a cement factory, is carried out mainly through letters. Nourhan is a television presenter who becomes the mouthpiece of the military forces, accruing more and more power as she uses her contacts to force a divorce from her former lover Essam, the manager at the aforementioned cement factory.

The narrative cycles between these different characters and different segments of Egyptian society: army, media, business, university. I often find that with a revolving cast of characters like this, I get confused between who is who and what they are up to. However, Al Aswany stayed with them long enough, particularly at the start of the book, to embed them in the reader’s consciousness as individual characters. However, as the book went on, the episodes became shorter. I use the word ‘episodes’ deliberately, because this is what they felt like: episodes in an afternoon soap-opera, with a cliff-hanger at the end before launching off into the next character. For me, this soap-opera feeling detracted from the novel and made it feel ‘junkier’ than it otherwise would have. I can’t help feeling that the characters were stereotyped (the army general, the maid, the idealistic young female student), with an almost Philip Roth-like emphasis on male sex.

I haven’t read any other books about the Arab Spring, and indeed this book is still banned in Egypt – a fact that speaks to its authenticity, I would say. However, there is a sameness about books about revolutions – I’m thinking of several South American books I have read, books set in the French Revolution, Nino Haratischvili The Eighth Life (for Brika) – as idealism gets swallowed up into betrayal, the torture becomes more vindictive and untrammeled, and the army and police embed themselves more deeply. This inexorable cycle is why books like this are important: to remind us that within the bigger historical forces, there are people who love, who wrestle with their consciences, who make decisions and live and die with the consequences.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 September 2021

The History of Rome Podcast Well, I had hoped that I had got past all the war and fighting, but not so it seems. Episode 28 Taking Stock gave me hope of a more social approach. He points out that what had held Roman society together had been the unity of the elites, and economic conditions for the everyday Roman being benign enough that there would be no unrest from below. But with the increased wealth flowing into Rome from elites stationed in the colonies, and the influx of slaves brought in to Rome by these same elites, many landowners lost their land and flowed into the cities as a discontented landless populace. Episode 29 Tiberius Gracchus introduces the populist Tiberius, Tribune of the Plebs in 133BC. Banking on the support of this large landless segment, he proposed agrarian reform which was strongly opposed by the Senate. To get the legislation passed, he sacked the other Tribune Marcus Octavius and brought Roman commerce and society to a standstill. Even though the Romans had instituted single-term Tribuneships, Tiberius stood for a second term but he got killed in a riot instead. Ten years later Tiberius’ younger brother became Tribune too Episode 30 Gaius Gracchus and HE managed to get a second term. Gaius went even further than his brother in social reforms, including food distribution to the poor and popular army reforms. The Senate turned on him too, and he committed suicide with the aid of his faithful slave in a murder-suicide pact. Episodes 31a and 31b introduce Gaius Marius who became Consul SEVEN times (so much for one-term positions!). He was known as a ‘new man’ because his family was not part of the ruling elite (although he married into it). He came up through the army and by now external wars were brewing again. He reformed the Roman Legion’s fighting strategy – a brave move given how successful it had been. He got his soldiers to carry all their equipment to toughen them up before battle, leading to them being disparaged as “Marius’ mules” (until they won). Episode 32 The Social War sees the former Italian allies rising up because they wanted (and were denied) Roman citizenship. The Samnites, who had been discontented ever since the Third Samnite War, and the Marsi led a revolt over 4 years, but the Romans ‘bought off’ the support of the other Italian allies by giving Roman citizenship to the peoples and cities who remained loyal or surrendered to Rome. By 87 BC Roman victory meant that all of the Italian boot (although not the islands) was Romanized. In Episode 33 Marius and Sulla we see the Romans turning on themselves with Sulla marching on Rome not once but twice. Sulla had served under Marius, and brought the Social War to an end. He then headed off to fight Mithridates in the Hellenic States, and then fought in Anatolia. In the meantime, Marius was serving his 7th stint as Consul, and Cinna was enjoying his 4th, and they ganged up together to exile Sulla. Once he finished fighting, Sulla headed towards Rome for the second time.

God Forbid (ABC) The episode Examining Fringe Beliefs features two journalists who podcast about sects and conspiracy theories, and a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. One thing that I took from this podcast was that we can look at the way that fringe groups treat those who do not follow their beliefs. I think of shunning, calling people ‘sheeple’, proselytising, damning to hell. How do I, as a Unitarian, respond to beliefs that I see as ‘fringe’? Quite a challenge.

Rear Vision (ABC) The episode Afghanistan- the land of failed invasion was first aired in November 2006, but it holds up well fifteen years later. It describes the various occupations by the British, Soviets and Americans over the past 200 years (in fact, there were five invasions) and highlights the importance of Pakistan in the analysis of the Soviet invasion.

The History Listen (ABC) I was so discouraged and angry after listening to Seachange: 20 years on from the Tampa Affair. Twenty #@** years. Listening to Ruddock et al fudging on facts when it didn’t suit their narrative, listening to Beazley’s discouragement when he realized the electoral implications, and the thought that the “never by boat” mantra is still affecting people’s lives today.

‘The Most I Could Be’ by Dale Kent

2021, 456 p

The name ‘Dale Kent’ seemed familiar. At first I thought that she might be an expatriate feminist that I had heard of sometime, but on learning more about this book I realized with a little jolt of recognition that I had been one of her undergraduate students at La Trobe University.

It was back in 1976 and I did two half-units of Renaissance History- one on Florence and the Italian Renaissance, the other on Medieval Italian Communes. To be honest, I have little memory of the content, but I do remember seminars in the rather-pretentiously named West Peribolos building, with the west summer sun slanting through the edges of the holland blinds drawn against the narrow full-length windows at afternoon seminars. I remember Dale Kent who struck me at the time as quite beautiful, vivacious, theatrical and rather awe-inducing, and I regretted that I did not have her as my tutor, having instead an M. Billington of whom I have no memory at all (I had to consult an essay I had kept from the subject, to find out her name). So I was attracted to this book because, not only is La Trobe “my” university but I expected that, as a historian, she would structure a good memoir. After all, Inga Clendinnen who was a colleague of Kent’s at La Trobe at the time, wrote Tiger’s Eye, one of the best memoirs I have ever read (see my review here) and I hoped that this might be similar.

For me, a memoir is a creative re-construction of a life structured and shaped around a motif. Despite the phrase ‘the most I could be’ which was repeated both as boast and self-exculpation in several places, this is pretty much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end sort of autobiography. At the end of the book she says “As a historian, I have kept the record” (p. 406) and this is the way that it read: as an act of recording rather than creating. I admit to being disappointed.

I found myself wondering who might be the intended audience for this book, beyond other historians (many of whom may be checking the index, because in all but one case she uses the full names of her colleagues). The history field in Melbourne is not large, and there were many familiar names. Her area of expertise was patronage during the Renaissance, with a particular focus on the Medici family. Certainly she led what now seems like a charmed academic life: scholarships to undertake her PhD at Oxford University, positions at Berkeley and Princeton, sufficient tenure at admittedly lower tier universities that nonetheless provided a salary and sabbatical and other leave to travel to conduct her research in Italy; and a string of prestigious just-in-time fellowships and projects that sustained a career of over 20 years in America.

All this was a long way from her childhood in Moonee Ponds, East St. Kilda and then Caulfield, as the daughter of Christian Scientist parents. Her father was an engineer, while her mother had left school early. Her working-class grandparents, Nell and Horrie came from Footscray. She was overweight (something that is hard to believe because she is absolutely beautiful in the photographs included in the book), she wet the bed as a child and had few friends at school. A whole new world opened up for her when she enrolled at Melbourne University, and she left Christian Science behind. She met her husband, Bill, who shared her academic interest in Renaissance Italy, and they built their careers together. As a young mother herself, at the age of thirty, she decided to ‘divorce’ her parents because they were too intrusive, and eventually left her husband Bill too, and embarked on her peripatetic international academic career. Her relationship with her only daughter was the price, and one that I hope has not been inflated by the publication of this book. Ironically, her comment about why she ‘divorced’ her parents – “they didn’t love me enough to make the slightest adjustment of their expectations to my needs, so that we could continue to be part of each other’s lives” (p.156)- could conceivably be said by her own daughter about her.

This is a long autobiography at over 400 pages, and it is very detailed, especially when it came to describing the clothes she wore and the food she ate (something that I usually view as the kiss of death for an autobiography/memoir). There were some small factual details that I found myself eying rather skeptically. A Unitarian Church in Collins Street ?(Uniting Church, yes, but not Unitarian). Flamingos in the lake at La Trobe University? (geese, ibis yes, herons maybe, but not flamingos). Small details, I know, but I wonder how many others there were that passed me by.

She is laceratingly honest about herself, her sexual neediness, her alcoholism. I was drawn to keep reading the book, but it was almost as if I was reading with my fingers over my eyes, apprehensive over what she was going to do or reveal next. Too much sex, too many unavailable or unsuitable men, heedlessness to boundaries, a sense of grievance, a quixotic and unrealistic search for a ‘soulmate’, a bewildering lack of insight – why would she want to publish this, thus inviting her readers to sit in judgment on her? There have been quite enough other people doing that : her colleagues, her ex-husband, her daughter, friends who eventually tired of having her sobbing on the telephone to them. She is speaking and telling her story, but it is not hard to see her through others’ eyes. The mismatch between the professional and the personal is stark.

I was interested in her early life, and the effect of her family’s Christian Science religion on her social and intellectual development. She gives an insight into the life of the young academic, particularly when she and Bill were writing their doctoral theses, and she describes the hierarchies and power games within university faculties. She captures well the arid suburban life for bright women in the 1950s and 1960s, and the testosterone-fueled arrogance and combativeness of the scions of Ivy-League and Sandstone Universities. What fails to come through at all is the love that she clearly must have for her interest in Renaissance Florence after all these decades: not in the visual sense (which any tourist could have), but as an historiographical challenge. She has published widely in her field, contributing books, chapters and reviews over many years. Her work sustained and saved her, as she herself admits, but you get little indication of it at an intellectual or emotional level. I’m a little tired of reading of historians emoting about their adventures in the archives, but there is little evidence of a passion of the mind here at all. The body – yes; and appetites for food, drink, new places, and the next project – but no curiosity, or obsession or joy. I wish that I had seen some of that.

My rating: 7

Read because: I realized my connection with her, and because I like reading historians’ biographies.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Con subtítulos en español: Camila (1984)

This film (available through YouTube) is based on the true story of Camila O’Gorman, the daughter of an upper-class family in Buenos Aires who was executed at the age of 23 for an affair with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Ladislao Gutiérrez. They were both executed under the orders of the tyranical governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, and with the encouragement of her own father. The film is a bit dated and the auto-generated subtitles are appalling, but the Spanish wasn’t too fast and I could follow it. In fact, I even had a little tear in my eye when it finished!

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

History this Week I’m not really clear about the connection between the book “Goodbye Christopher Robin” by Anne Thwaites and the movie of the same name that was written by someone else, but this episode The True Winnie-the-Pooh features Anne Thwaites, who sounds rather elderly. The ‘true’ Winnie was a Canadian bear, purchased from a railway station in Winnipeg by the military veterinarian as the mascot for his troop of Canadian soldiers during WWI. Of course, ‘Winnie’ couldn’t accompany them to the Somme, so he ended up in a London zoo, loved by the children who came to see him. There he was seen by Christopher Robin Milne, who named his own bear after her. When his father A. A. Milne drew on the bedtime stories he told his son to write a children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh was born.

The History of Rome So much fighting, extending over decades and generations. Episode 24 The Second Macedonia War sees Rome deciding to straight away launch into leveraging their big-boy status into a war with Philip V of Macedon. They were then dragged further east into the Syrian War in Episode 25: The Syrian War when who should they encounter again but Hannibal! He had gone into exile from Carthage, and he was engaged by Antiochus III the Great. There is a story that Hannibal and Scipio met at a banquet and Scipio asked Hannibal who he thought was the greatest general. Hannibal enumerated Alexander the Great (Scipio agreed) and then Phyruss (who fought against the Romans) and then himself. Scipio was not impressed. Hannibal himself is said to have committed suicide when he realized that Roman assassins were on his trail- or else he did of a wounded finger- take your pick. In Episode 26 The Third Macedonian War the sons of Phillip V and Antiochus the Great pick up their fathers’ mantles and start up the Third Macedonian War. Just like their fathers, they were soundly beaten, leaving Rome the unchallenged power in the Mediterranean. Episode 27 Mopping Up sees Rome going back to absolutely crush Macedon, and even more importantly Carthage. Back in the Roman Senate, Cato was going on and on about the dangers of Carthage, so Rome invaded it again and it is said (so may not be true) that they sowed their fields with salt, to make sure that nothing grew there. Either way, Carthage was completely destroyed and there was no other power left to threaten Rome. Now that there was no external enemy to fight, they could only fight among themselves.

Rear Vision (ABC) With the Taliban back in the news, Who are the Taliban? takes us back to the emergence of the Taliban from the rubble of the Soviet-Afghan War. It’s quite a condemnation that their straight-dealing, black-and-white, anti-corruption view of the world has led to people acquiescing to the thought that they couldn’t be worse than the existing Western-backed Afghan government. What a f**k-up.

Revisionist History Enough of all this war! How about Malcolm Gladwell deconstructing the Little Mermaid instead? In Little Mermaid Part I: the Golden Contract law professor Laura Beth Neilson points out that in the Disney version, the written contract is portrayed as all powerful (there was no contract in the original story). Worse still, it is an unconscionable contract where a legal child contracts away body parts into slavery. Little Mermaid Part 2: The Fairytale Twist looks at the uses of fairytales, and children’s responses to them, drawing on Bruno Bettelheim and Angus Fletcher. Finally in Little Mermaid Part 3: Honestly Ever After they re-write the ending of The Little Mermaid, avoiding Hans Christian Anderson’s sad ending but giving back Ariel her voice and her agency. And they got Jodie Foster and Glen Close to do the voices!

Democracy Sausage (Mark Kenny). This episode Britain’s ‘Freedom Day’ from 20 July 2021 interviews Europe Correspondent Bevan Shields and Atalanta’s Elizabeth Ames from England on Britain’s “Freedom Day”. Probably too early to know even now, a month later, what the effect will be. However, they both seemed to be fairly optimistic and rather nonplussed by excessive caution in Australia.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

2021, 336 p.

One of the big existential questions that we all grapple with at some stage is ‘Why am I here?’ An associated, and equally fascinating question is ‘What if I wasn’t?’ Light Perpetual takes this question, starting off with the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. Spufford fictionalizes five of these children: sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. A different book might have gone backwards, tracing who the children were and how they came to be there, but Spufford takes a different approach. Instead, he drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.

The book is told in chunks of time, dated from when the bomb fell (but not on them). So we have five years on in 1949; twenty years on in 1964 (Beatles time); thirty-five years to 1979 (Thatcher time); fifty years to 1994 (Cool Brittania); sixty five years on in 2009 (post-GFC). Each of these chunks features the five children separately. Rather neat, really: five times five. It’s like a ‘Seven-up’ series on the page, with less regular check-ins and a smaller number of subjects. As such, it deals mental illness, promiscuity, wealth-acquisition, marriages, divorces, Right and Left wing politics, success, education, physical illness and decline…. all the sorts of things raised during the Seven-Up series. Nothing happens as such, although each life (for good or ill) is lived either as a series of transformations, or by putting one foot in front of the other. Decisions are made or not made, options open up or shrivel away.

I must confess that it took me more than half the book to get the characters established securely in my mind. I had to go back to the previous section to find the character there to refresh my memory before launching into the next time frame, and in this regard a table of contents at the start would have been really useful to locate the time shifts in the book.

The treatment of time and chance reminded me a lot of Kate Atkinson’s work, a writer I really enjoy. My library, which persists in labelling books by genre, has designated it as Science Fiction but it’s a far more human book than that.

It is the writing, particularly at the start and the finish of the book that lifts it above the rather quotidian, eventually inconsequential events of human life that it describes. The scene where the bomb drops is like a freeze-frame, minutely examined- really excellent, challenging writing. The middle sections, like their subject matter, are more human and less complex. The final section of the book, as our subjects face their own mortality, becomes more abstract again in its reflection on permanence and change, although this time it is infused with familiarity and even affection.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: It has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘Second Place’ to…

The first Saturday of each month -and its attendant Six Degrees of Separation- seems to come round so quickly! The instructions for this meme can be found on Kate’s Books are My Favourite and Best blog, but essentially Kate chooses the starting title, and then you link six books that you associate with that title. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and I know nothing about it. So going purely on the title, my reviews are of books with a number in the title.

I recently re-read Helen Garner’s The First Stone which has been reissued to mark its 25th Anniversary. Garner’s defence of the Master of Ormond College is uncomfortable today and in that regard, the book has dated badly. But the questions of proportionality, agency/victimhood, generational change, the law, class and feminism are just as pertinent – if not more pertinent- today.

I absolutely love Robyn Annear’s podcast, drawn from articles found in the NLA’s wonderful Trove newspaper database. (You can find it at Nothing on TV) But she has a recent book out as well, called Nothing New: A History of Second Hand. It takes a historical look at second-hand clothing, going right up through opportunity shops and the current Third World clothing trade.

I read Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee before I started my blog. This was the first of his “big” points, and he picked up on many of the ideas he raised here in his later Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. He shows his humour here more than in his other books, and he certainly is a man of broad learning and experience.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers is only a small book at 155 pages. It is set in the Russian Civil War with four soldiers – Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra- who are turned out from their regiment to fend for themselves until the weather improves and the fighting commences again. They establish a camp near a lake. Here they live day-by-day, a quiet self-contained peaceful existence in the midst of war, with the prospect of returning to battle hanging over them.

Gail Jones’ Five Bells is set on one summer Saturday, around Circular Quay as four people converge there from somewhere else, and the narrative swings from one character to another, in a sequence, not unlike the chiming of bells. It is very carefully written with almost every phrase and image carefully burnished.

I can’t find one for ‘six’ so I’ll jump ahead to Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes. There are two intertwined narratives in the book. The first, written in the present tense, is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, a middle-aged ceramicist on the verge of her first international exhibition. The other narrative strand takes Elizabeth’s parents as they meet in the 1950s, begin courting, marry, have children, become increasingly affluent. Both narrative threads were strong and well-made, and I didn’t find myself regretting when I turned the page to find that the narrative was about to switch again. The dialogue was particularly good, and the author obviously has a sharp, observant eye. The ending had an emotional authenticity, at least for this middle-aged reader.

So there you have it- six books that some how added up to the number ‘seven’. I never was good with figures.